Altenberg 2008 is over

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.


  1. says

    Pigliucci lists several concepts up there that have promise for further research…

    Was intelligent design creationism anywhere near the top of the list?

  2. Hessenroots says

    I find it really amusing that people can construe something like this as a sign of weakness. All it shows is the weakness of their understanding of science.

    It works because we accept we don’t know everything and sometimes being wrong is the best thing that can happen!

  3. says

    PZ: I came across another of these misreadings of evolutionary biology in a New Scientist article by Emma Young, which can be found second-hand here.

    This was brought to my attention by our curious correspondent Vox Day in another of his windmill-tilting efforts, which can be found here.

    I attempted to set Vox straight here, and I would be curious to know what you thought about Young’s piece.

    The bottom line for me: I’ve been an enthusiast for evolution long enough to recognize the semi-annual publication of articles that say, in effect, ‘The King is dead!….oops, not really, long live the King!’ Kind of tiresome.

  4. says

    Sigh. Sometimes it seems like we never get the chance to talk about these developments, what with all the whack-a-loon games we have to play.

    But this old post of mine is the first Google hit for the query “Stuart Pivar”, and that makes me smile.

  5. Adrienne says

    As a bit of an aside: I think it’s about time Massimo Pigliucci’s “Rationally Speaking” blog joined the ScienceBlogs collective. Anyone else agree with me? How do we go about getting him over here?

  6. JoJo says

    That’s ID/creationism for you: equal parts cluelessness, wishful thinking, copying other people’s mistakes, relying on unauthoritative sources that say what the creationist wants to hear, inventing new mistakes by assumption, all pasted together with a thick glue of wishful thinking and unshakable faith in the rectitude of one’s facts and opinions.


  7. Elf Eye says

    Blake Stacey, on a related note, in Google the query “classic crackpot” still puts Stuart Pivar at the top of the list. To be precise, on the first page of the results, posts on Pivar’s short-lived suit against PZ are numbers 1-3, 5-7. (Number 4 links to books on Amazon tagged with the phrase: Jesus Is Like My Scanning Electron Microscope, Intelligent Design 101, The End of Days, and two by Behe: Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution.)

  8. says

    Thanks PZ, your commentary is right on. I was a bit surprised, frankly, that even the Science article began with the Mazur story. By the way, just for the record, I asked Jerry Coyne about his printed “it’s a joke” comment in Science, and he swears that he was referring to Mazur’s coverage, not the workshop… :)


  9. IceFarmer says


    Does anyone else see Mazur’s article as having an unspoken agenda? It appears that her whole article was more interested at taking Anti-Darwinian jabs instead of focusing on the interesting developments and directions that some of these people were exploring. I like that Sergey Gavrilets put her in her place:

    “He made a point of telling me in dramatic Russian-English that he didn’t like my Altenberg story, neither the tone nor substance, and objected to being compared to a Woodstock rock star. He said Altenberg was all about “normal developments” in biology.”

    It’s too bad that one of the key individuals she was focusing on was telling her that she’s off the mark substantially and she kept rolling past it. DI will love her for this. She can take the small pieces of information to increase her readership and forget the major parts of the argument.

    She questions Lewontin about Pigliucci’s work. Lewontin questioned her in an objective fashion bringing up a valid point. Suspect vs. know is very important in science. She moved by it as if he was only trying to keep his grants and prove that he’s just a member of the establisment. Seems full of half truths and skillful omissions to me.

    She appears to be a windsock journalist in the truest sense. I get the feeling that she has some social Darwinist issues and I don’t blame her, the vast majority in the scientific community think social Dawinism is total BS.

    Lest we forget however that journalism is a business, in a greater sense than she accusses the “evolution machine” of being. Scientists must get grants to persue their work. Their research must provide results or the promise of results or grants tend to disappear. As I’m sure PZ can attest, most research isn’t cheap and doesn’t have a really high rate of return. Scientists must get grants and write books to make money. It’s what science is all about. I guess covering the A-16 wouldn’t have been interesting without capitalizing on the “controversy.” Her writing must be read on a large scale for her to make money, perhaps that’s her motivation for the heavily biased style and position she has taken.

    For some one as pro-evolutionist as she seems, I wonder if she realized the damage she is doing to the scientific community. I look forward to seeing where some of the A-16 research goes (much of it still seems Neo-Darwinist to me but I don’t care about names, I care about evidence and results).

  10. Arnosium Upinarum says

    Hessenroots #3 Right! Being wrong within a system that can actually right itself is a very powerful, positive and dynamically adaptive attribute….and because creationist-style thinking evidently seems to require an allegiance to a ridiculous level of certainty based on no evidence whatsoever, they cannot respond to any new information or arguments that mention them with anything other than silly irrational whining noises.

    All just because they are so convinced of their grasp of the ‘Truth’ (which, I hear, apparently comes from some immense authority nobody else has been able to confirm) that any challenges to it are summarily dismissed.

