Who’s Skeptical of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis?

Is anyone here skeptical of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) in biology/biological sciences? If so, why? If not, why not?

Background: A couple of days ago I interviewed one of the participants in the Royal Society’s recent ‘New Trends’ meeting (audios now available), who is obviously pro-EES ,as part of a nearly completed research project from the past couple of years.

My interviewee gave the (ahem) ‘brilliant’ answer of a stone when asked to speak about ‘things that don’t evolve’ (one of those interviewer places where it’s really hard to mask a delighted smile with neutrality!) after claiming not to understand the question: “What are the limits of evolution as a scientific theory?” (we had already been discussing its ‘possibilities’ and I explained earlier that I would ask both about the possibilities and the limits of evolutionary theories). Undergrad students around the world chuckle when they hear the Rock answer (as if geological evolution doesn’t exist in the minds of biologists)!

It’s just a ‘play of scales,’ after all, that slips us into the ‘evolution of everything,’ don’t forget 😉

157 thoughts on “Who’s Skeptical of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis?

  1. I think that the belief that all evolution is biological and that the only theory of evolution is a biological theory goes contrary to the available evidence.

    I shall provide one example. The evolution of language.

  2. Mung: I shall provide one example. The evolution of language.

    But effectively, language is biological. It certainly evolved. Happy New Year! See you next year!

  3. ….after claiming not to understand the question: “What are the limits of evolution as a scientific theory?”

    That’s because the question makes no sense.

  4. I’m skeptical.

    I looked at their web page. I’m skeptical of their ability to prepare a decent web page.

    I looked at their “statement”. It isn’t a statement. It’s a video. I’m skeptical of argument via video.

    I looked at the comparitive list of predictions for EES and for neo-Darwinism. Consider me underwhelmed.

  5. Alan Fox: But effectively, language is biological. It certainly evolved. Happy New Year! See you next year!

    Languages evolve by means of intelligent design. Or do you think words define themselves?

  6. Mung: I think that the belief that all evolution is biological and that the only theory of evolution is a biological theory goes contrary to the available evidence.

    Is that intended as a statement of skepticism about Gregorian chants (as in the repeated Gregorian chants about evolutionism)?

    I shall provide one example. The evolution of language.

    What does that even mean?

    You could be referring to change in languages, once language already exists. I would be inclined to call that cultural evolution rather than biological evolution.

    Or you could be referring to the emergence of language, which I see as clearly biological.

  7. Woodbine: That’s because the question makes no sense.

    What? One obvious limit is it is a biological theory- it shouldn’t have to explain cosmology, for example. Another obvious limit, and perhaps more to the point, are its ability to make testable claims- using valid methodology. If a biological scientific theory is going to say that vision systems evolved via differing accumulations genetic accidents, errors and mistakes* then it has to produce a valid test of the concept, or not make the claim. Which means it is limited due to the testability factor.

    the mechanism of the modern synthesis- all mutations are alleged to be accidents, errors and mistakes and those are said to accumulate in a variety of processes, like natural selection and drift.

  8. Neil Rickert is skeptical without knowledge, as usual. I don’t care which side wins. But to deny there are sides is absurd. Go read the abstracts & listen to the New Trends talks promoting EES. Templeton just threw a big chunk at EES. The London group was represented by considered ‘experts’ across a rather narrow range of fields. Certainly the SSH day 3 wasn’t satisfactory. (*Disclaimer, I haven’t yet listened to them all.) Nevertheless, silly agnostic skeptical dismissal is a waste of time.

  9. Like biological organisms, culture changes. It does not change by the same process. Does anyone believe that the French speak French because they have alleles for speaking French as opposed to, say, Italian?

    Analogies between processes of cultural change and biological evolution can work, for example trees of languages. But those have limits. They are visible in this comment, which is written using words from both the Germanic and the Romance language groups.

    As for the use of the word “evolution”, it goes far beyond biological evolution and is found in ads touting new models of cars, or the “evolution” of a basketball team’s play during the current season. So I don’t see much point in debating whether this or that phenomenon “is evolution”.

  10. Alan Fox at his typical one-directional superficiality. Language is biology, but biology isn’t language. Why?

    The logic? Just cuz HE SAYS SO. (And yet he’s no biologist, folks!)

    Sucking everything up into the mysterious (life-sniffing) biology, e.g. language, culture, politics, religion, art, music, etc. is the decadent move of fools, one class of which is proponents of biologism.

    Simple to spot. A kind of late-modern ‘western’ skeptic’s syndrome, a misanthropic malady. How to clean? What’s the antidote?

  11. I am skeptical of EES if it means that things like niche construction, epigenetics, and evolvability make a substantive contribution to modern evolutionary theory. On the other hand, I believe the Modern Synthesis, as described by it’s leading proponents in the 1960s, is dead. It was extended by the addition of Neutral Theory and the importance of random genetic drift.

    Most of the proponents of EES at the Royal Society meeting (I was there) missed the revolution that took place 45 years ago! Most of them are adaptationists through and through.

    Right now, mutationism is the most important idea that could extend modern evolutionary theory. Other possibilities are species selection and group selection.

  12. Joe Felsenstein,

    This is fine. You write as a professional biologist should without the bluster of the internet know-it-all with no humility.

    As you know, Joe, quite a significant number of biologists have used the term ‘evolution’ in ‘cultural fields’. I would say it is now over-extended, while there are others who contend it is under-extended (i.e. several of the EES people). We faced it in SSH already in the early 20th century and many adopted ideological evolutionism as a result. That died in sociobiology, eVo psych and ‘memetics’.

    Many have rejected evolution in SSH from the start as well. I would argue the best of those in SSH reject ideological evolutionism directly and plainly, even if oftentimes only by omission with no desire to confront the issue publically. Or, as typically in N. America, they know very very little about ideology at all, even while it consumes them. It is far from acceptable simply to assume that ‘culture evolves’ and stomp one’s feet at anyone who questions that doctrine.

    “Like biological organisms, culture changes. It does not change by the same process.”

    We agree on both points.

    “I don’t see much point in debating whether this or that phenomenon “is evolution”.”

    Other than the basic point that definitions, especially operational ones, help in scholarly investigations, we agree. What is worth exploring and debating, discussing, honing, etc. is whether evolutionary theories as they are currently expounded in SSH, sometimes, but not always by SSH scholars themselves (i.e. when not smuggled in by natural scientists), are the best explanations of change in time and space for the objects of study, i.e. cultural fields. I’m not willing to let biologists dictate to me how society and culture change JUST BECAUSE THEY SAY SO and expect Joe understands that clearly. The non-evolutionary varieties of change that I study are far more interesting and expectant.

  13. Gregory: I’m not willing to let biologists dictate to me how society and culture change JUST BECAUSE THEY SAY SO and expect Joe understands that clearly. The non-evolutionary varieties of change that I study are far more interesting and expectant.

    I must have missed the part where biologists are dictating how society and culture change. I’ve seen one biologist who plainly acknowledges that everything changes, and does so according to completely unrelated sets of mechanisms. If “evolution” has been strictly defined as “change”, and THEN the biological notion of allele mix changes between generations in reproducing populations has been universally applied, I missed that part too.

    Yes, language (and rocks) changes over time. If any biologist claims that rocks change over time due to imperfect reproduction, I’d be astounded.

  14. Larry Moran:
    I am skeptical of EES if it means that things like niche construction, epigenetics, and evolvability make a substantive contribution to modern evolutionary theory. On the other hand, I believe the Modern Synthesis, as described by it’s leading proponents in the 1960s, is dead. It was extended by the addition of Neutral Theory and the importance of random genetic drift.

    Most of the proponents of EES at the Royal Society meeting (I was there) missed the revolution that took place 45 years ago! Most of them are adaptationists through and through.

    Right now, mutationism is the most important idea that could extend modern evolutionary theory. Other possibilities are species selection and group selection.

    I’m very much interested in niche construction and evolvability. Somewhat less so in epigenetics. So I suppose it depends on what counts as “substantive”, and whether the EES is an overturning of a consensus or a minor modification of what we already have. Why doesn’t niche construction count as substantive, as you see things?

    .

  15. Larry Moran:
    I am skeptical of EES if it means that things like niche construction, epigenetics, and evolvability make a substantive contribution to modern evolutionary theory. On the other hand, I believe the Modern Synthesis, as described by it’s leading proponents in the 1960s, is dead. It was extended by the addition of Neutral Theory and the importance of random genetic drift.

    Most of the proponents of EES at the Royal Society meeting (I was there) missed the revolution that took place 45 years ago!Most of them are adaptationists through and through.

    Right now, mutationism is the most important idea that could extend modern evolutionary theory. Other possibilities are species selection and group selection.

    Importance of random genetic drift? Perhaps RGD is important for explaining genetic variation but it is impotent in explaining protein machines and macroevolution.

    What does mutationism explain and how can that be tested?

  16. Flint,

    “I’ve seen one biologist…”

    Don’t go cheap with us. Spit out the name. Who is this biologist? Let’s find out if it’s not a ghost, since it’s just ‘seeing’ and not yet ‘reading’ you suggest as acquaintance.

  17. Frankie: Languages evolve by means of intelligent design. Or do you think words define themselves?

    The evolution of languages is planned? Design require a plan ,correct?

  18. dazz is one of the ‘skeptics’ that just hasn’t found a way to ‘get skeptical’ with evolutionary theories, like the EES, one of many options nowadays in the biological sciences, one of the many sciences in the natural-physical sciences, which account for roughly 15-35% of the Academy. The spectacle of a sad skeptical soul. (While biologistic idiots can’t think up ANYTHING that is not biological!)

  19. Gregory: Many have rejected evolution in SSH from the start as well.

    I’ll point out that “SSH” is a communication protocol. It is also the name of an application (a client for that protocol).

    “Evolution” is the email client for the Gnome desktop. However, it does not in any way use “SSH”, so “evolution in SSH” doesn’t fit.

    My cell phone is connected to the network with “LTE”. That is short for “Long Term Evolution”.

    “Evolutionism”, on the other hand, seems to be a disease related to obsessive compulsive disorder. Some sociologists (or at least one sociologist) suffers from this disease.

    </humor>

  20. Joe Felsenstein: Does anyone believe that the French speak French because they have alleles for speaking French as opposed to, say, Italian?

    I think that’s exactly what Alan Fox thinks.

  21. Social sciences & humanities (SSH)

    Royal Society “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: Biological, Philosophical and Social Science Perspectives.”

  22. newton: The evolution of languages is planned? Design require a plan ,correct?

    Yes, definitions of words require agreements, agreements are methods for achieving specified results, which is a definition of a plan.

  23. Evolution: The Extended Synthesis
    Chapter 9
    Chemical, Neuronal, and Linguistic Replicators

    Sorry Gregory, but linguistics is just another branch of biology.

  24. Elements of the EES:

    Evo-devo theory
    Plasticity and accommodation
    Niche construction
    Epigenetic inheritance
    Replicator theory
    Evolvability
    Multilevel selection
    Genomic evolution

    So many new evolutionary theories. Mash them all together, add a dash of the Modern Synthesis, and you have THE theory of evolution.

  25. Joe Felsenstein:
    Like biological organisms, culture changes.It does not change by the same process.Does anyone believe that the French speak French because they have alleles for speaking French as opposed to, say, Italian?

    My “language is biological” was flippant, but I think it is defensible. Language would be impossible at the level of variety, subtlety and complexity without the adaptations that contribute to auditory systems, vocalisation, and the brain capacity for detection, analysis and production of complex sounds.You don’t get to the cultural development of Homo sapiens without the preceding (and perhaps parallel) biological evolution of the necessary adaptations.

    Analogies between processes of cultural change and biological evolution can work, for example trees of languages. But those have limits.They are visible in this comment, which is written using words from both the Germanic and the Romance language groups.

    Indeed.

    As for the use of the word “evolution”, it goes far beyond biological evolution and is found in ads touting new models of cars, or the “evolution” of a basketball team’s play during the current season.So I don’t see much point in debating whether this or that phenomenon “is evolution”.

    I believe the origin of evolve derives from the Latin evolvere “to roll out, as when reading a scroll”. That’s why it helps to append a qualifier whe discussing biological evolution rather than, say, cultural evolution.

  26. Gregory:
    Flint,

    “I’ve seen one biologist…”

    Don’t go cheap with us. Spit out the name. Who is this biologist? Let’s find out if it’s not a ghost, since it’s just ‘seeing’ and not yet ‘reading’ you suggest as acquaintance.

    Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander, Gregory!

    “…one of the participants…”?

  27. Larry Moran:
    I am skeptical of EES if it means that things like niche construction, epigenetics, and evolvability make a substantive contribution to modern evolutionary theory. On the other hand, I believe the Modern Synthesis, as described by it’s leading proponents in the 1960s, is dead. It was extended by the addition of Neutral Theory and the importance of random genetic drift.

    I think you shouldn’t say “dead” if you claim it was also “extended”. I don’t see what was lost from Darwin’s basic concept when genetics was added. I also don’t see what was lost when the Neutral Theory gained acceptance. The theory changed, was extended, you might say evolved, even.

    Most of the proponents of EES at the Royal Society meeting (I was there) missed the revolution that took place 45 years ago! Most of them are adaptationists through and through.

    Joe Felsenstein compared genetic drift to Brownian motion, a real effect which acts in all directions. Allan Miller suggested extending the analogy by comparing selection to gravity – a small but directional bias on drift. I have to confess to a slight scepticism on the effect of drift as an evolutionary process. (Ducks)

    Right now, mutationism is the most important idea that could extend modern evolutionary theory. Other possibilities are species selection and group selection.

    Mutationism as per de Vries?

  28. Mung: Mung December 31, 2016 at 8:35 pm
    Joe Felsenstein: Does anyone believe that the French speak French because they have alleles for speaking French as opposed to, say, Italian?

    I think that’s exactly what Alan Fox thinks.

    No, mung. But there are alleles that produce the adaptations necessary for speaking, hearing and understanding language. While chimps are very similar to us and comminicate in groups using complex sounds, their vocalising equipment (hyoid bone, for instance) is different enough to prevent the production of subtle enough sounds necessary for language.

    The explosion of human language in all it’s diversity is a fascinating subject, all the more so because of the paucity of evidence for when language begins to become more than the limited range of calls used by modern apes and monkeys.

    Modern humans were around at least 80,000 years ago. Perhaps family groups each had their own language, handed down through descendants of the group. Perhaps there was a proto-language from which all modern and extinct languages descend in a nested hierarchy.

  29. Alan Fox: chimps are very similar to us and comminicate in groups using complex sounds

    Out of curiosity, is it known if isolated groups of chimps can communicate with each others?

  30. dazz: Out of curiosity, is it known if isolated groups of chimps can communicate with each others?

    Interesting question. Also bears on whether complex human language appeared once and evolved from there or were there separate origins.

    Here’s one bit of research.

  31. Possibly a philosophical thought, but if one accepts the strict determinism argued by Jerry Coyne, then evolution is a rolling out of a scroll.

  32. Alan Fox: Interesting question. Also bears on whether complex human language appeared once and evolved from there or were there separate origins.

    Here’s one bit of research.

    Human language evolved by means of intelligent design. So I am not sure what your point is in saying language evolved.

  33. To answer Gregory’s question- Who’s Skeptical of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis?- if it doesn’t make testable claims everyone should be skeptical of it. The same goes for Darwin’s concepts- they are untestable and as such everyone should be skeptical of them. The modern synthesis is no different- untestable claims should lead to healthy skepticism.

    Strange that we see the opposite, especially here on this forum that is supposedly run by skeptics

  34. Alan Fox: But there are alleles that produce the adaptations necessary for speaking, hearing and understanding language.

    Can you name them and demonstrate that blind watchmaker evolution produced them?

  35. petrushka:
    Possibly a philosophical thought, but if one accepts the strict determinism argued by Jerry Coyne, then evolution is a rolling out of a scroll.

    If Coyne had the science to support his point of view science would listen. Until then no one cares

  36. Frankie: Human language evolved by means of intelligent design.

    What do you mean by that? Who was the “Intelligent Designer” in this instance? How, and when did this “Intelligent Designer” go about this?

    So I am not sure what your point is in saying language evolved.

    I’m saying language evolved because it still evolves. Languages go extinct – living languages change over time. With mass communication and the internet, I suspect speciation of languages will, henceforth, be a very rare phenomenon.

  37. Frankie: Can you name them…

    One example would be FOXp2

    …and demonstrate that blind watchmaker evolution produced them?

    As I don’t think blind watchmaker evolution is a thing, why would I bother?

  38. Alan Fox: What do you mean by that? Who was the “Intelligent Designer” in this instance? How, and when did this “Intelligent Designer” go about this?

    [IDiot Mode]

    ID isn’t about the designer, it’s about the design!”

    [/IDiot Mode]

  39. Frankie: Yes, definitions of words require agreements, agreements are methods for achieving specified results, which is a definition of a plan.

    Moron, idiot and retarded have specific, clinical agreed upon definitions, but the general population uses them according to different definitions. Which ones are designed?

  40. Kantian Naturalist,

    The idea that organisms modify their environment (niche construction) is hardly new. It helps explain the history of life on Earth but it doesn’t figure into modern evolutionary theory. The main components of evolutionary theory deal with how allele frequencies change within populations. The main mechanisms are natural selection and random genetic drift. Selection and drift can affect alleles that cause changes in behavior such as niche construction but niche construction is a consequence, not a cause, of changes in allele frequencies.

  41. Alan Fox: I think you shouldn’t say “dead” if you claim it was also “extended”.

    The term “Modern Synthesis” refers to a particular version of evolutionary theory. That version was described by it’s leading proponents back in the 1960s. We now know that it was insufficient because it only referred to natural selection as a mechanism of evolution.

    Evolutionary theory can be extended and modified but the old-fashioned theory called “Modern Synthesis” is dead.

    I have to confess to a slight scepticism on the effect of drift as an evolutionary process. (Ducks)

    Modern population genetics and experimental facts demonstrate that neutral alleles can be fixed by drift, most beneficial alleles are lost by drift, and deleterious alleles can be fixed by drift. Which one(s) of those facts are you skeptical of?

    Mutationism as per de Vries?

    No, mutationism as per Masatoshi Nei and others. See Arlin Stoltzfus explains evolutionary theory.

  42. Alan Fox: What do you mean by that? Who was the “Intelligent Designer” in this instance? How, and when did this “Intelligent Designer” go about this?

    I’m saying language evolved because it still evolves. Languages go extinct – living languages change over time. With mass communication and the internet, I suspect speciation of languages will, henceforth, be a very rare phenomenon.

    We are the intelligent designers of language, Alan. We come to agreements as to the definitions of words used to communicate. How else do you think words get their meaning and with that our ability to use them to communicate?

    Language is an artifact created by intentional agencies via those agreements.

  43. Alan Fox: One example would be FOXp2

    As I don’t think blind watchmaker evolution is a thing, why would I bother?

    FOX genes are control genes. Damaging them causes speech to be lost or mangled but it doesn’t account for speech and language.

    Darwin posited blind watchmaker evolution and you have referenced his as a theory of evolution. The modern synthesis didn’t change that as natural selection and drift remained as blind watchmaker processes.

    The point being is it has all been blind watchmaker evolution starting with Darwin. That is what ID argues against- that blind watchmaker processes are solely responsible for the diversity of life. ID is OK with evolution, per se.

    So now I have to ask- what version of evolution do you support? Yours appears to be different from what Coyne, Dawkins, Darwin, Mayr et al., have posited.

  44. Larry Moran: Modern population genetics and experimental facts demonstrate that neutral alleles can be fixed by drift, most beneficial alleles are lost by drift, and deleterious alleles can be fixed by drift. Which one(s) of those facts are you skeptical of?

    That neutral alleles can be fixed by drift. Perhaps in a small population or under artificial scenarios. But what about in the wild?

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