Tag Archives: synthesis

A new look at the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis

emanuele-sibe2013I present the initiatives, papers, and ideas of Pigliucci, Müller, and others, who are proposing an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES). I then advance some reasons for concern raised by those claims, including uncertainties in timing, historical inaccuracies, lack of a theoretical structure, arbitrariness and instability of the included concepts, stereotypical characterization of the Modern Synthesis, and dissent among evolutionary biologists. Then I mention the studies by historian of the Modern Synthesis, Joe Cain, who is very detailed and careful in explaining that Mayr, Dobzhansky, Huxley & co. who claimed they were part of a Modern Synthesis, they did also for strategic and political reasons, related to their own careers and to more general cultural battles of the time. What I want to argue is not that the Modern Synthesis was an invented product of a marketing operation; rather, it is that the social and interactive dynamics of science are very important in understanding what is going on. The same could be true for the EES in our years. I maintain the primary importance of understanding how biology is today, how it has changed, what future expects us. Pigliucci’s question, “Do we need an EES?”, thus suggests very important issues. But I propose that we shouldn’t take at face value what the protagonists of evolutionary biology see and say. The ‘expert review’ or the ‘small group of architects’ methods cannot work. No solution either comes from a traditional philosophical approach of ‘describing the structure of evolutionary theory’, because scientists don’t work ‘inside’ theories; they use them in different ways. Correct methods for answering could be developed, with the help of advanced technology for analyzing the scientific literature, the ways of doing science, the ‘hot topics’, the birth and death of fields, etc., through time. This would mean to look seriously at the scientific community, avoiding, on t he one hand, the authority principle, and, on the other hand, the surrender to an ‘all flows, everything ever changes’ perspective. In the context of such an endeavour, I suggest a specific look at the Italian evolutionary biology community as important for the future prospects of this science in our country.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli E (2013). A new look at the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. 5th congress of the Italian Society for Evolutionary Biology (SIBE). Trento, Faculty of Lettere and MUSE Museum, Italy, August 28-31. [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/46363]

Interviews at the Lisbon Summer School on Evolution

These interviews were conducted at the 2013 International Summer School on Evolution which was organized by the Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab in collaboration with Ciência Viva, and held at Ciência Viva’s Pavilion of Knowledge in Lisbon, Portugal.

In the following first video I was interviewed on Philosophy of Biology, the Extended Synthesis, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Niche Construction, Macroevolution, Symbiogenesis and the Gaia Hypothesis and Niche Construction.

In the second video the School teachers were asked to give their definition of evolution: these were Bruce Lieberman, Folmer Bokma, Michael Arnold, Luis Villarreal, Frietson Galis, Ilya Tëmkin, Mónica Tamariz, Marion Blute, Fiona Jordan, Michael Ruse, Derek Turner, Frédéric Bouchard, Emanuele Serrelli and Nathalie Gontier. The AppEEL You Tube channel features full interviews with these and other scholars.

See the post on my and Nathalie’s course: Modeling sociocultural evolution.

More info can be found at:

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  • Ciência Viva Ciência Viva Knowledge Pavilion
  • Centre for Philosophy of Science of the University of Lisbon
  • Faculty of Science of the University of Lisbon
  • University of Lisbon

Modeling sociocultural evolution

Summer2013, July: Emanuele Serrelli teaches (with Nathalie Gontier) Modeling sociocultural evolution at the 1st International Summer School on Evolution, Ciencia Viva Knowledge Pavilion, Lisbon, Portugal. The program is also on Academia.edu.


Course Description

In recent years, the classic humanity and life science departments have seen a fast rise of new fields such as Evolutionary Anthropology, Evolutionary Sociology, Evolutionary Linguistics and Evolutionary Psychology. These new fields primarily examine how Natural Selection Theory can be universalized to explain the origin and evolution of human cognition, culture or language. A consequence is that scholars active in dual inheritance theories, gene-culture co-evolutionary theory, memetics, or the units and (multiple) levels of selection debate, are actively seeking what the adaptive benefits are of sociocultural traits; what the sociocultural analogs are of genes; and which sociocultural selective pressures or levels of sociocultural selection can be distinguished.

We, on the contrary, will explore how biological evolutionary theories that are associated with the Extended Synthesis can be extended and implemented into studies on human, sociocultural and linguistic evolution.

In biology, theories of symbiosis, symbiogenesis, horizontal and lateral gene transfer have demonstrated that the transmission of traits does not necessarily follow a linear and vertical pattern of descent. In sociocultural evolution too, the transmission of traits is multidirectional, and often occurs through horizontal transmission.

Punctuated equilibria theory has proven that evolution is not necessarily gradual, and scholars active in the fields of archeology and anthropology also point out periods in human evolution that are characterized by cultural stasis which are intermitted by rapid sociocultural change.

Phenotypic plasticity and niche construction theory are currently redefining how we should perceive the interaction between biological organisms and their environments. Rather than being passive entities that undergo selection by an active environment, biologists are currently investigating how organisms partly construct their niche and how organisms are able to demonstrate plasticity towards changing environments. These theories too provide new means by which we can conceptualize sociocultural evolution.

Day-by-Day Program

Lecture 1: Sociocultural Evolution Studies and Applied Evolutionary Epistemology (Emanuele & Nathalie)

  • Dawkins, R. 1983 Universal Darwinism. In Hull, D.L. & Ruse, M. (eds.) The philosophy of biology. New York: Oxford University Press: 15-35. [First published in Bendall, D.S. (ed.) 1998 Evolution from molecules to man. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press: 403-25.]
  • Campbell, D.T. 1997 From Evolutionary Epistemology via Selection Theory to a Sociology of Scientific Validity. Evolution and Cognition 3: 5-38.
  • Mesoudi A, Whiten A, Laland KN 2006 Towards a Unified Science of Cultural Evolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29:329-383.
  • Gontier N. 2012 Applied Evolutionary Epistemology: A New Methodology to Enhance Interdisciplinary Research Between the Human and Natural Sciences. Kairos, Journal of Philosophy and Science, 4: 7-49.

Lecture 2: Sociocultural Evolution and Universal Symbiogenesis (Nathalie)

  • Gontier N. 2007.Universal Symbiogenesis: a Genuine Alternative to Universal Selectionist Accounts. Symbiosis 44: 167-181.
  • Hird, M.J. Symbiosis, Microbes, Coevolution and Sociology. Ecological Economics, 2008, 10(001): 1-6.
  • van Driem, George (2008). The Origin of Language: Symbiosism and Symbiomism, pp. 381-400 in John D. Bengtson, ed., In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Shijulal NS, List JM, Geisler H, Fangerau H, Gray RD, Martin W, Dagan T 2010 Networks Uncover Hidden Lexical Borrowing in Indo-European Language evolution. Proc R Soc B: doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.1917

Lecture 3: Sociocultural Evolution and Punctuated Equilibria Theory, Stasis, Drift and Rapid (Macro)Evolution (Nathalie)

  • Borgerhoff Mulder M, Nunn CL & Towner M 2006 Macroevolutionary Studies of Cultural Trait Variation: The Importance of Transmission Mode. Evolutionary Anthropology 15: 52-64.
  • Eldredge N 2011 Paleontology and Cornets: Thoughts on Material Culture. Evolution: Education and Outreach 4: 264-373
  • d’Errico F. 2003 The Invisible Frontier: a Multiple Species Model of the Origin of Behavioral Modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology 12: 188-202.
  • Bentley RA, Hahn MW & Shennan SJ 2004 Random Drift and Culture Change. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Vol 271. 1443-1450.

Lecture 4: Niche Construction and Cultural Evolution (Emanuele)

Laland, K.N. & Sterelny, K., 2006 Perspective: 7 Reasons (not) to Neglect Niche Construction. Evolution, 60(9), 1751–1762.

