Indian science curriculum axes not only evolution, but the periodic table, energy sources, and pollution

May 31, 2023 • 9:15 am

As I wrote in April, India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), decided to remove evolution—a great unifying theory of biology—from all science classes below “class 11”, , which means that only students who have decided to major in biology will learn about evolution. (Indian students begin specializing younger than do American students.)

. . . . evolution used to be part of science class in “Classes 9 and 10,” which in India are kids 13-15 years old.  After that they take exams and have to decide what subjects to specialize in: science (with or without biology), commerce, economics, the arts, and so on. Specialization begins early, before the age at which kids go to college in America.

In India now, only the students who decide to go the Biology route in Classes 11 and 12 will get any exposure to evolution at all! It’s been wiped out of the biology material taught to any kids who don’t choose to major in biology.

The deep-sixing of evolution was originally part of the whittling-down of the Indian school curriculum during the pandemic, but now it appears to be a permanent change, and not just in public schools, but also in many private ones, who follow the same standards set by the ICSE (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education).

But it’s gotten worse. NCERT has eliminated not only evolution from most secondary school science classes, but have also deep-sixed the periodic table (!), as well as sources of energy and material about air and water pollution. (One would think those topics would be relevant in a country as crowded as India.)

This is all reported in a new article from Nature (click on screenshot for a free read):

An excerpt:

In India, children under-16 returning to school at the start of the new school year this month, will no longer be taught about evolution, the periodic table of elements, or sources of energy.

The news that evolution would be cut from the curriculum for students aged 15–16 was widely reported last month, when thousands of people signed a petition in protest. But official guidance has revealed that a chapter on the periodic table will be cut, too, along with other foundational topics such as sources of energy and environmental sustainability. Younger learners will no longer be taught certain pollution- and climate-related topics, and there are cuts to biology, chemistry, geography, mathematics and physics subjects for older school students.

Overall, the changes affect some 134 million 11–18-year-olds in India’s schools. The extent of what has changed became clearer last month when the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) — the public body that develops the Indian school curriculum and textbooks — released textbooks for the new academic year starting in May.

Researchers, including those who study science education, are shocked.

Not only that, but NCERT didn’t get input from parents or teachers, or even respond to Nature‘s request for comment. Here’s what’s gone besides evolution:

Mythili Ramchand, a science-teacher trainer at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India, says that “everything related to water, air pollution, resource management has been removed. “I don’t see how conservation of water, and air [pollution], is not relevant for us. It’s all the more so currently,” she adds. A chapter on different sources of energy — from fossil fuels to renewables — has also been removed. “That’s a bit strange, quite honestly, given the relevance in today’s world,” says Osborne.

A chapter on the periodic table of elements has been removed from the syllabus for class-10 students, who are typically 15–16 years old. Whole chapters on sources of energy and the sustainable management of natural resources have also been removed.

They’ve also bowdlerized stuff on politics:

A small section on Michael Faraday’s contributions to the understanding of electricity and magnetism in the nineteenth century has also been stripped from the class-10 syllabus. In non-science content, chapters on democracy and diversity; political parties; and challenges to democracy have been scrapped. And a chapter on the industrial revolution has been removed for older students.

And here’s NCERT’s explanation, which doesn’t make sense at all.

In explaining its changes, NCERT states on its website that it considered whether content overlapped with similar content covered elsewhere, the difficulty of the content, and whether the content was irrelevant. It also aims to provide opportunities for experiential learning and creativity.

First, evolution is NOT covered elsewhere, nor is it that difficult in principle. You don’t even have to teach natural selection; you can just give people the evidence for evolution, which is hardly rocket science. And the periodic table? That’s hard? How else will students learn about the elements?  As I said, only students age 16 and above will even hear about evolution or the elements, and most students in India will not go on to college where they can also learn these things. Remember, only high-school-age (in the U.S.) students who decide to specialize in science will learn about evolution, the periodic table, and energy.

And these cuts may well be permanent:

NCERT announced the cuts last year, saying that they would ease pressures on students studying online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amitabh Joshi, an evolutionary biologist at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bengaluru, India, says that science teachers and researchers expected that the content would be reinstated once students returned to classrooms. Instead, the NCERT shocked everyone by printing textbooks for the new academic year with a statement that the changes will remain for the next two academic years, in line with India’s revised education policy approved by government in July 2020.

At first I thought the dropping of evolution reflected the Hindu-centric policies of Modi, somewhat of a theocrat, but an Indian biologist (see earlier post) told me this was unlikely, as Hindus aren’t particularly offended by evolution. The reasons must lie elsewhere, but they’re a mystery to all of us. However, Joshi does that the dumping of evolution reflect in part some religious beliefs:

Science educators are particularly concerned about the removal of evolution. A chapter on diversity in living organisms and one called ‘Why do we fall ill’ has been removed from the syllabus for class-9 students, who are typically 14–15 years old. Darwin’s contributions to evolution, how fossils form and human evolution have all been removed from the chapter on heredity and evolution for class-10 pupils. That chapter is now called just ‘Heredity’. Evolution, says Joshi, is essential to understanding human diversity and “our place in the world”.

In India, class 10 is the last year in which science is taught to every student. Only students who elect to study biology in the final two years of education (before university) will learn about the topic.

Joshi says that the curriculum revision process has lacked transparency. But in the case of evolution, “more religious groups in India are beginning to take anti-evolution stances”, he says. Some members of the public also think that evolution lacks relevance outside academic institutions.

And here’s one more suggestion: that some of these ideas are “Western”—truly the dumbest reason ever not to teach them. So what if Darwin was British?

“There is a movement away from rational thinking, against the enlightenment and Western ideas” in India, adds Sucheta Mahajan, a historian at Jawaharlal Nehru University who collaborates with Mukherjee on studies of RSS influence on school texts. Evolution conflicts with creation stories, adds Mukherjee. History is the main target, but “science is one of the victims”, she adds.

So here we have the world’s largest democracy dumbing down its curriculum, making some of the greatest ideas in science unavailable to its citizens.  This is unconscionable, but there’s little those outside of India can do about this.  The only thing I can think of is to is tell Richard Dawkins, who can at least embarrass the government by tweeting about this.  Otherwise, there are no petitions to sign, nobody to protest to.  And millions of Indian kids will be deprived of the greatest idea in biology.

From the Indian Express:

h/t: Matthew


More on (the banning of) evolution in India

April 28, 2023 • 11:35 am

I first mentioned this about two weeks ago, when I posted this:

*According to Al Jazeera, the Hinducentric government of Prime Minister Modi of India has slowly been removing mention of evolution from school curricula; now it’s available only in classes 11 or 12, when students are 16-18 years old (many have left school by then).

Now, a piece in the magazine India Today dilates on that finding, but, in implicitly decrying the removal of evolution, the article complicates matters by presenting this “straight-line progress” view of human evolution on the cover.

By now people realize that the depicted sequence from knuckle-walkers to bipedals to modern humans is not only a cliché, but flatly wrong. Our evolution had many twists and turns, with modern H. sapiens living at the same time (and having common ancestors with) with very different forms, including Neanderthals, Denisovans, and even the tiny “hobbit people“, H. floresiensis.  Yes, you can trace one lineage through the branching bush of human evolution that would correspond to the sequence drawn below, but you could equally well show very different sequences by tracing different lineages. Remember, human evolution is not one straight-line lineage, but a complex branching bush, with hybridization between some of the branches.

In other words, the picture is teleological, implying a unidirectional force of natural selection that led to modern humans. But it’s not unidirectional, because some lineages didn’t go this way! Steve Gould attacked this “march of progress” trope in the first chapter of his book Wonderful Life; you can read more about this diagram, and where it came from, here.

But again I digress. What is going on in India! I’ve asked an Indian evolutionary biologist and a friend to help me out.  She, one of the 1800 signers of the letter mentioned in the link above, says that it’s complicated.  It’s not so much that evolution is in strong opposition to Hinduism (as it is in fundamentalist Christianity); as she wrote:

While the distortions in history text books are not at all surprising, removing evolution is a bit strange because Hindus don’t have anything against evolution. There is no particular creation story for humans and since people are familiar with the Dasavatar, they usually think evolution is somewhat similar and acceptable. The one set of people who seem to be against evolution are the ISKCON (Krishna cult) people, who seem to have a lot of western influence and money. There are websites coming up trying to project Krishna as the god of Hindus and showing a monolithic Hinduism.

But what is the case is that evolution used to be part of science class in “Classes 9 and 10,” which in India are kids 13-15 years old.  After that they take exams and have to decide what subjects to specialize in: science (with or without biology), commerce, economics, the arts, and so on. Specialization begins early, before the age at which kids go to college in America.

In India now, only the students who decide to go the Biology route in Classes 11 and 12 will get any exposure to evolution at all! It’s been wiped out of the biology material taught to any kids who don’t choose to major in biology.

The deep-sixing of evolution was originally part of the whittling-down of the Indian school curriculum during the pandemic, but now it appears to be a permanent change, and not just in public schools, but also in many private ones, who follow the same standards set by the ICSE (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education).

At any rate, 1800 Indian scientists, science teachers, other academics, and concerned citizens wrote a letter opposing the dumping of evolution in the pre-specialization science curriculum, a letter you can access by clicking on the link below.  I’m happy to see several of my Indian colleagues, whom I met when I lectured there in five cities a few years back, have been instrumental in creating this letter and then have appended their signatures.

I don’t know whether as non-Indians we can help in this appeal, but often countries are sensitive to how they look to other countries (viz,. the New Zealanders who are upset by attacks from people like Dawkins and I on their equation of Maori “ways of knowing” with modern science).  If there are opportunities for us to help get evolution back into schools in what is now the world’s most populous country, I’ll let you know about them.

Here’s the letter, which is a better summary of the case for evolution than that given in the India Today article:

We, the undersigned, have learned that sweeping changes are being proposed in the CBSE curriculum in the secondary and senior secondary courses. These changes, first introduced as a temporary measure during the Corona pandemic, are being continued even when schooling has gone back to offline mode. In particular, we are concerned with the exclusion of the teaching of Darwinian evolution from the 10th standard curriculum, as seen in the information (see, page 21) available on the NCERT website

In the current educational structure, only a small fraction of students choose the science stream in grade 11 or 12, and an even smaller fraction of those choose biology as one of the subjects of study. Thus, the exclusion of key concepts from the curriculum till grade 10 amounts to a vast majority of students missing a critical part of essential learning in this field.

Knowledge and understanding of evolutionary biology is important not just to any subfield of biology, but is also key to understanding the world around us. Evolutionary biology is an area of science with a huge impact on how we choose to deal with an array of problems we face as societies and nations from medicine and drug discovery, epidemiology, ecology and environment, to psychology, and it also addresses our understanding of humans and their place in the tapestry of life. Although many of us do not explicitly realise, the principles of natural selection help us understand how any pandemic progresses or why certain species go extinct, among many other critical issues..

An understanding of the process of evolution is also crucial in building a scientific temper and a rational worldview. The way Darwin’s painstaking observations and his keen insights led him to the theory of natural selection educates students about the process of science and the importance of critical thinking. Depriving students, who do not go on to study biology after the 10th standard, of any exposure to this vitally important field is a travesty of education.

We, the undersigned scientists, science teachers, educators, science popularisers and concerned citizens disagree with such dangerous changes in school science education and demand to restore the theory of Darwinian evolution in secondary education

Aniket Sule, Mumbai Ragavendra Gadagkar, Bengaluru Amitabha Joshi, Bengaluru L. S. Shashidhara, Bengaluru T. N. C. Vidya, Bengaluru Enakshi Bhattacharya, Chennai Rahul Siddharthan, Chennai D. Indumathi, Chennai Amitabha Pandey, Delhi Ram Ramswamy, Delhi T. V. Venkateswaran, Delhi Anindita Bhadra, Kolkata Soumitro Bannerjee, Kolkata S. Krishnaswamy, Madurai N. G. Prasad, Mohali Aurnab Ghose, Pune Satyajeet Rath, Pune Shraddha Kumbhojkar, Pune Sudha Rajamani, Pune Vineeta Bal, Pune

and 1800 others.

Imagine learning biology without any mention of evolution, and then never hearing anything about it again unless you become a biology major! What a lacuna that puts in your education! I hope the letter accomplishes something.

I just realized that while my book Why Evolution is True has been translated into 19 languages, including two forms of Chinese, it has never been translated into any Indian language like Hindi or Malayalam (unless you consider English an Indian language). As I said, India is now the most populous country on Earth, and its science education needs to be up to snuff. In the interest of spreading the life-transforming truth of evolution to Indian students and science fans, I’ll allow it to be translated into Hindi or any other Indian language for a very low fee. (My agent sets the fees; I can’t make it free, but I can importune them to set very low translation fees if a country needs evolution education. This is what we did in the only Arab-speaking country to translate the book, Egypt.)

Queen Mary University professor rejects evolution and promotes the New Testament in his inaugural lecture

December 12, 2022 • 9:15 am

Here we have an hourlong talk by Richard Buggs, Senior Research Leader (Plant Health & Adaptation) at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at Queen Mary University of London. We met Dr. Buggs on this site in 2021 as “a creationist professor of evolutionary biology in England,” where he touted Intelligent Design;  I included a shorter video in which Buggs mixed his God with his science. Now he’s doing it again in his Inaugural Lecture at Queen Mary University (below).

His personal webpage gives his bona fides:

Professor Richard Buggs is an evolutionary biologist and molecular ecologist. His research group analyses DNA sequences to understand how plants, especially trees, adapt in response to climate change and new pests and pathogens. Richard has published on a variety of evolutionary processes including: natural selection, speciation, hybridisation and whole genome duplication. The birch species Betula buggsii is named after him. Richard is a Christian, and sometimes blogs on issues where biology and Christianity intersect.

He’s also author of the 2007 Guardian article below (click if you want to read):

A quote from the article:

But, whatever the limitations of Darwinism, isn’t the intelligent design alternative an “intellectual dead end”? No. If true, ID is a profound insight into the natural world and a motivator to scientific inquiry. The pioneers of modern science, who were convinced that nature is designed, consequently held that it could be understood by human intellects. This confidence helped to drive the scientific revolution. More recently, proponents of ID predicted that some “junk” DNA must have a function well before this view became mainstream among Darwinists.

But, according to Randerson, ID is not a science because “there is no evidence that could in principle disprove ID”. Remind me, what is claimed of Darwinism? If, as an explanation for organised complexity, Darwinism had a more convincing evidential basis, then many of us would give up on ID

Back to the talk. This is a very bizarre lecture. In the first half he denies the existence of branching evolutionary trees, arguing that this invalidates both Darwinism and natural selection (note: although evolution is required for such trees, natural selection is not).

To do this, he cherry-picks data in which a few independent trees, derived from both morphological and DNA data, are not concordant. But that does happen under evolution, for sometimes genes are transferred horizontally, or via hybridization, or we have “incomplete lineage sorting”, in which segregating ancestral genetic variation is distributed among descendants. Further, if you use only a few genes—and note that Buggs’s trees are based on only a few genes—you may get a “gene tree” that’s discordant with the “species tree”—the actual history of new lineage formation via splitting. Allen Orr and I discuss this discordance in the Appendix of our book Speciation. The upshot is that you don’t expect every gene to give the same tree, but if evolution and evolutionary splitting occurred, you would expect the preponderance of genes to give the same tree. And they do, save in the rare case when there’s been pervasive hybridization between groups, and the species involved are fairly closely related.

Buggs also dwells at length on the relatively sudden appearance of angiosperms, almost implying that it supports sudden creation, though he ignores the fact that monocot plants appear far earlier than angiospemrs in the fossil record, so the data don’t support the evidence of any creation. (Note: Buggs implies that the fossil record and molecular data support a religious scenario rather than an evolutionary one, but is very canny about mentioning Biblical creationism or Intelligent Design.)

Buggs’s denigration of evolutionary trees constitutes, he claims, evidence for a Designer (aka God/Jesus). AT 30:00. for example, he argues that the NON-existence of evolutionary trees supports a Designer, for if a system were designed rather than evolved, you wouldn’t expect concordant trees; you’d get “a bit of a mess”.)

At 39:38, Buggs shifts gears and tells the baffled audience (listen to the tepid applause is at the end!) that well, maybe the evolutionary “tree of life” doesn’t exist, but the BIBLICAL tree of life does! This “tree of life” stands for eternity and all the claims of Christianity, for the words “tree of life” appears in Revelation (2:7 and 22:1-3).  Here’s a summary of Buggs’s “evidence” for the Bible:

In other words, because many people believed in Christianity, and John had a revelation, Christianity must be true (his words are “we should not lightly dismiss John’s claims”).  How little it takes to convince Buggs of the New Testament’s truth, and how much it would take to convince him of evolution! (Remember, he concentrates ONLY on the existence of trees as evidence for evolution, ignoring things like development, the fossil record, biogeography, observations of natural selection in action, and all the stuff I adduce in Why Evolution is True.)

I’d urge you to at least listen to the last 20 minutes so you can see how a scientist can be so credulous that he’s persuaded that Christianity is true based on the thinnest evidence you can imagine.

Finally, BUGGS goes woke at the end, promoting “inclusion” in STEM, but he apparently does as a way to promote religion. For, as the sweating Dr. Buggs shows, Christianity is most pervasive in “countries of color”: those in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America (also the U.S., but he ignores that). His conclusion? We need to include RELIGION more in the sciences, and be nicer to believers, because that will attract more “non diverse” people into STEM. This is a very weaselly proposal for sneaking religion into the sciences!

In the end, Buggs distorts and misrepresents what science has told us, ignores the pervasive evidence for evolution besides evolutionary trees, and gives an embarrassingly thin account of “evidence” for Christianity.

Yet this man is a professor of evolutionary biology and molecular ecology! His presence at Queen Mary University of London, much less his promotion to Professor, reflects very poorly on his university. I’m not urging his dismissal, though if he were teaching this guff at a public university in America he’d be violating the First Amendment and should be told to leave the religion out of his teaching. Now it’s possible that Buggs doesn’t mention Jesus or the Bible in his classes, and that would be great. But I truly doubt that he gives a good account of the evidence for evolution, either. (After all, he accept Intelligent Design, not evolution.) That is, I suspect Buggs’s students are being shortchanged, and if that’s the case, I feel sorry for them. As for Queen Mary University, I’d merely suggest that they check if Buggs is dragging religion into his teachings.

h/t: Gerdien

Agustin Fuentes once again flaunts his virtue via misleading statements

September 8, 2022 • 12:45 pm

We’ve met Agustín Fuentes before. An anthropologist at Princeton, he’s trying to carve a niche for himself by defending woke science, most notably by being the most prominent person to publicly accuse Darwin of racism and sexism, and in so doing committing some scientific missteps. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Here’s a Fuentes whopper about “survival of the fittest,” a term that Darwin didn’t invent and generally avoided, using it only a handful of times in his writings:

[Darwin] went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.” This too is confounding given Darwin’s robust stance against slavery.

This is wrong on two counts. First, Darwin never justified genocide, though he did think that by virtue of (inherited) superiority, the white race would come to dominate others by higher relative success. But never did he advocate the killing or extirpation of different ethnic groups. Second, the use of “social Darwinism” by others to justify such mistreatment of other groups was always rejected by Darwin. Darwin simply cannot be blamed for the misuse or misconstrual of his theory by others. In fact, I cannot think of what direct harm Darwin really caused to anyone, save his buttressing the views of English men and women of his time. I always maintain that if Darwin lived today, he would likely decry misogyny, racism, and white supremacy, and would be a liberal English guy. It’s unfair, again, to tar him for adhering to the moral standards of his time—indeed, in having higher standards.

As I said, Darwin was a bit of a sexist and a racist, but he was far less so than most men of his position and time; he was, in fact, an abolitionist. But let’s not plow already-furrowed ground. Fuentes has denied and been criticized for his views on Darwin by some very good scholars, including a bunch of scientists including his fellow anthropologist Frans de Waal (who cosigned a letter to Science), Robert Wright, historian of science Bob Richards at my own school, and evolutionary geneticist Brian Charlesworth. This is not a group of people you’d expect to agree on anything, but when Fuentes goes after Darwin for no reason other than to flaunt his own foresight and perspicacity, it’s irritating. I’d bet ten to one that had Fuentes lived at the same time as Darwin, and worked as an anthropologist, he’d be a worse sexist and racist than Darwin himself. But Fuentes has no view of context; his goal is to indict the past for failing to adhere to moral standards that are continually improving.

Fuentes has also argued that “biology” has rejected the bimodality of sexes (to humanity’s benefit!), and you can read all I’ve written about that and his other issues here.

Now he’s back again banging the drum—defending Scientific American (and dissing me and others) in his school’s student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian. Click to read:

I’m not going to go through this op-ed mush, as it doesn’t deserve it, but I will answer his claim about what we got wrong about “calls for diversity in science” (he’s referring most strongly to the new bent of Scientific American to publish woke garbage.

Fuentes (because he has a thin skin, he makes it personal from the outset, naming names and characterizing us as old white cis men (how does he know my gender identity?):

From University of Chicago biology professor Emeritus Jerry Coyne: “Scientific American is changing from a popular-science magazine into a social-justice-in-science magazine” and “it is not science: it’s politics and sociology with a Leftist bent.”

From former Cambridge research fellow Noah Carl: “people who should know better have allowed once-great scientific journals to become a platform for woke activism” and “[I] have covered Nature’s descent into woke activism … now seems that Science is going the same way.”

Founded in 1845 and 1880 respectively, SciAm is the oldest and top popular science magazine and Science is the official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Not exactly radical lefty ‘zines. Yet both have been called out repeatedly as “too woke” and “anti-science.”

What is driving this cluster of largely (but not exclusively) white, senior, and cis-gender scholars and pundits to complain? What have the SciAm and Science editorial boards done that is so horrible? Simply put, they have recognized that times are changing and including previously excluded and marginalized voices, experiences, and perspectives in their pages is not only the right thing to do, but also the necessary thing to do for a better and more vibrant science of the 21st century.

I will respond, but only briefly:

Dear Dr. Fuentes,

Once again you are mischaracterizing your opponents.  I, at least, have no opposition whatever to Scientific American or other science magazines “including previously excluded marginalized voices, experiences, and perspectives in their pages.” What i object to is when these voices and perspectives have almost nothing to do with science, but instead are used to further a “progressive” left ideology that happens to be the preferred political viewpoint of the editor. I would make exactly the same objection if the magazine were to replace scientific content with right-wing perspectives. Scientific American is, or rather used to be, a magazine of popular science, not of “progressive” ideology. What the critics object to—beyond the distortion of science and the attempt to rewrite history—is hijacking a magazine that people want to read so they can learn about science. I, for one, am not enlightened by hearing that Mendel, along with E. O. Wilson, were bigots. Did Mendel see wrinkled peas as “old” and thus inferior to nice round peas, bursting with the starch of youth? Oh, I forgot that you, too see age as a moral flaw. Nor do I get much from articles about how SETI is racist, along with the Jedi, or that creationism is a form of white supremacy.

I also see that  you use your new columnist space to once again go after Darwin, saying what you keep saying over and over again, notably this:

We do (and should) teach Darwin as a brilliant scientist, which he was. But when reading “Descent of Man,” students who are not white and don’t identify as male encounter assertions about their lower value as humans, their cognitive deficiencies, and their being “less than.” These are assertions made by the scholar we recognize as a genius and the originator of much in our understanding of the processes of evolution, and if not countered and corrected, can be a gut punch to some readers, a signal that they do not belong, are not equal or valued. This can be true even if many readers (such as older white cis-male ones) don’t notice it.

Thank goodness you are here to correct this; after all, it’s not as if historians of science have been pointing out Darwin’s bigotry (and the conflicts within him about this) for years. Do you really think that if you had lived and worked as a scientist in Darwin’s time, you would be the only intellectual in England who had an absolutely correct view of politics—the one you hold today?

By the way, you keep characterizing those of us who criticize you and your views as “white, senior, cis-gender, males”.  That is racism, ableism, ageism, and heterophobia all rolled up into one slur. It does you no favors to evince the same kind of bigotry that you decry in your opponents.


J. A. Coyne

Another dismissal of biological facts that go against ideology: The NYT claims that “maternal instinct” is a misogynistic myth.

August 28, 2022 • 11:00 am

UPDATE: In a comment below, Randolph Nesse, one of the founders of “Darwinian medicine,” cites a book I’d forgotten:

If only everyone interested in this topic could read “Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species”, Sarah Hrdy’s 2020 book on the topic. And if only the NY Times would review such excellent science books so people would know about them! I am tempted to send Conaboy a copy.

Hrdy is a highly respected anthropologist, and you can order her book by clicking on this screenshot:

I highly doubt that Hrdy sees maternal instincts as pure social constructs designed to hold women down. I’m going to read it, and I hope Conaboy does, too.  Then we can expect her to retract her article (LOL).


Lately there have been a lot of articles trying to deny scientific evidence because, the authors claim, that evidence buttresses inequality. (One example is the widespread denial that sex in humans is a binary.)

The recent article below, from the New York Times (of course), is one of the worst of the lot. It bespeaks a lack of judgment on the part of the author—who ignores biology because of her ideology—as well as on the part of the newspaper, which failed to hold the author’s feet to the scientific fire. Let this post be my rebuttal.

Click on the screenshot to read.

Author Conaboy, who apparently hasn’t done enough scientific research, maintains that “maternal instinct” doesn’t exist, but is a social construct devised by men to keep women subordinate.

The immediate problem is that Conaboy never defines “maternal instinct”. It could mean any number of things, including a greater desire of women than men to have children, a greater desire of women than of men to care for those offspring, the fact that in animals mothers spend more time caring for offspring than do fathers, a greater emotional affinity of women than of men towards children (including offspring), or the demonstration of such a mental difference by observing a difference in caring behavior.

I will define “maternal instinct” as not only the greater average tendency of females than males to care for offspring, but also a greater behavioral affinity towards offspring in females than in males. The term involves behavioral response, not “feelings”, which are demonstrable only in humans. Thus one can look for difference in “parental instincts” across various species of animals. 

But even in this sense, Conoboy is partly (but far from wholly) correct when she discusses humans. It’s undoubtedly true that women were socialized into the sex role as offspring breeders and caretakers, with men assuming the “breadwinning” role. It’s also true that women were often denied access to work or education because their vocation was seen as “reproducer”, or out of fear that they would spend less time working and more on children, or even that they’d get pregnant and would leave jobs. Further, it’s also true that this role difference was justified by being seen as hard-wired” (i.e., largely the result of genes, which, I argue below, is true), and that “hard-wired” was conceived as “unable to be changed.” The latter construal, however, is wrong, and that is what really held back women. The socialization of sex roles, which still occurs, goes on from early ages, with girls given dolls and boys toy cars, though, as society has matured, we’re increasingly allowing girls to choose their own toys and their own path through life. I of course applaud such “equal opportunity.”

But to claim that women don’t have a greater desire than men to care for offspring, or have a greater emotional affinity towards offspring, is to deny biology, and evolution in particular. (I freely admit that many men love their kids deeply, and that some men care for them as much or more as do mothers, but I’m talking about averages here, not anecdotes.)

There are two reasons why Conaboy is wrong, and both involve evolution.

The first is theoretical, but derived from empirical observations. It thus explains the second, which is wholly empirical and predictive.  How do we explain the fact that, across the animal kingdom, when members of only one sex do most of the childrearing, it’s almost invariably the females? (Yes, in many species males share the duties, and in a very few, like seahorses, males provide more parental care; and there are evolutionary reasons for that.)

