Suzan Mazur: The Alternberg 16

Suzan Mazur is a journalist with a mission. Her mission is to promote a new paradigm in evolutionary theory. In a transcript included in this book of an interview with the billionaire David H. Koch she tells him, “There’s been a huge debate this past year particularly. I’m not referring to evolution vs. creationism. What I’ve been covering involves other mechanisms of evolutionary change aside from Charles Darwin’s natural selection…. I’ve written an expose of the evolution industry.” (She uses that phrase, “An Expose of the Evolution Industry,” as the subtitle of her book.) She goes on: “Most sophisticated evolutionary thinkers are now saying natural selection is not the most important mechanism of evolutionary change. It’s reached a crescendo and a lot of people are saying there’s a sea change happening. This is a big debate which the media is not covering.”

Why is Suzan intent on educating David H. Koch about a gap in media coverage of evolutionary theory? Koch is a major supporter of NPR’s NOVA program. She asks him, point blank, “What I’m asking is, should the media, and in particular, PBS, focus on these better ideas of how evolution occurred and by enlightening the public, help stop the fighting about ‘old science’?” And for good measure, since Koch is financing the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History in Washington, she asks, “Do you have any interest in supporting an evolution conference in America along the lines of what the Vatican or the Austrians have done? Also, do you have any interest in creating a foundation specifically for the investigation of these other mechanisms of evolution?”

For now, David Koch is holding out, believing his fortune is better spent developing cures for cancer, but I doubt Suzan is finished with him. If we see a NOVA series announced on the new paradigm in evolution we may have Suzan to thank.

The new paradigm she’s referring to addresses all the major mysteries of life: how the first living creatures originated, what drives the process of evolution, and how individual living creatures develop and self-repair. The answers are, through self assembly and self organization.

Self assembly is the process by which organic molecules and components can come together to form more complex entities, without the need for energy input. This could account for the formation of life from non-living molecules and structures. Self organization is the process by which living organisms develop from simpler living components such as individual cells and cell fragments, sometimes requiring additional energy input provided by the living components driving the self organizing process.

Suzan’s book takes the form primarily of transcripts of interviews she set up with the primary movers and shakers in the field of evolutionary theory, which makes her book an invaluable glimpse into current thinking in the field. Her choice of thinkers was guided primarily by the invitation lists to two meetings, one held at Alternberg in Austria in 2009, hence the title of her book, the other by the Vatican in preparation for a meeting held in 2010. Suzan herself was not permitted to attend these meetings, but she interviewed people on both lists about what they expected to see covered and what they each had to communicate.

What’s the backstory? Any coherence in the new paradigm seems to have originated as a backlash against the tide of adulation accorded Charles Darwin in 2009, his bicentennial year. Enormous credit lies for the taking in whoever can knock him from his perch. Also, the rise of creationism makes natural selection seem too vulnerable a gatekeeper of the sanctum of evolution. The new paradigm has venerable roots: Stuart Kauffman has for decades been polishing theories of chaos theory and self organization. And why self organization? I can identify only three possible sources of the information manifested in the living world: the environment, the genome, and individual living creatures. Darwin commandeered the first, Erasmus Darwin (“A living filament”) and Jean Baptiste Lamarck commandeered the second, only individual living organisms was left. What more natural than to suppose they self-organize?

Among Suzan’s interviewees are Richard Dawkins, Stuart Kauffman, Richard Lewontin, Lynn Margulis and Nyles Eldredge. Altogether she assembled a very impressive line-up.


I am upset to recognize sarcasm and some hostility in the above review. I know the source: ignorant of the science behind it, I view "self organization" as a banal truism. How does a 6-foot-long baby blue whale become a perfectly proportioned 100-foot-long adult? It "self-organizes"? I don't think so! That sounds like accounting for animal behaviors by tracing them to "instincts."

I doubt I'll be the only one to think this. Perhaps a better term is needed, something less resembling a simple restatement of the phenomenon to be accounted for.

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
The Alternberg 16 evolution