Setting the right tone

I’ve been finding that the problems reviewers sometimes have with my papers is not so much the actual experiments or the conclusions drawn from them, but rather the tone with which they are presented. Take this passage from a paper we’re revising:

To avoid telling “just-so stories”, researchers studying adaptation should actively identify, test, and exclude alternative hypotheses. As George Williams famously put it, “adaptation is a special and onerous concept that should not be used unnecessarily, and an effect should not be called a function unless it is clearly produced by design and not by chance”. Selection is an important mechanism of evolution, but not the only one. Nonadaptive mechanisms like mutation and drift can also play important roles. Mechanisms by which individuals may directly benefit from expressing a trait should also be explored.

This passage seems to evoke strong emotional responses from some people (and not because of the awkward passive voice at the end). I thought we were just describing good scientific practice for studying adaptation. The reviewers apparently thought it was patronizing. One reader even thought that using the phrase “just-so stories”, automatically counted as a full endorsement of Steven J. Gould & Dick Lewontin’s attack on behavioral ecology. The passage seems to make some people really defensive, so I think for the sake of the paper we’re going to take it out. Which is too bad, since I think it’s a message that some researchers could stand to hear (or hear again).

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    One comment

    1. Chris Moore

      I would suggest that you keep it in. Evolutionary forces must be placed in the appropriate context, which ALWAYS must include mutation (generation of genetic variation), drift (neutral model), and migration (spatially-explicit evolution). Remember that Kuhnian paradigms don’t always follow truths. Unfortunately we still exist in an age where dogma is pervasive in many areas of biology (competition, selection, etc.). In the future, the cards will land on your side and you will be recognized. Aim for Lamark, Wynn Edwards, Margulis, Van Valen, and the countless others whose ideas we have seen re-emerge after rejection.