Survival of the Silliest

Larry Moran has had a couple of articles up lately on Dr Sharon Moalem, a fellow who has a book out called Survival of the Sickest, and who also has a blog. Larry noticed a couple of things: he’s writing utter tripe about junk DNA, he’s editing and deleting comments about his science from his blog, and he’s been misleading about his credentials — although, to be fair, Moalem does plainly and accurately list his background on the endflaps of the book (some of this has come from a student blog that has been dissecting his dubious claims).

And then I noticed…I actually have Moalem’s book! I get sent a lot of books to review, and this one was about midway through the pile, so I hadn’t read it yet…but of course now I had to pull it out and skim through it. It’s very strange — lots of good and intrinsically interesting facts are tossed about, and then Moalem takes it all and puts a Panglossian spin on it all. Did you know that “bacteria, viruses and humans live together in happy, healthy coexistence”? And that the idea that junk DNA is junk is “bunk”?

There’s a lot here that would set Larry off. Moalem doesn’t like the idea that mutations are random — he thinks it “takes the evolution out of evolution.” After all, he argues,

…what would be a more helpful mutation than one that allowed the genome to react to environmental changes and pass on helpful adaptations to successive generations? Surely, evolution would favor a mutation that helped an organism to discover adaptations that would help it survive. Saying otherwise is like saying the only part of life not subject to evolutionary pressure is evolution itself.

I see faint echoes of serious discussions of the evolution of evolvability here, but so distorted and so nonsensical that I have my doubts that Moalem has read any of it. For instance, he next disparages the “only-random-changes theory”, claiming that the human genome project has shown it to be weak … the reason? Because genes are pleiotropic. That’s because the human genome only has 25,000 genes, and therefore there is this huge amount of shuffling of proteins going on to generate greater protein diversity. None of this makes any sense. Pleiotropy wasn’t a discovery of the HGP, exon shuffling does not negate the random origin of mutations, pleiotropy is not dependent on protein variability, and he’s grossly overstating the resultant complexity. And then he makes this silly remark:

You can see how these discoveries make it even harder to imagine how evolution relied only on random little changes in the code of individual genes to find the myriad adaptations that have allowed every living thing on earth to survive. If removing whole genes often has no effect on a creature, how could such minor changes be the only chance for evolution of a new species, or even the successful adaptation of an existing one?

They probably can’t.

Then he launches into a painfully muddled mess of an explanation of Lamarck and inheritance of acquired characters and transposons (somehow, retroviruses validate Lamarck), argues that “jumping genes” spurred our evolution and that junk DNA provided the code for our evolution “up and away from our furry cousins” (and, I have to assume, for onions to evolve up and away from more lowly root vegetables).

Later in the book he also discusses the aquatic ape hypothesis favorably — it sounds “an awful lot like common sense” to him. That’s sort of the whole book in a nutshell: he’s not very discriminating or knowledgeable, and any old weird bit of guesswork that appeals to his design-detecting sensibilities and his bias that everything in the world is cooperating to produce humanity, the pinnacle of evolution, gets blithely accepted. It’s simply not a very good book, but it is chatty and makes wonderfully irrational leaps all over the place, so unmoored minds with a predilection for using pseudoscience to bolster their self-esteem will enjoy it.

I’m just glad I can chuck it out of my to-do pile.


  1. says

    The “Excerpts from feedback” page on is quite amusing. My favourite is “I’ll bet you have water piped into your house.” I doubt that phrase has ever been used as an insult before. Or as an argument for a scientific theory.

  2. says

    Nothing like keeping that mind open PZ.

    That’s your solution when confronted wth troubling ideas…
    just “chuck it out” (or delete it :-)

    Posted by: gypsybiker | December 17, 2007 12:19 PM

    You’re so right. Why dismiss flawed ideas when you have examined them? Why, I myself keep pondering everything I ever hear. Someone once told me that trolls live in the forest. This was a very troubling idea to me at the time, because I lived right across the street from a forest. And to this day I keep engaging with this idea, even though it is very, very troubling. I wouldn’t want to be accused of having a closed mind.

