Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Evolution word of the week: bislagiatt (& check out WSJ evolution article too)

Normally I spend some time here criticizing bad words used in various areas of science in which I work. Today I am praising a word. The word is bislagiatt and I had never seen it until reading a Wall Street Journal article today. The article (Blame Evolution for Disease - WSJ.com) has some good and bad moments. It presents some arguments for why some human diseases today are in essence side effects of historical natural selection that no longer applies well. Many of the arguments seem OK but smell of adaptationism in reverse - just so stories that may not have a lot of evidence on their side. But the article overall is good and has some nice figures with it. But the best part of the article is the introduction of a new word

"And some body parts that provided a benefit at some time in human history pose challenges today—a phenomenon Texas Tech University geneticist Lewis I. Held Jr. calls "bislagiatt," an acronym for "but it seemed like a good idea at the time.""

Now that is a perfectly good evolution term. And though I have never seen it used anywhere else, the use in this article I think will lead to it being used more commonly in the field. And thus today I am giving out a new award "Best new evolution word" to "bislagiatt" and to Dr. Lewis Held for at least using it here if not coining it.


  1. Does this have to be restricted to the study of evolution? Because I can see some really good uses for this word in the field of software design.

    "This horribly complicated data structure strikes me as potential bislagiatt that can only come back to buita (bite us in the bum) some day."

  2. Actually, it makes much more sense in software design than evolution -- in order for something to fit "but it seemed like a good idea at the time", someone had to be having an idea, which is true in software, but not evolution.

    I realize that Held was speaking tongue-in-cheek, but given the current theological fad of "Intelligent Design", I think such jokes are ill-advised as they can be misinterpreted by the public as scientific endorsement of the idea.

  3. Maybe now the creators of bad omics words have the excuse that their neologisms are "bislagiatts"...

  4. Reminds me of the term we used when applying the Universal Fudge Factor back in my undergrad days, when we knew the answer we wanted to arrive at: bialaca (by intuition and luck and cheating also).

  5. I don't think the overall article is good either.. It's filled with baseless speculations. What a pity that journalists don't cite sources for their claims.
    From the tallness paragraph for example:
    "The Japanese, among the world's shortest people in 1950, have grown nearly 5 inches, on average, since then, to 5-foot-7 for men." This is supposed to be evolution? There's not a single word about the role of nutrition in that entire paragraph.
    As long as this kind of nonsense gets published in newspapers, I really cannot blame the public for misunderstanding evolution...


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