Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Last laugh

You'll forgive me for returning to this, but the aftershocks haven't finished yet. The Houston Chronicle has nice piece about our paper today, even if I say so myself. (Although I probably would have subtitled it "fuel for selection" or "variation engine". Oh, and did I really split that infinitive at the end?) The author, Patrick Kurp, keeps a very interesting literary blog; for example, check out these posts about Darwin's prose and Fernando Pessoa, written after we talked. (As someone keeps telling me, I should write more about literature myself. I'm thinking something about Borges...)

But today I thought I should write about some not so flattering responses to our paper. A few hours after the paper came out in Nature's website, someone wrote me an email titled "Do you believe in God?" It opened with:
Could sexual relations occur because that is the way God intended to have us populate the earth? [...]

Have you ever asked yourself WHY...God made sexual activity so pleasurable...could it be as a gift to both man and woman?
This could be the easiest evolutionary question ever posed: might it be because individuals who find sex unpleasant have tended to leave fewer descendants? Clearly my fan did not taken the time to actually read the paper. It continues in a crescendo of silliness:
Sometimes people over analyze activities... Is it possible that somethings God just loves you so much that he wants you to exsperience [sic] something greater than yourself... greater than what you can truly describe in words. Something that can't be explained...

I wonder what it's like to be God!
Scary... Think about it: this is what a future biology textbook might say if intelligent design creationists get their way in public schools. I'm amazed at how confidently some people express opinions about things they know so little about.

Apparently our paper has made some people laugh as well.
This is what happens when you put all your eggs in the basket of neo-Darwinism: trying to come up with increasingly risible explanations for the most basic instincts of life. Of course, this explanation is a minority view within the scientific mainstream (for the moment), but it's not that far off a lot of other views on particular processes in the development of life.
I wonder what they've been smoking over there. I'd hate to see what they might consider a serious explanation. Obviously, Pipesman has no idea of what the "scientific mainstream" actually is, which is worrying for a journalist. So let me explain it: I belong to it and your pals over at the Discovery Institute do not.

The origin and maintenance of sex really is one of the big problems of biology; that's not just something we say because it sounds cool. And biologists have been working hard to solve it. Let me illustrate how using some citation analysis. Since 1988, two of the classic books on the subject, John Maynard Smith's Evolution of sex (1978) and Graham Bell's The masterpiece of nature (1982), have been cited by 910 and 693 mainstream scientific papers, according to the ISI Web of Science database. The mutational deterministic hypothesis you seem to find so amusing is actually one of the main players in the field, not some fringe idea. It was proposed almost 20 years ago by Alex Kondrashov in, among others, another paper in Nature. That paper has been cited 381 times. Another major contender for explaining the evolution of sex is contained in this classic paper, which has been cited an even 400 times. To put these numbers in perspective, Darwin's The Descent of Man has been cited approximately 3000 times over the same period, whereas Dembski's collected works have been cited 84 times. In other words, theories on the evolution of sex have been formulated, analysed, extended, discussed, reviewed, tested and retested in hundreds of papers. That's about as mainstream as it gets.