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Darwin Does It February 11, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, science.
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15 comments

darwinjpgThis week marks the culmination of our trifecta of evolution discussions here at Valence. February 12th is Darwin Day (his 200th birthday, except I don’t like counting dead peoples’ birthdays, do you?) and this year is the 150th anniversary of his release of On The Origin of Species.  The media is awash in Darwin controversy and I can’t help but weigh in.

I suppose statements like “evolution kicks ass” probably already gave away my opinion that the Theory of Evolution is not only good and sound science but also is the kind of idea that has literally revolutionized what it means to be human.  Therefore, I’ll stop beating the intelligent design horse this week and instead spend a bit of time exploring this character Darwin and his discerning idea called natural selection.

(Proceed with caution, the next bit may appear dry but it won’t hurt too bad, I promise.)

Simply put, natural selection recognizes that no two individuals of a species are exactly the same.  When competing for shared but limited resources (whether it be food or potential mates) one will have a slight advantage over the other by default.  Those individuals best equipped to reproduce in their natural environment will be those most likely to pass on those advantageous characteristics to their offspring.  Over many generations favored features statistically come to dominate the population.  If, perchance, a new adaptation were to better equip an individual to compete than that feature would eventually become pervasive in the population.

I confess, when looked at in hindsight Darwin’s theory of natural selection doesn’t appear to be so revolutionary.  Sounds like common sense.  Thomas Huxley is famously quoted as saying “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” when he heard of it.

The reason Darwin’s idea was so radical is that he defined a completely natural “pressure” that enables random physical change to accumulate in a species with the appearance of a defined direction (ie giraffes’ necks getting longer or human skin changing tone).  If two groups of the same species are separated and subjected to different pressures for long enough they accumulate different physical features and eventually will become different species.  Run the clock backwards and we find each species sharing some common branch point, a common ancestor.

The problem Darwin had is that his theory required a reliable mechanism by which parents could endow their offspring with inherited traits but also one that would randomly mutate from time to time to allow for variation in physical features that could be acted on by natural selection.  It wouldn’t be until the 1920’s when an obscure monk’s (Mendel’s)  experiments on peas would be rediscovered and kick-start genetics and even later in the 1950’s as DNA was discovered that Darwin would have his mechanism.

Darwin surely didn’t have all the details mechanisms exactly right but his overarching concepts have still held up surprising well.  Even so it’s really been the persistent research of the past 150 years building upon Darwin’s foundation which has solidified evolution as scientific reality.  This fact has some people saying we need to lose the fascination with Darwin and start paying more attention to the breadth of evolutionary research since his time.

The New York Times ran an essay this week by Carl Safina called “Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live” in which he essentially argues that by linking evolution with Darwin too tightly we give the false impression that this beautiful theory lives and dies by just one man alone.  Safina is really making PR appeal to the scientific community (which is interesting in a week dedicated to the celebration of Darwin’s contribution to science).  By seeking to downplay the importance of Darwin (and especially “isms” like Darwinism) he aims to highlight the last 150 years of research which he feels, if the public could understand, would not so flippantly be denied or ignored by so many.

…our understanding of how life works since Darwin won’t swim in the public pool of ideas until we kill the cult of Darwinism. Only when we fully acknowledge the subsequent century and a half of value added can we really appreciate both Darwin’s genius and the fact that evolution is life’s driving force, with or without Darwin.

I agree that we should never be deifying a historical figure like Darwin and that any perception that scientists ‘believe’ in the theory of evolution as a cult is seriously misguided.  The idea that evolution is “Darwin’s theory” betrays a deep misunderstanding of the depth confirming evidence found since the 1860’s and only by setting Darwin in the proper context do his advances actually carry the weight of genius instead of just myth.  But is celebrating Darwin’s achievements this week really as dangerous as Safina implies?

Safina correctly recognizes that the mid 1800’s were already broiling over with bits and pieces of the evolutionary puzzle (like common decent and inherited features) which were waiting to be put together into a unified theory.  Darwin didn’t invent all the components of evolution but instead recognized the mechanism by which evolution could occur, natural selection.  There is no doubt that had Darwin not thought of natural selection someone soon after him would.  In fact, in fear of being scooped by Alfred Russel Wallace, who outlined an almost identical theory, Darwin (after mulling over his theory for 20 years) was forced to publish The Origin before he actually felt ready.  Evolution “…was an idea whose time had come, with or without Darwin.”

