Science magazine’s piece on the Giant Templeton Evolution Grant, and my response

About two weeks ago I was interviewed by Elizabeth Pennisi, a reporter for Science magazine, about the big grant (about $8 million, it seems—I was apparently wrong in claiming $11 million in my previous article) that the John Templeton Foundation gave to a group of researchers to “rethink” the modern theory of evolution and come up with a revision, an “extended evolutionary synthesis.” Pennisi had read my critical piece on this grant and the research it will fund (see also here), and figured that I could be the main mandatory “opposing view” on her piece about the grant. Her short piece, “Templeton grant funds evolution rethink” (Science, 352:394-395), was recently published, and I believe it’s free online.

The article is not completely egregious, as it does present some counter-views (not only mine but those of Harvard professor Hopi Hoekstra); but overall it’s pretty much of a puff piece for the “extended evolutionary synthesis” that Templeton is funding. I’ll give some excerpts from Pennisi’s piece (indented) and then my own responses (flush left). Let’s start at the beginning:

For many evolutionary biologists, nothing gets their dander up faster than proposing that evolution is anything other than the process of natural selection, acting on random mutations. Suggestions that something is missing from that picture—for example, that evolution is somehow directed or that genetic changes can’t fully explain it—play into the hands of creationists, who leap on them as evidence against evolution itself.

No wonder some evolutionary biologists are uneasy with an $8.7 million grant to U.K., Swedish, and U.S. researchers for experimental and theoretical work intended to put a revisionist view of evolution, the so-called extended evolutionary synthesis, on a sounder footing. Using a variety of plants, animals, and microbes, the researchers will study the possibility that organisms can influence their own evolution and that inheritance can take place through routes other than the genetic material.

This passage falsely implies that all of us who are critical of the “Neo-darwinism is wrong” group do so because we’re wedded to a moribund paradigm: that our scientific arteries are calcified. That’s just not the case. If there were credible evidence that evolution was “directed”—by either God or development—we’d pay attention. As for evolution being something other than natural selection, we already accepted that four decades ago, when we realized that some morphological evolution, and perhaps the bulk of changes in DNA sequence, could be explained by genetic drift (random changes in allele frequencies caused not by selection, but sampling error) rather than by natural selection. The “neutral theory” of evolution that incorporates genetic drift is now part of mainstream evolutionary biology.

And it’s offensive to suggest that our wariness toward radical new theories comes from their likelihood of being touted by creationists. I’ve never heard anybody say that another scientist should censor herself about an important idea because it could be misused by creationists.

Templeton’s executive vice president for programs, Michael Murray, says the foundation just wants to bring “greater clarity” to the mechanisms of the extended evolutionary synthesis. Now, there’s the opportunity “to show there is something there or to move on to other things,” he says.

Some scholars and scientists agree. “The amount of money is obviously significant, and that allows for a much larger scale project than would otherwise be possible,” says Alan Love, a philosopher at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, who has followed the debate over the extended synthesis. Greg Wray, an evolutionary biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who doesn’t see a need for such revisionist thinking, adds that for its advocates, “this is a chance to really show us they are right.”

Sorry, but I don’t believe that this is Templeton’s entire rationale for dispensing so much money. There is an agenda behind what everything Templeton does, and that’s usually to do down materialism or reductionism and show that science and religion are not at odds. I suspect (but don’t know) that in this case they’re going after the reductionist “gene centered paradigm” of modern evolutionary biology, and perhaps, as a reader suggested, they like the woo-ey notion of the “organism as agent in its own evolution.” As for Wray’s statement, yes, the whopping grant offers a chance to show that its recipients are right, but it’s money diverted from projects that, to my mind, are not only more interesting, but are not driven by an agenda. For make no mistake about it—what Templeton is funding is agenda-driven science: the recipients of the grant are setting out to show something. And that’s always a dangerous motivation.

