Darwin: Science mags pipe up the hype, and no, you are NOT just imagining that uproar behind the curtains ...
British physicist David Tyler observes, in an article about a recent early flatfish find:
The most noticeable feature of the research concerns the evolutionary hype that has emerged from the journal Nature and from the science media. We are not witnessing an impartial evaluation of the data, but a construction of an argument to "lay to rest" criticisms of Darwinism and evolutionary transformation.
Matt Friedman, the author of the research paper, says that the fossils are important because "they help to settle a long-standing evolutionary debate and shed light on the mode and tempo of evolutionary change". Apparently, finding one intermediate stage dated at 47 million years is sufficient to say that the tempo was "gradual" and that it occurred over "over thousands to millions of years". We have no earlier fossils without asymmetry, and fully asymmetric flatfish appear in the fossil record at the same time. At very least, we can say that these data do not justify the word "gradual"!
The morphological changes are developmental: they occur in every flatfish living today. These changes do not involve any genetic change - the genome is the same before and after the development of asymmetry. The important difference is that the new fossils are mature, not young. But surely the first explanatory options to be explored relate to developmental mechanisms. Are there environmental factors leading to the retarded development of these fish? Or are there epigenetic influences which mean that normal development was impaired, and these animals represent stunted growth? Curiously, there is no exploration of these options in the research paper or in the science media.
And they will settle for very little evidence and very much hype. I have noted the same thing as Tyler in recent years:
The need of legacy media to “refute” intelligent design is taking
precedence over normal story values. For example, reviewer Sara Lippincott in the Los Angeles Times, looking at When Science Goes Wrong by Simon LeVay says that the book, “despite its provocative title, will not give particular comfort to proponents of intelligent design.” (If their view was relevant to the story, she doesn't say how. It sounds more like she had to just get that in, to remind herself of what she believes).
Similarly, Anne Minard writes in National Geographic News (July 9, 2008), “The discovery of a missing link in the evolution of bizarre flatfishes-each of which has both eyes on the same side of its head could give intelligent design advocates a sinking feeling.” I know for a fact that it didn’t give the key ID guys that I keep track of a sinking feeling.
But Minard herself needs to believe that it does give them a sinking feeling. More to the point, her job is to communicate that idea to her faithful and grateful Geographics. Yet even now, the Altenberg 16 meet to decide how they can save their exploded idea, reminding me of Glasnost.
(Note: The image is from Project Gutenberg.)