Moving beyond Darwin
But Darwin clearly didn’t have all the answers, and science has moved many miles since his time. One of the few journalists following this story has been Suzan Mazur, whose reports we have published from time to time. Now she’s writing about a conference next November that will undoubtedly give post-Darwinian science more attention.
She wrote yesterday:
Principal organizers of the upcoming Royal Society meeting on a paradigm shift to a more sublime evolutionary synthesis are mum about exactly who’s invited to speak … The meeting scheduled for November 7-9 is a public one, co-sponsored by the British Academy for the humanities and social sciences.
Prime movers of the event are: Oxford physiologist and Royal Society Fellow, Denis Noble — who has already made his case for replacing the modern synthesis; Sir Patrick Bateson, FRS, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2003 for his service to biology and currently serves as president of the Zoological Society of London; Nancy Cartwright, Lady Hampshire, a University of Durham/University of California-San Diego philosopher of science and Fellow of the British Academy; John Dupré, a philosopher of biology at the University of Exeter whose interest is in the “processes of life” and their relevance to society; and Kevin Laland, whose research focus at the University of St. Andrews is animal behavior (humans included) and evolution.
What follows are some clips that help give a feeling for what’s going on. And it deserves a lot more attention than it has so far received.
Royal Society – Developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields have produced calls for revision of the standard theory of evolution, although the issues involved remain hotly contested. This meeting will present these developments and arguments in a form that will encourage cross-disciplinary discussion and, in particular, involve the humanities and social sciences in order to provide further analytical perspectives and explore the social and philosophical implications.
Denis Noble – What we are now discovering is that there are mechanisms by which some acquired characteristics can be inherited, and inherited robustly. So it’s a bit odd to describe adding something like that to the synthesis.. .A more honest statement is that the synthesis needs to be replaced.
…. I think that as a gene-centric view of evolution, the modern synthesis has got causality in biology wrong. Genes, after all, if they’re defined as DNA sequences, are purely passive. DNA on its own does absolutely nothing until activated by the rest of the system … So on its own, DNA is not a cause in an active sense. I think it is better described as a passive data base which is used by the organism to enable it to make the proteins that it requires.
… The experimental evidence now exists for various forms and various mechanisms by which an acquired characteristic can be transmitted.
From an interview with Stuart Newman, a cell biologist and professor of anatomy at New York Medical College:
Suzan Mazur: Some scientists say we need a whole new language to reflect the reality of non-linear evolution. What are your thoughts?
Stuart Newman: Non-linear means that you can’t look at straight lines of descent anymore because viruses and other entities are coming in at all stages of evolution. Classically this — horizontal transfer — has been considered a rare thing. With the new understanding of what viruses can do, the non-linear approach becomes much more prominent.
The idea is that when you look at the early history of life and the origin of the cell, you really can’t track linearly from primitive form through changes in the genome to later forms because entities are now understood to be coming in laterally from other forms. It’s new thinking and I have no disagreement with it.
Suzan Mazur: The thinking is that viruses as active organisms can enter a cell membrane, for example, manipulate its protein receptors and then proceed to make copies.
Stuart Newman: They manipulate proteins because they’re carrying genetic information into the cell, they arrange for new proteins to be made that the cell didn’t make before.
Sir Paul Nurse, former president of the Royal Society: Maybe biology is on the edge of something similar to 1905 physics with the emerging complexity of biological systems — in fact, a move from straight forward linear causality. And I wonder whether biology may go through a revolution in the coming decades.
Evolution in Four Dimensions – Ideas about heredity and evolution are undergoing a revolutionary change. New findings in molecular biology challenge the gene-centered version of Darwinian theory according to which adaptation occurs only through natural selection of chance DNA variations. In Evolution in Four Dimensions, Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb argue that there is more to heredity than genes. They trace four “dimensions” in evolution—four inheritance systems that play a role in evolution: genetic, epigenetic (or non-DNA cellular transmission of traits), behavioral, and symbolic (transmission through language and other forms of symbolic communication). These systems, they argue, can all provide variations on which natural selection can act. The new synthesis advanced by Jablonka and Lamb makes clear that induced and acquired changes also play a role in evolution.