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!)