July 27, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

For Better Science Writing, Cross Out Evolution-speak

Like strict teachers, editors should cross out useless evolutionary speculations from science papers.

Have you ever had a strict teacher for English class? Maybe you wrote a little masterpiece as part of an essay assignment, and found your paper all marked up with a red pencil. All the useless fluff was crossed out: all the instances of “kinda” or “you know” were extricated. All the run-on sentences were shortened. Redundant words were struck out; empty speculations and off-topic diversions were deleted. A good teacher wants your writing to be direct, concise and clear. She is not interested in your imaginative speculations, but on how well you can make your point, supported by facts. If you re-read your masterpiece after it went through the wringer, you might remember admitting it did sound a lot better.

In scientific writing, Darwinese is like bad grammar. It’s so common, people just get used to it. But it’s a bad habit. Science editors should get out their red pencils and cut it out. In the following examples, ask if the evolution-talk contributes anything of scientific value, or is just there as empty fluff, contributing nothing to real understanding.

New paper squares economic choice with evolutionary survival (Santa Fe Institute, via Phys.org). A herder in Kenya keeps camels and goats, because he wants a backup plan in case the goats don’t do well this year. What’s evolution got to do with it?

It seems like an irrational economic choice because goats reproduce faster and thus offer higher near-term herd growth. But by keeping both goats and camels, the herder lowers the variability in growth from year to year. All of this helps increase the odds of household survival, which is essentially a gamble that depends on a multiplicative process with no room for catastrophic failure. It turns out, the choice to keep camels also makes evolutionary sense: families that keep camels have a much higher probability of long-term persistence. Unlike businesses or governments, organisms can’t go into evolutionary debt—there is no borrowing one’s way back from extinction.

This explanation is as useless as it is illogical. The herder can think! He is a rational human being. He makes choices based on wisdom and experience. He is not managing his herds based on natural selection! Why is this science writer using sophoxymoronic terms like “evolutionary sense” (as if blind processes can be sensible) and “evolutionary debt” (as if people owe something to Darwin)? The geniuses at the Santa Fe Institute, in between inhalations of fogma, have lost their grip on reality. “The human brain evolved to solve proximate problems in ways that avoid an outcome of zero,” they claim. Well, if that were true, it also evolved to turn Darwinists into senseless apes. Call the strict teacher. Red-line all the Darwinese, and take out the climate change nonsense, too. This entire article would reduce to about one or two sentences of actual substance.

Big Brains and Dexterous Hands (University of Zurich). Scientists can legitimately compare monkey hands with human hands, and monkey brains with human brains; that is perfectly appropriate. Research on the similarities and differences might yield insights into how monkey hands are suitable for climbing and low-level tool use (like smashing nuts with rocks), but human hands and brains are suitable for playing musical instruments, building computers, and operating high-performance cars and spacecraft. Those facts would be good to know. What’s evolution got to do with it?

“Our study shows once again that in the course of evolution, only mammals that live a long time and have enough time to learn were able to develop a large brain and complex fine motor skills including the ability to use tools.”

No it doesn’t. The research has nothing to do with a “course of evolution.” It has to do with living mammals, living monkeys, and living human beings that can be observed. The researchers did not observe a “course of evolution” anywhere. That useless sentence could be cut out with no loss of understanding.

How the zebrafish got its stripes (University of Bath). Despite its just-so-story headline, this press release is actually Darwin-free. It reads clean, describing empirical evidence about how chromophores self-organize in zebrafish embryos, lining up in stripes in the adult. There’s no mention of evolution, Darwin, or natural selection. It’s the paper in eLife that’s the offender:

Our work now leads the way for further in silico exploration of the developmental and evolutionary implications of this pigment patterning system….

Pigment patterns are striking. They form rapidly and, in many cases, autonomously, that is, the process relies on self-organisation and not internal body structures. Additionally, they often vary dramatically between even closely related species, therefore recognising similarities and differences in the development of these related species can allow us insight into the evolutionary change.

Strike out those lines with the red pencil. There is nothing about Darwin or selection in the paper. There are no “evolutionary implications” discussed. There is no apparent “insight into the evolutionary change” of pattern formation. Why did the authors put those sentences in? They are useless, worthless, and misleading.

Think of the clean air biology students could breathe without the smelly, intoxicating incense of Darwin fogma. Think of how much more quickly they could earn their degrees without having to wade through excess Darwinese verbiage. Think of the clarity and succinctness of scientific papers they could write without wasting space on obligatory just-so stories written in Jargonwocky. The world would be a better place, and scientific understanding would flourish in a clean, clear Darwin-free atmosphere.

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