Darwin wrong—again??

You may have seen a small flurry of reports this week about a science paper showing that “Darwin was wrong.”  The paper wasn’t a creationist or ID screed, however—it was a paper in a good science journal (Biology Letters) by a crack team of paleontologists from the UK and Canada (Sarda Sahney, Michael Benton, and Paul Ferry). What did the paper say? Did it really show that Darwin was wrong? I’m here to answer your questions.

What did the paper say? It reported a correlation in the fossil record between the number of tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates) existing at different times and the number of ecological ” modes of life” those species adopted, all over the 400-million-year period since vertebrates colonized the land.  To be exact, it divided up that time period into 66 sub-periods, and in each sub-period the authors totted up the number of tetrapod families that were represented by fossils and the number of modes of life they adopted.  Here’s the time plot showing that, as the families diversified exponentially over this period, so did the number of modes of life adopted, with the changes almost in lockstep:

What do they mean by a “mode of life”? The authors defined a “mode of life” as the ecology of a species that fit into one of three body size categories (length less than 15 cm, between 15 and 150 cm, and greater than 150 cm), one of 16 diet categories (browser, nectar, molluscs, carrion, and so on), and one of 6 habitat categories (marine, arboreal, subterranean, and so on).  This gave 288 potential modes of life (3 x 16 x 6), only 75 of which were actually seen.

If you simply plot, among all 66 time periods, a graph of the number of families existing at a given time with the number of modes of life they occupied during that period, you see a very tight correlation:

What does this correlation mean? The authors interpret the tight fit between biodiversity (number of families) and ecological diversity (number of modes of life seen among those families) to mean that what drove tetrapod diversity over this period was open niche space: ecological opportunities that had not yet been realized.  They oppose this to another explanation that, they say, their data did not support: diversification was driven not by the availability of ecological space, but by competitiion.  The competition theory would, say the authors, predict that as organisms began to lose elbow room, they would simply subdivide their already-occupied “modes of life” into finer ones.  If competition drove diversification, then, you wouldn’t see such a tight correlation between modes of life and diversity.

Is this interpretation correct? I’m not so sure.  The problem is that it might not be possible to separate the “force” of competition from the selective pressure to occupy new niches.  After all, animals may be driven to adopt new modes of life by competition itself.  The occupation of the land by ancestral fish may, for example, have been the result of selection to reduce competition for prey by finding a nice new place with lots of prey (insects) and fewer competititors.  I don’t think that showing a correlation between “modes of life” and “number of families” tells us that competition did not play a big role in driving that diversity.  In other words, I am not convinced that, at least from the fossil data, you can separate competition from ecological opportunity.

Also, it’s possible that some of the correlation is an artifact.  It may be—and I’m not sure of this because I’m not a paleobiologist—that different taxonomic families are partially recognized by large differences in characters like body size and adaptations to diet or habitat.  In that case you only get a new family when there’s a sufficiently large difference in what we’d recognize as a “mode of life.”  This would be true regardless of the evolutionary force driving the difference.  And to the extent that this is the case, it devalues the correlation as a way to recognize process.

This doesn’t mean the paper is bad. Far from it—it’s a very good (and laborious!) correlation between ecology and diversity, and the correlations between them do demand explanation.  I’m just not sure if the authors’ answer is the right one.

Where did the “Darwin was wrong” stuff come from? It comes from the notion that Darwin saw competition as a major cause of ecological diversity.  There is some justification for this: in The Origin, for example, the only figure (the famous “tree of life”) shows an increase in diversity over time, with Darwin attributing this to competition between species for niche space.  His “principle of divergence” maintained that organisms inhabiting a small area would always be competing with each other, and would benefit by seizing on slightly different niches to reduce that competition.  A grass, for example, might inhabit soils of different moisture content to avoid competing for space with other grasses.

We shouldn’t think, though, that Darwin saw competition as the overweening force in promoting biological diversity.  In The Origin he adduces other factors, including simple adaptation to physical factors (“a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought”), and to biotic features like predators and parasites.  I think that Darwin may have seen biotic factors as a whole (which include but are not limited to competition), as important drivers of diversity, and emphasized them so that his readers would see that natural selection didn’t solely promote responses to the physical, non-biotic environment.

