Last week I highlighted a pretty dreadful piece in New Scientist, “The chaos theory of evolution,” written by paleontologist Keith Bennett, which pretty much deep-sixed the modern theory of evolution in favor of a buzzword-y evolution that was all about being “fractal,” “chaotic,” and “nonlinear”. Bennett relegated the role of natural selection to that of a bit player—if even that.
Coincidentally, the magazine asked me for my take on an unrelated issue. I used the occasion to tell the editor that I wasn’t interested in helping a magazine that was more or less the National Enquirer of science reporting, gleefully touting every misguided objection to neo-Darwinian evolution that came down the pike. He responded by saying that Bennett’s article was after all taken from a talk at the last International Paleontological Congress, and therefore had a modicum of respectability. The editor then suggested I write a piece for the magazine critiquing it.
Thanks very much for your email. I am in Colombia for two weeks and wouldn’t be able to do anything until I return. Perhaps I should just let my blog post be my reply.
But really, is there nobody on your staff who can vet these things for content? Or is a well known scientist allowed simply to say whatever he wants? Even if that scientist questions the power and ubiqity of natural selection? That’s like a chemist coming to your magazine and doubting the existence of atoms.
If you think my own take on Bennett’s piece is unique, simply read the comments after my post. There are many people, including myself, who think that New Scientist has lost a lot of credibility because of its penchant for “Darwin-is-wrong” kinds of sensationalism.
The editor responded, saying that the blame rested not on New Scientist, but on the field itself. If such bad ideas could past muster among respected paleontologists, well, that’s not New Scientist’s fault. And he again invited me to respond:
Thanks for getting back to me. On the whole we're confident that we can vet content ourselves, with the proviso that the peer review process is working. Perhaps some of your ire should be turned on your scientific colleagues - if Bennett is so hopelessly wrong, why was he ever invited to give that keynote (alongside Niles Eldredge)? Why did the symposium even take place? Bennett wasn't the only one to question the primacy of natural selection in macroevolution. Why does the Royal Society support his work? Similarly, if the tree of life concept is unimpeachable, why is there such a large literature questioning its validity and a major project on it at a leading UK biology department? As a weekly science magazine (not journal) we can only report what we see and hear going on around us. And we're always going to look for new, potentially game-changing ideas (it's the news, stupid). I was at Bennett's talk; the room was full of learned and eminent people. He took a few questions but there were no howls of protest like yours. What am I to make of this? I'm genuinely baffled. Perhaps you could blog about this. It's very easy to shoot the messenger but science itself isn't blameless. Also, please consider my invitation to write something to be an open one. Perhaps when you're back we could run a piece arguing that there's not a lot wrong with the theory of evolution as it stands and scientists who claim there is are misguided.
I’m going to pass on this invitation. After all, I already did a long post taking apart Bennett’s views, and if I had to go after every piece of Darwin-is-wrong-ism, I’d never get anything else done. And I’m not sure whether Bennett’s views on the vacuity of neo-Darwinism really do characterize most paleontologists. If they do, then shame on paleobiology. But that doesn’t absolve New Scientist from a responsibility to report that views like Bennett’s are controversial, even if there’s a large slice of misguided paleobiologists who accept them.
What I won’t do is help New Scientist sell magazines by fanning the flames of controversy. I wash my hands of this rag, and I’d advise readers to do likewise until it cleans up its act.