You don’t get to revise evolutionary theory, until you understand evolutionary theory

There was a conference sponsored by the Royal Society last month, titled New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives. There have been a number of news stories about this event, some good, some bad. Here’s one: can you tell what’s wrong with it?

For example, speaking at the Royal Society was Melinda Zeder, who talked about the way in which modern synthesis fails to provide a reason for mankind’s turning to agriculture 10,00 years ago and its ensuing evolutionary impact. Growing crops may have taken years, so there could not have been a short-term evolutionary benefit to it. As Zeder told Quanta, “You don’t get the immediate gratification of grabbing some food and putting it in your mouth.” It’s also been theorized that a climate shift caused agriculture to bloom, but there’s no evidence of such a shift.

If you’re not seeing it yet, focus on this statement: Growing crops may have taken years, so there could not have been a short-term evolutionary benefit to it.

Think about it. Imagine…when I was born, I did not immediately inseminate a nearby female, instead waiting 24 years, and even if I had been capable, it would have taken her almost a year to produce offspring for me. Because it lacks immediate gratification, there can not be any short term evolutionary benefit to reproduction.

That’s embarrassingly idiotic. Evolution is something that happens to populations, not individuals, and short-term evolutionary advantages are those that produce a benefit for the next generation. A nomadic tribe sowing seeds at their camp in the spring before following the herds for the summer, so that when they return in the fall they find a crop of edibles that provide a consistent food source sounds exactly like the kind of short-term investment that would produce an evolutionary advantage.

But this whole article sounds this way, like it was written by a clueless reporter discussing a meeting of ambitious ignoramuses who don’t understand what they’re criticizing. Look at the title: How About a New Theory of Evolution with Less Natural Selection? Say what? You do know that evolutionary theory already includes multiple modes of evolutionary change beyond selection, and it has had them quantified and described since the 1930s, right? Every competent evolutionary biologist since the 1970s has embraced the mathematics of Kimura and Ohta and knows that evolution is not solely driven by selection, and at the same time, they have not shouted “Revolution!” at the inclusion of new, better, mathematical descriptions of the evolutionary process.

Likewise, many of the revolutionaries at this meeting talked about epigenetics as if it were some shocking new thing that could not possibly be accommodated in a neo-Darwinian framework. I just want to reply “Waddington, in the 1940s”, but I feel like it would be received in this crowd like saying “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”. They just don’t have the referents to understand it.

This reporter even mentions one of my primary objections to the invalid over-emphasis on epigenetics in evolution.

Scientists used to believe that when a offspring is born, it starts with a clean epigenomic slate. This turns out not to always be the case, at least in plants and fungi, and maybe in invertebrates. Some epigenetic tags survive, and thus “epigenetic inheritance” may play a role in the organism’s evolution.

First “used to believe”? When? This is simply sloppy history. Waddington’s epigenetic influences were largely abstract and hypothetical; they wouldn’t become more concrete until details about such phenomena as DNA and gene regulation and methylation were discovered. It’s clear that there are ongoing epigenetic changes during development, so obviously there can’t be an epigenetic state for the organism. The gamete is a specialized cell type, so it has to have its own special epigenetic marks; we see this in imprinting. Of course the epigenetic state of the oocyte is largely reset not to a “clean” state, whatever that means, but to a totipotent state, which is something altogether different. That some gene states that have physiological or morphological effects in the adult persist for multiple generations is neither surprising nor requiring major renovations of evolutionary theory.

I also have to point out that Jacob and Monod’s Lac operon work showed that E. coli passes on an epigenetic state after cell division. This is not a wild and crazy revelation that necessitates radical changes in the theory.

They also talk a lot about plasticity. Plasticity is important, no denying that, but plasticity has also not been ignored: I just want to chant another phrase, “Clausen, Keck, Hiesey, 1930s.” This is not a neglected topic.

I found this article infuriating because here we have a group of people declaring that we need to greatly modify the neo-Darwinian Synthesis but they constantly demonstrate that they don’t understand it. You can’t propose changes to an idea if you haven’t done your homework and shown some detailed knowledge of what you think needs revision. They haven’t done their background research.