  11. andyo says

    I say this from experience (I’m laying out a book for a client). How can you trust a freaking writer that can’t spell “Foreword”? I mean, the word is there at the beginning of pretty much every other book that one reads. Or is there such a thing as a writer that can’t read? Hmm, I think we’re on to something here…

  12. IceFarmer says


    Perhaps we should look more into Mazur’s work to see what’s she’s truly into. She ties herself in with the Leakey’s, presumably for an air of authority, quick quickly in her moderate self description/credentials at the end of her article:

    “Suzan Mazur’s interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur’s reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs.

    Let’s look into this a bit further…

  13. andyo says

    Yeah, but come on, “Foreword”? hehe. It’s right there, the first word and in bold. I’m probably biased from my experience anyway. I don’t have time to read the whole thing, especially with these rave reviews, but I’ll take your word for it when you’re done!

    Also, I get annoyed when I see some language that doesn’t seem to make sense, probably because English is my second language and I’m insecure about what meanings I get from what I read. I am reading Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe, and got annoyed at one or two sentences that I think (but not know for sure) were constructed badly.

    And, I cringed (and never got to finish) Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell, because I got very annoyed at the use of “antimony” instead of “antinomy.” Probably was fixed in later editions though.

  14. IceFarmer says

    Found some more of Mazur’s writing. Here’s one where she’s knocks Darwin right off the bat:

    She interviews Jerry Fedor about his evolutionary work beyond a selectionist model. He states that selection is an element but is looking at elements he thinks show that evolution travels beyond selection.

    It would appear to me that she has a problem with Darwin directly. She seems to have issues that the Origin didn’t have all the answers in it. Perhaps someone should have reminded her that it was published 150 years ago then informed her that it was a very important beginning. It was an event that opened the door for science to learn, grow and expand in a new direction. Science has run with it for 150 years and is learning, growing and expanding in newer directions I don’t think Darwin would have even fathomed. Darwin wasn’t necessarily wrong, he didn’t have all the answers, nor did he have the tools that science works with today. Perhaps she thinks that science is full of “Origin Of Species Literalists.” This is not the case, that’s why Neo-Darwinism is here and evolution is being studied is many different disciplines and directions. She has no concept of how science seems to work. She’s definitely into working the controversy angle.

  15. IceFarmer says

    Opps, confused a name in my last post, she was interviewing Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini who is writing a book with philosopher Jerry Fedor. Sorry for the error.

  16. LisaJ says

    Wow. It never ceases to amaze me how these crazies actually believe they understand how the Science world works, when they are so terribly off base. This is how Science works! We have meetings all the time to talk about our theories, ideas, etc., and by our very definition as Scientists we are always going to talk about what is still left unanswered.

    It’s such a simple concept folks! Ah, ignorance is bliss.

  17. Mike says

    I’d better not let the creationists get wind of the fact that I hold WEEKLY sessions where a bunch of us talk about “new ideas” in science. We call them ‘lab meetings’. One could conclude, therefore, that the entire field of DNA damage/repair research (my area of interest) is floundering.

  18. LisaJ says

    #20 hahaha, exactly. I for one will be keeping my lab meetings very hush hush form now on.

  19. says

    This simply demonstrates what I’ve been saying all along; we need people well educated in this field to report on it. Only a few self-educated journalists have really convinced me that they understand biology, or science in general; she isn’t one of them. In fact, she’s convinced me that she is not only incompetent when it comes to biology, but also incompetent when it comes to covering…well, anything. I’d review her work, but frankly, I don’t think it’s worth my time.

  20. IceFarmer says

    The part I find most disconcerting is that she is literate enough to write something that seems persuasive and in depth. People who lack science back ground and basic critical thinking may be easily swayed by this type of writing.


    We should all have “lab meetings,” intellectual gatherings where we hear experts talk about ideas and we can discuss them thereby reducing their importance so retards aren’t reporting on crap to the masses. Everyone could get their info direct. We could actally initiate sharing and debate on good information instead of disseminating misinformation to the common yokel looking for the next sound bite. Like the Greeks, everyone should be required to attend! It would be sweet. De-stupidify the population one info sharing session at a time. The only problem would be the bible-thumpers. Anyone here who ever took a religious studies class would know what that’s like. Perhaps gatherings would be bad. Drew Curtis @ Fark is right, we just need better journalists. Now which one is the bigger f’d up dream?

  21. says

    Susan Mazur on the Charlie Rose program?

    This appears to be true. She appears as a ‘free-lance journalist’ on an April 30, 1993 broadcast about the war and famine in Somalia:


  22. IceFarmer says

    See seems consistent. Less than half of the understanding and 4X the opinion.

  23. says

    PZ said:

    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.

    It seems that they, like Dr. Horrible, hunger to change the status quo because they don’t think the status is quo.

  24. Ichthyic says

    she’s turning this into a “six part book”.

    seems obvious to me;

    she saw that Coulter could make serious dough lying about science, and saw her opportunity to follow.

    expect a publisher to “novelize” her book within a year.

  25. Heraclides says

    “heir to a septic tank fortune” ???!

    A smelly pile of s**t?

