Everything You Know About Evolution Is Wrong (Again)
There’s a genre of science news stories characterized by pointing out things Darwin got wrong. It’s not creationists that do this – these are secular reporters and evolutionary biologists. They seem to try to one-up Darwin by proposing new theories that do evolution better. They usually don’t go far enough to jettison Darwin completely, but some come close. A couple of stories in this genre surfaced recently.
“Evolution More Rapid than Darwin Thought” announced a story in Science Daily. Maybe that was a way for a grad student writing his dissertation to attract attention. Magnus Karlsson, a doctoral candidate at Linnaeus University in Kalmar, studied pygmy grasshoppers and found that they change color by natural selection, probably due to predation. That’s a pretty standard peppered-moth kind of conclusion. “But the most important part of the dissertation is that I have shown that evolution sometimes proceeds incredibly rapidly,” he said. “This is huge.” How huge? Some color variations appear in one generation. Karlsson has outdone the peppered moths for speed, and Mr. Slow-and-Gradual himself, Charles Darwin.
Oliver Burkeman went even farther to one-up Darwin. His story in The Guardian is really a bombshell of the genre: “Why everything you’ve been told about evolution is wrong.” The subtitle added, “Evolutionary thinking is having a revolution.” It’s not that evolution itself is wrong, Burkeman explains, but there is a kind of Lamarckian revival: “What if the way you live now affects the life expectancy of your descendants?” the subtitle teased. First, Burkeman ridicules the creationists to get them out of the way, holding up the old NASA-Joshua internet myth for instant dismissal and using the usual scare quotes around intelligent design. But then his bombshell comes with the same “This is huge” line Karlsson used:
Such talk, naturally, is liable to drive evolutionary biologists into a rage, or, in the case of Richard Dawkins, into even more of a rage than usual. They have a point: nobody wants to provide ammunition to the proponents of creationism or “intelligent design”, and it’s true that few of the studies now coming to public prominence are all that revolutionary to the experts. But in the culture at large, we may be on the brink of a major shift in perspective, with enormous implications for how most of us think about how life came to be the way it is. As the science writer David Shenk puts it in his new book, The Genius in All of Us, “This is big, big stuff � perhaps the most important [discoveries] in the science of heredity since the gene.”
That really would be big, but Shenk and Burkeman seem to underestimate the resiliency of Darwin theorists against potentially falsifying observations. Their proposed Darwin crisis revolves around epigenetics and the definition of organism. Burkeman also describes the trouble Jerry Fodor is causing with his book What Darwin Got Wrong (02/24/2010).
In the end, though, Burkeman comes to Darwin’s rescue by claiming that Charles Darwin never claimed to have the only mechanism by which evolution acts. “Darwin, writing before the discovery of DNA, knew very well that his work heralded the beginning of a journey to understand the origins and development of life,” Burkeman ended, dismissing millennia of belief in creation. “All we may be discovering now is that we remain closer to the beginning of that journey than we’ve come to think.” So despite the conflict and setbacks, at the end of this scary novel, the protagonist is saved, and Darwin lives happily ever after.
These stories appear from time to time; they’re kind of like dummy missiles intended to throw the enemy off track. They pretend that internal squabbles are about to lead to the collapse of the Darwin Empire. But in the end, they’re never really trying to chuck Chuck. They may give him a Charlie horse, but never a hammerlock. Watch for the hoarse of a different calor. Their real caloric is saved up for the common enemy: the creationists. What is it about those guys that makes them the target of such venom and strange antics? Makes you almost want to get to know them.