Hopeful monsters? I hope not.

As I was cruising through the emails I keep for blog fodder, I came across one that I had kept–but needed to percolate about for a while. It is a term that has disturbed me for years, and I almost hate to talk about it because I find it so distasteful. I don’t want to perpetuate it. But maybe if more people know, it might change.

The GenomeWeb newsletter linked to an article called The Monster Is Back, and It’s Hopeful on the NYT blog. A piece of it describes the concept:

But it’s only as our ability to dissect genomes has been transformed — a change that has really happened within the last ten years — that the idea of the hopeful monster has begun to stage a comeback. (Note, however, that few modern biologists use the term. Instead, most people speak of large morphological changes due to mutations acting on single genes that influence embryonic development.)

The reason this disturbs me is actually because of MeSH, not so much because of the stories of fruit flies and fish. If you go to MeSH right now and search for the term “monster” you will find it in the database. I stumbled across this years ago when testing software at Proteome. I was shocked to see this in the controlled vocabulary, and thought it must be a joke. It isn’t. I told my colleagues–we were appalled.

From MeSH, term C16.131.581 is defined as:

A fetus or infant with such pronounced developmental anomalies as to be grotesque and usually nonviable. (Dorland, 27th ed)

I know it says “do not use”. But it appears right there as a main heading, a primary term, a parent to anencephaly and conjoined twins. My colleagues and I complained to MeSH at the time (this has to be at least 8 years ago). Can’t there be a synonym for this? Can’t this get replaced with a new primary term and relegate this awful word to an alias? I just think that parents who might stumble across this in an internet search should not be subject to this. It annotates papers today (here’s just one example: PMID: 18001161, choose Display = MEDLINE from the menu). They could search PubMed and find papers annotated with this.

And that’s why I’m not so crazy about seeing that term again. I’m hopeful that this will go away. I think it is a nightmare.

2 thoughts on “Hopeful monsters? I hope not.

  1. Trey

    It is surprising that the term “monster” is still used in Mesh.

    The NY Times author was using “Hopeful monster” “a colloquial term used in evolutionary biology to describe an event of instantaneous-speciation, saltation, or systemic mutation, which contributes positively to the production of new major evolutionary groups”

    Of course she got a LOT of flak for it, including this scathing guest post by Coyne, because it is a concept most often rejected by modern evolutionary biologists. The whole thing has started quite a science blogosphere “discussion” about the concept(lots of links here), the attack on the NY Times author, and etc.

  2. Mary

    Wow, I had no idea the about the storm–I was too disturbed by the term to look for more. Interesting discussion. Thanks.

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