The Culture Wars in Naming Evolutiony Things

I find “Culture War Linguistic Pedantry” interesting, and even amusing, but depressing (remembering being labelled a creationist at BioLogos for referring to “gene frequency” instead of “allele frequency.”) I’m afraid I’m seeing that on this thread.

So “Neo-Darwinism” is a creationist/ID windmill which died in the 60s and is certainly not a term used by scientists of repute? And Eddie’s use of “mechanism” was a faux pas revealing a false engineering view of biology, no doubt because he likes ID?

Well, although I could have simply cited the several uses of “Neo-darwinian” in the mainstream 2018 book on evolution I’ve just been reading, I thought I’d check out the proceedings of the 2016 Royal Society symposium already mentioned - both the audios and the later re-worked articles.

The conference organisers (Patrick Bateson, Nancy Cartwright, John Dupré, Kevin Laland, and Denis Noble) in their overview, begin:

We anticipated that some speakers would reflect on, and perhaps even question, the adequacy of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, but this does not go beyond the fundamental right of any researcher to explore the assumptions that lie at the heart of their field and to propose constructive new ways of understanding. We take such discussion to be a healthy feature of any academic discipline. Recall too that the meeting was announced as a Discussion Meeting. In practice, there was a great deal of discussion about standard neo-Darwinian processes, but much of the discussion also centred around whether additional processes are also causally relevant and on the different manner in which these developments are handled in different fields.

The word also appears in two of the presentation abstracts (I’ve not had time to check out all the audios). One is from a proponent of “Extended Synthesis,” Eva Jablonka:

I argue that considering the many evolutionary consequences of epigenetic inheritance requires an extension of the evolutionary synthesis beyond the current neo-Darwinian model.

But the other is from a defender of orthodoxy, Cambridge evolutionary biologist Russell Lande:

Using standard methods from neo-Darwinian population genetic theory, I review recent models on the evolution of phenotypic plasticity in changing environments, emphasising the roles of environmental predictability and costs of plasticity in constant and labile characters. Adaptation to a novel environment may often occur by rapid evolution of increased plasticity followed by slow genetic assimilation of the new phenotype. I elucidate the connection between environmental tolerance and plasticity. The theory of evolution of phenotypic plasticity is an important extension to neo-Darwinism, but does not necessitate a major revision of its foundations.

Above in the thread, Douglas Futuyma was mentioned as a “kosher” speaker at the conference. In his presentation he prefers “Modern Synthesis” to the “Neo-Darwinian” adjective. He does, however, cite the 1984 Beyond neo-Darwinism: an introduction to the New evolutionary paradigm as an example of challenges to the mainstream Modern Synthesis. This was a book he himself reviewed in Science, concluding that

“…the critics of neo-darwinism fail to appreciate the richness, the plurality, of evolutionary mechanisms inherent in the synthetic theory.”

Incidentally, note the word “mechanisms” here: Futuyma refers to “the mechanisms” of evolution several times in his RS presentation (no less than 14 times in his written article). But the review mentioned above was written only a decade or so after Neo-darwinism is said to have passed into oblivion, so perhaps his use of the term was a momentary lapse? No. Futuyma in Human Evolutionary Biology (2010) writes (ch1, Evolutionary Theory, summary):

Our contemporary understanding of evolutionary processes builds on theory developed during the “Evolutionary Synthesis” of the 1930s and 1940s, when Darwin’s ideas, especially on natural selection, were joined with Mendelian genetics. Since, then, of course, our understanding of evolution has been greatly advanced by the discoveries in molecular genetics, as well as by continuing elaboration of the “neo-Darwinian” theory that issued from the Evolutionary Synthesis (Futuyma, 1998, 2009).

Now, Neo-darwinism might be variously defined as the original gene-led theory, as the mutationist reversal that soon replaced it, or broadly as “the current state of mainstream evolutionary theory,” but if you are telling me that the term is only a quaint reference to the past perpetuated by ignorant opponents who are either Creationists or (as Larry Moran said of James Shapiro) “crypto-creationists” from the Third Way), I’m going not only to have to disagree, but to use the English expression, “You’re 'aving a larf, aren’t you?”

Do I care overmuch about the terminology? No, except when seeking to give a degree of precision (“Why not just say evolution?” - c’mon… you really want one word to describe both Jerry Coyne and Teilhard de Chardin??).

But the sustained assault on Eddie’s use of words (as supposed social markers of his views, perhaps?), when half an hour online refutes the accusations, does make me wonder what kind of mutual reinforcement the professional scientists here are about. To the outsider it seems, well - tribal.