Pennisi goes on:

Advocates stress that animals, plants, and even microbes modify their environments, exhibit plasticity in their physical traits, and behave differently depending on the conditions they face. Chemical modifications of the DNA that affect gene activity—so-called epigenetic changes—seem to explain some of this flexibility. These and other factors suggest to some biologists that an organism’s development is not simply programmed by the genetic sequences it inherits. For them, such plasticity implies that parents can influence offspring not just through their DNA but by passing on the microorganisms they host or by transmitting epigenetic marks to subsequent generations. “Innovation may be a developmental response that becomes stabilized through genetic changes,” explains Armin Moczek, an evolutionary developmental biologist at Indiana University, Bloomington.

The evidence that developmental plasticity derives from epigenetic markers on the DNA (methylated bases) rather than regulatory proteins interacting with genes is by no means widely accepted, for the evidence for epigenetic control is much weaker than for protein control. Further, adaptive developmental plasticity, like an Arctic mammal’s fur changing from brown to white in winter, or rotifers growing spines when they’re placed in water with predatory fish, is almost surely due to the “programs” encoded in DNA. The explanation that microorganisms cause such things is virtually nonexistent, as is the notion that developmental responses that have no initial genetic basis eventually get “stabilized through genetic changes.” I have yet to hear of one case of that,  and yet it’s constantly touted as being a major innovation in evolutionary thought. Where’s the beef?

Nor is evolution controlled only by natural selection, the winnowing process by which the fittest survive and reproduce, Laland and others argue. Organisms, by transforming their environments and responding to environmental factors, help control its course, they contend. As such, the extended synthesis “represents a nascent alternative conceptual framework for evolutionary biology,” Laland and dozens of colleagues wrote in a funding proposal to the Templeton Foundation last year.

This is uncontroversial. Beavers evolved to build dams and lodges, and those factors can influence their subsequent evolution. This idea, now called “niche construction”, is not in the least “a nascent alternative conceptual framework for evolutionary biology.” And I should add, as I told Dick Lewontin (who favors this notion), there are many ways that organisms must respond to their existing environments and can’t modify them. A polar bear’s evolution cannot change the color of the snow around it, nor can the hooves of the chamois change the granitic nature of the Swiss Alps. Fish are constrained in their movement by the hydrodynamic properties of water, which they cannot change.  Sometimes “niche construction” cannot be involved in adaptation—particularly in plants, which have less ability than animals to behaviorally modify their environments.

Some prominent evolutionary biologists have pushed back against this seeming rebellion. “It’s a mixture of old ideas that aren’t novel and reasonable ideas that haven’t been shown to be of any importance,” Coyne says. He and others insist that evolutionary biology has already incorporated some of these ideas or is in the process of doing so—meaning no “extension” is necessary. Futhermore, although they might disagree, extended synthesis advocates “are saying these things with very little empirical data,” adds Hopi Hoekstra, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University.

Yes, I’m right, and so is Hopi. 🙂

The Templeton Foundation, however, was intrigued by the debate in Nature, and it approached Laland about what would be needed to resolve it. He and Tobias Uller, an evolutionary biologist from Lund University in Sweden, then assembled 49 researchers from different fields and plotted out 22 interconnected projects across eight institutions to test the extended synthesis.

Now we see what’s really going on here. Apparently Lanland, at St Andrews University, didn’t approach Templeton with the “revolutionary” ideas; instead, Templeton approached them! In other words, the project was funded because it somehow struck Templeton as fitting into its “Big Ideas” agenda. This shows how the Templeton Foundation can warp the process of science, for this immense grant was handed out because the funding institution, which is not run by scientists, decided that it was suitable. Organizations like the NSF and NIH in the US, or NERC in the UK, use scientist-reviewers to vet proposals written by scientists. I have never been approached by a granting agency asking me to submit a proposal, saying that they were “interested in the work.”

