Results tagged “evolution”

In an occasionally thoughtful but mostly silly attempted takedown of the so-called New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and such), philosopher John Gray writes that

there is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically — as a human adaptation to living in the world — and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion.

-John Gray, What Scares the New Atheists

No, there’s not.

There are lots of human adaptations that are useless or outmoded. Racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry have at least some naturalistic explanation in terms of evolution, but we certainly ought to condemn them despite this history. This is of a piece with what I understand to be Gray’s general opposition to a sort of Whiggish belief in progress and humanism. But Gray’s argument seems to be another, somewhat disguised and inverted, attempt to derive “ought” from “is”: we are certainly the product of biological and cultural evolution but that doesn’t give us any insight into how we should run the society in which we find ourselves (even though our society is the product of that evolution).


I realize that I haven’t posted in nearly two weeks. Between marking exams, gardening, attempting to solve differential equations and calculate integrals with several hundred terms, inspiration has been lacking. Here are some things I may yet get to:

  • The book launch for Universe or Multiverse, edited by QMW Cosmologist Bernard Carr. Entertaining, for sure, worth talking about in the pub. Beyond that, I have yet to reach the requisite eminence grise status to be allowed to talk about this sort of thing. (Although I am allowed to comment…) It was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, whom I find slightly creepy, mostly since they’re a bit too careful to not mention their, erm, spiritual side when in a room full of sceptical scientists.
  • For some reason, my brain makes a link between the issues surrounding the multiverse, and the fight being on the right wing (at least in America) between neo-social-Darwinists and anti-evolution fundamentalists believe that their biblical beliefs can’t be reconciled with any sort of evolution.
  • The fantastic appearance by The Hold Steady on Later with Jules Holland.
  • The really big supernova — the explosion of a star the mass of 120 suns — that’s recently been observed.
And maybe I’ll even write about why I’ve been solving differential equations and doing integrals, by hand and with the new version of Mathematica. But for now it’s back to marking.

[This post is a bit long and diffuse… I may hack it up into bite-sized pieces later…]

Just because my job has ‘astro’ in the title, doesn’t mean I know enough to comment on whether or not Pluto is a planet. And there’s plenty of other science-in-the-news…

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has decided that a planet is anything with enough gravitational pull to make itself round. As a scientific organization, the IAU probably had to go for something like this — a more or less physical definition — along with the sociological desideratum of preserving Pluto’s planetary status. The other — perhaps more sensible — option would have been to declare “planet” to be a category something like “race” or “pornography”: not actually well-defined by some set of principles, but nonetheless “we know it when we see it”. We could then just declare the same old 9 planets, including tiny but venerable Pluto, and move on. Instead, with the current definition there are 12 planets, and astronomers will probably find a lot more over the coming years. I’m not sure if we should bother changing the textbooks quite yet.

More meaningful to me is the age of the Universe. Astronomers at the Carnegie Institution and elsewhere have observed eclipsing binary stars in a nearby galaxy, and thereby determined the stars’ masses. With careful modelling, they’ve then been able to predict how luminous those stars should be, and by comparing that to the stars’ observed brightness, determine the distance to the galaxy. Their result puts the galaxy about 15% further away than previous (less direct) measurements; if correct — and if we can distinguish the galaxy’s cosmological “motion” from its attraction to other nearby galaxies (such as our own) — this wouldn’t impact merely the distance to this one object, but would revamp the entire cosmic distance scale, lowering the Hubble Constant which measures the expansion rate of the Universe, and finally making the Universe about 15% older than we thought.

On the one hand, 15% isn’t that big a change in a quantity, the Hubble Constant, that used to be uncertain to about 50% as recently as a decade ago. On the other hand, recent measurements from a variety of quite disparate sources have confirmed its higher value to better than 10% or so. But it’s an intriguing possibility that could push the details of the Hot Big Bang model in intriguing ways, but almost certainly without getting rid of the weirdest features of the models, such as the unexplained, exciting, and increasingly solidly measured Dark Energy. (As usual, Ned Wright’s Cosmology Tutorial is an excellent starting point if you’re perplexed by my jargon.)

In other cosmology news, the lucrative and prestigious Gruber Prize in Cosmology has been awarded to the COBE team, which first measured the fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background that’s since enabled us to absolutely confirm the hot Big Bang theory, measure the curvature of the Universe and the mass of its contents.

Finally, the country of my birth is populated by ignorant savages. (Original reference here.)

Marx: Science and Paradox

It is … paradox that the earth moves round the sun, and that water consists of two highly inflammable gases. Scientific truth is always paradox, if judged by everyday experience, which catches only the delusive nature of things.

