Wistar and Wishniak: a Philadelphia Story, and a question

It certainly isn’t lost on anyone familiar with ID Creationism that its proponents tend to lack originality. Now and then one sees a new quote-mine, for example, but mostly one just sees the recycling of the same quote mines again and again, as ID Creationists too lazy to actually read sources just repeat the quote-mines they find in other works. I can predict, to an astonishing degree of accuracy, when a creationist is going to quote Lewontin, for example.

The same can often be said of the sources. People love to cite certain sources and inflate their importance, and one of the most commonly recurring of these is the Wistar conference of 1966 (proceedings published in '67) titled “Mathematical challenges to the neo-Darwinian interpretation of evolution.” Dang, I would think that was the most important scientific conference ever held, if I relied upon creationist accounts. Every book seems to go there sooner or later, and the ID Creationist fantasy-take on this one is that mathematicians identified problems in evolutionary theory to which no satisfactory answer has been provided, even now, 54 years later.

It seems unlikely to me that most of the people who cite the conference have ever bothered to read the actual proceedings. They’re not that easy to find. But a friend sent me a .pdf of the whole thing some years ago, and while it’s been a few years since I read it, what I do recall is that it seemed like one long schooling of mathematicians, in a situation where it was clear that these particular mathematicians had a rather naive conception of evolutionary biology. They didn’t even really understand evolutionary theory particularly well – I recall one rather painful-sounding discussion where someone on the “math” side of the thing was talking about the theory of evolution by natural selection being a tautology. That was a real forehead-slapper.

Anyhow: the weird thing about this is that while this conference is cited again and again and again in DI publications, I have never seen a single reference to it ever, in any actual work on biology. I don’t have credentials for a lot of online resources, but it really does appear that the conference proceedings were unimportant in 1966, and that they have vanished into the long-long-ago land where such things as 1940s genetics symposia go, of interest to, at most, the historian of science. And because hardly anyone on the creationist side appears to be familiar with the actual proceedings – learning of it, as they usually do, from accounts published in other creationist nonsense – the treatments of it in creationist works tend to be on the criminally-naive side.

Now, I am a lover of many things Philadelphian. I spent nine years of my life there, consuming all the hoagies and Frank’s Wishniak that I could. But the Wistar proceedings seem to be about as useful as the reanimated corpse of Frank Rizzo, to anyone interested in actual biology. I am happy to be shown what contribution they have made to modern biology, but my impression is that the answer is pretty much one word: nil.

I had the Wistar conference cited to me in a private message by another user here, who was defending Meyer’s horrid, dishonest fictional work on the Cambrian, Darwin’s Doubt, and that’s what brought it to mind. I would be interested in hearing from those here who work in quantitative aspects of evolutionary biology: do these proceedings, contrary to my understanding, have any enduring importance at all? Or are they, like most 54-year-old biological symposia, now so far over the horizon behind us that no importance can be assigned to them at all? As best I can tell, they are very rarely cited, and then mostly in philosophical or historical treatments of biological topics.

I’ll comment, as a mathematician.

I looked at the Wistar conference (there was an online page at one time). As I recall, it was mostly boring. But, at that time I did have concerns as a mathematician.

Here’s the problem: natural selection, as usually presented, is a kind of statistical convergence to an optimum or near optimum. While that may help explain why species seem well adapted, it does not explain the creativity that we see.

Mutation, at first glance, is just a matter of depending on sheer dumb luck (as some creationists put it). And that, too, seems implausible.

To understand evolution, you have to understand the role of the creativity of an ever changing environment. Neo-Darwinism is too often presented as if the environment is static. And if the environment were static, I would not expect much innovation.

You mention “Darwin’s Doubt”, and it’s a good example of the problem. The Cambrian was a time of a rapidly changing environment. So we should expect a lot of biological innovation. It seems that Meyer was looking for an explanation only in terms of mutation and selection, without taking into account the environment.

Anyway, here’s the big principle:

  1. Environmental change drives biological change;

  2. Biological change drives environment change.

The complex interaction between those is what accounts for biodiversity.


So very well stated. And, of course, this was especially true in the Cambrian, with increasing diversity and disparity as themselves drivers of ecological change, a kind of out-of-control feedback loop of novelty. That, plus the strangely selective nature of fossilization processes, makes for both a real swiftness and an apparent even-swifter-ness which give one a lot to think about, and Meyer a lot to deceive people about.

I thought it was truly bizarre when Behe, in his latest book, compared Darwin’s finches with such things as the post-K/Pg diversification of the mammals. If the mammals could do that, why were Darwin’s finches all still silly little birds? Can’t we get at least one “crummy” new phylum out of it? One crummy little phylum. As though new phyla happen all the time. Hell, Mike, the K/Pg event didn’t even give us a new phylum.

