Even if you haven’t seen “Annie Hall,” you need to watch this video showing a wonderful scene from the movie. Woody Allen and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) are in line for a movie, and a pompous academic behind them pontificates about the film in an extremely annoying way, mentioning Marshall McLuhan (a Sixties cultural icon). After Woody has had enough of the pomposity, he drags McLuhan out from behind a movie sign (yes, that’s the real McLuhan), and confronts the academic with him. McLuhan proceeds to tell the chastened academic that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and that he knows nothing of McLuhan’s work. Allen turns to the camera and says, “Boy, if life were only like this!”
But it can be! Last week I received an email from young-earth creationist Paul Nelson, who works for the Discovery Institute, taking me to task for what he saw as my unfair denigration of Jim Shapiro. Nelson’s beef was my contention that Shapiro is an outlier among biologists in minimizing the importance of natural selection in evolution. Nelson maintains that there are many other reputable biologists who “have frank doubts about selection” and wouldn’t agree with me. Here’s Nelson’s email, published with permission:
…I’m sending this email. I’d post this in the comments of the new Shapiro thread, but I’m now persona non grata at WEIT. [JAC note: he's never been banned; he just feels unwelcome.]
Skepticism about the efficacy of natural selection is widespread within evolutionary biology (see below). Jim Shapiro is hardly alone in this regard. So when you tell your WEIT audience that natural selection is the only game in town for building complex adaptations, you can expect two consequences:
1. Readers who already know about the thinking of workers such as Eric Davidson, Michael Lynch, Andreas Wagner, John Gerhart & Marc Kirschner, or Scott Gilbert (all of whom, among many others, have recently expressed frank doubts about selection) must discount what you say about the centrality of natural selection to evolutionary theory — because they know that just isn’t so.
2. Readers who do not already know about Davidson, Lynch, etc. — upon coming across their ideas — must wonder why you told them that natural selection is the sine qua non of evolutionary explanation.
Either outcome is bad.
Last Sunday, I gave a talk to several thousand people at Rick Warren’s church in southern California, where I made a case (a) that natural selection is quite real, but (b) that the process faces genuine limits, set by the logic of selection itself, to explain macroevolution. I’d be curious to have your reaction to the presentation:
My title was “Darwin or Design: The Evidence of Nature and the Nature of Evidence.” The talk also touches on atheism, at the opening and ending, in close connection to the role of natural selection in scientific understanding.
My remarks about the reality of selection occur at about 11:40 and following.
All the best,
I haven’t yet watched Nelson’s talk (some reader please do it and report back). But I do have Davidson, Lynch, Wagner, Gerhart, and Kirschner right here behind this sign! I either know them or have read their work, and realized that Paul was talking out of his nether parts in his email. True, I’ve had scientific disagreements with Davidson, Gerhart, and Kirschner about theories of “evolvability” and “modularity,” but I never saw them claiming that natural selection is unimportant in forging the adaptations of organisms.
So I pulled all these guys out from behind the sign by sending them this email, which was designed not to support selection, but to solicit, without imposing bias, their opinions about the importance of selection (I enclosed Nelson’s email with mine):
I’m writing just to let you know that you were mentioned in an email sent to me by Paul Nelson, a Discovery Institute Fellow and young-earth creationist. His email was written in response to a post on my website criticizing Jim Shapiro’s contention that natural selection is relatively unimportant not just in evolution, but in accounting for adaptations. My post is here and links to Shapiro’s.
At any rate, if you wanted to comment on what Nelson says about your views of selection, I’d be glad to listen (if I can post them on my website, I’ll do so, regardless of what they are, but I would need your permission). I have read the papers of many of you, and while I know that several of you question aspects of modern evolutionary theory, I wasn’t aware that any of you denied the efficacy of selection in accounting for adaptations.
I’m not speaking here of the prevalence among episodes of evolutionary change of selection versus other mechanisms such as drift, but of the prevalence of selection in explaining obvious adaptations like mimicry, the speed of cheetahs, and so on. So, for example, from what I know of Lynch’s views, he advocates processes like drift in genomic change but doesn’t question selection as the impetus for the evolution of things that everyone regards as adaptations on the morphological level. But I may be wrong.
At any rate, if Nelson has accurately characterized your views, do let me know. And again, I won’t make anything public without your permission.
All of them graciously responded and agreed to let me publish their responses (as did Paul with his original letter). And here they are. None of them agree with Nelson’s characterization. But it’s typical of creationists to distort the views of evolutionists. Read for yourself.
Eric Davidson (developmental biologist at CalTech; member of the National Academy of Sciences):
Of course I would not disagree for one second about the importance of adaptive selection for species specific characters of all kinds, whether on protein or regulatory sequences.
I admire your willingness to take on creationists in public; I find their views so antediluvian that I can only ignore them.
Michael Lynch (evolutionary biologist at Indiana University; member of the National Academy of Sciences):
Thanks for calling my attention to this. I don’t consider myself to be in the camp of those who question the legitimacy of “modern” evolutionary theory. On the other hand, I do question the motivations of those who argue that the modern edifice has been patently unsuccessful and needs to be dismantled so that a new evolutionary synthesis can be erected to save the day. Not much drives me crazier than folks who make such statements without providing any evidence of ever having attempted to read a single paper in evolutionary theory. I find this attitude about as defensible as ID. The ID crowd tends to misinterpret my embracing of what I call “nonadaptive” mechanisms of evolution (drift, mutation, and recombination) as implying a rejection of Darwinian processes.
