It’s not just creationists!

It’s also MDs who avoid the “E” word. A survey of the literature found an interesting shift in usage:

The results of our survey showed a huge disparity in word use between the evolutionary biology and biomedical research literature. In research reports in journals with primarily evolutionary or genetic content, the word “evolution” was used 65.8% of the time to describe evolutionary processes (range 10%–94%, mode 50%–60%, from a total of 632 phrases referring to evolution). However, in research reports in the biomedical literature, the word “evolution” was used only 2.7% of the time (range 0%–75%, mode 0%–10%, from a total of 292 phrases referring to evolution), a highly significant difference (chi-square, p < 0.001). Indeed, whereas all the articles in the evolutionary genetics journals used the word “evolution,” ten out of 15 of the articles in the biomedical literature failed to do so completely. Instead, 60.0% of the time antimicrobial resistance was described as “emerging,” “spreading,” or “increasing” (range 0%–86%, mode 30%–40%); in contrast, these words were used only 7.5% of the time in the evolutionary literature (range 0%–25%, mode 0%–10%). Other nontechnical words describing the evolutionary process included “develop,” “acquire,” “appear,” “trend,” “become common,” “improve,” and “arise.” Inclusion of technical words relating to evolution (e.g., “selection,” “differential fitness,” “genetic change,” or “adaptation”) did not substantially alter the picture: in evolutionary journals, evolution-related words were used 79.1% of the time that there was an opportunity to use them (range 26%–98%, mode 50%–60%), whereas in biomedical journals they were used only 17.8% of the time (range 0%–92%, mode 0%–10%).

Meanwhile, the woo-woo brigade loves the word, they just mangle the meaning. Check out the Evolutionary Leaders — it’s a rag-tag band of crackpots led by Deepak Chopra who think evolution is a property of universal consciousness, and who plan “to ignite an evolutionary leap to the next level of human consciousness” by praying/meditating/chanting at it. Or consider the cranks who preach the magical powers of DNA.

Medical science has established that we have 2 strands of DNA and 10 strands of ‘junk’ DNA, but they have not understood the purpose of that ‘junk’” DNA. Recent information has revealed its higher purpose; supporting a multidimensional consciousness, our natural state. Realigning, reconnecting and activating our 10 strands of junk DNA (aka the DNA Recoding or RRA Process) is the process by which we attain that state. When we are multidimensional, our physic abilities are reawakened and we have developed a second neural network at the etheric level. This second neural network is what allows us to live in multiple dimensions at once. We can hear, see and communicate with others in these dimensions.

So we have evolutionary biologists who are unafraid to use the word “evolution” properly; medical biologists who know what it is but avoid using the word; creationists who see it happening but don’t understand it and despise the word; and Chopralites who don’t have a clue and embrace the terminology because it makes them sound sciencey. I think that just about covers all the ways you can use or misuse “evolution”.


  1. saganite says

    Well, I dunno. I mean, it’s just the terminology, you know? “Emerging infections”. “Spreading resistances”. “Acquired resistance genes”. I think (or at least hope) it’s understood that these are evolutionary processes, but from a medical standpoint the more interesting and important aspect is the clinical effect, i. e. the lack of therapeutic options. Having read the papers I have, I don’t doubt these trends. Considering the context, I’m just not sure it’s relevant. And this is my view, coming from Germany, a country wherein YEC is a much, much smaller issue and STILL we rarely reference evolution when discussing these topics; simply because our focus is elsewhere, I feel. Maybe that’s too blasé, dunno.

    Anyway, that Chopra bit is just… I have no words for that. That’s not even woo anymore, that’s clearly religious. Inspired by sciencey-sounding bits and pieces, with plenty of jargon thrown in, but that’s so beyond the pale, even compared to most other woo-peddlers.

  2. Igneous Rick says

    If only one of those strands gave them the ability to realize what their nonsense sounds like.

  3. Amphiox says

    10 stranded DNA, huh? Well this I want to see, because it would be pretty strong evidence for the “second genesis”, the hypothetical second independent abiogenesis event on early earth, that astrobiologists have speculated about and hoped to find.

  4. Morgan says

    Oh, I remember this from some YA horror books. Activating those extra strands doesn’t restore you to a natural state, though – it makes you a vampire! These fools are meddling with dangerous woo far beyond their ken.

  5. saganite says

    Well, #4 Morgan, in the artistic masterpiece that is the Doom movie, activating an additional chromosome turned marsians into superhumans (supermarsians?) or twisted them into infectious demon-things. Perhaps the woo is not exactly unified on these issues, but it certainly seems that there’s cause for caution here before treading deeper into the woo-waters and unlocking additional genetic code willy-nilly. Considering that, the linked article certainly seems irresponsible. We’ll see people turning into vampires and imps left and right before you know it!

