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
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.