The reasons for the statement in bold above involves the biology of reproduction. It is the female who must lay the eggs or give birth, and there is no way she can leave her genes behind unless she does that. It’s easier for males to take off after insemination and let the females care for offspring. Given that females are constrained to stick with the fertilized eggs, their best strategy is to take care of the gestation and resultant offspring, which of course allows males to seek other mates. Not only must females carry the fetuses, lay the eggs, and so on, but they are also constrained to see out the pregnancy until offspring are produced and then suckle or tend them in other ways.  In some cases it’s the best evolutionary strategy for a male to stick around and share the child-rearing, but often it’s not.

This disparity in behavior holds not just in humans, of course, but in many animals: it’s a prediction—largely verified—of evolutionary psychology.

The difference in the amount of parental care given by females and males is seen throughout the vertebrates, as well as in many invertebrates (squid and some insects come to mind; see here for a summary in the latter group).

It is the female lion who takes care of the cubs (and hunts for them) while the males are indolent; most often it is the female bird who not only incubates the eggs but feeds the offspring; it is the mother elephant who tends to her young; it is the female primate who holds, cares for, and nurtures her offspring. This difference alone, caused by the constraints of different reproductive roles, will, over time, select for mothers to be more attentive to offspring than are the fathers, more worried about them, and more attached to them. As all of us know, it’s the mother bear who tends her young, and woe to those who get between a mother and her cubs! But where is Papa Bear? Well, he’s long gone. In my ducks, if you approach a young brood, the mother will attack you, but the father, even if he’s around, does nothing.

Note that I am just talking about behavior, not “feelings” here, as we can’t really know what a mother bear or a mother duck experiences in her brain. But these behaviors are clearly seen in primates like gorillas and chimpanzees, and here we can start advancing hypotheses about emotions.  Since I’m using maternal instinct as a behavioral phenomenon, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that there is a strong regularity of behavior across the animal kingdom, one so pervasive that it demands explanation. And since animals don’t have humanlike culture, you can’t explain it by socialization. But can you deny, watching a female chimp cradle her young, that she feels something akin to love?

Of course to claim that a difference in sex and sex roles can cause a difference in behavior or emotions is anathema to “blank slaters” and those on the Left who flatly reject evolutionary psychology. And although Conaboy doesn’t go into the biology, this appears to be her view: there is no evolved difference in caregiving between men and women. Rather, differences in maternal and paternal behaviors must be the result of socialization.

And this brings us to the empirical point. Why, if “maternal instinct” is due entirely to socialization, is it is nearly ubiquitous among animals, causing female-specific nurturing and protective behaviors of offspring? Why, if Conoboy be right, are we the only species of animal in which those sex differences are due entirely to socialization? The parallels between humans and other animal species—especially other primates—is so strong that it would be foolish to deny that it says something about evolution. What it says is that human “maternal instincts” are partly hard-wired, and only partly socialized. As far as human emotionality is concerned, there are plenty of studies showing a difference in maternal vs paternal care due to hormones (here is one example), and they’re in the direction that evolution predicts.

Another example are studies showing that, when given a choice of toys, young female rhesus monkeys have a significantly greater preference for human “female” toys than do young male rhesus monkeys. (The toys are dolls vs trucks.) This preference of course is seen in human children, yet that could be, and has been, dismissed as a result of socialization. But rhesus monkeys don’t have that kind of socialization! The most parsimonious explanation is that monkeys, like us, have an evolved sex bias towards maternal instincts.

As I said, there are good evolutionary reasons to expect differences in maternal and paternal behavior, and we see those differences. While we can’t suss out “feelings”, it is likely that these behavioral differences are due to hormones, and in other apes we can guess that their “feelings” are not completely different from ours.

Conaboy, however, cavalierly dismisses the Darwinian explanation because of Darwin’s own sexism, as well as that of other evolutionists. Yes, it’s true that Darwin shared the sexism of his time, as have other evolutionists, but do we dismiss phenomena completely because of this? That would be foolish. Nonetheless, Conaboy does:

In the 1800s, Charles Darwin and other evolutionary theorists upended how we thought about human nature, shifting the focus from faith to biology.

And while one might have expected such a shift to dispel longstanding chauvinistic ideas about women and motherhood, the very opposite happened. Within his revolutionary work, Darwin codified biblical notions of the inferiority of women and reaffirmed the idea that their primary function is to bear and care for children.

“What a strong feeling of inward satisfaction must impel a bird, so full of activity, to brood day after day over her eggs,” Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex” in 1871Observant as he was, Darwin apparently ignored the hunger of the mother bird and the angst of having mouths to feed and predators to fend off. He didn’t notice her wasting where wing meets body, from her own unending stillness.

Women are specialized to care for other humans and men to compete with them, he explained. By that basic fact, he argued, men achieve “higher eminence” in virtually all things, from the use of their senses to reason and imagination.

As more women demanded their own identities under the law, social Darwinists seized on this idea as justification for continued male dominance. Among them was the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, who wrote that childbearing extracts “vital power” from women, stunting them emotionally and intellectually.

Note that Conaboy challenges Darwin by pointing out the travails that beset a mother as opposed to a father (this is also a big part of her objection to “maternal instincts” in humans). But she fails to point out that there are costs to child-rearing, but there are also costs to abandoning or ignoring children, and the former costs are greater than the latter. Yes, a mallard hen loses up to 30% of her body weight while incubating her eggs over a month, but she gets a healthy brood from that behavior. If she leaves the nest to eat and drink, she loses her brood entirely.  Genes that favor maternal care and concern will be favored. The notion of evolutionary tradeoffs—that a behavior can have costs and benefits, but will evolve if the reproductive benefits outweigh the costs—is something that apparently didn’t cross Conoboy’s mind.

Why is Conaboy so dead set against the idea of a “hard wired” (i.e., partly genetic) difference between men and women? For the expected reasons: she sees such differences as buttressing sexism, and so biological facts must take second place to her ideology. And, as I said, it is the case that scientists and others have used biology to justify sexism. But that doesn’t mean that the facts are wrong, or don’t give us insight into the evolution of sex-role differences.

Here are a couple of Conaboy’s statements showing the ideological basis of her objection to biologically based maternal instincts:

Where did the idea that motherhood is hard-wired for women come from? Is there a man behind the curtain?

In a sense, there is a man behind the curtain. Many of them, actually.

The notion that the selflessness and tenderness babies require is uniquely ingrained in the biology of women, ready to go at the flip of a switch, is a relatively modern — and pernicious — one. It was constructed over decades by men selling an image of what a mother should be, diverting our attention from what she actually is and calling it science.

Yes, sex role differences and behaviors, like the existence of two sexes themselves, must be dismissed because they go against what is an antiscientific, liberal, blank-slate ideology. When the facts are inconvenient, deny them and invoke bigotry.

Conaboy brings in religion, too, which of course has buttressed sex-role differences:

Modern Christian archetypes of motherhood were shaped by two women. There was Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit and in doing so caused the suffering of every human to come. And there was the Virgin Mary, the vessel for a great miracle, who became the most virtue-laden symbol of motherhood there is, her identity entirely eclipsed by the glory of her maternal love. Mary’s story, combined with Eve’s — unattainable goodness, perpetual servitude — created a moral model for motherhood that has proved, for many, stifling and unforgiving.

But religion’s own stereotypes aren’t independently contrived, but themselves come from sexism built by humans into a faith that is seen to create a harmonious society.

Others to blame for the “myth” of the maternal instinct are conservatives, another reason to dismiss the reality of that instinct:

Today, many proclaim that motherhood is neither duty nor destiny, that a woman is not left unfulfilled or incomplete without children. But even as I write those words, I doubt them. Do we, collectively, believe that? Maternal instinct is still frequently invoked in science writing, parenting advice and common conversation. And whether we call maternal instinct by its name or not, its influence is everywhere.

Belief in maternal instinct and the deterministic value of mother love has fueled “pro-family” conservative politicians for decades. The United States, to its shame, still lacks even a modest paid leave policy, and universal child-care remains far out of reach.

. . . Belief in maternal instinct may also play a role in driving opposition to birth control and abortion, for why should women limit the number of children they have if it is in their very nature to find joy in motherhood? A 2019 article published by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a Christian anti-abortion policy group, claimed that “the ultrasound machine has been the pro-life movement’s strongest asset in recent years” because once a woman is informed of her pregnancy, “her maternal instinct will often overpower any other instinct to terminate her pregnancy.” Why, then, should the law consider the impact of pregnancy on the life of a person who has the full force of an instinct stronger than “even fear itself” to gird her in the task?

I am course am not defending these statements, which do derive from sexism and misogyny. What I am saying is that Conaboy uses this kind of ideological and political argument to dismiss biological explanations for maternal instincts.

I won’t go into Conaboy’s description of the difficulties attending human childbirth, including postpartum depression, physical pain, and sleeplessness. Every mother knows what Conaboy is talking about. But it has no bearing on whether maternal instincts are a myth or a social construct of the patriarchy.

Finally, I want to bring up one other misrepresentation by Conoboy: the idea that there’s a big difference between “hard-wired” differences between the sexes versus differences that emerge later, after life experience. Here’s what she says:

The science of the parental brain — much of it now the work of female scientists who are mothers themselves — has the potential to pull back the curtain, exposing old biases and outdated norms, revealing how they are woven throughout our individual and societal definitions of mother or parent or family, and offering something new.

