March 6, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

How to Translate Darwinese

A unique culture has sprung up around evolutionary biology.  Since evolutionary theory encompasses far more than just change in living species (touching on, for instance, ultimate origins, the nature of humanity and the destiny of the universe), its supporters sometimes get a little carried away in their language.  The tendency in science reporting to embellish tidbits of observation with wide-reaching conclusions and to incorporate questionable tidbits into support for macroevolution is a habit we will call Darwinese.
    Translating Darwinese into unbiased science requires skill and training.  The interpreter must brush past the embellishments and search out the kernel of observation that was the basis for the report.  It is also important to look at the observations separately from the millions-of-years claims, which are tied into the assumption of evolution.  Speculative stories and loaded words like “primitive” and “modern” must be bypassed in search of the brute facts.  Finally, the interpreter must look for signs that the observations were surprising.  The surprise effect is often a clue that the evolutionary biologist or reporter is about to do some spin doctoring to keep the evolutionary story intact.  Here are some recent examples.

  1. Batter up:  National Geographic News reported that six species of fossil bats were discovered in Egypt.
    • Darwinese: “The paleontologists say the diversity of species discovered in El Faiyum is the strong evidence that bat species evolved in Africa.”  The bats were “pretty primitive members of modern groups,” the leader of the study said.  “In a sense, Africa is sort of a crucible for the evolution of the modern bats.”  The fossils were said to be 35 million years old.  The team leader “said he thinks a primitive bat species made its way to Africa some 50 million years ago, ‘then differentiated into these more modern forms.’”
    • Translation:  The fossils are essentially identical to modern bats.  “The experts were also surprised to find that the new species were similar to some modern-day microbats, a group of bats that uses sonar waves to navigate and hunt in a process called echolocation.”  According to the article, they were all members of living families.  One was even a giant, “which makes it perhaps the largest of the echolocating species yet found.”  This could support a theory that bats are devolving from what they once were.
          The fossilized bats apparently had all the advanced adaptations for flight and sonar, so labeling them “primitive” seems unsupportable except in the view that, being allegedly tens of millions of years old, they must have been less evolved than living bats.
  2. Rearranging the tree:  Science Daily reported that Brown University biologists have conducted “the most comprehensive animal phylogenomic research project to date, involving 40 million base pairs of new DNA data taken from 29 animal species.”
    • Darwinese:  “The study, which appears in Nature, settles some long-standing debates about the relationships between major groups of animals,” the article said.  One paragraph recounted how Charles Darwin invented the tree of life concept in The Origin of Species.  The article described how the new method improves on earlier ones, and “demanded the power of more than 120 processors housed in computer clusters located in laboratories around the globe.” – an irrelevant detail since computer analysis could be used in any number of interpretations.
          The study “unambiguously confirmed certain animal relationships” and “convincingly resolved conflicting evidence surrounding other relationships.”  The team lead announced cheerfully, “this new information changes our basic understanding about the natural world” because the tree of life is now “clearer” than before.  The new approach “will be able to resolve at least some problems that have been previously intractable.”
    • Translation:  The study produced an implausible solution with many surprises.  “The big shocker: Comb jellyfish — common and extremely fragile jellies with well-developed tissuesappear to have diverged from other animals even before the lowly sponge, which has no tissue to speak of.  This finding calls into question the very root of the animal tree of life, which traditionally placed sponges at the base.”
          Clearly a big shocker that puts more complex animals before simpler ones was not predicted.  What explanation was offered?  “This finding suggests either that comb jellies evolved their complexity independently from other animals, or that sponges have become greatly simplified through the course of evolution,” the team lead suggested.  “If corroborated by other types of evidence, this would significantly change the way we think about the earliest multicellular animals.”
          What this seems to say, after translation from Darwinese, is that comb jellies, which have complex chemical light arrays, feeding organs and behaviors (see 04/03/2007 and 12/19/2005) appeared abruptly without an evolutionary history.  Also, if something complex evolved into something simpler – that’s the opposite of what evolutionary biology usually tries to explain.
  3. Lemur murmurs:  Science Daily reported about a study of lemurs in Madagascar by the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy.
    • Darwinese:  “After swabbing the cheeks of more than 200 lemurs and related primates to collect their DNA, researchers… now have a much clearer picture of their evolutionary family tree.”  The researchers triumphantly announced that “we have absolutely confirmed, beyond any statistical doubt, that the spectacular array of lemurs all descended from a single ancestral species.”
          According to the report, the study also has important ramifications for human evolution, too.  The title announced, “Lemurs’ Evolutionary History May Shed Light On Our Own.
    • Translation:  All the lemurs were from the island of Madagascar.  Since even young-earth creationists allow for the diversification of species within created kinds (one of their common examples is the “spectacular array” of dogs), this study could not differentiate between the views of creationists and evolutionists.
          The researchers studied only lemurs but made unwarranted assertions about other primate groups, including humans.  The researchers admitted that “many of the relationships among other apes, monkeys and pre-monkeys called prosimians have remained somewhat murky” but then they contrasted the murkiness with “humans’ close evolutionary ties to chimpanzees” – even though geneticists have recently admitted the similarities have been exaggerated (06/29/2007).

This last entry exhibits another characteristic of Darwinese: the frequent use of future tense.  No matter how surprising or confusing an observation appears at first glance, it always contains a promise – it “may shed light” on evolution.

We’ve been looking for Darwin’s light for a long time.  All we have seen is dark matter, dark energy, dark morality and darkened understanding.  Follow Diogenes, the guy with the lantern looking for an honest man.
Exercise:  Try your hand at translating Darwinese; it’s fun once you get the hang of it.

  • Science Daily on butterfly mimicry.
  • Science Daily on antibiotic resistance.
  • Live Science on the Burgess Shale.
  • BBC News on a fossil rabbit.
  • National Geographic on a fossil primate.
    Teachers:  Inspire your students to become interpreters of Darwinese.  There’s a world-wide shortage, judging from the hubris with which the science news media speak it.
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Categories: Genetics, Mammals

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