Here we go again: a Templeton-sponsored conference designed to “expand” evolutionary biology

When I was sent this announcement of a conference on evolution at Cambridge University next year (click on screenshots), and when I read the program and saw the speakers (links at third screenshot), I smelled a RAT (abbreviation for “rubbish and Templeton”), but I didn’t know for sure that the John Templeton Foundation was one of the sponsors till I clicked on the page given in the fourth screenshot.

And this page gives the aims of the conference and the names of the speakers (I know of only one of them, but of course I’ve been out of active science for a while):

This is the same tired old panoply of buzzwords that we’ve seen before: developmental bias (true in some sense, but we haven’t the slightest idea how important it is in evolution), developmental plasticity (a substitute for natural selection and mutation in initiating adaptive evolution, but again with virtually no evidence to support it) and “extra-genetic inheritance”—read “epigenetics”—another completely unevidenced factor in adaptive evolutionary change. What we have in this program, then, is a group of overly ambitious people, instantiated in the “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” site (see below), who keep writing papers and having meetings touting their unevidenced theories, hoping that by sheer force of verbiage they’ll hijack modern evolutionary theory.

As for “balance”, there isn’t any in this conference: I see no critics of these buzz-topics on the program (they could, for example, have chosen the eminent critics Brian Charlesworth or Doug Futuyma, whose papers I cite below).

The odor of the Templeton Rat—remember that the nefarious rat in the book Charlotte’s Web was named “Templeton”!)—led me to this, which is exactly what I expected. Templeton is deeply invested, both programatically and financially, in overturning the modern view of evolution, perhaps because they think the “extended synthesis” will somehow promote spirituality or at least do down traditional evolutionary biology:

What is the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES)? You can read about it here, but it’s tendentious: designed explicitly to overturn long-standing aspects of what we call “neo-Darwinism”. Here’s what it’s designed to overthrow (these criticisms are followed by the “replacement theories” of the EES on the page:

We already know that new variation can arise through horizontal gene transfer as well as mutation, but that’s not part of the EES, whose proponents want to include epigenetic variation induced by the environment that mysteriously becomes heritable and a part of the DNA. Then—presto—adaptive evolution occurs! That there is not a lick of evidence for his idea hasn’t fazed its supporters at all. As I’ve stressed before, there is no evidence for any epigenetic changes lasting more than a couple of generations, and virtually no evidence that such changes have been part of adaptive evolutionary change. And to “natural selection”, which has been demonstrated time and time again, EES proponents want to add another arcane mechanism in which nonadaptive developmental plasticity somehow becomes incorporated into the genome as an adaptive phenomenon. Despite thousands of pages written about that, there are no convincing examples, and therefore NO evidence that such plasticity has played an “important” role in evolution.

I’ve leveled my criticisms at these “revolutionary” ideas time and time again (see here, for instance), but you can find them best incorporated in two recent papers (links free):

Charlesworth, D., N. H. Barton, and B. Charlesworth. 2017. The sources of adaptive variation. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 284.DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2016.2864 (see also my take on this)

Futuyma, D. J. 2015. Can modern evolutionary theory explain macroevolution?  Pp. 29-85 in E. a. N. G. Serelli, ed. Macroevolution: Explanation, Interpretation, and Evidence. Springer, Switzerland.

And here’s who funds the EES. Yep, it’s mostly Templeton again, with a consortium of decent universities all too ready to take filthy lucre. Fifty-one scientists have their hands in the till:

More aims of the EES:

The EES represents a new way of thinking about evolution, with its own assumptions, structure and predictions. It sets out to provide a coherent conceptual framework capable of inspiring novel research in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields.

We aim to:

  • Demonstrate the explanatory potential of EES thinking
  • Conduct critical empirical tests of key EES predictions
  • Devise novel conceptual and formal mathematical theory
  • Promote awareness of the role of conceptual frameworks in science and encourage pluralism

Our research will:

  • Provide definitive evaluations of the significance of hotly contested processes in evolution (e.g. niche construction, non-genetic inheritance)
  • Clarify the evolutionary importance of individual responses to the environment (plasticity)
  • Devise new theoretical approaches for complex genotype-to-phenotype relations
  • Establish to what extent developmental processes explain long-term trends, parallel evolution, biological diversity and evolvability

Note that the aims are often to “demonstrate” something rather than test it, and, indeed, this is my big objection to the EES program. While it’s possible that epigenetic inheritance, developmental plasticity as an initiator of adaptive evolutionary change, and other ideas have played some role in evolution, there is no evidence that they’re important. Indeed, this EES business has been promoted for years, and there’s little to show for it—certainly no widely accepted expansion of modern evolutionary theory except for the expansion of gaseous words produced by EES promoters. It’s a melange of theories without evidence—something that, indeed, the EES website admits:

What do people think of the EES?

The EES has been met with both enthusiasm and skepticism. The majority of responses to the EES research program are extremely supportive, but there are of course those who claim that the EES is not going to do any good. The skepticism is to some extent warranted, as the EES has yet to prove itself a vehicle for productive research within evolutionary biology. That is why this project sets out to put EES predictions to the test with a dedicated research program. The project aims to show that, precisely because it is spelled out in a disciplined way, the EES can stimulate novel questions, devise critical tests, open up new lines of enquiry, and provide insights that are unlikely under traditional perspectives.

Well, you know, these ideas have been floating around for about fifteen years or more, and if the EES hasn’t proven itself productive, except in getting dosh to scientists and yielding an endless stream of speculative papers, maybe it’s time to reassess its value. But as long as Templeton keeps handing out millions of dollars to promote these ideas, there will be a never-ending stream of grant-hungry scientists with their hands out, eager to advance their careers by promoting the Templeton agenda. To my mind, this is the biggest example of misguided careerism I’ve seen in evolutionary biology over my lifetime.


  1. GBJames
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 9:08 am | Permalink


  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Behind every great crime is a great fortune (if I may be permitted to mash-up Balzac a bit).

    And behind the current crop of crimes against biological science, the great fortune belonged to John Templeton.

    • yazikus
      Posted August 21, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink


    • Posted August 21, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Templeton funded it, but who are the freaks who are running it? Or should I say “what”?

  3. Hempenstein
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Does Chemistry have to put up with such appended terms as Modern Synthesis etc? New approaches come along from time to time, but I don’t think anyone tries to redefine the discipline.

    • Posted August 21, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      The quantum stuff still seems to divide people. My father, a “traditional” synthetic organic chemist seems to have never found it useful. I suspect his counterpart today to be a bit more optimistic, since we have more computer power to use.

      In the 19th century there were a lot of competing schools of thought. To pick one of many examples: Mendeleev was *not an atomist*. He wondered if perhaps the elements corresponded to peaks of a wave and that one could have intermediaries, elements lighter than hydrogen, etc.

  4. peter
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I can’t find the organizers on the website .

    • Posted August 21, 2018 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      Their names are at the bottom of the contact page.

  5. Alex
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I noticed from Twitter that EES is one of Massimo Pigliucci’s fetishes, alongside fighting the imaginary rise of “scientism”. Do you know if he has any connections with Templeton Foundation?

  6. peter
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I can’t find the organizers on the website .
    Only at the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis that particular piece of information is present:
    Luckily that page says: “We are hosting an international conference in Cambridge UK, 1-4 April 2019, as a grand finale of the John Templeton Foundation grant supporting this research program.” So, at least the Templeton grant support is finished.
    Anyone know anything about real results of that program?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted August 21, 2018 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      The grant isn’t finished – it runs until May 2019 see here
      There will be future grants without doubt
      There are no “real results” or we would have heard

  7. Posted August 21, 2018 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Filthy lucre or not, if these people follow the scientific method of “conducting critical tests of key EES predictions” and subjecting them to peer review and replication, should not the truth come out in the end?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted August 21, 2018 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t seen any “key EES predictions” that could be tested. These wrong headed notions within evolutionary theory are not new & the stink of them has wafted around for entire careers. There’s no reason for this to change going on past performance.

    • Posted August 21, 2018 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Jerry can say more, but I take it that his complaint is that *it has*, and we don’t need to rehash so much.

    • Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      Does proving mathematically that anything group selection can explain, can be better explained by kin selection, count?

      • Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

        I think any prediction by an EES theory that does not distinguish it from the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis is a waste of time. EES needs to predict something that the MES does not.

        • Posted August 22, 2018 at 6:57 am | Permalink

          I’d be inclined to call it “inclusive fitness” rather than “kin selection” to help forestall confusion

        • Posted August 22, 2018 at 10:06 am | Permalink

          Demands for predictive power are a symptom of the oppression of the Kyriarchy.

  8. Posted August 21, 2018 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    “Evolutionary biology has evolved…”

    Actually all they’ve done is mutated.

  9. Posted August 21, 2018 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    An item I see is that in the first screenshot are a series of bulls-eye patterns. That can only mean butterfly eye spots, which has been an interesting and profitable area of legitimate evo devo research. In short, networks of genes that have long been used for development of physical anatomy, like the locating and outgrowth of appendages, are turned on developing wings to control genes for pigments. The result are the eye spots in lepidopteran wings. It is really cool!
    So they are presumably going to get this interesting thing all icky with their crap philosophy.

    • W.Benson
      Posted August 21, 2018 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      I pretty much agree with Mark on all points.

  10. Historian
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Professor Coyne notes that the concept of horizontal gene transfer is not new. But, it seems that is getting more attention in the popular press recently due to a book by David Quammen entitled “The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life.” Of course, I do not know if this is a radical new discovery or whether it materially changes our understanding of evolution, but I’d be interested in the comments of people who can speak to this issue. The NYT review states that “horizontal gene transfer also poses a major challenge to the Darwinian concept of evolution, in which species evolve over time into separate lineages.”

    Here is the NYT review:

    Here is the review in the New Republic:

    • mikeyc
      Posted August 21, 2018 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      I have not read the book but from the review it sounds like a book about a phenomenon that has long been known and does not present any kind of problem for Darwinian evolution. It’s hard to tell from the review if the book is anything more that itself a review of our knowledge of horizontal gene transfer (that would be a welcome book) or if it’s another one of those authors who thinks they’ve got a Revolutionary New Way(TM)to explain Evolution.

      In short, in terms of this discussion, this is not a very informative review of the book. Perhaps someone here has read it?

    • Posted August 21, 2018 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      The book itself does not seem to push a new theory, at least based on the content of the review itself. Titles of articles are at times not made by the author that wrote the article, and so the title may seem sensationalized while the article itself is ok. That is my take on it in this case.
      Based on the review, the book is about how ‘horizontal gene transfer’ has altered the tree of life so it is not just a tree with vertical descent from ancestors to descendants. There are occasions where DNA is transferred ‘horizontally’ between different lineages. Almost all of this occurs among simpler prokaryote cells (bacteria and archae), but it is thought to also lie behind the singular origin of eukaryote cells (animals, plants, fungi, et al).
      This is an interesting but well accepted aspect of life today. It is a bit startling when one first learns of it, but in the end horizontal gene transfer is another source of genetic diversity that is then subjected to natural selection and genetic drift.

      • Historian
        Posted August 21, 2018 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        Thanks to you and Mikeyc for your comments.

    • Posted August 21, 2018 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      I have reviewed this book and I will give more information tomorrow when my take comes out.

    • W.Benson
      Posted August 21, 2018 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      In eukaryotes evolution describing parent-offspring relations, whether sexual or parthenogenic, CAN be represented as a tree. DNA can “invade” tree-like relationship by horizontal gene transfer, even in vertebrates. There doesn’t seem to be evidence that these injections of DNA have much effect on the particular paths “higher” species take during evolution. Here is a recently discovered case reviewed by Ed Yong a few years back: 25% of cow DNA originally came from a snake! phenomena/2013/01/01/how-a-quarter-of-the-cow-genome-came-from-snakes/

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      Horizontal gene transfer (HGT), or in general a net representation when resolution is poor, complements rather than supplants traditional vertical gene transfer tree topologies.

