evolgen

PLoS Biology’s press releases have taken another step toward being dismissed as “crap” by people who know jack shit about evolution, thanks to a new press release published last week.

It starts off like so:

Evolution has taken another step away from being dismissed as “a theory” in the classroom, thanks to a new paper published this week in the online open-access journal PLoS Biology.

And goes on like this:

As all students of Darwin know, evolution occurs when there is variation in a population; where some variants confer a survival or reproductive advantage to the individual, and where the basis for this advantage can be inherited. Finally, there must be a selection pressure — a reason that not all animals can survive or reproduce — such as a limited supply of food or a predator that must be avoided.

As any biologist worth shit knows, natural selection occurs when some heritable variants confer a survival or reproductive advantage. That differential survival is the result of a selection pressure. But evolution can occur without natural selection — it only requires differential survival/reproduction. How can there be differential survival without natural selection? Easy, there are factors independent of your genotype that influence your survival and reproductive success. For example, you’d be hard pressed to argue that your propensity to be struck by lightning is genetically encoded.

The press release describes an article on the automation of a laboratory evolution protocol (doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060085). The sad part is, the experiment incorporates a stochastic element — mutation. There is also selection, but the press release even describes a “random” component of evolution.


Paegel BM, Joyce GF. 2008. Darwinian Evolution on a Chip. PLoS Biol 6: e85 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060085

Comments

  1. #1 rjb
    April 9, 2008

    I agree with your point, but to quibble a little bit, the propensity to get struck by lightning may not be genetically encoded, but the propensity to run around in an open field, or to climb a tree, in a lightning storm COULD be, and thus, this example could fall under the rubric of natural selection. Granted, it’s not likely to be a significant factor, but with bottlenecks and all, you COULD argue that there could be a natural selection aspect (/contrarian)

    But still, your point is valid, and it is an extremely poorly worded press release. Especially that first part.

  2. #2 Jonathan Eisen
    April 9, 2008

    I will not comment on the press release itself as I have not had time to scrutinize it (and in my new role as Academic Editor in Chief at PLoS Biology, I guess I should be careful before saying anything about it). But in general, press releases associated with scientific papers tend to be rotten. On the other hand, I really do like this paper — it seems like a cool system for allowing interesting in vitro evolution experiments to be carried out by anyone with access to the microfluidic system.

  3. #3 djlactin
    April 9, 2008

    whoa! 5000 10-fold dilutions?! we’re talking naturopathic levels of resources here! (disclaimer: naturopathy is for fuckwits!)

  4. #4 Jonathan Badger
    April 9, 2008

    Easy, there are factors independent of your genotype that influence your survival and reproductive success. For example, you’d be hard pressed to argue that your propensity to be struck by lightning is genetically encoded.

    There is quite a difference between “propensity to be struck by lightning” and actually being struck by lightning. Organisms that live at higher altitudes *do* have a higher propensity to be struck by lightning — and while humans may decide to live up in the mountains out of entirely non-genetic reasons, it is unlikely that this is true for other organisms.

  5. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    April 9, 2008

    Evolution has taken another step away from being dismissed as “a theory”…

    That embrace of the misunderstanding of the word “theory” in itself indicates that the release was probably written by a J-school intern, one with little education in basic scientific concepts.

  6. #6 Jonathan Eisen
    April 9, 2008

    Though not wanting to get into a flame war here. The lead in to the press release says “Evolution has taken another step away from being dismissed as “a theory” in the classroom …” and I think what they meant by this is that in many classrooms around the country Evolution is shunned. And they are right about this. So – the wording may not have conveyed this perfectly but I do not think they were embracing the bad use of the term “theory” per se.

  7. #7 RPM
    April 9, 2008

    Point taken, Jonathan (of the Badger variety). I should have said: “For example, you’d be hard pressed to argue that getting struck dead by lightning is genetically encoded.”

  8. #8 RPM
    April 9, 2008

    Jonathan (Eisen type), I agree that the teaching of evolution is often crap. But the tone of the press release implies that being “just a theory” is a bad thing. It perpetuates a creationist misrepresentation of science.

  9. #9 R N B
    April 10, 2008

    I could hide behind an anonymous name here because I think this is dissent, but I’ll be brave. Actually the original article (to this non-scientist) didn’t look so bad, certainly not bad enough to be called “stupid”. Sure, the terminology was very loose, and should have been talking about the mechanisms of natural selection instead of misusing the word “evolution”, but I think the general point was clear and seemed utterly at odds with any creationist agenda.

    I’m just trying to see it from the point of view of a linguist or non-biologist instead of from an expert. I guess I always thought if an article got its point across, the particular words used don’t really matter. Anyway, I thought natural selection was being gradually proved to be the most significant force in evolution anyway.

    Sorry everyone if I’ve misunderstood completely and have failed to spot something obvious there.

  10. #10 David Marjanović
    April 10, 2008

    I could hide behind an anonymous name here because I think this is dissent, but I’ll be brave.

    Then we powers-that-be regret being forced to expel you. ;-)

  11. #11 Pierce R. Butler
    April 10, 2008

    …not wanting to get into a flame war here… Agreed entirely.

    Nonetheless…

    Jonathan Eisen: I think what they meant by this is that in many classrooms around the country Evolution is shunned.

    That interpretation holds to the degree that “automation of a laboratory evolution protocol” reduces the taboo on evolution as a classroom topic. Factor in the degree to which said taboo is based on a critique of lab processes, and derive the maximum probable number of classroom mentions of the E-word this (ahem) breakthrough might catalyze.

    The result is surely greater than zero (at least to the measure that every scientific achievement accumulates more evidence against magical thinking), but possibly small enough for calculation to require quantum mechanics.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.