Quote Mining

June 22, 2007

I really should be working on a research project. But I’m not.

Just came across this great piece on Behe’s misleading quote-mining in the End of Evolution–the first thing that really struck me about the book. The misrepresentations are really oustanding.

Also, this blog has an excellent list of reviews/ criticisms of Behe’s new ‘work.’ Cheers.


The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind (I)

June 19, 2007

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Having recently finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale (and already posting about it here and here) I feel inclined to offer a brief book review, and then delve into one of the most fascinating recurring themes in the book.

The Ancestor’s Tale tells the history of life. That’s pretty broad. So the questions are how to pick a starting point and what to focus on? The format of the book is unique, beginning with homo sapiens (an understandable bias) and working its way backward in chronological time. This structure constantly reinforces the concept that evolution is not “intentional” or “progressive” in certain specific senses; if the clock was wound back and history was played out with even the slightest variations, any specific species (including humans) probably wouldn’t have evolved, or would be very different. So, viewing evolutionary history frontwards always carries the risk of seeing species evolving “toward” the present, and evolution simply is not directional in that sense. Dawkins calls this misperception “the conceit of hindsight”: We evolved, therefore we were meant to evolve. Not so.

The narrative structure of the book is therefore intentionally counterintuitive, and it’s something that Dawkins handles well. The reader is constantly reminded of this special caveat for evolutionay thinking, as intended by the author. That said, Dawkins also adds narrative wit by paralleling the Ancestor’s Tale to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, albeit loosely. Going back in time the narrative slowly picks up more characters. Beginning with humans, then picking up modern species that represent groups that diverged from ‘our line’ at some point in the past; chimpanzees, gorillas, the other apes, Old World monkeys, New World monkeys, more primates, rodents, laurasiatheres, xenarthrans, marsupials, monotremes, sauropsids, amphibians, and so on, back to the dawn of time.

Dawkins also does a good job of discussing various evidences for differing viewpoints and current controversies, clearly demarcating that which is widely agreed upon (chimpanzees are our closest modern relative), often instances in the (evolutionarily) recent past to the uncertain (the order of the rooting of the tree for mixotrichs, archae, and eubacteria), often more distant in evolutionary time.

That said, I liked the book. A recurring point that stood out to me was “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind.” Dawkins often referred to cases where our need to categorize, group, and name things which may in reality fall in a continuum, not discrete categories, gets in the way of the most accurate descriptions.

Names are a menace in evolutionary history. It is no secret that paleontology is a controversial subject in which there are even some personal enmities. At least eight books called Bones of Contention are in print. And if you look at what two paleontologists are quarreling about, as often as not it turns out to be a name. Is this fossil Homo erectus, or is it an archaic Homo sapiens? Is this one an early Homo habilis or a late Australopithecus? People evidently feel strongly about such questions, but they often turn out to be splitting hairs. Indeed, they resemble theological questions, which I suppose gives a clue to why they arouse such passionate disagreements. The obsession with discrete names is an example of what I call the tyranny of the discontinuous mind….

He then offers some excellent examples, which I shall write about soon.


I Believe in Evolution, Except for the Whole Triassic Period

June 19, 2007

Thank you Onion.

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This so-called Triassic period saw the formation of scleractinian corals and a slight changeover from warm-blooded therapsids to cold-blooded archosauromorphs. Clearly, such breathtakingly subtle modifications could only have been achieved by an active intelligence.

(Via 20 gram Soul)


Overwhelming Evidence

June 18, 2007

I came across a fascinating post at an Intelligent Design Creationism blog, called “micro vs. macro evolution – where to draw the line?”

Given the source, and the title, I immediately chuckled. Of course, this is a very difficult question for those whose religious beliefs lead them to reject the overwhelming evidence in support universal common descent. I’m going to offer some excerpts from this post in order to point out a few common themes among conservative Christians and their relationship with Intelligent Design proponents (most of the latter fall into the former category, but many Young Earth Creationist Christians have problems with the ID guys). First sentence:

Like many Christians (and unlike many Intelligent Design purists), I believe that Darwinian evolution cannot possibly account for the diversity of KINDS of animals.

Notice immediately the language of “belief.” There is no appeal here to evidence for a point of view, as this poster isn’t even trying to pose as interested in the science of it all. Also, the concept of “kinds” is highly ambiguous. What makes mammals a different kind from birds? Where’s the line between birds and reptiles (of which they are actually a subset)? Where do you stick a platypus, or an archaeopteryx?

I believe that our designer designed each KIND independently. But, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, it’s clear the designer recycled designs in a pattern roughly parallel to the evolutionists’ discredited “tree of life.” And at this point I have to make an unpleasant conceit to godless evolutionists: the designs of many parts of our body appear to be modified versions of those used in the design of apes. Yes, these smelly, dirty, brutish animals served as a launching point for our design and, though we certainly didn’t descend from them, we have a certain designerly connection to them, much as Windows Vista does to Windows Millennium Edition.

The adjectives are quite fun. Godless evolutionists may certainly describe Dawkins and PZ Myers, but it would be a hard term to fit to Francis Collins. There are probably more religious people who think the theory of evolution is well-proven then there are non-religious people, simply because there are more of the religious, at least in this country.

And of course, animals are “smelly, dirty, brutish” but we could never, ever have descended from them. What evidence is offered as refutation? None. And of course, there is no indication that the writer has considered the overwhelming evidence for universal common descent, be it fossil or genetic. It’s all about what one chooses to believe. In this sense, many believers are much more postmodern than the evolutionists who they think lack a belief in truth. Fascinating.

Then, the poster goes on to say that there is diversity within a population, and that certain traits will be selected for, thereby ceding that evolution occurs on certain scales. So why can’t it account for new “kinds” (whatever those are)?

But it is micro-evolution, and never strays outside the boundary of a KIND. A dog cannot evolve into a cat. In ten million years, I contend, a dog’s descendants will still be recognizable dogs. Indeed, even after a billion years of microevolution, a dog’s descendants will still be something other than cats.

This is silly. If change occurs, then over more time, you have more change. Now of course evolutionary biologists would never claim that a dog would turn into a cat. What they do note is that if at some point in those ten million years you have two populations of dogs that are separated for a period of time, by geography or habits or any other factor that prevents interbreeding, those populations will diverge over time. That’s speciation. And that is considered by many to be the dividing point between micro- and macroevolution. Natural selection does not pretend to predict a dog will become a cat, but to explain that dogs and cats at some point diverged from some common ancestor that had biological similarities to both. The prediction made is that any two other groups separated for a period of time will eventually diverge as well.

But where do we draw the line between kinds, between microevolution and macroevolution? Can a donkey be bred from a horse? Can an alpaca be bred from a camel? Can a tiger be bred from a lion? These all may sound in some way ridiculous, but all of these animal pairs can interbreed, which suggests that they may be of the same kind. Where things can get tricky is when the hybrid born of the mating is itself sterile. Does this mean we’ve crossed a line between kinds, and found the limits of what evolution can change?

These cases of species that are close enough to interbreed but not produce fertile offspring are excellent examples of the fluid nature of biological change. Tigers and lions can produce offspring because they diverged recently enough that they have yet to accumulate the level of genetic difference necessary to prevent all reproduction. However, they have diverged enough to be both noticeably different (unlike species that we humans can’t tell apart with our naked eyes) and noticeably incapable of producing fertile offspring (unlike some species of songbird that while they do not reproduce together in the wild for behavioral reasons, are still physically capable of doing so). Again, an excellent example of speciation and evolution at work, breaking down the idea that each “kind” was created in a perfect, separate form.

I myself have no particular problem with a theory suggesting that all cats are descendant from a common ancestor. I’d even concede that all birds share a common ancestor – from hummingbirds to ostriches. Given enough time, I could see that change happening – it’s just a few orders of magnitude beyond the flexibility humans have brought to the domestic dog. Some quasi-evolutionists even allow for all of Primates (soulless monkeys and apes lumped together with humans) to have descended from a single designed ancestor. I myself could never believe such a thing, since I find it revolting to think my ancestors might have been animals.

