The Anti-Synthesis

Why we don’t want another “Synthesis”

High-level debates in evolutionary biology often treat the Modern Synthesis as a framework of population genetics, or as an intellectual lineage with a changing distribution of beliefs. Unfortunately, these flexible notions, used to negotiate decades of innovations, are now thoroughly detached from their historical roots in the original Modern Synthesis (OMS), a falsifiable scientific theory.

The OMS held that evolution can be adequately understood as a process of smooth adaptive change by shifting the frequencies of small-effect alleles at many loci simultaneously, without the direct involvement of new mutations. This shifting gene frequencies theory was designed to support a Darwinian view in which the course of evolution is governed by selection, and to exclude a mutation-driven view in which the timing and character of evolutionary change may reflect the timing and character of events of mutation. The OMS is not the foundation of current thinking, but a special case of a broader conception that includes (among other things) a mutation-driven view introduced by biochemists in the 1960s, and now widely invoked. This innovation is evident in mathematical models relating the rate of evolution directly to the rate of mutation, which emerged in 1969, and now represent a major branch of theory with many applications. In evo-devo, mutationist thinking is reflected by a concern for the “arrival of the fittest”. Though evolutionary biology is not governed by any master theory, and incorporates views excluded from the OMS, the recognition of these changes has been hindered by woolly conceptions of theories, and by historical accounts, common in the evolutionary literature, that misrepresent the disputes that defined the OMS.

Read. Discuss.

347 Replies to “The Anti-Synthesis”

  1. Robert Byers
    Ignored
    says:

    I understand PE would be saying its mutations friven in segregated parts of a population. Then they do well.
    This slow sly change of small steps is what PE was against. further they said the fossil record rejected it.
    In all this stuff its just guessing.
    They presume things evolved and then, in these smarter days, there are problems with HOW ACTUALLY that could happen.
    Ideas that are wrong eventually are found to not work however much its desired they work.
    A paradigm change is acoming!
    Or what regular folks call CORRECTING WRONG CONCLUSIONS.

  2. phoodoo
    Ignored
    says:

    What the founders of the OMS knew— or thought they knew— was that, to account for evolution, the engine of adaptation must be powerful, and always ready. Given the choice of some possible modes of change, they favored the one that made adaptation rapid and powerful.

    Thus, they appealed to the experimentally demonstrated way that selection can create new types without mutation, rapidly shifting the phenotypic mean of a population outside its original range by simultaneously shifting the frequencies of available alleles at many loci, leveraging recombination to combine many small effects in one direction. In Provine’s [2] seminal history of the foundations of the OMS, this is called the “effectiveness” or “efficacy” of natural selection, and scientists who accept it as the sine qua non of evolution are labeled as the proponents of Darwinism and selection.

    I have no idea what it means to say that selection is shifting alleles to combine many small effects in one direction. Selection doesn’t do anything, it isn’t a process or a mechanism. Some reproduce, some don’t. That’s the entirety of what selection is. When we start to speak of it in terms of actually doing something, I think we are just substituting that term in there, for some force we don’t know.

    Its the same way biologists talk in terms of teleology, when they claim they don’t mean teleology. If its not what they mean, then they should just stop saying it. But they have to, because they have to discuss something that they don’t what they mean.

    Biologists complain about woo woo immaterialists talk. But I think the modern synthesis is about as woo woo as you can get. Its entirely mystical imaging.

  3. Rumraket Rumraket
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    says:

    Barely anyone here is qualified to discuss that paper.

  4. Rumraket Rumraket
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    says:

    phoodoo: I have no idea what it means to say that selection is shifting alleles to combine many small effects in one direction.

    Then don’t say anything in this thread.

  5. Corneel Corneel
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    says:

    Rumraket: Barely anyone here is qualified to discuss that paper.

    Agree.

  6. phoodoo
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    says:

    Rumraket:
    Barely anyone here is qualified to discuss that paper.

    Then don’t say anything in this thread.

  7. Rumraket Rumraket
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    says:

    phoodoo: Then don’t say anything in this thread.

    I won’t if you won’t.

  8. phoodoo
    Ignored
    says:

    Rumraket: I won’t if you won’t.

    Too late, you already did.