  3. Interrobang says

    It sounds as though he’s also another one of these people who has a hard time with the specific definition of the word “random.” (Correct me if I’m wrong, but the scientific definition of “random” seems to be something along the lines of “unpredictable within the constraints of the system in question,” whereas the vernacular meaning of random is more like “completely unpredictable.”) I really don’t get how so many people can completely miss the concept that sometimes specialised fields use words in ways where the meanings differ from the vernacular meaning(s); I blame deliberate obtuseness in Moalem’s case.

    Just because I don’t know much about it, how does the AAT propose to explain our large, downward-facing nostrils that can’t be pinched shut using our facial muscles, and our collective propensity (*kaff*) for aspirant pneumonia?

  4. says

    Since when did keeping an open mind become synonymous with “uncritically accepting any old tripe”?

    I once re-defined keeping an open mind to mean “not being afraid to reject an idea if there is no evidence to support it, no matter how much one wishes it were true.”

    I like that better. And it pisses off New Agers to no end.

    Sadly, as a result of being my definition of open minded, I’ve had to give up trying to move objects in my room using the Force.

  5. says

    Thanks, PZ. As a fellow SB’er, I have a review copy of the book too.I had only managed to read the introduction and part of the first chapter a while back, until a much superior book (Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal caught my attention. I’m glad now that I didn’t soldier on into “Dr. Sharon’s” book, although I may still do so; it’s just gone way down on my list of priorities.

    In any case, when someone labels himself as a “mavericK’ in the very title of a book, it always sets my skeptical antennae twitching. It tells me that there’s a high likelihood that there’s going to be some crankery there.

  6. Zib says

    Off-topic, and apologies if this is old news.

    Over at the Richard Dawkins site, there is a two-hour video of Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens sitting around a table and gassing about religion and atheism.

    The video, called “The Four Horsemen”, is linked from the front page of

    Probably of interest to many of the readers here.

  7. says

    OK, I’m calling bullshit on this guy being a medical student or as being remotely intelligent. He carefully avoids stating that he is a medical student and that he is ‘completing his medical training’ at MSSM. I don’t think I’m alone in stating that many, many scientists will discuss how they ‘trained’ with Dr.X at the ABC institute studying Z. I highly doubt that this guy is a medical student. I’m thinking postdoc, staff scientist or tech.

    We have a collaborator at MSSM, and I went to the MSSM directory and typed in the PI’s name, his graduate student, and a clinical fellow. They all came back with email addresses and phone numbers. I typed in ‘Moalem’ and got Sharon and Karen (no, I’m not kidding) with no phone numbers or emails. Suspect. Highly suspect.

    This New York Times article lays out that this guy doesn’t seem to be making any sense and that he has some detractors. Plus, his publication is in ‘Medical Hypotheses’?!?! WTF?!?! Is that even a peer reviewed journal?

  8. Sergiy Grynko says

    Moalem is not a creationist, PZ. You don’t have to be so hard on him.

    And on the topic of AAT … this is the second time I see you ripping into it, but you never give specific reasons why. What’s so bad about it? From a layman’s perspective, the savannah version seems just as bad.

  9. Michael LoPrete says


    To respond with an analogy: I have higher standards for my friends than my enemies.

  10. Librarychic says

    Delurking only because I’m a science librarian, and just looked up Medical Hypotheses in Ulrich’s Periodical Directory to see if it’s a peer-reviewed source. Apparently, it is. Here’s the record:

    ISSN: 0306-9877
    Title: Medical Hypotheses
    Publishing Body: Churchill Livingstone
    Country: United Kingdom
    Status: Active
    Start Year: 1975
    Frequency: 12 times a year
    Document Type: Journal; Academic/Scholarly
    Refereed: Yes
    Abstracted/Indexed: Yes
    Media: Print
    Alternate Edition ISSN: 1532-2777
    Language: Text in English
    Price: EUR 1,962 subscription per year in Europe to institutions
    JPY 212,000 subscription per year in Japan to institutions
    USD 1,745 subscription per year elsewhere to institutions
    (effective 2008)
    Dewey #: 610
    LC#: R5
    Circulation: 300 unspecified
    Special Features: Includes Advertising, Book Reviews
    Editor(s): Bruce G Charlton
    Publisher(s): Gillian Griffith
    Description: Provides a forum for the presentation and criticism of ideas in medicine and the related biomedical sciences.

    I have to say I’ve never heard of it before, though.

  11. says

    Uh oh. Gypsybiker apparently thinks he’s Charlie Wagner. I was about to wonder who Charlie Wagner thinks he is until I read the linked thread and realised he doesn’t think at all.

  12. Bill Dauphin says

    Why are there 212,000 subscriptions in Japan???

    I think those were subscription prices, not circulation numbers: That is, subscriptions cost 1,962 euros, 1,745 U.S. dollars, or 212,000 yen per year.

  13. Stevie_C says

    Ah, that makes sense.

    Why don’t the japanese change the currency, or the way it’s counted? Just a thought.

  14. Azkyroth says

    And on the topic of AAT … this is the second time I see you ripping into it, but you never give specific reasons why. What’s so bad about it? From a layman’s perspective, the savannah version seems just as bad.

    I’m not by any means a biologist, but the main issues with the AAT are, as I understand it, a number of physiological characteristics of humans that are very difficult to reconcile with the hypothesis of aquatic adaptation (Interrobang noted a few of them, to which I would add lack of webbing between fingers or toes and, I believe, a less flexible spine than all other known aquatic mammals except perhaps the hippopotamus) and the fact that there’s really no evidence in favor of it other than decreased hair covering and selective interpretation of the mammalian diving reflex.

    I await PZ’s elaboration.

  15. Gregory Kusnick says

    At first blush, this guy’s theory sounds suspiciously like Greg Bear’s SF novel Darwin’s Radio, in which junk DNA turns out to be a sophisicated quantum computer for sensing environmental changes and calculating directed (i.e. non-random) mutations to apply to the rest of the genome.

    For my money, a much better SF treatment of a similar idea is Greg Egan’s Teranesia, in which a mutant DNA-proofreading protein acquires the ability to look across the many worlds of quantum theory, find the genes that are most successful (i.e. most numerous) in alternate worlds, and import them into the genome being repaired, with disastrous ecological results.

  16. says

    I also got “Survival of the Sickest” awhile back, started it, and chucked it in frustration. There are a lot of better books out there on the intersection of evolution and disease, and while Moalem touches on a lot of the areas under investigation, he doesn’t appear to have a good grasp of any of it. And he’s certainly not a “maverick” for putting forth the idea that much disease has an evolutionary basis.

  17. says

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but the scientific definition of “random” seems to be something along the lines of “unpredictable within the constraints of the system in question,” whereas the vernacular meaning of random is more like “completely unpredictable.”

    I’m pretty sure that the scientific definition, definitely the mathematical definition, of random is that every possible outcome has an equal chance of occurring. Whereas the common vernacular means more like “I can’t predict it,” more than completely unpredictable, because people use it in cases such as “pick a random number,” and it is obviously not completely unpredictable what number they will pick because *they* know. It is often used as a synonym for arbitrary, as well.

  18. J Daley says

    His smarminess aside, is there anything to his contention that heritable diseases like hemachromatosis or diabetes had adaptive advantages at some point in our evolutionary history?

    …I read his book this past summer and thought the idea compelling. I also thought he meant he was a medical doctor. (I mean, I never read anything by Dr Richard Dawkins or Dr Ernst Mayr, you know? The nice picture of him on the flap in a white lab coat certainly helped, too.)

  19. Dennis says

    I think you are right about this guys take. He has taken a wierd view about disease and evolution. However, I accept that evolution also responds to threats including diseases. So much for my uneducated view. I do take exception to Larry Moran and your views about “junk DNA” This is just semantics but It should have been called something else. I picture a scenario where a grad student in a lab somewhere coined the phrase, and the lead investigator let it ride, probably with some reservations. It became the excepted standard semantic, it has a cool factor. This is truly an example of someones garbage is someone else’s treasure. The word JUNK is a problem. It’s (junk DNA) there for a reason maybe not well understood but something caused it, and that cause will be divined someday, and it will be an important discovery for some future prize winner.

