My Photo

« O, What A Tangled Web We Weave | Main | Gucci Little Piggies »

July 10, 2009

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d834515c2369e2011571eca7c1970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Read the News Today, Oh Boy:

Comments

Publius:

"...the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are contributing to global warming."

Pew:

"...think that the earth is getting warmer because of human activity".

I am pretty sure that "because" and "contributing" are not synonyms in this context.

As to whether the general public is more nuanced than the broadly defined scientific community, who knows?

From coverage of the IPCC:

"Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperature since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [human-caused] greenhouse gas concentrations," the report reads.

"Very Likely" a Big Step

The phrase "very likely" translates to a 90 percent probability, the report's authors note. This is a significant departure from previous reports. "

So "most" warming is "very likely" due to humans. "Contributing" is clearly correct; "because" is debatable.

Puzzling poll design.

Now we know what scientific consensus looks like -- surprisingly divided.

But then you look at the population to the chart's left and remember -- scientists have to come from somewhere.

On the evolution one, I wonder what the exact question was. Because technically "due to natural processes" could be understood to mean without any supernatural guidance whatsoever. That would explain both the lower number among scientists and the extremely low number overall. A lot of people might have thought that it meant they were saying that God didn't exist, or didn't intervene in the world at all.

"isn't 87% a bit low for scientists' belief in natural selection? I would hope that number is close to 100%." How about "un-natural selection"? Modern medicine now allows live births where, in the "natural" process, that would not have occured. Who knows what the long term consequences will be for the human genome when the natural process re-asserts itself (I'm almost, but not quite, stepping on my own argument). Also, Humans no longer practice genocide: they have it down perfectly.

Because technically "due to natural processes" could be understood to mean without any supernatural guidance whatsoever. That would explain both the lower number among scientists and the extremely low number overall.

I saw a debate which featured Behe which made exactly this point. Several opposing scientists noted that they believed in both God and evolution, and that there was nothing inherently contradictory in their beliefs. I gather that the thought was that without some sort of intervention, the probability of life in a randomly generated cosmos was quite small, due to the initial sensitivities in the fundamental constants.

A further breakdown of the data is at http://people-press.org/report/?pageid=1550. 97% of scientists believe in evolution, but 8% of those think it is guided by a "supreme being."

How would teaching critical thinking in schools affect public understanding/perception/belief on these issues? How much is simply believed when presented by media? How much do the journalists presenting the material understand the scientists? Do they know the questions to ask?

On the evolution one, I wonder what the exact question was. Because technically "due to natural processes" could be understood to mean without any supernatural guidance whatsoever. That would explain both the lower number among scientists and the extremely low number overall.

Exactly.

I nominally a theistic evolutionist, and if you asked me if I thought creatures evolved purely by natural selection, and only gave me "Yes" or "No" as a response, I would probably say "No" since I believe that there was divine intervention in guiding the process along.

"Puzzling poll design." I, too, wonder about that. One of the problems with the question that had the most "scary" result is that it is presented as an absolute:

"think that humans, other living things, have evolved due to natural processes"(implied "and NOTHING else")

I'm going to bet that a very large percentage of US church-goers:

* partly accept evolution. They own encyclopedias with the famous monkey to man illustration, their kids take science classes and answer AP tests with questions about evolution, no prob.

* but they would insist that their religion's version of God started or controlled the process in some way

* hold incompatible beliefs that assert the truth of sacred texts, but allow them to take advantage of things like DNA testing whose reality depends on the truth of genetics.

I wonder what the results would look like if you offered a spectrum of choices like "do you believe that humans and other living things have a) evolved 100% due to natural processes b) evolved partly through natural processes and partly through a divine cause c)or that evolution does not take place.

I'd bet that you'd end up with relatively few people who chose c), although not as many choosing a) as among scientists.

That said, the study is still a strong wake up call to those of us who want to champion science.

just based on the percentages of the non-scientists, it's obvious that many of journalists are going to be on the side of ignorance. so, they wouldn't really have any desire to correct any of the false statements - they think the lie is the truth.

good points -- that probably does explain the lower number in scientists. the overall gap though is still pretty depressing

None of this surprised me althoug I was pleased that the number that believed all parents should be required to vaccinate their children was so high.

I think it translates to a cultural norm where, I suspect without facts, that most of the dissenters objected to a perceived government requirement rather than the vaccinations themselves.

Isn't there a problem with comparing a large sample like the general public and a small sample like "scientists"? Perhaps modern statistics makes such an question moot, but my sense is that whenever you are working with a smaller sample, your numbers are more unreliable. (Local polling, for example, is difficult to peg, whereas national polling is pretty consistent.)

I realize that I could be entirely off on this due to not really knowing anything about how this process really works. Just throwing it out there.

This isn't relevant to the study language, but to how you describe it: I think it's important to distinguish between a belief in evolution, which basically no one disputes, and a belief in "natural selection" -- which is a particular account (Darwin's, most prominently) of how and why evolution occurs. There are lots of biologists who believe in evolution but have a different mechanism or set of mechanisms in mind.

There are lots of biologists who believe in evolution but have a different mechanism or set of mechanisms in mind.

Really? Can you name some of these mechanisms or some of these biologists?

I'm not so sure that the gap between scientists and the public on the "natural selection" question is as disturbing, again, because of the poll design. It's pretty well-known that scientists are far more likely to be atheist than non-scientists. Combined with the above point, a fair amount of the public perception likely falls into line with science. I suspect there would still be a significant discrepancy - IIRC, polls about belief in evolution usually come out around 50%, but at least it's not as bad. That evolution in this poll comes out much worse than AGW despite the fact that evolution is less of a hot-button issue in most of the country says to me that the wording of that question is particularly skewing the results.

