Evolution unleashed: Is evolutionary science due for a major overhaul – or is talk of ‘revolution’ misguided?
If you are not a biologist, you’d be forgiven for being confused about the state of evolutionary science. Modern evolutionary biology dates back to a synthesis that emerged around the 1940s-60s, which married Charles Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection with Gregor Mendel’s discoveries of how genes are inherited. The traditional, and still dominant, view is that adaptations – from the human brain to the peacock’s tail – are fully and satisfactorily explained by the natural selection (and subsequent inheritance). Yet as novel ideas flood in from genomics, epigenetics and developmental biology, most evolutionists agree that their field is in flux. Much of the data implies that evolution is more complex than we once assumed.
Some evolutionary biologists, myself included, are calling for a broader characterisation of evolutionary theory, known as the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES). A central issue is whether what happens to organisms during their lifetime – their development – can play important and previously unanticipated roles in evolution. The orthodox view has been that developmental processes are largely irrelevant to evolution, but the EES views them as pivotal. Protagonists with authoritative credentials square up on both sides of this debate, with big-shot professors at Ivy League universities and members of national academies going head-to-head over the mechanisms of evolution. Some people are even starting to wonder if a revolution is on the cards. [color emphasis added]
When something goes from being “largely irrelevant” to being “pivotal,” we are indeed witnessing a revolution, whether people want to call it that or not.
Consider the American Revolution. The opinions of residents of North America had previously been “largely irrelevant” to government but became “pivotal” afterward.*
In contrast to how evolution has traditionally been conceived, in the EES the burden of creativity in evolution does not rest on natural selection alone. This alternative way of thinking is being used to generate fresh hypotheses and establish new research agendas. It’s early days, but there are already signs that this research is starting to yield dividends. [color emphasis added] More.
Do the vast majority of science writers even know that evolution is no longer thought of in terms of “natural selection alone”?
One awkward problem is that, unlike most revolutions, this is one that sees popular science media firmly on the side of the ancien regime, the old guard. But never mind, we have the internet now.
* Granted, not all human beings were enfranchised at that time. But the idea was bound to spread…
See also: Neanderthals have changed a lot in the last few decades. Maybe they didn’t even necessarily look the way we think. Funny, isn’t it, how we used to “know” way more about human evolution when we actually knew very little. On the whole, current ignorance is a very good sign. It’s hard to build anything on splintered lecterns. Evolution is morphing from an ideology into a history, with all that that means about varying interpretations.
Rewriting human origins is one of RealClearScience’s (Ultimate) Top Ten stories for 2017
Most of the pop science media are poised on the edge of the recycle bin…