Monday, June 25, 2007

Gould, part deux?   posted by Razib @ 6/25/2007 10:41:00 PM

The New York Times has a piece, Darwin Still Rules, but Some Biologists Dream of a Paradigm Shift, which alludes to rumblings under the foundations of the Modern Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. The standard allusions to evo-devo are in there, but this stuff struck me as kind of bizarre:
Transitions between species documented by the fossil record seemed to be abrupt, perhaps too abrupt to be explained by the modern synthesis. If this were generally true, it could render irrelevant much of natural selection occurring within species, because just as mutations are produced randomly with respect to the needs of a species, with selection shaping these into new adaptations, new species might evolve randomly with species selection shaping them into evolutionary trends. This challenge was greeted with less than fulsome praise by evolutionary biologists studying changes within species. The resulting hubbub has yet to fully die down. But the newer work cuts closer to the core of the modern synthesis, and is potentially more revolutionary, because it addresses the fundamental question of how really new things happen in the history of life. What brought about the origin of animals, or the invasion of land?

The bolded part, "perhaps" transforms into talk about species level selection. Frankly that strikes me as a bit much. Additionally, I think the "orthodox" view can handle rapid evolutionary changes followed by periods of stasis. Giving it a new name or added emphasis ("punctuated equilibria") does not a paradigm shift make. Evolutionary science as crystallized in the 1950s is not a canon. New findings will add nuance and insight to the pervasiveness of constraint & contingency, or the possibility of functional evolution being driven random walk processes. Perhaps you can call that a paradigm shift (i.e., it's something called science, not the the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns). But the allusive and indirect dance of the prose gets a bit tiresome. Give a paleontologist a pen and watch the erudition bleed out and obscure the potential clarity?

In other news, The New York Times has a piece about the study of evolutionary processes via microbial models. The very microevolutionary processes which the above article seems to imply might be a dead end.