Can New Scientist get any worse on evolution?

I’ve often highlighted the ludicrous missteps New Scientist makes when covering evolutionary biology (see here, here, and here, for instance).  They seem to delight in publishing stupid and thoughtless articles about how Darwin was wrong, and how we need a whole new evolutionary paradigm.  I thought they’d been set straight by petulant evolutionists interested in real science, but apparently not.  They’ve pulled out all the stops with their new piece, “The chaos theory of evolution,” by Keith Bennett, described as

professor of late-Quaternary environmental change at Queen’s University Belfast, guest professor in palaeobiology at Uppsala University in Sweden, and author of Evolution and Ecology: The Pace of Life (Cambridge University Press). He holds a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award.

I weep for the Royal Society, which seems to have fallen on hard times.  Professor Bennett  has apparently decided that the entire corpus of modern evolutionary theory is simply wrong, and, in his genius, replaces it with what he calls the “chaos theory of evolution.”  The entire edifice is rotten from ceiling to basement, argues Professor Bennett, including Darwin’s most important idea:  natural selection. What does he replace it with? A bunch of buzzwords, like “fractal” and “nonlinearity”.  It’s the most wrongheaded attack on the field by someone in it that I’ve seen in a long time. (Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s book, What Darwin Got Wrong, doesn’t count, since they’re not really evolutionists.)

What’s wrong with the theory of evolution?  Rather, you should ask what’s right.  Here’s Bennett’s “J’accuse” (I’ve put his quotes in italics):

  • Punctuated equilibrium shows that macroevolution operates by processes completely different from those causing microevolution.  Well, the debate is still on about whether there are forms of higher-level sorting occcurring in macroevolution (in my book Speciation, with Allen Orr, I accept a limited role of species selection), but nobody—even the most hidebound opponents of neo-Darwinism—claim that the features of organisms themselves were built by processes other than those causing microevolution: natural selection and genetic drift.  Punctuated equilibrium is a theory that attempts to explain not the presence of traits in plants and animals, but their relative predominance among all species through evolutionary history.
  • Bennett claims that there aren’t many good examples of natural selection in the wild (this is part of his idea that it’s not important). He says this about John Endler’s book Natural Selection in the Wild:

“Later, John Endler, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Exeter, UK, scrutinised claimed examples of natural selection but found a surprising lack of hard evidence (chronicled in his 1986 book Natural Selection in the Wild).”

Well, that’s just hogwash.  I have Dr. Endler here behind this sign, and I’ll bring him out;  he’ll tell you that you know nothing of his work.  Endler’s book was in fact a documentation of several hundreds observed examples of natural selection, and since then there have been many more.  Here’s the publisher’s precis:

“Professor Endler finds that there are a remarkable number of direct demonstrations of selection in a wide variety of animals and plants. The distribution of observed magnitudes of selection in natural populations is surprisingly broad, and it overlaps extensively the range of values found in artificial selection. He argues that the common assumption that selection is usually weak in natural populations is no longer tenable, but that natural selection is only one component of the process of evolution; natural selection can explain the change of frequencies of variants, but not their origins.”

  • Bennett argues that “If macroevolution really is an extrapolation of natural selection and adaptation, we would expect to see environmental change driving evolutionary change.” He says that there’s precious little evidence for this, but what he cites is not convincing.  He makes a huge deal about how North American trees moved north after the last glaciation.  According to Bennett, they should all have moved in concert at the same rate, with the oaks marching lock step with the beeches:

“The distribution shifts were individualistic, with huge variations between species in the rate, time and direction of spread. For example, larch spread from south-west to north-east, white pine from south-east to north-west. Rates vary from 100 metres a year to over 1000 metres (Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, vol 70, p 550). In other words, trees show no predictable response to climate change, and respond individually rather than as communities of species.”

WHAT?  Who ever said that different trees, with their different ways of disseminating propagules and their different sensitivities to environmental variation, would all move at the same rate? And their movement was predictable: they recolonized favorable areas. Only a moron would think that that colonization must happen at exactly the same rate for different species.

