The (ongoing) evolution of evolutionary theory

Massimo weighs in on a debate that I’m increasingly starting to view as semantic.  Everyone seems to agree on the actual science, but disagrees whether or not it should be categorized as a new era of evolutionary theory.  Massimo admits in this post that the new proposed paradigm is essentially a super-set of the current one.  That still feels somewhat like gradualism to me, but I have a hard time getting worked up over definitional disputes.

Still, Massimo provides some information on the history of evolutionary thought that is interesting.

Scientia Salon

41J0nOguz-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_by Massimo Pigliucci

Nature magazine recently ran a “point-counterpoint” entitled “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink?” [1] Arguing for the “Yes, urgently” side were Kevin Laland, Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, and John Odling-Smee. Arguing for the “No, all is well” thesis were Gregory A. Wray, Hopi E. Hoekstra, Douglas J. Futuyma, Richard E. Lenski, Trudy F. C. Mackay, Dolph Schluter, and Joan E. Strassmann.

That’s a good number of top notch evolutionary biologists, colleagues that I very much respect, on both sides of the aisle. My own allegiances have been made clear in a number of papers [2] and a co-edited book [3]. I have been arguing for some time now for what I consider the moderate-yes side of the debate: yes, evolutionary theory does need (and is, in fact, getting) an update, but that update is yet another expansion along…

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7 thoughts on “The (ongoing) evolution of evolutionary theory

    1. I don’t think any of the scientists in this debate would dispute that. The issue appears to be whether the new developments represent a new paradigm or are just details filling in and extending the current paradigm. Is this a general relativity to Newtonian mechanics, or a cosmic inflation to big bang cosmology?

      The fact that it’s a debate makes me think the whole issue may be a false dichotomy, and that the truth is somewhere in the middle.


      1. Biology isn’t a strong science for me, so I’d be like Sean Carroll, but FWIW it doesn’t have the feel of a “Copernican Revolution” to me. Our understanding of chemistry, for example, has evolved hugely, but there are rare places where the road turns sharply.

        That there can be a debate implies a real dichotomy, but I know what you mean about truth in the middle. Any sustainable rational debate implies not just a dichotomy, but one with two reasonable, valid sides. And sometimes, in balanced debates, there isn’t a central truth to find so much as truth depending on how you look at it. (The abortion debate is a canonical example. There is no analytically correct answer. The truth depends solely on how you look at, and value, the elements of the situation.)

        The question is how much this is experts arguing over differences only experts would appreciate. I agree with your sense that it is just a tempest in a teacup. One yardstick might be the degree to which textbooks need to be corrected for wrong information versus be annotated for extending information.


  1. I think you’re spot on. As I read Massimo’s description, I get the picture of the Modern Synthesis as a giant umbrella that summarizes the general principle and the bullet points he lists as specialized domains under that umbrella. Nothing seems to fall outside the scope of the general principle. That said, I think he has a point when he says that “we do usually label different versions … [because] they mark significant advances in our understanding”. Of course, as you said, that’s just semantics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I don’t want to dismiss semantic issues too much, as they can be important for understanding what’s going on. Or if misused, can cloud understanding. The question may be, which way of looking at it provides a clearer idea of reality? That may be something only experts can work out.


  2. SAP: “Massimo weighs in on a debate that I’m increasingly starting to view as semantic.”

    In Massimo’s article “Denialism”, I made two comments.

    One, while the current stage of biosphere is the result of evolution, the ‘Darwin-mechanism (nature selection’ is totally wrong while most of biologists are ‘denying it. (See ).

    Two, the ‘modern evolutionary synthesis’ is also totally wrong, also dodged (denied) by most of biologists. (See ).

    While the readers of his Webzine might not read my comments, he (as editor) is responsible even to the comments. His ‘rethinking the evolutionary theory’ article is definitely a reply to some those comments although he used Sean as a reason for his article. I am glad to see that he (as a very prominent evolutionary biologist) is taking a more aggressive attitude.

    Among the commenters, this debate goes very deep, definitely way beyond the semantic level. I of course made a comment on that too at .


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