The state of modern evolutionary theory may not be what you think it is (link to full article)
by PZ Myers on February 14, 2014
I was rather surprised yesterday to see so much negative reaction to my statement that there’s more to evolution than selection, and that random, not selective, changes dominate our history. It was in the context of what should be taught in our public schools, and I almost bought the line that we can only teach a simplified version of evolution in grade school, but then it sunk in that I was talking to a group of adults about the standard biological perspective, and their reactions were a mix of total bafflement, indignant rejection, and strange evasive waffling. Well, when should we talk about this stuff, then? Do I have to start making day trips to the local nursing home? Or maybe we should be honest from the very beginning about the complexity of modern evolutionary theory and how it has grown to be very different from what Darwin knew.
First thing you have to know: the revolution is over. Neutral and nearly neutral theory won. The neutral theory states that most of the variation found in evolutionary lineages is a product of random genetic drift. Nearly neutral theory is an expansion of that idea that basically says that even slightly advantageous or deleterious mutations will escape selection — they’ll be overwhelmed by effects dependent on population size. This does not in any way imply that selection is unimportant, but only that most molecular differences will not be a product of adaptive, selective changes.
My comment: The problem that I run into consistently when reading papers and articles is, which Theory of Evolution underpins the author’s research? Which theory dominates the conclusions that are drawn? Academics likely know this about each other, but by the time studies are translated by “science writers” into public information, the original context is lost. American education is shockingly antiquated; if an American has any familiarity with biology, beyond having dissected a frog in high school, Natural Selection (Survival of the Badass) is the evolutionary dynamic stuck in his or her mind.
The overwhelmingly popular belief in the good / bad mutation is obvious in the extremely annoying tendency of writers and lay readers to believe that Natural Selection is a BLACK AND WHITE option; any and every aspect of physical form must have a function and was produced through mutation. The perfect example of this is the designation of “Brow Ridges and Missing Chins” as “signs” of inferiority in archaic humans, and indeed, this 19th c. notion is still used to define “us” (smart) and (dumb) “them.” Skull shape and size continues to be emphasized, even though no correlation regarding intelligence can be made. A recent study was reported to have concluded that “we” triumphed over Neanderthals because their large eyeballs and dominant visual processing didn’t leave room in their brains to grow a frontal lobe or develop “social networking.” What planet are we on?
It’s time for scientists who study evolution, whatever their specialty, to come up with a Theory of Evolution that transcends its own cluttered history. Earth sciences are a perfect example of what a superior theory can do. Although it got off to a slow start, once evidence started flowing in, geologists quickly embraced Plate Tectonics as a structure on which to hang physical evidence and ideas that had no connection before. It works beautifully.
Why archaeologists and anthropologists aren’t required to take courses in geology is dumbfounding. Human “stuff” occurs on Earth and is subject to geologic processes, and really can’t be understood without at least being acquainted with how the physical environment works.