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“Haunted” by Intelligent Design, an Organizer Reports on the Royal Society Meeting

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Royal Society

Writing in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Kevin Laland reports on November’s Royal Society meeting on “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology.” Laland, an organizer of the conference, seeks to have the last word, do a bit of damage control, and put evolution skeptics safely in our place.

As Evolution News staff reported at the time, the conference was significant for the light it shed on deficiencies in Darwinian theory and how far Darwin traditionalists or the more progressive Extended Synthesis advocates are from solving those problems.

Laland’s dispatch is not untruthful, but it does seek to cast the event in favorable terms to himself and the other organizers. The two traditionalist evolutionary biologists who were there, and who spoke, spent the whole meeting poo-pooing the necessity of any extended synthesis. Now Laland comes along as if to say, “Well, we really do matter, too! We bring a new way of looking at things that isn’t so darn gene-centric.”

Without reading the article, we could have told you what Laland needed to say. First and foremost, he needed to portray the event as a successful showing for his side.

The meeting, anticipated with a mix of feverish enthusiasm and dread, sold out months in advance, the eager audience perhaps expecting radical and traditional evolutionists to go toe to toe, rather than the constructive dialogue among biologists, social scientists, and researchers in the humanities that the academies advertised.

Before going on, to establish his bona fides, there should be a gratuitous shot at us, so-called “creationists”:

All parties emphasized that evolutionary biology is a vigorous and progressive field of science. To the chagrin of creationists and some journalists hoping for a fight, no calls for revolution were heard. [Emphasis added.]

Now down to business. It would be most helpful to Laland if he could portray the meeting as contentious, witnessing to a “schism” with traditionalists, yet welcome and productive for other scholars:

[T]he discussion witnessed little meeting of minds. A schism separated those who championed the extended evolutionary synthesis as an innocent plea for scientific pluralism and those who dismissed it as misguided self-aggrandizement.

Now for the part about its being welcome and productive:

There was, however, one non-trivial respect in which the meeting was both synthetic and a source of some excitement. Its original, and indeed primary, objective — to promote dialogue between the biological and social sciences — did appear to succeed. While hardcore evolutionary biologists did not warm to calls to extend the synthesis, time and time again the biological anthropologists, psychologists, and archaeologists present asserted that the plasticity-first hypothesis, broadened inheritance, and niche construction are vital to their work. For these social scientists, standard gene-centric selectionist accounts provided less satisfactory explanations.

Enough spinning. We were there, too — a whole contingent of ID proponents — though we were not afforded the opportunity to speak. What was the reality?

Well, from the start, speakers deliberately shied away from discussing the more serious flaws in neo-Darwinism. At the conference, the Extended Synthesis was framed as an “add-on” or freshening up of a solid foundation of neo-Darwinism rather than a replacement for any fundamental tenet of the theory. The issue of whether random mutation and natural selection can build new complex features was downplayed, as it is in Laland’s article.

The conference was framed to minimize evidence of real crisis in evolutionary thinking. Yet as we reported, the cracks in the foundation can hardly be hidden anymore:

The opening presentation at the Royal Society conference by one of those world-class biologists, Austrian evolutionary theorist Gerd Müller, underscored exactly [Stephen] Meyer’s point. Müller opened the meeting by discussing several of the fundamental “explanatory deficits” of “the modern synthesis,” that is, textbook neo-Darwinian theory. (Discovery Institute’s Paul Nelson recounted Müller’s remarks here, on which in part we base the following.) According to Müller, the as yet unsolved problems include those of explaining:

  • Phenotypic complexity (the origin of eyes, ears, body plans, i.e., the anatomical and structural features of living creatures);
  • Phenotypic novelty, i.e., the origin of new forms throughout the history of life (for example, the mammalian radiation some 66 million years ago, in which the major orders of mammals, such as cetaceans, bats, carnivores, enter the fossil record, or even more dramatically, the Cambrian explosion, with most animal body plans appearing more or less without antecedents); and finally
  • Non-gradual forms or modes of transition, where you see abrupt discontinuities in the fossil record between different types.

As Müller has explained in previously published work (with Stuart Newman), although “the neo-Darwinian paradigm still represents the central explanatory framework of evolution, as represented by recent textbooks” it “has no theory of the generative.” In other words, the neo-Darwinian mechanism of mutation and natural selection lacks the creative power to generate the novel anatomical traits and forms of life that have arisen during the history of life. Yet, as Müller noted, neo-Darwinian theory continues to be presented to the public via textbooks as the canonical understanding of how new living forms arose — reflecting precisely the tension between the perceived, and actual, status of the theory that Meyer described in Darwin’s Doubt.

That right there explodes Laland’s narrative. There are serious, fundamental flaws in neo-Darwinism. They weren’t discussed much, but Müller set them out clearly. Some people really do see the Extended Synthesis not merely as an “add-on” but as a genuine replacement, aimed at the core purpose of neo-Darwinian theory — explaining the origin of complex biological adaptation. The Royal Society meeting sought to downplay this and let only one speaker address the problems, and even then not in a head-on manner.

If the problems are there, why didn’t the Royal Society meeting deal with them squarely? Damage control.

If the problem are there, why doesn’t Laland in his article deal with them squarely? Again, damage control.

And what purpose does all this spinning and artful concealment serve? Kevin Laland himself has already told us. As he wrote in Nature a couple of years ago:

Perhaps haunted by the spectre of intelligent design, evolutionary biologists wish to show a united front to those hostile to science. Some might fear that they will receive less funding and recognition if outsiders — such as physiologists or developmental biologists — flood into their field.

(Kevin Laland, Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, and John Odling-Smee, “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Yes, urgently,” Nature, Vol. 514:161-164 (October 9, 2014))

Evolutionists are going to go on being haunted by the thought of design in biology until they disown self-censorship and resolve to face their fears, and the scientific evidence, more fully.

Photo: Royal Society, entrance, by Tom Morris (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.