Too many journalists do not understand evolution

The primary reason so many Americans reject the theory and fact of evolution is religion. I think that’s pretty undisputed. However, there is a lot of incorrect information out there promulgated by journalists who get in way over their heads, and that is also a contributing factor. For the most recent example, let’s turn to the obituary of Lynn Margulis:

The [endosymbiotic] hypothesis was a direct challenge to the prevailing neo-Darwinist belief that the primary evolutionary mechanism was random mutation.

Rather, Dr. Margulis argued that a more important mechanism was symbiosis; that is, evolution is a function of organisms that are mutually beneficial growing together to become one and reproducing. The theory undermined significant precepts of the study of evolution, underscoring the idea that evolution began at the level of micro-organisms long before it would be visible at the level of species.

This is just awful. Just awful.

Margulis’ theory showed that some organelles – primarily mitochondria and chloroplasts – were once bacteria before being taken up into eukaryotic cells. This did not overturn any major precepts, nor did it shake the biological world. It was a big idea, one that turned out to be correct, and it marked a major turning point in our understanding. But that turning point was more complementary than it was subtracting. That is, it added a good deal of knowledge, it explained some mysteries, and it opened up a lot of avenues of research (as correct ideas often do) while fitting into the broad model of evolution, but it did not diminish the importance of random mutation, natural selection, genetic drift, or any other aspect of the theory.

Moreover, Margulis’ theory did not show that “evolution is a function of organisms that are mutually beneficial growing together to become one and reproducing”. It showed that sometimes endosymbiosis happens. And when it does, it sometimes has huge contingent importance. For instance, without the mitochondria in our cells, the history of life on Earth is not even remotely the same. But there are other hugely important events which, while ultimately reliant upon historic events like moments of endosymbiosis, can be explained without the need to appeal to Margulis’ theory. For example, the rise of mammals. Of course we are eukaryotes and so we depend upon the endosymbiosis event that happened billions of years ago, but that would be like appealing to the formation of Earth to describe the construction of a skyscraper. It just isn’t necessary and, besides, planetary accretion doesn’t happen every time a worker pours some concrete.

Stuff like this is why I say science is so undermined by so many science journalists.

This is what I mean

When I argue that language matters (and get called racist for doing so), this is what I mean:

…style matters.

The register and dialect you use matter. Your word choices matter. Whether you use semi-colons or instead write two separate sentences matters. But it is a stylistic choice, not a grammatical one, and it should be recognized (and criticized) as such.

I like to use semi-colons to link related sentences; other people do not, and argue that this makes it difficult to follow what I’m writing. That is a solid argument. We can have a lovely debate on whether semi-colons are more elegant and more readable than dividing the sentence into two little sentences. However, this debate can only take place if both sides agree that their opinion is more of a guideline than an actual rule.

As the author, Hortensio, goes on, one’s goals (and I would argue intentions) matter as well. Do I want to persuade? Do I want to offend? Do I want to do both? Do I want to comes across as pithy? Ironic? Academic? All of these things matter, and they all require a writer to pay attention to his audience. Writing with only one’s self in mind will likely result in poor writing. Or at least writing no one wishes to read.

Ironically, I have no good way to transition into my next point, so here it is: In the comment section of the above linked post is a discussion on the use of “they”, “s/he”, “one”, and the like. It is only briefly touched upon, but I think the gist is this: do we want to be socially conscious or do we want to be undistracting? That is, neutralizing gendered terms in order to not arbitrarily favor men has been a popular trend in writing for quite some time. However, one result of this trend has been to use the grammatically abhorrent “they” or the aesthetically grotesque “he or she”. This tends to distract because it deviates from the vast majority of writings; I see it and tend to think the writer is making a point to be socially aware, leading me to assume a lack of genuineness. The other option is to consistently use “she” or consistently use “he”. This is my personal preference. I want people to read over my pronouns as if there really exists a gender neutral term in English. I can appreciate the idea behind exposing the lack of awareness everyone has over these sort of issues, but I’m not going to sacrifice the quality of my writing for it.

Now all I need to do is make another 500 posts about language and maybe people will believe me that I really do care about writing.

Brinicle ice finger of death

Well. This is neat.

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