The annual budget of the National Science Foundation for evolutionary biology is about $55-60 million [CORRECTED FROM EARLIER FIGURE of $8 million], and more if you include evolution in programs like anthropology, so this single Templeton grant may be as much as 10% of NSF funding in the same area. The NIH also gives money for evolutionary studies, but Templeton also gives money for evolutionary studies other than Laland’s.  Templeton’s efforts, then, are likely to tilt the direction of science toward the goals of Templeton. And it will also cause underfunded scientists to line up at the Templeton trough, proffering proposals that they think the Foundation will like. After all, the careers of nearly all researchers depends on the existence of external funding to support the research.

Pennisi continues:

One thematic group, which includes philosophers, will pull together the history of the extended synthesis, crystallize how it differs from traditional evolutionary biology, and refine the underlying theory. Another will tackle evolutionary innovations, exploring how novelty can arise. Some of those grantees will study what influences a green algae called Chlamydymonas to sometimes become multicellular, for example, hoping for insights into the evolution of more complex organisms. Others, probing the origins of social behavior, will try to come up with “rules” that nest-building social insects follow in response to local conditions. And studies of horned beetles will compare invasive with native species to understand how environmental-induced variation in horn size—the result of developmental plasticity—can become genetically locked into bigger or smaller horns.

Still other researchers will investigate nongenetic forms of inheritance. Some experiments, for example, will look at how the evolution of dung beetles was shaped by microbes that the mothers put into their eggs and by the dung itself. And some will assess the importance of “niche construction,” in which individuals modify their environments—as termites do by building mounds—creating a different set of conditions for individuals and their of spring that can affect natural selection. Over the next 3 years, several groups will come up with a theory that incorporates these nongenetic inheritance factors into evolutionary thinking.

All well and good, though I disagree with the project of showing how the “extended synthesis” differs from “traditional evolutionary biology.” That is genuine question-begging, since many of us feel that major aspects of the “extended synthesis”, like niche construction, fit neatly into the Modern Synthesis. That project, and some of the non-philosophical ones, worry me, for they seem designed to demonstrate an idea in a single instance, and then say, “See, the Modern Synthesis is incomplete.” The question, of course, is how often these “nontraditional” phenomena obtain, not whether we can find one or two instances of them in nature. As for niche construction, it certainly does not involve “nongenetic inheritance factors.”

What happens is this (let’s take as an example a speculative scenario involving beavers). Those ancestral beavers who have genes that led them, over time, to create pools out of streams by putting logs in the water leave more gene copies than do other beavers. (They can access more trees to nom, etc.). The presence of the ponds they create could then lead them to build lodges to keep them and their kits safe and secure.  All of this, of course, changes the beaver’s environment, thereby changing the nature of some factors that could promote survival and reproduction. That is, their evolved behavior could affect their future evolution.

But that’s not new: it applies to many species. Our evolved brains created many ways we could change the environment, affecting our future evolution. Those brains, for example, led many human populations to domesticate animals for milk. The consumption of that milk then led to the evolution of lactose tolerance in such “pastoral” human populations, for adults who could digest milk left more offspring (about 10% more, as evolutionists have calculated) than did intolerant people.

NONE of these scenarios involve evolution by nongenetic factors. And really, do we need a new “theory” to deal with this?

What we see here is agenda-driven science, but the agenda driving the research is not one that came from the scientists themselves. It came from a foundation dedicated to promoting the spirituality that John Templeton saw as inherent in science. That’s not a good way to decide which science gets the money and which does not. Sadly, the deep pockets of the John Templeton Foundation continue to warp the direction of research, at least in my field.

______

UPDATE: I just saw an April 22nd piece Larry Moran wrote on his site Sandwalk about the grant and Pennisi’s article. He’s pretty much as critical as I am about both of them, and for similar reasons. An excerpt:

The real question is whether any of these things need to be incorporated into modern evolutionary theory and whether they extend the Modern Synthesis. Personally, I don’t think any of them make a significant contribution to evolutionary theory.

