Popularizing science is a very complicated task. You have to turn a dry scientific result into a sexy piece of the grand story of the universe. You have to have readers wonder when they usually don’t even know the remote piece of information as to why this particular result was looked for. But most of the time, popularization is also done by people who haven’t even tried to understand why this bit of the puzzle is actually puzzling.
Over at Bug Girl’s blog, there’s a post about what happens when popularization is really bad. It often begins straight in the title. Bug Girl tried to make sense of such a very poor headline: Rare example of Darwinism seen in action…
Since Bug Girl is a very nice person and blogger, she takes a parsimonious hypothesis as to why there is the bad word “darwinism” in a headline in the first place. She asks whether researchers dealing with the sexual aspects of evolution (notably the sexual selection brought about by Darwin himself as a factor of change analogous to natural selection) have co-opted for the use of “darwinism” in the recent litterature about evolution and sex related questions.
The quick answer is “no”. That’s not only my guess: I haven’t read anything that would make me suspect such a change. For sure I haven’t read all the recent litterature, but still, nothing.
She’s right about the fact that darwinism is mostly used by creationism advocates. Or in studies in the history of biology dealing with the early theory of evolution. Maybe that’s exactly what all of this is about… Now when one reads the popularization article, here is what can be found:
Reznick and the other researchers found that the IGF2 gene sequences had changed in some species of the minnows, showing that segments of the gene had evolved.
The researchers found that the biggest genetic changes were in those species of the minnows that had developed placentas, supporting the Darwinian theory of natural selection.
This would seem barely surprising to any biologist. Comparing gene sequences is nothing new. Though the changes can be due to fixation of any mutation by either selection or drift, but there are ways for scientists to have guesses as to which one best explains the data. The issue here is that:
-the journalist thinks it is new (the case study is, here changes in a sequence associated with evolution of placentation; comparing sequences isn’t)
-he thinks it is some rare evidence for evolution (it isn’t, every sequence documented in genome databases lead to the same observation so this way really isn’t a rare evidence, it’s fairly common)
-he thinks evolution is here seen in action, and sorry, it isn’t neither. Evolution is nevertheless seen in action by many other studies documenting changes in species or investigating natural selection in the wild (like this one… :-)
The headline is especially misleading and would make eventually some readers think that evidence for evolution is not common anyway (so why bother? exceptions are not the rule). This may not be deliberate, but it is definitely misleading. I suspect the writer of this text either isn’t particularly fond of evolutionary studies, or he really doesn’t care at all.
And more could be said about presenting the idea of genetic conflicts between sexes or parent/offspring as controversial. But that’s another topic.