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Wistar Institute Symposium (1966)

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The Wistar Institute, Philadelphia

The Wistar Institute Symposium held in Philadelphia in April 25 and 26, 1966 at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology in the University of Pennsylvania,[1] was a symposium intended to make light on objections and a pretty widespread sense of dissatisfaction about the current neo-Darwinian theory very widely held among biologists.[2] The conference was chaired by Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar [2]. The conference was called Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Theory of Evolution. In the symposium, mathematicians and other scientists in related fields gathered to assess whether the neo-Darwinian theory is mathematically feasible. Sir Peter Medawar has released the symposium with a statement of purpose:[3]

The immediate cause of this conference is a pretty widespread sense of dissatisfaction about what has come to be thought as the accepted evolutionary theory in the English-speaking world, the so-called neo-Darwinian theory...These objections to current neo-Darwinian theory are very widely held among biologists generally; and we must on no account, I think, make light of them
-Sir Peter Medawar

A book with the texts produced in the symposium was published under the title "Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution, Wistar Institute Monograph No. 5".[2]

A group of mathematicians, biologists, physicists and engineers spoke at that 1966 Wistar Institute. Among them, were Murray Eden of MIT, Ernst Mayr, Stanislaw Marcin Ulam, a mathematician that participated in America's Manhattan Project, Richard Lewontin, at the time professor of genetics and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago,[4] and Marcel-Paul Schützenberger, a computer scientist. Sewall Wright did not attended the conference, but he submitted a paper and the participants of the conference made references to his work.[5] Bernard Kettlewell, who performed research on the influence of industrial melanism on peppered moth (Biston betularia) colouration, was there, but did not submit a paper.[5]

At the symposium it became clear that doubts which existed among biologists were multiplied by physicists, mathematicians and engineers, some of whom were openly incredulous at the lack of a scientific basis for testable evolutionary theory.[1] Among some scientists, especially those aimed at computer science, the idea that copying errors could form a new body of complicated and ordered information seemed implausible or not conceivable.[1] One of the conclusions of the symposium, expressed in the words of Murray Eden, is the need "to relegate the notion of randomness to a minor and non-crucial role" in their theories of origins.[6]


By 1965 Murray Eden along with Marcel-Paul Schützenberger among others were working in models of natural selection of random mutations applying probability theory and, after achieve consistently negative results despite tries with new algorithms, they became increasingly skeptical of the mutation-selection mechanism.[7] Their skepticism became known to evolutionary biologists.[7] The idea of the symposium supposedly emerged from a discussion at two picnics in Switzerland, when four mathematicians, Marcel-Paul Schützenberger, Stanislaw Marcin Ulam, the codesigner of the hydrogen bomb,[4] Victor Frederick Weisskopf, and Murray Eden, had a discussion with the biologists Martin Kaplan and Hilary Koprowski concerning mathematical doubts about the Darwinian theory of evolution.[8] According Stephen Meyer, the informal private gathering took place in Geneva at the home of MIT physicist Victor Weisskopf.[9] According Eugene George Windchy, Martin Kaplan had stated that the second picnic produced "several hours of heated debate".[5]

At the meeting, Marcel-Paul Schützenberger along with Murray Eden, presented the evidence for the fact that the mathematical probabilities against neo-Darwinism are enormous. [10] According Michael Behe, at the symposium one side was unhappy, and the other was uncomprehending.[11]. Behe relates that "A mathematician who claimed that there was insufficient time for the number of mutations apparently needed to make an eye was told by the biologists that his figures must be wrong. The mathematicians, though, were not persuaded that the fault was theirs".[11]

The papers

Author Title Pages PMID
Murray Eden Inadequacies of neo-Darwinian evolution as a scientific theory 5-19 6051132
Stanislaw Marcin Ulam How to formulate mathematically problems of rate of evolution? 21-33 6051128
William Bossert Mathematical optimization: are there abstract limits on natural selection? 35-46 6051129
Ernst Mayr Evolutionary challenges to the mathematical interpretation of evolution 47-58 6051130
George Wald The problems of vicarious selection 59-71 6051131
Marcel-Paul Schützenberger Algorithms and the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution 73-80 6051133
Richard Charles Lewontin The principle of historicity in evolution 81-94 6051134
Conrad Hal Waddington Summary discussion 95-101
Post-conference comments. 102
Walter E. Howard Some ecobehavioral problems to mathematical analysis of evolution 103-105 6069275
Axex Fraser Comments on mathematical challenges to the neo-Darwinian concept of evolution 107 6051120
Preliminary working papers 108
Murray Eden Inadequacies of neo-Darwinian evolution as a scientific theory 109-111 6051121
Conrad Hal Waddington The principle of archetypes in evolution 113-115 6051122
Sewall Wright Comments on the preliminary working papers of Eden and Waddington 117-120 6051123
Marcel-Paul Schützenberger Alforithms and the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution 121 6051124
Sidney Walter Fox, Nakashima T. Indications of order in a model of prebiotic protein-like polymer 123 6051125
Buvet R. On some practical consequences of the existence of evolution laws in physical chemistry of energetically open systems 125-128 6051126
Pierre Gavaudan L’évolution considerée par un botaniste-cytologiste (Evolution considered by a botanist-cytologist) (Article in French) 129-134 6051127


50 Years of Scientific Challenges to Evolution: Remembering The Wistar Symposium


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Hitching, Francis (1982). The Neck of the Giraffe: Where Darwin Went Wrong. New Haven & New York: Ticknor & Fields. pp. 82-84. ISBN 0-89919-102-9. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Medawar, Sir Peter (1986). "Remarks by the chairman". In Moorhead, Paul S.; Kaplan, Martin M.. The Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution: Wistar Institute Monograph No. 5. Philadelphia: The Wistar Institute Press. ISBN 0-84514203-8. 
  3. Ankerberg, J; Weldon, J (1994). "Appendix: Rational Inquiry & The Force of Scientific Data: Are New Horizons Emerging?". In J.P., Moreland. The Creation Hypothesis. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press. p. 274. ISBN 0-8308-1698-4. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Meyer, Stephen C. (2013). Darwin's Doubt. Ray Brown, Seattle, WA: HarperOne. p. 170-177. ISBN 978-0-06-207147-7. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Windchy, Eugene George (2009). The End of Darwinism: And How a Flawed and Disastrous Theory Was Stolen and Sold. Xlibris Corporation. p. 201-203. ISBN 978-143638368-4. 
  6. Thaxton, Charles B.; Bradley, Walter L.; Olsen, Roger L (1984). The Mistery of Life's Origin: Reassessing Current Theories. New York: Philosophical Library. p. 3. ISBN 0-8022-2447-4. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Woodward, Thomas (2003). Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books. p. 37. ISBN 0-8010-6443-0. 
  8. Harper, J.L. (1968). "Evolution—what is required of a theory?". Science 160: 408. 
  9. Meyer, Stephen C. (2009). Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. Ray Brown, Seattle, WA: HarperOne. p. 204. ISBN 978-0-06-147278-7. 
  10. "Marcel-Paul Schützenberger - French Darwin doubter". Journal of Creation 28 (2): 123-7. 2014. ISSN 1036-2916. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 Behe, Michael J. (1996). Darwin´s Black Box: the biochemical challenge to evolution. New York: Free Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-7432-9031-9. 

External links