With friends like these …

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It’s one thing for ID creationists to misrepresent evolutionary theory (and they do, of course). It’s quite another to read misrepresentations, or at least incomprehensible representations, from what are allegedly science news sources. Case in point: Today, Science Daily has a story on some research on nematodes performed at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The Science Daily story reproduces a press release from the American Technion Society, an organization that supports higher education in Israel.

Now, consider just the first two paragraphs of the press release:

According to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, individuals in a species pass successful traits onto their offspring through a process called “deterministic inheritance.” Over multiple generations, advantageous developmental trends - such as the lengthening of the giraffe’s neck - occur.

An opposing theory says evolution takes place through randomly inherited and not necessarily advantageous changes. Using the giraffe example, there would not be a common neck-lengthening trend; some would develop long necks, while others would develop short ones.

An opposing theory? What opposing theory? Can someone parse those paragraphs for me? Is that supposed to be making some sort of contrast between adaptive evolution and neutral drift? I can’t figure it out.

But be not dismayed. In the next paragraph we learn that

Now, the findings of an international team of biologists demonstrate that evolution is not a random process, but rather occurs through the natural selection of successful traits.

Whew! That’s a relief. Nice to finally get that settled after 150 years.

The original article is in fact an evo-devo study looking at the evolution of developmental pathways of the vulva (which is relatively phenotypically stable) in around 50 species of nematodes, relating the measurements of various aspects of those developmental pathways to the phylogeny of the group of species. On one fast reading, it appears to my lay eye that the research shows that developmental pathways are more variable than expected, and that the variability is not stochastic but is biased in a way explained by the phylogeny. A further interesting result seems to be that there are multiple developmental paths to the ‘same’ organ. It looks like the methodology may be a novel way to reconstruct the evolution of soft tissue organs that don’t fossilize, too, roughly analogous to reconstructing evolutionary pathways from comparative analyses of genomes. But I leave it to the evo-devo folks to evaluate and interpret the research. My point is that the press release is at best confusingly incoherent; at worst it misrepresents the current state of affairs with respect to evolution. We have not been waiting 150 years for the question of whether evolution is a purely random process to be settled.

21 Comments

I’ve been seeing this study reported all over the place with headlines like “Evolution Confirmed,” as if this study on nematode sex organs was something novel in terms of evolutionary theory in general. “Researchers show that evolution isn’t random!” Errrr, no, what they showed is that selection isn’t random; the mutations underlying selection still are. Did anyone in the field of evolutionary biology think that selection was random to begin with, and if so how did they justify the use of the term “selection” in the first place?

I guess some clever researchers have found a way to exploit scientific illiteracy in the press to increase their odds of getting further funding. You must admit, “Evolution Confirmed!” sounds a lot sexier than “Evidence from nematode vulvas support what’s been thought about natural selection for the past century.”

Phew!!!

You scared me with that ““deterministic inheritance.” I was braced for the announcement of the “intelligent determinator”.…a sort of ID-2.

Don’t scare me like that!

(wipes brow)

Has anyone tracked down where– if anywhere– Charles Darwin referred to “deterministic inheritance?” I don’t recall that phrase from anything of his that I’ve read, and I can’t get it to come up through the search engine for his complete works on-line.

hoary puccoon:

Has anyone tracked down where– if anywhere– Charles Darwin referred to “deterministic inheritance?” I don’t recall that phrase from anything of his that I’ve read, and I can’t get it to come up through the search engine for his complete works on-line.

It is known that in later editions of THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES Darwin started to lean more towards Lamarckian ideas (inheritance of acquired characteristics) because the physicists, not knowing about atomic energy at the time, didn’t think the Earth was old enough to permit evolution by natural selection. This is one of the reasons why the later editions of THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES are rarely reprinted compared to the first edition.

Science Nut wrote:

“intelligent determinator”….a sort of ID-2.

LOL. Yea, the last thing he said was: “I’ll be back (to create a bacterial flagellum in a few million years, a vertebrate eye in another few hundred million, a vertebrate immune system some time later, etc.).”

I found a version of this over EETimes, an electrical engineering site:

Verdict in: Darwin’s evolution theory confirmed

My reaction was WTF?

Hold on!

Could they be talking about adaptation versus genetic drift?

You may want to read Michael Lynch’s paper on the adaptionist prejudice in PNAS; it is freely available. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/ful[…]suppl_1/8597

Even working molecular biologists have a hard time with random processes. (see http://biology.plosjournals.org/per[…]pbio.0060003)

Hold on!

Could they be talking about adaptation versus genetic drift?

plausible, but if so…

Yech, what a horrible mangled mess they made of it.

whoever wrote that needs to go (back?) to school.

Syntax Error: mismatched tag at line 1, column 132, byte 132 at /usr/local/lib/perl5/site_perl/5.16/mach/XML/Parser.pm line 187.

The frailty of adaptive hypotheses for the origins of organismal complexity

with a title like that, you can bet your ass that it will be quotemined all to hell by the creobots.

again, the reviewers should have suggested a far more accurate title.

moreover the author is patently incorrect, right in the second sentence of the article:

This narrow view of evolution has become untenable in light of recent observations from genomic sequencing and population-genetic theory.

untenable???

fucking hardly.

why in the hell is PNAS publishing this series of colloquia, anyway?

