Further to my piece on the Incredible Hulk a little while back, the author of an article I cited there, David Dobbs, has done a follow-up piece, together with comment articles from four scientists. One interesting and sobering thing is his reportage of the responses he had from the biological community and its followers to his original piece:
It soon became apparent that some people are willing to defend the selfish gene idea as if guarding a holy kingdom. The rhetoric was astounding. Coyne averred that ‘if [Dobbs] were an honest man’, I would apologise for my story, ‘but we know that won’t happen!’ His followers accused me of bringing ‘other agendas’; of tabloid-style sensationalism, intentional distortion, and intellectual dishonesty; of being a journalistic buffoon; of being cheap, shoddy, and crass; of writing in the pay of creationists. One commenter said that rather than question him, I should behold Richard Dawkins and cower.
I suppose I can see how people might write such stuff if they’ve spent too much time defending science from attacks from creationists or others hostile to empirical endeavour. But it’s an odd way to respond to ideas submitted in good faith.
My feelings here matter little. What does matter is the effect such attacks have on others looking on, and on open discussions about genetics and evolution at a time when genetics has plentiful reason to regroup and reconsider instead of defend and attack. Such hostility seems designed to quell rather than enrich discussion; to freeze rather than advance understanding; above all, to silence. It worked. While evolutionary researchers who objected to my article rightly felt free to speak up, few scholars who agreed with me felt similarly comfortable. Although many expressed agreement privately, almost no one did so in the open. I can’t blame them; who wants to leap into a bloody shark pool? [my emphasis – compare Prof James Tour’s story]
This savaging is becoming something of a defining characteristic of biological science as she is spoke nowadays, isn’t it? Somebody was asking me today why nothing earth-shattering seems to be happening amongst either lay-people or scientists to reassess evolution. Well maybe it isn’t happening, or maybe it is. But if not, one reason may be that breaking up earth is not that easy in shark pools.