Re: Genes and Development Conference

Kevin O'Brien (
Mon, 29 Mar 1999 19:10:52 -0700

>The following is an excerpt from a posting on another listserve. The
>subject matter is of interest because of the growing recognition among
>molecular biologists that evolution is being unmasked by their research,
>particularly in the area of development.

Thanks for passing this along, Art. Two comments.

First of all, no one has denied that there are unanswered questions to this
issue. Secondly, no one has denied that there is controversy among
ontogenists over this very question. But to present the opinions of these
people as if they were the new concensus is disengenuous. There are just as
many, if not more, researchers who believe they are steadily solving all the
problems listed by this one group, so that one day we will know how
evolution works through ontogeny, and how evolutionary changes in ontogeny
can serve as a mechanism for macroevolution. This is simply one of those
topics where only time, and further research, will tell who is right.

>At one point over lunch a participant told me about an interesting
>experience she had had a few months earlier at a conference in Germany.
>There she had made some remarks mildly critical of Darwinian evolution;
>afterwards American embryologist and textbook-writer Scott Gilbert had come
>up to her and, by way of friendly advice, told her that she would be wise
>to omit such criticisms if she ever found herself speaking to an American
>audience, because they would write her off as a creationist. The
>participant laughed as she told me this; obviously, she was more amused
>than intimidated.

By her own admission, the advice had been "friendly"; why should she have
been intimidated?

>Two things struck me about this meeting: (1) the popular impression that
>development depends on genetic programs is coming under increasingly heavy
>fire from biologists and philosophers....

Perhaps, but even many scientists who question this do not question the
validity of evolution as a fact.

>...and (2) genetic reductionism and
>Darwinian evolution are more openly criticized in Europe than in the U.S.
>(where it is risky to question the reigning orthodoxy).

That last comment is disengenuous, considering the story told above;
obviously, if people are not "intimidated" there can be little "risk" in
challenging a "reigning orthodoxy". However, I fail to see what Point 2 has
to do with either the validity of "genetic programs" or of evolution.

Kevin L. O'Brien