BBC Radio 4 tonight: a revolution in evolution? NOT

July 13, 2011 • 4:58 am

Over my whole career, but especially in the last half-dozen years or so, I’ve heard that neo-Darwinism (the modern theory of evolution) is either wrong, in a crisis, or about to undergo a profound Kuhnian paradigm shift.  And it’s never happened.   Neo-Darwinism gets expanded (things like the “neutral theory,” for example, were adopted and largely verified during my own career), but the basic paradigm of mutation, selection, drift, and speciation hasn’t much changed.  New findings, like punctuated patterns that appear in the fossil record—patterns once foolishly touted by Gould & Co. as evidence that neo-Darwinism was “effectively dead”—eventually get folded into our current view of evolution, which expands and gets richer.  Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini wrote a book claiming that natural selection was theoretically incoherent and not responsible for adaptation, but they were dead wrong.  The basic framework of how lineages evolve and split hasn’t changed since the 1950s, and I doubt that it will.  (As always, however, I could be wrong.)

A half-hour show on BBC Radio 4 tonight, “An idea whose time has come,” promises to uncover this “revolution” for the layperson.  It won’t, because there is no “revolution.”  Many of the show’s participants are the same old crew of “Darwin-was-wrongers,” as you can see from the cast list below (Dan Dennett and Lewis Wolpert are some welcome exceptions).  Expect to hear a lot of nonsense, and, from Conway-Morris, perhaps his idea that evolutionary convergence proves Jesus.

The BBC’s blurb:

But the field in which it is increasingly clear that simultaneous invention is much more common than previously thought, is life itself. Convergent evolution is famously exemplified in the similarity of eye structure in unrelated species. But other instances are myriad and it also happens on all scales, from large population dynamics, down to fundamental molecular patterns.

Our question is: Are the same processes of change at work in science as in evolutionary biology itself?
Through discussions with a wide variety of practitioners and commentators in diverse fields, including Lynn Margulis, Paulien Hogeweg, Barry Cunliffe, Dan Dennett, Lewis Wolpert, Eva Jablonka Denis Noble, Rupert Sheldrake, Lucy Duran and Simon Conway-Morris, it appears that something like a revolution in evolutionary theory is underway and it’s happening very fast.

Symbiogenesis, bioinformatics, epigenetics and the reinvestigation of Lamarckism are all extending what we understand to be the processes by which evolution promotes change, throwing light on the astonishing sophistication of cooperative and collaborative patterns in nature, in contrast to the harsh competition in neo-Darwinian theory. This emerging variety of evolutionary pathways provokes strong opinions on whether patterns in the development of music, science and life itself, can appear to be inevitable.

Oh, and this,

something like a revolution in evolutionary theory is underway and it’s happening very fast.

is, as they say, what comes out of the south end of a bull facing north.  Shame on the BBC for this kind of scientific sensationalism, which reminds me of the New Scientist‘s “Darwin Was Wrong” cover.

I am not going to listen, but those readers who do, at 9 p.m. BST (4 pm EST), please report back. You can listen live by clicking on the “listen” icon at this page.

65 thoughts on “BBC Radio 4 tonight: a revolution in evolution? NOT

    1. Lynn Margulis is certainly more competent on the subject than Rupert “morphic fields” Sheldrake. She has done some good science, not him.

      Desnes Diev

    2. Prof. Margulis has, like Linus Pauling, turned into a nutcase in her dotage. In addition to HIV/AIDS denial, she is also into 9/11 troofer conspiracy theories.

      1. I gave up on her when she gave the green light for that origin of caterpillars from velvet worm-butterfly hybrid wtf hypothesis by Williamson a couple of years back to be published in PNAS without peer review.

  1. You mean BBC *Radio* 4. BBC 4 is a TV channel (which will probably show a version of this programme in about 9 months).

  2. fyi BBC Radio 4 or Radio 4 are the usual terms for the radio channel over here, BBC 4 means the TV channel.

