What's really notable, however, is that such a thoroughly mainstream body should so openly acknowledge problems with orthodox neo-Darwinian theory. Indeed, though presenters ignored, dismissed, or mocked the theory of intelligent design, the proceedings perfectly illustrated a point made by our colleague Stephen Meyer, author of the New York Times bestseller “Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design.”
Dr. Meyer, a Cambridge University-trained philosopher of science, writes provocatively in the book's Prologue:
“The technical literature in biology is now replete with world-class biologists routinely expressing doubts about various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory, and especially about its central tenet, namely the alleged creative power of the natural selection and mutation mechanism.
“Nevertheless, popular defenses of the theory continue apace, rarely if ever acknowledging the growing body of critical scientific opinion about the standing of the theory. Rarely has there been such a great disparity between the popular perception of a theory and its actual standing in the relevant peer-reviewed science literature.”
The opening presentation at the Royal Society by one of those world-class biologists, Austrian evolutionary theorist Gerd Müller, underscored exactly Meyer’s contention. Dr. Müller opened the meeting by discussing several of the fundamental "explanatory deficits" of “the modern synthesis,” that is, textbook neo-Darwinian theory. According to Müller, the as yet unsolved problems include those of explaining:
Phenotypic complexity (the origin of eyes, ears, body plans, i.e., the anatomical and structural features of living creatures);
Phenotypic novelty, i.e., the origin of new forms throughout the history of life (for example, the mammalian radiation some 66 million years ago, in which the major orders of mammals, such as cetaceans, bats, carnivores, enter the fossil record, or even more dramatically, the Cambrian explosion, with most animal body plans appearing more or less without antecedents); and finally non-gradual forms or modes of transition, where you see abrupt discontinuities in the fossil record between different types.
As Müller has explained in a 2003 work (“On the Origin of Organismal Form,” with Stuart Newman), although “the neo-Darwinian paradigm still represents the central explanatory framework of evolution, as represented by recent textbooks” it “has no theory of the generative.” In other words, the neo-Darwinian mechanism of mutation and natural selection lacks the creative power to generate the novel anatomical traits and forms of life that have arisen during the history of life. Yet, as Müller noted, neo-Darwinian theory continues to be presented to the public via textbooks as the canonical understanding of how new living forms arose – reflecting precisely the tension between the perceived and actual status of the theory that Meyer described in “Darwin’s Doubt.”
Yet, the most important lesson of the Royal Society conference lies not in its vindication of claims that our scientists have made, gratifying as that might be to us, but rather in defining the current problems and state of research in the field. The conference did an excellent job of defining the problems that evolutionary theory has failed to solve, but it offered little, if anything, by way of new solutions to those longstanding fundamental problems.
Much of the conference after Müller’s talk did discuss various other proposed evolutionary mechanisms. Indeed, the prime movers in the Royal Society event, Müller, James Shapiro, Denis Noble, and Eva Jablonka – known to evolutionary biologists as the "Third Way of Evolution" crowd, neither ID theorists nor orthodox Darwinists – have proposed repairing the explanatory deficits of the modern synthesis by highlighting evolutionary mechanisms other than random mutation and natural selection. Much debate at the conference centered around the question of whether these new mechanisms could be incorporated into the basic population genetics framework of neo-Darwinism, thus making possible a new “extended” evolutionary synthesis, or whether the emphasis on new mechanisms of evolutionary change represented a radical, and theoretically incommensurable, break with established theory. This largely semantic, or classificatory, issue obscured a deeper question that few, if any, of the presentations confronted head on: the issue of the origin of genuine phenotypic novelty – the problem that Müller described in his opening talk.
Indeed, by the end of Day 3 of the meeting, it seemed clear to many of our scientists, and others in attendance with whom they talked, that the puzzle of life's novelties remained unsolved – if, indeed, it had been addressed at all. As a prominent German paleontologist in the crowd concluded, “All elements of the Extended Synthesis [as discussed at the conference] fail to offer adequate explanations for the crucial explanatory deficits of the Modern Synthesis (aka neo-Darwinism) that were explicitly highlighted in the first talk of the meeting by Gerd Müller.”
In “Darwin’s Doubt,” for example, Meyer emphasized the obvious importance of genetic and other (i.e., epigenetic) types of information to building novel phenotypic traits and forms of life. The new mechanisms offered by the critics of neo-Darwinism at the conference – whether treated as part of an extended neo-Darwinian synthesis or as the basis of a fundamentally new theory of evolution – did not attempt to explain how the information necessary to generating genuine novelty might have arisen. Instead, the mechanisms that were discussed produce at best minor microevolutionary changes, such as changes in wing coloration of butterflies or the celebrated polymorphisms of stickleback fish.
Moreover, the mechanisms that were discussed – niche construction, phenotypic plasticity, natural genetic engineering, and so on – either presupposed the prior existence of the biological information necessary to generate novelty, or they did not address the mystery of the origin of that information (and morphological novelty) at all. (Not all the mechanisms addressed were necessarily new, by the way. Niche construction and phenotypic plasticity have been around for a long time.)
Complex behaviors such as nest-building by birds or dam construction by beavers represent examples of niche construction, in which some organisms themselves demonstrate the capacity to alter their environment in ways that may affect the adaptation of subsequent generations to that environment. Yet no advocate of niche construction at the meeting explained how the capacity for such complex behaviors arose de novo in ancestral populations, as they must have done if the naturalistic evolutionary story is true.
Rather, these complex behaviors were taken as givens, leaving the critical question of their origins more or less untouched. While there is abundant evidence that animals can learn and transmit new behaviors to their offspring – crows in Japan, for instance, have learned how to use automobile traffic to crack open nuts – all such evidence presupposes the prior existence of specific functional capacities enabling observation, learning, and the like. The evolutionary accounts of niche construction theory therefore collide repeatedly with a brick wall marked "ORIGINAL COMPLEX FUNCTIONAL CAPACITY REQUIRED HERE" – without, or beyond which, there would simply be nothing interesting to observe."