Using brain imaging technology and other tools, and building on extensive animal literature, researchers around the globe have found that the adaptation of the human parental brain takes time, driven as much by experience — by exposure to the powerful stimuli babies provide — as by the hormonal shifts of pregnancy and childbirth.

But surely environmental cues, like exposure to one’s own child, which is “experience,” can also activate hard-wired genetic differences between male and female behavior. (Let me emphasize that by “hard-wired” I do not mean that a behavior is always seen in one sex or the other; what I mean is that there are influences of genes on an average behavioral difference between men and women.)  It is entirely possible that the sight of one’s own infant can activate other evolved pathways that produce “maternal instincts”. (See here for one paper on this topic.) This is similar to human children born with the genetic ability to learn semantic language, but they can’t express that ability until they actually hear spoken language. Thus we have an evolved trait that requires experience to be expressed.

In the end, in her attack on sexism and its attendant limitation of women’s opportunities (a view I share), Conoboy is forced to deny all the facts of biology, even dragging in the much beleaguered Darwin for a good drubbing. But she hasn’t done her homework. If she had, she’d see that maternal instincts are not limited to humans, but are widespread among animals. And she’d see that there are good evolutionary reasons for such instincts—reasons that, in our species, could lead to a difference in feelings towards infants.

I’m sick to death of people either ignoring or denying the facts of biology when they’re ideologically inconvenient.  But that whole strategy fails for two reasons. First, the truth will out. In fact, we already know that Conaboy is wrong.

Second, it’s a terrible strategy to dismiss empirical data on ideological grounds. Far better for Conaboy to admit that sexism plays a role, but so does biology. There is nothing shameful in admitting that much of the “maternal instinct” is evolved. That admission does not force us to view women as inferior, nor to treat them as inferiors.

Finally every woman who chooses not to have a child because she has other priorities demonstrates that evolved tendencies need not compel our behavior. They can explain it, but that’s different from making it into an “ought”.

Denis Noble goes after Darwinian evolution again, scores own goal

August 7, 2022 • 11:00 am

Denis Noble (born 1936) is a British physiologist highly regarded for his work in that field (he has an FRS). Wikipedia notes his accomplishments:

He is one of the pioneers of systems biology and developed the first viable mathematical model of the working heart in 1960.

What the article doesn’t discuss is that Noble has spent the last period of his life attacking neo-Darwinism, asserting that its most important foundations are either wrong or overemphasized. Noble is regarded by colleagues I respect as a bit of an enthusiast, bordering on an unhealthy obsession, though he’s much admired by the “Third Way of Evolution” group who argue that neo-Darwinism either needs a serious revision or a trip to the garbage can.  Noble shows us that you can be a great physiologist but a lousy evolutionary biologist.

In an earlier post I wrote, “Famous physiologist embarrasses himself by claiming that the modern theory of evolution is in tatters“, I emphasized five assertions Noble made in a 2013 paper in Experimental Physiology, and then I criticized them as being either deeply misguided or flat wrong. Noble’s claims:

  1. Mutations are not random
  2. Acquired characteristics can be inherited
  3. The gene-centered view of evolution is wrong [This is connected with #2.]
  4. Evolution is not a gradual gene-by-gene process but is macromutational.
  5. Scientists have not been able to create new species in the lab or greenhouse, and we haven’t seen speciation occurring in nature.

Wrong, partly right but irrrelevant, wrong, almost completely wrong, and totally wrong (speciation is my own area).

And yet Noble continues to bang on about “the broken paradigm of Neo-Darwinism,” which happens to be the subtitle of his new article (below) in IAI News, usually a respectable website run by the Institute of Art and Ideas.

Noble is especially excited because he sees himself in a war for the soul of biology, a soul currently occupied by the modern theory of evolution. And so, in this article (see below), Noble once again raises the specter of Lamarckian evolution: the idea—which he sees as both very important and unduly neglected—that adaptations can arise from modifications of an organism’s heredity directly by the environment. (The classic example is a giraffe stretching its neck to reach leaves on trees, and that usage elongates the neck, an environmentally-induced change that somehow worms its way into the mechanism of inheritance so that giraffes eventually evolve long necks)

Darwin himself held a form of Lamarckism, positing that cells of organism, induced by the environment, could feed “pangenes” thoughout the body in a way that could modify its inheritance. That’s why Darwin was always emphasizing “changed conditions” as a source of heritable variation. The problem with this view is that tests of environmental modification as a source of inherited variation have almost never succeeded, and even when they do, they have not created adaptations. The idea that Lamarckian inheritance is an important cause of adaptation is, to put it mildly, ridiculous. (I note here that DARWIN WAS WRONG about inheritance.)

Nevertheless, Noble persists—in the face of all the facts—to make the same tired old assertions. Click to read, and shame on IAI!

First Noble argues that environmental modifications can produce traits that become inherited, though only for a short while. This is true, but the phenomenon is rare.


Modern physiology has vindicated Darwin’s idea. The small vesicles, called exosomes or extracellular vesicles, poured out by all cells of the body can function precisely as Darwin’s idea proposed. They have now been proven to communicate such acquired characteristics as metabolic disorders, and sexual preferences, to the germ-line via small regulatory RNA molecules. We can therefore be sure that Lamarckian use-disuse memory can be passed across generations. Weismann’s assertion that the inheritance of acquired characteristics is impossible was therefore incorrect. The debate now centres on two questions: “how often this happens and, when it does, for how many generations do the changes persist?”

The standard neo-Darwinist defense against this clear break of the Weismann Barrier has been to suggest that it only happens in unimportant circumstances and persists for very few generations. There is assumed to be no permanent transmission. The DNA continues “hard” transmission while “soft” inheritance inevitably dies away.

Yes, and soft inheritance can also be mediated by epigenetic (environmentally induced) modification of the DNA, usually by putting methyl groups (−CH3) onto the DNA bases.  As Noble admits, these forms of inheritance gradually go away, with nearly all epigenetic modifications erased during the process of reproduction.  That’s one reason why this kind of inheritance can’t be the basis of long-term adaptation. But wait! Noble says that short-term adaptation is of great value!

This defence fails to recognise the great virtue of “soft” inheritance, which is precisely the possibility that it can be temporary.

Yes, and so can adaptation based on genes (think of the increase in beak size of the Galápagos finches, which was reversed in a single generation when the size-inducing drought went away). If there’s substantial variation, these reversals can be fast. But Noble fails to recognize that most adaptations hang around for many generations, and those cannot be based on “Lamarckian” inheritance. It’s almost as if Noble is claiming that this form of inheritance, by some kind of group selection, has been installed in the organism to facilitate short term adaptation!

Here’s one example that people like Noble trot out when attacking modern evolutionary theory:

Consider a species under extreme environmental stress, such as the Dutch population during the starvation winter of the 1940s in the Second World War. The inherited signs of that stress have now been passed down three generations, to the great-grandchildren of the 1940s population. The chances are that it will progressively die out as the later generations experience good nutrition. And so it should!

The “Dutch famine syndrome” was caused by epigenetic modification of fetuses in utero when their mothers were starving during the Dutch “hunger winter” of 1944-1945. I’m not sure about the three generations, but I’ll let that pass. What we know for sure is that these offspring show DNA methylation changes probably due to starvation.

BUT this was not adaptive! The epigenetic changes reduced the health of their carriers, as this article shows. From its abstract (my emphasis):

This paper describes the findings from a cohort study of 2414 people born around the time of the Dutch famine. Exposure to famine during any stage of gestation was associated with glucose intolerance. We found more coronary heart disease, a more atherogenic lipid profile, disturbed blood coagulation, increased stress responsiveness and more obesity among those exposed to famine in early gestation. Women exposed to famine in early gestation also had an increased risk of breast cancer. People exposed to famine in mid gestation had more microalbuminuria and obstructive airways disease. These findings show that maternal undernutrition during gestation has important effects on health in later life, but that the effects on health depend on its timing during gestation. Especially early gestation seems to be a vulnerable period. Adequate dietary advice to women before and during pregnancy seems a promising strategy in preventing chronic diseases in future generations.

Now is that, on top of the inherited stress, an adaptive change? I think not.

It is intellectually irresponsible for Noble to suggest that the Dutch Famine syndrome has anything to do with adaptive change, much less evolution. In fact, I know of not a single adaptation that rests on epigenetic modification. I may have missed one or two, but when adaptive genetic changes in animals (including humans) are localized, they invariably are found to rest on base-pair changes in the DNA. When you map adaptations in humans, like changes in lactase persistence or adaptive skin color, you find that they are based not on methylation or episomes or micro-RNAs, but on good old-fashioned mutations that change the sequence of DNA. And so they must be, because these changes have lasted for many generations.

It’s intellectually irresponsible of Noble not to mention that, too.

Further, Noble cites the well-known phenomenon of “genetic assimilation,” in which an environmental change exposes genetic variation that can then be subject to selection, as if this were some kind of refutation of neo-Darwinism. (One hypothetical example: if you starve plants, it may, by stunting them al, hide genetic variation for height.) Noble says that studies of genetic assimilation, which are in all the textbooks, are actually discouraged by evolutionists who don’t like their non-Darwinian implications:

Given the importance of the question, why have so few attempts been made on the genetic assimilation of “soft” inheritance since Waddington’s work? The answer is that funding organisations would not be willing to support such work. If you submit a Lamarckian inheritance project to standard grant bodies, you will be almost certain to receive a firm rejection. Such is the hold of the Neo-Darwinian paradigm on innovative ideas in evolutionary biology.

