(Jaroslav Flegr: Frozen Evolution. Or, that’s not the way it is, Mr. Darwin. Chapter 1).
It is already almost 150 years since the first edition of the book “On the Origin of the Species by means of Natural Selection” was published.1.1 In this work, the most famous biologist of all time, Charles Darwin, was the first to write and give the reasons why animal and plant species originated and continue to change in nature by natural development from a common ancestor. He explained that the diversification of the species is caused by natural selection, preferential survival and multiplication of the strongest individuals. Natural selection thus simultaneously satisfactorily explains the useful adaptation of organisms to the conditions in their environment. Darwin’s ideas encountered strong resistance in the religiously oriented society of that time; however, they were almost immediately adopted in scientific circles. Over time, his theory of evolution has been confirmed innumerable times over and, to the present day, remains the basis for all scientific evolutionary theories.
I assume that the reader is not in any way offended by any of the statements in the previous paragraph. Nonetheless, with the exception of the rather uninteresting statement that it has been almost 150 years since the publication of the first edition of Darwin’s book, everything else is basically untrue. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was certainly not the first biologist to submit to the professional public a comprehensive theory of development of the species by gradual evolution from a common ancestor, as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) had done this 50 years previously in his key work Zoological Philosophy.1.2 The driving force for the diversification of the species is quite possibly not natural selection, but an entirely different evolutionary mechanism, which will be discussed in Chapter 4. Natural selection, as described by Darwin, permitted explanation of the formation of adaptive traits in bacteria, but is inadequate for explanation of these traits in the vast majority of “higher” organisms.1.3 Darwin’s ideas were accepted with surprising favour by the general public. In contrast, over time, a number of biologists have put forth and continue to put forth relatively serious objections against them. Truly, Darwin’s theory was subsequently confirmed many times over. However, simultaneously, a number of facts emerged over time that threw its validity into doubt in many respect, or at least restricted its validity. In the light of modern knowledge, Darwin’s model can no longer be considered as forming the basis of scientific theory related to the formation and development of life. This book will be concerned with this subject and with a theory that could replace Darwin’s theory.
I want to make it perfectly clear right from the beginning: not to disparage Darwin. Similar to him and the vast majority of my colleagues, I too am convinced that organisms were formed over the extremely long duration of the Earth, one from another by the natural process of biological evolution.
1.1 Evolution: Evolution is generally understood to mean gradual development of any system with a “memory”, i.e. any system that responds to external stimuli in dependence on the stimuli that it encountered in the past. This means that it is equally possible to speak of the evolution of languages, automobile chasses or ladies’ hairstyles as about the evolution of conifers. Evolution can be direct, reverse or cyclic. Biological evolution is one of the many types of evolution. It is interesting primarily in that organisms are formed spontaneously during this process, i.e. systems that are usefully adapted to the use of various resources in the environment, i.e. they include such marvellous creatures as fruit flies, coconut palms, sturgeons and the readers of this book.
Compared to Darwin, I have a far greater factual basis for my convictions, knowledge accumulated by biologists over the 150 years that have expired since the publication of “On the Origin of the Species by means of Natural Selection”. However, in contrast to most proponents of traditional thinking in evolution biology, I am of the opinion that the manner of formation and development of species through the action of natural selection is different than that described by Darwin and that modern textbooks attempt to show us. I am further convinced that the differences between the Darwinistic and new model of evolution have a fundamental impact on our understanding of the progress of a number of natural processes. Many of these processes, which are difficult to understand in the intellectual framework of the older theory of evolution and that actually occur, although they should not occur in a Darwinisitic world, can be relatively easily explained in the framework of the new model.
What is the actual basis for my heresy? While Darwin’s original theory assumed that the species that are encountered in nature are evolutionarily plastic and more or less willing to respond to the selection pressure of the environment – i.e. usefully adapt to its changes, the new theory 1.4 assumes to the contrary that the vast majority of species does nothing of the sort and, in fact, cannot do so. These are species that I will call evolutionarily frozen in this book. These species respond to changes in their environment like rubber – initially they give in to the environmental pressure and change somewhat, however, the more their traits differ from the original state, the greater resistance they exert against the pressure until, at a certain point, they cease to react to even the greatest pressure. While, in a Darwinistic world, all the species gladly develop and continuously change in response to ever newer demands from a changing environment, in a world with frozen plasticity, species remain more or less unaltered and mostly only sadly wait until the changes in their environment accumulate to such a degree that they will have no other alternative than to simply pass into extinction. Why this is true and where the new species come from, how it is possible that species are usefully adapted to their environment and how evolution can occur at all in such an evolutionarily frozen world – these are aspects that I do not intend to address here. However, if you don’t put this book down prematurely, answers will be provided to these questions.