So did the paper show that Darwin was wrong? Hardly.  As I said above, I don’t think the authors ruled out competition as an important force in ecological diversity.  Indeed, you could almost construe the data as supporting Darwin, who emphasized throughout The Origin that the more different species were, the better their chances of leaving descendants. (See pp. 111-125 of the first edition of The Origin for this view.)  He emphasizes, for instance, that plants have a better chance of invading a new area if they were already quite different from the species that were already there.

But of course Darwin was wrong about many things. Nobody pretends that the man was a god, or omniscient.  He was dead wrong, for instance, about genetics.  We know a lot more about biology now than we did in Darwin’s time, and we can see that his ideas were often incomplete or incorrect.  So it’s bizarre to see every modern discovery through a lens of either supporting or refuting his ideas.  If we did that, every paper in genetics could be sold to science journalists as showing that Darwin was wrong about inheritance!  We’ve moved on. It’s amazing how right Darwin was—that’s one of the reasons he’s a hero to many of us—but, like all scientists, his ideas get supplanted and revised.

Why did the press sell the paper this way? Hype, pure and simple.  A paper on taxonomic diversity over time gets a lot more interest if it can be said to disprove Darwin. I suppose there’s some residual anti-evolution or anti-Darwin sentiment in all this.  Here are some of the headlines about the Sahney et al. paper:

BBC:

Montreal Gazette:

Slate:

And, of course, the good old HuffPo:

Who’s responsible for this hype? I’d like to think it was just the press, for they always love a controversy.  But I’m curious how all these different journalists managed to hit on the same Darwin-was-wrong hook.  Are a lot of science journalists really conversant enough with Darwin to immediately and independently see a Biology Letters paper as refuting his ideas? Well, maybe one of them did it and was copied by the others.  But I wonder whether the authors, or the authors’ universities, or even the journal, issued a press release that sold the paper as a “Darwin refuter.” I posted a query to this effect on Sahney’s website (she’s the first author), but my query hasn’t show up.

__________

Sahney, S., M. J. Benton, and P. A. Ferry.  2010.  Links between global taxonomic diversity, ecological diversity and the expansion of vertebrates on land.  Biology Letters 6:544-547.  doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.1024

h/t: David Reznick, for Darwin discussion

62 Comments

  1. Posted August 26, 2010 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    The real fun, of course, will be when cdesign proponentsists procure the headlines as ipso facto fuel for cooking academic freedom fries.

  2. Juha Savolainen
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    In fact, it is much better to say that “Darwin was wrong” than “the theory of evolution by natural selection is wrong”. Alas, given the popular and careless intersubstitutivity of “Darwin” and “theory of evolution by natural selection”, the impression is created that the latter has been refuted when some hypothesis of Darwin, however peripheral, is challenged. Moreover, this conflation seems often enough deliberate and motivated by commercial considerations. It would not happen unless we had millions and millions of people who are against “Darwin”. Which makes it worse, of course.

    • Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      Yeah, it’s almost trivial to say “Darwin was wrong” — of course he was wrong about many things, especially there was no accurate theory of inheritance available (discounting his slight overlap with the then-unknown Mendel). He was also mostly right about natural selection and provided boatloads of still-valuable data to support his theory.

      What the “Darwin was wrong” meme usually means to most of the non-scientist public is that the TOE as understood by today’s biologists is fundamentally wrong. That’s why it’s misleading for science journalists to use that phrase — it’s sensational, yes, and it’s even technically true, but it misleads the public.

    • Neil
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      The “Darwin was wrong” headline reflects the fact that many journalists don’t seem to understand that science is not based on authority, so they think it newsworthy if some famous scientist turns out to be wrong (and all probably were about something.)

      Now a real news headline would be “Religionists agree, Jesus was wrong.”

      • Juha Savolainen
        Posted August 26, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        We do use expressions such as “Newtonian physics”, “Mendelian genetics”, but I guess one of the reasons for linking Darwin to theory of evolution via natural selection so closely in public fora is the very opposition the theory has created: things get personal in the heat of ideological debate…although the scientific discussion on the basic veracity of the theory came to end aeons ago…

        As for Jesus? Was he even wrong?
        I doubt that, but – just for the sake of the argument & for the sake of the principles of Charity & Benefit of Doubt – I shall grant here that Jesus was wrong, dead wrong!…:)

  3. palefury
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Semantics!
    From the authors point of view what better way to raise interest in your work than to claim it proves “Darwin was wrong”. Any publicity is apparently good publicity.
    But actually I think that Darwin would entirely agree with their findings. It reminds me a lot of his finches. Certainly the theory of evolution, like all scientific theories, is a changing one. It is constantly being revised a new information comes to light.
    Not sure what all the fuss is about.

