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Evolutionary Biology Needs Viral Marketing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Stickleback stamp from Faroe Islands. Public Domain, artwork by Astrid Andreasen, 1994.

What is the first thing you do when you want to find something out these days? Head to that dusty collection of encyclopedias in the attic (or *gasp* a LIBRARY!?) or call up the closest friend/relative who knows something about something? Like me, you probably “google” whatever it is you are interested in finding. And, like me, you probably google lots of variations of the something you’re looking for because results are not always satisfactory. Furthermore, if you are like me, you get distracted by LOLCats, new music and Lonely Island videos and forget what on Earth could have drawn you to the internet in the first place.

As I was preparing another, (perhaps) more substantial post for this blog, I was looking for informative videos about sticklebacks. I won’t spoil the future post, but sticklebacks are small fish that live in the ocean and during the last 10,000 have been trapped in coastal lakes. Thus, they have arisen to become model organisms for studying rapid evolutionary change. This was an aspect I wanted to highlight in the larger context of that post.

Unfortunately, the search for informative YouTube videos of stickleback evolution was rather futile. At the least, videos describing some of the fascinating evolutionary research that has been done. Perhaps I have not done the search justice, used the wrong terms or what not – but that’s not the point. The point is that what shows up on the first page of search results is more important THAN ANYTHING. Here is what the top 5 Google search results are for “stickleback evolution”:

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great resources in the list, but numero uno sticks out like a sore opposable thumb. That is the top result on the internet for one the fast growing areas of research in evolutionary biology. There are over 13,500 references to stickleback evolution in the Google Scholar database. Yet kids doing school projects, science teachers whose knowledge may be outdated, parents keeping tabs on what their children are learning, and anyone else who is not a research scientist will never see those. They will not go check the scientific literature in Google Scholar. They wouldn’t even have access to the articles if they did. They will go to the Google search engine and type the words they want to know about and get those search results above, most likely clicking on the top link first.

Now, I prefer visuals like video, infographics and figures. It is always a challenge to find good ones existing on the internet and very time-consuming to make your own multimedia content. Most people don’t have the tools and technical know-how, much less the ability to work on “labor of love” projects without financial compensation. These realities reflect the available content that is easily searchable. This is the golden axiom of internet: They who have the resources, shall have algorithm rank! Well-funded institutes can produce well-crafted material. This is apparent if you repeat the aforementioned search on YouTube itself:

There is nothing wrong about the scientific quality of the videos in this list. But… look at the times? 50 minutes, 10 minutes? What nonspecialist is going to sit through these online lectures? Ok, certainly some are fascinated enough by stickleback evolution to do that, but those aren’t the people that need reaching out to. When someone wants information, whether its a teacher, student, parent, or even a blogger… they likely want it to be short, factual, entertaining and from an authoritative voice. From outsider’s perspective, I doubt that the above are entertaining and they fail on length. And it is not for lack of time in our lives. People have plenty of time to be entertained, I am sure they still have plenty of time to learn about stickleback evolution on the web. More fundamentally, it is about lack of attention span.

What I am getting at here has little to do with the sticklebacks, really. They are a case study because I was trying to teach myself about the research done on rapid evolution using them as a model species. I did find decent video on them as well – though, not from YouTube and further down the google search results list. If we want accurate scientific information on the web we need to approach from a new angle. No one cares about your video of your cutting edge invited research lecture at top-notch University. Scientists, particularly in publicly contentious areas like evolution research but also climate change or stem cell research among others, need to make an investment in creating high-quality, viral content. And no, I don’t mean viral in the biological sense.

Viral content is not just a buzzword that I’m throwing around. It has the unique characteristic of being broadly interesting across a range of audiences such that it is rapidly and widely shared. The two key components that evolutionary biologists, in particular, need to focus on: broadly interesting and widely shared. When content goes viral, it means much more than just lots of eyeballs gazing at it. This is the justification for doing any form outreach! Why do anything if it not going to reach the maximum pairs of eyeballs possible?? But, just as importantly, viral content reaches mainstream media and tends to infuse itself further in society and propagate to new audiences that you might have never realized you could ever reach. THAT is the power of viral content! Maximize your reach with minimal effort. Its the perfect cost-benefit argument for the typical cash-stretch outreach effort – if it works.

So, how do we do this? We need people dedicated to producing the content and putting it out there. We also need a network that gets the viral infusion started. Believe it or not, I would argue the latter point is the easy part. You see, there is a world online with eager science communicators and enthusiasts who are just waiting to point at something and scream from the top of their lungs “OMG SCIENCE!! LOOK!! SO FREAKING AWESOME!!!!”. The exist on blogs, on Twitter, in the Google + machine, amidst the Tumblr-weeds, on Reddit and just about any other social networking site has a community of science lovers and scientists on it. That stand at the ready to be awed by your content and share it among their networks. This “nerd army” is great start to getting content to go viral. And all you have to do is tell them: send an email, tweet, direct message, chat or whatever. The service doesn’t matter to the soldiers in the nerd army, because it’s all the same – it’s communication.

But, we first need to create the content. This is the hard part, and going to a huge effort to pull off, but I guarantee it will be worth it. There are many great examples of science content out there, Creature Cast and MBARI are great examples of a good content producers. For Creaturecast’s beautiful produced videos with fun, vivid artwork and camera footage, their videos often reach a couple hundred to couple thousand viewers – 7 notable exceptions out of 37 total videos were viewed 55,000 (2), 23,000, 17,000 (2), and 12,000 (2) times. It is no doubt these numbers show how successful their content was, but it deserves to go even bigger. Creature Cast is specifically the outreach project (with NSF funding) of a single lab. MBARI, on the other hand, has been wildly successful with thousands to millions of views. Of course, MBARI is an institution with a public relations and outreach team, as well as dozens of scientists capturing fantastic footage right outside their door.  Their authoritative position as an institution likely contributes to their success, though I would make an argument that the creativity of Creature Cast is more in tune with viral content.

It is often difficult to predict what content ends up going viral. Many advertising campaigns have tried hard to make viral advertisements. While several have taken off, many fell short of expectations. Given the cost that large companies will put into advertising, the cost to benefit analysis may not be as great as the potential for science content. To get great content up and taking off, labs and scientists need to rethink how they approach this form of outreach. The traditional approach is to do such things as a lab activity. This worked very successfully for the Dunn lab, which produced Creature Cast, in part because they had funding for a student to spend time to create these masterpieces. So one method is to include funding for you and your student assistants to make content in grants. The other is for institutions or labs with funding to hire out professional outreach or science communication specialists.

Both options are a win situation for science communication. On one hand you give students exposure and experience in developing communications materials and instill in them a sense of commitment to this ethic that will more than likely carry on throughout their careers. On the other hand you are putting your work in the capable hands of people with a solid science background who know how craft messages and market content. It is these latter people, the professional communicators, that could really get your content distributed widely. Additionally, it frees up your lab to keep making discoveries, publish papers, and train students. Either investment strategy is a good bet for both the lab, institution, and the public. The key lies in harnessing the creativity to make good content, solid messages, and thoughtful marketing.

Evolutionary biology is in dire need of a PR campaign. There are some great initiatives out there already, some that are getting off the ground and some that exist only in brilliant minds that have yet to be tapped. Sticklebacks tell an amazing story of evolution and there are many facets of the story that can grab the attention in various ways if done right. But this is not about sticklebacks, it’s about evolution and science. It’s about improving the standing of STEM education in society. It’s about nurturing an appreciation for the STEM fields to keep our country competitive, keep jobs being created and keep up progress in making new and innovative discoveries about our world. Few talk about science as a job creation vehicle, but I challenge you to find one thing around you that is not the result of STEM research. Consistent vigilance and communications efforts are imperative to maintaining public support of science research and future job creation.

Kevin Zelnio About the Author: Kevin has a M.Sc. degree in biology from Penn State, a B.Sc. in Evolution and Ecology from University of California, Davis, and has worked at as a researcher at several major marine science institutions. His broad academic research interests have encompassed population genetics, biodiversity, community ecology, food webs and systematics of invertebrates at deep-sea chemosynthetic environments and elsewhere. Kevin has described several new species of anemones and shrimp. He is now a freelance writer, independent scientist and science communications consultant living near the Baltic coast of Sweden in a small, idyllic village.

Kevin is also the assistant editor and webmaster for Deep Sea News, where he contributes articles on marine science. His award-winning writing has been appeared in Seed Magazine, The Open Lab: Best Writing on Science Blogs (2007, 2009, 2010), Discovery Channel, ScienceBlogs, and Environmental Law Review among others. He spends most of his time enjoying the company of his wife and two kids, hiking, supporting local breweries, raising awareness for open access, playing guitar and songwriting. You can read up more about Kevin and listen to his music at his homepage, where you can also view his CV and Résumé, and follow him twitter and Google +.

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 38 Comments

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  1. 1. SLW-L 5:15 pm 10/22/2011

    Great topic and great post. I agree wholeheartedly with most everything here. This is especially interesting to me because I find myself, in a way, on the other end of this problem. I’m a graphic designer and artist with a strong interest in science. I especially enjoy beautiful and informative information graphics. But, while I have the skills and the will to create eye-catching designs, I often don’t feel I have enough information or a solid enough understanding of scientific subject matter to do the subject justice. I flounder around in the research and end up too overwhelmed to create anything useful. I always end up feeling like I need some input or direction from someone who really knows the topic.

    I don’t know if there are many others out there like me, but what I would LOVE to see from the research/science blogosphere is a bit of an ongoing “wish-list” of specific topics and content they desire, along with the actual sources and information to use to create it with. While many artists (including me) are hard pressed to work without pay or low pay for commissions…I think you’d be amazed what we’ll do when presented with a genuine request or need from the scientific community, the information we need, and set loose on our own time. Ask and ye shall receive!

    In general, better communication between scientists and artists/designers with a passion for science communication could yield some incredible results.

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  2. 2. Alex Wild 5:51 pm 10/22/2011

    Good post, Kevin. Here’s a video that exemplifies the well-made science video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Af0_vWDfJwQ

    One minute of physics, 800,000 views.

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  3. 3. Gaythia 6:48 pm 10/22/2011

    I think that it is significant that in the Google search listed in the above post, the headline of the first item at least does identify the source as Creation Ministries International. Those of us that are not going to be the ones that produce the “Evolutionary Biology Viral Marketing” products correctly promoted here, can at least be eyes and ears to help ensure that teachers, students, and members of the public have the ability to correctly identify scientific sources. And conversely, highlight any that are masquerading as science.

    I’d like to encourage readers out there to be watchful for situations, in which Creationists attempt to insert their views into our public education system, as if they were science. I was recently involved with raising questions regarding the publicity for a talk at a local community college. (http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2011/10/this-is-a-repor.html#more) Bringing this matter to the attention of the community college administration brought immediate steps to change the way the talk was promoted, and to protect the name and reputation of the institution. I believe that more honest promotion, and raising questions at the talk itself, can successfully influence how the materials in talks such as this are interpreted by the public, while at the same time protecting free speech rights.

