Spot the fake fact

November 10, 2022 • 9:00 am

This article from Linkiest (a real time-waster of a site) adduces, well, you can read the title. Click on the link to “blow your mind”:

As far as I know, all but one of these “facts” are correct, but there is one howler: a “fake fact”.  Can you spot it?  It’s arrantly, blatantly, mind-blowingly WRONG. Put the fact in the comments, but don’t explain why it’s wrong yet; I’ll add the correct answer this afternoon.  I would expect most science-friendly readers here to spot it.

(There’s also a typo in one fact, but that’s not what I’m talking about.)

Nature flagellates itself for creating “harms” and being “damaging” in its past publications

September 29, 2022 • 12:00 pm

It seems that science journals are in a race to see which can be the most penitential for apologizing for past publications that don’t comport with modern morality.  To use my Cultural Revolution analogy, they are competing to see who can hang the biggest “I was a bad and hurtful journal” sign around their necks.  Nature just entered the competition with the article below, which you can read for free.

It seems that the journal’s biggest no-no, and cause for apology, was publishing the work of Francis Galton (1822-1911), a Victorian polymath who made big contributions in statistics, anthropology, forensics (he invented a way of classifying fingerprints), and other areas. But he was also an advocate of eugenics, and his name has been removed from buildings and other venues in the last couple of years.  Although Galton’s views are abhorrent to modern sensibility, none of them, so far as I know, actually led to any eugenic actions that wouldn’t have been carried out without his writings (Hitler didn’t need Galton, and eugenics wasn’t practiced in England).

Though the word “damaging”, referring to Nature’s publications, is used 9 times, and they evoke the “harm” of their journal 6 times, it all seems to me a bit hyperbolic. Of course Galton was a racist, but is this an accurate statement?:

Galton’s scientifically inaccurate ideas about eugenics had a huge, damaging influence that the world is still grappling with. The idea that some groups — people of colour or poor people, for example — were inferior has fuelled irreparable discrimination and racism. Nature published several papers by Galton and other eugenicists, thus giving a platform to these views.

Irreparable discrimination and racism? I hope not! But let’s accept that Galton was a eugenicist, which he was, and that his views may have influenced other eugenicists, and move on to other mea culpas:

This is not just a problem in Nature’s deeper history. In more recent years, we have also, to our shame, published some articles that were offensive or destructive, or attracted criticism for being overly elitist. “The scientific journal, back in the day, was the mouthpiece to a very privileged and highly exclusive sector of society, and it is actually continuing to do the same thing today,” says Subhadra Das, a science historian and writer in London who has researched scientific racism and eugenics.

Since they cite none of these articles (“elitism”, really?), I can’t judge this statement.  Yes, Nature is considered one of the two most prestigious scientific journals in the world (Science is the other), but is that the kind of “privilege” and “exclusivity” they’re talking about? I don’t know, because they give no examples. (Save for Galton’s papers, citations of transgressing articles are scant—a common problem with this form of apology.)

There will be some redacting of the past, too:

We know that Nature’s archives contain numerous items that are harmful and can be upsetting. But, like other scholarly publishers, we think it is important to keep all of our content accessible, because it is part of the scientific and historical record. It is important for researchers today and in the future to study and learn from what happened in the past. That said, we are developing a way to alert readers that our archive contains articles that do not represent our current values and would be unacceptable to publish today.

What are “our current values”, and what if they change? Can’t we count on the readers to know whether an article is acceptable or unacceptable to publish today? Does Nature really need a Pecksniff to trawl through its archives to single out offensive articles and highlight them? And who will be the Pecksniff, the person who enforces “our current values”?

They don’t neglect colonialism, either, though again no examples are given:

The journal matured as Britain became the biggest colonial power in history — by 1919, the British Empire spanned roughly one-quarter of the world’s land and population. In their contributions, many scientists editing and writing for Nature endorsed the views of white, European superiority that drove this empire building. An air of imperiousness, imperialism, sexism and racism permeates many articles in Nature’s historical archive.

As it does all of British literature from that era! Who will apologize for that? And is there a need to?