  20. QrazyQat says

    And on the topic of AAT … this is the second time I see you ripping into it, but you never give specific reasons why. What’s so bad about it? From a layman’s perspective, the savannah version seems just as bad.

    I think PZ is letting my site do the talking on that subject. Check it out for what’s so bad about it. For one thing, there is no “savanna version” in anything like the sense that there is an AAT. That is, the AAT attempts to show how the supreme environmental generalist among mammals got that way through adapting to one specific, and radical, environment. Other ideas on humans evolution do not; they try to show how hominids adapted via social interaction and food-getting techniques etc., to a wide variety of environments (including savannas of course, and also keep in mind that the AAT uses a strawman version of savanna as a waterless, treeless plain).

    I found it unsurprising that Moalem’s book endorses the AAT; the method is the same (“lots of good and intrinsically interesting facts are tossed about”). What you find is that a great many of these “facts” are, like those in the AAT, not factual (which always kinda destroys the enjoyment of a fact for me). And, like the Darwin quote I open my site with says, these false facts endure long and really gum up science, as they have to be answered time and time again.

    OK, I’m calling bullshit on this guy being a medical student or as being remotely intelligent.

    The last maybe. The first? I don’t know. One of the big promoters of the AAT for the past decade has been a doctor (who is a real doctor as far as I know, although he seems ignorant of several basic physiological facts about humans, so I’d avoid making an appointment with him). He also writes in Medical Hypotheses, the editor of which is an AAT fan, and the journal itself is a pay for publish non-peer reviewed journal. I suspect you’ll next find Moalem writing in Nutrition and Health, which has become a new hotbed of AAT articles (because where else would you find terrific, accurate work on human evolution?).

  21. Sergiy Grynko says


    Are you referring to Because I just checked it out, and didn’t like it one little bit. Sorry. If your chapter titled “What is the AAH” has a quick, one-paragraph definition at the start, and then spends several paragraphs talking about how the proponents of the theory are such bad people, I’m just not going to find you credible.

    I’m not saying there is anything so utterly wrong about ad hominems. I mean, I love to read this blog, which is pretty much dedicated to relentless attacks on people who are asking for it.

    But the AAH-vs.-whatever-the-alternatives-are debate is not the creationism-vs.-evolution or the faith-vs.-reason debates.

    Having said that, my interest is still stoked, so if anybody can refer me to a better resource on the problems with AAH, I’d appreciate if you share.

    Thanks in advance, and sorry for alienating those that got alienated.

  22. Azkyroth says

    Are you referring to Because I just checked it out, and didn’t like it one little bit. Sorry. If your chapter titled “What is the AAH” has a quick, one-paragraph definition at the start, and then spends several paragraphs talking about how the proponents of the theory are such bad people, I’m just not going to find you credible.

    I’m six paragraphs into it and have yet to find an Ad Hominem.

  23. Darby says

    The idea that gene-based diseases spread up a gene pool due to adaptive advantage is very compelling – type 2 diabetes might be a late disadvantage from an early advantage, and there’s the classic sickle cell example – but there are other possible mechanisms that could be at work, too.

  24. Azkyroth says


    You seem to be one of the many unfortunate people who are under the mistaken impression that the term “Ad Hominem” refers to any unflattering statement or criticism of a person’s actions or character. It does not. QrazyQat is not arguing that the AAT is wrong because its opponents engage in questionable research and sourcing practices and are therefore bad people; rather, he is citing said questionable research and sourcing practices in support of the contention that the evidential support of the AAT is poor (the fact that its opponents have clearly endeavoured to prevent their sources from being checked suggests that they are aware that the actual body of evidence does not support their assertions, whereas it is difficult to imagine a reason for this degree of obscurantism if the data actually do support their claims).

