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Mathematician Peter Saunders on Darwinism and epigenetics

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Huffington Post interview with Suzan Mazur, author of The Origin of Life Circus:

One of Peter Saunders’ principal research interests is explaining the properties of complex nonlinear systems, and he’s long been a critic of the Modern Synthesis. But Saunders, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at King’s College London, thinks that at least some of the current angst in the neo-Darwinist camp in response to challenges regarding its theory of evolution simply has to do with confusion over the term “epigenetics.”

A paper on epigenetics that Saunders and his wife, geneticist Mae-Wan Ho co-authored decades ago was cited earlier this year by Denis Noble as inspiring, in part, his JEB paper about replacing the Modern Synthesis. I reached Peter Saunders recently for comment about all of this at his home in London. In our interview that follows, Saunders — to be fair — reserved a bit of his criticism for developmental biologists.

Suzan Mazur: Would you comment on the angst and denials of the neo-Darwinists regarding epigenetics?

Peter Saunders: The confusion is the word epigenetics. When we wrote that paper in 1979 and I still say so now [noting “a proper study of evolution consists in the working out of the dynamics of the epigenetic system and its response to environmental stimuli as well as the mechanisms whereby novel developmental responses are canalized.”] — we were using the word epigenetic in the sense that it had been used by Conrad Waddington from 30 years before that. And basically to him epigenetics was effectively a synonym for development. The concept of developmental biology.

The word is now used in an almost totally different sense, which has got to do with changes in the DNA that are not due to random mutations. They’re due to environmental influences on genetic systems — something the neo-Darwinists have also denied happening until recently. . . . That wasn’t what we meant by epigenetics, and it still isn’t what we mean when we’re talking about rethinking evolution. More.

Well worth reading. Something worth noting here is that, largely thanks to Mazur’s diligence in pursuit of a story, it’s increasingly mainstream to ask hard questions about Darwinism—the only concept of evolution that most people know, and the one that is in the most trouble just now.

With any luck,

– Darwin lobby claims like “Science will suffer if evolution is not taught” (= if Darwinism is not taught) will be seen for what they are—rhetorical hostage-taking by a pressure group.

– More important, we will experience a renewed focus on evidence rather than story-telling generated by a grand theory. For example, I don’t know why the trilobite died out and the Boston fern didn’t. But I refuse to listen to a Darwinian explanation of how natural selection acting on random mutation “would have” worked to produce such an outcome, fronted as some kind of evidence.

We are learning so much more about our world every day that it is time we started replacing “would haves”with evidence.

Note: I developed an allergy to the grammatical construction “would have” while reading about human evolution. As in “Stone Age man would have regarded women as…”

First, we don’t know who “Stone Age man” was, as opposed to male humans (who existed only as individuals, not as a generic category). And we don’t really know what any of those men thought, as they left no written record.

It’s none of my business if a PhD evo psych prof wants to speculate for the pop science media. But can we please separate that from evidence? Stop treating it as science, on a par with the New Horizons Pluto flyby?

See also: Another non-Darwinian biologist we need to know about: Mae-Wan Ho

The basic problem with evolutionary psychology (Taken seriously, it implies that evolution does not occur.)

Evolution: The fossils speak, but hardly with one voice

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3 Replies to “Mathematician Peter Saunders on Darwinism and epigenetics

  1. 1
    Mapou says:

    Great stuff. If epigenetics ensures the survival and adaptation of the species, then we don’t need no ‘steenking’ Darwinian evolution.

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    Did Dr. Saunders really say this?

    Peter Saunders Sorts Out Confusion Over “Epigenetics” – July 15, 2015
    Suzan Mazur: Isn’t development now considered part of evolution since the ‘evo-devo revolution’ — as Noam Chomsky describes it?
    Peter Saunders: “It is not. No.
    The neo-Darwinists talk about the evolution of development but they do not talk about the process of development having anything to do with evolution. They can’t, because it upsets the theory if they do.”,,,
    “There won’t be a crucial test, like the 1919 observations that supported General Relativity over Newtonian gravitation. There can’t be, because neo-Darwinism isn’t falsifiable, which is one of the ways we can tell it’s a paradigm rather than a theory. But in all sorts of different ways, the paradigm is gradually losing its dominance.
    I think it will be one of those cases that it dies because its supporters die. The thing that would make the biggest difference would be if developmental biologists suddenly decided they had something to contribute to evolution and started doing the work.”
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/.....79512.html

