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January 17, 2017

Evolutionary biologists are stuck thinking inside the cellular box


Last year, several hundred evolutionary biologists gathered at the Royal Academy in London for a tie-and-jacket PowerPoint showdown.


As Carl Zimmer reported, the conference "New Trends in Evolutionary Biology" pitted adherents to the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary theory against upstart flag-bearers for the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis.


In a nutshell, the extended folks think that 21st century insights such as epigenetics and plasticity require a tweaking of the modern synthesis, itself a combination of Darwinian theory with 20th century genetic insights.


The problem is that both of these groups are fighting a rear-guard action among themselves.


The 21st century challenge in evolutionary biology is to extend the field to pre-cellular times and take Darwin to the stars.


Most evolutionary biologists have been deeply resistant to, or simply ignored the rise of astrobiology and origins of life research.


On one level, this makes complete sense.



For evolutionary biologists the point of intellectual departure is cell-based life.


For them, evolutionary theory and their experimentation is practically framed within the walls and membranes of cells.


However, by limiting evolutionary theory to cellular life is like limiting an auto show to cars built before 1952.


The grand challenge in origins of life research is to extend evolutionary theory in time and space. In terms of time, evolutionary theory needs to grapple with the time before cells. And in terms of space, it needs to embrace our cosmic context.


At present, as the London conference highlighted, evolutionary biologists are still mostly stuck on Earth. It's an Earth-as-closed-petri-dish model in which evolutionary biologists don't consider the foundational influence of cosmic inputs.


As a result, the popular and scientific understanding of our ancestral family tree has no roots.



Of course, this makes sense within the context of Darwinian evolutionary theory: the influence of this initial cosmic context comes before the origin of cells.


This is why time and space are joined in the intersection of origins of life and evolutionary biology research.


In order to explore life's cosmic context evolutionary biologists need to think outside, or more specifically before, the cell.


Most people talk about this as pre-biotic chemistry--chemistry before life. But, of course, this begs the thorny question of what is life?


But this minor point aside, the 21st century challenge for evolutionary biologists is to consider how natural selection operates in pre-cellular systems. How does natural selection operate at the level of atoms and molecular soups?


These are the questions that astrobiologists and origins of life researchers are asking. And what's key, is that these questions require trans-disciplinary thinking: evolutionary biologists bring theory and experience, but it's physicists and chemists who bring the technical and experimental know-how to this pre-cellular pursuit.


What's so exciting and interesting about this is that we're getting the evolutionary theory equivalent of general relativity.


As Einstein extended Newton's description of gravity into a cosmic context it raised problems that showed that Newton's description wasn't wrong, but incomplete.


Similarly, as astrobiologists and origins of life researchers push evolutionary theory to the stars, it's requiring a mind-bending expansion of natural selection.


Not an "Extended Evolutionary Synthesis" but to riff on Einstein, a "Relativistic Evolutionary Synthesis".


I think Darwin would enjoy the ride.











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