On Truth and Post-Truth in Science

This post is the first of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 2 on climate change here, Part 3 on evolutionary biology here (coming soon), and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here (coming soon).


Oxford Dictionaries
proclaimed ‘post-truth’ as the international ‘word of the year’ in 2016, on the back of Michael Gove’s ‘Britain has had enough of experts – a defining moment of last year’s BREXIT referendum – and the incessant flow of claims and counter-claims during the US presidential election. It’s kept the commentariat busy, giving rise to at least one superb analysis (listen in to Jo Fidgen on the BBC Radio 4’s Nothing But the Truth) and some dark humour (the spoof ‘Mordor National Park’ twitter account set up in January, ‘We’d like to repeat again that yes, open campfires are allowed in Mordor National Park. Everything here is on fire.’).

But in the world of books on evolution, ecology, conservation, and climate change, ‘post-truth’ is not new. It’s 16 years since the publication of the first English edition of Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001), which (publisher’s blurb) ‘challenges widely held beliefs that the environmental situation is getting worse’; 36 years since Julian Simon wrote The Ultimate Resource (1998), arguing that humanity is not running out of natural resources; and 158 years since Charles Darwin unveiled his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species (1859; 150th Anniversary Edition, Darwin & Endersby, 2009), triggering intense debate, disagreement, vitriol and accusations of lying that make today’s disputes look positively placid by comparison.

Our view on these issues is at once simple and complicated. As a company we are staunch believers in evolutionary theory, and the truth of findings from climate science that show how dangerous global warming is a consequence of humanity’s burning of fossil fuels, and of the loss and degradation of forests and other terrestrial ecosystems. But our staff and our customers will have their own views; as is right and proper.

Our purpose in this four-part series is to highlight recent publications that help readers think more critically, recognise pseudoscience, and deal with the large amount of spin, misinformation, and created controversies that pollute these discussions. In the process, we will give a brief overview of two areas that are the subject of intense and polarised public debate: climate science and evolution. As we wish to inform rather than rant, our selection of books includes views from various sides of the debates. Lest there be any doubt in the mind of the reader, this does not mean that we endorse all these views, or are planning to catalogue a wider range of books to give a platform to them. But, for the purpose of this piece, we feel we would do the reader no service by ignoring their existence.

Click here for Part 2, which looks at the discussion surrounding climate change.

Book Review – Turtles as Hopeful Monsters

Turtles as Hopeful MonstersTurtles as Hopeful Monsters: Origins and Evolution

Written by Olivier Rieppel

Published in hardback by Indiana University Press in March 2017 in the Life of the Past series

Turtles have long vexed evolutionary biologists. In Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, Olivier Rieppel interweaves vignettes of his personal career with an overview of turtle shell evolution, and, foremost, an intellectual history of the discipline of evolutionary biology.

An initial, light chapter serves to both introduce the reader to important experts on reptile evolution during the last few centuries, as well as give an account of how the author got to study turtles himself. After this, the reading gets serious though, and I admit that I got a bit bogged down in the second chapter, which discusses the different historical schools of thought on where turtles are to be placed on the evolutionary tree. An important character here is skull morphology and a lot of terminology is used. Although it is introduced and explained, it makes for dense reading.

I think the book shines in the subsequent chapters that give a tour of the evolution of, well, evolutionary thinking.

When Darwin formulated his theories, he argued that evolution is a slow and step-wise process, with natural selection acting on random variation to bring about gradual change. This is the transformationist paradigm. Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, page 53The fossil record has yielded some remarkable examples where a slow transformation has occurred over time, such as the development of hooves in horses. But equally, there are many examples where no such continuous chain exists in the fossil record. Turtles are one such example, as they just suddenly appear in the fossil record, shell and all. Darwin himself attributed this to ‘the extreme imperfection of the fossil record‘. This lack of transitional fossils has of course been eagerly exploited by the creationist / intelligent design movement for their own ends.

But ever since Darwin, biologists have argued, and still do, that there exist mechanisms that allow for rapid innovation and saltatory evolution (i.e. evolution by leaps and bounds). This is the emergentist paradigm. Rieppel gives an overview of the different theories that have been put forward over the last two centuries, which is both illuminating and amusing. This covers such luminaries as Richard Goldschmidt (who coined the phrase “hopeful monsters”), Stephen Jay Gould (who revived it), and Günter Wagner (who provides the best current explanation according to Rieppel).

Just a little bit more about this phrase “hopeful monsters”, as this is such a prominent part of the book’s title. According to Goldschmidt, major new lineages would come about through mutations during early development of the embryo. This, of course, has the risk of producing monsters when the organism matures, likely resulting in premature death. So, Goldschmidt proposed a theory of hopeful monsters, where such drastic changes would successfully result in new evolutionary lineages with new body plans. His explanations, which required evolution to be goal-directed and cyclical (so-called orthogenetic evolution) have become obsolete, but he wasn’t entirely off the mark either. The best current explanations, according to Rieppel, comes from Wagner (author of Homology, Genes, and Evolution) and others who suggest radical changes to body plans do originate at the embryonic stage, and that the cause is the rewiring of the underlying genetic mechanisms.

Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, page 181The final two chapters of the book show how the debate over turtle shell evolution has gone back and forth between these two paradigms over time. Here again, Rieppel goes quite deep into morphology, this time of the shell, with accompanying terminology. Although the consensus seems to be leaning towards changes in embryonic development being responsible for the sudden appearance of the turtle shell in the fossil record, the final chapter deals with recent fossil finds from southwestern China that have revealed a potential missing link: a turtle with a fully developed belly shield.

