#8 of Our Top Stories of 2017: Theorist Concedes, Evolution “Avoids” Questions
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Thank you in advance for your generosity. We can’t do what we do without you! The following article was originally published on August 28, 2017.
At this past November’s Royal Society meeting, “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology,” the distinguished Austrian evolutionary theorist Gerd B. Müller gave the first presentation. As we’ve noted before, it was a devastating one for anyone who wants to think that, on the great questions of biological origins, orthodox evolutionary theory has got it all figured out. Instead, Müller pointed to gaping “explanatory deficits” in the theory. Now the Royal Society’s journal Interface Focus offers a special issue collecting articles based on talks from the conference.
Let’s see what Dr. Müller has to say in an article titled, “Why an extended evolutionary synthesis is necessary.” A friend highlights the following paragraph, with his own emphasis added.
As can be noted from the listed principles, current evolutionary theory is predominantly oriented towards a genetic explanation of variation, and, except for some minor semantic modifications, this has not changed over the past seven or eight decades. Whatever lip service is paid to taking into account other factors than those traditionally accepted, we find that the theory, as presented in extant writings, concentrates on a limited set of evolutionary explananda, excluding the majority of those mentioned among the explanatory goals above. The theory performs well with regard to the issues it concentrates on, providing testable and abundantly confirmed predictions on the dynamics of genetic variation in evolving populations, on the gradual variation and adaptation of phenotypic traits, and on certain genetic features of speciation. If the explanation would stop here, no controversy would exist. But it has become habitual in evolutionary biology to take population genetics as the privileged type of explanation of all evolutionary phenomena, thereby negating the fact that, on the one hand, not all of its predictions can be confirmed under all circumstances, and, on the other hand, a wealth of evolutionary phenomena remains excluded. For instance, the theory largely avoids the question of how the complex organizations of organismal structure, physiology, development or behavior — whose variation it describes — actually arise in evolution, and it also provides no adequate means for including factors that are not part of the population genetic framework, such as developmental, systems theoretical, ecological or cultural influences.
Uh, whoa. Or as our friend says, “BOOM.” Read that again. Müller says that “current evolutionary theory…largely avoids the question of how the complex organizations of organismal structure, physiology, development or behavior…actually arise in evolution.” But how stuff “actually arises” is precisely what most people think of when they think of “evolution.”
Says our friend, see Michael Behe in The Edge of Evolution, where Dr. Behe asks, “The big question, however, is not, ‘Who will survive, the more fit or the less fit?’ The big question is, ‘How do organisms become more fit?’” Müller concedes that conventional evolutionary thinking “largely avoids” this “big question.” Though expressed in anodyne terms, that is a damning indictment.
Here are some other gems from the paper (emphasis added throughout):
A rising number of publications argue for a major revision or even a replacement of the standard theory of evolution [2–14], indicating that this cannot be dismissed as a minority view but rather is a widespread feeling among scientists and philosophers alike.
That could have appeared in a work from an intelligent design proponent. But wait, it gets even better:
Indeed, a growing number of challenges to the classical model of evolution have emerged over the past few years, such as from evolutionary developmental biology , epigenetics , physiology , genomics , ecology , plasticity research , population genetics , regulatory evolution , network approaches , novelty research , behavioural biology , microbiology  and systems biology , further supported by arguments from the cultural  and social sciences , as well as by philosophical treatments [28–31]. None of these contentions are unscientific, all rest firmly on evolutionary principles and all are backed by substantial empirical evidence.
“Challenges to the classical model” are “widespread” and “none…are unscientific.” Wow — file that one away for future reference.
Sometimes these challenges are met with dogmatic hostility, decrying any criticism of the traditional theoretical edifice as fatuous , but more often the defenders of the traditional conception argue that ‘all is well’ with current evolutionary theory, which they see as having ‘co-evolved’ together with the methodological and empirical advances that already receive their due in current evolutionary biology . But the repeatedly emphasized fact that innovative evolutionary mechanisms have been mentioned in certain earlier or more recent writings does not mean that the formal structure of evolutionary theory has been adjusted to them.
Orthodox Darwinists of the “All Is Well” school meet challenges with “dogmatic hostility”? Yep. We were aware.
Here he obliterates the notion, a truly fatuous extrapolation, that microevolutionary changes can explain macroevolutionary trends:
A subtler version of the this-has-been-said-before argument used to deflect any challenges to the received view is to pull the issue into the never ending micro-versus-macroevolution debate. Whereas ‘microevolution’ is regarded as the continuous change of allele frequencies within a species or population , the ill-defined macroevolution concept , amalgamates the issue of speciation and the origin of ‘higher taxa’ with so-called ‘major phenotypic change’ or new constructional types. Usually, a cursory acknowledgement of the problem of the origin of phenotypic characters quickly becomes a discussion of population genetic arguments about speciation, often linked to the maligned punctuated equilibria concept , in order to finally dismiss any necessity for theory change. The problem of phenotypic complexity thus becomes (in)elegantly bypassed. Inevitably, the conclusion is reached that microevolutionary mechanisms are consistent with macroevolutionary phenomena , even though this has very little to do with the structure and predictions of the EES. The real issue is that genetic evolution alone has been found insufficient for an adequate causal explanation of all forms of phenotypic complexity, not only of something vaguely termed ‘macroevolution’. Hence, the micro–macro distinction only serves to obscure the important issues that emerge from the current challenges to the standard theory. It should not be used in discussion of the EES, which rarely makes any allusions to macroevolution, although it is sometimes forced to do so.
This a major concession on the part of a major figure in the world of evolution theory. It’s a huge black eye to the “All Is Well” crowd. Who will tell the media? Who will tell the Darwin enforcers? Who will tell the biology students, in high school or college, kept in the dark by rigid Darwinist pedagogy?
Evolution has only “strengths” and no “weaknesses,” you say? Darwinian theory is as firmly established as “gravity, heliocentrism, and the round shape of the earth“? Really? How can anyone possibly maintain as much given this clear statement, not from any ID advocate or Darwin skeptic, not from a so-called “creationist,” but from a central figure in evolutionary research, writing in a journal published by the august scientific society once presided over by Isaac Newton, for crying out loud?
To maintain at this point that “All Is Well” with evolution you have to be in a state of serious denial.
Photo credit: Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.