Author, 'The Origin of Life Circus: A How To Make Life Extravaganza'
Replace the Modern Synthesis (Neo-Darwinism): An Interview With Denis Noble
Posted: 05/09/2014 11:51 pm EDT Updated: 07/09/2014 5:59 am EDT
In a search for the more colorful side of physiologist and systems biologist Denis Noble, I was drawn to his Oxford Trobadors page of Occitan music (medieval songs of love and chivalry from the south of France, Italy and Catalonia), featuring videos of the group mixing it up with modern infusions of jazz, etc. Noble, a classical guitarist, doubles as troubadour and maestro in the clips -- with impressive stage presence. He says, "No one needs to be just a scientist."
Denis Noble's understanding of music is clearly reflected in the elegance with which he communicates science. Maybe that's partly why he was invited to China to talk about evolution and the need to move beyond neo-Darwinism. (Noble prefers the term "modern synthesis.") He reports in our interview (below) that "youngish" scientists came up to him after his address to the Chinese Association of Physiological Sciences describing their struggles trying to get published in Western journals.
Denis Noble is Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology and Co-Director of Computational Physiology at Balliol College at Oxford University. He also serves as the president of the International Union of Physiological Sciences (he was IUPS Secretary-General for almost a decade) and is currently the editor-in-chief of the Royal Society's bimonthly journalInterface, which features articles at the crossroads of the physical and life sciences. Noble is the author of The Music of Life and 10 other books as well as 500 scientific papers.
It was Denis Noble's discovery, more than 50 years ago at University College London, of the "electrical mechanisms in the proteins and cells that generate the rhythm of the heart" -- the basis of his Ph.D. thesis -- and his mathematical model that first attracted international attention to his work. He and his colleagues at Oxford are now making computer simulations for the rest of the organs of the body.
Noble has received several honorary Ph.D.s and numerous other awards, including the British Cardiovasculal Society's Mackenzie Prize, the Russian Academy of Sciences' Pavlov Medal, the Pierre Rijlant Prize from the Belgian Royal Academy of Medicine, the British Heart Foundation Gold Medal and the Baby Medal from the Royal College of Physicians in London. He is a fellow of the Royal Society and an honorary member of both the American and Japanese Physiological Society
My interview with Denis Noble follows.
Suzan Mazur: In recent years the modern synthesis has been declared extended by major evolutionary thinkers (e.g., "the Altenberg 16" and others), as well as dead by major evolutionary thinkers, the late Lynn Margulis and Francisco Ayala among them. Ditto for the public discourse on the Internet. My understanding is that you are now calling for the modern synthesis to be replaced.
Denis Noble: I would say that it needs replacing. Yes.
The reasons I think we're talking about replacement rather than extension are several. The first is that the exclusion of any form of acquired characteristics being inherited was a central feature of the modern synthesis. In other words, to exclude any form of inheritance that was non-Mendelian, that was Lamarckian-like, was an essential part of the modern synthesis. What we are now discovering is that there are mechanisms by which some acquired characteristics can be inherited, and inherited robustly. So it's a bit odd to describe adding something like that to the synthesis ( i.e., extending the synthesis). A more honest statement is that the synthesis needs to be replaced.
By "replacement" I don't mean to say that the mechanism of random change followed by selection does not exist as a possible mechanism. But it becomes one mechanism amongst many others, and those mechanisms must interact. So my argument for saying this is a matter of replacement rather than extension is simply that it was a direct intention of those who formulated the modern synthesis to exclude the inheritance of acquired characteristics. That would be my first and perhaps the main reason for saying we're talking about replacement rather than extension.
The second reason is a much more conceptual issue. I think that as a gene-centric view of evolution, the modern synthesis has got causality in biology wrong. Genes, after all, if they're defined as DNA sequences, are purely passive. DNA on its own does absolutely nothing until activated by the rest of the system through transcription factors, markers of one kind or another, interactions with the proteins. So on its own, DNA is not a cause in an active sense. I think it is better described as a passive data base which is used by the organism to enable it to make the proteins that it requires.
The third is an experimental reason. The experimental evidence now exists for various forms and various mechanisms by which an acquired characteristic can be transmitted.
So I think the reasons for replacing the modern synthesis are the experimental, that certain forms of inheritance of acquired characteristics have now been both demonstrated and their mechanism worked out, and the more philosophical point about the nature of causality. I believe that the modern synthesis, and indeed very many aspects of the interpretation of molecular biology generally, got the question of causality in biological systems muddled up.
Suzan Mazur: Lynn Margulis told me the following in 2009:
[W]hat Haldane, Fisher, Sewell Wright, Hardy, Weinberg et al. did was invent.... The anglophone tradition was taught. I was taught, and so were my contemporaries, and so were the younger scientists. Evolution was defined as "changes in gene frequencies in natural populations." The accumulation of genetic mutations was touted to be enough to change one species to another.... No, it wasn't dishonesty. I think it was wish fulfillment and social momentum. Assumptions, made but not verified, were taught as fact.
