After the Expanded Synthesis Workshop

Posted on July 14, 2008

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It was exhausting. People might think that workshops are just sitting around, chatting, and eating good food. The problem with that idea is that the talks given actually represent the very sharp end of the cutting edge of science, with masses on new concepts and data being thrown at you in talk after talk. It does not help if you are not an evolutionary biologist but a philosopher who has tried to learn the basics over the last couple of years – the level of science presented is beyond graduate school and you haven’t even done first-year biology. The only reason why it was possible for someone such as me to understand even the basics was that the meeting was highly interdisciplinary so that the talks came with explanations sufficient to think your way into the issues if you are paying enough attention. Still, to do that it required total concentration. Not surprisingly, it was impossible for me to maintain that level of concentration for the full three days and, in effect, I am sure that I have missed out on a number of fascinating ideas. Yet, even so, I can not think of a more productive and interesting use of last weekend than attending the workshop.

Of particular interest was the discussion that closed the meeting. At that stage the participants turned from looking at their individual contributions to a debate of the implications of what had been presented for the modern synthesis. Gerd Muller put up a diagram which showed the standard view of evolution contained in the synthesis and then the group began to make successive changes to the diagram to reflect the elements they think are missing. What became obvious is that the end result was a much broader view than that contained in the modern synthesis. What also became obvious is that there are many problems with terminology, so that it is often not clear if certain changes that are suggested are actually fundamentally different from each other. Of course, the terminological problems reveal the deeper conceptual problems. During the workshop we received a print-out of an article on the workshop that has just appeared in Science. The quote from Stuart Newman that ends that article is particularly apt considering the hyped article by Susan Mazur that compared the meeting to Woodstock, and what actually took place:

Woodstock was an immensely popular event celebrating a new musical mainstream. I imagine this will be more like a jam session circa 1962.

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