But my real beef is with the outdated view of evolution held by EES proponents. To a large extent they are fighting a strawman version of evolution. They think that the “Modern Synthesis” or “Neo-Darwinism” is the current view of evolutionary theory. They are attacking the old-fashioned view of evolutionary theory that was common in the 1960s but was greatly modified by the incorporation of Neutral Theory and increased emphasis on random genetic drift. The EES proponents all seem to have been asleep when the real revolution occurred.

56 Comments

  1. eric
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    The pros and cons of a Templeton foundation grant like this, as I see it:

    Pro: many of the scientists who get the grant will use it to do solid research and forward our understanding of biology despite what Templeton may want them to find.

    Con: many of the scientists who get the grant will likely deliver unconsciously biased results, as AIUI there is pretty good meta-study evidence that funding source has a statistical effect on study results. This is not to accuse such scientists of fraud, which is rare, but rather just human fallibility, which is common.

    Overall, I am less opposed to it than Jerry. Yes I do think he’s right that its agenda-driven and this is dangerous and apt to produce bias. However if a few million worth of good research comes out of it, I think that’s a net gain, because I disagree with him here:

    As for Wray’s statement, yes, the whopping grant offers a chance to show that its recipients are right, but it’s money diverted from projects that, to my mind, are not only more interesting, but are not driven by an agenda.

    This is the foundation’s money. It would almost certainly not go to better science projects if it didn’t go here, instead it would go to other things Templeton was interested in doing. If we were talking about the NSF or DOE, the ‘could be better spent’ argument would be valid. But here, it isn’t valid because that $8 million is not NSF or DOE’s to spend on other science; it’s Templeton’s. In fact, I don’t think it’s far from the truth to say that the reverse is true; this project successfully diverts some money that would otherwise go to woo into more interesting, useful scientific research.

    • Kevin
      Posted May 3, 2016 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      The pros do outweigh the cons. In the end, Templeton will be drained if they continue to fund science, regardless of what their agenda is. As far as I can tell, Templeton is never going to get the answer they want unless they give it [the money] to people who provide them, unscientifically, the quick answers they want now.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        In the end, Templeton will be drained

        Not if their fund managers are at all competent. The Templeton endowment exceeds $3 billion and probably earns hundreds of millions a year in income. This $8 million grant is insignificant in their total financial picture.

    • ploubere
      Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      It would seem to me that if those researchers want future funding from Templeton, they had better deliver what Templeton wants this time. It’s hard to imagine that wouldn’t influence the results.

      • Kevin
        Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        Not necessarily. Imagine asking DARPA for money. They ask for the moon. You promise the moon. You know it’s not possible, but you take the money anyway. You tell them you did this and that and tried some cool ideas, publish a few forgetful technical articles, but no moon.

        BUT…with more money you can reach the moon next year….repeat.

      • eric
        Posted May 3, 2016 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        It probably will. My cynical side says, however, that even if we think 75% of the research is bogus pandering, that’s still $2M of Templeton money that got spent on decent scientific research rather than other Templeton projects.

        Moreover if we take Eklund’s research as an example of what we might expect, the story isn’t 100% horrible. Her baseline survey data is fine – AIUI nobody disputes that she runs her surveys methodologically correctly – it’s just the spin she puts on the result that is unscientific. If Templeton produces a lot of research that has solid underlying methods and observations sections, but pandering crap in the discussion of results sections, future scientists can just take the staples off and ignore the last few pages of the publication.

  2. Posted May 3, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that if Templeton (or whoever else) was genuinely interested in seeing if the Modern Synthesis can be extended would be to start without assuming that it can be. I suspect, however, that people already claim it can, in which case one should fund the naysayers too to see what sort of “equilibrium” can be reached.

    Otherwise, what would stop someone funding a project into carbon compounds where carbon is hexavalent? (as opposed to a project to first discover whether or not carbon can be heaxavalent.)

    • eric
      Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      I don’t mind them asking provocative questions with a clear opinion. The trick is getting unbaised responses.

