August 6, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Silly Stories Demean Science

If science had an icon like the Statue of Liberty, she would be hanging her head in disgrace for what passes for science these days.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the following sorry excuses for scientific research and reporting. For those who care about the reputation of science in society, perhaps outrage would be a more appropriate response.

Men may have evolved better ‘making up’ skills (BBC News). This notion (hard to call it a scientific hypothesis) follows from observations that some men will hug longer after a boxing match or other contest than women will. It’s based on a “scientific” paper published by Cell Press in Current Biology, “Cross-Cultural Sex Differences in Post-Conflict Affiliation following Sports Matches.” The two authors (a man and a woman) claim that “After sports matches, male opponents engage in friendly touches longer than females,” and “Male winners and losers make more friendly touches than their female counterparts.” It’s hard to imagine how such things could even be measured by any objective standard. How many sports matches would a scientist have to watch to conclude this? From how many countries? For how long a time period? What constitutes a “friendly” touch, on what kind of an objective scale? What if one of the men is a transgender? (We throw in that idea to be politically correct.)

Even more ridiculous is to claim that men evolved this skill. Was it a mutation on the Y chromosome? Or did the female get it on her mitochondrial DNA? How could a behavior this vague be tied to an objective change in the genes? How did it spread through the population? Don’t men and women exchange genes every time they have children? We have not even begun to ask the multitude of questions raised by this hypothesis. Even more alarming is the reckless reporters and editors at the BBC who let this silliness pass without any critical analysis. On the contrary, they say: “Other researchers say that this is an ‘impressive’ study.” Impressive in its ineptness, perhaps. A suitably trained philosophical gadfly could undermine the whole premise with a counter-proposal: “Scientists may have evolved better ‘making up stories’ skills.”

Where there’s smoke — and a mutation — there may be an evolutionary edge for humans (Science Daily). This idea makes one wonder if the geniuses at Penn State were imbibing certain hallucinogenic fumes when they dreamed it up. “Aha!” they must have said under the influence of something. “Now we know how we moderns defeated the Neanderthals!” It doesn’t seem to matter to them that Neanderthals were cooking with fire for possibly 200,000 years or more (so says the consensus) before moderns came on stage. According to this new story, “A genetic mutation may have helped modern humans adapt to smoke exposure from fires and perhaps sparked an evolutionary advantage over their archaic competitors” — notice the high perhapsimaybecouldness index there. Surely the astute science guys at the BBC News will bring some sense into the smoke-filled room. “Tolerance of smoke may have given us an edge over Neanderthals.” Guess not.

A quick Google search shows over 200,000 hits on “smoke Neanderthals” but no obvious critical responses, except for ours and one at Uncommon Descent. Colin Barras at U.D. had some laughs, having seen this kind of campfire story before:

This theory is possibly 27 minutes in the queue with: Neanderthals were inbred, A different theory puts it down to the fact that Neanderthals chewed more. And another one has it that they did not eat enough rabbits. A paleo-psychoanalyst claims they had large eyes and might have been weird loners. And, oh yes, of course, climate change killed them.

All the others in the internet echo chamber just repeated the theme with minor variations to the headline, such as, “Can’t Quit Smoking? Blame Neanderthals.” It gave them an excuse to trot out all the stock photos of Neanderthal reconstructions housed in museums. Of course, everybody should know this theory is untenable.

Parkas helped early humans survive (Live Science). Let’s see if we can get this one straight. Neanderthals survived for nearly 500,000 years in all kinds of climate, but then lost out to modern humans who came on the scene late with new tailoring skills. Because the “moderns” knew how to sew parkas, they survived while their brethren froze.  “The reason for the clothing difference between Neanderthals and early modern humans is yet unclear.” That’s for sure; no clothes were found! The scientists only found animal bones “whose skins may have been used to produce clothing.” In a blatant example of historical racism, the reporter suggests that “the Neanderthals were not intelligent enough to manufacture garments of the same thermal effectiveness as those used by early modern humans,” or else it was a cultural thing. But they survived for half a million years! Good grief; if the environment drives evolution, why didn’t they just evolve body fur in all that time?

Birds of a fibula (PLoS Blogs). Emphasize the fib in Jon Tennant’s headline, because it starts with an imaginary dino-chicken in the artwork. Then he shows baby chicks strutting across the stage in an animated loop. To give an appearance of empirical validity, he shows a bunch of femur bones side by side. Running evolution divination on them, he comes to the conclusion that birds are dinosaurs. In a trance, he shouts ecstatically, “Eagles are dinosaurs. Pigeons are dinosaurs, annoyingly. Even penguins are weird, swimming dinosaurs.”

How well does Jon know this to be true? His last paragraphs leave some room for distrust after he pronounces his oracle.

This means that dinosaurs and early birds shared the same or similar pattern of fibula development, reflected in their evolutionary relationships and through time.

The reason why this happens though remains a bit of a mystery. Modern birds of different sizes and ecologies all show evidence of this fibula reduction. This suggests that it is what is called a ‘non-adaptive’ process, as it is highly unlikely that such a feature would play a part in such different roles.

We’re only just beginning to unlock the molecular links between dinosaurs and birds, and this represents a really neat glimpse into the future of this research field. Stay tuned!

What channel are we tuned into, again? Is this Comedy Central?

Folks, we try to bring you the news about evolution objectively, but it’s extremely difficult to be charitable when reading some of it. Please forgive us.




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