Stuart Newman: Evolution Politics

I t’s not surprising that Stuart Newman was one of “the Altenberg 16” scientists who kicked off a reformulation of the theory of evolution, the “extended evolutionary synthesis,” this July at Konrad Lorenz Insitute. While I’ve been writing about …


Will the Real Theory of Evolution Please Stand Up?



An E-Book in 8 Parts – Part 7 – Chapter 13

© Copyright July 2008 by Suzan Mazur



      Evolution Tribes

1 The Altenberg 16
2 Altenberg! The Woodstock of Evolution?
3 Jerry Fodor and Stan Salthe Open the Evo Box
4 Theory of Form to Center Stage
5 The Two Stus
      Stuart Kauffman – Peace, Love & Complexity
      Stuart Newman – The Chess Master
6 The Two Massimos
      Massimo Pigliucci – Evolution & Flamboyance?
      Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini – Evoluzione senza Adattamento
7 The One and Only Richard Lewontin
8 Knight of the North Star: Antonio Lima-de-Faria, Autoevolution
9 The Wizard of Central Park: Stuart Pivar
10 Richard Dawkins Renounces Darwinism as Religion
11 Rockefeller University Evolution Symposium
12 Mainstream Media Doesn’t Get It – Except Vanity Fair
13 Stuart Newman: Evolution Politics
14 The Astrobiologists
      Bob Hazen: The Trumpeter Of Astrobiology
      Roger Buick & Nasa: Follow The H2O Or Energy Not Selection
      David Deamer: Line Arbitrary Twixt Life & Non-Life
      Ex NASA Astrobiology Institute Chief Bruce Runnegar
      NASA Humanist Chris McKay: Where Darwinism Fails

Appendix — Related Stories
      A Stuart Kauffman: Rethink Evolution, Self-Organization is Real
      B Stuart Newman’s “High Tea”
      C The Enlightening Ramray Bhat
      D Piattelli-Palmarini: Ostracism without Natural Selection
      E Niles Eldredge, Paleontologist
      F Stan Salthe: Neo-Darwinians Risking ‘Rigor Mortis’
About the Author



August 24, 2008 11:00 pm NZ

“If Newman is right, his theory explains why all animals have an increasing number of bones from their shoulders to their digits. As they sculpt the human form, embryonic cells almost seem to be talking to each other.” – Newsweek, “How Life Begins,” January 11, 1982

It’s not surprising that Stuart Newman was one of “the Altenberg 16” scientists who kicked off a reformulation of the theory of evolution, the “extended evolutionary synthesis,” this July at Konrad Lorenz Insitute. While I’ve been writing about Newman’s work over the last several months, his scientific investigation into form (limb bud development) was first showcased to an international audience a quarter century ago – in a 1982 Newsweek cover story on the embryo. Since then Newman, a dedicated cell biologist and professor of anatomy at New York Medical College, has been in and out of the news, writing about the ethical issues of human genetics and bioengineering in scientific journals, sometimes appearing on public television, as well as testifying before Congress when asked.

      Stuart Newman’s current hypothesis is that all 35 or so animal phyla physically self-organized by the time of the Cambrian explosion a half billion years ago using what he and his co-author Ramray Bhat call a pattern language – DPMs (dynamical pattering modules)

     The DPM concept has generated excitement since publication in Physical Biology in April, although the commercial media is just beginning to notice.

     Newman is a patient man, doesn’t take being overlooked personally, and attributes the lack of mainstream media coverage to “disseminators of information” not yet understanding a physical approach to evolution. Newman, on the other hand, has an A.B. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in chemical physics and is largely self-taught in biology.

     With the highly publicized Altenberg meeting over, Newman felt comfortable enough to suggest that I visit him at New York Medical College in Valhalla “one day,” where he teaches and directs a research lab, to talk more about his work.

     He followed up with this polite email:


“Please take the Metro-North 1:48 pm “Southeast” train from GCS [Grand Central Station] to Hawthorne, NY. I’ll pick you up at the station at 2:30 pm (just come down the stairs).”

     (Just come down the stairs)? I wonder why the parentheses. . .

     Several days later, I take the train to Hawthorne and walk down the stairs to the parking lot to meet Stuart Newman. Am I misreading cues or has he just spotted me through the window of the enclosed stairwell, put his hands in his pockets and turned his back?