Bennett further claims that because modern tree communities differ from ancient ones, this somehow vitiates the predictability of evolutionary theory:

“The fossil record also tells us that the make-up of modern forest communities differs from those of 20,000 years ago. Today we recognise various types of forest, such as boreal, deciduous and aspen parkland, each with a distinctive mix of tree species. Yet the fossil record tells us that these are just temporary groupings. Multi-species communities do not have long histories and do not shift their distributions in a coordinated way in response to climate changes, as Darwin supposed. We therefore cannot assume that the members of modern forest communities evolved together or are somehow dependent on each other.”

But of course evolution—and ecology—depend on contingency, and the response to disturbances depends on evolutionary history, fortuitous ecological circumstances, random mutations, who gets to a place first, and so on.  When the meteorite decimated many dinosaurs, was it a violation of evolutionary theory that their ecological niches were largely filled by mammals?  Over the history of life, many extinctions were followed by drastic differences in the subsequent composition of communities. It’s ludicrous to think that this somehow violates Darwinian evolution, or to claim that this shows that members of a community are not affected by each other either ecologically or evolutionarily.

  • Bennett claims that there’s precious little evidence that speciation or extinction responds to environmental changes; things shuffle on and off the mortal coil at a rather constant rate regardless of what’s happening to the environment:

“The overall picture is that the main response to major environmental changes is individualistic movement and changes in abundance, rather than extinction or speciation. In other words, the connection between environmental change and evolutionary change is weak, which is not what might have been expected from Darwin’s hypothesis.”

This of course neglects all the work showing that extinctions are correlated with major environmental changes (what about that meteorite, which was found simply by assuming that the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction must have had some environmental cause?) It neglects all the work showing that speciation is prompted by environmental changes, evidence amply documented in our book Speciation.  The rise of the Isthmus of Panama, for example, gave rise to many pairs of animal species which, beginning as populations sundered by the Isthmus, went merrily on separate genetic paths and became different species.  And what about all those species that invaded islands (an environmental change) and, finding new niches, speciated like crazy? The Hawaiian Drosophila and honeycreepers, the Galapagos finches, the radiation of marsupials in Australia—these are only a few examples. And I’m sure my paleontological readers could cite many more examples of connections between environment and speciation or extinction.

  • So how does Bennett see evolution as working? He doesn’t say, exactly; he just throws out a lot of buzzwords:

“I suggest that the true source of macroevolutionary change lies in the non-linear, or chaotic, dynamics of the relationship between genotype and phenotype – the actual organism and all its traits. The relationship is non-linear because phenotype, or set of observable characteristics, is determined by a complex interplay between an organism’s genes – tens of thousands of them, all influencing one another’s behaviour – and its environment.”

That’s not an answer, and it’s not a source of “macroevolutionary change.” All it is is pointing out that organisms result from complicated networks of development. (I hate the word “nonlinear”, because it’s used so loosely, as in this context, that the reader doesn’t know what it means.  It sure sounds fancy, though!)  But even if a linear input into a developmental pathway doesn’t have a linear output, how on earth does that vitiate evolutionary theory? So long as there is some connection between a gene substitution and an organism’s traits and reproductive output, no matter how “nonlinear it is,” then natural selection can produce adaptive change.  I hate to say this, but one gets the impression that beneath this fancy postmodern verbiage, Bennett doesn’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about.

  • Oh, and there are those “initial conditions”:

“Second, behaviour of the system is sensitive to initial conditions. We see this in responses to glaciations in the Quaternary period. The exact circumstances of the beginning of each interglacial determine the development of the whole period, leading to unpredictable differences between interglacials (Quaternary Science Reviews, vol 14, p 967).”

But who has ever denied that evolution is sensitive to what’s there in the first place?  Marsupials got to Australia and took over; lemurs did the same in Madagascar.  Contingency is important in evolution. Ditto for mutation: the entire course of evolution depends on what random mutations happen to pop up.  But how, exactly, does that overturn neo-Darwinism? Contingency is part of neo-Darwinism!

  • Here comes another buzzword!:

“Third, the history of life is fractal. Take away the labelling from any portion of the tree of life and we cannot tell at which scale we are looking (see diagram). This self-similarity also indicates that evolutionary change is a process of continual splitting of the branches of the tree.”

Yeah, so what?  Splitting and common ancestry were important aspects of Darwin’s own theory produced in 1859.  We just didn’t have the fancy word “fractal” back then.

  • Echoing Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, Bennett minimizes the importance of natural selection in favor of “self-generating evolution”:

“Iterating these unpredictable changes over hundreds or thousands of generations will inevitably lead to evolutionary changes in addition to any that come about by the preferential survival of certain phenotypes. It follows that macroevolution may, over the longer-term, be driven largely by internally generated genetic change, not adaptation to a changing environment.”

But how does “internally generated genetic change” produce adaptation? It may, through various genetic constraints, limit the type of variation available for the disposition of either selection or drift.  But, pray tell, how do we explain the fishes’ fins, the polar bear’s coat, the flowers of angiosperms, the fangs of the tiger, the camouflage of the octopus, and all the myriad ways organisms make their living in adaptive ways, without invoking natural selection?  Can “internally generated change” explain that appearance of design that was once taken as evidence for God, but is now seen as the product of natural selection. If Bennett has a third explanation for adaptive design, by all means let him give it.

This was the big problem with Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong.  They argued that natural selection was not only unimportant, but incoherent; yet they had no substitute explanation for the appearance of design in animals and plants.  “Internally generated genetic change” won’t do it.  It may explain why there’s one adaptation rather than another, but not why there’s adaptation in the first place.

  • Finally, Bennett decries modern evolutionary theory because it can’t predict future evolution:

“There can be no “laws” of evolution. We may be able to reconstruct the sequence of events leading to the evolution of any given species or group after the fact, but we will not be able to generalise from these to other sequences of events. From a practical point of view, this means we will be unable to predict how species will respond to projected climate changes over next century. . . In the last analysis, evolution can be likened to the description of human history as “just one damn thing after another”, exactly as Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini have argued.”

In my critique of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book in The Nation, I showed how evolutionary explanations—even those dealing with the past—are indeed testable.  Evolutionists are not just passive victims of history, doomed to make up post facto stories that can’t be tested. Clearly Bennett hasn’t though deeply about this issue, since even the most elementary evolution texts are filled with descriptions of experiments testing things like how mimicry works, the mechanisms of sexual selection, the effect of seed size on the evolution of bird beaks, and so on.  And whoever said that the response of organisms to environmental changes must be absolutely predictable if evolutionary theory is to be seen as true? We have no idea what mutations will arise to help animals and plants adapt to new environments, nor about how evolution in one species may affect the environmental niches of another.  So what? Nobody ever claimed—except for ignorant people like Bennett—that for evolutionary theory to be valid, we evolutionists must predict exactly how evolution is going to proceed. Nevertheless, we’re pretty good at one thing:  predicting that microbes will adapt to new antibiotics!  We just don’t know what mutations will be involved.

Articles like Bennett’s are infinitely depressing, not just because someone who seems to be credentialed in the field can misunderstand it so badly, but also because their drivel gets published in a place like New Scientist.  I think most of us realized that the journal was going downhill anyway, but now it appears to be at rock bottom.

42 Comments

  1. Posted November 5, 2010 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more mate.
    I picked up the New Scientist at a servo when I was getting petrol because of the cover on the chaos theory of evolution, but found it disappointingly average.
    Another issue about it that I found appalling was the light-heartedness in regards to historic extinction and climate change events – it would be misinterpreted in the wrong corners.

  2. Posted November 5, 2010 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    “I have Dr. Endler here behind this sign, and he’ll tell you that you know nothing of his work.”

    If only life were this easy.

    • Posted November 5, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      “I have Dr. Endler here behind this sign, and he’ll tell you that you know nothing of his work.”

      I love you for this reference.

      • Les
        Posted November 7, 2010 at 2:06 am | Permalink

        Woody Allen in Annie Hall:

      • Les
        Posted November 7, 2010 at 2:08 am | Permalink

  3. Posted November 5, 2010 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I have one of NS’s assistant editors — a friend of some friends — an earful about their poor articles on evolution a couple of months ago. I guess the message didn’t take root, although he did ask me “where they had fallen short”.

    Not that I expected my poor complaints to succeed where Dawkins and others have already tried.

  4. JBlilie
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Is New Scientist really Postmodernist Scientist? [We can't really know what we're talking about.]

    Or maybe is it owned by Rupert Murdoch?

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 5, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      I think you’re onto something!

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    If David Koch is about to endow a chair of evolutionary biology somewhere, sounds like Bennett’s jockeying for it.

  6. Posted November 5, 2010 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Sad and pathetic that Bennett ignores all the compilations of estimating natural selection in the wild, beginning with Endler, and running through Kingsolver’s seminar-turned-publication in 2001, to Arnold and Estes’ compilation of stabilizing selection in 2007, to the massive compilation by Siepielski et al., in Ecology Letters (2009), which deals explicitly with temporal selection and climate shifts. Does Bennett have access to google scholar? Oh wait…why bother to look at data when you’ve got it all figured out in your head.

    New Scientist, I believe, also had an article on the aquatic ape stuff.

    • Bill
      Posted November 5, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      “New Scientist, I believe, also had an article on the aquatic ape stuff”, Yeah well, that’s more convincing (or at least, ‘compelling’) than Bennett’s stuff

      • Posted November 6, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

        “An article”? No. Many many such articles, starting with the first one by Alister Hardy in 1960, and carrying through to many by Elaine Morgan in the 1980s.

        BTW, for those wanting a critique of the AAT, my website is the spot.

  7. SteveF
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Keith is a pretty big name in my field (palaeoecology and palaeoclimatology) and generally a very bright guy (and a nice one too), who has done a lot of excellent work. This piece wasn’t exactly his finest hour. He expands a bit more on these ideas in this book:

    Might be worth a read, to see if some of the ideas (e.g. role of climate) are more fleshed out. I’ve only ever glanced at it myself.

    • Dominic
      Posted November 5, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      The blurb says “The mechanisms of macroevolutionary change have long been a contentious issue. Palaeoecological evidence, presented in this book, shows that evolutionary processes visible in ecological time do not build up into macroevolutionary trends, contrary to Darwin’s original thesis. The author discusses how climatic oscillations on ice-age time-scales are paced by variations in the Earth’s orbit, and have thus been a permanent feature of Earth history. There is, however, little evidence for macroevolutionary change in response to these climatic changes, suggesting that over geological time macroevolution does not occur as a result of accumulated short term processes.”

      • Dominic
        Posted November 5, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        …& it was written in 1996, so he has had these views a long time. Methinks a major evolution conference is called for as it seems a lot of people work in their own disciplines without the ideas percolating through to other related disciplines. Or did that happen in Darwin’s bicentenary year 2009? Hard for the layman or person from another area to know about developments or arguments until these things reach the popular press or pop science books. I cannot give up on New Scientist (been getting it for over 20 years regularly) as there is no weekly science news alternative but I agree that it has in some areas gone downhill.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 5, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

          Oh, I gave up on it (though after only a few years, not 20), and my life has been much improved, much as giving up on Newsweek similarly improved things. You don’t realize how much snark & baseless (often anonymous) opinion you’re getting till you stop getting it.

          Might I suggest Science News?

  8. James
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    It seems his understanding of ecology is pretty poor, too. Or at least how he describes it in this piece.

  9. Dominic
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Roger Highfield, are you listening? Perhaps Bennett’s first name is Gordon.

    Thanks for the analysis & refutation Prof. I had visions of you choking on your cornflakes as you read it – I think I may have been right?

    • Dominic
      Posted November 5, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      It is obviously a theme of his – in 2004 he wrote this article –
      “The role of Quaternary environmental change in plant macroevolution: the exception or the rule?”
      & also –
      “Continuing the debate on the role of Quaternary environmental change for macroevolution”; both in the Phil. Trans. Royal Soc.B

      I am sure there are others in his field of a similar ilk. Adrian Lister the elephant specialist has an article in that same issue “The impact of Quaternary Ice Ages on mammalian evolution”. Unfortunately my palaeontologist friend has left the Natural History Museum so I cannot ask her about whether these views are more generally held there.

      http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/gap/Staff/AcademicStaff/ProfessorKeithBennett/?ns=xMlsz2lbxt%3D%3D&page=all

  10. Posted November 5, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    It sounds like Professor Bennett was bitten by a Postmodernist. I hope he’s being treated for that, those bites can get infected if they’re not seen to right away…:))

    • Dominic
      Posted November 5, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Lovely spiders on your pictures by the way – maybe one of them bit him!

