Luana Maroja on the ideological threat to biology

November 7, 2022 • 10:33 am

The conference on academic freedom at Stanford included a panel on  STEM with chemistry professor Anna Krylov from USC, Mimi St. Johns, an undergraduate in computer sciences at Stanford, Luana Maroja, Professor of Biology at Williams College, and me.  Luana (who’s written on this site before) and I were to handle biology, and we divided up the task beforehand.  Luana teaches undergrads as well as doing research, and so is able to observe the current impact of ideology on both areas.  She thus had a more personal take on “the existential threat” of ideology to biology, and Bari Weiss, who was in the audience, published Luana’s remarks on Bari’s substack site. You can see them for free below (but subscribe if you read often); I’ll give a few excerpts:

Luana’s intro recounts her “woke tipping point,” which happened to be hearing an authoritarian proclamation by—who else?—Reza Aslan:

As an evolutionary biologist, I am quite used to attempts to censor research and suppress knowledge. But for most of my career, that kind of behavior came from the right. In the old days, most students and administrators were actually on our side; we were aligned against creationists. Now, the threat comes mainly from the left.

The risk of cancellation at Williams College, where I have taught for 12 years, and at top colleges and universities throughout this country, is not theoretical. My fellow scientists and I are living it. What is at stake is not simply our reputations, but our ability to pursue truth and scientific knowledge.

If you had asked me about academic freedom five years ago, I would have complained about the obsession with race, gender and ethnicity, along with safetyism on campus (safe spaces, grade inflation, and so on). But I would not have expressed concerns about academic freedom.

We each have our own woke tipping point—the moment you realize that social justice is no longer what we thought it was, but has instead morphed into an ugly authoritarianism. For me that moment came in 2018, during an invited speaker talk, when the religious scholar Reza Aslan stated that “we need to write on a stone what can and cannot be discussed in colleges.” Students gave this a standing ovation.  Having been born under dictatorship in Brazil, I was alarmed.

Then the two areas of danger: teaching and research. Luana dwells on something I alluded to in my bit: the misguided denial of the sex binary, a fundamental observation in animals that is not only instructive about evolution, which repeatedly produces two and only two sexes in animals, but also enlightens is the very basis for sexual selection, which is responsible for a lot of the differences between males and females in animals.

The restriction of academic freedom comes in two forms: what we teach and what we research.

Let’s start with teaching. I need to emphasize that this is not hypothetical. The censorious, fearful climate is already affecting the content of what we teach.

One of the most fundamental rules of biology from plants to humans is that the sexes are defined by the size of their gametes—that is, their reproductive cells. Large gametes occur in females; small gametes in males. In humans, an egg is 10 million times bigger than a sperm. There is zero overlap. It is a full binary.

It goes on, but you can read for yourself. Luana does, however, highlight how this denial on teaching, which has a humorous sidelight:

In psychology and public health, many teachers no longer say male and female, but instead use the convoluted “person with a uterus.” I had a colleague who, during a conference, was criticized for studying female sexual selection in insects because he was a male. Another was discouraged from teaching the important concept of “sexual conflict”—the idea that male and female interests differ and mates will often act selfishly; think of a female praying mantis decapitating the head of the male after mating—because it might “traumatize students.” I was criticized for teaching “kin selection”—the the idea that animals tend to help their relatives. Apparently this was somehow an endorsement of Donald Trump hiring his daughter Ivanka.

Yes, one distraught student did somehow connect Trump and Ivanka with kin selection!

The ideological basis of this distortion? It’s the attempt to validate the diversity of gender identities by claiming there’s a diversity of sex as well. But there’s not: sex is binary while gender, which is more continuous, is bimodal, with most gender identities grouping at the male and female sociosexual roles but with many identities in between. Still, one shouldn’t confuse biological sex and gender, which, unlike sex, is a human social construct based on one’s individual choices.  The bimodality of sex is a biological fact that says exactly nothing about the moral rights of individuals of different genders.

And then there’s the effect on research, with ideology not only limiting access to data but also what what you can publish. Be your results true or not, some journals won’t consider them at if they see potential for psychological “harm”:

But the field that is most directly affected is research related to humans, especially those dealing with evolution of populations.

