The event would have benefited from someone in the wings with a hook restraining speakers who insisted on relying on the mantra of natural selection to fill in the blanks of their science. Repeated references to the term became almost comical. Sir Patrick Bateson finally came to the rescue, cautioning against overuse of the “metaphor,” saying further that “natural selection is not an agent.”
In his defense of the meeting, principal organizer Denis Noble told me it was amazing the event happened at all because the Royal Society wanted to cancel it.
Ten of the 26 presenters were part of the John Templeton Foundation-funded Extended Synthesis project. Templeton is known for its pairing of science and religion. And as the talks proceeded, it appeared to some in the room that the JTF-funded scientists had both compromised their work and retarded science by accepting the foundation’s easy money. More.
Yeh. Giving up magic in favor of plodding is hard. Especially if magic brought power, funding, and prominence.
The only person I (O’Leary for News) ever heard define Darwinian natural selection in a non-magical way was Lynn Margulis, in an interview with Mazur. Margulis observed that not all life forms that come into existence can survive. The ones that survive pass on their genes, in whatever state, to offspring.
There. That’s it.
“Survival of the fittest” is a meaningless term. In the swirl of ever-changing events that create different demands on life forms, a given life form survives and procreates. There is no independent “fitness” criterion.
The claim that natural selection can by itself produce vast arrays of complex information is nonsense. The slate so often just gets wiped clean, like a computer system whose data goes corrupt. So much more is obviously at work in evolution.
But many in the field want no more “more.” Not if they can get by with offering less:
Among the disgruntled attendees was Canadian biochemist Larry Moran of Sandwalk, who referred to the speakers as “Adaptationists!” Kalevi Kull, one of The Third Way of Evolution personalities, who traveled from Estonia for the meeting but was not an official presenter, couldn’t get a word in because moderators kept taking questions from official speakers seated in the front rows, depriving attendees of their participation time. Another of the TTW personalities, Duke University engineer Adrian Bejan, left after the first day. Only 15 of 50 or so scientists profiled on the TTW page actually showed up for the event.
I came away with the impression that the Royal Society may have gone the way of the Explorers Club. We’re living in a world that’s been largely explored and science has been democratized via the Internet. So these two once-privileged clubs are now seriously diminished in authority.
Hmmm. Another view is that the Society let its authority lapse, to please Darwin’s current boffins (and maybe even Templeton?).
Non-Darwinian evolution studies have been around now for decades. The Royal Society could have decided, on its own authority, to hear anyone whose publication record merits a hearing.
That’s the only way to begin if one must seriously rethink a question. One trims, of course, but later. Anyone who could know in advance which items of a welter of new, puzzling, sometimes conflicting data are of top future significance has powers unfamiliar to most of us. (Stand up, stand up and be introduced!)
The other notable conference news was Denis Noble citing the embryo geometry paper of Stuart Pivar, who was seated in the room between wife Larimore and co-author David Edelman and elegantly dressed in a black velvet jacket for the occasion. Pivar has faced fierce criticism in the past regarding his evolutionary perspective, particularly from the PZ Myers pack, and so welcomed Denis Noble’s recent invitation to publish in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, one of the journals Noble co-edits.
To address the needs of today, the Society must go beyond merely ignoring Darwin’s troll roll (as most of the planet does now, actually). The Society needs to recommit to evidence. There should be an annual meeting of this type, featuring the best new papers.
In the meantime, Mazur’s books provide a good introduction to non-Darwinian thinkers in biology.
See also: Royal Society evolution meeting cautioned against cheers and boos
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