Thursday, 7 April 2016

Ker ching: Putting the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis to the test

Congratulations to Kevin Laland and Tobias Uller have just been awarded a stonking £5.7 million grant for an international, multi-disciplinary, project "to put the predictions of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis to the test". It is one of the biggest awards the Templeton Foundation have ever made and it promises to be an exciting three years!

The 1940's unification of genetics with Darwin's theory of natural selection, known as the 'Modern Synthesis' has ruled the subsequent 75 years of evolutionary biology, despite the gradual erosion of some of its central commitments.That evolution occurs by the accumulation of small, random genetic mutations. That inheritance is mediated exclusively by the germ line. That development can be blackboxed as a mere proximate means to evolutionary ends.

The cracks in the Modern Synthesis have been groaning for years under the weight of accumulating empirical findings about extra-genetic inheritance, about directed mutations, about the positive creative roles of developmental and behavioural mechanisms in sculpting evolution.

Cutting edge biologists might tell you that they don't really take seriously the relevant outdated dictums anymore. Every other grant application probably features the word 'epigenetic' these days. But whether or not we accept and endorse all the relevant exceptions and sophistications, there is a compelling argument that the old habits die hard: the simple and beautiful but false generalisations made in the Modern Synthesis continue to work unnoticed in the background assumptions and expectations of most biologists. The respect still accorded the Modern Synthesis in textbooks is hampering rather than fostering further progress in evolutionary theorising.

As many biologists continue to merrily apply sticking plasters to its crumbling facade, the time is ripe for evolutionary theory to evolve. The issues go beyond the extent to which established orthodoxy can be updated before it needs a name change. Defenders of the EES contend that piecemeal amendment is not sufficient to overcome so many years of accumulated inertia. It is time for an expanded and revised synthesis that accommodates everything that has been learnt in the fields of evo devo, niche construction and epigenetics.

The team of 29 principle investigators, with an additional 29 satellite researchers from across the globe (including one from All Souls ; )), will collaborate on 22 projects exploring four central pillars of the EES: Developmental bias; Developmental plasticity; Niche construction; and Inclusive inheritance. Some of the projects will perform empirical tests of key predictions that distinguish traditional and EES standpoints, such as Susan Foster's work on plasticity-led evolution.  Others will be more philosophical in nature, exploring the role that conceptual frameworks play in science.

Tim Lewens will lead the 'conceptual' part of the project which aims to set the EES in historical and philosophical context and investigate the constraints and impediments facing the old and new ways of thinking.

Armin Moczek leads the projects concerned with testing the extent to which development can lead to evolutionary innovations and novelties. Its now well-established that evolution is not free to explore morphospace but is directed and hampered by developmental constraints and biases. These projects will work with Onthophagus beetles and social insects to explore the extent to which developmental biases can play a more positive role in creating new phenotypes and so gain a new role as an important explanandum, as well as proximate realiser, of evolutionary phenomena.

Kevin Laland heads up the team investigating the explanatory significance of plasticity, niche construction and other developmental processes as leaders, in place of genetic mutations, of evolutionary change. Carrying out work on butterflies, lizards, coral reefs and more.

Finally and, I must admit, of greatest excitement to me, Tobias Uller is in charge of a cluster of projects that will explore the potential payoffs of extended notions of inheritance. I'm particularly excited about this' strand because it meshes nicely with my recent project about the role inheritance plays in explaining how cooperation can emerge in biological and cultural evolution.On the one hand, evolutionary biologists use 'gene' to stand in for any supporting medium which delivers a particular pattern of inheritance, whether it has anything to do with deoxyribonucleic acid or not. But at the same it cannot be denied that where there is inheritance, our starting and often finishing assumption is that a small chunk of DNA must be responsible. 'Gene' is a shape-shifting concept that often blinds us to the significance of diverse inheritance systems.

Incidentally, I believe Tobias is pioneering a new pedagogic approach which teaches genetics to undergraduates without introducing any of the misleading and biasing work of Gregor Mendel, and I will follow the outcomes of that with interest.

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