The Latest Accusation: If You Accept Evolution, You Must Think You’re Better Than Your Parents

I receive some interesting things in my inbox. Several weeks ago someone sent me a complaint he made against me on something called alt.smokers – a group I hadn’t been familiar with. The subject of the complaint: A story from January 2010 on the possibility that humans are still evolving. It’s such an interesting question, and perhaps so misunderstood, that I’m tackling it again in Monday’s column.

 The alt.smokers post quotes my story here:

Evidence for more recent evolution is coming not from fossils but from
patterns seen in the DNA of contemporary people. Genes show that blue
eyes, for example, apparently didn't exist until 6,000 years ago,

And then he brings in a reference I didn’t use:

The evidence referred to is "Ancient DNA provides new insights into
the history of south Siberian Kurgan people." published in Human
Genetics 126:3:395 410 (2009).

It is telling that Faye Flam says it was based on contemporary DNA
when the title of her reference says the exact opposite. Every
generation of adolescents harbors the mistaken idea that it is
fundamentally more advanced than its parents. Flam's erroneous
statement is evidence high school FEELINGS persist into adulthood,
where they are passed off as educated opinion.

I guess the idea here is that anyone willing to consider the possibility that we’re still evolving is an immature fool who thinks she’s better than her parents. This reflects a common misunderstanding of evolution as some sort of advancement. It’s the same misperception behind Christine O’Donnell’s infamous question: “Why are there Still Monkeys?”   

It’s an understandable mistake, based on that misleading popular image of the ape ascending in steps toward mankind. Scientists don’t actually see it this way. Instead, they view evolution as a big branching bush, with every animal evolving down a different twig. We’re at the end of one branch and monkeys are at the end of another, and somewhere, the two branches join at a common ancestor.

Darwin’s version of evolution reflects this view, but a more hierarchical version was proposed first, by French natural philosopher Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. In Lamarckian evolution, each animal had had evolved through the same series of steps, with dogs evolving into monkeys evolving into people, evolving into French people. The reason there were still monkeys, according to Lamarck, was they were evolving on a separate ladder, with a more recent origin of life.

I emailed this person back to point out that I didn't use the reference he thought I used. Most of the material in the story came from interviews. And this appeared:


The article said its source was "a paper published last month in
Science," written by Sharon Grossman. A search of Science's database
found it had not published anything by S Grossman in 2011. A search on
"blue eyes" in 2011 by any author was also fruitless.

I wrote to Faye Flam, author of the Inquirer article, who replied with
a link to a paper by S. Grossman published in Science in Feb. 2010.
That paper was at a high level of abstraction, talked about 1,000
haplotypes, did not mention blue eyes.

Flam's information had come from an interview of Grossman. She had not
heard of the report I cited above. It is obvious Grossman was
referring to it when she talked about blue eyes.

There were at least two errors in the Inquirer article:
1. There was no " paper published last month."
2. Evidence for blue eyes was not "seen in the DNA of contemporary

The first charge is definitely wrong. There was a paper published the month before the story appeared. As for the second, it's possible I misunderstood Dr. Grossman, thought it seems more likely that the same tidbit about blue eyes came from both types of studes. I do make the occasional error, though I promise I never invent scientific papers that don't exist.    

More to come on Monday. And don't smoke.