Famous physiologist embarrasses himself by claiming that the modern theory of evolution is in tatters

August 25, 2013 • 6:08 am

Here we go again: someone arguing that DARWIN WAS RONG  (well, he was, on several issues) and also that DARWIN’S INTELLECTUAL DESCENDANTS ARE RONG TOO. But this time it’s not a creationist but a card-carrying biologist, and a famous one, too.

Matthew Cobb ruined my morning by sending me a video of the renowned physiologist Denis Noble (born 1936 and a professor at Oxford until 2004), whose name is followed by a veritable alphabet soup of honors (CBE, FRS, FRCP).  His contributions to physiology are apparently multifarious, though I confess I don’t know much about Noble or what he did. Nevertheless, in his dotage he’s taken to writing and talking about how modern evolutionary biology (“neo-Darwinism” or “the Modern Synthesis”) is wrong, and that I know something about. And Noble, as you’ll see in the video, is wrong; in fact, I’d use the physics adage and say “he’s not even wrong.”

Noble’s motivation, apparently, is to put physiology back at the High Table of Evolution, as Steve Gould wanted to do with paleontology. That is, Noble argues that the current paradigm of evolutionary biology doesn’t leave much of a niche for physiology. He’s butthurt about that! And so he constructs a case that not only is the Modern Synthesis wrong, because all its tenets have been disproven, but that his own “Nobleian Synthesis” leaves a central place for physiology. What a mitzvah!

The views in the video below were also given Noble’s paper published in Experimental Physiology this year (reference at bottom, free download). I read that paper and intended to write about it, but its misguided arguments and willful ignorance angered me so much that I moved on to other things. Now, with Noble’s video staring me in the face, repeating his stupid arguments against neo-Darwinism, I must respond. I can do no other.

If you’d rather read his views instead of spending 38 minutes watching this video, read his paper. If you’re an audiovisual type of person, watch this video, described on YouTube this way:

A major revolution is occurring in evolutionary biology. In this video the President of the International Union of Physiological Sciences, Professor Denis Noble, explains what is happening and why it is set to change the nature of biology and of the importance of physiology to that change. The lecture was given to a general audience at a major international Congress held in Suzhou China.

Here are Noble’s contentions and why they’re wrong:

1. Mutations are not random.  This is a central tenet of evolutionary biology, which Noble says has now been disproven. It hasn’t. He argues that there are mutational hotspots in the genome, and that mutation rates can change in response to the condition of the organism or its environment.

That is true, but says nothing about the randomness of mutations. What we mean by “random” is that mutations occur regardless of whether they would be good for the organism. That is, the chances of an adaptive mutation occurring is not increased if the environment changes in a way that would favor that mutation.  The word “random” does not, to evolutionists, mean that every gene has the same chance of mutating, nor that mutation rates can’t be affected by other things. What it means is that mutation is not somehow adjusted so that good mutations crop up just when they would be advantageous. My friend Paul Sniegowski, a professor at Penn, uses the term “indifferent” instead of “random,” and I think that’s a better way to describe the neo-Darwinian view of mutations.

And there are no experiments—none—showing that mutations are not indifferent, and plenty showing they are. In other words, Noble’s characterization of neo-Darwinism’s error is simply misguided.

2. Acquired characteristics can be inherited. In support of this neo-Lamarckian view, Noble trots out the tired old horse of epigenetics, arguing that environmentally-induced changes in DNA can be transmitted for several generations, presumably by differential methylation of the DNA. And that is also true.

But what is not true is that a. these changes are frequent, b. epigenetic changes, when they occur, are always induced by the environment, and c. epigenetic changes produced solely by the environment are the basis of adaptive evolution.  There are four types of evidence for these contentions.

First, when we map adaptations in organisms, they invariably turn out to be changes in the DNA (either the structural or regulatory bits) and are not purely epigenetic, that is, are not based on methylation of DNA that is itself not coded in the genome.

Second, as I just noted, adaptive methylation, such as “parental imprinting”, in which the father or mother contributes differently methylated DNAs that do different things in the zygotes and offspring, is based on instructions in the DNA itself. That is, the DNA carries instructions that say something like, “If you’re a male, methylate this bit of DNA in your sperm.” That is not environmentally-induced or Lamarckian change of the DNA. It’s based on simple, garden-variety evolution of genes themselves.

