November 4th, 2013

no to teleology

It has come to my attention that the recent discussion in LJ on the Universal Genome Hypothesis proposed by Michael Sherman (
repeatedly invokes my name on the basis of the recommendation I made in Faculty of 1000 (

Here are some links to the relevant posts from which one can proceed to many more:

The context in which this recommendation comes up is in places disturbing to me.

Therefore I believe that I owe the LJ community a clarification of my position. Now, as then, I find the Universal Genome Hypothesis an interesting and controversial idea (this is how my original recommendation is rendered – not as an unqualified endorsement). Moreover, I find the idea of ‘sampling’ from the Universal Genome as a major route of lineage-specific evolution to be highly appealing as we are becoming increasingly aware of the high prevalence, if not outright dominance, of reductive evolution in the history of life (see, e.g., this recent generalization:

The above pertains to the pattern of evolution but does not specify the underlying process(es). The distinction can be important. In my view, the principal process underlying the potential emergence of novel functions, including developmental programs, by sampling of a “universal genome” has to be exaptation, i.e. recruitment of genes (and pathways, circuits etc) for functions distinct from the original ones (;; those familiar with my Logic of Chance could also check Chapters 2 and 8). I therefore find statements to the effect that “The second prediction is that large blocks of information about developmental programs encoded in genomes of lower taxons must be useless. Therefore, deletion of these blocks should not affect physiology of these organisms” in Sherman’s article to be disingenuous and potentially misleading. I certainly do realize that such statements might open the door to teleological, non-scientific explanation involving some sort of “preconceived plan” implemented in the Universal Genome. Whether or not the article had a hidden agenda of this kind, is not for me to judge (the article does not make any such claim explicitly, so I suppose the author is entitled to the benefit of the doubt, i.e. the assumption that there was no teleological connotation intended). What I want to indicate strongly and unequivocally, that I am firmly against any intrusion of teleology or any other form of irrationality into the discourse of Evolutionary Biology. Any use of any of my public statements, including the above F1000 comment, as a tacit endorsement of such views constitutes misinterpretation and misappropriation, whether it is deliberate or not. I deeply regret if something that I said, perhaps with insufficient caution, spawns this kind of misuse.