Another problem I have with this kind of meeting is that they’re always infested with crackpots. This one had Denis Noble, and disgraceful dingleberry who believes that mutations are non-random and that acquired characteristics can be inherited and that evolutionary change is entirely saltational. He’s nuts. At least Carl Zimmer captured some of the pushback against Noble. I’ve got to admit it’s kind of hilarious to read about David Shuker shooting down Noble’s distortion of a paper.

“This strategy is to produce rapid evolutionary genome change in response to the unfavorable environment,” Noble declared to the audience. “It’s a self-maintaining system that enables a particular characteristic to occur independent of the DNA.”

That didn’t sound right to Shuker, and he was determined to challenge Noble after the applause died down.

“Could you comment at all on the mechanism underlying that discovery?” Shuker asked.

Noble stammered in reply. “The mechanism in general terms, I can, yes…” he said, and then started talking about networks and regulation and a desperate search for a solution to a crisis. “You’d have to go back to the original paper,” he then said.

While Noble was struggling to respond, Shuker went back to the paper on an iPad. And now he read the abstract in a booming voice.

“‘Our results demonstrate that natural selection can rapidly rewire regulatory networks,'” Shuker said. He put down the iPad.

“So it’s a perfect, beautiful example of rapid neo-Darwinian evolution,” he declared.

You have a dazzling new interpretation of the data? First thing you have to do is have a thorough grounding in what the established interpretation says. Second thing you ought to do is cull the loonies from your lineup so you can have a serious discussion. The third thing you should do is bring in people who can explain what the core ideas are, rather than just people with a self-aggrandizing axe to grind. People like Douglas Futuyma.

“I think I’m expected to represent the Jurassic view of evolution,” said Douglas Futuyma when he got up to the podium. Futuyma is a soft-spoken biologist at Stony Brook University in New York and the author of a leading textbook on evolution. In other words, he was the target of many complaints during the meeting that textbooks paid little heed to things like epigenetics and plasticity. In effect, Futuyma had been invited to tell his colleagues why those concepts were ignored.

“We must recognize that the core principles of the Modern Synthesis are strong and well-supported,” Futuyma declared. Not only that, he added, but the kinds of biology being discussed at the Royal Society weren’t actually all that new. The architects of the Modern Synthesis were already talking about them over 50 years ago. And there’s been a lot of research guided by the Modern Synthesis to make sense of them.

Take plasticity. The genetic variations in an animal or a plant govern the range of forms into which organism can develop. Mutations can alter that range. And mathematical models of natural selection show how it can favor some kinds of plasticity over others.

If the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis was so superfluous, then why was it gaining enough attention to warrant a meeting at the Royal Society? Futuyma suggested that its appeal was emotional rather than scientific. It made life an active force rather than the passive vehicle of mutations.

“I think what we find emotionally or aesthetically more appealing is not the basis for science,” Futuyma said.

I would add, though, that those people who argue that epigenetics implies that you can take active control of your genetic inheritance are full-on wackaloons. If that’s the vanguard of this new revolution in evolutionary theory, it’s doomed. If that’s your belief, you are in Mercola territory, and completely wrong.

10 Comments

  1. Harold Katcher

    There was a conference sponsored by the Royal Society last month, titled New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives. There have been a number of news stories about this event, some good, some bad. Here’s one: can you tell what’s wrong with it?
    For example, speaking at the Royal Society was Melinda Zeder, who talked about the way in which modern synthesis fails to provide a reason for mankind’s turning to agriculture 10,00 years ago and its ensuing evolutionary impact. Growing crops may have taken years, so there could not have been a short-term evolutionary benefit to it. As Zeder told Quanta, “You don’t get the immediate gratification of grabbing some food and putting it in your mouth.” It’s also been theorized that a climate shift caused agriculture to bloom, but there’s no evidence of such a shift.

