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 thoughts on “The Anti-Synthesis

  1. CharlieM: 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.

    Sure, but consciousness does not allow its possessor to fix nitrogen nor does consciousness allow its possessor to digest nylon.

    Look, we can play this game for a long time, but you cannot supply a single argument for a progress towards “full self awareness” that I can’t turn 180 degrees round.
    So how are you going to objectively establish that full self awareness is the thing life is aiming for?

  2. CharlieM: 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.

    Correction: Because some bacteria like Rhizobium have provided the basis. You are conveniently forgetting that other bacteria are pathogens and parasites. Not something you’d expect if all life is unified in a super-organism.

    Also, you seem to have abandoned your claim that most phyla move towards increased emancipation or autonomy. In this comment you appear to be saying that most organisms work in our service.

  3. CharlieM,

    I know you’re determined to defend the Dear Leader’s honor, but come on. Even someone who had only seen the passages we discussed in the other thread would know that Steiner is a crackpot.

    From the FMM/bus thread:

    For the convenience of readers, here are the two Steiner passages again.

    First the tomato passage:

    Tomatoes have no desire to step outside of themselves, no desire to step outside the realm of strong vitality. That’s where they want to stay. They are the least social beings in the entire plant kingdom. They do not want anything from strangers, and above all, they do not want any fertilizer that has gone through a composting process; they reject all that. This is the reason that they can influence what works independently within the human or animal organism.

    And here’s the passage about black people:

    In the Negro the posterior brain is specially developed. That goes through the spinal cord and can work over all the light and warmth that is in him.

    Hence all that is connected with the body and metabolism is strongly developed in the Negro. He has, as one says, a strong desire-life, instinctive life. And since he actually has the sun-like, light and warmth, on the surface of his skin, his whole metabolism proceeds as if there were a cooking by the sun itself in his interior. Hence comes his desire-life. There is really a continuous cooking going on within him, and what stokes the fire is the posterior brain.

    Sometimes man’s organization throws off further byproducts. That is to be seen just in the Negro. The Negro not only has this cooking in his organism, it not only boils there, but he also has a frightfully crafty and observant eye. He peers craftily and very observantly. You can easily take this as a contradiction. But it is like this: If there in front is the nerve of the eye [see drawing], the nerves go just into the posterior brain; they cross there [see drawing]. The nerve goes into the posterior brain, and since that is specially developed in the Negro therefore he peeps out so craftily, is such a sly observer of the world. If one begins to understand the matter, it all becomes clear. But modern science does not make such studies as we do and so it knows nothing about these things.

    Now imagine someone reading either of those two passages and being unable to say “that’s bullshit.”

    Behold CharlieM.

    Completely in thrall to the Dear Leader.

  4. CharlieM:

    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.

    keiths:

    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”?

    CharlieM:

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

    But it isn’t. It’s further evolution.

  5. Corneel: Sure, but consciousness does not allow its possessor to fix nitrogen nor does consciousness allow its possessor to digest nylon.

    Chemists can fix nitrogen

    Nitrogen may be fixed via natural or synthetic processes

    And it being a synthetic material humans are much more adept than bacteria at manipulating nylon.

    Look, we can play this game for a long time, but you cannot supply a single argument for a progress towards “full self awareness” that I can’t turn 180 degrees round.
    So how are you going to objectively establish that full self awareness is the thing life is aiming for?

    It has been said that the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. And human consciousness is one of the latest arrivals in the history of life on earth. From a book that Kantian Naturalist referred to:

    The Evolved Apprentice: How Evolution Made Human by Kim Sterelny

    p1
    In sum, change has been rapid: the early molecular clock dates putting the human-chimp split at about six million years ago were greeted with great skepticism because biologists and physical anthropologists did not believe that such great phenotypic divergence could evolve so quickly. Change has been pervasive: morphology, life history, social life, sexual behavior, and foraging patterns have all shifted sharply away from those of other great apes. No other great ape lineage seems to have undergone such a profound transformation: as far as we know, living chimps and gorillas are broadly similar in habitat and ecology to their ancestors of five million years ago. The hominin evolutionary trajectory is bound to be of interest to us, because it is our trajectory. But a disinterested evolutionary biologist would agree that a striking phenomenon exists here, one in need of an explanation.

    There is no controversy among Darwinists over the niche occupied by aardvarks or penguins or nitrogen fixing bacteria, but there are plenty of arguments about the human “niche”.

    I’d like to hear your 180 degree turnaround of my following argument:

    All animals of the same species can be observed to remain within their recognised niche. On the other hand, within our species, individual humans aspire to choose different niches as is their preference. There are vegetarians, vegans, hermits, ascetics, hedonists, altruists and occupiers of a variety of other niches.

  6. Corneel: Correction: Because some bacteria like Rhizobium have provided the basis. You are conveniently forgetting that other bacteria are pathogens and parasites. Not something you’d expect if all life is unified in a super-organism.

    That is like saying that you would not expect osteoclasts to exist because the purpose of our bodily cells is to produce a single organism. Life could not exist without death and destruction.

    Also, you seem to have abandoned your claim that most phyla move towards increased emancipation or autonomy. In this comment you appear to be saying that most organisms work in our service.

    Where did I claim that most phyla move towards increased emancipation or autonomy?

  7. CharlieM,

    Everyone forgets that Charlie adopts a Charlie-centric world view, in which all of nature is centered on Charlie, in which Charlie is the pinnacle and raison d’etre of the universe. (To be fair, the rest of our species is welcomed to join him on the pinnacle.) That’s why, when humans become X, whatever X is, X is the point of it all.

  8. CharlieM: There are vegetarians, vegans, hermits, ascetics, hedonists, altruists and occupiers of a variety of other niches.

    You left out atheists. Is there no niche for atheists?

  9. keiths,

    I asked if you had read the contents of any book by Steiner. The passages you quote are translations of transcripts taken from lectures given by Steiner to select audiences. He reluctantly agreed to allow these lectures to be published as he feared that they would be taken out of context and misunderstood.

    So can you give me an honest answer as to whether you have read any books written by Steiner, not just lecture transcripts?

  10. John Harshman:
    CharlieM,

    Everyone forgets that Charlie adopts a Charlie-centric world view, in which all of nature is centered on Charlie, in which Charlie is the pinnacle and raison d’etre of the universe. (To be fair, the rest of our species is welcomed to join him on the pinnacle.) That’s why, when humans become X, whatever X is, X is the point of it all.

    Yep. Me personally, I think it’s sheep. Sheep have ensured their survival by evolving wool, so the smartest technologically advanced primate on the planet saw them as useful so decided to spend an inordinate amount of time and resources ensuring the continued existence of sheep. Clearly, the evolutionary history of life is centered around sheep. We are just here for them. Our existence is obviously teleological. We are just a means to an end, and that end is the existence and persistence of sheep.

  11. keiths:

    CharlieM re-blind cave fish:

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

    But it isn’t. It’s further evolution.

    The evolutionary history of cave fish is thought to have moved from organisms that lacked vision, to organisms that did have vision, and then back again to organisms that lacked vision. So we disagree that this is a regression. But do you agree that the organisms in this line of descent widened their niche by gaining sight and then narrowed it again when their sight was lost?

  12. John Harshman:
    CharlieM,

    Everyone forgets that Charlie adopts a Charlie-centric world view, in which all of nature is centered on Charlie, in which Charlie is the pinnacle and raison d’etre of the universe. (To be fair, the rest of our species is welcomed to join him on the pinnacle.) That’s why, when humans become X, whatever X is, X is the point of it all.

    I am, the I am.

  13. CharlieM: I’d like to hear your 180 degree turnaround of my following argument:

    All animals of the same species can be observed to remain within their recognised niche. On the other hand, within our species, individual humans aspire to choose different niches as is their preference. There are vegetarians, vegans, hermits, ascetics, hedonists, altruists and occupiers of a variety of other niches.

    Of course I can turn that argument around. Whoever decided that filling many niches is progress? You just decided that because that is what humans do. I could argue just as easily that specialising in a specific niche is progress.

    You really are incapable of letting go of this human centric view aren’t you?

  14. CharlieM: That is like saying that you would not expect osteoclasts to exist because the purpose of our bodily cells is to produce a single organism. Life could not exist without death and destruction.

    Remember that if you ever happen to catch an infection.

    CharlieM: Where did I claim that most phyla move towards increased emancipation or autonomy?

    It’s here

  15. Corneel: Of course I can turn that argument around. Whoever decided that filling many niches is progress? You just decided that because that is what humans do. I could argue just as easily that specialising in a specific niche is progress.

    You really are incapable of letting go of this human centric view aren’t you?

    So what other organism decides on its own niche?

  16. Corneel: Remember that if you ever happen to catch an infection.

    I have caught so many infections that I’ve lost count.

    CharlieM: Where did I claim that most phyla move towards increased emancipation or autonomy?

    It’s here

    From that link I wrote:

    Pick any phyla you wish and we can discuss if they show a similar trend of emancipation.

