Darwinism and academic culture: Darwinism under siege from mainstream proponents of alternative paths of evolution
In a most interesting - and for New Scientist, a surprisingly sensible - overview, Bob Holmes reports on approaches to evolution that do not invoke Richard Dawins's famous "selfish gene" ("The selfless gene: Rethinking Dawkins's doctrine," 09 March 2009 ): These include species selection, group selection, ecosystem selection, and microcosms. Save this one to get up to speed on why many doubt Darwin - and Dawkins:
the consensus is that evolution never favours what might be called "selfless" genes - that is, adaptations that benefit a group of organisms or the species as a whole. An example would be a gene that restricts how many offspring a predator has, to avoid wiping out its prey. Such a gene should always lose out to selfish genes that maximise reproduction, the thinking goes, even if reproducing without restraint threatens the survival of the whole species."[T]he dominance of the "selfish gene" in evolutionary thought is facing its strongest challenge in many years"? Remember that when someone tells you that there is absolutely no controversy over evolution. There is a huge and growing controversy, as Holmes's article makes clear, about mechanisms of evolution, with textbook Darwinism under siege from many quarters. This is a must-read if you want to understand why there is a controversy over Darwinism. Little evidence supports it and the body of evidence against it is growing all the time.
Increasingly, though, this consensus is being challenged, and on several fronts. The least controversial of these is the notion that entire species themselves can have traits that, over geological time, make them more likely than others to escape extinction and branch off new daughter species. This can lead to evolutionary change that could not be predicted from individual adaptations alone.
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If ecosystem-level selection is the norm, it could prompt a major shake-up in our view of the microbial world and, by extension, the macroscopic world, too. "It's only in the last 5 or 10 years that people realised that the majority of bacteria live in multispecies collectives," says Penn. "Bacteria are driving the basic processes of the biosphere, so if their evolution is in this higher-level context, it's going to be very different to the way we've thought about it previously, and their responses to climate change could be very different than we would expect from thinking about them individually."
It is still too early to know whether group, species and ecosystem-level selection are major evolutionary forces or merely minor curiosities - baroque ornaments on the central edifice of individual or gene-level selection. But the dominance of the "selfish gene" in evolutionary thought is facing its strongest challenge in many years.