The Charybdis

Carl Woese has co-authored another thought-provoking article entitled, How the Microbial World Saved Evolution from the Scylla of Molecular Biology and the Charybdis of the Modern Synthesis.  He makes several startling claims, including:

As for evolution, it had been developed from a phenomenological description centering around what was generally termed natural selection into the modern evolutionary synthesis through its union with Mendelian genetics. The modern evolutionary synthesis should have been the 20th century’s evolutionary bastion, the forefront of research into the evolutionary process. No such luck!

The basic understanding of evolution, considered as a process, did not advance at all under its tutelage. The presumed fundamental explanation of the evolutionary process, “natural selection,” went unchanged and unchallenged from one end of the 20th century to the other. Was this because there was nothing more to understand about the nature of the evolutionary process? Hardly! Instead, the focus was not the study of the evolutionary process so much as the care and tending of the modern synthesis. Safeguarding an old concept, protecting “truths too fragile to bear translation” is scientific anathema. (The quote here is Alfred North Whitehead’s, and it continues thus: “A science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost” [32].) What makes the treatment of evolution by biologists of the last century insufferable scientifically is not the modern synthesis per se. Rather, it is the fact that molecular biology accepted the synthesis as a complete theory unquestioningly—thereby giving the impression that evolution was essentially a solved scientific problem with its roots lying only within the molecular paradigm.

There you have it. An entire century spent studying biology without seriously addressing evolution, without assigning importance to the study of the evolutionary process. Our understanding of biology, of biological organization, far from being near complete (as molecularists would have us believe), seems still in its infancy.

Woese is not making any anti-evolutionary claim here.  He is simply pointing out something I have long been saying – that the Modern Synthesis has not delivered a full understanding of evolutionary processes and that our understanding of evolution is still rather primitive (see here, for example). What’s more, those who have embraced the Modern Synthesis as delivering a nearly complete understanding of evolutionary processes have a history is getting it wrong: they resisted symbiogenesis, neutral theory, lateral gene transfer, and deep homology.  And in one sense, this is understandable, as symbiogenesis, neutral theory, lateral gene transfer, and deep homology all open the door, even if slightly, to a teleological interpretation of evolution.

Woese himself is a champion of lateral gene transfer:

The power of horizontal gene transfer is so great that it is a major puzzle to understand why it would be that the eukaryotic world would turn its back on such a wonderful source of genetic novelty and innovation. The exciting answer, bursting through decades of dogmatic prejudice, is that it hasn’t. There are now compelling documentations of horizontal gene transfer in eukaryotes (17), not only in plants, protists, and fungi, but in animals (including mammals) as well (5, 14, 16, 20). The evolutionary implications have not yet been worked out, but we are confident that a fully worked out theory of the evolutionary process is required in order to properly meet the challenges posed initially by microbiology.

And, yes, I do have a series of essays about HGT to be posted.  If you are interested, I started that ball rolling here and here. I’ll pick it up from there once I’m finished with the SRP.  So many goodies; so little time.

HT: chunkdz


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