Taking Published Results out of Context

If anyone thinks I have sold out to the Seed Gods, let this be my exhibit A against such opinions. Seed has published a review of Funk et al’s ecological divergence and speciation PNAS paper. The scientific content is not all that bad, but it blows the implications of the study way out of proportion. My thoughts are below the fold.

The Seed article uses to the Funk paper to look at the role natural selection plays in speciation. The focus is put on whether allopatric speciation is a neutral process or if it depends on divergent selection in the two different environments. The article does not get off to a very good start:

Amidst the hubbub of pundits and policy-makers bickering over evolution, intelligent design and creationism, a group of researchers working at Vanderbilt University have published the results of a wide-ranging study in the online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that provides evidence for an environmental basis for the origin of species, rather than a random series of genetic mutations, essentially proving the theory of natural selection.

I like how Brent put it: “Proof” is a word that only applies to mathematics and liquor. The Funk paper supports the hypothesis that natural selection plays an important role in speciation. They prove nothing.

However, many evolutionary biologists have held that natural selection plays only a limited role in speciation, or the creation of new species, according to Massimo Pigliucci, professor of ecology and evolution at SUNY-Stony Brook.

This sounds like one of those he said, she said articles from the popular press. You know, the ones that go something like this: “However, many scientists question the ability of random mutation and natural selection to explain the diversity of life.” I’m not saying the Seed article advocates creationism; it just uses the same sloppy research and reporting that we see in the popular press’ coverage of the evolution-creationism struggle.

While there is no consensus in the research community, it is interesting to point out that the thesis of the most recently published book providing a comprehensive review of the speciation literature is that speciation cannot proceed without natural selection. How do you legitimately cover the topic of natural selection and speciation without giving mention to Coyne and Orr?

Please note that this is different that the sympatry/allopatry debate. The Funk paper assumes allopatry as the model requires different ecological selection pressures.


  1. #1 Nikhil Swaminathan
    March 6, 2006

    Thanks for keeping us honest. Your post was right on about our terminology, and the article has been ammended to reflect that the study done by Funk merely “supports” and does not “prove” natural selection.

    Thanks again for checking up on us, and making sure we do our jobs as well as possible.

    Nikhil Swaminathan
    Assistant Web Editor, seedmagazine.com

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