A New Headline for The Guardian

on March 27, 2010
Featured in News to Know

Think evolution has anything to do with Charles Darwin? If so, you’re apparently wrong, if the Guardian’s provocative headline is taken literally.

The headline is idiomatic, of course, but the story nevertheless reminds readers of recent twists in evolutionists’ understandings of how “evolution” works. After a rapid-fire bashing of creationists for two arguments we don’t even use, author Oliver Burkeman (who calls us “deluded or dishonest”) gets down to discussing the details of what’s “wrong” with the popular understanding of evolution.

In short, what’s wrong is the idea that an organism inherits only unmodified genetic information from its parents—at least, unmodified with the exception of mutations. Contesting that view was a study of chickens conducted at the University of Linköping, which Burkeman describes.

The researchers observed that chickens placed in a stressful situation were less capable of navigating a maze for hidden food than their unstressed peers—which is not particularly surprising. What the scientists did not expect came after the chickens were returned to their normal, unstressed environment, where the chickens

conceived and hatched chicks who were raised without stress—and yet these chicks, too, demonstrated unexpectedly poor skills at finding food in a maze. They appeared to have inherited a problem that had been induced in their mothers through the environment. Further research established that the inherited change had altered the chicks’ “gene expression”—the way certain genes are turned “on” or “off,” bestowing any given animal with specific traits.

Burkeman goes on to review other similar studies that indicate that there’s more to “evolution” than genes. Rather, it seems there is an important role for the “epigenome, the protective package of proteins around which genetic material—strands of DNA—is wrapped.” He continues:

The epigenome plays a crucial role in determining which genes actually express themselves in a creature’s traits: in effect, it switches certain genes on or off, or turns them up or down in intensity. It isn’t news that the environment can alter the epigenome; what’s news is that those changes can be inherited.

As Burkeman fairly points out, such findings distort the nature–nurture dichotomy. (The article also covers several other topics that we have omitted here; one we mention in passing is the research of Carl Woese and Nigel Goldenfeld we covered in “Creationists Only Fighting Half the Battle?”)

The creationist conclusion is that such findings aren’t really about evolution, in the Darwinian sense. Darwinian evolution goes beyond the topic of how life-forms change over time (something scientists can observe and experiment on) to positing that all life shares common ancestry. Studies such as the chicken experiment Burkeman reviews say nothing about the plausibility or historicity of Darwinian evolution; they only show that God has programmed even more adaptive ability into organisms than was previously believed.

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