Saturday, September 25, 2010

Angry reaction feared to new evolution claim

Worker bee - sterile
Photo: Albert Freeman
A revealing insight into the sociology of science.  The 26th August edition of the Nature podcast (the leading scientific journal) carries an interview about a new theory of kin selection.  What causes worker bees to help the queen bee to reproduce, when they themselves are sterile?  Since the 1960’s it’s been widely held that natural selection can't account for this, so a theory of kin selection is required. Harvard’s Martin Novak now says that the kin selection theory is redundant and natural selection can fully account for the worker bees’ behaviour. Mathematics is adduced in support.

I didn’t follow the argument, but it’s not important for the point which I'm coming to.

After an interview with Novak, Nature editor Patrick Goymer comments “Given how core kin selection has been, this is the sort of thing that will ruffle many feathers.”

Presenter Kerry Smith then prompts him: “Yes, to say the least – what do you think will be the implications of Martin Novak and his team’s new work?”

Goymer adds: “There will be some anger from some people. It will take quite a while for people to digest the maths and work out how this fits in with things that have gone before. So I think the debate will move on possibly slowly.” 

Wot!  Faced with a new theory, scientists get huffy?  They ought to say “aha! so that’s how it works!” and be really pleased.

Richard Dawkins tells a story from his undergraduate days of a professor who admitted he had been wrong for 15 years about a pet theory, and publicly thanked and shook the hand of the man of who had proved his error.  He cites this example to show how science works, in contrast to religion where dogma rules. The Nature editor's comments suggest it’s frequently not as tidy as that.

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