A new wave of scientists argues that mainstream evolutionary theory needs an urgent overhaul. Their opponents have dismissed them as misguided careerists – and the conflict may determine the future of biology
There are certain core evolutionary principles that no scientist seriously questions. Everyone agrees that natural selection plays a role, as does mutation and random chance. But how exactly these processes interact – and whether other forces might also be at work – has become the subject of bitter dispute. “If we cannot explain things with the tools we have right now,” the Yale University biologist Günter Wagner told me, “we must find new ways of explaining.”
In 2014, eight scientists took up this challenge, publishing an article in the leading journal Nature that asked “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink?” Their answer was: “Yes, urgently.” Each of the authors came from cutting-edge scientific subfields, from the study of the way organisms alter their environment in order to reduce the normal pressure of natural selection – think of beavers building dams – to new research showing that chemical modifications added to DNA during our lifetimes can be passed on to our offspring. The authors called for a new understanding of evolution that could make room for such discoveries. The name they gave this new framework was rather bland – the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) – but their proposals were, to many fellow scientists, incendiary.
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