  • Kylafis, G. Loreau, M., 2011 Niche Construction in the Light of Niche Theory. Ecology Letters, 14(2), 82-90.
  • Laland KN, O’Brien MJ 2010 Niche Construction Theory and Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, December 2010, Volume 17, Issue 4 (monographic issue on niche construction), 303-322.
  • Jeremy Kendal, Jamshid J. Tehrani and John Odling-Smee (2011). Human Niche Construction in Interdisciplinary Focus. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2011 366 (1566, monographic issue on NC), 785-792.

Lecture 5: Phenotypic Plasticity and Niche Construction (Emanuele)

  • Pigliucci, M., 2007. Do We Need an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis? Evolution, 61(12), 2743–2749.
  • Pfennig, D.W. et al., 2010. Phenotypic Plasticity’s Impacts on Diversification and Speciation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 25(8), 459–67.
  • Donohue, K., 2005. Niche Construction Through Phenological Plasticity: Life History Dynamics and Ecological Consequences. The New Phytologist, 166(1), 83–92.
  • Panebianco F, Serrelli E (working paper), Niche Construction with “Reaction Norms” and Phenotypic Selection?

Suggested Further Reading

  • Atkinson QD et al. 2008 Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts. Science 319 (5863): 588.
  • Ingold, T. 1990 An Anthropologist Looks at Biology. Man, N.S. 25: 208-29.
  • Kylafis, G. Loreau, M., 2008 Ecological and Evolutionary Consequences of Niche Construction for its Agent. Ecology Letters, 11(10), 1072-81.
  • Gontier N. 2010. Evolutionary Epistemology as a Scientific Method: a New Look Upon the Units and Levels of Evolution Debate. Theory in Biosciences 129 (2-3): 167-182.
  • Gould, Stephen Jay (1991) Exaptation: A Crucial Tool for Evolutionary Psychology. Journal of Social Issues 47(3): 43–65.
  • Smallegange, I.M. & Coulson, T., 2012. Towards a General, Population-level Understanding of Eco-evolutionary Change. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 1–6.
  • Speidel, M. 2000 The Parasitic Host: Symbiosis contra Neo-Darwinism. Pli, The Warwick Journal of Philosophy 9: 119-38.
  • Taborsky, B. & Oliveira, R.F., 2012. Social Competence: an Evolutionary Approach. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 27(12), 679–688.
Teachers at the first Summer School on Evolution, AppEEL, Lisbon, 2013
Instructors at the International Summer School on Evolution, at the Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab in the Faculty of Science, University of Lisbon. Left to to right, Derek Turner, Michael Ruse, Frédéric Bouchard, Fiona Jordan, Nathalie Gontier, Marion Blute, Ilya Tëmkin, Luis Villarreal, Frietson Galis, Emanuele Serrelli. From Marion Blute’s blog.


Phenotypic variation in ecological setting

phenotypic-ecological.035Organisms are niche constructors: they impact the environment and modify selective pressures that direct their own evolution as well as that of their non-conspecific fellows in ecological systems at various scales. The theoretical acknowledgement of niche construction has inspired many reflections about the active role of organisms in evolution, often proclaiming a revolutionary theoretical change. But if we look at formal models the claim is not yet justified. Ecologists have specified population-scale models of niche construction, but these cannot be adopted as evolutionary models: they don’t incorporate heritable variation nor allow for directional selection and cumulative change. As evolutionists point out, these models are mere phenotype dynamics or population fluctuations with different possible outcomes – extinction or sustainability. Evolutionary models of niche construction, on the other hand, are not so revolutionary in their foundations, often being just classical population genetics provided with feedback loops between loci and selective pressures acting on them. The idea that variation among organisms boils down to genetic differences captured by gene frequencies dates back to the heart of the Modern Synthesis. But niche construction points directly to the world of physical and chemical interactions. This is the world where resource-impacting phenotypes are built through developmental processes, in turn subject and sensitive to the surrounding environment and the resources left over by previous generations. The produced phenotypes and their effects are hardly summarized by gene frequencies, yet evolutionary models need some kind of heritable variation and selection. The future challenge of evolutionary modeling beyond the Modern Synthesis is thus ecological, plastic variation that allows for inheritance with varying degrees and not-always-allelic mechanisms.

