(Jaroslav Flegr: Frozen Evolution. Or, that’s not the way it is, Mr. Darwin. Chapter 19: A few words in conclusion or what that was all about).
Two calls to the nation played an important role in recent Czech history. It must be admitted that the information value of their titles was rather low in both cases. During the Prague Spring in 1968, this was the Two Thousand Words manifesto and, in 1989, the Several Sentences petition. In selecting a title for the concluding chapter of the book, I decided to continue this modern national tradition, manifested by a tendency to designate important texts by names that have practically no information content.
Evolutionary biology has gone an enormously long way over the past 150 years. From tolerant Darwin’s evolutionary pluralism (selection, and probably a great many other processes, are active in evolution), through the somewhat reticent attitude of the professional public towards natural selection at the beginning of the 20th century, through the period of Neodarwinism, in which natural selection was considered to be fundamental and basically the only important source of evolutionary change, to the present time of a sort of hidden renaissance of evolutionary pluralism where, under the cover of official teaching, modern evolutionary biology is developing literally in all possible directions. The modern (one could almost say post-modern) tolerant approach, however, entails one great disadvantage. Because of this tolerant approach, it is very difficult to orient oneself in the field from the outside, it is very difficult to recognize promising new ideas and it is difficult to decide on promising directions for research. It is rather a mechanical concept, but if development is occurring in all directions, then the field itself, at the very least its centre, is necessarily not going anywhere. In a great many fields of scientific activity, such a state does not matter and could even be ideal from the standpoint of scientific progress and freedom of research. However, it entails a great danger in the area of evolutionary biology. A special feature of evolutionary biology and, as some people are fond of saying, its greatest puzzle is the fact that almost everyone thinks they understand it. I would like to add that its other puzzle is that a great many people, in fact including a number of biologists, are wrong in this. The Darwinist principle of natural selection is truly an elegant mechanism that can be employed to explain natural phenomena that are otherwise difficult to understand. If you understand the basic principle of natural selection (and almost everyone is capable of this, although frequently in rather distorted form), then you can very easily erroneously come to the conclusion that you understand all of evolutionary biology. And thus it frequently happens that biologists who are professionals in their original field (in the better case, I had better not elaborate the worst case) begin to devote themselves to evolutionary biology, although they are really only self-taught in the field of evolutionary biology. (In order to deprive the malicious reader of a weapon, I would like to point out that I, too, did not study evolutionary biology, but cellular biology and physiology.) Consequently, it very frequently happens that, not only is that which is already known discovered again (this would not be so terrible, and happens in a great many areas of human effort on a daily basis), but also what has already been discovered is forgotten.
The theory of interallelic selection (the selfish gene) and the theory of evolutionarily stable strategies have been known in evolutionary biology since the 1970s. The model of punctuated equilibria has been known for approximately the same time. The fact that these three things are interconnected and, together, indicate that the contemporary, still Neodarwinist understanding of evolutionary biology is most probably erroneous from its very foundations and requires fundamental re-examination, has not penetrated into the consciousness of evolutionary biologists (and even less into textbooks on evolutionary biology).
It is true that a few geneticists have been studying the basic assumptions of the theory of frozen plasticity for the last 30 years, probably out of inertia, by studying the response of genetically variously variable populations to selection pressures (I would not want to act on their consciences but, from outside, it frequently seems like they have long forgotten why they are actually doing it), but their works, which are very frequently published in very good genetics journals, generally do not draw much attention from other biologists. The fact that the results of their experiments on house flies, fruit flies or flour beetles of the Tribolium genus (these are small black or reddish beetles that get into the flour and, if you accidentally bite into one, taste like tar) could shake the very foundations of contemporary evolutionary biology is something that no one realizes. The four main spiritual fathers of the theory of frozen plasticity, Ernst Mayr, William D. Hamilton, Stephen J. Gould and John Maynard Smith all died at the beginning of the 21st century (I certainly cannot reproach 101-year old Mayr for leaving the battle field prematurely, but the other three really annoyed me by their irresponsible behaviour. And I am not even mentioning that they left an unfortunate vacuum in biology.) And now we are faced by the quite serious danger that a Copernicus-type revolution in evolutionary biology will be put off indefinitely for lack of general interest. If the theory of frozen plasticity is correct, and I would bet that it is, then it will be rediscovered sooner or later. However, it cannot be guaranteed that it will not be alternately rediscovered and reforgotten. The results of experiments with flour beetles do not look very “sexy” and, even if they confirmed the theory of frozen plasticity a hundred times over (which has not happened yet – see Chapter 13), the authors of textbooks in evolutionary biology will probably not learn of this, or will at least act as if they do not know about it.
The book that you are finishing is an attempt to combat this fate and push the theory of frozen plasticity into evolutionary biology by the side door. I have already tried coming in by the main door, i.e., by publishing a normal scientific article in a professional journal. The article was finally published in the not-very-well-known journal Rivista di Biologia in 1998 and, as could be expected, received no response at all. (In fact, because of my enormous conceit, I consider this to be independent confirmation of the validity of the presented theory. I have found that the number of references to my articles is inversely correlated to the importance of the published results. In this respect, the article on the subject “Does the cell perform isoelectric focusing?” which I published in 1990 and which has also never been cited, is apparently very promising.) I do not expect the book to convince evolutionary biologists to abandon their favorite theories in favour of the theory of frozen plasticity. They will probably tend to consider it to be a sort of unimportant intellectual puzzle that need not be taken seriously. However, even if they found that they could work their way through it in this form and read right to the very end, I would be glad. For example, it could instigate them to occasionally pose a question that they would otherwise not pose.
I have no idea how biologists in other fields will view the book. I hope that, at the very least, they will take away the impression that evolutionary biology is certainly not a closed chapter and that a number of quite fundamental questions remain to be resolved. And I hope that at least some of them, after reading the book, or even during reading it, will strike their foreheads and say: “Good Lord, if that were true, then that would explain why …, that … and how …. And that could actually be tested.”
The book is intended primarily for young people, secondary school and university students, who are only now looking for the area of their future profession. Some of them could end up as my future colleagues and, sooner or later, replace the contemporary generation of evolutionary biologists. Instructed in Kuhn’s theory of the development of science, I am well aware that the only known effective way of replacing one long-term successful theory by a new one is to let the proponents of the old theory die a natural death and let a generation of proponents of the new theory grow up in their place. And it is necessary to work on this sufficiently far in advance. I would be very happy if my book were to contribute to the emergence of a generation of biologists for whom it will be quite natural to question the basic paradigms of Neodarwinism, i.e. ask whether all organisms (i.e. both sexually and asexually reproducing species) can change through the action of natural selection throughout their existence. I cannot predict how they will answer this question, but I am optimistic in this respect.
I hope that I have not simultaneously discouraged young readers from following a scientific career in that I occasionally intentionally revealed some of the externally hidden secrets about the functioning of modern science (here I would like to cite one of my colleagues, who was so kind as to read and comment on my manuscript: “Occasionally? All the time! It was an obsession with you!”). I tried to do this in the lightest way possible (I quote: “Unsuccessfully!”). What I intended was to show that, although modern science does not function completely without problems, it is hard to think of another, similarly efficient system of accumulating knowledge. A number of the problems in the manner, management and self-management of contemporary science can probably not be eliminated and we must learn to live with them. There is no point in running down something that we cannot replace with something else; however, it can be useful and healthy (at least for us, ourselves) to learn to make fun of it. It is quite possible to love science and simultaneously not to take science, scientists and, first of all, oneself very seriously. As my favourite author, Jan Werich once said “One shouldn’t make a science out of anything. Not even of science.”