      I think a better method to do that would be to co-fund a conference with NSF where Templeton picks some of the main sectional subjects and NSF manages the submission acceptance/placement process. I have confidence they would do a good job of ensuring the papers accepted would represent good science from across the pro, con, and ‘orthogonal’ spectrum, rather than being a biased selection of pro papers of varying quality.

      Of course you aren’t going to spend that level of money on a mere conference, but that sort of dual approach could be used for research areas too: support an NSF research area. If I was a billionaire and wanted to fund a pet scientific subject of mine, that’s how I’d do it – I’d pick a subject matter area of my interest, then work with NSF to run the grant review and approval process. Then again, I’m not looking to simply reconfirm my currently held beliefs…

  3. grad student
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    I’m finishing my PhD in evo bio this summer. If my career will depend on begging religionists to fund my research, I will abandon the field and work as a data scientist (or janitor).

    • Kevin
      Posted May 3, 2016 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      They are called custodians now. I do not know why; maybe janitor has some pejorative connotation. 🐬

      • JohnnieCanuck
        Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        It does have a pejorative connotation. Cleaning up behind other people puts you at the bottom of the status heap. No surprise then, that in a patriarchal society women get most of the menial work.

        In fact, as always happens, custodian has that association as well. I remember the transition happening when I was in school, back in the sixties.

        Curiously, the substituted word is usually longer and often ends up as an unwieldy phrase, all in the search for decency. Racial descriptors show this effect better than most others.

    • Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Bravo!

  4. Posted May 3, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Dawkins’ critical take on ‘niche construction’:

    Dawkins, R. (2004). Extended Phenotype – But Not Too Extended. A Reply to Laland, Turner and Jablonka. Biology and Philosophy, 19(3).

    http://richarddawkins.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Extended-Phenotype-but-not-too-extended.pdf

  5. BobTerrace
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Next, Templeton will fund campfires so all scientists can sit around singing “Kumbaya”.

    • Posted May 3, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      But will they bring the amores ingredients?

      • Posted May 3, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        Smores – bloody autocorrect!

        • BobTerrace
          Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          Bloody s’mores? Your fingers were too close to the campfire.

  6. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Please forgive me – for some reason I can’t help but write this:

    Pretend-made-up-Onion-style titles that were made up by me just now:

    The Germ Theory of Disease – Our Syncretic-Entropic Synthesis that makes the old yucky germy one obsolete but engages in a dialogue with it.

    “Mangna Legos Infinitum” – The Theory that Everything Everywhere at any time is all just My God’s Playtoys – no longer just a theory.

    I’ll stop now.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted May 3, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      oops – the last one was supposed to have Atomic Theory of Matter flavor in it somehow.

  7. Posted May 3, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I am not qualified to comment on the specifics of the subject area. However I was struck by your apparent views on targeting funding:

    “I have never been approached by a granting agency asking me to submit a proposal, saying that they were “interested in the work.” ”

    Isn’t that precisely what a Request for Applications (RFA) on a specific topic area from, for example, NIH or NSF is all about? RFAs may be addressed to the community at large, but often, given the nature of the work that may be outlined there will only be a limited number of groups in a position to respond with competitive proposals, so they are at least somewhat directed.

    It does not seem unreasonable to me for a government agency (which do this commonly), a charity funding work in a specific area or in this case a large foundation to decide what areas they wish to support. What would be unreasonable is corruption of the literature by poor science or biased interpretation of data. And that should be the purview of manuscript reviewers not of granting bodies.

    • eric
      Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      I don’t disagree, except for the very last part; IMO granting bodies have a role to play in controlling for bias. They do that in a variety of ways. I’m not sure whether Templeton uses any of those ways, but I think Jerry’s point is that Templeton’s process involves a sort of confirmation bias, in which they don’t select grantees for funding who demonstrate a solid plan for investigating whether there is an extended evolutionary synthesis qualitatively distinct from the current theory of evolution, instead they select grantees who agree there is, and who tell Templeton their plan for demonstrating this.