  4. Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    I think Jerry’s been a bit too generous to the authors of this paper– their interpretation is perverse, not merely subtly inadequate. Darwin saw competition for ecological resources (niche space) as the driving force of ecological diversification. That taxonomic diversification parallels ecological diversification is exactly what we would expect if niche competition drove evolution. That is why I call their interpretation perverse: having found exactly what you would expect under Darwin’s hypothesis of competition driving ecological diversification, they somehow decide the pattern means the complete opposite of what the data appear to say.

    Steve Farris once said that “Birds are in the trees because the desmogs [stream dwelling salamanders] drove them out of the streams.” That’s of course not literally true, but it captures the gist of what the data show.

    A potential issue not mentioned by Jerry is that taxonomic families are conventional groupings, rather than objectively real groupings (which is not to say they don’t have objective diagnoses and/or definitions, and form continuous portions of the real phylogenetic tree, just that which such portions get called “families” is conventional). However, if we allow that # of families correlates well with the morphological diversity of vertebrates (which I think it does), then what we see is ecological diversity correlating well with structural diversity, which is, again, exactly what we would expect on a hypothesis of descent with modification, with natural selection based on ecological resource competition being the chief means of modification.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      In other words, “survival of the fittest” should more appropriately be “survival of the best-adapted to that particular local environment/ecological niche”…

      Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue in the same way, does it? Makes it sound so “sciencey”.

      You sell the sizzle, not the steak.

      • llewelly
        Posted August 26, 2010 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

        You sell the sizzle, not the steak

        That kind of thinking results in the indiscriminate promotion of “meat product” mystery “foods”.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Thank you Greg. I like the way you phrased that.

      “Survival of the fittest” was never correct. It is survival of the most reproductive that best flourish.

      • MadScientist
        Posted August 26, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

        Well, Darwin himself was never terribly happy with that phrase – but it’s stuck now.

      • swences
        Posted August 26, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

        I dislike one-liners that try to encompass a broad concept, but if you define ‘fit’ as: the ability to reproduce successfully, then saying “Survival of the fittest” seems right to me.

        But I get what you mean, because it too easily lends itself to misinterpretations (why I dislike one-liners), where people think “fittest” means strongest, biggest, smartest (characteristics which don’t necessarily make you more fit).

      • Microraptor
        Posted August 26, 2010 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

        “Survival of the successful?”

        • Posted August 27, 2010 at 5:03 am | Permalink

          “The one with the most grandkids wins.”

          It also makes a good bumper sticker.

    • Sven DiMilo
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Great post (Dr. Coyne) and comment (Dr. Mayer)–dead on.
      Another complication is that “family” is a conventional grouping with different conventions in different classes. There is no reason whatsoever to think that an avian ‘family’ is in any way an equivalent rank to an anuran or chelonian ‘family’.

      It also seems to me that their list of ‘mode’ categories had to have been based largely on a catalog of extant animals’ ‘modes.’ Thus by definition there would be more ‘modes’ extant than in the fossil record, and since the tetrapods started with one mode, the increase over time was a given beforehand. The interesting thing is the seemingly lock-step co-increase of taxonomic diversity.

  5. Don
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    The finding is an important addition to the string of discoveries by Benton. He repeats in the Abstract that increase in diversity has been exponential, and extraordinarily important fact that suggests positive feedback among the biotic elements of the evolving diversity: plants, herbivores, predators, detritivores, etc. What is strange to me is the posing of ecological diversification to unoccupied niches and competition within niches as mutually exclusive. One can make a good case that diversification would be driven by competition within and among species.

  6. daveau
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    So it’s bizarre to see every modern discovery through a lens of either supporting or refuting his (Darwin’s) ideas.

