In the November 14 issue of the Sci+Tech section of The Daily, a segment called “The Conversation” (pages 16 and 17) painted a tale of two theories of evolution supposedly at odds: progressive Darwinism, and integrationalism. As an evolutionary biology student, and the illustrator for the progressive Darwinist article, I had been both looking forward to, and slightly wary of reading, the final publications. Much to my dismay, I found both flawed – each brimming with their own, distinct brands of nonsense.
First, the seemingly innocuous progressive Darwinism, which parades itself as “neo-Darwinism plus,” compounds a well-established theory with the implications of the emerging field of epigenetics. Epigenetics, in essence, studies heritable changes in gene expression (turning genes “on and off”) that are not caused by the DNA sequence itself. However, the author David Benrimoh makes several straw men arguments and leaps of logic in his attempts to apply the concept, and forgets one important thing: epigenes are subject to natural selection.
Neo-Darwinism, the theory that phenotypic or, expressed, change is affected over time by the inheritance of genetic mutations, is already capable of accepting that changes in gene regulation can also be inherited. The effects both of and on the epigene are blown out of proportion by Benrimoh, who doesn’t understand that the adaptive “fine tuning” during a single animal’s lifetime is accounted for by phenotypic plasticity – an introductory level evolutionary concept suggesting that all organisms have some individual adaptability. Benrimoh also draws shaky connections between epigenes and the “problems” of altruism and consciousness, overlooking the fact that answers to these “problems” are already being sought by neo-Darwinists, and have nothing to do with epigenetics, regardless.
Similarly, Nirali Tanna, the author of the Integrationalism article seems to view those silly neo-Darwinists as arrogant know-it-alls and postulates “more nuanced schools of thought.” Tanna suggests that questions like “What is life? Why has life happened? Or, even, what is consciousness?” are beyond the scope of science, requiring some form of ineffable transcendence to comprehend. Philosophical pondering is completely valid outside empiricism, but it is not a basis for scientific discussion. Tanna writes that “evolution is becoming more conscious of itself,” apparently ignorant of the fact that evolution is not a viewpoint nor a series of products, but an observed mechanism. One might as well say: “Photosynthesis is becoming more conscious of itself.”
Much as I abhorred the faux-science, I am even more indignant at The Daily for presenting these two theories as though they represent a balanced view of evolutionary biology. I am infuriated to think that people may be led to believe that there is room for nonsense about the “subtle battle…between our own consciousness and the epigene” or “holistic consciousness” in discussing Darwinism. Perhaps, next time The Daily publishes an “exploration” of scientific theory, they may find it pertinent to consult scientists in the field, rather than letting it be bastardized and passed off as well-reasoned.