The evidence for evolution

November 11, 2014 • 7:28 am

[The internet is down at the Kirksville Holiday Inn. The only other time this has happened to me was when I was in Russia. What this means is that posting may be light today. Fortunately Greg prepared a post on a recent talk he gave about evolution, which is below. JAC]

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has posted a couple of times in the last week or so on the “creationist shenanigans” at Georgia Southern University, where a professor is apparently openly proselytizing for his religion in classes on the history of science. One of the items the professor has produced is an online document titled “No evidence for evolution“. It’s actually a rather sad document– and not just because it’s a typically dishonest creationist exercise in quote-mining, which would have us believe that Jerry Coyne, George Gaylord Simpson, Jeff Levinton, Niles Eldredge, and Steve Gould, among others, can all be rallied to the cause of creationism. Nor is it because he mixes in quotes from the likes of  Michael Denton and Francis Hitching, as though they had any authority at all. Nor is it even because of his schizophrenic view of Gould and Eldredge, who on the one hand he wields in support of creationism, but on the other he attacks (through quotes) because (gasp!) they are evolutionary paleontologists. No, it’s sad because it’s all so old. Other creationists did this decades ago– and, frankly, better. The quotes are almost all old ones– from the 1980’s and earlier (the latest quote I noted was 1997– the page is dated 2002). The reason it’s so sad is that not only does this guy know nothing about biology or paleontology, he’s not even a very good creationist– he apparently hasn’t kept up with developments in his own “discipline”!

Just a day or two after Jerry posted, my colleague Chris Noto informed me that a talk I had given at Darwin Day celebrations earlier this year was now available online. Entitled “The Evidence for Evolution”, it seemed like a happy coincidence, and so I share it with you here. (Note that the Parasaurolophus and sauropod behind me seem quite interested, the latter even bending his neck above and around me so he can read my notes on the podium! There was a human audience too, although, as usual, until a late attendee arrived, no one wanted to sit in the front seats.)

The talk was given at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as part of their Darwin Day events last February. It was based on the chapter I wrote for The Princeton Guide to Evolution, edited by my friend and colleague Jon Losos, which was officially published right about the time I gave the talk. The talk is about descent with modification per se, and not on the mechanisms of evolution (except insofar as the observation of current evolutionary changes allows us to see such mechanisms directly), and the main topics were the fossil record; transitional forms; comparative morphology, embryology and genetics; biogeography; and evolution in action. I would particularly draw attention to the example of observed speciation in Spartina in England (about 30:44). It’s an example of allopolyloid speciation (a new species arises by hybdidization with increase in the number of chromosome sets), which is common in plants (though not animals), and is expected to occur very rapidly, but it’s nice to have a case where humans observed the speciation event start to finish (1829-1892).

(The camera battery went dead for a bit, so there’s about 5 minutes of the biogeography section missing; the dead space was edited out with a “wave”– you’ll notice it.)

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Mayer, G.C. 2014. The evidence for evolution. pp. 28-39 in J.B. Losos, ed., The Princeton Guide to Evolution, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Darwinius, the “link” and the book

July 4, 2009 • 12:50 pm

Over at the Times Literary Supplement, paleontologist Ian Tattersall reviews Colin Tudge’s new book on Darwinius, The Link.

As you may remember if you read this and other evolution-related websites (see Greg Mayer’s post on this site), Darwinius masillae is an extraordinarily complete primate fossil that was revealed to scientists and the public in May, complete with a paper in PLoS,  overheated press releases, a movie deal on the History Channel, and, of course, Tudge’s book.  What was truly remarkable about this affair was the degree of hype: a publicity explosion that has never been equaled by any evolution-related discovery (indeed, even the completion of the human genome did not receive such fanfare).  Mayor Bloomberg was there, a press release touted Darwinius (known more familarly as “Ida”) as “a revolutionary scientific find that will change everything” (everything??), and one of the authors of the Darwinius paper, Jens Franzen, proclaimed that “When we publish our results it will be like an asteroid hitting the Earth.”

Well, hardly.  Ida turned out to be a really lovely fossil that didn’t add much to our knowledge of primate evolution.  It is almost certainly an adapiform primate, member of a group that went extinct without leaving descendants, and the early reports that Ida was a “missing link” between the two branches of primates were premature and based on incomplete and sketchy analysis by the scientists who described her.  Ida probably belongs firmly in the lemur/loris group.

Several of the science bloggers realized this immediately, although most reporters swallowed the “missing link” description uncritically (to be fair, they are not primate paleontologists).   The whole sorry affair resulted from the agreement between Ida’s discoverers and the publicists to prevent any scientists other than the “dream team” (that’s what Tudge calls them) from looking at the fossil or the research before publication, and blacking out journalists’ access to the paper until after the big press conference.  In the end, it was the bloggers like Brian Switek, and a few intrepid science journalists like Ann Gibbons and Carl Zimmer, who put Ida in the correct perspective.

According to Tattersall’s review, The Link looks as hyped-up and tendentious as were the original announcements.  The book was apparently written in only a couple of months so that it would appear the day after the press conference:

Colin Tudge’s book is part of the media blitz; and, at the risk of damning it with faint praise, I have to say that it is much the best part. It is more restrained and judicious than the other coverage; and while it does strictly hew to the party line, the hyperbolic statements it makes are always carefully attributed to others. To that extent, it is a thoroughly professional job, as one would expect of a distinguished interpreter of science to the public. . .

If The Link deserves a prize of any kind, it is for the speed with which it was written. Your reviewer has it on good authority that the television producers were still trawling around the Book of Ida project as late as January of this year; and Tudge evidently found he could not meet the almost impossibly short time constraints imposed by the TV schedule without co-opting the assistance of his colleague Josh Young. In combination with deadline pressure, this co-authorship presumably helps to explain a pattern of minor and generally harmless inconsistencies and inaccuracies throughout the book that might have been resolved with more time for reflection. It was hard, for example, to credit that the same author could have written on page 13 that “dinosaurs and mammals had coexisted briefly”, and (correctly), later on, that “the oldest known mammals could be older than the first dinosaurs”. And, in a note at the end of the book, we learn that he didn’t.

In this rather unseemly rush to publication, Tudge and Young were not alone. Speed, as well as obsessive secrecy, seems to have infected the entire Ida project from its inception. As reported by Nature, a member of the Dream Team complained that “there was a TV company involved and time pressure. We’ve been pushed to finish the study; it’s not how I like to do science”. I’m sure it’s not how Colin Tudge likes to write books, either.

Let’s just say that my own opinion is along the lines of Tattersall’s, but less charitable. More about that later.