  25. Freddy the Pig says

    I heard via some skeptic source that I no longer remember (probably the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast) that the Journal of Medical Hypothesis is a pay to publish journal. I do know that they publish pseodo science of the “Aids is a manmaed disease” variety. The peer of an idiot is another idiot, so peer reviewed may not mean much in this case.

  26. QrazyQat says

    You don’t have to look at any skeptic source re Medical Hypotheses’ status; just check their web site:

    Current page charges are: US$135.19 / £81.11 / Euro 120.05 per 1000 words or 50 references. US$27.04 / £16.22 / Euro 24.00 per figure or table. The calculation will be pro rata to reflect the exact number of words or references.

    Authors will be invoiced for page charges following acceptance of a paper by the editors. Papers will be processed for publication as soon as payment is received. Please note that failure or delay in sending payment may significantly retard publication of your paper.

    They do say that Articles are accepted or rejected for publication and published solely on the basis of merit.

    They claim to use a deliberately different approach to peer review; reading further shows this “deliberately different approach” consists of no peer review:

    Medical Hypotheses takes a deliberately different approach to peer review. Most contemporary practice tends to discriminate against radical ideas that conflict with current theory and practice. Medical Hypotheses will publish radical ideas, so long as they are coherent and clearly expressed. Furthermore, traditional peer review can oblige authors to distort their true views to satisfy referees, and so diminish authorial responsibility and accountability. In Medical Hypotheses, the authors’ responsibility for the integrity, precision and accuracy of their work is paramount. The editor sees his role as a ‘chooser’, not a ‘changer’: choosing to publish what are judged to be the best papers from those submitted.

    Sergiy, I don’t think of any of the AAT proponents as bad people, although some do bad things. For instance, I’m sure Elaine Morgan and I would agree on most things political; we’re both union-loving leftists, on opposite sides of the pond. I don’t like her use of falshoods as evidence, her altering quotes and such, and her ignoring other feminists’ work for nearly 4 decades now, especially as those feminists are the people who largely changed paleoanthropology from the nonsense it once spouted to the sensible, accurate work it usually does today. The nutrition-oriented researchers I refer to as the “Omega-3 gang” are folks whose nutritional work and advocacy I endorse; I just think they should do accurate work when they step outside their area of expertise just as I expect any scientist to, and I think they goofed in tying their star to the hole-filled boat that is the AAT. Verhaegen I can’t say anything good about, sadly. He’s among the most egotistical and insulting of netloons, produces little that is original and virtually nothing that is accurate. Kuliukas might have been able to do something useful, but shows little sign of it now, and online tends to follow in Verhaegen’s footsteps re insults etc. Sad, really. Alister Hardy was a fascinating guy, an expert on plankton (and inventor of a key device for measuring it that’s still a key device in the field over three quarters of a century later — would that we all could do as much), but his interests outside his field, the AAT and spiritualism, were incredibly poorly thoughout and researched. I give examples on my site about the AAT; in spiritualism I think his most telling mistake was that he fully accepted Soal’s tests of Basil Shackleton (Soal was spotted altering the data) as genuine, and even considered them perhaps the most convincing evidence of telepathy (which Hardy thought played a significant role in human evolution). So poor work? sure. A bit loony at times? some, absolutely. Bad? only in what they do when they do a bad job of what they attempt.

  27. Peter Ashby says

    There is one good anthropological example which knocks the aquatic ape hypothesis on the head. When the Polynesians first settled New Zealand around the 12th C ACE they spread throughout the length of the country (there is not much breadth) and made merry hunting and eating moas until there were no more left.

    In the warmer North Island this wasn’t a problem as it was warm enough to grow kumara (sweet potato) for a staple. In the South Island they did not have that only fern root which takes an enormous amount of processing. So they turned to kai moana, seafood and their common middens attest to it. An analysis of their skeletons shows that all this constant immersion in cold water dropped their longevity markedly and they begin to show signs of tubercular diseases exacerbated by such things.

