On the Origin of “The Altenberg 16”

Column – Suzan Mazur

Since MIT Press does not fact-check its books (University of California, Berkeley does) — according to the above email to me this past week from Executive Editor, Robert Prior — its new Evolution: The Extended Synthesis volume opens with this …

On the Origin of “The Altenberg 16”


Why aren’t all The Altenberg 16 scientists represented on the cover?

“Journalistic practices apply to journalists, not to book publishing. We copyedit our books thoroughly but do not fact-check them. Even if we had — and what you fail to understand — is that the statement the editors of our volume make in their preface is accurate and in no way slights you. We will not be making any corrections or changes to that statement in the preface in future printings of the book as it is already correct.” – Sincerely…. Bob Prior – [Executive Editor – MIT Press]”

Since MIT Press does not fact-check its books (University of California, Berkeley does) — according to the above email to me this past week from Executive Editor, Robert Prior — its new Evolution: The Extended Synthesis volume opens with this misleading statement about the origin of “the Altenberg 16” label from editors Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd Muller, who say on page one of the preface: “The “Altenberg 16″ was labelled by the media”. And so the book about a reformulation of the theory of evolution gets off to a dubious start since both Pigliucci and Muller know very well that “the Altenberg 16” was created on these pages, March 4, 2008, 1:49 pm New Zealand time in the story “Altenberg! The Woodstock of Evolution?” Here’s the precise sentence:

“What it amounts to is a gathering of 16 biologists and philosophers of rock star stature — let’s call them “the Altenberg 16” — who recognize that the theory of evolution which most practicing biologists accept and which is taught in classrooms today, is inadequate in explaining our existence.”

And here’s Pigliucci’s email to me following that story:

very nice article indeed!

ll giorno Mar 3, 2008, alle ore 9:14 PM, SZNMZR@aol.com ha scritto:

Dear Massimo

— Philly story is still in the works.Meanwhile, here’s a piece I’ve posted re EES with comments from you et al. Thanks so much. — Best, Suzan
Click here: Mazur/Scoop: Altenberg! The Woodstock of Evolution?

Massimo Pigliucci, Stony Brook

MIT Press is in denial about the matter and so far refuses to correct future editions of the book. This unprofessionalism from MIT Press and the Altenberg 16 editors serves to taint the Extended Synthesis book, since the March 4, 2008 story in which “the Altenberg 16” brand was created “reverberated throughout the evolutionary biology community,” as Elizabeth Pennisi of Science magazine reported to her vast audience. That March 4 story is also now a chapter in my book: The Altenberg 16: An Expose of the Evolution Industry.

To set the record straight, here is the chronology of the origin of “the Altenberg 16”:

After Massimo Pigliucci leaked word to me on the phone and in person in February 2008 about a July 2008 evolution conference outside Vienna he was involved with, I discovered the tie-in to MIT Press and to Konrad Lorenz Institute, Altenberg, where the symposium was to take place. I next learned that the conference would involve 16 scientists and a remix of the theory of evolution, the Modern Synthesis. And I began to interview several evolutionary thinkers, telling them of the upcoming event and asking them for comment:

— Historian Richard Milner, author of Darwin’s Universe reminded me of 19th Century England’s X Club of 9 — Thomas Huxley, Herbert Spencer, John Tyndall et al.

— Philosopher Jerry Fodor — co-author of What Darwin Got Wrong with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini — dismissed the event, saying evolution conferences happen all the time.

— Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin thought the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis was all about the race to become the next Charles Darwin. Said Lewontin to me:

“The so-called Evolutionary Synthesis. These are all very vague terms And you have to understand as a writer about science — and that’s what I tried to say about Steve Gould — is that scientists are always looking to find some theory or idea that they can push as something nobody else ever thought of because that’s the way they get their prestige. . . . Look, I think you should take — every time somebody says I have a new theory, I suggest you turn off your hearing aid.”

On the Origin of Form author Stuart Pivar’s eyes widened when I mentioned the Altenberg conference. He gasped, then laughed as he pronounced the words “the Altenberg 16” for the first time and just as quickly gave them away to me to play with. He wanted no further association with the term at the time, as he considered it an insult.


Suzan Mazur is the author of Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Her interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur’s reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email: sznmzr @ aol.com

Content Sourced from scoop.co.nz
Original url

No comments yet.

Write a comment: