Unraveling evolution takes more than just Darwinism and genetics

It may not be an exaggerated claim to make that there is a new paradigm emerging in the biological sciences. The article ‘A chemical account of evolution’ by Bob Williams and Ros Rickaby (Chemistry World, July 2012, p50) marks another significant element in the appearance of this paradigm. 

Their article begins with an astonishing short paragraph: ‘If you think Charles Darwin and molecular biologists have got evolution cracked using genetics, think again. In our opinion, they have missed the very important role of chemical changes in the environment.’ There is a growing body of scholarship and research in the biosciences which seeks not completely to replace the Darwinian account of evolution of life on Earth, but to demonstrate its incompleteness and fill out our understanding of evolutionary history and processes. 

Another recent example of chemistry revising the view of evolution was given in the article by Philip Ball on the role of the protein packaging of DNA as it actually occurs in the chromosomes (Chemistry World, May 2008, p50). In these structures, the coiled network of the protein chromatin has been shown to control gene activity, without altering the structure of the DNA itself – an epigenetic activity. Ball concludes his article: ‘... there’s no doubt that the neo-Darwinian picture of genetics and inheritance is incomplete, and we won’t fully understand how evolution works, or what makes us human, until we have done some more unravelling of the subtle chemistry of chromatin.’

Of course, the principal contemporary thrust towards a new evolutionary paradigm has come from biology itself. But it is remarkable that, like the above chemistry, it takes into account the significant interaction between living organisms, their evolution and their environment. This now includes the effect of gene–environment interaction at all the development stages of organisms, and the symbiotic relationships in the life and evolution of species. Two texts mark major milestones in the biological evidence: Acquiring genomes: A theory of the origin of species (Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, 2002) and Ecological developmental biology: Integrating epigenetics, medicine and evolution (Scott Gilbert and David Epel, 2009). Both have been widely reviewed and acclaimed in the US, but seem to have had little attention in the UK. These add significantly to the potential impact of Williams and Rickaby’s work, and its timely publication by the RSC.


Cardiff University, UK