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Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life - Comments

SteveN's Avatar Comment 1 by SteveN

...the tree concept could become biology's equivalent of Newtonian mechanics: revolutionary and hugely successful in its time, but ultimately too simplistic to deal with the messy real world.

That sounds fine to me and would, I think, have been immediately accepted by Darwin. For everyday living, Newtonian physics is still perfectly adequate and I think the tree of life will remain a useful metaphor for all but those studying evolution in detail.

SteveN

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 11:32:00 UTC | #310434

gruebait's Avatar Comment 2 by gruebait

The headline is really wrongheaded, as is the premise of the article - it isn't 1859 any more; duh!

For a useful critique (and a great illustration), visit Larry Moran's blog, Sandwalk at http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2009/01/darwin-was-wrong.html

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 11:34:00 UTC | #310436

a non e-moose's Avatar Comment 3 by a non e-moose

very sensationalist and provocative spin on the cover and title. The Sun couldn't do it better.

It's old news that micro-organisms swap genetic material, isn't it?

gruebait, how is the premise wrongheaded?

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 12:00:00 UTC | #310462

mummymonkey's Avatar Comment 4 by mummymonkey

I think if you take a microscope to the tree of life you'll discover it is made of webs. I also think the "Darwin Was Wrong" cover is unhelpful.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 12:04:00 UTC | #310466

j.mills's Avatar Comment 5 by j.mills

I agree: the New Scientist cover splurge, "Darwin Was Wrong", is scandalously irresponsible, suggesting to the casual observer that evolution and natural selection have been overturned. All they are contending is that research 150 years ago has since been improved on; but that cover will be flashed up in creationist Powerpoint presentations for years to come.

The editors not only should know better, they must.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 12:27:00 UTC | #310479

82abhilash's Avatar Comment 6 by 82abhilash

Would it be possible that some clever people at New Scientist thought this would be a good bait for creationists? If they get hooked, they may reel themselves in, if you know what I mean. Autodidactism and stuff like that.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 12:59:00 UTC | #310499

MadMonkey's Avatar Comment 7 by MadMonkey

5. Comment #325724 by j.mills
I agree: the New Scientist cover splurge, "Darwin Was Wrong", is scandalously irresponsible"


But will increase sales :)

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 13:00:00 UTC | #310500

gazzaofbath's Avatar Comment 8 by gazzaofbath

MadMonkey says; But will increase sales :)

I wonder! I'm an intermittent buyer of the magazine but it's expensive for the content. I just won't bother anymore.

One finds it far easier to get the latest scientific news and analysis, without sensationalism, online nowadays.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 13:34:00 UTC | #310534

Mr DArcy's Avatar Comment 9 by Mr DArcy

So Darwin didn't get it all right first time. Well surprise, surprise. Nor did Newton or countless others.

Darwin had no idea of genes or DNA, but he got the principles right. The latest science shows that uni-cellular organisms can swap bits of DNA without reproduction. Great stuff. As we "higher" animals, everyone of us, is made of 90% uni-cellular organisms, they obviously have a majority influence into the genes that humans pass on to the next generation.

When the genome of the talking snake is made public, then I will become a Christian and believe in Genesis.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 13:49:00 UTC | #310558

sunbeamforjesus's Avatar Comment 10 by sunbeamforjesus

Only God gets it right all the time, but he was shagged out by the sixth day with all the exertion and had to rest on sunday!

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 13:55:00 UTC | #310563

eh-theist's Avatar Comment 11 by eh-theist

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 14:01:00 UTC | #310572

Romaholic's Avatar Comment 12 by Romaholic

If you read the editorial it shows even the editor didn't like the title.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 14:04:00 UTC | #310577

Mr DArcy's Avatar Comment 13 by Mr DArcy

Move the red bead of the probability of abiogenesis down its wire, away from zero and towards one, and funny things happen to the structure of the monophyletic tree of life. The tree comes apart from the bottom, and the fracturing process rapidly climbs up into the branches.


(From eh-theist's link)

And the consequence is?........

The ID lobby really have nothing constructive to say.

"Chop down Darwin's tree, an' that'll learn them monkeys", seems to be the message, but I could be wrong.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 14:35:00 UTC | #310617

Eshto's Avatar Comment 14 by Eshto

Would it be possible that some clever people at New Scientist thought this would be a good bait for creationists? If they get hooked, they may reel themselves in, if you know what I mean. Autodidactism and stuff like that.


Actually I'm a non-scientist, and I often come at these issues from the stance of someone interested in the "culture wars", especially in my country, the United States. So immediately when I saw the headline I thought to myself "what now", and I started reading it with the expectation that some moron was going to say a bunch of stupid anti-evolution things we could all laugh at and scorn. Then as I read it became clear to me this was something else, and I kept reading it because it was interesting.

So there ya go, I was hooked by the sensationalist title. If it was titled something boring like "horizontal gene transfer complicates the Darwinian tree of life", would I have read it?

Well maybe, but probably not right away.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 14:46:00 UTC | #310627

agki's Avatar Comment 15 by agki

non e-moose: "gruebait, how is the premise wrongheaded?"

Read what he said. "It isn't 1859 any more..."

It's wrongheaded because it introduces some late 20th and early 21st Century knowledge into the equation that Chuck D. couldn't know about. It's like the Creationist screaming "Darwin was wrong because he didn't know exactly how birds evolved!" We still don't but it doesn't matter. It's not an issue though for a dead man.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 14:56:00 UTC | #310638

Mr DArcy's Avatar Comment 16 by Mr DArcy

So there ya go, I was hooked by the sensationalist title. If it was titled something boring like "horizontal gene transfer complicates the Darwinian tree of life", would I have read it?

Well maybe, but probably not right away.


Eshto has a point. As a regular reader of New Scientist, I have long learned to ignore the headlines. Are the ID people ready to bring in their stump grinder and remove all traces of Darwin's tree? Somehow, I doubt it!

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 14:58:00 UTC | #310640

gruebait's Avatar Comment 17 by gruebait

@ a non e-moose (#3)
'Premise' was a poor choice of words, perhaps 'thrust of the article' would have been better - the science of biology has not been primarily about diagramming the Tree of Life for the last 150 years, nor is it suddenly confronted with a "project [that] lies in tatters, torn to pieces by an onslaught of negative evidence".

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 15:17:00 UTC | #310672

james.d's Avatar Comment 18 by james.d

12. Comment #325823 by Romaholic on January 22, 2009 at 2:04 pm
If you read the editorial it shows even the editor didn't like the title.

If the editor doesn't like a headline and it still gets printed, something's gone wrong with accountability somewhere.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 15:22:00 UTC | #310678

Peribolos's Avatar Comment 19 by Peribolos

So basically the tree Darwin came up with in 1837 is perfectly correct when it comes to all multicellular life and some unicellar life but wrong when it comes to bacteria and anything else that swaps DNA. Which is unsurprising considering the name 'Bacterium' wasn't coined til 1838, so Darwin probably didn't have them in the forefront of his mind.

The article itself is interesting-ish to a non scientist like myself but the title and hence core premise is just silly. What would have been wrong with 'Bacteria don't fit into Darwin's tree of life' or somehing like that.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 18:28:00 UTC | #310804

Enlightenme..'s Avatar Comment 20 by Enlightenme..

10. Comment #325808 by sunbeamforjesus on January 22:

"Only God gets it right all the time, but he was shagged out by the sixth day with all the exertion and had to rest on sunday!"

That must have pissed him off no end having to pay homage to such a bog-standard little star as ours.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 18:38:00 UTC | #310816

Thanny's Avatar Comment 21 by Thanny

Only someone hung up on the idea that organisms are the unit of selection would think horizontal gene transfer somehow dismantles the tree of life.

If you look at the fundamentals of life - the differential success of replicators - then the tree is quite intact, however complex the branches for any given gene may be. Organisms are minor trunks where many branches grow together for a while, while horizontal gene transfer would be branches here and there leaving and entering said trunks.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 19:01:00 UTC | #310835

skepticato's Avatar Comment 22 by skepticato

This article fails to see the forest for the trees. For two reasons.

First of all "tree of life" is a metaphor. Yes, in real trees, branches don't meet up and produce an offspring, but who's to say that a metaphorical tree can't do that? It seems to me that all Darwin was attempting to do - with respect to the environment in which his invention was conceived - was to try to establish a lineage for the diversity in the planet and to show that the progress of time and natural selection accounted for new types of creatures (or species). Whether those new species hybridized or split off is immaterial. The point is to show a lineage.

Secondly, this hybridization argument gets into the problem of exactly where to delineate species. If we look at life as a continuum (as we should) rather than a series of discrete pockets of species, the sharing of genetic material ceases to become relevant.

