Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Category: evolution (page 2 of 4)

O-Day Hijinx: Part 2 – Stealth Christians!

Sometimes people don’t start out all witnessy, but sneak up to it gradually instead. They always reveal their true colours sooner or later, though.

Another data point for the Salem Hypothesis.

Talking to Americans

Call for compulsory teaching of evolution in the UK

Should the teaching of evolution be compulsory, even in primary schools? OH HELLS YES.

Richard Dawkins among academics calling for compulsory evolution teaching at primary school

Evolution should be taught to all primary school pupils, according to leading scientists and academics.

Experts including three Nobel laureates and Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist, are calling on the new Government to make teaching of the theory a compulsory part of the curriculum.

They say it is necessary because of the increasing number of schools that do not have to follow the curriculum, and because of the “threat” posed by the religious concept of creationism.

They wrote: “Evolution is the most important idea underlying biological science. It is a key concept that children should be introduced to at an early stage.

“Whatever curriculum reforms are made, we urge that there is teaching of evolution for all school-age children, and especially in the primary curriculum.”

Evolution is the foundation of biology, and it’s as well-supported as a theory gets. Everyone should know this stuff to be considered an educated person. It should be regarded as just as essential and mandatory as maths or writing.

We need this kind of move just to move things back in the right direction. Creationists have been engaged in a protracted struggle to get their ignorance illegally enshrined in school curricula for decades, so this is a nice bit of pushback.

Would the know-nothing religious right scream that the government is forcing evolution down everyone’s throat, and outlawing the teaching of alternative Bible-based points of view?

Of course they would. But that’s what they’ve already been saying for years, so who would notice?

Evolution: A great book, with only one misstep

I’m reading through this book with Youngest Boy. It’s “Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be” by Daniel Loxton. It’s really good. It has a good overview of evolutionary theory, with the evidence.

But there is one misstep, and it’s toward the end of the book.

If you can’t read that scan, here’s the text.

This is a question people often ask when wondering about evolution. They want to connect the discoveries of science to their religious understanding.

Unfortunately, this isn’t something science can help with. Individual scientists may have personal opinions about religious matters, but science as a whole has nothing to say about religion.

Science is our most reliable method for sorting out how the natural world functions, but it can’t tell what those discoveries mean in a spiritual sense. Your family, friends and community leaders are the best people to ask about religious questions.

I think this answer was trying to do two things: tell why science is good, and allow for the validity of religion. Those are probably good goals for a book like this, since they’re aiming for a broad audience, and the book wasn’t intended to be an atheist polemic. I can even see the benefit in not antagonising religious readers.

But I also think it’s important for scientists to tell the truth, and this answer sidesteps that responsibility. Here’s what’s wrong.

  • It says that science can’t deal with supernatural claims, only natural ones. This is untrue. While the scientific method, with its emphasis on real-world evidence, can’t categorically disprove supernatural claims, it does tell us what to do when such a claim comes along: remain skeptical of it until its proponents provide real-world evidence in favour of the claim.
  • It says that religious claims about creation are essentially supernatural. But creationist claims really involve the natural world, and can therefore be evaluated by science just like any other claim.
  • It handballs the responsibility for answering questions over to family, friends, and community leaders — people who may be no better than anyone else at evaluating truth claims, or who may have an interest in promoting an unscientific view. Religious leaders are the ones who ought to be promoting religion, of course — that’s their job — but is that where we want to send young people for information about how evolution and religion interact?

I think the book should have said something like this:

Some religious people claim that evolution didn’t happen, or that it’s impossible. But according to the evidence we have, evolution is real, and it’s happening all around us.

Many religious people do accept evolution. They don’t see a conflict between evolution and their religion, or they see evolution as part of creation.

Whether you believe in a religion or not, you can use science to figure out how our amazing world operates.

This answer re-asserts the reality of evolution and the primacy of science, but it takes it easy on the conflict between religion and science. It allows that people have their own opinions, and is written not to be offensive.