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  4. 4. Daniel Mietchen 9:33 pm 10/22/2011

    I have reached similar conclusions to Kevin for open science, and I would love to work with people like SLW-L on carving out something that is interesting to both artists and scientists.

    I was recently involved with one attempt to bring this into the 1-minute time span of the audiences discussed in the post ( http://vimeo.com/30046678 ), and I jumped on a related project started by someone else ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMIY_4t-DR0 ) to create a translation of such a video ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKcD28eQVLY ).

    What I would like to see artists take up is the reluctance of scholars – and the research administrators behind them – to question their habits and to adapt research to the web age. For instance, it is clear that certain kinds of research certainly benefit from being performed collaboratively – e.g. sequencing the human genome – and without restrictions on sharing the progress that has been made (general introduction to this at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnWocYKqvhw ).

    For some concrete examples from the last few weeks, see http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1758-2946-3-36 (chemistry), http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nchem.1149 (drug discovery; related video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MdkQJ5sCx0 ) and research in general ( http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/477529a ; discussed at http://blogs.ch.cam.ac.uk/pmr/2011/09/29/revamping-the-funding-system-ioannidis/ ).

    Evolutionary biology and ecology overlap with my research interests. I am not aware of any systematic efforts to get them more open, nor of anything with viral potential, but I would certainly like to help getting something like this off the ground.

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  5. 5. Glendon Mellow 10:41 pm 10/22/2011

    Kevin, you are one of the best thinkers about science communication I read on a regular basis. This, this, this.

    SLW-L also said it: visuals are part of the key to something going viral. They don’t always have to be slick (see: every LOLcat ever) to gain views, but visuals are a part of the process that are often overlooked by those in science communication (though not by Kevin).

    When Bora Zivkovic first asked me if I could create a science-artists feed (http://friendfeed.com/scienceartists)for scienceblogging.org, he asked if I thought there would be enough content out there that it would update several times a day. FriendFeed caps at 100 blogs in the feed, and I have so many more, I have to rotate them out based on frequency. The artists and designers are out there, and they’re not always the on-hand grad student or intern.

    Eyeballs are usually drawn by two things in viral marketing: a sense of mystery (what’s this?) and empathy with someone. When trying to communicate about sticklebacks, (or whatever evobio topic at hand) this should be remembered. When I made a painting of a tardigrade microbe, I included a human figure at an incongruous-scale. People look at the human, relate to it, and then ask about the tardigrade.

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  6. 6. Glendon Mellow 11:52 pm 10/22/2011

    Oh, the irony that my comment is a wall-of-text when I’m promoting imagery in communication is not lost on me.

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  7. 7. Gaythia 9:50 am 10/23/2011

    @Glendon Mellow, @Kevin Zelnio(and others reading this): Before the Creationist talk I mentioned above, and once I realized that a biology professor acquaintance was not going to be able to attend, I did a quick web search for resources that might be useful. I ended up printing a piece on the evolution of the eyeball, from Scientific American. After the talk I gave this paper to a pre-vet student I met, who did say that she was interested and would read it. But I suspect that she might be more likely to keep that promise with a YouTube video, and much more likely to pass the link to the video on to others.

    If I had known of a list of excellent and scientifically reliable web accessible resources suitable for my purpose (Countering standard Creationist arguments), I would have definitely printed it out and distributed it to receptive students. And obviously, most of the time such resources would be distributed online. NCSE has links to materials, but the video portion seems relatively limited. Is there someone editing and maintaining such a list? I think that a reliable go-to place is at least as important as getting Google search rank on individual topics.

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  8. 8. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 10:01 am 10/23/2011

    SLW-L, As a freelancer myself I completely sympathize. I think the way to move forward is to develop a fundable communications project for an organization like NCSE, NSF, NIH or form a new nonprofit initiative that pairs graphics oriented people with science writers and scientists to craft individual messages to relay simple points. I like the 1 minute physics videos that Alex posted below. Those are a good idea! But, I would never ask for artists and writers to work for free. The problem is to do what we love, make a difference doing it AND make a living. This is why I think it needs to be part of a broader communications project to work.

    But yes, I dream of the amount of awesome we could do, if we could just get our shit together!

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  9. 9. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 10:09 am 10/23/2011

    Gaythia, there is certainly a role for everyone! And you bring up an important point that the defenders of science must always stay vigilant! I view viral marketing as one technique to correct some of these misconceptions. But viral marketing has at least two more connotations with it that I over looked in my post.
    1) Often, sharing content is viewed (unless specifically stated) as an endorsement of what you are sharing. I know this not true, but I’ve seen many arguments started with “I can’t believe you like this?!” even though it might not have been the sharer’s intention. So by having content go viral, you end up with what *appears* to be 100′s of 1000′s of supporters. Which leads to…
    2) Having content go viral means lots of page views which increases its position search algorithm rankings, ensuring that scientifically accurate content would be placed high up.

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  10. 10. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 10:19 am 10/23/2011

    Gaythia, in regards to your second comment. You bring up what I think is the crux of the matter. Make it EASY for people to access and understand. Regards to the latter, there are times to challenge the intellect and there are times to push the right message. Yes, you can do both, but we have to keep in mind what is our strategy? To be smart or to help people understand the message/history/research/evidence/etc of evolution. Once a person is hooked, they are more than likely to look up more. Viral content has the unique ability to hook in people, perhaps those sitting on the fence, because of visuals and ease of understanding. And, like Glendon said, empathy above smugness.

