Say It Ain't So, Paul

Paul Nurse, president of Rockefeller University, has a commentary (I believe it requires a subscription) in this week's issue of Cell. Within his essay he lays out some of the impediments to biomedical research in America. He starts by explaining current funding problems and suggests that smaller research groups may be able to deal with budget cuts. Larger groups could be form through collaborations between the smaller groups when projects demand such interdisciplinary approaches. He also discusses problems with science education and the reluctance of researchers to communicate with the lay public.

Nurse brings up the interaction between the politics and science -- specifically, the apparent anti-science atmosphere floating around in the current political environment (Chris Mooney can tell you all about it). He uses two examples to illustrate the conflict: embryonic stem cells and intelligent design creationism (IDC).

More after the jump . . .

I'm not qualified to evaluate his treatment of stem cells, but I'm bothered by his use of terminology when discussing IDC:

"Two scientific issues illustrate these concerns: the debate over Darwinism and Creationism and research on human embryonic stem cells. The attack on Darwinism by supporters of Intelligent Design is a straightforward attack on science itself. Intelligent Design is not science because it proposes a supernatural designer as an explanation for evolutionary change."

While I agree with Nurse that IDC is not science, it pains me to read him use the common creationist misnomer, "Darwinism". After a nice discussion of why we must keep folklore separate from science, Nurse shows he does not have a complete grasp of evolutionary biology:

"Dr. Zerhouni [the NIH Director] has a difficult job spanning the political and scientific worlds, but it is crucial that great US scientific institutions like the NIH are unequivocal in their defense of science, especially over an issue that is as fundamental to biomedicine as Darwinism."

Just to be clear, "Darwinism" or "Darwinian evolution" are acceptable terms in the biological literature. But, to quote Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Evolutionary theory, in the biological sense, includes natural selection, common descent, and many other processes (such as mutation, genetic drift, the neutral theory) that do not fit under the contemporary definition of Darwinian evolution. It is a common creationist ploy to label evolutionary biology as "Darwinism" in order to invoke thoughts of Marxism and Stalinism amongst those unfamiliar with the biological literature (ie, most Americans).

While Darwinian evolution (natural selection) does have implications in biomedical research (for example, understanding how pathogens evolve resistance), all of evolutionary theory is important. Population structure (of both hosts and pathogens) influences the evolution of pathogens just as much as natural selection. The use of model organisms requires the assumption of common descent. Many groups are working at identifying conserved genomic regions in mammalian genomes in the hopes that they can determine which non-coding regions are functionally important; even though these regions are under selection, it is purifying selection rather than Darwinian (or positive) selection.

Nurse makes an important point, but he mustn't succumb to the creationist terminology when discussing biology. You will hear biologists use the term Darwinism, but it has a different meaning from evolution. I try to avoid it all together, however, preferring "positive selection" to "Darwinian evolution".


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