Get this straight, Dr. Noble: GENETIC ASSIMILATION IS NOT LAMARCKIAN INHERITANCE! As every evolutionist with more than a handful of neurons knows, in these cases the environment exposes standard DNA mutations, allowing them to be selected in the classical neo-Darwinian fashion.

One clue that genetic assimilation depends on genetic variation and not changes in the environment becoming genetic variation is this: Conrad Waddington, who popularized the phenomenon of genetic assimilation using experiments in Drosophila, had a student repeat those experiments with an inbred strain of flies, a strain that had almost no genetic variation. Voilà: no genetic assimilation, no change in the trait. If the Lamarckian theory were correct, there should still have been changes in the character in inbred lines.

Once again we smell the odor of intellectual mendacity in Noble’s prose.

At the end, Noble beefs about how a 2016 Royal Society symposium he organized, on “New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical, and social science perspectives,” was protested by 20 other fellows of the Royal Society.  He couches this as censorship against discussing new ideas, but he’s wrong. Many of the speakers at the symposium were touting ideas that had already been already refuted, and the purpose of the meeting was to show that neo-Darwinism is dead. It’s as if there were to be a Royal Society symposium on Intelligent Design (the ID people, by the way, loved that symposium). Of course one would object if someone who knows jack about evolutionary biology organizes a symposium designed to dismantle its modern form. It’s like a fox organizing a symposium on how to breed chickens.

I’m not saying that Noble has no right to weigh in on modern evolutionary biology simply because he was a physiologist. No, I’m asserting that Noble’s claims about the death of modern evolutionary biology should be ignored because there is virtually no data to support them.  His claims should be ignored because he is ignorant, and willfully so. (Others have corrected him many times.)

I’m through with Noble; he says the same thing over and over again, tilting at the windmill of modern evolutionary biology with a soda straw. I probably should have ignored Noble’s mush, but the laws of physics compelled me to write. At least the readers here can be aware of his numerous errors and misstatements, even if Noble plays the same tune until he’s underground.

h/t: Daniel

How Darwin caused global warming with his theory of sexual selection

July 9, 2022 • 12:00 pm

Yet another letter has appeared in the Guardian about Stephen Buranyi’s misleading “long read” on the site, “Do we need a new theory of evolution?” (Buranyi says “yes”). I’ve mentioned the problems with Buranyi’s article before, and three of us even wrote a letter about the article’s flaws that the Guardian published.

Apparently, though, the fracas hasn’t died down, because another one just appeared, this time on sexual selection. The letter is by anthropologist Heather Remoff, who wrote a book on sexual selection mentioned at the bottom of her letter.

Here’s the letter (click to go to the Guardian site), and my take on it is below:

There’s a lot to “unpack” here, and I’ll try to be brief.

First, the letter doesn’t address Burayni’s claims, which was that the modern theory of evolution was incomplete and perhaps obsolete. He was not referring to Darwin’s theory of evolution but to Darwin’s theory as it has been updated and expanded in light of modern research. Darwin’s failure to understand everything does not mean that the modern theory of evolution is woefully lacking, for we’ve had more than a century and a half of work on evolution since The Origin.

Ergo, showing that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was incomplete—and yes, it was his theory, rejected even by A. R. Wallace (except in humans!)—does not support Buranyi’s thesis. That theory was published in 1871, and now it’s 150 years on. Modern evolutionary biology has added tons of knowledge and theory about sexual selection. There are entire books on the topic (here’s one) that go far beyond Darwin’s ideas. But showing that “Darwin’s theory was incomplete” doesn’t say anything about the modern theory of evolution, which is what this whole controversy is about.

Darwin actually had two theories of sexual selection, one involving male-male combat for females, and the other involving female preference for “beauty”. The former theory, which Darwin called the “law of combat”, explains the evolution of weapons like antlers in male deer—weapons far less developed in females because they’re not used.  Darwin’s second theory is that females have an aesthetic sense that males appeal to with ornaments, striking colors, extreme behaviors, or lovely calls. This causes female-imposed natural selection on males, which, thought Darwin, explains sexual dimorphism in appearance, behavior, calls, and so on.

Note first that, contra Remoff, female preference was already a crucial part of Darwin’s theory, for without that preference we wouldn’t have the striking sexual dimorphism we see in many animals. Even though male-male competition remains an important explanation for male-limited weapons or competitive behaviors, Darwin had already diagnosed a large portion of the sexually dimorphic world using the lens of female preference.

But Darwin’s theory was incomplete in a way Remoff fails to mention. Exactly why do males compete for females? Darwin had no answer, and you don’t find an answer simply by viewing the issue through the female lens. In general, biologists agree that sexual selection results from this:  female investment in offspring is often much larger than that of males. When females have to do the hard work of gestation and rearing of offspring, as well as contributing metabolically expensive large gametes (eggs), while male investment is often limited only to a small amount of tiny sperm, an asymmetry in the interests of the sexes arises. Evolutionarily, males can leave more of their genes by copulating with any female they can, while it pays for females to be choosy about her mates, since once she mates, she’s made a huge investment that has to be tended. A good choice by a female often means her offspring have a better change of surviving, ergo it pays to be picky.  A male fly can mate with 20 females in a few days and have 20 batches of offspring, but a female fly who mates with 20 males within a few days doesn’t have many more offspring than if she copulated only once. It thus pays the males to be profligate and the females to be choosy.

I often use this example in evolution class to show the asymmetry (see this page for the records). This is what your body is capable of producing if you’re a woman or a man:

Record number of children produced by one mother: 69 (many twins and triplets birthed by a Russian woman)

Record number of children produced by one father: 1000-2000 by Genghis Khan (estimated) or, in more modern times, over 868 fathered by Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, a Sultan of Morocco, in the 18th century.

A male can have more than ten times as many offspring over his life than can a woman! Of course the average number of offspring has to be the same for men and women (after all, each child has one mother and one father), but the variation is such that while women produce relatively comparable numbers of offspring, a lot of males produce just a few and a few males produce many. That is, males have a much higher variance in offspring number. And that is the basis for sexual selection. (This difference in variance is seen in humans as well as in many other species.)

The asymmetry between the sexes, then, rests on the best way to choose. For males it’s not evolutionarily “wise” to be choosy (I am generalizing here, for of course there are cases in which males should also be choosy), while for female it pays to make sure you choose well, as you don’t have as many shots as being a parent. As I said, this is a short explanation for sexual selection that has exceptions, but it’s the going explanation for why, when the sexes differ in ornamentation, behavior, or calls, it is males who show elaborated traits.

This asymmetry is critical in understanding the whole process of sexual selection, and it rests not on seeing it through a female lens, but seeing it through a lens that looks at what both sexes have to gain from behaving in various ways. In the end, it’s largely based on gamete size. That was what Darwin missed, but we understand it now and can test it.

Further, since Darwin’s time we have new theories of sexual selection that have been mathematically elaborated: the runaway model (Richard Prum has used this to update Darwin’s “beauty” hypothesis), the “honest signalling” model, the “sexy son” hypothesis, and so on. Some of these models overlap.  All of them consider female preference.

Now I’ve said in the past that, in my view, one of the contributions of the “female view” of biology has been an increased emphasis on female choice in sexual selection, for the process involves an interaction between males and females. Some women (but not solely women) helped direct research by emphasizing female preference. And that’s understandable; you don’t want your sex and its importance in evolution to be overlooked.

That said, though, both men and women have made important contributions to the modern theory of sexual selection; it was not incomplete because the “female lens” was totally overlooked by patriarchal male biologists. And, as I said, female behavior—aesthetic preference—was absolutely critical for the “beauty” aspect of Darwin’s original theory.

As for the “genetic breakthoughs” that have led to a new understanding of sexual selection, particularly when viewed through that female lens, I am stymied. I don’t know what breakthroughs Remoff is talking about. Perhaps she’s referring to this:

The evolutionary moonshot that enabled Homo sapiens to go where other species have failed to follow has its roots in a reproductive mutation – concealed ovulation and continuous sexual receptivity – that dramatically increased the strategic agency employed by females.

Concealed ovulation and continuous sexual receptivity (the latter is possessed by many animals) are not “mutations”; they are traits, likely ones that arose via many mutations of small effect. And yes, these traits have obviously changed the playing field for sexual selection. But whether they have been  “moonshot” that has enabled us to go where other species have not, well, other species have had their own “moonshots”, like hypodermic insemination in some invertebrates, the “pseudopenis” of the female hyena,”and the male pouches of pipefish and seahorses.

The last trait gives male seahorses most of the investment in offspring (males, in effect, get “pregnant”, and females, who can produce lots of eggs, must compete for limited male pouch space). The result that in this group it’s most often females rather than males who are ornamented. This reversal of investment, coupled with a reversal of the sexual dimorphism, is striking support for the “differential investment” theory of sexual selection.

Sexual selection operates in different ways in different species, and, truth be told, we don’t understand the details that have led to the evolution of most sexually dimorphic traits. not involved in male-male competition. We know the basis for the evolutionary process—differential investment in offspring—but we don’t know why particular traits are chosen and whether they are indicators of fitness or of something else. If you ask me why the peacock has a long tail instead of a big head crest, and what information that elaborate tail conveys to females, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. We do know that the more spots a male peacock has on his tail, the more likely he is to be chosen as a mate, but we don’t know the advantage accruing to females that have such a preference.