      There was, and to some degree still is, an active discussion on how much HGT affects lineage topologies since early sequencing showed that it happened so often that it had to be actively considered and controlled for. I.e. due to 4.5 billion year of evolution*, even at low frequencies HGT has happened on average roughly once per gene. Modern methods are able to account for it.

      *) As this is a new advance over earlier estimates, and it illustrates the degree of HGT, I think this new timeline for evolution is of interest. It is done by some of the best, but I haven’t had time to read and assimilate:

      [ ]

      Notably, if the root credibility interval correspond to actual history, it is barely enough for the crust to cool after the Moon creating impact.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

        The image is from the press release, and it seems clicking on it will expand so it is legible.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        Oh, and speaking of “the best”, they used the new and precise date for the Moon forming impact. So that part at least is sound.

  11. darrelle
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Can’t believe they didn’t invite you Jerry.

  12. Hempenstein
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    this is the biggest example of misguided careerism I’ve seen in evolutionary biology over my lifetime.

    Preening, careening careerism.

  13. David Harper
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Well, it does start on April Fool’s Day 🙂

    • Barbara Radcliffe
      Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      You beat me to it! April first was the first thing that I noticed. Very apt….

  14. Frank L Wagner
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    How does group or multilevel selection theory fit into this? Is it part of EES or a separate line of argument? I finished Robert Sapolsky’s Behave recently and he seemed to accept group selection theory, which puzzled me.

    • Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      They are both in that big grab-bag of motley pet postulates that make up EES.

  15. Jon Gallant
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Conferences, including those on shaky or even completely bogus subjects, are a time-honored tradition in academic life and academic careerism. I’ve come across CVs of junior academics of the post-modernist variety which included no published work at all, but only “conference” participation and presentations. The last word on the sociology of conferencemanship is David Lodge’s hilarious novel “Small World”, which I recommend to one and all.

  16. Taz
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    philosophy of evolutionary biology

    And there’s the escape clause that allows them to toss in whatever numinous crap they want.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 21, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Strictly speaking, philosophy of science refers to the study of how scientific knowledge is acquired, and how you decide if a theory is valid or not.
      It does not necessarily refer to metaphysical implications of science.

      • Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        In Pigliucci’s case, it’s treated as a license for accepting or dismissing theories based on how well they conform to the SJW moralistic fallacy.

      • Posted August 22, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        There is a well-established subfield of the metaphysics of science, which includes the feedback into general philosophy from scientific research.

        (See, e.g., Bunge, _Treatise on Basic Philosophy, vol. 3-4 or D. M. Armstrong’s work on states of affairs, truthmakers and properties.)

        • Posted August 22, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink

          (I pick these two because they are approximate contemporaries and are resolute non-religious materialists.)

  17. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    They seem to be taking something that is admittedly speculative and trying to find some sort of material substantial backing for it, but avoiding the reality that earlier attempts have simply not panned out. There comes a time when one must simply abandon a hypothesis, or acknowledge it as not testable.

    I don’t always agree with our host that “nuanced” is a ‘run-word’, but here I think “balanced” is a run-word in the same sense that it is on Fox News.

    I am more dis-impressed and wary of this than many other Templeton projects I’ve seen.

  18. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m a bit naive, apparently, when they talk about ‘extra-genetic inheritance’ I was thinking of religious indoctrination rather than epigenetics.

  19. Kiwi Dave
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    The specifics of all this are well above my pay grade, but this claim, “Provide definitive evaluations of the significance of hotly contested processes in evolution…”, must be either premature or oxymoronic.

  20. Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Have just looked at the list of invited speakers, and I’m puzzled. Quite a few seem to be working comfortably within the current modern synthesis. Other than Templeton funding, where is the dog-whistle signalling the Third Way types?

  21. Leigh Jackson
    Posted August 23, 2018 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    All very well to have a research program. The Discovery Institute has or had one of those.

    How long has that been going? 20 years or more? At best that was delusion in search of confirmation.

    Perhaps EES will prove more scientifically productive than ID. I have my doubts.

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