Larry Moran has had a couple of articles up lately on Dr Sharon Moalem, a fellow who has a book out called Survival of the Sickest, and who also has a blog. Larry noticed a couple of things: he’s writing utter tripe about junk DNA, he’s editing and deleting comments about his science from his blog, and he’s been misleading about his credentials — although, to be fair, Moalem does plainly and accurately list his background on the endflaps of the book (some of this has come from a student blog that has been dissecting his dubious claims).
And then I noticed…I actually have Moalem’s book! I get sent a lot of books to review, and this one was about midway through the pile, so I hadn’t read it yet…but of course now I had to pull it out and skim through it. It’s very strange — lots of good and intrinsically interesting facts are tossed about, and then Moalem takes it all and puts a Panglossian spin on it all. Did you know that “bacteria, viruses and humans live together in happy, healthy coexistence”? And that the idea that junk DNA is junk is “bunk”?
There’s a lot here that would set Larry off. Moalem doesn’t like the idea that mutations are random — he thinks it “takes the evolution out of evolution.” After all, he argues,
…what would be a more helpful mutation than one that allowed the genome to react to environmental changes and pass on helpful adaptations to successive generations? Surely, evolution would favor a mutation that helped an organism to discover adaptations that would help it survive. Saying otherwise is like saying the only part of life not subject to evolutionary pressure is evolution itself.
I see faint echoes of serious discussions of the evolution of evolvability here, but so distorted and so nonsensical that I have my doubts that Moalem has read any of it. For instance, he next disparages the “only-random-changes theory”, claiming that the human genome project has shown it to be weak … the reason? Because genes are pleiotropic. That’s because the human genome only has 25,000 genes, and therefore there is this huge amount of shuffling of proteins going on to generate greater protein diversity. None of this makes any sense. Pleiotropy wasn’t a discovery of the HGP, exon shuffling does not negate the random origin of mutations, pleiotropy is not dependent on protein variability, and he’s grossly overstating the resultant complexity. And then he makes this silly remark:
You can see how these discoveries make it even harder to imagine how evolution relied only on random little changes in the code of individual genes to find the myriad adaptations that have allowed every living thing on earth to survive. If removing whole genes often has no effect on a creature, how could such minor changes be the only chance for evolution of a new species, or even the successful adaptation of an existing one?
They probably can’t.
Then he launches into a painfully muddled mess of an explanation of Lamarck and inheritance of acquired characters and transposons (somehow, retroviruses validate Lamarck), argues that “jumping genes” spurred our evolution and that junk DNA provided the code for our evolution “up and away from our furry cousins” (and, I have to assume, for onions to evolve up and away from more lowly root vegetables).
Later in the book he also discusses the aquatic ape hypothesis favorably — it sounds “an awful lot like common sense” to him. That’s sort of the whole book in a nutshell: he’s not very discriminating or knowledgeable, and any old weird bit of guesswork that appeals to his design-detecting sensibilities and his bias that everything in the world is cooperating to produce humanity, the pinnacle of evolution, gets blithely accepted. It’s simply not a very good book, but it is chatty and makes wonderfully irrational leaps all over the place, so unmoored minds with a predilection for using pseudoscience to bolster their self-esteem will enjoy it.
I’m just glad I can chuck it out of my to-do pile.