There’s going to be a meeting this summer in Altenberg of a small subset of evolutionary biologists to discuss the next step in the evolution of evolutionary biology, which this article describes as a “Woodstock of evolution”, populated with scientific “rock stars”. All I can say is “bleh.” This meeting sounds like it will be wonderfully entertaining, but get real: it will not settle or even define much of anything. These are interesting times in biology, with a lot of argument at a high level about levels of selection and evo-devo and modes of speciation and self-organisation and etc., etc., etc. (and I have to rush to say that these debates have nothing to do with creationism, although the creationists love to pretend that the scientific arguments are related to their flat-earth philosophy). However, the actual state of the theory will be determined by the working scientists who produce useful results, not by theorizing at a mansion in Vienna. Expect emergence from a practical perspective, not rock-stars issuing edicts.
Larry Moran appreciates the article because the author reached out to scientists who are not attending the meeting, like Richard Lewontin — and that’s another problem with puffing up the importance of Altenberg. Not only is it a small meeting that can’t be representative of the breadth of thought in the world of evolutionary biology, but it leaves out people like Lewontin? What insane world would consider the future of modern biology without consideration of the perspectives of Lewontin? So I’ll agree with Larry that far, kudos to the writer for trying. Otherwise, though, I find much that is objectionable in the story.
She seems to have reached out for diverse perspectives with little selective thought — any old random wheezer with an opinion on biology is grist for her mill. Case in point…have you ever wondered what became of Stuart Pivar? You know, the fellow who wrote the strange self-published book on the development and evolution of balloon animals, and then tried to sue me for my dismissive review? Well, he’s got a substantial section in this article, and it’s an entirely uncritical summary.
Stuart Pivar, has been investigating self-organization in living forms but thinks natural selection is irrelevant – and has paid the price for this on the blogosphere. Pivar’s an extremely engaging man, trained as a chemist and engineer – a bit of a wizard who loves old art. He was a long-time friend of Andy Warhol and a buddy of the late paleontologist Steve Gould, who continues to serve as an inspiration for Pivar’s work.
I suspect the highlighted part is an oblique reference to Pharyngula’s role in Pivar’s blogospheric humiliation. That Pivar is treated so respectfully sets off great gonging alarm bells for me; perhaps Larry wasn’t so distressed because he doesn’t care much for evo-devo, and Pivar certainly is the cartoonish caricature of an extreme Goetheian structuralist, and tends to make developmental biology look bad by association.
Pivar says his theory is this. Body form is derived from the structure in the egg-cell membrane. And he handsomely illustrates in his book, The Engines of Evolution, how various species arise from the same basic structure, the Multi-torus, so-named by its discoverers — mathematicians, biologists Jockusch and Dress in 2003.
He has renamed his book again! It used to be Lifecode, but now he’s calling it Engines of Evolution … but it contains the same old fanciful sketches that bear no relationship to biological reality. He still hasn’t bothered to crack an embryology textbook to see how fingers develop — they aren’t wrinkles in a bent tube!
The responses to Pivar’s hypotheses are revealing, and can be used to judge the judges. Stanley Salthe thinks it is reasonable: Salthe must be a kook. Lewontin doesn’t know anything about Pivar, and skips over it to point out that there are non-genetic factors that influence development: very sensible. Massimo Pigliucci apparently does know about Pivar’s ideas, and dismisses them: which is what I’d expect Lewontin to do if he actually wasted the time to look at the book.
The whole story is a chaotic hodge-podge, I’m afraid. One other interesting thing in the article: she called Kevin Padian, who really is a nice guy, but you wouldn’t get that impression from this:
Curiously, when I called Kevin Padian, president of NCSE’s board of directors and a witness at the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial on Intelligent Design, to ask him about the evolution debate among scientists – he said, “On some things there is not a debate.” He then hung up.
It’s true that there is no debate about the reality of evolutionary processes, and someone like Padian who is right there on the forefront of the creationism wars has good reason to be brusque when dealing with nonsense, but he would have probably been much more responsive if the reporter had made it clear that she was discussing the real arguments among genuine scientists about the details of evolution…but then again, she seems to have confused Pivar’s nonsense with a serious intellectual contribution, so maybe it’s her fault for being unable to clarify that distinction.
He might also have been scared off by a reporter talking about this crackpot notion of a “new theory of evolution.” There isn’t one. There is talk about emphasizing or even acknowledging additional concepts of biology (like development! Take that, Larry!) in the framework of evolution, but a new theory? We kind of like the old one and still find it useful, and none of the people interviewed actually proposed what I would consider a new theory.
Except for Pivar, of course. But then expanding biology to encompass bagels and balloons is a little bit radical, I think.