The Third Way?

Over at the “IDM collapse” thread I rather churlishly rejected CharlieM’s invitation to read an extensive piece by Stephen L. Talbott. Discovering he is a fan of Velikovsky did little to encourage me (that is, I fully realise, an argument from authority, but life is short and authors many. One needs a filter). What did catch my eye, however, is the fact that he is a contributor to Third Way of Evolution. This, on their front page, is what one might term their ‘manifesto’.

The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon intervention by a divine Creator. That is clearly unscientific because it brings an arbitrary supernatural force into the evolution process. The commonly accepted alternative is Neo-Darwinism, which is clearly naturalistic science but ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation. Neo-Darwinism ignores important rapid evolutionary processes such as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, action of mobile DNA and epigenetic modifications. Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis. Many scientists today see the need for a deeper and more complete exploration of all aspects of the evolutionary process.

That puzzles me. We need a root-and-branch rethink because of the widely-accepted phenomena of endosymbiosis, HGT, transposons and epigenetics? I honestly don’t get it. These are refinements easily, and already, accommodated. Neo-Darwinists do not ‘ignore’ these phenomena, nor consider them unimportant. They may fall outside a strict framework of genetic gradualism by ‘micromutation’, but are hardly keeping anyone awake nights.

Perhaps, on reflection, I should punt them my musings on the Evolution of Sex. It is non-Darwinian in the sense they appear to mean, so it should be right up their street!

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378 thoughts on “The Third Way?

  1. I looked at the third way back when it was a hot topic.

    It seemed okay. They wanted to study things that should be studied. But it seemed to me that these were already being extensively studied. I wondered why they had failed to notice.

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  2. Back in 2015 I posted at Panda’s Thumb about The Third Way. No, they have not lost their way, because they never had one. Or at least, one that cohered and did not consist of 53 largely-incompatible ways. Neolamarckians, Mystic merchants of meaningless woo, and some otherwise-sensible evolutionary biologists who are upset at the Modern Synthesis because it does not pay enough attention to their favorite phenomena. My PT post will be found here, that is, once Panda’s Thumb recovers from its current outage, when the server is repaired. In the meantime an archived version of my post will be found at archive.org here. As I noted, it reminded me of the concise description by the noted Canadian scientist Stephen Leacock:

    He flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.

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  3. Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis.

    Natural Selection hath Godlike powers. Who could possibly object to that?

    It was, iirc, Eugene Koonin who said that no one takes natural selection literally anymore. Perhaps he meant no one who can be taken seriously.

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  4. Their front page also says:

    The DNA record does not support the assertion that small random mutations are the main source of new and useful variations. We now know that the many different processes of variation involve well regulated cell action on DNA molecules.

    Genomes merge, shrink and grow, acquire new DNA components, and modify their structures by well-documented cellular and biochemical processes. Most of the scientists referenced on this web site have come to a wide range of conclusions about different aspects of evolutionary change. Many see evolution as a complex process with distinct mechanisms and stages rather than a phenomenon explainable by a small number of principles. The divergences and multiplicity of ideas, opinions and theories on this website are necessary since many fields of evolutionary biology remain relatively unexplored.

    The contributors to this site have a wide variety of views but I presume they all agree that accidental changes cannot be the main driving force of evolutionary change.

    I suppose the only effective way you can argue against any of the contributors would be to read what they write and point out any errors or misinterpretations you find.

    If you do send them your work on the evolution of sex, let us know if they respond.

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  5. The Third Way is fucking idiocy. I don’t care who’s in that shit, it’s still fucking idiocy.

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  6. CharlieM: The contributors to this site have a wide variety of views but I presume they all agree that accidental changes cannot be the main driving force of evolutionary change.

    You would presume that, wouldn’t you?
    Their front page also says:

    It has come to our attention that THE THIRD WAY web site is wrongly being referenced by proponents of Intelligent Design and creationist ideas as support for their arguments. We intend to make it clear that the website and scientists listed on the web site do not support or subscribe to any proposals that resort to inscrutable divine forces or supernatural intervention, whether they are called Creationism, Intelligent Design, or anything else.