Third, I know of not a single adaptation in organisms that is based on such environmentally-induced and non-genetic change.  Geneticists now know the genetic basis of dozens of adaptive traits that differ between populations and species.  All of them reside in the DNA. If non-genetic adaptive change was common, we would have found it.

Finally, it would be odd if pure epigenetic changes were the basis of adaptations, because such changes are not inherited stably. For an adaptation to become fixed in a population or species, it must be inherited with near-perfect fidelity.  And that is not the case for all environmentally-induced modificatons of DNA. They eventually go away.

Because of the supposed environmental acquisition of inherited traits, Noble claims in his talk that the Central Dogma of genetics (genes produce DNA produce organisms) is flat wrong. But he fails to show a convincing case of long-term evolution induced by an environmental modification of the genetic material.  I’ve written extensively on the problems with the “epigenetically-driven” paradigm of evolution, and you can find posts on this site simply by searching for “epigenetic.”

3. The gene-centered view of evolution is wrong.  Noble clearly has a beef about his colleague Richard Dawkins, and spends a lot of time in his talk arguing against both the notion of “selfish genes” and the idea that the gene is the true unit of selection rather than, say, the cell.

Here Noble is deeply confused. He decries the gene-centered view of evolution because, he says, “well, cells replicate too, and the cell carries the DNA, so the DNA can’t itself be the unit of reproduction.” That’s just dumb.  Cells are transitory, and DNA is not. A cell is not passed on from one generation of individuals to the next, but the DNA molecule, which is in some sense immortal, is. This point is made clearly in Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.

Noble also claims that all biologists now recognize that selection is “multilevel” rather than just at the level of the gene.  But he doesn’t explain what he’s talking about. Clearly, multilevel selection is logically possible, but we don’t know of many cases. In the case of the most famous form of “higher level” selection—group selection—I can’t think of a single convincing case in nature where a trait has plausibly evolved through that process.

What bothers me is that this kind of palaver sounds superficially convincing to those who don’t know a lot about evolution, and that may include the biologists in Noble’s audience.

4.  Evolution is not a gradual gene-by-gene process but is macromutational. Here Noble cites examples of entire blocks of genes being moved around, or acquired from other species, in a leap. This, he says, invalidates the neo-Darwinian view of gradual evolutionary changes in genes.

And he’s right that those kinds of large changes sometimes happen. We now know, for example, that adaptations can originate with a big part of a gene “jumping” in an organisms to fuse with another gene, producing a hybrid gene that has beneficial consequences to the individual.  Something similar occurs when organisms absorb genes from different species, as bacteria often do. Those changes can also occur in eukaryotes, like rotifers, that can take up DNA from, say, fungi, and the absorbed genes can be beneficial.

But that doesn’t show that the modern synthesis is wrong, for those big jumps or horizontally-transmitted changes in DNA must still obey the rules of population genetics. They are equivalent to mutations, but they’re just BIG mutations. The Modern Synthesis has expanded a bit to take account of these new genetic findings, which only recently became possible.  But their discovery hardly invalidates the Synthesis.

Noble claims in this lecture that these kinds of changes overturn the view of evolution as a “branching bush” because genes can leap between distant twigs. He’s wrong. These kinds of changes are rare except in bacteria. If they were common, the reconstruction of evolutionary trees through systematics would be impossible. Different genes would show different patterns, and we’d never be able to use multiple-gene analysis to reconstruct the ancestry of a group of organisms.  We wouldn’t be able to find out, for example, that our closest living relative is the chimpanzee. But the fact that multiple genes do show similar phylogenies, especially between species that are not extremely close relatives, is proof that Noble is wrong.

5. Scientists have not been able to create new species in the lab or greenhouse, and we haven’t seen speciation occurring in nature.  This is what really burns my onions, because Noble is flat wrong here, and the study of speciation is my specialty. I’m not even sure why Noble makes this argument, which resembles a creationist argument.  We haven’t seen new species arise before our eyes, ergo Jesus!