On the global warming question, in addition to the question of word choice, I'm wondering if the discrepancy is largely or partly a result of the fact that public views of global warming are of necessity going to be pretty binary, where scientists' views are more likely to be graded. It seems to me that, although scientists almost all agree that AGW is real, there is a pretty significant debate as to how large the effects of AGW are. But in the public debate, where knowledge of the intricacies of science is going to be cast aside, AGW is either assumed to be a guarantee of absolute catastrophe that requires us to do something or is not worth doing anything about at all and is therefore largely mythical.

I was struck by the numbers below the line, how scientists have a firm belief in technological process. I was shocked to see that 93% favor use of animals in scientific research and 70% favor building more powerplants. I wasn't surprised by the numbers above the line in your chart but the ones below I found stunning.

Yeah, I'm curious about that too, Benjamin. In my experience, very very few scientists doubt that natural selection is the primary driver of evolutionary change. What sorts of non-Darwinian mechanisms do you have in mind?

Someone once asked me whether I believed in the Bible or evolution, and I answered that I saw no conflict: one is an elegant theory with strong explanatory power, and the other is an invitation to a relationship.

I would say that the most disturbing one is the vaccination difference. Individual parents can make a big difference there if they decide to evade vaccination.

The animal testing difference is troubling too. I think lots of people believe that we really don't need it for medical advancement anymore--I read a survey some years ago that suggested lots of people think that computer modeling for drugs is good enough to get rid of animal testing. Yikes!

The nuclear power one is interesting too. You just say the word 'nuclear' and lose lots of people.

As a scientist, I do believe the climate is changing, and I do believe human activity is contributing to the changes. However, from my analysis of the data and the models, I see more effect from deforestation, factory farming, and heat islands (cities) then I do from CO2. Although CO2 is a GHG, it is a rather poor one, methane and water vapor are much more effective (if shorter lived).

A survey of scientists and the importance they place upon various contributing factors of climate change would be very interesting, and would go a long way to settling the debate.

isn't 87% a bit low for scientists' belief in natural selection? I would hope that number is close to 100%.

The definition of "scientist" is "member of the AAAS" afaict- a broad definition that include non-scientists such as secondary school science teachers.

Also, another interesting result from the poll- "scientist" Dems outnumber Repubs by about 9:1 (55:6). Whether or not that's representative of actual practicing scientists, it's certainly likely to be a factor in these results (ie Dems are much more likely to think that global warming is occurring).

I think the vaccination one is frightening also, but mainly because I would hope the number for scientists would be 100%. Do one out of five scientists really believe parents shouldn't be required to vaccinate their children?

How about: If god exist then god is part of the nature. So the questions are useles when trying to figure out what people believe about god. How about: If god exists, then God made worlds billions of years ago and scientists are still trying to figure out how.
Unless you take Bible literarly there is nothing that says against that. If you take Bible literarly then Bible is full of contradictory passages.
But reading it as learning about nature's laws and process and human interaction it makes sense. Hence, god would be a process not a person that sets the rules and let it go, not a person that has to input the 'miracles' every single second in direction the world goes.

I can see a good case for not requiring that all parents vaccinate their children.

Assume that there are some people who, for whatever reason, get incredibly enraged at the thought of vaccinating their kids. Those people's kids are not going to get vaccinated no matter what but if you try to force them, you'll funnel all their rage into destroying the vaccination regime in general, which will reduce your effectiveness at getting normal people to vaccinate their kids. "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."

Plus, there's also status quo bias. Right now, we do not require that parents get their kids vaccinated. Mandating otherwise would be a big change.

I'm not sure I find this case convincing, but it does not strike me as irrational or obviously wrong on its face.

Paulk---

As long as you can demarcate and randomly sample from the populations of interest, the precision of your estimate of the population's opinions is determined only by the number of people you survey, not the size of the population you are studying. The usual formula for the standard error of a binary survey variable---such as the yes/no answers to these questions---is:

se = ((p* (1-p))/n)^0.5

where p is the proportion answering "yes" and n is the number of respondents to the survey question. Note that the total population has dropped out of the formula altogether.

The main reasons local survey results seem noisier than national ones is that national surveys usually survey more respondents (typically 800 to 2000), and local surverys often ask 500 or less; moreover, local surveys often ask about little known issues or individuals.

(Technically, the above formula is based on a Normal approximation to the binomial distribution; if the population of interest is really small--say, less than 5000 people---a Normal approximation to the hypergeometric distribution is more appropriate, and does depend on the population size, but in a counter-intuitive way: very small population sizes actually can make random surveys more accurate, because you are sampling a significant fraction of the full population.)

As a science-oriented (at least before law school) person who believes in natural selection, can someone please make the case that evolution of humans purely through chance is plausible? I believe in evolution, I really do, but my experience in the world is that things do not tend to become more complex on their own. Having studied biology in college, and through reading afterward, structures in the human body (as well as in other animals and plants) are in most cases remarkably efficient and well "designed" for their purpose.

While natural selection tends to explain traits on a micro level (say, for example, that white fur was an adaptive trait for arctic hares to avoid getting eaten), it is much more difficult to imagine that natural selection was involved in the countless more intricate features of animals, and that every single one of those intricaties started from set of diverse traits created by random DNA mutations that were then winnowed by natural selection. Maybe I have a hard time imagining what millions of years means, but it seems really implausible.

Maybe I have a hard time imagining what millions of years means, but it seems really implausible.

I think that's it; you're relying on your imagination to tell you how the universe works, but the human experiences that inform our intuition and imagination aren't nearly broad enough to act as verifier of the broader universe.
Consider quantum mechanics, or the effects o gravity on time and space. Does not your intuition object to the two-slit experiments, the Bell Inequality, or that clocks run faster in orbit than at the Earth's surface? Yet these things have been validated repeatedly by experiment.

For specifics, maybe you can provide some examples of things you consider unlikely. Really, the harder part of explaining evolution isn't the "finely-tuned" part- it's easy to see how eg once flies have wings, evolution will quickly fine-tune them to high efficiency. The trickier questions are 'how did flies get wings?' Or perhaps you're thinking on a biochemical level.

