Twisted tree of life award #5: Nicholas Wade & use of higher, lower, ladders, etc

Nicholas Wade has a new article in the New York Times critiquing some aspects of the human genome project (A Decade Later, Gene Map Yields Few New Cures –

Whether one agrees with his critiques or not, I hope that everyone can recognizes that one section on evolution is, well, awful. Wade writes

First was the discovery that the number of human genes is astonishingly small compared with those of lower animals like the laboratory roundworm and fruit fly. The barely visible roundworm needs 20,000 genes that make proteins, the working parts of cells, whereas humans, apparently so much higher on the evolutionary scale, seem to have only 21,000 protein-coding genes.

While Mr. Wade may want to believe he and humans in general are somehow “higher” on some evolutionary ladder than other species, I have some news for him


Humans are neither higher nor lower than any other organisms. This is an antiquated and inane view of evolution. Sure, humans are smart. Sure we are more complex in some aspects than, say, some bacteria. But new features evolve on ALL branches in the tree of life. And some organisms lose features present in their ancestors. The evolution of complexity is, well complex, sure, but please, “higher” and “lower” organisms? An evolutionary ladder? Uggh.

I do not pay much attention to human GWAS studies, but if Wade’s understanding of them is akin to his understanding of evolution, well, I would then infer that GWAS studies have revolutionized all of medicine. For his butchering of evolution, I am giving Nicholas Wade my 6th coveted “Twisted tree of life award


More on this topic can be found at:
Larry Moran’s Sandwalk
Larry Moran has a good discussion of the genes in the human genome issue (from 2007)
PZ Myers at Pharyngula Chimes in

    About Jonathan Eisen

    I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

    8 thoughts on “Twisted tree of life award #5: Nicholas Wade & use of higher, lower, ladders, etc

    1. I'd go so far to argue that “complex” is equally as meaningless as “higher” in an biological context (and is usually used in exactly the same way; to somehow exceptionalize humans, mammals, or eukaryotes). I've never seen an objective definition of complexity in a biological system.


    2. Is this really such a big deal? First of all, Wade never uses the term “ladder.” Second, in saying that humans are “APPARENTLY so much higher on the evolutionary scale,” he seems to be hinting at the point you're making, i.e., that thinking of humans as “higher” may not be enitrely sound. He may be trying to meet his readers (most of whom, not being evolutionary biologists, do think of humans as “higher”) where they are and gently point out that they may not be quite as special as they think. I may be wrong about that, but when the “position” of humans relative to other species is not a major point of the article, it seems unnecessary to get so worked up about it. Writing for a lay audience without sacrificing accuracy is tricky, and I accept occasional misleading statements as more or less inevitable.


    3. JB – agreed – I was trying to get to that in some of my comments but may not have been clear

      Crowther – i think Wades point of view is not what you think it is. He says the number of genes was “astonishingly” small. Why is that astonishing? And in the previous sentence he says the genome produced a “steady string of surprises.” saying again that the small number of genes was a surprise. It really was not.

      And “higher” and “lower” is the terminology used by those who feel like there is an evolutionary ladder of some kind. So he uses “scale” in the article, not ladder, but the implication is a ladder like structure.

      Oh – and he does on to say that ” humans and other animals have much the same set of protein-coding genes, but the human set is regulated in a much more complicated way, through elaborate use of DNA’s companion molecule, RNA.” implying again that humans do things in a more complex way than other animals. Do they? I don't think so .. and I certainly have not seen much in the literature saying that.

      And I note, this is not really a new thing for Wade – a quick search reveals discussion of “higher” organisms in and
      and many many more see


    4. Reading that excerpt made me cringe. A lot. Thanks..

      @crowther There's slightly misleading, and then there's something akin to 'centrifugal force'. The scala naturae is the centrifugal force of biology.


    5. Well, OK — evolution is not my field, so I appreciate the follow-up. I do think, though, that the number of genes in the human genome was indeed a genuine surprise, as Wade says. Do you recall the GeneSweep prediction contest? Every one of the estimates, made by hundreds of scientists, was too large! Maybe this means that many others have a biased view of humans' place in the tree…. But if even lots of professional biologists make this mistake, maybe Wade's words are more forgivable?


    6. Maybe a tiny bit of sympathy for him but just a tiny bit. #1 – some guessed less. #2 – much of the “guessing” was based on actual data (e.g., cDNA, EST libs) and not expectation of “higher” vs “lower” #3 – I have given out plenty of awards to scientists who make silly assumptions too – I see no reasons to immunize a NY Times reporter. He should be above the fray actually, not below it.


    7. Nick Wade is such a wanker. This was the one that got me:

      “The only way to find rare genetic variations is to sequence a person’s whole genome, or at least all of its gene-coding regions.”

      Yeah. Because that's the only place where one would ever find rare variants that cause disease.


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