Another outrageous article, another angry letter…

I didn't like the article, but the accompanying cartoon by Keshav was pretty wonderful!
I didn’t like the article, but the accompanying cartoon by Keshav was pretty wonderful!

The Hindu’s Open Page seems to have a problem with evolution by natural selection. Just one week after arguments based on evolution were used to serve bigoted ends, another article suggests that we throw evolution by natural selection out completely. Of course, I felt the need to send off another angry letter; here it is:

“I find the article “Evolutionary Mismatch” by Prof. B.M. Hegde on the Open page (Dec 29 2013) dismaying in terms of how poorly it explains the processes of evolution by natural selection. I take serious issue with the baseless and rather outrageous claims made by Prof. Hegde in the first paragraph of this piece. Darwinian evolution is by no means “outdated”—the principle of evolution by natural selection is still the framework within which almost all biologists understand life. And it is difficult to know what the author means by neo-Darwinians having “a big business interest in keeping the status quo.” One possibility is that the author is referring to conventional, allopathic medicine, but it is worth noting that some of the major problems with such medicine in fact arise from ignoring Darwinian evolution. For example, the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a direct consequence of the process of natural selection.

The author’s main point—that evolution by natural selection on humans has not kept pace with the rapid changes we have created in our own environment—is certainly valid. As Prof. Hegde points out, our diet and sources of stress today are very different from those that our bodies have evolved to deal with many thousands of years ago. But the solution to dealing with these mismatches is not to throw out the process of evolution by natural selection. Almost all of what Prof. Hegde says is in fact consistent with Darwinian natural selection, and his casual dismissal of this central tenet of biology is unwarranted and even harmful. We need to understand evolution by natural selection in order to comprehend these mismatches and figure out how best to address them.

It is also worth clarifying that the environment plays an important role in Darwinian natural selection: the environment is the context in which organisms survive and reproduce, and changes in the environment can alter the effects of individual traits on survival and reproduction. For example, a green lizard is well-camouflaged in an environment of green vegetation, and being green would help a lizard to escape from predators in such an environment; if that environment suddenly changed to brown, then being green would no longer help the lizard’s survival. That the author dismisses Darwinian natural selection in favour of “environmental evolution” indicates a confused explanation of the process of natural selection.

More broadly, I am curious about the selection of articles on the Open Page. A recent editorial clarification mentioned that “submissions on the Open Page are the extended comments of readers and in no way do they reflect the views of The Hindu.” This clarification is acceptable if these extended reader comments are opinion pieces or personal anecdotes and reflections—as a reader, I very much enjoy many such pieces published on the Open Page. But both this article and “It is ‘nurture against nature'” by Dr. Mohana Krishnaswamy published on December 22, 2013 exhibit a confusing and misleading understanding of scientific facts. Publishing such articles without verification or editorial comment does a disservice to readers who look to this esteemed newspaper as a source of knowledge.”

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