G, you've been misinformed about evolution and chance. http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/chance.html

Also, to say you believe in "micro" evolution but not "macro" (to the best of my knowledge, these are pretty irrelevant distinctions, same processes just different time scales) would not, at least in my mind, count as believing in evolution.

Sorry, scrap that last part. You said "natural selection", not evolution.

"Scientists" is a rather broad label, at any rate. Presumably someone with two PhDs who does materials testing for a large manufacturing concern is very much a scientist, but that doesn't say much about her knowledge of evolution.

The notion that you can simultaneously believe in divine guidance and evolution strikes me as a pretty fiction most people go along with to avoid upsetting others. I feel that the two ideas are fundamentally opposed, unless you want to complete deny humans any free will (which would in turn render 'morality' nonsensical, and make any religion I know of pointless).

The way I see it is this: you either believe that organisms evolve randomly over time, with successful adaptations to the physical environment thriving, or you don't. That theory tells us that if we change the environment, we will alter the evolutionary course of the critters involved.

Let's say we can take some simple, fast-evolving virus-like critters and put them in a controlled gooey environment. By messing with the heat, light, or various attributes of the goo they are floating in, or by adding competing critter organisms, we could observe and manipulate their evolution.

But if a divine being is predetermining all these outcomes, our altering of the environment would have no effect. We know this to be demonstrably false. Thus, the only way a divine being could be predetermining the outcome is if it had *predetermined our choices* as to what knobs to turn and which environmental factors to manipulate.

In other words, we would all be dominos in an unimaginably large pre-arranged cascade, waiting to fall, without any real choice in any of our actions.

I'm not really adept at this philosophy stuff, but that's how it strikes me, and I'm sure much cleverer people have produced loads of much more insightful thought experiments to the same effect. Obviously the implications are a little disconcerting.

I should also have said that natural selection tends to explain mny things on a macro level too, for example, that when pre-humans moved to the plains and stopped living in trees, flat feet and standing upright were adaptive traits. So yes, that kind of fine tuning I understand. It's the middle, all of the excellent designs of the various organs, that gives me trouble.

Unfortunately I don't have anything specific in mind at the moment. This is more a creeping feeling I get whenever I reading about how a particular organ works and try to imagine how such a thing came about. The workings of the inner ear might be a good example. One can imagine some sort of rudimentary sound detection being adaptive at an early point in evolution, and that mutations might accidentally create improvements so that better sound detection would be more adaptive, and also that but to get from there to the inner ear seems to me to be a very far reach when each improvement requires a set of mutations that create biological diversity and natural selection. It's particularly troublesome that every improvement must somehow be sufficiently adaptive that the individuals with that trait are better able to live long enough to reproduce.

As a science-oriented (at least before law school) person who believes in natural selection, can someone please make the case that evolution of humans purely through chance is plausible? I believe in evolution, I really do, but my experience in the world is that things do not tend to become more complex on their own.

Well, in a sense they do, if that's how you look at the theory of entropy, which is basically that disorder increases over time.


it is much more difficult to imagine that natural selection was involved in the countless more intricate features of animals, and that every single one of those intricaties started from set of diverse traits created by random DNA mutations that were then winnowed by natural selection. Maybe I have a hard time imagining what millions of years means, but it seems really implausible.

But this is the most easily disproved fallacies of non-evolutionists. Millions of years is a long time, and the fossil record provides loads of examples of adaptations that didn't work out, and adaptations that were interim stages towards even complex biological structures, such as the human eye.

It is also seems to me that the "perfectly designed" argument is silly, as there are patently loads of improvements that could be made to human beings. Why can't we see in the dark better, or hell, have X-Ray vision?

antrumf:

Thanks for the link but the essay there is not inconsistent with my objection. It acknowledges that natural selection requires mutations that result in a different phenotype with a trait that may or may not be adaptive.

"There is, on one hand, a randomness as to where and when a mutation will occur." ***

"It's not really random, of course, because it is the result of causal processes, but so far as natural selection is concerned, it may as well be."

The essay goes on to contrast this randomness with the non-randomness of selection, but my problem is exactly with the effective randomness of mutations and adaptive traits.

Most mutations are not adaptive, which is why the intricate structures we see in most living things seem improbable.

How about: If god exist then god is part of the nature.

I'm pretty sure that "god" is, nearly by definition, supernatural. If "god" were part of nature, we could come up with all kinds of tests to prove or disprove its existence.

G raises a point that I've yet to see adequately explained, although my take is from a somewhat different perspective.

Begin by looking at any human evolutionary chart and you'll see Erectus arriving 1.5-2mm years ago, give or take. Erectus had basically one tool, the hand axe or bi-face. Maybe 400-500K years ago, Erectus evolves into Neanderthal (this is the current thinking, as best I can tell)who exists until maybe 25,000 years. Neanderthal used pretty much one tool too, the same bi-face. Sometime after neanderthal evolved, Heidelbergensis (also a biface user) spun off from Erectus and, the current thinking holds, morphed into proto-sapiens some 200,000 years ago, who then morphed again into a more robust sapiens 100,000 years ago and into modern man approximately 50,000 years ago.

Here the problem: the larger theory of genetic mutation and natural selection requires a substantial population from which to harvest the random positive mutation and pass it on in survivable form and a significant amount of time in which a change will be apparent. BUT, the dominant theory of human evolution is that it all happened in east Africa from a population so small it has barely left an archeological footprint. What makes it even more confounding is that the period of time from Heidelbergensis to modern human is between 250K and 300K years--this is the evolutionary equivalent of the speed of light for so complex an organism.

Add to this what anthropologists and archeologists called, way back in the day, i.e. 1972, my freshman year in college, the 'great cultural explosion'. This was not a Maoist event, but rather the fact that beginning about 35,000 years ago the archeological record builds and builds rapidly with a widespread presentation of flint, obsidian, bone and other preservable material-made tools that are an order of magnitude more complex than the bi-face which, along with what were not much more than chips, were pretty much the universal tool kit for erectus, neanderthal, heidelberensis and early to middle sapiens.

