Evolutionary science is as much about the posturing, salesmanship, stonewalling and bullying that goes on as it is about actual scientific theory. It is a social discourse involving hypotheses of staggering complexity with scientists, recipients of the biggest grants of any intellectuals, assuming the power of politicians while engaged in Animal House pie-throwing and name-calling: "ham-fisted", "looney Marxist hangover", "secular creationist", "philosopher" (a scientist who can’t get grants anymore), "quack", "crackpot". . .
In short, it’s a modern day quest for the holy grail, but with few knights. At a time that calls for scientific vision, scientific inquiry’s been hijacked by an industry of greed, with evolution books hyped like snake oil at a carnival.
Perhaps the most egregious display of commercial dishonesty is next year’s celebration of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species – the so-called theory of evolution by natural selection, i.e., survival of the fittest, that was foisted on us almost 150 years ago.
Scientists agree that natural selection can occur. But the scientific community has known for some time that natural selection has nothing to do with evolution. ...
I broke the story about the Altenberg affair last March with the assistance of Alastair Thompson and the team at Scoop Media, the independent news agency based in New Zealand. ... But will the A-16 deliver? Will they help rid us of the natural selection "survival of the fittest" mentality that has plagued civilization for a century and a half, and on which Darwinism and neo-Darwinism are based, now that the cat is out of the bag that selection is politics not science? That selection cannot be measured exactly. That it is not the mechanism of evolution. That it is an abstract rusty tool left over from 19th century British imperial exploits.
Or will the A-16 tip-toe around the issue, appease the Darwin industry and protect foundation grants?
Eeeyikes! Just think what she would have wrote if the topic were creationists!
All kidding aside, there does seem to be, at the very least, a degree of frustration with the role natural selection plays in evolution. Suzan reports that cytogeneticist, Antonio Lima-de-Faria, author of "Evolution Without Selection", "sees any continuance of the natural selection concept as 'compromise'." She also accuses science blogs of "stonewalling" new ideas such as self-organisation:
...one of the stars of the symposium, New York Medical College cell biologist Stuart Newman, hypothesizes that all 35 animal phyla self-organized at the time of the Cambrian explosion (a half billion years ago) without a genetic recipe or selection (hardwiring supposedly followed). Emphasis mine
Allow me to address two items. First, I can see why the science blogs* are bristling at either setting aside or demoting natural selection. Take away NS and all you are left with is one big game of Yahtzee. IOW, evolution without the contingency of NS becomes a framework of chance. If this is true, then I think it's obvious that the new synthesis will be weaker than the one it replaces. What would you prefer: pure chance or chance coupled with contingency?
Second, this could very well be a case of a reporter "glamorising" a simple symposium to sell her article and get her name out there. Take the words of Massimo Pigliucci (HT to Todd Berkebile @ TT):
So, what are the Altenberg 16 going to do in Altenberg next week? ... The agenda is to discuss the current status of evolutionary theory, with a particular emphasis on developments -- some of them under intense debate -- that have occurred since the last version of it has been in put in place back in the 1930s and ‘40s. ...
In the 1930s and ‘40s it became clear that one had to integrate the original Darwinism with the new disciplines of Mendelian and statistical genetics. Such integration occurred through a series of meetings where scientists discussed the status of evolutionary theory, and through the publication of a number of books by people like Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, George Gaylor Simpson, George Ledyard Stebbins and others. The result was an updated theoretical framework known as the Modern Synthesis (MS). But of course evolutionary biology has further progressed during the last eight decades (unlike, one cannot help but notice, creationism). So for a few years now several evolutionary biologists have suggested that it may be time for another update, call it evolutionary theory 3.0 or, as many of us have begun to refer to it, the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES)**.
A number of authors, including Stephen Gould, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Eva Jablonka, Stuart Kauffman, Stuart Newman, the above mentioned Gerd Müller, and myself, have published papers and books recently attempting to articulate what an EES might look like, and which elements of the MS will need to be retained, modified or discarded (just like the MS had retained, modified or discarded individual components of the original Darwinism). The goal of the Altenberg workshop is to get some of these people around the same table for three days and trade ideas about these sorts of questions.
So is this a case of tip-toeing to "appease the Darwin industry and protect foundation grants", or is Suzan Mazur exaggerating the outcome of the summit?
The asylum is now open for comments.
HT to Grandma O'Leary @ Post-Darwinist
*I am sure that not all of the science blogs are "stonewalling". This is likely a generalisation on Suzan Mazur's part that isprobably accurate for the majority of the science blogs out there.
**I would encourage everyone to read this pdf file describing the framework for the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (myself included). After all, this is the potential new synthesis many anticipate will come from meetings like Altenberg. Time will tell whether the EES survives or not.