An Open Letter To News24

About a week ago, we sent this letter to +News24.com to address their promotion of anti-science and bad journalism. Having not had any replies from them, I am publishing the letter openly.




To whom it may concern,

An article titled “DARWINISM: DID WE REALLY EVOLVE FROM APES?” appeared on your website News24 Voices1 on the date Friday, May 23, 2014. The article was authored by Matome Letsoalo.

We are a group of concerned citizens that understand and value the role of science and good journalism in our society. It is our understanding that this author was nominated as a columnist for News24, and thus enjoys a special privilege as a columnist for your news organisation. We are writing this letter to make you aware of the fact that Mr. Letsoalo reflects poorly on your organisation, despite it being stated clearly that the views of columnists do not represent your organisation.

The column is a reflection on the theory of evolution, and presents false information, misrepresentations, and lays bare a general ignorance of the theory itself. Please see the Addendum that provides evidence to support our position.

Mr. Letsoala’s ignorance of the theory of evolution seeks to open debate to a scientific question that has been answered time and time again.2 The ideological warfare that has been instituted against the science of evolution seeks to undermine science and praise ignorance. This has the effect of latching on to the public imagination where education is lacking or strong ideological feelings have a tendency to take a foothold.

It is our understanding that the purpose of journalism is to seek out and express the truth, and where opinions are involved, that such opinions rely on reliable facts as justification. If the purpose of journalism was only to stir controversy, then views such as the one expressed by Mr. Letsoala should be welcomed, however we believe that organisations such as yours would consider their standards to be much higher, and that persons such as Mr. Letsoala reflect very badly on the journalistic rigour that your organisation would like to uphold.

We therefore request that Mr. Letsoala be stripped of his special position as a columnist for your news organisation. This is not an attempt to silence Mr. Letsoala, only to downgrade the merit that has been granted to him by your organisation. He should in our opinion still blog in your reader’s opinion section if he wishes to do so, which is not a place that is filtered by journalistic standards, but still provides a soapbox for readers to interact and discuss important topics. It would also be acceptable if Mr. Letsoala issues a full retraction that is clearly visible on his original post, or a deletion of this post with a full retraction in a new post.

We appreciate the time you have taken to read our letter and any forthcoming response. We are aware that Voices24 is an invitation only platform, and we hope that you will take the ethical step of addressing our concern. I am sure you will agree that science is vital to the success of South Africa, and as such inaccurate and ignorant representations of it only muddy the waters and undermine the goal of honest and informed opinion espoused by esteemed news organisations such as yours.

Regards,
Tjaart Blignaut
Gregory Nietsky
Nicole Best
Marius Sullivan
Theuns Opperman
Gordon Vongani Ringani
Njabulo Langa
Robert Buchmann
Xolani Vilakazi
Thomas Maydon
Jani Greeff
Bertus Schoeman
Llewelyn Leonard
Bronwyn Tivers
John Constantine Coutsoulis
Schalk Pienaar
Pieter Steyn
Petteri Rekomaa
Denzil Newman
Dr Nicolaas A. van der Merwe
Mike de Fleuriot
Kim Sales
Heather McLachlan
Cornelia van der Walt

References:
[1] http://voices.news24.com/matome-letsoalo/2014/05/darwinism-really-evolve-apes/
[2] http://www.nas.edu/evolution/TheoryOrFact.html

Addendum A

Herewith quotes from Mr. Letsoalo’s article and responses.


Assertion 1:
“I never came across an assertion or legend that suggested human beings were once chimpanzees”
“But it’s quite another thing to say a chimpanzee evolved over time and became a human being as you see today. “
 Rebuttal:

The theory of evolution does not specify that human beings were once chimpanzees. Humans and chimpanzees in fact share common descent, meaning that humans and chimpanzees evolved from the same species, not that humans were chimpanzees.
“The strong similarities between humans and the African great apes led Charles Darwin in 1871 to predict that Africa was the likely place where the human lineage branched off from other animals – that is, the place where the common ancestor of chimpanzees, humans, and gorillas once lived. The DNA evidence shows an amazing confirmation of this daring prediction.”
http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics
Assertion 2: Animals lack compassion
“But to a group of dogs, no matter how sizeable the chunk of meat you throw them, the strongest of them will try by all means to keep the whole lot to himself, and this is brute.”
“Animals live in a world without conscience or guilt or human compassion.”
Rebuttal:

It is true that dogs feed based on a dominance hierarchy, although food sharing is not uncommon among other species, notably other primates.
“Sharing among same sex individuals has been reported in 10 species (Fig. 1), including some apes and New World monkeys, especially captive capuchins.”
http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/faculty/gurven/papers/jaeggigurven2013EA.pdf
Vampire bats also engage in cooperative feeding behaviour:
“Common vampire bats often regurgitate food to roost-mates that fail to feed.”
http://courses.washington.edu/ccab/Carter&Wilkinson-v-bat-food-sharing-ProcB-2013.pdf
Assertion 3: Animals do not engage in judgement or vengeful behaviour.
“There are no grudges and there is no judgment in the animal kingdom.”
Rebuttal:

Once again, this behaviour is displayed in vampire bats:
“South American vampire bats in difficulty because they did not feed for a whole night demand a regurgitation of blood from other individuals to survive. Wilkinson [45,46] discovered that this request is made only to those indi-viduals to which they themselves have previously regurgitated blood.”
http://www.academia.edu/2337137/When_to_Get_Mad_Adaptive_Significance_of_Rage_in_Animals
Assertion 4: The theory of evolution does not adequately explain human traits.

“The theory of evolution does not in this regard satisfactorily discuss the reason why and the point at which the humane or ‘Godly’ spirit is infused in the evolving ape toward its current human nature.”

Rebuttal:

Accoding to Prof. Robert Sapolsky, a leading primatologist:

“Numerous such differences have been suggested, but over recent decades, there has been a consistent shrinking of that list. Thus, humans are no longer thought of as being unique in the ability to construct and use tools (with these skills now demonstrated in both primate and non-primate species [McGrew 1992]). Other species have a sense of self (as shown with the famed "mirror tests" [Gallup 1970]), as well as a "Theory of Mind" that encompasses the recognition that other individuals have different information than oneself (Tomasello and Call 1997). Other species are now known to communicate symbolically (e.g., vervet monkeys have vocalizations where the relationship between signal and meaning is arbitrary, and where some vocalizations serve as synonyms). A strong argument can be made for the idea that other species can be so grieved as to fall into the affective state that we term depression. And we can no longer claim to be the only species that kills its own, or that does so in organized groups (Goodall 1986).
One vestige of human uniqueness still often cited by anthropologists is culture. However, this notion has been challenged in recent years with numerous demonstrations of "culture" in other species, particularly primates. In this review, I will first consider what the term means to animal behaviorists, and theories about how cultural transmission can occur in other species. I will then review some of the most striking examples of non-human culture.”
http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/social_forces/v085/85.1sapolsky.html
Assertion 5: The dating of the evolutionary process is “presumed”
“It goes on to eloquently and scientifically describe the various stages of this questionable evolution, which presumably took millions if not hundreds of thousands of years.”

Rebuttal:

From The University Of Berkeley Evolution resource

“At the heart of evolutionary theory is the basic idea that life has existed for billions of years and has changed over time.
Overwhelming evidence supports this fact. Scientists continue to argue about details of evolution, but the question of whether life has a long history or not was answered in the affirmative at least two centuries ago.”
http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/lines/
Assertion 6: Cradle of human kind findings are dubious or questionable.

“They have hence named this place in Maropeng or Sterkfontein outside Johannesburg ‘The Cradle of Mankind’, where apparently they found the most fossils or something like that. “

Rebuttal:

This statement is entirely false. Australopithecine fossils are routinely found in this area. The findings are carried out and curated by our very own WITS university.

Assertion 7: Africans are the earliest descendents of the Sterkfontein hominids.

“But my thought is, if we Africans are supposedly the earliest descendants of these creatures which were once chimpanzees, why is it that Europeans have significantly more bodily hair than us?”

Rebuttal:

This claim is completely unsourced and unfounded.

Assertion 7: Evolution is a theory, and therefore not established fact.

“They should then call it ‘The Fact Of Evolution’. Charles Darwin has to be the master ape as such, which/who was scientifically ‘chosen’ to discover the primate roots of all humanity.”

Rebuttal:

I will once again quote the National Academy Of Sciences in the US. For clarity, I will quote in full:

“It is both. But that answer requires looking more deeply at the meanings of the words "theory" and "fact."
In everyday usage, "theory" often refers to a hunch or a speculation. When people say, "I have a theory about why that happened," they are often drawing a conclusion based on fragmentary or inconclusive evidence.
The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.
Many scientific theories are so well-established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory), that matter is not composed of atoms, or that the surface of the Earth is not divided into solid plates that have moved over geological timescales (the theory of plate tectonics). Like these other foundational scientific theories, the theory of evolution is supported by so many observations and confirming experiments that scientists are confident that the basic components of the theory will not be overturned by new evidence. However, like all scientific theories, the theory of evolution is subject to continuing refinement as new areas of science emerge or as new technologies enable observations and experiments that were not possible previously.
One of the most useful properties of scientific theories is that they can be used to make predictions about natural events or phenomena that have not yet been observed. For example, the theory of gravitation predicted the behavior of objects on the moon and other planets long before the activities of spacecraft and astronauts confirmed them. The evolutionary biologists who discovered Tiktaalik predicted that they would find fossils intermediate between fish and limbed terrestrial animals in sediments that were about 375 million years old. Their discovery confirmed the prediction made on the basis of evolutionary theory. In turn, confirmation of a prediction increases confidence in that theory.
In science, a "fact" typically refers to an observation, measurement, or other form of evidence that can be expected to occur the same way under similar circumstances. However, scientists also use the term "fact" to refer to a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it or looking for additional examples. In that respect, the past and continuing occurrence of evolution is a scientific fact. Because the evidence supporting it is so strong, scientists no longer question whether biological evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur. Instead, they investigate the mechanisms of evolution, how rapidly evolution can take place, and related questions.


http://www.nas.edu/evolution/TheoryOrFact.html