Ah, priorities … and oh, consequences …

In "Did Erasmus Darwin foreshadow the tweaking of his grandson’s paradigm?" (The Scientist , 2011-03-01) , Andrew D. Ellington, a University of Texas biologist tells us,

The Lamarckian idea that giraffes’ reaching for leaves resulted in longer-necked progeny seems silly to us today, primarily because we know so very much about the underlying mechanisms of genetics. And yet Lamarck may have a last laugh—think inheritance patterns in ciliates, or the effect of diet on the coat color of agouti mouse offspring. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in our understanding of how evolution can act…on evolution, yielding mechanisms that allow both adaptation and heritability within the course of a lifetime. And such paradigm shifts almost always have societal consequences. Manel Esteller shows that epigenetics also impacts the “dark genome” in a way that may improve cancer diagnostics. An even more far-reaching consequence is that it may prove possible to engineer epigenetics, as Bob Kingston’s Thought Experiment tacitly suggests. If so, will epigenetic engineering be subject to the same restrictions as genetic engineering? Or will this be a way that we can not merely treat disease, but possibly engineer human health into future generations?

And in the face of so momentous a revolution in our thinking, his worry is

We can expect that epigenetics will be held up as the forerunner of that bastard child of Creationism, Intelligent Design.

Such limited aims in the face of so vast an ocean of possibilities. Not only is he right in his concerns, such as they are, but it helps to see why he is right. In the  first place, the modern Darwinism enforced in schools is a narrow cult compared to what Darwin actually proposed about how evolution occurs. For example, as David Tyler notes,

Brooks' search for a way forward led him to the view that Neo-Darwinism differs from Darwinism "on a number of important issues". He refers to the New Synthesis as the "Hardened Synthesis". Nine statements are presented to show the difference between Darwin's view (as expressed in the sixth edition of the Origin) and views held by neo-Darwinians. Brooks argues strongly that changes in evolutionary theory are overdue."The eclipse of Darwinism began to end in the 1980s and hangs in the balance today. We need an Extended Synthesis, using "extension" metaphorically. We must extend back in time to recover important aspects of Darwinism that were set aside, then lost during neo-Darwinism, then move forward beyond neo-Darwinism to encompass new data and concepts."

For example, Darwin did not dismiss Lamarckism; he increasingly adopted it over the editions of his Origin, as science historian Michael Flannery, has observed:

Darwin dismissed Lamarck early on only later to adopt pangenesis, a theory with strong affinities to Lamarck's inheritance of acquired characteristics. A comparison of Darwin's first edition to his sixth shows how far Darwin had departed from his own natural selection theory as a self-sufficient explanatory mechanism for biological life. His pangenesis would eventually go the way of phlogiston and humoral pathology in the pantheon of science, and his sexual selection theory wasn't much better. Why all these subsidiary theories? Because Darwin himself recognized the inadequacies of his own evolutionary model as originally conceived, but hidebound to methodological naturalism he was stuck with only naturalistic alternatives. Darwinists will tell you that modern genetics rescued their hero from the embarrassment of pangenisis, but Gregor Mendel argued against Darwinism and the same questions that vexed Darwin himself continue to vex biology today. So genetics has really "rescued" nothing. Darwin's tried out different theories of explanation, but Gertrude Himmelfarb hit the proverbial nail on the head when she said that he really only consistently crafted a "logic of possibilities," which is to say that Darwin really never amassed much evidence for his proposals; he merely heaped speculation upon speculation, suggested that "at some point in the future" evidence would be found, and discounted counter evidence as the product of "present" ignorance. This Darwin-of-the-gaps argument is still routinely trucked out. In other words, the very things most instructors would X-out and red-mark on a undergraduate paper counts as "convincing" evidence in the Darwin camp.

Um, yes. Which is why Ellington's fears are understated. See dude, it's not just the ID guys. It's Here Comes Everybody who was formerly told to just shut up.

Here's an epigenetics primer.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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