      • Posted May 3, 2016 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

        Anecdotally: Templeton funded the STEP intercessory prayer trial that established that, not only is prayer ineffective in generating positive outcomes in cardiac patients but that the knowledge of being prayed for results in worse outcomes.
        It was a well organized, well powered study with good stats (Benson et al Am Heart J. 151, 934, 2006). I think we would likely conclude that Templeton, and anyone wanting to do such work would really be seeking confirmation of their ideas. However the thing was done well and the data emerged unscathed.

        That being said, it doesn’t always work that way. And not everyone sets out to challenge rather than to confirm their prized hypothesis, so point taken.

        • eric
          Posted May 3, 2016 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

          A good anecdotal example. I would hope that some of the $8M will produce similar sorts of studies. I’m not naïve enough to believe all of it will be spent like that, but I’m hoping some of it will be.

    • Posted May 3, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      In this case the area of funding is determined by scientists, not bureaucrats, AND, most important, individual scientists are not approached. Do you really think that what Templeton did, approaching Laland, is the equivalent to a “targeted area” for the NSF and NIH?

  8. Posted May 3, 2016 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    “agenda-driven science”

    It is too bad that not everyone routinely “checks their biases” — if out of intellectual curiosity if nothing else.

  9. rickflick
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Pennisi seems to influenced by:

    1. A solid lack of understanding of biology and science generally.

    2. The popular-now-a-days “evenhanded” approach to reporting, which, in principle, is capable of giving flat-Earthers as much copy as round-Earthers.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted May 3, 2016 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Agreed on Pennisi. My blood pressure went up upon reading the first sentence in the above excerpt, stating that evo. biologists think that all evolution is about natural selection.
      I accept that we will need to slay the same old dragons over and over again, but it burns my marshmallows that some of these dragons emerge in the pages of Science.

      • rickflick
        Posted May 3, 2016 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        Maybe they should think about renaming the magazine with scare quotes – “Science”.

    • Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      I have read other articles by Pennisi, and had a better opinion of her. Not anymore.

    • Posted May 4, 2016 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      Agreed. I have a PhD in evolutionary biology and a degree in journalism. This trend to contort the topic to be evenhanded no matter what is a huge problem, as is the quality of the science writing overall in evbio. Writing well is hard and I typically don’t slam other writers but that opening by Pennisi was awful.

      • rickflick
        Posted May 4, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        Wouldn’t it be nice if half the writers were as well qualified as you. I doubt most have more than high school science training. I suspect they stop at the journalism degree.

  10. Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    If the issue is whether or not some Extended people get to claim that they have invalidated the Modern Synthesis and that they are the great founders of the EES, then (1) they should be resisted, and (2) $8 million seems an excessive amount to spend on enabling someone to boast.

    • Posted May 3, 2016 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      You are right: the true aim of this funding is to buy real professional scientists to write things that can be interpreted along the line that Modern Synthesis is bogus.

  11. Larry Moran
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Templeton has already gotten a lot of value from this award simply from the publicity that calls into question the standard naturalistic explanation of evolution.

    Anything that casts doubt on the ability of atheistic scientists to come up with all the answers is a win for Templeton.

    The IDiots and other creationists are lapping it up and that’s just fine with Templeton.

    Those of you who think the “pros” outweigh the “cons” are naive. The science vs religion wars are waged on many fronts and good scientists can easily be tricked by unscrupulous theists with an agenda.

    I have no respect for the scientists who applied for and accepted the Templeton money. They have been used but they are too stupid to realize it.

    BTW, Elizabeth Pennisi should be fired from her job. She is clearly incompetent at explaining science to the readers of Science magazine.

  12. JohnnieCanuck
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    regulatory proteins interacting with genesis is

    Now there’s an unfortunate typo.

