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Fear Factor: Scientists Rush to Assure Colleagues They’re Not “Darwin-Bashers”


Here’s an article from the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution with an eye-catching title, “Reshaping Darwin’s Tree: Impact of the Symbiome.” They want to take greater notice of the way microbes interact with the rest of life, so that species aren’t to be understood as isolated from each but, instead, joined in a biological symphony, a “symbiome.”

Much of the undescribed biodiversity on Earth is microbial, often in mutualistic or pathogenic associations. Physically associated and coevolving life forms comprise a symbiome. We propose that systematics research can accelerate progress in science by introducing a new framework for phylogenetic analysis of symbiomes, here termed SYMPHY (symbiome phylogenetics).

Which is not all that provocative, actually, when you consider the way Darwin’s tree of life itself is in danger of toppling, looked at objectively, never mind deckchairs-on-the-Titanic manipulations like this. See our post yesterday with Jonathan Wells’s comments on overselling Darwin’s tree. What is interesting is the comment of one of the researchers, conveyed by Science Daily.

Imagine you’re a scientist who just published an article that might be taken, at first glance anyway, as critical of Darwin’s fabled tree. The “creationists” will surely leap on that one. If you’re the last-named author credited on the paper, in this case Debashish Bhattacharya of Rutgers University, you might want to make it very clear that you’re no “Darwin-basher.” A misunderstanding on that point could be very damaging.

And sure enough we find this:

The scientists are calling for the U.S. National Science Foundation, National Natural Science Foundation of China and other funding agencies to support a working group of diverse researchers who would propose plans to create the new SYMPHY system.

“What we wish to clearly stress is that we are not engaged in Darwin-bashing. We consider Darwin a hero of science,” Bhattacharya said. “New technologies have brought radical new insights into the complex world of microbial interactions that require a fresh look at how we classify life forms, beyond classical two-dimensional trees.” [Emphasis added.]

They “wish to clearly stress” that they’re not “Darwin-bashers.” Merely stressing this point is not enough. It needs to be clearly stressed. And not only that, but Darwin must be properly hailed as their “hero.”

To the reader with any sensitivity, the anxiety reflected in those few words is evident, and telling. Really, I feel bad for a scientist like Dr. Bhattacharya. You can almost hear the tremble in his voice as he reassures colleagues it is not his team’s intention to give ammo to those deplorable intelligent design people.

It’s a reminder of something we know well. In academia, conformity on evolution is maintained not by the power of the evidence for the theory, but, much more, by sociological factors. Group think is one. Money is another. And fear may be the chief of the three.

Photo: Man with an anxious expression, Los Angeles, 1940, by Partridge, Rondal, 1917-, Photographer (NARA record: 8464464) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.