The Created Evolutionist linked me over to an article in December’s Smithsonian Magazine about the important transitional links found between dinosaurs and modern birds. First I’ll give you a sample of the cool information in the article, and then a tiny rant follows:
But there was one important feature that had not been found in dinosaurs, and few experts would feel entirely comfortable asserting that chickadees and triceratops were kin until they had evidence for this missing anatomical link: feathers.
A poor Chinese farmer, Li Yingfang, made one of the greatest fossil finds of all time, in August 1996 in Sihetun village…
Despite the feathers, the skeleton left no doubt that the new species, named Sinosauropteryx, meaning “Chinese lizard wing,” was a dinosaur. It lived around 125 million years ago, based on the dating of radioactive elements in the sediments that encased the fossil. Its integumentary filaments—long, thin structures protruding from its scaly skin—convinced most paleontologists that the animal was the first feathered dinosaur ever unearthed. A dozen dinosaurs with filaments or feathers have since been discovered at that site.
By analyzing specimens from China, paleontologists have filled in gaps in the fossil record and traced the evolutionary relationships among various dinosaurs. The fossils finally have confirmed, to all but a few skeptics, that birds descended from dinosaurs and are the living representatives of a dinosaur lineage called the Maniraptorans.
via Dinosaurs’ Living Descendants.
First off, let me say that such discoveries are certainly exciting. The common descent of dinosaurs and birds makes every bit as much sense as the common descent of monkeys and humans, and it’s fun seeing more pieces fall into place.
I must say, though, that on occasion (and not just in this article) discussion of evolutionary advantages is spoken of in extremely misleading terms. An example from this article, in a discussion on the origin of feathers: “Originally, single filaments may well have been for display.”
No, the filament was not “for” anything: the question they’re really trying to answer is not what certain traits evolved for, but why those particular traits were selected for. Essentially, it’s more properly a question of what advantages those traits afforded their beneficiaries to produce offspring that outlasted those in the population without the traits.
There is hardly any substantial difference between saying “Evolution made this species” and “This feature was for this function.” Scientists don’t mean to imply the thoughtful agent and teleology that such terminology implies. But that’s exactly the popular understanding of evolution, perhaps even for the author of the article: this organism needed to be able to do X, so evolution “provided” Y solution.
This type of sloppy terminology, the shorthand jargon so commonly found in popular science articles, is usually approved or even used by experts. Its popularity is understandable: it’s much easier to say “This feature evolved to fill this need” than to say, “This feature proved advantageous enough at addressing this particular need that it was selected for and spread throughout the population.” But unfortunately, analogizing the complex process in terms of agency/teleology, while convenient, is not an altogether harmless metaphor. It has led to widespread misunderstandings of the basics of the theory among the non-scientist populace, misunderstandings not limited to religious evolution skeptics who sieze upon it to claim that the theory of evolution is scientists’ very own creator god. Any reasonable person hearing scientists speak of features developing (or, especially, “designed”) for particular purposes is likely to draw an inference to some sort of Lamarckian scenario or worse. Misconceptions like these lead to questions about why certain features obtain in a specimen, when in reality their presence may well owe more to not being selected against than any advantage they yield (e.g. certain vestigial features, non-coding DNA, etc.). This language, gone unchecked, results in misunderstandings of the theory that set the stage for honest skepticism and opportunistic grandstanding alike.
Like I said, not a huge rant, but something I wish more science writers and advocates would consider. Am I wrong?