New Scientist is the Fox News of science.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 19:44:00 UTC | #310913

Beachbum's Avatar Comment 23 by Beachbum

The debate remains polarised today. Bork's group continue to work on the tree of life and he continues to defend the concept. "Our point of view is that yes, there has been lots of HGT, but the majority of genes contain this tree signal," Bork says. The real problem is that our techniques are not yet good enough to tease that signal out, he says.


So, they have been wacking away at our tree with an ax, but are just now realizing they may need some "specialized" tools.

To sell a rag they say "Why Darwin was wrong about the Tree of Life" and Cretonists in Texas cop an orgasm just in time to sell a bunch of ID textbooks.

When in reality "How Darwin's Tree of Life was refined and detailed by modern scientific techniques" would be much more accurate.


"but only if the main premise underpinning Darwin's tree was incorrect"


The main premise is sound as ever, now just more accurate.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 19:51:00 UTC | #310928

elbuho's Avatar Comment 24 by elbuho

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 22:50:00 UTC | #311005

Carl Sai Baba's Avatar Comment 25 by Carl Sai Baba

To say that the "tree of life" is "wrong" because of gene-swapping is as stupid as saying gravity is wrong about tree/fruit separation because sometimes fruits are plucked.

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 22:58:00 UTC | #311006

Tagred's Avatar Comment 26 by Tagred

New Scientist seems to get more sensational every day. I don't know who they are employing as journalists but it really is gettiing to the gutter tabloid press stage.

Where i have no problem in a little embellishment to catch the eye, headlines like this do nothing to advance the perception of science. Fairly irresponsible writing in my opinion. Even one with very basic knowledge of cladistics (i still use that word) would be able to rip apart the writer.

Sure, the "tree of life" may need to be changed if the criteria and evidence demands it, but it is essentially still there, now at a higher resolution. In my opinion there is no question that the tree of life is wrong, merely modified to include the new knowledge.

It is as it should be, making the model fit the evidence, i see nothing wrong in the tree of life model evolving.

It is quite sad to see this kind of poor writing in New Scientists. I have read the mag for years before and only recently re0discovered it, but this is not good for people who do not have a good knwledge of science or techniques.

Heck I may as well just start buying the Sun newspaper.

Fri, 23 Jan 2009 01:45:00 UTC | #311076

bluecastle's Avatar Comment 27 by bluecastle

RightWingAtheist:
To say that the "tree of life" is "wrong" because of gene-swapping is as stupid as saying Newtons theory of gravity is wrong because of Einsteins theory of relativity. Which is true, but noone would say so. Newton was like Darwin ingenious and their theories were and are refined afterwards - which makes science superior to religion.

Fri, 23 Jan 2009 03:13:00 UTC | #311147

Ygern's Avatar Comment 28 by Ygern

Its a pity that the sub-editor at New Scientist thinks he has to compete with the lowest gutter press for sensationalist bylines that have almost nothing to do with the content of the article.

This doesn't prove that Darwin was wrong any more than the Boeing 767 proved the Wright brothers wrong.

Fri, 23 Jan 2009 04:19:00 UTC | #311229

Peribolos's Avatar Comment 29 by Peribolos

Only someone hung up on the idea that organisms are the unit of selection would think horizontal gene transfer somehow dismantles the tree of life.

If you look at the fundamentals of life - the differential success of replicators - then the tree is quite intact, however complex the branches for any given gene may be. Organisms are minor trunks where many branches grow together for a while, while horizontal gene transfer would be branches here and there leaving and entering said trunks.
Nice point (particularly appropriate for a Dawkins site). Although it has to be pointed out Darwin himself created the tree to describe organisms as the unit of selection. On the other hand it shows what a crap, superficial article it is.

Fri, 23 Jan 2009 04:28:00 UTC | #311230

SaganTheCat's Avatar Comment 30 by SaganTheCat

a quote gold-mine. thanks NS

Still, "Darwin Was Wrong!" is a headline we could use for other aspects.

He was wrong to consider the ministry as a career choice, he was wrong to wait so long to publish his work, he was a bit misguided in his assumption that Australia would become the next great nation in the world (mind you, he liked his sport, didn't he) and call me controversial but I'm not sure that beard was so good for his public image

Fri, 23 Jan 2009 04:29:00 UTC | #311231