I hope that I have managed to awaken the interest of readers in the previous paragraphs and that I can begin in the next chapter with an introductory presentation of the generally known Darwin’s model of biological evolution. In the following chapters, we will gradually discuss the most important new aspects that Neodarwinism brought to Darwin’s theory in the 20th century. Chapter eight will be concerned with Dawkinistic evolution, i.e. the selfish gene theory. This is a model of evolution that should resolve the difficulties of the Neodarwinist theory with explanation of evolution in sexually reproducing organisms. This model 1.5 assumes that what seems to be Darwinistic evolution is, in actual fact, a sort of puppet show held by the individual genes in the framework of their race to be the fastest to multiply – to produce copies of themselves. In the ninth and tenth chapter, we will show that the selfish gene theory also does not resolve a fundamental problem of the evolution of sexually reproducing organisms. If you read the book in the same way as some people I know, i.e. you begin to read somewhere in the middle of the book, then you skip over three chapters, you read all the adjectives in Chapter 16 and all the verbs in Chapter 17 and, if even then you still find the book interesting, you return to the chapter with the nicest pictures, I would recommend that you begin in Chapter Eight and then perhaps you could also run through Chapters 9 and 10. (I know that, in that case, you would not be reading this part or that you would read it at the very end; however, perhaps you accidentally opened the book here – so why not try.) However, you should definitely not skip over Chapter 11 which is of key importance from the standpoint of what I want to say. It describes a model of evolution that I think best corresponds to modern knowledge of evolutionary biology and paleontology. The following seven chapters of the book gradually present fundamental facts supporting the validity of the new model and some of its interesting consequences. The last chapter contains a discussion of why Darwin’s model of evolution persists in textbooks and what the chances are of a change and acceptance of the new model, which has been knocking on the door without visible results from as far back as the 1960’s at the very least.
If the nonbiologist reader occasionally loses his way in the text or, for example, doesn’t understand a technical term (and the reference in the index is of no help), it doesn’t matter too much. In this case, I would recommend that he simply keeps reading and it will probably all become clear in a short while. And one more technical comment for those who prefer to jump back and forth in a book. Each chapter ends with a paragraph that briefly and clearly summarizes its main message and indicates what will be the subject of the next chapter. It is clear that an addicted book hopper will hardly let himself be deprived of the experience of discovering his own way into the book by leafing through it (and, what is more, from the front to the back) and stopping at the conclusion of each of these concluding paragraphs.. However, this approach could be a bearable concession for less addicted book hoppers.
The readers of popular educational books (including myself) are ridiculously pampered in the present day and age. Thus, it has become habitual to arrange the text so that more difficult sections alternate with very easy sections. It is optimal if the scientific passages are interspersed with recounting about scientific expeditions to exotic countries or description of the background of the individual discoveries, which should, wherever possible, contain amusing anecdotes about their participants. Unfortunately, I cannot include anything of this kind. I have, in fact, spent quite a bit of time on expeditions to exotic countries; however, I did not encounter any evolution there and it goes against the grain to present this fact as proof of the theory of frozen plasticity. As I tend to be an introvert and, in addition, spent half of my professional life on the wrong side of the iron curtain, I cannot offer my readers any impressions from my personal meetings with the important contemporary evolutionary biologists. I finally arrived at an approach that followed from my years of experience in lecturing for the course “Practical methodology of science” for students of the master’s program in biology of the Faculty of Science of Charles University I found from the response of students that some less known and less apparent aspects of scientific work seem quite interesting and even rather entertaining to listeners. Thus, why not share this with the general public, especially when this can help in placing the subject of interest in the broader framework of contemporary science.1.6 However, you needn’t be afraid, you can, but need not, accept the invitation to the exotic land of hypotheses, grants and impact factors. If you have no desire to look under the lid of contemporary science or if my point of view offends you, if will be sufficient to ignore the relevant yellow boxes. Even though, here and there, I will slip in snippets of my experience but this will, I hope, be at an acceptable level.
Perhaps I should just mention my point of view briefly. I studied cell biology and have spent most of my scientific career studying molecular phylogenetics and evolutionary parasitology. Similar to my colleagues, I receive funds for my scientific projects from scientific grant agencies, regularly publish articles in international journals, give lectures at the university and supervise my master’s and doctoral students. I am certainly no scientific dissident who, ignored by his surroundings, works somewhere away from the main stream of science, or a scientific celebrity who always swims in the centre of the main stream and is thus regularly invited as a plenary lecturer at scientific congresses. I am one of the many scientists who moves along somewhere between the extremes and, simultaneously, I am constantly aware of the great luck I have in a profession entailing activities that I enjoy above all – to discover that which has not yet been discovered. I will ever be grateful to the Gods (or blind chance) and to the tax payers for this.
The results of my rather unextensive statistical survey (I asked Frank and Charles) indicate that half of the readers leave out the preface and introduction in books. As most readers will have realized, I took note of this fact and took the necessary remedial measures. I craftily called the preface that you have just read “Chapter 1”. It could well be that I have a number of these tricks up my sleeve. Amongst other things, I began to write the book “Frozen Evolution” to work off steam after seven years of writing horribly fat textbooks on evolutionary biology. 1.7 (I did this quite voluntarily and even enjoyed it from time to time, but there was truly a lot of it). Dearest readers, please be prepared for the possibility that I will occasionally act in a way that you may find too personal (for which I not entirely sincerely apologize). In fact, I can’t completely eliminate the possibility that I could occasionally make fun of you. I don’t mean by this that I would consciously slip in untrue information or intentionally disguise facts that I find unsuitable for my purposes. Selective memory is, of course, a bastard, so it will be better if you expect beforehand that I will tend to mention results that agree with my favourite theory rather than those that disagree with it. However, in this respect, my text will not differ substantially from the texts of other authors. Impartial, completely objective books probably don’t exist and, if they did, they wouldn’t be readable. Similarly, I admit beforehand that, in the role of the author of a popular educational book, I will have to act in a rather undisciplined manner – here and there, I will let the subject wander a bit more than is usual. For example, in the first half of the next chapter.