Evolution ever evolves

6a00d8341bf68b53ef010534c22ae7970c-800wiIt 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_coverBut 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).

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