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.
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.
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.
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