    I did not say that most phyla move towards emancipation. I was asking for a discussion on the matter so that we could compare phyla with regards to emancipation. I tried to start the discussion using birds as an example. The discussion never got off the ground.

  17. CharlieM: I did not say that most phyla move towards emancipation. I was asking for a discussion on the matter so that we could compare phyla with regards to emancipation.

    Then I misunderstood. Sorry.
    BTW, birds are in the same phylum as we are 🙂

    CharlieM: So what other organism decides on its own niche?

    OK, I give up. You are simply not interested in anything non-human.

  18. Corneel: Then I misunderstood. Sorry.
    BTW, birds are in the same phylum as we are

    OK, I give up. You are simply not interested in anything non-human.

    Apology accepted.

    Here I wrote:

    And the movement towards autonomy that we witness within the various classes and phyla of life is evidence of this path.

    I was just being lazy in writing “phyla” and not “classes and phyla” in my previous post. I’m all for including classes and any other grouping in our discussions.

    I am interested in all life.

  19. CharlieM,

    I asked if you had read the contents of any book by Steiner.

    Yes, I’ve read parts of Theosophy: an Introduction and some other book whose title I can’t recall (it was a long time ago). Looking at a Steiner bibliography doesn’t jog my memory.

    The books were crap, which is why I wasn’t at all surprised at the goofiness of the two passages we discussed recently. A source as crappy as Steiner can be relied upon to produce crap, whether in book or lecture form.

    The passages you quote are translations of transcripts taken from lectures given by Steiner to select audiences. He reluctantly agreed to allow these lectures to be published as he feared that they would be taken out of context and misunderstood.

    Or perhaps he was embarrassed by the content. He certainly should have been.

    What’s interesting about this exchange, to me, is how symptomatic it is of your cultism. Someone has criticized the Dear Leader’s output! This must not stand!

    These two passages, about tomatoes and black people respectively, are obvious bullshit. To claim that they have been “taken out of context and misunderstood” is ludicrous. Yet in neither case can you bring yourself to admit that Steiner got it wrong.

    As I wrote in the earlier thread:

    Charlie,

    You are a grown man who, when confronted with evidence that your Dear Leader is spouting nonsense about tomatoes, cannot bring himself to acknowledge that obvious fact.

    “The Dear Leader is wise, and I know so little about tomatoes. Who am I to question him?” you ask.

    What about the people who do study tomatoes? Do you think they’re on board with the Dear Leader’s claims?

    You’re a cultist, Charlie. You can’t bear to see the Dear Leader challenged or mocked, and you can’t bring yourself to acknowledge even the most obvious and ridiculous of his errors.

    Just like a Scientologist defending L. Ron Hubbard.

  20. Lest anyone think I am exaggerating:

    keiths:

    CharlieM,

    I have subdivided that Steiner passage into numbered “verses”. For each of them, could you tell us

    a) whether you believe the “verse” is true; and
    b) why or why not?

    Here’s the passage:

    1) Tomatoes have no desire to step outside of themselves,

    2) no desire to step outside the realm of strong vitality.

    3) That’s where they want to stay.

    4) They are the least social beings in the entire plant kingdom.

    5) They do not want anything from strangers,

    6) and above all, they do not want any fertilizer that has gone through a composting process; they reject all that.

    7) This is the reason that they can influence what works independently within the human or animal organism.

    CharlieM:

    Sorry but I don’t know tomatoes well enough to answer any of these questions.

    keiths:

    So as far as you’re concerned, the jury’s still out on whether tomatoes “desire to step outside of themselves” or “want anything from strangers”?

    You crack me up, Charlie.

    CharlieM:

    Just like anyone who believes in a spiritual reality cracks you up I suppose.

    keiths:

    No. There are plenty of people who believe in a spiritual reality, yet are still capable of recognizing when someone is raving idiotically about tomatoes.

    Steiner reminds me of L. Ron Hubbard in many ways, including by virtue of his goofy beliefs about tomatoes:

  21. keiths:

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

    CharlieM:

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

    keiths:

    But it isn’t. It’s further evolution.

    CharlieM:

    The evolutionary history of cave fish is thought to have moved from organisms that lacked vision, to organisms that did have vision, and then back again to organisms that lacked vision. So we disagree that this is a regression.

    It’s not a regression, because the fish are not recapitulating an earlier stage. They are anatomically modern fish who have lost their sight. There was no earlier stage at which this was the case. The loss of sight is just one more evolutionary change toward the end of a long line of them. It’s further evolution, not a “regression”.

