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#1 of Our Top Stories of 2016: Happy New Year! Why the Royal Society Meeting Mattered

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The following was originally published on December 5, 2016:

We devoted considerable attention to last month’s Royal Society meeting in London. Otherwise, the three-day conference on “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology” was kept rather quiet in the media.

Oh, there were a few reports. Writing for the Huffington Post, science journalist Suzan Mazur complained of a lack of momentousness: “[J]ust what was the point of attracting a distinguished international gathering if the speakers had little new science to present? Why waste everyone’s time and money?” On the other hand, a write-up in The Atlantic by Carl Zimmer acknowledged a sense of strain between rival cliques of evolutionists: “Both sides offered their arguments and critiques in a civil way, but sometimes you could sense the tension in the room — the punctuations of tsk-tsks, eye-rolling, and partisan bursts of applause.”

Mild drama notwithstanding, why should anyone care about this meeting?

Despite the muffled coverage, the meeting was still significant in a number of ways. First, remember that the Royal Society is arguably the world’s most august scientific body. Its founders included Robert Boyle and it was later headed for 24 years (1703-1727) by Isaac Newton — a fact that is hard to forget when they have his death mask on prominent display in a glass case. Portraits of Boyle and Newton on the walls look down from above. The historical connections lent a certain weight by themselves to the proceedings.

That such a thoroughly mainstream scientific organization should now at last acknowledge problems with the received neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is also obviously notable. Indeed, from our point of view, though presenters ignored, dismissed, or mocked ID, not realizing the number of design-friendly scientists in the audience, the proceedings confirmed something ID advocates, including Stephen Meyer and others, have been saying for years.

Consider, for example, Meyer’s provocative claim in the Prologue to Darwin’s Doubt:

The technical literature in biology is now replete with world-class biologists routinely expressing doubts about various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory, and especially about its central tenet, namely the alleged creative power of the natural selection and mutation mechanism.

Nevertheless, popular defenses of the theory continue apace, rarely if ever acknowledging the growing body of critical scientific opinion about the standing of the theory. Rarely has there been such a great disparity between the popular perception of a theory and its actual standing in the relevant peer-reviewed science literature.

The opening presentation at the Royal Society conference by one of those world-class biologists, Austrian evolutionary theorist Gerd Müller, underscored exactly 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.”1 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.

Yet, the most important lesson of the Royal Society conference lies not in its vindication of claims that our scientists have made, gratifying as that might be to us, but rather in defining the current problems and state of research in the field. The conference did an excellent job of defining the problems that evolutionary theory has failed to solve, but it offered little, if anything, by way of new solutions to those longstanding fundamental problems.

Much of the conference subsequent to Müller’s talk did discuss various other proposed evolutionary mechanisms. Indeed, the prime movers in the Royal Society event, Müller, along with James Shapiro, Denis Noble, and Eva Jablonka — the “Third Way of Evolution” crowd — have proposed repairing the explanatory deficits of the modern synthesis by highlighting evolutionary mechanisms other than random mutation and natural selection. Much debate at the conference centered around the question of whether these new mechanisms could be incorporated into the basic population genetics framework of neo-Darwinism, thus making possible a new “extended” evolutionary synthesis, or whether the emphasis on new mechanisms of evolutionary change represented a radical, and theoretically incommensurable, break with established theory. This largely semantic, or classificatory, issue obscured a deeper question that few, if any, of the presentations confronted head on: the issue of the origin of genuine phenotypic novelty — the problem that Müller described in his opening talk.

Indeed, by the end of Day 3 of the meeting, it seemed clear to many of our scientists, and others in attendance with whom they talked, that the puzzle of life’s novelties remained unsolved — if, indeed, it had been addressed at all. As a prominent German paleontologist in the crowd concluded, “All elements of the Extended Synthesis [as discussed at the conference] fail to offer adequate explanations for the crucial explanatory deficits of the Modern Synthesis (aka neo-Darwinism) that were explicitly highlighted in the first talk of the meeting by Gerd Müller.”

