Friday, July 12, 2024

Oxford Physiologist Denis Noble: Dissent from Neo-Darwinism Has Passed a “Tipping Point” Daniel Witt and David Klinghoffer

Forbes recently ran an article with an attention-grabbing headline: “Evolution May Be Purposeful, and It’s Freaking Scientists Out.” Readers of Evolution News immediately began emailing us about it. On anything relating to evolution versus intelligent design, it used to be that Forbes could be counted on for snarky put-downs of ID, perhaps more so than many another mainstream publication. The times, it seems, are changing. The article by science writer Andréa Morris was based largely on a video interview with retired Oxford physiologist Denis Noble, and it highlights the evidence for “teleonomy” (internal purposiveness) that some scientists have been trying to call attention to:

It’s about time. We were wondering when the (often very dramatic) claims made recently in arcane academic texts — such as the essays collected in MIT Press’s 2023 anthology Evolution “On Purpose” — would begin making more of a splash in the popular media. Those essays, and Noble’s own perspective, are not in favor of intelligent design. But you might say they are, if this is not going too far, “ID adjacent.” Many themes will be familiar to those who follow the literature of intelligent design.

But aside from that positive development, there is another point in the article and the accompanying interview that is worth drawing out in detail here: the “very strange psychology,” as Dr. Noble calls it, that has been causing neo-Darwinists to dig their heals in and lash out at anyone who dares question the neo-Darwinian paradigm. 

Noble testifies that some evolutionary biologists have been actively persecuting their fellow scientists who have attempted to deviate from the received consensus. (Gosh, who would have thought?) But according to Noble, the dam has broken and the dissent can no longer be contained.

Persecution? What Persecution? 

Darwin apologists have habitually mocked and denied “claims of persecution” from ID proponents. So pay attention to Noble’s account in the Morris interview of how the situation was back in 2004: 

Morris: So is it true…you mentioned this briefly, that it’s very hard in academia to talk about these ideas, these unorthodox ideas. And you didn’t feel you could actively start being head of this movement until you retired in 2004?

Noble: 2004 is when I retired from being a professor running a big laboratory. I was, therefore, from there on no longer responsible for applying to research organizations for grants to support the salaries of people in my group. So I was no longer in a position in which my own unorthodox views could damage the careers of people working in my laboratory. That’s the reason I only started writing in 2004. And the first publication was The Music of Life, which indeed is very clear about dissenting from the standard Neo-Darwinian synthesis. So all the way from 2006 I’ve been very clear about that. If I had been — as indeed I was for the first ten years or so when I first “came out,” if that’s the right way of putting it, on this issue — I was denigrated. And with some pretty strong language. If that had damaged my reputation to the point of which it would have been difficult for to get the grant money that would support the salaries of a team, I would, in effect, by my own actions in relation to expressing my views on evolution, have damaged their careers. As simple as that. I couldn’t do that.

If that sounds bad, think about the fact that Noble wasn’t even denying the reality of Darwinian evolution, or crossing the red line of methodological naturalism. The view was just a critique of current evolutionary theory, from one Darwin-loving naturalist to another. Yet even that was too much to handle. 

Morris then brings up the “vulgar attacks” Noble received from neo-Darwinists after he came out as a skeptic. The background of the video during her question displays a blog post by the inimitable Jerry Coyne titled “Famous physiologist embarrasses himself by claiming that the modern theory of evolution is in tatters.” Noble shares how the 2016 conference at the Royal Society in London reassessing evolutionary theory was almost shut down by neo-Darwinian fundamentalists: 

Noble: In 2016, together with two other scientists and two philosophers, I organized a meeting at the Royal Society in London, the top academy of the United Kingdom, together with also the British Academy, which is the social science side of all of this, and we organized a meeting on “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology.” That meeting triggered a major protest from leaders of the neo-Darwinist synthesis. There was actually a protest to try and stop the meeting happening, in the form of a signed letter to the president of the Royal Society, saying, “Please, disassociate the Society from this meeting.” So, that meeting went ahead. There’s a history to that which we don’t need to go into, but it was quite a difficult history… I would love to find a way of defusing the tension and the standing off, that we experienced, for example, at that Royal Society meeting in 2016. There were just a few neo-Darwinists at the meeting, and it was like a gladiatorial confrontation. And I don’t think that’s necessary.

