Meyer v Gilbert


Meyer [1] quotes a paper by Scott Gilbert (in fact this paper seems to be quite often quoted by ID-creationists).

Scott F. Gilbert, John M. Opitz, and Rudolf A. Raff, “Resynthesizing Evolutionary and Developmental Biology,” Developmental Biology 173 (1996): 357-372.

and presents their argument as follows

Gilbert et al. (1996) attempted to develop a new theory of evolutionary mechanisms to supplement classical neoDarwinism, which, they argued, could not adequately explain macroevolution.

But did they claim that classical NeoDarwinism could not adequately explain macroevolution?

The NCSE presented an analysis of the Analysis of the Discovery Institute’s “Bibliography of Supplementary Resources for Ohio Science Instruction”

Scott F. Gilbert (coauthor of [25] and [27]) wrote:

“My research on turtles and my research into evolutionary developmental biology is fully within Darwinian parameters. My gripe has been that neo-Darwinism has supposed that population genetics was the only genetics needed to explain Darwinian evolution. I claim that developmental genetics is also needed. So my research has been to include developmental genetics into the Darwinian mix.” And Douglas L. Erwin (author of [24]) told NCSE, “While the article considers the relationship between micro - and macro- evolution, the Discovery Institute is inaccurate in saying that I am challenging the standard view of evolution. The treatment of macroevolution in that paper is an extension, but by no means a challenge. Further, although more work may be needed to fully understand macroevolutionary events, there is no evidence that requires, or even suggests, a role for so-called ‘intelligent design’.”

This is not the first time that Meyer appealed to this work by Gilbert

In The Meanings of Evolution Meyer and Keas argue

Such so-called macroevolutionary changes in the history of life such as the relatively sudden appearance of all extant and extinct animal phyla during Cambrian explosion 530 million years ago seem especially difficult to explain via the neo-Darwinian mechanism. As Gilbert, Opitz and Raff have assessed the situation:

The Modern Synthesis is a remarkable achievement. However, starting in the 1970’s, many biologists began questioning its adequacy in explaining evolution. Genetics might be adequate for explaining microevolution, but microevolutionary changes in gene frequency were not seen as able to turn a reptile into a mammal or to convert a fish into an amphibian. Microevolution looks at adaptations that concern only the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest (Gilbert, et. al. 1996, p. 361).

Already in the abstract of the paper we read the following

Abstract “A new and more robust evolutionary synthesis is emerging that attempts to explain macroevolution as well as microevolutionary events. This new synthesis emphasizes three morphological areas of biology that had been marginalized by the Modern Synthesis of genetics and evolution: embryology, macroevolution, and homology. The foundations for this new synthesis have been provide by new findings from developmental genetics and from the reinterpretation of the fossil record. In this nascent synthesis, macroevolutionary questions are not seen as being soluble by population genetics, and the developmental actions of genes involved with growth and cell specification are seen as being critical for the formation of higher taxa. In addition to discovering the remarkable homologies of homeobox genes and their domains of expression, developmental genetics has recently proposed homologies of process that supplement the older homologies of structure. Homologous developmental pathways, such as those involving the wnt genes, are seen in numberous embryonic processes, and they are seen occurring in discrete regions, the morphogenetic fields. These fields (which exemplify the modular nature of developing embryos) are proposed to mediate between genotype and phenotype. Just as the cell (and not its genome) functions as the unit of organic structure and function, so the the morphogenetic field (and not the genes or the cells) is seen as a major unit of ontogeny whose changes bring about changes in evolution.”

There are some excellent papers on the issue of novelty and evolution

M�ller G.B. and G.P. Wagner. 1991. Novelty in evolution: Restructuring the concept. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 22: 229-256.

M�ller G.B. 1991. Evolutionary transformation of limb pattern: Heterochrony and secondary fusion. In: Developmental Patterning of the Vertebrate Limb. J.R. Hinchliffe, J. Hurle and D. Summerbell (eds.): pp 395-405.

or more recently

M�ller G.B. 2003. Embryonic motility: Environmental influences and evolutionary innovation. Evolution and Development 5(1): 56-60.

Wagner G.P. and G.B. M�ller. 2002. Evolutionary innovations overcome ancestral constraints: A re-examination of character evolution in male sepsid flies (Diptera: Sepsidae). Evolution and Development 4(1): 1-6; discussion 7-8. Plenum Press, New York.

M�ller G.B. 2002. Novelty and key innovation. In: Encyclopedia of Evolution. M. Pagel (ed.): pp 827-830. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Needless to say there are a myriad of papers on this topic and while it is correct to point out that NeoDarwinism lacked the mathematical and theoretical tools to integrated development and population genetics, much has happened on the last decade. Let’s compare what science has learned and what science proposes with intelligent design hypotheses.

Well that was easy… Other than pointing out that there is much ignorance in areas of embryotic development, ID totally fails to present a testable hypothesis of its own.

Del Ratzsch author of Nature, Design and Science remarked

“I think that some are certainly too far in the materialist direction, and they claim that science backs them up on that. ID can at least serve a ‘keeping em’ honest’ function, even if nothing else. I think that ID may very well have things to offer science, but I think that it is too early for ID to claim that it has done so. I don’t think that it is just obvious that ID will contribute substantively to science, but I think it has that potential, and that it should be pushed as far as it can be made to legitimately go.”

In order for ID to live up to Del Ratzsch’s expectations it needs to do a lot of work. So far it fails even the minimal qualifications of performing a ‘keeping em’ honest’ function. Let’s not hold our breath for ID contributing something substantively to science.

[1] Meyer, Stephen C. 2004. The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117(2):213-239.

Zygote Scott Gilbert’s website on developmental biology

How the turtle got its shell: The development of an evolutionary novelty. Scott Gilbert

See also Paul Nelson’s comments on this paper.


Terry Gray’s Comments

As Nelson argued

Also true. But these “large-scale” changes are not viable, and therefore are not heritable. Evolution needs viable, heritable change.


If the DI and pals tell enough of these lies, for long enough, I expect they’ll succeed in confusing the issue in the minds of ordinary people. Enough millions of words written by dozens of ‘scientists’, and it’ll look like he said/she said. Which is probably the goal, really.

Del Ratzsch isn’t on the same page as his colleagues. He admitted ID hasn’t done anything yet. I wonder what he’d say about the claim that Dembski is the Isaac Newton of Information Theory.

Del Ratsch writes

[ID] should be pushed as far as it can be made to legitimately go

It seems obvious that it’s been pushed that far already. Has anyone told Meyer, Behe, Dembski et al. that they can stop pushing?

I mean, I wouldn’t want them to hurt themselves trying. At least, not any more than they already have.

I consider the word ‘lie’ too strong in most cases. What I am trying to show is that Meyer’s representation of the ‘issues’ and the present state of knowledge is at odds with his understanding/representation of the issues. Gilbert and others do not seem to their work as anti-Darwinian. Instead they point out that while Darwinian theory and the population genetics tools have been quite succesful, understanding developmental genetics requires additional tools to help extend the NeoDarwinian paradigm. In other words NeoDarwinism and science are working on combining knowledge, theoretical foundations, mathematical tools to explore this relatively new branch of biology. If Intelligent Design wants to present its own explanation then by all means, I would encourage and applaud such an effort. But realistically ID seems to be limited to eliminative or negative arguments while leaving the ID hypothesis totally undeveloped. At most ID can ‘contribute’ by pointing out known issues or problems but while science moves forward proposing new hypotheses to explain our new knowledge, ID seems to be limited to ‘Not X’ and totally unable (or even unwilling) to present a scientifically meaningful hypothesis. I am very excited by the recent paper by Meyer as it clearly shows that ID is not ready for ‘prime time’. Even worse though, ID does not seem to be preparing itself for such a moment either. Some ID proponents may find comfort in ‘teaching the controversy’ as the next best thing to ID but that assumes that there is a real controversy and that ID can contribute its own answers to this controversy. So far ID proponents have shown themselves quite apt at claiming that there are ‘problems’ but they often seem unaware of how science has moved forward in understanding and towards solving these issues while ID remains empty handed. Let ID be known by its works. So far scientifically speaking ID is thus known as irrelevant.

Del Ratzsch isn’t on the same page as his colleagues.

Del Ratzsch, Lamoureux are two names that come to mind whose work I have found fair, balanced and thoughtful. Both have openly criticized some of the many issues raised by ID critics. There is hope but this requires building bridges across the chasm created by the Wedge.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by PvM published on August 29, 2004 7:13 PM.

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