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  11. 11. Gaythia 11:17 am 10/23/2011

    @Kevin Zelnio, As I see it, there has to be some sorting mechanism that allows the interested public to distinguish between, for example, the various stickleback links you post above. Other than which is cutest or otherwise most appealing.

    As I explain in more detail, and attempt to document, in the report linked to in my #3 above, in my opinion the creationist talk I attended had several key source obscuring features. The sponsoring organization, previously known as Campus Crusade for Christ, recently renamed itself “CRU”, which seems to me to be an attempt to gain entry and attendance at such events. The talk was originally headlined in a way that I felt could be interpreted as if the community college at which it was held was, itself, as an instituion, having a meeting on the origins of life. The speaker, in the body of the talk, gave a whole series of one line quotes making it seem to me as if the speaker was implying that those evolutionary scientists quoted thought evolution in its entirety was seriously in doubt. Until the speaker was directly questioned after the talk he did not reveal that he was in fact what we would call a young earth creationist, someone who believed that the earth was less than 10,000 years old. And thus, as pointed out by another member of the audience, (and with which I agree), the speaker never really gave a talk on the subject of scientific support for his beliefs. The speaker did seem to understand empathy, and a desire for ease of understanding and certainty. Dinosaurs were always dinosaurs, people have always been people, as I heard him put it in the after talk discussion.

    My point is that when people look stuff up, they need to know more than what is at the top of the list, easy to find, or what has the flashiest catchy graphics. They need to be able to distinguish sources.

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  12. 12. quizzical 2:38 pm 10/23/2011

    As a dedicated scientist, I find it confusing as to how and why some folks seem so dedicated to the idea that Life evolved spontaneously from basic elements (Carbon Oxygen, Hydrogen, etc.) It seems that any scientist (not science fiction dreamers) would understand that Life can NEVER develop spontaneously from any recipe of chemicals, no matter how perfect that recipe may be.

    True experimental and repeatable scientific inquiries have demonstrated over and over again that Life is really based upon not only a proper recipe of chemicals, but, more importantly, a great deal of information on exactly how that recipe of chemicals is to be used and when.

    You can search the Universe over to find a proper recipe in the proper temperature range that might support Life. However, in the absence of coded instructions that are absolutely crucial to viable Life, no such Life needs to be expected.

    The very existence of the Base 4 mathematical code (DNA) that underwrites the development of ALL of known life is simple scientific proof that a designer was involved.

    While some may not agree with that view, I challenge anyone to show me any code that has no author. That is because ALL codes are, in reality, languages used by living creatures, be they simple or infinitely complex.

    To my limited knowledge base, I have never heard of any language of any sort, used by simple elements or compounds, that could transmit any information about anything besides their basic physical characteristics. (specific gravity, conductivity, valence, color or what-have-you)

    While the sticklebacks may demonstrate quite a variety of characteristics, they definitely needed a lot of mutations to generate the diversity that allows natural selection to work at all.

    Slight modifications by natural selection are indeed scientific fact. But, I respectfully submit that the whole notion of the evolution of “molecules to man” is a patently bankrupt notion peddled by a double drop-out (theology and medicine) who became angry at God because of the illness and death of his daughter due to Scarlet Fever and possibly Tuberculosis. I wonder why he didn’t do real science and try to figure out how to conquer those diseases.

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  13. 13. Glendon Mellow 7:53 am 10/24/2011

    quizzical said: “While some may not agree with that view, I challenge anyone to show me any code that has no author.”

    Are you asking us to prove a negative? “As a dedicated scientist” you are asking us to prove a negative?

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  14. 14. quizzical 8:53 am 10/24/2011

    Reply to Glendon Mellow:

    All I am asking is for someone to prove a POSITIVE. If anyone knows of a truly “author-less code”, I would like to be enlightened.

    That is NOT asking anyone to prove a a negative. It is exactly like asking someone to show you a riding machine similar to a tricycle but having NO rear wheels. I am sure you are familiar with the unicycle.

    You may be aware that the use of the word “no” in a sentence does not necessarily indicate a negative statement or question.

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  15. 15. Gaythia 10:59 am 10/24/2011

    I think that the key is in DNA and the conflict between these two paragraphs of quizzical:

    1. While some may not agree with that view, I challenge anyone to show me any code that has no author. That is because ALL codes are, in reality, languages used by living creatures, be they simple or infinitely complex.

    2. To my limited knowledge base, I have never heard of any language of any sort, used by simple elements or compounds, that could transmit any information about anything besides their basic physical characteristics. (specific gravity, conductivity, valence, color or what-have-you)

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  16. 16. quizzical 11:54 am 10/24/2011

    In response to Gaythia:

    Sorry I was not clear. My point is, that so many folks seem to think that life will bubble up out of any mud puddle on Earth, Mars or anywhere else, simply because of the presence of the right elements and the right temperature. They seem to conveniently forget that ALL life is “knowledge based” rather than “chemical recipe based” as determined by our most recent and best scientific research.

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  17. 17. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 7:44 pm 10/24/2011

    Re: Comment 11- Gaythia, I couldn’t agree with you more! Being able to distinguish sources is the foundation of critical thinking. Which is why I think i will never work LOL. In seriousness though, we shouldn’t expect everyone to be able to tell good source from bad source when the material is so far out of their comfort zone. This is why I argue that materials need to be crafted to bring the message in more “viral” manner. They *should* be just as you say “top of the list, easy to find, or what has the flashiest catchy graphics”.

