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Monday, December 05, 2016

Suzan Mazur doesn't like Carl Zimmer

There weren't many science writers are the Royal Society meeting in London (UK) [New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives]. Carl Zimmer was there and so was Suzan Mazur. Carl was there to learn and do some research. Suzan was there to promote herself as the main publicist of the paradigm shifters.

Carl Zimmer wrote a news article about the meeting for Quanta: Scientists Seek to Update Evolution. The subtitle was "Recent discoveries have led some researchers to argue that the modern evolutionary synthesis needs to be amended." It was a pretty fair article and pretty good reporting on what went on at the meeting. I would have been a bit more harsh about the success of the so-called "paradigm shifters" but Carl did a good job of conveying the skepticism exhibited by many at the meeting. [See Kevin Laland's new view of evolution for my take on these "revolutionaries."]

Zimmer is one of the best science writers on the planet. Suzan Mazur is not. Zimmer was been widely recognized for the quality of his writing. Here's a excerpt from his website.
He has won fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He has won the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Journalism Award three times--twice for his work for The New York Times and once for The Loom. His other honors include the Pan-American Health Organization Award for Excellence in International Health Reporting, the American Institute Biological Sciences Media Award, and the Everett Clark Award for science writing. In 2007 he was awarded the National Academies Science Communication Award for "his diverse and consistently interesting coverage of evolution and unexpected biology." In 2011 he was elected to the board of directors of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. In 2015, the National Association of Biology Teachers awarded Zimmer with their Distinguished Service Award.

At Yale University, Zimmer teaches a course on writing about science and the environment. He was also the first Visiting Scholar at the Science, Health, and Environment Reporting Program at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
Suzan Mazur wrote an article about the meeting for Huffington Post. She didn't say much about the meeting but she did say a lot about Carl Zimmer [Fake News & Royal Society Evo Meeting]. It's pretty obvious she didn't like Zimmer's article. Here's what she said about Carl Zimmer.
Remember Zimmer is a journalist who got his start at Discover magazine in the late 80s, he’s not a scientist who can speak from authority. Yet he throws around “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” in his account of the meeting without acknowledging that there is no agreement by the scientists who are participating in the Templeton EES project on what the word “extended” means.
There's more but you get the gist. Suzan Mazur is the expert on evolution and Carl Zimmer can't speak from authority.


Zimmer wrote an excellent book about evolution back in 2001. If you haven't read it, you should get a copy right now and check it out.

He also wrote an evolutionary biology textbook (!!) in 2009: The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution. He followed this up with another evolution textbook written in collaboration with Doug Emlen. This 2013 book is called: Evolution: Making Sense of Life.

Carl's evolution books, especially the second edition, cover all aspects of evolution including the most up-to-date versions of evolutionary theory. He gets it right and he doesn't miss any of the important features of evolution, including those that were discussed at the Royal Society meeting. Here's an except ... you can judge for yourselves.

Chapter 5 begins our investigation of the molecular mechanisms that allow this long-term evolutionary change to occur. We examine how DNA encodes RNA and proteins, and how mutations and other processes give rise to genetic variation. In Chapter 6, we look at the rise and fall of the frequency of gene variants in populations. Many mutations eventually disappear, while others spread widely. Sometimes these changes are the result of chance, a process called genetic drift; other times they are more predictable. Natural selection also changes the frequency of gene variants. Mutations spread if they cause their bearers to perform well—to thrive and be especially successful at reproducing. Mutations may decrease in frequency or be lost completely if their bearers perform poorly. The effect of a mutation can depend on more than just the mutation itself. It may be influenced by other genes that an organism carries. The environment in which an organism lives can also have a huge effect. As a result, the same mutation to the same gene may be devastating in one individual and harmless in another. Depending on the particular circumstances, natural selection may favor a mutation or drive it to oblivion. Charles Darwin believed that natural selection occurred so slowly that he couldn’t hope to observe it directly. But in Chapter 8, we survey a number of cases in which scientists have documented selection taking place in our own lifetime.
I've read all of Carl Zimmer's book. I've also read all of Suzan Mazur's books. Carl Zimmer speaks with authority when he writes about evolution. Suzan Mazur speaks like a self-promoting journalist.

