Introducing the Royal Society’s Evolutionary (Over-)Extension Meeting to Trans-Evolutionary Change

Royal Society

“New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: Biological, Philosophical and Social Science [sic] Perspectives”

London, U.K.

7-9 November, 2016

“The extended evolutionary synthesis is best regarded as an alternative research programme, entirely complementary to orthodox evolutionary biology.” – Denis Noble

“A better understanding is not always an extension of the earlier model, sometimes it is an alternative.” – Kalevi Kull

Summary of the Abstracts

 A closer look at how the modern evolutionary synthesis is being approached, since a major amendment or replacement is being suggested. Can any kind of coherent ‘alternative’ to the current Darwinian consensus be found in the abstracts of the meeting’s participants? The answer is no. But aspiration itself indeed seems to be part of this Royal Society bargain.

3 sections are based below on the days of the ‘New Trends’ schedule, though each day is shuffled simply to help with the narrative order. Numbers in brackets (1-22) based on presentation order.

Day 1, November 07

G.B. Müller (1) began the event on the topic that has kept everyone waiting: whether “the extended evolutionary synthesis” will receive yet another small update or rather, are we ready for a major step forward or change in direction for the modern evolutionary synthesis (MES). Müller notes that in recent years there has been “a wealth of new knowledge regarding the mechanisms of evolutionary change.” This leads to the basic conclusion that a newer ‘synthesis’ or updated integration of views beyond the outdated ‘modern synthesis’ (MS) is in order.

Futuyama’s (2) paper was changed prior to the event from “Do we really need to extend the MS?” to “The evolutionary synthesis today: extend or amend?” It appears to be the most defensive presentation regarding giving credit to Darwin for the MES. The “principal tenets of the Synthesis” he says, are “strongly supported” and the evidence provided to date, “does not replace or invalidate” the field of evolutionary biology. What then to do with backwards, 19th c. ‘Darwinian’ ideas in the face of new evidence, schools of thought and ideas? “Evolutionary theory today will continue to be extended,” he contends, “but there is no sign that it requires emendation.” R. Lande (4) takes a similar position of defence of the MES, calling for “an important extension to neo-Darwinism, but [one that] does not necessitate a major revision of its foundations.” So, the notion is to keep the ship headed forward with no evacuation planned.

The 3rd, 5th & 7th presentations shared in common the topic of development. S. Sultan (3) contrasted what she calls an “environmental response repertoire” with a “fixed developmental programme.” T. Uller (5) noted “Emerging developmental perspectives on evolution” and that “patterns of evolutionary diversification are biased by how development works.” P. Brakefield (7), yes there’s development involved too, but these three were the most difficult abstracts for me to follow.

Then the provocations began. We are faced with the challenge of whether or not “a process ontology is correct.” Philosopher of science J. Dupré (6), one of the leading lights of the event, leads us to ask if “a thing ontology is wrong,” compared with his preferred process-orientation, which is pro-evolutionary and sometimes evolutionism-friendly. He writes, “whereas in an ontology of things the primary explanatory task is that of understanding change, in a world of process it is of equal or even greater importance to explain stability.” This challenge rings across a wide range of disciplines and suggests an alternative ‘metric’ to the one we know in Darwin’s ‘natural selection.’ In Dupré’s ‘living systems’ approach, one should note that “niche construction is not usually regarded as an evolutionary process … [but] there is heuristic value in regarding niche construction as an evolutionary process.” One might wonder if niche construction is better discussed as a trans-evolutionary process that “occupies the middle ground between artificial and natural selection,” but that is not Dupré’s current interest. K. Laland (8), whose work and organisation has been a staple of the late-modern evolutionist movement, a high-brow reductionist of the zoocentric clan, nevertheless rejects the gene-centric viewpoint because societies (he conflates ethology with sociology here) are always involved in niche construction except for isolated castaways. It reminds one of when the camouflage shifts behind a creature and they are left exposed for how they clash with the current background pattern, though only recently they felt quite at home in their (intellectual) environment.