    So fans of inscrutable divine forces, they are not. That would include Morphic Resonance.

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  7. DNA_Jock: So fans of inscrutable divine forces, they are not.

    Inscrutable “natural” forces however indistinguishable from inscrutable divine forces are to be welcomed.

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  8. Mung: It was, iirc, Eugene Koonin who said that no one takes natural selection literally anymore.

    Ah, but who takes Eugene Koonin seriously these days?

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  9. DNA_Jock: That would include Morphic Resonance.

    I have Rupert Sheldrake’s book!

    Someone was clearing their stuff out and I was given it. Haven’t read it yet. I haven’t had an attack of insomnia lately.

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  10. Alan Fox: Mung: It was, iirc, Eugene Koonin who said that no one takes natural selection literally anymore.

    Ah, but who takes Eugene Koonin seriously these days?

    I generally do, particularly when he cites cites Michael Lynch’s dictum that “nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics”.

    Oh, and the Koonin quote does not mean that Koonin dismisses the importance of natural selection. He just means that there is no person or agent doing selecting.

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  11. DNA_Jock: So fans of inscrutable divine forces, they are not. That would include Morphic Resonance.

    Read their statements at the Third Way site. You will find that they are not paying any attention to the statement on the Third Way front page, and they include fans of all sorts of mutually-incompatible stuff.

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  12. “they include fans of all sorts of mutually-incompatible stuff.”

    Yup.

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  13. To allow us to understand what Eugene Koonin’s quote really means, here it is in context, in an interview of him at HuffPuff by the execrable Susan Mazur:

    Well. Yes, these are metaphorical. From Darwin to this day. I also agree with Lewontin, Darwin did not mean natural selection to be taken literally. But we have to be, I guess, a little more specific about what it means to take natural selection or any kind of selection literally. It means, one would assume, the existence of a selecting agent. Perhaps making all these parallels between natural selection and artificial selection, the way Darwin does in his book, could be somewhat dangerous because in artificial selection there is someone who is selecting, even if unconsciously. In that respect, the evolutionary process is very different in nature where nothing is there to actually select. Darwin certainly realized this and wrote more precisely of “survival of the fittest.” In modern evolutionary biology, it is sometimes “random survival” but the key point remains the same: organisms survive and leave progeny differentially. I think it is quite alright to denote some forms of differential survival selection, metaphorically. And there is no confusion here, within mainstream thinking. No one in the mainstream scientific community now takes selection literally.

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  14. Joe Felsenstein,

    I am not surprised. In no way do I view the statements of the Third Way boosters has authoritative. By and large, they just seem to be a disparate band who have noticed that writing outlandish stuff garners more of the attention they crave than does traditional scholarship. Yawn.
    I quoted from their front page to offer a counterbalance (and a playful poke in the eye…) to Charlie’s wilful misinterpretation of their views.

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    Entropy
  15. I like Talbott’s stuff. I started reading his site several years ago, and I’ve had some friendly email exchanges with him over the years. I recommended that he read Hans Jonas’s The Phenomenon of Life, though my enthusiasm for phenomenology has cooled somewhat since then.

    I think I never quite got the whole hullabaloo about “Third Way” stuff. This may be because I read Susan Oyama’s The Ontogeny of Information in my first year of college and was converted to developmental systems theory before I could be suitably indoctrinated with the modern synthesis.

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  16. DNA_Jock: By and large, they just seem to be a disparate band who have noticed that writing outlandish stuff garners more of the attention they crave than does traditional scholarship. Yawn.

    They include merchants of wooish theories, but also some quite serious and good evolutionary biologists who do typically do traditional scholarship. For those folks it is just that they do not want to call contemporary evolutionary theory The Modern Synthesis. I do want to call it that. In their case it’s an argument over names, not evolutionary processes.

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  17. Joe Felsenstein: …and they include fans of all sorts of mutually-incompatible stuff.

    Should have no problem including it in “modern evolutionary theory” then.

    🙂

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  18. Joe Felsenstein: I generally do, particularly when he cites cites Michael Lynch’s dictum that “nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics”.

    Oh, and the Koonin quote does not mean that Koonin dismisses the importance of natural selection.He just means that there is no person or agent doing selecting.

    .OK, he’s off the hook!

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  19. Joe Felsenstein: To allow us to understand what Eugene Koonin’s quote really means…

    I never had any doubt what he really meant. Let’s take a look at some key indicators:

    “In that respect, the evolutionary process is very different in nature where nothing is there to actually select. ”

    “I think it is quite alright to denote some forms of differential survival selection, metaphorically

    Alan Fox: OK, he’s off the hook!

    Read the fuller quote.

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  20. Joe Felsenstein,

    That makes sense. I am perhaps unfairly suspicious of motivation when researchers make a lot of noise that their work is “overturning” the MES, when (from my perspective) it’s an interesting extension of the MES. Epigenetics comes to mind.
    And then, separately, there’s the pure woo-meisters.

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  21. Entropy:
    The Third Way is fucking idiocy. I don’t care who’s in that shit, it’s still fucking idiocy.

    I know, I was thinking the same thing after I read this part:

    We intend to make it clear that the website and scientists listed on the web site do not support or subscribe to any proposals that resort to inscrutable divine forces or supernatural intervention, whether they are called Creationism, Intelligent Design, or anything else.

    Who dismisses evidence just because they don’t like it? Idiots.

    Imagine how much they hate string theory. Or the concept of infinity!

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  22. DNA_Jock: I am perhaps unfairly suspicious of motivation when researchers make a lot of noise that their work is “overturning” the MES,

    You should be. Since the late 1970s evolutionary biology has been plagued by new-paradigm-mongering. Ever since Thomas Kuhn wrote his book that declared that really great scientists established new paradigms while all the rest of us merely did “normal science”, large numbers of newly-minted Ph.D.s have felt that they had to sell their latest idea as a new paradigm. Those of us with any background have had to spend a lot of time swatting down declarations of new paradigms. Sometimes it feels like very few of us are doing “normal science”.

    You might enjoy Rant #5 at my website’s Rants and Diatribes page.

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    Entropy
  23. CharlieM:
    Their front page also says:

    The contributors to this site have a wide variety of views but I presume they all agree that accidental changes cannot be the main driving force of evolutionary change.

    Well, I agree that accidental changes cannot be the main driver of evolutionary change. That would appear to be the position of ‘mutationism’. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not the whole story. There’s a filter: selection.

    None of the processes Third-Wayers push in that quoted declaration is definitively ‘non-accidental’. Endosymbioses succeed or fail on the same terms as point mutations, by enhancing, retarding or having no effect on the persistence of the lineage possessing them. By being subject to the process broadly understood as Natural Selection, in other words***. The same applies to transpositions, whole or partial genome duplications, epigenetic amendments, HGT, and so on.

    Of course, looking under the rock, one finds more than is contained within their statement of intent. The ‘Third Way’ is hardly a unified alternative to the First and Second – it’s ‘The Other Ways’.

    *** Natural Selection, here, is inclusive of the component of Drift, though they are often separated.

    I suppose the only effective way you can argue against any of the contributors would be to read what they write and point out any errors or misinterpretations you find.

    Life is short, there are a lot of them, and I’m nobody.

    If you do send them your work on the evolution of sex, let us know if they respond.