If species arise through evolution, as they must—and surely Noble admits this—then we should be able to see them forming in nature, even though their formation usually takes a long time: thousands or millions of years. That is, we should be able to see incipient cases of speciation: populations that are in all stages of evolving reproductive barriers against other populations.  And indeed we do: this has been documented since the time of Ernst Mayr and Theodosius Dobzhansky in the 1930s and 1940s.  Further, we have been able to produce new species in the laboratory through a mechanism of speciation important in plants: polyploidy (the appearance of a new species when either a pure species doubles its genome on its own or does so after hybridizing with a different species). Polyploidy is responsible for about 5-10% of new plant species, and we can make new polyploid species in the laboratory. We’ve known this for over a half century, and Noble should know that, too. It’s garden-variety evolutionary knowledge. But Noble doesn’t seem to have learned it.

Further, we can make “diploid hybrid species” in the lab by hybridizing two species and letting their mixed and somewhat incompatible DNA sort itself out over several generations. What you can get is a non-polyploid hybrid species that is reproductively isolated from both parental species—that is, a new lab-produced species. Loren Rieseberg has done this in sunflowers, and we’re beginning to find such cases occurring in nature.

Noble, then, is talking out of his hat when he argues that we haven’t been able to produce new species. But even if we hadn’t, that doesn’t mean that we can’t see speciation occurring in nature.  As I said, it’s usually a gradual process, and if we can see all possible steps in nature, and show that the more distantly related populations show more reproductive isolation (as I did in a pair of papers with Allen Orr), then one has strong evidence that reproductive isolation increases gradually in nature as populations become geographically isolated for longer and longer periods. This is the same way we have figured out how stars evolve. We rarely see a single star changing, but we can trace the process of stellar evolution by seeing all stages occurring in different stars in our galaxy.


I’m writing this post in a bit of anger, as Noble’s attacks on the modern synthesis are both poorly informed and clearly motivated by his ambition to make physiology a central part of evolutionary biology.  Although he’s an FRS and famous, he wants more: he wants his field to be central to evolution.  But such misguided hubris is not the way science is supposed to be done.  And physiology is already important in evolutionary biology. It’s the reason why we look at the effects of a gene substitution, for example, not as a simple one-gene-produces-one-trait issue, but as a the gene’s overall effect on reproductive output through its effects ramifying through the complexities of development. Noble says that evolutionists are guilty of this “one-gene-one-trait” error, but he’s just wrong: I don’t know a single person in my field who holds this simplistic view.

None of the arguments that Noble makes are new: they’re virtual tropes among those people, like James Shapiro and Lynn Margulis, who embarked, at the end of their careers, on a misguided crusade to topple the modern theory of evolution.

However famous Noble may be in physiology, he’s a blundering tyro when it comes to evolutionary biology. He might try discussing his ideas with other evolutionists and listening to their responses. He obviously hasn’t done that, and yet travels the world trading on his expertise in physiology to show that the edifice of modern evolutionary biology is rotten.  And he writes papers to that effect, including the dreadful piece referenced below.

But what’s really rotten is Noble’s knowledge of the field and his claim that virtually every assumption of neo-Darwinian evolution is wrong. In fact, his arguments are so rotten that they stink like old herring.

They’re not even wrong.


Noble, D. 2013. Physiology is rocking the foundations of evolutionary biology. Exper. Physiol. 98:1235-1243.

114 thoughts on “Famous physiologist embarrasses himself by claiming that the modern theory of evolution is in tatters

    1. I had a girlfriend in colleges no said she loved the word “irregardless” and the fact that it was a double negative only made it more powerful: sure, you could choose between “regardless” and “irrespective,” but why not merge them into one blunt axe of a word that “cuts through all the bullsh–t!”

          1. I picked up a variation of “irregardless” from a law school professor and I still use it occasionally as an empahsiszed substitute for “regardless”: irre-darn-gardless.

    2. I’ll check back to see if Jerry fixes this minor typo. I really want to link to his nice take down, but I know the people I send the link to will hone in on that one typo and “misdisregard” the whole post because of it.

      1. You know what? If people disregard the entire post because of that one word, they’re not worth sending the post to.

        You can just say that Jerry meant “regardless.”

        And as for the long discussion about that word, it’s a bit irksome considering I wanted people to think about the science instead of acting as grammar police.

        1. My apologies Prof. I did a bad job of implying the picayune attitudes of some of the people I would try to get to react to your arguments.

          1. Okay, when Pinker told me to change it, the pressure became too great to resist. It’s now “regardless,” so you can send it to your acquaintances who would reject it with if it had that one glitch.


