Why do some scientists always claim that evolutionary biology needs urgent and serious reform?

UPDATE: I forgot to add this bit from Welch’s paper about the John Templeton Foundation:

It is remarkable, for example, that much of the funding for challenging current practice in evolutionary biology comes from The John Templeton Foundation (Pennisi 2016), which is committed to using science to reveal underlying purpose, and rejecting what Nagel (2012) calls “the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature”. But perhaps this is just history repeating itself as farce: if poetry couldn’t save us, nothing on the laundry lists [of examples that supposedly stump evolutionary theory] will either.

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If you’ve been in the evolution game as long as I, you’ll have seen people repeatedly claim that there’s something seriously wrong with modern evolutionary theory. Sometimes it’s said to just need a reform, while others claim that the whole edifice is crumbling and needs demolation (Lynn Margulis was one of the latter). A recent Royal Society meeting walked the line between those two positions.

Such claims are not recent: Steve Gould and Niles Eldredge, with their theory of punctuated equilibrium proposed in the Seventies, essentially made the extreme non-Darwinian claim that big evolutionary changes happens when small populations somehow lose their “genetic equilibrium” (how wasn’t specified), and, further, that species selection was responsible for trends in the fossil record as well as adaptations themselves. More recent calls for revision point to novel phenomena like environmentally-induced “epigenetic” changes in DNA, the “phenotype-first-genes-second” view of adaptation, “structuralist” claims that adaptations are often the result of self-organizing biological material rather than natural selection, and that phenomena like “niche construction” have been sorely neglected by evolutionists.

I’ve written about this repeatedly; you can see my latest take here. The main problem with all this is that while the phenomena adduced are said to present serious challenges to neo-Darwinism, most of them (with the exception of epigenetic “Lamarckian inheritance”) really don’t: the problem is not that the phenomena can’t be accommodated by evolutionary theory, but simply that there’s a lack of evidence that these phenomena are important or widespread. “Structuralism” is one example. Others, such as “niche construction”, have long been accepted by evolutionists under another name, so what’s new is simply a neologism.

Why, among all theories, is evolution so prone to such calls for revision? It’s not like there are new data that call modern evolutionary theory into serious question, as there were when quantum mechanics challenged classical mechanics in physics. The unique susceptibility of evolutionary biology is the subject of a new paper by John J. Welch in Biology & Philosophy, What’s wrong with evolutionary biology?“(reference below, free download). Welch is a geneticist at the University of Cambridge.

The paper is a bit long, and intended for philosophers of science as well as evolutionists, but makes a number of good points, detailing what’s unique about evolution that makes it prone to dissing.  I’m not going to summarize it in detail, but will give a few of Welch’s explanations. At the outset he considers two possibilities, but dismisses one

These critiques differ greatly from one another; indeed, their conclusions range from the undeniable (“new concepts and empirical findings […] may eventually force a shift of emphasis”; Pigliucci 2007), to the more robust (“It’s wrong like phrenology is wrong. Every major tenet of it is wrong”; Lynn Margulis quoted in Kelly 1994, p. 470). Nevertheless, there are some good reasons for considering the discontent as a whole.

First, some of the critics themselves recognise a shared enterprise, with conferences or multi-authored volumes united solely by the participants’ discontent with current practice. The result is often “laundry lists” of ideas or observations which the field is urged to incorporate or emphasise, but which have little or nothing in common with each other. The only certainty is that something needs to change (Pigliucci 2007; Chorost 2013; Pennisi 2016).

Second, irrespective of the content of the individual critiques, the sheer volume and persistence of the discontent must be telling us something important about evolutionary biology. Broadly speaking, there are two possibilities, both dispiriting. Either (1) the field is seriously deficient, but it shows a peculiar conservatism and failure to embrace ideas that are new, true and very important; or (2) something about evolutionary biology makes it prone to the championing of ideas that are new but false or unimportant, or true and important, but already well studied under a different branding.

This article will argue for possibility (2). It will suggest that a few distinct and inescapable properties of evolutionary biology make the field highly likely to attract discontent, regardless of whether the criticisms have any merit.

