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Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Five

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August 16, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Five

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Science, as I have been insisting in this series of blog posts, is a consensus enterprise. Generally accepted scientific ideas are those that have achieved a wide currency by successfully persuading everyone that they are very likely true. Such persuasion takes several forms:

  1. Peer review assures that the most knowledgeable experts will have had a look at the ideas before they were published.

  2. Repeatability assures that other researchers, with slightly—or even significantly—different setups can duplicate the ideas. If your magical, new, I-could-win-a-Nobel-Prize, particle doesn’t show up when the physicists in Moscow duplicate your experiment, then too bad for your new particle and your Nobel Prize.

  3. The vast network of interlocking ideas already in place provides a powerful collective intuition about what sorts of new ideas are most unusual and in need of careful inspection.

Ideas championed by small bands of isolated outsiders should be viewed with suspicion and challenged with a very reasonable question: If these ideas are so compelling, how come so few really knowledgeable scientists accept them? And why are their champions outside the scientific community?

The response to these questions takes one of two forms: If you agree with the ideas being proposed by the outsiders, then you accuse the scientific community of willful ignorance and irrational stubbornness. You cherry-pick history for few examples where scientists were too dismissive of new ideas, or too confident in current ones, or too gullible in the acceptance of things they wished were true. You then present those examples—Piltdown Man, peppered moths, the Miller-Urey experiment—as if they were typical examples of how unreliable the “assured results of modern science” really are. If you disagree with the ideas being posed by the outsiders then you simply note that these ideas come from outside the scientific community and assume that, if they had any merit, they would be inside the community already. After all, science has a wonderful track record of success. Every time you power up your computer, almost all of the physics of the 20th century is stunningly confirmed.

A common strategy employed by outsiders who don’t understand how science works is to highlight how many times the scientific community has had to abandon “assured results of modern science,” as Al Mohler so dismissively labeled scientific consensus in his infamous address on why we need to believe the earth is 10,000 years old. The implication is that, if you wait long enough, the “assured results” of today will also collapse like the “assured results” of yesterday, making room for the ideas that you like better.

If we are perfectly honest, we have to admit that there is truth to this. During every major, and even minor, transition in science there are people who hold to traditional views; there are egregious examples of tenacious, seemingly irrational, loyalty to the status quo. The most famous example would be Albert Einstein, who went to his grave insisting that “God does not play dice with the universe,” when, as we now know, almost every physicist on the planet had been dragged unwillingly by the evidence for quantum mechanics to the unsavory conclusion that God does play dice with the universe. And there are countless other examples. Lord Kelvin wouldn’t accept the emerging evidence for an ancient earth at the end of the 19th century. Galileo wouldn’t accept Kepler’s calculations that showed that the planetary orbits were elliptical, rather than circular. Fred Hoyle wouldn’t accept the evidence for the Big Bang and developed a whole other theory to oppose it, one that seemed less “supernatural.”

There is no simple way, of course, to know when an idea is past its prime and in need of discarding. Such ideas do not start to get mold around the edges like cheese past its prime. We have been told for decades by anti-evolutionists from William Jennings Bryan, to Henry Morris and Ken Ham, to the senior fellows at the Discovery Institute, that evolution is past its prime and needs to be discarded. William Dembski, in his review of Saving Darwin, scolded me for being “loathe to admit that Darwin is passé.” I was wasting my time trying to save poor Darwin, whose coffin was finally ready to be lowered into the ground.

Ideas do have to be discarded from time to time. So how can we tell if evolution is such an idea, now past its prime, and living only on the tenacious life-support it receives from die-hard true believers? Here are some general indications that evolution has been misdiagnosed as terminal by the anti-evolutionists:

  1. The “disagreements” within evolutionary biology are signs of health, not illness. They occur between people who share a significant conviction that evolution is true in general and they are arguing about the particulars. Probably the most famous such debate of the past half-century was Stephen Jay Gould’s endorsement of “punctuated equilibrium” over the more traditional “gradualism” of most other theorists, like Richard Dawkins. This debate was offered as evidence that there was serious dissent with the scientific community about evolution—a preposterous conclusion. This debate was not about evolution at all; it was about the rate at which evolution occurs. Gould thought that evolution sped up and slowed down to a much greater degree than many of his peers. This is no more a debate about evolution than Mohler’s disagreement with BioLogos about how to read Genesis is part of a debate about the existence of God. The lesson here is to be careful to distinguish between a minor debate over a detail, and a major debate over a theory.