In her article about Carl Zimmer, Suzan Mazur thought it worthwhile to quote a comment from Sui Huang who wrote, "While I much enjoy his [Zimmer’s] writings (articles in NY Times and National Geographic, and book) I have long considered him a solid, non-imaginative, non-visionary conformist of Darwinism (or Adaptationism) who mostly just regurgitates the concepts of the Modern Synthesis in elegant and pedagogically useful prose - notably when reporting on new findings that fit the Darwinian orthodoxy ....”

That's bullshit. As you can see from his textbook, Carl Zimmer is NOT the person Sui Huang describes and not the person Suzan Mazur wants him to be.

Suzan owes Carl an apology.


SPARC said...

There is only one word for Mazur's article: Bizarre!

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

It's starting to look like Suzan is simply jealoux of Carl. I'm serious. What else could explain the fact that rather than write about the meeting, she writes about another science writer's take on it? What an incoherent mess.

SPARC said...

I guess it's not only Carl. What would you do when you declared a paradigm shift that seemingly even the majority of the participants of this particular meeting would not subscribe to. One must not forget that one of the organizers asked her before to not exploit the meeting to put forward her personal agenda.

Marcoli said...

Carl Zimmer is to be treasured. I thought his review of the Royal Society meeting to be admirably even-handed in its reportage of the "careerists" who were undeservedly scrambling over each other to be the next paradigm shifter. Were I given the task of reviewing the meeting (and that would be laughable), I could not have held my own opinion back nearly so well as I reported on the range of opinions of others at the meeting. But that just means I would be wrong for the job, and Zimmer was right for it.

Unknown said...

Well said.

txpiper said...

"The environment in which an organism lives can also have a huge effect. As a result, the same mutation to the same gene may be devastating in one individual and harmless in another."

Carl didn't continue by saying "For instance....". Actual examples of this supposed principle are not particularly abundant. This the standard attempt to characterize DNA replication failures as happy events.

Lynne said...

@txpiper: Um, what? Examples are as common as dirt.

Like, in humans, the version of the MAOA that is carried, which is only really an issue of a child grows up in an excessively stressful environment.

Seriously, it doesn't take a lot of effort to turn up thousands of descriptions of allele/environment interactions, across a broad range of species.

Faizal Ali said...

One of your creationist buddies, Michael Behe, wrote a whole book about this. He describes how the malaria parasite develops mutations that make it resistant to chloroquine. When a patient is given choloroquine, the parasites with this mutation take over the population. If they are never exposed to chloroquine, the mutations have no effect. Or do you not think Behe knows what he is talking aboit?

Lynne said...

Anyway, isn't this the Mazur who wrote that "Altenburg 16" book? If so, honestly, she owes a lot of biologists an apology, from years back.

Snake said...

I'd never heard of Carl Zimmer until he contacted me to be interviewed for a piece he was writing. I was wary, since there was potential to paint the relevant papers (my older one and two recently published) on either side of a controversy, which wasn't really the case.

We discussed the situation at length on the phone, with him asking intelligent questions. He wrote up the piece accurately reflecting my views, and not a hint of invented conflict while still producing an interesting article. I've since realised I'm not his only fan by a long shot.

If only all science journalists were like Carl.

Pete said...

As a textbook editor, I'd just like to point out that it would be grossly inappropriate to include explanatory examples in the Introduction to a chapter. The Intro is supposed to set the general parameters.

Eric said...

If DNA sequence differences are not responsible for the bulk of phenotypic differences between species, then what is?

Are you not happy for your larger brain, as compared to other apes? What do you think is responsible for that bigger brain if it is not DNA sequence differences?

Eric said...

It is rare that I read secondary science articles and find no fault in any of the reported science. Zimmer is a great writer, especially when it comes to describing scientific concepts in an accessible and accurate fashion.

Anonymous said...

Denis Noble replied to the Quanta article:

Denis Noble says:
November 25, 2016 at 1:05 pm
The description of the discussion of my talk at the RS-BA meeting is seriously incorrect. The central point of my lecture was that organisms harness stochastic mutations in variable locations in their genomes to generate functionality. I gave clear examples of this in the immune system and in bacteria where such targeted functional stochasticity is common. The questioner could not have been listening to my lecture. To quote my abstract "Stochasticity at low levels does not therefore exclude order at higher levels. Organisms enlist stochasticity in their development of functional behaviour"

Denis Noble

Robert Byers said...

