In 2017 two books by renowned biologists came out strongly against the neo-Darwinist synthesis. They both share the positive message of moving towards homeostasis, physiology, and systems biology as complementary to the role of genes. The times they are a changing in evolutionary theory.
The books are Purpose and Desire by Scott Turner (of SUNY Syracuse) and Dance to the Tune of Life by Denis Noble (of Oxford). Both are clear and easy reading. Scott Turner comes down hard: “I have come to believe that there is something presently wrong with how we scientists think about life, its existence, its origins, and its evolution” (p. xi). Denis Noble broadsides with: “Neo-Darwinism is incomplete as a theory of evolution” (p. 189). These are strong criticisms.
They also work in positive directions which are similar. Both invoke Claude Bernard, the French physiologist of the nineteenth century who is credited with the basic concept from physiology of homeostasis – the ability of bodies to maintain whole stabilities (e.g. heat, blood pressure, etc.). Rather than a central role for the gene as the ‘source’ of causality, they see an holistic picture where a symphony of causality, particularly from upper levels, constrain actions by other molecules or organs. For Turner it is the ‘triple helix’ of gene, organism, and environment that shows this mutual causality. For Noble it is the notion of levels (such as molecules, organelles, cell, tissues, functional systems like cardiovascular system, organism) that give constraints to the chemical reaction networks from upper levels to lower levels. For him genes are just another organ or system among many that interact in continuing circular causality to affect the others. Noble comes closer than Turner to identifying the concepts needed to fill out this answer to the Neo-Darwinist gene-centric view of life. Both point towards a new synthesis where there is not a single locus of causality as with the gene.
In terms of the debate identified of whether there will be a new synthesis for evolutionary theory, both authors belong to what I have described as the radical group. For them an “extended synthesis” will not be enough. They make very good, clear cases that a new synthesis in evolutionary theory will be radically different and will address deep issues about the nature of life.
We live in an exciting and hopeful time.
Noble, Denis. 2017. Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity. Cambridge UP.
Turner, J Scott. 2017. Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism has Failed to Explain It. Harper One.