New Paradigm Of The Month: Silly-looking birds, and evolutionary theory renamed

A hoatzin in Peru)

A hoatzin in Peru (Kate from UK, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Dismissals of evolutionary biology have come at such a pace lately that we need at least a monthly report on how the previous month’s evolutionary theory has been overthrown. I hope that this can be a regular feature. I figure that once a month is about right, as there are enough overthrows of evolutionary theory to supply it. Well, actually I hope that there will be no need for such a series, but alas …

This month we report on two such events:

  1. The hoatzin, a silly-looking bird that looks like a confused chicken, is hard to place on the phylogeny of birds. An article in The New Yorker suggests that this may discredit the very notion of a phylogeny. That in turn has led to comments by many of the usual suspects. One of the major scientific papers on bird phylogeny has as an author our own John Harshman.

  2. A survey of new discoveries in evolutionary biology appeared in The Guardian. Its author called for existing evolutionary theory to be tossed out and for it to be replaced by the thinking of the supporters of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. The piece has been welcomed by creationists and advocates of ID, and criticized by pro-evolution websites.

“Below the fold” you will find some more details and links. Will the new paradigms still be around a month from now?

The hoatzin disproves the tree

The hoatzin, which looks like an exasperated chicken, seems to have diverged from other birds early in the radiation of modern birds. The branches in the tree of life connecting it to their ancestors are short, and long ago. That is the situation in which we expect it to be difficult to place the hoatzin branch. But an article in The New Yorker by Ben Crair on July 15, 2022 comes to a much more dramatic conclusion (you can find it here, perhaps behind a paywall). The hoatzin “is breaking the tree of life”. He mentions a number of phenomena, such as discrepancies between “gene trees” (coalescents) and species trees, as reasons that the genealogy of the hoatzin calls into question the notion of phylogeny:

Darwin thought family trees could explain evolution. The hoatzin suggets otherwise.

Crair’s dramatic piece has been noticed and commented on:

  • Jerry Coyne, at his site Why Evolution Is True is upset at the New Yorker article
  • The Discovery Institute’s “Evolution News” reporter David Klinghoffer reacts to Jerry’s article. It is less clear whether Klinghoffer would accept any genealogical scheme for the relationships of living organisms.
  • Here, in the previous thread on the photo of the Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca there was some discussion of the New Yorker piece in the comments, after the troll “Data” linked to it there.

Goodbye to the evolutionary synthesis too

If the hoatzin piece were not enough, the past month also saw a piece in The Guardian casually toss out the Modern Synthesis. Stephen Buranyi wrote a deliberately provocate “long read” article entitled “Do we need a new theory of evolution?” His subheading text is more provocative:

A new wave of scientists argues that mainstream evolutionary theory needs an urgent overhaul. Their opponents have dismissed them as misguided careerists – and the conflict may determine the future of biology.

Most of the article promotes the views that their advocates have labelled the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. The EES was first put forward by a group who have been called The Altenberg 16, who met in 2008 in a meeting in Altenberg, Austria. The meeting was greeted with great joy by the Discovery Institute, and journalist Susan Mazur wrote a whole book about it: The Altenberg 16: An exposé of the evolution industry, which she published before the meeting had taken place. It was followed in 2016 by a meeting on New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical, and social science perspectives sponsored by the Royal Society, and involving some of the same people (though many of the evolutionary biologists in the Royal Society were unhappy about its endorsement of these views). There has been much blog traffic about these meetings.

Buranyi discusses many of the phenomena invoked by the EES. It is obvious that his suggested answer is “yes”, in violation of Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. There have been many reactions to Buranyi’s article:

  • Evolutionary biologists Brian Charlesworth, Deborah Charlesworth and Jerry Coyne wrote a reply in the Guardian expressing their disagreement wth the article, concluding that it “gives a misleading picture of contemporary evolutonary. biology”
  • At his site Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne republished their article, also a letter by evolutionary biologist Doug Futuyma that the Guardian declined to publish, as well as a list of errors in Buranyi’s article that Brian Charlesworth compiled. In addition he describes three other replies that the Guardian did publish, which he is not impressed by.
  • At Larry Moran’s important blog Sandwalk, he posted on the Guardian article. His view is that the current theory should be called Modern Evolutionary Biology, and he is not happy with the EES folks. He says that Buranyi’s article is pretty good, if you ignore its “unfortunate” first four paragraphs, which he quotes. Some Panda’s Thumb regulars are among the commenters on Larry’s article.
  • P. Z. Myers discussed the Buranyi article at some length at his blog, Pharyngula in a post entitled “Not impressed by the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis”. He and Jerry Coyne are in more agreement on that than either would like to admit.
  • Of course, Evolution News needed to have its say, which it did more than once, in articles by David Klinghoffer (“evolutionists admit their field’s failures …. full of scandalous admissions”),
  • … and a mention in an article by philology, lterature, and philosophy professor Neil Thomas about Darwin and Lamarck.
  • I have previously posted here at PT on Uncommon Descent’s invocation of Buranyi’s article when looking forward to pro-ID rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Cue creationist David Coppedge at Creation/Evolution Headlines. The title, “Darwin Sausage Factory Exposed” and the summary “A look inside the sausage factory where Darwinism is manufactured could leave a visitor retching” say all.

In my obviously-biased view, evolutionary biology has already assimilated many of these phenomena, so that the discussion is really just about whether or not to rename the theory. Renaming has the disadvantage that it may lead most people to assume that the evolutionary processes that they learned about in school, including mutation, natural selection, genetic drift, and gene flow, have been discarded. (The EES folks would say that the phenomena that they invoke are not being paid enough attention, and so a renaming is needed).

We await with eagerness next month’s new paradigm.