The Woodstock of Evolutionary Biology and eye rolling

In a recent issue of Science there was a piece by Elizabeth Pennisi on the "Altenberg 16" who will be attending what overhyping journalist Suzan Mazur calls the "Woodstock of Evolutionary Biology", only it "promises to be far more transforming for the world".

Puh-lease. People have been saying that the Modern Synthesis is neither modern nor a synthesis and needs to be expanded for some time. And there are a lot more than 16 people saying it.

Thankfully, Pennisi uses the nonsensical hype to discuss some relevant issues, and even points out that the people involved themselves do not see it as a revolution.

Massimo Pigliucci is no Jimi Hendrix. This soft-spoken evolutionary biologist from Stony Brook University in New York state looks nothing like that radical hard-rock musician whose dramatic guitar solos helped revolutionize rock 'n'roll. But to Suzan Mazur, a veteran journalist who occasionally covers science, Pigliucci is the headliner this week at a small meeting she believes will be the equivalent of Woodstock for evolutionary biology. The invitation-only conference, being held in Altenberg, Austria, "promises to be far more transforming for the world" than the 1969 music festival, Mazur wrote online in March for Scoop.co.nz, an independent news publication in New Zealand.

That hyperbole has reverberated throughout the evolutionary biology community, putting Pigliucci and the 15 other participants at the forefront of a debate over whether ideas about evolution need updating. The mere mention of the "Altenberg 16," as Mazur dubbed the group, causes some evolutionary biologists to roll their eyes. It's a joke, says Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago in Illinois. "I don't think there's anything that needs fixing." Mazur's attention, Pigliucci admits, "frankly caused me embarrassment."

My eyes have rolled — and did so again at the sight of this latest report, until I saw that it was much more reasonable.

…no one truly expects a scientific Woodstock. "Woodstock was an immensely popular event celebrating a new musical mainstream," says Newman. "I imagine this will be more like a jam session circa 1962."

I look forward to reading the papers that emerge from the meeting, but I don't expect anything revolutionary — more like some cool ideas to continue discussing.

 


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