Yes, Virginia, Darwin Was Wrong

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He Was Also Right

Newton was wrong, too.  If astrophysics had relied on Newton and Einstein not corrected Newton, space exploration would be a dicey game indeed.  We would never be able to find our way around.

On Tangled Up in Blue Guy, I often post a “Friday 419″ piece. Today I will talk about a different kind of scam.  Magazines and newspapers are selling you copies of their publications with the shocking revelation that Darwin’s work was not completely accurate, based on new knowledge gained since his time.

We are not shocked by inaccuracies in Darwin’s works of description.  We would be, instead, shocked if he had gotten everything completely correct.  He described the processes of natural and sexual selection based on the knowledge to which he had access.  Did you know that he had not even known about “genes?”

There are other things he got wrong as well, but some science bloggers took great trouble to explain why a recent spate of pop science articles were just plain inane.

John S. Wilkins had a go with “Darwin was wrong…ish“:

The targets journalists I wish to attack here are those of New Scientist, Newsweek, The Telegraph, and the media release writers for Texas A&M University. And some of the scientists and philosophers whose comments are reported therein are equally guilty. But not wanting to spoil my own nest I shall leave the readers to work out who I mean…

Jason Rosenhouse at Evolution Blog:

Part of Abbie’s point was that when science journalists hype some small advance as a fundamental change in our view of the world, it is usually scientists themselves who pay the price for the irresponsible reporting. She could have asked for no better illustration of her point than the cover of the current issue of New Scientist magazine.

The cover sports a big green tree with the words “Darwin Was Wrong.” I hope they sell a lot of magazines with that load of tripe, since they certainly were not thinking about the generations of school kids and church-goers who will now be treated to that cover in every creationist power point presentation between now and the Rapture. How many people do you think will actually read the article to discover what it was, precisely, that Darwin got wrong?

Larry Moran at Sandwalk:

I happen to believe that the science of evolutionary biology has moved on since 1859, and I happen to be a proponent of evolutionary processes that Darwin new nothing about. Nevertheless, proclaiming that “Darwin was wrong” is a different story. That’s an egregious example of journalistic hype and it’s unacceptable in a magazine like New Scientist.

The main article is Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life. The author is science journalist Graham Lawton.

The essence of the story is that the early history of evolution is probably characterized by a net of life and not a traditional tree. The “net” metaphor is due to many example of lateral gene transfer.

Evolutionary Novelties:

1. It is an oversimplification to say that Darwin was “wrong” on this point. It is not a clear cut case of right or wrong. Instead, the facts as we understand them today are more complex than what Darwin envisioned, or could have envisioned (given he didn’t know about DNA).

2. The primary, most general implication for the history of life is not changed. Darwin’s tree of life posits common ancestry of all life. This is the central scientific fact that anti-evolutionists rebel most against (because they don’t want to admit we are all related to slime-molds, etc). In fact, the new observations about biology continue to reinforce Darwin’s history-changing insight that all life shares a common ancestry. Yes, we share a common ancestor with a chimp and a fungus, get over it.

PZ Myers on Sharon Begley’s piece:

This is just wrong on evolution:

Water fleas pop out helmets immediately if mom lived in a world of predators; by Darwin’s lights, a population of helmeted fleas would take many generations to emerge through random variation and natural selection.

It misses the whole point. The population of water fleas have a genetic attribute that allows the formation of spines under one set of conditions, and suppresses them under others. This gene regulatory network did not pop into existence in a single generation! If it did, then Begley would have a big story, evolution would have experienced a serious blow, and we’d all be looking a little more carefully into this ‘intelligent design’ stuff. The pattern of gene regulation was the product of many generations of variation and selection; only the way it was expressed in a phenotype experienced a shift within a single generation.

All right, so the newsies got it wrong.  Is it a big deal in the scheme of things?  I would say so.  Evolution itself is confusing enough as it is, and most people don’t understand it.  That’s why it is easy for creationists to make headway in the political realm.  They take stories such as these, and make hay not over the science itself, but the misunderstanding of science.  Uncommon descent was quick to jump in with a “See we have been right all along and Darwinism is doomed.”  Here’s Paul Nelson:

While Darwin argued for a single Tree — probably the most powerful image he introduced into biological perception — he was always cagey about the structure of its root. Life was “originally breathed ['by the Creator,' added in the 2nd edition of the Origin] into a few forms or into one” (1859, 490). There’s a world of (inferential / phylogenetic) difference, however, between divinely created first life and naturally arising first life, when the single most important question in the latter scenario concerns the probability of abiogenesis. “A few forms” that independently evolved (say) ribosomal structure, versus a single origin for the ribosome, would entail radically different consequences for phylogenetic reconstruction.

Move the red bead of the probability of abiogenesis down its wire, away from zero and towards one, and funny things happen to the structure of the monophyletic tree of life. The tree comes apart from the bottom, and the fracturing process rapidly climbs up into the branches.

And Abbie Smith at ERV catches John West using the cover:

West just plastered this New Scientist cover on the screen and read a line or two from it. I asked him about this during the Q&A, and he responded appropriately– its a web/net of life at the beginning, not ‘one’ LUCA. So I was like ‘So why did you say DARWIN WAS WRONG if you knew the information in that article was decades old?’ He just dirped on stage, I told everyone to go online to read the article. He tried to dirp back ‘Or go on your BLAGS LOL!’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, we talked about this weeks ago. Idiot.’

Darwin was wrong and he was right.  He first published 150 years ago, so it is not strange nor is it unheard of for an understanding of evolution or of any scientific concept to be modified as people work and study and explore.  These pop articles were put out so that magazines and newspapers had something sensational to “scoop,” to grab attention in the growing frenzy over Darwin’s birthday.

Are they scamming us?  They may not believe it, and they may even be sincere in thinking that they are publishing “news.”  But they are publishing misleading, sensational claims and making money from it while we pay an additional price in the general understanding of science.

Are they scamming us?  You tell me.

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2 Responses to “Yes, Virginia, Darwin Was Wrong”

  1. February 24th, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    It is important to fill the space on the page. I guess.

  2. February 28th, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    lynn fellman says:

    Spreading confusion, alarm and misinformation causes real damage. People lose interest in science issues and just don’t know who to trust. If journalists continue to be a conduit of information and elucidation then perhaps some education is needed. Lawrenece Krauss is doing something about it. As the new director of the “Origins Institute”, the very first sympoisum has a workshop for journalists. He has invited writers to come and learn about fundamental issues so they can report with understanding and be prepared when new events occurr. Take a look what is planned at: http://origins.asu.edu/symposium/schedule.php

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