  9. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
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    says:

    I won’t pretend that I’m qualified to discuss this article in any detail, but I was struck by the concluding paragraphs:

    Indeed, abandoning the notion of a unified master theory is an obvious reform for 21st-century evolutionary biology. When the implicit demand for such a theory is removed from the current EES debate, for instance, what is left is a set of causal factors relevant to niche construction, developmental bias, and phenotypic plasticity, each of which deserves to be evaluated on its merits. Debates over such factors would be more productive if proponents of novel causes were to follow the model of Kimura’s Neutral Theory, which does not merely invoke a possible mode of change, but makes a precise general claim about the size of its effects in evolution.

    This kind of conceptual reform is possible without revolution. Evolutionary biology was changed permanently by the critique of “good for the species” arguments by Williams [66], and by the take-down of naive adaptationism by Gould and Lewontin [67]. These reformers subverted conventional habits of thought by exposing their shallowness. Today, wishy-washy defenses of an ongoing “Synthesis” are easy targets for a badly needed reform in our ongoing discourse on the state of evolutionary thought: rejecting Synthesis propaganda, and accepting evolutionary biology as a legitimate scientific discipline that entertains bold conjectures about the measurable effects of novel causes, with no need for a master theory. The era of master theories based on ruling principles and grand schemes is long past. The OMS was the last such theory. There will not be another.

    I found this quite interesting, as it led me to question my own enthusiasm for an extended evolutionary synthesis (EES). What exactly do we need a unifying conceptual framework for? Why would a unifying conceptual framework be epistemically preferable to a motley list of different causal factors (e.g. niche construction, phenotypic plasticity, drift, developmental bias, etc.)?

    I like the implicit distinction drawn between universal factors and general factors, though I might want to worry a bit about this conceptual relation they are making between universality and a unifying conceptual framework.

    As I understand it, their view is this: the original modern synthesis (OMS) was an overarching, unifying conceptual framework for biology because it made universal claims about life. The causal factors underpinning evolution, as conceptualized in terms of the OMS, were universal: there were no exceptions and they explained all biological phenomena.

    In place of that unifying framework, they urge a pluralistic framework: there are many different causal processes in evolution which are sufficiently general (there are more than a few examples but rather these terms do pick out real patterns) but not universal (none of them apply everywhere and none of them are complete).

    Just to focus on this bit about a plurality of causal factors with no overarching, unifying conceptual framework: the acceptability of the anti-synthesis depends on rejecting the principle of sufficient reason. Conversely, anyone who is in the grip of the PSR and thinks that an incomplete explanation is no real explanation at all will want to reject the anti-synthesis and hold out hopes for an extended evolutionary synthesis.

  10. Neil Rickert
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    says:

    Kantian Naturalist: I found this quite interesting, as it led me to question my own enthusiasm for an extended evolutionary synthesis (EES). What exactly do we need a unifying conceptual framework for?

    That sounds about right to me.

    I’ve been disagreeing with Darwinism (particularly the emphasis on selection), as I’m sure you have noticed. However, when that conference was proposed to advance an EES, I found that I could not support it.

    The problem for me was that much of what the EES people wanted to study, was already being studied in areas such as evo-devo — or at least it seemed that way to me.

    The EES folk didn’t like that all of the eggs were in one basket (the selection basket). So they wanted to put them in a different basket.

    Viva diversity.

  11. Rumraket Rumraket
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    says:

    I found the last comment in response to reviewer Eugene Koonin, to be the take-home message:

    In addition, I suggest, we don’t want another master theory, for reasons Koonin surely appreciates already. In evolutionary biology, we want to understand the evolution of animal body plans on the time-scale of hundreds of millions of years. We also want to understand— so as to develop more effective drug therapies— the progression of an HIV infection in a single patient over the course of months, with the virus population evolving and the patient’s immune system responding, under various treatment regimes. We also want to understand the evolution of genome content in prokaryotic species in which two typical members share only 60% of their genes, and the remainder is conceptualized as part of a metagenome distributed and shared among an unknown number of other species. A cohesive master theory with the generality to cover just these 3 cases would have to be something relatively empty, and discussing relatively empty theories is not a good use of our time.

    It seems to say something I’ve been thinking myself for some time. If we really want a theory of evolution that can encapsulate all it’s known and manifestations, and even worse, many of the consequences of cross-generational evolutionary change, it’s going to be extremely broad and general. And with such a general theory, you will lose predictive detail. Evolution can manifest itself in so many different systems, from narrow biochemical scope (the evolution of a single enzyme over time), to the evolution of entire biospheres or continent-level ecosystems.

