Sir Patrick Bateson: Zoologists Should Not 'Hog' Upcoming Royal Society Evolution Meeting

With knighthood comes responsibility, and Sir Patrick Bateson takes the honor seriously. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2003 for his service to biology and continues to serve by advancing public understanding of science, by bringing people together, educating.
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(photo, Cambridge University/courtesy PPG Bateson)

With knighthood comes responsibility, and Sir Patrick Bateson takes the honor seriously. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2003 for his service to biology and continues to serve by advancing public understanding of science, by bringing people together, educating. Bateson is one of the organizers of the upcoming Royal Society evolution meeting, for example, a scientific discussion that, in his words, "should impact on how we all think about humanity as a whole." And he's told me that zoologists -- he's one himself -- should not "hog" that conversation.

Patrick Bateson was born into one of the most distinguished British science families. Geneticist William Bateson (he coined the term "genetics") was the cousin of Pat Bateson's grandfather. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson, William's son, was, of course, also a distant relative.

Pat Bateson's father, Dick, was in the wood pulp business and served as a British officer in World War II before being taken prisoner by the Germans at Dunkirk. He never fully regained his health following the war and died 10 years later.

Bateson's mother Sölvi was Norwegian, the daughter of a prominent judge, and was particularly important in Pat Bateson's early life in light of his father's absence. He remembers her as vivacious, welcoming people who were in transit during those war-torn years into the Bateson home in England, something young Pat found greatly inspiring. Sölvi was also the WWII "Norwegian voice" on BBC.

Pat Bateson's scientific success came early in life. As Marie-Therese Miller, née Countess Degenfeld-Schonburg proudly relates in her memoirs -- at age 29, her "godson" Pat Bateson was given a special citation by the Zoological Society of London for his debate in Sweden with Konrad Lorenz on animal behavior. The citation was presented to him personally by Prince Phillip.

The Bateson-Lorenz debate was one in which Bateson took the position that "imprinting shared many features with perceptual learning," that it was not, as Lorenz believed, a "special form of learning." While Bateson characterizes Lorenz as enormously charismatic, he said Lorenz never really warmed up to him again after that encounter.

Pat Bateson for many years has written extensively about his concern for animal suffering both in the wild and as subjects of animal research. His report critical of hunting red deer with hounds in the west of England led to the Council of National Trust banning the hunt on National Trust land. He has also been critical of aspects of dog breeding.

Over the decades, Patrick Bateson has served as Biological Secretary and Vice President of the Royal Society; President of the Zoological Society of London; Vice-Chairman of the Museums and Galleries Commission; Provost of King's College, Cambridge University; Director of the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour at King's College, Cambridge and as a professor of ethology there where he's been interested in exploring how an organism initiates its own evolutionary change.

His PhD is in animal behavior and his BS in zoology, both degrees from Cambridge. His postdoctoral work as a Harkness Fellow at Stanford University was with neuropsychologist Karl Pribram.

Pat Bateson was awarded an honorary ScD from the University of St. Andrews and is an honorary Fellow of Queen Mary, University of London. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1983, among numerous other honors.

These days as emeritus professor of ethology, Pat Bateson spends much of his time writing from his home in the English countryside where he and his wife, Lady Dusha Bateson -- a writer too -- raise Egyptian cats.

Pat Bateson is the author of hundreds of scientific papers and these books: Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation (w/Paul Martin); Plasticity, Robustness, Development and Evolution (w/Peter Gluckman); Design for a Life (w/Paul Martin); The Development and Integration of Behaviour (ed.); and Measuring Behaviour (w/Paul Martin).

My interview with Sir Patrick Bateson follows.

Suzan Mazur: When will the speakers for the November Royal Society event be announced?

Patrick Bateson: Very shortly, I think.

Suzan Mazur: Can you say what the subject of your talk will be?

Patrick Bateson: I want to talk about a subject that has interested me for many years, namely how the organism plays an active role in the evolution of its descendants through its adaptability. When the challenge is one never previously experienced by the organism's ancestors, the mechanisms generating the plasticity may be inherited but the outcome can be entirely novel. The idea of the adaptability of the organism initiating evolutionary change really goes back to a man called Douglas Spalding, who wrote a paper in 1873 ["Instinct: with original observations on young animals"] that preceded Konrad Lorenz's work on behavioral imprinting by about 50 years or more. At the end of his paper Spalding mentions how the learned behavior of individuals can be eventually expressed without learning.

The same idea was picked up in 1896 by James Mark Baldwin, Conway Lloyd Morgan and Henry Osborn. They must have read Spalding's paper, because it was published in a prominent journal, Macmillan's Magazine, the predecessor to Nature. I suspect they subconsciously assimilated it and then came up with their own, seemingly original ideas some 23 years later.

Spalding, himself was the tutor of Bertrand Russell's brother. He died at quite a young age. But he was clearly a brilliant man and the Russell family were very attached to him.

