Feature Article - February 2013
by Do-While Jones

The Evolution of Evolution

The Altenberg 16 proposed the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) to solve evolution’s problems.

Five years ago, in February of 2008, Massimo Pigliucci started inviting famous evolutionists to a July conference at the Konrad Lorenz Institute, Altenberg, Austria. The purpose was to co-write a book to be published by MIT in 2009, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. This meeting, called “the Woodstock of evolution” by some, attempted to come up with an “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” (EES) to solve some of the theory of evolution’s problems. The sixteen attendees where nicknamed “the Altenberg 16.”

Enough time has passed that we can look back to see what effect, if any, this meeting (and the resulting book) had on the theory of evolution. But first, let’s look at how the theory of evolution has changed in the last 150 years so we can see why this meeting was needed.

The Modern Synthesis

When an evolutionist says he believes in “Darwinian Evolution” he really means he believes in “neo-Darwinian Evolution,” also known as the “Modern Synthesis.” In most cases it is a nit not worth picking; but for this discussion it is important to make the distinction. There are no famous evolutionists who believe in Darwinian evolution because the theory of evolution has evolved from what Darwin believed.

Darwin believed that diet, exercise, and climate modified individuals in a way that produced an inheritable change because scientists of his day didn’t know much about genetics. Modern scientists now recognize there is a difference between acquired characteristics and inherited characteristics. A bodybuilder can acquire a fit physique by working out; but the son of a body builder will be no more sculpted than the son of a couch potato. Whatever potential strength the baby is born with has nothing to do with how much either parent works out. Although Darwin was correct in his observation that individuals do adapt, to some extent, to changes in diet, exercise or climate, he was wrong to believe that the diet, exercise, or climate somehow changed the DNA that is passed on to their offspring.

In 1942, Julian Huxley wrote, Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, which may (or may not) be given credit for the origin of the current consensus of how evolution works. We don’t want to open the door to a red herring argument about who really came up with the idea first. Regardless of who gets the credit, we simply want to establish the fact that around 1940 scientists generally realized that genetic change is not caused by diet, exercise, or climate. They seized upon the notion that random mutations produce genetic variability. Then, as Darwin believed, natural selection filtered the changes, keeping the good changes, eliminating the bad ones. The modern synthesis has been the prevailing view of the evolutionary community for more than 50 years (give or take a few).

Despite that, there are some evolutionists who find the modern synthesis unsatisfying. There are some evolutionary scientists who doubt that mutation and random selection really have the power necessary to produce the dramatic variation evident in the biological world today. They question whether or not survival of the fittest is significantly more important than survival of the luckiest. It isn’t necessarily the slowest gazelle in the herd that wanders too close to the lion hiding in the grass. Furthermore, they question whether or not genetic factors alone can produce the innovation necessary for macroevolution.

Discontent with Modern Synthesis

A child gets half of his DNA from his father, and half from his mother. This means that, on average, half of a parent’s children will inherit a particular gene. So, if a man has a beneficial mutation, it will be inherited by roughly half of his children, one quarter of his grandchildren, and one eighth of his great-grandchildren. The new mutation will not establish itself in the population unless it provides a significant survival advantage (resulting in a high degree of incest). While it is certainly possible that this may happen in a very few cases, it just doesn’t seem possible that it happens often enough to produce the truly amazing diversity of all living things on Earth today (not to mention all those that have already gone extinct). There are other problems, too.

The Missing Heritability Problem

Everybody has a brain (although, in some cases it is questionable ); but some people are clearly smarter than others. Evolutionists acknowledge this “cannot be explained by association with common genetic variants.”

Epigenetic mechanisms are also invoked to address the ‘missing heritability’ problem in genome-wide association studies (GWAS), which show that most traits with high heritabilities (such as height, intelligence quotient, personality traits and many common diseases) cannot be explained by association with common genetic variants. This could be seen as evidence in favour of the inclusive inheritance position; however, there are several possible explanations for the poor link between DNA sequence variants and heritability; including imprecise heritability estimates, statistical power in GWAS and the ambiguity in modern behaviour genetics about the sources of non-genetic influence, particularly the concept of the ‘non-shared environment’. 1

That’s why they think that there must be something in addition to genes that have caused advanced traits to evolve.