    Crux of the sensationalist biscuit, right there. Anyone who views it that way does not seem to have even a passing understanding of the scientific method. Darwin was incomplete and speculative in some areas, but you are not going to knock him, or evolution by natural selection, down until someone finds the legendary “rabbit in the Precambrian”. Good luck with that.

  7. Insightful Ape
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Here is my explanation for the hype:
    There is a niche in the public opinion for anti-intelletual material. The media, taking advantage of this, show radiation while using up every nook and cranny in that niche, by putting up various sorts of inanity.
    Just like the species mentioned in the article.

  8. Dominic
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Sub-editors at work fuelled by a desire of the university administration to get a paper noticed as that means funding.

    To me what is interesting is the differences between how palaeontologists view evolution & speciation contrasted with how biologists do. This paper is palaeontological. Inevitably, though I understand that there has been more research in recent years into ancient environments & ecologies, these are a biologist’s synchronic ways of looking at nature. Palaeontologists are more used to a diachronic view.

    Species that evolve alongside each other will perhaps keep pace with each other & form a comparatively stable relationship. However when a new species ‘invades’ from outside, that changes the dynamics of the existing ecology, perhaps driving existing species to extinction, certainly making a new ecological ‘balance’.

    As they say, not all niches are always filled. For example one could argue that humans created new niches with the invention of farming – of different types of farming even. Now my body size is pushing me into a new mode of life!

  9. James
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhh, Newton was wrong, gravity doesn’t always scale with the square of the distance!!!!!!!! Let’s teach epicycles as an alternate theory.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      That is one problem right there.

      Newton and Einstein both originated theories concerning gravity. They share many traits of incorporating mass and energy. But for whatever reason physics community have distinguished between theories instead of having an all encompassing Theory Of Gravity with change of mechanisms.

      So Newton’s theory is rejected and he is wrong, but his scheme is retained as the simpler first-order model, and people move on. No sentimentality, no drama.

      Both Newton and Darwin were geniuses that developed ideas that holds up to this day. (Say, Newton’s idea to abstract away a mathematical amenable ‘space’ from the ‘space-filling object’ view of his culture.) But they occupy completely different niches in cultural ecology.

      I keep wondering if that pathway split depended on culture-historical differences surrounding de facto “patriarchs” in biology vs physics.

      With Newton physics left the previous seen (say, with his spectra out of white light) to research the new.

      While biology wasn’t quite like that under Darwin, perhaps until the discovery of DNA and the development of molecular biology. It’s “the central dogma” and not “Crick’s theory” and “Crickianism”.

      [But it may be the public view is overriding science "niche-scape"!? Compare Darwin vs Einstein, the only physicist that made popularity. "Einstein was wrong" is a popular headline.]

  10. Stolen Dormouse
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    The idea of a connection between niche space and diversity is not new, and was a key proposal of the mathematical ecologist/limnologist G.E. Hutchinson. It’s not for nothing that one of his essays (and the book it is in) is entitled The Ecological Theater and the Evolutionary Play (Yale University Press, 1965).

  11. Vincent
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    I agree Jerry that many biologists aren’t very familiar with Darwin’s actual writing. I made a goal to read all of Darwin a few years ago (almost there!!) and I’m surprised at the number of biologists I’ve met who haven’t even read The Origin.

    • daveau
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      That surprises me. I’m a layperson, yet I’ve read Origin, Descent of Man and Voyage of the Beagle.

      • Kevin
        Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        Doesn’t surprise me. I’ve worked along the fringes of the infectious disease arena for years and have never read a word written by Louis Pasteur.

        The only thing I know of Sir William Osler (often recognized as the father of modern medicine) is the quote: “the world is covered in a patina of shit”.

        If you’re interested in the history of science, you read one set of books. If you’re interested in the actual science, you read a completely different set.

        • Vincent
          Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

          Kevin,

          Darwin is still good science. Some of his conclusions, based on the limitations of his era, may have been off – but his observations were so keen that he is still usable. I’ve attended a few lectures on this & it is incredible how much of Darwin is still good science. His output was voluminous, his powers of observation extraordinary – you don’t just throw that into the “history” pile.

        • daveau
          Posted August 26, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink

          Nobody has to read Origins in school? In a Biology curriculum? It’s not just a tangential curiosity, it’s one of the pillars.

          • Tacroy
            Posted August 26, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

            Hah! That’s like expecting Christians to actually read the Bible – it’s totally irrelevant to modern day people!

          • Microraptor
            Posted August 26, 2010 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

            The problem with trying to read On The Origin is that its writing is, at this point, pretty archaic. I made it through The Ancestor’s Tale in under two weeks, but On The Origin took me a month just to make it to the halfway point.

          • Posted August 27, 2010 at 5:08 am | Permalink

            Prof. Steve Jones wrote in his revised “Origins” (Almost Like A Whale) that he had never met a biology undergrad student who had read Darwin’s “Origin”, although he had met many students in other disciplines who had read it.

            It is indeed a pillar in the history of science, but it’s not really the place to start learning biology.

            (Or so I think — I’m only an engineer.)

  12. oldfuzz
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the commentary. The headline caught my attention. As an engineer, a pragmatist, not a theorist, my initial reaction was, “So what?” Every body’s wrong when they push the membrane into new insight. What amazes me is how much Darwin got right for his time with the wisdom of the day. Of course some creationists may latch onto this as more evidence of their position. When you’re afraid of the truth, fiction is your grounding.

  13. Charlie Jones
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I am curious as to what a similar exercise would show for plants. The fossil records of both invertebrates and vertebrates show that mass extinctions have major effects on the history of life. To take just one example, the mammals appeared at the same time as the dinosaurs (Late Triassic), but then spent 140 Myr producing very few morphological variations. It wasn’t until the dinosaurs died out at the end of the Cretaceous that the mammals were able to evolve to fill an amazing range of now-available ecological niches.

    Plants, meanwhile, were little affected by mass extinctions, and it seems that once a new innovation evolved, it gradually pushed its way to dominance, presumably by direct competition. Thus, flowering plants gradually pushed themselves into the dominant roles they have today. They did not need a mass extinction to create a host of empty niches.

  14. Helgi Briem
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Every time someone makes a scientific study showing that, by and large, Darwin was right, some dickhead journalist will write a newspaper story about it, titled “Darwin Was Wrong”.

    I think this may be some sort of law of nature.

    • Microraptor
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      Just like how every time someone finds a new Homo or Australiopith bone, the headline reads “Missing link found?”

  15. SLC
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Enrico Fermi once said that a scientist who had never been wrong was a scientist who never contributed to the advance of knowledge (although I have also seen this quote attributed to Wolfgang Pauli).

    Issac Newton was wrong about a purely particulate theory of light being able to explain diffraction and interference.

    Einstein was wrong about his claim that black holes could not form (although it appears that he wasn’t as wrong as it was believed as the formation of black holes appears to be more difficult then was thought).

    James Clerk Maxwell went to his grave rejecting the Theory of Evolution.

    George Gaylord Simpson rejected the Theory of Continental Drift well after most other scientists had accepted the tectonic plate explanation.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      Right, but I wouldn’t make much of the fact that scientists may make a fool of themselves outside their area of expertise. We could add a long list of scientists who were wrong inside or close to their domains however. Plank and (ironically) quantum theory is another one, Einstein and (again ironically) the same theory, and so on and so forth.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 26, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        Duh! Planck.

  16. Tulse
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Isn’t the use of families far too coarse-grained for this kind of analysis? After all, to go back to the source, Darwin’s finches all belong to the same family.

    I would be very interested in finding out whether a species-level analysis would show the same results, or if it would find that, once a basic tetrapod “type” colonized a niche, competition caused greater specialization and thus speciation.

  17. Zoe
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    This whole ‘Darwin was wrong’ business misunderstands science. Scientists are wrong most of the time until they refine their experiments, record their results and focus down to something that has not been proven wrong. The conclusions drawn from Darwin’s original observations on the Beagle’s voyage were all wrong. He did not know that, of course, he just kept writing down his observations. When he got home he went through everything meticulously and realised that he’d found something important. He was able to produce a theory with predictions that accounted for most of the available facts. Those who followed him refined the theory and now it accounts for all the available facts. It is probably possible to refine the theory further and in so doing, errors will be corrected. As a Theory, Evolution gets stronger all the time.

    • itchy
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

      Well said, Zoe.