      • Posted November 7, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        Thank you!:)) Research has not yet shown whether a bite from Jorougumo (Nephila Clavata) leads to Postmodernist raving or not:)) (I got a zillion mosquito bites taking those pictures, btw. Last Friday’s field notes I put up a photo of her with my hand as close as I could get it by way of comparison. Very hard not to bump the web…:-S)

  11. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I cancelled my subscription to New Scientist after the ‘Darwin Was Wrong’ debacle – not just because of that single article but because their coverage of science was devolving into controversial (but poorly founded) opinion pieces. In short I felt that the New Scientist was becoming merely entertainment, a comic.

    I’ve bought the odd copy since but I find I can no longer rely on the articles, and the advertising is becoming rampant infomercials.

    It’s a shame to see an old friend lose touch with what made them special.

  12. Sven DiMilo
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    the common assumption that selection is usually weak in natural populations is no longer tenable, but that natural selection is only one component of the process of evolution; natural selection can explain the change of frequencies of variants, but not their origins.

    QF(IMO)T

  13. dale
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    “I suggest that the true source of macroevolutionary change lies in the non-linear, or chaotic, dynamics of the relationship between genotype and phenotype”

    Just from this statement alone, you can see he has no idea what the terms mean.

    He is creating a false equivalence between non-linearity and chaos theory. Virtually the whole world is non-linear but much of it (if not most) is not chaotic. There is a reason the number ‘e’ is called the “natural number”, yet e^x is non-linear and certainly not chaotic. Nor of course is the golden ratio (another non-linear system).

  14. MadScientist
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I was lost at the mention of “chaos” and “fractal”. It’s probably been about 20 years now that I’ve been dealing with people who make fantastic claims about how chaos this and fractal that. My response has always been “what claim are you making and where is your evidence?” So far no one has been up to the task of explaining the value of chaos theory and fractals to their particular subject and I suspect this is largely because (a) they do not understand the mathematics and (b) fractals and chaos theory probably have no relevance whatsoever to the subject. I wonder if it is a form of pareidolia: ooh! look, the tree/mountain/coastline resembles a fractal – they must be related! I’ll admit that fractal algorithms have been used to generate convincing images of mountains, trees, and coastlines but the mathematics has as much relation to the processes that create these things as the human mind (which can guide a hand to paint equally realistic trees/mountains/coasts) does. In short, the ability to mimick what we see in nature does not necessarily have any bearing on understanding what we observe in nature.

    • Posted November 5, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      Well, I think fractals and chaos theory are both relevant without necessarily increasing our understanding of what we see in nature.
      We have ways of producing fractal shapes and patterns that involve taking a limited number of simple rules and applying them repeatedly. Simple rules repeated result in complex patterns; the implication here is that when we see fractal patterns in nature, they may be the result of a simple set of understandable processes constantly interacting. That’s the “connection” between trees, coastlines, and so forth. That might not give information about those processes, or indicate that any of the same processes are at work, but implies that they may be understandable in each case and that “mind” is not required to explain apparent complexity.
      Which seems to be the point that Bennett has missed. Why wouldn’t natural selection and genetic drift produce fractal patterns? It’s exactly the sort of damped/driven system that would result in fractals, sensitivity to initial conditions, etc. If he had any understanding of chaos theory, he would know that there can be “laws” and that they can be understood and have explanatory value without rendering the system predictable regarding its future behavior. I think soccer fans would call this an “own goal.”

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 5, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        Two comments expanding in different directions of the use/misuse of these terms, and I found both of them clarifying and helpful. Thank you, MadScientist and feralboy12.