Suzan Mazur: So are you thinking in terms of paradigm shift, replacing the modern synthesis, a new model, what? What is your thinking about what may come out of this meeting at Royal Society in November?

Patrick Bateson: My thinking is that a lot of the social scientists and people in the humanities still think of evolutionary biology as involving genetic determinism They won't have anything to do with evolutionary ideas because they see them as repellent and irrelevant to their own work. And rightly so. You can see why the social sciences wouldn't want to embrace an idea about genetic determinism. But in fact, this idea has been more or less dropped in biology. A gene coding for behavior is not one you see very much nowadays.

I hope that part of the meeting, held jointly with the British Academy, will give scientists an opportunity to interact with the humanities and social sciences. It will be an important part because we want to discuss how the ideas about evolution ought to be embraced by social scientists and those in the humanities. It should impact on how we all think about humanity as a whole.

Suzan Mazur: So you're saying within biology the idea of genetic determinism is pretty much passé, but the social scientists and people in the humanities don't recognize that this shift in thinking has happened.

Patrick Bateson: I think that's correct.

Suzan Mazur: One of the presenters at your upcoming meeting told me that the overall purpose of the event is to "deal with Dawkins."

Patrick Bateson: Richard Dawkins is a friend of mine and, although I have been critical of some of his thinking, I have never thought of him as a genetic determinist. What he did with the selfish gene in his writing, was to present the complex processes of evolution in teleological fashion. Many people found that helpful and I don't want to discredit him on that account.

The idea of a selfish gene looked superficially like genetic determinism but Richard didn't mean it that way. Weather forecasters today talk about weather systems "trying" to do something. Nobody really believes weather systems have intentions. It's just a way of thinking about complicated things.

There was a very eminent physicist in the 19th century, William Rowan Hamilton -- not to be confused with the biologist William Donald Hamilton -- who used teleology to explain complex dynamics and as a result people understood things in a way which they had not beforehand. I think that's really what the selfish gene is all about.

Suzan Mazur: You have serious influence at the Royal Society, you've served as both Vice President and Biological Secretary of the Royal Society. Wasn't it possible to convince co-organizers of the November meeting that the matter of Dawkins and selfish gene has largely been put to rest by serious scientists and that there are more compelling issues to discuss?

Patrick Bateson: I don't think Dawkins and selfish gene will come up. The meeting is about how evolutionary thinking is relevant to a wide variety of disciplines.

Suzan Mazur: I once publicly interviewed Richard Dawkins about his perspective on organismal form. He said it couldn't be explained by physical principles alone, then posed the following questions:

"[W]here does the illusion of design come from? Where do animals and plants get this powerful impression that they have been brilliantly designed for a purpose? Where does that come from?"

Dawkins, of course, concluded that it was due to "natural selection."

Patrick Bateson: Yes, quite.

Suzan Mazur: What are your thoughts about how organismal form arises?

Patrick Bateson: I've read a certain amount about origin of life and the early stages of evolution. That's, of course, all speculative at the moment. There are interesting thoughts about the forming of RNA and its role in replication. Once replication got going, once there were things called organisms, then evolutionary processes as we now understand them became important.

My own take is that from bacteria onward, adaptability became an important driver of process. I'm not quarreling with the idea of natural selection, but I don't like the metaphor. The metaphor implies a passive organism, and I don't think organisms are passive. I think they play a very active role in their own development and the evolution of their descendants.

Suzan Mazur: What about our mineral ancestry having a role in organismal form? Antonio Lima-de-Faria has written a lot about this over the decades.

Patrick Bateson: I don't think anybody feels any more confident about how life got going in the first place than they did 30 years ago.

Suzan Mazur: Including form? Have you come any closer to understanding why it is that you look like your distant relatives - William and Gregory Bateson?

Patrick Bateson: It certainly can't be explained by simple genetics. I have one idea about the similarities, namely that differential survival of characteristics occurs during development. Ones that work well together get expressed and the ones that don't work so well with the others disappear. We know a lot about cell deaths in development. Some of that cell death may involve acquiring a combination of mutually supporting characteristics. The same process could occur in distantly related members of the family. The idea of differential survival of particular characteristics giving rise to, for example, facial appearance is one way to think about what has gone on. Otherwise, I think we're still left wondering how it comes about that people who are distantly related end up looking like each other.

Suzan Mazur: How much of the angst in evolutionary science comes from vague language? Do you agree with Denis Noble that the language of evolutionary science needs clarity, redefinition?

Patrick Bateson: Yes, I do. As I've already mentioned the term "natural selection," is unfortunate because it implies an external agent. It was a very powerful idea at the time when Darwin introduced the idea, because all the intelligentsia, including Darwin himself, had been brought up on the idea of intelligent design.

William Paley was a great exponent of intelligent design at the end of the 18th century and wrote a book about it which was widely read. He was a good naturalist but he believed that complex adaptations had to be explained by an external deity. When Darwin introduced the idea of natural selection, it replaced the idea of a deity and the term has stayed with us ever since. The problem is that natural selection is viewed as an agent that pressurizes, forces, scrutinizes, picks out, stabilizes, directs, and so forth.

I think it would be better to say what we know or would like to know rather than use a much abused metaphor to explain what's going on.

So, we should ask where variation comes from, how differential survival and reproductive success act on such variation and how the surviving characteristic is transmitted from one generation to the next. Many people disagree with me about that, but I do think that's an area where I agree with Denis. We really need to tidy up our language.

Suzan Mazur: Do you share the Denis Noble and Jim Shapiro view that there are no gene entities - only systems?

Patrick Bateson: Yes, I think people now think much more in terms of the genome as a system that impacts on subsequent protein synthesis, organ formation and all the interactions that then take place; in its turn the whole organism impacts on the genome. I think what Jim Shapiro is saying is right. He has approached something that we all believe in now, namely that you should not explain things in terms of linear causal chains. You have to deal with a whole set of processes that have been responsible for how development has occurred.

Conrad Waddington 50 years ago was the first to really draw a link between development and evolution. He stressed the importance of developmental systems and coined the term epigenetics, which is now much used. Waddington's ideas were largely ignored for many years but have now come back. People are reading his writings seriously, realizing what Waddington said was absolutely right.

Suzan Mazur: In my recent interview with John Dupré, I asked him about the fact that none of the virologists have been invited to speak at your November meeting. He said the zoologists have "always owned" the evolution discussion and he also questioned "how broadly it's ideal to go, in terms of starting to accelerate a shift in people's understanding." Do you agree with that? Do you think people are not ready for a fuller explanation of evolutionary science?

Patrick Bateson: Yes I do. I have to admit there's a lot going on in virology that I don't know about but I have been very interested in how the numerous symbiotic bacteria in the gut impact on human health, particularly when they are wiped out by powerful antibiotics.

Suzan Mazur: Isn't the information already widely out there about viruses as a result of recent epidemics of Ebola and Zika, for instance, plus all the discussion of gut microbiota. Isn't the public already aware that we live within a microbiome and virosphere? That we're talking about parasitic agents.

Patrick Bateson: There is one sense in which I am very sympathetic to that idea because of the discussion that's going on about how evolution of hosts is affected by parasites. Most of the evolution of the immune system has been in terms of defending the organism from viruses, bacteria and other parasites. Of course, very often the protection doesn't work and viruses can penetrate the organism and can become part of the genome.

Suzan Mazur: The thinking is that viruses are roughly 10% of the human genome. Citing virologist Luis Villarreal, viruses play by different rules, they're consortial and can transition between the chemical and living world, can bring novelty, have played a role in the emergence of the mammalian placenta and evolution of the human brain, as well as in the regulation of their hosts.

Patrick Bateson: I agree with all that. I want to emphasize that this meeting we are organizing doesn't deal with all aspects of biology. It is primarily concerned with enhancing discussion about evolution with our colleagues in the social sciences and the humanities. We hope that it will be at a much broader level than how particular systems impact on evolution. Hopefully it could be done in a non-contentious way.

Suzan Mazur: What Villarreal is saying is that what's happening with Zika and microcephaly, for instance, is that "these are not errors or point changes." The Zika virus is a parasitic agent, a hacker that operates consortially.

Villarreal also laments that Lynn Margulis was one of the only major evolution scientists to really begin to understand this -- unfortunately it happened toward the end of her life.

Patrick Bateson: It may be a mistake not to have anybody talking about that specifically at the meeting. But I want to repeat that in organizing the meeting we are focused on a discussion about evolution with our colleagues in the social sciences and the humanities, and we don't want to blind them with all the details of the sciences.

There's also a lot of fascinating work going on in population genetics that we're not going to talk about. Evolutionary biologists will say this is an important part of evolutionary biology, which it is, of course. But it isn't relevant to this particular meeting.

Suzan Mazur: How will an evolution paradigm shift affect society in general?

Patrick Bateson: I'm not sure we're going to be talking about a completely new set of ideas, a lot have been around for a while. Frankly, I think some evolutionary biologists have not shed their neo-Darwinist clothing. There are some conservative-minded biologists who still think of the organism as being essentially passive, a view about which I am particularly concerned. However, the overall movement in biology is to integrate different disciplines making it a very lively area at the moment. The molecular biologists are talking to the ethologists, the ecologists to the physiologists, the population geneticists to the paleontologists, and so forth.

Suzan Mazur: But is it realistic for the zoologists to still claim the evolution discussion, in light of what's known about the microbiome and virosphere?

Patrick Bateson: No such claim is being made.

It so happens that I am a zoologist but I certainly don't think the Royal Society/ British Academy meeting should be hogged by my own discipline.

Indeed, it won't be since a large variety of subjects will be represented in the invited talks and discussions. What interests you will be discussed when these topics are relevant to the broad theme of the meeting.

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