Evolution Revolution

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I used to work at a small town science museum. It was mostly for kids. We had exhibits, activities, and demonstrations ostensibly for educational purposes, but for the most part, it was entertainment. There’s only so much science talk you can get in before kids stop listening and just want to touch the lightning ball. Perhaps our biggest draw was the plethora of live animal exhibits that we had. We had everything from tarantulas to a chinchilla to a tortoise (twenty pounds of reptile, that). All of it was designed to be interactive. If a kid wanted to hold a tarantula, we were more than happy to facilitate and supervise such an experience.

Which brings me to a particular incident involving one of our boa constrictors, a young, bright boy and a woman who was presumably his grandmother. I don’t know if you know this about boa constrictors, but they have little claws near their back ends. I pointed out the largely residual organs. The young boy, who had the constrictor draped around his shoulders, said, more or less, “That’s from when they used to be lizards, right?”

Utterly delighted, I was about to say, “That’s exactly right,” and maybe drop some sort of mini lecture about it. Unfortunately, just as I opened my mouth, the grandmother opened hers. She said, “Oh, that’s preposterous.” And then she went off on a tirade about how evolution didn’t happen. She even appealed to me, saying something to the effect that it was “ridiculous to think that people in Africa were black because it was sunny.”

I wanted to say, “Well why else are they black? Are you suggesting some other reason, you old racist?”

But I didn’t. I had absolutely no idea how to respond to the remarks by this woman. Going into the intricacies of sexual selection theories, vitamin D theory, ultraviolet radiation theory, etc. would be complex and I would never be able to explain it adequately without getting angry or distracted. There wasn’t enough time. I let it go. To this day, I’m pretty sure it was one of the most cowardly things I’ve ever done.

Later, I approached my boss, an elderly retired parasitologist, a remarkable and intelligent woman. I retold the story and asked her what I should have done. She said an appropriate response would be, “A majority of biologists agree that evolution by means of natural selection is most likely to be the primary mechanism for the origin of species.” More or less.

But isn’t this cop-out? With new evidence of humanity’s origins surfacing all the time, do we have to be so overly diplomatic? Where ought the line be drawn? It’s a fascinating question because proponents of evolution are the only people who are concerned with being diplomatic about the issue. Perhaps my availability heuristic is flawed, but the majority of anti-evolution folks that I’ve spoken with are vehemently opposed to the idea, not even open to the debate. They don’t care if they’re diplomatic about it at all. And perhaps I’m not open to the idea of a religious interpretation of creationism if it seems to contradict the evidence that I can see with my own eyes.

Why exactly do we feel the need to be diplomatic about our stance on evolution? Obviously, we aren’t all the time, but when it comes down to it, diplomacy is disarming. It’s the only way we have to get through. Being militant is not effective. Until we can find clinching proof, the smoking gun that I talked about yesterday, calm, reasoned argument is all we have. If we start calling people idiots, no matter how idiotic they are being, we’re simply not going to be convincing anyone. Psychological defenses go up and they shut down just like a kid who doesn’t want to hear a long-winded explanation of some scientific principle.

One last thing: Check it out, hobbits are a different species. Gary Gygax is vindicated.

Discuss.

Build a Better Tool

manvschimp

One of the biggest evolutionary advantages that humans possess is our ability to use tools. Of course, we’re not the only species to use tools and in some cases, we’re not even the most dexterous with the tools that we do use. However, it seems to the be the case that we are alone in all the animal kingdom when it comes to the extent to which we refine our tools. The ability to use old tools to make better tools is one of our key advantages.

We don’t have claws and teeth worth a damn, so we make knives, swords, and guns. We’re not, on the average, as strong as a tiger, but our weapons and machines make us stronger. Nietzsche said that this was our capacity for simulation (a.k.a. lying). But that’s not what I wanted to talk about today. I merely wanted to illustrate how our tool making and, in particular, our tool refining, is responsible for so much of what we know about the world and, by proxy, what we are able to do in the world.

Imagine what it must have been like to be Galileo. The current accepted cosmic model shows Earth at the center of everything. the vast majority of the sky is utterly stationary (the stars), but there are a few objects that move. The Greeks compared them with the gods. The Romans called one in particular Jupiter. There’s Galileo, using a telescope that he built, taking a gander at Jupiter. What does he see? Three tiny “stars” dwarfed by Jupiter but very close to it. Imagine what the next few days must have been like for him? Night after night, observing these three stars and seeing them move and even disappear. How would you explain it, if everything is supposed to orbit the Earth? Imagine how his heart raced when the only logical hypothesis formed in his mind. Heresy, but true! They orbit Jupiter!

The reason that the Copernican Model of the solar system did not meet immediate success is the fact that his observations were based on measurements only infinitesimally better than those that confirmed a geo-centric solar system. His conclusion was radical because it flew in the face of everything that the Church held dear, but also because it was actually only a little bit better. For it to be politically viable, for the Church to accept it (no matter if scientists agree), you need a damn sight more positive proof than that. Look at the theory of evolution. That’s been demonstrated time and again, but it’s not proof enough for religious folks. It seems that often what it takes is one piece of irrefutable evidence to sway the skeptical. A smoking gun.

The problem, of course, is that there isn’t always one of those just lying around. Just ask a forensics expert.

Instead, what science relies on is a slow and steady progression, a refinement of technique and technology. The tools become incrementally more sophisticated, the measurements just a tiny bit more accurate and over time we are able to construct a picture of what the universe looks like. Galileo saw with this telescope things that we had no way of knowing existed. They might as well not have existed until Galileo spotted them. Not only that, but he was able to make more accurate observations in support of the Copernican Model than Copernicus which is why he, and not Copernicus, is the “Father of Modern Science.”

The strides he made in observational astronomy were monumental. But they pale in comparison to the things we’ve been seeing lately. Two stories caught my eye today. The first is directly related to this idea of incrementally more sensitive equipment. We’ve mapped the background radiation from our perspective. We have an idea of what the universe looked like when it was very, very young. But what will we see if we increase the resolution? As it turns out, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation might have a fingerprint of sorts embedded in it. Ripples in space-time, kicked up during the Big Bang, might have left a residual polarization in the cosmic radiation. We haven’t had tools sensitive enough to detect this hypothesized “B-mode polarization” yet, but perhaps now we do. And it will change, ever so slightly, our understanding of the early (the first trillionth of a trillionth of a second) universe.

Also on the micro scale, we have accurately measured the atomic mass of some isotopes of certain rare elements. More accurately, scientists have measured the nuclear masses of four specific rare elements. Rare elements like these are difficult to measure because they are rare and because when you do finally get your hands on some, they decay much too quickly to get accurate measurements. But through the use of our ability to continually refine our techniques and build more and more sensitive equipment, scientists have done what might have seemed impossible in Galileo’s day.

I like the quote from the project lead: “As an analogue, think of a scale precise enough to see how your weight changes when you pluck just one hair out of your head.”

How are such subtle changes in mass important? It depends on who you are. The thing is, in the world of science, smaller and smaller changes have bigger and bigger consequences. If some fundamental universal constant–for example, c, the speed of light–were different be as little as a tenth of a percent, the entire nature of the universe would be different. But it also has intrinsic value. The ability to accurately model the universe, to really see, in as much detail as possible, the mechanisms that power the universe, is remarkable and, when it comes down to it, it’s really all that sets us apart from chimps.

Discuss.

Why Swine Flu is Important

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I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t put in a few words about swine flu. Forty-ish confirmed cases in the U.S. Deaths in Mexico. It has been elevated to WHO alert level four, pretty close to being classified as a global pandemic.

First, it’s important to note, that this image that I borrowed from the BBC’s article cited a little further on, is actually a picture of the Spanish Flu virus. And so, it’s merely a visual aid in that respect.

The question that is worth asking is what is the flu and what is it that’s important? A virus is nothing more than some strands of DNA or RNA wrapped in a protein shell. It’s basically a fast-evolving, semi-living machine for replicating random bits of DNA. It’s interesting because DNA’s primary goal is self-replication. That’s what it exists to do. Dawkins calls it the Selfish Gene. In complex organisms, the game that genes play is astonishingly complex and involves things like mating rituals and natural selection, but when it comes to viruses, that game is very, very simple: infect a host, find some cells, bust in, harvest the resources needed to replicate itself a few thousand or million times, and then hopefully be transmitted to another host. It doesn’t do the virus any good if the host dies before it can be transmitted.

Viruses like influenza are successful because they don’t often kill their host and they are able to jump from host to host. We get sick, we might get someone else sick, the virus lives on, and we get better, becoming immune to that specific strain of the virus. The problem arises when a strain is good at infecting but gets a little zealous about the messing up the host. People start dying. Ebola is a particularly good example of this because it wreaks terrible havoc on the host, killing very quickly. The reason ebola isn’t a successful virus is because it often kills too quickly. It has a short incubation period and this makes it unlikely that it will get passed on. It fails because it can’t reach pandemic status.

So what’s the deal with swine flu? Well, the simple fact of the mater is, we’re overdue for a flu pandemic. In 1968, Spanish Flu killed a million people worldwide. Swine flue isn’t a big deal yet, but it’s transmitting well and it has killed people. Everyone in the US has recovered, but people are dying. Apparently healthy, young people have died from it and the strain that’s floating around the U.S. is genetically identical to the one in Mexico. It’s also a new virus and so there is no natural immunity to it. We have no vaccines.

It’s not what it’s doing right now, which is really not very much. It’s what is possible. So, here’s the deal. Take everything that media says with a grain of salt. Much of media is engaging in some very alarmist reporting. They don’t, for the most part, know what the hell they’re talking about. The CDC and WHO are the people you should check in with because they know what they’re talking about.

It’s possible that this thing could get as bad as it has in Mexico. The simple fact of the matter is that we don’t know.

What can you do?

Wash your hands. Stay calm. Keep informed. Don’t listen to Fox News, they’re a bunch of alarmist morons who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. But above all, don’t make it something that it isn’t yet.

The problem with large scale catastrophes is that it is always a matter of “when.” A pandemic will occur. Whether it’s going to be swine flu, ebola, or e. coli, it’s going to happen. You can protect yourself by staying informed and acting with as much knowledge as possible. And even then you could get sick and die. That’s life.

Just remember the closing lines of Oedipus Rex: “Count no man fortunate until he is dead.”

It’s nothing to worry about.

Discuss.