As an example: The NIH now puts barriers to access to the important database of “Genotypes and Phenotypes (dbGaP).” The database is an amazing tool that combines genomes (the unique genetic makeup of each individual) and phenotypes (the observable characteristics of each individual) of millions of people. These phenotypes include education, occupation, health and income and, because the dataset connects genetics with phenotype at an individual level, it is essential for scientists who want to understand genes and genetic pathways that are behind those phenotypes.

The NIH now denies scientists access to this data and other related datasets. Researchers report getting permits denied on the grounds that studying their genetic basis is “stigmatizing.” According to one researcher, this happens even if the research has nothing to do with race or sex, but focuses on genetics and education.

But why is education attainment any more stigmatizing than health? Especially when all individuals in the database are anonymous? Given the large genetic variation between individuals in a group and the large environmental effect on phenotypes (especially those related to education), are results for the group level even that relevant?

Learning about what differentiates education attainment and occupation is more than an academic curiosity. Understanding the genetic pathways behind phenotypes might help us find solutions and help struggling children.

The denial or rejection biological truth affects two areas of evolutionary biology most of all: the idea that there are differences between groups, and the fact that differences between individuals, and averages between groups, might have a genetic basis.  Ideologues reject both because difference implies ranking, and this supposedly implies superiority/inferiority, which in turn implies bigotry. And the notion that individual or group differences might be partly based on genes somehow makes them easier to reject than if they were cultural.

The facts are the facts, but why on earth should we judge the worth of a human or group based on biology?  That’s an example of the “appeal to nature”, a fallacy that, in short, says “what we see in nature is what should be a model for behavior for humans.” This is bogus in two respects. If we base equality and worth of people on observations of nature, our morality then becomes contingent in biology, and is malleable to any alterations in what we know about nature. Further, what we see in nature is not always good, with many things far from models of human behavior. Nature is red in tooth an claw; there’s murder, theft, forcible copulation, and a whole host of things we want no part of.  In fact, the appeal to nature already assumes a preexisting morality based not on biology but on other factors: preference, reason, utilitarianism, and the other bases of ethics. What is happening when we claim that all groups are identical in a given trait or traits, that all people within a group are identical for traits , and that there are more than two biological sexes, is the reverse of the “appeal to nature”. Instead of asserting that what we see in nature gives us guidelines for how to behave, the ideologues reverse the fallacy (which remains a fallacy): how we decide to behave in humans tells us what we must see in nature—and if we have to distort nature to see what gives us comfort, well, distort it we must.

This distortion is, as Luana emphasizes: an existential threat to biology—and to science in general. Her closing:

The censors and gatekeepers simply assume—without evidence—that human population research is malign and must be shut down. The costs of this kind of censorship, both self-imposed and ideologically based, are profound. Student learning is impaired and important research is never done. The dangers of closing off so many avenues of inquiry is that science itself becomes an extension of ideology and is no longer an endeavor predicated on pursuing knowledge and truth.

Maori “ways of knowing” to be taught as science in NZ universities

December 8, 2021 • 9:45 am

The kerfuffle continues about whether mātauranga Māori, or “Maori ways of knowing”, constitutes an independent form of science that should be taught in school science class as coequal to what we know as “real science”.  As I’ve pointed out before, this coequality is simply ludicrous, for mātauranga Māori is a collection of religious beliefs, superstitions, false assertions (e.g. biological creationism), as well as a few practical truths (e.g., how to trap eels). In other words, it’s by no means equivalent to modern science, and the well-meaning but misguided notion of supporting Maori students (as well as confusing all students) by teaching them “their own science” is a recipe for disaster and scientific backwardness. Even New Zealand’s Royal Society is supporting this disaster:

Richard Dawkins has pointed out the same thing:

Now I think I can speak for Richard when I say that neither of us are trying to denigrate the Maori people themselves, who have a proud history (as well as a history of oppression) that is well integrated into modern “colonial” culture. What we are trying to do is simply defend science and ensure that students who are seeking to learn science are not at the same time swallowing a hefty dose of untruths, religion, and mythology. And so we fight on, knowing that the desire to placate the indigenous people is sufficiently strong among Kiwi academics and government officials that they’re willing to degrade science to support ethnicity. But what they’re doing is disadvantaging Maori youth by buttressing their “ways of knowing” as “science”. That will not help any of them who wish to pursue scientific careers.