However, I disagree with Safina that celebrating Darwin’s contribution to science is dangerous.  Evolutionary theory may have been inevitable with or without the historical character “Charles Darwin” but it would have certainly been impossible without a man (or woman) with the character traits that Darwin embodied.  His unique obsession with naturalism coupled with an absurd dedication to the tedious methodology of science equipped him to tackle a problem that no one before had been able solve.  In a way, celebrating Darwin is not elevating a man but instead is recognizing the fruits of the scientific process itself.

Respect for Darwin is as much for the disciplined and scientific way he addressed the problem as it is for the discovery itself. When we celebrate Darwin, we are not cheering for a man who got lucky one day, but for someone who represents many of what we consider scientific virtues: curiosity, rigor, discipline, meticulous observation, experiment, and intellectual courage. (PZ Myers, Pharyngula)

Darwin was writing and thinking at the height of the Victorian Era.  To call his ideas, which gave teeth to a material explanation of human existence, controversial would be a gross understatement considering the religious fervor of his time.  Hell, the religious fervor of our time is still pretty feverish.  I have to admit that I admire his resolve to chase truth down trails that he knew would not be popular.  But even more than his resolve was the tangible weight he carried to be cautious and meticulous with evidence before jumping to conclusions.  I want to think and process like that, with a burden for the utmost care and an open-mind to follow the evidence where it leads.  I still find that a cause worth celebrating.

Intelligent Design? February 4, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Faith, science, Skepticism.
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65 comments

Last week, in order to discuss the strategy of ‘academic freedom’ which intelligent design proponents are hiding behind, I introduced the evolution vs. intelligent design (ID) debate briefly.  Apparently, judging by the lack of push-back I got in the comments, it is a fairly safe opinion to hold here at Valence that ID has no place in public schools and that evolution should be taught as the factual scientific theory it is.   A fantastic discussion of this exact discussion was on These Day KPBS on Tuesday; I’d definitely recommend giving it a listen.

That being said, I have had some extremely interesting conversations offline (thank you to those who e-mailed me this week) about the soundness of intelligent design.  I’d like to take to the time this week to explore the central tenants of ID a little further and explain why I believe they hold little to no merit.

While ID parades itself as a new modern scientific theory it is fundamentally just a restatement of the age old Teleological Argument for the existence of God put forth by thinkers as early as Aquinas and Cicero.  Simply put, there are components of the natural world which appear to be designed by their sheer complexity.  In the same way that the existence of a pocket watch implies that there exists a watchmaker, natural systems which appear designed imply the existence of an ultimate designer, that is God.

Here’s a rather humorous example of the argument from design (yes, this is serious):

By the way, I’m not trying to paint all believers with the same brush here.  Ray Comfort is arguably a poor representative for believers seeing as how he’s a… well an idiot.  Admittedly, there are design arguments that aren’t so embarrassing, though I’m not sure that at their heart they don’t struggle with the same logical fallacies.  By assuming it immediately follows that any system which appears designed must have a supernatural designer (a false dichotomy and a non sequitur) we ignore the possibility that natural causes may also affect systems to organize in complex or intricate ways.

In fact, natural causes do often result in complex and intricate systems without the intervention of a divine being.  Less controversial examples would be the self organization of snowflakes or diamonds and next week we’ll explore the grand-daddy of intricate systems resulting from natural causes, Darwinian Natural Selection.  Ohh, I can’t wait!

Intelligent design specifically looks to put a modern spin on the teleological argument by setting it the context of modern biology.  The buzz phrase that ID proponents have coined to describe biological systems which they insist must have been designed is irreducible complexity.   Irreducible complexity is the idea that any biological system which must be completely whole in an advanced intricate form in order to function could not have evolved since natural selection couldn’t operate on a more primitive and thus non-functional organ.

