04 March 2007

Do biomedical researchers believe in evolution?

Is this article, we saw it first on Slashdot, another good story missed by the pack? It refers to an essay, effectively an opinion piece, on PLoS Biology Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word.

With the usual overkill list of authors that makes it hard to give due credit, the introduction to the essay says:

The increase in resistance of human pathogens to antimicrobial agents is one of the best-documented examples of evolution in action at the present time, and because it has direct life-and-death consequences, it provides the strongest rationale for teaching evolutionary biology as a rigorous science in high school biology curricula, universities, and medical schools. In spite of the importance of antimicrobial resistance, we show that the actual word “evolution” is rarely used in the papers describing this research. Instead, antimicrobial resistance is said to “emerge,” “arise,” or “spread” rather than “evolve.” Moreover, we show that the failure to use the word “evolution” by the scientific community may have a direct impact on the public perception of the importance of evolutionary biology in our everyday lives.

The authors looked at papers published in recent years on antimicrobial resistance. They then ruled out any that didn't really deal with the evolutionary aspects of the topic. Next they looked at where the authors reported their work, in journals given over to evolutionary biology or biomedical research.

Guess what, "in journals with primarily evolutionary or genetic content, the word 'evolution' was used 65.8% of the time to describe evolutionary processes" but "in the biomedical literature, the word 'evolution' was used only 2.7% of the time".

The bottom line, the essay says, is that "evolutionary terminology, biomedical researchers could greatly help convey to the layperson that evolution is not a topic to be innocuously relegated to the armchair confines of political or religious debate. Like gravity, evolution is an everyday process that directly impacts our health and well-being, and promoting rather than obscuring this fact should be an essential activity of all researchers."

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