Massimo Pigliucci has posted the notes, parts 1, 2, and 3, from the Altenberg meeting that was unfortunately over-hyped by the creationist crowd (no blame for that attaches to the organizers of this meeting). It sounds like it was a phenomenally interesting meeting that was full of interesting ideas, but from these notes, it was also clearly a rather speculative meeting — not one that was trying to consolidate a body of solid observations into a coherent explanation, but one that was instead trying to define promising directions for an expansion of evolutionary theory. That’s also the message of the concluding statement of the meeting.
A group of 16 evolutionary biologists and philosophers of science convened at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Altenberg (Austria) on July 11-13 to discuss the current status of evolutionary theory, and in particular a series of exciting empirical and conceptual advances that have marked the field in recent times.
The new information includes findings from the continuing molecular biology revolution, as well as a large body of empirical knowledge on genetic variation in natural populations, phenotypic plasticity, phylogenetics, species-level stasis and punctuational evolution, and developmental biology, among others.
The new concepts include (but are not limited to): evolvability, developmental plasticity, phenotypic and genetic accommodation, punctuated evolution, phenotypic innovation, facilitated variation, epigenetic inheritance, and multi-level selection.
By incorporating these new results and insights into our understanding of evolution, we believe that the explanatory power of evolutionary theory is greatly expanded within biology and beyond. As is the nature of science, some of the new ideas will stand the test of time, while others will be significantly modified. Nonetheless, there is much justified excitement in evolutionary biology these days. This is a propitious time to engage the scientific community in a vast interdisciplinary effort to further our understanding of how life evolves.
That’s a little soft — there are no grand reformulations of the neo-Darwinian synthesis in there, nor is anyone proposing to overturn our understanding of evolution — but that’s what I expected. It’s saying that there are a lot of exciting ideas and new observations that increase our understanding of the power of evolution, and promise to lead research in interesting new directions.
Unfortunately, one reporter has produced an abominably muddled, utterly worthless and uninformed account of the Altenberg meeting that has been picked up by many crackpots to suggest that evolution is in trouble. This not only ignores a fundamental property of science — that it is always pushing off in new directions — but embarrassingly overinflates the importance of this one meeting. This was a gathering of established scientists with some new proposals. It was not a meeting of the central directorate of the Darwinist cabal to formulate new dogma.
Where one ignorant kook dares to assert her inanity, you know the Discovery Institute will stampede after her. Both Paul Nelson and now Casey Luskin have cited her lunatic distortions favorably. Luskin’s account is egregiously incompetent, as we’ve come to expect — he even thinks Stuart Pivar was an attendee. Pivar is an eccentric New York art collector, heir to a septic tank fortune, who has no training in science and whose “theory” is a nonsensical bit of guesswork that is contradicted by observations anyone can make in a basic developmental biology lab. He was not at the meeting. No one in their right mind would even consider inviting him to such a serious event. Maybe if it was a birthday party and they needed someone to make balloon animals, he’d be a good man to have on hand.
Now we can move beyond the garbled hype of the creationists. Pigliucci lists several concepts up there that have promise for further research, and that may help us understand evolution better. That’s the productive result of the meeting, and the only part that counts. Those concepts are also going to be discussed by many other scientists at many other meetings — even I talked about some of them recently — but don’t let the liars on the creationist side confuse you into thinking that the fact that scientists are talking about new ideas is a sign that evolution is in crisis. Talking about new ideas is normal science.