Steven Gould Coopted Into Teleological Demonstration of Evolution!!!!!


Proto Stephen Jay Gould
OMFSM you are not going to believe this. Over at the University of Chicago, someone is making a terrible fool of themselves. It is hard to say if this is Shankar Vedantam, the Washing Post Staff Writer, or Patterson Clark of the Washington Post or someone else.

The title of the piece is "And the evolutionary beat goes on..."

The piece contains a flash multimedia item that shows the face of a lemur evolving, through a series of other primates, into the face of Stpehen Jay Gould, White Anglo Male. Is there a moment in which he resembles an African person? Maybe. You be the judge. It doesn't matter, really, the whole thing is so totally wrong that it is astounding.

This is the caption of the morphing animation:

A morphing demonstration of human evolution shows the transformation from a small lemur, up the evolutionary ladder into a human: seen here as legendary evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

Up. The evolutionary. Ladder.

This bit of absurd teleology, which is I'm sure causing Gould to spin at high revolutions in his grave (or urn or whatever), accompanies a press release about an article on Natural Selection.

The press release starts out with: "Stephen Jay Gould would have been pleased..."

Well, maybe about the article, but not about the ladder of evolution bit.

The press release itself starts out with a straw man, claiming that between 1970 and 2000 most people believed that while natural selection was important, most evolutionary change did not involve it. But, the press release goes on it turns out it is.

Of course, it was Stephen Gould himself who did the most to undo slectionist thinking of the mid 20th century. And no, Natural Selection has NEVER gone out of favor by evolutionary biologists. Geneticists of various stripes have felt that Natural Selection is not too important, but that has not been the only voice regarding this particular issue.

"From 1970 to 2000, there was a widespread view that although natural selection is very important, it is relatively rare," said Jonathan Pritchard, a geneticist at the University of Chicago. "That view was driven largely because we did not have data to identify the signals of natural selection. . . . In the last five years or so, there has been a tremendous growth in our understanding of how much selection there is."

ResearchBlogging.orgThat insight has only deepened as scientists have gained the ability to read the entire human genome, the chain of "letters" that spell out humanity's genetic identity.

"Signals of natural selection are incredibly widespread across the human genome," Pritchard said. "Everywhere we look, there appears to be very widespread signals of natural selection in many genes and many processes."

Pritchard helped write a recent paper that identified some of those changes. The paper was published in the public access journal PLoS Biology.

The research offers a fascinating snapshot into how the human genome has continued to change as humans adapted to new circumstances over the past 10,000 years. As people went from hunter-gatherers to agricultural societies, for instance, there is evidence of genetic adaptations to new diseases and diets.

Here is the abstract from the actual paper in PLoS Biology:

The identification of signals of very recent positive selection provides information about the adaptation of modern humans to local conditions. We report here on a genome-wide scan for signals of very recent positive selection in favor of variants that have not yet reached fixation. We describe a new analytical method for scanning single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) data for signals of recent selection, and apply this to data from the International HapMap Project. In all three continental groups we find widespread signals of recent positive selection. Most signals are region-specific, though a significant excess are shared across groups. Contrary to some earlier low resolution studies that suggested a paucity of recent selection in sub-Saharan Africans, we find that by some measures our strongest signals of selection are from the Yoruba population. Finally, since these signals indicate the existence of genetic variants that have substantially different fitnesses, they must indicate loci that are the source of significant phenotypic variation. Though the relevant phenotypes are generally not known, such loci should be of particular interest in mapping studies of complex traits. For this purpose we have developed a set of SNPs that can be used to tag the strongest â¼250 signals of recent selection in each population.

Voight, B.F., Kudaravalli, S., Wen, X., Pritchard, J.K. (2006). A Map of Recent Positive Selection in the Human Genome. PLoS Biology, 4(3), e72. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040072

More like this

OMFSM: Oh my f*#$ing snow monkey?

Oh My Flying Spaghetti Monster?

