Survival of the Silliest

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.


  1. #1 Brownian, OM
    December 17, 2007

    Since when did keeping an open mind become synonymous with “uncritically accepting any old tripe”?

    I once re-defined keeping an open mind to mean “not being afraid to reject an idea if there is no evidence to support it, no matter how much one wishes it were true.”

    I like that better. And it pisses off New Agers to no end.

    Sadly, as a result of being my definition of open minded, I’ve had to give up trying to move objects in my room using the Force.

  2. #2 Zib
    December 17, 2007

    Off-topic, and apologies if this is old news.

    Over at the Richard Dawkins site, there is a two-hour video of Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens sitting around a table and gassing about religion and atheism.

    The video, called “The Four Horsemen”, is linked from the front page of

    Probably of interest to many of the readers here.

  3. #3 Brownian, OM
    December 17, 2007

    Uh, gypsybiker, you forgot to include the ‘most powerful evidence’ in all your pontificating boldery.

  4. #4 Brownian, OM
    December 17, 2007

    Uh oh. Gypsybiker apparently thinks he’s Charlie Wagner. I was about to wonder who Charlie Wagner thinks he is until I read the linked thread and realised he doesn’t think at all.

  5. #5 Brownian, OM
    December 17, 2007

    What Azkyroth said. Plus, everyone in junior high knows you can’t get pregnant if you do it in the water, so how could we have reproduced?

  6. #6 Brownian, OM
    December 17, 2007

    I’ve always enjoyed Greg Egan’s work, so I’m grateful for the suggestion, Gregory.

  7. #7 J Daley
    December 17, 2007

    His smarminess aside, is there anything to his contention that heritable diseases like hemachromatosis or diabetes had adaptive advantages at some point in our evolutionary history?

    …I read his book this past summer and thought the idea compelling. I also thought he meant he was a medical doctor. (I mean, I never read anything by Dr Richard Dawkins or Dr Ernst Mayr, you know? The nice picture of him on the flap in a white lab coat certainly helped, too.)

  8. #8 Craig Hagstrom
    October 21, 2008

    For those who can at least consider the aquatic hypothesis and who find Moalem hard to take on the fetal-brain/female-pelvis issue, might I suggest my book The Passionate Ape? It depends on the AAT as the event that separated us from other apes, but gives it somewhat limited scope. I am not interested primarily in aquatic adaptation.

    In water we copulated face to face as do other aquatics, which caused vaginal rotation, failure of G-spot stimulation, and loss of reliable female coital orgasm. The aquatic phase set us up for a return to land as an awkward biped lacking a reliable female coital orgasm, and THAT has ripple effects that we have dealt with ever since.

    In other words, women evolved a propensity for obsessive over-rating of sexual partners (i.e. love) as a substitute for orgasms, and aquatic life was the anvil on which that emotional/physical trait was hammered out. Men inherit the trait because it is not sex-determined (and it does serve some function in men) but is necessary (on average) for women. This switch from simple orgasmic reward to an emotional focus is a shift in degree, not a new phenomena. The amount of the shift is enough to create a new evolutionary landscape, one might call it, where both males and females are forced to adapt in ways novel for apes.

    This leads to an evolutionary battle of the sexes, where males and females are selected for traits that (if we were to view them from a distance) we might prefer we had not acquired. Products include brain expansion, child abuse, religion and others.

    In my view, this model gives a much better perspective on the conflict between the fetal brain and the female pelvis than Moalem provides.

    A synopsis is available at I am not a doctor, by the way, merely an enthusiastic amateur.

  9. #9 Wes
    April 11, 2009

    whether or not anyone likes it, moalem has benefited science just due to the fact that we are discussing these issues here. If his hypotheses are wrong, we should go design experiments and prove them as so. He has published his research into hemochromatosis, a review of his methods as a starting point for new research would help.

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