The E-Word

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Pursuant to a discussion here regarding the use of the word “evolution” in various scholarly contexts, consider the article in PLoS: Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word

The increase in resistance of human pathogens to antimicrobial agents is one of the best-documented examples of evolution in action at the present time, and because it has direct life-and-death consequences, it provides the strongest rationale for teaching evolutionary biology as a rigorous science in high school biology curricula, universities, and medical schools. In spite of the importance of antimicrobial resistance, we show that the actual word “evolution” is rarely used in the papers describing this research. Instead, antimicrobial resistance is said to “emerge,” “arise,” or “spread” rather than “evolve.” Moreover, we show that the failure to use the word “evolution” by the scientific community may have a direct impact on the public perception of the importance of evolutionary biology in our everyday lives.

This graph summarizes the study very nicely:


(Here are responses in PLoS to the paper.)

This is a little like a google-fight between “evolution” and “emergence” as terms. This study was discussed at length in the blogosphere, here, here, here, here and here for example. See also this coverage on

And here.

Among some of the blogospherics (perhaps cited here perhaps not) there is also discussion of the idea … if it is true or not … that the term “evolution” was or should be avoided in US government grant applications (in the titles and abstracts in particular). The suggestion has been made that this is an urban myth. It is not. One has to understand the granting process to see how this works. Grant proposals to certain agencies, to NSF and NIH for example, are often reviewed at a an early stage by grant officers who have the job of ensuring that a grant is given a fair shake, and who also have the job of making sure their agency receives a wide range of quality applications so that they can have a good pool from which to chose.

Part of this involves coaching … through the usual outreach services ranging from meetings, seminars held at various universities, on-line information, etc. … of potential applicants. Ever since Proxmire, there has been a great deal of concern about titles of proposals. Something that might seem cute or funny to the scientists involved can become the object of ridicule in Congress and end up qualifying the project for the “Golden Fleece Award” or something similar.

Grant officers have recommended the avoidance of the use of the word “evolution” for this reason.

An interesting discussion of this occurs in A Flock of Dodos, a film you must see if you have not.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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0 thoughts on “The E-Word

  1. One of my favorite songs at the moment is called “Emerge”… it kind of takes on a whole new perspective now. “You don’t need to emerge from nothing…” I always wondered if they had some evolutionary message.

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