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Salk scientist Clodagh O’Shea named recipient of grant from Faculty Scholars Program

Clodagh O’Shea, an associate professor in the Salk Institute’s Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, is among the first recipients of a grant from the Faculty Scholars Program, a new partnership of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Simons Foundation for early career researchers whose work shows the potential for groundbreaking contributions in their fields.

Veracyte announces new data suggesting ability of Afirma GEC in thyroid cancer diagnosis

Veracyte, Inc.today announced new data suggesting the potential to enhance the performance of the Afirma Gene Expression Classifier in thyroid cancer diagnosis by combining the test’s proven RNA expression-based capabilities with gene variant and fusion information – all on a single, robust RNA sequencing platform.

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Evolution in the Back Seat

A 1924 Dodge sedan like Stumpy Reed'sThe idiom “take a back seat” means “to be given a less important role,” and it was employed accordingly in 2005 by the headline writer for The New York Times for Cornelia Dean’s article entitled “Evolution Takes a Back Seat in U.S. Classes.” Quoting NCSE’s founding executive director Eugenie C. Scott among others, Dean convincingly argued that evolution is often downplayed or omitted in public school science classes: “In districts around the country, even when evolution is in the curriculum it may not be in the classroom, according to researchers who follow the issue.” A few years later, a rigorous national public survey of high school biology teachers would confirm the anecdotal and impressionistic conclusions of Dean’s article. I mention the article now because of a rather more literal case of evolution in the back seat.

Back in 1995, for the seventieth anniversary of the Scopes trial of 1925, John D. Morris of the Institute for Creation Research asked, “Did the Evolutionists Present a Good Case at the Scopes Trial?” Limited by the format of the ICR’s Acts & Facts series, Morris only had about five hundred words to work with. Even so, he didn’t answer the question posed in the headline satisfactorily. He focused on the scientific testimony that the defense team hoped to introduce during the trial, which—as he acknowledged—was ruled by Judge Raulston to be irrelevant to the trial, and claims, wrongly if unsurprisingly, “each one of the arguments for evolution [that would have been presented by the defense’s expert witnesses] are now known to be wrong.” But there was a detail of his treatment that surprised me a bit.

Morris writes, “John Scopes, on trial for teaching evolution (contrary to Tennessee law), didn’t actually do so until after the charges had been filed.” That is not the detail that surprised me. Scopes was a general science teacher (and part-time sports coach) in Dayton. There are conflicting reports about whether Scopes ever taught evolution in class—before the trial, it was suggested that he reviewed the topic while substituting for the regular biology teacher; after the trial, he told a reporter that he skipped the lesson on evolution about which his students testified (“the kids were good sports and wouldn’t squeal on me in court”); and there’s evidence that he discussed it in his general science class. But it is clear that whatever the students might have learned in class, they were also coached about their testimony before the grand jury hearing and the trial.

Morris knows about the coaching, writing—and now, finally, is the detail that surprised me—“Then he did so [i.e., taught evolution] in the back seat of a car, just to be sure he had committed the proper crime.” You might be forgiven for thinking that Morris is confusing the Butler Act with the Motor Vehicle Code, for in fact the Butler Act provided only, “That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals,” with no reference whatsoever to automobiles—or to whatever hanky-panky might occur in their back seats.

But, in fact, Morris was more or less right. According to Warren Allem’s 1959 University of Tennessee, Knoxville, master’s thesis “Backgrounds of the Scopes Trial at Dayton, Tennessee,” “Scopes, called back from his vacation, herded some of his students into the back of ‘Stumpy’ Reed’s taxicab, and coached them in their answers as he had never done in school. They were to be the witnesses against him!” (Allem’s source was a personal interview with Franklin A. “Stumpy” Reed, conducted on June 22, 1959, the very day that Reed retired from the taxicab business—presumably a coincidence!) Their testimony wasn’t particularly damaging in any case: Darrow elicited laughter from the courtroom audience by asking the teenager Howard Morgan, of Scopes’s teaching him evolution, “It has not hurt you any, has it?” (“No, sir,” was the response.)

A wider consequence of the trial, of course, is that although Scopes’s conviction was overturned on a technicality, there was a chilling effect on the teaching of evolution across the nation. As Judith V. Grabiner and Peter D. Miller argued in 1974, “The impact of the Scopes trial on high school biology textbooks was enormous. It is easy to identify a text published in the decade following 1925. Merely look up the word ‘evolution’ in the index or the glossary; you almost certainly will not find it.” Thankfully, ninety-one years after the Scopes trial, the e-word is conspicuous in textbooks—but evolution is still neglected in too many classrooms. If you’ll excuse the pitch, NCSE is working to ensure that evolution is taken out of the back seat—or perhaps the trunk—of science education and restored to the front seat status it deserves—and we could use your support.

Photograph: 1924 Dodge type A. Papakura Vintage Car Rally, South Auckland, New Zealand, 2015. GPS 56 via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Nice to Meet You!

The path of some scientists is to do science. The path of other scientists is to help inspire people to see the beauty in science. I realized through working with the National Center for Science Education’s Science Booster Club that I am meant to be part of the latter group. And now I am. My name is Claire Adrian-Tucci and I am really excited to be working as the Program Coordinator for NCSE.

Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing but respect and admiration for lab scientists.

I recently finished my master’s degree in biology and epidemiology at the University of Iowa. I loved learning how to be a scientist—how to design an experiment to test a new hypothesis as well as how to analyze the data. That said, I guess I’m just not cut out to be a molecular biologist. You know Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), the beloved technique that allows us to amplify small pieces of DNA? I call it a Pain in Claire’s Rear End. And while my science was solid, I’m pretty sure that my only real laboratory accomplishment was naming the latest machine “R2-Insitu.” Yeah, it’s a Star Wars pun.

I jumped on the booster club train slowly. At first, my data collection wasn’t going too well and I needed to up my game. My friends, Kyle, Laura, and Elizabeth, had already signed up to be interns that summer. It was clear within a few weeks that they were having fun and having a meaningful impact in the community. They needed help at the farmer’s market, their big event for summer 2015, so I volunteered to help teach about climate change.

Once I saw it in action I was instantly enamored with the concept of a science booster club. At the farmer’s market, we met people of all ages and walks of life, who were able to stand in a small greenhouse and see the temperature gauge rise with their own eyes as they exhaled. Within just a few minutes inside that derpy plastic contraption, they were able to experience change. Kyle said, “Now imagine this same thing happening to our planet.”

The imaginary light bulbs above people’s heads lit up. They started to understand the greenhouse effect.

The light bulb above my head lit up too. I observed the power of a grassroots science effort. I signed up to become an intern with the Booster Club for the fall semester. It was the best decision I made in graduate school.

Over the next year, I spent my free time getting out into the community providing people access to science activities. I learned very quickly the power of being able to share the knowledge I had acquired from my science background. As a graduate student, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that most people find science to be a daunting black box that they closed many years ago. But when I showed up at local events and introduced myself as a scientist, and presented materials in an accessible way, people weren’t turned off; they were intrigued. At one demonstration, an adult pointed to a crawling shrimp in a bowl and said, “I had no idea those were real animals. I have only ever seen those on my dinner plate.”

I had this warm fuzzy feeling inside. I finished packing up the demonstration with Laura and Kyle and proceeded to go back to the lab. I had “real” science to finish. And when I got back to the lab, I wished I was back out in the world, talking to people about science.

After a year of working with the booster clubs in Iowa City, we have offered hands-on activities to 50,000 participants and raised enough money to fund teacher grants that have an impact on 3,000 students per year.  When working with the science booster clubs, I never had to wonder if I was positively impacting anyone. The feedback was immediate and extremely positive.

I am so excited to join the NCSE team as the program coordinator for NCSEteach, our 6,000-member teacher network, and Scientist in the Classroom, our matching program that enables scientists to visit local classrooms to discuss climate change or evolution.

I am so excited to see how our scientists and teachers work together to give students a real understanding of what it means to be a scientist. Scientists are going to be having their first in-class meetings within the next few weeks. I don’t know about you, but I can barely wait to hear all about it.

If you are a current graduate student and are interested in getting involved, I suggest our free one-year membership. There will be some great give-aways for you, too, so sign up here! Please also consider applying to be a Scientist in the Classroom next spring.

Joining NCSE is enabling me to get to do what I love doing, working on ways to enable a quality education for all.