Session: Understanding variation beyond the Modern Synthesis

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli E (2013). Phenotypic variation in ecological setting: a challenge for evolutionary modeling beyond the Modern Synthesis. Meeting of the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB), Montpellier, France, July 7-11. [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/46365]


Understanding variation beyond the Modern Synthesis

In 2013 Emanuele Serrelli organized the session “Understanding variation beyond the Modern Synthesis” at the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology Sunday, 7-11 July, Montpellier, France. The session, supported by AppEEL, includes Pablo Razeto-Barry and Davide Vecchi (Instituto de Filosofía y Ciencias de la Complejidad, Santiago, Chile) and Nathalie Gontier (University of Lisbon).

Emanuele’s paper:

Serrelli E (2013). Phenotypic variation in ecological setting: a challenge for evolutionary modeling beyond the Modern Synthesis. Meeting of the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB), Montpellier, France, July 7-11. [BOA] [Ac]

Other talks in the session:

Variation in a world with multiple levels, mechanisms, and units of evolution: The Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Approach
Nathalie Gontier

Scholars working within the units and levels of selection debate have been developing more and more refined heuristics of how evolution by means of natural selection works. A motivation of such endeavor has been the question whether individual organisms are the only, or the most appropriate, units of natural selection, or whether groups, traits, a (set of) genes or behaviors, developmental systems, population, species can also be considered as units of selection. Heuristics based on natural selection have also been applied in order to assess whether evolution by natural selection can occur within phenomena that are traditionally understood to be extra-biological, such as cultural units, artifacts, neural maps, cognitive traits, altruistic rules etc. This abstraction and extension of natural selection to the sociocultural domain, provides a unified scientific methodology that enables scholars to study the evolution of life as well as the evolution of cognition, science, culture and any other phenomenon displayed by living organisms by means of natural selection theory. Today, with the several pleas there exist to extend the Modern Synthesis, evolutionary biologists are acknowledging the importance of mechanisms such as lateral gene transfer, symbiogenesis, drift, etc. Applied Evolutionary epistemology is a methodology that provides more open heuristics to assess how these mechanisms associated with an extended synthesis work, what their units and levels, and where they are active. Associated with this endavour is not only the recognition of multiple units, levels and mechanisms of evolution, but also to acknowledgement that there are different kinds of evolution (the evolution of the brain, of languages, of culture, of niches, etc). This talk takes the debate a step further, asking how important inter-unit, inter-level and inter-mechanism variation is for a general understanding of evolution.

Mutational Lamarckism and the Modern Synthesis view of mutational randomness as conditional independence
Pablo Razeto-Barry and Davide Vecchi
Current evolutionary biology is based on the legacy of the modern evolutionary synthesis (Huxley 1942). Nevertheless, the Modern Synthesis enshrined natural selection as the director of adaptive evolution not by providing evidence that it did, or could, account for observed adaptations (Leigh 1999), but rather by eliminating competing explanations (Mayr 1993). One of the eliminated competitors was Lamarckism, particularly “mutational Lamarckism”, a hypothesis according to which mutations may be directed towards producing phenotypes that improve the performance of the organism in a particular environment. Contrary to this hypothesis, the Modern Synthesis’ view claims that mutations are “random” (Lenski and Mittler 1993, Merlin 2010). Possibly because Lamarckism had largely felt into disrepute several decades before the eventual success of the Modern Synthesis, the precise meaning of the term “random mutation” was never deeply analyzed. However, current evidence of possibly legitimate cases of Lamarckism (Jablonka and Lamb 2005, Koonin and Wolf 2009) has revitalized the interest for clarifying the meaning of the term “random” in this context (Sarkar 2007, Jablonka and Lamb 2005, Millstein 1997, Merlin 2010). In this contribution we aim to analyze previous definitions of random mutations based on the concepts of statistical independence and correlation (e.g., Millstein 1997, Sarkar 2005, Jablonka and Lamb, Merlin 2010) and to show that they are deficient. We argue that the term “random mutation” refers to a triadic rather than dyadic relationship, that neither correlation nor independence are good concepts to formalize the neo-Darwinian concept of genetic randomness, and that as a consequence neither of them is suitable to define mutational Lamarckism. In this contribution we will illustrate our alternative proposal, show a way to formalize the concept of mutational randomness and provide some examples of its application.