  2. If the explanatory territory of a theory is growing, the theory is in great shape. And we know from the explosive mapping of genomes, and other developments that more and more territory is coming under the explanatory umbrella of evolution. This evidence mounts daily.

  3. When theories get shaky, senior scientists with established reputations will step forward and articulate the concerns. This is a “statesmanlike” role that leaders in the scientific community take seriously. In the late 1980s there were some unresolved issues with the Big Bang theory and a leading cosmologist wrote an editorial in Scientific American calling attention to the issue and warning that if new data did not rescue the theory, it could collapse. Fortunately, the new data showed up on cue and the Big Bang survived. If there were wholesale problems with evolution, there would be senior evolutionists stepping forward and highlighting the problem. And they are not.

In the final analysis, there is no simple way, at a moment in time, to evaluate the exact strength and staying power of a theory. But there are ways to evaluate the claims that a theory is collapsing and none of the claims that evolution is collapsing can withstand that scrutiny.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Rich - #27495

August 29th 2010

Rich Blinne and Roger (continued):

A popular, journalistic account of this movement is found in Suzan Mazur’s new book, The Altenberg 16.  Mazur’s analysis is not high-level and isn’t the most important part of the book.  The important part is the interviews.  She allows us to hear a number of sharp evolutionary biologists speaking in their own voice.  Most interesting is the interview with Stuart Newman which can be found at:

Part 1:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3O2Founays

Part 4:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmpH18J-6HI&feature=related

Part 5:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJR6ActyheM&feature=related

Main list:  http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=altenberg+16&aq=f

Rich Blinne - #27497

August 29th 2010

Rich #27493: ” It does mean, however, that increasingly we find biologists who find Darwinian theory unsatisfying in significant ways.”

Contrast with the signed statement from the conference. Another perfect example what Karl is talking about.

“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.


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. “

Rich Blinne - #27498

August 29th 2010

Because of space I couldn’t include the lead in paragraph showing the scientists felt excitement about advances in evolutionary theory and not dissatisfaction.

“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.”

Rich Blinne - #27503

August 29th 2010

And here is what the conference organizer had to say about the conference:

“Now, did you see anything in the above that suggests that evolution is “a theory in crisis”? Did I say anything about intelligent designers, or the rejection of Darwinism, or any of the other nonsense that has filled the various uninformed and sometimes downright ridiculous commentaries that have appeared on the web about the Altenberg meeting? Didn’t think so. If next week’s workshop succeeds, what we will achieve is taking one more step in an ongoing discussion among scientists about how our theories account for biological phenomena, and how the discovery of new phenomena is to be matched by the elaboration of new theoretical constructs. This is how science works, folks, not a sign of “crisis.”

Rich - #27507

August 29th 2010

Rich Blinne:

First, you have read two isolated statements about the conference.  I’ve read a 350-page book containing detailed interviews with many of the scientists who participated in the conference.  I would suggest that before intimating that you know more than I do about this, you read at least as much as I have read.

Second, your reply fails to distinguish “neo-Darwinian theory” from “evolutionary theory” generally, which shows that you misunderstood both my point and the point of the Altenberg meeting.

Third, I never said there was a “crisis” or that the Altenberg people “rejected” Darwinism.

Fourth, the final statement you quoted was a statement for public consumption, to make sure that creationists and ID people did not “misuse” the results of the Altenberg conference.  It does not reflect the scientific discussions which went on at the conference.

Fifth, the Altenberg people are by no means the only evolutionary biologists who have criticized neo-Darwinism.

I misrepresented nothing.  My statements were careful, and can be confirmed from the Newman interview to which I linked everyone here, and the book which you have not yet read. 

