"There have been rumblings for some time to the effect that the neo-darwinian synthesis of the early twentieth century is incomplete and due for a major revision. In the past decade, several authors have written books to articulate this feeling and to begin the move towards a second synthesis. … Evolution in Four Dimensions by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb is the most recent addition to this genre, and contributes yet another valuable perspective to the discussion."
"… Jablonka and Lamb build on evidence from standard research in evolutionary and molecular biology, and their case should be examined on its merits, rather than being dismissed by a knee-jerk reaction.
Consider the charge of lamarckism. Jablonka and Lamb happily embrace the term, but with one important qualification. As they correctly point out, there are at least two very distinct meanings of the word. Most biologists associate lamarckism with the idea of direct adaptive feedback from the soma to the germ line. That version of lamarckism is dead, killed off by our understanding of molecular biology, and nobody is attempting to revive it.
The second meaning is actually closer to the core of Lamarck's ideas, which are rarely, if ever, read by modern biologists. The suggestion is that some heritable, adaptive changes come not from natural selection, but from the action of evolved internal systems that generate non-random 'guesses' in response to environmental challenges. Examples are not hard to find, contrary to the assumed wisdom of standard neo-darwinism. Consider the existence of 'hotspots' that make mutations in certain regions of the genome much more likely than in others. Or the impressive ability of some bacteria to increase the mutation rate of a specific gene involved in the metabolism of a given amino acid when that amino acid becomes scarce in the environment."
"If one accepts this bold, expanded version of heredity and evolution, it turns out that evolution can proceed very rapidly and phenotypic modification can precede genetic changes "” something also suggested by several of the authors of the other books mentioned above. Indeed, changes at the genetic level will often simply stabilize adaptive modifications that are initiated through phenotypic plasticity, epigenetic control mechanisms, or behavioural and symbolic means. This is a framework that would greatly help to solve old problems in evolutionary biology, such as the origin of novel structures, and even the appearance of what 'intelligent design' proponents refer to, rather nonsensically, as 'irreducible complexity'. This wouldn't require the abandonment of neo-darwinism, but rather its expansion beyond what Ernst Mayr contemptuously labelled 'bean-bag genetics'.
The irony, as Jablonka and Lamb point out, is that empirical evidence for the importance of epigenetic inheritance systems comes from the partial failure of the originally ultra-reductionist, gene-centred approach that gave us genomics. It is becoming increasingly clear that the interesting stuff is going on at the level of large gene networks, not of individual genes, partly because there is widespread functional redundancy in the genome. This is why we are seeing an astounding proliferation of 'omics' – after genomics, we have had proteomics, metabolomics and even phenomics, whatever that may mean."
Some creationists might interpret the fact that these scientists are pointing to problems with the traditional neo-darwinian view as evidence that "evolution is dying". However, this would be a mistake. Evolution isn't the same as neo-darwinism, and these scientists are finding mechanisms that make the adaptation of organisms more likely. In fact, I'd go one step further and suggest that these findings show why, if life had been designed, the designer would have used evolution.
Some years ago, Mike predicted:
"The non-teleological view of evolution is that it is not really a biological process, but instead is the consequence of many smaller biological processes. Or look at it this way: the purpose of life is not to evolve; it just happens. But a teleological view of evolution likens it to a biotic process (roughly analogous to ontogeny). Evolution was intended/anticipated. I suspect much of the so-called junk DNA comes into play here. Is evolution really nothing more than a by-product of messy molecular interactions or is it far more sophisticated (itself being designed)? Concerning the cell and its contents, Bruce Alberts noted, 'But, as it turns out, we can walk and we can talk because the chemistry that makes life possible is much more elaborate and sophisticated than anything we students had ever considered. ' More and more, I am coming to seriously think that in another few decades, another leading scientist will write, 'But, as it turns out, we exist because evolution has been much more elaborate and sophisticated than anything we students had ever considered.'"
Or, as he later added: "Let me merely say that we have just begun to understand evolution and I think we will one day find that the processes of evolution are far too sophisticated to fit comfortably in the Modern Synthesis." Well, it looks like we're a lot closer to seeing that day. Pigliucci talks of "internal systems that generate non-random 'guesses' in response to environmental challenges." Mutations, instead of being something that happens to an organism because mistakes arise in the copying of its genome, is something that the organism actively causes, controls, and takes advantage of. The future will be an interesting time for those thinking about ID.