    Of related interest to ‘developmental biologists,, doing the work’, Eric Davidson, who is a developmental biologist, stated this in regards to his work:

    Still Awaiting Engagement: A Reply to Robert Bishop on Darwin’s Doubt – Paul Nelson – September 8, 2014
    Excerpt: “Neo-Darwinian evolution is uniformitarian in that it assumes that all process works the same way, so that evolution of enzymes or flower colors can be used as current proxies for study of evolution of the body plan. It erroneously assumes that change in protein coding sequence is the basic cause of change in developmental program; and it erroneously assumes that evolutionary change in body plan morphology occurs by a continuous process. All of these assumptions are basically counterfactual. This cannot be surprising, since the neo-Darwinian synthesis from which these ideas stem was a pre-molecular biology concoction focused on population genetics and adaptation natural history, neither of which have any direct mechanistic import for the genomic regulatory systems that drive embryonic development of the body plan.”
    Eric Davidson – 2011
    ,, it is difficult to miss Davidson’s thrust. As far as the origin of animal body plans is concerned, neo-Darwinism isn’t incomplete or insufficient. It is dead wrong.,,,
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....89641.html

    Dr. Davidson also stated this:

    A Listener’s Guide to the Meyer-Marshall Debate: Focus on the Origin of Information Question -Casey Luskin – December 4, 2013
    Excerpt: “There is always an observable consequence if a dGRN (developmental gene regulatory network) subcircuit is interrupted. Since these consequences are always catastrophically bad, flexibility is minimal, and since the subcircuits are all interconnected, the whole network partakes of the quality that there is only one way for things to work. And indeed the embryos of each species develop in only one way.” –
    Eric Davidson – developmental biologist
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....79811.html

    Dr. Meyer, (and Dr. Giem), add a little more light as to the insurmountable problem that developmental Gene Regulatory Networks pose for neo-Darwinism:

    Stephen Meyer – Responding to Critics: Marshall, Part 2 (developmental Gene Regulatory Networks) – video
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cg8Mhn2EKvQ

    Darwin’s Doubt (Part 8) by Paul Giem – developmental gene regulatory networks and epigenetic information – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....38;index=8

    In one of the quotes I cited, Eric Davidson claimed that “indeed the embryos of each species develop in only one way”.
    Interestingly, Dr. Davidson’s ‘each species develop in only one way’ claim is found to be true for even chimpanzees and humans:

    “Where (chimps and humans) really differ, and they differ by orders of magnitude, is in the genomic architecture outside the protein coding regions. They are vastly, vastly, different.,, The structural, the organization, the regulatory sequences, the hierarchy for how things are organized and used are vastly different between a chimpanzee and a human being in their genomes.”
    Raymond Bohlin (per Richard Sternberg) – 9:29 minute mark of video
    https://vimeo.com/106012299

    Richard Sternberg PhD – podcast – On Human Origins: Is Our Genome Full of Junk DNA? Part 2. (Major Differences in higher level chromosome spatial organization and regulation)
    5:30 minute mark quote: “Basically the dolphin genome is almost wholly identical to the human genome,, yet no one would argue that bottle-nose dolphins are our sister species”,,,
    http://www.discovery.org/multi.....-dna-pt-2/

  3. 3
    bornagain77 says:

    Dr. Nelson reiterates Dr. Davidson’s ‘consequences are always catastrophically bad’ claim here:

    Darwin or Design? – Paul Nelson at Saddleback Church – Nov. 2012 – ontogenetic depth (excellent update) – video
    Text from one of the Saddleback slides:
    1. Animal body plans are built in each generation by a stepwise process, from the fertilized egg to the many cells of the adult. The earliest stages in this process determine what follows.
    2. Thus, to change — that is, to evolve — any body plan, mutations expressed early in development must occur, be viable, and be stably transmitted to offspring.
    3. But such early-acting mutations of global effect are those least likely to be tolerated by the embryo.
    http://www.saddleback.com/mc/m/7ece8/

    Thus, where neo-Darwinists most need plasticity in the genome to be viable as a theory, (i.e. developmental Gene Regulatory Networks), is the place where mutations are found to be ‘always catastrophically bad’. Yet, it is exactly in this area of the genome (i.e. regulatory networks) where substantial, ‘orders of magnitude’, differences are found between even supposedly closely related species.
    Needless to say, this is the exact opposite finding for what Darwinism would have predicted for what should have been found in the genome.
    If Darwinism were a normal science, instead of being the unfalsifiable ‘blind faith’ religion of atheists, this finding, by itself, should have been more than enough to falsify neo-Darwinism as a theory.