    We have good theories we “need” for each of the domains of investigation Arlin mentions, and I agree it would be a mistake to try to bring them all together into a single master-theory of evolution, as that very attempt can only degrade the detailed predictive and explanatory power a more narrow and focused theory of evolution designed to fit a specific domain.

    What do we want the theory of evolution to explain?

  12. phoodoo
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    says:

    Kantian Naturalist: Why would a unifying conceptual framework be epistemically preferable to a motley list of different causal factors

    Why?

    Because some people hope to get beyond a “Well, it just happens…” view of the world, that’s why. I understand from your writings that seems to be a satisfying enough explanation for you (it goes along with your teleology without a goal stance, which I find completely irrational), but I think for most people it is wholly inadequate as a final truth.

  13. Robin Robin
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    says:

    phoodoo: Selection doesn’t do anything, it isn’t a process or a mechanism.Some reproduce, some don’t.That’s the entirety of what selection is.When we start to speak of it in terms of actually doing something, I think we are just substituting that term in there, for some force we don’t know.

    I’ve not seen a well-articulated explanation for this notion that “selection doesn’t do anything.” And based on Phoodoo’s statement above, he doesn’t really understand what selection means. That some members of a group of organisms reproduce and some don’t isn’t selection; any notable and observable forces or conditions that create specific differentiations of reproduction is selection. This really shouldn’t be tough to understand as humans have been such a condition on domestic animals for eons.

    Let’s take a simple example: the lop-eared rabbit. Humans bred rabbits with longer ears to rabbits with longer ears and kept selecting longer and longer eared offspring to breed until finally the rabbits’ ears became too long for the muscles to hold up. This is a well-documented example of a human selected characteristic.

    The only difference in wild populations is that the environment places the constraints for selection on the organisms. There are many documented cases of conditions in a given environment changing and suddenly a sub-group of population of organisms with some variation in characteristics (say color) is preyed upon more than other members of the group. Low and behold, that end of the color variation of the group starts to decline as there are fewer and fewer offspring with that color born compared with the rest of the population.

    Clearly selection is doing quite a lot. I don’t understand what is difficult to grasp in terms of selection’s impact in the above examples.

  14. Mung Mung
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    says:

    Rumraket: What do we want the theory of evolution to explain?

    Which theory of evolution? 🙂

  15. dazz dazz
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    says:

    Kantian Naturalist: Just to focus on this bit about a plurality of causal factors with no overarching, unifying conceptual framework: the acceptability of the anti-synthesis depends on rejecting the principle of sufficient reason. Conversely, anyone who is in the grip of the PSR and thinks that an incomplete explanation is no real explanation at all will want to reject the anti-synthesis and hold out hopes for an extended evolutionary synthesis.

    Interesting. But why restrict that to biology? Wouldn’t we need a theory of everything if we were to accept the PSR?

  16. Rumraket Rumraket
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    says:

    Mung: Which theory of evolution?

    Yes. My point is that depending on what you answer, you will have to either settle for a single, broad but therefore not very detailed theory, or a host of more limited, but therefore also more detailed theories with greater explanatory power within their (more limited) area of remit.

    I think that what Darwin and Wallace first alighted upon was in large part a version of the former. A very broad theory of evolution with a set of more general predictions and explanations. But exactly because of it’s broad potential explanatory scope a lot of subsequent authors have been able to “square” later findings with it.

    Some biologists seem to want a theory of evolution that explains everything about biology. They want a grand synthesis of everything biology-related. The grand unified theory of biology. They want a theory of evolution that explains how a single cell (zygote) develops into fully grown, adult, multi-cellular organism, like a palm tree or a goat. They also want that same theory to explain how multicellularity evolved. I don’t believe it is possible to have a theory of evolution that can do all that and still be useful.
    Either because, if you want it to have great explanatory power, it’s going to have so many factors built into it that it becomes impossible to comprehend for any human (and therefore practically infeasible to test or use), or conversely it will have to be so broad and vague it becomes hard to make rigorous, quantifiable or qualitative predictions.