    That was a bit of a joke. I do think there are issues regarding the application of population genetics to the very process that draws those population boundaries, but I don’t see it as in fundamental opposition to the ‘neo-Darwinian’ view any more than endosymbiosis. In my (lengthy) piece, I’m arguing for a switch of perspective of the beneficiary of the sexual transaction, from the traditional diploid to the haploid. This perspective shift is very similar to that advanced by some well-known ‘neo-Darwinians’ – although they missed this particular trick by taking the stance of the genetic locus, which they imagine penalised to an equivalent degree to the diploid.

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  24. DNA_Jock:

    It has come to our attention that THE THIRD WAY web site is wrongly being referenced by proponents of Intelligent Design and creationist ideas as support for their arguments. We intend to make it clear that the website and scientists listed on the web site do not support or subscribe to any proposals that resort to inscrutable divine forces or supernatural intervention, whether they are called Creationism, Intelligent Design, or anything else.

    So fans of inscrutable divine forces, they are not. That would include Morphic Resonance.

    What about dark energy? Natural or supernatural? What about morphogenetic fields? Natural or supernatural? What about Sheldrake’s opinion on morphic resonance? Does he regard it as natural or supernatural?

    Of course they are right to exclude the supernatural. But it is obviously a mistake to regard any force or process as supernatural just because it cannot be seen or detected at this time.

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  25. DNA_Jock: I quoted from their front page to offer a counterbalance (and a playful poke in the eye…) to Charlie’s wilful misinterpretation of their views.

    How can quoting from the source be a misrepresentation? Please add whatever I missed out and use it to demonstrate that what I copied was a quote mine.

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  26. Allan Miller: Well, I agree that accidental changes cannot be the main driver of evolutionary change. That would appear to be the position of ‘mutationism’. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not the whole story. There’s a filter: selection.

    A few questions spring to mind. How do we determine which changes are accidental? How important are accidental changes? How does the organism deal with accidental changes?

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  27. Charlie,

    The passage that you quoted is arguing against the assertion “that small random mutations are the main source of new and useful variations.” It cites various larger scale events, such as genome duplications. There’s no claim that these larger events are not ‘accidental’. So your presumption

    CharlieM: they all agree that accidental changes cannot be the main driving force of evolutionary change.

    is a wilful misrepresentation of their views.

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  28. CharlieM: What about dark energy? Natural or supernatural? What about morphogenetic fields? Natural or supernatural? What about Sheldrake’s opinion on morphic resonance? Does he regard it as natural or supernatural?

    Sorry if you did not get the joke. My reference to “Morphic Resonance” was also a playful poke in the eye, to the truly ridiculous woo-meister that is Rupert Sheldrake. I neither know nor care whether Sheldrake views his woo as supernatural or not. It is, however, demonstrably inscrutable. We’ve been over this before.

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  29. CharlieM: A few questions spring to mind. How do we determine which changes are accidental? How important are accidental changes? How does the organism deal with accidental changes?

    If you/we can’t determine which changes are ‘accidental’, I think the problem lies in your court. Point mutations occur at approximately the in vitro error rate of DNA polymerase, adjusted by a factor of 10 for post-polymerase editing, which is driven simply by double strand mismatch. Would you take the view that DNA polymerase errors in a test tube were non-accidental? If not, why are they non-accidental when made in vivo? Or only some of them? In which case, which?

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    Entropy
  30. DNA_Jock: Charlie,

    The passage that you quoted is arguing against the assertion “that small random mutations are the main source of new and useful variations.” It cites various larger scale events, such as genome duplications. There’s no claim that these larger events are not ‘accidental’. So your presumption

    CharlieM: they all agree that accidental changes cannot be the main driving force of evolutionary change.

    is a wilful misrepresentation of their views.

    I’ll hold my hands up and say that I overstated my case, but wilful misrepresentation?

    No doubt they all agreed that Neo-Darwinism, “ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation”.

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  31. DNA_Jock:

    CharlieM: What about dark energy? Natural or supernatural? What about morphogenetic fields? Natural or supernatural? What about Sheldrake’s opinion on morphic resonance? Does he regard it as natural or supernatural?

    Sorry if you did not get the joke. My reference to “Morphic Resonance” was also a playful poke in the eye, to the truly ridiculous woo-meister that is Rupert Sheldrake. I neither know nor care whether Sheldrake views his woo as supernatural or not. It is, however, demonstrably inscrutable. We’ve been over this before.

    What you mean is that it’s inscrutable from your perspective. But not everyone has the same philosophy or outlook as you.

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  32. Allan Miller:

    CharlieM: A few questions spring to mind. How do we determine which changes are accidental? How important are accidental changes? How does the organism deal with accidental changes?

    If you/we can’t determine which changes are ‘accidental’, I think the problem lies in your court. Point mutations occur at approximately the in vitro error rate of DNA polymerase, adjusted by a factor of 10 for post-polymerase editing, which is driven simply by double strand mismatch. Would you take the view that DNA polymerase errors in a test tube were non-accidental? If not, why are they non-accidental when made in vivo? Or only some of them? In which case, which?

    There are stochastic changes to the genome and there are error correcting processes. Some ‘errors’ are not corrected. Is this by accident or design? How would we know?

    Genomic manipulation controls how mutations are dealt with.

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  33. Joe Felsenstein: Not to mention accidental movement of molecules, which we call Brownian Motion, which may play some part in accidental mutations.

    Those would be the non-accidental mutations.

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  34. Joe Felsenstein to:
    Allan Miller,

    Not to mention accidental movement of molecules, which we call Brownian Motion, which may play some part in accidental mutations.

    Cells use Brownian motion, active transport and a combination of both as required. This is similar to animals foraging. This involves stochastic movement towards a purposeful end.

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  35. Third way touched the third rail and lost their third brain up in smoke (the other two having been burned already): “That [creationism] is clearly unscientific because it brings an arbitrary supernatural force into the evolution process.” If it were that simple… Also mistaken. Only morons like BioLogos and PS bring God into “the evolution process”.

    But what made them touch the third rail? Did they correctly noticed the “second rail” has always been broken? Maybe they asked about “fitness”? About “selection”? Now that would be interesting. Can the author of this OP elaborate on that perhaps? Or is this a “nothing to see here” kind of situation. If so, why bring it up at all?

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  36. Mung: Those would be the non-accidental mutations.

    Was that a drive-by, or will Mung stick around to help us understand his comment?

    CharlieM: his involves stochastic movement towards a purposeful end.

    OK. So the implication is that nothing is “accidental”. Let’s see. Suppose there is a molecule in the cell, perhaps a free radical, that can bring about a mutation if it interacts with DNA. Which site it interacts with depends on where the molecule wanders, owing to Brownian motion.

    How can we model this? Either we could know the initial conditions in the cell and model the positions of all the molecules, including the water molecules, and calculate which base gets to mutate. Good luck with that!

    Or we can say that the bases that change are chosen randomly. That is the basic model of molecular evolution. In that case I suppose that CharlieM would say that we are modeling mutation as being “accidental” and that this is all wrong.

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  37. Mung: You scrutinized it and found it inscrutable? 🙂

    I detected the functional information of the design of your nature and found it inscrutable.

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  38. I once tried ‘effing with the ineffable. Boy, was that a mistake.

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    MungAlan Fox
  39. Mung: Read the fuller quote.

    Apologies for not following very closely. I guess you must have been referring to Professor Felsenstein’s quote of Koonin.

    Joe Felsenstein:
    To allow us to understand what Eugene Koonin’s quote really means, here it is in context, in an interview of him at HuffPuff by the execrable Susan Mazur: [who asked: “You keep natural selection in your most recent BMC paper and identify a family of selection terms: “weak selection,” “purifying selection,” “positive selection,” “local selection,” and “global selection.” Aren’t these all metaphorical as well and contrary to your interest in seeing biology “evolve into a ‘hard’ science”?”]

