Reflections on 300 examples

Originally posted at The Evolution Project.

Starfish in Maine
Chris Mooney asks “should scientists refer to the well-adapted features of a given organism as having been ‘designed,’ even though we all know these are the result of natural selection?” and cites
this article in The Scientist :: Journals and intelligent design:

Biologists often get angry about the publication of studies defending “intelligent design,” the notion that biochemical systems could not have been produced by evolution because they are “irreducibly complex,” and as such, must have been “designed” by an unknown entity. But a careful reading of some recent studies suggests that researchers haven’t been shying away from using the word “design” in a way that can only be described as teleological.

Scientists shouldn’t be afraid of writing to their audience, and metaphors are useful when the audience understands it.

When scientists refer (in research discussed here) to insects being “designed to function at high levels of oxygen consumption,” other scientists understand that to mean “evolved through a process of natural selection on existing variation.” In the strictest sense, adaptation could be considered a metaphor, implying teleology and putting the cart before the horse, but that’s life. It’s convenient to talk about an adaption for a purpose, even if we don’t mean it.

There are several goals the Evolution Project has served. By skimming the surface of evolutionary research, it offers some small pool of examples for people, like the Kansas Board of Education, to look at and see what research is going on using and improving evolutionary biology. Steps toward disease cures, better insecticides, and the search for other life in the universe are a few of the themes that come out of that.

Another objective is debunking creationist claims. If someone says, “Have evolutionary biologists ever demonstrated speciation?” you can search through the archives and find examples. Or you can find an example of information gain through evolution (or here). Not that these aren’t also available through TalkOrigins, et al., but “let a thousand flowers bloom.”

A third objective is to present a sense of the volume and nature of scientific research to the public. Most creationists and most scientifically literate members of the public have never looked inside Nature or Science, let alone the Journal of Mammalogy. The writing isn’t for them, so that makes sense.

If scientists have lost the public, it’s because we don’t explain what we’re doing well enough. No one takes the research from a weeks worth of journals and does a quick overview of research in a field, as represented by this week’s Paleobiology. You’d never write a whole article in Science Times on “Pulsed origination and extinction in the marine realm,” but paleontology isn’t all about dinosaurs. Research like Michael Foote’s, or the discussion of how to deal with poorly curated museum material, or an analysis of early Jurassic phytoplankton, are all better examples of modern paleontology.

A survey of Zootaxa shows that new species aren’t that rare, it’s just the charismatic megafauna. Scientists know that, but all that the public ever hears about is a new bird or mammal. In January and February, Zootaxa published 65 papers, describing new species and revising our evolutionary understanding of at least 65 groups. There’s a bird paper or two, and some fossil bats, but most of that new diversity is in flies, beetles, moths, and roundworms. That’s also not surprising to biologists, but I bet even physicists and quantum chemists would be taken aback by that.

Biology is in a fascinating place. One one hand, we have a grand, unified theory, something physics still lacks. On the other hand, the raw material of biology is stil being documented. We don’t even know whether there are 5 million species in the world or 100 million. It’s probably around 12 million, but we’ve only described 1.2 million. Particle physicists don’t have a grand, unified theory, but they pretty much know what kinds of particles there are.

So at one end, biology is capable of very theoretical work, mathematical in its abstraction. On the other end, it’s about running around fields with a net. The challenge to biologists, and scientists in general, is to present that diversity of styles to the public. How do you put an experiment on the number of eggs a bird lays into a context that the public will care about? At it’s simplest level, this is an elegant and non-obvious hypothesis based on evolutionary biology, and it checks out. Does the public care about Darling’s hypothesis, per se? Probably not. Do they care that evolutionary biology makes testable predictions? Yes. Farmers and pet bird owners might care about testable predictions evolution makes about bird reproduction. The public will be interested in the general reproductive aspects of this.

Every scientific paper should be summarized, by the author or a colleague, in a blog post. Many paper’s abstracts had one sentence that was interesting to the public, or maybe parts of two sentences. The blog summary would use that sentence, explain why a scientist would care, and what it means to the public.

The public neither understands nor cares to understand the scientific context of a paper. So use metaphors that work for the community. But also present a clear, public statement of what this research means in simple terms. I’ve done that for 300 papers, and I’ll keep going. Anyone who wants to help, send those summaries to me.

If you don’t feel ready for that, remember, every book you buy through our Amazon links helps fund this project. Every ad you click at the top or side of the page gives whole pennies to the cause. If you see a paper you’d like summarized, send us a link.

Thanks for your support, and here’s to the next 300.

Superman” by R.E.M. from the album Lifes Rich Pageant (1986, 2:54).

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