But that’s not how science works!

There will be an interesting meeting in London next fall, New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives. The description:

Developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields have produced calls for revision of the standard theory of evolution, although the issues involved remain hotly contested. This meeting will present these developments and arguments in a form that will encourage cross-disciplinary discussion and, in particular, involve the humanities and social sciences in order to provide further analytical perspectives and explore the social and philosophical implications.

It’s interesting because it could be enlightening, but it could also be weird and chaotic and a magnet for crackpots. Larry Moran is attending — not as a representative of the crackpot contingent, but, I suspect, to cast a cynical eye on the shenanigans. The Third Way of Evolution gang seems to be excited about the meeting, which is not a good sign — these are people who have taken some useful ideas in evolutionary theory, like epigenetics and niche construction, and turned the dial up to 11 to argue that these concepts are so revolutionary that they demand a complete upheaval of neo-Darwinian thinking.

That’s a shame. It taints some provocative ideas with hyperbole and unjustifiable detours. And, unfortunately, I’ve just learned that the Queen of Hyperbolic Revolutionary Evolution, Susan Mazur, Journalistic Flibbertigibbent, is all wound up about it, which is also not a good sign. She’s raving about Paradigm-Shifters who will come up with a replacement for the modern synthesis.

So will the November gathering actually go all the way in recommending neo-Darwinism be replaced? Clearly, the answer depends on the list of invited speakers. Names of the 20 or so presenters will be officially announced by the Royal Society shortly. Hopefully, the outcome of the meeting will also be influenced by audience participation.

Mazur clearly has no idea at all how science works. Twenty people attending a meeting don’t get to suddenly declare that a theory is replaced, and I don’t care who they are. Modern evolutionary theory is the product of decades of work — it is a large body of ideas and data that cannot suddenly be declared obsolete and wrong by a tiny cadre of weirdos. At best, the outcome of this meeting will be a few papers that will be added to the thousands of existing papers in the scientific literature, and no, their presence will not suddenly cause all prior work to spontaneously combust.

The comment about audience participation influencing the outcome of the meeting is simply bizarre. That’s not how science works! Could a collection of Manchester United fans show up at the meeting and lobby for the theory that human evolution has been profoundly shaped by participation in football? Sure they could. It wouldn’t matter. Science is defined by the success of models that influence how scientists practice their art, not by popular opinion, the acclaim of crowds, or a vote at some meeting.

What’s really going on, I suspect, is that some people are twisting in an uncomfortable position: they have a nominal respect for the authority of science, but at the same time, they are deeply disturbed by the conclusions of evolutionary theory, which knock apart human exceptionalism and argue against humanity as a product of purposeful progress, so they really really want an alternative to the implications of modern science that opens up a crack to mystical, magical phenomena. All the epigenetics hype, for instance, is coming from people who don’t understand how it works, but think it’s all about how their behavior and will can influence the heritable properties of their offspring — that they can somehow direct evolution with diet and exercise and positive thoughts. So they seize upon random fringe ideas to distract themselves from reality.

I wouldn’t mind attending this meeting myself — there’s the prospect of it being entertainingly shouty or weird — but unfortunately, with a Korean wedding this spring exsanguinating my bank account, I doubt that I’ll be able to afford it. I’ll have to tune into Sandwalk to watch the virtual fireworks.


  1. #1 See Noevo
    January 18, 2016

    “… the conclusions of evolutionary theory, which knock apart human exceptionalism and argue against humanity as a product of purposeful progress…”

    One wonders what purposeful progress an evolutionist could possibly imagine by attending this meeting, or any meeting, for that matter.

  2. #2 Daniel Corcos
    January 18, 2016

    “Science is defined by the success of models that influence how scientists practice their art, not by popular opinion, the acclaim of crowds, or a vote at some meeting”
    I am afraid that such a definition of science brings us back either to circularity or to the tyranny of popular opinion. Whatever the criticism addressed to Popper, it is necessary to consider that he has succeeded in making the distinction between science and beliefs.

  3. #3 dean
    January 18, 2016

    “evolutionist”? sn, you become more of a joke with each of your “ignorance and dishonesty” motivated posts.

  4. #4 Buck Field
    Phoenix, AZ
    January 18, 2016

    PZ, here in the real world, 20 people who attend a meeting are quite free to declare anything they wish – including spectacularly biased and ignorant misinterpretations. Your “caring” about who they are weakens your criticism, as do repeated ad hominems (idea bad because they’re “weirdos”), other name-calling, and bald assertions that appear simply incorrect. For example: the claim that “science does not work” via audience participation claims. It is not at all rare to engage audiences on uncertain areas, for idea generation, etc., and you know it.

    Please take a course in history and philosophy of science, or listen to the excellent introductory Teaching Company Course by Prof. Jeffrey Kasser on the topic.

    Good criticism doesn’t just make wild, overstated claims like “Mazur clearly has no idea at all how science works.” Since he can identify this event as part of “science”, your assertion is obviously false, and you know it. Science is distinguished by doing things that merit our respect and trust, to meet this criteria and be trusted you owe readers real analyses. If concision is a problem, please spend the time to identify where the Mazur goes astray and tell us something informative about how real biology works.

    My advice is to write what you know (biology) and avoid the philosophy of science until/unless you gain or partner with someone who has this expertise.

  5. #5 dean
    January 18, 2016

    Since he can identify this event as part of “science”

    Anyone can identify something they do as part of science: homeopaths do it, anti-vaccine liars do it, and so on. That comment is just as stupid as implying that “audience engagement” is the same as science.

    You don’t seem to be any better than the clowns holding the conference.

  6. #6 Ramsey Glissadevil
    Fort Worth
    January 18, 2016

    I gulls me too. I’ve studied evolution for 30 years. I understand haggling over a minor mechanism of evolution provided they have solid empirical evidence. I dread the day evolution melts into a new age metaphysical mish mash.

  7. #7 Daniel Corcos
    January 19, 2016

    I think it is important to define what you call “modern evolutionary theory”, if it is what is described here:
    due to the importance of the subject, some changes must be made.

  8. […] his blog Pharyngula, Larry Moran is attending — not as a representative of the crackpot contingent, but, I suspect, […]

  9. #9 beau Stoddard
    January 20, 2016

    This new era of armchair quarterbacking in science is disgusting. PZ and Moran are either too lazy or incompetent to do their own work so they’ve dedicated their lives to the criticism of those actually on the field paying. Good day.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.