There’s Persecution, and There’s Persecution… 

Again, Noble is not an ID proponent, or anything totally beyond the pale like that — or even a theist. Morris calls him “neutral on religious matters.” He is in fact a methodological naturalist. And he is a very distinguished scientist — one might even say venerable. He enjoyed a fruitful career at Oxford (where he was Richard Dawkins’s doctoral examiner back in the 1960s). Yet even he was not safe from mudslinging, vitriol, and outright suppression. 

If this has been the situation for highly respected naturalists who merely want to critique contemporary evolutionary theory, without dissenting from Darwinism in general, much less the materialist worldview that underpins the whole endeavor — imagine how difficult it must be for those who go farther, or who are less secure in their careers? 

Molecular biologist and intelligent design proponent Douglas Axe was also at the 2016 conference. This is what he wrote afterwards about the experience:

As important as parenting is, it should be a temporary undertaking. The end result is well worth the effort… when it does come to an end, that is. We’ve all seen regrettable cases where it doesn’t — fully grown adults who retain an unhealthy need for parental approval and aging parents who foster that kind of lingering dependence.

I left the recent Royal Society meeting in London, “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology,” with the distinct impression that I had witnessed a professional version of that unhealthy situation. Old-style neo-Darwinists were there, few in number but with a way of making their presence felt — like overbearing parents presiding over the affairs of their long-grown offspring. Emotional complaints were made against these parent figures during question periods, with spontaneous applause signaling a general mood of protest…

At the meeting I found myself siding with the protestors, but soon afterward I began to wonder whether maybe the “parents” were only partly to blame for the tension. I recalled one participant who, during question time, clearly identified the peculiarity of the protest stance. Addressing one of the speakers who exemplified that stance, he pointed out that this professor and her peers enjoyed good academic positions, complete with all the key ingredients for academic success: tenure, funding, publication records, positions on editorial boards, etc. Why complain, then?…

In fact, scientists who challenge not just the calcified version of evolutionary theory but the larger stream of naturalistic thought that gave birth to it have far more legitimate complaints than any aired at the London meeting. You can’t wade against this larger stream without jeopardizing those key ingredients of academic success. The academy, which has in recent decades become a self-righteous monoculture, vigorously opposes anyone who moves against it.

Maybe this regrettable situation will change, someday.

Past the Tipping Point 

Axe’s “maybe” was maybe less than optimistic, and his “someday” seemed implicitly to lie in the far-distant future. But since 2016 there have already been hints of a sea-change. Intelligent design hypotheses may still be anathema in most circles, but critiques of the received evolutionary paradigm are no longer slapped down. According to Noble:  

The interesting thing is this: since that meeting, I am no longer attacked. The silence from the other side is deafening. Has there been any response to the Nature review that I did a few weeks ago with the very provocative title “Genes Are Not the Blueprint for Life”? Nobody’s replied. I look forward to a reply. But there’s been no reply either to the articles that were published in 2017 after that 2016 meeting at the Royal Society. I think there was a tipping point there.

As a result of taboo-breakers like Denis Noble in the early 2000s, today in 2024 there are young scientists who weren’t educated into the strict neo-Darwinian paradigm and feel free to diverge from it. One such scientist is a rising star of origin of life research, Joana Xavier, whom Morris interviewed for the Forbes article along with Noble. Xavier expresses no patience with the neo-Darwinist paradigm, and even less for the gatekeepers who insult and harm the careers of anyone who tries to bring new ideas to the table. She advocates going on the offensive: “We need to shame them,” she says. “I’m sorry, but we do.”

Xavier is an interesting case, and a measure of how some walls seem to be coming down. See here for her comments to Perry Marshall on Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. The ID tome is “one of the best books I’ve read in terms of really putting the finger on the questions,” and “I actually tell everyone I can, ‘Listen, read that book. Let’s not put intelligent design on a spike and burn it. Let’s understand what they’re saying and engage.’” 

In fact, as a science journalist, Andréa Morris is not without interest herself. In her mentions of ID, she is nuanced, noting that the “reductionist, gene-centric model… forfeits natural phenomena like purpose due to its association with intelligent design and a transcendent, intelligent designer.” In the conversation with Noble, she’s candid: “I don’t believe in a God — I don’t believe in much of anything. But life, and that process, is magical” (at 57:28) Yet a sentence in her article says, “Noble believes that purpose, creativity, and innovation are fundamental to evolution.” Huh. “Purpose, creativity, and innovation” are, word for word, a phrase from Discovery Institute’s one-sentence mission statement.

What, is that some sort of secret handshake? Has she been reading our stuff? Actually, it seems she has. When Noble is talking about the 2016 Royal Society meeting, she illustrates with an image of an article here at Evolution News (at 1:07:30).

Be that as it may, as Xavier says, there is no reason to tolerate the self-appointed censors any longer. The tipping point has already been passed, and the old consensus is in retreat. The more scientists take a chance and step outside the neo-Darwinian structure, the more obvious it will be that the structure was a prison, not a foundation. 

And then — maybe — other structures will begin to be questioned as well. 

Noble says: 

What do I find now? I meet young people doing research in my university and in other universities who are working within a paradigm that is totally different from the neo-Darwinist paradigm. Can they do so? 

Yes, they can.

Friday, June 21, 2024

The use of random procedures in describing non-random aspects of the world

 It has often been argued that quantum mechanics is no help to support free will because, although it does deny absolute determinism, it only puts random occurrence of events as an alternative, and randomness cannot support the idea of free will. This thought is usually based on an assumption that randomness is somehow without meaning, without significance, without reference to anything substantially real. The two articles below I think make that assumption untenable.


The Counterintuitive Power of Randomness



Sometimes an idea’s time arrives. In the late 1940s, the idea that randomness can be a powerful tool arrived in New Jersey. Claude Shannon, an electrical engineer at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, used random codes to show that it is possible to transmit information over arbitrarily noisy channels. Independently, Paul Erdős, a Hungarian mathematician working at the Institute for Advanced Study, some 30 miles to the southwest, used arguments depending on randomness to prove a seminal result in graph theory. Mathematical graphs are collections of points with lines connecting some of them. Erdős showed that in small enough graphs, it’s possible to avoid creating groups of points, called cliques, that are all connected or all disconnected. 

In physics, the role of randomness had undergone a profound change during the previous generation, as the discovery of quantum mechanics indicated that the universe is inherently random. But while physicists saw randomness as a challenge to be overcome, mathematicians and engineers figured out how to put it to use. As Rahul Santhanam of the University of Oxford explained, there’s something paradoxical about the way randomness helps mathematicians solve problems.

They often use it to prove that a given mathematical structure exists without specifying how to build it. For example, Erdős’ proof of the existence of clique-less graphs didn’t specify how to make them. Instead, he showed that if you consider the set of all possible graphs of a given size, and choose one at random, the chance that you’ll find a graph without a “forbidden” clique is greater than zero. Which means that such a graph must exist.

Shannon’s result was the beginning of a discipline called information theory, which explores how much information can theoretically be transmitted in particular circumstances — though it does not necessarily spell out the best way to do so. Like Erdős, Shannon didn’t specify how to create a scheme for reliable transmission over a noisy channel. But, using randomness, he proved that such a way must exist.

Since then, mathematicians have used randomness as a tool not just in graph theory and information theory, but also in geometry, analysis (an advanced form of calculus), combinatorics (the study of counting methods) and computer science. Earlier this year, Avi Wigderson of the Institute for Advanced Study won a Turing award, one of the top honors in computer science, in part for his work studying connections between randomness and computation.

In recent years, mathematicians have been probing the limits of probabilistic methods and gaining intuition for where they might fail. “It’s very, very natural to try to use randomness to try to push things through,” one mathematician told me. However, “randomness only gets you so far.” 