—Karl Marx, Das Kapital, quoted by Francis Wheen in The Guardian.

Or that objects in motion tend to stay in motion: It took an extraordinary leap of imagination, to traverse the nearly two millennia from Aristotle, who thought otherwise, to Newton, who realized this, despite no one ever having, say, thrown a ball that didn’t stop moving (it took another couple of centuries before we could do that — launch a satellite into orbit, that is).

Once you accept these supposed paradoxes, does that help you understand that the universe might have had a beginning, and no end, starting from hot and dense 15 billion years ago? Or that proto-apes may have begat proto-humans?

In a criticism of Richard Dawkins’ upcoming series, The Root of All Evil, attacking religion, Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting tries to find space leftover for, well, god: “It’s also right for religion to concede ground to science to explain natural processes; but at the same time, science has to concede that despite its huge advances it still cannot answer questions about the nature of the universe — such as whether we are freak chances of evolution in an indifferent cosmos”.

Well, no.

Evolution, per se, says that our existence is indeed a freak chance in an indifferent cosmos. What it doesn’t tell us — because we don’t yet know enough about the origin of life here, let alone anywhere else — is whether life is common in the Universe, and if so, whether intelligence is a common result of evolution. But we, humanity, are indeed a contingent, freak occurrence. Any meaning that it may hold is up to us to impose.

I haven’t seen the show yet, but on the other hand I don’t think Dawkins’ shrill attacks on religion are particularly sensible — it’s a human institution like any other, and all institutions are as fallible as the people in them, irrespective of their so-called rationality. Again, it’s all in the meaning and the order that we impose on that “indifferent cosmos”.

Yesterday was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. So it all gets better from now on (Seasonal Affective Disorder seems to me a perfectly reasonable response to the darkness).

But what else? A Republican-appointed member of the federal judiciary has slammed the Intelligent Design crackpots, seeing them for the crypto-creationists they can barely hide being (although both Slate and Salon don't see it as an unalloyed victory for rationality). As usual, PZ Myers at Pharyngula has lots to say on the issue (as a biologist with much more standing than me, a mere cosmologists, at least until the young-earthers get back in the game). Meanwhile, Evolution has won Science Magazine's Breakthrough of the Year -- certainly a political choice, in light of the IDers ridiculous claims to be doing real science.

On the downside, my family in the New York City suburbs are finding it mighty hard to get around, even in the family gas-guzzlers. This is a tough one: I'm a big fan of unions, but it seems like both sides (the Transit Workers Union on one side, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority on the other) were working toward a settlement when the Union walked away from the table. (Although needless to say, the politicians overseeing the MTA didn't handle this as well as they could have, with Governor Pataki of New York somehow finding himself in New Hampshire -- first port of call for would-be Presidential candidates -- on the eve of the strike, rather than back home hammering out a deal.)

Update: So it looks like the NYC Transit strike is over... instead, we Londoners will have to contend with our own strike, shutting down the Tube on New Year's Eve! This seems to be a way to get out of an agreed-to set of 24-hour workdays over the course of the year.

“They're just birds”

Unlike their sister paper, The Guardian, who seem willing to pander to the crackpot anti-evolution right, The Observer not only reports on the Religious Right's weird valorization of the film March of the Penguins, but is also willing to point out the truth in an editorial (aka leader):

If ever the world needed reminding about the oddities of America's Christian Right, its espousal of the film March of the Penguins provides us with a perfect example. To the movement's intellectuals, this French nature documentary - with its images of birds blinded by blizzards but still battling to protect their young - affirms decent, traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child-rearing. Boys and girls have been urged to watch with notebooks to write down pious musings as they watch this life-affirming work. Penguin decency needs shouting about, it is argued. It shows us The Way.... We should remember the words of the film company executive responsible for March of the Penguins: 'You know what? They're just birds.'

What kind of beneficent god would create these wonderful creatures but make them endure 70-mile trips to feed their young?

(The NY Times ran a very similar article last week, using many of the same quotes, and its own editorial today.)

The Guardian's Unintelligent Design

I was enjoying the new, redesigned Guardian newspaper today, until I came to the end of the new G2 features section, and an offensive interview with chief Intelligent Design crackpot Michael Behe, under the inappropriate banner, "Ideas". Offensive because interviewer John Sutherland doesn't call Behe on any of his flagrant misstatements (I hesitate to call them lies since that implies that Behe is smart enough to know he's wrong, and anyway I do give him the benefit of the doubt on his misguided sincerity); offensive because he lets Behe twist Richard Dawkins's own words against evolution; offensive because he lets Behe claim that intelligent design isn't about religion; and offensive because he encourages Behe to compare himself to -- wait for it -- Galileo. This isn't impartial journalism; it's peddling snake oil.