Like the fantastic and candid scientist he was, Darwin was actually the first to note that his theory of evolution by natural selection could be falsified by the existence of just one proven irreducibly complex system:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. (On the Origin of Species)

The main advocates of ID (namely Michael Behe, William Dembski and Philip Johnson among others) claim that they have indeed found such cases that Darwin could not.  Perhaps the most popular example (and certainly the easiest to explain here at Valence) is the supposed irreducible complexity of the eye.

ID claims that if you remove any portion of the eye (ie the lens, cornea, the photo receptor cells or even the molecular proteins that trigger the neural relays to the brain) then the eye ceases to function.  Evolution implies that modern eyes are the result of modification from less complex eyes in our ancestors.  But if those less complex eyes weren’t functional, how did natural selection favor increased performance?  This seeming paradox is where ID insists that supernatural intervention is required.  To further bolster their claim that a designer is necessary they often cite the impossible odds of a complete system like the eye coming together by chance.  Anyone up for the proverbial tornadoes building 747’s or chimps typing Shakespeare?

As we’ll see next week, the example of the eye as irreducibly complex (and similar systems) and the appeal to impossible odds really betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of natural selection as a mechanism on the part of ID proponents.

Behe in Darwin’s Black Box focuses further attention on cellular (bacterial flagellum) and molecular (blood clotting cascade) examples which are a bit more advanced but still essentially the same claim.  For all you A students out there, quality discussion of each can be found here and here.

For the rest of us, let me just note that no irreducibly complex system proposed by ID has actually been shown to be irreducible.  In fact evolution researchers have thoroughly debunked each of ID’s concerns and ID has produced no recognized scientific research to back up their claims.  That is, there is absolutely no reputable argument about whether the eye (for example) is irreducibly complex.  It’s not.  Multiple researchers have time and again provided compelling evidence for the natural evolution of proposed irreducibly complex systems like the eye.

Behe himself, as he testified in Kitzmiller vs Dover, admitted that many of his initial critiques made in Darwin’s Black Box have been answered and that in the 20 years of ID research not one peer reviewed ID article has been published in a respected scientific journal.  (For you A+ students, NOVA did a great special on the Kitzmiller trial that I highly recommend.)

That being said, it is perfectly valid and probably even healthy for the scientific process to be challenged by the problems that IDers have noted.  Science thrives on challenges and grows by having people try to falsify its theories.  However, there is an intellectual dishonesty in clinging to those initial critiques of evolution after a preponderance of evidence has proven you wrong.  This kind of dogmatic persistence actually hinders scientific progress.

Bringing the issue back home.  What confounds me is, if ID research is so inflated and paper thin (which is the case I’m making), why does the majority of the religious community still hang our hat on their theories?  There are the few scientists like Ken Miller and Francis Collins who strive to reconcile an adherence to strict evolution with Christian faith but I think we can agree they are in the minority here in America.

For the most of us, we seem content to largely ignore the formidable case for evolution by concentrating on the fringe dissent that is ID, that is if we think about the evolution at all.   But is this really an honest treatment of the issue or is it a case where the religious community has subconsciously (or consciously for that matter) predetermined which research it will back based who is arguing for God?  If intelligent design is shown to be untenable, what are the responsible implications for our faith?

cdesign proponentsists January 29, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Politics, science.
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21 comments

The evolution ‘debate’ is certainly a can of worms but, with Darwin’s 200th birthday coming up next month and recent creationist battles in Louisiana on the news wire, it’s a can that’s due to be opened here at Valence.

Before we go too far, let me just be clear, evolution kicks ass.  Since Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 evidence ranging from such diverse disciplines as paleontology to genetics has consistently poured in to show that evolution is a robust natural explanation for the diversity of life on our planet.  I’ve paired the word ‘debate’ with evolution in quotes above because there is actually no scientific controversy over whether evolution is true.  (For a brief further explanation of my position you can read here and for a less brief but considerably more reputable discussion please check this out.)

the-latest-face-of-creationism_1

That being said, there is certainly a debate between religious creationists (lately, thinly veiled as “Intelligent Design, ID, Proponents”) and reputable science.  Unfortunately, because ID proponents have little to contribute to the actual scientific community this debate is often waged over high school and middle school curricula instead of with actual research.  For IDers it’s much easier to slip creationism past the politics of school boards and state legislators than it is to deal honestly with scientific criticism.  A great summary of creationism’s tactics was in the January issue of Scientific American.

The effort to sneak religious overtones into the public school system by barring or seriously skewing the teaching of evolution is nothing new and has, as of yet, been unsuccessful thanks to our handy-dandy Establishment Clause (see Epperson v. Arkansas and Edwards v. Aguillard).  In fact, the entire ID movement was born out of the need to mask the religious overtones of creationism in order to side step the separation of church and state.  Luckily, even efforts as recent as 2005 to provide “alternative textbooks” in schools promoting ID have proven unsuccessful as the promotion of ID was equated with the promotion of religion (see Kitzmiller v. Dover).  After being so soundly thumped at Dover the ID community has been forced to retreat to their fallback strategy of lobbying for schools to simply “teach the controversy” about evolution by couching their arguments in the vocabulary of “academic freedom.”

It is this plea to academic freedom that I am most interested in discussing this week.  The strategy is so interesting because it appeals to an inherent sense of fairplay and debate that Americans go crazy for.  As soon as any argument seeks to silence its critics in order to remain valid all of our alarm bells go ringing.  One could ask, “If evolution is so secure than why try to shield our students from learning its pitfalls?  Why not teach the controversy and let the students decide?”  On the surface these appear to be strong and valid questions but ultimately I think they’re misrepresenting the science and twisting the purpose of education.

Here’s an example.  Louisiana took a small but important step back towards the dark ages last year with the unfortunate passing of the Louisiana Science Education Act.

On its face, the law looks innocuous: it directs the state board of education to “allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied,” which includes providing “support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied.” What’s not to like? Aren’t critical thinking, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion exactly what science education aims to promote? (SciAm Jan 09)

The bill is aimed at supporting and protecting teachers who want to teach ‘supplemental’ material about ‘controversial’ subjects.  Doesn’t sound too bad, right?  Wrong. Tellingly, the only ‘controversial’ subjects highlighted by the bill are “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning”.  Also, “…the bill was introduced at the behest of the Louisiana Family Forum, which seeks to “persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family through research, communication and networking.” (SciAm Jan 09)”

Further, shouldn’t science teachers already be fostering critical thinking skills and logical analysis?  Is there really a need for the Louisiana legislature to suddenly step in and encourage them to continue do so?  I don’t think so.  This bill is simply seeking a loophole to sneak creationism back into schools.

…it is clear why the Louisiana Science Education Act is pernicious: it tacitly encourages teachers and local school districts to miseducate students about evolution, whether by teaching creationism as a scientifically credible alternative or merely by misrepresenting evolution as scientifically controversial… Telling students that evolution is a theory in crisis is-to be blunt-a lie. (SciAm Jan 09)

But what of academic freedom?  Yes, teaching is about equipping your students with critical thinking skills but it’s also about pointing them to the best and most reliable sources of information available. Helping them up onto the proverbial shoulders of those giants they are supposed to be seeing from, if you will.

The simple fact is that evolution is not contested in any reputable scientific circles.  All of modern biology is built upon the stoutness of evolutionary theory.  Does academic freedom extend to lying to our students about the validity of scientific theories in order to be ‘fair’ to opposing views?  I think not, especially when those views are largely contrived and long ago debunked.  Why handicap our students with this kind of garbage?  ID’s request to teach creationism, or at least cast doubt on evolution, is tantamount to giving equal time to the Flat Earth Society in the physics classroom because they disagree with Newton.

Additionally, the appeal to ‘teach the controversy’ betrays a serious misunderstanding on the side of creationists as to how science actually works.  Science thrives on argument.  The strength of evolutionary theory (and any other well established scientific theory for that matter) is the tangible ways that it meets and answers questioners with actual evidence.  It’s the controversy and skeptical questions which keep us looking for evidence and which have ultimately strengthened evolution over the years.

The problem with the ID movement is not that they contest the validity of evolution but instead that once their theories have been refuted by evidence they consistently refuse to revise their ideas.  Dishonesty.  When they are no longer able to proffer their arguments in scientific circles they decide to take their case directly to high school students.  Talk about preying on the vulnerable.  A plea to academic freedom is used to excuse a lack of academic integrity.  Is this the educational standard we should be holding to?