  13. Posted May 3, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting …

  14. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    I was not sure where to land on this, seeing that the research was for the most part to explore some epiphenomena in evolution, and although a bit on the fringe, it is about stuff that is ‘real’.
    But I have come around to thinking that this will likely a bad deal, and deliberately so, b/c of how easy it will be to spin the results in the public’s ear. Especially likely given the funding source. Look forward to more public declarations like ‘Darwin was Wrong’ and ‘You won’t believe it, but scientists say that 80% of the genome has function!’

  15. Posted May 3, 2016 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    They pay for the impression that “Darwin Was Wrong”. They also emphasize with this that it all “is just a theory”, pretending as if it wasn’t properly understood yet — hence we need Templeton and Faith to get a real understanding. This works in a propaganda kind of way — never mind that our understanding changes and improves all the time. They are after the impression that evolution is not properly underatood and needs a major revision, which incidentially fits the wedge strategy, too.

  16. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    One thematic group, which includes philosophers, will pull together the history of the extended synthesis, crystallize how it differs from traditional evolutionary biology, and refine the underlying theory.

    I actually
    *like* philosophy (as a sport?) but observe that a meeting of N philosophers will probably hold at least N+1 mutually contradictory views and result in N! papers and counter papers. Will science be progressed or confounded?

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted May 3, 2016 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      If N -> oo it will be re-iterated.

  17. Morris
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    I am not interested in Templeton but the question whether evolution theory is need of some updating is valid in my view. For the record I am not a believer (of anything). Some things that sound a little off to me:1) Complete and unquestioned acceptance of the strong Dawkins gene model. As a corollary to this is the use of pejorative adhominems against objectors regardless how misguided they may be. 2) The gene model is at the lowest (reductionist level (molecules) whereas I cannot think of any other scientific theory whose explanatory mode is not primarily at the system level (with support from the lower levels). 3 Some parts of the cell are not coded by genes e.g. membranes. 4 Is there a gene or set of genes which code for complex cell behavior e.g. mitosis.5 Gene expression is variable; do cells have some decision-making ability. In short should the cell be given some consideration for the particular evolution path? Can someone who is knowledgeable and interested comment?

    • MitchDistin
      Posted May 3, 2016 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      1. We don’t extol Dawkins model 2. Typically, individual selection is the unit of selection, except in certain circumstances where group/kin selection is warranted 3. Genes don’t directly code for membranes, but do code for the proteins that create and maintain the membrane 4. Yes 5. Gene expression is variable but yet heritable and naturally selected; and cell=genes since the genes build the cell

      Evolutionary biology is, by far, the most difficult field to jump into without any professional direction; you do not know where your knowledge stands relative to current knowledge. For this reason, I would attribute a 68% accuracy rating to my response, since I am no expert.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted May 3, 2016 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

      I’m not a biologist, but this is my impression:

      1) Dawkins’s gene centric view is the only one that is coherent and makes internal sense. That way the adhominems may make sense too. 😉

      2) I don’t grok that, and that is not only because the use of philosophy (“reductionist”) throws me. Scientists use divide and conquer, same as mathematicians and computer scientists do. Whatever what works.

      Population genetics describes genes at the system (population) level, with Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium and all. That was an essential part of the modern synthesis, no?

      3) Yes. So?* Genes constitutes recipes, not molecular assembly instructions, c.f. development.*

      4) Another question I come up blank with understanding, See the recipe vs atomic control ideas in 3).

      5) Yes, the genome can learn and the cell can control (decide), all by selection pressures applied to genes. “In short should the cell be given some consideration for the particular evolution path?” Not grokking. Such a path is decided by contingency, of which the capabilities of a cell (or group of cells) is an indelible part. How else would it be?

      * As interested in astrobiology I recognize that evidence of early cellular environment still frozen in in modern cells as a boon.

      We can understand the emergence process by its remaining environmental traces. E.g. early cells did not have to control cell membranes thoroughly, either because they were non-existent (pores in vent theory) or because their constituents were environmentally produced lipids (spontaneous vesicles in soup theory).

      It is a fantastic observation that the cell machinery has been inherited for 4 billion years in an uninterrupted if modified manner, as an extended phenotype in Dawkins’s description.

      And that genes are only required to reproduce its part and not its constituents on an atomic level. If the latter would be required, life could never have emerged, it would be an impossible bootstrap procedure of self description before it could start to function.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted May 3, 2016 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

        I read Mitch’s response, and now I think I understand 2) better.

        No, the math of pop gen shows that group selection is equivalent to individual selection, but also that it is a more complex roundabout. (More entities involved.)

        And indeed, as Jerry points to all the time, in practice the possibility of group selection is *never* observed. Or at least the one or two outstanding cases are weak.

        Latest I heard was that sequencing methods could show that group selection in eusocial insects was non-existent, because the differences in maternal and paternal gene influence clearly supported Dawkins, not group models.

        So in sum I think the pop gen description substitutes for the comfort blanket that group models constituted, by sweeping the selection mechanisms of individuals under it and show a system level behavior.

    • Posted May 4, 2016 at 4:43 am | Permalink

      I’m sorry, but you really don’t know what you’re talking about. Every statement you made is wrong. I’m knowledgeable, but not interested in writing a long post correcting someone who should be doing the reading to correct himself. Please don’t assess evolutionary theory until you know a bit more about it.

      • MitchDistin
        Posted May 4, 2016 at 9:08 am | Permalink

        Jeez-Louise, I thought I was at least somewhat caught up. Can you please refer me to a technical textbook on evo bio?

        • jaxkayaker
          Posted May 4, 2016 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

          I think Jerry’s comment was directed at Morris, not MitchDistin. Evolution by Futuyma is an introductory text often recommended as a standard. I admit I haven’t read it, when I took evolution we used something different.

  18. Eduardo
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Nice piece.

  19. Filippo
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    “Templeton’s executive vice president for programs . . . .”

    What does such a foundation luminary DO to accomplish a full day’s work? (What’s an average salary?) How does his/her expenditure of energy and time, and his/her focus, compare to that of, say, a middle/high school science/math teacher?

  20. MitchDistin
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    This is already going awry. Miss Pennisi purports the erroneous notion that evolutionists dislike this grant because it reconsiders natural selections explanatory power, when our hesitations are really founded upon the funding coming from the Templeton Foundation. Mark my words, this will not end well.

  21. keith cook + / -
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Templeton funding is not about finding the truth to the rules of life but more how to bend the rules of life to met it’s funding demands, ultimately, it’s agenda.
    What it is is a deception, the use of science to keep something very dead, alive.
    So! for what this funding may discover and depending how it may add to our knowledge, they will try to claim was an example of the lack of current knowledge and what the hell else is out there.
    (I take it for granted that any discoveries will be manhandled, flipped and pawed over)
    This will only encourage further feeding of this deceptive and irksome beast, stuck in a dead mans ideals and aspirations to meld two poles moving further and further apart. Pointless. Just do the science.

  22. Linn
    Posted May 4, 2016 at 4:54 am | Permalink

    At the mention of epigenetics in the article, it struck me how epigenetics has become the new quantum physics.
    By that I mean that people use epigenetics (like they often use quantum physics) as an explanation for all their pseudoscientific woo these days.
    I don’t think pennisi’s use of epigenetics was a horrible example, but I’ve seen epigenetics used a lot by alties these days, often as a way to push their sugar water.

  23. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 4, 2016 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I thought this was interesting – the National Academy of Sciences recently announced the newly elected members. I only know because I follow Steven Pinker on Twi##er – I saw PCC(E) twe## it too, but let’s not go there…

    anywho, as I read the list (vide infra) I noticed … wait for it …. Hopi Hoekstra!

    shortened link to the news item from NAS itself:

    http://bit.ly/1T1cXYw

    here’s the announcement link URL in all its ugly longness :

    http://www.nasonline.org/news-and-multimedia/news/may-3-2016-NAS-Election.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+nationalacademies%2Fna+%28News+from+the+National+Academies%29


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