Previously I had been unclear about whether mātauranga Māori would be taught as equivalent to modern science in high school alone, or also at university. The following advertisement for a teaching fellow came to my attention, and it clearly implies that yes, universities are going to pollute science with mythology, falsehoods, and superstition.

Click on the screenshot to read the whole thing. Note that this is at the University of Auckland—the premier university in the country.

It’s pretty clear from the list of goals below that Maori ways of knowing are going to be taught as biological science. Bolding below the title is mine:

Te Whiwhinga mahi | The opportunity

Te Kura Mātauranga Koiora School of Biological Sciences (SBS) is seeking to appoint a permanent, full-time Professional Teaching Fellow (PTF) to support the School’s teaching practice and enhance curriculum development in terms of Māoritanga.

The Kaiwhakaako Mātauranga Koiora will work in partnership with other SBS academic staff to support teaching and learning practices that facilitate appropriate integration of indigenous knowledge, te reo, tikanga, mātauranga Māori, and kaupapa Māori into the curriculum.  To achieve this, the successful candidate will work collaboratively with academic staff to understand the opportunities and challenges for incorporating Te Ao Māori into the biological curriculum and will identify potential pathways for curriculum redevelopment and redesign that will support both Māori and non- Māori staff and students, and the wider community in Aotearoa New Zealand.

This is also clear from the qualifications for the job (again my emphasis):

Our successful candidate will bring:

    • Strong experience in teaching relevant to the tertiary sector, preferably in Biological Sciences
    • A post-graduate qualification in biology or related field, although we will also consider applicants with a biology undergraduate qualification and a relevant postgraduate qualification such as in education.
    • Well-developed understanding of principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi and their application in the work environment
    • Understanding of tikanga Māori and confidence navigating Te Ao Māori
    • Proficiency in te reo Māori is preferred
    • Experience of curriculum design and/or pedagogies to integrate mātauranga, tikanga and te reo Māori into courses for diverse cohorts of students.

It’s pretty clear, as other academics in New Zealand have told me, that the incorporation of mātauranga Māori into the biology curriculum is a foregone conclusion. That’s because it’s seen as a form of “inclusion”—misguided though it may be—and a form of inclusion that trumps teaching students real biology and other science.

I would urge New Zealanders and academics to stand up against this development, for its ultimate result will be the world viewing New Zealand’s science as a joke. By all means ensure that Maori have equal rights, and even affirmative action as reparations for their mistreatment, but for Ceiling Cat’s sake do not let their religion and mythology be taught as truth. It’s as if every biology class in American high schools and colleges were forced to teach Biblical creationism alongside evolutionary biology.

Science again corrupted by ideology: Slate distorts evolutionary biology to make it seem capitalistic and anti-socialistic

January 25, 2020 • 11:00 am

UPDATE: I left this comment after the Slate piece, but it appears to have been removed. I’m not sure why, as there are far more vitriolic comments in the thread.

Jerry Coyne

The claim that the idea of cooperation is novel and paradigm-shifting in evolutionary biology is palpably ridiculous. All of the examples given by the author are not only known, as well as many other examples of mutualism that long preceded Margulis (lichens, termites, cleaner fish and “cleanees”), but fit firmly within the neo-Darwinian paradigm. There’s nothing new here except the author’s claim that the idea of cooperation is novel. To anybody who’s studied evolutionary biology, this is nonsense.  Further, the author apparently hasn’t read Prum, who actually tried to RESURRECT Darwin’s idea of sexual selection.

I have written a long critique of this piece at my website It’s the latest piece, and since I may not be allowed to post links, just go to my site and read it.  The upshot: this piece evinces either ignorance or deliberate obfuscation, and is also misleading in that it tries to distort the history and nature of evolutionary biology in the service of an ideology (apparently socialism).


Once again we have a collision between ideology and science, but in this case the perceived conclusions of science are in fact wrong, so the called-for revision of evolutionary biology in light of woke ideology isn’t needed. In a new article in Slate (see below), John Favini argues that evolutionary biologists are completely wedded to the paradigm of competition between individuals and between species, and further argues that the idea of individuals or species being cooperative is both reviled, new, and non-Darwinian. If you’re at all familiar with the history of reciprocal altruism, kin selection, and mutualism between species, you’ll know that these ideas—which all involve the evolution of cooperation—are both over half a century old and well ingrained in modern evolutionary theory.