Update: and see Pharyngula for his usual detailed dissection of Behe's crackpot ideas.

Life Principle or just dirty water?

In the Guardian, Paul Davies writes about investigating the origins of life on earth and, possibly, throughout the Universe. Davies, a media-savvy astrophysicist with a notable spiritual, if not mystical, streak, comes dangerously close to advocating something like Intelligent Design, albeit a more primordial level than its usual crackpot promoters. He talks about the existence of a “life principle”, egging those pesky little molecules in that primordial soup into somehow life-like combinations:

Because even the simplest living cell is immensely complex, the odds of such a thing forming by chance are virtually zero. If that's the way it happened, then life is a freak phenomenon, and we will almost certainly be alone in the universe. However, the search for life beyond Earth, which underpins the burgeoning field of astrobiology, is based on a belief that chance played only a subordinate role. Instead, some sort of “life principle” is envisaged to be at work in the universe, coaxing matter along the road to life against the raw odds.

The problem here is “virtually zero”, which is not zero, combined with the usual fallacy of design-promoters: just because we aren't smart enough, or just don't know enough yet, to see the gradual steps between a random primordial soup and the first self-contained bacteria, doesn't mean that it didn't happen in gradual steps. The chances of life arising may be very small indeed at some particular time, in some particular bit of primordial soup, but over a billion years and immense numbers of combinations of molecules, lightning bolts and dirty water, all under conditions we don't understand nearly well enough to enumerate in any precise way, makes it just as possible -- given our meagre knowledge -- that life in the Universe is unlikely as it is likely.

As a scientist with some desire not to descend completely into the depths, Davies claims some sort of testability for this “principle”, looking for mirror versions of the molecules like DNA, RNA and the like which are the basis of “life as we know it,” but which could have formed the basis for a parallel evolutionary tree if life were easy to form in the Universe. Interesting though those experiments may be (and, not being a xenobiologist, I'm not sure I can judge) they seem to be able to shed light not on any grand cosmic principles, but on the dirty and contingent -- and wonderful as far as we should be concerned -- mechanisms by which life formed here, in this one place, four or so billion years ago.

(Full disclosure, or possibly just self-aggrandizement: Davies has been a visitor here at Imperial, and I've written papers with Charles Lineweaver, one of his co-authors on this work.)

Also, I note with some sadness that today marks the passing of The Guardian's weekly science section, called “Life”, to be replaced in their coming re-design by a daily science page. Despite the brave face they try to put on it, this will almost inevitably lead to a reduction in science coverage.

Bush endorses crackpots

I apologize in advance that this is going to be one of those instances of the blogosphere acting as an echo chamber, but I must at least comment on President George W Bush's latest statements that the so-called ideas of the crackpot crypto-creationist Intelligent Design community should be taught alongside evolution in American schools.

Let me also use this opportunity to hurl insults and invective at investor and "futurist" George Gilder who should be blacklisted for siding with the Intelligent Design crackpots.

There are plenty of worthwhile websites and books recounting the myriad reasons why Intelligent Design is an utterly baseless, unscientific, and just plain wrong piece of crackpot pseudoscience, and why every single one of its criticisms of evolution are either wrong or irrelevant.

Yes, everyone is entitled to an opinion. But not all opinions are equally worthy: expertise counts.

Church comes out against science

We scientists had somehow managed to fool ourselves into believing that, since John Paul II said that evolution was "more than just a hypothesis", since they admitted some wrongdoing in the persecution of Galileo, that the Catholic Church was on the side of science.

Sadly, perhaps inevitably, we were wrong. In an Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times, Christoph Schönborn, the cardinal archbishop of Vienna, writes:

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

Of course, this is completely backwards: the ideology lies in this tacit alliance with the (still crackpot, even with the imprimatur of the church) Intelligent Design movement and its lobbyists and pseudoscientists at the Discovery Institute, which, according to an article today in the Times, explicitly encouraged Schönborn to write the Op-Ed, in response to an article (reprinted here) by my fellow cosmologist Lawrence Krauss back in May. Krauss's article pointed out that, of course, there isn't any controversy at all: reputable scientists all agree -- because of evidence, not ideology -- that Darwinian evolution via random natural selection is responsible for all the fantastic variety of life we see around us.