You are correct that it is wrong to characterize me as someone who doesn’t believe in the efficacy of natural selection. Although I have pushed for a role for genetic drift a good deal more than other folks in evolution, my general stance is that the relative power of drift (and mutation) dictates the paths down which natural selection can (and cannot) proceed in different lineages. There is still a lot to learn here. In my mind, there is little question that drift plays a central role at the level of genome architecture (despite some of the nutty statements by the Encode crowd). I’m now trying to understand the extent to which this might also be true at the level of protein architecture and cellular features, although there is a lot that remains to be done in these areas. Getting this resolved should help us understand whether those who work at the level of outward phenotypes in multicellular organisms (i.e., most evolutionary biologists) have little to gain by thinking about the details at the molecular level.
Andreas Wagner (evolutionary geneticist/developmental biologist, University of Zurich):
Dear Jerry (if I may),
just to avoid any misconceptions in response to the letter below and to Nelson’s letter.
I do believe that natural selection is essential for evolutionary adaptation. I also believe that we can understand the diversity of life through entirely natural causes, natural selection being an important one of them. I therefore do not espouse young earth creationist or intelligent design creationist views. As in any active research field where progress is fueled by new data, there may be reasonable disagreement within a community. That creationists try to use such disagreement to drive a wedge into the community is unfortunately not new, but merely a cheap ploy which reveals that their agenda is built on a weak foundation.
John Gerhart (developmental and evolutionary biologist, University of California at Berkeley, member of the National Academy of Sciences):
I haven’t tracked down what Dr. Nelson said we said about natural selection—presumably that we don’t think it’s important. We do think it’s important, and our writing about the means by which organisms generate phenotypic variation wouldn’t make any sense without it. We emphasized contemporary models of cis-regulatory evolution, in which changes of DNA sequence lead to new times and places of expression of long-conserved protein coding genes. Then we wrote about ways in which this process of generating variation might improve in the course evolution as a result of repeated episodes of canalization of traits, during which episodes various genes become connected in synexpression groups and various multicomponent processes gain regulatory robustness and adaptability, the consequence being that further cis-regulatory changes can lead to new times and places of expression of larger groups of genes and of more compatible processes, our “facilitated variation” as a form of evolvability. For all of this, we assumed natural sepection was operating. How could we not? Perhaps Dr. Nelson thought we were belittling natural selection when we said we thought variation should be understood more deeply than it has been, if we are to gain a full understanding of the evolutionary process. But that’s not the case.
Marc Kirschner (cell and developmental biologist, Harvard Medical School, member of the National Academy of Sciences):
I really do not know why any thinking person would believe that I question natural selection or the role of genetic change in evolution as agreed upon by population biologists. I am not enough of an expert to opine on current developments in the field of population biology. I am deeply impressed by what the fossil record has told us. I see no role for other strange supernatural forces at work. My only point of departure from population biologists is to try add to our present knowledge of genetic change and selection something we now are beginning to know of how the phenotype is generated in development. I believe this tells us something about the kinds of ways things might change more easily, all of course under selection, all of course requiring changes in the genes. As for the genes, the definition must take into account changes in timing and level of expression, all of which are under selection. RNA can play a role as a gene product (ribosomal RNA, tRNA, etc) and now to some degree as a product that regulates other genes (micro-RNAs). I do not see why this poses any more of a problem than having genes encode transcription factors. I think a lot about the facility of change can be understood in how the phenotype is constructed. Most population biologists have not had the kind of background I have had, which deals with the processes of development and cell biology. John Gerhart and I thought we could add something here to evolutionary biology about phenotypic change. We did not write about genotypic change because others have written well about that, not because we doubt it in any way. Whether evolutionary biologists dismisses what we write as beside the point, I still endorse the basic idea of genetic variation and selection. It is just that to go beyond the genes to the phenotype, which after all is under selection, we may want to learn how the phenotype is created. People have written, hoping to see some wedge that we provide against the theory of evolution. I have considered them simply misinformed. I have not encouraged any of them. If anything, our writings give a different kind of support to natural selection and evolution. Maybe our work is more akin to paleontology, describing history and processes. I think Darwin would have liked it. We can now argue so much better as to how organs of perfection like the eye arose.
Nelson can consider himself pwned, though of course he’ll take the above and somehow make it seem that they agree with him. Creationists are good at that kind of distortion, as we see from Nelson’s original email.
My object here was not to establish the hegemony or importance of natural selection by surveying the opinions of five biologists. That’s not how scientific consensus comes about. My object was simply to show that Nelson is either an outright liar or is completely ignorant of the views of these biologists. Nelson either hasn’t read their work, hasn’t understood it, or has read it and understood it but distorted it. Regardless, it’s ignorance, willful or not. But this is what creationists must do if they want to make their ridiculous views seem respectable.
Expect to see Nelson defending himself in the comments below or at the Discovery Institute website. I won’t ask you to be deferential to him, but I will ask you to be civil, though I’ve had a hard time myself, as you see above. I don’t deal well with people lying about evolution. But, of course, you can go after creationism and the tactics of its adherents as much as you want.