Can Evolution Be Recursive?


This isn’t necessarily about how stick insects have re-evolved wings in lineages in which the wings have completely disappeared … several times over. This is about how evolutionary processes work in odd ways to potentially redevelop a condition which, historically, appeared well-before the state that is currently developing into something very different.

In light of the advocacy for alterations to the current standard by which journals operate, the Open-Access movement suggests that many things we now take for granted as part of the process of moving a paper — from manuscript through submission, review, editing, formatting, then publication — may be handled in a very, very different way in the future. We may move from manuscript, edit it up a bit, then simply publish it. Review would happen in the public square, with responses, blogs or whatever, and published replies, creating a dynamic, growing press related to each paper.

That way, it’s okay to print something like the 100-page Life article published by Erik D. Andrulis, which purports that all energy and matter are alive by simple association of things called “gyres,” permeating the structure and arrangement of all things; in many ways, this is based on the inference that the arrangement and structure of atoms is true in living and nonliving matter, or energy that is the byproduct of life, blurring the boundaries — or obliterating them. Such papers would now be fully in the public view, to be praised or ridiculed thereafter. New research would be built on this, and so forth. No longer would we vet papers for specific purposes and wait months or years to roll it through review. The author would simply get his paper out there, however it is, and he could change it dynamically with new information, or even publish revisions. One could similarly find Mark and Diane Schult-McMenamin’s hypothesis of artistic cephalopods in a literature, and it would receive the attention it has in the similar papers … all the data presented laid out instead of being subjected to the court of public opinion, data-unseen.

The sixth edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species included a new chapter inserted into the middle of the book devoted to answers his critics, while he spent editions 2-5 and much of the rest of 6 modifying the book to deal with responses, commentary and new data, much of it dealing with the evidences (or lack thereof) of various theories regarding natural selection. This means we could also just simply publish theses and doctoral dissertations as scientifically meaningful documents, although it would impair withholding them for future purposes; any modifications, such as “publishing” chapters, would be treated as new, extended papers on the subject … which is generally what papers published from theses are, anyway.

The chief journals of each city struggle hard for the coveted post of leader in volume of advertising. Circulation men fight to the death for every last hundred subscribers. Unfortunately, their race for added sales is reflected editorially in the production of journals which more and more represent, not an editor’s notion of a good paper, but a circulation manager’s notion of a good seller.
— Bruce Bliven, 1923 “Our Changing JournalismThe Atlantic Monthly.

In this way, Nature and Science really are tabloids, filled as they are with advertisements and pop-sci-esque articles, pared down to appeal and aggrandize rather than be themselves interesting and valuable. Truly journalistic venues seem rare indeed.

If, instead, we relegated our considerable efforts toward the practice of science, rather than the filtering of ideas before they are released, we can do the task of science to question the weak and poor concepts, and improve the system as a whole, and do this where the public can see. This is, I think, the greatest advantage to a “peer review after” argument, as somewhat employed by PLoS system of journals, which invite open discussion and commentary and can influence the form of the paper being discussed: the paper “evolves”. What it also means is that scientists would have to spend more time working on the aftereffects of their work as new replies, questions, refutations come in; these responses and the responses to them would take time. I think I rather like this, because it suggests that instead of a “publish ‘em and leave ‘em” approach, science is served in the process of reanalysis and new perspectives. And the last thing science needs is to be bogged down by weighty, encumbering spandrels — which the current publishing system threatens to do.

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3 Responses to Can Evolution Be Recursive?

  1. Andy Farke says:

    I’d like to correct one misconception that appears early in this post – open access is not the same as being without formal peer review. All “open access” means is that the publication is freely available – it has nothing to do with formatting or lack of, or the location of the publication, or the type of peer review, or any other number of things.

    The “open access has no peer review” meme is in part a slur by OA opponents who wish to tar OA publications as inferior to their non-OA counterparts. We all know good and bad examples from both sides of the equation, of course.

    To be fair to your arguments, though, many OA journals have implemented alternatives to “traditional” peer review (2-3 secret reviewers over a span of months). This is part of what PLoS ONE aimed to do, although within the paleontology section at least I think standard peer review is still the norm.

    • Andy Farke says:

      (sorry about the unclosed HTML tag!)

    • I fixed the tag for you, Andy.

      Note that I do not say OA should avert formal peer review, merely that it can be handled differently. People still send their manuscripts to people they recognize as authorities or friends for draft corrections or for “helpful comments.” I did this with two MSS in which I knew the sendee would probably not agree with some of the arguments. This is one way in which review was handled in days long gone, without “blind review” coming in. Other review could happen after publication. It was not my intention to imply that OA eschews formal review entirely, merely displaces it after the fact.

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