I still think the book is really good. It’s interesting, has beautiful illustrations, and lays out the basics of evolutionary theory in a way young people can grasp. Even the religion question can lead to an interesting discussion.

The author responds to the criticism here.

Talk the Talk Twofer: Cave signs

Two scintillating interviews for your enjoyment, all featuring me, and the charming and talented Jamie MacDonald.

First, from the 23 February show: Stroke patients, unable to speak, have re-learned to say words and phrases by singing them instead of speaking.

It’s already been shown that speech and music operate somewhat independently, and some linguists think language might have evolved via music.

Click to listen:

Next, from the 2 March show, a look at cave signs. Why should cave art get all the attention? Researchers from the Uni of Victoria have noticed that some non-representational markings turn up in caves all across Europe. Did they have an agreed-upon meaning? If so, it would mean that the beginnings of a writing system (and the cognition needed to power same) would have happened far earlier than heretofore supposed. When researching this topic, I expected to find a language myth ripe for debunking, but I think it’s pretty solid and the claims are presented fairly modestly.

Click to listen:

I’m on about 5/6ths of the way through the stream. Watch out; it starts playing as soon as the page loads.

Why theistic evolution is false

Is it wrong to pay attention to Sarah Palin? Some people have the idea that if we ignore her, it’ll starve her of oxygen and she’ll disappear. Well, with her new book out, she’s getting the oxygen whether we pay attention or not. So I think it’s best to confront La Palin directly, unpleasant though it be.

The quote that got my attention was this:

On her belief in creationism and how she debated McCain manager Steve Schmidt about it: “But your dad’s a science teacher,” Schmidt objected. “Yes.” “Then you know that science proves evolution,” added Schmidt. “Parts of evolution,” I said. “But I believe that God created us and also that He can create an evolutionary process that allows species to change and adapt.” Schmidt winced and raised his eyebrows. In the dim light, his sunglasses shifted atop his hear. I had just dared to mention the C-word: creationism. But I felt I was on solid factual ground.

But she’s not.

What she’s describing is theistic evolution, which is sort of like splitting the difference between science and religion. It’s now the philosophy of choice for believers who can no longer ignore the torrents of evidence for evolution, but who don’t like its inevitably atheistic implications. So they acknowledge that evolution is true, but then they say “But surely a god must have been involved somewhere. Maybe he invented evolution! Yeah, that’s it.”

Okay. So besides cowardice, what’s wrong with theistic evolution? Two things:

Lack of evidence. Is there any evidence that a god exists and made evolution? No? Well, all righty then.

That doesn’t stop believers from dreaming him up anyway, and explaining the lack of evidence by saying that he wants to hide himself because
– he wants us to live by faith
– we don’t seek after him earnestly enough, and
– he’s shy.

Funny thing about that — that’s the same explanation I use for the apparent lack of evidence for subterranean mountain goats on Venus. They’re there, I tells ya! but we never see them because scientists refuse to look for them in earnest. Plus the mountain goats hide when we turn our telescopes toward them. How do they know when our telescopes are trained on them? They’re omniscient.

Hmm. Seems like the only way you can have a decent conspiracy theory is by crediting someone with omniscience.

The lack of evidence leads us to point number 2:

Occam’s pesky Razor. This general (and very useful) principle states that there’s no reason to accept a more complex explanation when a simpler one will do. Evolution explains biological complexity and similarity between animals just fine all by itself. You could slap a god on top of it (and a walrus, and a monkey, and fries to go), but this doesn’t really do a better job of explaining things than evolution all by itself, so Occam’s Razor says we lose nothing by cutting it out.

Trying to throw a god into the mix really misses the point of evolution: the process isn’t directed by anyone. If a god were in charge of evolution, it would be the most cruel and unfeeling being imaginable. How many millions of beings had to suffer and die from disease so that our bodies could evolve an immune system? How many had to eat each other so they could evolve sharp vision, long fangs, thick skin, fast legs, good brains, poisons, spikes, or any of the hundreds of other methods they use to survive? Saying a god set up this wasteful and savage system means that he’s sent untold billions of souls to the meat grinder, when he could have magicked up an Eden that was perfect to start with.

That reminds me: How do the theistic evolutionists reconcile evolution with Eden? Not very well, I’m afraid. But that’s another story.

The mice aren’t talking.

FOXP2 has (perhaps a little over-enthusiastically) been called the “speech and language gene”. It exists in non-human animals, and without it, people don’t speak well, zebra finches don’t learn or sing songs well, and mice don’t squeak very well.

FOXP2 is now in the news. A team of researchers has given a human FOXP2 gene to a mouse. (Apparently chimps were a no-go.)

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have now genetically engineered a strain of mice whose FOXP2 gene has been swapped out for the human version. Svante Paabo, in whose laboratory the mouse was engineered, promised several years ago that when the project was completed, “We will speak to the mouse.”

He did not promise that the mouse would say anything in reply, doubtless because a great many genes must have undergone evolutionary change to endow people with the faculty of language, and the new mouse was gaining only one of them.

Yep, you’re not going to get talking mice just like that. Human speech has been built up over the years from at least two important factors:

  • Cognitive horsepower. Before you can talk, you have to have something to say. Miss Perfect’s dog doesn’t need speech; it can already communicate everything in its tiny dog brain by the usual means: whimpering, plaintive dog-looks, and above all the constant and ceaseless barking barking barking. If the dog were under some selectional evolutionary pressure to communicate, it might do it some good to upgrade its hardware to include the capability for abstract symbol manipulation, which is one way to regard language. Language and brainpower have probably contributed to each other. Michael Arbib, among others, argues that the stages on the way to human language (recognition of others’ actions, gesture, and so forth) helped to increase our brainpower, which in turn helped to improve our capacity for language, and on and on until here we are.
  • Vocal tract. The human vocal tract can make a lot of distinct sounds, which is what you’d want. A good range of sounds makes it easy to have words that sound distinct from each other, which brings down the cognitive brainpower necessary to use a spoken language. The human vocal tract isn’t a straight pipe; it’s bent into an L-shape, possibly because of our bipedalism. This shape contributes to our ability to make a range of sounds.

So, to get a mouse to speak, you’re going to need to do more than add a gene here and there. There’s a lot of infrastructure to add.

But the addition of human POXP2 does some interesting things to the mice:

In a region of the brain called the basal ganglia, known in people to be involved in language, the humanized mice grew nerve cells that had a more complex structure and produced less dopamine, a chemical that transmits signals from one neuron to another. Baby mice utter ultrasonic whistles when removed from their mothers. The humanized baby mice, when isolated, made whistles that had a slightly lower pitch, among other differences, Dr. Enard says.

Dr. Gary Marcus, who studies language acquisition at New York University, said the mouse study showed lots of small effects from the human FOXP2, which fit with the view that FOXP2 plays a vital role in language, probably along with many other genes that remain to be discovered.

“People shouldn’t think of this as the one language gene but as part of broader cascade of genes,” he said. “It would have been truly spectacular if they had wound up with a talking mouse.”

Believing and evolution

Hope you had a good Darwin day. The thing I keep coming back to about Darwin is this. The guy was training to be a clergyman, but dumped it when it became clear that the facts ran counter to his beliefs. I gotta respect that. That’s tough to do.

But if you think that’s tough, here’s an act for you. This Mormon biologist can give a talk about evolution while making a sculpture of Charles Darwin. And all without his head asploding from cognitive dissonance. Let’s have a listen as he talks about his mentor, Clayton White.

“He became an important example to me of a first-rate scientist and a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Now Fairbanks believes with most biologists that evolution is the unifying theory in the field. And he is the same kind of mentor as White was to new generations of Mormon would-be scientists, helping them understand the importance of evolution without losing their faith.

Okay, full marks for accepting evolution. He’s not a dishonest idiot. But let me ask: what’s wrong with losing your faith? It hurts for a bit, sure, but then you’re free to accept reality without having to twist your brain into knots trying to make the facts fit your religious preconceptions. What’s so great about being able to do that? Shouldn’t a scientist be able to take the hit and accept reality directly? Particularly when his Mormon religion is strewn with beliefs that are explicitly refuted by evidence. (E.g. Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon, Old Testament creationism, and on and on.)

I hold to the view that science and religion conflict, and can’t be reconciled. Other people disagree, but it doesn’t help their case that some scientists go to church. That just means that people can wall off part of their brain from scientific examination. Like Jerry Coyne says in his wonderful article for the Edge:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers.)

I’m not even saying that Dr Fairbanks can’t do good work in biology and still hold religious beliefs. You just can’t do both at the same time. Even he admits this.

“We are obligated to examine experimental data and interpret it in an objective way, without allowing nonscientific beliefs to influence our interpretations,” Fairbanks says.

Great advice — but why shouldn’t religious beliefs therefore be discarded? They’re non-scientific. Why should he get to have it both ways when it comes to religion?

He continues:

But that is no reason to reject God or Mormon scriptures, which, he says, explain why God created the world, not how.

An old canard. Science explains how, religion explains why. Except that religion doesn’t explain why. It just gives you fluffy stories that you have to maintain faith in without being able to verify them.

I used to really look up to liberal Mormon thinkers who struggled to merge facts with fables, grappled with the difficulty of such an endeavour, and copped nothing but abuse from ignorant iron-rod believers. Now I think it’s the saddest thing I can think of, like someone who’s so close to understanding, but stopping themselves from taking the final liberating step. I actually think I’d rather talk to someone who argues that science is wrong and religion is right. At least then I’d be talking to someone for whom the truth matters.

Quick links

Blind people use facial expressions in the same way as sighted people do, including those strained smiles you use when you’re not really happy. This provides more evidence that facial expressions are innate and not learned.

Where do you think love comes from, Mr Atheist? Can’t see love in your microscope, can you? Actually, you can, if you’re doing brain scans. And what they find is that some people still feel twittery about each other after 20 years, instead of the 18 months most of us get. They call these couples ‘swans’, but that’s not a good name. Swans are cranky critters. But I think Ms Perfect and I will still be swanning about, still coursing with dopamine in each other’s presence, even after 20 blissful years.

Fear the hammer of Thor! A man dressed as the God of War after a costume party frightened off a burglar. Maybe the burglar was a philosophical theist who realised that you can’t discriminate between two supernatural claims — it doesn’t matter whether the god is Christian or Norse, you’d better book. Personally, I’d be much more frightened of Thor than of Jesus. People in sandals are easier to outrun. On the other hand, if Jesus has come as that psychopathic Old Testament god, then all bets are off. Best to run first and ask theological questions later.

The whistling orangutan

Bonnie is an orangutan who has learned how to whistle from humans. Article plus video here.

The 140-pound (63.5-kilometer) orangutan at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., has been whistling for about two decades.

Now a new study suggests that the sounds she makes could hold clues about the origins of human language.

“The assumption is that someone was whistling and she probably picked it up from them,” said animal keeper and study co-auther Erin Stromberg.

Lisa Stevens, the zoo’s curator for great apes and giant pandas, said the key point is that the orangutan was not trained to whistle.

While orangutans can be taught new sounds with extensive training, Bonnie is the first indication that the animals can independently pick up the sounds from other species.

“It’s something she spontaneously developed,” Stevens said. “It wasn’t a trick.”

How does this relate to human language? Some linguists are interested in how language might have arisen in primates. In particular, Michael Arbib’s ‘Mirror Hypothesis‘ suggests that the ability to recognise and imitate the actions of others (both gestures and vocalisation) may have played a key role. Communication prepared the evolving brain for more complex cognition, and more complex cognition led to more involved communication.

With that in mind, it’s interesting that an ape would be able to imitate such an oral (if not vocal) behaviour. I was kind of surprised, however, that an orangutan was doing the imitating. As I remember, orangutans are rather solitary, and communication is social behaviour. Evidently the wiring for this kind of imitation goes pretty deep.

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