There used to be, and still may be, a computer facility that allows you to program particular function keys on the keyboard to produce a whole phrase with one keystroke. Particularly useful for politicians (“there is only one poll that matters”, “I can’t comment on this because it is now the subject of legal proceedings”, “the leader has my full and complete support”, “this study was based on figures from last year/last month/yesterday and things have now changed”) but also useful when reporting science matters (“chocolate good for you scientific study shows”) or social ones (“Discovery of artefact rewrites history books”). In particular there is one that is used over and over again “New find rewrites evolutionary theory” which is more inaccurate than even the political ones. There was another example the other day where a discovery of a minor detail of the eye structure of a very ancient fossil might result in a minor change to our ideas about the exact sequence by which the two main groups of animals respectively developed eyes by using more of one cell type than another (the eyes of octopus and humans, for example, are based on different cell types). Yes, that’s all. Last year there was the find of a fossil primate which far from “rewriting evolution” (or “rewriting human evolution”) as headlines around the world trumpeted, merely filled in a small detail in one minor branch of the early primate evolutionary tree.
Every time you see a headline “rewrites evolutionary theory” mentally substitute “may result in minor change to some minor aspect of a hypothesis about evolutionary sequence in one minor group of species” – yes, I know that is longer, but it will be much more accurate. You see the time to “rewrite evolutionary theory” was in the first few decades after 1859, and only one discovery, that of genes, has ever done that. Not because it proved anything wrong about Darwin’s work, but because it provided a clearer understanding of the mechanism of genetic inheritance, something that was still unclear before Gregor Mendel started growing pea plants in a monastery garden in the 1850s (his work remained unknown for decades).
That’s it, nothing else in the last 150 years has “rewritten” evolutionary theory, and it is quite clear that nothing will now. That is because the fundamental mechanisms proposed by Darwin – variation, natural selection, adaptation, geographic separation, are as fundamental as the axioms of any mathematical theorem. His supporting observations, of different distributions of different plants and animals across the surface of the planet, and of fossils buried in the ground that showed the stages of evolution of life on Earth, are also so fundamental that they can’t be altered. All that does change, occasionally, is the finding of a new fossil that more clearly illustrates the exact sequence of the evolution of say, whales, or snakes, or birds, or indeed primates including that species particularly dear to our hearts, Homo sapiens.
So why does the media do it? Well, to sell newspapers and tv programs obviously – here is something new and exciting and revolutionary. But in the case of evolution I think there is another factor involved. The journalists appear to believe that there is a significant part of the Australian population that doesn’t believe in evolution (and writing that seems as silly as “doesn’t believe in gravity”) and that if they put up a headline suggesting that evolution has been challenged in some way people will rush to have their prejudices reinforced. If you were an American journalist this assumption might well be correct, but I think the Australian public is still a bit more scientifically savvy than that. However there are religious forces beavering away to have “creation science” (an oxymoron much worse than “military intelligence”) taught in Australian schools, and they are making inroads in some schools, especially in Queensland (“smart state one day, dumbed down the next”). The constant headlines in the media about “rewriting evolution” can only reinforce that campaign and take us down the slippery American anti-science slope.
It’s only a little thing I know, but it does matter. Next time you see or hear a headline like this let the media outlet concerned know you are not happy about it. Unless of course you believe that Gillard and Abbott really never look at polls, and that they are both fully supported by Rudd and Turnbull.
Or that chocolate really is good for you.