  18. Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Let’s not kid ourselves, here. Every time some research team thinks they’ve contradicted a minor sub-point of something obscure that Darwin idly speculated upon, their first instinct is to take delight at one-upping the great man himself. And this comes through to the press, who know full well that the headline, “Darwin Was Worng!!!11!!1one!!” will sell far more advertisements than “Statistical Analysis Suggests Specific Diversity More Influenced By Availability of Untapped Resources Than By Inter- and Intra-Species Competition.”

    But the motives are irrelevant. When a layperson reads the headline, the obvious conclusion is that the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection has been completely disproven (or at least devastated to the point that it’s time to start over from scratch). And the Cretinists, of course, will add this to their list of actual peer-reviewed scientific studies “falsifying” the Theory…and, the next time a fence-sitter is hit with that list, the memory of the headlines will be sufficient reinforcement to decide that maybe science really is nothing but bullshit, after all.

    There’s a saying in politics. If you’re explaining yourself, you’ve already lost. Think of President Clinton’s difficulty with the definitions of existential verbs.

    If you’re reading this and you’re working on research that even tangentially touches on a subject that vaguely resembles something Darwin wrote about, please. For the love of all that’s unholy. When you publish your findings and issue your press releases, DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT mention Darwin. Just don’t. Even — nay, especially — if the reporter tries to get you to do so. (Tell the reporter that you can’t think of anything off the top of your head that Darwin had to say on the matter, even if you can visualize the page in your fist-edition copy of On The Origin of Species.) No matter how cute or clever you think you’re being, no matter how certain you are that nobody could possibly misconstrue your words. You WILL be quoted out of context, and the press (and therefore the public) WILL become fixated on the Darwin comparison, and the comparison WILL be twisted in such a way as to invalidate the Theory entirely.

    Remember, your specialty is learning more about the natural world. The press’s specialty is manufacturing controversy. That seemingly-dumb reporter who doesn’t know a prion from a proton? Well, the reporter is every bit as competent a journalist as you are a scientist. Just as you laugh at the reporter’s scientific ignorance, the reporter is laughing at your ignorance of how to operate in the public eye. Making you look like an ass is as easy for the reporter as covering a jock’s BIO101 midterm in red ink is for you. It’s how reporters pay the mortgage, and believe me: they’re very, very good at it.

    (Yes, there are honest reporters out there, including science reporters who believe as passionately as you do about increasing the public’s knowledge of the way the universe works. You might well be talking to one. But that’s irrelevant. Faux News will scan the honest reporter’s story for the name, “Darwin,” see that you and he are not in perfect lock-step, and take the rest from there.)

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Zoe
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      You can’t win, you know. “Tell the reporter that you can’t think of anything off the top of your head that Darwin had to say on the matter” and this will be transmogrified into, “When asked if this meant that Darwin had been proven wrong, X refused to comment,” then the tabloids pick this up and in no time at all it is, “X SAYS DARWIN PROVEN WRONG!” – that journalism – or rather what pretends to be journalism. No wonder the wonderful (though sadly fictional) Professor Challenger threw reporters down the stairs.

      • Posted August 26, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink

        Well, if the interviewer is going to do that, then you can be certain his name is, “Ben Stein.”

        But even if it’s just your garden variety muckraker, all you should have to do is be surprised and a bit bewildered.

        “Darwin? Gee, I really don’t have a clue what he might have thought, though I bet he’d be pretty excited about our findings. I don’t think this sort of thing was even on his radar. The state of the art has come a long way in a century and a half, you know — news of what was later to be termed genetics never reached him, and the discovery of DNA was still a century away. Not to mention that there’s been a hundred and fifty years of grunt work like what we had to do to get these results. Which reminds me of this really neat facet of our findings I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet….”

        Handle it like that and even Ben Stein will have to resort to…lots [of]…interpolation to make…you…seem like a(n)…idiot.

        Cheers,

        b&

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 26, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        that journalism – or rather what pretends to be journalism.

        Actually, that may be human nature. If you have a belief, you try to confirm it.

        According to (folk?) psychology, if a person asks another or merely listen to a discussion, he takes away any form of pattern response as confirmation.

        I.e. “Tell the reporter that you can’t think of anything off the top of your head that Darwin had to say on the matter” is already lost. Any person, asking what Darwin would have said but really thinking Darwin was wrong, will hear that as “Darwin” which transmogrifies into “Darwin was mentioned, ergo Darwin said something here, ergo Darwin was wrong as I thought.”