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Here, by the way, is that ludicrous quote from Behe. Avert your eyes if you have a sensitive stomach:

“Well, lengthy as it is, might two million years be insufficient for major evolutionary changes to take place? Demonstrably not. Most of the many, profoundly different animal phyla that arose during the Cambrian explosion did so in only about ten million years; mammals diversified rapidly in roughly the same amount of time after the dinosaurs disappeared;whales arose from a terrestrial ancestor in about the same time. Surely we should expect at least one crummy new phylum, class or order to be conjured by Darwin’s vaunted mechanism in the time the finches have been on the Galapagos. But no, nothing. A surprising but compelling conclusion is that Darwin’s mechanism has been wildly overrated – it is incapable of producing much biological change at all.”


I can also speak as a native Philadelphian, born in a hospital not far from where the Wistar Institute is. When I and my brother and sister joined my mother in our old hometown for a family memorial service 25 years ago, I took the the occasion one day to buy them all my local favorites: TastyKakes, Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak (a soda), Wise’s Potato Chips, and Mott’s Applesauce. We didn’t have time to get to the Reading Terminal Market or buy big soft pretzels, to be bought from a pushcart downtown and eaten of course with bright yellow mustard (big fat very soft ones with small holes, unlike the fake versions one sees elsewhere in shopping-mall stands). We did get Breyer’s “vanella” ice cream, of course. I suppose only Puck M will appreciate all this nostalgia.


I’ll comment as someone who has owned a copy of the proceedings since soon after it happened. My thesis advisor, Richard Lewontin, went to the conference, and I was aware of it because I was in his lab then. Reading the proceedings, it was apparently called because the mathematicians Murray Eden and Marcel Schutzenberger thought they had this killer argument that modern evolutionary theory was wrong. It is the argument that you can’t find a specific protein sequence needed to have life (you know, that argument). They promoted the conference and a number of well-known evolutionary biologists and geneticists attended (Sewall Wright, Richard Lewontin, Conrad Waddington, William Bossert, Alex Fraser, and Ernst Mayr). However except for some short mentions, most of the biologists used it as an occasion to present their latest work and ignore the issues that Eden et al. raised. It then passed mostly unnoticed, a symposium-volume-of-the-week, as far as evolutionary biologists were concerned. It was not that the biologists were terrified – they didn’t know what the mathematicians were concerned with, and they didn’t realize the mythical status that the volume would attain among creationists.


I do…my goodness, it’s been a while since I had time to spend in Philadelphia. Frank’s soda is gone now, though I think a few years ago someone tried to bring the Wishniak back, and I hope they succeeded! My law school memories are very strong, as I was a lousy student and spent most of my time wandering about, including at the Reading Terminal Market which was a crazy-quilt assortment of shops of every sort. As a young lawyer I was much busier!

Thanks. Very interesting. I certainly find the current fascination with it bizarre, especially because if Eden et al. HAD actually had a worthwhile point to make, we would not find ourselves today discussing the symposium, but all of the work that was done in the 54 years since to deal with the issue. I think, though, that the ID creationist audience doesn’t have any sense of just how ridiculously long ago, in a fast-moving field, 54 years is.


5 posts were split to a new topic: Side comments on Wistar

@Joe_Felsenstein, can you unpack some of the history here for us?

As I understand it, in 1966, Haldane had presented his dilemma 9 years before (1957), and it was not yet solved (Haldane's dilemma - Wikipedia). Kimura had not yet presented the neutral theory of evolution (Neutral theory of molecular evolution - Wikipedia), though there were inklings of it already. This dilemma attained mythical status among creationists too. I learned about it first from YEC literature, but did not learn it was essentially solved by Kimura till many many years later. I want to understand the connections between this overlapping history.

  1. The Wistar critique seems to rely somewhat on Haldane’s dilemma, if not explicitly, they are bumping up against the same problem. Is that correct? Or was Wistar essentially pointed in a different direction without any reference to Haldane?

  2. How widely appreciated was Haldane’s dilemma at the time? Was it a niche observation or widely appreciated.

  3. Was neutral theory (even if not by way of Kimura) widely appreciated at that time, through conferences or other means yet?

We sit at an amazing point in the story now, with the internet which gives us an expansive retrospective view on scientific progress over the last century. But you actually were in the field at the time. It is a lot harder to know what it looked like from within science at the time. I’d be really curious to learn more about that.

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Eden et al.'s argument works fine if you assume, with them, that there is no way to get life to originate without coming up with one specific 150-amino-acid protein.

