The World Summit on Evolution

4 minute read

On the Scientific American website, there is a long article by Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic magazine), describing his trip to the World Summit of Evolution, held in the Galapagos Islands this month. Some of the attendees:

It was a veritable Who's Who of evolutionary theory, including William Calvin, Daniel Dennett, Niles Eldredge, Douglas Futuyma, Peter and Rosemary Grant, Antonio Lazcano, Lynn Margulis, William Provine, William Schopf, Frank Sulloway, Timothy White and others.

Shermer provides a rundown of many of the scientific presentations, and it is an interesting read. The paleoanthropology representative was Tim White, and Shermer gives him almost a whole page:

One of the best talks of the conference was delivered by the U.C. Berkeley paleoanthropologist Timothy White, in which he opened with a prediction made by Stephen Jay Gould in the late 1980s: "We know about three coexisting branches of the human bush. I will be surprised if twice as many more are not discovered before the end of the century." A glance at the extant fossil record looks like Gould was right. There are at least two dozen fossil species in six million years of hominid evolution. But the bush is not so bushy, says White. The problem lies in the difference between "lumpers" and "splitters" in species classification, and the social pressures to publish extraordinary new discoveries. If you want to get your fossil find published in Science or Nature, and you want the cover illustration, you cannot conclude that your fossil is yet another Australopithicus africanus [sic], for example. You better come up with an interpretation indicating that this new find you are revealing for the first time to the world is the most spectacular discovery of the last century and that it promises to overturn hominid phylogeny and send everyone back to the drawing board to reconfigure the human evolutionary tree. Training a more skeptical eye on many of these fossils, however, shows that many, if not most of these fossils belong in already well-established categories. White says that the specimen labeled Kenyanthropus platyops, for example, is very fragmented and is most likely just another Australopithicus africanus [sic]. "Name diversity does not equal biological diversity," White elucidated.

If I had a quote list, I'd add that one to it: "Name diversity does not equal biological diversity." On the other hand, White has himself had the cover of Nature once or twice....

And then there is this:

White then concluded his talk with a fascinating discussion of the recent discovery of fossil dwarf humans on Flores Island in the Malay Archipelago, located on the outside of Wallace's Line, meaning that even during the last ice age they could only have gotten there by boat. (White did note, however, that after last December's tsunami people were rescued from large floating rafts of natural debris, so it is possible that the founding population of Flores rafted there by accident and not design.) ... A second published specimen put to rest the pathology hypothesis that Homo floresensis was a microcephalic human. The best evidence, says White, points to insular dwarfing, a rapid punctuation event out of Homo sapiens that led to a shrinkage of these isolated people. Such dwarfing effects can be seen on this and other islands, where large mammals get smaller (like the dwarf elephant), and small reptiles get larger (like the Komodo Dragon). The chances of any living members of this species still existing in the hinterlands of Flores are extremely remote, but some observers have noted that the indigenous peoples of Flores recount a myth of small hairy humans who descend from the highlands to steal food and supplies.

You can read what I have to say about Homo floresiensis here. I'm telling you, the more this story gets repeated, the worse it's going to turn out.

Most of the meeting was relatively big-name evolutionary biologists of one kind or another. In the end, it sounds to me like the many of the invitees wanted to trash Darwinism to promote their own idiosyncratic theories. To some extent, Shermer displays his best skeptical take on these, although he describes one as "beyond [his] pay scale." A lot of famous scientists have problems with standard neo-Darwinism, and it seems that many were invited to this meeting, with very few representatives of the more standard point of view. So Shermer's article includes many "proclaiming the death of Darwin" stories. Interesting in this context that there appear to have been no evo-devo people at the conference, since this is probably the most important of the extensions to evolutionary theory, and one that resonates with pre-Darwinian biology to a much greater extent than ideas like Margulis' pansymbiosis or multilevel selection theory.

Read the article and see if you agree with Shermer that evolutionary biology is in a healthy state. My take is that a show of real health would have included a slightly different list of biologists.