Overall then, this book is a highly enjoyable romp through the intellectual history of evolutionary biology, using turtle evolution as its red thread. I could have used a bit more hand-holding here and there, and I feel the book would have benefited from an (illustrated) glossary or some extra illustrations. The reading gets quite technical when Rieppel goes into expositions on skull and shell morphology. That said, this book is an excellent addition to the popular science works in the Life of the Past series.

Turtles as Hopeful Monsters is available to order from NHBS.

Book Review – How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution

Written by Lee Alan Dugatkin & Lyudmila Trut

Published in March 2017 by Chicago University Press

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) tells a remarkable story about a remarkable long-term experiment you will most likely never have heard of. I hadn’t, despite my background in evolutionary biology. When the announcement for it crossed my desk a month or so ago, its subtitle immediately grabbed my attention.

For more than 60 years, Russian scientists have been cross-breeding captive foxes in Siberia, selecting for tameness, in a bid to learn more about the evolutionary history of animal domestication. Written by evolutionary biologist and science historian Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, who has been part of this experiment for close to six decades, it tells the story from its inception.

Back in 1952, geneticist Dmitri Belyaev had many questions regarding domestication. Though the breeding techniques were well understood, how did domestication start? The wild ancestors of today’s domestic animals would have likely run away or attacked humans, so what changed to make domestication possible? Being the lead scientist at a state laboratory that helped fur breeders produce more beautiful and luxurious fox pelts, he had both the knowledge and the means to tackle these questions. His plan? Experimentally mimic the evolution of the wolf into the dog using its close genetic cousin the fox. It was bold, both in its timescale, likely needing years – even decades – to yield results, but also in its timing. You see, Russia was still under the communist rule of Stalin, and one of his protegees, the poorly educated agronomist Trofim Lysenko, was waging a war on the “western” science of genetics. Scientists were expelled, imprisoned, and even murdered over their career choice. But Belyaev, having lost a brother this way, refused to back down. Far from Lysenko’s prying eyes in Moscow, in the frozen wilderness of Siberia, he started his breeding experiments, purporting to improve breeding rates in case anyone did come asking. Lyudmila joined him in 1958, and this book is their story.

It’s a story of science, and the authors do a good job distilling the findings into a reader-friendly format. The results are fascinating as the foxes rapidly evolve from wild animals to tamer and tamer companions that crave human interaction, undergoing a raft of subtle morphological changes in the process. But it’s also very much a human story. Of the women, often local peasants, who came to work at the fox farm, not necessarily understanding the science, but showing immense dedication to the cause. Of the researchers, who developed a deep love for, and connection with the generations of foxes, who rapidly became more dog-like in their behaviour and appearances.

It’s a story of persistence against all odds; the experiments are running to this day and have survived Stalin’s brutal regime, the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with all the economic turmoil that that caused. And it’s a story of an opportunity most scientists can only dream of: being able to follow up on previous findings and answering questions raised by previous experiments. Uniquely, this played out during (or perhaps was able to keep going because of) a period in which our knowledge of genetics, and the technologies available, kept on developing. The measuring of neurochemicals, epigenetics, PCR, genome mapping, next-generation sequencing… as new questions were being generated, so new techniques became available to probe deeper into the mysteries of the domestication.

The book makes for fascinating reading and is hard to put down once you start it. Highly recommended.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is available to order from NHBS.

Book of the Week: Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful

Continuing our selection of the very best titles available through NHBS:

Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful

Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful jacket imageGeorge McGhee Jr


What?

New volume in the MIT Press Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology.

Why?

Following the ethos of this series which looks in detail at the theoretical models behind the practical application of the biological sciences, this new volume looks at the phenomenon of convergent evolution through its manifestation in animal and plant biology, as well as in natural systems of all scales from the molecular world to large-scale ecosystems, and finally extending into the realm of mind where convergent characteristics are found in phenomena like tool use, and the evolution of various behaviours such as reproduction and herding.

This is a fascinating account of the state of current thinking on this subject, which brings into perspective the possibilities of life on our planet and Darwin’s vision of “endless forms most beautiful”.

Who?

George McGhee Jr is Professor of Paleobiology in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers University and a Member of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Altenberg, Austria.

Available Now from NHBS


Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth – Save 20%

If Thomas Henry Huxley was famously ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, then Richard Dawkins is probably best described as ‘Darwin’s pit bull’. – Richard Fortey, The Guardian

Save 20% on the newest book by Richard Dawkins – now available at NHBS.

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150 years ago the momentous findings in Charles Darwin’s masterpiece On the Origin of Species shook the scientific and religious world to its core. Perhaps more astonishing, the Creation-Evolution debate sparked by his seminal work of 1859 continues unabated in the 21st century. Now, Richard Dawkins, world renowned evolutionary biologist and famous atheist, takes on the Creationists with a brilliant and uncompromising look at the incontrovertible evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Get your copy of The Greatest Show on Earth today – and save 20%!

Browse more Richard Dawkins DVDs and books

Darwin’s Bicentenary and the History of Evolutionary Biology

It’s almost the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (February 12th 1809) and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, his ground-breaking theory on the evolution of populations by means of natural selection.

To celebrate Darwin’s Bicentenary we have a selection of books written by Darwin, including his seminal On The Origin of Species, The Voyage of the Beagle and The Descent of Man. There is also a wide range of books about Darwin, a section on the history of Evolutionary Biology and our pick of introductory evolutionary biology books for the non-scientist.

We have also put together a summary of the latest titles in evolutionary biology and the Evolution Classics and Bestsellers – our pick of the most important books on evolution from the last 40 years.

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