Since Afarensis Did It…

…I might as well too. By some weird transcendental quirk of fate, I was planning on moving to this blog <a href="“>my skewering of Sally Jenkins’ now-infamous column about ID next week. Afarensis has just reposted a very nice takedown of the silliness. Below are my thoughts at the time on Jenkins’ idiocy.

I usually like Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, but today’s column can only be described as sheer idiocy. Thankfully, the News Blog has dealt with most of the obvious criticisms, so I don’t have to (it gets really old after a while). Before I address just how poorly Jenkins understands evolutionary biology, I’m going to make a general comment:

You’re not allowed to make up a definition of evolution or natural selection, and then claim based on your incomplete or inaccurate understanding of biology, how evolution fails in one way or another. That is ignorant. I don’t care how many talkshows, sports or any other kind, you regularly appear on, you have to know your stuff. Don’t speak to me about how inadquate evolutionary theory is until you demonstrate you know what genetic drift and neutral theory are; until then, the only thing that’s inadequate is your knowledge of biology (and if you want even more smackdown, check out Steve Dutch). I don’t care if you’re a big-shot columnist: on the science side of the street, the intellectual leagues play a full nine innings.

Oh, and getting evolution right too might also be nice. Which brings me to Jenkins’ column. She writes:

The most serious ID proponents are complexity theorists, legitimate scientists among them, who believe that strict Darwinism and especially neo-Darwinism (the notion that all of our qualities are the product of random mutation) is inadequate to explain the high level of organization at work in the world.

OK. Rule #1: talking about “Darwinism” is as stupid when the Republicans decided that they would refer to the Democratic Party as the “Democrat” Party. All this indicates is that either you’re willing to misconstrue things intentionally or that you’ve unknowingly imbibed the Kool-Aid. Second, what the hell is the difference between “strict Darwinism” and “neo-Darwinism?” I’m an evolutionary biologist, and I’m not sure what that means-it’s clear Jenkins doesn’t either.
Now, let’s deal with Jenkins definition of ‘neo-Darwinism.’ By this, I assume she means the Modern synthesis, which actually occurred in the 30s & 40s. Upon further reflection, I have no idea what she’s talking about, so I’ll just call it the ‘evolutionary process.’ Apparently, according to neo-Darwinists, evolution is “the notion that all of our qualities are the product of random mutation.” Hmm… Hi, I’m Mr. Natural Selection. Ever heard of me?
Again, we face the Random Mutation Zombie… All random mutation does is produce variation; the preservation or loss of that variation is very rarely ‘random.’ It may often be stochastic-in other words, there’s a large component of noise, but it’s still directional. For example, a new antibiotic was recently released called tigecycline. I’m going to predict that as tigecycline is used, resistance to tigecycline will increase. Anyone want to bet against me? Didn’t think so. Now, which strains will be resistance and the exact frequency of resistance might be hard to nail precisely, but I think we know how this one will eventually turn out in general.
Then there’s the other subtle concept that throws many for a loop: historical contingency. By this I mean that evolutionary events occur sequentially, and that previous events will determine the outcome of following events. This is hardly random, but from a distance it might appear random, since of the myriad paths history could follow, this species’ history has followed only one. However, each step of the path was likely influenced by natural selection to a greater or lesser extent. Hardly what I would call random.
One thing that’s always bothered my about virtually every popular treatment of evolutionary biology is that neutral theory and genetic drift are rarely touched upon, so there is too often a misunderstanding of much of evolution. I guess at some point, I’m just going to have talk about genetic drift and the neutral theory, and try to do my part.
Update: Pharyngula shreds Jenkins too.

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1 Response to Since Afarensis Did It…

  1. _Arthur says:

    “The most serious ID proponents are complexity theorists, legitimate scientists among them”
    Can she name 3 of the most serious ID proponents, that are also legitimate scientists ?
    After the usual suspects, Behe and Dembski, I get stuck, and I still have trouble with the “legitimate” part for those two.

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