Over my whole career, but especially in the last half-dozen years or so, I’ve heard that neo-Darwinism (the modern theory of evolution) is either wrong, in a crisis, or about to undergo a profound Kuhnian paradigm shift. And it’s never happened. Neo-Darwinism gets expanded (things like the “neutral theory,” for example, were adopted and largely verified during my own career), but the basic paradigm of mutation, selection, drift, and speciation hasn’t much changed. New findings, like punctuated patterns that appear in the fossil record—patterns once foolishly touted by Gould & Co. as evidence that neo-Darwinism was “effectively dead”—eventually get folded into our current view of evolution, which expands and gets richer. Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini wrote a book claiming that natural selection was theoretically incoherent and not responsible for adaptation, but they were dead wrong. The basic framework of how lineages evolve and split hasn’t changed since the 1950s, and I doubt that it will. (As always, however, I could be wrong.)
A half-hour show on BBC Radio 4 tonight, “An idea whose time has come,” promises to uncover this “revolution” for the layperson. It won’t, because there is no “revolution.” Many of the show’s participants are the same old crew of “Darwin-was-wrongers,” as you can see from the cast list below (Dan Dennett and Lewis Wolpert are some welcome exceptions). Expect to hear a lot of nonsense, and, from Conway-Morris, perhaps his idea that evolutionary convergence proves Jesus.
The BBC’s blurb:
But the field in which it is increasingly clear that simultaneous invention is much more common than previously thought, is life itself. Convergent evolution is famously exemplified in the similarity of eye structure in unrelated species. But other instances are myriad and it also happens on all scales, from large population dynamics, down to fundamental molecular patterns.
Our question is: Are the same processes of change at work in science as in evolutionary biology itself?
Through discussions with a wide variety of practitioners and commentators in diverse fields, including Lynn Margulis, Paulien Hogeweg, Barry Cunliffe, Dan Dennett, Lewis Wolpert, Eva Jablonka Denis Noble, Rupert Sheldrake, Lucy Duran and Simon Conway-Morris, it appears that something like a revolution in evolutionary theory is underway and it’s happening very fast.
Symbiogenesis, bioinformatics, epigenetics and the reinvestigation of Lamarckism are all extending what we understand to be the processes by which evolution promotes change, throwing light on the astonishing sophistication of cooperative and collaborative patterns in nature, in contrast to the harsh competition in neo-Darwinian theory. This emerging variety of evolutionary pathways provokes strong opinions on whether patterns in the development of music, science and life itself, can appear to be inevitable.
Oh, and this,
something like a revolution in evolutionary theory is underway and it’s happening very fast.
is, as they say, what comes out of the south end of a bull facing north. Shame on the BBC for this kind of scientific sensationalism, which reminds me of the New Scientist‘s “Darwin Was Wrong” cover.
I am not going to listen, but those readers who do, at 9 p.m. BST (4 pm EST), please report back. You can listen live by clicking on the “listen” icon at this page.