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Theory in Crisis? Dissatisfaction and the Proliferation of New Articulations

Photo: Galápagos finch, by Mike's Birds from Riverside, CA, US, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a new series by biologist Jonathan Wells asking, “Is Darwinism a Theory in Crisis?” This is the third post in the series, which is adapted from the recent book, The Comprehensive Guide to Science and FaithFind the full series here.

A scientific revolution is fueled in part by growing dissatisfaction among adherents of the old paradigm. This leads to new versions of the theoretical underpinnings of the paradigm. In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn wrote:

The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research.1

Serious Problems with Darwin’s Theory

A growing number of biologists now acknowledge that there are serious problems with modern evolutionary theory. In 2007, biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci published a paper asking whether we need “an extended evolutionary synthesis” that goes beyond neo-Darwinism.2 The following year, Pigliucci and 15 other biologists (none of them intelligent design advocates) gathered at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research just north of Vienna to discuss the question. Science journalist Suzan Mazur called this group “the Altenberg 16.”3 In 2010, the group published a collection of their essays. The authors challenged the Darwinian idea that organisms could evolve solely by the gradual accumulation of small variations preserved by natural selection, and the neo-Darwinian idea that DNA is “the sole agent of variation and unit of inheritance.”4

“A View from the 21st Century”

In 2011, biologist James Shapiro (who was not one of Altenberg 16 and is not an intelligent design advocate) published a book titled Evolution: A View from the 21st Century. Shapiro expounded on a concept he called natural genetic engineering and provided evidence that cells can reorganize their genomes in purposeful ways. According to Shapiro, many scientists reacted to the phrase “natural genetic engineering” in the same way they react to intelligent design because it seems “to violate the principles of naturalism that exclude any role for a guiding intelligence outside of nature.” But Shapiro argued that

the concept of cell-guided natural genetic engineering is well within the boundaries of twenty-first century biological science. Despite widespread philosophical prejudices, cells are now reasonably seen to operate teleologically: Their goals are survival, growth, and reproduction.5

In 2015, Nature published an exchange of views between scientists who believed that evolutionary theory needs “a rethink” and scientists who believed it is fine as it is. Those who believed 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.”6 These same scientists also published an article in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London,in which they proposed “an alternative conceptual framework,” an “extended evolutionary synthesis” that retains the fundamentals of evolutionary theory “but differs in its emphasis on the role of constructive processes in development and evolution.”7

An Unusual Meeting in London

In 2016, an international group of biologists organized a public meeting to discuss an extended evolutionary synthesis at the Royal Society in London. Biologist Gerd Müller opened the meeting by pointing out that current evolutionary theory fails to explain (among other things) the origin of new anatomical structures (that is, macroevolution). Most of the other speakers agreed that the current theory is inadequate, though two speakers defended it. None of the speakers considered intelligent design an option. One speaker even caricatured intelligent design as “God did it,” and at one point another participant blurted out, “Not God — we’re excluding God.”8

The advocates of an extended evolutionary synthesis proposed various mechanisms that they argued were ignored or downplayed in current theory, but none of the proposed mechanisms moved beyond microevolution (minor changes within existing species). By the end of the meeting, it was clear that none of the speakers had met the challenge posed by Müller on the first day.9

A 2018 article in Evolutionary Biology reviewed some of the still-competing articulations of evolutionary theory. The article concluded by wondering whether the continuing “conceptual rifts and explanatory tensions” will be overcome.10 As long as they continue, however, they suggest that a scientific revolution is in progress.

Next, “Theory in Crisis? Circling the Wagons.”


  1. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed., 91.
  2. Massimo Pigliucci, “Do we need an extended evolutionary synthesis?,” Evolution 61 (2007), 2743-2749.
  3. Suzan Mazur, The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry (Wellington, New Zealand: Scoop Media, 2009).
  4. Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. Müller, Evolution: The Extended Synthesis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).
  5. James A. Shapiro, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press Science, 2011), 134-137.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Paul A. Nelson, “Specter of intelligent design emerges at the Royal Society meeting,” Evolution News & Views (November 8, 2016), https://evolutionnews.org/2016/11/specter_of_inte/ (accessed August 22, 2020).
  9. Paul A. Nelson and David Klinghoffer, “Scientists confirm: Darwinism is broken,” CNS News (December 13, 2016). https://www.cnsnews.com/commentary/david-klinghoffer/scientists-confirm-darwinism-broken (accessed August 22, 2020).
  10. Alejandro Fábregas-Tejeda and Francisco Vergara-Silva, “Hierarchy Theory of Evolution and the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis: Some Epistemic Bridges, Some Conceptual Rifts,” Evolutionary Biology 45 (2018), 127-139.