What are these properties? Welch says they include these (some of this is my own interpretation):

  • Living (and extinct) species are the result of a diverse variety of processes, historical contingencies, and unique events lost in the mists of time. Nobody can possibly master all the relevant literature, which means that people in other fields might think that there are phenomena undercutting evolutionary theory.
  • “New data appear at a very rapid rate, particularly, in recent years, from molecular biology.” The new data mislead people into thinking that a new paradigm is needed. In the case of “neutral theory,” in which different forms of genes have no differential effects on fitness, a new framework was needed, but that differs from what’s going on now. (Darwin, by the way, suggested the possibility of such neutral variation in The Origin.)
  • (Related to the first point): “. . .the scope [of the field] means that authors are drawn to criticize evolutionary biology when their interests and expertise lie elsewhere.” That’s certainly true of physiologist Denis Noble, who helped organize the Royal Society meeting and whose misconceptions about evolutionary biology are profound and disturbing.
  • One can cherry-pick data that seem to contradict evolutionary generalizations, and then claim that the whole edifice is rotten. This is, I think, the case for epigenetic inheritance, as we have a few cases in which environmentally-induced changes in DNA methylation can be inherited—but not a particle of evidence that they’ve played a role in adaptive evolution, or even persist as genetic changes for more than a few generations.
  • Evolution’s predictive power is often weak because of life’s complexity, and so “evolutionary theory” is not like the Standard Theory of physics, which makes precise predictions. Sometimes we simply have to say that “things are complicated.”
  • Many people really don’t understand natural selection, and so claim it’s impotent to explain adaptations. I think this is true: someone who’s steeped in the field, and realizes that “selfish gene” is just a metaphor, for instance, might have a very different take on adaptation than do laypeople or biologists in other fields.
  • Natural selection has implications, like the amorality of nature and the suffering inherent in the process, that make it unpalatable to many.

Welch concludes:

The problems discussed above have no common thread, and they apply widely in evolutionary biology. However, they coalesce in a special way for one research programme: the study of adaptive function. The goal of such research is not a precise description of evolutionary change. Instead, it aims for a strong account of phenotypic function, which is linked to a partial account of why those phenotypes exist.

He goes on to give examples of specific critiques involved in adaptation, like kin selection versus individual or group selection, but you can read that for yourself.

I wanted to add one additional reason why evolution is liable to such critiques: scientists are always out to make a name for themselves, as our currency of achievement is not money but reputation. You don’t get well known by just adding another brick to the evolutionary edifice, but you can do by pushing the wall over. That’s how Steve Gould made his name, flawed as his theories were. With all its messiness, poorly understood phenomena (what are females choosing during sexual selection?) and historical contingency, you can always assemble a list of phenomena that you can claim show severe deficiencies in evolution. But as with theological arguments, a lack of explanation doesn’t mean that we have to resort to drastic conclusions.

I want to end by putting up Welch’s explanation for why these persistent calls for reform are harmful:

If criticism of evolutionary biology is inevitable, why grouse about it? It is easy to habituate to misleading alarm calls (Cheney and Seyfarth 1988), and churlish to complain about peripheral ideas, which, by definition, have little influence on what most scientists do. However, claims that evolutionary biology is misguided or importantly incomplete are not harmless, but actively hinder progress in the field. Indeed, they do so in several ways. First, the claims misrepresent the field to the wider public. It is unfair to use guilt by association—many fine studies are cited on creationist websites—but a field that urgently needs reform is a field “in crisis” (Mazur 2010), and when it fails to reform, this lends credibility to claims that scientists are, at best, hidebound and foolish, and at worst, guilty of ideologically-motivated deception (Mazur 2010; Teresi 2011). Such claims find an eager audience among those who reject the scientific consensus on other grounds. For example, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini (2010) present a priori objections to (their version of) natural selection, but also include a fairly typical laundry list to add some empirical heft. Chorost (2013) criticized Nagel (2012) for not including a laundry list. Second, and within the field, the claims encourage neophilia. This makes us unwilling to build on previous work, to integrate new findings and ideas with existing explanatory frameworks, to replicate published results (Nakagawa and Parker 2015), or to solve the field’s many outstanding problems (Maynard Smith 1977; John 1981). It also distracts attention from the ways in which all biologists can do something genuinely new, such as expanding the range of study organisms. The comparative method (Maynard Smith and Halliday 1979), Krogh’s principle (Krebs 1975), and our ignorance of biodiversity (Nee 2004), all suggest that this is one way that we might usefully extend the field.

And so it goes. I have no confidence that these calls for reform will end in my lifetime—and, after all, maybe there are real revolutions in the offing, or some striking finding that casts serious doubt on modern evolutionary theory. (I doubt that will happen.) But I’m tired of fighting theories that are already known to be wrong and questionable. To see an example of how good biologists can waste their time correcting “revolutions” that were wrong at the moment they were proposed, read the 1982 paper by my colleagues Brian Charlesworth, Russ Lande, and Monty Slatkin, showing that punctuated equilibrum, as a theory of process rather than just pattern, was dead in the water, contradicted by many already-known facts about biology (reference below; free link).

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Welch, J. J. 2016. What’s wrong with evolutionary biology? Biol. Philos. Published online: doi 10.1007/s10539-016-9557-8

Charlesworth, B., R. Lande, and M. Slatkin. 1982. A Neo-Darwinian commentary on macroevolution. Evolution 36:474-498.

53 Comments

  1. Posted December 26, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Another reason is, I think, the fact that the simplicity of natural selection leads to such astonishing results. I was in the doctor’s office last week, and during the inevitable wait I studied a detailed schematic of the human ear hanging on the wall. I admit to great wonderment as I contemplated how this incredibly complex organ must have evolved.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      Walls have ears

  2. Posted December 26, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I think that most attacks against the evolution theory are a side-effect of religious institutions investing huge sums in anti-evolution propaganda.

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      Undoubtedly, there is a lot of resource directed at undermining orthodox evolutionary theory that comes from religious institutions of one kind and another. I think it is important to recognise, though, that there are also people who are attacking it from a quite different perspective, namely that it offends their particular political view points. The example discussed here recently of the feminist anthropologist objecting to the suggestion that sexual dimorphism for body size in humans was best explained by sexual selection is a case in point.

      • BJ
        Posted December 26, 2016 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        And those people are far more likely to be in significant academic positions, making them more dangerous to the science itself (whereas the religious side is more dangerous to the understanding of the science by the public).

        So evolution is really being attacked on both sides, each side by a different group with a different agenda/ideology.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      I’m sure the Templeton Foundation is a leading offender in supporting those efforts. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they were involved in the Royal Society meeting.

  3. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    In contrast to many other areas of scientific thought, evolutionary theory and its predictions are ideologically uncomfortable to those holding certain religious or political views. The ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ view inherent in natural selection is unpalatable to some biologists (and of course non- biologists who nevertheless feel qualified to pronounce on the subject) with left wing leanings and, as discussed here very recently, the implications of sexual selection theory seem inimical to some feminists. Meanwhile, the fact that evolutionary theory removes any requirement for a role for God in explaining the wonderful diversity of life on earth puts the nose out of joint of many religious people. All of these people are only too happy to jump at any suggestion, however, weakly supported by the evidence, that there is something flawed about Darwin’s theory.

    • Zado
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

      This is essentially what I was thinking.

      Evolutionary theory strikes at the heart of traditional religion with its claim that we are the product of a blind, natural process rather than a divine design. I say “traditional religion,” but it would be more accurate to say “the human psyche.” Virtually every culture–from the Celestial Kingdom of China to the Yanomamo of the Amazon–has placed itself at the center-place pinnacle of creation. This seems perfectly natural, and many people today, even in educated countries, still find the alternative viscerally abhorrent. To realize that all of us are risen animals rather than fallen angels is probably the greatest of what Carl Sagan called the Great Demotions bequeathed to us by science.

      That explains the creationist objection to modern evolution theory , which is well known and well understood. What’s less understood is the objection of people who are not creationists–even people who were/are professional biologists, like Stephen Jay Gould. Their objection is political rather than religious. You said they have “left wing leanings,” which is accurate. To be more accurate, we should say they have “Marxist leanings”: Marxism referring to a political ideology of the 19th century which–contra the monotheistic conception of humankind up to that point with its belief in our inherently sinful nature–held that humans had no inherent nature at all (at least not beyond a few physical parameters and basic organic drives). According to Marx, peoples’ real character came from this thing called “culture,” which floated above any biological hard-wiring and could therefore be perfected in order to bring about the perfect society. This optimistic vision has had revolutionary appeal, to say the least, and is still appealing to many who are not revolutionaries. To them, any emphasis on “selfish genes” and their tendency towards kin selection is anathema to this nurture-empowered worldview.

      All of this is covered in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. Its primary thesis is that both the right wing (creationist) and left wing (Marxist) conceptions of human nature are flawed because they arose before modern evolutionary theory. To this day I think he’s right, and I think these views still pervade the way people think about human nature. In other words, evolution by natural selection is still catching on, even among some biologists.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 26, 2016 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

        Your laying out of the issue is completely aligned with my own take. The Blank Slate was one of the most fascinating reads I’ve ever encountered. It frames these issues scrupulously and identified realism, materialism and monism as the foundation of modern vocabulary. If there is anyone among the readers here who has not read it(is that even possible?), I strongly recommend it.

        • Carl
          Posted December 26, 2016 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

          I agree completely on The Blank Slate. The Better Angels of Our Nature is another that shouldn’t be missed.

          I would say Realism, Materialism, and Monism are at the foundation of a modern world view – I think you are using “vocabulary” metaphorically, because it’s much more than that. And “monism” probably isn’t in the vocabulary of many in whose world view it is present. And perhaps “Naturalism” is a good replacement for all three. (Sorry, just quibbling).

          These ideas are ancient and go back to Epicurus. They were revived in the early modern period, and far predate Darwin.

      • nicky
        Posted December 27, 2016 at 6:51 am | Permalink

        Yes,”The Blank Slate” was one of those books instrumental in destroying the last remnants of my ‘Marxist’ social construct ideology.
        Sometimes I had problems reconciling the latter with evolutionary biology, but the Slate basically crunched it: if there is a conflict between social construct and evolutionary biology my default setting is for evolution by natural selection now.

  4. jaxkayaker
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    While not denying the second reason, I offer a third reason that may account for some of the calls for a revolution in the field: ignorance of the details of the field’s history. Larry Moram regularly provides examples of such in molecular biology and biochemistry on his blog, Sandwalk. Apparently, the central dogma of molecular biology as most people learned it is not the central dogma as originally proposed. Similarly, neo-darwinism has been synonymized with the modern evolutionary synthesis, even though the term was originally used as an early revision of Darwin’s theory, preceding population genetics but subsequent to publication of The Origin. Other examples, not just semantic ones, abound.

    • jaxkayaker
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Ack! Larry Moran, not Moram. Typos are a bane of my existence.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    As said in the posting – so much time is wasted by the religious and those looking for some easy fame. So not only does religion not give us any findings or actual discovery they simply waste a commodity we only have so much “time” for. The clock never stops.

  6. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read the paper yet, but I don’t think this sort of attack is unique to evolutionary theory.

    In physics, there have always been cranks looking for loopholes in conservation laws (perpetual motion, reactionless space drives) and special relativity (FTL travel).

    In cosmology, there’s a long history of revisionist thinking about the Big Bang, including steady state theories, tired light, plasma cosmology, ekpyrotic models, and so on.

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      But the perpetual motion advocates and fellow travellers are widely regarded as cranks and have virtually no academic respectability. Advocates of views that challenge darwinian orthodoxy by contrast, are accorded much greater academic respect in many instances e.g. from tenured positions in prestigious universities. That is harder to account for.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted December 26, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        Big Bang challengers such as Fred Hoyle, Hannes Alfvén, and Paul Steinhardt can scarcely be dismissed as cranks. They’re respected academics whose ideas turned out to be wrong.

        • Jonathan Wallace
          Posted December 26, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I agree. I was responding more to your second paragraph than your third one! 🙂

  7. rickflick
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    “punctuated equilibrium, as a theory of process rather than just pattern…”

    It strikes me as unfortunate that Gould’s idea of PE and, it appears, other erroneous notions, gained widespread publicity due to his fine writing skills and his platforms in the public sector. I used to read his magazine articles regularly to admire his prose and to learn some biology (along with baseball and other subjects).

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      I, as well. I grew up reading his books and deeply admiring his range of knowledge and writing skills. I still do count him as one of the great communicators and a very competent evolutionary biologist, but I had never really understood why I should take P.E. seriously.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      Gould’s prose strikes me as verbose – I don’t think he was a fine writer at all because I think his personality intruded on the subject at hand. I much prefer Dawkins as a writer – no verbiage at all & he finds the perfect word every time [I’m excluding his tweets & the like – referring only to Dawkins’ proofed & re-proofed writings on biology]

