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.

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347 thoughts on “The Anti-Synthesis

  1. CharlieM: You are the one who is suggesting improvement, not me.

    Oh, then I simply misread your intentions, because I don’t really think it’s an improvement either.

    But then your whole “case” here seems to evaporate into thin air. It seems to me you’ve pretty much concede that what you want to call a progession could equally well be called merely change. Organisms change. Both when they develop from a single cell to an adult, and through evolution over geological time.

    Uhh, yes. Who the hell ever thought otherwise?

  2. keiths:
    petrushka:

    Yes, and Medawar’s scathing criticism of the book could apply equally well to Steiner, of whom Charlie is so fond:

    Surely to make that judgement you would have had to have read a book by Steiner. Have you read any of Steiner’s basic books? I’m sure Medawar had the decency to actually read the book he was criticising.

  3. CharlieM: Dogs have progressed to the stage where they show feelings and emotions, bacteria have not.

    You are presupposing that feelings and emotions are a goal. But maybe they are only an implementation detail.

  4. Kantian Naturalist: The history of life on Earth shows a diversification of adaptations for occupying every available niche — including ours.

    And we know what is or is not a niche by whether or not it is occupied!

    The history of life on Earth shows a diversification of adaptations for occupying every available niche — including ours.

    How do you know this? Pigs in space maybe?

    And even if this is true, CharlieM can still use that in his argument unless you’re claiming that all organisms fill all niches.

    By the way, just for my own edification, which niche do humans occupy?

  5. keiths: Evolution can only exploit whatever it stumbles upon starting from where it is now.

    Like a blind man in the dark, eh? You’ve learned nothing from this thread. Evolution neither stumbles nor exploits. Try again anthopo-teleological boy.

  6. Erik: Does Neil Rickert type words or are words typing Neil Rickert? One can give arguments for either view.

    You have to ignore the words to find the real Neil Rickert.

  7. Kantian Naturalist: The history of life on Earth shows a diversification of adaptations for occupying every available niche — including ours.

    Mung: How do you know this? Pigs in space maybe?

    Pigs in space obviously wouldn’t be a niche on Earth. 😀

  8. CharlieM,

    Surely to make that judgement you would have had to have read a book by Steiner.

    You think it’s impossible to assess the writing style of someone until you’ve turned the last page of one of their books? That makes no sense.

  9. Charlie,

    Development is a progression towards a specific end and I would say that the proposal that evolution is also a progression towards a specific end should not be dismissed out of hand.

    It wasn’t “dismissed out of hand”. It was dismissed based on the evidence. Do you really think, for example, that blind cave fish evolved their sightlessness as part of “a progression towards a specific end”?

  10. keiths: Do you really think, for example, that blind cave fish evolved their sightlessness

    Um…

    No.

    And I also don’t think Donkeys evolved the inability to fly.

  11. phoodoo: And I also don’t think Donkeys evolved the inability to fly.

    I don’t know why keiths would think they did. If we put donkeys in caves, will they lose their eyes?

  12. keiths, to CharlieM:

    Do you really think, for example, that blind cave fish evolved their sightlessness as part of “a progression towards a specific end”?

    phoodoo:

    Um…

    No.

    And I also don’t think Donkeys evolved the inability to fly.

    phoodoo,

    The question was for Charlie, not for you. Now run along and play with Mung.

  13. Douglas Theobald:

    Evolution, the overarching concept that unifies the biological sciences, in fact embraces a plurality of theories and hypotheses.

    Who needs a synthesis unless there are in fact multiple theories of evolution? So things are exactly as I have stated, there are in fact multiple theories of evolution.

    THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION is a myth.

  14. Mung,

    Precisely,

    We are always being told that there is a theory of evolution, when in fact all there really is is a name of a phenomenon that may or may not be real, that we are looking for explanations for.

    So we have a theory that things change over time. But that’s not really a theory if we don’t explain how or why they change over time. That would be like saying we have a theory of light-things light up. Not really much in the way of a theory. Usually we just call that an observation, not a theory.

    Now, when someone can explain, the hows and whys of how things change over time, and give a little details beyond some vague mish-mash of competing ideas, then we might be getting somewhere.

    At least ID admits that the ways of the intelligence behind the design are mysterious to some degree.

  15. phoodoo: At least ID admits that the ways of the intelligence behind the design are mysterious to some degree.