    We will have to settle for a set of smaller theories, compatible with each other, perhaps with some overlap around the edges, but with their own limited area of validity. To pick an example I think there will have to be a theory physiological and embryonic development, and that theory of development isn’t going to be able to explain how whole ecosystems evolve, or how the immune-system responds to certain pathogens, or even how multicellularity evolved. There’s going to be a theory of evolutionary change that explains how and why multicellularity evolved, but that theory isn’t going to explain everything there is to know about how physiological and embryonic development takes place. And so on and so forth for different domains. They’re going to be compatible, and have a significant area of overlap, but they’re going to be distinct theories.

  17. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    Soon as I saw the reference to mutationism I thought ‘Arlin Stoltzfus’.

  18. Flint
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo: Why?

    Because some people hope to get beyond a “Well, it just happens…”view of the world, that’s why.I understand from your writings that seems to be a satisfying enough explanation for you (it goes along with your teleology without a goal stance, which I find completely irrational), but I think for most people it is wholly inadequate as a final truth.

    I don’t think I follow this. I understand that a theory of everything isn’t going to help explain anything in particular. Make that theory too broad, and it does become “it just happens” because it’s not explanatory in any useful way. If you are saying it’s better to say THIS happens because of this, while THAT happens because of that, I agree with you.

    Kind of like the debate between the big G of “general intelligence”, and a constellation of little gs, when it comes to evolution maybe the search for an evolutionary BIG T truth is futile, while many little truths, each explanatory in its own domain, is more useful for our understanding.

  19. Joe Felsenstein Joe Felsenstein
    Ignored
    says:

    I suppose some might consider me qualified to comment on all this. Things are crazily busy today, so I won’t comment in detail. I just want to raise one issue:

    Is the debate on this subject just a matter of what name we call our views on evolutionary phenomena? Or is this arguing that we should change our views?

    The former, I think.

  20. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    Joe Felsenstein: Is the debate on this subject just a matter of what name we call our views on evolutionary phenomena?

    No.

  21. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    Arlin Stoltzfus’s article is an interesting read that provides a breath of fresh air to the debates on the modern synthesis. The manuscript considers that a multitude of processes occur in evolution, and that the extent to which these processes are applicable differs for different groups.

    – J. Peter Gogarten

    If only there were one single coherent theory that covers everything.

  22. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    dazz: Interesting. But why restrict that to biology? Wouldn’t we need a theory of everything if we were to accept the PSR?

    I suppose that accepting the PSR means that our desire for understanding wouldn’t be entirely satisfied until we have a comprehensive theory of everything.

    I do think there’s something importantly right about how Sellars describes the intellectual vocation of philosophy:

    “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term. Under ‘things in the broadest sense of the term’ I include such radically different items as not only ‘cabbages and kings’ but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. To achieve success in philosophy would be, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, to ‘know one’s way about’ with respect to all these things, not in that unreflective way in which the centipede of the story knew its way around before it faced the question, ‘how do I walk?’ but in that reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred”

    That said, I also think that there’s something importantly right about Rumraket’s point — which I deeply appreciate — that when it comes to scientific theories, there’s a trade-off between explanatory scope and explanatory power. A theory of sufficiently broad scope to encompass radically diverse phenomena will be of comparatively little use in explaining any of them with precision. We might well be better off with a patchwork-quilt of many different theories than with a single big theory that has little explanatory power about any particulars just because it encompasses so much.

  23. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    Flint: Kind of like the debate between the big G of “general intelligence”, and a constellation of little gs, when it comes to evolution maybe the search for an evolutionary BIG T truth is futile, while many little truths, each explanatory in its own domain, is more useful for our understanding.

    That seems right to me! And I like the parallel. We might conclude that we should not expect too much by way of a single comprehensive theory of everything precisely because the human mind is basically modular. I got a lot out of Cognitive Pluralism on this point myself, though in that book Horst does not consider in much detail the implications of his view for metaphysics.

  24. phoodoo
    Ignored
    says:

    Flint,

    No, what I am saying is we need a theory that is bigger than just, “The change in organisms is due to shifting of allele frequencies due to the weeding out of some through death.”

    There needs to be a theory that answers- Why do organisms exist? Why do novel, new, precise and successful features exist. This is at the heart of the human struggle to understand itself.

    If someone is satisfied to have this answer be- Well, because allele frequencies can change, due to many factors including varying rates of reproduction, then I would call that person not very curious. I wouldn’t call that person a successful philosopher either.

    Darwinism no longer answers the question about why we exist. For a long time people believed it did. They were duped. Now a new breed of biologists is trying to sell them Darwin-lite, and calling it an explanation for life-The Modern Synthesis.

    That is selling snake oil in my opinion. If Rumraket and KN and the like are satisfied to have a theory for how cells divide, and another theory for embryo development, and then say, Well, that’s good enough for me, let’s call it a day, then that’s up to them. But I wouldn’t call that seeking truth in any meaningful way. That doesn’t get you to the “WHY”, which they seem to be claiming is not all that necessary or important.

    I laugh at that notion.

  25. phoodoo
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    says:

    Kantian Naturalist: We might well be better off with a patchwork-quilt of many different theories than with a single big theory that has little explanatory power about any particulars just because it encompasses so much.

    In my opinion, a patchwork of many different theories is an incomplete job that has almost no usefulness, intellectually. It might be all we are capable of, but it certainly isn’t what we should aim for.

    If that was all we were ever capable of, then for sure just sitting in contemplation about your breathing is more satisfying.

  26. Joe Felsenstein Joe Felsenstein
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    says:

    Mung: No.

    “No” is wrong. I say “Yes”. Nyaa nyaa nyaa so there.

  27. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
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    says:

    phoodoo,

    As I see it, this line of objection underscores the difference between science and philosophy. There’s no reason to think that scientific theories will be answers to philosophical questions. A good scientific theory will give us an empirically confirmed model of the causal processes that underpin some observable regularities. Philosophical responses to deep perplexities about the meaning of human existence are a different thing altogether!

    Here’s another important difference: I’m pretty sure that science is progressive, in the following sense: a successor scientific theory relative to a domain of phenomena will be a better theory than its predecessor. I don’t think that philosophy makes progress. I think that Plato, Confucius, Epicurus, and the Buddha should be taught and read as if they are our contemporaries. It’s hard (if not impossible) to read Ptolemy, Galileo, or Darwin the same way.

    I do think that science and philosophy are complementary (as are art and philosophy, in a different way). But they are nevertheless distinct. One of the biggest things we can learn from the 19th and 20th attempts to turn philosophy into a science or replace it with science is that such attempts are doomed to failure.

  28. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    Joe Felsenstein: “No” is wrong. I say “Yes”. Nyaa nyaa nyaa so there.

    Darn. I was hoping you were too busy to notice. 🙂

  29. Mung Mung
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    says:

    Kantian Naturalist: A theory of sufficiently broad scope to encompass radically diverse phenomena will be of comparatively little use in explaining any of them with precision. We might well be better off with a patchwork-quilt of many different theories than with a single big theory that has little explanatory power about any particulars just because it encompasses so much.

    We already have a patchwork-quilt of many different theories.

    I’ve been preaching that for months on end.

    The advantage of the OMS was that it was empirical. Testable. Falsifiable. Scientific. Coherent.

    Actually, the architects of the Modern Synthesis— Mayr, Dobzhansky, Simpson, and others, drawing on earlier work by Fisher, Haldane, and Wright— attempted something far more ambitious. They proposed a coherent, falsifiable theory for how evolutionary genetics operates, claiming that it justifies a Darwinian view of evolution as smooth adaptation, renders all other modes of change either illegitimate or unnecessary, and provides a basis to unify evolutionary thinking across diverse fields such as paleontology, botany, zoology and genetics.

    The same features that distinguished the OMS from Mendelian-mutationism made it the kind of theory that could unify evolutionary biology.

    Sadly, it turned out to be a failure. So now we have no master theory, no unity, and no coherence. These are the facts.

  30. Flint
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    says:

    phoodoo:
    Flint,

    No, what I am saying is we need a theory that is bigger than just, “The change in organisms is due to shifting of allele frequencies due to the weeding out of some through death.”

    There needs to be a theory that answers- Why do organisms exist?Why do novel, new, precise and successful features exist.This is at the heart of the human struggle to understand itself.

    I guess I’m not sure what you’re after here. Imagine, as an analogy, a Martian trying to understand a “theory of transportation”. Yeah, moving from point A to point B describes the process, just like “the details of life change over time” describes evolution.