  8. merilee
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    sub

  9. Posted December 26, 2016 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I favor the “trying to make a name” proposal. I make an analogy with the mythical old west wherein a young gunfighter could make a name by going up against the current “fastest gun” (and surviving). There is no “faster gun” in biology than Darwin. Anyone who really takes him down will have instant and lasting fame. So, many have tried, but none have come close.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      I see the analogy you’re trying to make. It’s flawed in many ways though. The implication is that the “winner” of your duel annihilates the loser, but I don’t think it works like that. For example, Lynn Margulis’ endosymbiosis concept has moved from the “possible but implausibly bizarre” heap to the “probably true in several circumstances” heap over the last several decades. But both Darwin’s and Margulis’ reputations continue to be held in good regard. It’s not a zero sum game.
      Similarly, Gould’s (and Eldredge’s) “evolution by jerks” hypothesis has added to the richness of evolutionary theory without upsetting either the edifice or Darwin’s good name.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted December 26, 2016 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        Quote: “Similarly, Gould’s (and Eldredge’s) “evolution by jerks” hypothesis has added to the richness of evolutionary theory without upsetting either the edifice or Darwin’s good name”

        I don’t see how it’s “added to the richness” – I was under the impression it created confusion because the concept wasn’t well defined – obviously all evolution is punctuated if one zooms to an appropriate scale for the example being examined. Also the creationist/ID crowd have made hay with it.

        Initially Gould presented “punk eke”/”evolution by jerks” as something that explained fossil gaps [I think] in that the long periods of stasis between the jerks will produce that kind of fossil record.

        Then there was his & Lewontin’s spandrels thing which I don’t think advanced scientific understanding either

        I’m happy to be corrected on any/all of the above – just a layman trying to remember whet he’s read…

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted December 26, 2016 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

          Well, having come from the geological end of things, “punk-eke” was just plain obvious from the get go. Absolutely of course you’re not going to ever have complete sampling of the process of evolution (outside the lab – and damned hard inside it), so you’re going to get apparent gaps in the record, and have a hard time distinguishing the apparent from the real. Dealing with imperfect datasets is what anyone who works outside a lab will have to deal with every day of their lives.
          Yes, it’s unfortunate that the God-squaddies (including var ID) made hay with this. But just because they’re mendacious doesn’t mean they’re idiots. Hoping for something different is like hoping that your political enemies aren’t going to seize on any misdemeanours of your 14th cousin 7 times removed in Ulan Bataar for their own purposes (against you). Loathsome they may be, but “idiotic” doesn’t apply to them all.
          The spandrels thing is pretty vague. In it’s context it does make sense, but whether its actually significant – I can’t even remember what his natural world examples were.

        • jaxkayaker
          Posted December 27, 2016 at 8:08 am | Permalink

          The spandrels of San Marco didn’t add new knowledge, but it was an important thought paper cautioning against overly emphasizing selection as an explanation without evidence to support such a hypothesis.

      • Posted December 27, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        I would not compare Margulis’ reputation to Darwin’s: not the same league. Oh, and it wasn’t her hypothesis; she simply picked up and ran with an idea that had been around for some time. Finally, I wasn’t discussing the facts of how these things play out. We were talking about motivations and I maintain that the thought that posing a significant challenge to Darwin would make one’s reputation is often an important factor.

  10. GBJames
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the “scientists are always out to make a name for themselves” point…

    I doubt this one if only because you don’t see similar calls for “reform” of Chemistry or “reform” of Physics. Nor for parts of Biology that aren’t directly perceived of as Evolution. Does anyone ever call for the “reform” of Cell Biology or Anatomy?

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      you don’t see similar calls for “reform” of Chemistry or “reform” of Physics.

      So you haven’t seen any of the flurry of papers put by Milgrom and coworkers over the last few months, still trying to modify Newtonian gravitational theory after 30-odd years.
      Even if it’s unsuccessful, there’s benefit in trying to beak the foundations. If thy can survive hole-hunting by skilled theoretical physicists (or biologists in the headline topic), then there’s unlikely to be a coach-&-horses compatible hole in there.
      (It’s sad, but weekdays I sped at least a quarter hour reading the morning’s list of new papers on Arxiv in several classes of physics and astronomy. The MOND people have been busy the last year or so – more so than previosu times I’ve been trying to be systematic in the past. I guess that LIGO threw them some data to beat their drums with.)

  11. Alan
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t know about the Charlesworth et al. paper. Perhaps I shouldn’t have bought Eldredge’s book “Eternal ephemera”. Have you read it?

