Dissatisfaction and new joints | Evolution News

Photo: Galápagos Chaffinch, by Mike’s Birds of Riverside, CA, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We’re thrilled to present a new series from biologist Jonathan Wells who asks, “Is Darwinism a Theory in Crisis?” This is the third article in the series, which is adapted from the recent book, The complete guide to science and faith. Find the full series here.

A scientific revolution is fueled in part by the growing dissatisfaction of adherents to the old paradigm. This leads to new versions of the theoretical foundations of the paradigm. In his 1962 book The structure of scientific revolutionsphilosopher of science Thomas Kuhn wrote:

The proliferation of competing articulations, the will to try everything, the expression of an explicit dissatisfaction, the recourse to philosophy and to the debate on the fundamentals, all this is symptomatic of a passage from normal research to extraordinary research. .1

Serious problems with Darwin’s theory

A growing number of biologists now recognize that the modern theory of evolution has serious problems. In 2007, biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci published an article asking if we need an “expanded evolutionary synthesis” that goes beyond neo-Darwinism.2 The following year, Pigliucci and 15 other biologists (none of them advocating intelligent design) met at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolutionary and Cognitive Research, just north of Vienna, to discuss of the question. Science journalist Suzan Mazur called this group “the Altenberg 16”.3 In 2010, the group published a collection of their essays. The authors challenged the Darwinian idea that organisms could only evolve through the gradual accumulation of small variations preserved by natural selection, and the neo-Darwinian idea that DNA is “the only agent of variation and unity of inheritance”.4

“A vision of the 21st century”

In 2011, biologist James Shapiro (who was not part of Altenberg 16 and is not an advocate of intelligent design) published a book titled Evolution: A 21st Century Vision. Shapiro exposed a concept he called natural genetic engineering and provided evidence that cells can rearrange their genomes in targeted ways. According to Shapiro, many scientists have reacted to the term “natural genetic engineering” the same way they react to intelligent design, because it appears to “violate principles of naturalism which exclude any role for a guiding intelligence outside of nature”. But Shapiro argued that

the concept of cell-guided natural genetic engineering is well within the confines of 21st century biological science. Despite widespread philosophical biases, cells are now reasonably believed to operate purposively: their purposes are survival, growth, and reproduction.5

In 2015, Nature published an exchange of views between scientists who thought the theory of evolution needed a “rethink” and scientists who thought it was fine the way it is. Those who believed the theory needed rethinking suggested that those advocating it might be “haunted by the specter of intelligent design” and therefore want to “show a united front to those who are hostile to science.” Nevertheless, the former concluded that recent discoveries in several areas necessitate a “conceptual shift in evolutionary biology”.6 These same scientists also published an article in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Londonin which they proposed “an alternative conceptual framework”, an “extended evolutionary synthesis” which retains the fundamental tenets of evolutionary theory “but differs in its emphasis on the role of constructive processes in development and evolution “.seven

An unusual encounter in London

In 2016, an international group of biologists organized a public meeting to discuss extended evolutionary synthesis at the Royal Society in London. Biologist Gerd Müller opened the meeting by pointing out that current evolutionary theory fails to explain (among other things) the origin of new anatomical structures (i.e. macroevolution). Most of the other speakers agreed that the current theory is inadequate, although two speakers defended it. None of the speakers considered smart design as an option. One speaker even caricatured intelligent design as “God made it,” and at one point another participant blurted out, “Not God – we exclude God.8

Proponents of extended evolutionary synthesis have proposed various mechanisms which they claim were ignored or minimized in current theory, but none of the proposed mechanisms have gone beyond microevolution (minor changes within extant species). By the end of the meeting, it was clear that none of the speakers had taken up the challenge posed by Müller on the first day.9

A 2018 article in evolutionary biology reviewed some of the still competing articulations of the theory of evolution. The article concluded by asking whether the persistent “conceptual ruptures and explanatory tensions” would be overcome.ten As long as they continue, however, they suggest that a scientific revolution is underway.

Next, “Theory in crisis? Go around the wagons.


  1. Kuhn, The structure of scientific revolutions2nd ed., 91.
  2. Massimo Pigliucci, “Do We Need Extended Evolutionary Synthesis?” Evolution 61 (2007), 2743-2749.
  3. Susan Mazur, The Altenberg 16: An Evolution Industry Exposed (Wellington, New Zealand: Scoop Media, 2009).
  4. Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. Muller, Evolution: Extended Synthesis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).
  5. James A. Shapiro, Evolution: A 21st Century Vision (Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press Science, 2011), 134-137.
  6. Kevin Laland, Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, John Odling-Smee, Gregory A. Wray, Hopi E. Hoekstra, Douglas J. Futuyma, Richard E. Lenski, Trudy FC Mackay, Dolph Schluter, and Joan E. Strassmann, “Does the Theory of Evolution Need a Rethink? » Nature 514 (2014), 161-164.
  7. Kevin N. Laland, Tobias Uller, Marcus W. Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, and John Odling-Smee, “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis: Its Structure, Hypotheses, and Predictions,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 282 (2015), 20151019.
  8. Paul A. Nelson, “Spectrum of Intelligent Design Emerges at Royal Society Meeting”, Evolution news and views (November 8, 2016), https://evolutionnews.org/2016/11/specter_of_inte/ (accessed August 22, 2020).
  9. Paul A. Nelson and David Klinghoffer, “Scientists Confirm: Darwinism Is Broken,” CDS News (December 13, 2016). https://www.cnsnews.com/commentary/david-klinghoffer/scientists-confirm-darwinism-broken (Accessed August 22, 2020).
  10. Alejandro Fábregas-Tejeda and Francisco Vergara-Silva, “Hierarchical theory of evolution and extended evolutionary synthesis: certain epistemic bridges, certain conceptual flaws”, evolutionary biology 45 (2018), 127-139.

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