Something significant happened 35-40,000 years ago. My wife and I were in the Museum of Natural Science and History in NYC three weeks ago and I quizzed the grad student standing guard over the human evolution "lab" at the museum on this point, among others. He had a lot of 'maybe this', 'maybe that', 'maybe something else', but he had no answer that even rose to the level of 'a best guess.' I have looked but have found no good explanation grounded in scientific evidence--theory and conjecture being the opposite of scientific evidence--to explain either the rapidity of human development in such a small population or whatever-in-the-hell-it-was that happened 35-40,000 years ago. If anyone has a link, feel free to post it.

If something "seems improbable" yet is supported by an enormous scientific record, the first course of action is to check on your intuition.

Afterall, what makes you so special that your intuition is so much better than the actual evidence?

I gather that the thought was that without some sort of intervention, the probability of life in a randomly generated cosmos was quite small, due to the initial sensitivities in the fundamental constants.

In the words of philosopher Neil Peart:

"Why are we here? Because we're here."

Show me the enormous scientific record demonstrating the evolution of a single human organ and I will be convinced that my intuition is incorrect. I would in fact be delighted to discover such a thing.

BUT, the dominant theory of human evolution is that it all happened in east Africa from a population so small it has barely left an archeological footprint.

Eh? "All"? Lots of it happened elsewhere, mckinneytx. heidelbergiansis was so named for a reason that's geographical.

Show me the enormous scientific record demonstrating the evolution of a single human organ

Human organs? This is your criterion?

Let's design a different test that you know can't be passed, just for laughs. Human organs don't tend to survive hundreds of thousands of years intact.

In other words, we would all be dominos in an unimaginably large pre-arranged cascade, waiting to fall, without any real choice in any of our actions.

Isn't this the only logical position for atheists who believe in materialism? I mean, as far as science can tell us, our brains are deterministic. If you could collect all the information that described an individual's history at an incredibly fine level of detail, you should in principle be able to predict their every action. We can't make those predictions because we can't collect or analyze the volumes of data needed, but that's a technical limitation. One can imagine a sufficiently fine brain scanner coupled with a sufficiently powerful computer running a neural simulation that is extremely accurate.

I don't see any conflict between determinism and free will. Even if my actions are pre-ordained in the sense that they follow logically and predictably from the inputs I've accumulated over a lifetime, I still make choices and am responsible for them.

"Show me the enormous scientific record demonstrating the evolution of a single human organ
Human organs? This is your criterion?

Let's design a different test that you know can't be passed, just for laughs. Human organs don't tend to survive hundreds of thousands of years intact."

I prefer this question, if humans were completely evolved spontaneously, then where are the other species that are not yet human, that evolved slower but from the same spontaneous set of factors.

I like it because it is actually a cool thought, not beause it is relevant or deep.

my experience in the world is that things do not tend to become more complex on their own.

It sounds like you reject astrophysics. I mean, our current understanding of stellar formation involves accumulations of stuff coalescing into stars. Surely you consider a star to be much more complex than an undifferentiated mass of gasses? Ditto for galaxies.

Do you think multi-drug resistant bacteria are more complex than their non-resistant brethren? Do you think the Grand Canyon is more complex now than it was back when it was flat land with a new river flowing through it?

Having studied biology in college, and through reading afterward, structures in the human body (as well as in other animals and plants) are in most cases remarkably efficient and well "designed" for their purpose.

There are all sorts of structures in the human body whose design is suboptimal. Why exactly do we have an appendix? It gets infected and kills us but it doesn't serve any purpose....

It's good to see that in addition to all the other controversies, Obsidian Wings has managed to get a game of "anti-evolutionist bingo" going. Alternatively, since it's Friday, I suppose we could make it "Every time a commenter dredges up a chestnut that's addressed in a TalkOrigins FAQ, take another drink."

Alternatively, since it's Friday, I suppose we could make it "Every time a commenter dredges up a chestnut that's addressed in a TalkOrigins FAQ, take another drink.

We didn't make it past noon without getting someone roarin' drunk....

if humans were completely evolved spontaneously, then where are the other species that are not yet human, that evolved slower but from the same spontaneous set of factors

It is not necessarily the case that other species evolved slower; they just evolved to survive in different niches. Chemosynthetic bacteria are far more advanced than humans are when it comes to living in deep ocean vents.

Pretty much any simian species will do though. Humans share about 97% of their genome with Chimpanzees I believe.

Human organs don't tend to survive hundreds of thousands of years intact.

you don't need preserved organs to do this. all the evidence an honest observer could possibly need is alive right now; it's in the genes of extant life forms. we can trace the evolutionary path an organ took by studying the variations from the simplest to the most-complex in animals which are alive today. and, increasingly, we can identify and manipulate the very genes which control the development of those organs to demonstrate what it takes to get from one form to another.

"Why can't we see in the dark better, or hell, have X-Ray vision?"

Why do our knees give out when we have 30 years or more left to go?

Why can't I have sex for 2 hours like llamas do?

"if humans were completely evolved spontaneously, then where are the other species that are not yet human, that evolved slower but from the same spontaneous set of factors."

Maybe I'm missing something, but I was under the impression that there was a pretty substantial fossil record for the hominids.

Why are we talking about "human organs" when basically all of our organs are not unique to humans but are shared by many other organisms?

Why can't I have sex for 2 hours like llamas do?

You can't? Slacker.

mkinneytexas:

"I have looked but have found no good explanation grounded in scientific evidence--theory and conjecture being the opposite of scientific evidence--to explain either the rapidity of human development in such a small population or whatever-in-the-hell-it-was that happened 35-40,000 years ago."

It seems like you are explaining cultural developments, not anatomical-physiological developments that would be necessarily genetic in nature and thus subject to natural selection. In which case, you're right: there is no scientific theory of human cultural development.

We lost the ability to have sex for 2 hours; the population explosion (as a result of multiple acts/multiple parties) is ongoing.