        You better keep mum and continue with your description of the issue.

        • Posted August 26, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

          The problem arises when the interviewer tries to steer the conversation to an off-topic controversial subject (Darwin, in this particular case).

          As I mentioned, if it’s a Ben Stein doing the steering, you were fucked from the moment he set his sights on you. Christopher Hitchens would be able to turn the situation into a victory, but scum like Stein only go after prey they already know is defenseless or can be caught off guard. And always remember: Stein is every bit as accomplished a propagandist as you are a researcher, so don’t even pretend for one moment that you can beat him at his game any better than he can beat you at yours.

          But if it’s just garden-variety sensationalism, your best bet is to briefly and bewilderedly and graciously dismiss it as sillily irrelevant before quickly getting back on topic. Play the distracted (but not distractible) professor who’s used to students asking something out of left field. Etiquette demands you treat the question with respect, but the clock and the attention spans of the other students demands you waste no time in dismissing it as irrelevant and getting back to the day’s lecture subject.

          If you refuse to reply to the question at all, you’re engaging in a conspiratorial cover-up. If it’s a “price of tea in China” kind of question and you courteously avoid rubbing the interviewer’s nose in his own ignorance, it becomes one of those uninteresting off-topic bits that the interviewer will edit out to avoid making himself look dumb.

          (And, of course, if you “helpfully” or “cleverly” let the interviewer engage you, all you’re really doing is building the gallows, sticking your head in the noose, and pulling the lever — all in the name of demonstrating that rope is perfectly safe and only an idiot has anything to fear from it.)

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted August 26, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

            If you refuse to reply to the question at all, you’re engaging in a conspiratorial cover-up.

            Mm, there is that. Ordinarily you could laugh at the conspirationist and his lack of corroborating data. Most of the journalist’s readers may in fact do that. But it may be a case of cutting your losses.

            In which case the edit out scenario would win the day.

  19. Konradius
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    You know in science, if someone’s really wrong, you only have to prove them wrong once.
    If someone’s really right then time and time again people try to prove him wrong.
    Guess which category Darwin falls in.

    Yeah, I had to add that ‘in science’ part ;)

    • Zoe
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      And in pseudoscience, if someone is really wrong, all the proof in the world won’t stop them being published and quoted by people who, if they could understand the disproof, would not have to be told it was wrong in the first place.

  20. Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    I think it’s not just sensationalism that causes journalists to say “Darwin was wrong.” I think it’s partly due to confusion between the sciences.

    There is a sense in which it is proper to ask if Einstein was wrong, and to say “Einstein was right” every time that relativity is confirmed. That’s because relativity makes fairly strong and inflexible predictions that simply must be true or not be true. Evolution makes some of these (in context) as well, certainly, like nested hierarchies appearing for animals where vertical transmission of genes strongly predominates, but many of evolution’s “predictions” can be swapped out for other predictions with no real harm done.

    Journalists are probably scratching their heads over the fact that they may write “Einstein was right” (or the opposite if such results are found) and receive no opposition from physicists, while “Darwin was wrong” elicits protests from biologists. That’s because they don’t understand the differences between physics and biology.

    Glen Davidson

  21. Joe Dickinson
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Darwin, it seems to me, was always a bit vague on distinguishing competition within versus between species (or sometimes “races”). It is, of course, intraspecific competition (for reproductive success) that leads to natural selection. Interspecific competition can be relevant to natural selection in that competitor species form part of the environment in which members of a given species compete. If, for example, some individuals within one species acquire innovations that allow them to reduce or avoid competition with another species, they may gain an selective advantage. But then it is plain old natural selection that is driving divergence. I think the subject paper is still being vague about the intra/interspecific distinction. That was excusable as Darwin struggled to formulate a new idea, not so much now that we have a clear neo-Darwinian formulation of natural selection.

  22. gillt
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Coyne: “I posted a query to this effect on Sahney’s website (she’s the first author), but my query hasn’t show up.”

    I posted a comment on her blog last week and it hasn’t appeared either. I was asking if the fossil record showed whether many mammal families were included in the mass extinction event that killed the dinosaurs. I’m guessing yes, but I’m not a paleobiologist.