Modern lungfish are the closest living fish relatives to modern tetrapods. Is that what you mean?

No one thinks that a lungfish alive today is the ancestor of early tetrapods that evolved hundreds of millions of years ago.

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No. Even in 1968 nobody thought Teleosts camfe from the Choanichthyes. But I didn’t want to blind Eddie with formal names. Without bothering now to check on the latest phylogeny, my 1968 notes have the teleosts branching from near the root of the Holostei, which in turn stem from the Chondrostei.

The same notes, preserved for posterity in formaldehyde, tell me that the teleost swim bladder was believed to have evolved from their forbears’ lungs, by which my teacher probably meant the ancestors of Polypterus, according to Wikipedia “the only known vertebrate to have lungs, but no trachea.” Not a true lungfish, then, but a lung-fish nonetheless.

Checking more recent phylogeny I see things have been rearranged a bit, but there is still a common ancestor to Polypterus and the Teleosts. But even if there weren’t, I think I did pretty darned well to remember my A-level zoology accurately after 50 years. (But after all, it got me to Cambridge).

What does “neo-Darwinism” even mean?

That’s the problem with the term.


It is a common mistake to describe modern species as being ancestors of other modern species. This may be a bit pedantic, but careful descriptions now may prevent confusion later.


I would have thought that “Neo-darwinism” was originally more easily defined than most of these descriptive terms - certainly than “evolution.” It was the synthesis of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian variation and natural selection to give population genetics, thus bringing Darwin’s theory back from several descades of eclipse.

The problem was that, presumably for sociological reasons, biologists wanted to stick to the name even when the theory fundamentally changed - which was very rapidly, once mutations were found to be the driving force of variation in evolution, rather than recombination of the “gene pool.”

The adaptationist wars, so it seems to me, led to a victory for neutral theory… but both because that wasn’t a complete theory and because it helped the peace settlement, the combination of neutral theory with n% of adaptive evolution was still the Modern synthesis/Neo-darwinism.

And to those like Futuyma, all the other mechanisms (sic) that make up modern evolutionary theory are still best seen as part of the Neo-darwinian story. Not a few (not Futuyma as far as I can see) resolve the matter by minimally understanding Modern Synthesis/Neo-darwinian Synthesis as population + variation + natural selection, which enables “variation” to mean anything from recombination to endosymbiosis (even divine saltation, maybe) and “selection” to mean that not everything dies.

However, it’s most usefully applied to classical population genetics, and that seems to be its commonest sense amongst supporters and opposers alike. And that’s useful because, unlike the word “evolution” you can tell what you’re buying into, or not, and it shouldn’t change with the next new discovery or refutation.

Historical pedants’ note: “Neo-darwinism” was first coined in the late nineteenth century, to denote those who believed that variation and natural selection was the sole mechanism of evolution. Paradoxically this was as opposed to Darwin himself, who included other mechanisms such as loss through disuse, Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics, etc.

Even more confusingly, some flag-waving Neo-darwinians like to say that each new discovery from niche construction to epigenetics was actually anticipated by Darwin.

Confusing it certainly is, but if biologists insist on defining everything themselves instead of getting the philosophers of science to do it, and then forget their definitions, I suppose that’s inevitable :grinning:.


Does that include niche construction, transposon mutagenesis, whole genome duplications, epigenetics, and the like?

I did a PubMed search for various terms, and this is the number of hits I got back:

neo-Darwinian: 172
neo-Darwnism: 78
Evolution: 532,319
population genetics: 256,697

In my own experience, biologists just refer to evolution.

There are hundreds of thousands of population genetics papers that don’t seem to use the word “neo-Darwnian” anywhere, and people seem to get the gist of what they are talking about.


Food for thought . . .

I took a look at a gorilla genome paper that discusses evolution quite a bit.

Using text searches I was unable to find any mention of neo-Darwnism or neo-Darwnian, but I did find 59 uses of the word evolution.


It’s been a tiring evening and I’m not patient enough to point out the triviality of word counts. I’ve shown “Neo-darwinism” to be in regular use by notable evolutionary biologists, so I don’t give a damn about the people who aren’t using it that way.

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And Yes, in Futuyma’s RS presentation it does include them, in some cases specifically. But as my post clearly shows, not in the original definition I give here. That, actually, was what the post was about, if you read it.

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From that paper: In 30% of the genome, gorilla is closer to human or chimpanzee than the latter are to each other; this is rarer around coding genes, indicating pervasive selection throughout great ape evolution, and has functional consequences in gene expression.

That is not what this means. Usually it is just incomplete sorting.

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oh, ok thanks for the clarification.