    Oh well, I also got “the extended phenotype” so I’ll get both viewpoints.

    • Posted December 26, 2016 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      I’ve just now begun to read it, but quickly hit a part that raises my blood pressure. It contains a much-repeated misinterpretation of population genetics, the myth that for neutral alleles in a subdivided population, more than one migrant per generation (or every other generation) is enough to prevent genetic divergence within a species. Lande started a whole ecological school of thought (Lande 1996, see Veech, Summervile, Crist, and Gering 2002) incorporating this error, based on misconceptions about the mathematics of partitioning diversity into within- and between-group components (Jost 2006, 2007, 2008). I have to confess that this sort of thing erodes my confidence in the care they take with their other arguments. After all, math is easy to verify, they didn’t even have to leave their desks to check their conclusion about this, but they never did.

      I asked geneticist James Crow why nobody (including him) checked this famous conclusion. He told me that people took it for granted that if magnitudes of the the within-group heterozygosity and total heterozygosity were about the same, the subpopulations must be similar in allelic composition at that locus. So when people did simulations back then (when it was much harder and slower than now) they just looked at the final heterozygosities and not at the actual allele frequencies.

      • Posted December 26, 2016 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        About those early simulations– to minimize memory usage, the early simulations may not have modeled individual alleles but may have just used the equations for how heterozygosity changes with time…

        • Alan
          Posted December 27, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for pointing me to these papers!

          I’m reading them now.

  12. stuartcoyle
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Large scale reform is not how science works. Incremental change is how it works, though sometimes those increments are large. For example when Special Relativity was announced, physicists just added it to their body of knowledge, they didn’t burn their copies of Newton’s Principia and denounce him as being wrongheaded. I’m pretty sure that any valuable additions to evolutionary theory would be of the same type. Darwin won’t be binned.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      Large scale reform is not how science works. Incremental change is how it works

      At least one of the geologists who reads here regularly literally grew up with the echoes of the plate tectonics revolution echoing in his text books. Large scale reforms have happened in the past – they just get less likely with time. In particular, each wave of “large scale (attempted) reform” does have an effect on it’s field, either weakening it’s foundations to a degree, or strengthening them.
      As the scope of geological knowledge expanded from the single basin (country) to multiple basins/ countries simultaneously, and having to really appreciate the global context of matters, geology underwent a change of scope. By good luck, at the same time the first returns from planetary probes started coming in, which is continuing to provide the subject with regular mild batterings from the rest of the Solar system, which is hopefully helping to solidify the foundations of “Planetary Science” with Geology as on specialism in it (and indeed, Areology another sub-field).

    • Posted December 27, 2016 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      You don’t just add relativity to the body of knowledge. That was a revolution if ever there was one. Same with QM, and same with evolution by natural selection. To call these “incremental changes” is to make the word “incremental” meaningless.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 27, 2016 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        Incremental, I think, may refer to the fact that the new does not cause the old to be completely wrong. Relativity replaced Newtonian mechanics, but Newtonian mechanics is still very accurate except at very high speeds. Newtonian gravity was “action at a distance”, as he was aware. He concluded that there would be a better formulation in the future that would explain the underlying mechanism. When a field theory of gravity was introduced, Newtons formulas still worked in the domains it had been developed in. Relativity does not say the inverse square law no longer applies and we’re going to have to move to a inverse cube law for all the cases involving cabbages and kings. In this sense the new did not throw away the old, it refined it. So, it’s fair to say “incremental” change.

  13. Michael Fisher
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I think that even scientists in the biology fields have trouble grasping how deep time is! The magnificent white cliffs of Dover [as an example] are the small visible pert of a chalk formation that is the detritus of living organisms since the Cretaceous – a fraction of the time we’ve had life on Earth.

    Boggles the mind & all that!

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      The point I was trying to make is that the lack of appreciation of the depth of time makes sceptics of scientists re the existing mechanisms of Darwinian evolution – they keep looking for additional stuff to ‘explain’ what they see now. Darwinian evolution is [to me] frankly incredible in every respect – I’m a believer, but it does blow my mind.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 26, 2016 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

        I was having lunch with a relative today, who can accept microevolution, but can’t handle macroevolution. Deep time failure. I’m still trying to figure out how to bring appropriate evidence which he’s seen all his life into the focus of Deep Time. Particularly now that the fine laminations in the local quarries have eroded away.

