Darwinian theory is broken and may not be fixable. That was the takeaway from a meeting last month organized by the world's most distinguished and historic scientific organization, which went mostly unreported by the media.
The three-day conference at the Royal Society in London was remarkable in confirming something that advocates of intelligent design (ID), a controversial scientific alternative to evolution, have said for years. ID proponents point to a chasm that divides how evolution and its evidence are presented to the public, and how scientists themselves discuss it behind closed doors and in technical publications. This chasm has been well hidden from laypeople, yet it was clear to anyone who attended the Royal Society conference, as did a number of ID-friendly scientists.
Maybe that secrecy helps explain why the meeting was so muffled in mainstream coverage.
Oh, there were a few reports. In the Huffington Post, science journalist Suzan Mazur complained of a lack of momentousness: "[J]ust what was the point of attracting a distinguished international gathering if the speakers had little new science to present? Why waste everyone's time and money?" On the other hand, a write-up in The Atlantic by Carl Zimmer acknowledged a sense of strain between rival cliques of evolutionists: "Both sides offered their arguments and critiques in a civil way, but sometimes you could sense the tension in the room – the punctuations of tsk-tsks, eye-rolling, and partisan bursts of applause."
Mild drama notwithstanding, why should anyone care?
For one thing, the Royal Society, dating back to 1660, is a legend in the science world. Its founders included the great chemist Robert Boyle, and it was later headed for 24 years (1703-1727) by Isaac Newton – a fact that is hard to forget with Newton's death mask on prominent display in a glass case. Portraits of Boyle and Newton look down from the walls above. So the historical connections lend a certain weight by themselves.
What's really notable, however, is that such a thoroughly mainstream body should so openly acknowledge problems with orthodox neo-Darwinian theory. Indeed, though presenters ignored, dismissed, or mocked the theory of intelligent design, the proceedings perfectly illustrated a point made by our colleague Stephen Meyer, author of the New York Times bestseller “Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design.”
Dr. Meyer, a Cambridge University-trained philosopher of science, writes provocatively in the book's Prologue:
“The technical literature in biology is now replete with world-class biologists routinely expressing doubts about various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory, and especially about its central tenet, namely the alleged creative power of the natural selection and mutation mechanism.
“Nevertheless, popular defenses of the theory continue apace, rarely if ever acknowledging the growing body of critical scientific opinion about the standing of the theory. Rarely has there been such a great disparity between the popular perception of a theory and its actual standing in the relevant peer-reviewed science literature.”
The opening presentation at the Royal Society by one of those world-class biologists, Austrian evolutionary theorist Gerd Müller, underscored exactly Meyer’s contention. Dr. Müller opened the meeting by discussing several of the fundamental "explanatory deficits" of “the modern synthesis,” that is, textbook neo-Darwinian theory. According to Müller, the as yet unsolved problems include those of explaining:
- Phenotypic complexity (the origin of eyes, ears, body plans, i.e., the anatomical and structural features of living creatures);
- Phenotypic novelty, i.e., the origin of new forms throughout the history of life (for example, the mammalian radiation some 66 million years ago, in which the major orders of mammals, such as cetaceans, bats, carnivores, enter the fossil record, or even more dramatically, the Cambrian explosion, with most animal body plans appearing more or less without antecedents); and finally
- Non-gradual forms or modes of transition, where you see abrupt discontinuities in the fossil record between different types.
As Müller has explained in a 2003 work (“On the Origin of Organismal Form,” with Stuart Newman), although “the neo-Darwinian paradigm still represents the central explanatory framework of evolution, as represented by recent textbooks” it “has no theory of the generative.” In other words, the neo-Darwinian mechanism of mutation and natural selection lacks the creative power to generate the novel anatomical traits and forms of life that have arisen during the history of life. Yet, as Müller noted, neo-Darwinian theory continues to be presented to the public via textbooks as the canonical understanding of how new living forms arose – reflecting precisely the tension between the perceived and actual status of the theory that Meyer described in “Darwin’s Doubt.”
Yet, the most important lesson of the Royal Society conference lies not in its vindication of claims that our scientists have made, gratifying as that might be to us, but rather in defining the current problems and state of research in the field. The conference did an excellent job of defining the problems that evolutionary theory has failed to solve, but it offered little, if anything, by way of new solutions to those longstanding fundamental problems.
Much of the conference after Müller’s talk did discuss various other proposed evolutionary mechanisms. Indeed, the prime movers in the Royal Society event, Müller, James Shapiro, Denis Noble, and Eva Jablonka – known to evolutionary biologists as the "Third Way of Evolution" crowd, neither ID theorists nor orthodox Darwinists – have proposed repairing the explanatory deficits of the modern synthesis by highlighting evolutionary mechanisms other than random mutation and natural selection. Much debate at the conference centered around the question of whether these new mechanisms could be incorporated into the basic population genetics framework of neo-Darwinism, thus making possible a new “extended” evolutionary synthesis, or whether the emphasis on new mechanisms of evolutionary change represented a radical, and theoretically incommensurable, break with established theory. This largely semantic, or classificatory, issue obscured a deeper question that few, if any, of the presentations confronted head on: the issue of the origin of genuine phenotypic novelty – the problem that Müller described in his opening talk.