    This is not about treating the public as dumb, or unable. On the contrary, it recognizing that people have better things to do with their life. When they get the urge up to learn something or at least google some science, we should have a portfolio of awesome content out there to pique their interest. I think of it more as a gateway, we want people to go through the gate but need to give them a reason why. Does this make sense to anyone other than me?

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  18. 18. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 7:47 pm 10/24/2011

    Quizzical, thank you for your comments but they have nothing to do with this post and the ensuing conversation. Nice try at the detraction though.

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  19. 19. quizzical 9:17 am 10/25/2011

    Kevin, Thanks for the polite reprimand. Actually, my comments have everything to do with the discussion at hand. I certainly agree that any communication about any subject needs to be clear, concise and catchy.

    However, my point is that, why spend any effort to make a hypothetical notion more clear? It just confuses those who will only take a quick look and look no further. It actually detracts from critical thinking skills.

    Witness Mr. Gore’s global warming film. It may have been arguably well done, but it contained many fundamental errors and exaggerations that were portrayed as truth. That is not only my assessment but also, that of many others. All he did was to create a whole lot of misconceptions about a subject he knew little about.

    Same goes for stickleback evolution. If one wants to learn more about sticklebacks – study sticklebacks. Do not generate hypothetical notions about their origins. Why? Because THOSE notions will remain hypothetical. They cannot be proven by the scientific method of experimentation because of the long time frames claimed.

    Since when did science forget about studying about how the world really works and get off into the business of pushing hypothetical notions about origins – no matter how cleverly? Seems very strange and counterproductive to me.

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  20. 20. Jerzy New 10:02 am 10/26/2011

    Who needs viral marketing when there are real viruses?

    Science has wonderful capacity – societies which ignore it fall apart and are conquered by societies which care.

    Don’t believe in evolution? Take the drugs which were effective 20 years ago when you get infectious disease. If there is no evolution, germs don’t evolve resistance to drugs, isn’t it?

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  21. 21. Jerzy New 10:06 am 10/26/2011

    My only slight objection to evolutionary biologists is that they use sticklebacks to teach about importance of evolution.

    There is plenty of important, emotive examples. Germs evolving resistance to drugs, cancer cells evolving resistance to treatment, insects destroying crops evolving resistance to pesticides. Even arms race in military weaponry – from Greek wars to modern wars can be used as a prime example of evolution in action.

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  22. 22. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 12:39 pm 10/26/2011

    Don’t believe in evolution? Take the drugs which were effective 20 years ago when you get infectious disease. If there is no evolution, germs don’t evolve resistance to drugs, isn’t it?

    Yes! I plan to get into this more on this blog. Really want to highlight the “applied” nature of evolution and how studying its principles has resulted in great strides for our society in many areas. I think your examples in the second comment illustrate the diversity of topics which the study of evolutionary biology contributes to.

    I also think this is where science communicators and forward-thinking scientists can really use viral marketing materials (video/pictures) and techniques to highlight the importance of the field. We need people to connect the dots and step outside their specific research areas. These materials can be used in a wide variety of situations and places if marketed right.

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  23. 23. quizzical 9:10 pm 10/26/2011

    Jerzy, all your examples of evolution are really only examples of “survival of the fittest.” “Survival of the fittest” ALWAYS works! It is not evolution in the sense of Life crawling out of warm ancient mud puddles without any living ancestors. As I understand the Theory of Evolution, it hypothesizes that Life began spontaneously and then branched out from the first cell to become the myriad of creatures we have today.

    True science tells me that this hypothesis is incorrect. It supposes that all you need is the right chemistry and temperature. In reality, it has been discovered that Life is based on special information that directs the chemistry.

    As we all know, information NEVER self-assembles without intelligent assistance. If you are aware of such a case, please let me know. In the mean time, why push a bankrupt hypothesis that has never been proven or demonstrated?

    Forget about that “Survival of the Fittest” stuff if you want to talk about real evolution. It is just smoke and mirrors. Remember, all the varieties of creatures that make “survival of the fittest” possible must have developed by chance mutations. That bases the entire hypothesis on chance, does it not?. Considering the fact that most mutations are naturally weeded out of a population, where do all these competing critters come from?

    How do you get from water dwelling fish to amphibians to mammals and then back to whales? I propose that that is an unusually long leap of imagination.

    All the jazzy graphics you can come up with on this subject will only muddy the water for those who don’t dig deeper.

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  24. 24. Jerzy New 3:34 pm 10/28/2011

    @quizzical
    You apparently confuse origin of life with evolution. You seem also unaware, that during evolution of complex life, there appeared means to store much more information and in novel ways: besides good old textbook DNA, complex organisms use DNA methylation, epigenetic modifications of histones, gene splicing, short non-coding RNAs, gradient of molecules in cells etc.

    Like many Europeans, I am a bit confused about American belief that Christianity opposes evolution. Anyway, if the God is truly Almighty, He could create the evolution, and could create the universe in such a way, that first life would build itself from dead matter without any His intervention at that point, isn’t it?

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  25. 25. Jerzy New 3:37 pm 10/28/2011

    @quizzical
    I think you might also read a bit of physics. Although information disappears in the scale of Universe (=entropy grows), information can grow and assemble itself locally (eg. in living organisms).