Day 2, November 08

Leading figure D. Noble (13) marks a key note in the discussion as it relates to levels of selection or causation. “There is no privileged level of causality, nor privileged level of selection,” he claims. “Evolution involves interaction between several processes at multiple levels.” This is the basic claim that seems to have been in itself strong enough to encourage and ultimately succeed in gathering a group of leading scientists who are confident in the current ‘place’ of scientific evidence and theory to express themselves collectively against an ideology in biological science which they collectively reject. As Noble directly warns: “gene-centred approaches will continue to produce disappointing results.” The question that Noble raises is left open for others to answer. E. Jablonka (11) is one of the figures in the conversation of who is searching for answers, doing the filling of shoes with those moving ahead in a seemingly still unknown ‘how extended & where?’ direction. She writes of “an extension of the evolutionary synthesis beyond the current neo-Darwinian model.” So, now we are speaking of a ‘replacement’ or significant ‘amendment,’ in this case, Jablonka is promoting the “extended notion of [epigenetic] inheritance.”

I’m going to leave out A. Gardner (14) because I’m not familiar with his work. He uses the language of “evolutionary anthropomorphism” and focuses on “the level of genes, individuals and societies.” Biologists who focus on “the theory of social evolution” are low priority for me.

Likewise, with P. Griffiths (10). Good wishes “measuring biological information.” I’m pleased Griffiths makes a linguistic distinction between “development and evolution” in biological science.

The abstract of J. Shapiro (9) says nothing much. G. Hurst (12) stated, “I will discuss why hereditary symbiosis evolves, how it widens our view of evolutionary processes, and how it affects what we mean by an ‘individual’.” O.k. that sounds fun. P. Bateson (15) discussed “The capacity of organisms to respond in their own lifetimes to new challenges in their environments.” It’s just an abstract and sometimes there’s not meant to be much there at all; the speech might have been better. I was busy doing other things that day.


Day 3, November 09

The 3rd day begins with S. Okasha (16), A brisk change of pace from Days 1&2 into “intentional psychology” and “agents trying to achieve a goal,” part of Okasha’s story of ‘levels of selection.’ The duo ‘human agent’ isn’t used in the abstract. “The use of rational choice models, originally intended to apply to deliberate human action, in an evolutionary context, is one symptom of agential thinking,” says Okasha. “I offer a cautious defence of agential thinking in evolutionary biology.” Okasha’s interests, however, go beyond biology and he is still sticking by the flag of Darwin, just having completed an ERC research project as principal investigator titled “Darwinism and the Theory of Rational Choice.” This days starts on Darwin’s side.

Fuentes (19) suggests that “an evolutionary approach should be among the principal modes of inquiry” in understanding human biophysical history. He claims what is needed is “re-framing our investigations via the concept of the human niche and in the context of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES).” While he calls for integration of views, he is clear to emphasise his interest in “not a replacement of earlier evolutionary approaches but rather an expansion and enhancement, a broadening of our toolkit and the landscape of inquiry.

Zeder (22) rings a similar tone in dealing with “core assumptions that differentiate the classical Modern Synthesis and the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis.” She notes that Darwin used “domestication as a model system to explore his theories about the role of natural selection in evolution.” This speaks to the varieties of selection debate and raises the issue of ‘human election’ as Wallace did in 1890, though Zeder does not do so here. She focuses on a list: “1. reciprocal causation, 2. developmental processes as drivers of evolutionary change, 3. inclusive inheritance, and 4. the tempo and rate of evolutionary change.” Again, nothing much to rock the status quo involved.

Whiten (20) tells a rather mythical, strange story of humans from a zoological perspective. He uses the term ‘culture’ in his talk more than triple anyone else and yet sounds almost nothing like ‘philosophy and social science’ of the humanist variety in the western intellectual tradition. He is adamant that people should adopt his ideology relating to a “second (cultural) inheritance system in animals” with anthropomorphic language. His interest is to discover “the extent to which this second system echoes or differs from the principal properties of the primary evolutionary system described in the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the twentieth century.” His distinction between ‘cultural evolution’ (humans) vs. ‘cultural transmission’ (animals) reveals the poverty of ‘zoocentric misanthropy.’ This stuff is among the first to be shown irrelevant by the humanistic inclusion of trans-evolutionary thinking.

Anton (21) notes that “[r]ecent humans are biocultural organisms.” If there is a sense of taking ‘cultural’ seriously, not just ‘naturalistically, Anton notes “a level of evolutionary success often explained by both biological and cultural mechanisms.” She writes that “[i]t is broadly accepted that recent humans are ‘different’, particularly in the extent of our cultural interventions, than our earlier hominin forebears. But whether this is a difference in kind or degree, how far back that difference stretches, and whether those outcomes modifiable over an individual’s lifetime are important to human evolution is open to debate.” This attitude of openness is a refreshing change from the Dawkinsian angry mob of evolutionists that are often represented in public discussion. Kudos to the Royal Society that they give voice to Anton searching for “an extension of, or break with the evolutionary synthesis,” even if she is trying to do it with “tenuously established links between bones and behaviours of interest.”

Lewens (18) says he “defends the cultural evolutionary project” and “evolutionary approaches to our own species.” His paper is about whether or not to reject “the very idea of ‘human nature’,” and deals with the long-held distinction of “human nature in opposition to human culture.” He writes an unusual combination in his abstract, speaking about the supposed “character of human nature” and then ponders “How, then, are we supposed to understand the cultural evolutionary project itself, which seems to rely on a closely allied distinction between ‘organic’ and ‘cultural’ evolution?” The simple answer to Lewens that he obviously avoids (e.g. when I was hosted by him at Cambridge for 5 weeks in 2015) is that we should drop ‘cultural evolution’ from our vocabulary as unhelpful and diversionary and start over again. This is what I made available to Lewens and which he would not give attention.

It’s time to ‘shrug-off’ Darwinian evolution, not try to ‘resurrect’ it. Culture, personality and character in SSH vs. nature different in a significant way from topics such as substance, matter and the philosophy of natural science. Lewens’ choice of naturalism over against humanism (validating the non-naturalness of ‘culture’) blocks his wider vision of the topic under consideration. The humanistic side feeds generously and gratefully the tradition opposed to Lewens’ nuanced English naturalism, which could never have intended to actually come up with a non-reductionist ‘science’ of ‘human nature’ without dropping evolutionism at the same time. Dancing around pondering if something simply has a ‘nature’ or not isn’t exactly intellectually engaging or advancing work, charming though it may be in a certain British parlour style.

Stotz (17) raises perhaps the most salient take-home message from the conference regarding ‘niche construction,’ already raised earlier and which just about every participant will agree to, though with obvious definitional caveats. She writes, “niche construction is just one way in which the organism’s interaction with, and construction of the environment, can have potential evolutionary significance.” We see the language expression how something can be significant ‘to evolution,’ such that its significance is measured always only ‘within’ an evolutionary framework. Stotz views “‘developmental niche construction’ as a framework to integrate findings from fields ranging from molecular biology to developmental psychology.” Her message is perhaps also the most provocative as she is currently employed with a Templeton Foundation grant, which is an organisation dedicated to pushing the limits of scientific understanding in light of the social sciences and philosophy.

As Canadian professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto who will be attend the event writes: “I’m not the least bit interested in cultural evolution (i.e. history) and I’m certainly not interested in quibbling about the meaning of ‘human nature.’ I hope there’s a good pub nearby ’cause I’m going to skip this talk [by Tim Lewens].”

They may talk about a ‘revival in cultural evolution.’ Nevertheless, the already dated notion of ‘cultural evolution is highly underperforming. This is displayed in the dead-end of memetics, which resulted in the collapse of the Memetics Journal. There is no need to let a fringe group of Ultra-Darwinists or hyper-evolutionists keep pulling the biology public relations wool over peoples’ eyes anymore.

Finally now in 2016 there seems to be enough of a consensus to result in an event like this one at the Royal Society. Maybe more people will now realise the major shift(s) in evolutionary biology and the impact that a negative Darwinian dehumanisation has had on SSH. If one thinks about it, living ‘evolutionarily’ is pretty much the lowest cultural level at which one can live and which Darwinists ludicrously want people to bow to. Let us not forget, as D. Brooks noted, “[T]he evolutionary society is built low to the ground.” (The New York Times, 15 April 2007)

As a concluding dilemma for this evolutionary extension or alternative to evolution (i.e. replacement or supersession) the notion of trans-evolutionary change is introduced for its application and conversation in SSH. The Royal Society thus has a decision to make: pigeons, barnacles and worms … or people? Can Darwin be entirely cut out of the future of one major realm of study – everything non-biological relating with humankind, while at the same time being finally set aside and ‘historicised’ as outdated in biology itself? As long as scientists and scholars don’t attempt to dislocate humankind from the properly anthropic studies of SSH, there is no danger in acknowledging ‘progress’ in evolutionary biology when it is made, as long as and as far as the ‘modern synthesis’ or ‘neo-modern synthesis’ or ‘post-neo-modern synthesis,’ continues to go.

My suggestion to the participants, especially of Day 3: try ‘trans-evolutionary change’ on for size. It won’t leave human society the same when the anthropic strikes again.


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