Pharyngula

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.