    But do you agree that the organisms in this line of descent widened their niche by gaining sight and then narrowed it again when their sight was lost?

    The fish don’t “care” about the size of the niche. They entered the cave and then evolved there, under the selective pressures of that environment. Losing sight was not a disadvantage there, so mutations that caused this to happen could be tolerated in a way that they could not among surface-dwelling fish.

    No woo. Just pure mechanistic evolution.

  22. CharlieM: So what other organism decides on its own niche?

    newton: Migrating birds

    So the house martins nesting in the eaves of my house could make a conscious decision not to fly south for the winter then?

  23. CharlieM: newton: Migrating birds

    So the house martins nesting in the eaves of my house could make a conscious decision not to fly south for the winter then?

    A bird consciousness decision.

  24. This thread is not the place to discuss the merits and failings of Steiner.

    …says Charlie, who kept demanding to know what books of Steiner’s I had read, in an attempt to defend the Dear Leader’s honor.

  25. keiths:
    keiths:

    It’s not a regression, because the fish are not recapitulating an earlier stage.They are anatomically modern fish who have lost their sight. There was no earlier stage at which this was the case. The loss of sight is just one more evolutionary change toward the end of a long line of them. It’s further evolution, not a “regression”.

    So which species do you think has experienced the most evolutionary changes in the past 10 to 15 million years?

    The fish don’t “care” about the size of the niche.They entered the cave and then evolved there, under the selective pressures of that environment.Losing sight was not a disadvantage there, so mutations that caused this to happen could be tolerated in a way that they could not among surface-dwelling fish.

    No woo.Just pure mechanistic evolution.

    So ultimately it was not DNA but the lifestyle of the fish that caused this evolutionary change.

    Neither fish nor any other species “care” about their niche or any niche, with one notable exception, humans.

  26. Is the suggestion here that human beings do choose their own niche?

    I’d sure as hell like to see evidence for that claim!

  27. keiths: Lest anyone think I am exaggerating:

    You make things up all the time and you exaggerate all the time. Why would anyone think you were exaggerating.

  28. KN,

    Is the suggestion here that human beings do choose their own niche?

    I’d sure as hell like to see evidence for that claim!

    Charlie has a rather idiosyncratic notion of “niche”:

    All animals of the same species can be observed to remain within their recognised niche. On the other hand, within our species, individual humans aspire to choose different niches as is their preference. There are vegetarians, vegans, hermits, ascetics, hedonists, altruists and occupiers of a variety of other niches.

  29. CharlieM:

    So ultimately it was not DNA but the lifestyle of the fish that caused this evolutionary change.

    Who are you arguing against? None of us are claiming that DNA caused the evolution of sightlessness in cave fish, or more generally that DNA is the driver of evolutionary change.

  30. CharlieM: All animals of the same species can be observed to remain within their recognised niche. On the other hand, within our species, individual humans aspire to choose different niches as is their preference. There are vegetarians, vegans, hermits, ascetics, hedonists, altruists and occupiers of a variety of other niches.

    You could use the word “niche” that way if you really wanted to, but then you’re not using the word in the way that ecologists do, and it’s the ecological sense of the word that matters when we’re talking about evolution.

    But it’s just hopeless confusion to use the word “niche” to mean both “how ecologists describe the ways that all other animals are related to their environments” as well as “the various lifestyles that human beings have adopted over the millennia”.

  31. newton: In the sense that birds are an organism which decides on its own niche?

    Individual birds do not make conscious decisions in that way. They are following their instincts. But instinctive behaviour such as this does not originate within the individual, it originates from a group consciousness.

  32. Kantian Naturalist:
    Is the suggestion here that human beings do choose their own niche?

    I’d sure as hell like to see evidence for that claim!

    You could say that every person has their own individual niche. The paths we take in life are formed by a combination of external circumstances, unconscious desires and conscious decisions and in no two people are the paths the same.

    The path taken by the fledgling house martins after they leave my house is already laid out for them barring external circumstances. They will feed by catching insects on the wing, they will fly south for the winter and they will return to this local area in the spring and they will continue to do this until they die.

  33. keiths: Charlie has a rather idiosyncratic notion of “niche”:

    CharlieM: All animals of the same species can be observed to remain within their recognised niche. On the other hand, within our species, individual humans aspire to choose different niches as is their preference. There are vegetarians, vegans, hermits, ascetics, hedonists, altruists and occupiers of a variety of other niches.

    So what do experts mean by an “ecological niche”?

    The Ecological Niche, UT Austin

    Because concepts of the ecological niche have taken on so many different forms, it is often difficult to be sure exactly what a particular ecologist means when this entity is invoked. No one denies that there is a broad zone of interaction between the traditional entities of “environment” and “organismic unit”; the major problem is to specify precisely in any given case just what subset of this enormous subject matter should be considered the “ecological niche.” Considerable effort and insight have gone into separating and distinguishing the organism from its environment. Indeed, one can argue fairly plausibly that it constitutes a step backward to confound these two concepts again. Some therefore avoid using the word “niche” altogether and insist that we can get along perfectly well without it…

    Although the n-dimensional hypervolume model of the niche is extremely attractive conceptually, it is abstract and rather difficult to apply to the real world. Indeed, to construct such a hypervolume we would have to know essentially everything about the organism concerned. Because we can never know all factors impinging upon any organismic unit, the fundamental niche must remain an abstraction. Even realized niches of most organisms have so many dimensions that they defy quantification.

    And from the Going Green Directorate in Wales

    Human niche diversity
    Theories of niche are primarily designed to analyze interactions between different species; but anthropologists are interested primarily in niche differences within a single species (Homo sapiens)
    Because of cultural flexibility (and technology), humans are able to occupy extremely wide range of environments, and to adopt extremely wide range of niches Furthermore, specific human groups can become highly specialized in ways of utilizing env. (i.e., niche), and use the same env. in different ways, either sequentially, via cultural change/evolution, or simultaneously.
    This has led many ecological anthropologists to argue that each human population or culture has its own distinctive niche.

    There are those who argue that humans occupy a cognitive niche and those that argue we occupy a cultural niche. It seems to be very difficult to establish just what exactly the human niche is.

    Who here would classify themselves as an obligate collaborative forager?

  34. keiths:
    CharlieM:

    Who are you arguing against?None of us are claiming that DNA caused the evolution of sightlessness in cave fish, or more generally that DNA is the driver of evolutionary change.

    Glad to hear it.

  35. Kantian Naturalist: You could use the word “niche” that way if you really wanted to, but then you’re not using the word in the way that ecologists do, and it’s the ecological sense of the word that matters when we’re talking about evolution.

    see my reply to keiths

    But it’s just hopeless confusion to use the word “niche” to mean both “how ecologists describe the ways that all other animals are related to their environments” as well as “the various lifestyles that human beings have adopted over the millennia”.

    So you are saying that there is a fundamental difference between the way animals and humans relate to the environment?

  36. CharlieM: There are those who argue that humans occupy a cognitive niche and those that argue we occupy a cultural niche. It seems to be very difficult to establish just what exactly the human niche is.

    For you it is. Not for people who actually understand ecology and evolutionary theory.

    CharlieM: So you are saying that there is a fundamental difference between the way animals and humans relate to the environment?

    I’m saying the exact opposite. How you got there from what I said makes me question your reading comprehension or willingness to argue in good faith.

  37. Kantian Naturalist,

    Why can we not compare how “all other animals are related to their environments” and “the various lifestyles that human beings have adopted over the millennia”? Both deal with the interaction between organisms and the environment in which they live. You will need to explain to me why it is a confusion to call them both niches.

    So do you believe that the lifestyles of all species including homo sapiens is a factor of their niche? Or do you in this regard believe that homo sapiens differs from any other species? Surely niche and lifestyle are inextricably bound together.

    I am honestly trying to figure out which of us is being more consistent in our reasoning.

  38. CharlieM: You could say that every person has their own individual niche.

    Here’s how I would mathematically model that.

    There’s a niche space, the space of all possible niches. A point in niche space is a very specific way of eking out an existence.

    The niche for a organism is a probability distribution over niche space.

    I would then assume a fitness function over niche space. The fitness of a particular organism is the expected value of that fitness function, obtained by integrating the fitness function over niche space using the niche probability distribution of the organism.

    A mutation changes both the probability distribution (i.e. the niche) and the fitness function. I take Darwinism to be the assumption that the fitness function changes. I say I am not a Darwinist, because I consider it also important that the probability distribution over niche space changes with mutation.

    With this kind of model there’s no need to look at humans as importantly different from other kinds of organisms.

  39. Neil Rickert: Here’s how I would mathematically model that…

    Can you put any figures to that, taking say, something like humans and venus fly traps as examples?

  40. CharlieM: Can you put any figures to that, taking say, something like humans and venus fly traps as examples?

    No, I haven’t tried to do that. I model to better understand evolution, not to make predictions.

    What distinguishes humans from venus fly traps, is that the human has more varied behavior. But the same can be said about other animals.

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