And no, sexual selection does not “establish the origins of everything that defines human exceptionalism”. Semantic language? Bipedality and manual dexterity? Our remarkably complex brain? Did all those traits rest on sexual selection? I think not.

Remoff ends with a paragraph that is pure hyperbole:

Why does all this matter? Because humans are facing an environmental disaster of our own making. Only by developing an accurate understanding of the factors that shaped human species-specific behaviour will we be able to avert the rapidly approaching climate apocalypse. Sexual selection may have shaped us, but our failure to take an unbiased look at ourselves could be handing natural selection the power to eliminate us.

Will understanding sexual selection, or human evolution in general, help us stave off climate change? Again I think not. Only by limiting carbon emissions will we be able to avert climate change. And that does not depend on understanding human evolution, much less sexual selection.

In the end, Remoff is tilting at two windmills that have already fallen. Her attack on Darwin is wrongheaded since Darwin’s correctness is not the issue in Buranyi’s piece and because female preference was already a crucial part of Darwin’s theory. And her claim that it was only the “female lens”, used recently, that helped us understand sexual selection, is also misleading. Female preference has been considered by evolutionists since 1871.

New video attacks the Guardian’s claim that evolutionary biology is obsolete

July 8, 2022 • 10:45 am

On June 28, Stephen Buryani published an article in the Guardian called “Do we need a new theory of evolution?” His answer was a definite “yes,” implying that new discoveries had rendered modern evolutionary theory obsolete, needing replacement by something else.

The article was a train wreck, full of claims that were long known, distortions of the importance of what “new” things were claimed, and outright mistakes. I wrote a critique on this site, and then Brian and Deborah Charlesworth and I wrote a letter to the Guardian that was published. Doug Futuyma wrote an excellent critique that wasn’t published, and Brian Charlesworth noted some of the more egregious errors: Doug’s letter and those errors went into a separate post.

Now Jon Perry, a science education consultant who makes nice videos about evolution (see them at his website “Genetics & Evolution Stated Casually“) has produced a very good 15-minute video critique of Buranyi’s article, which I’ve posted below.

You can see at the outset how the Guardian article confused and misled the layperson about evolution: a teacher panicked when she saw the article and wrote Perry to see if the textbook description of modern evolutionary ideas really were “wrong”.  No, the textbooks weren’t wrong, and Perry shows why.

Perry takes a few examples touted by Buranyi as baffling—the evolution of the eye, the wing and feathers, for example—and uses published evidence (which he shows) to show that we do understand how these features may have evolved. Buryani didn’t do his homework; Perry did.

Perry also explains what the “Modern Evolutionary Synthesis” is, describing how it began and where you can find its origins. He also mentions the Templeton Foundation as a funder of the movement to show the moribund nature of evolution, and I get a mention in connection with Templeton at 9:00 (“I do mean to get all Jerry Coyne-y on you all, but the funding source of an organization can influence its message, so this really is a fact worth noting—and for some reason, the Guardian article neglected to do so.” (I’m not sure what “getting all Jerry Coyne-y” means, but I hope it’s not an insult!)

Finally, Perry describes the “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” (EES), which is the gentler name for the “Evolution is Dead” movement. He takes up one area of the EES, “plasticity”, and shows that Buryani gets some of it right and some of it wrong, including the claim that it’s ignored in modern evolution texts (it’s not; it’s part of “evolutionary orthodoxy”).

Do watch the video; it’s excellent and Perry simply demolishes Buryani’s article. It’s a video rebuttal, and I wish the Guardian could mention it somehow.

Our letter about evolution to the Guardian (and other stuff)

July 6, 2022 • 9:45 am

NOTE: I put up this post after the Guardian had published three letters about Buranyi’s article (below), assuming they had decided not to publish the letter by Brian Charlesworth, Deborah Charlesworth and me, which was submitted earlier. Yesterday, however, they called Brian and said they might publish our letter, so naturally I took down this post, which contains what we submitted.  And in the end they decided to publish our letter, so I’m putting the original post back up, but adding in the published version as well as a superb letter by Doug Futuyma that wasn’t published. There are also the previously published letters about Buranyi’s “the theory of evolution is obsolete” paper), and the cover letter Brian wrote to the Guardian detailing a few of the factual mistakes in Buanyi’s letter. And I left in my take on the three letter the Guardian published a few days ago.

In the interests of keeping this post on the record, then, I am republishing it replacing our submitted letter with the published version, which identical to what we submitted. They added a title, but I don’t much like the one they chose.

What is indented in italics below is our introduction to the original post:

On June 28, the Guardian published an article by Stephen Buranyi, “Do we need a new theory of evolution?“, asserting that the modern theory of evolution was woefully incomplete—if not obsolete. I wrote a longish critique of the piece on this site, but of course such an egregious and misleading article needs a critique in the Guardian itself—not least because I was mentioned in the piece as a defender of the “obsolete” theory. Three other people also mentioned felt the same way: the distinguished evolutionary biologists Brian Charlesworth, Deborah Charlesworth (both at Edinburgh), and Doug Futuyma (at SUNY Stony Brook).

Brian, Deborah and I decided to write a short rebuttal letter to the paper, and Doug did so independently. Although three letters to the editor were published yesterday (see below), none of them were ours. So, with permission, I’m putting our letters here to make them available and show you what objections we wanted on the record. It may also expand your knowledge of what’s new versus what’s old in evolutionary biology.

Brian also sent a cover letter (below) detailing some of the factual errors made by Buranyi in his piece; this was not intended for publication, but to show the editors what shoddy reportage Buranyi had produced.  He doesn’t seem to have done his homework. But we knew that from the article itself.

Our new letter, freshly minted in the Grauniad. Click to read it:


The rest of this post was published previously on this site, so you may have already read it. If that’s the case, ignore the following:

Brian also sent a list of errors in Buranyi’s piece in a cover letter:

Dear Guardian,

I enclose a letter by Deborah Charlesworth, Jerry Coyne and myself concerning Tuesday’s Long Read article by Stephen Buranyi. All three of us were referred to in the article. We feel that the article gives a misleading account of the field of evolutionary biology, which we try to point out in our letter.

The article also contains several errors of fact, which show that Mr Buranyi has a poor understanding of the subject. Unfortunately, space does not permit us to list these in our letter. These errors could easily have been removed by proper fact-checking. We are dismayed that the Guardian would fail to ensure factual accuracy, given its famous motto.

Here are some examples.

Scientists working in the new field of genetics discovered rules that governed the quirks of heredity. But rather than confirm Darwin’s theory, they complicated it. Reproduction appeared to remix genes – the mysterious units that programme the physical traits we end up seeing – in surprising ways. 

Mendelian genetics shows that maternal and paternal genes do not mix, but remain distinct from each other, in contrast to Darwin’s belief in blending of maternal and paternal contributions. This lack of blending is actually critical for variability to be maintained in populations, and hence for the effectiveness of selection. Buranyi has got it backwards.

Thomas Hunt Morgan, showed that by breeding millions of fruit flies – and sometimes spiking their food with the radioactive element radium – he could produce mutated traits, such as new eye colours or additional limbs. These were not the tiny random variations on which Darwin’s theory was built, but sudden, dramatic changes.   

The artificial induction of mutations used X-rays not radium and was discovered by H.J. Muller, not Morgan. Muller was the leading expert of his time on mutations, and always emphasised that most mutations have very small or no observable effects on the organism.

… the American livestock breeder Sewall Wright…

Wright was a geneticist, not a livestock breeder (he worked on guinea pigs), and did his most famous work as a professor at the University of Chicago.

While the modern synthesists looked at life as if through a telescope, studying the development of huge populations over immense chunks of time, the molecular biologists looked through a microscope , focusing on individual molecules. And when they looked, they found that natural selection was not the all-powerful force that many had assumed it to be.They found that the molecules in our cells – and thus the sequences of the genes behind them – were mutating at a very high rate.

First, molecular evolution was first studied by comparing protein sequences from quite distantly related species, so large “chunks of time” are indeed involved. Second, the major proponent of the neutral theory of molecular evolution (to which this passage refers) was not a molecular biologist but the theoretical population geneticist Motoo Kimura. Third, this statement confuses the rate of evolution of sequences with mutation rates. It is true that these are the same under the neutral theory, but the rates are not “very high”- about 1 in 100 million per DNA site per generation in humans.

Yours sincerely,
Brian Charlesworth



Letter to Guardian from Doug Futuyma (apparently not to be published):

Stephen Buranyi (Guardian, June 28, 2022) has provided a sensationalistic portrayal of a controversy in evolutionary biology, pitting supporters of an “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” (EES) against the “evolutionary synthesis” (ES) of the 1930s and 1940s. He quotes my assertion that the ES “remains, mutatis mutandis, the core of modern evolutionary biology.”  It is that. But in that paper, and at the London meeting of the Royal Society to which Mr. Buranyi refers, I described the history of evolutionary biology in the last 80 years as one of constant expansion, in which new subfields such as evolutionary ecology and evolutionary physiology developed, and which was profoundly changed when molecular biology provided new research tools. Almost all the new knowledge has been compatible with, yet has amplified, the ES.