I warned you about that knee reflex, Rich.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #27532

August 30th 2010

Richard Blinne,

I have some understanding of the materials you refered to and though I have not read them as Rich has, I would agree with what he says.

Clearly there is much confusion in this area.  The primary cause of this confusion is that people confuse a process with its description.  My problem and it appears that many scientists share it, if your statement is accurate, is that Darwin’s Theory and the neo-Darwinian synthesis do not match the data found in modern studies. 

The question then arises as to how his Theory should be revised or replaced to correspond to the new data.  You are right.  That is how science is supposed to work.  I do not think that this means that people within or without the scientific community are supposed to withhold their ideas and criticisms of Darwinian theory until the experts, so to speak, have formed a concensus and spoken.  Is this to be the Council of Nicea?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #27533

August 30th 2010

Part 2

Another issue is who speaks for science.  Richard Dawkins has taken upon himself to do so and it is true that his book, The Selfish Gene, and other works have had a significant impact on the way people inside and outside the community view evolution.  Also I have heard little disagreement with his ideas, except when one tries to get specific about what evolution means and then he becomes a kook.

Again I want to remind people.  Darwin did not invent evolution.  The idea had currency before he wrote about it.  Thus his Theory is not that it exists, but how it works.  Radicals on both sides want to keep the existence of evolution the center of the controversy.  This guarantees them long and productive careers.  Those who seek understanding of the way God’s Creation works are primarily concerned about how God works through natural processes, not if God can, which is theologically obvious. 

Darwin’s Theory is deeply flawed in that respect as I would be glad to discuss with those who are interested.

Rich Blinne - #27535

August 30th 2010

Rich, there’s a huge difference between people working out the details and being “unsatisfied” which was Karl’s point. BTW, Did you notice the pendulum going the other direction this week?


“Eusociality, in which some individuals reduce their own lifetime reproductive potential to raise the offspring of others, underlies the most advanced forms of social organization and the ecologically dominant role of social insects and humans. For the past four decades kin selection theory, based on the concept of inclusive fitness, has been the major theoretical attempt to explain the evolution of eusociality. Here we show the limitations of this approach. We argue that *standard natural selection theory* in the context of precise models of population structure represents a simpler and superior approach, allows the evaluation of multiple competing hypotheses, and provides an exact framework for interpreting empirical observations.”

Rich - #27548

August 30th 2010

Rich Blinne:

Sorry, but your reply still shows lack of grasp of what many of the Altenberg 16 people (and others outside the Altenberg 16) are saying.  It is not merely a question of filling in details.  At stake is the question whether neo-Darwinism is any longer adequate as the main explanatory framework of evolution.  There is a serious question whether it can explain, for example, the rise of biological form.  If there are strong theoretical and empirical reasons for thinking that it cannot, then evolutionary theory will need to undergo its most major reshaping since the Modern Synthesis.  With all due respect to Dr. Giberson, who is a physicist and not a biologist, I have read his columns for several months now, and all his comments about evolution show that he is not up on the latest developments in evolutionary biology, but follows the standard account given by people like Dawkins, Collins, Miller and Eugenie Scott.  None of these writers are current in their evolutionary theorizing.  By the way, the quotation you offer does not in any way address the concerns of the Altenberg group.  You need to do some reading before forming a judgment.

Rich Blinne - #27549

August 30th 2010

Also note that the paper I quoted was written by E.O. Wilson. Note the process here, ID proponents take note.

1. A gap is found in the explanatory power of a theory.

2. *An alternative testable hypothesis is proposed.*

3. The alternative proposal is tested.

4. The superior alternative is chosen even if it’s not the one originally proposed.

What neo-darwinism brought to the table was quantitative models allowing for it and competing hypotheses to be tested. In this case through forced grouping. Wilson and his colleagues found pre-adapations of defensable nest construction proceeded relatedness. Eusocial alleles later accumulated due to adaptive radiation. (Adaptive radiation not natural selection was the subject of the paper Roger quoted.)  Their new model looks like this: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v466/n7310/box/nature09205_BX1.html

This pattern has been repeated many times now and why the neo-darwinian synthesis is considered robust and with each challenge it gets even more explanatory. As Karl said, “If the explanatory territory of a theory is growing, the theory is in great shape.”