      • MadScientist
        Posted November 5, 2010 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

        I think iterative processes in which the outcome of one iteration depends on the outcome of the previous iteration will result in patterns which we may associate with fractals; after all fractals themselves are created with iterations of processes. One example I can think of in nature are alluvial fans. The fans are interesting enough on the surface, but if you excavate them (very carefully) you see a very intricate 3D structure which may have formed over thousands or even millions of years. However, in the case where we mimick trees/coastlines/alluvial fans and so on using fractals we are producing an analog – something similar but unrelated. Now if we take a model (as opposed to an analog) such as a deposition model and attempt to create an alluvial fan, we may find that the result doesn’t really look much at all like the actual fan we are looking at (presumably because we’re ignorant of the fine details of the long process and can never get those details right). So even to a scientist who has never put any thought into it, a fabricated fractal fan may look just as valid as a fan created by an alluvial deposition model.

        Fractals have statistical properties and may offer a quick and dirty method of estimating some statistical properties in nature (such as length of a coastline) if it could be established that a class of coastline happens to have statistical characteristics in common with a particular fractal. However, the job remains to establish that relation and for such a model to be of any value at all it must also apply to other coastlines (not a unique case) and must apply to that coastline for many years into the future. Otherwise it’s the same as saying “hey, I can paint the coastline therefore I must understand it”.

        So I agree with you that fractal patterns may arise in nature and that Bennett misses the very obvious fact that mathematics does not drive nature; mathematics can only describe nature. Bennett’s notion of fractals and chaos seems to be nothing more than a modern god hypothesis – it has no substance whatsoever.

  15. Nick Matzke
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    It’s sad, because New Scientist did some really good stuff on evo a few years ago, e.g. on peppered moths, origin of life, evolution of the flagellum, etc. Stuff you couldn’t find anywhere else…

  16. Shane
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I weep for my Alma mater sometimes. My old Prof of medical genetics is a creationist, but otherwise a very nice man.

    Jerry, I think your takedown is entirely appropriate; what is missing from Bennett’s understanding is a concept of how *populations* behave. Evolution is a branching tree; that it shows a branching structure at different levels is neither a novel nor even very interesting observation nowadays. There is no story here; the modern synthesis remains intact. Sheesh – if this continues, some people may conclude that Belfast isn’t a really lovely place to visit. It is!

    • Bryan
      Posted November 6, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      I definitely noticed that comment about “branching”. Maybe it was taken out of context, but I thought “Yes, the tree of life has branches. Next you’ll be telling me that bodies are composed of cells.”

  17. AnonForWorkReasons
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Hiding my name (though Jerry can see it since I left my email address the same) so I don’t get my work in trouble, but there’s been chatter here about dropping New Scientist (and others) from the JCR and not counting their “contributions” to the scientific literature. Complaints about their poor science don’t seem to have gotten through, but maybe realizing that this could seriously hurt their business model will.

  18. stvs
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    the true source of macroevolutionary change lies in the non-linear, or chaotic, dynamics of the relationship between genotype and phenotype

    So much ignorant bullshit. As everyone knows, nonlinear dynamical systems with negative Lyapunov exponents are not chaotic. While spewing nonsense, Bennett is sitting on a planet whose path through space is governed by Newtonian nonlinear dynamics—if the earth’s orbit were chaotic, there’s a good chance that evolution couldn’t take place here for us to discuss it. And besides, KAM theory tells us that nonlinear things like the solar system are quasi-periodic, not chaotic.

    Are there any phenomenon associated with evolution that have been proven to exhibit chaotic behavior, or any dynamical models of such with realistic chaotic solutions? I believe that many models are dissipative, which would yield negative Lyapunov exponents and hence non-chaotic behavior.

  19. Ant
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    “One of the most successful applications of chaos theory has been in ecology, where dynamical systems such as the Ricker model have been used to show how population growth under density dependence can lead to chaotic dynamics.” — Chaos theory, Wikipedia

    Is this a phenomenon related to evolution?

    While I have no argument with Jerry’s demolition of Bennet’s arguments, I find it intriguing to consider the applicability of chaos theory to evolution, both in the deterministic but unpredictable expression of the genotype in the phenotype, and in the variety of species. For example, can we describe convergent evolution in terms of strange attractors?

    Admittedly, my understanding of chaos theory is hazy — it’s a long time since I read Gleick & the field’s surely advanced since then — and I’m not sure what the utility of this would be, but it might be a rewarding exercise…

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 5, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      While I eagerly await an informed response to your premises, my readily-admitted naive reaction would be that the effects you mention appear to be just other mechanisms by which variability can arise; that then the over-riding principle of selection acting on (or drift occurring in) such variation to produce evolution would proceed entirely in accordance with the new synthesis…

    • MadScientist
      Posted November 5, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

      Coming back to reality, a useful model must not only be able to explain an existing observation but it must be able to make predictions. Not only that, but it must do a better job than any other scheme out there before anyone takes it seriously. I think astronomy is a good example of how numerous models have competed and how proposed models are still being shot down even when they claim to excel at one point (they usually fail miserably at a multitude of other points).

      So while it may indeed be intriguing to ponder whether chaos theory or fractals will ever find a niche in the theory of evolution the fact remains, despite Bennett’s claims, that there is no known relationship. I would also bet that if any such relationships were found, they would certainly not upset evolution as we currently understand it.

  20. Pierce R. Butler
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Purely for the sake of discussion, consider the state of physics circa 1886: confident in its models of the material world though unable to resolve minor anomalies, such as Michelson ‘n’ Morley’s experiments on the speed of light that year.

    Circa 1905, just about everything went back to the drawing boards. Even so, the previous paradigm continued to return good results (NASA still uses Newton’s 400-y-o equations, no?).

    Among the mysteries in the depths of the genome, the sheer complexity of the thing might well hide emergent effects the unweaving of which may eclipse Darwin in the same way Einstein superseded NASA’s buddy Isaac Whatsisname.

    Lacking the training to assess Fodor & Piattelli-Palmarini & Bennett’s claims for myself, I have no reason to doubt our esteemed host’s critiques thereof. It does seem safe to say that in terms of evidence they haven’t reached their 1886.

    Nonetheless, the probability that genetics-driven theoretical revolutions in biology await is considerably above zero, and (w.a.g. warning) probably better than that of civilization enduring to achieve them.

  21. Posted November 6, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    I remember being enthralled by chaos a couple of decades ago. Fortunately, I outgrew it.

  22. Marc Raynor
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been reading NS and Scientific American for over 20 years now and I think both magazines have really gone downhill recently. I wrote them a letter about this article (not that I have any qualifications but I could see that it was rubbish). This just gives fuel to creationists and isn’t science at all. Can anyone recommend a good science magazine for non-scientists? I am fairly scientifically literate but I’m just interested in science I don’t work as a scientist.

  23. Marc Raynor
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    By the way this is the email that I sent to NS:

    I read the article “The chaos theory of evolution” and found it less than convincing. The article started with a description of an exchange between Lyell and Darwin and the author concludes that because Darwin didn’t answer the question that the question was unanswerable.
    It seems that there is at least 1 possible explanation that is entirely consistent with the theory of evolution. The obvious explanation is that the fact that the molluscs in question disappeared from the fossil record for 2 million years does not mean that they went extinct; it just means that the population was significantly reduced. After 2 million years it seems that the population made a recovery. This is entirely consistent with Darwin’s theory. Environmental changes could easily drive this.
    Coelacanths were long thought to be extinct until they were found alive. It’s not implausible to assume that some conditions might exist that would favour them at some time in the future and the population would recover to a point that a significant number of them would leave fossilised remains. The absence of evidence (fossils) is not the same as evidence of absence.
    To say that chaos plays a role in evolution is obviously true and is in no way a revolutionary idea, but let’s not confuse a chaotic system with a random one. Chaos might make the system unpredictable in many ways but like many chaotic systems strange attractors exist in evolution and environmental conditions will often drive evolution in a predictable direction. The weather is a chaotic system but in general we can still say that summer will be hotter than winter and is the weather is predictable in many other ways even if we can’t reliably say that it will rain next Friday. I believe that the author of this article was at best saying very little and at worst was completely misguided.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] We also don’t have major science magazines trying to set new paradigms for mathematics they way that they try to do for evolution. [...]

  2. [...] Can New Scientist get any worse on evolution? [...]

  3. [...] week I highlighted a pretty dreadful piece in New Scientist, “The chaos theory of evolution,” written by paleontologist Keith Bennett, which [...]

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