Margulis addded that "people are always more loyal to their tribal group than to any abstract notion of truth. Scientists especially tend to be loyal to the tribe instead of the truth."
Would you comment?
Denis Noble: I would certainly go along with the view that gradual mutation followed by selection has not, as a matter of fact, been demonstrated to be necessarily a cause of speciation. Many of those who defend the modern synthesis would say, "Well, it has been." But what you find when you look at the examples modern synthesists give is that they are for the gradual transition of one species into another in the historical record.
Just to take an example of that: the so-calledring warbler example. With the ring warbler you can watch the process, work back the historical process of how these birds developed into various subspecies around the southern areas of the world, south of the Himalayas and eventually creeping around to meet again at the north of the Himalayas. What you find is that each of the varieties can breed with each other all the way through the various branches that lead from the south to east and west. When they meet in the north, they no longer interbreed. What that tells us is there clearly was a historical development in which these warblers developed first into subspecies and then eventually into different species in the sense that they don't any longer interbreed. That tells us that that process of speciation occurred, but it does not tell us the mechanism by which speciation occurred.
Regarding wish fulfillment, what I find is that the modern synthesists tend to quote such ring warbler examples as though it is obvious that they must have occurred by gradual mutation followed by selection, when it isn't certain that that can be the mechanism if other mechanisms exist. You have to prove it. So I go along with the view that there has been no really clear proof that speciation occurred via gradual mutation followed by selection.
Suzan Mazur: Do you think scientists are anywhere near an agreed-upon definition of what life is?
Denis Noble: That's an enormous question. No, I don't think so, actually. First of all, molecules are dead. There's no sense in which individual molecules can be said to exhibit the phenomenon of life. You need a process among many, many components -- molecular components, of course, included -- of an organism in order to have something which has some of the characteristics we would want to regard as living.
You can produce a list, and physiologists do this a lot, of the obvious characteristics of a living organism: It grows, it divides, it reproduces, it metabolizes. But one can find examples where some of those properties would not necessarily be present in all the examples that one would want to take of a living organism. That's why we have difficulties with organisms like viruses, which clearly can't reproduce on their own. Are they or are they not living? It's obviously a very difficult question to ask.
I'm not sure that we need to bother about a precise definition. It's pretty clear that DNA on its own, proteins on their own, metabolites on their own, lipids on their own, are not alive. It's the network of system interaction that can be said to have living characteristics, however one defines those.
Suzan Mazur: University of Chicago microbiologist Jim Shapiro, whose work you cite, told me in our 2012 interview that he no longer uses the word "gene," saying:
[I]t's misleading. There was a time when we were studying the rules of Mendelian heredity when it could be useful, but that time was almost a hundred years ago now. The way I like to think of cells and genomes is that there are no "units"; there are just systems all the way down.
New York Medical College cell biologist Stuart Newman said he thinks the gene is "down but not out."
But only a week or so ago the science section of The New York Times ran a piece touting "de novo genes" and their appearance and disappearance.
What is the status now of the gene in your view?
Denis Noble: First of all, I go along largely with Jim Shapiro's view of the difficulty of the definition of a gene. I think it's actually even more difficult than Jim says. My argument is very simple. Wilhelm Johannsen in 1909 introduced the definition of "gene." He was the first person to use that word, although he was introducing a concept that existed ever since Mendel. What he was actually referring to was a phenotype trait, not a piece of DNA. He didn't know about DNA in those days. We now define a gene, when we attempt to define it, as a particular sequence with "start" and "stop" codons, etc., in a strip of DNA. My point is that the first definition of a gene -- Johansen's definition as a trait, as an inheritable phenotype -- was necessarily the cause of a phenotype, because that's how it was defined. It was, if you like, a catch-all definition of a gene. Anything that contributed to that particular trait -- inheritable, according to Mendelian laws -- would be the gene, whether it is a piece of DNA or some other aspect of the functioning of the cell. That we define "gene" as a sequence of DNA becomes an empirical question, not a conceptual necessity. It becomes an empirical question whether that particular strip of DNA has a function within the phenotype. Some do and some don't.
It's interesting that many knockout experiments don't actually reveal the function of the knocked-out gene. In yeast, for example, there's a study that 80 percent of knockouts don't have an obvious phenotypic effect until you stress the organism. What that tells me is that we have progressively moved from a definition of a gene which made it a conceptual necessity that the defined object was the cause of the phenotype -- that's how it was defined -- to a matter which is an empirical discovery to be made, which is whether a particular sequence of DNA plays a functional role or not. Those are very, very different definitions of a gene.
So I go further than Jim. Not only is it difficult, as he says in his book, to now define what a gene is; one should be thinking more of networks of interactions than single and fatalistic genes at the DNA level. It's also true that the concept of a gene has changed in a very subtl Poste way, and in a way that makes a big difference to how the concept of a gene should be used in evolutionary biology.
