Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thinking about evolutionary oddities

Just finished yesterday Survival of the sickest, a book about evolutionary novelties.  To my mind this is an interesting example of modern popular science writing; it includes a number of interesting stories about unexpected evolutionary scenarios, but all too often treats the most recent "reports" (whether in "prestigious" or less prestigious journals) as facts, and relies on the self-serving beliefs, theories, and speculations of their proponents as if they are significant.  It fails to project how often "breakthroughs" decay into more commonplace observations, once the real complexity of the system is appreciated.  Science is a communal activity, and reliability emerges with replication and extension.

It also fails to consider the forces that drive publication in prestigious journals (which are, after all, generally businesses, and not dispassionate, disinterested reporters)  – all too often it is not scientific rigor, but rather publicity or appeals to current scientific fads (arsenic bacteria and RNA worlds come to mind.)

While the first half of the book is interesting, the second half really goes off the tracks - pushing the idea that epigenetic regulation is more than it is; no conceptual break through, but rather a growing appreciation that how DNA is packaged within the cell matters and can be regulated.  Gene regulatory networks are rather more complex than previously appreciated.

In all of this I see the hand of the "believing mind" (see the essay by Matt Ridley) that highlights Michael Shermer's newest book; we are all susceptible to various "just so" stories, and fail to adequately appreciate the complexity and ambiguity of our actual understanding.  

This is illustrated by the use of the term "theory" when what is really meant is a person's point of view, prejudice, self-serving position, rank speculation, tentative model, etc.  

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