Summary of "Evolution beyond neo-Darwinism: a new conceptual framework," The Journal of Experimental Biology, (2015) 218.

“We are moving to a much more nuanced multi-mechanism theory of evolution.” In this article, with “Lamarck” and “systems biology” among its keywords, Denis Noble issues a no-holds-barred challenge to apologists for the modern synthesis. 

“The language of new-Darwinism and 20th century biology reflect highly reductionist philosophical and scientific viewpoints, the concepts of which are not required by the scientific discoveries themselves.” These concepts form “a biased interpretative veneer that can hide those discoveries in a web of interpretation. I refer to a web of interpretation as it is the whole conceptual scheme of new-Darwinism that creates the difficulty. Each concept and metaphor reinforces the overall mindset until it is almost impossible to stand outside it and appreciate how beguiling it is.” 

The main body of the article consists of detailed analyses of terms associated with the reductionist viewpoint he wants to supplant: “gene,” “selfish,” “code,” “program,” “blueprint,” “book of life,” “replicator” and “vehicle.” A few quotes: “There is no biological experiment that could distinguish between the selfish gene theory and its opposites, such as ‘imprisoned’ or ‘cooperative’ genes” “The postulate of a ‘genetic program’ led to the idea that an organism is fully defined by its genome, whereas in fact the inheritance of cell structures is equally important.” “As the Nobel-prize winner Barbara McClintock said, the genome is an ‘organ of the cell,’ not the other way round.” Later he says, “It is therefore easy to represent the three-dimensional structure of the cell as containing as much information as the genome…. Genes are best viewed therefore as causes in a passive sense. They do nothing until activated. Active causation lies with proteins, membranes, organelles, etc., and the dynamical functional networks they form in interaction with the environment.” 

Some of his closing remarks: 

“We can then ask what would be an alternative approach better fitted to what we now know experimentally and to a new more integrated system view.” Phrases he uses in conjunction with this new view include “dynamic functional networks,” “self-templating,” “transgenerational inheritance,” “non-random variation,” as well of course as “epigenetic.” Let’s hope the phrases get shortened as time goes by.

“The alternative form of representation depends on two fundamental concepts. The first one is the distinction between active and passive causes... The second concept is that there is no privileged level of causation.” “Active causation resides in the networks, which include many components for which there are no DNA templates. It is the physics and chemistry of those dynamic networks that determine what happens.” 

“An important linguistic feature of the alternative, relativistic, concepts proposed here is that most or all the anthropomorphic features of the new-Darwinist language can be eliminated without contravening a single biological experimental fact. There may be other forms of representation that can achieve the same result. It doesn’t really matter which you use. The aim is simply to distance ourselves from the biased conceptual scheme that neo-Darwinism has brought to biology, made more problematic by the fact that it has been presented as literal truth…. By so conclusively excluding anything that might be interpreted as Lamarckism, it assumed what couldn’t be proved.

On this site we carry a review of Noble’s book “The Music of Life.”