This morning I was surprised to see
Assembly Theory popping up all over in my social media. Did somebody find evidence for it? Did the authors clarify what their babble meant? No, nothing so interesting: another evolutionary biologist took a hard look at the original paper, and tried to figure out what Cronin was talking about.
In October, a paper titled “Assembly theory explains and quantifies selection and evolution” appeared in the top science journal Nature. The authors – a team led by Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow and Sara Walker at Arizona State University – claim their theory is an “interface between physics and biology” which explains how complex biological forms can evolve.
The paper provoked strong responses. On the one hand were headlines like “Bold New ‘Theory of Everything’ Could Unite Physics And Evolution”.
On the other were reactions from scientists. One evolutionary biologist tweeted “after multiple reads I still have absolutely no idea what [this paper] is doing”. Another said “I read the paper and I feel more confused […] I think reading that paper has made me forget my own name.”
As a biologist who studies evolution, I felt I had to read the paper myself. Was assembly theory really the radical new paradigm its authors suggested? Or was it the “abject wankwaffle” its critics decried?
He highlights some of the weird stuff in the paper, like this observation that leapt out at me when I read it.
In the words of one Nature commenter: “Why so many creationist tropes in the first few sentences?”
Yeah, that was odd: either the author was so totally unaware of how creationists make really bad arguments, so he made one himself (the generous interpretation), or it was intentional, and he’s underhandedly trying to sneak creationist nonsense in the literature (the uncharitable interpretation). Either way it was a warning sign.
So the critic works through the paper, trying to answer the question, is it “abject wankwaffle” or not? The answer is phrased politely.
However, as a sweeping new paradigm aiming to unify evolution and physics, assembly theory appears – to me and many others – to be addressing a problem that does not exist.
“abject wankwaffle” it is!