    If you’re not seeing it yet, focus on this statement: Growing crops may have taken years, so there could not have been a short-term evolutionary benefit to it.
    Think about it. Imagine…when I was born, I did not immediately inseminate a nearby female, instead waiting 24 years, and even if I had been capable, it would have taken her almost a year to produce offspring for me. Because it lacks immediate gratification, there can not be any short term evolutionary benefit to reproduction.
    That’s embarrassingly idiotic. Evolution is something that happens to populations, not individuals, and short-term evolutionary advantages are those that produce a benefit for the next generation. A nomadic tribe sowing seeds at their camp in the spring before following the herds for the summer, so that when they return in the fall they find a crop of edibles that provide a consistent food source sounds exactly like the kind of short-term investment that would produce an evolutionary advantage.
    But this whole article sounds this way, like it was written by a clueless reporter discussing a meeting of ambitious ignoramuses who don’t understand what they’re criticizing. Look at the title: How About a New Theory of Evolution with Less Natural Selection? Say what? You do know that evolutionary theory already includes multiple modes of evolutionary change beyond selection, and it has had them quantified and described since the 1930s, right? Every competent evolutionary biologist since the 1970s has embraced the mathematics of Kimura and Ohta and knows that evolution is not solely driven by selection, and at the same time, they have not shouted “Revolution!” at the inclusion of new, better, mathematical descriptions of the evolutionary process.
    Likewise, many of the revolutionaries at this meeting talked about epigenetics as if it were some shocking new thing that could not possibly be accommodated in a neo-Darwinian framework. I just want to reply “Waddington, in the 1940s”, but I feel like it would be received in this crowd like saying “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”. They just don’t have the referents to understand it.
    This reporter even mentions one of my primary objections to the invalid over-emphasis on epigenetics in evolution.
    Scientists used to believe that when a offspring is born, it starts with a clean epigenomic slate. This turns out not to always be the case, at least in plants and fungi, and maybe in invertebrates. Some epigenetic tags survive, and thus “epigenetic inheritance” may play a role in the organism’s evolution.

    First “used to believe”? When? This is simply sloppy history. Waddington’s epigenetic influences were largely abstract and hypothetical; they wouldn’t become more concrete until details about such phenomena as DNA and gene regulation and methylation were discovered. It’s clear that there are ongoing epigenetic changes during development, so obviously there can’t be an epigenetic state for the organism. The gamete is a specialized cell type, so it has to have its own special epigenetic marks; we see this in imprinting. Of course the epigenetic state of the oocyte is largely reset not to a “clean” state, whatever that means, but to a totipotent state, which is something altogether different. That some gene states that have physiological or morphological effects in the adult persist for multiple generations is neither surprising nor requiring major renovations of evolutionary theory.
    I also have to point out that Jacob and Monod’s Lac operon work showed that E. coli passes on an epigenetic state after cell division. This is not a wild and crazy revelation that necessitates radical changes in the theory.
    They also talk a lot about plasticity. Plasticity is important, no denying that, but plasticity has also not been ignored: I just want to chant another phrase, “Clausen, Keck, Hiesey, 1930s.” This is not a neglected topic.
    I found this article infuriating because here we have a group of people declaring that we need to greatly modify the neo-Darwinian Synthesis but they constantly demonstrate that they don’t understand it. You can’t propose changes to an idea if you haven’t done your homework and shown some detailed knowledge of what you think needs revision. They haven’t done their background research.
    Another problem I have with this kind of meeting is that they’re always infested with crackpots. This one had Denis Noble, and disgraceful dingleberry who believes that mutations are non-random and that acquired characteristics can be inherited and that evolutionary change is entirely saltational. He’s nuts. At least Carl Zimmer captured some of the pushback against Noble. I’ve got to admit it’s kind of hilarious to read about David Shuker shooting down Noble’s distortion of a paper.
    “This strategy is to produce rapid evolutionary genome change in response to the unfavorable environment,” Noble declared to the audience. “It’s a self-maintaining system that enables a particular characteristic to occur independent of the DNA.”

    That didn’t sound right to Shuker, and he was determined to challenge Noble after the applause died down.

    “Could you comment at all on the mechanism underlying that discovery?” Shuker asked.