In Darwin’s Doubt, for example, Meyer emphasized the obvious importance of genetic and other (i.e., epigenetic) types of information to building novel phenotypic traits and forms life. The new mechanisms offered by the critics of neo-Darwinism at the conference — whether treated as part of an extended neo-Darwinian synthesis or as the basis of a fundamentally new theory of evolution — did not attempt to explain how the information necessary to generating genuine novelty might have arisen. Instead, the mechanisms that were discussed produce at best minor microevolutionary changes, such as changes in wing coloration of butterflies or the celebrated polymorphisms of stickleback fish.

Moreover, the mechanisms that were discussed — niche construction, phenotypic plasticity, natural genetic engineering, and so on — either presupposed the prior existence of the biological information necessary to generate novelty, or they did not address the mystery of the origin of that information (and morphological novelty) at all. (Not all the mechanisms addressed were necessarily new, by the way. Niche construction and phenotypic plasticity have been around for a long time.)

Complex behaviors such as nest-building by birds, or dam construction by beavers, represent examples of niche construction in which some organisms themselves demonstrate the capacity to alter their environment in ways that may affect the adaptation of subsequent generations to the environment. Yet no advocate of niche construction at the meeting explained how the capacity for such complex behaviors arose de novo in ancestral populations, as they must have done if the naturalistic evolutionary story is true.

Rather, these complex behaviors were taken as givens, leaving the critical question of their origins more or less untouched. While there is abundant evidence that animals can learn and transmit new behaviors to their offspring — crows in Japan, for instance, have learned how to use automobile traffic to crack open nuts — all such evidence presupposes the prior existence of specific functional capacities enabling observation, learning, and the like. The evolutionary accounts of niche construction theory therefore collide repeatedly with a brick wall marked “ORIGINAL COMPLEX FUNCTIONAL CAPACITY REQUIRED HERE” — without, or beyond which, there would simply be nothing interesting to observe.

Jim Shapiro’s talk, clearly one of the most interesting of the conference, highlighted this difficulty in its most fundamental form. Shapiro presented fascinating evidence showing, contra neo-Darwinism, the non-random nature of many mutational processes — processes that allow organisms to respond to various environmental challenges or stresses. The evidence he presented suggests that many organisms possess a kind of pre-programmed adaptive capacity — a capacity that Shapiro has elsewhere described as operating under “algorithmic control.” Yet, neither Shapiro, nor anyone else at the conference, attempted to explain how the information inherent in such algorithmic control or pre-programmed capacity might have originated.

This same “explanatory deficiency” was evident in the discussions of the other mechanisms, though we won’t attempt to demonstrate that exhaustively here. We would direct readers, however, to Chapters 15 and 16 of Darwin’s Doubt, where Meyer highlighted the way in which, not just neo-Darwinism, but also newer evolutionary mechanisms, including many discussed at the conference, fail to solve the question of the origin of information necessary to generate novelty. In those chapters, he reviewed a range of proposed fixes to the Modern Synthesis. He acknowledged and described the various advantages that many of these proposals have over neo-Darwinism, but also carefully explained why each of these mechanisms falls short as an explanation for the origin of the biological information necessary to build novel structures and forms of animal life. He quoted paleontologist Graham Budd who has observed: “When the public thinks about evolution, they think about [things like] the origin of wings….But these are things that evolutionary theory has told us little about.”

Many fascinating talks at the Royal Society conference described a number of evolutionary mechanisms that have been given short shrift by the neo-Darwinian establishment. Unfortunately, however, the conference will be remembered, as Suzan Mazur intimated in her coverage, for its failure to offer anything new. In particular, in our judgment, it failed to offer anything new that could help remedy the main “explanatory deficit” of the neo-Darwinian synthesis — its inability to account for the origin of phenotypic novelty and especially, the genetic and epigenetic information necessary to produce it. These are still problems that evolutionary theory tells us little about.

Notes:

(1) Gerd Müller and Stuart Newman, On the Origin of Organismal Form (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), p.7.

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