Not An (explicit) Argument for Evolution

Darwin was never actually put on trial for his beliefs the way Gallileo was. Or, I should say, Darwin was never put on trial for publishing his beliefs as Gallileo was. At least, not in a literal sense. In many ways, Darwin is the most vilified scientist in all of history and his ideas are continually being put on trial today.

All over the world, science is having a very difficult time convincing people of anything. Hell, there are those that believe that relativity is not supported by evidence. Rela-fucking-tivity! Follow that link at your own risk. It is literally mind-blowlingly insane. As if Special and General Relativity weren’t the backbones of modern macro-physics.

I had an argument recently with a young-earth creationist. The problem I was having was explaining that there is literally a mountain of evidence that supports the theory of evolution. Indeed, all of modern biology depends on it. Every legitimate article about biology incorporates some aspect of evolution into its discussion. Here, here, and here are a few from just this week. Granted, all of the links are to sciencedaily.com, but all of the studies being reported on are from San Diego, Oxford, and Heidelberg. The point I was trying to make was this: if the theory of evolution is so specious, then why do nearly all biologists (people heavily trained, well-read, and highly intelligent) act as though there isn’t even a question about evolution’s validity?

The thing that gets me, and perhaps this is the crux of the issue, is that conservative creationists literally do not care what the evidence says. They will not listen to reason in this matter. And I can’t fathom it. The bizarre mistrust toward science on the part of conservatives is truly one of the greatest mysteries facing our species. They say things as though they are facts and offer up little in the way of actual argumentation. And the other conservatives around them say things like, “Well said.” and “I’m so proud of you for sticking up for your beliefs.” This whole thing is bizarrely reinforced by a combination of mass psychosis and a “preaching to the choir” mentality. They silence or ignore anyone who doesn’t agree with them and that is that. There is no reasoning with this kind of attitude.

I have been asked why this bothers me and this is a difficult question to answer. It does bother me. That much is certain. One reason might have something to do with my education. I am trained in philosophy and rhetoric and bad logic sounds like a metal rake being dragged across a chalkboard. I literally cannot ignore it without a strong cognitive dissonance. I feel a deep need to correct people when they are committing a logical fallacy. Perhaps there is some psychological label that could be applied. I’d love to hear it. Regardless, I have a new job and I have been having to censor myself a lot lately, and it’s actually been causing me a non-negligible amount of stress.

Another reason the whole thing bothers me might be the fact that these wingnuts are trying to introduce legislation to heap this garbage into the minds of our nation’s children. Sometimes it is successful. And even when it isn’t, they are completely undeterred. They often get defeated in the courts. But that doesn’t stop them. There is a very strong movement in this country that is trying to shift our paradigm in the direction of a theocracy. They won’t be successful, but they sure as shit will obfuscate the issue as much as they can, which has its own set of problems.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that as of 2010, only 16% of Americans believe in evolution with absolutely no intervention on the part of a deity. A surprising 38% believe in a theistic evolution. It’s a compromise that I would certainly be willing to work around. I do not hate this idea nearly as much as I do the 40% or so that are hard-lined creationists.

Another reason the whole thing bothers me might have something to do with the fact that creationists often think they are being novel or clever or have found a new proof or some new reasoning that solidifies it. What they don’t realize is that scientists, philosophers, and atheists have been studying these arguments a lot harder and a lot more rigorously than they have. Atheists are far better versed in religious “logic” than they will ever be. We know, for instance, that there are only three (3) actual arguments for the existence of a supreme being. All other arguments are variations on the basic three (cosmological, teleological, ontological). We also know every argument against evolution by heart. They can’t convince us that it doesn’t happen because we know what they’re going to say before they say it. We have heard it all before, considered it, and destroyed it with our logic smashers. They just refuse to listen.

I have no illusions about this blog post converting anyone. Indeed, the dozen or so people that might actually read it through will be all, “fucking right!” and “Damned straight!” and no creationist will ever actually reach this sentence. This is mostly due to the fact that my pool of readers is very small (I’m working on it). But it is also because creationists do not read stuff like this. And perhaps that is the last reason this controversy bothers me. Aside from bad logic, brainwashing children, and the self-delusion of cleverness, it’s that they will not listen to anyone who disagrees with them. They initiate arguments, and then when you disagree with them, they just say, “Well, we all have a right to our opinion.” A creationist will never consider your argument carefully, logically, or systematically. They will never say, “You have a point.” And they will never, ever, ever say, “Wow, I think you might be right!”

es schenkt sich immer

Why sexual reproduction is so popular

transformer_reproduction

There are organisms that reproduce sexually and there are organisms that reproduce asexually. The former outnumber the latter by many orders of magnitude. Hell, even plants have sex on a pretty regular basis–though it’s a sort of kinky, bee-assisted sex. The question is why? Asexual reproduction is far more efficient than its more popular cousin.

In New Zealand, scientists found an astonishing opportunity to test one hypothesis. Snails are known to reproduce both sexually and asexually. In the fresh waters of New Zealand, both types of snail live side by side. So they could watch, over time, the changes in populations.

Here’s the thing. Evolution is affected by pressures. Behaviors and adaptations result for many different reasons, but the need to survive appears to be the primary factor in most adaptations–there are exceptions to this, of course. And so, the fact that sexual reproduction, which is terribly inefficient, is more popular than asexual reproduction is something of a mystery. Aside from the fact that it’s more fun.

They hypothesis that these researchers in New Zealand were testing has to do with parasites. Parasites infect all organisms. Consider that a population of snails that reproduces asexually essentially just clones itself off ad infinitum. Every child is genetically identical to its parent. It inherits all of its parent’s strengths, and, more importantly for this discussion, all of its weaknesses.

The offspring of a species that reproduces sexually is genetically unique, as it’s a sort of random mixture of its parents’ genes. So what’s a parasite likely to have an easier time with? A species that’s always the same, with the same defenses and the same weaknesses to exploit? Or a species whose members are always going to be different, have different chemistries, have different defenses?

The study showed that the population of asexually producing snails showed a marked reduction over time as a result of infection from parasites. The sexually reproducing snails showed a far more stable population trend and far less susceptibility to infection by parasites. The evidence seems to show that the evolution of sex was influenced strongly by parasites.

The thing that I find interesting about these findings is what they mean when examined in light of other things that we know about sex evolution.

Consider: Sex evolved as a defense against parasites. Once it became established as the dominant reproductive activity, sex took on a life of its own.

Peacocks have these long, ornate tails that serve absolutely no survival purpose whatsoever. They are purely a result of sexual selection. They are used to attract a member of the opposite sex. In fact, survival-wise, peacocks must strike a delicate balance between ability to attract mates and ability to escape from predators. The tails are a hindrance in a survival situation, but they ensure that their genes will be passed on. And so there are two completely separate pressures affecting the size of peacock tail feathers. One pressure creates a trend toward a smaller tail and other toward a larger, more showy tail. A very interesting tension.

But then look at humans. We are interesting because, not only are we social creatures, but we are also sentient. The most intelligent species on this planet. Sexual selection in humans is a far, far, far, more complicated affair than even that of peacocks. Look at the bizarre and strange rituals that humans adopt. Look at the prejudices, the tragedies, the arguments, the problems, that all arise as a result of a defense mechanism against parasites.

Sex brings out the absolute worst in humankind. I suppose it wouldn’t be poetic if it weren’t also true that sex can bring out the absolute best in humans as well. Poetry and literature as we know it would probably not be possible if it weren’t for sex.

I just got married. I couldn’t be happier about it. I don’t necessarily believe that monogamy is the only way that humans can (or should) interact on a sexual level, but I have made a choice to join in that sort of relationship. The fact that we can choose what sort of relationship we want to be in is probably one of our biggest problems because anyone that wants to have a different sort of relationship than what is deemed normal is often ostracized or worse.

Perhaps the best literary example of what came about as a result of sex is the Trojan War. Imagine it. Helen of Troy. The “face that launched a thousand ships.” And also spawned one terrible Wolfgang Petersen movie. All of that, because of parasites.

Maybe the Transformers are better off without it.

Maybe not.

Liebe ist in Ihrem Herzen.

Why Humans Suck Compared to Dinosaurs

dinodebate

A while back researchers located some dinosaur burrows in Montana. Of course, this proved that dinosaurs exhibited a burrowing behavior when the need arose. Just recently, further burrows were discovered in Victoria, Australia. The important thing to take away from this is that it shows a similar survival behavior from different species from different hemispheres. 110 million years ago, the Earth was a warmer place, but when Australia used to be situated at the south pole, it still got pretty cold in the winter. And apparently this was how they kept warm.

They were small dinosaurs, which makes sense. Comical as the image of a T-Rex burrowing into the soft sand of a riverbank is, it probably didn’t work that way.

The above cartoon is, as usual, my way of trying to be funny. Whether it’s successful or not, is not my call, but what I like is the idea that dinosaurs might compare survival adaptations, defenses, weaponry, in a civilized tone. It’s an anthropomorphism, which is the main point here. A similar discussion most certainly did occur between dinosaurs, but it probably would have been much more violent and probably involved the T-Rex trying to eat the Triceratops (though there is some debate over whether T-Rex was a hunter or a scavenger or both).

The thing is humans have three or so key survival adaptations: opposable thumbs, upright stature, gigantic brain. Each of these things is a tremendous liability in other ways, however. For instance, our upright stature makes us slow runners. Our huge brains mean our head are big which makes human childbirth a harrowing and very dangerous activity.

So basically, when one is trying to make the argument that humans are the pinnacle, the zenith, the ultimate, in biological evolution (or creation), they have to acknowledge the fact that humans have problems. We really have no natural weaponry, no defense against cold, our immune systems suck, we’re not strong, fast, or agile. All we have is our brains and our ability to use tools.

Dinosaurs were the most successful animals to ever walk the planet. They lived for millions of years. Bipedal man has been here for about five hundred thousand years and homo sapiens for only about a hundred thousand. We have a long way to go before we are even in the same league as dinosaurs. If anything insects (cockroaches, for instance) are the most successful animals currently creeping across this world. Crocodiles, sharks, and other similar species are far older than humans. Turtles live longer.

I mean, if your standard is simply “ability to survive,” then humans suck. We have a very high opinion of ourselves and it’s utterly undeserved. That’s the funny thing.

Again, this is from a survival-ability standpoint. Obviously we’ve made more art. We have language. We have “civilization,” whatever that means. And I think a pat on the back is well deserved. Maybe a polite, quiet round of applause.

Good work people. Keep it up for a few million more years and we’ll really be something. Just don’t screw it up in the meantime, alright?

Glück.

A Discussion of Transhumanism

robocop_loved

It’s a difficult world that we live in. It’s a world of expectations and everyone seems to expect different things from it. As some would have it, we are to submit to the pseudo-random flux that is evolution. A biologist might define evolution as: the change in allele frequencies in a population over time.

Humans have the unique ability in all the animals on Earth to sort of transcend their instincts. We can act in ways that are contrary to the way we have evolved to act, in other words. I’m not trying to get into a free will debate here, but the fact remains that our ability to perceive evolution for what it is allows us to make reasoned judgments about it. It allows us the unique ability to consciously manipulate it.

Creationists often argue that evolution has never been observed in a lab. Apparently they have never heard of the Westminster Kennel Club.

As the technology for gene manipulation becomes every more sophisticated, a debate is growing about the ethical implications of so-called designer babies. I have very clear objections for eugenics, but as long as gene-screening of embryos is freely available to everybody who wants a child–and not available exclusively to the filthy rich–then what’s the harm? Everyone has a different idea of what beautiful is. What can possibly be wrong with giving your children a little extra edge in the uphill battle for survival?

What I wanted to talk about today is a little different than designer babies, however. I’m almost thirty years old. I’m past the point where my genes could be screened and I could be selected out of a pot of possible embryos. My Adonis-like beauty and Einsteinian intelligence were the result of good old fashioned chance. But that’s it. There’s no way I can improve myself further at the genetic level.

But are there other options? I came across this article today on Science Daily and it got me thinking. There’s a lot of technology being developed for people who lose limbs. This particular new technology is promising because it involves laying microelectrodes on the surface of the brain, rather than embedding them within the neural tissue as a way of detecting neural impulses, translating them, and using them as a computer interface or as a method of controlling a bionic limb. I actually really like that the article uses the words “bionic limb,” terminology that used to be the playground of science fiction writers.

So far, the technology is able to improve the lives of crippled individuals. It is not, however, capable of bringing them back to full power, so to speak. The question that we must entertain at this point is: what happens when it is?

What happens when bionic limbs meet–or exceed–the capabilities of our natural limbs?

Bionics and cybernetics are pretty science fictiony, but this article shows that dramatic progress has been made in the field, and perhaps in ten or twenty years viable, lifelike appendages can be attached with all the articulation of a real hand. But maybe they’re better and stronger than before! A wounded soldier with his purple heart proudly pinned on his cybernetic chest stands tall and proud among a crowd of normal people. He smiles benignly upon them, only dimly remembering the day when he was a mere mortal. He holds his metallic fist above his head, a salute to his great-great-grandfather who had nothing but a leather-wrapped stick to bite down on when the field medic went at his gangrenous leg with a rusty hacksaw.

It’s not that far-fetched!

And even if it were, what are the ethical implications? It’s called “transhumanism.” One could call it forced human evolution. It is a movement that supports the use of biotechnology to augment the human body, not just in the case of injury, but as a voluntary act. A purposeful denial of the limitations of our naturally selected man-bodies. The idea that injury, aging, disease, and death are involuntary and undesirable carries a lot of merit.

Buddhists spend their entire lives attempting to overcome suffering, but their approach is holistic. It emphasizes acceptance of things that can’t be changed. Transhumanism, as a philosophy, urges people to reject the notion that their body is a temple that should not be altered. Body-modification as art is one thing. Body-modification in the name of utility, physical improvement, and life affirmation is another matter entirely.

Robocop spent three films trying to regain his lost humanity, and this is one of the possible perils of transhumanism (also called “posthumanism”). Nietzsche’s description of the Overman is one who has surpassed humankind, but still cares for the transience and vitality that humankind represents.

Bear in mind that evolution short-changes us. Humans are not the pinnacle of evolution. We are merely the product of a natural mechanism that allows animals that are “fit” to survive. As any biologist will tell you, an accurate description of it would be “survival of the sufficiently fit.” In other words, that which survives, survives. All a human needs to do is survive to reproduce. That’s it. In fact, that’s easy. All sorts of terrible maladies and suffering can crop up after that deed is done. Cancer. Osteoporosis. Heart disease. Love handles. And what’s worse? We pass those tendencies on to our children because it’s easy to reproduce.

The question is whether or not we want to accept the qualities that natural selection has, somewhat arbitrarily, assigned to us, or do we wish to strive for something greater? Do we make ourselves something new and distinct? Do we push the limits of human potential?

Some extra reading is important. I highly recommend anything by Nick Bostrom. He’s a professor at Oxford and a noted transhumanist philosopher. Specifically, look at:

In the end, it’s not about whether or not you value human life. Everyone except the most staunch sociopaths value human life. It’s about whether you value human life enough to go beyond it.

do svidania

Population size linked to intelligence, culture, cancer, and one of my favorite movies

pertains_mosaic

As you may well know, I hold firm to the idea that science is profoundly important to humans, though it’s sometimes a difficult thing to articulate exactly why. And so, at the risk of beating the proverbial horse, I’m going to take another crack at establishing some of philosophical reasons for scientific research.

One of my favorite movies is Hurlyburly. It’s a little obscure, and my reasons for liking it are a little tangential and not necessarily relevant to this discussion, and so I hope that the connection I wish to draw does not come off as pointlessly esoteric.

Anyway, Sean Penn’s character is this totally self-absorbed Hollywood casting director, a low-life bottom feeder of the film and entertainment industry. He is essentially a member of a vast machine that pumps out entertainment to the masses and the part that he plays in this machine is utterly insignificant in the general scheme of things. This–and a lot of drugs–put him in the state of mind of always questioning his place in the world and how he is to relate to the world. He continually asks when presented with some outside information that is not directly relevant to his life, “How does this pertain to me?”

On the one hand, he is just being utterly self-centered. But on the other, I think he’s asking a valid question. Many things happen in the world that have no bearing on our day to day lives. But are we going to make the claim that starving children in Africa are irrelevant? Are we going to say that the potential for revolution in Iran is not important? These things don’t affect me directly, but as Anna Paquin’s character points out in the film, everything pertains to everything else in the sense that everything is part of the same “flow,” as she puts it.

I’m not trying to be mystical about this. These things that happen in the world always pertain to us because everything pertains to us. Even the most insignificant detail, like the fact that I’m sleepless in a hotel right this very moment because my flight home was delayed until tomorrow morning, is significant. It might, say, affect your decision to book a flight with Northwest Airlines–now Delta–in the future. It might affect your decision to decide on a connection at the Indianapolis Airport (I don’t recommend it).

To move on, there were two new studies that struck me as profoundly relevant, not only to our lives, but also to each other. I will point out that they will not necessarily affect how you live your life, but they definitely pertain to you.

First of all, researchers at the University of Missouri have shown that, as humans evolved, there is a strong correlation between brain size and population density. In other words, they have shown that brain size is directly related to social competition. What this means is: our brains are bigger because we compete with each other, and not with other species. This is pretty serious stuff.

And now some research out of Georgia Tech suggests that the fact that our brains are bigger is the reason we have higher cancer rates than chimps who are much less susceptible to cancer.

So let’s look at this. We–not necessarily willingly–gave up a relatively cancer free existence for our intelligence. That intelligence evolved as a result of competition within our species.

Interestingly enough, it seems that population density is also directly linked to culture. So there is a tension that exists when humans are together. But this tension can be utilized purposefully. It stems from competition (since that is the nature of the world) but it in no way means that we are incapable of transcending our natures and working together. We can do great things when we work together and if it means we’re more likely to get cancer, well, I think it means we have all the more obligation to use our brains.

Gute Nacht.