Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Woodstock of Evolution

Michael Shermer (Skeptic Magazine) has written an excellent set of notes on talks given at the recent World Summit on Evolution held in the Galapagos June 9-12. (The notes are also available here in a more readable, but possibly less permanent, form.)

Most of the participants were heavy-duty experts on evolution, of whom the most notable include William Calvin, Daniel Dennett, Niles Eldredge, Douglas Futuyma, Peter and Rosemary Grant, Antonio Lazcano, Lynn Margulis, William Provine, William Schopf, Frank Sulloway, and Timothy White. Shermer would be the first to admit that he's an outsider and definitely not in that league. So the substantial value of his notes lies in the impressionistic picture they offer of a significant event rather than an authoritative evaluation of the present state of evolutionary theory.

Nevertheless, one can glean from the notes echoes of most of the important open questions in evolutionary theory today, such as:
  • What we know about the existing conditions and sequence of events that led to the origins of life on Earth.
  • Whether cells (or cell-like structures) appeared before or after genetic material (RNA).
  • The nature of the different "levels of selection" that occur in the process of evolution (genes, chromosomes, organelles, and cells below the level of the individual, and social groups, demes, species, and multispecies communities above).
  • What exactly happened in the "Cambrian explosion", and why did it take so long after the origins of life to occur.
  • Whether the neo-Darwinian idea of "selection" needs revision to something more like a scenario of random genetic drift, and whether Darwin's idea of sexual selection does or does not have merit.
  • How far Lynn Margulis' ideas of symbiogenesis apply more widely in evolution, not just in the emergence of eukaryotic cells.
Yes, there is still vigorous debate about many fundamental questions of evolutionary theory. But this hardly means that the basic ideas of evolution are wrong. Instead, it means that the theory is robust enough to allow us to ask very detailed questions about processes that mostly happened far outside our ability to observe directly -- but questions that can in principle be answered by enough further rigorous scientific research.

As Shermer concludes
Herein lies science’s greatest strength: not only the ability to withstand such buffeting, but to actually grow from it. Creationists and other outsiders contend that science is a cozy and insular club in which meetings are held to enforce agreement with the party line, to circle the wagons against any and all would-be challengers, and to achieve consensus on the most contentious issues. This conclusion is so wrong that it cannot have been made by anyone who has ever attended a scientific conference. The World Summit on Evolution, like most scientific conferences, revealed a science rich in history and tradition, data and theory, as well as controversy and debate.

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