     He later asks, “Did I really do that?”

     Stuart Newman is a graceful man, about 6’1″ with the hands of a microsurgeon – which he is. He is dressed in casual European elegance with sleeves turned up. I try not to be, but am affected by his sincerity and focus. There is an exotic twist to his hair, which in earlier photos makes him look North African.

     Newman keeps fit on a vegetarian diet and does not follow sports, although he confesses he’s been watching the Beijing Olympics. He says he’s never attended a New York Giants football practice though, despite the fact that the Giants summer camp at Pleasantville for many years was only a village or two away from his office. A former student describes Newman as “a cerebral guy”.

     We drive to Newman’s lab in Valhalla, a leafy village with fewer than 8,000 people situated along the Hudson River about a half hour from Manhattan.

     I finally meet his charming grad student Ramray Bhat, who I’ve also interviewed. Bhat is from India and we speak briefly of problems in Kashmir, a conflict I covered in the 1990s.

     The first thing I notice as I follow Stuart Newman into his office is a collection of champagne bottles against the far wall. Newman says they represent the thesis defenses of his graduate students. One bottle of Mumm Extra Dry is from March 1970 in celebration of Newman’s own Ph.D. defense.

     Newman offers me a chair beside him. His computer opens to his desktop screen containing the voluptuous images of Rubens’ “The Apotheosis of Henry IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Medicis on May 14, 1610”. He says art was his first love – he still draws – and then science.

     He next gives me a crash course in self-organization, presenting the visual evidence:

“This is an extinct limb. And this is another extinct limb. This is a modern limb of an amphibian. This is a bird. An iguana. And you can see that they’re all kind of built the same way. They all have a single bone and then two bones. And maybe a cluster of bones. There’s a mathematical regularity.

This is a transparent view of the chicken limb as the bones start to emerge. And the ones close to the body differentiate first before the ones furthest from the body. It’s the same for all vertebrates – definitely all birds and mammals. They’re showing the orientation. It’s called proximal – distal, dorsal – ventral, anterior – posterior. They’re just axes.

Here’s a limb bud. It’s confining itself to the tip where fingers form by cells contacting each other which then turn into cartilage. Some of the cells in between the dotted lines die off. They don’t interact, they just die off. Or in a duck’s foot they become webs. They don’t differentiate into cartilage.

What happens when these cells interact is that they undergo a process of condensation. There’s a clustering. This actually becomes one of our DPMs – the ability of cells to respond to their microenvironment and cluster. . . .

I’ll show you what a self-organizational process looks like. So here [looking at cells clustering] are places where it starts up randomly, some then fade away and some get stronger. With self-organization, you can have random starts at different places but then you have competition between the centers and finally you get a pattern, which is going to oscillate. The pattern is going to subside and then it’s going to come back. And it will come back with the same statistics but the peaks will be in different places. That shows it is a true self-organizational process. . . .

We’ve taken this self-organizational idea and put it into the context of the geometry of the limb. And we’ve said that at the tip of the limb there’s something suppressing it from happening. Cells have to escape from this suppression to organize into spots or rods.

The geometry changes subtly as the limb grows in length. Under some conditions you’ll get one skeletal element. Under other conditions you’ll get two. Under still other conditions you’ll get three or, as in the human hand, five.”

      Newman closes out the program and shows me his previous screen, a much more ethereal image. I wonder what the Rubens says about who Stuart Newman is now. . .

     On the way out of the office we pass through his lab where he opens an incubator tray of fertilized eggs that his students are observing.

     It begins to rain as we exit the college and head into Tarrytown for tea. We park not far from the Tarrytown theater where the Jefferson Starship will soon appear.

     Tarrytown’s Silver Tips is one of the most “serious” tea rooms in the tri-state area, offering 140 kinds of tea. We settle in at a table and order a pot of Assam, which comes in English Chatsford china with matching cups. The feel of the Chatsford cup is half of the delicious experience of sipping. Talking with Stuart Newman naturally is the other half.

     Newman mentions his postdoc days at the University of Sussex and his fondness for English scones with clotted cream and preserves, which he now has a chance to enjoy again.

