3 myths and a canard

Every so often I get these what you can only call snarky emails from people who think they can score a point - whether with me or God or whoever - by being sarcastic. I got one today, and surprise, surprise, it was inadvertently right in almost all its criticisms. Just not of actual biological theory…

For your amusement, read on.

Joyce wrote:

hi,I'm just wondering if you can tell me which is biology and which is mythology.once upon a time back in la la land a giraffe got his long neck stretching for leaves.then along came the ostrich and it played tug of war with the crocodiles and its neck got stretched.then finally jethro from the Beverly hillbillies got long legs from eating heaping bowls of corn flakes.please tell me which is biology and which is not.this inquiring mind would love to know....... 

Your first claim is a misreporting of the ideas of the early evolutionist Lamarck. Charles Lyell, the geologist, wrote in 1832 that Lamarck had said in 1809 that a giraffe got his long neck by stretching it and passing on a slightly longer neck to its progeny. He told this tale in order to discredit Lamarck and his theory of evolution.

Lamarck, however, did not say that giraffes got a long neck through effort. In fact, he never, so far as I know, mentions giraffes. What Lamarck said, and it is false as far as we know biology today, is that need? (or rather “want”, besoin) generated the slight variations that got passed on to progeny. “Want” was translated as “will” or “desire” and so the myth got started. So you are correct in two ways - it is a myth that this is how evolution occurs, and it is a myth that Lamarck ever said it.

The second claim comes from the delightful children’s stories by Rudyard Kipling - the Just So Stories. Kipling is partly parodying the folk etiologies or myths of “uneducated” people such as the tribal Indians he encountered in British-controlled India, and partly telling little morality tales for the edification of Good British Citizens. It’s not quite myth, but used in a similar way. So you are correct in a third way.

As for Jethro Clampett - always one of my favourite characters from The Beverly Hillbillies (which we did get here in Australia too) - it is, in fact, quite true that someone who eats well and nutritiously will grow taller and stronger than someone with the same genes who does not. Genes do not determine the final size of state of the adult body alone - they have what biologists call a “norm of reaction”. You can see this in plants - we planted a hedge along our fenceline, and some, where the earthmoving equipment that levelled our block during construction, grow tall, while others, where an old driveway of packed clay and gravel still exists, grow short and even die. Same genes, different outcomes. Whether or not cornflakes, whether [TM] or not, qualify as nutritious is a matter for debate, not advertising. So you are only partly right on that point.

3.5 out of 4 is not a bad result. Well done.

I know that you may think you were being ironic or sarcastic or worse about the theory of evolution. But what you are responding to bears little or no resemblance to the actual theory of evolution, as we now understand it and know from experience, experiment and other evidence how it works. You might, as I am, be amazed and fascinated by that actual theory, or you may shrug your shoulders and say that it doesn’t matter. What you can’t do honestly is say that you understand it and still think it is wrong. To understand the science is to know that it is, in fact, factually true. Strawmen ideas like the ones above are so obviously false, that it pays to ask yourself whether scientists, who are uniformly intelligent (if not always smart) people would be so stupid as to think any of those myths could be true. They don’t.

Best wishes