Wednesday, 26 August 2009

"Darwin was wrong": Darwin in the headlines

“Charles Darwin was wrong,” proclaimed a handful of news stories last week.

It all stemmed from a rather misleading sentence in this press release from Duke University about a paper looking at the evolution of the appendix. According to the release, Darwin was wrong because he 'claimed' that the appendix was a useless organ.

I came across this via a blog post by PZ Myers over on the Pharyngula blog. Myers rightly points out the flaws of the press release (not least that Darwin didn't actually say the appendix was useless, and only mentioned it in passing once in any of his works). In a separate post he does an excellent analysis of the paper itself, which, as he points out is actually quite interesting.

But back to that press release.

“Writing in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Duke scientists and collaborators from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University conclude that Charles Darwin was wrong: The appendix is a whole lot more than an evolutionary remnant. Not only does it appear in nature much more frequently than previously acknowledged, but it has been around much longer than anyone had suspected.”

I can imagine this was enough to get creationists excited. Unfortunately, it’s not really what the scientists are saying. Read a bit further along and you’ll find Dr William Parker, one of the scientists on the study, quoted as saying:

"Darwin simply didn't have access to the information we have… If Darwin had been aware of the species that have an appendix attached to a large cecum, and if he had known about the widespread nature of the appendix, he probably would not have thought of the appendix as a vestige of evolution."

Dr Parker also points out that some of the recent conclusions about the appendix follow cultural changes that took place long after Darwin wrote his books.

"We didn't really have a good understanding of that principle until the mid 1980's," Parker said. "Even more importantly, Darwin had no way of knowing that the function of the appendix could be rendered obsolete by cultural changes that included widespread use of sewer systems and clean drinking water."

All in all, as PZ Myers says, it’s an awful press release from the Duke University media office, with the sensationalist statement up top totally contradicting with what is in the rest of the text.

It reminded me of a New Scientist cover earlier this year, which proclaimed that Darwin’s Tree of Life was wrong (what the actual article said was that it was more of a ‘bush’ or ‘thicket’ than a well-pruned tree). That similarly grabbed a few headlines and prompted some angry outcries from scientists (read, again, PZ Myers, pointing out Roger Highfield’s editorial that seems to be at odds with his cover headline).

The whole ‘misleading headlines and sensationalist media’ debate is of course much larger than just Charles Darwin. In Darwin200 year, and with science vs religion still a majorly controversial topic in the United States and increasingly elsewhere as well, it’s all too easy to sell papers off the back of “Darwin was wrong” headlines. I guess it was inevitable that such headlines would appear, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

Incidentally, if you want to see the appendix paper covered right, have a look at Steve Mirsky's bit for the Scientific American podcast.

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