     “You don’t find clotted cream around much,” he says with a certain nostalgia, as he dips into the cream and raspberries.

     How does the Tarrytown scone compare with the Sussex scone?

     It’s “authentic” but “too much for me actually . . . won’t you have some?” he asks.

     He describes his high school years (same one paleontologist Steve Gould attended) and tells me a bit of his family history. We kibbitz about the Catskills and evolutionary politics.

     The rain lets up as we leave the tea room and walk downhill to the car. Newman walks in front of me and begins to pick up his pace telling me he forgot to put money in the parking meter. Luckily the car’s still there.

     Prior to my visit, Newman sent me an email asking if I’d like to see Usonia, a colony of homes built in the 1950s by Frank Lloyd Wright and others in the woods of Pleasantville. I was fascinated by the idea.

     So we drive to Pleasantville along the Kensico Reservoir and then onto Route 141. Newman is a bit concerned that we’re losing sunlight. We turn right now on Lake Street, right again on Bear Ridge Road and make another right onto Usonia Road. Fifty Usonian homes made of glass, wood and stone are somewhere in the surrounding hills, three of them designed by Wright. And we are about to try to find some.

     Usonia was begun by a group of New Yorkers following World War II who pooled $22,000 to purchase 95 acres in the area, eventually creating their own homes at a cost of about $5,000 each. Today the homes are individually owned (but the community spirit survives) with some original residents still living in them.

     It’s about 6 pm as we enter the woods. Interesting shadows are at play. Newman’s velvety voice becomes even more so as he whispers, “It’s like we’re stalking wild animals.”

     “That one is a Wright house, isn’t that something!” He points to the home with a section covered with field stones and amber light oozing from the windows into the trees. “You’ve got to come back in the winter and we’ll. . .”

     Newman says he was never crazy about Wright’s design of the Guggenheim Museum though, describing it as “an insult to its surroundings”. “Wright’s concept was that everything was supposed to conform to the setting and then he plunks this thing on Fifth Avenue which has nothing to do with Fifth Avenue. I think he just didn’t like New York City.”

     You’re only allowed to drive through Usonia, and are not supposed to leave the road, but Newman says he often winds up in somebody’s back yard. He points out a sculpture garden. And a tennis court.

     Mel Smilow, a famous furniture maker used to live at Usonia. Newman says Smilow and his wife were involved in the nuclear freeze movement and that he got to know them and their house then.

     But the shadows soon grow longer, so we leave the enchantment of the forest and head for the Hawthorne train back to Manhattan.

     Newman waits with me on the platform as four or five trains pass all going in the wrong direction. 7:21 pm comes and goes without a New York bound train. 7:47 and still no train. We soon learn that trains to GCS are off-schedule because a tree fell onto the track several stations away and there is no announcement about when service will resume.

     I have to persuade him that I am a veteran of several wars before he agrees to leave me – insisting that I call him at home if there are further delays (and there is an email later from him asking me to email him as soon as I return home).

     We say goodbye. And Newman disappears into the night and nearly full moon.

     Stuart Newman is co-author of the textbook Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo (Cambridge University Press) with Gabor Forgacs, and with Gerd Müller (Chair, Konrad Lorenz Institute) co-edited Origination of Organismal Form: Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary Biology (MIT Press), a volume about the origination of body form during Ediacaran and early Cambrian periods, also contributing a few chapters to it

     Newman’s A.B. degree is from Columbia University and his Ph.D. in chemical physics from the University of Chicago where he also did post doctoral studies in theoretical biology, as well as at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Sussex. Newman’s been a visiting professor at Pasteur Institute, Paris; Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique-Saclay and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

     The text of our recent Valhalla interview follows.

* * * * *

Suzan Mazur: Stuart, you are one of the 16 scientists who met this July in Altenberg at Konrad Lorenz Institute to talk about reformulating the theory of evolution based on natural selection. Is the “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” now a reality following the Altenberg meeting?

Stuart Newman: Yes, I would say it’s a reality not just following the Altenberg meeting but people who were there and others who weren’t there have been working on extending the breadth of the evolutionary synthesis for some time from a number of perspectives. This meeting was just a confirmation that it’s underway and perhaps an impetus to push it forward even more.

Suzan Mazur: The extended synthesis has been described as a graft onto the “modern synthesis,” the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. While your final report is to be published next year by MIT, is the plan in the interim to cast a net globally for scientific perspectives on the extended synthesis, because as it stands now the extended synthesis is largely an American-European concept?

Stuart Newman: Yes. I know people in India and Japan who are working very much along these lines and extending the synthesis. We’re all in touch with our international colleagues and I don’t think it really is confined to the US and Europe.

Suzan Mazur: Is the modern synthesis, the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, now history so that public money being spent on research based on the modern synthesis may in fact be wasted?

Stuart Newman: I wouldn’t put it that way. Up until fairly recently what’s called the modern synthesis has been the only game in town. I don’t think that anybody at our meeting or any people working in evolutionary theory – maybe there would be some that would say that the phenomena and mechanisms described in the modern synthesis don’t pertain anymore. They do pertain. The question is: Are they the major forces of evolution? Are they somewhat subordinate?

There is a wide spectrum of opinion even within our group of 16 as to whether the mechanisms of the modern synthesis are the predominant mechanisms or subordinate mechanisms.

Suzan Mazur: How much agreement is there among your Altenberg colleagues about the gene arriving late in the evolutionary process and playing a secondary role?

Stuart Newman: I think possibly some things that I’ve said, or possibly some other people have put in that light, suggest that the gene is a late arrival – but we never in our scientific papers have said anything like that. We’re all dealing with organisms that have genes.

Even before there were multicellular organisms, there were single-celled organisms with several billion years of evolution behind them in which genetic mechanisms were refined and established. Before that there’s pre-biotic evolution that led to single cells that had genes. But once we reached the multicellular world, which is maybe half a billion years ago or more – but not a very long time relative to the entire history of cellular life – once we hit that stage, we’re very much dealing with organisms with genes.

The question is: All of the complex forms that have emerged since that point, since multicellularity, are they dependent solely on genetic mechanisms or is it genetic mechanisms plus other determinants of morphogenesis for the generation of forms? I don’t know anybody who thinks genes arrived late. But perhaps genetic consolidations of patterns and forms trail after the origination of the patterns and forms.

Suzan Mazur: With the extended synthesis, has the shift actually begun from the gene-centered perspective of evolution to non-centrality of the gene? As a result of this meeting [Altenberg], has the shift happened?

Stuart Newman: In some people’s minds the shift happened a while ago in their own work. The general shift has not happened, and it may not happen for quite some time, if it happens at all. But let me put it in a more precise way. It’s not just a shift from mechanisms that use genes to mechanisms that don’t use genes. All the mechanisms use genes.

The question is are there different forms solely due to genetic evolution or are they due to other organizing processes of multicellular life beyond the gene – in addition to the gene?

Suzan Mazur: What do you think the origin of the gene is?

Stuart Newman: The origin of the gene is one area that is very poorly understood in evolutionary biology. Here we’re talking about what’s called pre-biotic evolution – evolution that preceded cells as we know it, because all cells that we know use genes as their hereditary mechanism.

There was a period in early cellular life – and this has been written about by a scientist named Carl Woese. He believes that genes were exchanged very freely between organisms. He calls this a pre Darwinian world where basically organisms take on new genetic characteristics not through what’s called vertical transmission but by horizontal transmission – from sharing with other organisms.

If you go back even further – where did the genes come from? Some people suggest there was a world of RNA that preceded the world of DNA and that RNA was the most primitive genetic mechanism. So we might have RNA genes preceding DNA genes. But where did the RNA genes come from?

Then you get into the area that’s called chemical evolution. There are processes in non-living systems that could potentially generate the molecules of living systems. There are theories of thermal vents under the ocean where there’s a very extensive chemical shuffling and reactions and things that could potentially generate these building blocks.

I’ve been to meetings where this has been discussed and I’ve met some very smart people who are at work in this area, but there are still big gaps in our understanding.

Suzan Mazur: The term “punctuated evolution” is part of the new extended synthesis language. How does it differ from the Eldredge-Gould concept of “punctuated equilibrium” – which argues that evolution has not been a gradual process, as reflected in the fossil record?