What’s New and Noteworthy

Still, it gets you very, very far. Researchers have continued to follow in Erdős’ footsteps, using randomness to prove many results in an area called Ramsey theory, which studies the unavoidable formation of cliques in graphs. In 2020, for instance, two mathematicians improved the lower bound on numbers that quantify how big a graph must get before certain patterns become inevitable. The following year, Quanta reported on a proof that marked major progress toward resolving one of the oldest problems in Ramsey theory, a question about how long disordered strings can be. And last year, I wrote about yet another Ramsey result where randomness was crucial.

Probabilistic methods have also made it possible to prove the existence of other kinds of structures. In 2017, mathematicians heaped one random process on top of another, only to find that consistent geometric patterns arise amid all that disorder. “The disorder converges to a universal form,” wrote Kevin Hartnett. “At the precise moment when a random system seems most chaotic, exquisite geometric order peers through.” Last year, I wrote about how mathematicians used a probabilistic method to prove that there are infinitely many configurations known as subspace designs — objects related to error-correcting codes — “whose existence is not at all obvious,” as one mathematician told me.

In all this work, mathematicians have to be clever about how they employ randomness. In 2022, for instance, I covered a groundbreaking proof of the Kahn-Kalai conjecture, a major problem that asked when phase transitions occur in graphs and other systems. Two mathematicians gave the answer by randomly selecting pieces of graphs and sets until they gradually built up the structures they needed, rather than applying randomness in one fell swoop.

Randomness seems like the very antithesis of everything math purports to be — the steadfast pursuit of logic, the search for patterns and structure, the crafting of neat and airtight arguments. And yet it’s become one of the subject’s most useful instruments.





Nature Reviews Immunology

Why the immune system takes its chances with randomness

Nature Reviews Immunology volume 14page711 (2014)Cite this article

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In their recent Opinion article (Lymphocyte fate specification as a deterministic but highly plastic process. NatureRev.Immunol., Reiner and Adams presented a fascinating deterministic interpretation of how lymphocytes acquire different fates. They propose that the generation of multiple lymphocyte subsets from each precursor occurs via an inevitable developmental pathway. This deduction is based on the premise that the system is too important to be left to stochastic processes. To account for recent evidence to the contrary, stochastic processes are suggested to only appear under conditions in which artificially large numbers of responding precursors might relax the deterministic programme (as used in Refs 2,3) or under in vitro conditions in which the usual three-dimensional (3D) arrangement of externally delivered signals that channel fates is removed (as used in Ref. 4). In other words, stochastic mechanisms only occur when experimental conditions happen to support the role of randomness.

There are, however, several reasons — as outlined below — to challenge the premise that stochastic processes are not equally up to the task of generating a reliable immune response.


The authors themselves point out that evolution exploits randomness for the most important task of all — creating lymphocyte receptor diversity. Other immune examples of stochastic processes include the probabilistic expression of cytokines5,6 and the combinatorial expression of natural killer cell receptors in a population7.


In the imagined B cell and T cell odysseys1, at least six intricate moves must take place to generate the different cell fates. A distinct deterministic pathway is needed for each, and the correct set of signals must be received in the correct order by each of potentially thousands of progeny; lymphocytes and numerous other cells must encode complex instructions for orchestrating the right set of signals to generate every cell type at the right time. By contrast, by using stochastic processes multiple cell types can be generated with much simpler instructions4,8,9,10,11, even in the absence of environmental direction.


It is tempting to observe the complex structures and cell interactions of primary lymphoid tissue and deduce that they are crucial for the formation of heterogeneous outcomes. This hypothesis has been tested by asking what remains when such structures are removed. We and others find a great deal of cell fate heterogeneity under simple in vitro culture conditions4,5,6,12,13. Conversely, crucial molecular contributors to early developmental programmes, including asymmetric cell division, do not alter B cell or T cell responses in vivo14. Thus, although the 3D environment and asymmetric programming might have some role in modifying cell fate allocation, they are not the only sources of variation.


In the stochastic interpretation, variation is inherent and consistent immune outcomes only arise when considering the population as a whole. As Reiner and Adams point out, the number of antigen-specific precursors recruited into the immune response is a crucial variable, and may be as low as 20. However, mathematical models in which randomness drives cell fate selection suggest that a reasonably robust immune response can be achieved even with starting cell numbers of this order4,9,10,15. Thus, a role for randomness should not be rejected on this basis alone.


As a research community, we have not yet acquired all of the data required to answer how both deterministic and stochastic processes interleave to build the complete immune response. However, along with Reiner and Adams, we look forward to the resolution of this conundrum. Perhaps unlike them, however, we are gamblers, suspecting that the immune system does play a game of chance, albeit with the rules having evolved so that the odds are stacked in our favour.


  1. Reiner, S. L. & Adams, W. C. Lymphocyte fate specification as a deterministic but highly plastic process. Nature Rev. Immunol. (2014).
  2. Buchholz, V. R. et al. Disparate individual fates compose robust CD8+ T cell immunity. Science 340, 630–635 (2013).
  1. Gerlach, C. et al. Heterogeneous differentiation patterns of individual CD8+ T cells. Science 340, 635–639 (2013).
  1. Duffy, K. R. et al. Activation-induced B cell fates are selected by intracellular stochastic competition. Science 335, 338–341 (2012).
  1. Guo, L., Hu-Li, J. & Paul, W. E. Probabilistic regulation in TH2 cells accounts for monoallelic expression of IL-4 and IL-13. Immunity 23, 89–99 (2005).
  1. Kelso, A., Groves, P., Troutt, A. B. & Francis, K. Evidence for the stochastic acquisition of cytokine profile by CD4+ T cells activated in a T helper type 2-like response in vivoEur. J. Immunol. 25, 1168–1175 (1995).
  1. Raulet, D. H. et al. Specificity, tolerance and developmental regulation of natural killer cells defined by expression of class I-specific Ly49 receptors. Immunol. Rev. 155, 41–52 (1997).
  1. Rohr, J. C., Gerlach, C., Kok, L. & Schumacher, T. N. Single cell behavior in T cell differentiation. Trends Immunol. 35, 170–177 (2014).
  1. Duffy, K. R. & Hodgkin, P. D. Intracellular competition for fates in the immune system. Trends Cell Biol. 22, 457–464 (2012).
  1. Subramanian, V. G., Duffy, K. R., Turner, M. L. & Hodgkin, P. D. Determining the expected variability of immune responses using the cyton model. J. Math. Biol. 56, 861–892 (2008).
  1. Hodgkin, P. D. A probabilistic view of immunology: drawing parallels with physics. Immunol. Cell Biol. 85, 295–299 (2007).
  1. Hasbold, J., Corcoran, L. M., Tarlinton, D. M., Tangye, S. G. & Hodgkin, P. D. Evidence from the generation of immunoglobulin G-secreting cells that stochastic mechanisms regulate lymphocyte differentiation. Nature Immunol. 5, 55–63 (2004).
  1. Bird, J. J. et al. Helper T cell differentiation is controlled by the cell cycle. Immunity 9, 229–237 (1998).
  1. Hawkins, E. D. et al. Regulation of asymmetric cell division and polarity by Scribble is not required for humoral immunity. Nature Commun. 4, 1801 (2013).
  1. Duffy, K. R. & Subramanian, V. G. On the impact of correlation between collaterally consanguineous cells on lymphocyte population dynamics. J. Math. Biol. 59, 255–285 (2009).


P.D.H. and M.R.D. are supported by National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Fellowships and NHMRC grants 1057831 and 1054925, and Independent Research Institutes Infrastructure Support Scheme Grant 361646. K.R.D. is supported by Science Foundation Ireland grant 12 IP 1263. P.D.H. and K.R.D. are also supported by the Human Frontier Science Program, grant RGP0060/2012.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

  1. and the Department of Medical Biology, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Parkville, Melbourne, 3052 Victoria, Australia, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 3010 Victoria, Australia.,

Philip D. Hodgkin & Mark R. Dowling

  1. Hamilton Institute, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, County Kildare, Ireland

Ken R. Duffy

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Philip D. Hodgkin.