. . . Nature’s archives also include harmful contributions from the fields of ecology, evolution, anthropology and ethnography, which were inextricably linked with colonial expansion. Another 1921 editorial reflected imperialist and racist views, reporting on a session at a meeting of what was then the British Association for the Advancement of Science “devoted to the discussion of the ways and means by which the science of anthropology might be made of greater practical utility in the administration of the Empire, particularly in relation to the government of our subject and backward races”. There are numerous other examples in which Nature published offensive, injurious and destructive views, cloaked in the veil of science.

They do mention one book review that was pretty sexist, written by editor Richard Gregory (1919-1939), and two antisemitic articles by Johannes Stark, but eve back then Nature criticized the anti-Semitism:

In the 1930s, the journal printed two antisemitic articles by Johannes Stark, a physicist, who wrote of the “damaging influence of Jews in German science”. At the time, Nature had taken a strong position in opposition to the rise of Nazis in Germany, which eventually led to the journal being banned there. Nature implied in an accompanying article that it had invited one of Stark’s contributions to show readers how shocking his words were, but it nevertheless exposed a wider audience to antisemitic views.

So is that a net bad or a net good? Nature opposed the Nazis and highlighted one article that denigrated Jews, but only to show that it was “shocking”.  Is this something the journal needs to apologize for?

One more example, but the articles aren’t cited or linked, so we can’t judge for ourselves:

Nature has published hurtful articles even in the past few years. One was an inaccurate, naive editorial about memorials to historical figures who committed abhorrent acts in the name of science. The editorial was damaging to people of colour and minority groups, and the journal apologized for the article’s many faults. That experience exposed systemic problems at Nature that we are working to correct, including the lack of diversity among our editors and a failure to acknowledge the journal’s role in racism. The editorial you are reading is part of our attempt to acknowledge and learn from our troubled deep and recent past, understand the roots of injustice and work to address them as we aim to make the scientific enterprise open and welcoming to all.

So Nature has hung this big editorial sign around its neck, and promises to do better. But it’s already doing better, as are all science journals and science departments.  The question I am asking, I guess, is given that morality is improving over time, and has come a long way in the last hundred years, to what extent do we need to apologize for what was said by our predecessors? Yes, it’s fair to point out that bad things were done in the past, but how instructive is that since everyone now knows that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry are wrong? And if they don’t, Nature’s apology won’t fix them

In the end, I see the Nature piece not as wholly performative, but nearly performative, since they are already policing themselves.

Matthew has a different take, as given in these tweets. He’s concerned with the fact that Nature, in going to an open-access policy, is now charging authors huge amounts of money merely to publish their articles. In other words, the journal may not be sexist or racist, but they are still money-gouging capitalists who impoverish scientific investigators.

This is from Nature’s 2020 announcement that it was going “open access”:

Publisher Springer Nature has announced how scientists can make their papers in its most selective titles free to read as soon as they are published — part of a long-awaited move to offer open-access publishing in the Nature family of journals.

From 2021, the publisher will charge €9,500, US$11,390 or £8,290 to make a paper open access (OA) in Nature and 32 other journals that currently keep most of their articles behind paywalls and are financed by subscriptions. It is also trialling a scheme that would halve that price for some journals, under a common-review system that might guide papers to a number of titles.

Soon you won’t have the option of paying: you will have to pay to have your articles published. This money will soon be coming out of the pockets of investigators—either out of their grants (funded by taxpayers) or out of their own pockets. And, as Matthew said, this policy is against the policy of diversity and openness favored by the journal, as it penalizes scientists with the least funding, more likely to be people of color or peoople from lower socioeconomic classes that could use their grants to do research instead of pay a journal exorbitant fees to publish their work.

In comment #3 below, Lysander calls our attention to the financial results of open-access publishing, embodied in this video:

Scientific American dedicates itself to politics, not science; refuses to publish rebuttals of their false or misleading claims

August 21, 2022 • 10:30 am

On August 14, I received a conciliatory email from Laura Helmuth, editor of Scientific American. As you know if you’re a regular here, I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing their woke coverage and editorials, which make all kinds of accusations that don’t hold water (see emails below for some examples, or you can access all my posts here).

My critiques of the magazine have been similar to those of Michael Shermer, who wrote a regular column for Scientific American for eighteen years. After he turned out a couple of columns that weren’t woke enough for the journal, and were rejected, he was given his walking papers. Michael documented the decline and fall of the journal in two Substack pieces, “Scientific American goes woke” and “What is woke, anyway? A coda to my column on ‘Scientific American goes woke’.” His columns, particularly the first, cite and link to a number of ludicrous pieces published in the journal. I’ll give some of those links below.

At any rate, since I told Laura in my response that I’d keep her initial email confidential. I’ll just characterize what she said in a few words. She was kind enough to be conciliatory, though she noted that I was unhappy with some of her coverage. She praised my criticisms of theocracy and emphasized that, politically, she and I were on the same side with respect to matters of reason and social justice. Finally she urged me to contact her to discuss any ideas I had for stories or my own pieces for the magazine.

It was a polite email, but the last bit—the invitation—prompted me to respond in this way, by suggesting that I write my own op-ed:

From: Jerry Coyne To:Subject: Re: Greetings from Scientific American

Hi Laura,

Thanks for your conciliatory message, which I appreciate. I’m sorry that I have had to go after some of your stories sometimes, but I’m truly puzzled at the direction the magazine is taking. One blatant example was that editorial by McLemore that accused not only Darwin of racism, but also Mendel!  Seriously, how did that get through the editorial process? Is there no fact-checking? Likewise, nobody bothered to look up what SETI is really doing when it tries to find life on other planets. One look at the photos that Carl Sagan included on the Voyager record shows that he was emphasizing the diversity of life on earth, both human and nonhuman.  What bothers me, and you surely know this, is the magazine’s Pecksniffian tendency to call out racism in everything, most recently the SETI program.

Yes, we are indeed both liberals and against the theocratic strain that’s taking over American life.  But if you must be political (I don’t think science magazines should be, of course), why not commission pieces about the stuff you mention below and leave out the authoritarian progressivism and pervasive accusations of racism? In my view, that not only doesn’t do anything to ameliorate racism (how does falsely accusing Mendel of racism do anything for minorities?), but also dims the patina of class that the magazine had.

Of course I had to say this, but you know this already because I’ve written about this stuff a fair amount.

I do appreciate your reaching out, and of course will keep your email confidential, but would you consider an op-ed about how extreme Leftist progressivism is besmirching science itself by distorting the truth? (Example: arguments that sex is not bimodal in humans, but forms a continuum.) I could make a number of arguments like that about biology that, contra McLemore, have truth behind them.

If you’re really interested in presenting a diversity of views on science and politics in your op-eds, I’d be glad to write something like that (and no, it would not be shrill).

Thanks for writing.

Best,Jerry

The correspondence continued, with Laura emailing me to explain the political leanings of the journal, which in my view were not concerned in science but with social justice. And of course she rejected my offer to contribute an article to the magazine because it didn’t comport with those leanings. Such a letter would be “kicking down” (i.e., “punching down”).  I won’t reproduce her second letter even though, in my response, I didn’t say I would keep it confidential. But I will characterize her words in my response—and quote a few of them—in the email I wrote her this morning. Here it is. I’ve added links to the Sci. Am. articles that I mention or to my discussion of them (each of my posts links to the orginal Sci. Am. piece). I’ve corrected a few of my  errors of spelling and punctuation.

Sun 8/21/2022 6:14 AM

Dear Laura,

I of course expected that you would accept editorials only from the “progressive left” point of view, even though, as you noted, we’re both on the Left. That is your editorial call, but I disagree with it.  When “progressives” are engaged in attacking science with lies or distortions (i.e., claiming there’s a spectrum of sex, not gender, in humans, or that Mendel was a racist), I would think that Scientific American would publish, indeed, want, some kind of corrective. Seriously, you let one your writers accuse Mendel, Darwin, and E. O. Wilson of being racist, and SETI of being likewise and that denial of evolution is white supremacy; and yet you refuse to publish rebuttals of that calumny because to oppose those ridiculous accusations would “feel like kicking down.”  Do you really think that someone not as famous as Mendel is allowed to call him a racist because to deny that would be “kicking down.”

Frankly, I find that response disingenuous. Sticking up for correct science in the face of ideological distortion is not “kicking down”: that phrase—or its alternative “punching down”—is used by every ideologue to immunize their ideas from criticism. Science is supposed to be a debate in search of truth, with nobody barred from criticizing anyone, but yet you are placing much of that debate out of bounds because it’s “kicking down”!

The telling part of your email is at the end when you assert that science isn’t really a target of your editorials, but politics is, and the “targets” you say the magazine has chosen include “the Supreme Court endorsed forced pregnancy, Florida is denying care to trans people, white nationalists are infiltrating every branch of government, and anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists are causing people to die. . . . . But with limited resources, those are the sorts of issues we’re focused on in our opinion coverage.” But when is it the editorial policy of Scientific American to address those issues at all? Given its title, I thought your magazine was about science, even in its opinions, and not a program for enacting a brand of social justice that has either little or nothing to do with science. There are literally hundreds of magazines, websites, blogs, podcasts, and other media sources that cover those issues endlessly 24/7 from left, right, and center.

SciAm readers go to your site to get straight science, not political commentary, and deciding that the “progressive” (i.e., extreme) Left has the correct positions on these issues is to essentially alienate over half the country, including moderate liberals like me being turned off by this risible political posturing.

Let me speak frankly: some of the editorials I’ve criticized involve lying or distorting the truth for politics. It’s simply not true, for example, that mathematics and other STEM fields are irredeemably racist and misogynistic [see also here], that Darwin and Mendel were racists, that the Jedi in Star Wars are toxically masculine white saviors, that SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is implicitly racist and colonialist, and that denial of evolution is an expression of white supremacy. These assertions are ridiculous, and yet you not only give them space in your magazine, but refuse to publish any opposing opinions. Thus others like Michael Shermer and I have to rebut them on our websites (as you know, Shermer wrote a column for Scientific American for eighteen years, but then was fired because he failed to hew to the ideology you’re promoting).

It is your magazine, of course, but I am not alone in being appalled at the direction it’s taken. I can assume only that you have given it that direction. This is a great pity: Americans can get their politics in a million places, but there are few where they can get straight science untainted by ideology.  Scientific American used to be that way, but it isn’t any more.

cheers,Jerry

I’ll note one more thing: Thirty-one biologists, including some very notable ones, wrote a letter to Scientific American pushing back on their article that E. O. Wilson (along with Darwin and Mendel) was a racist. Of course the magazine refused to publish our critique. You can see that letter, the signers, and my take on it here.

What is crystal clear is that Scientific American has decided to take on a social-justice program of a particular stripe—that of the “progressive” or “woke” Left—even if the politics the journal espouses have nothing to do with science. Not only that, but they refuse to publish any pushback or criticism of some of their crazier assertions. (Show me where Mendel was a racist, for instance!) It’s very odd that what was once America’s premier science magazine not only has taken up woke cudgels, but is stifling criticism of what they publish. In this way Scientific American can act as if there’s no opposition to the politics they cram down the throats of curious people who just want to read about science. They are censorious, and certain they’re right. Such views have repeatedly stifled and misguided science over the years, right up to the time of Lysenko.

And that is why I’m writing this post.

_________________

About Sci Am’s refusal to let me write; sent by a friend:

It would be so easy to just let you have your say in the magazine and then whenever so accused of bias they could say “we published Jerry Coyne’s rebuttal!” And could hold their heads high for at least offering some balance, but they obviously can’t even bring themselves to do that! It’s all so unnecessary, but if they feel it is necessary (to do their share of social justice) then at least let the other side speak.

 

Quote of the day

August 20, 2022 • 12:00 pm

This article was just published in Science, one of the world’s most prestigious science journals, but one that’s embraced wokeness with an iron grip. And so it tries to fuse science with progressive social justice, as if the former somehow buttresses the latter.

I’m not going to discuss this article in deth, as it’s short and readers can absorb it very quickly. I just want to give a few quotes from it (below). Click to read:

I believe the point of the piece is to celebrate the complexity of science because it buttresses the complexity of gender identity. The author, who says she/he is bisexual (no pronoun is given) has no time for cut-and-dried answers, but, after learning about astrophysics, embraced it because it’s “the kind of physics that doesn’t have all the answers, the kind of physics that disagrees with itself, the kind of physics that is messy and chaotic and, God forbid, fun.” 

To quote the author:

Now, I realize the power of my identity. Being nonbinary means challenging the status quo every day. It means everything can and must be questioned. It means exploring things others take to be fundamental in new ways from new angles. In my everyday life, my gender identity compels me to find unconventional solutions to difficult problems. I turn over unseen stones. I try unorthodox methods. I wrestle with big, fundamental questions. All of these things make me a better scientist.

Physics is always evolving, and gender is, too. When we understand that things are more complex than they appear, we learn. When scientists embrace the complexity of the universe, our science can only improve.

But of course the object lessons of science, regardless of one’s gender, is that it’s often complicated, that there are very many questions that remain unanswered (and what answers we get lead to more questions, and that, indeed “everything can and must be questioned.” The bit in quotes is in fact the foundation of science. Remember that the motto of Britain’s Royal Society is “nullis in verba” (“don’t take anybody’s word for it”).

Science can be used to support your emotions or preconceived ideas, but it is an empirical endeavor that carries no inherent ideological or moral lessons. Nevertheless, it can and has repeatedly be twisted to lend itself to different—and conflicting—points of view. If you study bonobos you learn that nature is kind and empathic, If you study chimpanzees, on the other hand, you learn that nature is vicious, with members of one species tearing their fellows limb from limb. And don’t ever study the behavior of Adélie penguins!

 

Guardian retracts claim that Cornwall is infested with “venomous crabs”

August 8, 2022 • 11:15 am

Yesterday morning, thanks to Matthew, I pointed out that the Guardian had screwed up one of its biology stories, the one noted in this headline:

What apparently had happened is that somebody at a news service (see below) googled “crab spider” instead of “spider crab”, and concluded that spider crabs were venomous. Then the Guardian simply cut and pasted the false assertions about the spider crab—no crabs are venomous though some are toxic to eat—to create a clickbait story.

Pity, pity, because since the crabs aren’t venomous, the story loses a lot of its click-y allure.  A number of people pointed out to the Guardian that this story wasn’t exactly true (the swarming part was). Matthew also informed one of his friends who works at the Guardian (see below). Regardless, the complaints worked, and now there’s a new story sans venomous crabs. Click below to see the latest story, lacking the word “venomous”.

And kudos to the Guardian for noting that they changed the story. At the bottom of the new page you can read this:

 This article was amended on 8 August 2022. An earlier version incorrectly stated in the headline and text that the spider crabs massing at Cornish beaches were “venomous”; no species of crab is venomous. Also, their Latin species name is Maja brachydactyla, not “Hyas araneus” as we said.

Someone else must have corrected the species name. I took the paper at its word, for Hyas araneus is the “great spider crab”. Now we learn that these un-venomous crabs are actually Maja brachydactyla, in a completely different family. Now how did they screw that one up?  By copying from another source?

Well, all’s well that ends well, except, perhaps, for the would-be bathers who avoided the waters off Cornwall.

*********

Here’s Matthew’s email to the Guardian:

From: Matthew Cobb

Subject: Crab spiders

Date: 7 August 2022 at 22:11:22 BST

To: guardian.letters@guardian.co.uk” <guardian.letters@guardian.co.uk>

Over the weekend The Guardian website followed the rest of the UK press by printing a story about ‘venomous spider crabs’ moving into shallow waters off Cornwall to moult [https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/aug/06/spider-crabs-swarm-in-shallow-waters-on-cornish-beach].

Virtually all of these stories – including that in the Guardian –  claimed the crabs ‘have a venomous bite that is poisonous to their prey but harmless to humans’.

This is not true. No crab is venomous. Indeed, out of over 7.000 species of crustacean, only one is known to be venomous, and it is not a crab.

This error – which the Guardian has still not uncorrected, despite repeated alerts on social media – appears to have originated in some journalist googling ‘spider crab’  and not noticing that the pages they got back referred to ‘crab spider’. It was then simply copied by other journalists, including your own.

It is hard to know which is more disheartening: the original error, or your thoughtless repeating of it. This example does not particularly matter, but confidence in the press is a fragile thing.

Matthew Cobb

The Guardian responded by saying that the false claims about venom and species name were provided by a news agency based in south-west England, and noted that they’d changed the text and added a footnote. 

Mehitabel the cat writes into Science

August 5, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Reader Miriam brought my attention to an editorial in Science that, for once, is not offensively woke. In fact, it’s hilarious, using the trope of the famous books/cartoons of Archy and Mehitabel, created by writer and humorist Don Marquis. Appearing in newspapers and then in books from 1916 to 1937, when Marquis died, the lucubrations of the two animals was wildly popular. When I was very young, our neighbors had a cat named Mehitabel, and investigating that name brought me to the books, which I devoured. Read at least one!

Someone at Science has a great sense of humor, for I found from 2007 an “editorial” by the pair on cat domestication, addressing an article in the same issue. Mehitabel the cat ordered Archy to the typewriter to object to a scientific piece on cat domestication.  I hope Science doesn’t mind if I reproduce the editorial—written in perfect Archy-an prose—in its entirety. The introduction explains the absence of caps and punctuation.

Click to read:

Science’s intro, with a link to the 2007 paper under discussion (it shows from genetic analysis that cats were domesticated in the Near East, and all domestic cats originate from at least five “founder” cats in this region):

Readers old enough to remember Don Marquis’ syndicated New York Sun columns may recall that at night, a cockroach named Archy took over his typewriter to write short pieces about him and his friend, a cat named Mehitabel. Because he typed by diving on the keys, he had difficulty with upper case and punctuation, yielding a rather free-form text. In the following message forwarded to us, Mehitabel is apparently responding to recent findings on the genetic background and history of cat “domestication” (Science, 27 July 2007, p. 519).

The letter:

boss, i sent archy to the keyboard to say how upset I am about the terrible treatment of cats in the papers it’s because of a report in science telling all about how we cats got started pretty interesting but some of the papers are saying that’s how we got domesticated domesticated hell domesticated is for dogs not us boss action needs to be taken against this slander these scientist guys did a good thing they found that the first real house cat was not that pampered egyptian pussy instead they showed our relationship with people was much older thank god for that then they looked at genes of us cats and compared them with the five small wildcats and decided we all came from the one in the middle east maybe an arab cat their idea is that the first farmers ten thousand years ago started storing grain that brought in rats and mice so then this arab cat helped out some papers call that domestication that nonsense has gotta be stopped this was a gift not some ownership deal why do they think today we occasionally bring a bloody present into the house and lay it on the bed or the best rug it’s because we want to remind everyone that we are volunteers not repressed conscripts like the damn rovers and fidos just look at how they act wagging their tails and begging for food talk about deal they got one okay but they lost their independence not me and my kind no sir heres the thing about us cats we think it’s fine in the house but we’re just as happy in the alley or out hunting when we do that they call us feral ever hear anyone call a dog feral by the way hell the feral dog is a coyote not some lost rover get it our gig is about independence pet us a little thats okay even pimp us up for the cat show but make one of those ownership moves and sayonara we’re gone we think the scientists got it right about what went down back then in the fertile crescent after the mice got after the einkorn wheat or whatever pretty soon our ancestors were chomping em up well you might ask did they see any dog fossils in there what was old rover doing not much it appears maybe practicing pointing rats or rolling over for the farmers well when the going gets tough only the tough get going us cats are okay with the publicity but when the science story got out into the mainstream media what was said was downright disrespectful domestication indeed we don’t like to be dissed boss so get off your editorial ass and do something about this nonsense

your colleague mehitabel

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
Sheffield

As Vonnegut said, “So it goes.”

h/t: Anne

The Guardian has photo issues as well as evolution issues

June 30, 2022 • 1:45 pm

I just had to put up as a standalone this posted comment from reader Mike on yesterday’s Guardian article on why evolutionary theory is supposedly obsolete. There was a rather substantial boo-boo in one image, which was wonky in three ways: the species identification was wrong, and two parts were photoshopped in. This manipulation was not indicated.  It’s just one more sign that the Guardian needs some kind of science editor.

From Mike:

In case anyone is still checking in on this post and that crazy Grauniad article, turns out one of the feature images of the “spadefoot toad” was a photoshop nightmare: not a spadefoot toad; has a chameleon’s tongue; catching a dragonfly that’s photoshopped into the image; and perched on a toadstool.

Now that’s phenotypic plasticity!

The kicker is that the Guardian has stealth edited the image out of the version that’s up today on the website. The wayback machine shows the original article with that frankenimage.

The “frankenimage” from the wayback machine.

It’s gone now; no toad photo to be seen and no indication it was ever there.  And whoever Buddy Mays is, he should be roundly trounced (I think that this is him.)

Below: the tweet that corrects the species ID and the photoshopped tongue and dragonfly.

I have a big stupid grin on my face!

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.

London’s Natural History Museum commits the naturalistic fallacy—repeatedly

June 30, 2022 • 9:15 am

It appears, from the tweet below, that London’s famed Natural History Museum has taken its place in the Woke Parade, for the tweet below clearly means to validate different human gender identities and parade the Museum’s pro-LGBTQ+ credentials by publicizing the several lizard species that don’t require male sperm to have offspring. This phenomenon is called parthenogenesis, meaning “a form of asexual reproduction in animals that does not require fertilization by sperm.” In effect, all members of a parthenogenetic species (if one can call them “species”) are female.

What irks me is that this has NOTHING to do with LGBTQ+ people, who do not reproduce without fertilization. None of us do! This is simply virtue-signalling using animals to support human behaviors (I suppose it’s relevant to gender identity in this case, or if you are an extremist, the superfluity or toxicity of males). And vindicating human behavior by pointing to animals is a form of the “naturalistic fallacy“: the view that “whatever is natural must be good.” If you think I’m overinterpreting the intention of this series, have a look at the second video below or full Monty tour (a 26-minute video) produced by the Natural History Museum.

Of course humans don’t have parthenogenesis, so connecting it with LGBTQ+ in a video tour (see below) is simply mistaken. The naturalistic fallacy, too, is mistaken: that’s why they call it a “fallacy”.  There are plenty of natural animal behaviors that we would not want to see in our species, including infanticide, murder of conspecifics, cannibalism, eating one’s mate after copulation, robbery, adultery, theft, and the whole gamut of crimes and sins.

Yet Leftist biologists in particular are prone to this fallacy, constantly pointing to the diversity of sexual behavior in animals to somehow justify the diversity of sexual behavior in our own species. If I hear one more person bang on about how the clownfish—a sequential hermaphrodite that can change from male to female when a female in a group dies—I’ll scream. (Note that there is a definite change from one binary sex to another: a change from producing sperm to eggs.) Gender or sex change in humans need not be justified by pointing to its occurrence in nature: it’s something to accept and respect regardless of whether it occurs in nature. (And if it didn’t, would that make transsexuality bad because it’s “unnatural”?)

The orange clownfish (Amphiprion percula) much beloved by biologists who commit the naturalistic fallacy. Nemo is of course one of these.

But I digress. Offspring produced without male fertilization are common among invertebrates, especially insects. Vertebrates can have it too: it’s been seen not just in lizards, but in snakes, sharks, fish, and birds. In some of these (like the Komodo dragon), parthenogenesis may occur alongside normal reproduction, and so two sexes are not just present, but “needed”, for without males, the parthenogenetic variant would eventually disappear. (Whether to call parthenogenetic lineages that are genetically different as “different species from each other” is, as I implie above, a matter of taste.)

Komodo dragons MATING. Yes, males are needed to keep the species going.

Parthenogenesis in reptiles, is, as the video below shows, usually results from hybridization between two species. The hybrid offspring have two different genomes, one genome from each of the parental species, and this may mess up the normal process of meiosis that forms sperm and eggs. If it gets messed up in hybrids that, without fertilization, eggs can go on to develop into adults (and these eggs must still have two genomes), we have parthenogenesis.

Sometimes the asexual reproduction persists and we get a new “species”, but a feature of parthenogenesis like this is that it is very often an “evolutionary dead end.” For reasons probably connected with a lack of genetic variation, parthenogens don’t hang around for long as a group. They tend to go extinct well before other species. We know this because looking at the genes of the parthenogenic individuals show that they’re very similar to those of the parental species, which means that the new asexual form hasn’t been around long enough to genetically diverge from the two parental species. The “dead end” nature of this asexual process isn’t mentioned by the Natural History Museum!

Even in parthenogenesis, two sexes are sometimes “needed”, because in many forms of the trait, even in reptiles, sexual activity is needed, even without fertilization. This can take the form of a female mounting another female (“pseuocopulation”), or even copulation with males from one of the parental species—copulation that doesn’t cause fertilization. For some reason we don’t understand, the process of egg development may require a behavioral trigger of copulation or pseudocopulation. Thus the Natural History Museum is also misleading in saying that “two sexes aren’t needed.”  In some cases they are, though they’re needed in one of the two parental species.

Finally, the Natural History Museum errs by saying that all parthenogenic reptiles are clones (genetically identical to the mother). This isn’t true. There are a variety of ways that animals can produce offspring without sex. Some of these involve all the offspring being clones, producing eggs by simple development of an egg that happens to have the same genomic constitution of a mother, i.e. two copies of each chromosome. This form, called apomixis, produces offspring that are all genetically identical to themselves and to their mother. These are all clones.

But there’s another way of reproducing without sex that produces genetically diverse offspring. It’s called automixis, and can occur in several ways. One is that meiosis (production of gametes) produces genetically diverse egg cells, two of which can fuse to form a diploid egg that’s capable of becoming an adult. Since the eggs themselves are genetically different, the diploid eggs will differ from each other too, and  thus the offspring that result will not be clones of each other—or of the mother. Some lizards use this method of reproduction, and so the offspring are not “clones”.

That’s the biology lesson, so you can see that there are at least two errors in the Natural History Museum tweet that I’ve put below again.. However, the tweet’s purpose is not scientific accuracy, but to imply that reproduction without sex somehow supports LGBTQ+ people. As I said, it doesn’t, for no LGBTQ+ folks, or any other human, reproduces parthenogenetically. Readers may wonder what mindset made someone decided that parthenogenetic lizards are part of the “LGBTQ+ tour.”

The video below, labeled above and on YouTube as another part of the LGBTQ+ natural history tour, is pretty anodyne, and in fact doesn’t even mention the L+ sequence. But look at the one below that,designed to vindicate human homosexuality by showing that some beetles have same-sex behavior!

Oy vey! The advantage of the video below is that it’s short. It describes same-sex sexual behavior in insects. Why? Because it’s meant to show that homosexual behavior in humans. because it occur in animals, is “natural”. Ergo, we can’t criticize it. But as I said in my review of Joan Roughgarden’s book Evolution’s Rainbow, a review published in the Times Literary Supplement, this argument doesn’t hold water:

But regardless of the truth of Darwin’s theory, should we consult nature to determine which of our behaviours are to be considered normal or moral? Homosexuality may indeed occur in species other than our own, but so do infanticide, robbery and extra-pair copulation.  If the gay cause is somehow boosted by parallels from nature, then so are the causes of child-killers, thieves and adulterers. And given the cultural milieu in which human sexuality and gender are expressed, how closely can we compare ourselves to other species? In what sense does a fish who changes sex resemble a transgendered person? The fish presumably experiences neither distressing feelings about inhabiting the wrong body, nor ostracism by other fish. In some baboons, the only males who show homosexual behaviour are those denied access to females by more dominant males. How can this possibly be equated to human homosexuality?

Ironically, while narratorJosh Davis, says that the early entomologists describing same-sex copulation in insects did so to justify homosexuality as “natural” in humans, Davis doesn’t go on to say that this whole endeavor is meaningless.  What if there were no same-sex behavior in insects or other animals? Would that mean that human homosexuality should be deemed abnormal and deplorable? Of course not!

This whole “LGBTQ+ four of the Natural History Museum appears to rest entirely on the naturalistic fallacy (see the  26-minute video, too). Whatever happens vis-à-vis sex in animals has nothing to do with how we regard homosexuality (or any other non-cis sexual behavior) in humans. We do lots of things that animals don’t, and judging our behavior, morally or otherwise, must rest entirely on human considerations like the morality we’ve developed that isn’t seen in animals. It’s ironic that in their desire to be au courant with woke ideology, biologists have reverted to adopting a fallacy that they rejected long ago.

The Natural History Museum has fallen into a real trap here, and it’s embarrassing that it are producing these videos. But of course science is now increasingly prey to “progressive” ideology, and so much worse for science.

Be sure to watch the long video that claims that “some sheep are homosexual”—in the human sense. That is, they choose to be homosexual—as if human gay people choose. It’s all a big mess.

h/t:  Luana, Greg Mayer