Saturday, 9 February 2008


Things are getting interesting over at Uncommon Descent at the moment. DaveScot is trying out a bit of implicit racism, by pointing out that Barack Obama's middle name is Hussein. Whilst this is going on another poster there, who goes by the moniker "" has decided to practice his quote-mining.

He found this paper in Nature:
Georgy Koentges (2008). Evolution of anatomy and gene control. Nature 451, 658-663. doi:10.1038/451658a

and decided to "blog" about it. This consisted of excerpting a few quotes, without any commentary or indication where he had cut the text. In all he took about 20% of the full article so it looks like he's breaching copyright, the naughty boy. This might be excusable if he's accurately representing the article. Well, let's take a look and see (you can guess the result, can't you?). (or 'Noel' as I'll call him) starts off badly. This is the first quote:

Since Darwin we know that we must explain organisms not only in mechanistic terms (of mutation, selection and adaptation on the population level) but also in historical terms, as ‘descent with modification’, evolution in phylogeny. Because phylogeny is the outcome of developmental processes in populations, all heritable morphological changes derive from developmental changes in molecular control hierarchies and networks.

The start is from the third paragraph of the paper:
Since Darwin we know that we must explain the elephant not only in mechanistic terms (of mutation, selection and adaptation on the population level) but also in historical terms, as 'descent with modification', evolution in phylogeny. Molecular changes hundreds of millions of years ago constrain the possibility of change here and now. Not everything is possible, and evolutionary history is as much a story of constraint as functionality. Leonardo's 'flying machines' didn't just fail because bodies of a human size and weight fall under physical scaling laws limiting how big muscles could become. The evolutionary history that led to our present body size also stops us acquiring wings, either now or any time soon.

OK, so he's changes "the elephant" into "organisms", which is forgivable as "the elephant" only makes sense with the first two paragraphs. But where is the "Because..." sentence? Oh, the middle of the next paragraph.

So it goes on.. Noel picks out sentences and makes small changes as he sees fit. We can see his intentions when, for example, he takes this sentence:
This idea has been refined over the years in cogent discussions of 'evolvability', but there are few specific examples in metazoans where we can assign major structural changes to specific gene-regulatory causes.

and changes it into this:
There are few specific examples in metazoans where we can assign major structural changes to specific gene-regulatory causes.

Hey, let's leave out the positive work that's been done, and leave the negative in. Another nice example. Noel writes:
Recent studies on vertebrates suggest that only a fraction of ‘ultra-conserved’ CRMs are active and absolutely required for the animal to survive. Some CRMs might modulate the activities of others, so their effects might not be apparent.

Oh noes!! We poor biologists are clueless about how ‘ultra-conserved’ CRMs are conserved. But in the original the first sentence is followed by
As CRMs were assayed at only a few embryonic time points, the absence of regulatory information cannot be construed as a lack of function. It is not clear when, and in which cell types, organ-system specific CRMs are expected to be active, so inferences from such studies should be treated with great caution.

The sentence Noel leaves us with is further down the paragraph, in a discussion of the effects of deleting CRMs - it's explaining why we might not see a big effect if we do simple knock-out experiments. (Ha! It implies that development is not be irreducibly complex, so I can see why he might want to leave that out).

I could give more other examples, but I think the point is clear. Noel has picked out the comments about how we are uncertain, whilst ignoring all the parts which explain what has been done, or pointing to areas of future research. The whole article is actually positive, in that it's showing the sorts of things that could be done in the near future, with as the new technology and levels of inquiry they allow become applied to evo-devo. But UDites only get a partially copied, mis-represented version of the paper, which might interest Nature's Lawyers as well.

Ah well, it could be worse for Noel. He might have used the "Blogging About Peer-Reviewed Research" icon.

EDIT: 1. Added Mister DNA's spiffy graphic, 2. The original post has been on a heavy diet: it's only a third the size it was, and makes even less sense. Some of the quotes highlighted above have disappeared. So now this post makes even less sense.


Rich Hughes said...

He's on very bad tard. Good checking, Bob. They're so dishonest, I guess we must check everything.

Mister DNA said...

You're gonna be in for it when The Banninator finds out your name is an anagram for Arab Hobo.

Panic Attacks said...

There are many of those who tweak the data in frustration. Data gathering is not easy and oftentimes, it may fail to back up the desired results. It is commonly done, though it should not be the case. Just my two cents.

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