Re: [asa] The Charybdis of the Modern Synthesis

From: Bill Powers <>
Date: Sat Sep 26 2009 - 09:26:54 EDT


I'm listening with much interest to some of these "non-Darwinian" senses
of evolution, and following some of the articles referred to.

My initial problem is with the use of the word telological.

It seems that for some, at least, telology is in the eye of the
beholder. To be able to discover certain laws or propensities that
engender or favor certain biologies is not teleology. Because life may
have evolved in atmospheres and resulted in many life forms flying is
not telology, not at least as I define it.

It is true that flying requires as a necessary condition that air exist,
but why is it teleological that flying species arise?

It seems that teleology is simply being used as a term in contrast to
random. It is intended to reflect a more lawlike evolution, one where
reasons can be given for why certain biological traits are extant.

Even if it were the case that certain biological forms follwed in the
same manner as salt forms salt crystals that would not be teleological,
for then we can say that all mechanistic science is teleological, terms
that generally accepted as standing in opposition to each other.

Nor is it whether there are integrated or holistic effects that make an
event or system teleological. Feedback mechanisms can be mechanistic,
producing integrated effects on an entire mechanistic system. But we
don't refer to such a system as telelogical.

So, then, that's my question: How are we defining the term telelogical,
or is it merely meant to stand as a term in contrast to random?



On Sat, 26
Sep 2009, Gregory Arago wrote:

> Hi Dave,

I don't think Mike would argue against the point you make, i.e. that "evolutionary studies are doing quite well." He is rather making a point about 'teleological evolutionary studies' which can hardly be said to be 'embraced by most mainstream biologists.' Do you see a difference here or am I harping a foul tune?

At the Darwin Conference I recently attended, I was surprised to hear several papers by active biologists (not just by yahoos) promoting a non-Darwinian form of 'evolutionary studies.' It seems to me that 'Darwinian' or even 'neo-Darwinian' evolutionary studies are predminantly 'non-teleological.' Would you agree?

I quite like Schwarzwald's question: "If a certain view of evolution was being safeguarded...?" If this is the case, then what would it be a good thing for the biologists at ASA to do about it?

Mike Gene is promoting,  if I properly understand him, a teleological form of biological evolution (or at least I think he is a biologist speaking a language that biologists should recognize), which is consistent with something like what L. Margulis is offering with her 'post-Darwinian' approach. Mike involves the term 'design,' however, which makes some people uncomfortable.

I don't know if Mike calls himself 'post-Darwinian' too, but there is a precedent among biologists for taking such a label and making an attempt to understand the natural world with non-Darwinian, i.e. teleological language, even in biology.


From: dfsiemensjr <>
Sent: Saturday, September 26, 2009 7:54:43 AM
Subject: Re: [asa] The Charybdis of the Modern Synthesis

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 <> writes:
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 Sat Sep 26 09:28:05 2009

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