Evolution avoidance syndrome

Scott Lanyon is director of the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis. He writes regularly in the museum’s newsletter, Imprint. His latest column addresses the reluctance of scientists and teachers to use the word “evolution” even when their topic hits directly on it.

Evolution Avoidance Syndrome
By Scott Lanyon
Summer 2007

We have yet another invasive species in the Upper Midwest to worry about these days with the discovery of viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus (VHSv) in inland waters of Wisconsin. VHSv follows in the proud tradition of the zebra mussel, sea lamprey, a variety of carp species, Eurasian watermilfoil, purple loosestrife, curl-leaf pondweed, buckthorn, amur maple, a variety of thistle species, earthworms, gypsy moths, West Nile virus, soybean rust, and other pests that have been introduced to our region and that are causing great harm to our natural areas and our economy.

These exotic and invasive species are just the beginning as global travel and our increasingly global economy redistribute the biological diversity of the planet. News of the arrival of VHSv was disturbing enough, but my scientist’s ear also tuned into something else as I listened to a radio report about this new threat. I was intrigued to hear that the Wisconsin DNR hopes that native fish will “develop” resistance to this virus. What exactly does that mean? Are officials hoping that individual fish will become resistant as they age? No, what they hope is that the fish population evolves resistance over time as natural selection acts on the variation in individual susceptibility to this virus.

Scott Lanyon, director, Bell Museum of Natural History, U of Minnesota Bell Museum of Natural History director Scott Lanyon

Rather than using the accurate word evolution the report used the imprecise word develop because of a condition, rampant in the United States, that I call EAS (evolution avoidance syndrome). EAS may in some cases be attributed to a lack of scientific literacy but more likely is linked to a fear of controversy—and the attendant hope that if we don’t use the word evolution, we won’t have to acknowledge that evolution, and knowledge of evolution, is critically important to modern society. EAS is but one symptom of an anti-intellectualism that seems to be spreading in American culture. How common is this malady?

In a recent article in the online journal Public Library of Science: Biology, Janis Antonovics and colleagues reported on their investigation of the use of the word evolution in articles published in medical journals on the subject of antibiotic resistance, which is the direct result of evolution. The word evolution appeared in less than half of the articles. Instead, authors used a variety of non-technical words such as develop, acquire, appear, trend, become common, improve, and arise. I certainly hope that the next generation of doctors will read these articles and understand that a wealth of scientific research exists that enables us to know precisely how and why bacteria “develop” or “acquire” resistance. For that matter, I hope the next generation of doctors will actually write what they mean.

An interesting exercise is to use a favorite search engine to look for Web pages describing any common evolutionary phenomenon (e.g., disease resistance, antibiotic resistance, pesticide resistance) and then search for the word evolution on those pages. You will find that writers with EAS will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the “E” word. A case in point is Wikipedia’s definition for pesticide resistance: “Resistance is the naturally occurring, inheritable adjustment in the ability of individuals in a population to survive a plant protection product treatment that would normally give effective control.”

It has been over four centuries since Shakespeare declared that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” While it is true that what we call a thing in no way alters its fundamental nature, check out any marketing campaign and I think that you will agree that what we call a thing can and does change our perceptions. Americans read and hear about biological change on a regular basis, but thanks to EAS they are largely unaware that what they are reading and hearing about is evolution. Hasn’t the United States slipped far enough in scientific literacy? Isn’t it time to communicate scientific concepts clearly? Whenever you encounter a doctor, reporter, or scientist suffering from EAS, ask them to say what they really mean.

© 2005 Regents of the University of Minnesota.

8 Responses to Evolution avoidance syndrome

  1. What makes the thing more disgustingly hilarious — and I was composing this before I read the comments thread — is that anti-evolutionists will gladly concede that things like antibiotic resistance are perfectly fine, they’re just Miroevolution, whereas the problem is with Macroevolution because everybody knows you can’t change something into a different Kind of Thing.

    Hence, one could use “evolution” perfectlly freely in talking about most of the phenomena mentioned in the posting, and the antievolutionists would have no gripe, so why not use it?

    No logical, consistent gripe, that is. And some of them, as we see above, haven’t picked up the message. So, as long as people are determined t be cowardly, they will keep up the EAS.


  2. Miss! says:

    I never realized that avoidance of the word was quite so widespread, but I can understand the reasons why teachers can have a fear of using it. I don’t even touch on scientific evolution, but when teaching government and covering the origin of states, I always have students mistake the evolutionary theory for something that it is not. I have to make sure I clarify what evolve means with them very quickly, because so many of them instantly think it has to do with God vs. science.

    Great blog!


  3. Matt says:

    I agree completely with the article and have had similar experiences in my very own classroom, as I detailed on my own blog.


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Jim, evolution doesn’t depend on creating a cell. Darwin, for example, believed that God started life off. Evolution is what is observed in living things today. Fossils corroborate that evolution and life occurred in the past. But, regardless how life got started on Earth, evolution is what we observe to be happening.

