New Scientist‘s recent cover that heralded the stunning news (not) that “Darwin was wrong” has generated an enormous amount of antipathy in these parts. Bora’s keeping notes, and the feature article’s author, Graham Lawton, surely doesn’t deserve the vitriol. (Although with the umbrage he takes in return via blog comments, he is hardly doing himself any favors).
I understand the reaction among those who live, eat and and breathe evolutionary biology ;;;; perhaps Lawton’s interpretation of a few issues is questionable ;;;; but stand back and take a deep one, folks. This is journalism we’re talking about.
New Scientist (for which I have written, and hope to write again) is forever putting such headlines on the cover. They did it to Einstein twice this past year, I think. It’s just about attracting attention and selling copies. The actual article always takes great pains to qualify the exaggeration, which is really about modifying, not overturning, some great theory.
From the article in question, Lawton writes
Nobody is arguing – yet – that the tree concept has outlived its usefulness in animals and plants. While vertical descent is no longer the only game in town, it is still the best way of explaining how multicellular organisms are related to one another – a tree of 51 per cent, maybe. In that respect, Darwin’s vision has triumphed: he knew nothing of micro-organisms and built his theory on the plants and animals he could see around him.
The accusation that the cover and article amounts to an ethical violation of journalistic principles is just plain silly. As for the argument that this sort of thing will only provide fodder the creationists, well, should creationists be running the editorial meetings of every science publication? Here’s what New Scientist‘s editorial that accompanies the feature said:
As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, we await a third revolution that will see biology changed and strengthened. None of this should give succour to creationists, whose blinkered universe is doubtless already buzzing with the news that “New Scientist has announced Darwin was wrong”. Expect to find excerpts ripped out of context and presented as evidence that biologists are deserting the theory of evolution en masse. They are not.
Nor will the new work do anything to diminish the standing of Darwin himself. When it came to gravitation and the laws of motion, Isaac Newton didn’t see the whole picture either, but he remains one of science’s giants. In the same way, Darwin’s ideas will prove influential for decades to come.
So let’s just chill out. I’ve been reading Lawton for years. He’s a fine journalist and doesn’t deserve to be hung, drawn and quartered for writing what amounts to a “state of the art” piece on a subject that remains very much in flux. There was no real attempt to portray it as breaking news.
And Lawton ;;;; Buddy: I feel your pain, but you’ve got to be able to handle the blogosphere’s wild side with a little more grace.