Indeed, by the end of Day 3 of the meeting, it seemed clear to many of our scientists, and others in attendance with whom they talked, that the puzzle of life's novelties remained unsolved – if, indeed, it had been addressed at all. As a prominent German paleontologist in the crowd concluded, “All elements of the Extended Synthesis [as discussed at the conference] fail to offer adequate explanations for the crucial explanatory deficits of the Modern Synthesis (aka neo-Darwinism) that were explicitly highlighted in the first talk of the meeting by Gerd Müller.”
In “Darwin’s Doubt,” for example, Meyer emphasized the obvious importance of genetic and other (i.e., epigenetic) types of information to building novel phenotypic traits and forms of life. The new mechanisms offered by the critics of neo-Darwinism at the conference – whether treated as part of an extended neo-Darwinian synthesis or as the basis of a fundamentally new theory of evolution – did not attempt to explain how the information necessary to generating genuine novelty might have arisen. Instead, the mechanisms that were discussed produce at best minor microevolutionary changes, such as changes in wing coloration of butterflies or the celebrated polymorphisms of stickleback fish.
Moreover, the mechanisms that were discussed – niche construction, phenotypic plasticity, natural genetic engineering, and so on – either presupposed the prior existence of the biological information necessary to generate novelty, or they did not address the mystery of the origin of that information (and morphological novelty) at all. (Not all the mechanisms addressed were necessarily new, by the way. Niche construction and phenotypic plasticity have been around for a long time.)
Complex behaviors such as nest-building by birds or dam construction by beavers represent examples of niche construction, in which some organisms themselves demonstrate the capacity to alter their environment in ways that may affect the adaptation of subsequent generations to that environment. Yet no advocate of niche construction at the meeting explained how the capacity for such complex behaviors arose de novo in ancestral populations, as they must have done if the naturalistic evolutionary story is true.
Rather, these complex behaviors were taken as givens, leaving the critical question of their origins more or less untouched. While there is abundant evidence that animals can learn and transmit new behaviors to their offspring – crows in Japan, for instance, have learned how to use automobile traffic to crack open nuts – all such evidence presupposes the prior existence of specific functional capacities enabling observation, learning, and the like. The evolutionary accounts of niche construction theory therefore collide repeatedly with a brick wall marked "ORIGINAL COMPLEX FUNCTIONAL CAPACITY REQUIRED HERE" – without, or beyond which, there would simply be nothing interesting to observe.
James Shapiro’s talk, clearly one of the most interesting of the conference, highlighted this difficulty in its most fundamental form. Shapiro presented fascinating evidence showing, contra neo-Darwinism, the non-random nature of many mutational processes – processes that allow organisms to respond to various environmental challenges or stresses. The evidence he presented suggests that many organisms possess a kind of pre-programmed adaptive capacity – a capacity that Shapiro has elsewhere described as operating under “algorithmic control.” Yet, neither Shapiro, nor anyone else at the conference, attempted to explain how the information inherent in such algorithmic control or pre-programmed capacity might have originated.
This same “explanatory deficiency” was evident in the discussions of the other mechanisms, though we won’t attempt to demonstrate that exhaustively here. We would direct readers, however, to Chapters 15 and 16 of “Darwin’s Doubt,” where Meyer highlighted the way in which, not just neo-Darwinism, but also newer evolutionary mechanisms (including many discussed at the conference) fail to solve the question of the origin of information necessary to generate novelty.
In those chapters, Meyer reviewed a range of proposed fixes to the Modern Synthesis. He acknowledged and described the various advantages that many of these proposals have over neo-Darwinism, but also carefully explained why each of these mechanisms falls short as an explanation for the origin of the biological information necessary to build novel structures and forms of animal life. He quoted paleontologist Graham Budd who has observed: “When the public thinks about evolution, they think about [things like] the origin of wings … . But these are things that evolutionary theory has told us little about.”
Many fascinating talks at the Royal Society conference described a number of evolutionary mechanisms that have been given short shrift by the neo-Darwinian establishment. Unfortunately, however, the conference will be remembered, as Suzan Mazur intimated in her coverage, for its failure to offer anything new. In particular, it failed to offer anything new that could help remedy the main “explanatory deficit” of the neo-Darwinian synthesis – its inability to account for the origin of phenotypic novelty and especially, the genetic and epigenetic information necessary to produce it.
These are still problems that evolutionary theory tells us little about – constituting, in our judgment, an invitation to scientists to consider the alternative of intelligent design.
Dr. Paul Nelson and Mr. David Klinghoffer are Senior Fellows with Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture.