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 There are also the previously published letters about Buranyi’s “the theory of evolution is obsolete” paper), and the cover letter Brian wrote to the Guardian detailing a few of the factual mistakes in Buanyi’s letter.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

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


Once again: A misguided article on why the theory of evolution is obsolete

June 29, 2022 • 11:00 am

This article in the Guardian really says nothing new beyond what a dozen articles have said already: “There are things we know about evolution that Darwin never imagined, and we’ve made many discoveries that weren’t part of the ‘modern synthetic theory of evolution’ forged in the Thirties and Forties.”  I’ve posted a ton about these issues already, many of which are said to form an “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis”, or EES. It turns out that yes, things like the neutral theory and epigenetics weren’t imagined by Darwin, who knew nothing about heredity, or even by the great Theodosius Dobzhansky, but the exponents of the EES sometimes try to pretend that it’s more than an extension of evolutionary biology, but a Kuhnian “revolution” mandating a “new theory of evolution”. Indeed that’s what the article below maintains. (The answer to the headline question is “yes.”)

But in fact we do not need a new theory of evolution: the basic theory proposed by Darwin in 1859, which includes gradualism, variation, natural selection as a critical factor responsible for adaptation, splitting of lineages, and the resultant common ancestry of all species and individuals, still holds. But we know a lot more now, and most of it can easily be incorporated into evolutionary biology. In fact, if you look at evolution textbooks from a few years ago, you’ll find phenomena like epigenesis, the neutral theory, “niche construction”, plasticity, and the like not only discussed, but shown to have been part of discussions about evolution for half a century or more. Now they’re simply part of “evolutionary biology”, which, yes, has expanded, but not in a manner that mandates replacing the old theory. Like cosmology, we just add new stuff to the field as it turns up, and ditch the stuff that turns out to be wrong.

Yet the author, Stephen Buranyi, a Guardian science writer, cannot help himself from not only distorting the history of evolutionary biology, but arguing that evolutionary biology needs a thorough rehaul (It doesn’t, for it’s not like “Darwin was totally wrong!”) And Buranyi takes great delight in couching the scientific debate about the importance of various factors in organismal evolution as “a culture war.” That’s nuts, it’s just a normal debate in science, and the outcome hinges on facts, not ideology.

Click to read the piece.

There’s simply too much to criticize and correct here, so I’ll take just five of Buranyi’s misguided claims.

a.) We don’t understand how important evolutionary features developed, like the eye. It’s true that we don’t know the exact sequence in which some complex adaptations developed, and we won’t because we weren’t there. But we do know from the fossil record about how whales evolved from terrestrial hoofed ungulates over about 10 million years, and we have the fossils to show it. Ditto for many other evolutionary transitions, like from fish to amphibians. But by using the eye, Buranyi resurrects the old (and refuted) creationist criticism that “how could an eye possibly evolve in a stepwise fashion from a simple light-sensitive spot?” The implication is that our ignorance of how this actually happened means that something’s seriously wrong with evolutionary theory.

Actually, this problem was first considered (and in principle solved) by Darwin, and discussed more extensively by Richard Dawkins in several places (e.g., here). No, we don’t know exactly how and when it happened, but eyes evolved independently several times, and we have a plausible sequence about how one can go, via an evolutionary sequence of small adaptive steps, from a light-sensitive eyespot to the complex “camera eye” of vertebrates and cephalopods. And, using estimates of parameters, we can show that there was plenty of time for this to happen via selection. If we can do that, with each step being adaptive (and in fact, actually seen in species living today), then the evolution of the eye is not a difficulty for simple Darwinism.

In fact, in 1994 Nilsson and Pelger published a paper showing that, with conservative assumptions about mutation rates and selection, you could model the evolution of a camera eye from a light-sensitive spot in a few hundred thousand years. If you want a precis, read Dawkins’s Nature article about the paper: “The eye in a twinkling.”

I discuss this in a bit of detail because Buranyi cites the eye as one of our insuperable evolutionary problems:

You may recall the gist from school biology lessons. If a creature with poor eyesight happens to produce offspring with slightly better eyesight, thanks to random mutations, then that tiny bit more vision gives them more chance of survival. The longer they survive, the more chance they have to reproduce and pass on the genes that equipped them with slightly better eyesight. Some of their offspring might, in turn, have better eyesight than their parents, making it likelier that they, too, will reproduce. And so on. Generation by generation, over unfathomably long periods of time, tiny advantages add up. Eventually, after a few hundred million years, you have creatures who can see as well as humans, or cats, or owls.

This is the basic story of evolution, as recounted in countless textbooks and pop-science bestsellers. The problem, according to a growing number of scientists, is that it is absurdly crude and misleading.

For one thing, it starts midway through the story, taking for granted the existence of light-sensitive cells, lenses and irises, without explaining where they came from in the first place. Nor does it adequately explain how such delicate and easily disrupted components meshed together to form a single organ. And it isn’t just eyes that the traditional theory struggles with. “The first eye, the first wing, the first placenta. How they emerge. Explaining these is the foundational motivation of evolutionary biology,” says Armin Moczek, a biologist at Indiana University. “And yet, we still do not have a good answer. This classic idea of gradual change, one happy accident at a time, has so far fallen flat.”

Both Buranyi and Moczek are dead wrong. We know about light-sensitive pigments, and we know they exist in microorganisms that can use them to detect the presence of light, which is itself adaptive.  The meshing of the various components has been modeled, and we can see every posited step in the process instantiated as an adaptation in one or more living species. What we don’t know is when and in which order things happened. Nevertheless, we see a plausible order in nature and we can model the process without difficulty. To say that “the classical idea of gradual change has fallen flat” is just (pardon my Spanish) caca de vaca. Does Buranyi think the eye appeared as a single “macromutation”? (More on that issue later.) So his distortions of history—he doesn’t mention, for instance, the paper of Nilsson and Pelger—begin at the article’s outset.

b.) Plasticity is a profound evolutionary problem that was neglected by evolutionary biology. Plasticity refers to the ability of an organism’s genome to respond to different environments in different ways (usually adaptive), either permanently or reversibly. We get tans when there’s too much sun, and this protects us from UV damage. Many mammals grow long hair in the winter and lose it in the summer.  Arctic mammals can turn white in the winter and brown in the summer as a means of camouflage. Rotifers and other small organisms grow fish-deterring spines if they develop in water containing fish, and plants can alter their form depending on where they’re growing.

We’ve known this for decades, so the evolution of plasticity is not something that’s stumped evolutionists. It’s easy to envision a genome that can respond to different environments in different ways. (One fantastic example is how the same genome can produce a caterpilllar and then a butterfly depending on the environment and time of development.) All that’s required for plasticity to evolve is that there be reasonable chances that an organism can find itself in different environments, i.e., a decent probability that you’d find yourself in environments, A, B, C, or so on.  Wild cats that live in environments that go from hot to cold over the year (or over altitude), would have greater reproduction if they had genes that could induce hair growth when the weather is cold and hair loss when it gets warmer. For arctic hares, the probability that the environment will be white in winter and green/brown in summer is 100%, but the probability that we’ll be out in the sun enough to get a tan is lower than 100%. But it doesn’t have to be 100% if enough people are out in the hot sun and could get melanoma. That’s enough to keep the tanning response encoded in our genome.

Indeed, plasticity can even reveal genetic variation that can be subject to selection; this idea of “genetic assimilation” was discussed and demonstrated eighty years ago.

Yet Buranyi sees plasticity as another startling non-Darwinian, mysterious, and neglected phenomenon. He’s wrong, though he gives some cool examples of plasticity. His words (my bolding):

One of the most fascinating recent areas of research is known as plasticity, which has shown that some organisms have the potential to adapt more rapidly and more radically than was once thought. Descriptions of plasticity are startling, bringing to mind the kinds of wild transformations you might expect to find in comic books and science fiction movies.

. . . Plasticity doesn’t invalidate the idea of gradual change through selection of small changes, but it offers another evolutionary system with its own logic working in concert. To some researchers, it may even hold the answers to the vexed question of biological novelties: the first eye, the first wing. “Plasticity is perhaps what sparks the rudimentary form of a novel trait,” says Pfennig. [JAC: Pfennig is just guessing here.]

Plasticity is well accepted in developmental biology, and the pioneering theorist Mary Jane West-Eberhard began making the case that it was a core evolutionary force in the early 00s. And yet, to biologists in many other fields, it is virtually unknown. Undergraduates beginning their education are unlikely to hear anything about it, and it has still to make much mark in popular science writing.

What is the new “logic” involved in plasticity? The evolution of plasticity, like the examples Buranyi gives, simply follows the logic of natural selection acting when there are environmental conditions or changes that can be encountered with some frequency. In such a case it pays for your genome to evolve flexible adaptive responses to different environments.

As for the claim that students aren’t exposed to this, well, it’s sure in the evolution textbooks. I just pulled Doug Futuyma’s 1998 (third edition) textbook Evolutionary Biology off my shelf (it’s the one I used when I taught introductory evolution), and, sure enough, there’s a whole section on plasticity and “norms of reaction”, as they used to be known. (A norm of reaction is simply when a given genome can respond to different environments by producing different phenotypes.) Doug’s book was published nearly 25 years ago, and the phenomenon was discussed at length by others long before that.

c.) Biologists have unduly neglected macromutationism: the idea that a complex feature can come into being in a single step.  This was indeed a discussion in the 1930s and 1940s, with scientists like Richard Goldschmidt proposing a “hopeful monster” hypothesis: that major evolutionary features could come into being via a single mutation that affected many systems at once. To Goldschmidt and his followers, “mutationism” was considered an alternative to natural selection.  Ernst Mayr once told me that he heard Goldschmidt make this remark: “I firmly believe that the first creature considered a bird hatched from an egg laid by a creature considered a reptile.” (That implies a huge step rather than a gradualistic evolution of reptiles into birds.)

Macromutationism, though briefly revived by Steve Gould as part of “punctuated equilibrium” (see below), eventually lost plausibility for several reasons. First, it’s unlikely that a mutation could occur that would create a complex feature (or a new group, like birds) in one step, for there’s a very low probability that a coordinated and cooperative set of features could arise in one step. In fact, although we can see big “homeotic” mutations in the lab (like an eye developing on a wing, or a leg as part of an insect mouth), these are developmental anomalies that are maladaptive. More important, genetic dissection of even minor phenotypic changes that have occurred in nature, like the shape of insect genitalia, have repeatedly shown them to be based on several mutations of small effect. We have virtually no evidence for mutations of large effect being important in evolution.

Of course, even macromutations have to obey the rules of population genetics, so even if one occurred, it could not spread through a species without natural selection to drive it. That means, of course, that “mutationsm” is not an alternative to selection!

Finally, we have the data. The fossil record documenting major changes, like the evolution of birds, whales, amphibians, hominins and the like, show no such “macromutations”: we see a gradual change in phenotype from ancestor to descendant with different traits showing up at different times. Of course mutations do vary in size, but I can’t point to a single adaptation in nature that requires us to postulate macromutations because the feature supposedly can’t be produced by a stepwise accumulation of smaller mutations. (This latter claim, by the way, is promulgated by IDers like Behe, who posit God instead of macromutations to bridge the gap.)

Yet Buranyi implies that macromutation, which died after a spirited scientific debate, is unduly neglected (my emphasis):

Even more ominous for Darwinists was the emergence of the “mutationists” in the 1910s, a school of geneticists whose star exponent, 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. And these mutations, it turned out, were heritable. The mutationists believed that they had identified life’s true creative force. Sure, natural selection helped to remove unsuitable changes, but it was simply a humdrum editor for the flamboyant poetry of mutation. “Natura non facit saltum,” Darwin had once written: “Nature does not make jumps.” The mutationists begged to differ.

These disputes over evolution had the weight of a theological schism. At stake were the forces governing all creation. For Darwinists especially, their theory was all-or-nothing. If another force, apart from natural selection, could also explain the differences we see between living things, Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species, his whole theory of life would “utterly break down”. If the mutationists were right, instead of a single force governing all biological change, scientists would have to dig deep into the logic of mutation. Did it work differently on legs and lungs? Did mutations in frogs work differently to mutations in owls or elephants?

. . . The modern synthesis was such a seismic event that even its flatly wrong ideas took up to half a century to correct. The mutationists were so thoroughly buried that even after decades of proof that mutation was, in fact, a key part of evolution, their ideas were still regarded with suspicion. As recently as 1990, one of the most influential university evolution textbooks could claim that “the role of new mutations is not of immediate significance” – something that very few scientists then, or now, actually believe. Wars of ideas are not won with ideas alone.

This gets everything wrong. It misses the evidence against “mutationism” and implies that “mutationists” simply emphasized that mutations are an important part of evolution—something that NOBODY DENIES. In fact, mutationists implied not only that mutations of very large effect are pivotal in evolution, but drive evolution without the need for natural selection. As we all know, mutation and selection are both important for adaptive evolution: mutations are the gas and evolution is the car. You can’t say that one is more important than the other. By giving a misleading account the history of biology here, and conflating “mutationism” with “the importance of mutations in evolution,” Buranyi has done the reader a huge disservice.

d.) Punctuated equilibrium was only about the pace and timing of evolutionary change.

Other assaults on evolutionary orthodoxy followed. The influential palaeontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge argued that the fossil record showed evolution often happened in short, concentrated bursts; it didn’t have to be slow and gradual.

In fact, the real critique of evolutionary orthodoxy in Gould and Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium was the linking of a jerky pattern in the fossil record to a novel and almost non-Darwinian process, involving macromutations, evolution in isolated populations, the crossing of adaptive valleys via strong genetic drift, and then sorting out the variable groups via “species selection” instead of conventional Darwinian “genic selection.” While I have envisioned one form of species selection that operates in nature (see the last chapter of my book Speciation with Allen Orr), that process operates on rates of speciation to which characters are linked, but is neither identical to nor as ubiquitous as the process Gould postulated.

The failure of the various parts of Gould’s theory to work (including adaptive valley crossing via drift) was demonstrated by a number of experiments and pieces of theoretical work (see here and here); I summarized the failure and demise of Gould’s mechanistic theory here. I’m not sure if the “jerky” fossil record that gave rise to the postulated processes is still accepted as ubiquitous by paleontologists, but as for now, the reasons Gould and Eldredge advanced for such a pattern—the important attack on neo-Darwinism—are incorrect. (There are of course several causes for “jerky” evolution, including an incomplete fossil record or a jerky process of natural selection itself.)

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.

I could write for several days on the errors and distortions of Buranyi’s piece, but I’m tired. What’s given above is meant to serve merely as a few examples of the misguided nature of his article. What’s worse is that it misleads laypeople into thinking that there’s something seriously wrong with modern evolutionary theory. That itself could hearten creationists, and I’m sure the IDers are already lapping up the Guardian piece.

Brian Charlesworth on the errors of a new paper supposedly showing that a fundamental assumption of neo-Darwinian evolution is wrong

May 9, 2022 • 8:00 am

Intro by Jerry:  One of the pillars of neo-Darwinian evolution is the assumption, supported by a great deal of evidence, that mutation is “random.” This does not mean that mutations occur with equal frequency everywhere in the genome (they don’t), that different genes have the same mutation rate (they don’t), or that even within a gene some mutations don’t occur more often than others (they do). Rather, the statement that “mutation is random” means that the likelihood of a mutation occurring does not depend on whether in a given situation it would be advantageous or deleterious.

The idea that mutations are “nonrandom”—usually meaning that adaptive mutations are more likely to occur in some situations (e.g., a change in environment)—has been bruited about for years, mainly because if this was a fairly common phenomenon, it would create a substantial rethinking of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. But there is no way we know of that the frequency of an error in the DNA sequence, which is what a mutation is, can be elevated in the adaptive direction when the environment changes. (We know that environmental changes can raise the overall mutation rate, but this is not an adaptive phenomenon because the vast majority of mutations are harmful.) Because of this lack of evidence for “adaptive mutation,” and the absence of a mechanism whereby it could occur, evolutionists continue to accept that mutations are “random” in the sense I defined.

Recently, a paper appeared that seemed to show that at least one mutation in human hemoglobin—the one causing sickle-cell anemia when present in two copies—could occur more frequently in areas where the mutation is adaptive: malaria-ridden areas of Africa. The sickle-cell mutation, as Brian Charlesworth shows below, is adaptive, but only when present in one copy, when, together in a “heterozygote” with one copy of the “normal” hemoglobin beta chain, it confers substantial protection against malaria.  The heterozygote has higher survival and reproductive fitness than either the homozygote for the ‘normal’ allele, which is more prone to fatal malaria, and the sickle-cell homozygote, which has the disease sickle-cell anemia and is prone to die before adulthood.  The mechanics of population genetics show that if a heterozygote with one copy of each of two alleles has higher reproductive ability (read “survivorship” here) than either of the two homozygotes, it will be maintained in the population at a stable equilibrium frequency, regardless of how bad off the homozygotes are. The sufferings of those with sickle-cell anemia can be seen as the price paid because of the higher malaria resistance of heterozygotes carrying only one copy of the gene. It also shows that evolution doesn’t create the optimum situation: that would be a single mutation that causes malaria resistance when present in either one or two copies.

This, by the way, explains why African-Americans are more prone to sickle-cell anemia than people from other populations, for they still carry the “HbS” mutation prevalent in their ancestors who were brought to America as slaves. The frequency of the HbS mutation in the U.S., however, is now falling, and for two reasons: we don’t have malaria in the U.S., which is necessary to keep the gene at an equilibrium frequency, and because African-Americans have intermarried with whites, who don’t carry copies of HbS.  Eventually, prenatal testing and genetic counseling will be able to eliminate sickle-cell anemia, and the HbS allele, completely.

At any rate, the paper, by Melamed et al. (reference below), appeared to show that the mutation rate from the “normal” DNA sequence to the HbS “sickle-cell” sequence was higher in Africans than in Europeans. This was quickly picked up by the popular press as an example of “adaptive mutation” and as a refutation of modern evolutionary theory. (The “Darwin Was Wrong” trope still sells newspapers, especially in America!) Many readers wrote me and asked me about this paper, which I hadn’t yet read, but I told them that a better analysis was in the works.

I pointed this out to my friend, colleague, and ex-chairman (at Chicago) Brian Charlesworth, one of the world’s premier evolutionary geneticists. He quickly spotted the error in the Melamed et al. paper that refuted its conclusion of “adaptive mutation,” but was too busy to refute it on paper. After I kept hectoring him to write something up since the “Darwin was wrong” trope was associated with this paper in many articles in the popular press, he finally deigned to write a short and sweet refutation. Rather than submit it as a rebuttal to the journal (he said he has two refutations of other papers in press, and doesn’t want to get a reputation as a debunker), Brian allowed me to publish the rebuttal here. I’ve put it between the lines below.

Note that the error in Melamed et al. stems from a flaw in the assumptions: that all the new mutations analyzed were independent.

No evidence for an unusually high mutation rate to an adaptive variant

Brian Charlesworth
Institute of Evolutionary Biology
School of Biological Sciences
The University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, UK

The hemoglobin S variant (HbS) causes the near-lethal sickle cell disease when homozygous (present on both the maternal and paternal chromosomes) and confers protection against malaria when heterozygous (present on either the maternal or paternal chromosome). The HbS variant exists at substantial frequencies in several populations in Africa, as well as in Arabia and India. It is the classic example of heterozygote advantage, whereby a mutation that increases the fitness of its heterozygous carriers cannot replace its alternative because of the loss of fitness to homozygotes. (Note that 2022 is the 100th anniversary of R.A. Fisher’s discovery of how this process works). The HbS mutation is a single change from adenine to thymine at the sixth amino acid position in the beta globin gene, resulting a change in the amino-acid in the corresponding protein for valine to glutamic acid (it was the first mutation to be identified as causing a change in the sequence of a protein). Studies of the DNA sequences of chromosomes carrying the HbS mutation show that there are five major classes of sequences associated with it, but recent analyses show that the mutation probably arose only once, followed by recombination events that placed it onto different genetic backgrounds. This provides a classic example of what is known as a “partial selective sweep”, in which a new mutation with a selective advantage arises on a single genetic background, so that variants present on this background spread through the population in association with it.

Melamed et al. (2021) claim to have evidence that challenges the standard neo-Darwinian view that natural selection acts on mutations that arise “randomly”, i.e., without reference to their effects on the survival or fertility of their carriers (indeed, most mutations with noticeable effects reduce the fitness of their carriers). The evidence for Melamed et al.’s claim comes from an experiment in which the authors applied a novel technique for identifying new mutations in millions of sperm cells. With regard to the detection of HbS mutations, they characterized sperm from 7 African and 4 European men. They observed 9 instances of the HbS mutation in the sperm of Africans and none in the Europeans. They pointed out that HbS is at a selective advantage in Africans but not in Europeans, and suggested that the seemingly higher mutation rate is the result of a hypothetical process proposed by Adia Livnat, a co-author of the paper, whereby “adaptations and mutation-specific rates jointly evolve”. This claim has been disseminated in the media as evidence against the neo-Darwinian view of selection on random mutations [JAC: see below for some of these media references]– here it is claimed that mutations that are selectively advantageous in a particular environment arise more frequently than in environments where they lack an advantage.

However, there is no statistical support for the claim that there is a higher mutation rate to HbS in African men. While the authors looked at very large number of sperm, these came from only 11 individuals. Five of the nine HbS mutations occurred in a single individual, and 2 other individuals contributed 2 mutations each. The events within individuals cannot be treated as independent of each other, because there is a large population of dividing cells that are precursors of the mature sperm. If a mutation occurs in a cell that gives rise to several sperm after a number of divisions, there will be several copies of the mutation in the sperm pool. This is the cause of the well-established fact that the frequencies of mutations in human sperm increase with the man’s age. If we treat each individual as a single observation, we have 3 cases of HbS mutations among 7 Africans and 0 among 4 Europeans. Fisher’s exact test shows that the difference between Africans and Europeans has a probability of about 11% of arising by chance in the absence of any true difference.

There are other reasons for doubting this claim. First, it is exceedingly hard to see how there could be any biological process that could cause the HbS mutation to have a higher mutation rate in order to allow Africans to evolve malaria resistance, which is thought to have become a significant selective factor at most around 20,000 years ago. Mutations arise as errors in the replication of DNA molecules or as the result of damage to non-replicating molecules. There is no known mechanism whereby an organism could devise a process that would allow it to produce one specific class of mutation at a higher-than-average frequency just when that mutation is at an advantage. Further, the genetic evidence referred to above suggests that the HbS variant prevalent in human populations traces its ancestry back to a single ancestral mutation (Shriner and Rotimi, 2018; Laval et al., 2019) , so that there is no reason to believe that a high mutation rate has enabled multiple copies of the mutation to spread.


D. Melamed et al. 2022. De novo mutation rates at the single-mutation resolution in a human HBB gene region associated with adaptation and genetic disease. Genome Research 32:1-11.  Free pdf here

D. Shriner and C. N. Rotimi. 2018. Whole-genome-sequence-based haplotypes reveal single origin of the sickle allele during the Holocene wet phase. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 102:547-556.

G. Laval et al. 2019. Recent adaptive acquisition by African rainforest hunter-gatherers of the late Pleistocene sickle-cell mutation suggests past differences in malaria exposure.  Am. J. Hum. Genet. 104:553-561.

Among the many popular articles that cite Melamed et al. as a rebuttal of modern evolutionary theory, see here, here, here, here, here, ad infinitum:

Two examples (click on screenshot)s:


And here’s Brian:


Pinker vs. the AAAS on the politicization of climate change—and science in general

May 3, 2022 • 11:00 am

The other day Steven Pinker received a form letter from Ann Bostrom, one of the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), asking for money to support action on climate change. (Bostrom is also a professor of environmental policy at the University of Washington.)  The AAAS also publishes Science, one of a handful of the world’s best science journals.

Below is part of Bostrom’s letter (her entire solicitation is below the fold; bolding is hers):

My research career has focused primarily on two important areas: Risk perception, communication, and management; and environmental policy and decision-making.Though these are two distinct areas of study, I see them as two sides of the same coin. If key decisionmakers—like politicians on Capitol Hill—don’t understand the risks of climate change, how likely are they to pass meaningful policies to mitigate those risks? If someone is deeply concerned about climate change, but doesn’t believe the government can effectively address it, how strongly will they support policy action?My personal quest to answer questions like these keeps leading me back to the same conclusion: It is essential that each of us support and uplift science to inform and spur action on climate change.

That’s why this Earth Day, I am asking 300 generous donors to step up and make a tax-deductible gift to the AAAS Flexible Action Fund to support our nearly 175-year-strong mission to build trust in science and fortify key decision-making with evidence. Can I count on you to be one of them?

As you’ll see from his response below, Steve was distressed by the invitation and the AAAS itself. His complaint? That the AAAS is being unscientific and counterproductive in its strategy to enhance scientific literacy and action on climate change. The organization is and has been unscientific in assuming that rejection of science is simply caused by a deficit in knowledge; and it’s been oblivious to empirical data suggesting that this rejection is in fact largely political—a problem the AAAS relentlessly exacerbates with its recent but aggressive left-wing branding. Finally, Steve argues that the organization’s steadfast refusal even to consider alternative explanations to left-wing orthodoxy leaves it proposing what are probably ineffectual solutions to major problems. There is, for example, no mention of nuclear power.

(Steve also reproduces a tendentious and offensive tweet that one of the organization’s former editors issued attacking journalist Jesse Singal and psychologist Paul Bloom. This is just one example of how ideology has permeated the journal.)

Needless to say, Pinker refused to become one of the “generous donors”, and chided the AAAS for politicizing science in its “lurch to the left.” That politicization, he feels—and I agree—is a strong impediment to the objectivity needed to solve any scientific problem. Climate change is one such problem, and its solution is hampered by tribalism.

Steve gave me permission to post his response to Ann Bostrom, which I’ve put below. He also received a short response from Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of journals, which I also have permission to publish.

First, go below to the fold to read Bostrom’s solicitation, and then read Pinker’s response here (with tweets enclosed). Finally, read Thorp’s tepid response—actually a nonresponse.

Pinker’s response to the solicitation:

Dear Professor Bostrom,

I recently received your solicitation for a donation to the AAAS. I share with you an interest in risk perception and communication, as well as environmental policy, topics which I explore in my recent books Rationality and Enlightenment Now. I also share your concern that politicians on Capitol Hill, and the American public, be aware of the risks of anthropogenic climate change and how they can be reduced.

For precisely these reasons I cannot in good conscience agree to your request to donate money to the AAAS. The Association is currently making these hazards worse, not better.

First, it is astonishing that an association for the advancement of science does not take a scientific approach to public acceptance of scientific conclusions. The letter that went out over your name assumes that the problem is a lack of access to scientific evidence. Yet as I’m sure you’re aware, studies of public opinion by Dan Kahan and others have shown that deniers of the scientific consensus on climate change, evolution, and Covid are no less informed than believers. Presentation of scientific arguments, moreover, does little to change their mind.

The difference is political: the farther someone is to the right, the less they believe the scientists on these hot-button issues. My own experience as a scientific communicator confirms that there is enormous distrust of the scientific and academic establishments, because people believe these establishments have been captured by the political left and that any dissent from orthodoxy will be met with censorship or cancellation.

The solution is obvious. Scientific organizations must cultivate a reputation for objectivity, neutrality, openness to debate, and consideration of evidence for alternative hypotheses. Yet it is precisely in these areas that the AAAS, including Science magazine, have been making the problem worse.

I will give three examples of how the AAAS appears to be going out of its way to alienate any politician or citizen who is not a strong leftist.

  1. Science magazine appears to have adopted wokeism as its official editorial policy and the only kind of opinion that may be expressed in the magazine. An example is the recent special section on the underrepresentation of African Americans among physics majors, graduate students, and faculty members. This situation is lamentable and worthy of understanding. But the six articles in the issue assume as dogma that the underrepresentation is caused by “white privilege”: that “the dominant culture has discouraged diversity,” and “white people use their membership in a dominant group to assert political, cultural, and economic power over those outside that group.” Though Science is ordinarily committed to open debate on scientific controversies, no disagreements with this conspiracy theory were expressed. And though the journal is supposedly committed to empirical tests, no data were presented that might speak to alternative explanations, such as that the cause of the under-representation lies in the pipeline of prepared and interested students. If we want to increase the number of African Americans in physics, it matters a great deal whether we should try to fix the nation’s high schools or accuse physics professors of white supremacy. Yet Science magazine has decided, without debate or data, to advocate the latter.
  2. SciLine, the AAAS resource for journalists touted in your fundraising message, includes a webpage with primers on climate change.  This includes the following articles on energy:

“Wind energy in the United States”

“Biomass energy in the United States”

“Hydropower in the United States”

“Renewable energy in the United States”

“Geothermal energy in the United States”

“Solar energy in the United States”

Notice anything missing? There is nothing on nuclear energy in the United States. This is despite the fact that nuclear energy is currently the carbon-free source that exceeds every one of these alternatives in US energy consumption, and despite the fact that such esteemed climate and energy scientists as James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, and Kerry Emanuel have written that “in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power”,

For the AAAS to omit any mention of nuclear power in its resource for journalists on climate change is deeply irresponsible and can only be explained by the fact that nuclear power fell out of fashion among left-wing and Green political factions more than 40 years ago.

  1. Last year, Science’s editor for the behavioral sciences, Tage Rai, posted racist, unsourced, obscenity-laced tweets which libeled an important science journalist (Jesse Singal) and accused a distinguished psychologist (Paul Bloom) of bigotry for interviewing him. (See screenshot below.) This was because they discussed hypotheses about transgender issues that disagree with the tendentious and scientifically dubious orthodoxy. Though Rai has since departed from Science, this kind of communication should not be the public face of this country’s premier journal for science.

As best I can tell, awareness of the hazards of politicization of science among the officers of AAAS and the editors of Science is zero. Certainly the issue has not been broached in its communications or the pages of the magazine. Yet this lurch to the left is distorting their coverage of vital scientific issues such as climate change, and is in danger of alienating the majority of American legislators and citizens who are not hard leftists.

I urge the AAAS and the editors of Science to become mindful of this vital issue for the future of science in this country.

Steven Pinker
Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology
Harvard University
William James Hall 964
33 Kirkland St.
Cambridge, MA 02138





Tweet from former behavioral sciences editor of Science, Tage Rai [JAC: below]

Solicitation letter from Prof. Ann Bostrom [JAC: below the fold]

Here’s the AAAS’s response to Pinker from Holden Thorp, the Editor in Chief of Science and its stable of journals. (I’ve redacted phone numbers and email addresses.)

From: Holden Thorp Sent: Sunday, May 1, 2022 10:02 AMTo: Pinker, Steven Subject: FW: Response to “Setting an ambitious goal for Earth Day”

Dr. Pinker,

                Thanks for your note.  We’re sorry to lose you as a donor, but I disagree with your analysis.  We will continue to cover the evidence for and impact of systemic racism.   Thanks for your support of AAAS in the past.


Holden Thorp

Editor-in-Chief, Science Family of Journals1200 New York Ave NWWashington, DC  20005

JAC:  Thorp’s non-response is disturbing. “I disagree with your analysis,” he says. Does that include the issues of both systemic racism and nuclear power.? We don’t know, as Thorp doesn’t mention what he disagrees with!

Pinker is an AAAS Fellow and crafted a long and reasoned argument. He surely deserved more than a “thanks, but no thanks” reply from the editor of Science!

This suggests that Thorp is simply not interested in engaging with a reasoned argument, wedded as he is to Science‘s “wokeist” ideology. And believe me, I’ve seen that wokeism many times, not just in Science but in Nature and its own stable of journals.

The explicit wedding of the world’s two premier science journals to political ideology is not a good sign, as it prioritizes politics over science. And all too often, politically infused science is ineffective science.


Click “continue reading” below to see Ann Bostrom’s original solicitation for donations:

Continue reading “Pinker vs. the AAAS on the politicization of climate change—and science in general”

New paper on “cancel culture in science”

February 7, 2022 • 9:38 am

This paper written by four chemists just appeared in Nachrichten aus der Chemie (“Chemistry News”), the news outlet outlet of the German Chemical Society. It’s in English, and free online, so you should be able to open the paper by clicking the screenshot below. It’s a call for scientists to resist ideological pressures that may distort or reject science, as happened during the “Lysenko affair” in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The thesis of the paper is this: whereas scientific censorship used to come from the top (cf. Lysenko/Stalin, with “proper” genetics enforced by the government, or Nazi Germany, which decried “Jewish physics”, driving many great physicists out of the country), now the “cancellation” begins on the bottom, with social media sites and readers pressuring journal editors or publishing companies, sometimes resulting in the rejection of sound papers because they contravene an established ideological narrative. And there is also policing of language. This kind of “cancellation,” of course, has to come ultimately from the top, but is propelled by disaffected people on social media.

A few quotes from the paper (indented)

The modern form: cancel culture

Suppression today takes the form of „Cancel Culture“, censorship administered not by repressive governments but by Twitter vigilantes, an „outrage mob“ „whose goal is to sanction or punish … individuals or organization[s] they consider responsible for something that offends, insults, or affronts their beliefs, values, or feelings“.1)

Consider the cancellation of chemist Tomáš Hudlický,4,5) who in 2020 published an essay in Angewandte Chemie discussing the progress of organic synthesis and expressing his views on the hiring practices and training of scientists and the integrity of the literature.

The publication sparked a Twitter firestorm that condemned the article as „offensive“, „inflammatory“; the content as „alienating“, „hurtful“, „xenophobic“; the paper as „abhorrent“, „egregious“; and Hudlický as „racist“, „misogynist“, a „slithering insect“. Sixteen editorial board members resigned in protest of the publication. The journal removed the paper from its website (an unprecedented act), issued an abject apology, suspended two editors, and began an internal investigation. Condemnation ensued in blogs, journals, and statements issued by chemical societies.

We invite readers to read Hudlický’s essay and his elaboration to the National Academy of Scholars.5) Whether one agrees with his views or not, a civilised debate should have ensued, not an avalanche of insults. The journal could have invited a rebuttal; instead it capitulated to the mob.

Hudlický’s cancellation did not end there. A planned special issue of Synthesis in his honour was cancelled, invitations to speak at conferences and to review papers ceased, citations to his papers were deleted, and collaborators were encouraged to dissociate themselves from him.

The cancellation of geophysicist Dorian Abbot is another example of censoring an individual’s scientific contributions because of his views on non-scientific matters.6–8) Abbot had been invited to deliver a public lecture at MIT on „climate and the potential for life on other planets“. But a small group of activists, outraged by Abbot’s advocacy8) for equal opportunity, fairness, merit-based evaluation, and academic freedom, initiated a social media campaign to uninvite him. MIT quickly cancelled the event, violating their own „policy of open research and free interchange of information among scholars“.

These examples underscore authorities’ responsibility to resist outrage mobs: „Although outrage mobs often trigger the punishment process, in Western democracies, mobs no longer actually burn witches at stakes. … Mobs do not get papers retracted; that is the decision of editors and editorial boards. Thus, the key turning point in whether an academic outrage mob is effective at punishing an academic for their ideas is … the action of authorities.“1)

Well, one can argue about whether a civilized debate could have ensued: that may be impossible in these days when people get heated up and censorious so quickly. But what cannot and should not happen is for editors to bow to social-media pressure just to reduce the heat.  Yes, they can go back and “look at” a paper to see if it’s sound, but all too often that reexamination is selective, spurred by the social-media mob, and with editors looking for reasons to censor papers or talks.

The Dorian Abbot cancellation, which I’ve written about before (see posts here), is unforgivable (MIT is the culprit). Because Abbot had used social media to oppose DEI initiatives, public outcry made the MIT administration cancel a prestigious invited lecture—one that had nothing to do with DEI. It was a public lecture on global warming and the possibility of alien life.

The point is that science should oppose the incursion of political views into science, though we should not forget, of course, that some science has been done with political ends, and that scientific results have sometimes been warped to meet these ends. Scientists are not purely apolitical animals, and sometimes it affects their work.

But it doesn’t help that journals are now policing science and its language to ensure that people don’t get offended. Get a load of this from the Krylov et al paper (emphasis is mine).

Some institutions have actually institutionalised censorship. For example, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), a major publisher, has issued guidelines10) for editors to „consider whether or not any content … might have the potential to cause offence“. An RSC memo explains that the guidelines were developed in response to the Hudlický affair.

The document elaborates: „The aim of this guidance is to help you to identify and prevent the publication of inappropriate content in our journals and books.… Words, depictions and imagery have the potential to cause offence…. There can be a disparity between the intention of an author and how their content might be received – it is the perception of the recipient that determines offence, regardless of author intent.“

The editors are instructed to be on the lookout for „[a]ny content that could reasonably offend someone on the basis of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, marital or parental status, physical features, national origin, social status or disability“ or are „[l]ikely to be upsetting, insulting or objectionable to some or most people“. These guidelines are so broad as to justify censoring anything in chemistry and beyond.

Note that, like the NYT’s firing of Donald McNeil after he used the “n-word” in a didactic context,the RSC is taking the NYT’s stance that “Intent is irrelevant.” All that matters is how offended someone is by a remark, not what the person who made the remark actually meant or intended. That is not a rational way to deal with conflict, and of course the law distinguishes regularly between intentional and accidental harm.

Krylov et al. end like this:

Censorship is antithetical to science. Rather than turning social media censorship into policy, scientific leadership worldwide should reject cancel culture and defend the core principle of science – the free exchange of ideas in the pursuit of truth.

This kind of censorship happens all the time in the humanities: think of Rebecca Tuvel’s demonization when she wrote a philosophical paper on transracialism vs. transsecualism. She survived that one, but others haven’t.

As a coda here, the editors of Nachrichten were besieged with social-media pushback, especially strong for a paper that isn’t that controversial. There were not only tweets, but phone calls and actual letters to the journal, all complaining about the paper and calling for its retraction. I forgot to mention, and am adding this later, that the overwhelming majority of comments on social media, including tweets, were positive: approving of the paper’s message. There are a whole lot of silent people out there who don’t like cancel culture and abhor the “science needs a reckoning” attitude.

There was a rebuttal published only a couple of days after Krylov et al. came out and accusations that the authors were anti-Semitic because they discussed scientific suppression by the Nazis (the second author of the Krylov et al. piece is Jewish. . .)

The journal is now creating a “portal” for people to weigh in about the paper. But if a paper complaining about cancel culture itself gets so much heated reaction, this bodes very poorly for the future of objective scientific discourse.

I once thought that science would be the last area where the Woke would exercise their policing, but I was wrong. Given the power and respect afforded by many to science, it’s only natural that people who see science as “just another narrative”, or those who want that power and respect to devolve on themselves, would go after science in general.  Although individual scientists of the past are being scrutinized for political or moral stands that wouldn’t pass muster today, remember that it is science itself that is being accused of being harmful, racist, and a vehicle for white supremacy, and “colonialism.”

The inanities of Scientific American—almost all within just one year

January 26, 2022 • 1:00 pm

I’m tired of beating up on Scientific American, even though the magazine saw its best days years ago and is superannuated—it was founded in 1845 and has published work by 200 Nobel Laureates.  No, I’m not going to say that—I’ll let someone else do it. That someone is Peter Burns, who, at Medium, wrote the article below (click on the screenshot to read it):

There’s not a lot new here, as Burns just reiterates that Sci. Am. published the much-discussed hit piece on Ed Wilson, calling him a racist (Gregor Mendel was also tarred with that label) only a few days after Wilson died. I know of no evidence that Wilson was a racist, though some hint darkly that they will produce that evidence. And surely Mendel was not a racist. He might have been an ageist (see below), but I’ll eat my hat if they dig out evidence that the friar was dire.

Burns goes through Monica McLemore’s ludicrous hit-job, but says about the same thing I did, so you can read for yourself.  He did dig into McLemore’s links, though, and here’s a bit of Burns worth reading:

You really should read that study; it’s an all-time classic of conflating science with ideology—and yet its inanities are taken seriously!