    But taking a closer look, the Martian finds that no particular detail is universally true of transportation. Drifting down a river on a raft has little in common with driving a car around a racetrack, which has little in common with riding in an airliner. Every distinct form of transportation can be explained, in great detail, but where is the theory of transportation in all this? Is there one? Is transportation impossible to understand in the absence of such a theory?

    I think the set of mechanisms by which novel features come to exist (and are always in a state of flux, slightly new and novel in each generation) is pretty well understood. Certainly understood well enough so that computer models incorporating them produce sequences matching real-world observation in stunning detail. Why you find these understandings inadequate for your purposes, requires that I understand your purposes. And I admit I don’t.

  31. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    Mung,

    But do we need a single comprehensive theory of all biological phenomena, when we do have a patchwork quilt of various explanations of different causal processes?

    I harbor the deep suspicion that the need for a single comprehensive theory in science is basically a hangover from the good old days when it seemed like Newtonian physics was the single comprehensive theory of fundamental physics. The idea that there could be a single set of unifying laws for all (empirical) reality was terribly seductive.

    Alas, it turned out not to be. Even today we have at least two (if not three) theories of fundamental physics: general relativity, quantum mechanics, and possibly thermodynamics (there’s a question as to whether thermodynamics is reducible to quantum mechanics, I gather). And we know that GR and QM are not mathematically compatible.

    When we don’t even have a single comprehensive theory of fundamental physics, why should we expect to have unifying comprehensive theories in any other branch of empirical science?

    But we still have many different theories, each of which has its own internal consistency and its own explanatory scope, and each of which is empirical, testable, and falsifiable.

    It may be laudable to yearn for something more than that in philosophical speculation about ultimate reality, but we shouldn’t look to the sciences for the satisfaction of our philosophical aspirations.

  32. Flint
    Ignored
    says:

    Kantian Naturalist:

    I harbor the deep suspicion that the need for a single comprehensive theory in science is basically a hangover from the good old days when it seemed like Newtonian physics was the single comprehensive theory of fundamental physics. The idea that there could be a single set of unifying laws for all (empirical) reality was terribly seductive.

    I wonder. I had thought that the dream of grand unifying theories was an outgrowth of the (rather a priori) conviction that the universe is consistent, and permits no true paradoxes. And if everything MUST be consistent with everything else, surely there can be unifying explanations of great hunks of kinda related stuff, tying them together in understandable ways.

  33. Neil Rickert
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    says:

    Kantian Naturalist: I harbor the deep suspicion that the need for a single comprehensive theory in science is basically a hangover from the good old days when it seemed like Newtonian physics was the single comprehensive theory of fundamental physics.

    I’m inclined toward the view that it comes from design thinking.

    People start with “How does X work?” And then they tend to think along the lines of “How could we design X?” And that leads to the (probably false) idea that we are trying to discover a design that exists in nature.

  34. keiths keiths
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    says:

    KN.

    When we don’t even have a single comprehensive theory of fundamental physics, why should we expect to have unifying comprehensive theories in any other branch of empirical science?

    Those are separate issues. In principle, you could have a unified theory of evolution even if the lower-level phenomena (such as mutation) rested on non-unified theories of physics.

  35. keiths keiths
    Ignored
    says:

    Neil,

    People start with “How does X work?” And then they tend to think along the lines of “How could we design X?” And that leads to the (probably false) idea that we are trying to discover a design that exists in nature.

    That doesn’t explain people who don’t think the universe is designed but nevertheless expect there to be a TOE.

  36. Rumraket Rumraket
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    says:

    Mung: Sadly, it turned out to be a failure. So now we have no master theory, no unity, and no coherence. These are the facts.

    No they are not facts.

    The absense of a master theory does not imply there is no “unity” or a lack of coherence between some set of smaller sub-theories that survive.

    Take what is essentially two sub-branches of physics: Chemistry and geology. There are theories of chemistry and theories of geology, they each have their domains of validity and areas of remit. But there is also some overlap between them (in a sub-branch of both called geochemistry). They are entirely consistent, both internally and with each, and so coherent. It isn’t necessary to have a super-theory of it all in order for it to be coherent and intercompatible.

    For the same reasons, it turns out the subject of biology encompasses such an incredible diversity of phenomena it is a pipe dream to hope for a single unifying theory of it all. It is better to hope for a smaller set of more precise theories, compatible with each other and with a bit of overlap, that can explain things in more detail and therefore be more useful.

  37. CharlieM CharlieM
    Ignored
    says:

    Mung wrote

    So now we have no master theory, no unity, and no coherence. These are the facts.

    Kantian Naturalist replied (snipped)

    But do we need a single comprehensive theory of all biological phenomena, when we do have a patchwork quilt of various explanations of different causal processes?

    and Rumraket replied (snipped)

    …it turns out the subject of biology encompasses such an incredible diversity of phenomena it is a pipe dream to hope for a single unifying theory of it all. It is better to hope for a smaller set of more precise theories, compatible with each other and with a bit of overlap, that can explain things in more detail and therefore be more useful.

    Or maybe a more holistic approach is in order. Here is the conclusion of an essay by Stephen L. Talbott:

    Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory: Is DNA the Decisive Heritable Material?

    I remarked at the outset that, by itself, the widely advertised core logic of evolution tells us little if anything about what to expect from the history of life on earth. Stephen Jay Gould made a similar point, acknowledging that while he taught this logic for thirty years, it says nothing concrete about “the sciences of natural history”. He added, however, that the compelling force of the logic (which he called the “syllogistic core”) can at least “rebut charges of hokum or incoherence at the foundation [of evolutionary theory]” (2002, pp. 125-6 fn.*).
    I hope you can see by now that the “compelling” syllogistic core is itself hokum. It is hokum for two reasons. First, it has been founded upon particular static entities (genes), that are incapable of doing anything — entities, moreover, that cannot even be defined in a meaningful, functional sense, and that in any case are subject, during processes of development and reproduction, to the almost unimaginably sophisticated governance of the cell and organism. The living activity of the cell and organism can never be understood except contextually, which is to say, holistically.
    In the second place, the core logic of evolution completely ignores the organism as agent — an active, dynamic, adaptable agent pursuing a highly directed path in all its affairs, including when it makes its own, meticulously composed contribution to future generations.
    But there is supposed to be a problem here. Anyone who argues for a holistic approach to the organism is bound to hear, as I have heard, this objection: “How can we possibly understand the potentials hidden in a whole cell with its infinitely complex and integral processes, let alone in a whole organism? You have no right to speak of such wholes, because you can offer us no program for understanding them as such. Our only methods for understanding are grounded in the causal analysis of parts”.
    Well, I am sorry if life makes things difficult — if cellular substance really is rather more like the “vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes” from which Richard Dawkins recoils (2006a, p. 159*) than like a machine or digital device. But life is what it is, and if little or no attention has been given to the real issues — if these issues demand ways of looking for which we have received no training, or (to use Goethe’s phrase) for which we have not yet even cultivated the necessary “organs of perception” — this can only be reason for trying to develop the relevant cognitive capacities and for learning some new approaches, not for sticking to what we have done because it’s the only thing we know.
    And if any spur to our learning is needed, perhaps the most effective would be to realize that, with the demise of the gene as the single, decisive heritable substance, virtually the entire conventional and logically compelling structure of evolutionary theory, as outlined in the early part of this article, is shown to be an empty shell, disconnected from living activity.

    The more we are informed by the sophisticated advances in the techniques of biological research the greater is our need to abandon the narrow view that genes and DNA are some sort of master controllers of living systems. We should be listening to what the science is telling us.

  38. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    Darwin was antesynthesis. Mung is antescience.

  39. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    CharlieM,

    The more we are informed by the sophisticated advances in the techniques of biological research the greater is our need to abandon the narrow view that genes and DNA are some sort of master controllers of living systems. We should be listening to what the science is telling us.

    Which is that genes/DNA are some sort of ‘master controllers’ of living systems.

  40. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    Here’s my Grand Unified Theory – organic change results from variation and constrained sampling of that variation. Thangyouverrymuch. I’m off to prepare my Nobel acceptance speech.