Mr. Buranyi describes some past challenges to the ES.  Traditional evolutionary biologists were, indeed, taken aback by evidence that considerable evolution at the DNA level was due not to natural selection, but to random genetic drift – which had already been developed in theory by the geneticists who led the ES. They were taken aback not because of blind faith in the supremacy of natural selection, but because of abundant evidence that even slight differences in organisms’ features were affected by natural selection. Random evolution at the DNA level is certainly the most thoroughgoing change, or expansion, of evolutionary biology since the ES.  Mr. Buranyi portrays Eldredge and Gould’s claim of rapid, episodic evolution in fossil lineages as a violation of ES principles, but high and variable evolutionary rates were already known to authors of the ES. Eldredge and Gould departed from the ES by proposing a mechanism of episodic, rapid change that was theoretically implausible and which has not been supported by any evidence since they proposed it in 1972.

In contrast to these past challenges, most of the ideas advocated in the EES are fully compatible with traditional theory of evolution by mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift. “Niche construction” occurs when organisms choose to live in certain environments and may modify them; that this guides their evolution of adaptations (by natural selection) is obvious to anyone who compares the form and lifestyle of swallows and ducks. All organisms have some features that are “plastic,” whereby a single genotype develops different features, such as skin melanin, in different environments. Plasticity has been extensively studied since the 1940s. That it might produce novel changes that become inherited features of a species has been recognized as a possibility since the 1950s, but only recently has there been any evidence that this occurs in nature. How often is not known.

Mr. Buranyi cites the origin of complex, novel features, such as eyes, as a special challenge to the notion that mutation plus natural selection explain evolution. The steps by which eyes can have evolved from very simple precursors have been well described in molluscs and other animals, but the origin of novel features is an important theme in modern research. This question resists a simple, general answer because it requires knowing how gene mutations could give rise to novel variations – and that depends on how the relevant genes direct the development of a feature. Advances in molecular biology have clarified many developmental processes, reinvigorating the field of evolutionary developmental biology, which has illuminated the origin of some novel traits. This simply shows that a generalized theory (mutations and natural selection) needs to be particularized in order to understand the origin of any particular feature. (What are the effects of the mutations? What feature is favored by natural selection?)  If we want to understand the evolution of particular proteins or physiological or anatomical traits, we need knowledge of proteins, physiology, or development. But in all cases, the ES theory is still fundamental.

Douglas J. Futuyma
Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York


Finally, click below to read the three letters that the Guardian chose for publication.

I’ll excerpt the first letter and reproduce the other two in their entirety (the third one is very short):

Jonathan Bard is listed as an evolutionary biologist, but his letter, printed first, is rather obscure, and in one place completely opaque here (my emphasis):

Stephen Buranyi misses some key points in his article (Do we need a new theory of evolution?, 28 June). Darwin saw novel speciation as resulting from natural selection acting on anatomical variants, but that simple skeleton needed fleshing out. It took a century of research, for example, for us to understand the importance of inheritance in very small populations if novel variants were to become predominant.

What is the sweating professor trying to say? Is he talking about genetic drift? Why is inheritance more important in small than in large populations?

I think what he’s trying to say is that it took a long time to understand how novel “neutral” or even maladaptive variants could rise in frequency in small populations. But that’s not even true: it took a decade or so, not a century! At any rate, neither Brian nor I can figure out what the part in bold means. 

The second letter, by Nicholas Maxwell, is almost teleological!

Those biologists who are critical of current Darwinian orthodoxy and who want to modify the theory in the direction of the “extended Darwinian synthesis” need to take things further. They need to recognise that all living things are purposive. They pursue goals – without necessarily being aware of it – the ultimate goal being survival and reproductive success.

Purposive action can, in a multitude of ways, influence what has survival value – and thus influence the future course of evolution. Purposive action that results in living in a new environment, or pursuing new kinds of food, can change what has survival value for that creature and its offspring, and thus can influence the future course of evolution. Foxes hunting rabbits breed rabbits better able to escape; and rabbits escaping breed foxes better able to catch them.

Above all, when animals make discoveries and learn from one another, cultural evolution becomes possible, and that can have a massive impact on subsequent evolution, as the case of human evolution, and the evolution of language, show.

We need a new, unified version of Darwinian theory that recognises that the purposive actions of living things play a vital role in evolution. This is very definitely not Lamarckism, although too many biologists have denied the Darwinian role of purposive action in evolution for fear that that commits one to Lamarckism. For more about this, see chapter 6 of my 2020 book Our Fundamental Problem: A Revolutionary Approach to Philosophy.

Nicholas Maxwell
Emeritus reader, science and technology studies, University College London

What looks like “purposive” action is of course behavior molded by natural selection, so the first paragraph says nothing new—but is still confusing. We have long recognized that the appearance of “purpose” is part of the appearance of “design” that is created not by God but by natural selection. The second paragraph also says nothing new: it’s been recognized for decades that an animal’s evolved behavior can change the subsequent course of natural selection (see Doug’s comment on “niche construction” above). But the example of foxes and rabbits doesn’t seem to exemplify even that point! Cultural evolution is old hat now, and “gene-culture” coevolution has been worked on for years. Finally, as I said, we already have a theory of evolution that recognizes that evolved “purposive” actions can affect future evolution! Maxwell is calling for nothing new, but simply muddies our understanding of the evolution of behavior by introducing the element of “purposiveness.” This of course will confuse lay readers who confuse the appearance of purpose with either God’s purpose or an animal’s conception of purpose.

I guess the Guardian published the third letter because the editors thought it was cute:

 Surely there’s no problem with having several conflicting theories of evolution? Eventually the fittest will survive.
Pete Bibby

As Vonnegut said, “So it goes.”

h/t: Anne

Pinker: The “evolution war” is also a culture war

June 30, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Yesterday I posted a long critique of a misguided article from the Guardian arguing that the modern theory of evolution is obsolete and needs to be replaced.  One of my comments is that the article seemed say that the claim that evolution needs to be expanded by incorporating phenomena like epigenetics, niche construction, and plasticity has created a “culture war”. They quote Massimo Pigliucci to this effect, and let me reprise my denial of that:

e.) The scientific debate about the ambit of evolutionary biology is a “culture war.”  This bit really got my knickers in a twist:

To release biology from the legacy of the modern synthesis, explains Massimo Pigliucci, a former professor of evolution at Stony Brook University in New York, you need a range of tactics to spark a reckoning: “Persuasion, students taking up these ideas, funding, professorial positions.” You need hearts as well as minds. During a Q&A with Pigliucci at a conference in 2017, one audience member commented that the disagreement between EES proponents and more conservative biologists sometimes looked more like a culture war than a scientific disagreement. According to one attender, “Pigliucci basically said: ‘Sure, it’s a culture war, and we’re going to win it,’ and half the room burst out cheering.”

Bad call, Massimo! No, it’s not a culture war, even if sometimes scientists get heated and use terms like “evolution by jerks” to characterize advocates of punctuated equilibrium. The debate was conducted, and largely settled, by scientific argument that didn’t include that kind of acrimony. It is simply a debate about what mechanisms are important in evolution. My own view is that yes, the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis includes stuff that we didn’t even dream of 80 years ago (the “neutral theory” is one), but there is simply no reason to pronounce neo-Darwinism obsolete. “Expansion” is an okay word, but saying that “we need a new theory of evolution” is both ignorant and hyperbolic.

Steve Pinker read my piece and seemed to like it, but he did disagree with me on the “culture war” issue. In fact, he thinks the “expansionists” versus “we-don’t-need-to-trash-evolution” conflict is indeed a culture war. He gave me permission to quote his take on this. I’ve bolded his disagreement with me, and I have to say, the guy can think! And he has a great memory; I didn’t even remember that Lewin piece, much less where and when it was published!

Pinker (bolding is mine, and I’ve added links):

Fascinating that this [the Guardian article] is almost an exact Groundhog Day of Roger Lewin’s 1980 Science article inspired by Gould’s punctuated equilibrium (which he disingenuously associated with macromutations), species selection, and spandrelism.

I suspect that this is a culture war. Left-wing intellectual elites can’t stand the aroma of Darwinism, with its apparent glorification of competition, functional utility, and inheritance. They’re too respectful of science to go the creationist or ID route, so they probe for loopholes that seem to allow for more agency and creativity. It’s all what Richard [Dawkins] called “poetic science” and what I call “science schmaltz.” That’s why this spectacle of twisting codicils and asterisks into “scientific revolutions” periodically gets played out in NYRB, the Guardian, and other right-thinking publications.

The role of plasticity and genetic assimilation goes back more than a century to the “Baldwin effect,” interestingly simulated a while back by Geoff Hinton of deep learning fame, noted in a Nature commentary by Maynard Smith.

I responded to Steve by saying that yes, it may well be a culture war, but a scientist like Pigliucci shouldn’t couch a scientific dispute in such terms, as it devalues the empirical issues at stake. But Steve’s probably right, as usual!

Steve added this in a subsequent email, and I will forward the papers to anyone who asks for them (but you gotta read ’em if you ask):

BTW the Hinton-Nowlan simulation of the Baldwin effect is, I think, a beautiful little evolutionary model. (I’ve attached it, together with Maynard Smith’s commentary). Needless to say it falls squarely within the modern synthesis—no revolution needed, thanks.