How macro-evolutionary studies call for an extended synthesis

Emanuele Serrelli co-organizes with Nathalie Gontier and moderates the session “How macro-evolutionary studies call for an extended synthesis” at the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, 14-18 February. The session aims to provide an overall evaluation of the scientific importance of macroevolutionary studies, accessible to a large scientific community. It includes a series of international experts, coming from different disciplinary backgrounds (history and philosophy of science, molecular biology and paleontology), allowing for a multi-disciplinary account of macroevolution. It focuses on how macroevolution is defined, proven, studied methodologically, and how their research complements and extends the tenets of the Modern Synthesis.


Organized by Nathalie Gontier and Emanuele Serrelli and Moderated by Emanuele Serrelli

When Eldredge and Gould formulated punctuated equilibria theory, they put several macroevolutionary phenomena on the agenda that were not addressed by the early population geneticists and the founders of the Modern Synthesis. Their theory provides alternative scientific interpretations for the mode and tempo of evolution. Occurring gaps in the fossil record, or the lack of evidence for the existence of intermediate species, are understood as real. And some (living) fossils don’t appear to undergo any significant evolutionary change for millions of years, which necessitates the study of stasis. Acknowledging that evolution can occur faster or slower than predicted by Neodarwinians has consequences for how we define species, and what the levels of evolution are. Macroevolutionary studies provide different species concepts, and argue that evolution can occur at levels higher than the pheno- or genotype. Today, multiple scholars investigate the causes of evolutionary stasis as well as punctuations, macroevolutionary trends, and how evolution occurs at different hierarchies. In recent years, evidence for macroevolution is also provided from within the field of molecular biology, and the pattern of punceq has been proven to be present in neontological and even sociocultural evolutionary phenomena. The session will examine how macroevolutionary studies call for an extension of the Modern Synthesis, and which methodologies and techniques enable the study of macroevolutionary events.

    THE EVOLUTION OF EVOLUTION: CHANGING DYNAMICS IN MACROEVOLUTION, Douglas H. Erwin, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
  2. MACROEVOLUTION: ON THE BIRTH, DEATH, AND PERSISTENCE OF SPECIES, Bruce Lieberman, Department of Geology and Biodiversity Institute, University of Kansas
  3. CONTINGENCY AND THE EXPLANATION OF MACROEVOLUTIONARY TRENDS, Derek Turner, Department of Philosophy, Connecticut College
  4. COMPLEXITY AND LIMITS TO CHANGE, Folmer Bokma, IceLab and Department for Ecology & Environmental Science, Umeå University, Sweden
  5. PUNCTUATED EQUILIBRIA: A UNIVERSAL PATTERN IN LIFE AND CULTURE, Nathalie Gontier & Emanuele Serrelli, Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab, Centre for Philosophy of Science, University of Lisbon, Portugal. See Punctuated equilibria: a universal pattern in life and culture.


David Sepkoski, University of North Carolina Wilmington
This paper will examine the historical significance of Stephen Jay Gould’s hierarchical “expansion” of Darwinism, focusing on the development of these ideas during the late 1970s and early 1980s as part of a larger program to establish “paleobiology” as an autonomous subdiscipline of evolutionary biology. The talk will explore the success of Gould’s program, and the extent to which paleobiology has become oriented around questions of macroevolutionary hierarchy as a result.

Douglas H. Erwin Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Most conceptions of macroevolution have involved a process that does not vary over time, with differences in the origination of new clades, or higher taxa controlled by ecology. Recent insights from evo-devo suggest a need to revisit this view and explore the non-uniformitarian aspects of macroevolution.

