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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Darwinism and academic culture: Darwinism under siege from mainstream proponents of alternative paths of evolution

In a most interesting - and for New Scientist, a surprisingly sensible - overview, Bob Holmes reports on approaches to evolution that do not invoke Richard Dawins's famous "selfish gene" ("The selfless gene: Rethinking Dawkins's doctrine," 09 March 2009 ): These include species selection, group selection, ecosystem selection, and microcosms. Save this one to get up to speed on why many doubt Darwin - and Dawkins:
the consensus is that evolution never favours what might be called "selfless" genes - that is, adaptations that benefit a group of organisms or the species as a whole. An example would be a gene that restricts how many offspring a predator has, to avoid wiping out its prey. Such a gene should always lose out to selfish genes that maximise reproduction, the thinking goes, even if reproducing without restraint threatens the survival of the whole species.

Increasingly, though, this consensus is being challenged, and on several fronts. The least controversial of these is the notion that entire species themselves can have traits that, over geological time, make them more likely than others to escape extinction and branch off new daughter species. This can lead to evolutionary change that could not be predicted from individual adaptations alone.

[ ... ]

If ecosystem-level selection is the norm, it could prompt a major shake-up in our view of the microbial world and, by extension, the macroscopic world, too. "It's only in the last 5 or 10 years that people realised that the majority of bacteria live in multispecies collectives," says Penn. "Bacteria are driving the basic processes of the biosphere, so if their evolution is in this higher-level context, it's going to be very different to the way we've thought about it previously, and their responses to climate change could be very different than we would expect from thinking about them individually."

It is still too early to know whether group, species and ecosystem-level selection are major evolutionary forces or merely minor curiosities - baroque ornaments on the central edifice of individual or gene-level selection. But the dominance of the "selfish gene" in evolutionary thought is facing its strongest challenge in many years.
"[T]he dominance of the "selfish gene" in evolutionary thought is facing its strongest challenge in many years"? Remember that when someone tells you that there is absolutely no controversy over evolution. There is a huge and growing controversy, as Holmes's article makes clear, about mechanisms of evolution, with textbook Darwinism under siege from many quarters. This is a must-read if you want to understand why there is a controversy over Darwinism. Little evidence supports it and the body of evidence against it is growing all the time.

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Darwinism and popular culture: A faint whiff of skepticism in the unlikeliest places

In "How Many Times Will Paleontologists Find the "Missing Link"?: The fossil hunter's favorite phrase", Brian Palmer asks,
The media love the phrase missing link—news stories have used it to describe no fewer than 28 paleontological discoveries in the past decade. Scientists sometimes substitute the phrase for the more technical-sounding "transitional morphologies," which refers to anatomical structures that bear some resemblance to both older and more recent physiology. But the research community tends to frown on the use of such language, and the discoverers of Ida have been criticized in some quarters for overselling their research.
Um, yes. The "missing link" is a cult, one of whose adherents is New York Mayor Michael "the Link - this changes everything" Bloomberg.

In reality, it changes nothing, which is how you know that the Ida thing is a cult.

See also:

Human evolution: Water flows uphill? Science journalists protest latest hype, don't just fall in line ... ?

Human evolution: Hype, tripe, trumpets, and (lagging some way after, way out of breath) truth and realismHuman evolution:

The spin machine in top gear

Related issue: Human evolution: Quest for primitive human backfires

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