Pim - you might want to spend some time gandering at this.

Ichthyic I don’t believe that Lynch was saying anything in that sentence that was necessarily inaccurate. His word choice is strong, but I would just take that sentence to mean that Drift matters a lot and must not be ignored in our thinking. In terms of statistics drift sets the bar very high for many statistical tests for selection. That said the title is ridiculously suggestive.

the whole drift vs. selection argument is starting to look very much in form like the old nature vs. nuture arguments.

I really do hate it when one side or the other decides that it is all drift or all selection involved, without regarding the obvious that it is in fact, both.

Molecular biologists often fail to examine well done field experiments demonstrating quantifiable effects of competing selective pressures on determining the direction of traits, and instead only rely on their analyses of the genetics underlying the specific traits they happen to be looking at at the time.

I usually just direct them to John Endler’s work for an excellent representation showing selection operating in the field.

I can understand trying to push the idea of drift as being important, but seriously, to the EXCLUSION of selection??

hardly.

I strongly agree with your nature vs. nurture comparison. There does seem to be something about the human interaction with science that produces these kind of long running spats. I did kind of think the drift vs. selection issue was dead, but I’ve been out of the lab teaching for a couple of years now so maybe not.

I am not completely convinced that you understand Lynch’s arguments, which are based on population genetics. The role of drift in small speciating populations is an important point.

Probably worth reading http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/[…]med_RVDocSum

as well.

indeed, this is what surprised me about the PNAS colloquim collection Mike posted.

I missed that somehow (I rarely read PNAS, actually), but I do notice that Ayala is the one who looks to have organized it (he wrote the introduction to the collection), which might explain a bit.

I think the idea of this collection (epitomized by Lynch as an example) rather overblows the level of “controversy” surrounding the issue within actual practice.

part of me just keeps saying:

“just what we need, the false impression of yet more ‘controversy’ in evolutionary biology that the creobots will parade around as ‘the Waterloo of the ToE’”

of course, that really is dependent on them reading the literature to begin with, so I guess I shouldn’t be too worried.

I am not completely convinced that you understand Lynch’s arguments, which are based on population genetics.

uh, trust me, I’m quite familiar with all the arguments involved.

The role of drift in small speciating populations is an important point.

nobody said it wasn’t. it’s just that the molecular biologists tend to ignore the obvious:

there are literally THOUSANDS of papers out there that have ALREADY demonstrated the importance of selection in small populations as well.

Well, I guess I got confused. I am more interested in student/public understanding of evolutionary mechanisms in all their forms (which include both selection and non-selective processes).

The “Science News” type sites are almost always hype, exaggerating the significance of generally rather prosaic (and often quite preliminary) observations, released by University public relation departments to draw attention, rather than enlighten.

Sadly, such is the state of much of modern science publication.

Sadly, such is the state of much of modern science publication.

unfortunately, I rather think it’s pretty much always been that way.

such are the hurdles we face in communicating good science to begin with.

I can’t count how many times I was misquoted, or actual information ADDED to something I said by the media when I gave interviews on some of the shark work I and others were doing when I worked with an NGO research group some years back.

It’s quite frustrating.

I am more interested in student/public understanding of evolutionary mechanisms in all their forms (which include both selection and non-selective processes).

on the general issue of science communication… while I don’t agree with much of what this guy (Mathew Nisbet) has to say (heh, to say the least), you will find his blog informative, and he often touches on where the current state of thinking on science communication lies:

http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/

wrt to textbooks in specific, I’m afraid I haven’t perused the latest, but when I was teaching the relevant subject material at the University level (about 15 years ago), I don’t recall the textbooks i used: Futuyma, Alcock, Krebs and Davies to be particularly unbalanced in their coverage of mechanisms.

do you feel you are running into students who have become biased one way or the other?

frankly, speaking of the general public, I would be ecstatic if even 10% exhibited that they knew the difference between what is meant by selection/drift as mechanisms within the framework of evolutionary theory to begin with, let alone hope that there might be a general understanding of the work surrounding each mechanism. It’s rarely covered to even that level of detail in most secondary educational institutions.

hell, for that matter, I would be happy if even 10% understood what “population genetics” was.

I don’t think that the PNAS colloquia are really intended for mass consumption, unfortunately. I was however, rather surprised that there were so many that apparently felt it necessary to even form such a collection to begin with.

It does suggest that there may be levels of intractability I have only suspected based on my own experience.

IANAB, but the article was so confusing that I looked up the paper to see what my limited background could glean.

Although the paper is widely touted as confirming evolution, I could almost see how an IDiot might distort it in the public mind as not only evidence against evolution, but as positive evidence for ID. The hypothesis in The Edge of Evolution is that, beyond a certain point, mutation (i.e., variation) has to be guided in order to produce different kinds of organisms, that Darwin’s “random” variation is insufficient. Please, please tell me it is not possible for Michael Behe to cite this paper as evidence of an intelligence at work in “guiding” mutations.

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This page contains a single entry by Richard B. Hoppe published on January 19, 2008 3:12 AM.

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