Stuart Newman: This is a somewhat controversial area because it involves, first of all, estimations of time scales. When Gould & Eldredge first presented their idea of punctuated equilibrium, they were just pointing to the fossil record and saying that things that were considered gaps in the fossil record because there were discontinuities between the forms that were uncovered, might not truly be gaps. Things may have happened relatively fast. And therefore, one form supplanted another form by evolutionary processes that were not entirely gradual.

Over the years I would say there was a backing off by Gould and Eldredge from considering what evolutionary biologists would call saltational mechanisms, which are true jumps. So you have one form being replaced by another form very rapidly. Gould & Eldredge would both talk about rapid in a geological sense. They were talking about millions of years of evolution rather than hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

From our own work and the work of other scientists looking at physical determination of biological form, there’s a very good case to be made – and there’s a lot of experimental data behind it – that true jumps are possible.

To give you an example, we now know the mechanism by which the number of segments of organisms like ourselves are generated. Our backbones have serially repeated vertebrae. There are a certain number of them – 30, 40. And some snakes have 300.

We know that the process that generates these blocks of tissue involves an oscillation, a clock-like mechanism. This kind of beats time, and the time is translated into spatial discontinuity. Whenever you reach a certain point on the clock, you’ve cut off another block of tissue. And you do it again.

That clock can run faster or slower. What makes the clock run fast or slow is – even if it’s a small change, can lead to a transition from 40 blocks of tissue to 300 blocks of tissue all in one step. So you can get saltational jumps. It doesn’t have to be gradual. You don’t have to go from 40 to 41 to 42 to 43 up to 300. You can get much bigger jumps than that. We know that is the case.

Even though Gould & Eldredge backed off of saltational mechanisms, we now know from embryology that saltational mechanisms are very plausible mechanisms of evolutionary change.

Suzan Mazur: Your theory of form also describes an evolutionary spontaneity. You say that all 35 or so animal phyla physically self-organized by the time of the Cambrian explosion half a billion years ago using a pattern language – dynamical patterning modules (DPMs) – and that selection followed as a “stabilizer”. Is that correct?

Stuart Newman: Yes.

Suzan Mazur: As these terms apply to your hypothesis, what do you mean by “self-organization” and “selection”? Do you mean selection in the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” sense?

Stuart Newman: Yes – to some extent, and there are other ways selection acts as well. First of all, by self-organization we mean when cells get together and form clusters there are physical processes that are relevant to material on that scale. A single cell is a very small object and it’s subject to certain physical forces. Cells can be knocked around randomly if they are in a fluid medium.

When you get to larger structures, you have things operating like diffusion, the flowing of materials from one end to the other that can cause non-uniform gradients. And you have cells in clusters, some of them being more strongly adhesive and some less strongly adhesive. So you’ll get phase separation – like two immiscible liquids, oil and water. You can get different layers of tissue due to this process.

Then you can have interactions between cells where a cell will exert some inhibitory effect on the cell next to it. Cells right next to one cell won’t do the same thing. These are all processes that use molecules and genetic means that were evolved for single cells but in the new multicellular context along with the physical processes that are characteristic of larger scale matter. Again, organizational principles kicking in that just weren’t there in the single cell state.

Cells have these clocks inside of them, these oscillations. And in the single cell world an oscillation just periodically changes the state of a cell. But in the multicellular state, the oscillation can lead to spatial segmentation. You’re mobilizing things that existed before, that evolved in the single cell world but then when they meet up with the physics of mesoscale (middle scale) materials, you get all these morphogenetic processes – all these form-producing processes come into play.

To give an example, a molecule of water doesn’t have waves and it doesn’t have whirlpools. It’s just a molecule and it has the physics of molecules. When you have a lot of molecules of water, they make liquid water. Then you can get all sorts of disturbances and wave-like and vortex-like phenomena, which you would never see in the individual molecule.

It’s not that the molecules have changed but the scale has changed. Some new physics comes in and organizes the system.

Suzan Mazur: The selection you’re referring to though is not Darwinian survival of the fittest. . . Stuart Newman: Let me go on from there. The forms that you get are not due to Darwinian selection. They’re due to the inherent properties of the system. But many of those forms may not be viable. You might get forms due to physical organization that are not suited to this world. They just can’t find a place to live. They can’t eat or whatever. There will be a shake-out phenomenon. Some of them will survive and others won’t.

In that sense the Darwinian mechanism of selection is a kind of culling process. It doesn’t create the forms but it basically determines which ones of them will persist in the world. It is a role for Darwinian selection but it’s not a role of building up forms in an incremental fashion. Or at least by and large it isn’t. It’s culling these self-organized forms and just selecting among them.

Suzan Mazur: Many scientists say the terms “self-organization” and “self-assembly” are interchangeable. Some say the snowflake forms by self-organization – you call the snowflake formation process self-assembly.

Some scientists describe the self-assembly of the hydra, for instance. You did extensive experiments with the hydra in the early 1970s in England at the University of Sussex, and term the hydra’s regenerating process self-organization. To what do you attribute the difference in use of these terms self-organization and self-assembly? And what do you mean by “self-assembly”?

Stuart Newman: Self-assembly is an area that comes out of chemistry and physical chemistry. Molecules can undergo a process of self-assembly. It depends on the shapes of the molecules. Very often you see self-assembly where you have a number of identical or nearly identical sub-units and they come together and they form structures that have certain variable properties to them and certain common properties.

Because of the molecular nature of water, it will crystallize with certain symmetries and when it forms snowflakes they’ll always have six-fold symmetry but every one of them will be different from the other. This is the self-assembly process. It’s not a process where the form depends on a flux of matter and energy. You have subunits coming together. It’s generally considered an equilibrium process. Some self-assembly processes utilize some energy but by and large self-assembly is reserved for the equilibrium processes. And you get static structures.

A snowflake, as long as you keep it cold, will stay there. It doesn’t require a constant input of molecules and an expulsion of molecules. It’s a static structure.

Self-organized processes often require a flux of matter or energy just to keep the structure in place. The physical chemist Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel laureate who looked into the self-organization of matter, called these things “dissipative structures”. They’re structures that remain in place by using energy to stay in form. Many of the self-organizing processes are like that. They’re dissipative structures.

When I talked about this process of generating the vertebral column – it uses chemical oscillations. It uses oscillations of molecules inside the cell. You can’t have an oscillation without expending energy and having a flux of material in and out of the system. In that sense it’s a non-equilibrium system, but eventually it generates static forms if the forms get “frozen” into place by cell differentiation.

So there’s a big distinction from the point of view of physics and chemistry between self-assembly and self-organization. I want to hasten to say that inside the cell there are processes of self-assembly. Many of the cytoskeletal structures – the structures that keep the cell in shape internally – are made up of proteins that self-assemble: microtubules, microfilaments. You have an identical collection of a small number of subunits and you have many copies of them, and they will form very long extended structures.

But most of those molecules had to evolve to be able to self-assemble. You can’t just take any old molecule and expect it to self-assemble. So self-assembly that you see inside the cell is a function of subunits that, in general, have evolved to self-assemble.

Self-assembly per se can’t explain evolution. It happens in the physical world but when it happens in the biological world, the units that self-assemble are products of evolution.

Suzan Mazur: Is it because self-organization is so misunderstood within the biology community that you’ve tucked it under the umbrella term “phenotypic plasticity” in the extended synthesis, along with epigenetics – plasticity being a concept generally understandable?

Stuart Newman: Yes. We had a summary from the Altenberg conference. We wanted to create a number of umbrella categories under which all the things we discussed could be subsumed. The biologically interesting aspects. Self-organization is a concept imported from physics and physical chemistry.

Its biological implication is that if you have an organism with a certain genotype, then because its self-organizing processes – which are subject to perturbation from the environment, etc. – you can get different outcomes with the same genotype. From the point of view of evolutionary theory this is plasticity, the ability to make different forms from the same genome.

It wasn’t important to enforce every mechanism of plasticity. Plasticity was a sufficient umbrella to include those concepts.

Plasticity is not only associated with self-organization. Molecular self-assembly can also be plastic. It is now recognized that many proteins have no intrinsic three-dimensional stucture – their forms and functions change depending on their microenvironment, including other proteins that may or may not be present. The structure and function of macromolecular complexes can therefore change dramatically over the course of evolution with minimal genetic change, or as a side-effect of other changes, not driven by adaptation. This is quite relevant to the evolution of highly complex structures like the bacterial flagellum, a problem constantly harped on by advocates of “intelligent design.”

One reason that so little progress has been made in this area is that perfectly valid scientific concepts that employ nonadaptive evolutionary mechanisms are rarely considered because of the hegemony of the neo-Darwinian framework.

Suzan Mazur: Why do you suppose the mainstream media stonewalls coverage of self-organization when the National Science Foundation supports the investigation, including your own? The research is there. Self-organization is real – so why the media gag?

Stuart Newman: I don’t know if it’s a purposeful gag. I think in order to understand self-organization and not just the term, it really takes a certain level of sophistication in the physical sciences as well as the biological sciences. People can understand what a gene is and how a gene specifies a protein. Those ideas are easy to explain to the public. Ideas of self-organization are much more difficult to explain. I feel that many people in charge of disseminating information don’t understand the concept. Just the way many physicists don’t understand biological concepts, many biologists don’t understand these physical concepts. There’s a two (or more) culture problem in theories that are relevant to evolutionary biology. It’s a matter of people not understanding the concepts well enough.

Suzan Mazur: To what do you attribute the reluctance to distribute literature about self-organization by organizations like the National Center for Science Education, which advises schools in America on what textbooks are suitable?

Stuart Newman: I think there is a challenge that self-organization and plasticity in general presents to Darwinian theory because Darwinian theory is basically a theory of incremental change. If you are confronted with a very complex structure, the Darwinian explanation is that it was built up little by little over long periods of time. If you bring in self-organization, then that undermines those Darwinian explanations.

To my mind, self-organization does represent a challenge to the Darwinian, i.e., the modern synthesis and the perceived understanding of evolutionary theory. People are concerned – though I don’t agree with them for being concerned about it – but people are concerned that if they open up the door to non-Darwinian mechanisms, then they’re going to allow the creationists to slip through the door as well.

This is not at all the case. But because many of evolution’s designated defenders don’t understand these concepts well enough, they are fearful of that potential.

Suzan Mazur: The National Center for Science Education director Eugenie Scott told me that her organization does not support self-organization because it is confused with intelligent design, i.e., “design-beyond-laws” – as Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University describes it. NCSE also pays lucrative fees to conference speakers who keep the lid on self-organization by beating the drum for Darwinian natural selection. NCSE and its cronies completely demonize the intelligent design community, even those who agree evolution happened. Religion is not the target since even the National Academy of Sciences embraces religion. So it seems the real target is those who fail to kneel before the Darwinian theory of natural selection and prevent the further fattening of the Darwinian industry tapeworm.

NAS and NASA/NAI in their respective publications Science, Evolution and Creationism, and Astrobiology Primer have also kept out any discussion of self-organization. What is your response to this? Why do you think such organizations continue to feed unenlightened information to the public at public expense?

Stuart Newman: Although I may not use all the terms that you used, I would have to agree with you that if you look at the Pennsylvania legal case on the teaching of evolution [Kitzmiller v. Dover], there was a very solid identification of evolution with Darwin’s theory of evolution. I think that this was very reinforced in the public mind – that if you believe in evolution, you believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution because it’s supposedly the same thing. And if you don’t believe in Darwin’s theory, you must believe in something supernatural.

This is not at all valid and I think it’s a big mistake because we know there are non-linear and what I call saltational mechanisms of embryonic development that could have contributed – and I’m virtually certain that they did – to evolution. It was Darwin who said that if any organ is shown to have formed not by small increments but by jumps, his theory would therefore be wrong.

The people you refer to – instead of moving beyond and expanding Darwin’s ideas to include things like self-organization and bring other mechanisms into it – adhere to this Darwinian orthodoxy where everything has to be incremental. And when confronted with something very complex like the bacterial flagellum or the segmented vertebral column, they say that it had to have arisen in an incremental fashion.

But there are other mechanisms involving self-assembly and involving self-organization that could potentially explain these things as long as one did not seek purely incremental explanations. And physics and the theories of self-organization show us that those mechanisms exist. I think it’s an unfortunate error that some advocates of evolution are making by adhering so closely to this incrementalist Darwinian dogma.

Suzan Mazur: What is the danger in mediocre science being pushed on the public, aside from the wasting of public funds at a time of serious economic downturn in America?

Stuart Newman: It seems to me that if somebody is predisposed to be skeptical, perhaps because they are religious, and are told that the vertebrate column, for example, had to have evolved incrementally – they may not be persuaded by it because it’s not true, even though their motivation not to be persuaded might come from their religion. Then scientists who are working on this embryonic mechanism who have shown that there are non-incremental mechanisms that produce these things come along, and therefore everybody who’s been assuring this skeptic that it’s all incremental turns out to be wrong.

It really undermines confidence in science if people are always being subjected to what we call handwaving arguments that all complexity had to have had an incremental origin.

Suzan Mazur: Sam Smith of Progressive Review recently said the following: “[Scientists] are also subject to that most pernicious of academic temptations: the desires and biases of their funders.” He refers to the “distorting role of the Defense Department, agribusiness and pharmaceutical corporations in supposedly objective science.” Would you comment on that?

Stuart Newman: That’s true. I don’t know how pertinent it is to the evolution debate. I don’t think the pharmaceutical companies have a role in steering the field away from self-organization. In fact, if it’s true and you can patent it and make money on it, they’ll chase after that. So I don’t think the businesses, although they do have this grip on scientific development – I don’t believe they’re ideological in that way. The ideology really comes from entrenched old science – people who are educated in biology with no sense of physical sciences. The inertia and obduracy comes from the side of the scientific establishment rather than from industry.

Suzan Mazur: As a common language has begun to be created by you and your Altenberg colleagues in an effort to help bring various scientific fields together – will the public’s need to know be taken into consideration as well? Do you envision a kind of “science-ease” happening, a plain speak on the order of “legal-ease” – the attempt by the legal community to simplify document language because law firms have gone global?

Stuart Newman: There are people working on all sides of science who want to communicate with the public. The loudest voices and sometimes the more facile and appealing writers have been retailing old ideas unfortunately. As younger people come into the field who are more open-minded, some of them will also have a facility with public communication and newer ideas will get out. People will understand that evolution happens, but that it doesn’t necessarily happen the way Darwin said it happened. Sometimes it does. But it happens other ways as well.

It will be to the benefit of everybody if evolution is acknowledged and incorporated into the broader culture, which it isn’t now. It’s kind of in a losing battle. The only way that can happen is by not communication of bad ideas but by communication of good ideas.

Suzan Mazur: But can it be communicated in a simpler way? Can the jargon be broken down so the public can get a handle on it?

Stuart Newman: You can use metaphoric means of communication. I tried to do it talking about water having waves and having vortices and it being something different from the molecules that the water is made of. I think people are more responsive to that approach than to assertions that every complex organism or structure had to be built up by incremental means. People don’t buy that because it’s often not true.

Suzan Mazur: How much of a makeover of the evolutionary biology community will the extended synthesis entail?

Stuart Newman: If you polled different people at the Altenberg meeting, some would say well it just needs to be what already exists plus a few additional things that they are working on. But I think the bigger challenge, particularly coming out of this idea of plasticity, is to the idea that things are built up in increments and that it’s only genetic change that drives evolution. I think that idea is a big idea. And that big idea is coming up against a lot of entrenched belief within the scientific community that things happen in the Darwinian fashion.

So I think ultimately it’s going to be a big turnaround in evolutionary theory even though it might look like it’s happening slowly.

Suzan Mazur: Massimo Pigliucci, one of the coordinators of the Altenberg event, has told me the extended synthesis will not affect the lives of people in general. Obviously you don’t agree?

Stuart Newman: I think it will affect the lives of people in the sense that right now we have these walls around belief in evolution or non-belief in evolution. We’ve moved past having big wars about whether people should take certain medications for high blood pressure. You could be religious and take blood pressure medicines. Or you can be an atheist, etc. We don’t have wars about many aspects of science.

We do have wars about some of the aspects of science. And one of the reasons we have these wars is because people are being asked to accept implausible and incorrect mechanisms.

If better ideas of how evolution occurred get out into the wider culture, there will be more of an acceptance of the phenomenon of evolution. People will stop fighting about whether evolution happened, which is a ridiculous fight. And it’s partly a ridiculous fight because of religion. The other side is because of science. Because the science is not where it should be.


Suzan Mazur’s 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.

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