‘New trends in evolutionary biology’ at The Royal Society meeting

Several sources reported on the recent “New trends in evolutionary biology” meeting at The Royal Society. We learn that the 50 years old “Modern Synthesis” needs to be “Extended”.

As shown elsewhere, epigenetics argues for a sort of Lamarckism, but in the end both Darwin and Lamarck proposed only “just so” stories, rather that useful concepts necessary for understanding life. Another presenter shows that organism development constrains evolution while yet another argues for remarkable development flexibility – also called plasticity – as in Polygonum or “smartweed”, plants that, depending on the environment, may look like they belong to different species.

But the whole concept of species and speciation is under review (even by Dawkins “the whole system of labelling species with discontinuous names is geared to a time slice”). In fact it appears that Darwin’s finches are another case similar to Polygonum rather than proof of evolution.

An interesting discussion centered on an experiment with swimming bacteria that had their DNA modified to lose their tails, but once moved into a sparse environment they started growing new tails. This experiment is similar to development of antibiotic resistance. Interpreted as proof of “evolution in action” by some, and as proof of a need for a paradigm shift to Extended Modern Synthesis by others, the experiment might show instead just the range of flexibility built into organisms. After all, even with the most rapidly changing bacteria, no transition was ever observed from an existing known “species” to another known “species” or into organisms far removed from the original to be recognized as a new “species”.

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