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Does Canada's science minister really see the evolutionary light?

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Does Gary Goodyear really get this evolution thing?

In an interview with The Globe and Mail that was published on Tuesday, our federal Minister of State for Science and Technology oddly dodged questions about whether he believed in evolution. Scientists were quick to point out that having someone in charge of science who was uncomfortable with one of its most important principles might not be such a good thing. Later in the day, the minister set the record straight, saying: "We are evolving every year, every decade. That's a fact." Tempest in a teacup, all cooled down, let's move on to the economy.

But if one listens to the rest of the quote, Red Rose whitecaps reappear. Mr. Goodyear says this evolution is "to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it is running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment."

What on earth can he mean? Does he really think the human species is changing generation by generation to be better able to walk in high heels?

As a chiropractor, Mr. Goodyear well knows that a life of walking in high heels does all sorts of bad things to one's back, and I'm sure he can look at an X-ray and tell in an instant whether the patient is a high-heels or flats kind of girl. This is science, but it isn't evolution.

Mr. Goodyear seems to be confusing evolution with development, a common mistake. Individuals develop by year and by decade as a result of their interactions with their environment - leathery skin, curved backs, strong calves. But evolution is when genes change from generation to generation. If everyone wore high heels all the time, and a minority of people were genetically predisposed not to tip into oncoming traffic, then this genetic trait might become more common in the next generation of high-heel wearers. That would be evolution associated with wearing high heels. We know of no evidence that this is taking place. The same goes for walking on cement, in running shoes or in brogues.

Now, intensity of the sun really is associated with past evolutionary changes in our species. The evidence is strong that light skin in northern climes, where there is less sun, is an evolved adaptation for aiding the production of vitamin D, which we all need. The ability to digest lactose is another evolved adaptation in people from cultures that raised cows for milk. In fact, much or even most of the common variations we see among groups of humans living in different parts of the globe is the result of past evolution in our species. We are indeed the product of past evolution, and there is every reason to think that, collectively, humans are still evolving, generation by generation. But this takes a bit longer than "every year, every decade."

We hope we are wrong about Mr. Goodyear's understanding. He can set us straight in a flash, and we hope he does. He just needs to say that he wasn't serious about the shoe thing and that the evolution to which he was referring is the evolution to which we are referring. But if we aren't wrong, and his record-setting was another odd dodge, then this is a serious issue that should be debated more fully.

Past evolution is the reason why wearing high heels, giving birth and running on pavement all hurt. It is also integral to human genomics research, it is the reason behind serious multiple drug resistance in our hospitals, it is the reason we can't yet engineer a cure for HIV-AIDS, why we get cancer, and why we spend billions on pesticides every year.

Evolution, in other words, is integral to much that Mr. Goodyear must take an interest in. Does he get it? If he really doesn't, he won't be alone - a sizable minority of Canadians and a few MPs still don't understand what evolution is and how it works. But, unlike most of us, Mr. Goodyear is responsible for a large science budget and is making important decisions about science and its role in our future.

Canadian society as a whole should be asking whether someone in such a position should be better informed. As a man passionate about science and as a chiropractor, we're confident he would want to get it right.

Arne Mooers and Dolph Schluter are professors of evolutionary biology at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, respectively.

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