  6. twas brillig (stevem) says

    Deepak, but we ARE multidimensional, 4 dimensions is more than monodimensional. Oh, I see, “multi-” is anything larger than 4, or “too many to count”. *cough*, *cough*

    This guy has been reading too much SF, thinking them pure science. Sounds a lot like references to X-Men comics: just activate those inactive genes to activate those intense super powers, to instantly travel from place to place, to instantly talk with other across interstellar reaches, to lift abjects with mind power alone, etc. etc.

    Recent information has revealed its higher purpose; supporting a multidimensional consciousness, our natural state.

    ORLY ?!? Where was this information published and how recently? Next never, maybe? And this is our “natural state”? Are you implying we’ve been living unnaturally, so far? Does your Junk DNA activator natural goodness have any discount coupons available, or you want cold hard cash?

  7. samgardner says

    Not really sure what to make of the difference in biomedical v. genetic literature, but the fact the public is so poorly educated regarding evolution (and hence believes in the Chopra stuff), is lamentable.

    I don’t really have much of a problem with slightly loose use in fiction, though. They do need to speculate. Though, from a psych perspective, I couldn’t stand the movie “Lucy” and their whole “use 100% of the brain” trope. So maybe if I knew evolution in more depth I would be more bothered by loose treatments of it.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Yabbut how many times do evolutionary geneticists use the word “quantum”?

    And I – well, on a good day – already exist in four dimensions – how many more do I need to achieve “multi”?

  9. didgeman says

    Interesting post.
    Biomedical research is result-oriented, they rahter do biological engineering. They obviously name the things and processes by meaningful descriptive language and have no time for fuzzy “worldview” language.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Medical science has established that we have 2 strands of DNA and 10 strands of ‘junk’ DNA

    LOL!!! Somebody watched too much Fifth Element! :-D

  11. David Marjanović says

    didgeman, the trick is that everything is the way it is because it got that way*; if you want to understand how something is, you need to understand how it got that way.

    * D’Arcy W. Thompson in his 1917 book On Growth and Form; it’s about development and evolution.

  12. briquet says

    I’ve been hanging around the infectious disease area most of my career, and yes, we definitely say things like “develop resistance” and “acquire resistance” instead of “evolve.” Never thought about it before.

    Maybe it’s because we tend to apply the word “evolution” on a species level, and often when talking about resistance we’re talking a change in a relatively small population (like an individual patient.)

  13. consciousness razor says

    And I – well, on a good day – already exist in four dimensions – how many more do I need to achieve “multi”?


  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    briquet @ # 13: … often when talking about resistance we’re talking a change in a relatively small population (like an individual patient.)

    Should we then call that “nanoevolution”?

  15. Amphiox says

    Biomedical researches use the language they use because those are the terms they were taught to use and their peers expect them to use and understand the usage thereof. A lot of people doing biomedical research do not have much training in evolutionary science, and it is only relatively recently that the importance of evolutionary theory in the field has been openly recognized (though they’d basically been doing that all along.)

  16. says

    I think this is a tendentious interpretation. Biomedical literature on anti-microbial resistance isn’t fundamentally about studying the process of evolution. That’s taken for granted. Most of it is just empirical and descriptive — we found MRSA here, we correlated the presence of resistant organisms with some observed factor, we did an intervention and we found fewer resistant organisms, etc. There’s no particular reason to say the word “evolution” in that context, everybody knows that’s the mechanism. There certainly isn’t any incentive to avoid using the word evolution in medical journals, it just isn’t the point. I don’t think it would ever occur to somebody publishing in a medical journal to go out of their way to avoid referring explicitly to evolution. Nobody is censoring them or objecting. I think this is a nothingburger.

    As for the 10-stranded DNA, that’s another matter.

  17. parasiteboy says

    I have to agree with several other commenters that this is much to do about nothing. I live and work in the overlapping areas of ecology, diseases and to a lesser extent evolution and I would use all of those words interchangeably.

    For example I would use develop for a vertical (generation to generation) evolution of antimicrobial resistance. Whereas I would use acquired for a horizontal (within a generation) evolution of antimicrobial resistance from the transfer of a plasmid that confers antimicrobial resistance. I can’t say if others would use these terms this way, but I do.

    I think the real story would be if the researchers did not equate these terms with the various processes of evolution. That would certainly be a problem.

  18. parasiteboy says

    David Marjanović@12
    I had seen that quote on PZ’s Darwin Day talk flyer and was wondering where it came from. Now I know, thanks.

  19. Rey Fox says

    Thbbbt and double thbbbbt. If awakening those extra DNA strands doesn’t make me a shapeshifter, then I’m not interested.