Rich Blinne - #27551

August 30th 2010

Neo-darwinism is merely the synthesis of evolutionary theory and genetics. It’s the latter which is causing the largest challenge for non-common-descent-based ID. Dennis Venema, chair of biology at Trinity Western University, noted in the Sept. 2010 PSCF that it’s common design and not neo-darwinism that is the theory in crisis.

“Common Design:
A Theory in Crisis

In summary, homology, redundancy, synteny, and shared pseudogenes are independent lines of genomics-based evidence that converge on a single conclusion: humans are not biologically independent, de novo creations, but share common ancestry with other forms of life. Moreover, attempts to account for genomics evidence from an anti-common ancestry ID, common-design viewpoint are enormously strained and severely ad hoc. While each line of evidence is individually problematic from an anticommon-descent, common-design standpoint, their combined, cohesive pattern is devastating.”

Rich - #27560

August 30th 2010

Rich Blinne:

You haven’t engaged with anything that I’ve said.  You’ve just repeated standard Darwinian talking points.  The neo-Darwinian synthesis is considered “robust” by some, yes, mainly by the population geneticists, who have a vested interest in its continuance.  They would look pretty silly if neo-Darwinism turned out to be wrong, or seriously inadequate, after they’ve endorsed it for 70+ years.  Yet, after those 70+ years, they still have no theory of biological form.  Apparently, little details like that have never interested them.

I don’t know why you are discussing ID and common design.  I never said anything about either.  The evolutionary biologists I mentioned mostly despise ID.  I said that already.  But it’s clear you aren’t really interested in learning about this new movement within evolutionary biology.  In the time you’ve taken to look up all these irrelevant quotations to shore up your preconceived beliefs, you could have listened to the entire Stuart Newman interview, and expanded your scientific horizons.

I continue to enjoy it when TEs cite atheists to defend their position, in this case E. O. Wilson.  The romance between TE and materialist reductionism continues…

Roger A. Sawtelle - #27563

August 30th 2010

Rich Blinne,

The paper that I cited dealt how new species develope.  While it did not deal directly with natural selection, it certainly did indirectly and of course that is the question.

What the paper indicated was that the number of new species increased as the number of new living spaces increased.  This certainly makes sense and should not be controversial.  The way that this was determined was using statistics, so it does not indicate the way these new species took shape.

However, the question is raised, which is more important, gene changes or environmental changes?  For Dawkins there is question that evolution is based on genes.  Therefore this study contradicts his whole view of the Selfish Gene that controls evolution, because it gives every indication that evolution is based primary on environmental change.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #27564

August 30th 2010

Part 2

In terms of natural selection if the creation of a new species is the result of its adaptation to a NEW ecological niche, then it is not the result of conflict or competition for food in a stable environment. 
According to Darwin, variations were the source of competition and conflict for resources, but according to the ecological perspective, variations are the source of flexability and adaptability, which leads to diversity.  This is truly a scientific revolution of understanding that those caught up in old thinking cannot seem to grasp. 

Please provide a study that shows that evolutionary natural selection is based on competition and conflict.

Rich Blinne - #27569

August 30th 2010

Rich, I cited E.O. Wilson not because he’s an atheist but because he is one of the movement you are citing. The evidence against his previous position was compelling, so he changed his mind.

Roger, as to which is more important gene changes or environmental changes the answer is yes. The gene changes that are selected are due to adaptive radiation rather than small-scale competition. Fitness is relative to a particular envirionment but adaptive radiation changes the environment so you have to be careful not to compare apples and oranges. Even Richard Dawkins will admit to multiple mechanisms for natural selection and adaptive radiation is one of them. The overall theme of descent with modification stil holds with arguments over the details, competition, adaptive radiation, sexual selection, neutral drift, horizontal gene transfer etc.

gingoro - #27590

August 30th 2010


I watched all five video’s and found them quite interesting although I am not really qualified to assess the validity of the ideas presented.  I gathered the main point of difference between the current ruling paradigm and that suggested by the Allenberg group being:

-mechanisms like RM+NS and others that make up the ruling Evolutionary synthesis are just a portion of driving force for evolution according to the suggested new synthesis
-less emphasis on change in the genes and more on other factors
-evolutionary change not necessarily gradual and large changes may in fact occur in a single step
-self assembly (organization at equilibrium)
-self organization (energy input required to maintain organization)

Since the usual set of characters like Dawkins and NCSE are holding to older paradigm little of the new thinking gets included in general knowledge.

