Thursday, October 09, 2014

Do we tell the right stories about evolution?

There’s a super discussion on evolutionary theory in Nature this week. It’s prompted by the views of Kevin Laland at St Andrews, who has been arguing for some time that the traditional “evolutionary synthesis” needs to be extended beyond its narrow focus on genetics. In response, Gregory Wray at Duke University and others accuse Laland et al. of presenting a caricature of evolutionary biology and of ignoring all the work that is already being done on the issues Laland highlights.

It all sounds remarkably like the response I got to my article in Nature a couple of years back, which was suggesting that, not only is there much we still don’t understand about the way evolution happens at the molecular/genetic level but that the question of how genetic inheritance works seems if anything to be less rather than more clear in the post-genomic era. That too led some biologists to respond in much the same way: No, all is well. (The well-known fact that rules of academic courtesy don’t apply towards “journalists” meant that one or two didn’t quite phrase it that way. You get used to it.)

I guess you might expect, in the light of this, that I’d side with Laland et al. But in fact it looks to me as though Wray et al. have a perfectly valid case. After all, my article was formulated after speaking to several evolutionary biologists – and ones who sit well within what could be considered the mainstream. In particular, I think they are right to imply that the diverse mechanisms of evolutionary change known today are ones that, if Darwin didn’t already suspect, would be welcomed avidly by him.

The real source of the argument, it seems to me, is expressed right at the outset by Laland et al.: “mainstream evolutionary theory has come to focus almost exclusively on genetic inheritance and processes that change gene frequencies”. I’m not sure that this is true, although for good reason this is certainly a major focus – perhaps the major one – of the field. Wray et al. regard this as a caricature, but I think that what Laland et al. are complaining about here is what I wanted to highlight too: not so much the way most evolutionary biologists think, but how evolutionary biology is perceived from the outside. Part of the reason for that predominant “popular” focus on genes is due (ironically, given what it is actually revealing) to the genomics revolution itself, not least because we were promised that this was going to answer every question about who we are and where we came from. But of course, the popular notion that evolution is simply a process of natural selection among genes was well in place before the industrial-scale sequencing of genomes – and one doesn’t have to look too hard to find the origins of that view. As Wray et al. rightly say, the basic processes that produce evolutionary change are several-fold: natural selection, drift, mutation, recombination and gene flow. Things like phenotypic plasticity add fascinating perspectives to this, and my own suspicion is that an awful lot will become clearer once we have tools for grappling with the complexities of gene regulatory networks. There doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of argument about this. But attempts to communicate much beyond a simple equation of evolution with natural selection at the genetic level have been few and far between.

And some of the responses to my article made it clear that this is sometimes a conscious decision. Take the view of Paul Griffith, philosopher of science at the University of Sydney. According to ABC News,

“While simplistic communication about genetics can be used to hype the importance of research, and it can encourage the impression that genes determine everything, Professor Griffiths said he does not believe the answer is to communicate more complexity.”

Then there’s “science communication academic” Joan Leach from The University of Queensland, who apparently “agrees the average member of the public is not going to be that interested in the complexity of genetics, unless its relevant to an issue that they care about.” The ABC story goes on:

"Is there a problem that we need to know about here?" Dr Leach said in response to Dr Ball's article. "There are dangers in telling the simple story, but he hasn't spelt out the advantages of embracing complexity in public communication."

Sorry plebs, you’re too dumb to be told the truth – you’ll have to make do with the simplistic stories we told many decades ago.

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