Today, at TNR, Gregg Easterbrook has a good piece about the creationists. He argues that accusing evolutionary biologists of being unable to explain the origin of life is a specious argument, as evolutionary biology does not deal with that subject (biochemistry and astrobiology do). It’s point worth remembering. The only disagreement I have with him is that I think the non-life to life transition probably didn’t require divine intervention (I’m much more of the “God of the Big Bang” school-this most likely reflects my relative ignorance of quantum mechanics and astrophysics. Not that there’s anyway to test the divine intervention hypothesis…).
Another article worth reading is by Gene Robinson about the role of genes in behavior. Overall, it’s a decent article, but it suffers from some really poor language. Robinson writes, “The truth of the matter is that DNA is both inherited and environmentally responsive…” In his defense, he explains what he means when he then states, “The discoveries emphasize what genes do (producing proteins that are the building blocks of life), rather than simply who they are (their fixed DNA sequence).” In other words, gene expression can be environmentally determined; a gene that isn’t expressed doesn’t do anything and has for the most part, no effect.
The problem with saying that DNA is environmentally responsive is a lot of readers will think that the environment actually modifies DNA, when, in fact, that isn’t the case (actually, the environment can modify DNA, as is the case with radiation poisoning; however, it usually severely damages the DNA and is lethal or cancer-causing). To repeat, the ‘decision’ to activate a gene can be determined by environmental cues. I know Dr. Robinson knows this, but he fumbled the ball in the explanation.
Unfortunately, this happens far too often: a scientist will oversimplify a point to try to make it ‘easier to understand.’ What happens is that comprehension decreases, and incorrect statements are then accepted as true by the public. Look, if you can’t explain the basic idea of gene expression without using incorrect shorthand to the most educated readership going, then please don’t do the scientific community any favors by publishing in non-scientific fora.