    Noble stammered in reply. “The mechanism in general terms, I can, yes…” he said, and then started talking about networks and regulation and a desperate search for a solution to a crisis. “You’d have to go back to the original paper,” he then said.

    While Noble was struggling to respond, Shuker went back to the paper on an iPad. And now he read the abstract in a booming voice.

    “‘Our results demonstrate that natural selection can rapidly rewire regulatory networks,’” Shuker said. He put down the iPad.

    “So it’s a perfect, beautiful example of rapid neo-Darwinian evolution,” he declared.

    You have a dazzling new interpretation of the data? First thing you have to do is have a thorough grounding in what the established interpretation says. Second thing you ought to do is cull the loonies from your lineup so you can have a serious discussion. The third thing you should do is bring in people who can explain what the core ideas are, rather than just people with a self-aggrandizing axe to grind. People like Douglas Futuyma.
    “I think I’m expected to represent the Jurassic view of evolution,” said Douglas Futuyma when he got up to the podium. Futuyma is a soft-spoken biologist at Stony Brook University in New York and the author of a leading textbook on evolution. In other words, he was the target of many complaints during the meeting that textbooks paid little heed to things like epigenetics and plasticity. In effect, Futuyma had been invited to tell his colleagues why those concepts were ignored.

    “We must recognize that the core principles of the Modern Synthesis are strong and well-supported,” Futuyma declared. Not only that, he added, but the kinds of biology being discussed at the Royal Society weren’t actually all that new. The architects of the Modern Synthesis were already talking about them over 50 years ago. And there’s been a lot of research guided by the Modern Synthesis to make sense of them.

    Take plasticity. The genetic variations in an animal or a plant govern the range of forms into which organism can develop. Mutations can alter that range. And mathematical models of natural selection show how it can favor some kinds of plasticity over others.

    If the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis was so superfluous, then why was it gaining enough attention to warrant a meeting at the Royal Society? Futuyma suggested that its appeal was emotional rather than scientific. It made life an active force rather than the passive vehicle of mutations.

    “I think what we find emotionally or aesthetically more appealing is not the basis for science,” Futuyma said.

    I would add, though, that those people who argue that epigenetics implies that you can take active control of your genetic inheritance are full-on wackaloons. If that’s the vanguard of this new revolution in evolutionary theory, it’s doomed. If that’s your belief, you are in Mercola territory, and completely wrong.

    Related

  2. Siva Prasad

    The ‘Modern Synthesis’ of genetics, so-called, produces a mathematical/computer theoretic model of gene flow in and among populations and hence ‘evolution’ by natural selection, but is largely based on defunct models of genes and proteins, such as ‘one gene one protein (or ‘enzyme’ originally), where a real gene gives rise to many protein isoforms, often with independent promoters, by alternate splicing and subject to miRNA control A real cell where an enzyme devoid of substrate may enter the nucleus and become a transcription factor that controls the intake and synthesis of the missing substrate. Where beta-catenin is both an cell adherence protein and an important transcriptional cofactor involved with a special set of genes. Where the concepts of enhancers was unknown and instead ‘polygenic traits’ were supposed to explain the strength of gene expression as in skin pigmentation. As genetics grows, any science, such as evolution claims to be, must grow with it. If evolutionary theory is a codified mathematical theory – a ‘bible’ of evolutionary change, it is not science. Science is open to refutation by experiment and there’s very little of that.
    We see plasticity shown experimentally, by lung fish that develop feet like the first land vertebrates, all through usage, and we see that there are instances of trans-generational non-genetic inheritance, for example, lifespan length in the nematode worm C. elegans – so do we just discount them or say they’re of no importance? Where is the evidence for that?
    Genetics has changed – the uncharted ocean of ‘junk’ DNA has few but precious pearls hidden in its depths – much of the control of protein synthesis is now know to consist of control by previously unsuspected micro RNAs and long, non-coding RNAs – often pseudogenes, thought defunct – evolutionary skeletons, until they came back to life. The search for differences in protein sequence between mammals is nearly futile as most genes are inter-convertible, can replace one another if transferred and the number are near identical, so it is the control of those genes that makes the differences. We don’t know the extent to which even mental activity affects phenotype, we only suppose lacking evidence to the contrary, but to scoff at the possibility shows only a closed mind, closed by the fact that you (“YOU”) or even we don’t know of any or cannot imagine a mechanism that implements mental process as physical changes. That is you would limit the boundaries of Nature to what you can imagine to be correct. With that attitude we’d have never discovered quantum mechanics.

  3. why sperm to baby takes very short period compared to evolution? It is too like evolving from one form to another ,,, right?

  4. The Tsourdalakis

    Why are you fighting this? Let it ride man, see what happens.

  5. BurntSynapse

    The comment “You don’t get to revise evolutionary theory, until you understand evolutionary theory” is disturbing, especially the part “until you understand evolutionary theory”.
    It is disturbing because it seems to be a euphemism for “until you AGREE/BELIEVE IN with evolutionary theory”
    If we cut through the linguistic trickery evolutionists use to confuse and intimidate the masses.
    Darwinian/Macro evolution can be stated simply as the following equation:
    Simple beginning (e.g. 1 prmitive cell = no brain, no nervous system, etc.)
    + lots of time
    + lots natural selection
    + many mutations
    + natural forces (rain, wind, gravity etc.)
    =============
    extremely complex organism
    (e.g. human, brain, blood circulatory system)
    Has this been observed? – NO (Even Richard Dawkins agrees with this)
    Is it plausible? -Not really ; There is no proof that it is.
    Does it need a lot of faith to believe this? – Certainly does
    So why do we teach it as a scientific fact?

  6. You had me at “Darmok” @pz ????
    Depending on your goals for this post however: “Shaka, when the walls fell.”
    Knowledge exists which is designed to help us look at claims made within science, and claims made about science, and help us make informed judgments about how and what we’re to think about each case. That knowledge is in history and philosophy of science, not the specialist sciences themselves.
    To win over the less educated, we must reach out and show them how to reason better. It is easy to spot the problems with comments like “crops take years, therefore no benefit” but can we explain the logical defect specifically? Can we name it? If not, perhaps we should acquire such skills before we critique.
    If we don’t, we risk mistakenly claiming “ongoing changes” preclude the existence of “a particular state” – a claim with a defect identical to what we just condemned. Both are equally invalid, and for the same cause.
    If a cop catches us on radar at 100MPH while decelerating, our ongoing delta-v does not invalidate the claim that his camera caught a particular state along our speed curve.
    To distinguish relative merits of theories in science is focus of Philosophy of Science. I urge those interested to consider this rich, fascinating area of study. To start, I recommend Prof. Jeffrey Kasser’s wonderful course from The Teaching Company.

  7. And the infestation of the ignorant appears in the first five posts.

  8. @The Tsourdalakis: Very nice oversimplification.

  9. …and they don’t understand evolution because it doesn’t make any sense.
    It’s time to retire:
    a. “Natural” in natural selection – everything is natural
    b. “Unguided” as in unguided natural selection – all known selection is guided and “unguided” is just unknowable
    c. “Fit” as in survival of the fittest – we cannot measure “fit” except as “survival”
    d. “Arising” as in Arising of Everything and Life vs. Entropy
    e. Recognize that Selection and Survival are one and the same – the selected survive and the surviving have been selected
    f. “Randomness” as in random mutations
    g. “Natura non facit saltum” (gradualism) is contrary to Quantum Mechanics as well as contrary to sexual reproduction
    h. “Benefit” and “optimization” – these are anthropic concepts that make no sense in a mechanistic universe

  10. I hear so much about the ‘mountain of evidence’ for evolution. But in my experience, each and every time I’ve looked at *any* of the “rocks” of evidence supposedly making up the mountain, I see that it’s less than a pebble or has already crumbled to dust.
    Now, neither I nor you have the time to re-explore here all facets and pieces of the mountain.
    But to test my point, I’ll ask anyone out there reading this, including PZ, to provide your ONE, favorite, weightiest “rock” of evolutionary evidence. Just ONE, as in one article on one aspect of evolutionary evidence.
    Make it your best.
    And HIT ME!

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