For some time, a group of biologists have been promoting the idea that the Modern Synthetic Theory of Evolution (which they call “Standard Evolutionary Theory,” or SET) is incomplete in major ways, and needs a reboot. Their main contention is that the SET is too “gene-centric”, and ignores environmental factors—like non-genetic developmental plasticity, epigenetic modification, and ‘niche construction’ (the selective pressures that impinge on an organism after it’s changed its niche through behavioral alteration)—that can play an important evolutionary role. Indeed, these are supposed to have the potential to change our view of evolution.
A different group of biologists have argued that these factors have already being taken into consideration, but haven’t yet proved their worth as areas of substantive progress (I agree). The two sides argued their cases in short dueling papers in Nature in 2014, “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink?” The main “challenge” to SET posed by the “yes” side, whose first author was Kevin Laland of the University of St Andrews, can be summarized in these words:
In our view, this ‘gene-centric’ focus fails to capture the full gamut of processes that direct evolution. Missing pieces include how physical development influences the generation of variation (developmental bias); how the environment directly shapes organisms’ traits (plasticity); how organisms modify environments (niche construction); and how organisms transmit more than genes across generations (extra-genetic inheritance). For SET, these phenomena are just outcomes of evolution. For the EES, they are also causes.
(The first author of the “no” paper, arguing that there are many phenomena besides the above that should also be studied, but shouldn’t yet be touted as genuine “extensions” of SET without more empirical evidence, was Greg Wray of Duke.)
Most of the phenomena that were supposed to reboot the SET were described in a series of papers that came from the well known “Altenberg 16” conference in 2008, papers collected in a book published two years later: Evolution, The Extended Synthesis, edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd Müller. I was asked to review that book, but declined after I read it. It was almost completely devoid of real biological examples, and was heavily larded with complex speculation, so the value of the “extensions” was not demonstrated. For example, Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb presented their tired thesis that environmentally-induced epigenetic changes could strongly change the way we think about evolution (in a neo-Lamarckian way), but there are still no credible examples of that kind of modification having an effect on evolution. Yet the proponents continue to churn out paper after tedious paper.
I declined to review the book because I wasn’t in the mood to be hypercritical then, and many of the papers were convoluted and poorly written. Writing a review would have been a herculean task, one that would have taken too much time and occupied too much space. I decided to wait and see if these new approaches could cause a sea change in our view of evolution.
They still haven’t, and, like Hoekstra et al., I predict that they won’t. Despite all the calls for an “extended evolutionary synthesis” (EES), ideas like niche construction, developmental plasticity that is not genetically conditioned, and epigenetic modification caused by the environment have not produced any substantive advances (niche construction is in fact an old idea that’s touted as new). Yet their proponents, like Laland, continue to churn out papers saying that big advances are just around the corner.
Apparently, the John Templeton Foundation agrees with them, for it’s just awarded £7.7 million (nearly 11 million dollars) to a consortium of 50 “world renowned figures” (that’s an annoying exaggeration) headed by Laland—all with the aim of producing an EES. Besides St Andrews, the institutional recipients of the grant are the University of Southampton, Indiana University, Clark University, and the Santa Fe Institute.
You can see the grant announcement on Davis Sloan Wilson’s “This View of Life” website (which includes a breathy interview of Laland by Wilson) and on the St Andrews website. The latter site describes the project’s goals this way:
The work will centre on what has become known as the “extended evolutionary synthesis” in which the genome does not have privileged control over development and heredity. In addition to genetic influences, the organism plays active, constructive roles in its own development as well as that of its descendants. This imposes directionality in evolution that is not accounted for by natural selection, and allows for multiple routes to the adaptive fit between organisms and environment.
Project leader Professor Kevin Laland at the University of St Andrews said: “The main difference from traditional perspectives is that the extended evolutionary synthesis includes a greater set of causes of evolution. This shifts the burden of explanation for adaptation and diversification; away from a one-sided focus on natural selection and towards the constructive processes of development.”
For example, in the EES, a number of complex biological phenomena are recognised not merely as products of evolution, but as playing a key role in shaping the direction and rate of evolution. For example, in evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), the evolution of developmental organisation changes the variation that selection can act on; and in evolutionary ecology (evo-eco), the evolution of ecological organisation changes the selective pressures that act on that variation.
I’ve criticized these approaches at length—not because they’re conceptually flawed, but because people have been working on them for years, and we have yet to see any important or interesting results—as in the epigenetics and developmental-plasticity cases. (I have to add that evo-devo hasn’t fulfilled its avowed promise to revolutionize evolution, either. It’s given us some really lovely and unexpected results, like the phylogenetic pervasiveness of some “control genes” (like Pax6) that act across diverse taxa, but not really any deeper understanding of evolutionary processes.)
The processes touted by EES-ers may operate in isolated instances, but, so far, they hardly seem sufficiently ubiquitous to warrant an $11 million grant. I’m not sure what Templeton was thinking when it funded this, except that it has a lot of money and was somehow convinced by the “we’re-gonna-reform-SET” palaver. One possibility that crossed my mind is that the new project directly attacks the “gene-centric” view of evolution. That could be seen as reductionist, and the “EES” as more inclusive and (if you squint hard) more numinous. Or, as a reader suggests below, perhaps the view of “organism as agent in its own evolution” is tantalizingly close to “intelligent designer as agent in evolution.”
As one of several people who sent me the links noted,
The John Templeton Foundation has just given the most muddled biologists on the planet $10m. With all the knock-on effects, this could set the field back decades. Think of all the thousands of student hours that will be wasted pursuing, discussing, promoting this stuff… ! If the JTF’s goal is to muddy the waters, and retard progress in evolutionary biology, they could hardly have found a better way.
Well, there are biologists more muddled than these, and some of the folks on the grant are good biologists; I’d call them instead “largely misguided”. But I agree that directing the $11 million in this way is a big mistake. The annual budget of the National Science Foundation for evolutionary biology is only about $7.5 million, and the Templeton funding far exceeds that. I can only imagine how much more progress we’d see if that $11 million were given to the NSF instead of to a group of self-promoting researchers who will spend it and—or so I predict—not find much of interest.
So be it. These people have their money now. It’s time for them to put up or shut up. Let’s see if they can produce some real progress in understanding evolution over the next few years.