Main | Evolution triumphs over photosynthesis »

What's new in evolution? Lots!

A member of the audience at a recent Cafe Scientifique on "Understanding Evolution" complained that the speakers spent more time talking about the political battle with fundamentalists who don't want evolution taught in schools -- this is especially a problem in the US and Turkey -- rather than discussing new discoveries in evolutionary biology. The theory of evolution is the cornerstone of biology, in the same sense that the germ theory of disease is a cornerstone of medicine, so I agree that increasing the amount and quality of coverage of evolution is a critical educational goal.

But I also sympathized with the audience member who wanted to hear more about science and less about politics and religion. It's not that hard to find out about new discoveries in evolutionary biology if you have access to a university library or even just a good internet connection. But I liked the name, "This Week in Evolution", and nobody seemed to be using it!

Each week, I plan to discuss a scientific paper that meets the following criteria:
1) published during the previous month;
2) about some aspect of evolution;
3) published after peer review in a journal with a citation impact of at least 1.0 (i.e., no third-tier journals);
4) containing significant amounts of data, not just mathematical modeling or discussion.

I welcome suggestions for papers to discuss, including any that challenge major elements of evolutionary theory, but only those that meet the rather minimalist criteria above. So, for example, if some senile member of the National Academy of Science uses his membership status to bypass peer review and publish a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy claiming (without any data) that space aliens are secretly controlling evolution, I won't bother to discuss that paper. (If he had data, he wouldn't need to bypass peer review!) Good papers are sometimes published without peer review (e.g., in the proceedings of a symposium) or in third-rate journals, but sticking to high-impact journals reduces the chances that I'll get halfway through the paper and find they've made some really obvious error. Mathematical models can provide important insights, as can reviews of existing literature -- I have published both -- but one logical flaw missed by peer review can sometimes make the whole paper useless. Papers containing data, on the other hand, are usually informative even if there turn out to be mistakes in interpretation.

I will assume that readers have background equivalent to a good high school or college biology course. These articles might be appropriate for a freshman seminar, but this isn't a remedial course in elementary principles of evolution. So I will assume some familiarity with terms like "chromosome" and "mutation", and with the evidence that: 1) the earth is billions, not thousands, of years old, 2) all known life on earth is descended from a common ancestor, and 3) complex structures, such as eyes can evolve in a series of small steps, each typically giving a small increase in fitness. Although these statements may conflict with some religious traditions, the evidence for each is now so overwhelming that mainstream religions generally accept them. I suggest that "willing to be convinced by overwhelming evidence" is a reasonable definition of "mainstream."

On the other hand, I don't expect any of the papers I discuss will provide data conclusively disproving the existence of god(s), or even the possibility of occasional miraculous intervention in evolution (e.g., creating the first living cell), although we may get more evidence for nonmiraculous hypotheses. We'll see!

Research in my lab on the evolution of cooperation between bacteria and plants is funded by the National Science Foundation, but anything wrong or offensive in this blog is not their fault. See my Department of Ecology Evolution and Behavior web page for my recent papers and my old UC Davis web page for earlier ones.

Comments

I think this is a great idea!

I'm not a biologist, but I try to stay up-to-date on what's current in the field. The problem is that since I'm not an expert, I'm not very good at recognizing which developments are the most significant. A website like this would be a good resource for those of us on the outside.

I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate your blog; I came over from Pharyngula. I have just the right level of understanding of biology to comprehend your article, so I feel challenged without being overwhelmed.

This is a neat idea. I'm linking to you (dropped over from Pharyngula). Thanks for taking the trouble.

Great site.
Found you via http://vwxynot.blogspot.com/
As a regular lurker at www.pandasthumb.org , may I request that you do a shameless plug for your site at the Panda? I'm sure everybody would welcome it.
Keep up the good work.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


Type the characters you see in the picture above.