  14. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    It is at first puzzling why John Welch does not explicitly say the fairly obvious, as you do, that a major reason for this phenomenon is because the advocates are careerists. Perhaps he was choosing to be diplomatic. But I can see why the diplomatic approach may be best for a peer reviewed publication.
    Even so, with this journal publication Dr. Welch has done more to genuinely assist the science of evolution than any 10 of them, in my estimation. I can hope that more such publications take place that enumerate and make widely known the many flaws of the ‘new wave’, and call out the careerists to come up with some evidence as to why this factor is real, or why that factor is uniquely outside the Modern Synthesis.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      Welch does address careerism in his footnote #2, with a quote from Lewontin making the same point about Gould that Jerry makes above.

  15. harrync
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    There seems to be a similar problem in macroeconomics. The basics were worked out many years ago – to oversimplify, when the private economy falters, the government should step in and pick up the slack. But you don’t get tenure by saying “Hey, Keynes and Kindleberger were right.” So we get austerity when we need stimulus.

  16. Posted December 27, 2016 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    “Steve Gould and Niles Eldredge, with their theory of punctuated equilibrium proposed in the Seventies, essentially made the extreme non-Darwinian claim that big evolutionary changes happens when small populations somehow lose their “genetic equilibrium” (how wasn’t specified)…”

    I wonder how long ago you read their texts, books as well as the initial paper (once described as “evolution by jerks” (pun intended by its author) and how good is your memory.

    ” and, further, that species selection was responsible for trends in the fossil record as well as adaptations themselves.”

    Yes, this is a fair game. Gould in particular claimed an active role for the “arrow of time” in the form of commitment along the path taken by one species by later speciation. The ratchet comes to mind as analogous. a passive device at best.

    How about commenting on Jeffrey Schwartz’s claims in Sudden Origins.

    • Posted December 27, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Did anyone take Jeffrey Schwartz seriously? His understanding of genetics was appallingly bad. He bought into a badly outdated idea about mutations that arise as recessives and later evolve dominance. That, he suggested, allowed basically invisible mutations to spread through a population, then suddenly appear when they became dominant. Why he thought that would work better then mutations spreading because of selective advantage I could never make out. Note: I may not have done total justice to his argument since I found it too muddled to really follow.

  17. Posted December 27, 2016 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    An impending pension deficit disorder can be a powerful motivator.

    Evolution is a science detested by so many people that there is good money to be made telling them that it’s somehow wrong, so they can continue to deluded themselves that they have a close personal relationship with the creator of the Universe. Those wacky scientists! What do they know! And here’s a great scientist telling us we’re right!

  18. Tom
    Posted December 27, 2016 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    Many professional people are content to stand on the shoulders of the giants in their profession, some just want to fill their boots

  19. darrelle
    Posted December 27, 2016 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    “I think this is true: someone who’s steeped in the field, and realizes that “selfish gene” is just a metaphor, for instance, might have a very different take on adaptation than do laypeople or biologists in other fields.”

    It has been surprising for me to see how common this one is even among academics, let alone the rest of the general public. For example, a couple of years ago I was part of an interesting conversation on another forum about just this kind of thing.

    This link is to the beginning of that conversation.

    This second link is to my main comment in that conversation.

    It seems to me that a key driver in this issue of dissing the TOE is a strong attachment to certain ideas of human specialness derived, to one degree or another, from religious belief traditions. So many of the arguments put forth against evolution are based on non sequitur moral consequence arguments. The arguments might start out based on science, perhaps bad science but science, but if you push you’ll eventually hear moral arguments based on naturalistic fallacies. I’m not claiming this characterizes all of the dissenters, not at all. But a large number of them.

  20. Posted December 27, 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    “Others, such as ‘niche construction’, have long been accepted by evolutionists under another name, so what’s new is simply a neologism.”

    What other names? (I’m not questioning your statement, I just want to do some research.)

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted December 27, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      See Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype.

      Though as Welch tells it, “niche construction” isn’t just a renaming of familiar concepts; it’s an attempt to impute evolutionary agency to organisms that engage in it.

      Conventional evolutionary theory recognizes that building dams has the effect of exposing beavers to novel selection pressures. Niche constructionists (says Welch) go too far by suggesting that beavers build dams for the purpose of exposing their descendants to novel selection pressures, thereby becoming “co-directors of their own evolution”.


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