The New Yorker has fact-checkers, they should use them

darwin-as-an-old-man-337-450-17The New Yorker has a piece up, Same but Different: How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture, which I think on the balance is pretty good. It introduces epigenetics to a broader audience in a manner that’s more than just a catch-phrase, and, cautions that people shouldn’t over-hype what is a legitimately interesting field of science.

But there’s a major factual problem which I mentioned when it came out, and, which some friends on Facebook have been griping about. I’ll quote the section where the error is clearest:

…Conceptually, a key element of classical Darwinian evolution is that genes do not retain an organism’s experiences in a permanently heritable manner. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, in the early nineteenth century, had supposed that when an antelope strained its neck to reach a tree its efforts were somehow passed down and its progeny evolved into giraffes. Darwin discredited that model….

It is true that in Neo-Darwinian evolution, the modern synthesis, which crystallized in the second quarter of the 20th century, genes do not retain an organism’s experiences in a permanently heritable manner. But this is not true for Charles Darwin’s theories, which most people would term a “classical Darwinian” evolutionary theory. This is because first, Darwin worked in the pre-genetic era. He did not posit particulate inheritance, and had no genetic model. Second, though it is correct that Charles Darwin’s deemphasized the role of acquired characteristics, he himself was quite open to Lamarckianism in some cases. This openness persisted into the early 20th century, Ernst Mayr started his career as a Lamarckian!

In the least The New Yorker should have had someone with a background in evolutionary biology read the draft. The error is pretty obvious, and easy to fix.

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