Remember Suzan Mazur, the credulous reporter hyping a revolution in evolution? She’s at it again, publishing an e-book chapter by chapter on the “Altenberg 16”, this meeting that she thinks is all about radically revising evolutionary biology.
I can tell that Massimo Pigliucci — one of the 16 — is feeling a little exasperation at this nonsense, especially since some of the IDists have seized on it as vindication of their delusions about the “weakness” of evolutionary theory. He’s got an excellent post summarizing some of the motivation behind this meeting, which is actually part of a fairly routine process of occasional get-togethers by scientists with similar ideas to hash out the concepts. Here’s the actual subject of discussion at the Altenberg meeting.
The basic idea is that there have been some interesting empirical discoveries, as well as the articulation of some new concepts, subsequently to the Modern Synthesis, that one needs to explicitly integrate with the standard ideas about natural selection, common descent, population genetics and statistical genetics (nowadays known as evolutionary quantitative genetics). Some of these empirical discoveries include (but are not limited to) the existence of molecular buffering systems (like the so-called “heat shock response”) that may act as “capacitors” (i.e., facilitators) of bursts of phenotypic evolution, and the increasing evidence of the role of epigenetic (i.e., non-genetic) inheritance systems (this has nothing to do with Lamarckism, by the way). Some of the new concepts that have arisen since the MS include (but again are not limited to) the idea of “evolvability” (that different lineages have different propensities to evolve novel structures or functions), complexity theory (which opens the possibility of natural sources of organic complexity other than natural selection), and “accommodation” (a developmental process that may facilitate the coordinated appearance of complex traits in short evolutionary periods).
Now, did you see anything in the above that suggests that evolution is “a theory in crisis”? Did I say anything about intelligent designers, or the rejection of Darwinism, or any of the other nonsense that has filled the various uninformed and sometimes downright ridiculous commentaries that have appeared on the web about the Altenberg meeting? Didn’t think so. If next week’s workshop succeeds, what we will achieve is taking one more step in an ongoing discussion among scientists about how our theories account for biological phenomena, and how the discovery of new phenomena is to be matched by the elaboration of new theoretical constructs. This is how science works, folks, not a sign of “crisis.”
You cannot imagine how pleased I was to see this — not because I was at all concerned about this meeting, but because I’ve been scribbling down notes for the last few weeks on the subjects I want to discuss in my keynote at GECCO 2008, and that’s practically an outline of my plans. I was going to go over some of these concepts and define them and give examples; I didn’t have molecular buffers on my list (maybe I’ll have to add it), and I was going to say a bit about conservation/canalization vs. plasticity, but at least I’m reassured that I’m on the right track.