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Oxford Physiologist Denis Noble: Dissent from Neo-Darwinism Has Passed a “Tipping Point”

Photo credit: russellstreet, via Flickr.

Forbes recently ran an article with an attention-grabbing headline: “Evolution May Be Purposeful, and It’s Freaking Scientists Out.” Readers of Evolution News immediately began emailing us about it. On anything relating to evolution versus intelligent design, it used to be that Forbes could be counted on for snarky put-downs of ID, perhaps more so than many another mainstream publication. The times, it seems, are changing. The article by science writer Andréa Morris was based largely on a video interview with retired Oxford physiologist Denis Noble, and it highlights the evidence for “teleonomy” (internal purposiveness) that some scientists have been trying to call attention to:

It’s about time. We were wondering when the (often very dramatic) claims made recently in arcane academic texts — such as the essays collected in MIT Press’s 2023 anthology Evolution “On Purpose” — would begin making more of a splash in the popular media. Those essays, and Noble’s own perspective, are not in favor of intelligent design. But you might say they are, if this is not going too far, “ID adjacent.” Many themes will be familiar to those who follow the literature of intelligent design.

But aside from that positive development, there is another point in the article and the accompanying interview that is worth drawing out in detail here: the “very strange psychology,” as Dr. Noble calls it, that has been causing neo-Darwinists to dig their heals in and lash out at anyone who dares question the neo-Darwinian paradigm. 

Noble testifies that some evolutionary biologists have been actively persecuting their fellow scientists who have attempted to deviate from the received consensus. (Gosh, who would have thought?) But according to Noble, the dam has broken and the dissent can no longer be contained.

Persecution? What Persecution? 

Darwin apologists have habitually mocked and denied “claims of persecution” from ID proponents. So pay attention to Noble’s account in the Morris interview of how the situation was back in 2004: 

Morris: So is it true…you mentioned this briefly, that it’s very hard in academia to talk about these ideas, these unorthodox ideas. And you didn’t feel you could actively start being head of this movement until you retired in 2004?

Noble: 2004 is when I retired from being a professor running a big laboratory. I was, therefore, from there on no longer responsible for applying to research organizations for grants to support the salaries of people in my group. So I was no longer in a position in which my own unorthodox views could damage the careers of people working in my laboratory. That’s the reason I only started writing in 2004. And the first publication was The Music of Life, which indeed is very clear about dissenting from the standard Neo-Darwinian synthesis. So all the way from 2006 I’ve been very clear about that. If I had been — as indeed I was for the first ten years or so when I first “came out,” if that’s the right way of putting it, on this issue — I was denigrated. And with some pretty strong language. If that had damaged my reputation to the point of which it would have been difficult for to get the grant money that would support the salaries of a team, I would, in effect, by my own actions in relation to expressing my views on evolution, have damaged their careers. As simple as that. I couldn’t do that.

If that sounds bad, think about the fact that Noble wasn’t even denying the reality of Darwinian evolution, or crossing the red line of methodological naturalism. The view was just a critique of current evolutionary theory, from one Darwin-loving naturalist to another. Yet even that was too much to handle. 

Morris then brings up the “vulgar attacks” Noble received from neo-Darwinists after he came out as a skeptic. The background of the video during her question displays a blog post by the inimitable Jerry Coyne titled “Famous physiologist embarrasses himself by claiming that the modern theory of evolution is in tatters.” Noble shares how the 2016 conference at the Royal Society in London reassessing evolutionary theory was almost shut down by neo-Darwinian fundamentalists: 

Noble: In 2016, together with two other scientists and two philosophers, I organized a meeting at the Royal Society in London, the top academy of the United Kingdom, together with also the British Academy, which is the social science side of all of this, and we organized a meeting on “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology.” That meeting triggered a major protest from leaders of the neo-Darwinist synthesis. There was actually a protest to try and stop the meeting happening, in the form of a signed letter to the president of the Royal Society, saying, “Please, disassociate the Society from this meeting.” So, that meeting went ahead. There’s a history to that which we don’t need to go into, but it was quite a difficult history… I would love to find a way of defusing the tension and the standing off, that we experienced, for example, at that Royal Society meeting in 2016. There were just a few neo-Darwinists at the meeting, and it was like a gladiatorial confrontation. And I don’t think that’s necessary.

There’s Persecution, and There’s Persecution… 

Again, Noble is not an ID proponent, or anything totally beyond the pale like that — or even a theist. Morris calls him “neutral on religious matters.” He is in fact a methodological naturalist. And he is a very distinguished scientist — one might even say venerable. He enjoyed a fruitful career at Oxford (where he was Richard Dawkins’s doctoral examiner back in the 1960s). Yet even he was not safe from mudslinging, vitriol, and outright suppression. 