  3. It’s at 9pm BST, not GMT…and it’s BBC Radio 4 (BBC4 is a digital TV channel).
    I shall endeavour to listen to it, though perhaps via ‘listen again’.


  4. A correction: it will be broadcast at 21:00 BST, not GMT; ie 9pm BST. It’s true that is 3pm EST (and 8pm GMT), but remember that is 4pm EDT, which is what east coast Americans are generally using to work out the time of things at the moment.

  5. This part after naming some of the alternative mechanisms says it all of why this is logically and scientifically flawed: “–in contrast to the harsh competition in neo-Darwinian theory–” People don’t like reality, so let’s spice it up with fiction!

    1. No – “it is published by Reed Business Information Ltd, a subsidiary of Reed Elsevier” at least according to Wikipedia…

      Elsevier are of course massive & own many publications in the area of the sciences. According to Wikipedia – again(!) they have a Net income £642 million in 2010, compared with News Corp’s $2.539 billion also in 2010.

  6. something like a revolution in evolutionary theory is underway and it’s happening very fast.

    It’s obviously not what they have in mind or else Dr. Venter would be the featured interviewee, but, Shirley, doesn’t bioinformatics perfectly fit that blurb?

    If one were particularly breathless, one could even point to computer-designed lifeforms while truthfully panting, “DARWIN WAS WORNG!”

    Of course, it’s the geneticists who’re using the still-rock-solid foundation Darwin laid down to build things Horatio never dreamed of…but they really have set us on a roller-coaster ride whereby Darwin may soon become as practically irrelevant to the daily work of biologists as Copernicus is to a NASA astronomer.

    And that’s the sort of revolution that every scientist dreams of being in the middle of. How lucky to actually live through it!



    1. Um, what “computer-designed lifeforms”? Venter’s team didn’t design anything; they digitized a naturally occuring genome, tweaked it a bit, and then printed it back out onto a new DNA molecule. Now printing out digital DNA onto actual molecules is cool and all, but it scarcely counts as design.

      Let me know when they can do the same genome printout trick starting from a blank screen and a palette of individual gene sequences. Then we can talk about “computer-designed lifeforms”.

      1. How much tweaking will you require before it passes muster for you?

        I should think that even a single trivial tweak would qualify what Venter’s done as, in principle computer design as opposed to computer duplication. Are you asking for 50% + 1 of the genes to be hand-massaged before considering it to be computer-designed? Where do you draw the line?

        My hunch is that Venter already has a culture going that would satisfy your requirement (whatever it may be), but it’ll of course be some time before today’s experiments are ready for publication.



        1. I grant that Venter has successfully demonstrated a technology for computer-aided genome design. But simply having that technology does not by itself advance our understanding of genomics or bring us any closer to being able to design an organism from first principles. The way you demonstrate that is by actually building a novel genome from the ground up, rather than by tweaking a naturally-evolved genome.

          To use a software analogy, simply touching every line of code in an existing program doesn’t qualify it as a new design. A new design would require innovation at the architectural level, not just line-by-line (or gene-by-gene) tweaking.

          1. To continue your analogy, Windows Vista would not qualify because it’s a series of tweaks that traces its way back to MS-DOS, which was just a clone of CP/M.

            (Depending on one’s level of pedantry, one might suggest that the lineage traces to VMS, instead, but the point remains.)



            1. You’re misrepresenting the history. No one brought VMS source code from DEC to Microsoft and then tweaked it to produce Windows NT. What they brought was design expertise and the ability to create working systems from whole cloth, which, I am arguing, is exactly what Venter et al. have yet to demonstrate.

              1. Even if I grant you the DOS / NT divide (which ignores both the UI as well as the DOS susbsytems which only recently mostly vanished), we’re still left with the CP/M => Windows ME continuum and the NT 3.1 => Vista continuum.

                Or, if you prefer, the Lisa => Mac OS 8 => Mac OS X continuum, or the Unix => NeXTSTEP => Mac OS X continuum…or the Ford Model T => Fusion Hybrid continuum, or any other such continua.

                Would Mac OS 8 have satisfied your requirements? If not, how about 7.4? 7? 6? 4.2 with the Multifinder? 4.1 without the Multifinder…?

                (Forgive me if I got any of those version numbers worng…it’s been ages….)



  7. Seems to me that you might have biased view of evolution and natural selection. Fodor doesn’t really critique either as a whole – he instead criticizes those who make certain fallacious assumptions while applying these principles to explain pretty much anything. His primary target has always been the modern day positivists with a ‘computational’ or ‘information-processing’ approach to evolution (e.g. Dennett, Dawkins, and Pinker).

    Yes, we can ridicule those who want to dismiss evolution out of hand, but the critics of neo-darwinists do make some valid points concerning HOW modern day ‘scientists’ view natural selection and evolution.

    1. And how, exactly, is my view “biased”? Your statement that Fodor doesn’t critique natural selection is just plain wrong. I’ve read the book twice, and reviewed it in extenso for the Nation. Read my review, which I’ve linked to above.

      The only valid point F&P-P made was that some evolutionary psychologists go beyond the evidence in their assertions. But that’s not the main point of their book–not by far.

    2. SIGMUND (who’s having posting problems) asked me to post this comment:

      Here is what Fodor said in an interview by Massimo Pigliucci:
      “I’m sort of willing to bet, actually, that if you look at this stuff in ten years, the Darwinian story, what I take to be anyway, the ‘Natural Selection’ story will have disappeared and the major view will be, that to put it roughly, evolution proceeds by leaps and is internally controlled – something like that.”
      That interview was on the 20th of May 2010.
      Less than 9 years left for natural selection.
      Has anyone taken him up on his bet?

      1. I’d take that bet, if it were coherent enough.

        We already know that evolution proceeds by leaps — that’s the revelation of punctuated equilibria.

        But what is this “internal controls” business? Is it some variation on Lamarckism?

        I would offer a counter-bet, though:

        Ignoring those organisms that arise through human intervention, the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection and Random Mutation will only be more firmly established than it is today. In contrast, though, organisms which do arise through human intervention will have origination explanations that largely resemble the failed ones cdesign proponentsists currently offer for life on Earth.



    3. “the critics of neo-darwinists do make some valid points concerning HOW modern day ‘scientists’ view natural selection and evolution.”

      Like what? What valid points?

      1. I am referring to the assumptions that many neo-darwinists make when thinking about natural selection and evolution as it applies to our human nature (i.e. the structure of the mind). Fodor has been a staunch critic in this area. It is really too big to describe in a post, but the assumptions they question involve defining the mind as being made up of innate domain-specific (vs. domain-general), information-processing mechanisms that were adapted to solve particular problems related to ancestral life in the Pleistocene. Lots of assumptions there… many of the neo-darwinists have em’ – many critics question them… but that does not mean the critics do not acknowledge evolution or natural selection, though they may think about these areas differently

        1. So when you say “neo-darwinists”, you really mean “evolutionary psychologists”.

          That’s not a problem with neo-darwinism, that’s a problem with a few researchers in one teeny-tiny field of biology.

  8. Sheldraake reaches a 9 on my ‘woo’ scale (Morphic Resonance). Lewis Wolpert called Rupert Sheldrake’s first book A New Science of Life ‘infuriating’, or words to that effect, & they have clashed before over ‘woo’ before eg
    These are people with an agenda – ‘it is too complicated to have happened without external agency’. I will listen, with rising blood pressure no doubt.

  9. I wonder what Paulien Hogeweg is doing there. Her models are occasionally unconventional, but quite sane.

  10. Symbiogenesis as in two plants producing a hybrid which through vegetative reproduction ends up producing a viable species, ie Spartina anglica. Even if this is a common method of speciation, which I don’t think it is, the resulting species is still subject to natural selection.
    I think this is going to be a case of there are examples of new species owing an origin to hybrids but over all it’s an exception rather than the rule.

      1. It depends, the example I used is Spartina anglica, two parent plants S.maritima and S.alternaflora. These go on to produce the mule of the family Spartina X townsendii. Now during normal vegetative reproduction this underwent a polyploid mutation event thus producing the sexualy functional S. anglica.
        My own view is the ability to reproduce was maintained in the hybrid S.X townsendii but because of chromosome mismatch it couldn’t be expressed however in S.anglica it could.

        Leylandii is the only evidence I know of in nature for a devil! Evil evil plant. If you are ever planting a hedge and they suggest it just say no!

  11. Jerry, you wrote “the basic paradigm of mutation, selection, drift, and speciation hasn’t much changed…The basic framework of how lineages evolve and split hasn’t changed since the 1950s, and I doubt that it will. (As always, however, I could be wrong.)”
    I think you might be wrong about this. Our classical understanding of how and why lineages split under the neutral model is based on mathematical misconceptions. The standard analysis of this model is that if populations exchange more than one or two migrants per generation, they will not evolve genetic divergence at neutral loci. This is demonstrably false; see my comments and simulations under this Molecular Ecologist post by Nolan Kane:

    Of course this is no criticism of the concept of evolution itself. Evolution is a fact. My point here, and one that I am sure you agree with, is that we should be skeptical about our own fields. It is frightening to see just how long misinterpretations can hang around, even in a very quantitative field like population genetics. Imagine what garbage lurks in less quantitative fields.

    1. Yes, but you’re talking about one mathematical result in population genetics. I was talking about the speciation process itself, which involves the erection of reproductive barriers. And that paradigm, I think, hasn’t changed much since the 50’s, although now we understand much more about it.

      1. Sergey Gavrilets eloquently develops this view in his work, for example Gavrilets, S. (1999), A dynamical theory of speciation on holey adaptive landscapes, Am. Nat. 154: 1-2, and Gavrilets, S., Li, H., and Vose, M. (2000), Patterns of parapatric speciation, Evolution 54: 1126-1134.

  12. wide variety of practitioners and commentators in diverse fields, including Lynn Margulis, Paulien Hogeweg, Barry Cunliffe, Dan Dennett, Lewis Wolpert, Eva Jablonka Denis Noble, Rupert Sheldrake, Lucy Duran and Simon Conway-Morris,

    Can’t they just have Dennett and Wolpert on, since they have interesting and accurate things to say about evolution, and put the rest in their own room with a disconnected microphone?

  13. To repeat what I read in the comments above: This will be at 4:00 pm Eastern Time in the US (EDT). You can calculate your own local US time from that, probably.

  14. Yes, as I recall General Swartzkoph used your BS descripton a little different; he called it Bovine Scatology.

  15. It’s actually not so bad, and worse, than/as what you suggested. It’s about convergence, maaan, in terms of scientific ideas. Like, it’s just so amazing, Wallace and Darwin came up with the same idea, so, like, just *maybe* there’s something, you know, like, kind of wooooooo. I turned off after 5 minutes.

    1. It was not exactly radical, but with so many voices it was hard to keep track of who was saying what. They went on to Sheldrake & Margulis later on, and also Jabloka on epigenetics & mentioning Lamarck, then someone saying we are possibly having a biology paradigm shift, someone saying that while Darwinism is like netonian physics perhaps, & natural selection is the basic mechanics, the picture is being refined & elaborated by new discoveries, cooperation etc etc. It was too brief to really cover the topic, too many people to work out everyone’s voices, but was not that startling. One was left wondering what was so very Kuhnian… Matthew, you should have listened to give the biologists view – I am just an interested person who got O-level biology but failed A-level (it was the chemistry that did for me)!

      Re Lamarck, epigenetics is not really the same thing, is it? As for symbiotics, I recently went to a talk by Peter Godfrey-Smith (The Lakatos Lecture) about the evolution of the individual
      I would be interested to hear other biologists views if you can read this?