Bolhuis et al. note that neuroscientists have ‘been aware since the 1980s that the human brain has too much architectural complexity for it to be plausible that genes specify its wiring in detail; therefore developmental processes carry much of the burden of establishing neural connections’ (p. 2). This statement must be true in its detail, and it is very much in keeping with the general thrust of the soft inheritance theorists who think that genes cannot account for everything. Exact connections are established after exposure to critical inputs from the environment, and as a consequence of other organizing events downstream. These processes would seem to be a consequence of core properties of neurons—which might imply an evolutionary history. 2

For example, some birds migrate by instinct. How does instinct happen? How does the housefly instinctively know to be afraid of the fly swatter and fly away as soon as I pick it up? That knowledge could not have been learned by experience because after being swatted once, the fly dies. Even if a swatted fly somehow survived and learned from experience that fly swatters are dangerous things to be avoided, how would that experience be genetically passed on to its offspring? How would a fly teach his children to flee from a fly swatter?

As a result, comments appear in the scientific literature from time to time questioning the sufficiency of genetic variation and the power of natural selection. It was this undercurrent of dissatisfaction that led to the July 2008 meeting at Altenberg which produced not one, but two books.

One book was the intended book, Evolution - the Extended Synthesis edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. Müller. The paperback version was published on March 26, 2010. As of January 23, 2013, only 4 people had cared enough about it to review it on Amazon.com. Four reviews in nearly three years? That might lead you to believe that response to the book has been underwhelming—and you would be right. I could find only one mention of the book in the professional literature—and it was not favorable. (More about that later.) The “Woodstock of evolution” wasn’t anything like the pivotal moment that occurred at Yasgur’s farm.

The other book was, The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry by Suzan Mazur, published on February 9, 2010. Ten people cared enough about it to review it on Amazon.com, four of whom gave it the lowest possible rating and five gave it the highest rating.

Neither book lived up to its hype.

Mazur’s Book

Let’s start with Mazur’s book because it was marketed to the general public. The Amazon reviewers either loved it or hated it. I believe that’s more indicative of the bias of the reviewers than the quality of the book. It is a mediocre book deserving a neutral rating. I don’t regret spending $16.50 for it; but it certainly wasn’t the best money I ever spent.

It is 343 pages long, which is about 243 pages longer than it needs to be. It is awfully (and I use that word intentionally) repetitive. It’s good that she fully documented every word of every conversation she had with anyone even remotely associated with the conference. Nothing is taken out of context, so there clearly is no attempt to distort the evolutionists’ words. Since she didn’t edit the interviews at all, there’s an awful lot of boring stuff left in. I don’t care about what they were wearing when they met, what they were eating when they had their conversation, or what the weather or traffic was like. All that stuff could have been left out.

Furthermore, since the interviews weren’t edited, they weren’t organized. That is, there is no grouping by subject. A question posed to one person is sometimes posed to someone else in another interview. It would be nice to be able to compare the two answers to the same question, but this is sometimes difficult to do because the answers are separated by several pages. It also makes the book seem repetitive because one can’t help thinking, “Didn’t she ask that question before?” Reading the book is like going to a cocktail party, hearing different people tell the same boring stories over and over.

It is clear from her questions that she really understands the issues. She posed her questions intelligently and respectfully. That, no doubt, is why she got intelligent, respectful answers. As a result, it is probably the most honest peek you will get at what professional evolutionists think. They all know there are serious problems with the modern synthesis; but they believe it anyway, usually because they hate creationists. Creationists are threats to their reputations and funding.

The subtitle of the book is, “An Exposé of the Evolution Industry.” It is about as shocking as an exposé that reveals some great athletes have taken performing enhancing drugs. Yes, the theory of evolution is the foundation of a lucrative academic industry that must be protected. Does the general public really not know that?

Maybe the public doesn’t know that. As a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), I get lots of emails (and snail mail) telling me how much AAAS is doing to help me get funding (and how terrible it will be if Republicans get elected).

Maybe it really is a shock to many people that we aren’t living in the 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries. Science is no longer the hobby of rich white men who fund their own research, sincerely searching for truth to satisfy their curiosity.

Twenty-first century academia has become an industry dependant upon government funding (and private funding funneled through tax-exempt organizations). Scientific research is the way universities provide government-funded jobs to many people (especially women and minorities) to advance a political agenda. Scientists have to provide stories that the customers want, or go out of business. They don’t, however, have to provide a working product, so it doesn’t matter if the story is true or not. Does it really take a 343-page book to state the obvious?

For example, astrobiology is the study of life in outer space. It is hard to study something that has never been observed, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Suzan Mazur: How fast is astrobiology growing?

Robert Hazen: Astrobiology is growing tremendously because there is a stable source of funding. 3

Suzan Mazur: Bob Hazen also said that a lot of money is being put into astrobiology not only from NASA but from other government agencies. I was wondering if you had any concerns about academics being co-opted into the program because that’s where the money is? I mean, even the American Philosophical Society is partnering with NASA to provide grants.

Roger Buick: I don’t think academics ever get co-opted into anything. But they do tend to follow the money. There’s no coercion in it. Academics are greedy for cash like anybody else.

Susan Mazur: … Do you think that the private sector—scholars for example—should be able to share in a piece of the NASA pie? …

Roger Buick: I’m not in favor of any government subsidy to private industry groups. 4

Is it shocking to discover that academics think themselves incapable of being corrupted by money (unlike the greedy private sector)? If that is news to you, you better read the book.

The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES)

I did not spend $22.22 to buy the official report of the Altenberg conference because I am more interested in what evolutionists say about the book than what the book itself says. If evolutionists had embraced the Extended Synthesis, then I would have read it to find out what the big deal is. But evolutionists have largely ignored it, so it isn’t relevant, and not worth reading.

The problem with the modern synthesis, recognized by some professional evolutionists, is that genetic mutations just can’t supply the needed variation to affect survival to the extent necessary for a new species to drive the existing species to extinction. Furthermore, scientists now recognize the fact that pre-natal influences can affect offspring. Perhaps those pre-natal influences can be inherited. So, if the modern synthesis can be extended to include pre-natal influences (and maybe even post-natal environmental factors), then perhaps these extra features, combined with random mutations, could provide the necessary variation that would make natural selection effective enough to produce the radically new innovations required for new orders and families of creatures to evolve.

These extra (non-genetic) influences are called “soft inheritance,” to distinguish them from hard inheritance (the “gene-level hypothesis”) which depends entirely on genes.

Soft inheritance is the term for a largely discredited set of theories. It was coined by Ernst Mayr to include such ideas as Lamarckism, that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring. It contrasts with modern ideas of inheritance, which Mayr called hard inheritance. Since Mendel, modern genetics has held that the hereditary material is impervious to environmental influences (except, of course, mutagenic effects). In soft inheritance "the genetic basis of characters could be modified either by direct induction by the environment, or by use and disuse, or by an intrinsic failure of constancy, and that this modified genotype was then transmitted to the next generation." Concepts of soft inheritance are usually associated with the ideas of Lamarck and Geoffroy. The concept of hard inheritance holds sway today, as Mayr points out. 5

We quoted Wikipedia because it is a popular, though not necessarily accurate, source. It simply reflects the opinion of popular culture. As far as we can tell, soft inheritance really does lack support in the scientific community.

Reaction to EES

As we mentioned before, we could find only one paper in the professional literature discussing EES. Here is the abstract of that paper:

Abstract

In recent years, a number of researchers have advocated extending the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology. One of the core arguments made in favour of an extension comes from work on soft inheritance systems, including transgenerational epigenetic effects, cultural transmission and niche construction. In this study, we outline this claim and then take issue with it. We argue that the focus on soft inheritance has led to a conflation of proximate and ultimate causation, which has in turn obscured key questions about biological organization and calibration across the life span to maximize average lifetime inclusive fitness. We illustrate this by presenting hypotheses that we believe incorporate the core phenomena of soft inheritance and will aid in understanding them. 6

From the abstract we get an admission that “a number of researchers” aren’t satisfied with the modern synthesis. It isn’t just crackpot creationists who recognize the inadequacies of modern evolutionary thinking. The criticisms are valid enough that Dickins and Rahman felt they had to address them.

