Re: [asa] The Charybdis of the Modern Synthesis

From: dfsiemensjr <>
Date: Fri Sep 25 2009 - 23:54:43 EDT

I don't get Woese's claim. The last biology class I took was over fifty
years ago, but I have since gone through at least the abstracts of almost
all of the articles in /Science/. I see a broad movement relative to
evolution. The modern synthesis in its basic form combined natural
selection with Mendelian genetics. But genetics is much more complicated
than the simple pattern found in the nineteenth century. I learned that
at least some of the 25,000 human genes, a smaller number that expected,
produce more than one protein, and that control of the genes is not yet
well understood. Still, the same gene provides the developmental pattern
for the compound eye in Drosophila, the mammalian eye, and the different
cephalopod eye. Seems to me this fits an evolutionary pattern. The latest
issue of /Science/ that has come to hand has an article on rodent
coloration, It involves three genes interacting complexly, along with a
number of mutations, with a resulting differential survival in various
milieus. Given the complexity of genomes, it looks to me as though we are
doing fairly well in deciphering evolutionary patterns. Add in the
discovery of a large number of fossils that show the developmental
pattern, at least of the bones, and it seems to me that evolutionary
studies are doing quite well. I'm sure that any practicing biologist can
add many items to my short list.
Dave (ASA)

On Fri, 25 Sep 2009 22:40:51 -0400 Schwarzwald <>
Heya Mike,

What I find interesting here is that, in essence, Carl Woese is claiming
that one of the major impediments to science has been - believe it or not
- evolutionary biologists themselves. "Instead, the focus was not the
study of the evolutionary process so much as the care and tending of the
modern synthesis. Safeguarding an old concept, protecting “truths too
fragile to bear translation” is scientific anathema."? If Woese is right,
than this is one more example of science being impeded not by
creationists or otherwise, but the scientific establishment itself.

Of course, nothing Woese is saying here is challenging evolution in the
broad sense. Then again, I think an interesting question to ask would be
"If a certain view of evolution was being safeguarded and treated as
beyond questioning, why was this the case?"

On Fri, Sep 25, 2009 at 9:01 PM, Nucacids <> wrote:

 Carl Woese has co-authored another thought-provoking article entitled,
How the Microbial World Saved Evolution from the Scylla of Molecular
Biology and the Charybdis of the Modern Synthesis. He makes many
startling claims, including:
"As for evolution, it had been developed from a phenomenological
description centering around what was generally termed natural selection
into the modern evolutionary synthesis through its union with Mendelian
genetics. The modern evolutionary synthesis should have been the 20th
century’s evolutionary bastion, the forefront of research into the
evolutionary process. No such luck!
The basic understanding of evolution, considered as a process, did not
advance at all under its tutelage. The presumed fundamental explanation
of the evolutionary process, “natural selection,” went unchanged and
unchallenged from one end of the 20th century to the other. Was this
because there was nothing more to understand about the nature of the
evolutionary process? Hardly! Instead, the focus was not the study of the
evolutionary process so much as the care and tending of the modern
synthesis. Safeguarding an old concept, protecting “truths too fragile to
bear translation” is scientific anathema. (The quote here is Alfred North
Whitehead’s, and it continues thus: “A science which hesitates to forget
its founders is lost” [32].) What makes the treatment of evolution by
biologists of the last century insufferable scientifically is not the
modern synthesis per se. Rather, it is the fact that molecular biology
accepted the synthesis as a complete theory unquestioningly—thereby
giving the impression that evolution was essentially a solved scientific
problem with its roots lying only within the molecular paradigm.
There you have it. An entire century spent studying biology without
seriously addressing evolution, without assigning importance to the study
of the evolutionary process. Our understanding of biology, of biological
organization, far from being near complete (as molecularists would have
us believe), seems still in its infancy."
Woese is not making any anti-evolutionary claim here. He is simply
pointing out something I have long been saying – that the Modern
Synthesis has not delivered a full understanding of evolutionary
processes and that our understanding of evolution is still rather
primitive ( ).
What’s more, those who have embraced the Modern Synthesis as delivering a
nearly complete understanding of evolutionary processes have a history is
getting it wrong: they resisted symbiogenesis, neutral theory, lateral
gene transfer, and deep homology. And in one sense, this is
understandable, as symbiogenesis, neutral theory, lateral gene transfer,
and deep homology all open the door, even if slightly, to a teleological
interpretation of evolution.

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Received on Fri Sep 25 23:58:50 2009

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