    Well adapted for an aquatic lifestyle they were not, yet they were the descendants of what was the world’s largest maritime culture. Austronesian speakers stretch from Madagascar in the West to Easter Island in the East. The only ocean they didn’t sail was the Atlantic, yet they sailed across the wind and well beyond sight of any land to get to New Zealand, Easter Island and Hawai’i long before any Europeans were brave enough to do so. Columbus certainly couldn’t sail across the wind.

    This is detailed in Michael King’s excellent The Penguin History of New Zealand (Penguin being the publishing house, though we do have several penguin species as well).

  28. Graculus says

    What’s so bad about it? From a layman’s perspective, the savannah version seems just as bad.

    At the time that the AAH (that’s “hypothesis”, ’cause it was never a theory) was first bruted in 1960, there were a lot of things that we didn’t understand about not only human evolution but mammalian evolution in general. It was a plausible, if highly speculative, question then. Not today.


    1) It has zero evidence.
    2) It is based strictly on (questionable) morphological characteristics, and some of these claims are incorrect (eg, the dive reflex).
    3) It’s pretty vague. Modern proponents keep making it even vaguer.
    4) We understand a *lot* more about human evolution now, and nothing in what we know even suggests a hypothetical aquatic period.

    Some old hypotheses just refuse to go away, long after they have passed their spoil date.

  29. QrazyQat says

    It was a plausible, if highly speculative, question then.

    Sorry to keep beating this ex-equine, but it never really made any sense, even in the 1960s, even in the most speculative way. It just ran counter to so much evidence known then (and for decades before in some cases), was always supported by false “facts”, and perhaps worst, the major features that started it off, fat and hair, are in humans rather obviously sexually selected rather than due to environment, and really aren’t like those very few aquatic beasts that supposedly shared these features with humans.

  30. Xanthir, FCD says


    I’m pretty sure that the scientific definition, definitely the mathematical definition, of random is that every possible outcome has an equal chance of occurring.

    Close, but not quite. ^^; That’s actually much closer to the layman’s definition of random, as you’re just describing the uniform distribution. This is a popular probability distribution because it describes things like coin flips and dice rolls (at least, when they’re taken one at a time), but it’s *far* from the only one. The normal distribution is much more common in all fields of math and science. Many things are normal all by themselves, and virtually *all* collective phenomena are normal (due to some fundamental mathematical properties of averages).

    The scientific definition of random is simply that a phenomena has some non-deterministic aspect. That is, it can’t be absolutely predicted from prior states and specific rules about how it changes.

  31. says

    For those who can at least consider the aquatic hypothesis and who find Moalem hard to take on the fetal-brain/female-pelvis issue, might I suggest my book The Passionate Ape? It depends on the AAT as the event that separated us from other apes, but gives it somewhat limited scope. I am not interested primarily in aquatic adaptation.

    In water we copulated face to face as do other aquatics, which caused vaginal rotation, failure of G-spot stimulation, and loss of reliable female coital orgasm. The aquatic phase set us up for a return to land as an awkward biped lacking a reliable female coital orgasm, and THAT has ripple effects that we have dealt with ever since.

    In other words, women evolved a propensity for obsessive over-rating of sexual partners (i.e. love) as a substitute for orgasms, and aquatic life was the anvil on which that emotional/physical trait was hammered out. Men inherit the trait because it is not sex-determined (and it does serve some function in men) but is necessary (on average) for women. This switch from simple orgasmic reward to an emotional focus is a shift in degree, not a new phenomena. The amount of the shift is enough to create a new evolutionary landscape, one might call it, where both males and females are forced to adapt in ways novel for apes.

    This leads to an evolutionary battle of the sexes, where males and females are selected for traits that (if we were to view them from a distance) we might prefer we had not acquired. Products include brain expansion, child abuse, religion and others.

    In my view, this model gives a much better perspective on the conflict between the fetal brain and the female pelvis than Moalem provides.

    A synopsis is available at I am not a doctor, by the way, merely an enthusiastic amateur.

  32. Wes says

    whether or not anyone likes it, moalem has benefited science just due to the fact that we are discussing these issues here. If his hypotheses are wrong, we should go design experiments and prove them as so. He has published his research into hemochromatosis, a review of his methods as a starting point for new research would help.