It pains me to say this, but New Scientist has just handed the creationists an enormous gift, something we’re going to be arguing over for years. It’s one they’re already making use of, as this report in the Dallas Morning News about recent Texas Board of Education meetings shows (Hat tip: Phil)
It must have seemed like a good idea. The cover above will certainly sell copies of the magazine, I imagine. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do a steady trade from back issue orders of this for years and years, although whether the people who want to read ‘Darwin was wrong’ are interested in the rest of New Scientist‘s content is another matter.
Let me rewind. This week’s edition of New Scientist leads with a story by writer Graham Lawton. You can read the full article here. The idea is uncontroversial enough; that the image of a branching ‘tree of life’ was (a) central to Darwin’s view of the world (so critical that ‘Without it the theory of evolution would never have happened.’) and (b) Wrong, because hybridization and the swapping of genetic material between species quickly turns a nice, linear tree into a tangled bush.
I’ve just finished Janet Browne’s magnificent biography of Darwin which provides a more nuanced view. If you want a more forthright, shorter explanation of why the first point might be rubbish try the Evolution Blog. For an explanation of why point 2 isn’t controversial see Sandwalk.
Even if the article had been 100% true, the problem is this: By splashing the ‘news’ that Darwin was wrong, New Scientist plays up to the idea that evolution can be attacked by attacking Darwin. Of course he was wrong, about many things; he was writing a century or so before DNA was even discovered, for goodness’ sake. As PZ Myers says, It’s a symptom of creationist influence that journals would think that hyping a story that “150 year old theory gets revised!” is newsworthy.
I’m sure New Scientist’s intentions were either unconscious or innocent – perhaps they thought the headline would appear to their scientifically literate audience already sick of Darwin commemoration in this, the 200th year since his birth. But nonetheless that Dallas Morning News story gives us a taste of what we’re in for :
Rep. Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands … said there have been “significant challenges” to evolution theory. She cited a recent news article in which a European scientist disputed Darwin’s “tree of life” showing common ancestors for all living things.
It’s too late. The genie is out of the lamp, and all of us who deal with questions about creationism are going to have to get used to hearing about ‘The New Scientist article that said…’. Nonetheless, a contrite apology – as public as possible – by the magazine in next Thursday’s issue is now required.