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Hard Science

Beyond Darwin: Scientists May Be Redefining Evolution

Challenging long-held ideas of evolution.

Adding to Darwin’s Ideas

For years, scientists have subscribed to the ideas brought about by Darwin’s theory of evolution. In his book, On the Origin of Species, he outlines the main mechanism of natural selection, where traits that adapt better to a particular environment are inherited from one generation to another, thus gradually proliferating that trait within a population of species.

Advancements in the field of genetics have lead to a new theory — the Neo-Darwinian Theory of Evolution or Modern Evolutionary Synthesis (MES). In this theory, genes take center stage as a major mechanism of evolution.

Even now, scientists have been trying to build on the foundation that Darwin laid-out. New discoveries were presented at a meeting at the Royal Society called “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology.”  In a series of presentations on the new theory they call “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES),” the scientists describe one of their main assumptions: phenotypic accommodation, or the adaptive trait, can come before genetic changes can take place.

The scientists cited different examples for this, one of which was presented by Sonia Sultan, an evolutionary ecologist from the Wesleyan University. Sultan studied two groups of genetically identical plants called “smartweed” and placed them in two separate environments: one full of sunlight and the other with less light. The two groups grew into vastly different plants with traits suited for the environment that they grew in.

A New Way to Think About Evolution

The ideas presented in the meeting were met with heavy skepticism, with proponents of the MES theory like researcher David Shuker, calling out one of the presenters. He declared the results of the studies “a perfect, beautiful example of rapid neo-Darwinian evolution,” a sentiment shared by other skeptics that wonder if EES was a necessary paradigm shift.

Still, Douglas Futuyma – a biologist at Stony Brook University in New York, and defender of the MES theory – sees some use of the EES theory, as it could lead to new insights about evolution. However, he challenges the proponents of EES to back it up with hard data.

Kevin Laland, an evolutionary biologist from the University of St. Andrews, says they intend on finding hard evidence: “It’s doing the research, which is what our critics are telling us to do.” The data from these studies could give us new insight to the origins of humanity and our relationship with other organisms on our planet.

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