Facepalming article suggests Darwin may fall via epigenetic findings

One Australian reporter (so far) gets the headline and story WRONG WRONG WRONG.

Darwin’s theory of evolution challenged by University of Adelaide genetic memory research, published in journal Science.

Adelaide research showing that sperm and eggs appear to carry genetic memories of events well before conception, may force a rethink of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, scientists say.

It also suggests the bad habits developed through a parent’s lifetime could be passed on genetically to their children.

It paves the way for a review of the work of French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, whose theory that an organism can pass to its offspring characteristics acquired during its lifetime was largely ignored after Darwin’s publication of On The Origin of Species in the mid-1800s, that work defining evolution as a process of incidental, random mutation between generations.

Robinson Institute director Professor Sarah Robertson warned that children born of parents with unhealthy habits may already be programmed to adopt them.

“The genes are the blueprint and that won’t change,” Prof Robertson said. “But this is at another level, it is the decoration of the gene, the icing on the cake if you like, a gift to offspring that gives them another layer of information about survival.”

This article is off the mark because the reporter didn’t get it.  I’d say it was just a headline gaff but the piece itself is ignorant. Here is the actual abstract of the paper:

At fertilization, the gametes endow the embryo with a genomic blueprint, the integrity of which is affected by the age and environmental exposures of both parents. Recent studies reveal that parental history and experiences also exert effects through epigenomic information not contained in the DNA sequence, including variations in sperm and oocyte cytosine methylation and chromatin patterning, noncoding RNAs, and mitochondria. Transgenerational epigenetic effects interact with conditions at conception to program the developmental trajectory of the embryo and fetus, ultimately affecting the lifetime health of the child. These insights compel us to revise generally held notions to accommodate the prospect that biological parenting commences well before birth, even prior to conception.

Nothing about a challenge to Darwin’s natural selection that WE KNOW is how life evolved and is still evolving. This is epigenetics, and it’s nothing new. It also is not the same as Lamarckism. Lamarck and Darwin developed their ideas about inheritance of characteristics from parent to offspring before DNA was discovered. There was no physical mechanism known until DNA was discovered.

Lamarck believed that if an organism changed during life in order to adapt to its environment, those changes are passed on to its offspring. The inheritance was based on what the animals want or need and were INHERITED. This is NOT what is happening with epigenetics. A giraffe offspring does not have a longer neck because its parent stretched to reach higher leaves of the tree. Evolution is not a directed process but it is limited with what materials there is to work with. Not revolutionary. We knew this already. Evolution is not a random crap-shoot, you can only work within the limits you are given. Epigenetics is the study of how genes may turn on and off and produce traits. Some genes may be there and not expressed or expressed at different times. Epigenetic can be used to describe anything other than DNA sequence that influences the development of an organism.

In the past few years, as epigenetics knowledge developed, some scientists called these epigenetic effects “Lamarckian”. This is a disputed area.

From Real Clear Science:

It is true that environmental factors can influence epigenetic tags in children and developing fetuses in utero. What is far less clear, however, is whether or not these modifications truly are passed on to multiple generations. Even if we assume that epigenetic tags can be transmitted to children or even grandchildren, it is very unlikely that they are passed on to great-grandchildren and subsequent generations. The mammalian epigenetic “reprogramming” mechanisms are simply too robust.

Therefore, be very skeptical of studies which claim to have detected health effects due to epigenetic inheritance. The hype may soon fade, and the concept of Lamarckian evolution may once again return to the grave.

The Science Web is a bit more silly about the conflation of epigenetics and Lamarckism: Failure to understand epigenetics shows Lamarckian inheritance | The Science Web.

“Basically, what we’ve found is that once a researcher acquires the mistaken opinion that epigenetics is Lamarckian in nature, then all of that researcher’s offspring will also have that opinion” said Prof D Unce, lead author of the study. “What this means is that the idea, the opinion itself, is an acquired characteristic that is passed on to offspring. If that ain’t Lamarkian I don’t know what is!”

The bottom line is that Evolution is not equivalent to Darwin. We have grown in understanding how offspring inherit traits and develop. Epigenetics does not vindicate Lamarck’s theory. His ideas were tested and DID NOT work the way he proposed. Epigenetics is something that resembles the original gist of Lamarck, but it’s too different, does not say the same thing, and should not be shoehorned into an old idea just to call it “neo-Lamarckism”.

Another clue that this article is not going to shake evolution to its core, is that, as of this writing, it’s not appearing in pieces by any other science reporters. Such a story indicated by the headlines should get worldwide attention. It’s not. That’s a quick and easy indication that something is off the mark – big news travels fast. However, want to make a bet that misinformation lifted off this piece will appear in other places? I’d almost guarantee it. That’s the way wrong-headed news evolves as some people WANT it to be true.

More good background info on the general dispute:

“Epigenetic-mongers of the “Lamarckian” stripe…” via More puffery about epigenetics, and my usual role as go-to curmudgeon « Why Evolution Is True.


One often hears the suggestion that the neo-Darwinian view of evolution is on the skids, and that that view will be completely changed—if not overturned—by new biological ideas like modularity, genetic assimilation, evolvability, and epigenetics.  Epigenetics in particular (I’ll define it in a moment) has been especially touted as a concept that will revolutionize evolutionary biology.

via Is “epigenetics” a revolution in evolution? « Why Evolution Is True.

Neurologica Blog (which I missed because I’ve been away from the Internet for 2 days, had a very similar reaction, saying the reporter should be fired..

  6 comments for “Facepalming article suggests Darwin may fall via epigenetic findings

  1. Paul Robinson
    August 17, 2014 at 2:59 PM

    As they say in French “Et mon cul est poulet?”What a load of spherical objects. Course the French references and using my surname in vain even more annoying. Do you ever wish your browsing and search bots don’t turn up rubbish like this to drive you nuts? Ta for more eruditely dissecting this crap far better than me Mademoiselle.

  2. terry the censor
    August 17, 2014 at 3:13 PM

    How can a medical reporter (as it says right in the byline) not know the difference between genotype and phenotype?

  3. eddi
    August 18, 2014 at 12:29 AM

    A medical reporter is not required to know anything about medicine or even science. He is just the guy who has to handle the stringer’s notes labeled “medical”.

  4. terry the censor
    August 18, 2014 at 1:03 AM

    As a professional proofreader, I can only shake my head at such laxity.

  5. Peter Robinson
    August 18, 2014 at 3:41 AM

    Have sent above for attention of Brad Crouch (the reporter). Feel free to also let him know what you think about his piece via: Readers Commenst and Feedback at:


  6. Kiljoy616
    August 18, 2014 at 8:53 AM

    Medical and Science reporters are not real they once where but now they are figments of some corporate suit imagination.

    I doubt there are many who actually have any kind of formal education is the hard sciences.

Comments are closed.