Saga of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis

Scottish Bog

“However, while the Altenberg 16 organizers noted that their July symposium ‘could turn into a major stepping stone for the entire field of evolutionary biology,’ this book is not an endorsement of any attempt to ‘graft’ novel ideas onto the Modern Synthesis—only of the decision to begin sorting out the mess.  The real task is one of making a coherent theory of evolution, including pre-biotic evolution, where none previously existed.  That will require casting a wide net for visionaries who have political courage.”—Suzan Mazur, The Altenberg 16, An Exposé of the Evolution Industry

A decade ago I published a ground-breaking story about an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES), four months in advance of the first scientific symposium on that subject in Altenberg, Austria. The meeting in July 2008 at Konrad Lorenz Institute held great promise and featured then-lively themes like epigenetics, punctuated evolution, niche construction and theory of form.  However, personal pettiness and political timidity on the part of event organizers took their toll on the scientific reach of the conference proceedings, despite a book being published by MIT two years later about the event.

In October 2015, there was an attempt by scientists to resuscitate EES in a Royal Society article with no attention to the biggest part of the biosphere—viruses and microbes.  The following April they succeeded in securing $8 million in funding from the Templeton Foundation, a deep-pockets, non-transparent organization that has a soft spot for supporting projects that pursue a science & religion theme—which, unfortunately, taints scientific results. Then in November 2016 there was a public Royal Society evolution summit with almost half the presenters related to the EES project, where we heard about natural selection ad nauseam until Sir Patrick Bateson, an organizer of the event, cautioned from the stage that the term was a metaphor only and its use should be kept to a minimum.

A week or so ago an essay defending the EES project but offering no new science was featured in an online magazine called Aeon, written by Templeton-funded EES principal investigator Kevin Laland—an animal behavioralist at St Andrews University in Scotland.

Aeon, whose publisher has a Master’s degree in the psychology of religion, accepts funding from Templeton World Charity Foundation, among other charities, so it is not surprising to see the Laland story appearing there.

In the unconvincing Aeon article, “Evolution unleashed,” Laland asks the question:  “If the extended evolutionary synthesis is not a call for a revolution in evolution, then what is it, and why do we need it?

Good point.  To answer Laland’s question—We don’t need it.  We don’t need a graft onto Darwinism and neo-Darwinism.

What we do need is a coherent evolutionary theory, untainted by mystical influences and non-transparent funding.  An evolutionary theory that reflects the world of microbes and viruses that all animals, plants and fungi live in and that includes pre-biotic evolution as well.

Laland says further in his recent piece that he knows of no biologist who wants to “throw out natural selection.” But Laland was a presenter at the Royal Society evolution conference where Pat Bateson said onstage that natural selection was merely a metaphor, cautioning about its use.  And is it really possible that Laland never heard of Eugene Koonin and Richard Lewontin, who had this to say about natural selection?:

“Perhaps making all these parallels between natural selection and artificial selection, the way Darwin does in his book, could be somewhat dangerous because in artificial selection there is someone who is selecting, even if unconsciously.  In that respect, the evolutionary process is very different in nature where nothing is there to actually select. . . .  No one in the mainstream scientific community now takes selection literally.”—Eugene Koonin in conversation with me in 2017

“The circulation of the proof copy of What Darwin Got Wrong, the product of a noted philosopher and a prominent student of linguistics and cognitive science, has resulted in a volume of critical comment from biologists and philosophers that has not been seen since 1859. . . .  Not to be misunderstood, perhaps biologists should stop referring to “natural selection,” and instead talk about differential rates of survival and reproduction.”—Richard Lewontin, New York Review of Books, 2010

Lewontin was, of course, referring to Jerry Fodor’s compelling philosophical argument:

“Sometimes when I’m in a mildly bitter mood I think, look the trouble with Darwin is he believes in Intelligent Design.  He never really got it clear to himself that there really isn’t a designer. So it’s questionable whether you can take artificial selection as a model for natural selection the way he did.  When you try to do that you can’t work it out.”—Jerry Fodor talking to me in 2008

Finally, Laland makes the point that “the vast majority of researchers working towards an extended evolutionary synthesis are simply ordinary, hardworking evolutionary biologists.”

“Simply ordinary”?  Science is all about bold discovery and hopefully evolutionary biologists are in it for that reason.  If not, science is not being served, neither is the public that funds science.

I recently traveled to St Andrews, home of St Andrews University (founded in 1413).  It’s a trek getting there from New York as well as a trip back in time.  Named for Scotland’s patron saint who was crucified on an X-shaped cross in Greece in 60 AD, St Andrews is a seaside town (population 14,000) set against a countryside of misty fields, potato farms, and roads designed by sheep.  But the EES being rehashed from St Andrews is not a reflection of the quaintness and remoteness of the region, although EES is clearly mired in the bog.


3 thoughts on “Saga of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis

  1. Dear Suzan, I would suggest an interview to Gaston Naessens. I believe that somatids can improve our knowledge on evolution. Don’t you think so?


  2. “Roads designed by sheep” may be a characterization of those agreeing or otherwise with Darwin’s defining the processes of evolution.


  3. Good article! — I have always thought that Kevin Laland was a geneticist by training, until I read his latest pro-neo-Darwinism essay on the Aeon that I just commented on my Facebook page here: — Now I knew it better, after reading your report above: As an animal behaviorist by training, Laland is definitely a diehard neo-Darwinist by profession one who is unable to dismantle the very flawed evolutionary theory of the Modern Synthesis (since the 1930s-40s) but to extend it as the EES, which is just as you concluded above: “being mired in the bog”!? 🙂

    Best, Mong 2/3/18usct11:25; practical public science-philosophy critic (since 2006).


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