Bruce Lieberman Department of Geology and Biodiversity Institute, University of Kansas
My talk will emphasize using the fossil record to study macroevolution in deep time. I will focus on what causes groups of species to radiate and diversity and what causes individual species to change, persist, or go extinct. Further, I will discuss how integrating data from phylogenetics, morphometrics, biogeography, and Geographic Information Systems can be used to tease apart how biotic and abiotic factors interact to cause large-scale evolution.

Derek Turner
Department of Philosophy, Connecticut College
Once scientists identify a macroevolutionary trend, they typically ask whether it is passive and generated by a random walk, or driven and generated by a directional bias in the state space. My talk will explore the connection between the passive/driven distinction and questions about the contingency of evolutionary history. I will suggest that the historical processes that generate passive trends exhibit greater contingency, whereas those that generate driven trends exhibit less contingency.

Folmer Bokma
IceLab and Department for Ecology & Environmental Science, Umeå University, Sweden
Biological organisms are constantly under selection to improve the efficiency with which they function, and a common way to achieve this is via improved organization of its body, that is, complexity. This complexity, however, may make it harder for populations and species to adapt to a changing environment, and it might explain stasis. In my talk I ask whether this is the reason most species go extinct, and to what extent the same principle applies to human organizations.

Nathalie Gontier & Emanuele Serrelli
Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab, Centre for Philosophy of Science, University of Lisbon, Portugal
Punctuated equilibria theory describes a pattern of evolution: long periods of stasis are intermitted by short periods of rapid change. This pattern, first observed in the fossil record, appears to be universal. It has been detected in extant species on a molecular level, in the cultural dispersal of artifacts, and in the historical dispersal of certain language families. We will investigate which mechanisms underlie the pattern of punctuated equilibria in both biological and cultural evolution.

The session, organized with Nathalie Gontier, aims to provide an overall evaluation of the scientific importance of macroevolutionary studies, accessible to a large scientific community. It includes a series of international experts, coming from different disciplinary backgrounds (history and philosophy of science, molecular biology and paleontology), allowing for a multi-disciplinary account of macroevolution. It focuses on how macroevolution is defined, proven, studied methodologically, and how their research complements and extends the tenets of the Modern Synthesis.

PhD Dissertation

This dissertation brings a contribution to the philosophical debate on adaptive landscapes, an influent “model” or “metaphor” in evolutionary biology. Some elements of innovation are: the distinction between native and migrant metaphor; a processual and communicational idea on what the Modern Synthesis was, and on what role a metaphor could have played in it; a view (taken by Richard Lewontin) of the disunity and theoretical structure of population genetics; the distinction between “adaptive surfaces” (mainly metaphors) and “combination spaces”, two terms normally conflated in the word “landscape”; an analysis of what bridges (including heuristics) may be cast between equations of gene frequency and the genotype space that, due to its huge dimensionality, cannot be handled by mathematics; a specified vocabulary to be used to clear the adaptive landscapes debate, accompanied by a plea in favor of a pragmatic approach – for example, the plurality of available notions of model forces us to choose one notion and see where it brings, otherwise we get stuck in confused, endless debates; an updated analytical comment of recent landscapes – Dobzhansky, Simpson, Dawkins but also the proliferation of combination spaces used in evolutionary biology to address a great variety of problems; the vision (got by Sergey Gavrilets) of a patchwork of tools finally making Mendelian population suitable model also for speciation; the exact position of holey landscapes in this patchwork, and the idea that scientists’s questions – like “how possibly” questions – matter in accessing this patchwork and in deciding “what explains” and “what describes” what in the world; the direct response to some mistakes Massimo Pigliucci made, I think, in his assessment of the adaptive landscape; an analysis of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis project at its present stage, and some reflections on the conditions that will allow such a project to give a fair treatment and a good position to tools from the past, like the adaptive landscapes.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli E (2011). Adaptive landscapes: a case study of metaphors, models, and synthesis in evolutionary biology. PhD Dissertation in Educational and Communicational Sciences, Human Sciences Doctorate School, University of Milano Bicocca, Milan, Italy. [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/19338]