What science is all about

All which is between “~~~” is from Jerry Coyne.


I have sometimes written that evolutionary biology doesn’t have much practical value in medicine or other areas impinging on humanity’s material well being. Here is one example of what I’ve said. However, my friend and colleague David Hillis at The University of Texas in Austin — who played a big role in trying to make the Texas State Board of Education teach real science – has taken exception to my view. I asked him to let me know how he thought that evolutionary biology had been of use in medicine, and he wrote me an email with his answer, which he’s given me permission to post. He’d wants to emphasize that it’s an off-the-cuff response rather than a comprehensive reply, which of course I appreciate; but I think it’s worth posting:

OK, here are just a few examples from the thousands that are in the literature, off the top of my head:

Using positive selection to identify the pathogenic mechanisms of HIV in humans: PNAS 102:2832-2837 (one of many such studies that are now appearing and are using positive selection in pathogens to identify pathogenic mechanisms).

Using phylogenies and positive selection to predict which currently circulating strains of influenza are most likely to be closely related to future flu epidemics: Science 286: 1921-1925.

Using evolutionary analyses to track epidemics in human populations: many examples that have wider health implications, but our study of transmission in a forensic case was an interesting example with a specific legal application; PNAS 99:14292-14297.

Using evolutionary analyses to identify new disease outbreaks: new examples in every single issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Using phylogenetic analyses to identify whether polio outbreaks are from native circulating viruses or from reverted, escaped vaccines (which tells health workers which vaccines to use in these areas to eradicate disease): see review in Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Vol. 82, No. 1.

Identifying changes in sodium channel genes that are under positive selection for TTX resistance, which has led to understanding the function of human diseases that are caused by the corresponding substitutions in human sodium channel genes: Mol. Biol. Evol. 25(6):1016–1024. (I included this one to show that all of the examples are not from virus work; this is the original evolutionary work from Manda Jost and Harold Zakon, with our collaboration, but there has been follow-up on the understanding of human diseases that are produced from these same mutations, now that they have been replicated by in vitro mutagenesis)

This just scratches the surface. I think there are now more papers that use evolutionary methods and analyses in the human health literature than all other areas of biology combined. I think it is crazy to not acknowledge the numerous and important human health applications of evolutionary theory and methods.


Well, this is good enough for me–I gladly retract my earlier opinion that evolutionary biology hasn’t been of much use in medicine. Thanks, David.


Imagine a creationist making the claim that evolution doesn’t have much practical value in medicine (something with which I am hugely surprised Jerry Coyne ever said) and then retracting it when presented with counter-evidence. It would never happen. Creationism rejects all principles of science.


7 comments on “What science is all about

  1. As a mainstream faculty member researching epigenetics and evolution, I would like to point out here that Coyne has grossly misrepresented facts in his latest book.

    The modern evolution theory consists of two opposite sub-theories, NeoDarwinism/natural selection and the neutral theory. NeoDarwinism or natural selection is largely irrelevant to molecular evolution, or, more precisely, contradicted by molecular data. As a result, a theory based on the negation of NeoDarwinism or natural selection, the neutral theory, is used to explain molecular evolution, in particular the molecular clock. And the neutral theory is however widely acknowledged to be an incomplete explanation and has countless contradictions of its own.

    But the only theory Coyne ever talks about in his book is NeoDarwinism or natural selection. There are very few sentences that mention molecular evolution. And these in fact mislead the readers into believing that NeoDarwinism is supported rather than contradicted by facts of molecular evolution. Here is what Coyne wrote: “Evolution theory predicts, and data support, the notion that as species diverge from their common ancestors, their DNA sequence change in roughly a straight-line fashion with time.”

    Does Coyne really expect the lay readers to know that the ‘evolution theory’ here means the neutral theory, when it is never mentioned in the book and must negate the key idea of Darwin? If the lay readers, after reading this, then believe incorrectly that NeoDarwinism predicts the major facts of molecular evolution, is it the readers’ fault or the author’?

    If cheating/misrepresentation was employed to explain why evolution is true, it really means it is false. We are here more precise in our definition than the cheater: evolution here just means the Darwinian theory.

  2. For anyone who wishes to know what all that rubbish means, let me explain.

    There is a theory within evolutionary theory that states that most of the change within a given genome is caused by neutral mutations. Take for example the average person. In most cases, there are 50-100 neutral mutations in a random human. On the molecular level this translates to there being more non-adaptive changes than adaptive ones. It’s a fairly straight-forward idea that is so closely related to genetic drift, a description of one can easily be confused for the other.

    This idea is not in contradiction with the rest of evolutionary theory. That is just yet another creationist lie being tossed around carelessly and without regard to any of the relevant scientific literature. Natural selection is still the root cause of adaptive evolution.

  3. The neutral theory is in great contradiction to NeoDarwinism:
    1. It makes a fool of natural selection.
    2. It was never predicted by NeoDarwinism.
    3. It was called Non-Darwinian evolution by two of the founders of the neutral theory, King and Jukes in 1969.
    4. It was ‘unthinkable’ to neodarwinists. Quote: “The constant rate of evolution was unthinkable for classical evolutionists, who had studied the evolution of morphological characters (Simpson, Mayr).” from Nei and Sudhir Kumar, 2000, Molecular evolution and phylogenetics, page 188

    To a reader of Coyne’s book, evolution theory is neodarwinism/natural selection and vice versa. That theory is contradicted by molecular data. Coyne has certainly succeeded in misleading them to believe the exact opposite. That is shame to science.

    Essentially no laymen, not even most biologists who are not evo specialists, ever heard of the neutral theory. And yet, half of all data on evolution are interpreted by this theory (the other half morphology and fossils). Neodarwinims is contradicted by half of all data on evolution and yet Coyne’s book says that it has no factual contradictions.

  4. Michael,

    here is a test of your character. “For the sake of science”, do you dare to expose psuedoscience when one is presented to you? What you have said in the past about evolution theory is incorrect but acceptable, because we can just say that you are not as knowledgeable as you should. But here with Coyne’s book, a blatant lie was perpetuated by a famous follower of Darwin. The lie is plain for all to see. Do you dare to express your opinion on this lie?

    If you do, your blog certainly has value “For the sake of science”. If you dare not, your credibility and your blog is a joke. And its proper name should be “For the sake of pseudoscience”.

  5. I’ve explained the jist of the theory. It is a part of evolutionary theory as a whole. Everyone knows this. It is only the lying, deceitful, dogmatic creationist who thinks otherwise.

    Here are a couple issues you should address.

    1) What is the pseudoscience here? You refer to the term as being singular (…expose pseudoscience when one is presented…). This is a grammatical misuse of the term you’ll need to shore up. What do you believe is pseudoscience? It appears your claim is that one branch of evolutionary theory is false while another is true. While you’re entirely wrong to make such a distinction, even if I were to grant it to you, it still wouldn’t mean that one is pseudoscience.

    2) Coyne does speak of the molecular clock. The reason is because it is used to support evolution since molecular biology is a branch of biology which supports evolution. That is, molecular biology – and specifically the molecular clock – is used to determine relationships among species, which is predicated upon common ancestory.

    3) It is up to you to tell us all (though I suspect I’m the only one with enough patience to read your posts) just why the neutral theory does not jive with the rest of evolution, specifically natural selection.

    4) In response to your number 4 above, don’t be such a creationist. “The constant rate of evolution” refers to the ability to calibrate the molecular clock to the fossil record due to predictable rates of changes in genes. Where Simpson and Mayr (neither of which seem to have an inkling of the issue you do – funny that) refer to “classical evolutionists” who study mophological changes, they are pointing out that a steady rate of evolution cannot be inferred from phenotypic point of view. That isn’t to say the phenotype does not correspond to the genotype; it does; it must. It says that there are changes in the genotype which are constant, predictable, usable for relative dating, and reliable for inferring evolutionary relationships.

  6. Thought experiment:
    There are 10 facts. Theory A explains 4 of these while theory B, which is the negation of A, explains the remaining 6. Theory C explains all 10 without having any of its themes negated. Which is the correct theory?

    Real life examples:
    A is neoDarwinism.
    B is the negation of neodarwinism, the neutral theory.
    C is the new MGD hypothesis that I recently proposed.

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