Altenberg-16, the Third Wave


Even Darwin knew that the arguments in The Origin of Species would not stand the test of time. Critical of his own work, in a letter to H. Falconer in October 1862, Darwin wrote, 

I look at it as absolutely certain that very much in the Origin will be proved to be rubbish; but I expect and hope that the framework will stand.

By the end of the nineteenth century following the failure of the HMS Challenger mission to discover the theoretical “innumerable” missing links and evidence in The Origin of Species was acknowledged as fraudulent, Darwin’s theory was emerging as scrap yard re-cycling material.

“Things did not look any better for the Darwinian view of evolution at the onset of the twentieth century, when the re-discovery of Gregor Mendel’s work and the beginnings of genetics appeared to deal a blow the theory,” writes Massimo Pigliucci in his new book entitled Evolution-The Extended Synthesis published by MIT Press.

Not only was the fossil record not cooperating, Mendel’s work patently contradicted Darwin’s central premise of inheritance through “gemmules”, “blending”, and Lamarckism. Mendel demonstrated that inheritance occurs through discrete units; evidence that excludes Darwin’s “slight, successive” changes. The evidence signaled the end of the First Wave of evolutionary thought.

Enter the Second Wave—neo-Darwinism. Mathematically oriented biologists, including Ronald Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright by incorporating Mendel’s laws with progressive genetic mutations extended the basis of emerging neo-Darwinism. The sentinel milestone in Second Wave of evolutionary thought was Fisher’s 1918 paper, “The Correlation between Relatives on the Suppositions of Mendelian Inheritance.”

Neo-Darwinism extended into what is known as the Modern Synthesis through the classic work of Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1937, Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942) by Julian Huxley, and Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942) by Ernst Mayr. Dobzhansky succinctly described fundamental tenet of the emerging Modern Synthesis:

Mutations and chromosomal changes … constantly and unremittingly supply the raw materials for evolution.

Once again, howeer, the fossil record debate reignited. In 1972, paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould broke rank throwing a wrench into the Modern Synthesis theory by introducing the concept of punctuated equilibrium. For Gould, “no fossil evidence exists at all” for Darwin’s “slight, successive” changes.  

While evidence from genetics became the driving force for developing the Modern Synthesis through the twentieth century, the astounding scientific advances from the last two decades soundly demonstrates genetics the “Central Dogma” driving  Modern Synthesis, “one gene, one protein,” is now known to be wrong.

Pigliucci recognizes that the fundamental tenets of Modern Synthesis “are being challenged as either inaccurate or incomplete” and “all these molecular processes clearly demolish the alleged central dogma.” Over the last two decades, the evidence has been signaling the end of the Second Wave of evolutionary thought.

Enter the Third Wave—Extended Synthesis. The theory of evolution has now evolved into the consummate emperor—without clothes. To address the crisis, Pigliucci and Gerd Muller in the summer of 2008 convened a workshop at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Altenberg near Vienna, Austria.

The workshop was entitled “Toward an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis?” Evolutionary academians from sixteen universities participated in the workshop. The workshop became known as the “Altenberg-16” and dubbed “The Woodstock of Evolution.”

The workshops, behind closed doors, drew only scant media coverage. The journal Nature ran an article entitled “Postmodern Evolution” with the sub-title “This summer a group of high profile researchers met in Altenberg, Austria, to try and plot the future course of evolutionary theory” written by John Whitfield.

Whitfield highlights how the Altenberg workshop ruffled the feathers of the heirs to the Darwinian intellectual estate. Pugliucci’s attempt to bridge the divide between the scientific disciplines has not gone unchecked—especially from the geneticists who once controlled the holy grail of evolution.

Evolutionary development biology, known as evo-devo, is working to bridge the gap between the theory of evolution and the scientific evidence.

Old Modern Synthesis guards are particularly resistant to the extended evo-devo movement, however. Jerry Coyne, evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago has little time for “evo-devotees” claiming “these notions [extended synthesis] haven’t forced us to change the neo-Darwinian paradigm.”

“Originally, the idea was that evo-devo was going to be the synthesis between evolution and development—now it is a part of what needs to be done to get there,” according to Alan Love, one of the Altenberg-16 from the University of Minnesota. “There is still a lot of outstanding work to do on fitting the pieces together, but there is no consensus on how to go about that right now.”

The Extended Synthesis, the Third Wave, has the evolution industry asking the question, when will the real theory of evolution stand up? The clock is ticking—midnight is seconds away.

The Third Wave of evolutionary theory understands why the evidence demands a new evolutionary theory. With “no consensus” on the horizon, at least the Altenberg-16 should have re-released a statement extending Darwin’s 1862 dilemma –

We look at it as absolutely certain that very much in the modern theories of evolution will be proved to be rubbish; but we expect and hope that the philosophical framework will stand.

5 Responses to “Altenberg-16, the Third Wave”

  • […] address the Second-Wave crisis and pave the way to the Third-Wave, Pigliucci and Gerd Muller in the summer of 2008 convened a workshop at the Konrad Lorenz Institute […]

  • […] Pasteur, has yet to deliver on the promise to discover and introduce advances in medicine. In the post-Modern Synthesis era, the theory of evolution, like the “mad dog” theory of pangenesis, has crash into an […]

  • Kevin L. Morgan:

    I appreciate the forthrightness of the scientists of the “extended synthesis” in being willing to acknowledge the deficiencies in our present understanding of evolution. Let us hope that what they ultimately bring to the table will not defy our uniform experience with the natural world.

  • […] ascribed to the popular nineteenth century theory of blending genetics of inheritance in which the new generation was simply an averaging of the previous generations. […]

  • […] against neo-Darwinism reached a tipping point, early in the twenty-first century culminating in the Altenberg-16 Summit during the summer of 2008. The purpose of the Summit was to develop a new comprehensive framework […]

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Darwin, Then and Now is a journey through the most amazing story in the history of science - the history of evolution. The book encapsulates who Darwin was, what he said, and what scientists have discovered since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859.

With over 1,000 references, Darwin Then and Now is a historical chronicle of the rise and fall of the once popular theory of biological evolution.