    But natural selection scrutinizes everything! It clearly has god-like powers. It can tell what is good and what is bad. It’s a good thing that Darwin never met Hume.

  16. Poor Mung is wetting his pants, but here’s what you see if, unlike him, you make it past the first sentence:

    Evolution, the overarching concept that unifies the biological sciences, in fact embraces a plurality of theories and hypotheses. In evolutionary debates one is apt to hear evolution roughly parceled between the terms “microevolution” and “macroevolution”. Microevolution, or change beneath the species level, may be thought of as relatively small scale change in the functional and genetic constituencies of populations of organisms. That this occurs and has been observed is generally undisputed by critics of evolution. What is vigorously challenged, however, is macroevolution. Macroevolution is evolution on the “grand scale” resulting in the origin of higher taxa. In evolutionary theory, macroevolution involves common ancestry, descent with modification, speciation, the genealogical relatedness of all life, transformation of species, and large scale functional and structural changes of populations through time, all at or above the species level (Freeman and Herron 2004; Futuyma 1998; Ridley 1993).

    Universal common descent is a general descriptive theory concerning the genetic origins of living organisms (though not the ultimate origin of life). The theory specifically postulates that all of the earth’s known biota are genealogically related, much in the same way that siblings or cousins are related to one another. Thus, universal common ancestry entails the transformation of one species into another and, consequently, macroevolutionary history and processes involving the origin of higher taxa. Because it is so well supported scientifically, common descent is often called the “fact of evolution” by biologists. For these reasons, proponents of special creation are especially hostile to the macroevolutionary foundation of the biological sciences.

    This article directly addresses the scientific evidence in favor of common descent and macroevolution. This article is specifically intended for those who are scientifically minded but, for one reason or another, have come to believe that macroevolutionary theory explains little, makes few or no testable predictions, is unfalsifiable, or has not been scientifically demonstrated.

  17. keiths: Poor Mung is wetting his pants, but here’s what you see if, unlike him, you make it past the first sentence:

    And nary a mention of “unguided evolution.”

  18. So if your evidence for “unguided evolution” doesn’t come from Theobald where does it come from?

    Your logic needs work, as usual. The fact that Theobald doesn’t argue for unguided evolution doesn’t mean that the evidence he discusses doesn’t support it.

  19. Mung,

    I think the reason keiths doesn’t understand what you are saying is because he doesn’t have the particular set of amino acid sequences that would give him the knowledge to understand.

    Its like how Allan believes that the knowledge for building a spider web is found buried inside the spiders DNA. Without that particular sequence, no knowledge of spider web building. Knowledge is just a protein set. You either have it or you don’t.

    If you want to make a ham and cheese sandwich-better hope you have the right proteins.

  20. phoodoo: Its like how Allan believes that the knowledge for building a spider web is found buried inside the spiders DNA. Without that particular sequence, no knowledge of spider web building. Knowledge is just a protein set. You either have it or you don’t.

    Still engaging in this fallacious equivocation between knowledge and instinctive behavior I see. Cute.

  21. Rumraket: Still engaging in this fallacious equivocation between knowledge and instinctive behavior I see. Cute.

    Your argument must be with Allan not me, he believes this knowledge is in the DNA.

    Do you think by calling it instinct, instead of knowledge that somehow rescues you?

    Is instinct a protein?

  22. Mung: By the way, just for my own edification, which niche do humans occupy?

    Kim Sterelny, in his The Evolved Apprentice, argues that hominids occupy a unique ecological niche that he calls “obligate cooperative foraging”.

    The basic idea is that hominid social groups have a distinctive feature, in which all members make some contribution to the provisioning of the group directly or indirectly, and that the provisions acquired are shared with all or almost all of the group (though not equally). In all other primates, individuals forage for themselves and provision infants and juveniles, but there’s no adult-adult provisioning. Social carnivores and cetaceans will work together for provisioning, but in those cases there’s a much smaller range of required food types.

    Hominids are as omnivorous as primates (with a slightly higher preference for meat and better ability to digest it) but as cooperative as social carnivores. That gives hominids a distinct ecological niche that no other species on the planet has. But then again, every species has a distinct ecological niche.

  23. Corneel: Out of curiosity: what is that specific end? Did we reach it already?

    It’s me, isn’t it?

    The destiny striven for by the single celled organism that is the human zygote is a rational self aware being. So, yes you are the outcome of a striving single celled organism.

    The destiny striven for by the beginnings of life on earth is that life should become consciously self aware and it is still an ongoing process.

  24. Rumraket: But then your whole “case” here seems to evaporate into thin air. It seems to me you’ve pretty much concede that what you want to call a progession could equally well be called merely change. Organisms change. Both when they develop from a single cell to an adult, and through evolution over geological time.

    Uhh, yes. Who the hell ever thought otherwise?

    But it is more than just change. Through evolution life develops features and capabilities that it did not possess in the past and it will develop more capabilities in the future.

  25. keiths:
    CharlieM,

    You think it’s impossible to assess the writing style of someone until you’ve turned the last page of one of their books?That makes no sense.

    Have you read the contents of any book by Steiner enough to make an assessment? If so which one/s?

  26. keiths:
    Charlie,

    It wasn’t “dismissed out of hand”.It was dismissed based on the evidence.Do you really think, for example, that blind cave fish evolved their sightlessness as part of “a progression towards a specific end”?

    I would not call this evolution, I would call this regression to an earlier stage.

  27. CharlieM: The destiny striven for by the beginnings of life on earth is that life should become consciously self aware and it is still an ongoing process.

    Still an ongoing process … except for the species that have already attained this goal? Have we not already reached this lofty destiny towards which the rest of life on earth is still striving? Do I understand correctly that Homo sapiens has ceased evolving?

  28. Population genetics works very nicely with neutral models because it accords with lots of equations in physics (like diffusion and gas dynamics) and diffusion in mathematical finance theory.

    The problem with selectionist theories is the unpredictability and inconstancy of S-coefficients relative to changing environments. The math using stable S-coeffients is beautiful, but too specialized a case for me to find the selectionist theories compelling or believable.

  29. Corneel: Still an ongoing process … except for the species that have already attained this goal?

    Do you believe that humans have attained the goal of full self awareness?

    Have we not already reached this lofty destiny towards which the rest of life on earth is still striving?

    No.

    Do I understand correctly that Homo sapiens has ceased evolving?

    Definitely not.

  30. CharlieM: Since they shared a common ancestor In what way do you think bacteria have progressed that dogs have not?

    Which bacteria? Escherichia coli perhaps or Buchnera aphidicola? Maybe you were talking about Rhizobium leguminosarum ?

    I think you don’t care, so let me just pick one example: Rhizobium leguminosarum can fix atmospheric nitrogen. A dog cannot. Why not claim that Rhizobium bacteria have progressed towards greater autonomy? My guess is that you are simply not interested in an endpoint that does not include Homo sapiens.

  31. CharlieM: I would not call this evolution, I would call this regression to an earlier stage.

    In that case, you’re not using the word “evolution” in the way that biologists do, and not really talking about the same thing at all.

  32. CharlieM: Do you believe that humans have attained the goal of full self awareness?

    Humans are self-aware. I didn’t realise we do not have full self awareness.
    So what does it mean to have full self awareness? How is this different from what humans experience now?

  33. stcordova: The problem with selectionist theories is the unpredictability and inconstancy of S-coefficients relative to changing environments. The math using stable S-coeffients is beautiful, but too specialized a case for me to find the selectionist theories compelling or believable.

    So Sal thinks no one in population genetics has ever worked on varying selection coefficients? Haldane and Jayakar 1963. Gillespie 1973. See Chapter II section 10 in my online book Theoretical Evolutionary Genetics for an exposition. Roughly, the allele with the highest geometric mean fitness wins.

  34. Mung: The fittest wins again? Was there a prize, or did they all get a trophy?

    Well, the theoreticians get credit for figuring out what quantity predicts which alleles rise in frequency. In this case it isn’t the allele that has the fitness with the highest average fitness, averaged over generations. It is the geometric mean.

    Worth knowing, however you may feel about it.

  35. Corneel: Humans are self-aware. I didn’t realise we do not have full self awareness.
    So what does it mean to have full self awareness? How is this different from what humans experience now?

    I’d still want to know how he knows that “full self-awareness” (whatever that is) is “the goal” of evolution.

    I suppose a biologist would say that there are millions (and perhaps tens or even hundreds of millions) of species, and each of them is “the goal” of evolution in its own way.

  36. Corneel: Which bacteria? Escherichia coli perhaps or Buchnera aphidicola? Maybe you were talking about Rhizobium leguminosarum ?

    I think you don’t care, so let me just pick one example: Rhizobium leguminosarum can fix atmospheric nitrogen. A dog cannot. Why not claim that Rhizobium bacteria have progressed towards greater autonomy? My guess is that you are simply not interested in an endpoint that does not include Homo sapiens.

    Okay here are my thoughts on this. Earthly life is a unity, it is a super-organism. Creatures such as nitrogen fixing bacteria have, by doing this, given up the capability of becoming multi-cellular in order to build a foundation where multi-cellularity and from there inner awareness can develop. Higher plants and animals have progressed from single-cellularity to multi-cellularity only because bacteria and such have provided the base from which they can do so.

    Dogs do not need to fix nitrogen directly because bacteria do it for them. Nitrogen fixing bacteria are essential for the appearance of higher animals, higher animals are not essential for the appearance of bacteria.

  37. Kantian Naturalist: In that case, you’re not using the word “evolution” in the way that biologists do, and not really talking about the same thing at all.

    Do you really believe that biologists use the term “evolution” in a consistent manner? This is no problem as long as everyone explains in which way they are using the term.

  38. Corneel: Humans are self-aware. I didn’t realise we do not have full self awareness.
    So what does it mean to have full self awareness? How is this different from what humans experience now?

    So you believe that you are fully conscious of the motives for your actions? That you have no unconscious effects dictating in any small way what you believe or do? You are aware of the processes going on in your liver at this very moment?

    Our self-awareness is very limited at this time.

    If we are all fully aware why do you think there was a message above the entrance to the temple at Delphi “Know Thyself”

  39. Joe Felsenstein:

    So Sal thinks no one in population genetics has ever worked on varying selection coefficients? Haldane and Jayakar 1963. Gillespie 1973. See Chapter II section 10 in my online book Theoretical Evolutionary Genetics for an exposition. Roughly, the allele with the highest geometric mean fitness wins.

    Actually I wasn’t referring to that situation or other situations such at the one you described to me here:

    http://theskepticalzone.com/wp/thorp-shannon-inspiration-for-alternative-perspectives-on-the-id-vs-naturalism-debate/comment-page-6/#comment-129870

    I have no issue wit your math, it is always stratospherically sublime. 🙂

    The issue I was alluding to was where the selection coefficient for a partially formed trait would be unfavored for most of its history before becoming highly favored after being fully formed. That is what I think would be the case for various complex traits like an insulin regulated metabolism.

  40. CharlieM: Do you really believe that biologists use the term “evolution” in a consistent manner?

    Yes, I do.

    CharlieM: So you believe that you are fully conscious of the motives for your actions? That you have no unconscious effects dictating in any small way what you believe or do? You are aware of the processes going on in your liver at this very moment?

    Our self-awareness is very limited at this time.

    I believe you’ve badly misunderstood Corneel’s point. Corneel quite agrees with you that humans lack full self-awareness.

    What he or she was asking — and this is my question as well — is why you believe that “full self-awareness” (whatever that is!) is the goal of “evolution”.

    (Note: “evolution” in your sense, not the sense in which biologists use the term — since you seem to think that evolution is “progressive” by definition, which is why the evolution of blindness in cave fish doesn’t count as evolution as far as you’re concerned.)

  41. Kantian Naturalist: Yes, I do.

    I believe you’ve badly misunderstood Corneel’s point. Corneel quite agrees with you that humans lack full self-awareness.

    When someone says, “I didn’t realise we do not have full self awareness.” I would take that as meaning they assumed that we do have full self-awareness. Or at least they did not understand that we lack full self awareness.

    What he or she was asking — and this is my question as well — is why you believe that “full self-awareness” (whatever that is!) is the goal of “evolution”.

    (Note: “evolution” in your sense, not the sense in which biologists use the term — since you seem to think that evolution is “progressive” by definition, which is why the evolution of blindness in cave fish doesn’t count as evolution as far as you’re concerned.)

    I will tell you why human consciousness, which is a reasonably advanced form of self-awareness, is an exceptional product of evolution. The ability to fixate nitrogen does not allow its possessor to study nitrogen fixation, the ability to digest nylon does not allow its possessor to study nylon digestion; but the ability to have human consciousness does allow its possessor to study human consciousness. And not only that it allows its possessor to study nitrogen fixation, nylon digestion and all other processes of evolution.

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