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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