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Jeff Farias Show: Altenberg 16 - Evolution Expose

Jeff Farias Show: Altenberg 16 - Evolution Exposé

Jeff Farias is a musician and host of Phoenix progressive talk radio's The Jeff Farias Show. Jeff's music is as rich and edgy as his conversation. His interview with author Suzan Mazur follows:

November 11, 2009 broadcast
(Edited Transcript)

Jeff Farias: We are back friends. Thanks for sticking around. It’s The Jeff Farias Show coming to you live right now on Roots Up Radio, The Jeff Farias and Jerva Westerort Local Community Radio 91.1 in Stockholm, Sweden. As I promised joined right now by a very special guest – Suzan Mazur is back on the program. She’s the author of this book, The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Suzan, welcome back to the program.

Suzan Mazur: Jeff, it’s great to hear your voice. Thank you for having me back.

Jeff Farias: Great to speak with you again. So this book is out. You can get it online right now. And it’ll be shipping to all the major book stores right after New Year's. Congratulations.

Suzan Mazur: Thank you very much. It’s been a very interesting adventure researching the book.

Jeff Farias: Things about the book have been popping up all over the place. Nature magazine did a piece on this.

Suzan Mazur: Well, Nature did something following the July 2008 event at Altenberg, a symposium 16 scientists organized at Konrad Lorenz Institute outside Vienna, recognizing that neo-Darwinism wasn’t working. They knew the Modern Synthesis had a lot of problems and so they met to talk about reformulating a new theory of evolution.

I started tracking the story months before the actual meeting. And there’s been so much about all of this in the months that followed the meeting. Nature picked it up, Science magazine picked it up. It’s been picked up all over the science blogosphere. And the reason why is that science doesn’t know how evolution works.

It used to think it worked by natural selection, which most biologists define as survival of the fittest – essentially a political term. The government still pushes this approach and funds this thinking, which actually helps to feed creationism. Rather than promote the new science which we see coming out of the Altenberg meeting – that evolution is a kind of transformation of developmental processes. Genes are essentially"dead" and so is the neo-Darwinist theory of mutations resulting in new species

Jeff Farias: You say survival of the fittest is a political term that’s been taken from Darwin and used to justify all kinds of things.

Suzan Mazur: It’s really Spencerian and it was first used to justify the imperial exploits of the British empire and imported over here. Then in the 1930s – as symbiogenesis theorist Lynn Margulis points out in our interview in the book – Cambridge mathematicians invented neo-Darwinism, in effect saying that mutations result in new species. There’s not been an adequate validation of that in the literature. But it’s been promoted endlessly in journals, books, taught to students and generations of scientists.

I think there are some very fundamental questions now. And I’d like to ask you some of them.

Jeff Farias: Sure.

Suzan Mazur: Okay. Here’s the first one. When does evolution begin?

Jeff Farias: When does evolution begin? I would say at the Big Bang.

Suzan Mazur: Scientists can’t agree whether evolution starts with the birth of the Universe or the beginning of biological life. I tend to agree with you. So the very definition of evolution is up for grabs.

Okay. What is the origin of life?

Jeff Farias: The origin of life. Again, I would go back to the Big Bang as well. If it’s a process over time, life wouldn’t have evolved if the Big Bang hadn’t happened first.

Suzan Mazur: No one knows. Freeman Dyson was on Charlie Rose recently and he expressed it this way: Everyone is equally ignorant about the origin of life.

But there’s a lot of money thrown into the investigation of the origin of life.

What is the origin of the gene?

Jeff Farias: Wow.

Suzan Mazur: No one knows.

Jeff Farias: No one knows. Right.

Suzan Mazur: What is a gene? And when did it arrive in evolution? Again, it’s unclear, as Carl Zimmer, a science journalist noted earlier this year in the New York Times, the gene is in an "identity crisis." And Evelyn Fox Keller, an MIT science historian, emeritus said in that same article that "The notion of the gene as the atom of biology is very mistaken."

If evolution is defined as beginning with the birth of the Universe, then so-called genes, genetic programs, that is, arrived late in evolution – they were in place around the time of the Cambrian explosion. Before that there were simple genes. So the concept of the gene is fuzzy.

Suzan Mazur: What would you say, is the line arbitrary between life and non-life?

Jeff Farias: The line arbitrary? No, I’d say that’s a pretty hard and fast line.

Suzan Mazur: A lot of scientists think the line is arbitrary – like Dave Deamer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, an artificial life scientist.

Suzan Mazur: Is neo-Darwinism dead? That’s really been established a long time ago. Lynn Margulis has talked about this a lot and University of California biologist Francisco Ayala as well. [Margulis told me that Ayala "was a practitioner of neo-Darwinism but advances in molecular genetics, evolution, ecology, biochemistry, and other news had led him to agree that neo-Darwinism's now dead."]

