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.
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.