"White Anglo Male."?!

I believe that Gould was of Ashkenazism (more generally, Semitic) extraction. No more Anglo than Edward Said or Che Guevara.

Gould was no less Anglo than the next privileged white male Harvard professor.

The voice of Stephen Jay Gould rises from his grave:

"I wrote books that explain HOW WRONG YOU ARE! Your understanding of evolutionary theory is made of fail. Please read ANY of my books to begin to understand the basic concepts you are trying to explain.


*&^%#$ bushes, not *^%#( ladders."

(sorry, but guess what I've been reading lately?)

By Samantha Vimes (not verified) on 29 Jun 2008 #permalink

I do hope that you realize that the article is 2 years old ...

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 30 Jun 2008 #permalink

Scott: I did put the date on it, didn't I? Do agregeous idiocies get better after two years or something?

Perhaps this is a reason that everything on the internet should die in 6 months or so.

I think you're being a bit unfair to Shankar Vedantam here.

The WaPo article ends this way:

Come to think of it, the late Stephen Jay Gould might have been upset with the above illustration. Contrary to the popular imagination, evolution is not a linear process that culminates in the triumphal ascent of humans at the top of the genetic heap. The process is analogous to a bush, where twigs and leaves push out in every direction.

When biologists talk about evolution and the survival of the fittest, they do not necessarily mean the strongest, fastest or smartest. Fitness is whatever works in a particular environment, and the new research shows that as environments change, notions of fitness change, too.

(Was that in the original version, or was it added later?)

The picture caption just sucks, though. I wonder if somebody else wrote it. (Maybe the artist, or an editor.)

There's nothing intrinsicallly wrong with a linear illustration of the evolution of a given species, as long as you make it clear that what you're talking about is a particular path through a tree to some descendant you're particularly interested in.

This is clearly something added. The entire premise of the framing of this piece (which is not about lineal evolution ... the lineal evolution is added only to the frame) is clear, and significant work was done to produce it. They had dug themselves in (see this week's "This photo needs a caption" for illustration of same!).

There is much intrinsically wrong with this depiction. They have taken a series of living species and treated them as steps along the way from the LCA of prosimians and apes/monkeys. The ancestral primate may or may not have been lemur like. The common ancestor of apes and monkeys was undoubtedly NOT like a spider monkey. And so on.

The equivalent in technology would be like taking a measure, say, number of things a piece of technology can do, and lining them up as evolutionary stages. So, a chumby is the first computer. This evolved into an iphone, which evolved into a laptop, which evolved into a desktop.

In theory, it is possible to have a series of living fossils that do represent stages in evolution along a particular lineage to stand in for something like this, but off hand I cant think of any ancient lineages with sufficient living fossils to actually do that.

Scott: I did put the date on it, didn't I?

On the newspaper article, no. The 2006 date was only mentioned down at the bottom of your post in the ref to the journal article.

someone is making a terrible fool of themselves.

"...someone made a terrible fool of themselves 2 years ago."

Besides, it seems to me that it was adequately covered in this ScienceBlog item from 2 years ago -

Look, it was sloppy not to (at the least) specify up front that this was a retrospective post on something that was two years old. All it would have taken was "This is two years old, but still as relevant as ever."

If you can't bring yourself to admit the sloppiness, I have nothing more to add.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 30 Jun 2008 #permalink

It's a shame there's nowhere to directly comment at the originating site!

If you can't bring yourself to admit the sloppiness,

I fully admit to not caring. As to sloppiness, in this case, no. I really have not embraced the blogospheric attitude that if it happened the day before yesterday that it does not exist. If you look at my blogging on peer reviewed research, you'll see that I sometimes blog older material. In fact, I have a paper from 2000 that I'm about to do by popular demand. Your particular view of how I should blog is of no interest to me whatsoever. Other than that it is kind of funny.

Sloppiness in other ways, on a blog? Me? Seriously?

I have nothing more to add.

I'm holding you to that, buster.