If you think that intelligent design isn’t making an impact on evolutionary science, think again. The latest issue of Nature has a point-counterpoint on the question “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink?” Answering “Yes, urgently” are Kevin Laland (professor of behavioral and evolutionary biology at the University of St. Andrews), Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, and John Odling-Smee — some of whom were members of the infamous “Altenberg 16.” In that context, they began to conceive of what they call the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (“EES”). That is essentially a new evolutionary synthesis that rejects some of the core tenets of neo-Darwinism (like the views that natural selection is the dominant force guiding evolution, or that there is a “tree of life”). Their article contains a stunningly forthright admission: some scientists avoid making criticisms of neo-Darwinian evolution lest they give the appearance of supporting ID:
The number of biologists calling for change in how evolution is conceptualized is growing rapidly. Strong support comes from allied disciplines, particularly developmental biology, but also genomics, epigenetics, ecology and social science. We contend that evolutionary biology needs revision if it is to benefit fully from these other disciplines. The data supporting our position gets stronger every day.Yet the mere mention of the EES often evokes an emotional, even hostile, reaction among evolutionary biologists. Too often, vital discussions descend into acrimony, with accusations of muddle or misrepresentation. Perhaps haunted by the spectre of intelligent design, evolutionary biologists wish to show a united front to those hostile to science. Some might fear that they will receive less funding and recognition if outsiders — such as physiologists or developmental biologists — flood into their field.
(Kevin Laland, Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, and John Odling-Smee, “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Yes, urgently,” Nature, Vol. 514:161-164 (October 9, 2014) (emphasis added).)
We’ve seen these sorts of admissions before (see here for a short discussion). Should we be encouraged by these scientists’ words? Or disgusted?
On the one hand, it’s pretty disturbing to hear that biologists would self-censor their views simply because they don’t like the perceived alternative — which they label as being “hostile to science.” This shows that the field of evolutionary biology is in an incredibly unhealthy state. Dogmatism on evolution is hindering scientific advancement. If evolutionary biologists censor themselves, imagine what they do to other scientists who step out of line and refuse to join the “united front”? The answer is before your very eyes in this article: They marginalize dissenters by calling them “hostile to science.”
On the other hand, it’s encouraging to hear an admission that many biologists recognize the neo-Darwinian synthesis has failed to explain the data. While many of these biologists still seek alternative materialistic conceptions of evolution, and reject intelligent design, many of the criticisms they are making are similar to those made by ID proponents. For example, Laland et al. go on to write: