Some of you may have noticed a recent exchange in Nature on the question of whether evolutionary biology needs a re-think. The online article does not make clear the alignments of the listed authors, but those arguing in favor of a re-think are:
- Kevin Laland, Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, and John Odling-Smee
and those arguing against are:
- Gregory A. Wray, Hopi E. Hoekstra, Douglas J. Futuyma, Richard E. Lenski, Trudy F. C. Mackay, Dolph Schluter and Joan E. Strassmann
I was a bit surprised that they didn’t get people who actually disagree about science, like Mike Lynch and Sean Carroll. Instead, the debate takes place between participants who disagree on the meta-scientific question of whether the field needs a re-think. What is each side saying?
Last year I read James Shapiro’s Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (2013, FT Press) along with 2 other recent books, Nei’s Mutation-Driven Evolution and Koonin’s The Logic of Chance. All 3 fall into the category of recent books by seasoned researchers whose primary focus is molecular, and who argue that we ought to rethink evolution based on findings of molecular biology or molecular evolution. The 5-word summaries of these books are:
- Engineering, not accident, provides innovation (Shapiro)
- Mutation, not selection, drives evolution (Nei)
- After Darwinism, things get complicated (Koonin)
In the case of Koonin, you have to read the whole book to understand what he means. If you are not familiar with the past 10 to 20 years of findings from comparative genomics, then it will be educational, and regardless of your familiarity with genomics, it will be entertaining and thought-provoking. In the case of Nei, you can read the whole book and still not understand his thesis because he never defines terms and never actually compares mutation and selection to determine which one drives evolution (the wikipedia “mutationism” page has links to a handful of reviews of Nei’s book, including my review in Ev & Dev).
In Shapiro’s case, the book explains precisely what is meant by the idea that innovation is the result of engineering, not accident, though he leaves open the question of what are the general implications of this for evolutionary theory. (more…)
This post wraps up a 6-part series on the Mutationism Myth (a more scholarly version of this material ended being published in J. Hist. Biol. by Stoltzfus and Cable, 2014), and sets the stage for the future by locating the primary weakness of the 20th century neo-Darwinian consensus in its theory of variation. (more…)