  41. CharlieM CharlieM
    Ignored
    says:

    Allan Miller,

    Concerning regulation Talbott links from the essay I quoted to further writings of his on this subject. In a section, Who Regulates the Regulators, he has this to say about the p53 protein:

    When regulators are in turn regulated, what do we mean by “regulate” — and where within the web of regulation can we single out a master controller capable of dictating cellular fates? And if we can’t, what are reputable scientists doing when they claim to have identified such a controller, or, rather, various such controllers?
    If they really mean something like “influencers,” then that’s fine. But influence is not about mechanism and control; the things at issue just don’t have controlling powers. What we see, rather, is a continual mutual adaptation, interaction, and coordination that occurs from above. What we see, that is — once we start following out all the interactions at a molecular level — is not some mechanism dictating the fate or controlling an activity of the organism, but simply an organism-wide coherence — a living, metamorphosing form of activity — within which the more or less distinct partial activities find their proper place. The misrepresentation of this organic coherence in favor of supposed controlling mechanisms is not an innocent inattention to language; it’s a fundamental misrepresentation of reality at the central point where we are challenged to understand the character of living things.

    Maybe you could give us an example of what you consider to be a gene/DNA master controller.

  42. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    CharlieM,

    Maybe you could give us an example of what you consider to be a gene/DNA master controller.

    All control molecules root in DNA as far as I am aware. I’d be interested in an exception. I am not aware of any RNA that is not produced by DNA transcription. I am not aware of any protein that is not produced by mRNA translation – even if subject to RNA editing/posttranslational modification: those actions are themselves performed by molecules that ultimately root in DNA.

    It is kind of vital that a function be inherited, and that happens through DNA (despite ingenious attempts to use a more colloquial understanding of ‘inheritance’ to include short-residence molecular chattels).

  43. CharlieM CharlieM
    Ignored
    says:

    Allan Miller,

    Shakespeare’ play’s are rooted in the English language but it is not the words that determine how he used and arranged them. I am not interested in the fact that proteins are rooted in DNA, I am interested in the controlling process.

    Here is a recent paper:

    Meditation and yoga can ‘reverse’ DNA reactions which cause stress, new study suggests from Coventry University.

    Where is the DNA master controller here?

  44. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    CharlieM,

    Shakespeare’ play’s are rooted in the English language but it is not the words that determine how he used and arranged them.

    Bad analogy, which I’m going to waste no further time on.

    I am not interested in the fact that proteins are rooted in DNA, I am interested in the controlling process.

    No that interested, then. Why ignore the basic facts? Understanding the role of DNA does not impede understanding of the overall process. You’re sure there’s a ‘master controller’, and you’re sure it’s not in DNA, it’s in some mystical Elsewhere. Nonetheless, it all starts with DNA.

  45. CharlieM CharlieM
    Ignored
    says:

    Allan Miller: It is kind of vital that a function be inherited, and that happens through DNA (despite ingenious attempts to use a more colloquial understanding of ‘inheritance’ to include short-residence molecular chattels).

    But we don’t just inherit DNA, we begin as an egg cell with its cytoplasm and associated organelles. It is a functioning complete organism from the very beginning.

  46. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    CharlieM,

    But we don’t just inherit DNA, we begin as an egg cell with its cytoplasm and associated organelles. It is a functioning complete organism from the very beginning.

    So you’re going with the ‘molecular chattels’ view of inheritance. Well, doesn’t work. They are produced from DNA.

    Yes, I KNOW that DNA is never presented naked. That in no way changes my point.

  47. CharlieM CharlieM
    Ignored
    says:

    Allan Miller: You’re sure there’s a ‘master controller’, and you’re sure it’s not in DNA, it’s in some mystical Elsewhere. Nonetheless, it all starts with DNA.

    No. The master controller is the organism.

  48. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    CharlieM,

    No. The master controller is the organism.

    Isn’t.

  49. CharlieM CharlieM
    Ignored
    says:

    Allan Miller:
    CharlieM,

    So you’re going with the ‘molecular chattels’ view of inheritance. Well, doesn’t work. They are produced from DNA.

    Yes, I KNOW that DNA is never presented naked. That in no way changes my point.

    And it is obvious from your point that you can’t see past your reductionist mindset.

  50. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    CharlieM,

    And it is obvious from your point that you can’t see past your reductionist mindset.

    Yeah, yah boo sucks to you too. It remains a fact – elucidated by a whole bunch of ‘reductionists’ – that all biological molecules trace back to DNA.

    This ‘control by the organism’ doesn’t even have a mechanism – there is no route from ‘me-as-an-organism’ into my sperm and from there to the zygote of my next child (where I compete for the steering wheel with half of my wife, or a quarter each of her parents).

    One can pat oneself on the back for being ‘holisticer-than-thou’, but there’s no point denying facts to suit.

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