  20. ginckgo says

    I encountered this reluctance to use “evolution” in a different context. Some years ago when we were redeveloping the evolution/fossil gallery in our museum, we had several instances where labels substituted “developed” for “evolved”. It took a whole meeting to explain that these two words are not at all synonymous (and the person who had changed it was supposed to be our “science communicator”).

  21. psilotum says

    Media outlets definitely pick up on the odd absence of the E-word in medical community discussions of inherently evolution-based topics like antibiotic resistance. Thus we get physicians on TV looking like doofuses (at least to someone with knowledge of biology) when they talk about how bacteria are very “clever” to have “learned” how to defeat antibiotics. It goes deeper than cutesy metaphors and euphemisms, and I wonder if the reluctance to mention evolution doesn’t contribute to popular misunderstanding of important biomedical topics. Even with serious news sources, coverage of antibiotic resistance is almost always confused, with the implied nature of the problem seeming to wobble back and forth between something that germs in some fuzzy way “develop,” to something that happens to patients (like a drinker becoming alcohol tolerant), to some mysterious difficulty with the drugs themselves. This is incredibly frustrating, especially when the reality is pretty clear cut and well understood.

  22. Holms says

    Unless there has been a recent change in the terminology used by medical biologists – they used to use ‘evolution and now they aren’t – surely this is just a reflection of the fact that the medics aren’t looking at e.g. bacterial resistence from an evolutionary point of view but rather a treatment point of view. Meanwhile, Chopra continues to be a massive idiot.

  23. ragdish says

    I’m not surprised at the low figure of 2.7% of biomedical literature stating evolution. About 63% of physicians accept evolutionary biology which is higher than the national average (

    Why is there a discrepancy? As a physician if I was an attending at a medical school in atheist Sweden there would likely be absolutely no problem if I mentioned the “E” word while teaching students. Unfortunately here in the US we have to accept that many doctors are devoutly religious. Indeed I have met some brilliant residents who can decipher a clinical case and come up with a diagnosis of a bilateral thalamus ischemic stroke due to occlusion of the great artery of Percheron. Those same residents can be ultra-religious and there is a gag order to not “offend” any religious sentiments by mentioning evolution. I personally think there is a similar gag order in medical research. Thoughts?

  24. throwawaygradstudent says


    I’m a current graduate student in a biomedical PhD program (hence the name) in New England and in the courses I’ve been taking we most definitely discuss evolution. It’s generally considered a minor point, but it’s not something controversial for us. In one of our classes we all were required to read a paper on the evolution of a particular protein, nobody had any issues with this. We also passed around a url to a creationism website as something to laugh at (it was a front page Google hit for one of the enzymes we were asked to look up some information on). I have noticed absolutely no doubt regarding evolution and nothing but derision for creationism.

  25. khms says

    I think an interesting question would be if those words used in biomedical literature are being used specifically to describe evolutionary events, or if that is just one use among many. If the former, then the answer is not that they’re avoiding the terms, but that they simply have a different set of terms.

  26. MadHatter says

    I hadn’t really thought of this before, but I’ve been working in biomedicine for a number of years now and we don’t use the term much. We all know the processes are evolutionary, I work in cancer and at a high level we will talk about evolutionary processes, but then we want to find something targetable so we talk about emerging diseases, gene functions, etc. I think it’s just a difference in how we view the work though. Not that we don’t understand evolutionary processes, we’re just dealing with the effects instead. That’s entirely different from MDs who may not understand or accept that these are evolutionary processes though.

  27. Michael Kimmitt says

    This seems consistent with my experience with MDs; they’re much more analogous to car mechanics in both training and inclination than they are to scientists or even engineers.

    Standard disclaimer: #NotAllMDs, and more seriously, there is nothing wrong with being an excellent car mechanic, and finally, of course many docs transcend their training or brought a superior attitude in and never lose it during the hazing. But of all the hard sciences, medical science is probably the most infested with this sort of magical thinking.

  28. ragdish says

    RE: 31

    Magical thinking? Really? I’ve been in the profession since my graduation from med school in 1992. I have yet to encounter anything that remotely approaches supernatural thinking from an honest doc. I suggest looking at Steve Novella’s blog as an example. Yes, there are MDs who would flatly reject evolution but any personal creationist sentiments are left at the office doorstep lest he/she be called out as a quack. There are no healing angels dancing inside infected cells brought on by prayer and any doc that preaches that, please for (un)god’s sake run away–far away!

    Most patients (religious or not) want a scientific explanation and solution to their problems. And most MDs deliver that based on basic science and all lines of clinical evidence (meta-analyses, reviews, clinical trials, etc..) and failure to do that should result in his/her license being revoked. It’s not as exact as physics but certainly far from being magical.

  29. nonotthatla says

    I kept hoping the Chopra would tie into the 10 lost tribes of Israel–an obvious numerological connection, and missed opportunity.