Pharyngula

New York Times gives evolution a day

The NY Times has pulled out all the stops today and has dedicated their entire science section to the subject of evolution. They’ve got pieces by some of the best science journalists around, like Carl Zimmer, Cornelia Dean (although in this case, it’s a lot of nattering on about how the soul fits into evolution—not recommended), and Natalie Angier, and they’ve also drafted a few scientists. There’s a video of Sean Carroll summarizing evo-devo, and perhaps the most interesting article of them all is by Douglas Erwin, in which he speculates about whether the new ideas percolating throughout the science community (especially by those noisy developmental biologists) are precursors to a new revolution in our thinking about evolution. He’s non-committal so far, which is fair.

Does all this add up to a new modern synthesis? There is certainly no consensus among evolutionary biologists, but development, ecology, genetics and paleontology all provide new perspectives on how evolution operates, and how we should study it. None of these concerns provide a scintilla of hope for creationists, as scientific investigations are already providing new insights into these issues. The foundations for a paradigm shift may be in place, but it may be some time before we see whether a truly novel perspective develops or these tensions are accommodated within an expanded modern synthesis.

Or both! I expect that what will happen is that the deficiencies in the neo-Darwinian synthesis (which lacks any explanation for the evolution of form and pattern, for instance) will be gradually filled in with clear linkages to the evolution of genes, and despite the fact that it will be a bigger, bolder, stronger synthesis, everyone will say we knew it all along anyway. There will not be a threshold moment where everyone says “Wow! I am suddenly enlightened!” — there will just come a time when everyone acknowledges that all those papers from 40 years ago were pretty darned important, after all.

Comments

  1. #1 benny
    June 26, 2007

    Wow! What a post! I am suddenly enlightened!

  2. #2 Zeno
    June 26, 2007

    Will there be exploding brains in Seattle when the Discovery Institute receives its copies of the New York Times?

    No, of course not. Instead there’ll be a shirty editorial about how the mass media has yet again bought into Darwinian propaganda. But never fear! There will also, for sure, be a bit of tasteful quote-mining in which some DI shill laments that the NYT refuses to recognize — right there in its own articles — the evidence of the deficiencies of “Darwinism.”

    Betcha.

  3. #3 Phoenix Woman
    June 26, 2007

    Actually, Cornelia Dean’s article is worthwhile, but not for the stated reason. (Yeah, so there’s a biological basis for emotions and spirituality. Whoop de doo. That’s old news, Ms. Dean.) What makes it worthwhile is that she’s dealing, somewhat obliquely to be sure, with the centuries-old on-again off-again truce made between science and religion, in that one side isn’t supposed to be meddling with the other. (A bargain that’s been honored mainly in the breaching thereof, and the breaching’s all been by the religious folks: See creationism/ID.)

  4. #4 davidm
    June 26, 2007

    Ah, but remember folks, as P.Z. and his minions have repeatedly insisted in the past, the Times is just a shill or a doormat for the Discovery Institute, ID and creationists. (insert “rolls eyes” smilie here)

  5. #5 PZ Myers
    June 26, 2007

    And so it is. I don’t know how you guys can stomach it, let alone come on to blogs and try to defend it: the NYT has some of the best science reporting around, walled off in the elite ghetto of the science pages, and yet when they cover creationism they put it on the front page and get some credulous, mindless hack to cover it, someone who will blithely pull the “he said, she said” crap.

    And apparently you wage-slaves of the NYT don’t notice and don’t care. Why? Do you just have a certain quota of woodpulp and ink that has to be pumped out, and never mind what it says? Has anybody ever thought to take your gullible creationist stories and pass them around to the stable of excellent science journalists and consultants you keep out back and ask them to sharpen it up and make it true to the science?

  6. #6 Caledonian
    June 26, 2007

    Oh, please. Newspapers have one goal: to make money selling newspapers. If they can do that by providing intelligent, insightful analysis, they’ll provide intelligent, insightful analysis. If they can do that by offering garbage, they’ll offer garbage.

    If there isn’t enough of a niche market for quality, quality will cease to be.

  7. #7 Phoenix Woman
    June 26, 2007

    Yannow, has any of the Sulzbergers looked at the boffo sales being done by Hitchens’, Harris’ and Dawkins’ books and realized that they could sell a ton of papers with a front-page review of these books by an actual scientist? Or a series of front-page articles stating up front that evolution is a fact?

    The Strib just recently had an editorial by Brian Lambert calling for an end to the “balance” game in favor of simply stating the truth. If the Strib can do it, the Times can, too.

  8. #8 Mats
    June 26, 2007

    Cornelia Deen is that darwinian religionist who has deep faith that no scientist disagrees with unguided evolutionism. Oh wait! By now, her belief must have evolved into “no serious scientist”.

  9. #9 Carlie
    June 26, 2007

    I was actually quite concerned by the Erwin piece. Seemed like a treasure trove for quote-mining to me.

  10. #10 Carlie
    June 26, 2007

    …Which, of course, makes discussion about evolution a horrible catch-22. If we discuss some of the issues in the finer points, and talk about changing and expanding certain parts of it to fit new knowledge, then creationists quote-mine and say that we don’t know what we’re talking about, that we keep changing our minds, and that we can’t explain anything with evolution. If we keep those debates out of the public eye for that very reason, then they can say that we’re dogmatic religionists who don’t obviously change our minds to fit new evidence in the same way that we accuse them of thinking.
    Can’t win for losing.

  11. #11 Scotty B
    June 26, 2007

    Caledonian: you’re forgetting about the money they make from selling advertising, and if the advertisers are serving a market that would be offended by science, they are going to pull their advertising and take that money elsewhere.
    Just sayin’, lets not forget about that group.

  12. #12 MarkW
    June 26, 2007

    Indeed. As I understand it, advertising generates more revenue than sales for any magazine.

  13. #13 David Marjanovi?
    June 26, 2007

    …Which, of course, makes discussion about evolution a horrible catch-22. If we discuss some of the issues in the finer points, and talk about changing and expanding certain parts of it to fit new knowledge, then creationists quote-mine and say that we don’t know what we’re talking about, that we keep changing our minds, and that we can’t explain anything with evolution. If we keep those debates out of the public eye for that very reason, then they can say that we’re dogmatic religionists who don’t obviously change our minds to fit new evidence in the same way that we accuse them of thinking.

    Nah.

    No matter what we do, the cre_ti_nists with both quote-mine the living shit out of anything (Bible included) and whine that we’re dogmatic religionists.

    Look at Mats above: instead of reading the post on segmentation genes, he comes, says we’re dogmatic religionists, and disappears back into the Dungeon Dimensions.

  14. #14 David Marjanovi?
    June 26, 2007

    …Which, of course, makes discussion about evolution a horrible catch-22. If we discuss some of the issues in the finer points, and talk about changing and expanding certain parts of it to fit new knowledge, then creationists quote-mine and say that we don’t know what we’re talking about, that we keep changing our minds, and that we can’t explain anything with evolution. If we keep those debates out of the public eye for that very reason, then they can say that we’re dogmatic religionists who don’t obviously change our minds to fit new evidence in the same way that we accuse them of thinking.

    Nah.

    No matter what we do, the cre_ti_nists with both quote-mine the living shit out of anything (Bible included) and whine that we’re dogmatic religionists.

    Look at Mats above: instead of reading the post on segmentation genes, he comes, says we’re dogmatic religionists, and disappears back into the Dungeon Dimensions.

  15. #15 morgan-lynn griggs lamberth
    June 26, 2007

    I find that theistic evolution is an oxymoron.Natural selection shows no purposes and goals while teleolgy shows them.That is a contradiction -the new Omphalos argument that God deceives with mindless selection as He does the actual selection. Theism is just Malebranchian occassionalism: when we hit the cue ball, it is actually God who provides the impetus.To obviate this, theists have the two category classification of origins[ science] or contingency and creation[ theology] or necessary being[Russell Stannard].But that begs the question of the second category! Logic is the bane of theists.

  16. #16 KevinD
    June 26, 2007

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments about Erwin’s article and paradigm shifts. The modern synthesis was obviously incomplete. Nowadays we are filling in the holes like crazy and, not surprisingly, some of our ideas about how evolution has preceded have changed.

