Darwin Was Not Wrong--New Study Being Distorted

Science fares poorly in the media. Most news outlets devote little attention to scientific topics, and if they do have a website with a science section, it is likely to be filled with technology and medical reporting, rather than scientific discoveries. When scientific topics are reported, they are consistently misunderstood and spiced-up with such sensationalism that the original significance is contorted beyond all recognition.

Such misreporting has happened again--this time involving Charles Darwin and evolution.

A recent paper in the journal Biology Letters, "Links between global taxonomic diversity, ecological diversity and the expansion of vertebrates on land," by Sarda Sahney, Michael Benton, and Paul Ferry, has caused quite a stir.

The normally-staid BBC wrote of this paper,

Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution.

A Huffington Post piece repeated much of the original BBC article, but felt the need to shout its headline in capital letters:

Darwin May Have Been WRONG, New Study Argues.

AOL News added:

Was Darwin Wrong? An Alternative Theory Emerges

With such sensationalist headlines, readers might get the impression that this new study has single-handedly overthrown one of the best-documented scientific theories in history. Creationists will no doubt pass out copies of these articles at school board meetings as final proof against evolution, just as the Discovery Institute trumpeted an inflammatory New Scientist cover article ("Darwin was Wrong") to the Texas School Board during one of its 2009 meetings. Those who attack evolution will be heartened by these articles and believe that a challenge to evolution has finally been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The reality is, of course, quite different.

These reporters really should have 1) talked to the authors, 2) read the Biology Letters paper, and 3) familiarized themselves with what Darwin wrote. When I talked to lead author Sarda Sahney, of the University of Bristol, she told me unequivocally:

We are not in any way suggesting Darwin was wrong.

Reporters could have learned this from the Biology Letters paper itself. This paper discusses the role of the "expansion and contraction of occupied ecospace" in animal diversity, arguing that on the large scale, ecospace should be considered a prime factor. A press release for the paper noted that when examining large-scale changes in biodiversity, the data suggest:

Animals diversified by expanding into empty ecological roles rather than by direct competition with each other.

This paper does not argue that Darwin's conception of small-scale competition within species is incorrect. It does not argue that new species arising out of accumulating changes is a flawed concept. It does not argue Darwin was wrong.

Mass extinctions in Earth's past have provided opportunities for the large-scale, dramatic ecospace expansions discussed in this paper. But we can also understand this idea with an analogy to a more familiar topic: Darwin's famous Galápagos finches. These birds occupy small, parched islands, on which perennial drought severely limits vegetation. This creates a situation of scarcity in which even small differences in beaks may confer significant advantages. As the pioneering work of Peter and Rosemary Grant shows, competition on a month-by-month, year-by-year scale shapes the evolution of these birds even today.

Now imagine that a new volcanic island erupts in the Galápagos chain. Suddenly an expanse of new, un-colonized land is available; new food sources will grow there. How will this new land affect finch diversification? That's the kind of question being addressed here.

This Biology Letters paper explores expansions and contractions of ecospace--not questions about whether evolution is wrong. This paper suggests a refinement of the details of how evolution happens. Refinements are part of the process of science, and should not be mistaken for attacks.

Those who do attack evolution--from young earth creationists at Answers in Genesis to intelligent design creationists at the Discovery Institute--do so for reasons outside of science. Answers in Genesis, which runs the Creation Museum in Kentucky, tries to link evolution with abortion, racism, and genocide. The Discovery Institute opposes evolution as part of their broader culture war on "materialism." By defeating evolution, they hope (in the DI's words) to undo the "destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies" of materialist philosophy. Clearly, these motivations are not about science.

Some did get this story right. Michael Reilly at Discovery News refrained from hyperbole and reported this article as perhaps "one facet of natural selection that [Darwin] didn't immediately foresee." Jerry Coyne, a professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, wrote an informative critique of the Biology Letters paper and concluded:

It's bizarre to see every modern discovery through a lens of either supporting or refuting [Darwin's] ideas. If we did that, every paper in genetics could be sold to science journalists as showing that Darwin was wrong about inheritance!

News outlets need to take greater responsibility for the way they report science stories. Once misguided, sensationalist headlines such as these start to spread, this poisonous misinformation--despite all the hard work and research of scientists--becomes a tool for those who reject science.