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  26. 26. quizzical 10:24 am 10/29/2011

    Reply to jerzy in comment 24: No confusion at all. Evolution as we are taught is, from molecules to man. You mention a bunch of ways that information is encoded in living things. The use of the word “appeared” without any understanding of where these methods came from is VERY unscientific. Sounds like blind faith to me.

    If you are a bit confused as to why anyone believes that Christianity opposes evolution, you must be unfamiliar with true Christianity, evolution as it is taught, the Bible as the inspired, inerrant Word of God or all three.

    The viewpoint you describe is known as deism. While such a person may think they believe in God, they are not aware of His true nature.

    I am not saying that you have to believe the Bible, but I do. The very fact that in this country, it is forbidden to teach about the weak points of evolution in the classroom, sounds like the desperate defense Muslims mount against any perceived mocking of their god. Both the True God and Absolute Truth never need any defense. They stand on their own. Hypothesizing about how God COULD have created Life is a very poor comparison to how He tells us He actually did it in Genesis. Again, you do not have to believe anything that you do not want to believe.

    Replying to your comment 25, I have read my physics. It is one of my favorite subjects. You are right. Entropy always increases. But, new information NEVER spontaneously generates or assembles itself from nothing. It is always copied from prior Life.

    Well, we are now having the first snow storm of the season and it promises to be a damaging one due to many trees still having their leaves. The snow will probably break many branches and tear down electric lines. However, I am not worried. Al Gore says the globe is warming so the snow must not be real! Ha Ha.

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  27. 27. Jerzy New 6:57 am 10/30/2011

    @quizzical
    AFAIK, Darwin is buried in St Paul Cathedral and Pope at least twice stated that evolution is “more than faith” or similar. References widely avialable. I wouldn’t claim to be holier than Pope.

    Generally, it is mostly in USA that many people (both opposing evolution and promoting it) believe that Christianity (or even any religion) and evolution are incompatible. In Europe, people regard it as compatible. In religious countries, there is a big percentage of religious scientists who find nothing surprising about it.

    To the author of the blog – if the topic is educating or stopping myths about evolution, maybe “Christianity opposes evolution” and “modern Christianity opposes science” are another misconceptions worth dealing with?

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  28. 28. Jerzy New 6:59 am 10/30/2011

    Re: Pope John Paul II, that evolution theory is ‘more than just a hypothesis’. According to internet at least.

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  29. 29. quizzical 8:19 pm 10/30/2011

    RE: Jerzey:
    There seems to be a misunderstanding about the difference between true followers of Jesus Christ and the more political “Christianity-in-name-only” folks.

    Actually, the Pope’s opinion demonstrates that his Biblical understanding has been watered down by secularist thinking. Since Europe is widely known for its secularist culture, there is no surprise that many so called scientists who claim to be Christian, and even the Pope, can see no contradiction between what the Creator God SAID He did (Genesis 1:1 –“ In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.” Also see John 1:3 – “All things were made through Him, without Him nothing was made that was made.” Other references: Psalms 100:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 11:3, all in the New King James Bible) and what fallible mankind THINKS He did.

    I understand that Darwin’s burial site is in Westminster Abbey and definitely NOT in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

    Why equate “evolution” and “science” in your last paragraph in comment #27? True science was created by God and it is good. The notion of evolution from molecules to man is merely a hypothesis popularized by a double drop-out (Theology and Medicine) by the name of Charlie who became angry at God for the death of his daughter. Trying to deal God out of the deck can never make it happen!

    Instead of arguing aimlessly about what others have said about this subject, why not answer my scientific question about how new, complex information could possibly self-assemble in an ancient warm mud puddle?

    For instance, consider this hypothetical scenario. If a simple cell requires 25 proteins to function (actually many more) but only had access to 20 because no more had ever been assembled up to that time by whatever means, where would the knowledge come from to identify the remaining 5 pieces of the puzzle? And who would write the code for their design, assembly and use?

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  30. 30. Jerzy New 10:14 am 10/31/2011

    Hi quizzical
    I understand that whatever arguments I present, you will not believe them a priori, because they are incompatible with your literal understanding of The Bible. Other readers may consider:

    - Early Earth, as we imagine it, was locally a paradise of organic molecules next to energy sources. In today Earth such places are quickly colonized by todays bacteria and eaten up.
    - Astronomical numbers of molecules and interactions in the micro-world means that improbable events become certain. For example, number of organic molecules in a volume of a teaspoon is in billions. So, if life would require nothing more than a billion-to-one chance of meeting two molecules, it would certainly happen.
    - Power of selection means that even smallest advantage quickly dominates others. So para-living system with even the crudest means of storing information would dominate others – because there was no competition.

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  31. 31. quizzical 10:45 am 11/1/2011

    You are certainly correct on at least two points. The fact that I take the Bible as the written Word of God, and that conditions on the early earth must be IMAGINED by evolutionists.

    If you really believe your 3rd paragraph about numbers, you probably also believe that, given enough time, an airplane will somehow fly out of a tornado ravaged junk yard with no design engineer required.

    Your last paragraph is really confusing. A para-living critter with even the crudest means of storing information has a serious problem. WHAT information would there be to store? Remember, Life is NOT based on only a recipe of chemicals but more importantly on a list of coded instructions as to what to do with all those chemical parts.

    I find that the more that is discovered by true scientific inquiry, the more ridiculous the hypothesis of evolution becomes.

    The very fact that the weak points of evolution are forbidden to be discussed in American public school classrooms is a strong indication of the medieval mindset of those in power. They demand a blind faith in what some “authority” with a PhD prefers to claim. That, to me, is a medieval mindset if ever there was one.

    Many folks may chose to believe in the irrational notion that complex code can arise without cause or direction but I chose to believe that the Creator God is responsible for the design of all living things. Oh yes, I know all the arguments. But, there is MUCH variability designed into every unique genome. Hence we have the silly claim about Darwin’s finch beaks, etc., etc., etc. But, NO scientific experiment has ever provided the least piece of new code that is prerequisite for life. Never mind gene splicing etc. I am talking about original code being generated by natural and undirected means, such as evolutionists hypothesize for an ancient Earth. I submit that THAT notion is totally irrational.

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  32. 32. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 5:23 pm 11/1/2011

    First, Quizzical and Jerzy New, thanks for keeping (mostly) civil. I expect a blog like mine to generate passionate comments on each side. Glad we can do it without personal insults and the such.

    To the author of the blog – if the topic is educating or stopping myths about evolution, maybe “Christianity opposes evolution” and “modern Christianity opposes science” are another misconceptions worth dealing with?

    When I started this blog here, I intended this space to be used to discuss evolution and ecology without the baggage of theistic debates. There are plenty of yelling spaces on each side for this. I’m not sure I want to get into this now, although in comments is a perfectly acceptable as long as it remains respectful and doesn’t create obstacles to discussion for new entrants. But I do like the idea of addressing misconceptions, but only with data and not anecdotes. I agree that in at least Northern Europe the evolution-creation debate is virtually nonexistent accept the extreme fringe groups that are present everywhere. This is likely because the predominant christian sects are catholicism and lutheranism. The former accepts the compatibility while the latter tends to be a more liberal and open view of christianity.

    The incongruencies appear to be mainly within the diversity of sects in the US, but also christian minorities in Asia and Australia. There is just a lot more diversity of christian beliefs in the states than anywhere else. So, I prefer framing the issue not as “why does modern Christianity oppose science”, but as “how can we communicate that the denialists, if you will, are already utilizing products, ideas and technologies that the direct result of inquiry into evolutionary biology”. Instead of baking at each other, I prefer to show them this is indeed something useful, a legitimate field of science, and has wrought a great many useful things that everyone needs and uses in their daily lives.

    I don’t want to assume that someone like Quizzical is entirely set in their ways against biology, but they are not the ones I really want to talk to (no offense). I want to talk with the people on the fence, or the people who haven’t really given it a thought. If I can *show* you that you are already using evolution each day, then you already have the tools to see evolution everywhere you go and in everything you do.

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  33. 33. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 6:01 pm 11/1/2011

    Why equate “evolution” and “science” in your last paragraph in comment #27? True science was created by God and it is good. The notion of evolution from molecules to man is merely a hypothesis popularized by a double drop-out (Theology and Medicine) by the name of Charlie who became angry at God for the death of his daughter. Trying to deal God out of the deck can never make it happen!

    Actually, this is just wrong. There is no true science or false science. There is only science. Medieval and Victorian scientists reconciled their careers as uncovering God’s truth. This is even evident with Darwin, whom was still religious to some extent during the lead up to the death of Annie. He had most of the structure of his theory before then. It is disingenuous to write, though, that he his work is invalid because he dropped out of school and was angry with God. Shall I procure your academic credentials to opine on my space here?

    And to answer your question, yes, it is possible that self-assembly happens spontaneously in warm and ancient puddles. Information bearing molecules have been experimentally shown to generate given a variety of chemical conditions. There is a large literature on this. Just as importantly, coacervates form spontaneously and divide as they grow. Coacervates are the lipid bilayers that are precursors to cell membranes and hold stuff inside it.

    Finally, evolutionary biology doesn’t study the origin of life and theories selection account for how existing species and populations change with respect to time. The strawman argument that evolution is invalid because it doesn’t experimentally describe how life originated is in itself invalid because it is not a biological question, but a chemical one. One of which there is a wide variety of lab experiments that converge on similar results. You can look these up if you wish. The idea of a designer is fine so long as you recognize that it is a belief and not a law of science, for the latter requires independent lines of evidence derived from hypothesis testing.

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  34. 34. Jerzy New 9:05 am 11/2/2011

    Hi Kevin,
    As you say, many people in USA oppose evolution primarily because of false belief that it is incompatible with religion. Then showing them facts that significant part of Christians find both faith and evolution compatible may be the best way to address. Probably some of them may find the arguments used by Pope convincing for their beliefs.

    Situation in USA is interesting, because there are not only Christians with prejudices against science, but also lots of scientists who have prejudices against Christianity.

    Link to this
  35. 35. Jerzy New 9:10 am 11/2/2011

    As a side note, experiments on coacervates are decades old. I realized that modern scientists conduct very few experiments about origin of life, so we still cite experiments from the first part of 20. century. Damn approach that science must have immediate practical application!

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  36. 36. quizzical 12:26 pm 11/2/2011

    To Kevin,

    Thanks for the affirmation of civility! There really is no reason to be anything else. I am also glad that I am not seen as being set in my ways against biology.

    I am sorry to see the effort to find better ways to push unsuspecting folks over the fence to the side of imaginary notions. (abiogenesis)

    I would appreciate if I could be shown just a few of the “great many useful things that everyone needs and uses in their daily lives” that could not have been developed without this seemingly important belief in biological origins without any biological precedents.

    While think I get your drift about “There is no true science or false science”, I disagree. There always has been Pseudoscience. That is false science in my understanding.

    Regarding the comment on Coacervates. They were once suggested to have played a significant role in the evolution of cells and, therefore, of life itself, but nowadays this approach is mostly abandoned.

    Regarding the comment on the origin of Life. It is most certainly a biological question and not simply a chemical question. Why? Consider the old alchemist’s effort to construct gold from other cheaper materials.
    They needn’t have tried that then and today’s chemists needn’t try to find a recipe for Life now, because… It just isn’t done that way.

    As I have commented before, there needs to be very specialized information that can direct the chemistry. There also needs to be very specialized ways of storing and duplicating these instructions. There needs to be very specialized ways of reading the instructions and then very specialized machinery to implement the instructions. You may not believe that, but I am requesting some examples that would prove otherwise.

    My point is, if there are no answers to any of the questions I posed in this thread, WHY ponder ways to better trick folks into a belief that can not be substantiated?

    This whole subject of abiogenesis, and the staunch defense mounted for it, sounds like a religion to me.

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  37. 37. quizzical 12:46 pm 11/2/2011

    Jerzy New,

    The whole idea that evolution and religion needs a bit of clarification.

    The term “religion” is much too broad. I am talking about Biblical Truth.

    The term evolution is also much too broad because I am talking about abiogenesis.

    Actually, many adherents of the broad term “evolution” defend their point of view with a tenacity of the most extreme “religionists.”

    Since I am not Catholic, any reference to the Pope is irrelevant to me.

    I do not think any true Christian has any prejudice against any true science. But today, communication is so easy that many people say a lot of stuff that can not be substantiated by actual experiment.

    As an example: We just had a “Science for Seniors” presentation on astronomy at the retirement community I live in. Since astronomy and telescope building are some of my many interests, I easily noticed many errors in her presentation.

    You are right on the studies of experiments on coacervates being decades old. They have come to a dead end a good while ago.

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  38. 38. neilrued 11:16 pm 01/3/2012

    I am not a professional scientist, I am a humble electrical/electronics engineer. I am an amateur scientist who is a student of many sciences.

    quizzical’s remark
    “To my limited knowledge base, I have never heard of any language of any sort, used by simple elements or compounds, that could transmit any information about anything besides their basic physical characteristics. (specific gravity, conductivity, valence, color or what-have-you)”

    What about the language of Quantum Mechanics? A good example is putting a sample of Sodium into liquid water. What happens? A violent reaction, in which the Sodium hydrolyzes the water, releasing Hydrogen then combining with the hydroxyl ion to form Sodium Hydroxide. This reaction always is observed to happen, and the products of the chemical reaction are always the same. This same reaction would occur on Mars, or an exoplanet under the conditions suitable for liquid water.

    There is no scientifically verifiable proof the Bible is the word of a god. The Bible is a set of sophisticated fairy tales for adults who fear death, and some myth borrowed from the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians. The story of creation is strongly similar to the Sumerian creation myth, the story of Noah is similar to the story of Gilgamesh. The ressurection story of Jesus is very similar to the resurrection of the ancient Egyptian god Horus. The judeo=christian-muslim notion of an afterlife, judgment, preservation of the mortal remains of the deceased, etc. are very reminiscent of ancient Egyptian beliefs. The Bible was written by human beings, who borrowed stories from other pagan cultures. The four gospels were written decades after the events, and not all agree on the details of Jesus’ life. The Qumran scrolls reveal Jesus as a priest from an essene sect. The Bible shows too many inconsistencies, and biblical figures who are recorded to have heard god speaking to them, were either manipulative liars, or were schizophrenics. The Bible requires blind, unquestioning faith, with adherents willing to be manipulated, the wool pulled over their eyes, and submitting themselves to mind control practices, including severe fanatical punishment of infidels.

    Explanation of natural events are obfuscated and distorted by the all encompassing sentence, cutting off any further free inquiry: God did it. Another side effect of blind religious faith, is that common sense escapes the mind of the religionists.

    Science requires curiosity, imagination, an open mind, and scientifically verifiable proof. Heretics are welcomed, if they have a new imaginative or reimagined perspective that can be tested by experiment or observation. True science demands much more intellectual rigor, and to keep scientists from deluding themselves, it has the feed back mechanism of peer review.

    Of course the information inherent in a DNA strand seems complex, and it appears as if it requires a designer or creator, yet in the laboratory, simple nucleic acids have been observed to spontaneously self-assemble. The fact that Science hasn’t fully understood how CHONPS atoms can assemble themselves from nucleic acids to DNA, is because more time is needed to conduct further research.

    Confusing the issue by an over simplistic quote that evolution is merely “survival of the fittest”, is a religionist dated argument to belittle evolution. Evolution is the process in which random mutations in an organism’s DNA, results in either the organism having a survival advantage over its peers (e.g. allowing the organism to run faster), or having no advantage (e.g. organism develops cancer at an older age, giving it plenty of time to reproduce), or having a detrimental result (e.g. organism has a faulty gene or genes and dies before it can reproduce; e.g. cystic fibrosis, congenital cardiac disease).

    The difference between wild animals and human beings or domesticated animals, is that we have developed medical and veterinary sciences, to repair or treat detrimental mutations in ourselves or our domesticated animals.

    Religionists who claim there are no examples in nature where simple nucleic acids have been observed to spontaneously combine into DNA, conveniently forget or ignore the common sense explanation that any simple nucleic (or amino) acids spontaneously arising out of mud, are quickly consumed by the already evolved micro-organisms that proliferate everywhere on Earth.

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