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6a00d8341bf68b53ef010534c22ae7970c-800wi It seems that rather regularly there is a debate within evolutionary biology, or at least in public about evolutionary biology, where something new and bright and shiny is going to revolutionize the field. In general this does not pan out. I would argue there hasn’t been a true revolution in evolutionary biology since Mendelian genetics and classical Darwinism were fused in the 1920s and 1930s during the period when population genetics as a field was developed, and the famous “synthesis” developed out of the interaction of the geneticists with other domains of evolutionary relevance. This does not mean that there have not been pretenders to the throne. Richard Goldschmidt put forward his “hopeful monsters,” neutralism reared its head in the 1970s, and evo-devo was all the rage in the 2000s. Developments that bore scientific fruit, such as neutralism, were integrated seamlessly into evolutionary biology, while those that did not, such as Goldschmidt’s saltationism fell by the wayside. This is how normal science works.

bc_structure_evolutionary_theory_cover But every now and then you have a self-declared tribune of the plebs declaring that the revolution is nigh. For decades the late Stephen Jay Gould played this role to the hilt, decrying “ultra-Darwinism,” and frankly misrepresenting the state of evolutionary theory to the masses from his perch as a great popularizer. More recently you have had more muted and conventional revisionists, such as Sean Carroll, who promote a variant of evo-devo that acclimates rather well to the climes of conventional evolutionary biology.

Nature now has a piece out which seems to herald the launching of another salvo in this forever war, Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? It’s written in the form of opposing dialogues. I’m very much in the camp of those believe that there’s no reason to overturn old terms and expectations. Evolutionary biology is advancing slowly but surely into new territory. There’s no problem to solve. The one major issue where I might have to make a stand is that it focusing on genetics is critical to understanding evolution, and dethroning inheritance from the center of the story would eviscerate the major thread driving the plot. The fact that evolutionary biologists have the conceptual and concrete gene as a discrete unit of information and inheritance which they can inspect is the critical fact which distinguishes them from fields which employ similar formalisms but have never made comparable advances (such as economics).

• Category: Science • Tags: Evolution 
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  1. It seems to me that the authors arguing for the “extended” synthesis are really just trying to call attention to how developmental bias, plasticity, etc. are not just apart of biology but are drivers of evolution as well, not because it’s a totally novel idea, but because it’s something some evolutionary biologists don’t really like to admit or take into account in their work. I’ve literally been told by some big-wigs in the field that natural selection can do anything (and their point wasn’t simply that natural selection can do anything eventually, but were really trying to argue against the idea that constraints, biases, and limits need to be invoked, a sort of creationist-like denial of reality). So, my take on it is that Laland et al. really aren’t arguing against Wray et al., they’re arguing against the old guard in hopes that the up and coming evolutionary biologists hold a proper integrative perspective on evolutionary processes. As an evodevo focused person, I’m very sympathetic with Laland et al. and their message, but I don’t really think we need to change the terms of the “synthesis” as if we’re in a real paradigm shift. I think simply discussing the concepts as a regular part of the field, as is becoming the norm, should be enough.

    So, I think we mostly agree here, but I’m not sure I would interpret Laland et al. to be arguing that we should take genes out of the central focus (although if that wasn’t your intention with that bolded statement then forgive my misinterpretation). I think its much more subtle, that we just need to be sure not to forget the “environment” isn’t the only thing pushing genetic evolution around or biasing it’s trajectory. It does come off like they’re going too far when they want to rebrand evolution though.

  2. Were the large revolutionary/heretical claims made by evo devo and neutral theory made only by advocates, or also by their opponents? There’s a first argument about whether a given approach is right or not, and a second argument about what its status is within the history of evolutionary theory: revolutionary, evolutionary, heretical, revisionist, etc. Once something is accepted it’s orthodox.

    I don’t know when he switched, probably when evolution became a pop political topic, but after a certain point Gould declared himself to be a Darwinian. His earlier revolutionary claims may just have been attention-getting (lots of scientists do self-promote), or possibly a response to hidebound opposition.

    Reminds me a bit too much of sectarian Marxist debates.

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