    What irks me is those who argue that we are on the verge of a new evolutionary synthesis. Those making that claim, from Gould onward, don’t seem to have a very deep understanding of the fundamental evolutionary mechanisms laid out by Fisher, Wright, Haldane, etc as the foundation of the synthesis.

    For example, Erwin cites research indicating that 5 genes controlling gut formation have been highly conserved over millions of years and form a ‘kernel’. He then goes on to say that this type of question was not even addressed by the modern synthesis. I would disagree. Those alleles have been conserved over millions of years because of selection. They represent a towering pinnacle over precipitous cliffs, leading deep crevasses on an adaptive landscape.

    There seems to be a real lack of appreciation of the importance of selection as a stabilizing and conservative force. The most important ‘constraint’ on evolution is selection itself.

  17. #17 mark
    June 26, 2007

    A pretty good selection of articles. My one big complaint is a lack of “for further reading” suggestion list/sidebar.

  18. #18 Andrew Wade
    June 26, 2007

    No matter what we do, the cre_ti_nists with both quote-mine the living shit out of anything (Bible included) and whine that we’re dogmatic religionists.

    Aye. And they’ll be listening to their propagandists rather than us anyway. We can’t compete with Creationism when it comes to offering simple and infallible “truths”, and we shouldn’t try.

    The creationists who will be listening to us will likely be oddballs who will have already rejected the anti-intellectual cool-aid of their fundamentalist bretheren. They will likely be able to tolerate a fair bit of ambiguity, what they’ll need is answers to their questions (such as talkorigins provides).

  19. #19 Martin Weiss
    June 26, 2007

    Along with the New York Times I recieved a copy of Harun Yahya’s 700+ page , 12 lb Atlas of Creation. I am afraid to read the book at bed time for fear I’ll fall asleep and be crushed but it. No fear of the New York Times. Whomever, is sending these books (published and printed in Turkey) to science centers at what must be horrenduous cost. Though not in color the NYTimes is the better read.

    Martin

  20. #20 mark
    June 26, 2007

    There will not be a threshold moment where everyone says “Wow! I am suddenly enlightened!”

    Isn’t this what happens when people read Jack Chick tracts?

  21. #21 uknesvuinng
    June 26, 2007

    @#11

    And those advertisers only kowtow to groups when they feel like angering them will cost them money. Just look at the AFA. Every time there’s some show on TV that doesn’t have the common decency to cower in fear of the great big magic man in the sky and his obsession over the sex lives of mere humans, the AFA is on it with campaigns and boycotts on the advertisers until they pull advertising from those shows. The AFA understands the profit motive and strikes at it. Perhaps the rational should make use of that as well. After all, who’s going to pull advertising at the behest of the credulous if they’re going to lose more money by offending the skeptics?

    The audience does primarily motivate the quality of reporting. After all, how are you going to sell advertising space if you don’t have any subscribers to see the ads?

  22. #22 davidm
    June 26, 2007

    And so it is. I don’t know how you guys can stomach it, let alone come on to blogs and try to defend it: the NYT has some of the best science reporting around, walled off in the elite ghetto of the science pages …

    Ha, ha, ha!

    You’ve touted this same crap in the past, about the Times putting science coverage in a “ghetto” in the Science section. I’t flat-out false! The Times puts science coverage all over the paper, including on the front page, and especially coverage of biology and evolution! Catch the recent story, promoted on the front page, of the new bird-like dinosaur discovery, hmmm?

    Get a grip, P.Z., you look pathetic with your whining.

  23. #23 buzz
    June 26, 2007

    PZ, what do you exactly mean by the evolution of form and pattern?

  24. #24 JoeBlu
    June 26, 2007

    I was really impressed by Carl Zimmer’s article – but he’s always been a great science writer. Some of the behaviors described were absolutely fascinating – like the cyclical ecosystem of floaters/bottom feeders/mat-makers.

  25. #25 Scott Hatfield, OM
    June 26, 2007

    “…There will not be a threshold moment where everyone says “Wow! I am suddenly enlightened!” — there will just come a time when everyone acknowledges that all those papers from 40 years ago were pretty darned important, after all.”