But Favini is either unfamiliar with this literature, which is inexcusable for a graduate student in anthropology who claims a knowledge of biology, or hides it, which is duplicitous. I won’t make a judgment except that this article, which seems more attuned to the Discovery Institute (or even Salon), doesn’t belong in Slate, which is supposed to be a decent site. (Hitchens used to write for it.)

Favini is identified at the site as “a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Virginia and a freelance writer. He is interested in climate change, environmental politics, and science as a cultural domain.”

From this you can derive one speculation and one conclusion. The speculation is that Favini is a cultural rather than a physical anthropologist; the former tend to be social justice warriors who often downplay scientific facts in favor of their ideology (they often, for example, completely dismiss the idea of “race”, though it has a qualified reality that’s meaningful). Second, the “science as a cultural domain” bit is worrying, and in fact is what gave rise to the Slate article (click on screenshot below to see it).

Favini situates Darwin at the outset as a white, elite, Englishman subject to the social forces of his time, and predisposed to think about competition because his theory of natural selection originated after reading Malthus on competition. From this, throughout the article, he concludes that all of Darwinism, then and now, is marinated in the idea of competition.

. . .  like all humans, Darwin brought culture with him wherever he traveled. His descriptions of the workings of nature bear resemblance to prevailing thinking on human society within elite, English circles at the time. This is not a mere coincidence, and tracing his influences is worthwhile. It was, after all, the heyday of classical liberalism, dominated by thinkers like Adam Smith, David Hume, and Thomas Malthus, who valorized an unregulated market. They were debating minor points within a consensus on the virtues of competition. In an especially humble (and revealing) moment, Darwin characterized the principles underlying his thinking as naught but “the doctrine of Malthus, applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.”

. . . More than just a cliché, though, the supposed naturalness of competition has played a central role in substantiating the laissez-faire variety of capitalism the majority of the American political spectrum has championed for the past four or so decades. Indeed, any non-market-based solution to social issues usually falls prey to claims of utopianism, of ignoring the fundamental selfishness of the human species. . . . To put it simply, we have let Darwinism set the horizon of possibility for human behavior. Competition has become a supposed basic feature of all life, something immutable, universal, natural.

Regardless of the idea of “social Darwinism” (which Darwin never held and which has been completely abandoned by intellectuals), the facts of competition between genes (i.e., natural selection), competition between individuals (which produces natural selection), and competition between members of different species (which also produces natural selection as well as interesting aspects of ecology) are real and important. In fact, without competition between the different forms of genes for representation in later generations, we wouldn’t have natural selection at all!

And to the extent that natural selection is responsible for most interesting features of life, including biodiversity itself, it is “natural and universal.” But “natural” doesn’t mean that we have to put up with it, for we derail natural selection all the time by using doctors, dentists, and optometrists, and by using contraception. Further, we’ve tamed competition between individuals with laws against aggression, rape, and so on. Finally, we’re beginning to tame the competition between species by removing invasive species from places they don’t belong and by giving up the foolish idea that we humans should dominate all of nature.

Why is Favini attacking competition at such great length? We get a clue early in the article, as well as later. Early on, he says this:

Yet new research from across various fields of study is throwing the putative scientific basis of this consensus into doubt. Mind you, there have always been people, scientists and otherwise, who conceived of life outside a Darwinian paradigm—the idea of evolutionary biology is and has been a conversation among a mostly white and male global elite. Yet, even within centers of institutional power, like universities in North America, competition’s position as the central force driving evolution has been seriously challenged recently. In fact, criticisms have been mounting at least since biologist Lynn Margulis began publishing in the late ’60s.

You guessed it. It’s those damn white males, again, Jake! They are the ones with the power to push an unwarranted consensus about competition in the “elite universities.” According to Favini, it took a female, Lynn Margulis, to dethrone competition as the centerpiece of evolutionary biology. Well, that’s not quite true, because Darwinian speculations about cooperation, and the recognition that evolution can promote it both within and between species, has been an accepted part of evolution well before Margulis found that a form of “cooperation” was responsible for the advent of the eukaryotic cell. Later on, we’ll hear Favini touting the “heterodox voices” of indigenous Americans as helping dethrone the idea of competition, a woke concept that, sadly, isn’t true, either.

