50 Years of Scientific Challenges to Evolution: Remembering The Wistar Symposium


(bouncy music) – 50 years ago today there
was a remarkable meeting held at the Wistar
Institute in Philadelphia that’s had a tremendous influence on thinking over the past 50 years about the nature of the
evolutionary process. Briefly what happened
was a group of physicists and engineers took an interest in biology, and they took an interest in particular in the basic logic of
the Darwinian process, and thinking very much as engineers do, namely asking the
question, “Will it work?” An engineer just can’t wave his hands. Either the plane flies or it doesn’t. The bridge stands or it doesn’t. They’re very practical-minded,
these engineers, and that’s a bit of a simplification. These are professors at places
like MIT, like Murray Eden. They said it looks like the
math is not going to cooperate. You’ve got a search
condition in the first step of natural selection,
where you are looking at a selection of random outcomes
provided to you by mutation. What that means is that,
unlike an engineered system where you can bias the
outcome using your intellect to aim at the target you want, in evolution and neo-Darwinian evolution your raw materials, so to speak, are being provided to you
essentially by a roulette wheel. I’m mixing metaphors here,
but the idea is you’re having to make the best of a
series of random outcomes. Randomness by definition is undirected, meaning that the process is waiting on, as it’s looking to move
towards a particular functional outcome, is waiting on the deliverances of
a giant lottery wheel, or pick any particular
random process you want. The mathematics of that
as you carry it through raise severe challenges for
getting that process as a whole, the whole of the evolutionary
process, to go where you want, which is namely to build
you bacterial cells or plants or animals or any
complex integrated system. And what happened was these
engineers got together, very, very bright guys,
engineers and physicists, and they invited their
friends on the faculties of places like Harvard and so forth, MIT. They went and knocked on
the door of, you know, the office doors of the
biologists and they said, “We think we’ve got a problem
here, and we’re gonna have “a symposium to talk about
this and sort it out.” And it was then known, the publication that came out of this was known as “Mathematical Challenges “to the Neo-Darwinian
Interpretation of Evolution.” So these critics accept that there was some evolutionary process that occurred. That wasn’t at issue. What was at issue was the neo-Darwinian understanding of how this had happened. And what’s remarkable
about the Wistar document is you see the papers
from the various authors, both pro and con with
respect to neo-Darwinism. And then transcripts of the
discussions are included, and these transcripts
are very lively reading. So at certain points in the wake of a talk people are yelling at each other. You can almost see chairs being thrown. This meeting must have
been incredible to attend. And I recommend to anyone
who wants to take the time, find that book, again the title
is “Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian
Interpretation of Evolution,” and read through it, and
it’s quite revealing. The puzzle that they focused on was unsolved in 1966,
and it’s unsolved today. And it’s unsolved because of
a deeper question, and that is all parties, I think
almost without exception, at that meeting, all parties
to the debate would’ve agreed that, to explain any living thing, you are limited to natural
processes and chance. So if you think about having
an explanatory toolkit, you pop the lid on your
toolbox and look inside. You’ve got natural processes,
whatever they happen to be, and chance events, and that’s it. No appeals to intelligence, to guidance, to teleology were allowed. All right, you play can that game. But that means, if the
products you’re looking at, if the things you wish
to explain were in fact caused by intelligence and
that’s what actually happened, you are not going to be
able to solve your problem, because your toolkit is too small. It’s a fascinating document,
it was an incredible meeting, but it highlights the limits that a materialist
understanding of reality places on your freedom
as a scientist to say, “You know what, this
system that I’m looking at “requires intelligence, and
I need a better toolkit. “This one’s not gonna work.” That wasn’t an option for anybody there. But you can see very clearly,
especially in the papers of these physicists and engineers, they realized neo-Darwinism does not work. And I think in the
intervening five decades, the evolutionary biology community itself has finally awakened to this. So in November, at the
Royal Society in London, a meeting has convened
that will be, I predict, very much like Wistar in its consequences, where the assembled
speakers are going to say our current theory is bust and we need to try something else. And again the question will be, all right, are you gonna play only in the
materialist boundary lines, or are you gonna have the
courage to go beyond that? (bouncy music)