As best I can judge, if these proposals for a new evolutionary synthesis take hold it is a significant change maybe on the order of magnitude similar to what Einstein’s theory of relativity was in physics.  One might expect some Nobel prizes.
Dave W

Rich - #27597

August 30th 2010

Rich Blinne:

E. O. Wilson is *not* part of the movement that I was discussing.


Thanks for taking the time to listen to the videos.  I interpreted Newman’s remarks in much the same way that you did.  What I liked about Newman is that he expressed his criticism of neo-Darwinism cautiously, and he expressed his own ideas about biological form tentatively, not dogmatically.  He could have easily used the interview as a soapbox with which to hammer neo-Darwinism and exalt his own views, but he didn’t.  I therefore am inclined to trust him.

Rich Blinne - #27622

August 31st 2010

Wilson has been critical of the ability of neo-darwinism to explain fully cooperation and eusociality for decades, so, yes, his part of the movement. He was pushing kinship selection as described by Hamilton’s Rule.  Since 2008 and even before it, neo-darwinism has come back with a vengeance. See my recent ASA blog post on a recent neo-darwinian formulation of Hamiliton’s Rule:


I made a prediction that I didn’t suspect would come true so fast:

“Putting this into English, it was the population structure rather than kinship that selected for cooperators of M. xanthus over cheaters, aka Richard Dawkin’s “selfish gene”. Furthermore, this work takes Hamilton’s rule from a heuristic to an empirically useful structure to look at other social structures. So, I suspect *we will see a lot of followup on this in the coming years*. It also challenges our intuitive concept of what constitutes the “fittest” which survives.”

Carl Zimmer does an excellent job of discussing the background and controversy of last week’s Nature paper in this morning’s Science Times:


Rich Blinne - #27625

August 31st 2010

Zimmer’s article has an excellent analogy about people who want to add on additional mechanisms or have alternatives to neo-darwinism:

“The scientists argue that studies on animals since Dr. Hamilton’s day have failed to support it. The scientists write that a close look at the underlying math reveals that Dr. Hamilton’s theory is superfluous. “It’s precisely like an ancient epicycle in the solar system,” said Martin Nowak, a co-author of the paper with Edward O. Wilson and Corina Tarnita. “The world is much simpler without it.”

A sign of a good theory is parsimony and Wilson’s recent paper has that. What bothered scientists about many of the new ideas was that was they were so complicated and didn’t make real quantitative predictions. As for Nobel predictions this one is much more likely as it upended 40 years of previous dogma. As for anything groundbreaking there is initial pushback from scientists but if they can replicate this they, like Wilson himself, will change their minds. That’s how real scientific discovery works.

Rich - #27629

August 31st 2010

Rich Blinne:

Please do me the courtesy of letting me define the group I am talking about.  I was not speaking of every single evolutionary biologist who has any criticism of any kind concerning neo-Darwinism.  If that were the case then probably the majority of biologists would be in the group. 

I was speaking not of those who propose to make this or that modification to the basic mutation/selection model, but to those who raise the question whether the mutation/selection model itself might be seriously flawed.  E. O. Wilson, on your account, wants or wanted to twig the “selection” part of the standard model so that it could include selection based on criteria other than those suggested by Dawkins.  But this is a minor variation on the Darwinian theme, in comparison with what some of the Altenberg people and others are suggesting.  What is being suggested, not dogmatically but as a possibility, is that laws of biological form, rather than chance mutations, determine the basic plans of animal bodies, organs, etc.  This is not what E. O. Wilson is talking about.  Again, you cannot substitute your own intellectual improvising for *research* if you want to learn something new.  Listen to the interview!

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