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Remembering Austin Hughes (1949–2015)


A reader writes, to share this brief remembrance of Dr. Hughes  in Infection, Genetics and Evolution. Here’s a reminiscence from a friend as well:

No one was exempt from his devastating critiques—friends, scientists, religious leaders. Jerry Coyne twice had the splendid misfortune of addressing topics better understood by Hughes, and from a conflicting point of view, resulting in chains of blogs, columns, and book reviews (for example, see “Faith, Fact, and False Dichotomies“). However, erroneous claims only seemed to bother him when tied to some metaphysical agenda, such as Coyne’s atheism. Conflict on other matters, such as hostile reviews of his work overturning well-accepted bird phylogenies, prompted easy resignation: “Oh well, I tried.”

When it came to outlandish claims about evolution, Hughes was at his best. It is a widespread falsehood that he rejected the methods he’d invented to detect natural selection. What he did do was clarify the appropriate scope of their usage in an article somewhat provocatively titled “Looking for Darwin in all the wrong places: the misguided quest for positive selection at the nucleotide sequence level.” In a time when evolution by natural selection was granted almost unlimited magical powers, he advocated Motoo Kimura (leading architect of the neutral theory of molecular evolution) as a figure more important that Darwin. Having stated so in one of his magnificent papers on Kimura’s theory, a reviewer objected (“whoa!”). It did not appear in the final publication. A 2011 review in Heredity went further, proposing a mechanism (plasticity-relaxation-mutation, or PRM) that explains a great deal of adaptive evolution without recourse to natural selection at all. Why question selection? In a podcast with the journal, he answers simply that “there really isn’t all that much evidence that it actually happens to the extent to which it would be needed to explain all of the adaptive traits of organisms.” Simple enough.

Hughes’s greatest fault was arguably his lack of patience with slower thinkers. …

Requiescat in lucem pacis aeternitatis.

Some essays and papers commended to us by various sources:

The folly of scientism

Faith, fact, and false dichotomies (on Jerry Coyne)

Doubts about positive (Darwinian) natural selection (academic)

He offered a theory that readers may wish to discuss, plasticity-relaxation-mutation to account for adaptive evolution without selection.

Austin Hughes: Most Evolutionary Literature Showing Positive Selection in the Genome is “Worthless”

Does Natural Selection Leave “Detectable Statistical Evidence in the Genome”?

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