Before I go, I want to do two more things. First, make a joke (at bottom) and second, give a list of all the ludicrous pro-“elect” articles (I’m reading McWhorter’s book) that have recently appeared in Scientific American, as well as articles that are purely ideological and have nothing to do with science.  The Wilson hit-job was not a one-off thing. The bits in bold below link to my posts, and in plain text to the Sci. Am. articles. These are just articles I’ve written about that were called to my attention by readers; I don’t read the rag, and I’m sure there are others. I’ve not included the Wilson hit piece, which I discussed here.

1.) Bizarre acronym pecksniffery in Scientific American.Title: “Why the term ‘JEDI’ is problematic for describing programs that promote justice, diversity, equity, and Inclusion.”

2.) More bias in Scientific American, this time in a “news” article. Title: “New math research group reflects a schism in the field.”

3.) Scientific American again posting non-scientific political editorials.Title: “The anti-critical race theory movement will profoundly effect public education.

4.) Scientific American (and math) go full woke.  Title: “Modern mathematics confronts its white, patriarchal past.”

5.) Scientific American: Denying evolution is white supremacy. Title: “Denial of evolution is a form of white supremacy.”

6.) Scientific American publishes misleading and distorted op-ed lauding Palestine and demonizing Israel, accompanied by a pro-Palestinian petition. Title: “Health care workers call for support of Palestinians.” (The title is still up but see #7 below)

7.) Scientific American withdraws anti-Semitic op-ed. Title of original article is above, but now a withdrawal appears (they vanished the text): “Editor’s Note: This article fell outside the scope of Scientific American and has been removed.”   Now, apparently, nothing falls outside the scope of the magazine!

8.) Scientific American: Religious or “spiritual” treatment of mental illness produces better outcomes. Title: “Psychiatry needs to get right with God.”

9.)  Scientific American: Transgender girls belong on girl’s sports teams. Title:  “Trans girls belong on girls’ sports teams.”

and one more for an even ten, as I’m not going to spend another minute doing this:

10.) Former Scientific American editor, writing in the magazine, suggests that science may find evidence for God using telescopes and other instruments. Title: “Can science rule out God?

Is ten enough to show you where the magazine is going? I’m surprised that the sub-editors don’t quit en masse. After all, these article were all published within the last three years.


Let me finish by recounting a joke I made in my first post defending Mendel that several authors have now claimed for themselves. This is what Burns says:

Seriously, how was Gregor Mendel a racist? This guy spent his entire life in a monastery in Brno (in what is now the Czech Republic) observing peas grow. Unless he wrote somewhere that yellow peas are racially superior to green peas, I don’t see why his name was on the list.

I won’t call him out for theft of humor, but here’s what I said in my first post:

We’ve talked about most of these people before, and yes, they had ideas that today would be considered racist, but Darwin was also an abolitionist. And MENDEL, for crying out loud? Find me one piece of Mendel’s writings that suggest that the good friar was a racist! Were green peas considered superior to yellow peas? Here we have McLemore simply making stuff up: throwing Mendel’s discoveries of inheritance into the pot with the other accused “racists.” This is dreadful scholarship, almost humorous in its ignorant assertions.

Look, the green vs. yellow trope was mine (it’s slight but it’s okay), but if you want to steal something better, here’s a trope I suggest:

Mendel found that the shape of round peas was genetically dominant over that of wrinkled peas. This is nothing more than ageism on Mendel’s part.

If you read that anywhere from now on, remember that it’s been lifted from here.  And I’ll be here all year, folks!


Round vs. wrinkled peas. Actually, the recessive “wrinkled” trait is more prized by breeders, as wrinkled peas are sweeter.

Speaking of Scientific American. . .

January 7, 2022 • 1:15 pm

The latest webpage of Scientific American shows a big, bold, headline article that has nothing to do with science—at least as far as I know. Click on the screenshot to see the page, and then on this link to see the article on citizen militias, which of course decries them as white-supremacist organizations that constitute a profound danger to the Republic. That may be true as a generality, but it is not science: it’s politics and sociology with a Leftist bent.

Here’s the author; Ms. Cooter apparently has training at sociology but not science. (The article is classified under “sociology”.)

And just two quotes, one from the beginning of the article and the other from the end.

This was the third militia event I had attended. I am a sociologist, and at that time I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan just beginning in-depth fieldwork and interview research about the militia movement in the U.S. I had approached members of this group a month earlier during a public meeting at a strip mall diner because I wanted to understand why people join civilian groups that prepare for armed combat, and I planned to examine whether militias propagate racism and violence. My fieldwork in Michigan, as well as in-depth interviews that included groups in other states, continued through 2013. Since then, I have maintained regular contact with militia members, especially in Michigan, and they update me with their activities and responses to political and social events. We regularly speak about their values and their motivations. I follow their online posts. Last summer I conducted a survey asking members what they thought about protests related to COVID social restrictions and George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota.

. . .Speculating on how militias may evolve in the future under increased scrutiny is difficult, in no small part because the units are still adapting to the aftermath of Trump’s presidency. In contrast to what many members had predicted, they did not see President Biden enact martial law or start an immediate attack on Second Amendment rights. Millenarian militias and other groups on the extreme end of the nostalgic group spectrum nonetheless remain vigilant, and some are eager for violence. Members may be plotting deadly actions, but now they are on increasingly private and secure Internet platforms that are more difficult to monitor.

So the reality is that the danger has not abated. Quite the opposite: Militia emotions and activity could be easily exacerbated by another political leader who encourages exclusionary thinking and paranoia or by a foreign terrorist attack that nostalgic groups perceive as threatening to America’s safety or culture.

Law enforcement must remain watchful for signs of radicalization in the movement, but as uncomfortable as it is, we as a society also must recognize that militias’ violent potential is not limited to these groups. They are not fluke outliers. Members share ideological similarities with other white Americans who distrust the government and believe the country has declined because of increasing liberalism. Much work remains to repair the distrust and to protect innocent people from the violence that it breeds.

This belongs in the op-ed section of the NYT, not in a science magazine.