The Scientific Revolution in Evolution

Monday, January 25, 2010

|| By: StaffScience and Scientist ||  

Suzan Mazur
Suzan Mazur, journalist for Scoop, Independent News, recently reported [1] that what is planned for this July (2008) “promises to be more transforming for the world than Woodstock.” Challenging the central doctrine of Evolution – Natural selection – is the controversial topic that scientists will discuss at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Altenberg, Austria. This meeting of 16 renowned biologists and philosophers could transform the whole concept of Darwinian evolution and with it the entire way that scientists and the rest of us view the world.
  
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The theory of evolution that is accepted by most biologists and is taught in our schools is proving to be inadequate for explaining the world as we know it today because of its pre-DNA roots, its inability to explain body forms, and its antiquated formulation that renders it irrelevant to other new discoveries in modern biology. The 150 year old theory of Charles Darwin was last upgraded 70 years ago in the form of neo-Darwinian evolution. All accounts indicate that a major shift is about to occur again, away from the population genetic-centered conception that has been currently adopted.
 
The role that natural selection plays in evolution in filtering out those characteristics that are unfavorable for survival is mistakenly assumed by many to be the central mechanism for evolution. But the process that creates a particular organism to be selected is not a product of natural selection. In fact, the actual mechanism for producing one species from another presently is not known.
 
Richard Lewontin, Harvard evolutionary geneticist, thinks that the idea of natural selection came from the free market capitalism that Darwin was caught up in. He commented, “That’s where Darwin got the idea from, that’s for sure…He read the stock market every day…How do you think he made a living?” [1].
 
 

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Stanley Salthe [2], a philosopher at Binghamton University, NY, agrees with Lewontin. He is also a strong critic of the theory of natural selection, which he thinks may be a real phenomenon, but claims that it has never been demonstrated to affect long term changes in populations.   

Both Lewontin and philosopher, Massimo Pigliucci are critical of Fodor for not knowing enough about the intricacies of biology to raise issues regarding the irrelevance of natural selection. As a philosopher, Pigliucci does ask the hard questions: “Is the paradigm you’re working with, in fact, working? Is it useful? Could it be better?”   

For instance, epigenetic inheritance is a mechanism that Darwin did not even know existed. Experimental evidence implies that there may be a whole chemical layer that exists on top of the genes that is inheritable but is not DNA. Neo-Darwinism attempts to incorporate mutations at the DNA level, but it does not take this extra layer of inheritable material into account.   

Spontaneously organized material systems, formed by a process called self-organization – like snowflakes, hurricanes, etc. – grow in complexity from processes involving simple forces of attraction and repulsion. The production of biological forms is much more complex and, of course, remains one of the essential processes for which evolutionary biologists have yet to provide any sound explanation.   

Stuart Kauffman, developmental biologist and head of the Biocomplexity and Informatics Institute at the University of Calgary in Canada, has done most of his research on the study of self-organization. Informatics, by the way, is the combined study of information theory and thermodynamics. While snowflakes can form without needing natural selection to do so, the competition for resources that confront living organisms is where natural selection becomes a factor. At the same time, Darwin’s theory begins with life, so it does not apply to, what to speak of explain how life itself began.   

Genes are molecules, which are “utterly dead,” Kauffman explains. There are approximately 25,000 genes, which each have two states – on or off. That amounts to about 10 to the 7000th permutations. Considering that there are only 10 to the 80th particles in the universe, the probabilities involved in forming these molecules is staggering. Yet cells and organisms also involve a very complex set of processes that activate or inhibit one another, so that much more than genes are involved. Kauffman’s view can best be represented in the new book he has published entitled “Reinventing the Sacred” [3].   

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He believes that self-organization has to be added to the Darwinian formulation, and that the relation of self-organization to selection is “barely understood.” On the other hand, Stuart Pivar, with the background of both a chemist and engineer, thinks natural selection is irrelevant to self-organization. He believes that body forms derive from a basic egg-cell membrane structure called the multi-torus. The identification of the dynamic torus of the sea urchin embryo, which looks like an elongated smoke ring, gives some empirical credence to his theory.   

Lewontin thinks that the structure of the cell membrane may certainly have some influence on the future development of the body, and that it is not dependent purely upon the genes and nucleus of the cell. However, he doesn’t think it can be the sole explanation of the body forms. Pivar, on the other hand, believes it is the only determining factor.   

Michael Lynch, author of “The Origins of Genome Architecture,” doesn’t believe that a new extended evolutionary synthesis that incorporates complexity, body formation, etc. is needed. He considers that the challenge is to connect genomic level evolution with cell development and the encompassing phenotypic system.   

Jerry Fodor, a philosopher at Rutgers University, wrote a scathing critique of natural selection in the London Review of Books called “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings” [4]. In his article he explains that biologists now think that the concept of natural selection has outlived its usefulness and that it cannot survive the modern demands of biology. He believes that a new theory has to be developed that will not include the natural selection story. He also admitted it is very difficult to get this kind of attack on natural selection in print without risking severe counter attack.   

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Fodor writes,   

“… Darwin’s theory of evolution has two parts. One is its familiar historical account of our phylogeny; the other is the theory of natural selection, which purports to characterise the mechanism not just of the formation of species, but of all evolutionary changes in the innate properties of organisms. According to selection theory, a creature’s ‘phenotype’ – the inventory of its heritable traits, including, notably, its heritable mental traits – is an adaptation to the demands of its ecological situation. Adaptation is a name for the process by which environmental variables select among the creatures in a population the ones whose heritable properties are most fit for survival and reproduction. So environmental selection for fitness is (perhaps plus or minus a bit) the process par excellence that prunes the evolutionary tree.”   

In other words, if it is the type of the environment (ecotype) that selects a particular phenotype according to its survivability in that particular environment, then the mechanism of adaption is primarily exogenous to the phenotype. On the other hand it is generally assumed that variations in the endogenous traits of the phenotype are the main factors responsible for adaption to the environment. If both are at work, then exogenous ecotypic factors are responsible for endogenous phenotypic development, and something more complicated than mere biomolecular considerations of living organisms is required. So far, such a theory has not been developed.   

Fodor continues,   

“In fact, an appreciable number of perfectly reasonable biologists are coming to think that the theory of natural selection can no longer be taken for granted. This is, so far, mostly straws in the wind; but it’s not out of the question that a scientific revolution – no less than a major revision of evolutionary theory – is in the offing. Unlike the story about our minds being anachronistic adaptations, this new twist doesn’t seem to have been widely noticed outside professional circles. The ironic upshot is that at a time when the theory of natural selection has become an article of pop culture, it is faced with what may be the most serious challenge it has had so far. Darwinists have been known to say that adaptationism is the best idea that anybody has ever had. It would be a good joke if the best idea that anybody has ever had turned out not to be true. A lot of the history of science consists of the world playing that sort of joke on our most cherished theories.”   

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To suggest that it is premature to try to synthesize a new theory of evolution at the present time, is only to admit that eventually the task will have to be taken up in the future. This only brings up the question, why would we want to postpone such an effort?   

The scientists at Bhaktivedanta Institute understand that a completely non-evolutionary ontology of life has to be developed. Thus any attempt at explaining the variety of species will be problematic until the irreducibility of life as a distinct and fundamental feature of Nature is recognized. This means that life is neither a product of matter, nor is it the result of any material process, pattern or design. According to this conception of life, the gradual erosion of the Darwinian theory of evolution or any other extensions thereof must be expected in the scientific pursuit of knowledge.   

References:   


 [1] Suzan Mazur, “Altenberg! The Woodstock of Evolution?” Scoop, Independent News, 4 March 2008, http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/print.html?path=HL0803/S00051.htm.   

[2] Stanley N. Salthe, webpage at http://www.nbi.dk/~natphil/salthe/.   

[3] Stuart Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, Basic Books, 2008.   

[4] Jerry Fodor, “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings,“ London Review of Books, 18 October 2007 http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n20/fodo01_.html.

 

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