If this has been the situation for highly respected naturalists who merely want to critique contemporary evolutionary theory, without dissenting from Darwinism in general, much less the materialist worldview that underpins the whole endeavor — imagine how difficult it must be for those who go farther, or who are less secure in their careers? 

Molecular biologist and intelligent design proponent Douglas Axe was also at the 2016 conference. This is what he wrote afterwards about the experience:

As important as parenting is, it should be a temporary undertaking. The end result is well worth the effort… when it does come to an end, that is. We’ve all seen regrettable cases where it doesn’t — fully grown adults who retain an unhealthy need for parental approval and aging parents who foster that kind of lingering dependence.

I left the recent Royal Society meeting in London, “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology,” with the distinct impression that I had witnessed a professional version of that unhealthy situation. Old-style neo-Darwinists were there, few in number but with a way of making their presence felt — like overbearing parents presiding over the affairs of their long-grown offspring. Emotional complaints were made against these parent figures during question periods, with spontaneous applause signaling a general mood of protest…

At the meeting I found myself siding with the protestors, but soon afterward I began to wonder whether maybe the “parents” were only partly to blame for the tension. I recalled one participant who, during question time, clearly identified the peculiarity of the protest stance. Addressing one of the speakers who exemplified that stance, he pointed out that this professor and her peers enjoyed good academic positions, complete with all the key ingredients for academic success: tenure, funding, publication records, positions on editorial boards, etc. Why complain, then?…

In fact, scientists who challenge not just the calcified version of evolutionary theory but the larger stream of naturalistic thought that gave birth to it have far more legitimate complaints than any aired at the London meeting. You can’t wade against this larger stream without jeopardizing those key ingredients of academic success. The academy, which has in recent decades become a self-righteous monoculture, vigorously opposes anyone who moves against it.

Maybe this regrettable situation will change, someday.

Past the Tipping Point 

Axe’s “maybe” was maybe less than optimistic, and his “someday” seemed implicitly to lie in the far-distant future. But since 2016 there have already been hints of a sea-change. Intelligent design hypotheses may still be anathema in most circles, but critiques of the received evolutionary paradigm are no longer slapped down. According to Noble:  

The interesting thing is this: since that meeting, I am no longer attacked. The silence from the other side is deafening. Has there been any response to the Nature review that I did a few weeks ago with the very provocative title “Genes Are Not the Blueprint for Life”? Nobody’s replied. I look forward to a reply. But there’s been no reply either to the articles that were published in 2017 after that 2016 meeting at the Royal Society. I think there was a tipping point there.

As a result of taboo-breakers like Denis Noble in the early 2000s, today in 2024 there are young scientists who weren’t educated into the strict neo-Darwinian paradigm and feel free to diverge from it. One such scientist is a rising star of origin of life research, Joana Xavier, whom Morris interviewed for the Forbes article along with Noble. Xavier expresses no patience with the neo-Darwinist paradigm, and even less for the gatekeepers who insult and harm the careers of anyone who tries to bring new ideas to the table. She advocates going on the offensive: “We need to shame them,” she says. “I’m sorry, but we do.”

Xavier is an interesting case, and a measure of how some walls seem to be coming down. See here for her comments to Perry Marshall on Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. The ID tome is “one of the best books I’ve read in terms of really putting the finger on the questions,” and “I actually tell everyone I can, ‘Listen, read that book. Let’s not put intelligent design on a spike and burn it. Let’s understand what they’re saying and engage.’” 

In fact, as a science journalist, Andréa Morris is not without interest herself. In her mentions of ID, she is nuanced, noting that the “reductionist, gene-centric model… forfeits natural phenomena like purpose due to its association with intelligent design and a transcendent, intelligent designer.” In the conversation with Noble, she’s candid: “I don’t believe in a God — I don’t believe in much of anything. But life, and that process, is magical” (at 57:28) Yet a sentence in her article says, “Noble believes that purpose, creativity, and innovation are fundamental to evolution.” Huh. “Purpose, creativity, and innovation” are, word for word, a phrase from Discovery Institute’s one-sentence mission statement.

What, is that some sort of secret handshake? Has she been reading our stuff? Actually, it seems she has. When Noble is talking about the 2016 Royal Society meeting, she illustrates with an image of an article here at Evolution News (at 1:07:30).

Be that as it may, as Xavier says, there is no reason to tolerate the self-appointed censors any longer. The tipping point has already been passed, and the old consensus is in retreat. The more scientists take a chance and step outside the neo-Darwinian structure, the more obvious it will be that the structure was a prison, not a foundation. 

And then — maybe — other structures will begin to be questioned as well. 

Noble says: 

What do I find now? I meet young people doing research in my university and in other universities who are working within a paradigm that is totally different from the neo-Darwinist paradigm. Can they do so? 

Yes, they can.