  16. It was 1980, and Stephen Jay Gould was looking for a definition of the consensus view of evolution. The common term was “The Modern Synthesis” and Gould found a brief summary in a book by Ernst Mayr …

    The proponents of the synthetic theory maintain that all evolution is due to the accumulation of small genetic changes, guided by natural selection, and that transspecific evolution is nothing but an extrapolation and magnification of the events that take place within populations and species.

    Gould suggests that this was the common understanding of evolutionary theory back then and I think he is correct. Gould went on to say …

    I well remember how the synthetic theory beguiled me with its unifying power when I was a graduate student in the 1960s. … I have been reluctant to admit it—since beguiling is often forever—but if Mayr’s characterization of the synthetic theory is accurate, then that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy,

    Gould was right. The 21st century version of evolutionary theory has added random genetic drift as the most common mechanism of evolution based on our understanding of molecular evolution. It no longer thinks of speciation as the gradual transformation of one species into another. Instead, speciation is very often associated with cladogenesis and the initial changes are often fixed rapidly because only a small population is involved. We recognize that microevolution is essential, but not sufficient, for macroevolution so one of the major tenets of The Modern Synthesis is no longer believed to be true.

    One could argue that the 21st century version of evolutionary theory is just the old “Modern” Synthesis with a bunch of stuff added on but that’s no reason to use the same title that we used for the older (incorrect) version. Calling it “neo-Darwinism” isn’t any better. It’s just confusing.

    I think it’s clear that Jerry has adopted much of what Gould was arguing for and he’s just reluctant to call it a revolution. That’s fine. But let’s make sure that everyone else understands why Gould said the old version was “effectively dead” and let’s make sure there are no biologists who still think that Mayr’s description is correct.

    Once we’ve settled that point we can all agree that none of the people who are proposing further changes are worth listening to.

    BTW, Daniel Dennett is not an evolutionary biologist. He was/is fiercely opposed to everything that Gould ever wrote and his view of “modern” evolutionary theory is much closer to Mayr’s older view than to Jerry Coyne’s 21st century view. He’s not the person I would have chosen to defend evolutionary theory.

    And that’s part of the problem. Lots of people missed the first “revolution.”

    1. Larry, the current quantitative picture of how drift works to generate differentiation is also wrong. See my comment #16. These really are interesting times in evolutionary theory.

  17. That was pretty bad. Convergence, complexity, self-organization (assuming it means patterns that manifest in spacetime with no top down designer), cooperation, coevolution, symbiosis, and epigenetics are all perfectly COMPATIBLE with the theory of natural selection if not a direct consequence of it. It seemed like some of the participants were suggesting that these ideas somehow crumble the theory or greatly diminish it -and that’s not true. And the stuff about symbiosis being the main novelty producer in nature just sounded bat doodoo crazy.

        1. If you look at amino acid substitutions in orthologous proteins you’ll observe that the rate of change in each lineage is approximately constant. There is a molecular clock although it doesn’t keep time perfectly.

          The rate of change is roughly equal to the mutation rate in most lineages.

          That’s not compatible with natural selection so there must be some other mechanism that accounts for this kind of evolutionary change.

          1. Orthologous proteins often share a shape and perform a particular function through species, and without a functioning protein of that kind, the lineage may end. The probability that a particular kind of mutation will lead to a dead end lineage can be similar between orthologs because their form manifests their function, and only certain sequences can fold into that form. The rate of change is set by natural selection – only certain forms can do the function that gets them replicated.

  18. Sorry for the off-topic spam, but the blog heading reminded me that this Sunday, July 17 the BBC is broadcasting a Proms concert of the legendary “Gothic” Symphony by Havergal Brian. This is only the fifth (I believe) performance ever, and there will be over 1000 performers (including *two* BBC orchestras and nine choirs). It will also be available online for the week afterwards.

    For any who are interested in music, this is literally a historic event.

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