Three days of evolution

Posted on July 12, 2008


The Konrad Lorenz Institute is currently hosting the Towards an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis Workshop. The workshop is being organised by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerg Muller and, thanks to a fairly silly article that came out a couple of months ago and compared this meeting to Woodstock, has attracted a much greater amount of interest than the usual KLI workshop (Massimo has a good discussion of the silliness and the reality on his blog). Some of this interest is from creationists who try to use any disagreement among scientists as a basis for claiming that evolution isn’t well supported by the evidence. This claim is based on a misrepresentation of the fallibilist, open-ended way science works, of course. Highly telling was the moment when Marc Kirschner suggested that the modern synthesis was a bad idea and had a chilling effect upon the development of biology. Gregory Wray responded by joking that it would be OK this time because this time the synthesis would be completely correct, and everyone in the room laughed.

The idea of the workshop is to bring together people working in very different areas of biology to present their main ideas and to discuss to what degree these ideas should be made a part of any new evolutionary synthesis. The talks have proved every bit as interesting as I had hoped. Rather than going through them all – Massimo Pigliucci is doing that on his blog – I will just mention the ones that were of the most immediate interest to me. The first of these was David Sloan Wilson’s talk which basically covered the way that evolutionary theory is now being applied to social sciences. For someone who is familiar with Wilson’s work the talk did not cover any new ground but it did bring together a number of points. Two talks whose content had direct bearing on these issues were presented by Eva Jablonka and John Odling-Smee. Jablonka’s talk focussed on epigenetic inheritance: inheritance mechanisms which do not involve genes. Jablonka is fond of Lamarck, which sounds very troubling for anyone who knows the history of evolutionary theory, but is very clear on saying that the most fundamental mechanism for inheritance is genetic, the epigenetic factors working on top of this and significantly affecting the dynamics. Odling-Smee talked about niche construction and niche inheritance – an example of epigenetic inheritance. Niche construction is an idea that I have mentioned previously and which was developed by Odling-Smee, Kevin Laland (who attended one of last year’s KLI workshops) and Marcus Feldman, the basic point of it being that organisms change their own environment in a way which often increases their fitness. While this is a very simple idea, its implications are very far reaching and can be applied across the various disciplines in which evolutionary theory has started to be applied recently. These are hardly the only talks that I personally found interesting, David Jablonski’s talk on the fossil record of patterns in macroevolution that had no clear connection to my own work but which raised a great number of interesting questions, the answers to which I hope to read about some time in the future.