The reason for that is very simple. It is that many of the definitions used by modern synthesists, including Richard Dawkins, are actually the Johannsen definition of a gene -- that is, the trait as the phenotypic characteristic.
Desde 1998 após ter lido A Caixa Preta de Darwin, de Michael Behe, este blogger deixou de ser darwinista de carteirinha e tentou abordar essa crise epistêmica da Síntese Evolutiva Moderna com alguns cientistas e editores e jornalistas científicos brasileiros. Em vão, e isso está registrado no Observatório da Imprensa. Resposta sempre dada: NÃO EXISTE CRISE NA TEORIA DA EVOLUÇÃO!
Existia e existe crise em pontos teóricos fundamentais no contexto de justificação teórica, e eles sabem disso, mas são ACADEMICAMENTE DESONESTOS nas suas falas e escritos! Por que nenhum deles me processa por danos morais e materiais? É porque junto comigo, Darwin vai para o banco dos réus e eles vão ser demonstrados como tendo cometido 171 Epistêmico! Covardes! E os nossos alunos sendo roubados na sua educação e cidadania de ter acesso ao status das atuais teorias da origem e evolução do universo e da vida. Isso não é educação, é doutrinação!
Fui, nem sei por que, rindo da cara desses cientistas desonestos, porque estou sendo mais uma vez vindicado por um cientista evolucionista honesto!!! P.S.: Quero chamar aqui a atenção dos leitores para o objetivo do site HypeScience:
O HypeScience vive para levar notícias relevantes, curiosas e otimistas ligadas preponderantemente aos temas ciência, tecnologia e saúde, todos os dias, para você.
Com linguagem bem humorada e linha editorial dirigida, ler o HypeScience é a melhor alternativa para você tornar-se mais conectado com os avanços positivos realizados no orbe terrestre.
Descubra aqui os mistérios mais curiosos da vida e os novos marcos alcançados pela ciência.
Legal, não é? Nada mais falso! O HypeScience publicou este artigo:
e arrolou a Teoria do Design Inteligente (TDI) entre as 10 e da seguinte forma:
"Se você quiser saber mais sobre a evolução, clique aqui. O design inteligente é uma teoria basicamente religiosa, que dita que as coisas são o que são “porque Deus quis assim”. Se você quiser acreditar nisso, é seu direito. Mas não misture as coisas; a sua crença é só isso: uma crença. Não é ciência e você deve deixar as pessoas que fazem pesquisa real e séria sobre a evolução em paz."
O responsável pelo site é DESONESTO na sua informação sobre a TDI - uma teoria basicamente religiosa e que descreve as coisas como são porque Deus quis assim. Além de DESONESTO, o responsável pelo site HypeScience DISTORCE o que é a TDI - uma teoria que afirma existir sinais de inteligência na natureza e que são empiricamente detectados - complexidade irredutível de sistemas biológicos e informação complexa especificada como o DNA.
A TDI é ciência, e incomodamos editores e jornalistas científicos ao chamá-los de DESONESTOS porque são isso mesmo, DESONESTOS, pois a literatura científica especializada mostra que as pessoas que fazem pesquisa real e séria sobre a evolução, estão laborando em cima de uma paradigma falido no contexto de justificação teórica, e que uma nova teoria geral da evolução será anunciada em 2020.
Onde que você leu isso? No HypeScience? Através das pessoas que fazem pesquisa real e séria sobre a evolução? Na VEJA? Na ÉPOCA? Na Galileu? Na SuperInteressante? Na Folha de São Paulo? No Estado de São Paulo? NÃO! Você soube por aqui neste blog que promove a cientificidade da TDI e que anuncia a falência fragorosa da teoria da evolução de Darwin através de evolucionistas honestos!
Por que sou ‘pós-darwinista’? Porque já fui evolucionista de carteirinha. Hoje, sou cético da teoria macroevolutiva como verdade científica. Contudo, meu ceticismo ao ‘dogma central’ darwinista não é baseado em relatos da criação de textos sagrados. Foi a séria e conflituosa consideração do debate que ocorre intramuros e nas publicações científicas há muitos anos sobre a insuficiência epistêmica da teoria geral da evolução. Eu fui ateu marxista-leninista. Hoje, não tenho mais fé cega no ateísmo. Não creio mais na interpretação literal dos dogmas de Darwin aceitos ‘a priori’ e defendidos ideologicamente com unhas e dentes pela Nomenklatura científica. A Ciência me deu esta convicção. Aprendi na universidade: quando uma teoria científica não é apoiada pelas evidências, ela deve ser revista ou simplesmente descartada. Sou pós-darwinista me antecipando à iminente e eminente ruptura paradigmática em biologia evolutiva. Chegou a hora de dizer adeus a Darwin. Mestre em História da Ciência – PUC-SP. CV Plataforma Lattes: http://lattes.cnpq.br/6602620537249723