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Rewriting Biology Without Spin

Ann Gauger


It’s a funny thing — scientific papers often have evolutionary language layered on top of the data like icing on a cake. Even in papers that focus particularly on evolutionary explanations, the icing (evolutionary language) still can be distinguished from the cake (the actual experimental data).

I have noticed that this dichotomy creates a kind of double vision. I know what the data underlying evolutionary arguments are. By setting aside the premise that evolution is true, I can read what’s on the page and at the same time see how that paper would read if neutral, fact-based language were substituted for evolutionary language.

Let me give you an example. Below is a passage from a paper on the origin of programmed cell death, a topic that I wrote about earlier. The paper takes an evolutionary point of view, but can be expressed easily in a neutral manner. To illustrate, I have crossed out the original language and italicized the substituted text:

The origin of eukaryotes and the advent of multicellularity The origin of eukaryotes and multicellularity are momentous evolutionary transitions that involved invention of several fundamentally new functional systems. The eukaryotic chromatin remodeling machinery, the cell cycle regulation systems, the nuclear envelope, the cytoskeleton, and the programmed cell death (PCD, or apoptosis) apparatus all are such major eukaryotic innovations, which do not appear to have direct prokaryotic predecessors analogs. Although bacterial cells commit suicide under certain circumstances, for example, during fruiting body formation in Myxobacteria, these mechanisms do not appear to be essential for the survival of prokaryotes in general and their molecular build-up seems to be unrelated to that of eukaryotic apoptotic machinery. In contrast, in multicellular eukaryotes, PCD appears to be universally present and indeed should be regarded as one of the hallmarks of the multicellular state itself.

I changed just the words with evolutionary connotations, leaving the facts the same.

A more difficult case comes from the abstract of a very recent paper. Once again, I have modified the quote by removing words that are evolutionary interpretations and replacing them with the facts used to justify those interpretations:

We sequenced the MSY (male-specific region of the Y chromosome) of the C57BL/6J strain of the laboratory mouse Mus musculus. In contrast to theories that Y chromosomes are heterochromatic and gene poor, the mouse MSY is 99.9% euchromatic and contains about 700 protein-coding genes. Only 2% of the MSY derives from the ancestral is similar in sequence to autosomes. Instead, all but 45 of the MSY’s genes derives from the ancestral belong to three acquired, massively amplified gene families that have no homologs similar sequences on primate MSYs but do have acquired amplified homologs amplified similar sequences on the mouse X chromosome. The complete mouse MSY sequence brings to light dramatic forces in sex chromosome evolution possible factors affecting the content of sex chromosomes: lineage-specific convergent acquisition amplification of X-Y gene families, possibly fueled by antagonism between acquired X-Y homologs species-specific sequences that are present in multiple copies on both the X and Y chromosomes of mice, possibly because of competitive interactions or dosage requirements.

The lesson? Biology papers are ubiquitously colored by evolutionary interpretation, which can be separated from actual experimental results. Scientists ought to be clear about the difference between the underlying observations and the interpretation layered on them in what they write, and in particular in what they say to the general public. But it is not so.

Now the question becomes which explanation fits the facts. The evolutionary view attributes any observed similarity to evolutionary relatedness, and explains all biological structures as the result of purely natural evolutionary processes. This is the case even for complicated biological apparatus like programmed cell death, the cell cycle system, chromatin remodeling machinery, structures like the nuclear envelope, or for DNA sequences like the Y chromosome MSY (see above). On the other hand, these same structures can be attributed to design. The words used to describe them (apparatus, machinery, system) reveal their similarity to intelligently designed objects.

Life certainly looks designed. Design language unintentionally pervades mainstream papers despite a bias against intelligent design. It’s so noticeable that articles have been written urging scientists to avoid teleological language (that is to say, design language) and use more evolutionary language. In other words, more spin.

Isn’t that ironic.

Image source: Tom Raftery/Flickr.

Ann Gauger

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Ann Gauger is Director of Science Communication and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture, and Senior Research Scientist at the Biologic Institute in Seattle, Washington. She received her Bachelor's degree from MIT and her Ph.D. from the University of Washington Department of Zoology. She held a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, where her work was on the molecular motor kinesin.