I slept through the announcment of evolution’s demise?

9 08 2007

Holy smokes! Apparently evolution has been entirely debunked by a new Nature paper that shows evidence that Homo habilis and Homo erectus lived, at least for a bit, at the same time. The media, always looking for a hook, has burped up titles like “Evolution theory challenged,” and those inclined towards creationism have already jumped on the news reports. For those of you who have a subscription, the new paper “Implications of new early Homo fossils from Ileret, east of Lake Turkana, Kenya” by Spoor, et al. is up online, and a popular summary of the work (and it’s implications) is available as well. Even though I have a pile of posts that are begging for completion, given the amount of attention this story has been getting I’ll write up my own thoughts on it tonight, but in the meantime you can check out some of the responses of those who oppose evolution, based on the popular press reports (not one of them, as far as I can tell, has actually read the research).

Life Under the Blue Sky – When Will Science Make Up It’s Mind? Or, What Would Richard Say?

Life Under the Blue Sky – A Brilliant Scientist Linked to My Blog

Tattered Bits of Brain – Evolutionary Theory Takes Another Hit

J’s Cafe Nette – Gee, Do Ya Think God Really Did Create Man and We Didn’t Evolve?

Fancied Freedom – The evolution of human beings continue to evolve

There are, of course, some more reasonable responses out there, like;

Archie’s Archive – Intelligent Design Begins to Bray, Again

and certainly;

John Hawks Anthropology Weblog – Man Bites Dog

John Hawks and Afarensis can probably do a much better job than I can when it comes to the overall significance of the new paper, but from everything I’ve seen so far it’s not a “death blow” to evolution. The stereotyped notion of the “March of Progress” has been known to be incorrect for some time, yet creationists and ID advocates continue to keep bringing it up as if it were the #1 scientific hypothesis for human origins. For people so concerned with how incorrect evolution is, I’m surprised (well, not really) that they can’t even be bothered to pick up a copy of this edition of Nature on the newsstand or pop over to read the abstract or news summary on the journal’s web page. No, the popular press spits out of few short summaries with seemingly provocative titles and overnight the whole of evolutionary science is disproved, or at least that’s what some of the aforementioned bloggers would have us believe. Rather than say “Hmm, this is really interesting. I wonder what this means?” and putting forth their own ideas, they seem content to sit back, quote Scripture, and say “See! I was right! Case closed!” I’ll leave it up to you which is the more enlightened response to new ideas.

Update: Some of the Scienceblogs folks are starting to chime in (you’ll have to wait for my take on the subject until I get home and get my hands on some books to put the straight-line evolution model in context);

Evolutionblog – New Hominid Fossils Reported

Pharyngula – Two New Homo Fossils

The Questionable Authority – New Fossils and Our Understanding of Human Evolution

And also check out Professor Olson @ Large for a bit about a older significant hominid find

Why I bother

6 08 2007

I’ve spent plenty of time over the past few days going over arguments about creationism in its weak and strong forms, and frankly I’m a bit too tired to write up another long response (nor do I think that anyone needs to read any more re-statements of my position; click the “creationism” tag if you’re really that curious as see for yourself). Nevertheless, a blogging friend with a different take on the evolution/creationism debate has posted a response to my (in)famous “Why Fight Creationism?” post entitled “Why Talk About Origins At All?.” [which has been temporarily removed for a re-write]

I’ve had some friends who have taken a similar approach, essentially employing the belief that the issue of evolution is so divisive amongst Christians that it is better-off locked up in the closest, the salvation message of the “Good News” being of primary importance. Indeed, one of my old pastors would never respond to any of my thoughts or questions about evolution/creationism when I’d e-mail him about it, and I have more than a few more conservative Christian friends/acquaintances that simply ignore the fact that evolution is what I want to study and my more favorite topic of discussion (even though they seem a bit irked when I show up wearing my “Future Transitional Fossil” t-shirt or am reading books like The Beak of the Finch while they’re around). In any case, avoiding discussions of evolution may work for churches/ministries that want to create a cohesive group more focused on belief/outreach/simply believing in Christ, but I think this cheats people a bit, making me think of the great “Wizard of Oz” who didn’t want anyone to look behind the curtain.

So why bother about origins? As a relative of mine once opined about scientists and creationists, “Why can’t people just not think about these things?” The most direct answer that I can give is that the question of origins demands an answer. I don’t expect everyone to be as interested in evolution as I am, nor to put the amount of time/money/effort into reading up on it as I or other more knowledgeable folks have, but it’s difficult for me to understand how anyone can be unconcerned with how we came to be the way we are. Everyone has an opinion, that much is for sure, and oddly enough many people seem to prefer one version of mankind’s origin or another based upon religion (or lack thereof) or what is most comfortable/intuitive. I am a bit baffled that, in this age of discovery when we have uncovered so much of our past (be it through fossils or genetics), there is so much disinterest in learning about from whence we came.

I suppose why I spend so much time thinking about and talking about a subject that many don’t seem to care very much about (or have already formed an opinion about, one way or another) is that I don’t think it’s a good thing to merely pick a version of the origins of humans (or other life) and simply close the book on the subject. This method is almost like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story, where it doesn’t really matter what we think so long as we ascribe to one belief or another. I also must admit that while religion does have its virtues, I do worry of the repercussions of allowing bad science and bad theology in the form of creationism to spread and become generally acceptable; I have the feeling that a return to the Bible as the plainly-written infallible, unchanging text breathed by God might have other unsavory repercussions. Are we to return to an era where mental illness was really possession by Satan himself? Where storms were caused by witches? Where lightning rods were shunning and plagues allowed to spread because doing anything to enhance human safety in the face of natural phenomena was robbing God of His armaments? Such things would be regarded as foolish now, but if we allow ourselves to think that belief is a higher virtue than thought, where we will end up? I really do hope that my above questions have no real basis in reality, that I have no reason to fear a return to the militant and dangerous religious funamentalism that has marked so much of Western history over the past few centuries, but I am still reminded of Mark Twain’s famous quote;

“During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after doing its duty in but a lazy and indolent way for 800 years, gathered up its halters, thumbscrews, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry.”

On the surface, this issue is about the evolution/creationism debate, and if that was all there was to it then there wouldn’t be much else to say. What concerns me, however, are some of the other attitudes that seem to come along with creationism. It seems that many creationists (and ID advocates) do not believe that Global Climate Change is a real problem, or even if it is God is coming back soon so why worry about it? Science, in general, is mistrusted unless it has some economic value to it (particularly the fields that produce new technologies and medicines), but I don’t especially think a return to the natural theology of the 18th and 19th century is going to help the natural sciences like geology, biology, ecology, etc. grow very much. This isn’t merely about whether I think a chimpanzee is an evolutionary relative of mine or not, but rather a larger way of looking at the world, choices made whether to have faith in the infallibility of a particular religious text or to let the natural world speak for itself.

As Ann Druyan noted in the introduction to the recently published Varities of Scientific Experience, “We batter this planet as if we had someplace else to go,” and I feel that much of it has stemmed, either directly or indirectly, from the Biblical command to subdue the earth. I am heartened to see some evangelicals realize that either as a gift or by luck we’ve been entrusted with the planet and abused it for far too long at our own peril, but it still seems this is a minority response to current problems. Again, this is not a blanket statement because there are notable exceptions to the problems I am mentioning here, but in general I just wonder why those who don’t care about origins (or would rather ascribe scientific questions to a religious text) are so often apathetic about ecology or other important issues, and at times I feel that many have not moved far beyond the belief that Jesus is essentially coming back any day now, so there is no real reason to care for, preserve, or understand life on earth. If people hadn’t been so easily fooled by such platitudes and false logic early on, who knows what we would have discovered or come to understand by now? Clutching to Genesis tightly, taking no time to look at “the creation” itself, has only brought humanity misery, and now that we’re finally released from those mental shackles (although still a bit sore), I would hate to see is catapulted backwards into a time of hate and superstition fueled by bad theology, there being a Bible verse to support every variety of misdeed and ignorance if only interpreted in this way or that.

In the end, though, I know feel that my time is not wasted. The questions of how we can to be how we are, and what happened to those who came before, demand answers from us, and for every one thing I learn there’s a dozen other questions that I have. The natural world is so wonderful that I can’t help but be awed by it and want to know more, even to the point of not being able to understand how anyone can be apathetic towards all the amazing things we’ve learned about it. I could function in society and make a living without knowing anything about evolution, perhaps that is true, but what sort of existence would I lead? Simply working for a paycheck, working to be comfortable, seems rather hollow; I would much rather struggle to understand even one great truth than to simply ignore nature, and at least for me, there is no greater topic that requires discussion and understanding than “origins.”

You can bring a Rhipidistid to land but you can’t make it walk

6 08 2007

Background reading:
Combating Creationism With History
Why Fight Creationism?

Steven Berven of the blog Tattered Bits of Brain was kind enough to respond to my post “Why Fight Creationism?” (see link above) in a new post called “It’s alive (or, yet another creationism post).” I don’t mean to be unkind, but there is a bit of goal-post-shifting, reductio ad absurdum, and other “classic” rhetorical devices used throughout, suggesting that evolution is every bit as much as “just-so story” as creationism is.

Steven starts off with a disclaimer;

If I haven’t made it clear before, let me reiterate: I don’t in any way mean to suggest that creationist views and religious ideology should supplant the scientific method. I enjoy science. I love learning about the way our world works and the amazing complexity and interdependence of the life and natural processes of this world.

I just don’t happen to think it within the realms of possibility that it could all just ”happen” through a series of random accidents and fortuitous spontaneous breakthroughs.

I never suggested Steve was a YEC, only that YEC arguments are not only unscientific, they’re simply ill-founded assertions that find their roots in devotion to Biblical authority. Steve seems to fall along the theistic evolution/intelligent design section of the continuum, and while Steve is more than welcome to have whatever beliefs he wants regarding the origin and evolution of life, I feel that both theistic evolution and intelligent design require at least some amount of special pleading and a requirement to bend a bit to spiritual/religious notions.

