Friday, September 18, 2015

Myth of the 'Missing Link' in evolution does science no favors

This spring, the world learned of a newly discovered missing link between microbes and humans called Lokiarchaeota. The actual story is that the microbe Lokiarchaeota, discovered on the deep sea floor by a hydrothermal vent called Loki’s Castle, shares features with both bacteria and us. The spin is that this makes it a missing link between the two. Microbiologists have been discreetly quiet about this narrative fiction; although the microbe is fascinating, and so deserves the spotlight, it is no more a missing link than the platypus is a missing link between ducks and humans.

This missing link imagery, based on the idea that evolution is a methodical process with logical, continuous connections to be discovered and mapped, might set up a good story. But it’s wrong – and can detrimentally influence our understanding of immediately threatening processes like the rapid evolution of flu.
But we cannot content ourselves with old narratives just because they are comfortable and familiar. Theoretical epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta presents the case that many infectious diseases, including influenza virus, evolve by the reassembly of old parts from disparate sources, not by a continuous evolutionary stroll somewhere new. Rather than a Blind Watchmaker tinkering with last year’s model – Richard Dawkins' famous image of evolution – a Mad Scientist assembles new Frankensteins each year in his laboratory.

Myth of the 'Missing Link' in evolution does science no favors

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