I’m reading a paper now from a Professor Avraham Hasofer, a mathematician, formerly the president of the Orthodox Association of Jewish Scientists in Australia – who debunked neo-Darwinism back in 1976 citing the earlier work of L.M. Spetner from 1964. But money continues to be thrown at neo-Darwinism and the idea that the accumulation of mutations results in new species.

The seeds of corruption were sewn back in the 1930s and 1940s – there was an invention of population genetics and the investigation into the theory of form was marginalized. I think we touched on this in the last program. A lot of this had to do with the concern regarding mutations from atomic radiation.

And there’s another pressing issue about evolutionary science and that is that there’s a lot of sexism, which I think is unpleasant. But we’re beginning to see a sea change.

Jeff Farias: Sexism in what sense?

Suzan Mazur: It’s very male-dominated. Women have had a tough time, but there are more women entering the field. There’s kind of a bullying process that goes on. Science has to do with the arguing of positions. The guys can get pretty rough.

You see that on blogs like Pharyngula where they’ll completely destroy the opponent.

Jeff Farias: A part of what you’re talking about regarding the evolution industry – there’s a very entrenched interest in keeping our understanding of what evolution is – where it is, because there’s an industry built up around it. A lot of money tied up in it.

Suzan Mazur: Right. It’s true and they don’t want to shift gears. There are scientists who submit papers to various prestigious scientific organizations and they’re stifled. Their papers are held up. All kind of politics goes down. Sometimes these papers are blocked and they have to do with very public interests. New breakthroughs in treatments, etc. There's foul play. Secret submission processes. A paper can be pulled at any point along the way for whatever reason. Yes, it goes hand-in-glove with industry.

Jeff Farias: Earlier in the week I had a gentleman on by the name of James Schwartz who's done a book called Pursuing the Gene: From Darwin to the Human Genome Project, and a lot of it is about the political infighting and the subterfuge and the sabotage that goes on behind the scenes in the scientific community and it was quite remarkable. I think most people view science as being above this, that there’s a certain purity in the scientific community that we don’t see elsewhere. But. . .

Suzan Mazur: Well, I think some of the scientists, even if they’re accepted into all these prestigious academies, some of them are now resorting to legal action to get published because these really weighty organizations don’t want to shift gears.

It’s not in the public’s best interest to have everything secretive and to block important papers that pertain to serious medical issues, etc.

Jeff Farias: What is the response – what kind of a push-back have you encountered since you’ve been trying to exposé this?

Suzan Mazur: It’s been kind of exhilarating – like being pepper-sprayed. I’ve been attacked as well as ignored. I really do think that bringing these issues up over the past year and a half or so has helped to shake things up. How do things move? That’s how they move by presenting information that jars the system, which is still rather complacent at the moment. I mentioned that I’ve been attacked on Pharyngula – this blog Pharyngula – PZ Myers.

Astonishingly, he’s been on the cover of The Humanist magazine yet he eviscerates anyone on his blog who’s outside his "scientific" framework. The blog’s very crude.

On the other hand, the interviews I’ve been doing with key evolutionary thinkers have been noticed and imitated, as you mentioned Nature and Science magazine.

Jeff Farias: So are the neo-Darwinists losing the argument? Is neo-Darwinism going away? What is the larger ramification of putting to bed this notion of survival of the fittest? Do you think it will still survive as a political position?

Suzan Mazur: It’s being recognized that survival of the fittest is a political term and there’s a rethinking regarding what Darwin and Spencer meant by survival of the fittest. By natural selection. There’s a redefinition of natural selection underway – some scientists say it may be part of a larger process. So much of the evolution story seems to be about semantics.

Jeff Farias: Really. It's what they choose to call it?

Suzan Mazur: Yes. What is evolution? Well, it depends on where you mark the beginning of the story. You can argue your position from there. If you’re studying life around the Cambrian explosion, you’re going to define evolution one way. If you’re looking at things billions of years ago, you’re going to define evolution another way. Because of the very unclear definition of what evolution is, you have all of these warring factions. Every scientist thinks they’re right and the others are wrong – although they do have certain allies. Not everyone’s theory can be right. . . .

Jeff Farias: Evolution is such a hot button topic in this country for a whole set of other reasons by those who deny science completely. Has any of your work been picked up by the people who are opposed to science – by the creationists? Have you interacted or heard from them?

Suzan Mazur: I think they have been following the reports that I’ve been doing because they have questions about natural selection. I think the fact that the scientific establishment fights the creationists is part of the problem.

As cell biologist Stuart Newman has pointed out: "The science is not where it should be." The emphasis should be on sound science and the disseminating of that information rather than denouncing creationism.

In fact, a whole industry has sprung up around the denouncing of creationism. You’ve got all these evolutionary scientists, PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne – principal examples – who have become known for their battle with creationists rather than for their science. What does this say about their science?