"Why can't I have sex for 2 hours like llamas do?"

Why would you want to have sex for less time than you do now? ;)

Why can't I have sex for 2 hours like llamas do?

U R Doing It Rong.

Some useful online resources for those interested in learning a thing or two about evolutionary biology:


Five Major Misconceptions about Evolution


Introduction to Evolutionary Biology


Evolution: Education and Outreach
- a quarterly journal written by professional scientists aimed at communicating evolutionary biology to the general public.


Understanding Evolution
- a resource from UC Berkeley

"It seems like you are explaining cultural developments, not anatomical-physiological developments that would be necessarily genetic in nature and thus subject to natural selection. In which case, you're right: there is no scientific theory of human cultural development."

There are many scientific theories to account for this cultural change. I think he's raising the point that none of them are held in consensus.

byrningman: "In other words, we would all be dominos in an unimaginably large pre-arranged cascade, waiting to fall, without any real choice in any of our actions."

i could write a whole book on this ... but instead I'll just say: (a) God could foresee our choices without determinism being true, if He is outside time (and thus not standing at a point in time early on, looking at what comes later); and (b) it is not obvious that there is a conflict between freedom and determinism. (E.G.)

there is no scientific theory of human cultural development.

Actually, the Lamarckian theory about acquired traits being heritable kinda fits the bill. We humans do not have to pass our acquired ability to swim underwater on to our children genetically; we can just teach them how to build scuba gear. Heritability is what makes cumulative change possible; heritability of acquired traits makes rapid cumulative change possible; and in culture (as opposed to biology) "heritable" is not restricted to "genetic".

--TP

then where are the other species that are not yet human

Danger: contradiction.

Ok, if that was a bit too obscure: other species are never going to be human. Even chimps aren't going to evolve into humans, because humans didn't evolve from chimps in the first place.

General point, from the NYT article, it helps to know their definition of "scientist":

2,500 scientists drawn from the rolls of the [American Association for the Advancement of Science], which includes teachers, administrators and others involved in science as well as researchers.

Specific point, on vaccination:

Turbulence, the "whatever reason" for being anti-vaccine is main driver, not a government mandate that goes against their reason. There are certainly those who are trying to destroy the vaccination regime, but they are funneling rage from their belief that vaccines do harm.

You need to look at the reasons people are anti-vaccine to see how irrational and obviously wrong on its face their arguments are. Check out Orac at Respectful Insolence.

We do require vaccination through public education mandates, but the ease of opting out varies by state. Thus public perceptions of vaccination are very influential of the overall vaccination rate. Many communities are currently losing their herd immunity due to low vaccination rates.

"i could write a whole book on this ..."

Good one =)

It sounds like you reject astrophysics. I mean, our current understanding of stellar formation involves accumulations of stuff coalescing into stars. Surely you consider a star to be much more complex than an undifferentiated mass of gasses? Ditto for galaxies.

Perhaps I should have said "more organized."

Gravitation and the big bang sufficiently explain (to the extent I wonder about it) those phenomena. If there is a theory of evolutionary gravitation where there is a force compels biological structures toward greater and greater and more complex forms of organization, let's hear it. That would be pretty neat actually.

G, are you saying that multi-drug resistant bacteria are no more complex than their non-resistant brethren?

Norwegian Shooter, I'm not sure what you're saying but I suspect we already agree since I already read Orac. While we require vaccination (with lots of exceptions) for public schooling, that's a very different policy than a general requirement that all children must be vaccinated or else the state will imprison you or take your kids away.

One nightmare scenario involves anti-vaccination becoming thought of like polygamy. There have been several cases where authorities have busted polygamist cults because those cults were systematically marrying young girls off to older men. But the cults were able to manipulate the press so that public support for them increased dramatically. It seems crazy, but people will gladly cheer on institutions that engage in systematic child abuse if they're good enough at PR. I worry that it would only take a few charismatic anti-vaccination mothers going to prison before the whole movement was so romanticized that all vaccination requirements were dropped or weakened, including those in force right now.

Of course, the loss of herd immunity is frightening and is a big problem.

"I have looked but have found no good explanation grounded in scientific evidence--theory and conjecture being the opposite of scientific evidence--to explain either the rapidity of human development in such a small population or whatever-in-the-hell-it-was that happened 35-40,000 years ago. "

Personally, I'd vote for the emergence of human speech. It's a pretty complex phenomenon, involving anatomic and neurological structures which appear to be fairly recent in hominid physiology. It would also probably take some time for the *use* of speech to develop some critical mass, once the physiology was there.

Once in place, a capacity for speech might represent a platform (if you will) for the kind of "overnight" emergence of human culture that you're talking about.

On the topic of llamas, clearly I need to bring my game up... :(

Human organs? This is your criterion?

Let's design a different test that you know can't be passed, just for laughs. Human organs don't tend to survive hundreds of thousands of years intact.

I'm not the one who said there was an enormous scientific record that should cause me to have no doubts about the plausibility of natural selection designing the human eye.

To make myself clear: I believe evolution. The most likely explanation for the speciation we have on this planet is that somehow all those mutations happened. But when thinking about the specifics of a certain biological structures I have trouble applying what I understand about evolution to the specific case (unlike, for example, white fur on arctic rabbits). I was asking for someone to explain it, and the best explanation so far is that millions of years is a really long time. Fault me with a lack of imagination, but don't accuse me of advocating for intelligent design or guided evolution or perfect design or anything else.

Scientific theories often have problems even when they are widely accepted. The problems do not mean that the theory is wrong, but may indicate that there are areas for further study or that our understanding is not yet complete. Given that we're still within a decade of successfully mapping the human genome, I think there is still significant work to be done in evolutionary biology.

If there is a theory of evolutionary gravitation where there is a force compels biological structures toward greater and greater and more complex forms of organization, let's hear it.

There's an awful lot of unstated assumptions here that need to be unpacked to even begin to address the question, beginning with the mistaken idea that there is any kind of "direction" to evolution and to what "biological structures" are doing.

To the extent that evolution and reproduction taken as a whole are "doing" anything at all, they're making an awful lot of bacteria, nematodes and insects, all of which outnumber mammals, all of which predate mammals and all of which will probably be here long after mammals cease to exist.

So, if one takes as an axiom that bacteria, worms and insects are "less complex" than mammals are, then we're just a short-scale localized form of organization that, in the big picture, don't mean much.

"I think there is still significant work to be done in evolutionary biology."

Of course there is. There are lots of people doing that work, too, so: all is as it should be.

In other news, the Standard Model may still need a little work.

I mean, what does "greater and greater and more complex forms of organization" even mean? Who says mammals are more "complex" than any other order, class or subclass? Metamorphosing insects, just to pick one example, seem a hell of a lot more complex to me than primates do.

G, the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach that I linked to above did an entire issue on the evolution of the eye. You can find it
here
. While you're correct that there is much we don't know about the evolution of life (and no biologist would tell you otherwise), there is much that we do know. The information is out there--but you do have to look for it! :)

Hopefully you're more complex than a sponge, Phil.

I have some general agreement with your apparent suspicion that some definitions of "complex" may be anthropocentric, but there are probably some general things you can say about complexity without rooting for the home team too much.

I should also mention that the journal I keep linking to is completely free to access. All articles can be either read online or downloaded into pdf's.

MEW @ 4:35 pm

thanks.

The "wetware" speculation (I'll call it a hypothesis when I know that someone has proposed a way to test it) that the Great Leap Forward resulted from biological evolution is attractive because it would be hard to imagine artless human societies for thousands of years and then...art!

Well, okay, but "hard to imagine" isn't exactly a good foundation for productive speculation here: our sample size = 1, and our understanding of subsequent human history actually demonstrates the opposite: as noted in the book you linked, we've seen dramatic technological development in an instant w/o any corresponding genetic change.

Hopefully you're more complex than a sponge, Phil.

Probably depends on who you ask.

we've seen dramatic technological development in an instant w/o any corresponding genetic change

i don't think the second part of that can be proved, yet. it's entirely possible that the switch which flipped and made us into artists, poets and engineers wasn't related to a gross physiological change (ie. one that isn't going to show up when comparing skulls).

If we asked a sponge, we might have to wait a while for an answer.

Which makes me think of Fish Heads, for some reason.

we've seen dramatic technological development in an instant

I still don't have my flying car, though.

I think Jared Diamond had some ideas about how we got where we are now. I'd guess, having read G,G&S, that life in the Fertile Crescent made for a lot more spare time not spent food-gathering, which had to be filled by something, eventually.

"how we got where we are now"

I still think its the inability for (some of) us to have sex for two hours.

which had to be filled by something, eventually...

an immunity to common livestock illnesses and a tolerance for alcohol, among other things.

I still don't have my flying car, though.

and, we were promised jetpacks!!

I will read the issue about the eye and get back to everyone in some tangentially related thread in the future.

In other news, the Standard Model may still need a little work.

Ah, Robert Ludlum's famous work, The Slartibartfast Understatement.

I still think its the inability for (some of) us to have sex for two hours.

Yeah, cleek, even I can do better than two hours.

...Wait, are we talking annual totals, or duration?

And there's actually been some interesting discussion provoked by mckinneytexas' cut-and-paste summary of Jeffrey Goodman's The Genesis Mystery, so it's almost a shame that it's not exactly good science. For instance, in the couple decades since it was published, new fossil scrutiny has pushed the emergence of H. sapiens sapiens back beyond 100k years. I'm very disappointed in the unnamed graduate student who was unable to point that out.

Also, is it just me, or is there a noticeable correlation between social Darwinism and evolution denialism?

The Slartibartfast Understatement.

It's been a while since I've hit the understatement sweet spot that squarely. Not coincidentally, I was talking with my Tae Kwon Do instructor about the Standard Model just the other night. He's a physics major; only about 25 years my junior, and much more proficient at both martial arts and physics than I.

My end of the conversation consisted mostly of nodding, and the occasional "Oh! I remember leptons!"

cleek, your Youtube-fu is strong indeed. I liked that quite a bit.

The definition of "scientist" is "member of the AAAS"
I'm not sure what I'd recommend as a way to reach actual scientists , but I don't think AAAS membership is a good method. I know a lot of scientists, and the only reason any of them would have to join the AAAS would be to get the paper version of the journal (web access comes through the institutional subscription they already have access to through their employers) or in a very few cases of very senior scientists because the AAAS is a useful outreach-and-lobbying organization. The AAAS meetings I've known have all been intended for non-scientists, so scientists are unlikely to join the AAAS to get a membership discount at an AAAS-sponsored meeting (the most common reason for joining other professional societies). And of course, non-scientists might join to get the journal for themselves, their families, or their pupils.

(Part of) Russell's 3:40 PM reminds me of a 2007 Jeremy Hardy line that "if God designed me, I want to have a serious word about knees, which seem to pack up just after the manufacturer's warranty expires."

Regarding the whole debate about whether there's strong evidence that should lead one to doubt the theory of evolution: there isn't, and moreover -- while I suppose that some such evidence could miraculously emerge tomorrow -- anyone who thinks that such evidence currently exists and is being disregarded either displays a fundamental failure to understand what science is, what scientists do, and how theories are devised and permitted to exist - or else they believe that for some reason scientists are conspiring together to willfully and knowingly perpetuate an unsustainable theory for some reason that I can't even really speculate about.

I gather that the thought was that without some sort of intervention, the probability of life in a randomly generated cosmos was quite small, due to the initial sensitivities in the fundamental constants.

In the words of philosopher Neil Peart:

"Why are we here? Because we're here."