    More seriously, any comments on this book: The only review in Amazon it indicates the ideas aren’t backed up with evidence (not helpful…), but that they are (possibly) interesting. Has anyone here looked at this?

  26. halp, I got masered! says

    Hmm, but Altenberg sounds so much like Altamont, there’s got to be something hinky going on.

  27. DLC says

    The other side needs their cheerleaders to reinforce the idea that “we’re winning”. Even if they aren’t.
    See Ref: “Baghdad Bob”

  28. Ichthyic says

    The other side needs their cheerleaders to reinforce the idea that “we’re winning”. Even if they aren’t.

    and in other news there is no recession, we’re all just a nation of whiners.


  29. truth machine, OM says

    she was interviewing Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini who is writing a book with philosopher Jerry Fedor.

    Fodor. This does not speak well of Piattelli-Palmarini.

  30. says

    The workshop in Altenberg was a lot of fun – a bunch of highly knowledgeable people throwing ideas around. It was a privilege to listen in. Unfortunately, to a large degree everyone stayed on their own turf without sufficiently engaging the others. But, then, the group was highly interdisciplinary so I guess many were finding out about the other areas. What will really determine whether this goes anywhere is what the assembled scientists take away from the meeting and where their research will go from now on as well as what the impact of the book from this meeting will be once it comes out in MIT Press next year. Hopefully, there is now a group of people around the world who are thinking about these issues and are aware of the possibilities coming out of other disciplines. To extend the modern synthesis is necessarily an interdisciplinary effort and the initial step of getting the people with different backgrounds to understand each other has been made.

  31. Ichthyic says

    What will really determine whether this goes anywhere is what the assembled scientists take away from the meeting and where their research will go from now on as well as what the impact of the book from this meeting will be once it comes out in MIT Press next year


    My experience is that the volumes generated from such meetings work great as launching platforms for graduate level discussions, but much of the actual work that ends up being published rarely depends on meetings to generate the impetus for it.

    I’m thinking back to when: Sexual Selection: Testing the Alternatives was released from the “Dahlem Workshop” about 20 years ago (back when I was a grad student), and recalling that much of what was discussed in the publication from that meeting was already well on the way to being addressed by various labs (or already had been) even before the meeting took place.

    In short, I found these meetings to be fun places to discuss what has been done and what could be done, but don’t recall any of them resulting in earth-shattering new directions for research (the meetings were typically behind the curve of what was already being done).

    such is the world of modern academia; if you have to wait for a meeting to generate new ideas, you’re probably not working hard enough.


  32. says

    Thanks, Ichthyic (is that Norwegian?) ;-) . I agree that this is normally the case with such meeting. Having said that, the Altenberg meetings have two things going for them. Firstly, they are always put together very much with the ideal of developing biological theory in mind. The attendees are supposed to be on the cutting edge of the research and presenting their latest results. Of course, what actually happens rarely completely meets the aims but, still, the KLI is well placed to make such things happen. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the meetings are always highly interdisciplinary so people get exposed to stuff that’s often completely new to them. If all goes well they come away with new ideas and new research partners. Failing all that, even if what happens is that an interesting volume for grad student discussion eventuates, this is still a significant achievement. After all, who is going to be developing biological theory in twenty years?

    Finally, while the Mazur article has been mentioned numerous times, a much better article has appeared in Science – They got the pictures of the co-organisers mixed up, however.

  33. Ichthyic says

    (is that Norwegian)

    heh, nope, it’s english, from the greek: ichthyikós

    I figured it was a good handle for an ichthyologist.

    . Failing all that, even if what happens is that an interesting volume for grad student discussion eventuates, this is still a significant achievement.

    oh, most assuredly. I didn’t mean to imply these meetings had no value, merely that most of the research I have seen relating to the issues discussed in them were rarely based on the results of the meetings themselves.

    that said, I do have to admit to never having been to this particular series before, so who knows?

    while the Mazur article has been mentioned numerous times


    a much better article has appeared in Science –

    ayup, saw that; good idea to add the link here, though, thanks.

    again, good luck with your blog – looks interesting. I expect I will visit again next week to check it out further (we share a mutual interest in the psychology of superstition).

  34. says

    Ichthyic: heh, nope, it’s english, from the greek: ichthyikós

    O.K. So I knew that, but it is more fun to feign ignorance sometimes. The tag is even more fun to use on an atheist blog, I guess, given the traditional Christian symbol. Which reminds me, at the workshop one of the participants handed out badges which said “Save the Altenberg 16” with a DNA chain that turned into a Darwin fish. Very cute.

  35. Ichthyic says

    O.K. So I knew that, but it is more fun to feign ignorance sometimes.


    The tag is even more fun to use on an atheist blog, I guess, given the traditional Christian symbol.

    I do get a kick out of the few occasions where I get the opportunity to show some xian who mistakenly made assumptions about my handle the pagan history behind the symbol they co-opted.

    …or the even rarer occasions where I get to ask someone why they slapped a sideways symbol of a vagina on their bumper.


    I’ll visit your blog later this week; now I’ve got to get some sleep and have a bit of work to do over the next day or so.