Jeff Farias: Seeing where the facts and the science leads us. But again, these are just human beings with all their weaknesses and frailties and petty jealousies.

Suzan Mazur: One of the really healthy things about this whole thing is that because of the Internet everybody can participate now in what evolution is. I mean evolutionary science really is a social discourse. And as long as nobody knows what the origin of life is and where we came from, we all have a chance to help define it. I think that’s one of the great things, evolutionary science has really expanded beyond the scientific elite. That’s also something I think scientists are a bit uncomfortable with. That the public has been let in. But I think it’s positive.

Jeff Farias: I can see that there would be some resistance. It’s always taken a certain level of training to be a leading thinker in the scientific community. Now all of a sudden you’re having to defend yourself or present your arguments right along somebody who does it as a hobby. I can understand where that there would be a certain tension.

Suzan Mazur: Sure. Also, if the public is talking about this in an intelligent way and coming up with interesting ideas, maybe the funding is not going to be so available to scientists in the future. Maybe there’ll be less funding if it’s less exclusive a profession.

Jeff Farias: Well has it been harder for people who have been pushing back against this, trying to push back against the neo-Darwinists to look at new evolution theories. Has the funding kind of frozen for those people?

Suzan Mazur: I think for original thinkers it’s always difficult to find funding. It takes money to do research and I think that if the government is taking a certain position on what they’re looking for in evolution, then the independent researcher has to think outside the box in terms of how to get money together to do their experiments. So the system works really to keep novel ideas out.

Jeff Farias: Right. As we stated earlier, survival of the fittest is a political term and used to justify quite a bit in the political theater – a lot of scientific funding comes from that same political arena. So the newer thinking is pushing back against some very basic premises that affect politics.

Suzan Mazur: Yes. That’s true.

Jeff Farias: So that makes funding even tighter.
I also understand Noam Chomsky has taken an interest in the work and is included in some of the notes on the book. How did that come about? Talk about his involvment.

Suzan Mazur: Noam Chomsky’s been thinking about evolution and addressing the public on these matters for 50 years, 40, 50 years from a linguistics perspective particularly. He’s been very interested in rational morphology as well.

His concept is of a Universal Grammar. Chomsky says language emerged 50,000 to 100,000 years ago and that most of language is internal. He compares language to the immune system and says it emerged because humans had to meet certain design issues in the environment. And that language evolves, it has form. . . .

He was happy to see the book. Some of the people I interview in the book are former colleagues of his from MIT, like Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a cognitive scientist who has collaborated with philosopher Jerry Fodor on a book about adaptationism called What Darwin Got Wrong - out next year. Fodor also taught at MIT and is interviewed in the book.

MIT is the publisher of the book by the Altenberg 16 scientists – should be out next month.

And David Koch, who I also interviewed – he’s the principal private funder of Nova on PBS – supports a cancer research center at MIT. [Koch has degrees in chemical engineering from MIT and also played on the MIT basketball team. Astrobiologist Bob Hazen has degrees in Earth Science from MIT and served as president of the MIT symphony orchestra as well as the geology club.]

A lot of rethinking about evolution seems to have MIT affiliations.

Jeff Farias: Well, you emailed me that Chomsky was writing a line and I thought what an interesting convergence.

Suzan Mazur: I’m really so pleased because I studied his linguistics early on when I was a student and I remember how he lit up the night. I used to stay up until the wee hours of the morning reading his work. It’s really an honor to have his comments on the book.

Jeff Farias: It’s very, very interesting. It really caught my eye. It seems like it’s out of left field. But it makes sense.

Suzan Mazur: Well, the book is a political exposé And Roger Morris’s comments are also on the cover – Roger who looks so magnificently at the politics of our time in his biographies of Nixon, Kissinger, Haig, the Clintons, et al. Roger resigned from the Nixon administration over the invasion of Cambodia. He was on the National Security Council and on principle, resigned.

Politics has a lot to do with this. Evolutionary science is a social discourse and the politics of evolution is very much a factor in what becomes evolutionary thinking, in what is accepted as plausible. Scientists are trying to come up with a theory that includes pre-biotic evolution, which is evolution that happened before so-called life began.

Jeff Farias: The period between the Big Bang and the development of the gene.

Suzan Mazur: Right. All of that is so unclear.

Jeff Farias: And understanding that would certainly help us create a model -- what we now have scientifically is not enough

Suzan, thank you so much for being with us again. I find this stuff fascinating. . . .

* * * * *

Jeff Farias: Let’s go to the phones. We have Mark in South Hadley, Mass. How are you doing?

Mark: How are you doing?

Jeff Farias: Good. Welcome.

Mark: I am a paleontologist by trade and I just want to say that the new developments that Suzan Mazur is talking about are very exciting.