Posted by: mds

Is this supposed to be a commentary on the weak Anthropic Principle, or the strong version :-)

I don't necessarily go along with this thinking, btw, I'm just reporting on it - if you think a disturbance as small as one part in 10^12 in the fine structure constant means no carbon, and you think that life requires the existence of carbon, and you think this universe is just about all there is to reality, then yes, some scientists invoke the existence of a Creator, or Balancer, if you will.

Myself, while I'll go along with the first figure, I don't have any evidence that the other two suppositions are necessarily true.

I'll cheerfully admit that I don't know what I would consider, even in theory, to be evidence of a Godhood. Or what evidence would falsify the proposition for that matter.

I'd also like to have a serious chat with the chap whose idea it was to have eyeballs lose the ability to focus up close, for those of us who are in our middle ages.

I think the vaccination one is frightening also, but mainly because I would hope the number for scientists would be 100%. Do one out of five scientists really believe parents shouldn't be required to vaccinate their children?

Posted by: Mike

Again, the phrasing matters, I would imagine. If the question had been worded so that it was merely an inquiry as to the efficacy of vaccination, the figure could have been much higher, possibly even approaching 100%.

me: we've seen dramatic technological development in an instant w/o any corresponding genetic change

cleek @ 7:12

"i don't think the second part of that can be proved, yet. it's entirely possible that the switch which flipped and made us into artists, poets and engineers wasn't related to a gross physiological change (ie. one that isn't going to show up when comparing skulls)."

Yeah, I got that about something more subtle than size or architecture of the physical brain (the wording earlier being something like new organization of brain functions). Anyways, I was talking about the industrial revolutions of the past few centuries.

If we do develop a "wetware" hypothesis, how on earth do we test it given that we know that technological evolution can proceed rapidly based on simply discovering and applying concepts? And if we can't develop any way to test the idea, what scientific use is it?

@G

I tried to post this earlier, but it got lost when I failed to provide my confirmation code. I hope you're not too busy reading about the eye to consider this.

I think Genetic Drift may provide a causal mechanism that resonates with your intuitions about evolution. According to the theory, some variations within a species can be passed along within a lineage for a while without encountering selection, accelerating or decelerating the frequency of a variant within the population before becoming fixed. This process could result in a heightened rate of gene variantion within a population that occurs more rapidly than would through natural selection alone. A particular characteristic of an organ could become widespread throughout a population and then further variations based on that characteristic could develop without the former receiving any selective pressure. The process of evolution that results in a particular organ, under this theory, need not be looked at as a step-by-step process selecting each and every trait individually before moving on to the next. Rather, it could proceed, at least in some cases, by applying selection forces to systems of interrelated variations that have developed independently of selection.

It need not be the case that "every improvement must somehow be sufficiently adaptive that the individuals with that trait are better able to live long enough to reproduce."

I also find it not really reassuring that members of the military are rated a good deal above scientists (84% vs. 70%) in public opinion.
---
I think anti-vaccination activity these days is far stronger than in the past and approaching levels comparable to those at the time vaccination was introduced. The reasons are also the same: a change in risk assessment and a growing religious distrust of science in general. The former can at least be debated with some degree of reason (since vaccination is never completely risk-free and some illnesses are more likely than others), the latter is imo pure poison (and often applied with that very purpose, i.e. killing critical thought).
---
I agree that the wording is far too ambiguous. 'use of animals in scientific research' conjures up horror pictures of vivisection in many but there are numerous examples of research that does no harm to the animals involved.
'Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research?' =/= 'should embryonic stem cell research be legal' etc.
---
'Scientist' even excluding school teachers etc. is far too broad. I know many people with hard scientific degrees that are highly ignorant about stuff not in their narrow area of expertise and lay people that are very well informed about a broad spectrum of topics.
---
As for public ignorance, try to poll people in the streets about what they think should be done with heterosexuals. Surprisingly many will start to rant against those perverts, that they are a public danger, should be arrested (or even executed) etc.

I know many people with hard scientific degrees that are highly ignorant about stuff not in their narrow area of expertise

I went to a small southern state University and I remember leaving the TV on one saturday night after a late night of watching TV, and waking up Sunday morning to find the head of the Polymer Science department (who eventually became President of the University) on a local Baptist church talk show discussing how evolution was obviously wrong.

"I'd also like to have a serious chat with the chap whose idea it was to have eyeballs lose the ability to focus up close, for those of us who are in our middle ages."

I think this is actually an adaptive response to the development of mirrors.

There are some things you just don't want to see all that clearly.

"As for public ignorance, try to poll people in the streets about what they think should be done with heterosexuals."

Lol. Similar to the joke about polls ending women's suffrage.

I know many people with hard scientific degrees that are highly ignorant about stuff not in their narrow area of expertise and lay people that are very well informed about a broad spectrum of topics.

What You Know vs how much you know about it

[...]
"Our findings suggest brain size increases the most in areas with larger populations and this almost certainly increased the intensity of social competition," said David Geary, Curator's Professor and Thomas Jefferson Professor of Psychosocial Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science. "When humans had to compete for necessities and social status, which allowed better access to these necessities, bigger brains provided an advantage."
[...]
"Brains are metabolically expensive, meaning they take lots of time and energy to develop and maintain, making it so important to understand why our brains continued to evolve faster than other animals," said Drew Bailey, MU graduate student and co-author of the study. "Our research tells us that competition, whether healthy or not, sets the stage for brain evolution."
[...]

Competition May Be Reason For Bigger Brain: MU researchers find that competitive ancestors may be blamed for today's big brain


We intend to make the case that human evolution has accelerated in the pass 10,000 years, rather than slowing or stopping, and is now happening about 100 times faster than its long-term average over the 6 million years of our existence. The pace has been so rapid that humans have changed significantly in body and mind over recorded history. Sargon and Imhotep were different from you genetically as well as culturally. This is a radical idea and hard to believe—it's rather like trees growing noticeably as you watch. But as we will show in the following pages, the evidence is there.
The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

[W]illiam Parker, Randy Bollinger, and colleagues at Duke University proposed that the appendix serves as a haven for useful bacteria when illness flushes those bacteria from the rest of the intestines. This proposal is based on a new understanding of how the immune system supports the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria, in combination with many well-known features of the appendix, including its architecture and its association with copious amounts of immune tissue....
Vermiform appendix

"When humans had to compete for necessities and social status, which allowed better access to these necessities, bigger brains provided an advantage."

High population density caused big brains? Why not the other way around?

Homo sapiens was the only hominid that had to compete for necessities and social status?

Sargon and Imhotep are different from me genetically? How did they figure that out?

"High Population Density Triggers Cultural Explosions

"ScienceDaily (June 5, 2009) — Increasing population density, rather than boosts in human brain power, appears to have catalysed the emergence of modern human behaviour, according to a new study by UCL (University College London) scientists published in the journal Science. High population density leads to greater exchange of ideas and skills and prevents the loss of new innovations. It is this skill maintenance, combined with a greater probability of useful innovations, that led to modern human behaviour appearing at different times in different parts of the world."

---

" Fault me with a lack of imagination, but don't accuse me of advocating for intelligent design or guided evolution or perfect design or anything else."

Good to know. (We all have a lack of imagination, relatively speaking). Some of the features of your first comment were ones that are extremely common among creationists - and more usefully, suggest either that your understanding of modern evolutionary biology is incomplete (whose isn't?) or that you were having a little trouble expressing yourself.

"can someone please make the case that evolution of humans purely through chance is plausible?"

Of course, modern evolutionary biology certainly does not claim that humans or anyone else evolved "purely through chance". See the talkorigins page linked above -more briefly, while mutations are a pretty chance-y affair, natural selection is pretty much anti-chance.

"my experience in the world is that things do not tend to become more complex on their own."

This is pretty much the basic idea behind ID creationism (well, ok, the basic idea behind ID creationism is to destroy modern science in order to get rid of welfare, regulation, divorce, and product liability lawsuits, but pretending for the moment . . . ) One of the issues here is what things-in-the-world we are talking about. Certainly rocks, in our experience, don't (although our experience (rocks sit there, pretty much unchanging) turns out to be a pretty bad guide to what, on the proper time scale, is often an extremely dramatic existence.) But assuming that metamorphism, for example, doesn't count as "becoming more complex", which it won't, it's important to remember that rocks don't reproduce - they're not subject to evolution. Life is kinda special that way. (How special is an interesting question, but that's a whole 'nother matter).

"While natural selection tends to explain traits on a micro level "

Micro- vs. macro-evolution is of course a major creationist trope - indeed, some varieties of young earth creationism basically depend on "microevolution" at this point (to explain how the vast diversity of life arose from the limited # of species able to fit on the Ark - they say that Noah just took examples of each "kind" on board - cat kind, for example - which post-Flood micro-evolved into all the current cats. Yup - neither scientific nor biblical nor literal - a trifecta of no!)

"structures in the human body (as well as in other animals and plants) are in most cases remarkably efficient and well "designed" for their purpose."

Well, everything works (when it does, anyway), often most wonderfully. But at the same time, one can be struck at how inefficient, cobbled-together, kludgey, and just plain odd such things can be. Take human knees and eyes (including the weird backwards wiring that creates a blind spot), not to mentiom the old joke about what kind of engineer routes waste disposal through a recreational area . . . (and specifically for guys, having the urethra be surrounded by the swelling-prone prostate gland). Or all sorts of bizarre stuff during fetal development, where arteries and nerves and such will twist and turn around, making weird loops and detours to get to their destinations. And then there's the biochemical level, where you see some of the same compounds seemingly being pressed into service again and again for sometimes rather different tasks (or similar ones - rhodopsin, for example, in both algae and apes).

"Maybe I have a hard time imagining what millions of years means"

Well, that may be a part of it. I mean, take the arctic hare example. Say that the change of regular to white fur is a unit of evolutionary change - 1 "white hare". Now imagine how many "white hares" one might get over a million years? 10 million? 100? - and you could have numerous changes at any one time, as well! (Yes, a horrible way to look at it. But just as a start.)

(Personally, I can't grasp that there's discrete areas of rainfall. Yes, on a certain level I understand that it can rain in Philly without raining in New York, but the idea that you could walk from a rainy place and at some point cross over to a place where it's not raining - oh, it makes my head hurt).

There's other stuff as well, though - one, perhaps, is that we tend not to have a good grasp on the extent of variation, between individuals, varieties/subspecies, species . . . Our conceptual trees of life tend to be viciously pruned even in terms of modern species - if you're thinking mostly of house cats and domestic dogs, the idea of them both having a common ancestor, with all those chances, can seem absurd (esp. if you don't know them all that well), the gap just seems too big - but if you're considering the Carnivora as a whole, things look a bit different.

And, of course, the whole thing is enormously complicated, with a whole whole whole lot that we don't understand yet. And etc.

"The workings of the inner ear might be a good example"

Indeed it is, and happily one that's pretty well documented (though not perfectly and still with lots of interesting questions). See for example hear - er, I mean here. Or here (Just part of the story).

But while I might sound a bit dismissive (sorry - creationistitis), these are really good and interesting questions, and after all a big part of science is asking questions (one reason I'm not a scientist - I just stare and say "pret-ty!", and never get around start wondering how or what if . . .) You're thinking. What's great is in some cases we have the answers - and even greater, in others we're still working it out. As Dave C says " The information is out there--but you do have to look for it! :)" Ears aren't the worst place to start - but there are all sorts of ends to start pulling on . . .

Book suggestion: Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

"when pre-humans moved to the plains and stopped living in trees, flat feet and standing upright were adaptive traits"

Interestingly, it may be a bit more complicated. Or perhaps not.

"It's particularly troublesome that every improvement must somehow be sufficiently adaptive that the individuals with that trait are better able to live long enough to reproduce."

Why?

The comments to this entry are closed.

Whatnot


  • visitors since 3/2/2004

October 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
      1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31  
Blog powered by Typepad

QuantCast