Favini then bangs on at length about all the supposedly non-Darwinian instances of cooperation that he says, have “fractured Western biology’s consensus on Darwin”. This is, to be gauche, pure bullshit. Most of these phenomena have been known for decades, and none of those pose any kind of challenge for Darwinism. They include the merging of two prokaryotes into a cell containing mitochondria, and, in plants, a cell containing chloroplasts. This “endosymbiosis” idea was a wonderful and true hypothesis pushed (but not originated) by Lynn Margulis. And it can be seen as an example of cooperation, in which the “big” cell benefits from having energy-generating organelles, while the organelles (which, like the cell itself, underwent evolution to promote the interaction) gain protection and sustenance.

Margulis’s theory was initially met with some resistance, but was quickly accepted after microscopic and especially DNA evidence showed that she was right. But the important thing in our discussion is that this is just one example of the kind of symbiosis that was accepted long before Margulis. Well known symbioses include those between leafcutter ants and fungi, between the termites and the protists and bacteria that help them digest cellulose, between the algae and fungi that constitute lichens, between cleaner fish and the “cleanees,” between clownfish and the sea anemones they inhabit, and the many species that have symbiotic bacteria or algae, like the bacteria that inhabit light organs and produce light in deep-sea fish (see photo at bottom).

It’s important to recognize that these examples of interspecific symbiosis (“mutualisms,” in which both partners benefit), are perfectly consistent with neo-Darwinism, and have never been seen as a challenge to the theory. Each species benefits from associating with the other, and natural selection will act and has acted to tighten the mutualisms. More recent findings of a mutualistic “microbiome” in ourselves and other species are also something that slots perfectly into a Darwinian paradigm, just as does another form of symbiosis: parasitism.

I’ll add here that cooperation within groups, beginning with kin selection that forges bonds between relatives (and explaining the wonderfully cooperative castes within a social-insect colony), and extending to “reciprocal altruism”, in which small bands of animals undergo individual selection to treat their groupmates better, has also never been problematic for Darwinism. With the recognition by Hamilton, Trivers, and others that genes in you are also genes in your relatives, and that genes for scratching the backs of others who scratch yours can also be advantageous, the multifarious forms of cooperation in nature have developed into a wonderful story and a true story, but also, contra Favini, an old story.

Favini, however, pretends that all this work on cooperation has upended evolutionary biology, fracturing our consensus on Darwinism. Given that all the examples he adduces haven’t tarnished evolutionary theory one bit, he’s just reaching wildly to pretend that he’s found something new. He even cites the renegade “Third Way” group of evolutionists who, to my mind, don’t pose any serious alternative to Darwinism:

Put simply, life is beginning to look ever more complex and ever more collaborative. All this has fractured Western biology’s consensus on Darwin. In response to all these new insights, some biologists instinctively defend Darwin, an ingrained impulse from years of championing his work against creationists. Others, like Margulis herself, feel Darwin had something to offer, at least in understanding the animal world, but argue his theories were simplified and elevated to a doctrine in the generations after his passing. Others are chartering research projects that depart from established Darwinian thinking in fundamental ways—like ornithologist Richard Prum, who recently authored a book on the ways beauty, rather than any utilitarian measure of fitness, shapes evolution. Indeed, alongside the research I have explored here, works by scientists like Carl Woese on horizontal gene transfer and new insights from epigenetics have pushed some to advocate for an as-yet-unseen “Third Way,” a theory for life that is neither creationism nor Neo-Darwinian evolution.

Note that Favini gives Darwin only a bit of credit here, saying that “Margulis [felt] Darwin had something to offer.” DUHHH! And as far as Prum’s book on sexual selection for “beauty” goes, well, as you may recall, in that book Prum revives Darwin’s own theory of sexual selection!  Did Favini even read the book? While Prum grossly exaggerates the ubiquity of and evidence for the “runaway” model of sexual selection, make no mistake about it: Prum’s theory is thoroughly Darwinian, incorporating Favini’s despised “utilitarian measures of fitness.” (Just look at the theoretical models of runaway sexual selection.)

I’ll add, to complete the record on Darwin, that he did not ignore cooperation. In The Descent of Man, for instance, he speculates on the origin of human altruism, although he floats a theory of group selection to explain it. He also ponders the evolution of cooperation in social insects, and, in the chapter on “Instinct” in The Origin, suggests that sterile castes can be produced by “family selection,” which many have taken to be one of the first inklings of kin selection among relatives.

It’s at the end of the piece that Favini’s mask slips as he plunges into wokeness, touting the insights of indigenous Americans (which haven’t influenced evolutionary theory), and then dissing capitalism, which he sees as the outcome of Darwinism rather than of economic and social forces.

First, the indigenous people:

This lack of agreement isn’t such a bad thing. Leaving the Darwinian consensus behind means a more capacious, diverse, and ultimately more rigorous science. The recent dissensus has opened up more room for important, heterodox voices like Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Kimmerer speaks of plants as highly intelligent beings and teachers, a sharp departure from the reductionist, utilitarian approach to plant and animal life that passed as scientific rigor within the Darwinian framework. Much of the recent research I have highlighted might count as what Kim TallBear, a scholar and enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, calls “settler epiphanies”—belated “discoveries” by settlers of Indigenous knowledge that was either ignored or outright suppressed by colonial land appropriation and attempted genocide.

Certainly ethnobotany and the knowledge of indigenous people included in that field, have been extremely valuable. A huge proportion of our drugs, for example, come from plants, some based on how they were used by locals. But indigenous peoples haven’t changed the scientific “way of knowing” with their “spiritual way of knowing” (something that Kimmerer seems to tout), nor have they made Darwinism swerve even a millimeter from its path. (Note Favini’s denigration of evolutionary biology as “reductionist and utilitarian”. It is of course neither.)

Finally, Favini lapses into socialism. But whatever its merits, socialism cannot and should not be justified by citing the evolution of cooperation, or by arguing that an unjustified view of evolutionary biology has severely impeded its acceptance by propping the notion that capitalism’s competitition is “natural”  Social Darwinism might have been mildly influential at the time of Herbert Spencer, but that view has long since fallen by the wayside.

Overall, then, what we get in Favini’s piece is pure politics, with some Darwinism thrown in to demonize and blame for competition:

Far too many environmentalists assume that people, driven by innate self-interest, are bound to harm ecology, that we will inevitably clear-cut, extract, consume, so long as it gives us an advantage over the next guy. This leaves us deeply disempowered, with few solutions to climate change outside limiting humanity’s impact through some kind of population control. When competitive self-interest is revealed to be a mutable behavior, the causes of climate change come into greater clarity: not human nature, but an economic system that demands competition, that distributes resources such that a tiny elite can live tremendously carbon-intensive lifestyles while the rest of us struggle for a pittance. Leaving competition behind, we can also imagine richer solutions: climate policies that problematize the tremendous wealth of the few, that build economies concerned with collective well-being and sustainability.

. . . Science can play a critical role in liberating our imagination from competition’s grip. It can show us all the symbioses that make life possible. Such a science can remind us that we can act and be otherwise—that the shortsighted self-interest that motivates, for instance, continued fossil fuel extraction is endemic to capitalism, not to our species, much less to life itself. We can find ways to live collaboratively with the bewildering array of life that roots and scurries across our planet, but only if we reckon with competition’s hold on our thinking—for if we see life as merely a competitive struggle to survive, we will make it one.

I’ve pondered why Favini has so badly misrepresented the history and content of evolutionary biology, and the only conclusion I can reach is that he’s a woke cultural anthropologist who is willing to distort the nature and history of science in the interest of promoting a socialist program. But he’s dead wrong in claiming that evolution is completely obsessed with competition (except between genes when you talk about natural selection), and equally wrong about the evolution of cooperation having been completely neglected until Lynn Margulis came along.

Since Favini is young, I won’t be too hard on him, except to advise him to drop this particular hobbyhorse, as it will only hurt what reputation he has. Or, rather, what reputation he has among evolutionists, as cultural anthropology is largely a miasma of nescience.

A mutualism: a female anglerfish, Linophryne polypogon, with her light organ fueled by bacteria. Photo by Peter David in Wired. See this source for more information about the mutualism.


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.