Anyway, on to the meat of the argument. In the last post in this series, I gave a summation of early tetrapod evolution in non-technical terms (see “Why Fight Creationism?“, and also “Taking in the Carboniferous Atmosphere“). Steve has some problems with my explanations/use of rhetoric language, however;

An external change gave the tetrapods a “good reason to develop their lungs.” Okay, so they’ve got the reason. Now what? Do they think to themselves, “Hmm, guess it’s probably a good time to develop lungs. Ready…..GO!“

Clearly a silly example; or is it? Examples such as these seem so suggest that species respond in an almost cognitive fashion, and that this somehow results in a kind of genetic memory that is imprinted on their DNA. What’s the real answer? “Evolution,” (as in the proper noun) was kind enough to “pre-adapt” species (and by that I take to mean “build in?”) the capability to exploit a new niche? So Evolution pre-engineered in capabilities? Tetrapods were given a reason to developed their lungs? Lobe-finned fish responded to selective pressure, pushed up on their arms, and “decided” to leave the water in order to avoid death? The water murks up, the plants move in, and you have a choice: adapt or die. So you adapt. Huh?


In this little discourse Steve is trying to paint my summation in an anthropomorphic or vitalistic light, something I myself have spoken against before. If one looks back at the original post we’re discussing, I try to take an ecological approach to tetrapod evolution, showing how selective pressures would have favored those animals better able to survive and reproduce in plant-clogged swamps near the edge of insect-filled forests. I did not suggest some vitalistic force, driving the animals on internally, nor the early tetrapods thinking “I want to have some bugs for lunch, so I’m going to develop lungs and do away with my gills.” This is clearly absurd, and perhaps I could have chosen my words better when I said that tetrapods had “good reason” to become more developed to land. I had assumed that there was a basic understanding that those early tetrapods that were better able to exploit the changing environment would be more successful, leaving more offspring which would have their own variations, and the duel pressures to develop lungs and to take advantage of new food sources provided plenty of selective pressures for populations of these animals to change.

Steve also mentions my explanation that tetrapods were pre-adapted to evolve in that they already possessed rudimentary lungs and a locomotor system that could easily be modified. I was not suggesting that evolution “knew what was coming” or acted like some spiritual guiding force, urging on the animals. Rather the previous evolution of the tetrapods gave them an advantage when things started to change, and if the early tetrapods did not have lungs or fleshy fins with strong-enough bone structure, the vertebrate “invasion” of the land would likely have had to wait. The point I was attempting to get across is that as ecology changes, some animals are favored over others, natural selection (and other factors) working on variations and systems already present in animals, further modifying them into new forms. It is no accident that all living tetrapods share the same basic body plan; it was inherited from our early ancestors, and it has proved efficient enough that it only need be modified through evolution rather than constructed from scratch every few hundred million years. In any event, in case it was not already clear, evolution does not work like some abstract supernatural force, like some natural toolkit of “Mother Nature”; organisms change together in ecologies, and there is no prediction of what is going to happen next, so changes in ecology favor some and not others, those that were pre-adapted to do better in a different world allowing natural selection and other mechanisms to further adapt the organisms.

Steve continues along with a similar absurd argument, implying that early tetrapods just didn’t know they could breathe air until they were forced to, somehow then realizing their opportunities. As I’ve just described, this is an attempt to ridicule a straw-man argument so much as to make the position of the opposing side seem untenable, but I said nothing of fish as prescient as the ones Steven describes. Steve continues;

This is exactly the kind of intellectual sleight of hand that causes me the most trouble with much of the current evolutionist theories. To vaguely suggest that “Nature” did it or “Evolution” did it is NO DIFFERENT than saying that “God” did it! Do you see what I’m trying to get at here?

Again, this is creating a straw-man argument via reductio ad absurdum. The whole point of my last entry, taking special care to mention Romer’s “drying pond hypothesis” was to present the best model we now have, even though the model may change. It’s a good hypothesis, but we don’t have all the information as yet (there’d be no work to do if we did), and part of the major difference between evolutionary science and ID/creationism is that evolutionary scientists actually make hypotheses and modify them as better evidence becomes available. Trying to ascribe a belief in the God of Evolution like that of creationists in the Judeo/Christian God is a poor argument at best, and as I’ve already shown, has little to do with what I actually described. Then Steve shifts the goalpost down the field;

What I want evolutionary theory to provide me, to provide us, to provide science the world over, is reproducible evidence of the the internal, bio-chemical mechanism whereby RNA and DNA, all those little peptides and amino acids are re-arranged or reprogrammed, how from one generation to the next they are imparted with new replication data that results in a different species, one now better suited to live on land, rather than water. How does “Nature” pre-adapt a species to a range of potential changes? And on a wide enough scale to ensure viability?

This is quite a different aim than wanting to know how tetrapods crawled out of plant-choked swamps onto land, involving the sciences of inheritance, genetics, biochemistry, and many others. Indeed, science has made great strides in figuring out the genetic code and how mutations come to be expressed in future generations, but such explanations would be a book in and of themselves, and fortunately, other authors have already carried this subject. For those unfamiliar with such sciences, a good place to start would be Futuyma’s textbook Evolution and Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful and The Making of the Fittest. As always, there’s still plenty of work to be done, but evolutionary science isn’t merely playing connect-the-dots with fossils, either.

Steve leaves us with this;

I’ll readily admit that much of my data on evolution might be a bit dated, as I’ve kind of been out of the “fight” for a few years. However, from what I’ve been able to gather, evolutionary theory is still long on what happened, and a little short on the how it happened. And to me, if you continue to insist on the what, without being able to provide the how, well then my friends, you are operating in faith as surely as that Bible-thumping creationist.

Again, this reflects a bit of goal-shifting. The “what” and the “how” can vary greatly depending on what level of organization we’re talking about, even though it’s all connected together. Lines of research intertwine and support each other, and scientists are not obligated to agree whatever is new or just seems to “make sense.” A recent example of a smaller-scale evolutionary change involved male butterflies decimated by bacteria, only to bounce back within a few generations. I’ve already covered the story here, and it provides a good example of scientists looking into researching evolutionary changes. Still, as far as fossils go, some information is just not available to us; we’re probably never going to find any genetic material from early tetrapods or be able to study it directly. Does this mean that everything scientists say is therefore “junk”? Of course not, and studying ancient ecosytems as a whole through time can give us some great information about changes in ecology working on individuals and populations of animals. In the end, however, those who would prefer to subscribe agency to a deity or other supernatural force will continue to do so and continue to disagree with me, and that’s fine, but I utterly reject the idea that evolutionary science is merely a new form of religion that seeks to design it’s own creation mythology than learn about how life came to be on this planet.

The Phrase That Pays

3 08 2007

I came across this passage in Andrew White’s A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom and thought it too good to keep to myself. It should certainly resonate with anyone familiar with evolution, at least;

“Nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since greater is that authority than all the powers of the human mind.” [St. Augustine] No treatise was safe thereafter which did not breathe the spirit and conform to the letter of this maxim. Unfortunately, what was generally understood by the “authority of Scripture” was the tyranny of sacred books imperfectly transcribed, viewed through distorting superstitions, and frequently interpreted by party spirit.

I’m now nearly halfway through the book (or, technically, nearly finished with Volume I), although I would have been further along if I didn’t take the past two nights to exclusively sit down with my other laptop and read scientific papers, taking notes on data/findings I’ll want to incorporate into the book I’m working on (and giving rise to the recent posts about sclerotic rings, ancient atmosphere, spinosaurs, etc.). Hopefully this weekend I’ll be able to knock out the rest of the papers or the rest of White’s tome, although I’ll probably have to pick one or the other as either way I’ll have about 400 pages to read (maybe even more in terms of the stack of papers).

As for White’s book itself, it is certainly good and well-worth the time spent, even though the book falters a bit in its discussion of Egypt and anthropology (although the subjects White covers in these sections are relatively new and don’t seem to have as much history to them as others). I also added a bunch of new books, yet again, to my amazon.com wish list, ranging from mutations in humans to the role oxygen has played in the history of life on earth, and it seems that the more I learn the more 1) questions I have, 2) realize my knowledge is inadequate, and inevitably 3) the more books I add to the ever-growing stack that I hope to read.

And, of course, The Boneyard #2 is coming up tomorrow, so if you haven’t already submitted something, get it in to me before 4 PM eastern standard time tomorrow (if it’s a little late I’ll add it later on, but sooner is better). Thanks to all those who’ve contributed so far (especially those who’ve submitted more than one post), and I hope this one will be even better than the last.

Why fight creationism?

1 08 2007

As I’ve become more familiar with evolution (and creationist arguments attempting to refute it), I’ve often run into people who say that the issue simply doesn’t matter. “Why should anyone care?” (or some variation on that theme) is the response I most often get, many people taking something of a NOMA-approach to keeping science and religion separate. Once again I’ve gotten this response, in blog form, to a post I wrote the other day called “Combating Creationism With History.” In the post, I said that I had been reading Andrew D. White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, and I had learned much about early theological beliefs and how they essentially suppressed scientific reasoning. Indeed, I had heard quite often that the book of Genesis that kicks off the Old Testament had many of its events derived from earlier Babylonian and Chaldean mythologies, and I said that when I get the chance I’m going to try and read the translations of those ancient writings to see where the striking similarities lie. Even beyond showing the Genesis account to be derived from the mythology of another culture, other historical/archeological evidence shows that civilizations like that of the Egyptians, to name one, are far older than the Biblical chronologies Ussher extrapolated seem to allow (at the moment, nomadic people were known to inhabit the Nile Valley during the Pleistocene, which at its very youngest is over 7,000 years older than the date of 4004 B.C. creationists set as the time of the beginning of the universe). Pile on top of this the mass of scientific evidence we have regarding the old age of the earth and the evolution of life, and the case for Genesis being a myth (regardless of where it came from) is essentially open-and-shut.

Still, there are some who beg to differ. Steven Bervin of the blog Tattered Bits of Brain has posted a reply entitled “Combating creationism with science.” After a short introduction, Steven writes the following;

I guess I am curious as to why creationism needs to be combatted? Why does it so often seem that the scientifically-illuminated feel honor bound to “destroy” or otherwise “combat” the theory of creationism on a scientific basis? Is there a core belief among these warriors of science that a belief in the causality of creation rather than random chance is some sort of dangerous delusion from which people need to be rescued? Are they some sort of moralistic/scientific crusaders who see it as a mission to release people from their intellectual servitude to such antiquated ideas about the origins of our universe?

I (and probably many others) would love nothing more if we didn’t have to fight back creationism, yet it keeps showing up again and again in places were it just shouldn’t be. The entire Dover Trial need not have happened, but those who wanted to “teach the controversy” pushed ahead and forced the issue anyway. Were scientists and those concerned with education supposed to simply do nothing? Because of the hard-headed foolishness of those who wanted to introduce creationism into the classroom the school district had to pay over one million dollars in legal fees and damages, essentially waste of money that could have been put to better use. Even more recently AiG’s “Creation Museum” opened in Kentucky, receiving much media attention. Were scientists supposed to say nothing about it, consenting that the museum was scientific through silence?

I chose the term “combating” because there is certainly a culture war going on involving evolution, but I feel that Steve has overstepped my premise a bit to align me with authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I am not focusing on the Bible as a whole, saying that there is nothing accurate in the collection of works at all, but rather on Genesis, a book that has been shown to be false for many, many years. It surprises me a bit that Christians feel that they must defend Genesis by twisting theology this way and that, trying to pick bits of truth out so that an allegorical reading might become the standard view. This might work cognitively and in our own time, but during the time that the mythology was created and transcribed it was intended to be a historical account of the creation of the world. If modern science has caused us to treat Genesis as allegory, is it responsible to say that God withheld this truth from the generations of Jews and Christians before ours being that they did not access to paleontology, cosmology, biology, etc. As I’ve said before, I much prefer White’s interpretation that Genesis is a remnant and reminder of the myth and superstition that we came from, not as some ever-fuzzier truth to be clung onto desperately for fear that one’s faith will utterly collapse without the belief that the Flood really happened, among other things. In essence, all I’m arguing is that from a scientific and historical standpoint Genesis has long been shown to be drastically wrong, yet modern Christian apologetics still regards it as essential and refuses to put the childish thing away.

Steve continues;

Then can we all just right now stop calling it the “theory” of evolution, and accept that it has, for all intents and purposes, been accepted among the vast majority of the scientific community as a natural law, akin to the Laws of Thermodynamics? And therefore, that attempting to find fault with some of the premises of evolutionary theory puts one in the “flat earther” category, calling gravity “magic” and insisting that ideas such as entropy and exothermic reactions are so much heretical nonsense?

Concerning evolution as a stable body of knowledge, I think Stephen J. Gould put it best when he wrote;

Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don’t go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Indeed, just like gravity and other aspects of physics, there is the observed factual part and the various theories and other components used to more fully explain it. Pointing out that one theory of evolution or another doesn’t work doesn’t automatically make someone a creationist, and in fact science thrives on the competition of various theories to attempt to more fully explain what we know. There is a distinct difference, however, in saying that one theory of evolutionary change or another might be wrong or need adjustment and saying that evolution does not happen at all. Those in the second category require some fiat of special creation, and that does put someone in the creationist category (although not necessarily a flat-earther; such is reductio ad absurdum)

Steve also brings up this point;

What I find interesting in these “scientific” viewpoints is the tacit assumption that our modern creation “myth” was culled together from various ancient sources and “tuned” to fit modern theology by some nameless group (perhaps the Council of Nicea?). And yet, there seems little credence paid to the idea that the Babylonians or Chaldean or whomever could have instead been influenced by a creation tradition found among many of the tribal people they conquered and/or enslaved. The Babylonians were well-known as a pollyglot of various cultural traditions incorporated from assimilated people. Why is it so far-fetched to assume that their creation mythology could have been influenced by the long-standing oral traditions of captured ancient Hebrews whose culture predated their’s by thousands of years? I’m just asking.

It might not be far-fetched to consider that the older myths were derived from Hebrews (which still doesn’t prove that the Genesis story wasn’t a myth), but such claims require evidence. I’m not an archaeological scholar and I now have much reading to do on the subject, but as far as I’ve seen there isn’t any evidence to suggest that the Babylonians/Chaldeans incorporated the myths of the Hebrews into their own system, thus being a derivation from Genesis that ultimately died out. This might be a preferred way of thinking, but merely posing the question rhetorically doesn’t make it so, and to the best of my current understanding there isn’t any reason not to believe that the Jews received very important aspects of the Genesis myth from other cultures rather than the other way around. If there is proof to the contrary I’d be more than happy to look at it, but as I said before this does nothing to actually prove that Genesis actually occurred.

Steve goes on;

I guess I take issue with the idea that simply because a concept is in the Bible, it must therefore be held as presumptively unscientific. My visits to places like the Pacific Science Center serve only to bolster my faith, not lead me to doubt it. To me, the discoveries of science only point that much more decisively towards a creative force, one deeply mirrored in the Biblical narrative. No, in many cases, not literally, but certainly conceptually.

To me, there is a great deal of scholarship out there which is summarily dismissed not because it is scientifically inviable or logically flawed, but merely because it is creationist in its context. This hardly seems to support the kind of inherent skepticism required by the scientific method.

My stance is not that “Just because it’s in the Bible, it’s therefore wrong.” This is hardly the case, and there is historical value in Bible, but that being said, the Bible is horrendously wrong about any number of topics. The world that Bible describes is very different from the one that exists in reality, and the famous lines from Joshua 10:13 are a good example. It’s written;

So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.

This is not a poetic passage but an attempt to recount history, and contradicts what we’ve known to be true about our solar system for centuries now. Even though we still use words like “sun rise” or “sun set” it’s common knowledge that the earth goes around the sun, with the moon orbiting the earth. For the account in Joshua to be true at all, the earth would have to stop in its orbit, stop rotating, and the moon would have to stop rotating and stop orbiting as well. I can only imagine the cataclysm that would befall our planet if it just stopped on a dime, but then again the writers of this passage had no knowledge of this; to them the world was small, flat, and the sun moved in the sky (even possibly entering and exiting through the “doors of heaven”). This is but one example of how the Bible is long outdated and incorrect; why should we still cling to such passages as true, other than out of comfort or preference?

As for the second paragraph, no example of such research is given. I’ve read numerous editions of the CRSQ and Creation journals and I have to admit that there is hardly anything scientific in such works. Indeed, sometimes experiments are seemingly purposely sabotaged (like trying to date dinosaur bones with carbon-14), and others are merely reviews that do not seem to follow the actual rules of scientific procedure and discourse. In fact, most of the journals seem devoted to book reviews and opinion pieces, and given that the CRSQ is a quarterly journal there seems to be little research done annually by “creation scientists.” This isn’t a case of scientists saying “Oh, you believe in the Bible so you must be wrong,” but instead looking at the claims of creationists and determining them to be inconsistent with scientific reality. In fact, many scientists seem more well-versed to creationist “research” and rhetoric than many of the creationists themselves, especially being that they’re nearly constantly subjected to e-mails, comments, and even mailings trying to get them to recognize Genesis as historical truth. Maybe some scientists and those concerned with good science do dismiss creationism and intelligent design out of hand, but speaking for myself only, I’ve spent plenty of hours I would have rather spend reading something enjoyable pouring over creationist texts and keeping up with the latest ideas from creation ministries. It would be much easier to just have nothing to do with it, but that wouldn’t be very productive.

Steve concludes as follows;

I guess I find it difficult to lend credence to those who would (and I must say, justifiably so) criticize many Creationism defenders’ reliance on the “just because” or “well, it’s obvious” defense, when the scientific evolutionists continue to refer to biological organisms adapting or reacting to changes in their evironment, without any references to the actual biological/physiological mechanism whereby genetic code is reprogrammed based on input from external stimuli. What “drove” the early amphibians to seek land vs. water? And for the love of pete, stop anthropomorhpizing “Nature” in all your freaking documentaries. An amorphous “Nature” is given the causal force behind adaptive change, without really explaining what this force is, or how it influences the genetic make-up of species to “spontaneously” adapt to new conditions.

So I guess, ultimately, it is to my mind a “pot-n-kettle” kind of argument. Don’t claim the moral and/or scientific highground if you can’t provide any better answers to the questions of ultimate causality than those wacky creationists. Science and creationism don’t have to be mutually exclusive, unless of course, that is the internally mandated and pre-determined viewpoint.

This belies an understanding of evolution as caricature rather than as a working science, as hypotheses are given to explain why things are the way they are. Let’s run with Steve’s chosen example of tetrapods. One of the most favored ideas of why tetrapods evolved was Romer’s “drying pond hypothesis,” red Devionian-aged rocks (the time during which this transition occurred) seeming to suggest a hot world, or at least one experiencing drought. Given that Romer primarily had the “bookends” of the lineage to work with (the fish Eusthenopteron and the early tetrapod Icthyostega), he suggested that the drying of freshwater ponds provided the selective pressure for the lobe-finned fish to develop limbs and crawl to other pools as to avoid death. As a professor of mine opined during a discussion of the lineage since Romer’s time, however, new fossils of tetrapods have been coming out of the ground “fast and furious,” and it is now apparent that tetrapods didn’t leave the water of quickly as earlier paleontologists thought. Equipped with gills and lungs, members of the transitional series like Tiktaalik likely pushed themselves up off the bottom with their changing limbs, which also allowed them to still move through the water. Given that the areas in which these fossils were found are extremely muddy, it may have been much better/easier to breathe air than the clog your gills with sediment. Even if I’m wrong in this case, the swamps and freshwater habitats that these organisms inhabited were becoming increasingly filled with plants on land and at the waters edge, and many people know the choking effect too much plant material can have on modern freshwater lakes. Such a strangling environment would have given creatures like the ancestors of tetrapods good reason to develop their lungs and start exploiting food along the shore than to try swimming through the thick vegetation of the water habitats. Even beyond this, however, there was an ecological change going on during this time; some of the earliest known forests were cropping up beside the bodies of water tetrapods were found in. Insects had already made the move to land much earlier, and whomever got out of the pool first (or could catch insects at the water’s edge) would have a brand new niche wide-open for exploitation. Ecological changes often change organisms, and so the transition from muddy floodplain to forest would certainly have affected tetrapods, giving them the motive and opportunity to come out of the water. The creationist response to this? These creatures were just some weird kind that God created for some reason that we can’t ascertain, and they never ever turned into anything different or had ancestors outside of their ill-defined “kind.”

Likewise, the phrase “genetic code is reprogrammed” caught my attention. Mutation, changes in development, and environmental changes provide the raw stuff (variations or changes) for natural and sexual selection to work on. The whole process is a bit more complex than this depending on population size and other factors, but the genetic code is only “reprogrammed” by those creatures who live long enough to make, causing changes to become fixed in a population over time, only to change again and again and again. Pre-existing advantages often make all the difference when ecological shifts occur, and in the case of tetrapods, they were marvelously pre-adapted by evolution to exploit a new niche; if they had been ray-finned fish lacking lungs, the transition may never have happened, or if it did its products may have looked quite different. It may be easy to use terms like “reprogrammed” when referring to the genome, but this is an appeal to agency (i.e. there was someone to do the programming outside of evolutionary change), and I think we would do well to be careful in our word choice when concerning “information” in the genome.

In any event, scientists and those concerned with evolution are often mischaracterized as being wholly dogmatic, rejecting creationist claims out of hand while adding nothing of their own. As I’ve just shown however, even if they turn out to be wrong scientists put forth hypotheses to attempt to explain why life is the way it is, and if a hypothesis is overturned for a more accurate one, all the better for science (this being an advancement, not a setback). I’m sure examples could be dug up of scientists who simply dismiss creationism and want little to do with the issue, but I’ve found that most of the vocal opponents not only are well-versed in evolution, but also in creationism and it’s history. For my own part, I’ll quickly restate what I’ve said above. Regardless of where it came from, Genesis cannot be regarded as scientifically accurate. Certain verses can be picked here and there that may correlate to our current understanding, but the interpretation that was intended for its original readers certainly does not hold today, and it seems that in most passages the Bible reflects an antiquated notion of science and nature more than infinite wisdom. While some may take contradictory verses as being allegory today, we must always ask ourselves how such writings were intended for the original readers (readers that likely thought Jesus was coming back so soon that many did not bother to accumulate knowledge or understanding of nature for some time). Natural theology, the detection of the divine in nature, is a personal experience, but likewise those who engage in it might very well play the game of making God smaller and smaller; if we are to claim that God resides in the ultimate laws of physics, but we eventually are about to naturally explain those laws, this will cause another crisis of faith for some, leaving God nowhere to run to. I am not accusing Steve of this (I do not know him well enough to much such judgements), but among those who take Genesis as allegorical but still true (in the sense that God created the universe and did it in an order) God has gotten smaller and smaller as we’ve discovered more about the world. It could be argued that even if we are able to explain what happened in nature God could be the architect behind the scenes or the ultimate cause, but shouldn’t the presence of the creator be able to be extrapolated from the creation? These questions will likely go on long after I’m gone, but even in the case of such admissions, Genesis now primarily serves as the source of mythology from which many people have drawn their view of nature, and if it has other values than I must say I’ve missed them.

Eugenics, re-framed

1 08 2007

Perhaps the most anticipated book of this past summer (other than the conclusion of the Harry Potter series) was Michael Behe’s Edge of Evolution, which was universally panned by reputable scientists and didn’t seem to make much of a splash at all. I didn’t expect there to be anything especially groundbreaking or novel in Behe’s work, and although I’m sure ID folk will be citing it for some time, it hardly succeeds in it’s task of demoting evolution. It was much to my surprise, then, to find out that there’s another book full of potential woo dressed up as science coming out in a few weeks, John Harris’ Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People.

As much as I would like to withhold judgment until I actually get a chance to read the book, I have to say that the synopsis and early supporting reviews scream “EUGENICS!” at me, even though I’m sure the author and his supporters are careful not to use the “e” word. According to the inside cover, the book is based off of a set of lectures given by Harris (“the Sir David Alliance Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester School of Law”) at Oxford last year. Here’s the summary currently available via the amazon.com page;

Decisive biotechnological interventions in the lottery of human life–to enhance our bodies and brains and perhaps irreversibly change our genetic makeup–have been widely rejected as unethical and undesirable, and have often met with extreme hostility. But in Enhancing Evolution, leading bioethicist John Harris dismantles objections to genetic engineering, stem-cell research, designer babies, and cloning to make a forthright, sweeping, and rigorous ethical case for using biotechnology to improve human life.

Human enhancement, Harris argues, is a good thin–good morally, good for individuals, good as social policy, and good for a genetic heritage that needs serious improvement. Enhancing Evolution defends biotechnological interventions that could allow us to live longer, healthier, and even happier lives by, for example, providing us with immunity from cancer and HIV/AIDS. But the book advocates far more than therapies designed to free us from sickness and disability. Harris champions the possibility of influencing the very course of evolution to give us increased mental and physical powers–from reasoning, concentration, and memory to strength, stamina, and reaction speed. Indeed, he supports enhancing ourselves in almost any way we desire. And it’s not only morally defensible to enhance ourselves, Harris says. In some cases, it’s morally obligatory.

Whether one looks upon biotechnology with hope, fear, or a little of both, Enhancing Evolution makes a case for it that no one can ignore.

As Jeff Goldblum (as Ian Malcolm) said in Jurassic Park, “The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here, uh… staggers me.” The phrase “a genetic heritage that needs serious improvement” especially set off warning claxons in my head, and even if Harris himself doesn’t fully commit to eugenics in this area, it seems that the grounds would become ripe for it. Also note how it isn’t stated who, exactly, would be receiving all these beneficial treatments or how such “improvements” would be extended to the majority of the world’s population that cannot even afford simple medicines, much less eugenic treatment regimens.

The idea that we can somehow improve humankind through our understanding of science (“better living through [bio]chemistry,” if you like) is hardly new, and even in such works as G.G. Simpson’s The Meaning of Evolution the author hints at a time when we may be able to guide our own evolution, though the means during the time the book was written and revised (early 1950’s) were lacking. Even though we have come a long way since that time, I sometimes have to wonder if we even really understand what we’re messing with when we consider cloning. I don’t know how scientific this new book is going to be, but the synopsis makes it sound like through eugenic breeding or medical innovation we can reach some sort of Platonic ideal where everyone is beautiful, healthy, and intelligent, living a long and happy life. HIV/AIDS and cancer are mentioned as two diseases that we may be able to eliminate, but somehow I doubt that all disease would just disappear because we engineered ourselves a different way, and if there were lots of human clones, lack of genetic diversity could make populations more susceptible to disease.

While Harris may be able to tackle some of the superficial ethical objections in the book, I doubt that he fully considered or deconstructed the more functional objections, mostly being that it seems that trying to improve ourselves would probably make the human species weaker, not stronger, as well as leading to some unsavory (and dangerous) social/political consequences. I probably won’t be able to check this book out immediately when it is released on the 17th, but I’ll be interested to see the reviews of any other science bloggers if they get the chance to read it.

How little things change

20 07 2007

One of the greatest problems facing evolutionary biology is that many people do not see the economic value of understanding how life came to be as it is. Many sciences suffer from this PR problem, and science in general is typically overlooked in standardized tests and public schools. While we may think of this as a modern problem, it has plagued scientists for centuries, the exploits of the independently wealthy (especially in terms of paleontology) being essential to giving new fields of study adequate investigation. Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adan Beringer, in his infamous 1726 work Lithographiae Wirceburgensis (as translated and printed in The Lying Stones of Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer), appeals to the higher sensibilities of those curious about the natural world;

It is the just complaint of serious men in this age of ours, which is so much more refined in letters and manners than the coarse ages of the past, that men are to be found who so heartily detest all fine literature that they would have only those arts and sciences endowed and accepted in our centers of learning which contribute to gainful employment, while they would have all others perpetually banished as vain and useless. Among the first of the latter they number the knowledge of natural things, and its most noble part, which we call Lithology; they pursue it with an especially censorious rod, and condemn it to rejection from the world of erudition as one of the wanton futilities of intellectual idlers. To what purpose, they ask, do we stare fixedly with eye and mind at small stones and figured rocks, at little images of animals or plants, the rubbish of mountain and stream, found by chance amid the muck and sand of land and sea? To what purpose do we, at the cost of much gold and labor, examine these findings, describe them in vast tomes, commit them to engravings and circulate them about the world, and will fill thick volumes with useless arguments about them? What a waste of time and of the labors of gifted men to dissipate their talents by ensnaring them in this sort of game and vain sport! Does this not amount to neglecting the cares of the realm to catch flies; to sending a mighty army out to collect shells, and then to reward their glorious expedition by building them a triumphal arch or shrine of shells, wherein the high priest is the physician, the idols are stone images of little beasts, the incense and victims are the efforts, the genius, and the expenses of learned men gone mad? To hunt for prodigious pearls, to gather the precious coral from the depths of the sea, to wrest gems and metals and marble from the bowels of mountains, or to transport these things from foreign lands, through countless storms and perils, these are labors worthy of the expenses of princes, of the care and diligence of great minds. Such things fill the treasury, increase the wealth of private citizens, and contribute to the commonweal. The fruits of such labor are never matters of regret. Thus in defiance of all the rules and precepts of sane philosophy do those souls, bent to the ground and tormented by the pseudosacred and insatiable hunger for gold, esteem the dignity and worth of the sublime sciences in terms of usefulness and gain.

While I personally would agree with Beringer and Aldo Leopold (who wrote over two centuries later), both of whom argued that the study of nature should not have to be deemed economically advantageous to be warranted, although those who are not inclined to be awestruck by nature will continue to bang their fists against the table, chanting “Progress!”, and thinking little of any “extracurricular” enlightenment that don’t make their bank accounts more pregnant. I firmly believe that this is part of the reason why many conservatives have a problem with evolutionary science; they see it as arrogant scientists jetting off to tropical locales to go bird-watching, the taxpayer footing the bill for the “fruitless” study. They are completely comfortable in all the trappings of their own society, imagination, wonder, and curiousity being deluded and undermined by prime-time TV and fast food that is to addictive and unhealthy that it could be deemed suicidal to zip through the drive-thru for a burger and frieds (Super Sized, of course).

Even if I am wrong about American society as a whole, my writing here reflects my own personal disconnect with modern society. I simply cannot understand why people do not want to know about the world around them, or even their own history. The wonders and horrors of centuries past can teach us much, but most people I have come to know are only concerned about the future; when am I getting paid? when is the new hollywood blockbuster coming out? when can I eat? Lip service is paid to great minds that have gone before, but their works are largely forgotten or mutated; the name “Charles Darwin” is immediately recognizable, but how many could explain his ideas about evolution?

This is all a bit heavy for a Friday, but tomorrow I’ll be walking the 4th floor of the American Museum of Natural History, admiring the inner architecture of animals that invigorate my imagination, and pose far more questions than one lifetime could possibly answer. While my contemporaries might find it more relaxing and enjoyable to escape into trashy novels, multi-million dollar movies, or tabloid gossip, my refuge is a time that I’ll never see, when there were no protagonists or antagonists in the big picture, only nature producing forms both monstrous and beautiful.