I’ll be contributing to the blog regularly to keep you up to date on the progress of NCSEteach and Scientist in the Classroom. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or suggestions at adrian-tucci@ncse.com

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Why They Say They Reject Evolution

Charles DarwinIn early August 2016, NCSE reported on the results of the latest of the National Surveys on Energy and Environment. Respondents were asked questions such as, “Is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past four decades?” (66% said yes: not so bad) and “Is the earth getting warmer because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels, or mostly because of natural patterns in the earth’s environment?” (46% of those who said yes to the previous question chose human activity: not so good). Interestingly, though, the researchers also asked, “What is the primary factor that has caused you to believe that temperatures on earth are increasing?” and “What is the primary factor that makes you believe that temperatures on earth are not increasing?” (all quoted from the questionnaire [PDF], questions 7, 9, 10, and 20).

I was interested, and NCSE’s story failed to mention the responses to the “primary factor” questions, because, as a century of research shows, people are not especially accurate in their claims about why they believe what they believe. Who, after all, when asked why they believe what they believe about global warming, would volunteer “blind prejudice” or “it just seems that way to me” or “it scares me to think otherwise” over “careful and dispassionate scrutiny of the evidence”? Textbooks on survey research routinely warn against questions such as these. For instance, Weisberg, Krosnick, and Bowen’s An Introduction to Survey Research, Polling, and Data Analysis (third edition, 1996), observes, “The explanations that people offer may make sense and sound reasonable, but they often have nothing to do with the actual causes of behavior.”

In the literature on public acceptance of evolution, researchers have thus generally sought to identify correlations between, on the one hand, acceptance/rejection of evolution and, on the other hand, various demographic factors (educational attainment, degree of religiosity, political affiliation, etc.) and/or basic level of understanding of evolution and/or various cognitive factors (e.g., open-mindedness, deference to authority, need for certainty, etc.). But there are exceptions. A few years ago, in reply to a researcher who was considering whether to include a question like “Why do you believe what you believe about evolution?” on a survey instrument, I assembled a list of prior work with such questions. I don’t promise that it’s complete (n = 2) or up-to-date (four years later), but perhaps it will be of interest nevertheless.

First, in the Journal of Biological Education in 2000, J. R. Downie and N. J. Barron reported on a study of first-year biology and medical students at the University of Glasgow over the course of almost ten years. Respondents who rejected evolution (a small percentage, between 3.9% and 11.3%, depending on the year) were asked to say why and were allowed to pick any of the following:

  • The evidence for evolution is full of conflicts and contradictions.
  • I accept the literal truth of a religious creation account that excludes evolution.
  • I think that there are good alternatives to evolution that explain the origin and distribution of species.
  • Other reasons.

On average, 71% of the biology students and 96% of the medical students who rejected evolution attributed their rejection to their literalism, while concerns about evidence and acceptance of alternatives were cited by only 33% and 19%, respectively, of the biology students and by only 30% and 17% of the medical students. (Multiple answers were allowed, so the numbers aren’t supposed to sum to 100%.)

Second, in Evolution and Development in 2010, David P. Wilson reported on a study conducted via the internet; as he acknowledges, it was a convenience study and it is impossible to exclude the possibility of selection bias. Respondents who agreed that “God created the universe, including all life, fully developed and similar to how we see it today, out of nothing,” were then asked to explain their rejection of human evolution:

  • The Bible’s book of Genesis is God’s authoritative word about how things came to be and should be interpreted literally.
  • It undermines the belief that humans were created in God’s image and thus separately from all other animals.
  • There is no evidence to support evolution by natural selection.
  • Evolution has only been shown to occur from negative selection (meaning that no species can evolve to a more “complex” species.
  • Micro-evolution can occur (meaning within a species there can be changes but still remain the same species) but there is no evidence for macro-evolution (i.e., one species becoming an entirely new species).
  • Other.

Wilson presents histograms without the exact numbers, but eyeballing the figures, it looks like ~72% rejected evolution because of literalism, ~68% because of humans’ being created in God’s image, ~51% because of no evidence for speciation, ~39% because of no evidence for evidence by natural selection, ~35% because of no macroevolution, and ~8% for other reasons. (As with the previous survey, multiple answers were allowed.)

One swallow does not a summer make, nor two surveys a summa, but it certainly is suggestive that in both surveys literalism was by far the preferred explanation of those respondents who rejected evolution for their rejection of evolution. But what is suggested? That literalism is really the primary cause of rejecting evolution? Or that the rejecters of evolution have accepted the claim that evolution is to be rejected as incompatible with scripture as a normative claim? Or that rejecters of evolution are simply more certain of its supposed incompatibility with holy writ—and thus more likely to tick that box—than they are of its putative scientific failings? More research is needed (to coin a phrase), including a comparison with the results of surveys showing a robust correlation between literalism and rejection of evolution.

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Evolution at the Iowa State Fair

“You can’t do outreach on evolution and climate change here. Those topics are too hot to handle.” That’s what I heard over and over again when I started organizing a Science Booster Club in Iowa City last year. My goal—to provide a way for communities to promote science education and support their local science teachers—seemed uncontroversial. Sure, I thought, some people might get their hackles up about evolution and climate change, but lots of potential partners—schools, museums, university professors, for example—would be thrilled to see a grassroots show of support for quality science education on these crucial topics.

My experiences on the ground demonstrate that these fears are at best exaggerated and possibly groundless. The success of our Science Booster Clubs in many communities in Iowa, including rural, conservative, and highly religious communities, shows not only that there is a huge demand for informal, community-based science activities, but that evolution and climate change can be presented in ways that are met with enthusiasm and curiosity, not hostility and controversy. The Iowa City Science Booster Club held its first community outreach program in May of 2015, and we are already on track to have provided a hands-on experience with evolution or climate science to over 80,000 people in fun, accessible community settings.

This August we interacted with thousands of people on the topic of evolution at the Iowa State Fair. The response from people who visited our exhibit was overwhelmingly positive. There was often a line of people waiting to engage with us. Our exhibit illustrated four periods in Iowa’s geologic history, and had beautiful, real Iowan fossils from these periods; treasures people could see and touch to learn how the land and life upon it has changed over time. We also gave out information to help people bring these upbeat, friendly programs to their communities.

Talking to people at our exhibit gave us a chance to learn what people do and don’t know. For example, our intern outreach manager Kyle McElroy writes:

“Fairgoers readily engaged with our booth and were generally surprised to hear that Iowa was once under an ocean. Fossils also tend to bring out stories. People enjoy recounting the time they found an interesting fossil on their land.”

While adult literacy about the region’s basic geological history was low, we found that did not mean people weren’t interested to learn more. And people were eager for ways to connect evolution and concepts of geologic time to their own lives; to find ways to tell stories, to build connections, and to discover personal relevance. Our focus on human connections paid off. The energy at the booth was incredible. As intern Laura Bankers, who had to be gently persuaded to leave the booth after refusing a break for three shifts, writes:

“Taking part in our ‘evolution of Iowa’ exhibit at the Iowa state fair was an exhilarating experience. Our booth was always busy and we had overwhelmingly positive responses from all of the people we had the opportunity to interact with. I felt like we were able to meaningfully impact a ton of people and were really able to get the word out about the science booster clubs.”

 

Science Booster Club interns engaging the **%& out of the public

 

Lest you think that opposition to evolution and climate change education is non-existent, be assured that I am not so naive. At the Iowa State Fair, our science booth was in the same exhibition hall as a large, lavish booth funded by the creationist organization, Answers in Genesis, complete with an enormous mural depicting giraffes and sauropods grazing together, while pterodactyls and pelicans soared overhead in a rainbow-filled sky. Very impressive. But thinly attended. The crowds around both booths made it clear what people wanted to see. Average, everyday people in Iowa want to learn about science. They want to learn about their state’s incredible geologic and evolutionary history. They want their kids to learn about it, too.

At the Iowa State Fair, I learned that there is a real appetite for more than fried food amongst the residents of the heartland. People want access to knowledge and are hungry for ways to bring that knowledge to their communities. As we work to expand our network in Iowa, we’ll do our best to bring communities the tools they need to stand up for science education.

 

This is how interesting people of all ages found this stuff

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What You’ll Be Reading

The NCSE blog launched just over three years ago, on August 19, 2013. Since then, there have been 1,210 posts, or just about exactly one per day. The posts have ranged in subject matter from ruminations on current events to explorations of the history of evolution and its detractors, and from reports on scurrilous attacks on climate scientists to high-fives for particularly good explanations of evolutionary and climate science. More recently, we’ve been blogging a lot about some of the new programs that NCSE has initiated in the past year to help teachers cover evolution and climate change with confidence.

Some of our posts have attracted tens of thousands of views and/or stimulated lively exchanges in the comments section. A few even led to writing and speaking invitations! And even the posts that weren’t as popular were still, if I say so myself, clever, insightful, and provocative. If you’re a regular reader, you know that the NCSE staff is stacked with writing talent.

But there was a cost. What you may not know is that the NCSE staff is very small. Just around a half dozen people generated all those posts. That took a lot of time, both in the writing, and in the internal peer-review system we established to make sure all of our posts were scientifically and editorially sound. Furthermore, with new content added every day, the posts about our new programs quickly got buried, making it difficult for casual visitors to our website to get an immediate idea of what NCSE is all about.

So it is with no small regret that I am letting you know that as of next Monday, September 12, 2016, we will be drastically reducing the frequency of posts on our blog, and the new content will be, for the most part, tightly focused on NCSE’s programs.

You’ll be hearing from Claire Adrian-Tucci about our teacher network, NCSEteach and our Scientist in the Classroom program. You’ll be hearing from Emily Schoerning with news from our Science Booster Clubs. Plus Josh Rosenau and Steve Newton will keep you up to date on NCSE’s Grand Canyon expedition, including how the teachers who received NCSE-donor-funded scholarships have incorporated what they learned in the Canyon into their classroom activities. Finally, Stephanie Keep will continue to provide her lucid explanations of how to talk about evolution without reinforcing misconceptions—posts that have proven useful to teachers, journalists, and scientists alike.

You can expect to see something new every week or so. Importantly for NCSE, anyone who visits our website will immediately see what we’re all about, and maybe be inspired to get involved by participating in the programs or becoming an NCSE member. Please be sure to recommend the NCSE blog to your friends and continue to interact with us through the comment section. We have greatly valued your participation and sharp insights, and we hope that you’ll continue to be loyal fans!

 

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tiarescott/39390433

Misconception Monday: The Myth of “De-Evolution,” Part 2

In part 1, I relayed a story of the common carp. Long ago, the carp was domesticated by monks to have fewer, patchy scales, making the fish easier to prepare and eat. Some of these monk-bred “mirror carp” were released in Madagascar in 1912 to provide a ready source of fishy deliciousness. Just forty years later, a majority of wild-caught carp in Madagascar had fully scaled bodies. Researchers recently determined that the scaly carp resembled their pre-domesticated ancestors, but the genetics underlying the similarity were different. The allele primarily responsible for scaliness, the S variant of gene fgfr1a1, had been removed from the domestic carp population by the monks. With no variation with respect to that trait, evolution with regard to scaliness would have to stop, since variation is the raw material for evolution, right? You’d think. But it turns out that variation in other genes persisted, and thanks to a strong selection pressure for scales in the wild, natural selection acting on that variation managed to compensate for the loss of the scaliness allele. I ended part 1 by saying: “Scales to no scales to scales again! Evolution had reversed itself, right? Not so fast.” Which serves as a reintroduction to the misconception at hand:

Misconception: De-evolution is a “thing.”

Correction: There is no such thing as de-evolution or re-evolution, forward evolution or reverse evolution: There is just evolution.

It is not all that uncommon for a population to swing from one primary phenotype to another. It is also not that uncommon for scientists and science writers to dub this kind of pattern “de-evolution” or “reverse evolution.” A 2001 review paper by Teotónio and Rose defined reverse evolution as “the reacquisition by derived populations of the same character states, including fitness, as those of ancestor populations.” By this definition, all kinds of things would qualify as being examples of “reverse evolution”: Peppered moths were mostly all white—then black—then white again. Carp had scales—then lost them—then got them again. Fish had no limbs—then reptiles had limbs—then snakes lost limbs. Three examples; three very different situations none of which, I’ll soon argue, should be considered “reverse evolution.” Let’s look at each:

In the first, the moths never completely lost all variation. Even during the smoggiest periods of the Industrial Revolution, there were some white morphs around. So the trait, and the genes responsible, were still present in the population, ready to be acted upon by natural selection as soon as the environment changed. Diagram this pattern as A→B→A.

With the carp, some genetic variation was completely lost, but there was enough variation present in the genome so that when the environment changed, the trait could change, too—though the change was underlain by a different set of genes. Diagram this as A→ B→A′.

As for the snakes, the timescale here is eons, and the pathways are so completely changed and altered over that time that it seems highly doubtful that there are significant similarities to be found among the genetics that result in the limbless traits. After all, in the case of fish, functional genes for robust limbs aren’t even present in the genome! Among snakes, the genes inherited from long-ago ancestors have been shut off. To my mind, this pattern is best summarized as A→B→C where A and C have superficial—at best—similarities underlain by completely different mechanisms.

So are any of these examples of reverse evolution? I’m going to say no. Why? Because I don’t think reverse evolution should be “a thing” (h/t to Steve Bowden, who asked about it in these terms). Evolution, as I have discussed multiple times in this blog, has no direction. As nice and tidy as the Great Chain of Being is, it’s totally unrepresentative of Earth’s diversity. Life is a sprawling, directionless bush, not a straight, directional ladder. As such, there is no “backwards” or “forwards” when it comes to evolution. There is just change. Sometimes changes result in blocked-off paths. Snakes have, along their lineages, evolved a limbless form and they will never regain fully functional limbs identical to—or even similar to—those present on their ancestors. Vertebrate limbs are the result of a myriad of genes expressed in particular ways and particular times. Once you shut down and scramble all those genes, you just aren’t going to get them back the way they were, even if a strong selection pressure suddenly emerged that would favor limbs.

That is not to say that evolution can’t result in new tricks, or ways to compensate for losses. Take the carp. The primary gene responsible for full-body scales was effectively shut down by the monks—there was only one flavor of gene in the population, and evolution demands variety. Despite the loss, subsequent generations of carp managed to exploit other genetic variations, resulting in a scaly resurgence. But here’s the important point: The carp didn’t de-evolve—the evolutionary changes of previous centuries were not systematically undone—rather, the carp just evolved. Evolution is genetic change over generations in a population. Sometimes, that change results in novel traits; other times, it results in a kind of retro trait revolution, in which what was old becomes new again.

To their credit, the researchers responsible for this carp study did not use the terms “de-evolve” or “re-evolve” in their paper. The misguided terms were deployed by the science writers covering the story, and even I can’t fully blame them. After all, the terms exist in the literature and they’re evocative and grabby. However, I think that it’s a mistake to use “reverse evolution” or “de-evolution” in any kind of writing for the public. It’s already easy for people to slip into inaccurate ladder-of-life thinking habits; why make it easier by using terminology that presupposes and reinforces it? Instead, I suggest using the term the researchers used—“compensatory evolution.” And to prove that you can still have a catchy headline without the cruddy term, I offer this:

Compensating for Monk-Imposed Nakedness: A New Path To Scaliness Evolves in Carp

I know I’m biased, but I’d want to read that article. Anyone else have a catchy headline to offer up? Sound off below.

Are you a teacher and want to tell us about an amazing free resource? Do you have an idea for a Misconception Monday or other type of post? Have a fossil to share? See some good or bad examples of science communication lately? Drop me an e-mail or shoot me a Tweet @keeps3.

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Just-So Stories

Original woodcut illustration for The Just So story 'The Elephant's Child' by Rudyard Kipling via Wikimedia Commons

I have to admit that I haven’t read anything, ever, by Tom Wolfe, whose new book The Kingdom of Speech (2016) apparently tries, in the words of the headline to Jerry Coyne’s review for the Washington Post, “to take down Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.” And, after reading a few critical reviews of The Kingdom of Speech, I’m not feeling inclined to start reading his work; it hardly sounds like the right stuff. But a passage quoted from the book by a reviewer caught my attention:

Kipling’s intention from the outset was to entertain children. Darwin’s intention, on the other hand, was dead serious and absolutely sincere in the name of science and his cosmogony. Neither had any evidence to back up his tale. Kipling, of course, never pretended to. But Darwin did. The first person to refer to Darwin’s tales as Just So Stories was a Harvard paleontologist and evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, in 1978. Orthodox neo-Darwinists never forgave him. Gould was not a heretic and not even an apostate. He was a simple profane sinner. He had called attention to the fact that Darwin’s Just So Stories required a feat of fiction writing Kipling couldn’t compete with.

The allusion to Kipling is, of course, to his collection Just-So Stories (1902), which began as bedtime stories told to his first-born child Josephine (who died at the early age of six). As the Kipling expert Daniel Karlin explains, “These are stories of origins: ‘How the Whale got his Throat’, ‘How the Camel got his Hump’, ‘How the Rhinoceros got his Skin’—stories that answer the kinds of question children ask, in ways that satisfy their taste for primitive and poetic justice.”

Well, was Gould “[t]he first person to refer to Darwin’s tales as Just So Stories,” as Wolfe asserts? It’s true that, as part of his campaign against “panadaptationism,” Gould famously referred to adaptive hypotheses advanced in the absence of evidence as “just-so stories”; the first appearance of the epithet in his oeuvre seems to be in one of his Natural History essays, “The Return of Hopeful Monsters” (1977), which refers disapprovingly to the “‘just-so story’ tradition of evolutionary natural history.” But Gould seems to have used the epithet with reference to Darwin himself only once, in a footnote to a later Natural History essay, “The Tallest Tale” (1996), and in the text of the essay he affirms, “Darwin did not much favor the fatuous ‘just-so story’ mode for illustrating natural selection by plausible speculation alone.”

Gould’s use of the phrase “just-so story” was famous, or notorious, enough that Anthony Gottlieb, writing in The New Yorker in 2012, managed to get the speculation “his may well have been the first pejorative use of Kipling’s term” past the magazine’s legendary fact-checkers. That, at any rate, is wrong. A feature of Kipling’s Just-So Stories is that distinctive features of animals are typically explained with reference to a particular event in the life of a single individual: elephants in general have trunks because the “mere-smear nose” of the Elephant’s Child was pulled out of shape by a tug-of-war between the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake and the Crocodile (seeking to devour the Elephant’s Child). The original Just-So Stories thus presuppose the inheritance of acquired characters—sometimes called Lamarckism.

Accordingly, it wasn’t long after the publication of Just-So Stories that the epithet “just-so story” was used pejoratively—not against Darwin but against Lamarck. In 1918, the popular science writer Lancelot Hogben wrote, in a book on Alfred Russel Wallace, “Lamarck’s idea of evolution in his ‘Philosophie Zoologique’ is not essentially unlike the story of the recalcitrant Elephant’s Child in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’. … Needless to say Lamarck and his fellows had no evidence to adduce in favour of their belief in the inheritance of acquired characters.” (It is common, but not really fair, to criticize Lamarck in particular, since, as Conway Zirkle noted in 1935, “Lamarck was neither the first nor the most distinguished biologist who taught that such modifications [acquired characters] were heritable.”)

But the epithet spread. Writing on “Homo sapiens—Whence and Whither” in Science in 1935, the physical anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton complained about a proposed revision to the understanding of the human lineage, on which the lemur—“the glassy-eyed, frozen-faced lemur, which suggests the product of some unhallowed alliance between a degenerate fox and a libertine marmoset”—would be downgraded from ancestor to cousin, with the spectral tarsier (Tarsius spectrum) “knocking for admission to the genealogical order of Daughters of the Human Evolution” in its stead. “Particularly because Tarsius sits erect, feeds itself with its hands, has a short snout, frontally directed eyes[,] and a brain in some respects well-developed, ingenious anatomists have made it the hero of a sort of scientific Just So story of primate evolution.”

Hooton evidently was afforded a high degree of literary license by the then editor of Science. But anyone not so devoted to flamboyant rhetoric ought to consider whether to emulate him in applying the epithet “just-so story” to a hypothesis regarded as lacking in evidence. It is, arguably, disrespectful. After all, Kipling’s stories are flights of fancy, not the products of serious inquirers seeking to provide plausible scientific explanations. If what’s really wrong with a scientific hypothesis is that it was advanced in the absence of compelling—or any—evidence, why not rest content with saying so, rather than implicitly chide its proponents for writing fiction? Of course, when writers of fiction themselves misunderstand and misrepresent the science, rhetoric may be the only thing keeping the Wolfe from the door.

Misconception Monday: The Myth of “De-Evolution,” Part 1

I thought that I was doing my best to stay on top of evolution-related news, but now I fear that I’ve grown lazy, and for that I blame Ed Yong. Yong is a tremendously talented writer who, I can only assume based on his output, has somehow genetically engineered himself to require no sleep. We highlight his work every week in What We’re Reading posts, and I have come to rely on him to tell me what’s happening in the world of evolution research. Well, my passive reliance on Yong has been exposed because just the other week, there was a great right-up-my-alley story in the news that I missed because—you guessed it, Yong didn’t cover it—and I never would have found it if weren’t for sloth lover and blog commenter extraordinaire Steve Bowden. A huge “thank you,” therefore, to Bowden, and a sheepish acknowledgment of slothfulness from me.

The research in question involves the common carp (Cyprinus carpio), a large freshwater fish that thrives in murky low-oxygenated waters. (You might be more familiar with their fancy variants, the koi, denizens of castle moats and garden ponds everywhere.) Common carp can actually be a bit of a pain, as their omnivorous diets and robust physiology enable them to outcompete native fish and become invasive. Ironically, wild native populations of carp are considered vulnerable—so they aren’t doing well where they’re supposed to be, but they’re doing too well everywhere else. 

So what’s happened with carp that has them in the news? Here are some headlines: “Carp demonstrate rapid de-evolution to get their scales back” (Phys.org); “Carp undergo ‘reverse evolution’ to get their scales back” (Science); and “Cultivated carp ‘reverse evolve,’ grow scales back” (popsci.com). Oh boy. This post could very easily be a long, ranty, Say What? but since the misconception here isn’t one I’ve explicitly covered, and because Bowden suggested a “Misconception Monday” when he wrote to invite me to, er, carp about the topic (asking “Is de-evolution even a ‘thing’?”) we’ll do it this way.

Misconception: De-evolution is a “thing.”

Correction: There is no such thing as de-evolution or re-evolution, forward evolution or reverse evolution: There is just evolution.

Here’s what happened with the carp in the headlines: Centuries ago, European monks began domesticating carp, selecting for carps without the usual full complement of stiff scales, which makes them easier to prepare and cook. The monks wouldn’t have put it this way, of course, but they bred the carp until the trait of having scant, patchy, opalescent scales became genetically fixed—meaning there was no variation in the population. The monks’ fish became known as “mirror carp.”

Here, unfortunately, we must take a short dip into jargon before moving on. It’ll be worth it, I promise. A physical trait is known as a phenotype. A given phenotype is the result of interplay between the particular genes an individual has (its genotype) and the environment. Under ordinary circumstances, an animal—be it carp, human, stinkbug, or sloth—inherits one copy of every gene from its mother and another copy from its father. The particular mix of genes inherited helps to determine the animal’s traits.

The important carp gene in this story is fgfr1a1. (Sorry—geneticists don’t really think about the public when they name things). This gene has two variations, or allelesS and s. The particular combination of the fgfr1a1 alleles an individual carp inherits from its parents largely determines what its scale pattern will be like. When a carp gets two copies of the s gene (genotype ss) it ends up with the mirror phenotype. Through generations of selective breeding, the monks completely eliminated the S variant of fgfr1a1 in their carp populations. End result: All of their domesticated carp had fgfr1a1 genotype ss and therefore all of the carp were of the mirror variety.

In 1912, mirror carp from the monks’ stock were released into various bodies of fresh water in Madagascar so that they could be farmed and provide a stable food source. There were no native carp in these waters—just the introduced mirror carp. Fast forward to the 1950s: people started documenting the presence of fully scaled, hard-to-eat carp in Madagascar. What happened?

In an effort to figure it out, an international team of researchers surveyed the carp and determined several things: 1) About 65% of wild-caught carp in Madagascar were fully scaled; 2) the scaled fish had derived from the original released mirror carp populations; 3) the scaled carp all still carried the ss genotype; and 4) among fish with the fixed ss genotype, there is considerable heritable variation as to number of scales.

So the majority of wild carp in Madagascar had a fully scaled body, but the scales didn’t result from any kind of crossbreeding with other populations of fish. And, crucially, they all still carried the genes that made their ancestors mirrored. But clearly, more than one gene contributes to scale patterns since scale number was both variable and influenced by the parents’ genes even when all the fish had the ss genotype! All the clues have been revealed. Have you figured out what happened yet?

Well, to quote Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” Um, make that: “life … finds a way.” Having scales is pretty important to carp—they protect the fish from predators and disease. Once the carp were back in the wild, natural selection acted on existing variation among the carp—variation provided by genes other than the one that was fixed so long ago by the monks—to increase scaliness over generations. In a blink of an eye—about forty generations—a pre-domestication phenotype had re-emerged, and fully scaled carp were happily swimming around in Madagascar. One route toward scaliness—gene fgfr1a1—was blocked, but another route had clearly opened.

Scales to no scales to scales again! Evolution had reversed itself, right? Not so fast. I’ll explain the problem with that phrase in part 2.

Are you a teacher and want to tell us about an amazing free resource? Do you have an idea for a Misconception Monday or other type of post? Have a fossil to share? See some good or bad examples of science communication lately? Drop me an e-mail or shoot me a Tweet @keeps3.

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