New Scientist: Darwin wasn’t wrong after all

September 24, 2020 • 1:45 pm

The new issue of New Scientist is interesting given the rag’s history of dissing the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, including this cover in 2009, which I wrote about at the time. 


Now the “wrong” bit wasn’t meant to dismiss Darwin’s entire theory, but the claim did attack an important part of that theory: Darwin’s idea that there is a branching tree of life that, in principle, can be reconstructed. The idea that life started once, and then ramified to produce all living and extinct species, so that any pair of species, living or dead, had a common ancestor, was one of Darwin’s major ideas. New Scientist asserted that this was wrong.

As I wrote at the time:

What is so wrong with the tree of life?  Well,  an article by Graham Lawton asserts that horizontal gene transfer (the movement of bits of DNA between species by “infection”), a phenomenon often seen in bacteria and some protists, and occasionally in complex metazoa, invalidates the whole idea of a tree with bifurcating branches.  This, of course, is nonsense.  Such gene transfer may fuzz out or even obscure genealogies in some prokaryotes, but nobody thinks it’s going to efface the genealogy of most other groups.  Can we expect to find that we’re really more closely related to gibbons than to chimpanzees, a truth that has been obscured by massive horizontal transfer from eating bush meat?  Don’t expect huge changes in the genealogy of life that we’ve already assembled from molecular data.

Several of us were really miffed at this inflammatory cover, which of course played into the hands of creationists, and wrote a letter to the editor of New Scientist (here’s the shorter version; I can send the longer one to anyone who wants it):

Now the journal has revised its view a bit. In its latest issue, which highlights evolution, New Scientist proudly proclaims that “DARWIN WAS RIGHT” (it’s an intro on the inside).

And here’s their new take, which fortuitously has the same title as our letter to the editor:

Darwin was right

New Scientist

September 23, 2020

THE theory of evolution is one of the greatest accomplishments of the human intellect. Some might argue that it is the greatest, although quantum theory or relativity would have their supporters too. But in the biological sciences, it stands unrivalled. It is no less than the grand unified theory of life.

It is also a theory in the truest sense of the word: an interlocking and consistent system of empirical observations and testable hypotheses that has never failed scrutiny. Nothing has even been discovered that falsifies any part of it, despite strenuous efforts by detractors. It all stacks up.

Yet we should resist the temptation to think that evolution is carved in tablets of stone. The radical but irresistible ideas put forward by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859 remain the core of the theory, yet it has constantly accommodated new knowledge. This happened most conspicuously about a century ago, when the new science of genetics was melded with natural selection to create what became known as the “modern synthesis”.

Today, we are arguably in the midst of another upgrade. Over the past 30 years, discoveries in developmental biology, epigenetics and elsewhere have needed to be brought under the wing of evolution. As our special report on page 38 shows, they largely have been. Only hindsight will be able to judge whether what emerges is Evolution 3.0, or merely Modern Synthesis 1.1. If nothing else, the flurry of activity is proof that evolution – and hence biological science – is a vibrant, living-and-breathing entity still in its prime.

Evolution has also achieved something that is arguably more important: it has seen off its culture warrior detractors. A decade ago, it was on the front line of the war on science, under attack from creationism and its pseudoscientific alter ego, intelligent design. Those voices have now largely fallen silent, worn down by the patient drumbeat of reason.

Sadly, that remains an isolated victory in the wider anti-science culture war. But it shows that victories aren’t impossible. Evolution won because it is true. Eventually, truth will out.

Well, this is a bit mendacious given their new assertion that “nothing has even been discovered that falsified any part of [Darwin’s theory]” contradicts their 2009 claim that “Darwin was wrong about the tree of life”. In fact, the branching tree of life and its converse—looking backwards to realize that all species have common ancestors—is one of the crowning achievements of Darwin’s theory.

But the good bit is their true claim that creationism and Intelligent Design are pretty much defunct. That will really tick off the IDers. But it’s true! Creationism died as a scientific proposition long ago, and its gussied up cousin, ID, has now devolved into a series of attacks on evolutionists. ID has produced no research program, which it promised long ago was “right around the corner”, and it hasn’t nudged evolutionary theory one micron out of school curricula. Both creationism and ID have been recognized by the courts as religious views, not scientific theories. Sometimes I feel sorry for clowns like Michael Egnor and David Klinghoffer, doomed to bawl up rainspouts (to borrow from Mencken) until they die.

There are many parts of New Scientist‘s supposed “upgrade” of evolution, and I’ll deal with them tomorrow. Of course that theory has changed a lot since 1859: we had no fossil record to speak of then, and knew nothing about genetics. But the journal touts many of the buzzwordy “upgrades” that have proved to be mere tack-ons to the Modern Synthetic theory of evolution accepted in the last few decades. The ones for which we have evidence are indeed nestled under the wing of evolution (e.g. epigenetics and horizontal gene transfer, the latter of which can be seen as a dramatic form of mutation, but one that doesn’t efface the tree of life), and so are part of Modern Synthesis 1.1, not Evolution 3.0.  Some of other touted “upgrades” (e.g.. genetic assimilation of acquired traits, the claim that species don’t exist) are either unimportant, ambiguous or false. The Modern Synthesis needs to accommodate new facts, but the “upgrades” don’t mandate a revision nearly as drastic as when genetics married Darwinism to give birth to the Modern Synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s.

We’ll deal with the some of these upgrades tomorrow—if I have the stomach.

h/t: Matthew

39 thoughts on “New Scientist: Darwin wasn’t wrong after all

  1. Even with other popular science periodicals engaged in a feverish race to the bottom so far as quality of coverage is concerned (Scientific American is a particularly disappointing example), New Scientist leads them all by hundreds of fathoms. Its staff writers have been string-theory hype artists apparently from the beginning of time, and its coverage of the ludicrous pseudoscientific ‘multiverse’ project— designed to save ST from its embarrassments over the truly vast number of possible vacuum states compatible with it—can only be described as fawning. So I find its proclamations of stupidities of the ‘Darwin was wrong’ sort completely unsurprising; what *is* a bit unexpected is that they would walk back the 2009 idiocy, even without acknowledging it explicitly…

    1. Ah yes, Darwin is WRONG, until he is right, and then of course he could be WRONG again! I cannot help but see this type of article in a cynical light. It strikes me as a print version of click bait. Editors must have a drawer full of handy dandy “bombshells” like this one to trot out from time to time when they Can’t find a better story or just need a sales boost. Einstein was WRONG, or Newton was WRONG or Elvis LIVES! Take your pick…

      1. 😆
        Worry not, for I no longer spend two hours a day in traffic, and I am currently sitting in the shade with a refreshing ale in my hand, patches of asters and silphium flowers all a hum with butterflies and bees at my feet, and the crickets chirrup of orthopterans in my ear. Maybe later I’ll go bowl a few frames with fat Elvis and Bat Boy. The dude abides…✌️

    2. its coverage of the ludicrous pseudoscientific ‘multiverse’ project— designed to save ST from its embarrassments over the truly vast number of possible vacuum states compatible with it—can only be described as fawning

      I think the multiverse concept is back on reasonable grounds, since evidently it’s a rational if not inevitable outcome of the ‘eternal inflation’ model of inflation, and that model is itself one of the leading ones for inflation.

      This is not, however, to say that New Scientist was making a well-informed decision when it was supporting multiverse concepts back in the ’90s or 00’s. At best, they were backing the right horse for the wrong reasons. However given their coverage of evolution over time, I’d say even this is too generous; it’s more likely that they did it for the clickbait, with little or no thought as to it’s scientific accuracy or support.

      1. Oh, and also note that it is on the short list of proposed explanations for the observed low vacuum energy value in the recent BOSS galaxy 20 year survey collaboration cosmological summary. I take that as main stream support for “reasonable grounds”.

  2. It’s at least gratifying to see the turnaround by the New Scientist. Before their 2009 article I had thought they were legit, but then stuffed them into the trash.

  3. The important year for Darwin and Wallace was 1858, not 1859, when their idea was jointly presented to the Linnean Society in London on August 20. It’s a small point, but it helps to have your facts straight.

    1. Umm. . . thanks for the patronizing comment. I know what happened in 1858; there was a joint presentation of Darwin and Wallace’s views (in shortened form) before the Linnean Society. But the full theory known as “Darwinism” didn’t appear until The Origin in 1859.

      If you don’t see how trivial, niggling, patronizing, and flat wrong your comment was, then I suggest you go elsewhere. That last sentence is a corker.

      1. My apologies. I thought the 1859 date came from the New Scientist, not you. I was referring to the “1859” in the third paragraph of the section headed:

        Darwin was right

        New Scientist

        September 23, 2020

        Apparently I misunderstood who wrote that section, my mistake. Honestly, I was aiming my trivial, niggling, etc. comment elsewhere.

  4. Perhaps the Creationists and the ID proponents have decided that they no longer need to push their theories now that so many believe science is socially constructed and represents just one kind of truth. Constructing alternative scientific theories is hard work. Much easier to declare science is all made up and that everyone is free to believe in whatever they want. Science and scientists are being attacked by both Left and Right. “Ok, you can have your theory of evolution back but no one is listening to you scientists now anyway.” I’m only sort of kidding.

    1. The thought that “cdesign proponentsists” would resort to PoMo arguments that science is merely a western social construct from a male dominated white culture … I hope I am sitting down if I ever see that!

          1. You must live a sheltered life. 😉 It reminds me of Paul Krugman who thinks Cancel Culture isn’t really an issue. He just runs in circles where it isn’t an issue.

            I think this attitude toward science is quite common now. Post modernism says all human expression must be interpreted in the context of who’s saying it and what tribe they belong to. Scientists are a tribe and they have their own truth which isn’t any better than anyone else’s truth. Shared objective truth is pretty much out the window.

            Obviously Post Modernism comes from the Left but the Right have their version of objective truth denial. Everyone has the freedom to independently decide what truth they will believe. This allows them the freedom to not believe in climate change or the pandemic.

  5. ID or rather The Theory of Creation as Darwin put it, died shortly after 1859 only religious nutters vainly stuck their hands up the corpse’s sleeves in an attempt to make it look like it still had life!

    I think you are a little harsh on NS – it is a pop magazine & just about the only one over here. I’ve been buying it for 40 years or so. Our Matthew writes reviews for it now & then. I agree that that old cover & article got it wrong, but expect there was a different editor then, I cannot recall.

    I love it though when you let rip with a passion, I do the same, though I fear for your blood pressure – & mine – he says as he pours a glass of Shackleton whisky!

    1. “Shackleton whisky”? Can you only drink it “on the rocks” if the ice cubes come from an exotic Antarctic ice shelf?

  6. …it’s TRUE! thank christ for that… 😜 now can we move on New Scientist. Ramp up evolution!

    Diversions from the truth are simply not helpful,
    we have other morons galore to do that.

  7. There are plenty of facts on this & related topics in the back catalogue of WEIT if you would care to look. I think you’ll find most people who come here have a reasonable understanding of the history. If they do not, it is a minor matter – the Linnean meeting seemed to pass at the time with comparatively little notice as I am sure you also know.

    The implication that PCC[E] does not know what he is talking about when he’s dedicated his life to teaching & learning about evolution, is both ill-mannered & absurd.

  8. It would be most generous to consider that evodevo, epigenetics, and all that other stuff will upgrade the Modern Synthesis into MS 1.1. Personally I think all of that is automatically enfolded into MS 1.0

  9. I recall reading that Stephen Jay Gould preferred comparing the history of life to a bush rather than a tree. A bush doesn’t have a central fundamental pathway, it just has a common root. So, perhaps more like a Boxwood and less like an Oak.

  10. Indeed. According to Wikipedia:

    Linnean Society President Thomas Bell in his presidential report of May 1859 wrote that “The year which has passed has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear”.;_and_on_the_Perpetuation_of_Varieties_and_Species_by_Natural_Means_of_Selection#Impact_of_the_publication

  11. You’re quite right to call New Scientist out for sweeping their 2009 declaration that “Darwin Was Wrong” under the carpet. May they learn to honestly admit the damage they did for a mess of clickbait. Calls to declare a new Synthesis seem to usually come from people who want to have the phenomena they study to be seen as more central. It’s of course just an argument about names. Declaring a new Synthesis would have the effect of telling folks that the stuff they learned about evolution in secondary school was all wrong. I don’t think that the new phenomena that have been assimilated into the Modern Synthesis have reached that tipping point.

  12. I gave up on the New Scientist three or four years ago, because every article that wasn’t headlined, “Was Darwin Wrong?” was headlined, “Was Einstein Wrong?” The answer, buried in the text of the article, was usually, “No.”

    It was clickbait in print form.

  13. Interesting that in 2009 “Paul Myers” was author of the rebuttal with – gasp – Richard Dawkins, as well as Dan Dennett and our esteemed host. Different times …

  14. Well, this is a bit mendacious given their new assertion that “nothing has even been discovered that falsified any part of [Darwin’s theory]”

    Isn’t their new assertion also not technically correct? Darwin didn’t know about Mendel’s work and his mechanism for inheritance by blending didn’t work (as I think he acknowledged in the end).

  15. I don’t subscribe to NS. Articles, though, do occasionally appear in my newsfeed. Opening them provides a paragraph or two of the piece before the paywall prevents further reading. The reader is then asked to subscribe. An article from this issue appeared just yesterday, “13 Reasons [something or other] about evolution.” I clicked. The first point of the 13 promised was: “Genes aren’t destiny.” Oh, great, I thought, an argument against a position nobody holds. And that, folks, is why I’m still not a subscriber to NS.

  16. ID has produced no research program, which it promised long ago was “right around the corner”, and it hasn’t nudged evolutionary theory one micron out of school curricula.

    AIUI, the DI still has a “research” budget of one or more million dollars per year. Going from memory of the last time I looked at their tax stuff, they spend it on salaries plus what most of us would call outreach (giving talks, producing pamphlets, etc.).

    I think after Kitzmiller they pretty much gave up on the idea of pretending to do science as a movement (some folk like Behe might still do it individually). After all, the entire purpose of the pretense was to get God in public schools. Once they were convinced the courts weren’t going to allow that, Ahamson probably told the DI to spend his money on more successful proselytization efforts, like going into mainstream churches and trying to convince them to be creationists.

  17. Darwinian evolution still has some enormous mysteries to clear up, such as how and why gamete fusion and meiosis (i.e. sex) evolved and the evolutionary significance of woodcock bobbing.

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