Jeff Farias: I thought it was pretty interesting stuff. Again, it’s a little over my head. I’m not trained in the sciences, but I think it’s pretty interesting stuff.

Mark: I think it has broader implications, as she was pointing out It is indeed a social discourse as she points out. I think there is a bottom line there that we’re going to be reading from the science – reading from the rock.

Jeff Farias: Interesting. In what sense? Explain that to me a little bit.

Mark: I think that there is an objective truth about these matters that we can get an approximation of by doing science well.

Jeff Farias: I understand what you mean. It’s not just – it’s not just the subject of the scientific exploration but what we learn about it can be applied to other disciplines, to other concerns.

Mark: Yes. Exactly right. It’s already shown to be very influential as you and Suzan Mazur mentioned with the political angle. But there are others as well.

Jeff Farias: Well, what are some of the others? How will it affect the type of things that you do? What are some of the other implications that maybe I hadn’t thought of?

Mark: Well it causes family disharmony for me because me and my daughter are studying science, studying evolution and we argue about this a lot.

Jeff Farias: Where does she come in on this? Is she more traditional Darwinist

Mark: Yes. She’s more traditional Darwinist and I keep trying to convince her otherwise and we have some very interesting discussions.

Jeff Farias: One thing I didn’t get into with Suzan – we actually talked about it before when she was on the program – this notion of self-assembly. The fact that snowflakes, which aren’t alive, manage to come together and assemble themselves. It’s not about evolution but there is a process there. The hydra can if pushed through a sieve reorganize itself – reassemble itself. There are certain instances out there that sort of buck the notion of the survival of the fittest but haven’t really been explained yet.

Mark: That’s really one of the new emerging ideas about thinking about evolution. This self-organization element. That’s part of the story but I don’t think it’s the whole story.

Jeff Farias. Interesting. So where do you think this stuff is going to lead? Assuming that this gets out there and it becomes widely accepted and people get a different understand and we can throw away this survival of the fittest -- what do you think that says about the formation of our society as a whole?

Mark: I think that it could lead us in some more humane directions I think that there’s a lot of poor treatment of our fellow humans that gets justified by bad evolutionary science. You mentioned how in the political sphere these evolutionary ideas have been influential and you could have said that even more strongly. It was the Spencerian, neo-Darwinian way of looking at things throughout much of the last century.

Jeff Farias: The whole notion of manifest destiny The expansion of whites in America. Very much tied into Darwinism. Taken to its next step, Eugenics, and Hitler and the notion of a super race. Obviously all have their roots in Darwin’s survival of the fittest.

Mark: Precisely. Precisely. I think that viewpoint is really one of the things the creationists are trying to fight against. And although I don’t condone their approach or most of their approaches to science – they do have a legitimate grievance. And I think that that is motivating a lot of the battle that Suzan mentioned between the evolution industry and the creationists.

Jeff Farias: I was trying to get a little bit at that point too – some of the work that she was doing and some of the work that the Altenberg 16 were doing – was fueling the creationists, saying well if we find one chink in the armor against evolution we can throw the whole thing away. God did it. As opposed to. . . That’s not what the Altenberg 16 are saying at all. They’re saying our tools – the science we have right now is much more advanced than what Darwin was working with. And we can look more deeply into things than we could during those days and maybe update the thinking . Not throw everything away and say forget it – God did it.

Mark: That’s getting close to the right track. There are clearly mechanisms that we don’t understand about this, particularly when we’re talking about some of the big jumps in evolution like Suzan mentioned with the Cambrian explosion half a billion years ago when all the animals that we’re familiar with appear. There wasn’t enough time for them to appear by natural selection.

Jeff Farias: Wow.

Mark: There’s a big, big mystery there. We don’t have that parsed out scientifically and yet there are people who may be entrenched , who say that we do have this. I was quoted in Nature magazine, Nature news last month. I basically told them that we have to allow some of these newer ideas to get into circulation and we have to go against these entrenched evolutionary biologists who are reluctant to consider new ideas.

Jeff Farias: And again it’s remarkable because it’s the basis of what science is – it’s being open to new ideas. The scientific community is supposed to be the community that is the most open to new ideas and the scientific method.

Again, an industry forms, interests become entrenched. Careers, reputations and financial well-being become tied up in a certain system of beliefs and people get locked into it, which to me is the opposite of what the scientific mind is supposed to strive for.

Mark: Yes. Absolutely. And it’s a great irony that this area where we should have the most open discourse, that there is this tendency to shut down discussion because it may be going in directions that threatens entrenched agendas.

Jeff Farias: It all comes down to human frailty, doesn’t it.

Mark: Indeed it does.

Jeff Farias: Mark, thanks so much for your phone call today and good luck in the debates with your daughter. . . . .


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