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Shooting the Messenger: Elizabeth Pennisi

Robert_Wayne_Science_cover_Nov._15_2013_-prv.jpgDan Graur, tireless campaigner to rescue the concept of "junk DNA" before it winks out into extinction, and our old friend Larry Moran are very upset about a cover story in Science. The cover image highlights a paper arguing for the evolution of dogs from gray wolves in Europe, and an accompanying commentary. As Graur concedes, the dog, a Basenji, is "beautiful." Dr. Graur, a "Professor of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Houston and a lover of contemporary art," has a blog post up denouncing Science, including profanity and crude insults directed at the writer of the commentary: "ignoramus," "idiot non-savant," "ignorant simpleton."

Without entering into Graur's judgment of the research behind the dog-origin scenario, what has got these gentlemen so bent out of shape? Well, you see it's the author of the commentary, much more than anything to do with dogs, that accounts for the fit of distemper.


What Could Possibly Be Wrong with Putting a Cute Dog on the Cover of Science?

Nothing could be wrong until you realize that Science editor Elizabeth ("Liz") Pennisi is behind it. That changes things entirely.


How can an ignorant simpleton such as Elizabeth Pennisi resist putting such a cute dog on the cover of Science? So what if the price is publishing one more s***** paper in this glamorous journal?

Pennisi is identified on the masthead of Science as a senior correspondent, not the editor-in-chief of the journal, so I doubt that planning the cover is part of her job. That aside, what you have to understand is that Ms. Pennisi, writing on topics including "junk DNA," epigenetics, and Haeckel's embryos, stands out as a reporter who has done more than many others to cast doubt on revered icons of Darwinian evolution.

We have noted her writing often here. Graur barks: "Pennisi, to those with even shorter memories than mine, is the idiot non-savant who buried and eulogized junk DNA not once but twice." So that's it. Or part of it.

On junk DNA, she has reported about how the ENCODE papers "sound the death knell for the idea that our DNA is mostly littered with useless bases." Molecular biologist John Mattick puts his finger (as if it weren't obvious) on why junk DNA matters so much to Graur: "the argument of a largely non-functional genome is invoked by some evolutionary theorists in the debate against the proposition of intelligent design."

On epigenetics, ENV observed back in September:

Elizabeth Pennisi in Science Magazine reports that ongoing studies of epigenetic inheritance at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have evolutionists worried. Frank Johannes and his team have apparently shown that methylation marks on the DNA of plants can alter the phenotype in heritable ways that remain stable up to at least eight generations.


Her title, "Evolution Heresy? Epigenetics Underlies Heritable Plant Traits," reflects the religious wars these findings threaten to ignite. The concern is that the environment -- not chance mutations -- can cause adaptive epigenetic changes directly. If a plant or animal acquires characteristics during its lifetime that are heritable, the specter of long-dead Lamarckism rises once again to haunt evolutionary biology.


[T]he issue about epigenetic inheritance in evolution is sure to be interesting. What's also interesting is watching how the neo-Darwinian old guard, biology's ancien r�gime, responds to heresy in the ranks.

As we frequently hasten to emphasize about daring writers and researchers in science, I have no reason to think Pennisi is a Darwin skeptic much less a proponent of ID. Still, she's a reporter who is open to promoting "evolution heresy." She's unafraid to challenge the old guard. More than once she has stuck her finger in the eye of ancient r�gime. Now you know why she ticks off guys like Graur and Moran.