And in addition, you can in fact order Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak online, or what is alleged to be it. But it is $83 for 24 cans, so over $3 a can. Now as for Philly cheese steaks and how to make them …

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Quickly, as I’m busy:

  1. My recollection of the Wistar Insitute Symposium mathematicians is that their argument was the now-familiar one that in prebiotic conditions, the chance of forming a protein 150 amino acids long that had the specific sequence needed to get life going was too small. So no, not an argument about the cost of natural selection, since it was about origin of life.
  2. Haldane had put forth his Cost of Natural Selection in 1949, and people said “that’s interesting, but I am not sure how that works or what it assumes”. Then in the mid-1960s Kimura started to use it, to argue that high levels of genetic polymorphism and high rates of allele substitution would pose too high a load. People then wrote a bunch of papers (I wrote the best one in 1971). They then concluded that this argument was too unclear to be a powerful argument against the variation being selective. (I argued in 1971 that beneficial mutations increased the reproductive excess, by more than enough to enable the load from those mutations to be borne. No one noticed my paper because that was about when they gave up on using arguments about that Cost.)
  3. Neutral theory was just becoming appreciated then. Crow and Kimura in 1964 had calculated the expected heterozygosity from neutral mutations, Dick Lewontin in 1966 had pointed out that neutrality was one possible explanation for the high level of polymorphism that he and Jack Hubby found, but it was to be not until 1968 that Kimura added in the arguments that neutrality was consistyent with the rate of amino-acid substitution.

As far as I remember, neutral theory played no role in the Wistar Institute Symposium.


Oh, sure. And you see that assumption being employed all the time in creationist nonsense like Axe’s and Meyer’s books. But I’ve never really understood why anyone would have that assumption. Abiogenesis is an interesting puzzle but the only model of abiogenesis which that contradicts is a really naive one. Heck, as a kid I imagined abiogenesis was just the lucky occasion of a bunch of molecules of the right sorts happening to be in the right place and abruptly assembling a cell, but there is something to be said for putting away childish things…

Ah, that’d be worth it, if the product is good enough. Cheese steaks are an alien land for me – I have been a vegetarian since the days when those Wistar Proceedings still had the smell of fresh ink. Lately, with the advent of such things as “Impossible Burgers” I’ve been looking for some sort of proxy for the meat, but most of the stuff out there tries to emulate ground beef rather than the thin-sliced stuff.

We do a lot of hoagies at home, and we do them pretty well, I think. But the lack of Amoroso’s rolls is a serious constraint. I’ve experimented with baking them. Most commercial bread products are either too hard or too soft, and getting that bread texture right is critical.


You could also argue for soft or truncation selection. Or perhaps that’s just another way of stating your argument?

Yeh, I gess yawr nod a reel Filadelfyun.

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John Sved, with Edward Reed and Walter Bodmer, argued in 1967 in Genetics that truncation selection could solve the problem. (That paper’s available open access). But I (a few years later) argued that for beneficial mutants you didn’t even need to have that – they provided enough extra reproductive excess to make it a non-problem for them.

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One way I always felt like an outsider there was the accent. I worked in a law firm where the first named partner very definitely and clearly said “addy-tood.” “Ferry,” instead of being pronounced like “fairy,” was now “furry.” And there was an intrusive “W” in lots of words (nothing like the Intrusive W of the McFlightsuit administration, who endorsed, saints preserve us, “Whiz” on cheesesteaks) like cwuffee, cwost, et cetera.

Hi Puck
@Paul_Nelson was part of a discussion on Wistar and apparently read the documents provided. Maybe he would be willing to join this discussion.

I think it’s quite funny that he mentions that then-upcoming Royal Society event, which the DI tried likewise to massage and massacre into being somehow helpful to religious extremist views. It’s extraordinary how dishonest those people are.

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This paper by Chatterjee et al. (2014) represents a continuation of the Wistar discussion (so to speak) 48 years later:

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Google Scholar turns up many citations to the Wistar volume, such as this paper on modularity and evolution by Gunter Wagner:

I met Wagner himself at the follow-up “Wistar II” meeting held in Boston in June 2007. Tom Frazzetta, in a book which unfortunately I do not own (Complex Adaptations in Evolving Populations [Sinauer, 1975]) devotes some space, favorably, to the Wistar issues, saying that the questions raised by the physicists and engineers deserved careful attention.

Most of the citations to Wistar in the evolutionary theory literature – it’s my impression, anyway – fit with Kevin Padian’s 1989 article “The Whole Real Guts of Evolution?” Paleobiology 15 (1989):73-78. In the title of his article, Padian is quoting Conrad Waddington’s complaint, during the discussion following Murray Eden’s talk, that “the whole real guts of evolution – which is, how do you come to have horses, and tigers, and things – are outside the mathematical theory” (p. 14; “mathematical theory” refers to classical population genetics). Here’s what Padian says in his article (p. 76):

…macroevolution is, in Waddington’s words, “the whole real guts of evolution”…and as Waddington (1967) observed, such considerations are largely outside the neodarwinian theory.

Padian continues, on the next page (77):

The volume was reviewed in Science shortly after publication; you can read the whole review here: