In London last month, I witnessed a groundbreaking summit at the British Royal Society. Three hundred scientists from around the world gathered to evaluate a sea change in evolutionary theory.
Because of this conference, evolutionary theory may take a radical turn. It's a turn not being welcomed with open arms by prominent atheists, many of whom seem opposed to the evolution of evolution.
The story starts in 1944. Barbara McClintock discovered that her corn plants, subjected to chromosome-shattering radiation, could repair their DNA in real time and re-engineer their own genes on the fly. She'd thrown her plant a curve ball and it threw one right back.
At the time she didn’t realise she’d stumbled onto an alternative theory of evolution. A model where the cell’s own genetic engineering is the star of the show - not merely randomness and selection.
When she presented this at Cold Spring Harbor in 1951, the response from her colleagues was cold and bitter. "Who does this woman think she is, suggesting that cells can edit their own DNA?" But that’s precisely what was happening. And in 1983 she won the Nobel Prize for discovering "jumping genes."
Lynn Margulis, married at the time to Carl Sagan, faced similar opposition in the 1980s as she publicised "Symbiogenesis" which Russian scientists discovered 50 years earlier: a chloroplast is actually a blue-green algae living inside a plant cell, serving as its energy plant. Mitochondria play a comparable role in human tissue, embedded bacteria transforming oxygen into fuel.
Symbiotic mergers are the biological equivalent of a corporate partnership, like a Starbucks inside a Marriott. Symbiosis, she argued, played a pivotal role in evolution. These mergers didn’t come from eons of chance and selection; cells actively guide these mergers, which can be triggered experimentally. (This shouldn't have been a shock: Jean Baptiste Lamarck had proposed that lessons learned by parents get passed to offspring 150 years earlier and Charles Darwin had accepted Lamarck’s ideas)
Ignoring the evidence
15 journals turned Margulis’ seminal paper down. And even though these discoveries were demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt by the 1950s, evolutionists chose a different path. The concrete of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis had already been poured. They re-formed Darwin’s theory around genes, selection and randomness.
Books like The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene later served to popularise and reinforce materialist doctrine: "There is nothing at work in evolution but chance and selection." Such books gave no respect to Lamarck, McClintock and Margulis.
The new paradigm was the focus of the Royal Society’s conference 'New Trends in Biological Evolution'. Experiments definitively prove that not only do cells perform adaptations of astonishing sophistication in real time but these events are emphatically non-random. This means that evolution has goals, and so too do organisms.
There’s a great deal more to evolution than chance and selection
Despite these facts being known for some time, they are scarcely mentioned by evangelists of atheism such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne. As scientists look under the hood (or 'bonnet' to use the English parlance) and see how evolution really works, they have seen that Dawkins’ selfish gene theory fails to explain much of what we observe: cells adapting their DNA to specific threats in minutes or hours. Natural Selection is merely the last, purifying step. It's not the whole story.
This demolishes creationist and/or Intelligent Design claims that macro-evolution is impossible. It’s not only possible, you can witness it in real time - including complete speciation events in microbes, plants and animals.
Empirical data also demolishes the Neo-Darwinian doctrine that evolution is an aimless meander through random space.
This meeting had no mainstream precedent. Such a conference would never have happened five years ago. It would have been too politically incorrect, too threatening to the Neo-Darwinian monopoly.
One heated exchange in London was between old-school Darwinist Russell Lande and Sonia Sultan of Wesleyan University, author of Organism and Environment. The subject was real-time plasticity of plants.
Plants in low-light environments produce offspring with large, light-sensitive leaves, but identical plants in high-light environments birth offspring with small leaves. This learned trait is directly passed to offspring. It transpires in a single generation. It’s so dramatic, divergent offspring appear to be different species altogether.
Plants empower their children to anticipate natural selection before it happens.
"There is nothing new here! We have known this for years," Russ Lande complained, citing work from the 1950s by Ledyard Stebbins, an evolutionary pioneer. But Sultan graciously challenged him. She read aloud from one of Stebbins’ books, where he goes on to say that we should pay no attention to this, as it has no bearing on genetics or evolution.
"It pains me to read Stebbins," she argued, "because 70 years ago he observed the exact same things we’re discussing today. Yet not only did he consider them unimportant, he told the rest of us we should ignore them when thinking about evolution!"
This was the crux of the meeting: for most of a century evolutionary biology has ignored the profound sensitivity and responsiveness of organisms in real time. Lamarck was right 200 years ago - despite literally being laughed out of the academy for most of the 20th century.
Today he is vindicated: Learned characteristics are passed to offspring. Evolution proceeds very rapidly in some cases.
Fighting against scientism
Darwin accepted Lamarck’s ideas. He acknowledged other forces besides selection must surely be in play. One realises that Charles Darwin’s Origin Of Species is more accurate in its initial version of evolution than the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. An inferior model has ruled biology with an iron fist ever since.
This is all the more ironic because in contrast to the certitudes of Dawkins, who transformed Neo-Darwinism into a kind of pop religion, Darwin acknowledged the soft spots in his theory. He was unafraid to question his own assumptions.
Charles Darwin’s Origin Of Species is more accurate in its initial version of evolution than the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis
The meeting was civil. Yes, I heard stories of harsh exchanges; there were occasional outbursts of partisan clapping from the audience. However the organisers actively discouraged all divisive behavior, and in the end it was very British: polite, civil, diplomatic. A bloodless revolution.
Evolution going forward will not follow in the footsteps of its mannerless evangelists Dawkins and Coyne. Conduct will be gentlemanly and respectful from now on.
Compared to the fury of the US election, this courteous British conference might seem a minor academic exercise, noted by only a few. But seen from the wider view of the entire 21st century, it was a watershed event.
Why? Because the trajectory of science just tilted 15 degrees. A growing contingent of scientists agree: there’s a great deal more to evolution than chance and selection. The question on the table now is: can Neo-Darwinism be extended, or do we need to rubbish it and begin again with a new theory?
There was no consensus on that point. But what’s clear is: scientism and reductionism have been punched in the face. Empiricism is making a comeback.
Perry Marshall is author of Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design, which presents the new evolution paradigm discussed at the London conference. You can get three free chapters here. For a more complete account of the Royal Society meeting see Royal Society’s “New Trends in Biological Evolution” – A Bloodless Revolution