    3. “Irregardless” is a New York-ism, unexceptional to anyone who grew up or has lived a substantial amount of time in the New York area. Those from elsewhere, especially those troubled by “inflammable”, may object or find it non-standard.

  1. “Acquired characteristics can be inherited.”

    Ask him how many little boys he knows who were born circumcised. L

      1. When I was a kid I read a book that was about a native story about how the chipmunk got his stripes. Apparently it got scratched by a bear and it had stripes from then onwards. I was 6 when I read this and I was annoyed at the story. I didn’t know the word Lamarckism but I knew that story was wrong because you couldn’t inherit scars!

        So, this part I would’ve thought was off which might have gotten me away from the rest but I wouldn’t have picked up on everything….and that annoys me.

      1. It’s called “aposthia” and it’s a relatively rare congenital condition which actually has nothing to do with whether or not ones father was circumcised.

        Research has shown that there is no higher frequency of the condition in Jews, Muslims or Americans (as the only 3 groups of people who routinely circumcise their children).

  2. Sorry, Dr. Noble, but you are wrong. Point mutations, at least, are chemical reactions in which a less-favored product forms. When and where this happens, and which less-favored nucleotide base is inserted, is random.

    Learn some chemistry before you make ignorant pronouncements! I have to say this over and over to creationists, but it shouldn’t be required to a scientist with an alphabet soup after their name.

  3. It is very very sad when eminent elderly scientists who, presumably, feel that their glory days need rekindling, start to make idiots of themselves by pulling stunts like this. At best it tarnishes an otherwise honourable career and makes us all stare at the ground in embarrassment. At worst if offers ammunition to the enemies of science who wish to return us all to the Middle Ages. It’s a pity no one was able to stop him from humiliating himself in the fashion.

      1. Reminds me of Linus Pauling and vitamin C. How sad. I’m sure there other examples of old scholars making fools of themselves.

    1. Maybe when they were younger they were afraid of being attacked by Darwinists. As they grow older and have got nothing to lose, they speak their minds out. But I think it is nice to hear some dissenting opinions. It is what makes us better…

  4. The “major international conference in China” sounds like one of those conferences I continually get invited to by “Judy” or some such non de guerre, in an email demanding to know if I’ve seen the email. They seem to have made an industry out of generating such conferences. I’ve wondered who goes to such things. This seems to answer the question.

  5. Good heavens!

    Nearly every lay person with a legitimate interest in evolution and ten minutes to educate themselves, knows what the word “random” in “random mutation” means. It’s exactly what Jerry described – random with respect to the reproductive “needs” of the organism.

    The fact that Noble seems unaware of this despite his scientific pedigree is highly disturbing, and frankly mind-boggling.

  6. Hi Jerry,

    Just to give you a bit of background on Prof Noble. He is considered the “father of systems biology” and he produced the first working model of the human heart back in the 50s or 60s. He gives a talk at the induction of my PhD program and he is a pretty smart guy, I just started reading his book “The Music of Life”. His work is the basis for quite a bit of research at Oxford and Cambridge, but that doesn’t make him right about evolution.

    You may want to pick up “The Music of Life” to see a little more of where he is coming from, it is only about 100 pages or so.

        1. Now that is interesting. Jerry’s precis was a James Shapiro deja vu experience all over again. His personal mania: non-random mutation plus cell cybernetics = teleological biology. Also has a pronounced personal animus against Dawkins.

          He, like Noble, doesn’t use the word “random” to mean what it is explicitly defined to mean in evolutionary biology.

          They want to believe evolution is directed, not blind. And they seek spread their delusions amongst the great unwashed.

          1. I’ve had to put his book down to work on my transfer report, but I think the basis of Noble’s idea is that it is the system that mutates and is just stored in DNA rather than DNA mutates and the system is changed. he is wrong of course, but his ideas on systems biology are interesting. I think his errors is that he assumes the mutations are written back to the genome instead of selection happening on the results of the mutations in the genome.

          2. Noble acknowledges Shapiro’s input to his paper and cites two of his papers. He also acknowledges Nicolas Beale – who is a John Polkinghorne acolyte. Not to mention citing E.O. Wilson’s Nature group selection paper and Mary Midgley’s attack on the selfish gene – no wonder he is confused about evolution.

  7. Jerry, let me quibble with your point #1 in this excellent post. If mechanisms exist that increase the rate of mutation when the organism is in a bad way, then they will thereby increase the probability of a favorable mutation.

