• fdrake
    I'm very grateful for any time that you spend with my questions, and I hope that you have a fun time interacting with strangers interested in your work on the internet. At the very least, and also on behalf of my co-questioners, I do hope you find us not too frustratingly uninformed.

    Question synopsis

    In an ideal world, what take home messages would you like the general public to have from the Extended Synthesis?

    Motivating context

    It seems to me that the most common intuitions about evolution and the role genetic inheritance play in it are:

    (1) An organism's structure follows entirely from its genetic code in a reductive way. Examples; if you "have the gene for running" you can become Usain Bolt. Conversely, "if you have autism, eventually scientists will understand just how this occurs in the genome and be able to treat it".

    (2) Individual centric "strong prey on the weak" bastardisations of selection. Examples; far right ideologies of racial supremacy and justifications for suffering in the third world. Appeal to "survival of the fittest" when looking at company success/failure in markets.

    If I have read correctly, The Extended Synthesis is a research programme you have championed in evolutionary theory that seeks to update the central tenets of evolutionary research to be more expansive. In particular, as a research programme it seeks to raise awareness of the important roles non-genetic (as in, not regarding gene sequences) heritability, organismal development and a variety of organic units being subject to selection at once play in understanding evolution.

    To my understanding, the Extended Synthesis seeks to highlight the central importance of phenotypic plasticity
    identical genomes lead to different phenotypes depending on the context
    epigenetic effects
    (heredity through gene expression rather than genetic code)
    , the evolution of evolvability
    (organisms are selected for their evolutionary adaptability too)
    , and multi-level selection
    (for example simultaneous selection on the cell and organismal level of an organism)
    to our understanding of evolution.

    I hope I am not wrong in saying of the first two (phenotypic plasticity and epigenetic effects) that they are examples of ecological and bodily context sensitivity of the operation of a genetic code; that is, organismal development is context specific and this is relevant to how heredity and selection work. And in the latter as selection acting (differentially) on more types of organic units than is usually envisaged, and on more capacities of organic units (like their capacity for evolutionary adaptation), than just genetic information. That is, how evolution itself works is context specific and need not focus solely on changes in the genetic code as the singular causal locus of evolutionary change. Broadly construed, it seems to me the Expanded Synthesis wants to highlight the context sensitivity of the units of evolution and the role the variation in developmental context plays of those units.

    It seems to me that these effects play a role of highlighting the contextual or ecological sensitivity of evolutionary mechanisms; not just the ecological sensitivity (niche stuff) of reproductive fitness as is more well known. Moreover, they make reductive explanations based on bastardisations like in (1) or (2) not just specious, they are almost unthinkable from (what I understand as) the perspective of the Expanded Synthesis. This role the Expanded Synthesis could play in demystifying the public understanding of evolution by highlighting the various ways it is context sensitive is what I would like to ask you about.

    Well, firstly, I suppose I should ask if you believe that heightened awareness of the Expanded Synthesis would demystify the public understanding of evolution?

    Given that, I would like to ask the same question in three ways. What changes would you like widespread knowledge of the content of the Extended Synthesis to have on the public understanding of evolution? What should we garner from it, and how should it inspire what questions we ask and answer using it? What transformation of the understanding of evolution would you like the Expanded Synthesis to bring among the general public?

    Follow up question

    To what extent do you think great emphasis on the central dogma in biology research, science journalism and teaching has lead to the reductive understandings of evolution and genetics the general public has?
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