I'm sure they are both good writers who have their own views which creep into their writing.
I don't know about Carl Zimmer. it seems he deals with evolution, environment, health issues and from a public presentation stance. WRITING.
A skill in writing is not a skill in weighing issues in difficult subjects.
Anyways at least there was this meeting and its publicity to the public of problems with evolutionism even within evolutionists.
Enough to have a meeting and write it up.
Why not in north america???

Dave Carlson said...

Not by a long shot, indeed!

Eric said...

In other words, Denis Noble says that random mutations are filtered through natural selection to produce function. This leaves us wondering why Dr. Noble thinks so poorly of the Modern Synthesis since this is exactly what the Modern Synthesis has been saying since the 1950's.

christine janis said...

"A skill in writing is not a skill in weighing issues in difficult subjects."

Good thing, then, that Zimmer has both skills. As his articles and books demonstrate.

"Anyways at least there was this meeting and its publicity to the public of problems with evolutionism even within evolutionists."

There's zero problem with "evolutionism" among scientists, inasmuch as they all agree that it has happened. What the disagreement is about is the mechanisms. As in every science.

"Why not in north america???"

Because Denis Noble is a Fellow of the Royal Society in England, and it was his idea.

Jmac said...

What's not to like about Zimmer as long as he writes into the hands of the "90% junk DNA" supporters?
Let's face it: Zimmer is not an idiot! As long as popular media broadcasts his shit, he will continue to write controversy, no matter what he believes.

But, let's just move into the future a few years from now and where the "90% junk DNA" shrinks to 80%. Or Darwin forbid 70%. What is Carl going to do to publish controversial shit if he submits his shit article to NYT?

NYT editors are not stupid. They get paid to smell shit. Here is an example of Carl with NYT editors negotiations:

"Carl, do you realize that creationists are all over the news that the "junk DNA shit" is shrinking? You'd better write something that fits the current state of the madness or you will not be able to feed your family soon.

How realistic is it? I know that Larry and a few of his buddies put their career on line just to prove their believes that junk DNA is 90% and no more. Great!
Too bad they didn't put their comfortable livelihood on line for this shitty prediction. That would be a punchline for the thread.

Faizal Ali said...

You need to learn how science works, Don Quixote, Scientists don't get excommunicated for being wrong. It happens all the time. You'll notice, for instance, the Michael Behe still has a job despite spending his career being wrong.

Anyway, on the junk DNA front, it appears unlikely those who say the genome is mostly junk will be the ones eating crow.

Aceofspades said...

I can't heap enough praise on Carl Zimmer!

Eric said...

It isn't a belief that 90% of the human genome is accumulating mutations at a rate consistent with genetic drift. It is a very strong conclusion drawn from lots of evidence.

What we are waiting for is an explanation of how a stretch of DNA can keeps its function no matter how many bases you change within it. Until such an explanation is produced, the proper conclusion is that about 90% of the human genome is junk.

nmanning said...

Isn't Huang that guy that shows up here now and then and rants and raves about how evolution is all wrong?

W. Benson said...

It is also what Ronald A. Fisher was saying in the late 1920s and, for that matter, not too different from what C. Darwin was writing in 1859.

daedalus2u said...

DNA methylation differences. AKA epigenetic programming. Most of which occurs in utero during differentiation.

"Brain size" is too important to be set by the genome. "Brain size" has to be set by the environment. Brain size is determined by the interaction of the genome with the environment in utero (and later).

If the skull is small, the brain will grow to fill it, and then stop growing (usually).

Sometimes that process "goes bad" and you get anencephaly. Probably not "genetic", but “bad luck” during proliferation, migration and differentiation during development. A variety of environmental effects can cause this, there is mention of folic acid; Zika virus infection can "cause" it too.

If the brain stops growing when it reaches the skull, there must be physiological control pathways that turn the “signal” of “reaching the skull” into signals that stop neuronal proliferation. What are those “signals”? Probably some diffusible small molecules. There is a lot of cross-talk between NO, superoxide, H2O2, and ROS which happen to be mitogens. Controlling proliferation requires controlling the cell cycle, which is done with mitogens. Folate regulates DNA methylation too. Inflammation (from infection) modifies ROS levels.

JVKohl said...

Single nucleotide change responsible for allowing H7N9 flu to jump from birds to humans found

Zimmer's failure to link virus-driven energy theft to all pathology after nutrient energy-dependent changes in supercoiled DNA were linked to healthy longevity via the physiology of reproduction will link the failure of physicists and chemists to the death of us all.