Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Third Way of Evolution is Most Likely a Dead-End

There's a good chance that whenever you see a group of scientific mavericks claiming that the modern synthetic theory of evolution is broken and needs to be discarded, you will quickly see the intelligent design / special creationist community seizing on such minority opinions as evidence that evolution is very much a theory in crisis. Inevitably, given that many science denialists in our community uncritically source all their information in evolution from such bastions of pseudoscience as Evolution News and Views, Uncommon Descent, ICR, CMI, or AiG, you will invariably see our resident science denialists taking their lead from these intellectually bankrupt organisations, demonstrating in the process a tragic failure of critical thinking skills.

The latest fringe idea to be lauded by science denialists is The Third Way of Evolution, which is yet another attempt to show that the modern synthetic theory is dead in the water. When in doubt about such matters, it pays to consult those who actually know something about evolution. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne delivers the goods:
But what is “The Third Way of Evolution”? The site explains:
The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon intervention by a divine Creator. That is clearly unscientific because it brings an arbitrary supernatural force into the evolution process. The commonly accepted alternative is Neo-Darwinism, which is clearly naturalistic science but ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation. Neo-Darwinism ignores important rapid evolutionary processes such as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, action of mobile DNA and epigenetic modifications. Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis. Many scientists today see the need for a deeper and more complete exploration of all aspects of the evolutionary process.
As for the last sentence, who would deny that we need to explore more deeply how evolution works? After all, we don’t know everything about it. But what we do know is that the outlines of modern evolutionary theory, and the importance of natural selection, seem indisputably correct for now, and that there’s no pressing need for an overturning of that theory. 
Given the site’s explicit denial of creationism, it’s a bit surprising that it has been touted by Denyse O’Leary, the reliably vacuous “reporter” on ingelligent design for the ID website Uncommon Descent. But of course ID advocates try to hide their creationism under a bushel, changing their tactics to assert simply that the modern theory of is fatally flawed. Once the theory is demolished, they hope, Jesus will then rush in to fill the gap. 
But I digress. What is distressing about the “Third Way” site is that about 50 biologists, physicians, physicists, mathematicians, historians of science, and even an expert in semiotics have joined this anti-Darwinian chorus. As I read over the list, I recognized quite a few names, especially those in my field, and I’m pretty familiar with their views. Here are a few of them (all gave permission to be included on the “Third Way” site); and I’ll add links to critiques that I or others have written about their “revolutionary” ideas. At the end I’ll give my brief take on this “Third Way.
As a rule, whenever you a see a website on evolution claiming that the modern synthetic theory is in need of revision which includes people such as mathematicians, historians, physicists, semioticians, and other professionals whose sphere of competence lies well outside of evolutionary biology, you can quickly dismiss it as yet another fringe crank site. As I have said elsewhere, outside of their sphere of competence, the critical opinion of a non-biologist on technical details of evolutionary biology carries as little weight as that of any other educated layperson.  Once again, for informed insight, one needs to consult those who know what they are talking about. Coyne's article is definitely worth reading for such an informed insight; at the end, he concludes:
So what is the “Third Way” of evolution? As far as I can see, it’s basically a grab-bag of criticisms of evolution that are unfounded, as well as proposals of new mechanisms whose importance is yet to be established (or, in the case of adaptive mutation, has been shown to be unlikely by experiments), and of processes, like niche construction, that fit comfortably within modern evolutionary theory. The common theme of nearly every “Third Wave” member whose work I know is this: “Modern evolutionary theory is deficient because it has ignored my own view of what is important.” In other words, the whole site is solipsistic. The “Third Way” of evolution boils down to what one colleague said to me: “All these views are wildly and incommensurably different, and some are in the category of ‘not even wrong’.” 
The colleague added:
What many of [the adherents to “The Third Way”] do agree on is one thing: “Nobody’s paying enough attention to me!”
Too right!
Coyne's full article is here. An incisive post by population geneticist Joseph Felsenstein on this subject can be found here.