    What they won’t do is increase the fraction of mutations that are favorable, or perhaps we should say, the probability that a mutation that occurs is favorable.

    1. It almost seems to depend on the level at which the word ‘random’ is applied. Specific, evolved mechanisms to respond to stress, such as hypermutability or gene amplification, do change the overall probability that an organism like E. coli comes up with the “right” mutation – without changing the rate of beneficial mutation per mutational event or per gene copy.

    2. An increased rate of mutation reduces the time you have to wait for each mutation. That only translates into an increased probability of a favorable mutation if you attach a time period.

      Perhaps what you meant to say is that it increases the probability that you’ll find a beneficial mutation that lets you eat the new food source before your neighbor (who doesn’t muck about with his mutation rate) does.

    3. It wouldn’t me that an organism under stress might have a higher rate of DNA transcription errors, especially in germ line DNA.

      What I don’t see is how this leads to any deeper understanding of the evolutionary process. It seems likely at best to be a minor side effect of “everything is harder when you’re starving” and not a pointer to some profound metabolic mechanism.

      1. There is no reason to suppose that mechanisms might not evolve to tweak the induction of specific mutations. These would be more likely when complex translating gizmos do not intervene. Imagine a heat sensitive mutational hot spot that has been selectively modified to switch the thermal properties of the coded enzyme. If such were found to occur, it would just be more Neo-Darwinism.

              1. I see your point.
                Still, an adaptation that increases mutation rates in lymphocytes to produce antibody variants would be much easier to realize than adaptations that promote specific mutations on the germline as responses to environmental cues, all eliciting particular phenotypes. Environment —> cue carrier —> germline mutation —> specific phenotype. This is an ant trying to resolve obstacles the size of planets on its way.

  8. Excellent post and the reason why I started following this blog — as a non-scientist it’s not easy finding real scientists who can write for us hoi-polloi. And good for you for taking down a scientist who is deliberately (I hope) misleading people like me. I hope he is not really so ignorant, because in that case generations of students have been misled.

    This guy should change his first name to “Ig”

    1. I strongly agree with your opening sentence. Even though I know much more about evolution than I used to, mostly via our host’s book, this post has plugged some gaps in my knowledge of evolution in language I can understand.

  9. It sounds like Noble really went off his rocker. I don’t like it when people spread misinformation that misleads smart people and provides soundbites to creationists.

    The upside is he won’t get away with it for very long since others will punish his hybris erinyes style!

    1. “hybris erinyes”

      I’m impressed; Greek mythology. I had to look that up since I never heard it before.

      1. Ha well it’s not every day you get to use erinyes but Jerry accurately identified Nobel’s behaviour as hybristic so I thought I’d close the loop 🙂

  10. Professor Ig-Noble will be corrected by JAC and others. Will he accept/learn from criticism and retract? Too soon to tell.

    Can we expect creationist proponents to begin referencing Noble’s China conference speech as evidence evolution is undone by the supposed flaws he lists? I expect so; if not for long in debates or writings in arena’s where they are hoist with their employment of Noble’s erroneous claims, the comments are unfortunately likely to be effective propaganda material for AiG, DI, WorldNetDaily, Fox News, etc.’s blindly obedient audiences.

    I’m grateful I’m now aware of who this Noble guy writer’s of letters to local newspaper’s will perhaps soon begin to reference ad infinitum. It would be great if ev-bio responses nip this prospect in the bud, but I’m not particularly optimistic.

  11. Take down noted and embraced.

    I see that Noble is trading biology at large for physiology: “as if by magic”, “a genuine ‘theory of biology’ does not yet exist”. Shadows of creationism even if used to deride. :-/


    Very descriptive! I would perhaps have ventured into mathematics land and reached for “orthogonal” (as in mutations and selection are orthogonal processes). But the truth is I don’t know how to make it rigorous, and it is quite a reach for the intended audience anyway.

    Nitpick: “our closest living relative is the chimpanzee.” True if writ large, but perhaps we should acknowledge the anthropologists with bonobo/chimpanzee.

  12. What an incredibly self centered, naive, man. The harm he is doing with these rants is tremendous. The creationist crowd will run with this tripe for decades

  13. So Noble says “4. Evolution is not a gradual gene-by-gene process but is macromutational. Here Noble cites examples of entire blocks of genes…”

    1. At least he believes genes are involved in the process – which is a start. What is it that believes carries the information at ‘other levels’?

    2. His failure to understand that ‘The Selfish Gene’ is a metaphor is normal but still unforgiveable. C P Snow ‘Two Cultures’ says it all; for some the gap between the cultures is too wide.

        1. I downloaded a free version of this book (or part of it) on my iPad before I knew what a crackpot he was. There were red flags galore.

        1. Well, the microbiology is great, but the waffling about evolution sucks.
          Lesson: Stick. To. Your. Speciality.

  14. Ah bless! Perhaps he just wants to come out to play.

    It is of course in the nature of the beast science that Dobzhansky may eventually be proven wrong in his famous pronouncement that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, but I for one am not holding my breath in aticipation of that particular event.

    I hastily add that I’m a lay person with a fascination for this particular branch of science, allied to a visceral aversion to organized religion’s constant egocentric, vain and ignorant attacks on evolution, especially from one particular quarter.

    It’s a disgrace that in the country of birth of Darwin and Wallace there’s such a lack of awareness of the men and their profound discovery.

    Apropos of adjectives: indifferent, or indeed disinterested, would I think be more precise than random in the case of mutations, because in any case “random mutation” is a tautology; and I think that Dawkins’s editor’s suggestion that “The Selfish Gene” be entitled instead “The Immortal Gene” might have helped to better explain the entity and, avoided a lot of misinterpretation over the years; both ignorant and wilful.

  15. Everyone seems rightly unhappy with Mr. Noble but, I am enormously happy about how it has so changed my personal progress, that I need to include it in my lifetime list of accomplishments:

    Smarter than the President of the International Union of Physiological Sciences, Professor Denis Noble while infected with a case of alphabet soup.

  16. Excellent rebuttal, Prof. Coyne.
    I find ideas like ‘facilitated variation’ and ‘hot mutational spots’ very exciting and promising as means to beef up the process of evolution, but in the last decade or so I’ve been seeing all these unsupported views like the resurgence of inheritance of acquired characters or the role that the environment plays in development, etc. I don’t get it…

  17. The thing that annoys/surprises me is that many of JAC’s refutations are things that even someone who isn’t a biologist should either have thought of him/herself or would find out for him/herself quite easily – say, by cultivating a general interest in the subject. Awards and honors sometimes seem to foster an incredible arrogance in scientists (and others) that makes them lose their ability to recognize that they might just be wrong.

  18. By coincidence, I happened to be reading the June 7th New York Times Book Review in which Carl Zimmer reviewed Mario Livio’s “The Genius of Getting It Wrong”. The book looks at some of the blunders of 5 famous and important scientists who all made great contributions, among them Einstein, Kelvin, and Hoyle. Zimmer (and perhaps Livio, too) also pointed out that, as they got older each of the latter 2 held tightly to ideas now (and even then) known to be clearly wrong. Kelvin is described as ‘contemptuous’ of his detractors and Hoyle is described as ‘an embarrassing crank’. I see a likely parallel here.

    1. Hi Stafford. You can change it by accessing your profile. There’s an option that lets you change the display name.

  19. A distinction has to be made between various possible and actual mechanisms of evolution and the relative importance of each. The relative importance of different processes is an empirical question which has been and will continue to be a major question to explore. As is mentioned, many of these mechanisms discussed do occur but they have not been shown to be major factors in evolution. Polyploidy occurs in plants and less commonly in some animals, doesn’t mean its a ubiquitous process in all evolution. Another acquired character is the original egg and sperm from our mother and father, plus the majority of the mitochondria from our mothers. Should we make a big deal about these things and herald them as major challenges to our understanding. Me thinks not, until you can show they are ubiquitous and common. Making a big deal about semantics – mutations aren’t random, due to some subtleties is just plain stupid, proves nothing.

    1. I think that was Lynn Margulis’s problem: she thought the phenomenon of endosymbiosis was more pervasive than it actually was.

  20. I am an expert on lego, custard, and the irridescent turd, and I would like to show you where Darwin was Rong! Yadda, yadda…

    I have to say, that even as an amateur with an outline understanding of modern evolutionary synthesis, I can see that this man is probably Rong!

  21. I’m afraid I’m not quite so dismissive. In this paper are a great many claims of inflated significance, but the phenomena Noble discusses are not fabricated. In the future, Noble’s essay may well be regarded as a classic tempest in a teapot, but I think it a bit unfair to speak of his dotage.

    1. The claims are not fabricated (although some are twisted a bit when presented or unsupported empirically), but they are not new and they don’t undermine current evolutionary thought.

      1. …and they don’t undermine current evolutionary thought.

        No, they don’t, but they do undermine what most people, including too many biologists, understand of the modern synthesis.

  22. I have a naive question. It’s well known that statistically, randomness is indicated by a tendency to cluster. If you see a nice evenly spread set of data points it’s probably not random. Is Noble making the basic error of thinking “random” should mean “evenly distributed”?

    1. Nope. He is riding the Trojan horse of directed mutation. The problem is that all the “direction” is being done by the genome which is itself the product of random mutation and natural selection.

  23. No one can accuse Prof. Coyne of “pussyfooting” around an issue. His succinct attack and defense are refreshing. I thank him for his recent rebuttal of Noble’s thesis. It all makes sense to non-scientist me.

  24. Excellent rebuttal, and I appreciate the tinge of anger. There is some worrying borderline creationism there. Not sure I can bring myself to watch the talk itself, my blood pressure being what it is, but at the risk of being facetiously ad hominem the good professor does look like he got fourth place in a ‘1st Doctor Who’ lookalike competition. This may explain his ire, partly.

    1. I had that same semi conscious thought but it wasn’t fully realized until I read your post. He does bear an uncanny resemblance to the first Doctor.

  25. Speaking of flaming idiocy from people who ought to know better, I am currently reading Genetic Entropy & the mystery of the genome by John C. Stanford. Stanford is a “courtesy associate professor” at Cornell. Rather than address the evidence for Darwinian evolution, he makes a variety of bogus claims about population genetics, along with the occasional mention of information, for the purpose of which he refers to fellow YEC Werner Gitt. It’s dreadful stuff.

  26. The quick answer is that physiologists aren’t evolutionary biologists. He is obviously technically skilled in his branch of physiology, but you can’t be all things to all people and I’m not at all surprised by all the errors he makes. He mentions Mary Midgely without realising the similarities, and thus the irony. She too was out of her depth when she criticised Dawkins’ selfish gene concept in what I thought at the time was a pathetic paper. Dawkins handily dealt with all of what she had to say, and I am sure he could do the same thing with Noble.

    1. I find it annoying when academics do this because they should be more responsible. I said the same thing about Aslan. I don’t care that he isn’t an ancient history expert; he’s commenting on that field and he is an academic so he has access to people who can verify his assumptions, assertions, findings, etc. So, in cases like this with Noble, I have to think he is being deliberately obtuse and doesn’t want to be corrected because he has his own agenda.

  27. As I laymanishly understand it, there are several known examples of speciation during the last 100 years, including a mosquito in the London subway, and lizards on some island. Also, it seems to me that Down-syndrome people could be considered a separate species as they have 47 chromosomes instead of 46 and breed true (when allowed to breed).

    On the other hand, I recently read elsewhere that macromutation involving large groups of genes may be possible by cross-species hybrids. The source I read says that, for example, the platypus has been found to contain groups of genes from both mammals and birds. (See http://www.macroevolution.net/human-origins.html#.UhrJsdIqhnh ) So this may play a role, but probably not a common one.

    1. Of course there are many (>100) distinct ‘species’ concepts, but I would look askance at any of them that made Down syndrome people a separate species; they don’t form distinct populations, have a distinct ecological niche, etc. etc.

      The site you link to is… interesting. The sex-chromosome system of monotremes is highly derived and (considered in context) does not really support a claim that they’re mammal-bird hybrids, and it’s a very bold hypothesis that humans are hybrids of chimps with pigs. The text is written well enough, and links to some interesting material, but you should probably not rely on all the assertions there. PZ Myers has a review.

    2. The platypus has no genes in common with birds that are not shared by other amniotes. The chicken was the only non-mammalian amniote used in this study, so what we are seeing here is the retention of primitive characters that are lost in therians. These “shared genes” are the genetic equivalent of the corocoid bone in the shoulder (present in all tetrapods except therian mammals), not any kind of evidence of cross-breeding or lateral gene transfer.

  28. “That is, the chances of an adaptive mutation occurring is not increased if the environment changes in a way that would favor that mutation.”


    although it can appear to, or have the illusion that it does, and Dr. Noble you don’t get that!

    I think Dawkins wrote something to the effect that you have to be in a particular area of science and know it viscerally , know it all the way in — (you have to own it. And Prof Noble doesn’t.

    That is why he is not an evoktionary biologist. But he does have the illusion that he is.

  29. I do sense a hidden trap for us in all those who attack evolution. And we do well to avoid it. They are not all overtly religious, but they do seem to suffer the same thought processes of religious people. The trap is to try to explain away anti-evolutionists in terms of their fear of no afterlife. It seems to me to be more than that. ‘Human Sub-Set Theory’ proposes that human beings are differentiated by different ‘Brain Operating Systems’ BOS, ( just as computers are) The ‘Religious Brain Operating System’ (RBOS) is based upon a fundamental assumption that this is an intentional universe. But not all people with that Brain System are god-fearers. They just see the world that way, with or without gods. Noble is probably in the latter category.
    That is why they have such trouble with anything to do with ‘random’ as in ‘random mutation’. For them, it is inconceivable that anything in an ordered universe can be random. Of course, students of evolution understand the fuller context of the word ‘random’, meaning ‘disinterested in outcomes in application or effect’. But for those at the Discovery Institute, or for those stuck to ID, or those who simply suffer the Religious Brain Operating System, they cannot get past anything called random. That is so very evident in Stephen C Meyer’s book, ‘Darwin’s Doubt’. Meyer halts at the possibility of the self-organisational nature of cells. For him, there has to be design and purpose. For him, the information of organisation contained within living things must come from an intelligent mind. So, their problem is not the fear of loss of reincarnation, but rather an inability to process experiential information.
    There seem to be many sticking places where those with RBOS can go no further; notably anything to do with unorganised change over time; anything about the chance accumulation of circumstances likely to engender life; anything about the indifference of the universe to our presence upon earth. All those things, and many more, form a kind of glass barrier for religious ‘intellectuals’ Without the input of gods, they can go no further.

  30. “In the case of the most famous form of “higher level” selection—group selection—I can’t think of a single convincing case in nature where a trait has plausibly evolved through that process.”

    The desire to belong to a group, surely?

  31. The comment about Downs syndrome people breeding true did not sound right to me. I thought it would be a matter whether the egg or sperm contained 24 or 23 chromosomes. I found one figure that a Downs syndrome person breeding with a non Downs syndrome person had a 35% to 50% chance of having a Downs syndrome offspring, and the precentages are higher if both parents have Downs syndrome.

  32. JAC:

    If non-genetic adaptive change were common, we would have found it.

    I’m skeptical of this statement. You don’t account for the fact that methods for detecting DNA methylation patterns at nucleotide resolution are only 20 years old. How do you know you’re not confusing a trivial technologically limiting factor with reality?


    Finally, it would be odd if pure epigenetic changes were the basis of adaptations, because such changes are not inherited stably. For an adaptation to become fixed in a population or species, it must be inherited with near-perfect fidelity. And that is not the case for all environmentally-induced modifications of DNA. They eventually go away.

    1) Environment affects DNA methylation. DNA methylation affects mutation rate. Mutations drive evolution. This is not blind to selection.

    2) Here’s another reasonable hypothesis: Specific methylation patterns that are environmentally mediated will influence preferential survival and lead to consistent methylation of the same regions over time.


    But he fails to show a convincing case of long-term evolution induced by an environmental modification of the genetic material. 

    You or someone else is setting the bar pretty high, and I don’t know what you mean by “long-term evolution.” But there is this two year old paper on inferred germ line methylation recapitulating phylogenetic relationships.

    “Phyloepigenomic comparison of great apes reveals a correlation between somatic and germline methylation states”


  33. Jerry
    Whatever you think of the science in Denis’ refereed paper (and frankly your criticisms miss the mark completely) it’s just ridiculous to claim that Denis is a “tyro” and that he hasn’t discussed these ideas heavily with leading fellow scientists.

    His first book on this was in 2005 and he’s debated them extensively – most notably at EMBO as an invited participant in the EMBL/EMBO conference in 2009 and with Sydney Brenner in 2012 (who basically agrees with him. See

    The responses he gives are not what you teach your students, but that’s how science advances.

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