Those seeking an EES, through inclusive inheritance, wish to explain changes in phenotypic frequency within populations as a consequence of epigenetic (and other soft) processes. We do not deny those processes, but we do claim that any account of evolutionary change that relies on them is not the same order of account as that of the MS. If the change through soft inheritance can be seen to conform to the general theory of evolution, then this leaves open the possibility of a second special theory of evolution, one relying on epigenetic processes. 7

The scientists opposing the EES clearly aren’t open to any significant changes to the modern synthesis. They will accept only those changes that “conform to the general theory of evolution.” Radical changes are just too scary.

If such claims [proposed by proponents of the EES] are correct, they potentially cast doubt on the theoretical foundations of several areas of biology. 8

The theory of evolution is just too foundational to be questioned. They have to stick with the status quo.

The MS is now a commonly agreed framework adhered to by many biologists. But one might expect a gradual accumulation of glitches, of findings that do not quite fit with the common framework, and as this accumulation increases more suitable theories will begin to be sought, theories that might encompass the glitches as well as reorganize our previously accepted facts. 9

The modern synthesis is the current consensus, and “consensus” equals “truth” in their world. Therefore, it can’t be questioned seriously. Biologists are well aware that there are “glitches” in the theory; but they will continue to be ignored unless one can reconcile them with “our previously accepted facts.”

You don’t have to listen to an evolutionist very long before he tells you that science is progressive, and self-correcting. We will always be learning new things. That’s true—to a point. In real science, new truth is added to known truth. My old college electronics textbooks contained a lot of information about vacuum tubes, a few paragraphs about transistors, and nothing about integrated circuits (which hadn’t been invented yet). Despite that, there is nothing wrong in my old electronics textbooks. New electronics textbooks just contain more (not contradictory) information. Ohm’s law is still true. Ohm’s law was based on experimental science, not consensus.

Evolution isn’t really science—it is just philosophy masquerading as science. So the evolutionary “truth” changes every time consensus changes. It takes many “glitches” to cause a change in consensus.

The article concludes,

6. Summary

In this study, we have taken issue with a core component of recent claims for an EES—that of soft inheritance—and in particular epigenetic inheritance. Specifically, we have sought to demonstrate that there is a conflation in the EES literature between ultimate and proximate causation, and, as a consequence, a failure to address the issues of levels of organization within biology in ultimate terms. Some researchers have discussed the functional utility of soft inheritance, seeing epigenetic, behavioural and symbolic learning systems as means of tailoring organismic response to the environment across the lifespan, but at no point has an account been provided of how these levels of organization might be orchestrated. Instead, each inheritance system has been afforded equal causality in a general evolutionary dynamic—a dynamic that does little to account for the apparent design we see in biology.

We have attempted to demonstrate how the MS enables such questions to be framed and potentially answered. Those seeking to defend an extended synthesis would have to find some evidence that would undermine the wealth of data pointing to a high level of integration between development and behavioural outcomes. As it stands, the supporters of the extended synthesis merely point to soft inheritance and trait variation as a consequence of this, without fully accounting for why such trait variation is patterned and persists. 10

In other words, EES isn’t the answer to the “glitches” in the theory of evolution. The modern synthesis “potentially” answers these questions by framing the questions in such a way that the answers sound somewhat plausible.

Furthermore, there is “apparent design” in nature which cannot be adequately explained by EES (or MS, for that matter).

The modern synthesis does not satisfactorily address the failings of the theory of evolution. The more one examines the MS, the more obvious this becomes. Evolutionists are content to say, “We know there are many problems, and we don’t know all the answers—but we will some day.” That’s not science—that’s wishful thinking.

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Footnotes:

1 Thomas E. Dickins and Qazi Rahman, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 16 May 2012, “The extended evolutionary synthesis and the role of soft inheritance in evolution”, http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/05/10/rspb.2012.0273.full
2 ibid.
3 Mazer, The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry, 2010, page 153.
4 ibid. pages 160 – 161.
5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_inheritance
6 Thomas E. Dickins and Qazi Rahman, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 16 May 2012, “The extended evolutionary synthesis and the role of soft inheritance in evolution”, http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/05/10/rspb.2012.0273.full
7 ibid.
8 ibid.
9 ibid.
10 ibid.