Instead of the argument from personal incredulity, you get the argument from personal revulsion. Methinks this blogger has too high a view of humans and too low a view of animals. Biologically speaking, that is.

Some Intelligent Design proponents such as Michael Behe go so far as to say that yes, all species evolved from a common ancestor. They’ve been exposed to the evidence enough to know that arguing against this well-proven fact is simply impossible. However, to maintain some “proof” of an involved God from the physical world (pure faith is the enemy) they take their criticism to the level of evolutionary mechanisms. This critique still fails, but is substantially more subtle than run-of-the-mill Creationism, and has enough pseudoscientific sounding jargon backing it up to fool the scientifically uneducated market they’re aiming at: America’s conservative Christians.

And then you get tension between Christians who believe what they believe because it feels right (and/or it jives with their relatively unscrupulous reading of Scripture) and those Christians who are trying to make a (in their view) scientific argument for believing something. But this blogger talks about the revulsion that rely underlies all of Creationism, including the Intelligent Design movement: many simply reject the proposition that God is not necessary to account for the origin of the human species because it is religiously unpalatable. These rejectionists laud people like Behe (look, he says random mutation doesn’t work!) or Collins (look, a scientist who still believes in God) or Einstein (look, a guy who misleadingly uses the word “God” when talking about nature, thereby confirming our hopes that he’s on our side) to support what they believe by faith, and reject the parts they dislike.


There’s Always an Alternative

June 11, 2007

If your standards are low enough.

I just spent a good hour looking at the website of Scholars for 9/11 Truth and Justice, largely because I came across a website talking about how great the ‘evidence’ is for a controlled demolition. After reading some of their ‘evidence’–which largely consists of a drip of pseudoscience here and a heavy coat of logically-indefensible theorizing there–and find myself slightly more educated about their arguments, and overwhelmingly unconvinced.

The most interesting thing for me is the similarity between the 9/11 Truth movement and Creationism/ Intelligent Design. Both of these are based on the idea that the status quo simply cannot be correct, largely because of personal incredulity. There’s no way I could have evolved from monkeys… There’s no way there’s a natural mechanism that would create X… There’s no way that those planes and/or fires could have brought down those buildings… And what they end up with an alternative theory that is less plausible than the mainstream one which is supported by evidence. This also seems to be similar to other forms of pseudoscience, like that of HIV-denialists.

Here’s an interesting example from the 9/11 site:

The word theory when used in the derisive sense of ‘conspiracy theory’ connotes detailed speculation unfounded in fact. However, a theory can stand apart from a detailed scenario explaning the means and methods behind observed events. For example, a theory of the controlled demolition of the Twin Towers can be proved simply by disproving its converse — that the Towers’ collapses were spontaneous. (emphasis added)

That last sentence is the interesting part. Of course, it’s bad logic, and bad theorizing. One should look for the more parsimonious theory–that which fits better with the available evidence. Even if one were able to disprove specific evidence for the official theories (which, judging by the evidence presented on the website, certainly hasn’t been done, but is assumed to have been done), that wouldn’t mean the alternative theory is more plausible. It’s reminiscent of the Wedge Strategy of the Intelligent Design movement:

The objective (of the wedge strategy) is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.’

Simply convince people that the main theory is either untrue or unpalatable, and then they’ll no other choice but to embrace the alternative conveniently offered at the moment of doubt. Moral for the day: If you see this strategy elsewhere, be wary.


Not the Only Farmers in the Field

June 7, 2007

I’ve been delighting in the sheer breadth of information provided by Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale. It’s unfortunate that my biochemistry degree hasn’t required me to take a zoology course, but even if I had had a thorough zoological training, I think there would still be a number of species presented in The Ancestor’s Tale that would surprise me. Here’s a neat example: the leaf cutter ant.

Just as humanity did at the time of our Agricultural Revolution, ants independently invented the town. A single nest of leaf cutter ants, Atta, can exceed the population of Greater London. It is a complicated underground chamber, up to 6 meters deep and 20 meters in circumference, surmounted by a somewhat smaller dome above ground. This huge ant city, divided into hundreds or even thousands of separate chambers connected by networks of tunnels, is sustained ultimately by leaves cut into manageable pieces and carried home by workers in broad, rustling rivers of green. But the leaves are not eaten directly, either by the ants themselves (though they do suck some of the sap) or by the larvae. Instead they are painstakingly mulched as compost for underground fungus gardens. It is the small round knobs or “gongylidia’ of the fungi that the ants eat and, more particular, that they feed to the larvae…When a young queen ant flies off to found a new colony, she takes a precious cargo with her: a small culture of the fungus with which to sow the first crop in her new nest.

So, there’s complex, city-sustaining agriculture for you. Now how about keeping cows:

Several groups of ants have independently evolved the habit of keeping domestic ‘dairy’ animals in the form of aphids. Unlike other symbiotic insects that live inside ants’ nests and don’t benefit the ants, the aphids are pastured out in the open, sucking sap from plants as they normally do. As with mammalian cattle, aphids have a high throughput of food, taking only a small amount of nutriment from each morsel. The residue that emerges from the rear end of aphid is sugar-water–‘honeydew’–only slightly less nutritious than the plant sap that goes in at the front. Any honeydew not eaten by ants rains down from trees infested with aphids, and is plausibly thought to be the origin of ‘manna’ in the Book of Exodus. It should not be surprising that ants gather it up, for the same reason as the followers of Moses did. Btu some ants have gone further and corralled aphids, giving them protection in exchange for being allowed to ‘milk’ the aphids, tickling their rear ends to make them secrete honeydew which the ant eats directly from aphid’s anus.

I bet you never thought you could read a book on biology and get a lesson on ants that involve sBiblical history and graphic sex. Cheers!


Dennett: The Reason-Driven Life

June 4, 2007

Daniel Dennett, a philosophy professor at Tufts, plays the friendly grandfather role well. I think it comes off much better than Dawkins’ British accent snipery.

In this video (from TED Talks), Dennett starts off by talking about how humans took an animal (the Aurochs?) and domesticated it over time to improve it, eventually leading to the modern cow. And from there he goes on to religion. His taltk came right after the one by Rick Warren (author of The Purpose-Driven Life), so some of the remarks flow from that. It’s worth watching, and more or less echoes his Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.


Behe Does It Again

June 3, 2007

Be wrong, that is.

Michael Behe (of Darwin’s Black Box fame) has a new book coming out called The Edge of Evolution. While I haven’t read his new book yet, one can ascertain from the title that this will be another “God of the Gaps” argument: Look, here’s a gap that science hasn’t explained (yet), therefore God did it. Behe’s new line will surely be: Look, here’s the ‘edge of evolution,’ the things that haven’t been explained just yet, so therefore God is proven.

If he had just done that in his last book, it would have merely been bad theology or very bad philosophy. But, the whole thing was based on (possibly intentional) factual errors. Behe makes broad, sweeping claims about the dearth of research on molecular evolution. Here’s one:

There has never been a meeting, or a book, or a paper on details of the evolution of complex biochemical systems.

He is very obviously playing to the ignorance of his readership. Unfortunately, this is something one can do when writing books about biology that will have a primarily religious audience (that’s not a slam–it’s a call for religious conservatives to learn more biology). Talk Origins has a nice listing of books and articles on molecular evolution, including those on complex biochemical systems. The present list has 22 books and ~203 peer-reviewed articles on many of the subjects that Behe has claimed he searched for evolutionary explanations for but failed to find: the immune system, blood coagulation, flagella, actin, cell membranes, the citric acid cycle, glycolysis, amino acid biosynthesis, photosynthesis, vision, etc.

To the biologically educated it should be quite apparent that Behe, as a biologist, has found a thrilling new lifestyle as a celebrity within the conservative Christian community, not to mention a profitable book market, by disregarding the amazing amount of research being done by other scientists and publishing popular works making extravagant claims. And because scientists are at the forefront of uncovering the complexity of life, research on the origins of those complex systems is often several years behind the discovery of them. So a biochemist like Behe is well-positioned to write books about the current ‘edge’ of research, point to a (real or imagined) lack of satisfactory explanations, and claim it as evidence for belief. This is bad theology, and very bad science.

ERV, who does some interesting research on drug resistance in HIV, has an article called Good Virus, Bad Creationist that dissects on of Behe’s arguments from The Edge of Evolution, revealing how he takes basic misunderstandings about a field he should (if he were really keeping up with the literature) be familiar with, but is apparently not.

There are really only a few conclusions one can make about Behe. If you think of any other options, let me know:
1) He honestly doesn’t understand the science he’s writing about, or fails to do his research, so the misunderstandings stem from this.
2) Similar to #1, but his ideological/theological leanings blind him from reading the scientific literature objectively (quite possible).
3) He understands that there are scientific explanations for what he’s writing about, and purposefully disregards the facts because he knows (the vast majority of) his readers will never check the facts independently (and on that he’d probably be right).


The Age of the Impossibility of Disbelief

June 3, 2007

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In her excellent book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong takes an interesting detour on the language of belief and doubt. She describes how the proliferation of religious choices may have made faith more difficult, not less:

Indeed, by the end of the sixteenth century, many people in Europe felt that religion had been gravely discredited. They were disgusted by the killing of Catholics by Protestants and Protestants by Catholics. Hundreds of people had died as martyrs for holding views that it was impossible to prove one way or the other. Sects preaching a bewildering variety of doctrines that were deemed essential for salvation had proliferated alarmingly. There was now too much theological choice: many felt paralyzed and distressed by the variety of religious interpretations on offer. Some may have felt that faith was becoming harder to achieve than ever.

So did people respond with atheism, or something else?

Yet in fact a full-blown atheism in the sense that we use the word today was impossible. As Lucien Febvre has shown in his classic book The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, the conceptual difficulties in the way of a complete denial of God’s existence at this time were so great as to be insurmountable. From birth and baptism to death and burial in the churchyard, religion dominated the life of every single man and woman. Every activity of the day, which was punctuated with church bells summoning the faithful to prayer, was saturated with religious beliefs and institutions: they dominated professional and public life—even the guilds and the universities were religious organizations. As Febvre points out, God and religion were so ubiquitous that nobody at this stage thought to say “So our life, the whole of our life, is dominated by Christianity! How tiny is the area of our lives that is already secularized, compared to everything that is still governed, regulated and shaped by religion!”

I wonder, what dominates our own lives in such a way that we cannot realize? How shackled is our thinking by the commonplace? It’s a fascinating line of questioning.

Even if an exceptional man could have achieved the objectivity necessary to question the nature of religion and the existence of God, he would have found no support in either the philosophy or the science of his time. Until there had formed a body of coherent reasons, each of which was based on another cluster of scientific verifications, nobody could deny the existence of a God whose religion shaped and dominated the moral, emotional, aesthetic and political life of Europe. Without this support, such a denial could only be a personal whim or a passing impulse that was unworthy of serious consideration. As Febvre has shown, a vernacular language such as French lacked either the vocabulary or the syntax for skepticism. Such words as “absolute,” “relative,” “causality,” “concept,” and “intuition” were not yet in use. We should also remember that as yet no society in the world had eliminated religion, which was taken for granted.

So, what things enabled people to visualize a world without God, and develop a secular existence? And what things encouraged them along that path? I think the religious wars of Europe and, as Armstrong mentioned, the overwhelming variety of religions from which to choose, both made religion in general seem less desirable. I’m not enough of a philosopher to name pivotal events in that movement that made a secular worldview possible, but in the field of science, Darwin was certainly one of the key turning points. Here’s a quote from Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

But the question remains–what else is holding us back?