Altenberg 16 controversy

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The Altenberg 16 controversy was spurred by a science meeting at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in 2008 which proposed an extended evolutionary synthesis that was misrepresented by creationists and similar types to attack evolutionary biology.

Contents

[edit] Introduction

A group of sixteen evolutionary biologists and philosophers of science met July 11-13 at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Altenberg, Austria to discuss the current status of evolution, and in particular empirical and conceptual advances that have marked the field in recent times. The group called for an extended evolutionary synthesis.

According to the statement of the meeting:

The new information includes findings from the continuing molecular biology revolution, as well as a large body of empirical knowledge on genetic variation in natural populations, phenotypic plasticity,[wp] phylogenetics, species-level stasis and punctuational evolution, and developmental biology, among others.

The new concepts include (but are not limited to): evolvability, developmental plasticity, phenotypic and genetic accommodation, punctuated evolution[wp], phenotypic innovation, facilitated variation, epigenetic inheritance,[wp] and multi-level selection.

By incorporating these new results and insights into our understanding of evolution, we believe that the explanatory power of evolutionary theory is greatly expanded within biology and beyond. As is the nature of science, some of the new ideas will stand the test of time, while others will be significantly modified. Nonetheless, there is much justified excitement in evolutionary biology these days. This is a propitious time to engage the scientific community in a vast interdisciplinary effort to further our understanding of how life evolves.[1]

Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. Müller[wp] published Evolution - the Extended Synthesis (2010) which discussed the ideas presented at the meeting.

The sixteen scientists that attended the meeting were:

  • John Beatty (University of British Columbia)
  • Werner Callebaut (University of Hasselt)
  • Sergey Gavrilets (University of Tennessee)
  • Eva Jablonka[wp] (Tel Aviv University)
  • David Jablonski[wp] (University of Chicago)
  • Marc Kirschner[wp] (Harvard University)
  • Alan Love (University of Minnesota)
  • [Gerd B. Müller (University of Vienna)
  • Stuart Newman[wp] (New York Medical College)
  • John Odling-Smee (Oxford University)
  • Massimo Pigliucci (Stony Brook University)
  • Michael Purugganan (New York University)
  • Eörs Szathmáry[wp] (Collegium Budapest)
  • Günter P. Wagner[wp] (Yale University)
  • David Sloan Wilson[wp] (Binghamton University)
  • Greg Wray (Duke University)

[edit] Controversy

The Altenberg meeting was unfortunately misunderstood and deliberately distorted by creationists and intelligent design advocates. Only a few days after the meeting and hundreds of creationist anti-evolution websites and blogs were claiming the scientists at the Altenberg meeting were anti-evolution or advocating non-Darwinian evolution.

On the subject of the Altenberg meeting Nick Matzke[wp] wrote:

In real life, the meeting discussed the possibilities for an “Extended Synthesis” in evolutionary biology which incorporates development, evolvability, complexity theory, etc. into the old “Modern Synthesis” of population genetics. But in the land of cranks & ID/creationists, the Altenberg 16 meeting has become the latest bit of evidence that evolution is a theory in crisis. The primary person who got the crazy-train going was “journalist” Suzan Mazur, who has written a series of stories that mis-portray almost everyone and everything involved and, no matter what her interviewees tell her, end up with the inevitable conclusion that evolution is on its last legs.[2]

Pigliucci also in response to the claims of the creationists posted on his blog:

The so-called “Woodstock of evolution” (not my term, and a pretty bad one for sure) will see a group of scientists, by now known as “the Altenberg 16” (because there are sixteen of us, and we’ll meet at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for theoretical biology in Altenberg, near Vienna) has been featured on blogs by a variety of nutcases, as well as the quintessential ID “think” tank, the Discovery Institute of Seattle. They have presented the workshop that I am organizing in collaboration with my colleague Gerd Müller, and the proceedings of which will be published next year by MIT Press, as an almost conspiratorial, quasi-secret cabala, brought to the light of day by the brave work of independent journalists and “scholars” bent on getting the truth out about evolution. Of course, nothing could be further from the (actual) truth.

Pigliucci has explained on his blog in great detail the actual facts regarding the Altenberg meeting and how the creationists have lied about the entire series of events of the meeting in an agenda to try and make out evolution is in crisis.[3]

[edit] Susan Mazur

Self-described free-lance "journalist" Susan Mazur had interviewed some of the scientists and wrote a book about the meeting titled Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry (2010) however the book was inaccurate, muddled and an uninformed account of the real Altenberg meeting. Mazur in her book distorted the actual events of the meeting in an agenda to make out evolution is a theory in crisis. She also proposed that natural selection is a dogma and that the Altenberg meeting was set up to propose non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms to replace natural selection which are being supressed by the "Darwinist" scientific community. Mazur had made the mistake of confusing non-Darwinian evolution with the extended evolutionary synthesis.

Intelligent design advocate Casey Luskin reported that some of the non-Darwinians who were speaking at the Altenberg meeting consisted of Jerry Fodor[wp] and Stuart Pivar, however neither Fodor or Pivar were at the meeting. Mazur also discusses many other scientists in her book that were nothing to do with the meeting. Many of the claims of Mazur have been refuted and scientists associated with the meeting have criticised Mazur for misrepresenting their views on evolution.[4]

[edit] Scientific reception

PZ Myers has written that the Altenberg meeting had been overhyped and ruined by creationists yet the meeting was full of interesting ideas.[5]

[edit] Footnotes


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