    PZ, let me offer a nuanced disagreement. Sure: professionals will doubtless say ‘they knew it all along’, as when Maynard-Smith asserted the compatibility of ‘punk eek’ with the modern synthesis.

    But, amongst laypeople (and here I include the typical public school science teacher) there is going to be a FRICKIN’ REVOLUTION on how evolution is taught, if I have anything to say about it. I particularly commend Sean B. Carroll’s latest book as an example of the forensic use of comparative DNA sequences, pseudogenes, genome duplication, etc. as evidence not just for evolution, but as a stake in the heart of the old ‘micro vs. macro’ argument.

  26. #26 Margaret
    June 26, 2007

    .. in the same way that we accuse them of thinking.

    I don’t think we’ve ever accused them of thinking. 😉

  27. #27 grendelkhan
    June 26, 2007

    A shiny nickel to the first person who discovers a creationist quote-mining “[the neo-Darwinian synthesis] lacks any explanation for the evolution of form and pattern”.

  28. #28 matt
    June 26, 2007

    -Is Darwin due for an upgrade? There are growing calls among some evolutionary biologists for just such a revision, although they differ about what form this might take.-
    This is sort of odd. It’s like comparing the theory of evolution with something like buying a new wardrobe or upgrading an old building.
    Do scientists actually want a revision to science just for the sake of a revision?

  29. #29 tony
    June 26, 2007

    to Matt:

    Scientists ALWAYS want a revision of science…. that’s the whole point!

    Science is not a ‘static set of rules to be catalogued and set down in a library’…. but a dynamic growing and evolving body of knowledge that helps us to understand and predict the world.

    People *can* set down rules from time to time, that denote the best of current understanding, and that *fit* particular circumstances…. (e.g. Newtons 3 laws stil work for most purposes). However, science is not and likely never will be static. That’s awhy creationists, and their ilk, are so confused and challenged by it all…

  30. #30 Keith Douglas
    June 26, 2007

    I’m glad that the NYT is doing this, but I suspect most of the fundies don’t read newspapers, especially not a “liberal” paper like the Times.

  31. #31 brightmoon
    June 26, 2007

    i just read those ..thanks nytimes

    and,uh, cre_ti_nists, …oh, im stealing that one (post 17)

  32. #32 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    June 26, 2007

    Scott,

    While I understand why this is an emotional question for you, I am amazed and distraught by your choice of language in your latest comment.

    I hope what you meant to say was that it will be a FRAKIN’ REVOLUTION!

    ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frak )

    In any case, I think you may be right. I remember PZ’s post about inducing a change in phenotype in butterflies in front of our eyes. If that is an example of what you are discussing, it is much more exciting and up-in-your-face than the textbooks I used to fall asleep over… I mean, what we studied in biology class. IIRC they didn’t exactly overflow with descriptions of evolution.

  33. #33 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    June 26, 2007

    Scott,

    While I understand why this is an emotional question for you, I am amazed and distraught by your choice of language in your latest comment.

    I hope what you meant to say was that it will be a FRAKIN’ REVOLUTION!

    ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frak )

    In any case, I think you may be right. I remember PZ’s post about inducing a change in phenotype in butterflies in front of our eyes. If that is an example of what you are discussing, it is much more exciting and up-in-your-face than the textbooks I used to fall asleep over… I mean, what we studied in biology class. IIRC they didn’t exactly overflow with descriptions of evolution.

  34. #34 QueenFrostine
    June 26, 2007

    PZ, what do you exactly mean by the evolution of form and pattern?

    I can’t speak to what PZ meant, but there’s been a lot of researh in Stuart Kauffman(sp?)-esque stuff like dynamics and self-organization to describe how patterns emerge. For example, how leopards actually get their spots. Some research from this point of view extends to evolutionary phenomena.

  35. #35 zeekster
    June 27, 2007

    @ Keith Douglas (#29)

    I’m glad that the NYT is doing this, but I suspect most of the fundies don’t read newspapers, especially not a “liberal” paper like the Times.

    You’re right. They read the very dangerous World Magazine. My ex-boyfriend’s Fundamentalist Christian family was homeschooled and raised on those lies.

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