Evolution Icon Evolution

Assessing Denis Noble’s (Non-ID) Critique of Darwinism

Denis Noble
Photo: Denis Noble, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: Last week atheist biologist Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True knocked physiologist Denis Noble and his (non-ID) critique of neo-Darwinism. (See, “Denis Noble goes after Darwinian evolution again, scores own goal.”) Discovery Institute biologist Jonathan Wells weighed Noble’s case in Zombie Science: More Icons of Evolution. With the permission of Dr. Wells, what follows is an excerpt.

Fruit flies with useless extra wings or missing legs have taught us something about developmental genetics, but nothing about how evolution might build new form and function. All of the evidence points to one conclusion: No matter what we do to the DNA of a fruit fly embryo, there are only three possible outcomes: a normal fruit fly, a defective fruit fly, or a dead fruit fly. Not even a horse fly, much less a horse. 

Denis Noble’s Case

British biologist Denis Noble put the matter this way: “At fine enough resolution, the egg cell must contain even more information than the genome. If it needed to be coded digitally to enable us to ‘store’ all the information necessary to recreate life in, say, some distant extra-solar system by sending it out in an ‘Earth-life’ information capsule, I strongly suspect that most of that information would be non-genomic.” 

In the same 2008 article Noble wrote, “We talk of gene networks, master genes and gene switches. These metaphors have also fueled the idea of genetic (DNA) determinism. But there are no purely gene networks!” Every network, at the very least, “is a gene–protein–lipid–cell network. It does not really make sense to view the gene as operating without the rest of the cellular machinery. So, if this network is part of a ‘genetic program,’ then the genetic program is not a DNA program.”1


The Third Way of Evolution

In 2014 [James] Shapiro, along with … Noble and website developer Raju Pookottil, started an online forum for scientists and other scholars who “see the need for a deeper and more complete exploration of all aspects of the evolutionary process.” They called their enterprise the Third Way of Evolution, and many scholars are now affiliated with it. The website makes it clear that it and the scientists listed on it “do not support or subscribe to” creationism or intelligent design.2 Nevertheless, it demonstrates a growing dissatisfaction with modern evolutionary theory. According to [Susan] Mazur, the group has been dubbed “the Oxford 50.”3

In 2015, Nature published an exchange of views among scientists who believe that evolutionary theory needs rethinking and scientists who believe it is fine as it is. 

Those who believe that the theory needs rethinking suggested that those defending it might be “haunted by the specter of intelligent design” and thus want “to show a united front to those hostile to science.” Nevertheless, the former concluded that recent findings in several fields require a “conceptual change in evolutionary biology.”4 These same scientists also published an article in which they proposed “an alternative conceptual framework” that they called the “extended evolutionary synthesis,” which retains the fundamentals of evolutionary theory “but differs in its emphasis on the role of constructive processes in development and evolution.”5

“A New Conceptual Framework”

Also in 2015, Noble published an article arguing for “a new conceptual framework” in evolutionary biology. Noble criticized the idea that DNA contains a “blueprint” for the organism and argued that the neo-Darwinian conception was wrong. Instead, an organism is best understood as a network in which “there is no privileged level of causation” and which behaves as a whole.6 American biologist Clarence Williams criticized Noble and insisted that “neo-Darwinism is just fine.” Noble replied that an “honest response” to new evidence in biology “is to say that the central tenets of neo-Darwinism are no longer valid.”7,8

Noble and several others — most notably Austrian biologist Gerd Müller — organized a public meeting to discuss an extended evolutionary synthesis at the Royal Society in London in November 2016. Invited speakers included Noble, Shapiro, and Müller, among others.9,10


  1. Denis Noble, “Genes and causation,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A 366 (2008): 3001–3015. doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0086. PMID:18559318. 
  2. The Third Way: Evolution in the Era of Genomics and Epigenomics. http://www.thethirdwayofevolution.com.
  3. Suzan Mazur, The Paradigm Shifters: Overthrowing ‘the Hegemony of the Culture of Darwin’ (New York: Caswell Books, 2015), 1. 
  4. Kevin Laland, Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, John Odling-Smee, Gregory A. Wray, Hopi E. Hoekstra, Douglas J. Futuyma, Richard E. Lenski, Trudy F. C. Mackay, Dolph Schluter, and Joan E. Strassmann, “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink?” Nature 514 (2014): 161–164. doi:10.1038/514161a. PMID:25297418. 
  5. Kevin N. Laland, Tobias Uller, Marcus W. Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, and John Odling-Smee, “The extended evolutionary synthesis: its structure, assumptions and predictions,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 282 (2015): 20151019. doi:10.1098/rspb.2015.1019. PMID:26246559. 
  6. Denis Noble, “Evolution beyond neo-Darwinism: A new conceptual framework,” Journal of Experimental Biology 218 (2015): 7–13. doi:10.1242/jeb.106310. PMID:25568446.
  7. Clarence A. Williams, “Neo-Darwinism is just fine,” Journal of Experimental Biology 218 (2015): 2658–2659. doi:10.1242/jeb.125088. PMID:26290594. 
  8. Denis Noble, “Central tenets of neo-Darwinism broken. Response to ‘Neo-Darwinism is just fine’,” Journal of Experimental Biology 218 (2015): 2659. doi:10.1242/jeb.125526. PMID:26290595. 
  9. “New trends in evolutionary biology: Biological, philosophical and social science perspectives,” Royal Society of London (November 7–9, 2016). https://royalsociety.org/ science-events-and-lectures/2016/11/evolutionary-biology/. 
  10. Suzan Mazur, Royal Society: The Public Evolution Summit (New York: Caswell Books, 2016).