    Well. Yes, these are metaphorical. From Darwin to this day. I also agree with Lewontin, Darwin did not mean natural selection to be taken literally. But we have to be, I guess, a little more specific about what it means to take natural selection or any kind of selection literally. It means, one would assume, the existence of a selecting agent. Perhaps making all these parallels between natural selection and artificial selection, the way Darwin does in his book, could be somewhat dangerous because in artificial selection there is someone who is selecting, even if unconsciously. In that respect, the evolutionary process is very different in nature where nothing is there to actually select. Darwin certainly realized this and wrote more precisely of “survival of the fittest.” In modern evolutionary biology, it is sometimes “random survival” but the key point remains the same: organisms survive and leave progeny differentially. I think it is quite alright to denote some forms of differential survival selection, metaphorically. And there is no confusion here, within mainstream thinking. No one in the mainstream scientific community now takes selection literally.

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  40. Alan Fox: Well. Yes, these are metaphorical. From Darwin to this day. I also agree with Lewontin, Darwin did not mean natural selection to be taken literally. But we have to be, I guess, a little more specific about what it means to take natural selection or any kind of selection literally. It means, one would assume, the existence of a selecting agent. Perhaps making all these parallels between natural selection and artificial selection, the way Darwin does in his book, could be somewhat dangerous because in artificial selection there is someone who is selecting, even if unconsciously. In that respect, the evolutionary process is very different in nature where nothing is there to actually select. Darwin certainly realized this and wrote more precisely of “survival of the fittest.” In modern evolutionary biology, it is sometimes “random survival” but the key point remains the same: organisms survive and leave progeny differentially. I think it is quite alright to denote some forms of differential survival selection, metaphorically. And there is no confusion here, within mainstream thinking. No one in the mainstream scientific community now takes selection literally.

    I’m a dilettante layman wrt biology but I wonder if Koonn might have expressed himself differently. He tempts Mung into quote-mining, though I doubt Koonin is questioning the idea of differential reproductive success given a population of organisms in its niche. The small backfire is, in my view, where he suggests that using “selection” implies a selecting agent, a cause and an effect, rather than the reality of the web of interactions between individuals and the niche (which includes other individuals) that bias reproductive rates.

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  41. CharlieM:There are stochastic changes to the genome and there are error correcting processes. Some ‘errors’ are not corrected. Is this by accident or design? How would we know?

    How indeed? How could we prove that any accident were not ordained, that our very lives are not playthings of the gods?

    Genomic manipulation controls how mutations are dealt with.

    Do you have any idea how? DNA polymerase has its own error-correcting capacity, but it is never going to get to 100%. There are strand-mismatch processes that catch a few that get through the first filter. But some fraction of errors remains, that it pleases you to call ‘non-accidental’, even though the vast majority have no effect. These errors occur whenever a cell replicates, not merely a germ cell. Hence cancer.

    What you call ‘genomic manipulation’ is error prevention. There is no known process of error creation.

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  42. Nonlin.org,

    Maybe they asked about “fitness”? About “selection”? Now that would be interesting. Can the author of this OP elaborate on that perhaps?

    Third Wayers are a mixed bunch. You might be able to find some that reject selection; I don’t know of any. Try Google.

    Or is this a “nothing to see here” kind of situation. If so, why bring it up at all?

    I brought it up as a subject for discussion. If one wished to bury a topic, making it the subject of a OP would not be a great strategy.

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  43. Joe Felsenstein: Or we can say that the bases that change are chosen randomly. That is the basic model of molecular evolution.

    Of course less basic models take account of the fact that base changes are not equiprobable – for example, transition-transversion bias, or neighbour-base biases. These are tendencies with a chemical basis: they occur in test-tube systems, and the same apparent biases appear in wider taxonomic data. If the basic process is deliberate, it produces a pattern indistinguishable from one constrained largely by chemistry.

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    Entropy
  44. Casual writing in biology is full of words which, in ordinary speech, imply a human like agent.

    A dishonest person might equivocate.

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