Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Why evolution is right, and your headline is wrong

On Friday, the Guardian published an article by Oliver Burkeman called “Why everything you ever learned about evolution is wrong.”  Pieces have been written against the article already so I won’t go into too much detail (well, a little maybe) – most notably by Jerry Coyne and the Guardian’s own response by Adam Rutherford.

The gist of the article?  Natural selection is more complicated than Darwin thought.  But put in more belligerent terms.

And it certainly is complicated.  As the article brings up, non-Darwinian forces have played a part in evolution in the past.  Microbiologist Carl Woese suggests that early microbial evolution was driven not by Darwinian evolution, but by horizontal gene transfer, where genes are traded between organisms and not passed down vertically through generations.  Burkeman also describes the phenomenon of linked genes, but does not explain the genetics.  Sometimes when two genes are next to one another on the genome, they will be passed along together as a package, even if only one is selected for.  Thus sometimes genes can be “selected” without being “selected for,” to put it in Burkeman’s terms.  But this effect can still be explained by Darwinian evolution.

The bulk of the article is about epigenetics – or how physical modifications to DNA, usually the binding of proteins, can turn a gene “on” or “off,” or change its expression level.  (See here for a primer.)  The article cites several incidents where changes in the epigenome (the full picture of an organism’s epigenetic character) caused by environmental factors affected the grandchildren of the organisms.  For example, a study where researchers confused the night/day internal clock of chickens by altering their lighting conditions found changes in their epigenetic profiles, and also found that their offspring had trouble locating food.  Thus – environmental changes are heritable?  Was Lamarck right about his giraffe necks?

Beyond the fact that most of these studies see their effects lost after a few generations – couldn’t one just argue that this is an issue of nurture?  That when you mess up a chicken’s internal clock, maybe it might have trouble raising its chicks, so that they have trouble surviving on their own?  Bottom line – I am not convinced.

What is most infuriating is the idea that because maybe there are exceptions to Darwinian evolution, it negates his theory.  I don’t think we know everything about evolution.  I don’t think that Darwin is right 100% of the time.  But I do think he is right 99% of the time.  And that’s what’s important.  As scientists, we’re seeking the patterns to life – patterns that can be applied large-scale to many organisms.  Study after study has shown that Darwinian evolution explains changes in organisms through generations most of the time.

We also should seek the abnormal – the horizontal gene transfers, the other forces at work that differ from our patterns.  But to take a field like epigenetics – which is still developing and which we barely understand, trust me, I study epigenetics for a living – and say that it somehow proves Darwin wrong?  That is absurd.  This isn’t a war.  Darwin is right.  Someone else may be right as well.  There are many forces at work here, people.

Which brings me to my final point: how could you ever publish an article called “Why everything you ever learned about evolution is wrong???”  This drives me insane.  If scientists are going to stand up and say, “we are objective, we are empirical, you can believe whatever we say because we are skeptical of ourselves and only seek truth,” we need to hold our science journalists up to the same standards.  I don’t know the credentials of the Guardian piece’s writer, but he clearly is not a trained biologist. As science becomes increasingly important in the daily lives of ever person on this planet, why is the field of science journalism and science writing shrinking?

Science writing should not be using grabber-headlines to gain readership.  I know, everyone wants their attention, every university press release wants the world to believe that they have discovered the cure to cancer or climate change or whatever else.  But, let’s face it: you haven’t.  Those problems will not be solved unless the scientific universe can form some semblance of a community.

Stop using headlines that are lies just to get attention.  Impatient internet users don’t even read the first paragraph of articles anymore, so even if your first line negates your headline, that is not good enough.  Just don’t do it.  Everything you ever learned about evolution is not wrong.  But as we learn more about how biology makes each of us who we are, our view of evolution may change.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

[Edit: Thanks for the write-up, Genomeweb Daily Scan!)

Written by Hanner

March 21, 2010 at 11:49 am

10 Responses

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  1. I completely agree, excellent blog.

    I tried to impress your point regarding science being used sensationally to Oliver Burkeman but sadly he didn’t seem to share our concerns. If you or anyone else are interested I have published our emails on my blog,

    Ben King

    March 21, 2010 at 2:52 pm

  2. I’ve add my own response to this on my blog. I agree that the headline/title is misleading. There is a place for that: if you use it as a teaser and immediately correct it in the article. As my article explains I think his key error was to write for himself rather than interview some epigenetics scientists. (He hasn’t the background knowledge to make a sound judgement of the books himself.)

    I’ll have to admit my own headline was a little “grabby”: Epigenetics, a confused muddle in the media :-)

    I’ll link to your post in a moment.


    March 21, 2010 at 9:59 pm

  3. Nice! I tend to cringe even at the use of “Darwinian” and “Non-Darwinian,” which to me imply an opposition between Darwin’s 19th-century epiphanies and what’s been learned since his time. In my view of evolution, such an opposition just doesn’t exist, even with super-awesome epigenetics research all over the place.

    Peter Wilton

    March 22, 2010 at 12:50 am

    • Peter! I guess in this case I was trying to differentiate between his classical “natural selection” and other modes of evolution like horizontal gene transfer. It’s pretty silly to name it after a man – but I guess I was just following antiquated standards.

      Funny you wrote — just the other day I was thinking of writing you. Will have to get to that soon.


      March 23, 2010 at 7:33 am

  4. Not defending Oliver Burkeman, but one aspect of these media vs science debates that is often overlooked is that journalists don’t tend to write their own headlines. That’s usually a sub-editor’s job.

    99.9% of the time a good subbie will try to grab attention by being deliberately provocative, grasping the essence of the story and distilling it down to a concentrated form that may be a lot more astringent than the text itself…

    …not saying that’s the case here, but just a thought.

    David Bradley

    March 23, 2010 at 5:30 am

    • I’m pretty sure that’s the case here. Especially after reading the email exchange that Ben King posted above, I don’t think Oliver Burkeman was attempting to be quite as contrary as the headline indicated.

      Then – at whom should we aim criticism? The world of media is so complicated and I certainly don’t want to blame the innocent. Is it possible to reform this type of behavior? You’re the professional around here…

      Thanks for reading,


      March 23, 2010 at 7:37 am

  5. I’ve posted a response on

    David Bradley

    March 23, 2010 at 8:57 am

  6. Hi Hannah, regarding your question as to why science writing and science journalism is shrinking… well, the reasons are myriad but one of the biggest is the death of science journalism in newspapers due to the implosion of newspapers in general. And there is no easy answer to that, because it’s the economics of how the business model was constructed (based on ad revenue).

    Because mainstream media is in such shambles, the pay is dropping everywhere and the really good science journalists, and the really experienced ones, are finding fewer outlets where they can earn the money they need to live. As a member of the National Association of Science Writers, I see this topic posted literally daily on our list serves. We science writers are also very worried about the quality of science journalism in the MSM, and the lack of qualified writers who are trying to write about science. (And I agree with David, as frustrating as it is, the journalist or freelancer rarely rarely rarely ever gets to either write the hedline or even check it. The answer to when that system goes awry is to write a letter to the editor of the paper, and let ’em have it.)


    March 26, 2010 at 5:35 pm

  7. I pretty much disagree with you. In the first place, the “certainties” of neo-Darwinism as taught in grade/high school are simply NOT CERTAIN. While any scientist knows, or ought to know, that scientific “certainties” aren’t, this is something most non-scientists (including many science writers) just don’t seem to understand.

    Never mind that the “certainty” of contra-Lamarckism stands in opposition to Darwin’s proposed explanation for the origin of differences, with the total exclusion (of inheritance of acquired characteristics) being introduced in the “new synthesis”. Never mind that (AFAIK) all the observed mechanisms of epigenetic memory are themselves the product of Darwinian selection of original genes (or at least their products). Never mind, even, that Darwinian mechanisms work perfectly well on such epigenetic characteristics. Some of the most important points most people learn in grade/high school about evolution are simply wrong.

    Another point to consider is the mechanisms Burkeman omitted, specifically the many instances of non-Mendelian inheritance, as documented for instance in “Genes in Conflict The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements” by Austin Burt and Robert Trivers. Of course, these aren’t technically contra-Darwinian (but neither is Lamarckism), but they are certainly contrary to some of the “certainties” of the “new synthesis”. (Also to the simple form of Darwinism taught to most non-scientists.)


    April 7, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    • Hey AK,

      I don’t think we disagree all that much. I think that evolution is very complicated. I think that Darwin’s idea of evolution works often. I think that we don’t know enough about epigenetics to be drawing conclusions on how it is involved in evolution yet – we don’t even know how epigenetic marks are transmitted between generations yet. So for the Guardian to run this article with such a sensational headline is totally out of line.

      There are many types of evolution. But that doesn’t mean that evolution as currently taught to high school biology students is wrong.



      April 8, 2010 at 7:48 am

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