    Of supplemental note: Here is what another mathematician said about embryonic development:

    Mathematician Alexander Tsiaras on Human Development: “It’s a Mystery, It’s Magic, It’s Divinity”
    – Casey Luskin – March 22, 2012
    Excerpt: “The magic of the mechanisms inside each genetic structure saying exactly where that nerve cell should go, the complexity of these, the mathematical models on how these things are indeed done, are beyond human comprehension. Even though I am a mathematician, I look at this with the marvel of how do these instruction sets not make these mistakes as they build what is us. It’s a mystery, it’s magic, it’s divinity.”
    – Alexander Tsiaras
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....57741.html

    Alexander Tsiaras: Conception to birth — visualized – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKyljukBE70

    Dr. Tsiaras was not exaggerating in the least. In the following article, Stephen Talbott, (in a article regular readers of UD are probably tired of me repeatedly citing), gives us a small glimpse of the ‘divinity’ involved in embryonic development, and of the insurmountable problem that that ‘divine’ development presents to Darwinian explanations:

    HOW BIOLOGISTS LOST SIGHT OF THE MEANING OF LIFE — AND ARE NOW STARING IT IN THE FACE – Stephen L. Talbott – May 2012
    Excerpt: “If you think air traffic controllers have a tough job guiding planes into major airports or across a crowded continental airspace, consider the challenge facing a human cell trying to position its proteins”. A given cell, he notes, may make more than 10,000 different proteins, and typically contains more than a billion protein molecules at any one time. “Somehow a cell must get all its proteins to their correct destinations — and equally important, keep these molecules out of the wrong places”. And further: “It’s almost as if every mRNA [an intermediate between a gene and a corresponding protein] coming out of the nucleus knows where it’s going” (Travis 2011),,,
    Further, the billion protein molecules in a cell are virtually all capable of interacting with each other to one degree or another; they are subject to getting misfolded or “all balled up with one another”; they are critically modified through the attachment or detachment of molecular subunits, often in rapid order and with immediate implications for changing function; they can wind up inside large-capacity “transport vehicles” headed in any number of directions; they can be sidetracked by diverse processes of degradation and recycling… and so on without end. Yet the coherence of the whole is maintained.
    The question is indeed, then, “How does the organism meaningfully dispose of all its molecules, getting them to the right places and into the right interactions?”
    The same sort of question can be asked of cells, for example in the growing embryo, where literal streams of cells are flowing to their appointed places, differentiating themselves into different types as they go, and adjusting themselves to all sorts of unpredictable perturbations — even to the degree of responding appropriately when a lab technician excises a clump of them from one location in a young embryo and puts them in another, where they may proceed to adapt themselves in an entirely different and proper way to the new environment. It is hard to quibble with the immediate impression that form (which is more idea-like than thing-like) is primary, and the material particulars subsidiary.
    Two systems biologists, one from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Germany and one from Harvard Medical School, frame one part of the problem this way:
    “The human body is formed by trillions of individual cells. These cells work together with remarkable precision, first forming an adult organism out of a single fertilized egg, and then keeping the organism alive and functional for decades. To achieve this precision, one would assume that each individual cell reacts in a reliable, reproducible way to a given input, faithfully executing the required task. However, a growing number of studies investigating cellular processes on the level of single cells revealed large heterogeneity even among genetically identical cells of the same cell type. (Loewer and Lahav 2011)”,,,
    And then we hear that all this meaningful activity is, somehow, meaningless or a product of meaninglessness. This, I believe, is the real issue troubling the majority of the American populace when they are asked about their belief in evolution. They see one thing and then are told, more or less directly, that they are really seeing its denial. Yet no one has ever explained to them how you get meaning from meaninglessness — a difficult enough task once you realize that we cannot articulate any knowledge of the world at all except in the language of meaning.,,,
    http://www.netfuture.org/2012/May1012_184.html#2

    Verse and Music:

    Psalm 139: 13-14
    For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
    I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

    David Crowder*Band – Everything Glorious – music
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81dK2Vu1IUs

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