    The article doesn’t pretend to present evidence of evolution. That is done in the ten thousand or so science articles that are printed annually in peer-reviewed journals (opposed to two intelligent design articles in such journals, one of which was retracted). If you want evidence for evolution, visit the “Why Evolution” tab at the top of this blog.

    Assembling a simple living cell? Not only have scientists created viruses from scratch, the reality is that simple cells have already been produced. Sidney Fox discovered that things he called “proto-cells” form spontaneously under normal conditions — high school kids can buy a kit to make these things in the kitchen. At the time, Fox refused to call them “living cells.” The structures cannot compete with modern organisms. But they form cell membranes, consume nutrients, move about to get nutrients, and reproduce by budding off, much as yeasts do. Instead of trumpeting victory in the creation of a living cell research, scientists raised the bar, saying they need to produce a more robust cell. The goal of this research is not to create life, but instead to understand life as we find it. If you’re seriously interested in development of life research, look up the work of Andrew Ellington, and check into Astrobiology Magazine at the NASA website. It is incorrect to say scientists are “falling all over themselves to make a living cell.” Not so. A small number of researchers work in the field, but almost all of the research is directed to finding the conditions that make life possible, a lot of it to help direct our exploration of the planetary bodies of our own solar system (hence Astrobiology).

    In the meantime, I invite you to plant a garden. It is my experience that most creationists have very little experience in real living things. Spend a few years watching what goes on in your garden, how seeds are set, how plants, microbes, insects, animals, fungi and other things reproduce to make a working ecosystem. Note how your garden changes over time. Get some real experience in what it is we’re talking about.

    AnswersinGenesis.org is a crank science site. Schools serious about protecting kids from harmful materials may have it blocked, but in any case, the crank science viewpoints should be obvious to anyone with a background in any of the sciences.

    And, Jim, please, study what evolution is. Darwin’s theory is “evolution by natural and sexual selection.” Check your dictionaries, all of them. “Selection” is not a synonym for “accident.” They are quite opposite processes. Your petulant mislabeling of the process indicates either profound ignorance of the science, or extreme animosity to the facts, or perhaps both (I find ignorance of science is often a fount of opposition to it).

    Life never occurs from random chemicals or random processes. Chemistry isn’t random, nor is physics. The chemicals of life form spontaneously, but specifically according to chemical affinities of one molecule for another to make rather complex chemicals that living cells use. Let me repeat: None of this is random; it all follows the rules of chemistry and physics (have you studied chemistry? surely you know this).


  5. Jim says:

    There is NO evidence to support evolution in this article. The supposed new kinds of life are nothing but the product of the micro change that God inserted into all life forms. If Had not done this, every human male on the planet would look exactly alike. How would you guys like that situation? Confusion would abound.

    But If evolutionists want to end the arguments all they have to do is, get their brilliant heads together and assemble a ‘simple’ living cell. This should be possible, since they certainly have a very great amount of knowledge about what is inside the ‘simple’ cell.

    After all, shouldn’t all the combined Intelligence of all the worlds scientist be able the do what chance encounters with random chemicals, without a set of instructions, accomplished about 4 billion years ago,according to the evolutionists, having no intelligence at all available to help them along in their quest to become a living entity. Surely then the evolutionists scientists today should be able to make us a ‘simple’ cell.

    If it weren’t so pitiful it would be humorous, that intelligent people have swallowed the evolution mythology.

    Beyond doubt, the main reason people believe in evolution is that sources they admire, say it is so. It would pay for these people to do a thorough examination of all the evidence CONTRARY to evolution that is readily available: Try answersingenesis.org. The evolutionists should honestly examine the SUPPOSED evidence ‘FOR’ evolution for THEMSELVES.

    Build us a cell, from scratch, with the required raw material, that is with NO cell material, just the ‘raw’ stuff, and the argument is over. But if the scientists are unsuccessful, perhaps they should try Mother Earth’s recipe, you know, the one they claim worked the first time about 4 billion years ago, so they say. All they need to do is to gather all the chemicals that we know are essential for life, pour them into a large clay pot and stir vigorously for a few billion years, and Walla, LIFE!

    Oh, you don’t believe the ‘original’ Mother Earth recipe will work? You are NOT alone, Neither do I, and MILLIONS of others!

    PS: Please don’t lie about the ‘first life’ problem, scientists are falling all over themselves to make a living cell. Many have admitted publicly that it is a monumental problem. And is many years away from happening, if ever. Logical people understand this problem and have rightly concluded that an Intelligent Designer was absolutely necessary. Think of it this way, if all the brilliant scientists on earth can’t do it, how on earth can anyone believe that it happened by accident?????


  6. edtajchman says:

    the e-mail leaked and then they beat him up, then he resigned, just clarifying…


  7. edtajchman says:

    I agree completely, can you believe here in Lawrence, KS the former head of religious studies at Kansas University was beaten up by some local redneck types because he dropped an intelligent design program from the course list, and when they were going to make him teach it, they intercepted an e-mail where he said he was going to teach it has a mythology course. Can you believe that? it embarasses me to be from Kansas….


  8. […] the wingnuts have won a victory of sorts; some people are afraid to even mention the term in a class or in a paper, even when it is appropriate to do […]


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