Recently, ScienceBlogs own Abbie Smith made some trenchant remarks about the problems with science journalism. The combination of sensationalism with writers who frequently do not understand the work about which they are writing leads to some serious difficulties for scientists wishing to communicate with the public. Abbie was talking specifically about reporting on AIDS, and used the example of presenting every small breakthrough in AIDS treatment as tantamount to a cure.
It all seemed pretty noncontroversial to me, but then science journalist George Johnson got cartoonishly offended by Abbie’s remarks, mocked Abbie’s writing, accused her of never getting out of her “rat-hole” of a labortory, missed her common-sensical point entirely, and basically brought far more shame and disrepute to the profession of science journalism than Abbie could ever have hoped to do on her own. Check out this post and the links contained therein to get the whole story.
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?
If the article, by Graham Lawton, had some real news to report that would justify such a headline, then that would be one thing. In reality, though, the article has only the yawn-worthy old-news that horizontal gene transfer among single-celled organisms means that the metaphor of a tree of life must be modified. Scientific American published a far more informative version of the same article back in February of 2000.
The basic idea here is simple. The tree metaphor, which famously appears as the sole diagram in The Origin of Species, is based on the assumption that genes are only transferred vertically. That is, genes pass from parent to offspring, but not from sibling to sibling. If unrelated organisms are nonetheless swapping genes back and forth, then the tree does not capture much of what is important in the evolutionary process. The prevalence of horizontal gene transfer among single-celled organisms implies that the base of the tree looks more like a web.
Like I said, this is old news, and is not anything that is relevant in our little dust-ups with the creationists. Quite the contrary. Recognizing the importance of HGT has opened up exciting new avenues of research for biologists, and has shown that evolutionists of the past had been unnecessarily limiting their options in explaining the evolutionary process.
Just to be clear, I do not believe that either Lawton , or the editors of New Scientist, have any sympathy for creationism. The article makes it clear that these discoveries enrich evolutionary theory. They do not challenge the fundamentals of the subject. I believe instead simply that their desire to be provocative got the better of their judgment in presenting this article.
Furthermore, as Larry Moran and P.Z. Myers have already pointed out (here and here, respectively), it is not exactly news to say that Darwin was wrong. He was wrong about all sorts of things. How could it be otherwise with someone writing a century and a half ago, knowing essentially nothing about genetics and microbiology?
Trying desperately to justify their ridiculous headline, the article laughably exaggerates the importance of the tree metaphor in Darwin’s thinking:
The tree-of-life concept was absolutely central to Darwin’s thinking, equal in importance to natural selection, according to biologist W. Ford Doolittle of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Without it the theory of evolution would never have happened. The tree also helped carry the day for evolution. Darwin argued successfully that the tree of life was a fact of nature, plain for all to see though in need of explanation. The explanation he came up with was evolution by natural selection.
Right. Had Darwin realized that single-celled organisms transfer genes among themselves we never would have had evolution. Makes perfect sense.
Of course, it wasn’t the tree metaphor itself that was so crucial, at least not those parts of a tree that distinguish it from a web. It was the idea of descent with modification that was critical. And the tree metaphor still works very well for animal evolution (though, in fairness, the article does point to some reasons why even here it should not be taken as sacrosanct.) Very little of The Origin needs to be rewritten in the light of horizontal gene transfer. Darwin, after all, was famously ignorant of genes, whether transferred verticlaly, horizontally or diagonally. Very little of his theorizing depends critically on the precise mechanisms of inheritance. Darwin carved out space in his theory for the inheritance of acquired characters. New Scientist could as profitably have run an article observing that Darwin was wrong about that too.
At times the article is deliberately obtuse:
Hang on, you may be thinking. Microbes might be swapping genes left, right and centre, what does that matter? Surely the stuff we care about – animals and plants – can still be accurately represented by a tree, so what’s the problem?
Well, for a start, biology is the science of life, and to a first approximation life is unicellular. Microbes have been living on Earth for at least 3.8 billion years; multicellular organisms didn’t appear until about 630 million years ago. Even today bacteria, archaea and unicellular eukaryotes make up at least 90 per cent of all known species, and by sheer weight of numbers almost all of the living things on Earth are microbes. It would be perverse to claim that the evolution of life on Earth resembles a tree just because multicellular life evolved that way. “If there is a tree of life, it’s a small anomalous structure growing out of the web of life,” says John Dupré, a philosopher of biology at the University of Exeter, UK.
Oh please. The part of evolutionary biology that deals with the interrelationships of ancient unicellular organisms is of interest to no one outside a handful of specialists. Plants aren’t exactly where it’s at either. The reason evolution is so discussed outside of the laboratory and the seminar room is the light it sheds on our own origins, and on the origins of animals. For the scientifically-curious layperson interested in the major points of evolutionary theory, there is nothing in this article that merits more than a shoulder-shrug.
I have no doubt the editors of New Scientist are patting themselves on the back for their courage in putting so provocative a headline on their cover. They are not the ones who will have to deal with this new creationist talking point. They are not the ones who will have to respond to the inevitable smug rhetoric from politically-motivated charlatns about how even mainstream scientists are coming around to the view that Darwinism is falling apart (a point they will make, no doubt, after first talking about how mainstream science outlets enforce an oppressive pro-Darwin thought-control). They are not the ones who will have to explain that evolution long ago moved beyond Darwin, and that it is an entirely humdrum occurrence to observe that some long-established theory nonetheless fails to capture every nuance of the reality it seeks to describe.
In short, this is just another example of scientists being very poorly served by science journalists.