    • Microraptor
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      According to Wikipedia, all major groups of mammals (placentals, marsupials, monotremes, and the now extinct multituberculates)suffered heavy losses in the K-T extinction. Marsupials, for example, were almost completely wiped out in North America.

  23. hkarges
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that Darwin avoids the logical consequences of his own thesis, i.e. that evolution proceeds by natural selection. If so, then competition is irrelevant, as are ‘modes of life’, as both are a form of artificial selection. Nature ultimately decides, though results can only be seen in hindsight. Even the best evolutionists sound like creationists in looking for ‘reasons’ for this or that. Though creationism may be bogus, maybe there is some creativity, or at least directionality, to what is otherwise simple genetic drift…

    • Ichthyic
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      that’s a nice bit of word salad right there.

    • Joe Dickinson
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

      I have no idea what you just said, and I rather doubt that you do either. How on earth is competition irrelevant if natural selection is true? And how is that just a mode of artificial selection? This is meaningless gibberish.

  24. MadScientist
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I would have interpreted that linear graph as: “Evolution happens”. The more families you have, the more opportunity for isolation and branching and for developing different diets. Is it so surprising? Animals will do whatever they can to survive in any particular setting; for example, compare the diets of the various nomads of the Arctic with that of various people of south-east Asia. Even within the same species, unless the animal is highly specialized like the koala, wouldn’t you expect the animals to adapt as best as they can to the environment they’re in?

  25. santitafarella
    Posted August 27, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Something that jumps out at me concerning this study is this: life needs very little prompting to launch onto the waves of an open sea. I’m thinking of the restlessness of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, who is not content to sit around his palace, even in old age, but is determined to launch forth into new adventures:

    It little profits an idle king,

    By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

    Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole

    Unequal laws unto a savage race,

    That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

    I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

    Life to the lees . . .

    Death closes all: but something ere the end,

    Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

    Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

    Like Gilgamesh, who is not content to hang around the city of Uruk with Enkidu, but must seek out a risky new adventure that will test the extremities of his being, so Tennyson’s Ulysses must move, as it appears that all life must move.

    I also think of Charles Darwin, whose father discouraged his world travel. But Charles Darwin did not heed his father’s safe and sensible advice, but took great risks with his life out on the edge of discovery, and brought something new, and apparently permanent, into the world: his great book, The Origin of Species.

    —Santi

  26. w benson
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    When you stand on the shoulders of giants, you can both see farther,
    and kick them in the teeth.
    Sport of the young and arrogant.

  27. w benson
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    With regard to Howard Falcon-Lang’s BBC (BBC, my comrada!) article (and he is a Science Reporter! — shame, shame BBC)Darwin may have been wrong in proposing that competition is the principal driving force of evolution.
    Of course it is! This is tautological if you accept evolution to be allelic (s.l.) substitution and define the process by which one allel substitutes another as competition. You might also relate this to ecological ‘competition’, as Darwin did, and note that ecologically superior competititors will transmit their traits to descendents. Ms. Sahney´s study, although informative and thought-provoking, does not treat anything close. Mr. Falcon-Lang does not understand evolution, and assuming that Ms. Sahney does, she did not explain it very well. We modestly suggest that all read up on the subject, starting with the Origin of Species.

  28. Eric
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I agree a press release had to factor in the pub somewhere.

    Btw, Sahney has posted your comment and a general response.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I saw that. And Sahney says this:

      “readers will note we did not mention Darwin once in our paper.”

      But that doesn’t answer the question of where the Darwin-bashing came from. Sahney hasn’t responded to my query on her website, so I suspect that the authors themselves, in either a press release or conversations with reporters, played up the Darwin-is-wrong angle. They’re being pretty cagey about this!

      • Jon H
        Posted September 4, 2010 at 1:47 am | Permalink

        I suppose the hype could be from a university’s PR office.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] lots of people like to say “Darwin was wrong”. Except that he wasn’t: You may have seen a small flurry of reports this week about a science paper showing that “Darwin [...]

  2. [...] getting into an already crowded market and competing for local territorial niches, suggests a new scientific study that, at first glance, might seem to contradict Charles Darwin’s Origin of [...]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29,606 other followers

%d bloggers like this: