No Such Thing?

Must add to this soon, when there’s a bit more time. In chatting with Jack, it seems ever more reasonable to think there’s really no such thing as natural selection. Artificial selection, yes. Jack commented that it was more historical, theoretical baggage than anything. I think that’s right!

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Death and Taxus

It’s been ages since I added anything to this blog – I guess it’s about time!

Death and Taxus.  Constants of the universe.  Taxus is the scientific name of the trees known as yew, with needle-like leaves and single seeds surrounded with a red, berry-like tissue.  It’s an old botany joke (and it’ll make a great chapter title).

Cy Finnegan passed away almost a year ago.  He had a good run and almost made it to 90.  I think about him a lot (it would be good if he’s in some fine, unknowable, Catholic heaven-place) and hope I can do a decent job of distilling the ideas of Cy and Jack.  Many of these thoughts and speculations Cy and Jack distilled from others (always giving them credit, of course) – no single person or small group has all the good ideas – it’s the strength of collaboration.  But too few people think or talk about these ideas and I can’t help myself.

I don’t know about yew trees, but death, at least for us big multicellular critters, seems to be an unavoidable consequence of life.  Development of an individual from single-celled zygote to old adult is an evolutionary phenomenon.  The only way membership in a species can be expressed, complete with characteristics tying an individual to relatives both close and distant, is through development, making ontogeny an aspect of evolution.  As a zygote, energy flows into us and we race away from simplicity to remarkable (but not miraculous) complexity.  Most of us enjoy what seems like invincible youth, and then we age (even if in our heads we’re all still sweet, young things).  Whatever the specific cause may be, eventually we all wear out and go to equilibrium.  What’s more, the life span of organisms falls within a species-specific range.  Some insects live for a few weeks.  Annual plants live for a year.  Bristlecone pines can live for thousands of years.  These days many humans make it through their 80s, maybe even to 100, but not far beyond that.  No matter what we do, humans just don’t live to be 150 (at least not physically, and we don’t have much evidence for what may happen beyond that).  The idea that life span is tied to species membership, and so to evolution, isn’t something biologists talk about very much (except for hucksters or fools who consider death itself a disease), but it’s worth considering.

And what about extinction – the death of a species?  All of our theories invoke extrinsic causes – meteors, ice ages, killer-hot climates and the nasty behavior of humans.  No question, humans have caused the extinction of many of our fellow inhabitants of the planet – there’s plenty of evidence.  But large numbers of species went extinct before we were around to mess things up.  Did meteors cause all of those cool dinosaurs to go down for the count?  What about trilobites?  Could it be that species, like individuals, have life spans?  I’m just suggesting the possibility.

Life is hierarchical – not in the sense of some sort of top-down command structure, but in the sense of nested sets of organization – cells specialized and organized into tissues and organs and finally whole self-contained critters.  Farther up the hierarchy the critters are organized into species and related groups of species.  Why would this be?  Does natural selection offer a rational, underlying causality?  I say no.  It would be far more rational to point to the 2nd law of thermodynamics as the law of nature fundamentally responsible for the occurrence, complexity and diversity of life – the 2nd law a la Prigogine – as he suggested, this presumed regularity of the universe behaves differently in systems open to the flow of energy, causing self-organized and self-propagating systems to arise, even if they don’t last forever.  The 2nd law may provide an underlying causal explanation for death as well.  Though new individuals arise continually, sooner or later we all go to thermodynamic equilibrium.  We get old and at some point are no longer able to process matter / energy, and keep our distance from equilibrium.  We go down for the count and our tidbits flow back into the greater system to be used by newly-developing living systems.  Perhaps the same thing happens on a larger scale, to groups of individuals connected to each other not by physical ties, but by their species membership, by their close sharing of evolutionary history.  I don’t know just how this would work, but I’m putting it out there.  C’mon brave evolutionary biologists!  Let’s expand the the conversation beyond the 150-year-old theory of natural selection.  It appears to be alive, but only because it’s been so well embalmed.  Natural selection just doesn’t provide a satisfying, coherent, non-magical explanation for anything (it pretends to justify the one big fish eating all the little fish, which doesn’t happen except in critically damaged systems –  social Darwinism is its logical conclusion, though true believers deny this without offering counter-arguments)  so shake free of it, if only for a moment, and consider more rational, powerful theories.

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Human Origins and Human Attitudes

What we humans believe about our origins influences how we treat each other, our planet and the rest of the life forms that live here.  Some religious fundamentalists and creationists don’t much care about the Earth as they await the rapture, or whatever, from within their fantasy universe.  Everything is controlled by their pissed-off deity, so maybe they feel a certain helplessness, channeling a judgmental god by being judgmental themselves.

On the other hand, some religious people are very Earth and science friendly.  Not all of them believe that ethical behavior requires a religious foundation, but many do.  There’s no doubt that many of the prophets and teachers central to various religions had mostly good things to offer.  Whether from fear of your god’s retribution, or the guilt of not loving your neighbor, or the innate meanness of being mean, you are expected to behave in certain ways.  Then again, by some contradicting interpretations, if you are fat with wealth, no matter how you got it, your god (or maybe natural selection!) must be smiling on you.

Still, no religious versions of the origins of humans should be taught in the science classroom  – save it for comparative religion class. Religious folk often believe that humans sprang, in one way or another, from some sort of creator.  But it could be the other way around.  It could be that religion, like language and art, springs from us Homo sapiens as part of our evolving complexity, as we struggle to explain our own existence.

Anyway, I’m more interested in those who believe in some version of evolution, that more recent species developed from earlier forms, even if I think we usually invoke the wrong theory.  What we should be doing in the biology lab and science classroom, among colleagues and with older students, is opening up the debate on evolutionary theory, a debate that excludes anything religious.  But there is no such debate going on – to believe in evolution is usually to have no choice except evolution by natural selection.  We should be examining other theories of evolution and the evidence supporting them, comparing them to the standard dogma. But this happens only rarely, and when it does the debate is scorned and marginalized.  I don’t know if it’s from stupidity or malice, but the debate should go on anyway.

I don’t think the standard neo-Darwinian theory of evolution by mutation plus natural selection offers an accurate description of nature.  “Fitness.”  “Competition.” “Cost / benefit.” “Adaptation.”  (Though all life forms are minimally adapted.) “Mutation.” (Just what is it?) “Selection.” (Selection comes in many forms – sexual or mate selection, species selection, kin selection – all have been questioned except selection itself.)    These words summarize the central themes of neo-Darwinian theory, a theory so embedded in our thinking that it is often confused with the actual products of evolution.  Organisms exist, fossils exist, and the ancestral traces that connect them can be pointed out as well.  Theories of evolution can be generated to explain these factual characteristics of life, but the theories are not the same things as the evidence.  Neo-Darwinian theory, an argument that says the evolution of life on Earth can be explained by mutation plus natural selection, seems to be the only theory available most of the time – so much so that any alternative explanations are ignored (and we rarely even give poor Lamarck credit for contemplating evolution 50 years before Darwin).  But the accepted dogma is really just a theory, and as such it is open to criticism, just like any other theory.  As Popper said, “All knowledge is human.”

The biggest single problem with natural selection is that it is a variation-decreasing force, not a “blind watchmaker.”  It has no creative aspect.  It can only destroy that which is not “fit.”  Some evolutionists speak of “selection pressure,” as if the destruction of one variant causes the generation of new forms.  This is irrational.  If you cut off one tail of a standard bell-shaped curve, something new doesn’t come squirting out the other end.  The high point of the curve, the mean or median, may shift, but nothing new will logically be generated.  The creativity in evolution is left to a black box known as “random mutation.”  Life on Earth is diverse and often surprising, but very little of it seems to be random.  We’re still pretty clueless about the workings of mutations.  We know that if we tweak genes or take pieces from one organism and stick them into another, we may end up with something we can patent, but we don’t know how or why this all happens, or what other effects there may be.  It’s a shotgun approach, occasionally lucky and sometimes lucrative. There is no theory of morphogenesis yet, and we really don’t know how we get from DNA to organism.  What’s worse, we focus most of our attention on the molecular level, forgetting that the reason we study DNA (in addition to making money) is to figure out how organisms generate themselves.  It isn’t enough to simply say the magic word, “mutation.”

At its core, “mutation plus natural selection” seems to be nothing much more than a breeding program applied to nature at large.  Part of the trouble with the idea of either natural or artificial selection is that Darwin’s Victorian plant and animal breeders were already working with fully developed organisms, cultivated strains of species that had already evolved and were simply being tinkered with.  Then as now, breeders mated sexually replicating forms to achieve certain results, but the basic, functioning, complex organisms  already existed.  Darwin’s world was Dickens’s world and it seems to me the theory comes from that time and place, too.  A crop breeder might rip up all the plants that lacked the desired characteristics, making sure they didn’t breed with the others.  A cattle breeder might slaughter all non-conforming calves, keeping only those animals that seemed to be the fittest, the most well adapted, to breed.  And the same goes for people.  Natural selection plays the role of “breeder” and there’s no assumption of equality among the creatures being bred.  Then as now, a few controlled most of the resources while the majority scrabbled for their survival – this is the essence of Darwinism.  “Survival of the fittest.”  Such a theory can’t avoid taking us to places like eugenics, a logical outcome.  And it seems to fit nicely into a hard right, Ayn Rand mirage of the world, too.  Banksters and CEOs like it just fine (when they’re not manipulating the religiously credulous).  They are the most fit, the smartest guys in the room, after all!  They didn’t steal all the money, they “earned” it.  But they didn’t.  Check out the chapter summaries in More Than the Sum for the outline of a much more accurate theory!

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Atheist? Religious? Either way, science can’t help.

The first self-proclaimed atheist I ever met was my father, but in retrospect I think he was really more of an agnostic.  It’s true that he took a certain ferocious pleasure slamming the door in the faces of those religious folk who stopped by to offer their literature, but he never did spend any time trying to convince them they were wrong.  Maybe they were right – he didn’t deny the possibility, he just didn’t believe any of it and didn’t think it was worth discussing.  He once said to me, “You can become a nun for all I care – that’s up to you.  Just don’t try to save me.”  I was a teenager at the time, and I enjoyed reading about Hinduism, Mormonism, Buddhism, and various other belief systems – in some cases there were good insights to be had, but that didn’t make any of it true.

Now that I’m old and suspicious, it seems odd to me that everyone wants science on their side, creationists and atheists alike.  The “intelligent designers” have some strange arguments – because bacterial flagella look like bits of machinery they must have been created.  Say what?  When I was a doctoral student I, along with some of my fellow students, accompanied one of our professors to a creation versus evolution debate.  Our professor talked about the features organisms share as evidence of their evolution. The creationist wiggled his fingers at the audience and said, “The human hand!  It’s a miracle!  It proves there must be special creation!”  Seriously, dude, it proves no such thing.  The creationist and the zoologist may as well have been on different planets.  It was a very strange “debate.”

In more recent times the argument has gone beyond the necessity of a hard boundary between church and state (and churches should pay taxes, too).  The creationists have put on lab coats and are pretending to be scientists (even if some of them have degrees in biochemistry, their religious arguments make them irrational).  What’s stranger is that some of the atheists have become just as strident in the other direction.  Isn’t this kind of a waste of time?  There’s a huge amount of evidence for evolution.   Even if I think the presently accepted neo-Darwinian theory sucks as an explanation, this doesn’t alter the evidence (I just think the evidence has been incorrectly interpreted).  But when it comes to the existence (or not) of one or more deities, science can’t help.  The reach of science stops at the laws of nature, the regularities and behaviors of matter and energy in our universe.  Sure, maybe these laws were kicked into action by some creator, but science can’t address that question.  What’s more, science can’t really prove anything is true (contrary to that annoying phrase, “clinically proven”), and in the case of gods and spirits and such, it can’t prove any of this is false.  Religion is a realm of metaphysics well removed from science.  I have known some very good scientists who were also quite religious.  They never mixed the two and saw no reason to do so – there was no conflict.

When I think about nature and the evolution of life on Earth, I’m filled with awe and delight, but not necessarily spirituality.  I consider myself an agnostic.  We all die (another reason I think the second law of thermodynamics is a much likelier candidate than natural selection as the causal agent of evolution), we all disintegrate into basic components – there’s plenty of evidence to support these assertions.  Maybe other things happen too – who knows?  My religious views can be summed up as, “Damned if I know.”  I guess some people feel spiritual things within themselves or their readings, and so they believe because they believe because they believe.  They have no evidence one way or the other beyond the anecdotal, and it’s just the same situation for atheists.  There is simply no way to approach gods or spirits empirically (those guys who visit haunted places never seem to capture any hard evidence, though it’s sometimes fun to watch them try).  There is no theory of gods or not-gods that can be tested.  The presence or absence of creator-things is scientifically unapproachable, and so to me at least, rather uninteresting.  Calm down, atheists!

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Evolution of altruism

Ever since I was a graduate student (now some years ago!), I have been hearing evolutionary biologists moaning about altruism.  How could such a thing possibly evolve in the face of natural selection and fitness?  A mother animal protecting her young was understandable – she was simply protecting the little forms that housed those selfish, precious genes.  But what about unrelated animals – whales assisting other whales, dolphins sometimes helping humans, and humans (at least some of them) trying to protect all sorts of very distantly related life forms.  The evolutionary biologists and theoretical ecologists hypothesized kin selection and species selection and performed various other explanatory contortions.  More recently I have even read a bit of this wailing in my very favorite weekly, The Nation (maybe I’ll get around to finding the link to the article).  I read this wonderful magazine for its views on politics, society and the arts – there’s usually not much about science, so I was surprised to find the usual painful arguments about altruism and whether it exists in a neo-Darwinian universe.

Most everybody seems to think there must be something wrong with the very idea of altruism, but this is only because the orthodoxy assumes natural selection is true and important.  Nobody ever seems to think that perhaps the existence of altruism is a falsifier for the theoretical primacy of natural selection.  If the theory disagrees with the evidence, then it is the theory that must be false, not the evidence!  Perhaps it would all make more sense if we tried another theory, one that makes no assumptions about the selfishness of genes – genes are carriers of information that organisms use to make more of themselves.  They are not little homunculi.  Besides, if genes can be selfish, why can’t organisms be altruistic?

A theory that tries to explain evolution as an irreversible process where complexity increases over time might be more helpful.  Multicellular forms evolved from single-celled life, but it didn’t stop there.  Many organisms are able to communicate with others of their species, often in fairly sophisticated ways.  Humans not only have language (and our primate cousins have versions of language, too), but we can communicate in abstract ways through such means as music, poetry, dance and so on.  The capacity for wonderfully intricate communication appeared as part of the evolution of Homo sapiens (and probably in other species of Homo as well).  Every new painting or bit of music adds information to the universe.  Part of information is surprise, and surprise can be thought of as the dissipation of entropy in an organized (non-random) system.

So, why couldn’t altruism evolve?  There’s no reason it couldn’t, but to see this as a possibility we must first shake free of the standard theory that isn’t very good anyway.  I think there’s very good evidence that altruism exists in humans as well as other life forms.  Not only should we consider that altruism can indeed evolve, we should cultivate the stuff.  I think we need more of it!

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Everything isn’t a business

Where did we ever get the silly idea that everything is, or should be “run” like a business?  After decades of repetition I guess, like Pavlov’s dogs, we begin to drool whenever we hear the word “business.”  People who really aren’t running businesses feel that there’s something wrong with them if they don’t have the title CEO.

This attitude has taken a crushing toll on public education in general and public universities in particular.  In terms of K-12 education, a lot of the “business” crap is partly a way of union busting and partly a way to steal taxpayer money for the fake innovation of such things as charter schools.  But it’s even worse at colleges, and beyond awful at universities.  Back in the day, there was the university administration, the faculty and staff.  The job of the administration and staff was to keep it all running smoothly; the job of the faculty was to teach and conduct research.  The students were there to be educated.  These days the administrators at some public schools have started to refer to themselves as “senior management” – that can’t be good!  They seem to think they have been transported to Wall Street, where their job is now to hoard as much money as they can while giving back as little as possible.  They feel no concern for students – students exist to be sucked dry.  They don’t see the university existing to provide the best education possible.  These days faculty members must provide their own funding, and only those who look like they might bring in some bucks get tenure-track jobs. (Tenure-track is a probationary period lasting 3-5 years – a lot of places deny tenure because it’s cheaper and no commitment to a professor is needed – they can simply be used and then replaced.)  Many faculty members are beholden to some industry and must spend huge amounts of time writing grant proposals and begging for money – this can’t be good, either!  A lot of the teaching is done by graduate students and adjunct faculty.  If you have a conscience and try to do a good job teaching as an adjunct, you may not even be making minimum wage and will have no benefits if you’re less than half-time.  Most are still required to have a doctorate in their area of expertise, but the “management” knows there are a lot of desperate PhDs out there, floating around without a union.  They are easily taken advantage of.

I recently saw a job announcement for an administrative position at a public university – the job paid upward of 100K.  At the same time, this same university was taking applications for its “adjunct faculty pool.”  Even though public universities are non-profits, the “management” pays itself handsomely, much like the banksters.  And in similar fashion, they hire their buddies.  Does anyone know just what the duties of the Assistant Vice Provost might be?  And how many (if any at all) are actually needed?  Someone who used to be Dean of the branch campus of a public university got himself re-titled Chancellor!  Seriously!  Do you think the guy now does more work?  I doubt it.  Do you think he makes a fatter paycheck?  Damn straight!  We need to take a very hard look at this behavior – what used to be a culture of knowledge is now being poisoned by its own greed.  It’s collapsing under the weight of the management’s lust for more power and money.  And the poor students!  It’s no wonder that Americans have become so ignorant!  I could be accused of bitterness because I wanted to be a botany professor.  My timing pretty much sucked, I guess.  Still, this doesn’t change my basic assertion: Everything isn’t a damn business!

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Everything isn’t a science.

Why do they call it “political science?”  There’s nothing scientific about politics.  Or how about “scientific” polling?  An “unscientific” poll simply means the sample size wasn’t big enough, or the sampling was skewed – this should be called “statistically invalid or weak” instead.  With statistics you can calculate probabilities (these are sometimes lame and may or may not be useful – it depends on the question) or you can ask questions about / look for patterns in a set of data.  It’s still not science.

When I returned to community college as a botany major, after having been a dropout for some years, I went to the advising center to see what classes I had to take.  I was horrified to see that biology made up only a fraction of the required courses – most of them were physics, math and a lot of chemistry.  I complained to the adviser.  She stared at me over the tops of her glasses and said, “Botany is part of biology.  It’s one of the natural sciences – hard science.  If you want a degree from the University of California, these are the classes you must pass.”  I stopped whining – it was obvious there was no room for discussion or negotiation, and that I would simply annoy the adviser if I continued.  The requirements were the requirements.  In those days, California had the best universities in the world, and they didn’t get there by having low standards.  (Poor California – it’s such a shame that so much has been lost since the dreaded Proposition 13, starting with libraries).

Science is one of the many ways we humans contemplate and explore the world around us.  Many approaches are spiritual or artistic – these can be wonderful, but they’re not scientific.  The constraints of science aren’t necessarily rigid, but they are rigorous.  We assume there is such a thing as objective reality, while at the same time understanding we’ll never quite be able to get our arms around that reality and capture it fully.  We can never know if our theories are true, but we can try to compare our theories with nature to estimate their accuracy.  Over the centuries we have discovered regularities of nature we call laws – such things as gravity and the laws of thermodynamics.  While the laws remain, our understanding of them has changed – new interpretations are built on top of older ones.

Economics is no more a “hard” science than politics, history or sociology.  There are no laws of market forces – these are things invented by humans, even if the humans themselves are the products of natural laws.  No amount of mathematical modeling (also not science) will make it so.  The idea of “free” markets is one of those notions that can only come from one of two places – either from people who are stupid (maybe I should be charitable and just say they’re poorly educated) or people who are dishonest – trying to rip you off while telling you that your sorry fate is simply the outcome of an inexorable natural law.  Equally offensive is the pitting of innovation against tradition, as suggested by some flat earth economists, as if the two were mutually exclusive.  This is not only a false dichotomy, but it seems to me that it’s just the other way around – innovation arises from and builds upon tradition.  My old college pal, Alexis, used to say, “Nobody springs fully-formed from the head of Zeus, but some people sure act like they did.  Especially certain faculty.”  And some economists, too.

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A little bit of physics envy, perhaps

Those of us biologists who are interested in exploring other possible explanations for evolution (excluding the religious stuff that isn’t science, so doesn’t get into the ballpark), trying to link biology to the rest of the natural sciences, have often been accused of having physics envy.  Well, I think plants are far more fascinating than anything in physics could ever be, but in another sense, I’ll plead guilty.

Physicists seem to have an admirable capacity to look at things in different ways, and not freak out when somebody suggests a new view of the universe.  The ideas of Newton are still taught in first year physics, at least as very good approximations.  And, of course, we had to get through calculus somehow (If anyone knows who said, “The application of calculus to a bad idea doesn’t help.” please let me know – it’s one of my favorite sayings and I like to give credit where it’s due).  So, the physicists still honor Newton, but they moved on.  Then there was Einstein’s relativity theory, but at the same time quantum theory was being developed, and it seemed just as valid.  The two didn’t seem to connect very well, however.  Did the physicists pick one over the other?  No, they looked for ways to link the two by contemplating string theory and other grand, overarching “theories of everything.”

Boltzmann came up with the first version of the 2nd law of thermodynamics – there are no perpetual motion machines and everything eventually fizzles out – every chemistry student has calculated entropy using the classical formulas.  In the 1970s Prigogine said, “Wait a minute!  The fizzling happens in a system close to equilibrium, but in an energized system self-organization occurs spontaneously.”  He built on Boltzmann’s work, and he built beyond it.  Was he ostracized for disagreeing with the old guy?  No, he was given a Nobel Prize instead.

What I love about this approach is the freedom to argue and to try looking at the universe in all sorts of different ways.  As Popper rightly said, “All knowledge is human.”  There are no “revealed truths” to be had for scientists –  it’s an open-ended process, and when one physicist suggests an alternative view, it doesn’t cause all the others to faint or run screaming from the room.  They may disagree, but they remain open to new possibilities.  Granted, biologists deal with complex stuff that’s closer to home than black holes or an umpteen-dimensional universe.  Maybe contemplating our origins in different ways makes us nervous…I don’t know.

Some biologists have argued that biology is “exceptional.”  By this I guess they mean that it doesn’t tie easily into the other natural sciences, but it’s a ridiculous argument, a lot like saying the United States is “exceptional,” and so can do whatever it damn well pleases.  Nonsense either way – this is just an excuse for not trying to make the connections.  Lamarck was thinking about the possibility of evolution 50 years before Darwin.  Instead of honoring him, Lamarck has been reviled even though some of his general ideas are coming back into play – not in the original sense, but in the sense that organisms can and do capture information from their surroundings, and sometimes pass it along to the next generation.  Then there was Darwin (and let’s not forget Wallace!).  Even though I think natural selection is simply an inflated version of artificial selection, Darwin certainly deserves honor.  But it was 150 years ago!  Let’s catch some attitude from the physicists and contemplate other possibilities without fear of speaking heresy!  There’s science and there’s not-science, but in science there ain’t no such thing as heresy!

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Doesn’t it seem political?

Maybe it’s just me, but for many years I’ve thought there’s a creepy relationship between neo-Darwinian theory and certain political views.  If Republicans, Libertarians, Teabaggers and their ilk weren’t so busy pretending to be religious (and often creationist), they would flock to a theory that’s all about struggle and competition and fitness – a theory that sounds a lot like the fantasy of “free” enterprise.  The concept of “market forces” is much like natural selection – both are given the status of natural laws, but squishy, elusive “laws” that can’t be pinned down well enough to define them.

Economics isn’t really a science (collecting data isn’t enough to make something a science) and markets are things created by humans.  Natural selection was derived from the artificial selection of breeding programs, something else created by humans.  Some decades ago, in a moment of rather stunning honesty, E.O. Wilson wrote a book called Sociobiology.  He took a lot of heat for suggesting that something like social Darwinism was the logical, inexorable result of neo-Darwinian theory, but he was right.  The theory leads to eugenics as well, since eugenics and social Darwinism are pretty much the same thing.  Trouble is, these aren’t the patterns we see in nature.  Contrary to the erroneous ideas that sprang from Ayn Rand’s little Hollywood brain, the true “producers” are the plants – they know how to photosynthesize and we animals don’t.  If you’re a plant there’s an excellent chance that somebody eats you.  Some animals eat plants, some eat other animals, but this flow of matter and energy doesn’t mean life on Earth is nothing but a big, bloody battle about getting your two bits into the gene pool.

It’s a bit like anti-abortion groups versus pro-choice folks – the point is to keep the screaming going for as long as possible, more as a distraction than anything else.  I don’t believe the right wing types have any intention of overturning Roe vs Wade – it’s such a useful tool.  The creation vs evolution “debate” is quite similar, I think – the argument is not over differing evolutionary theories – it’s about creationism (or “intelligent design,” or whatever) versus the neo-Darwinian theory, and only the neo-Darwinian theory, focused solely on natural selection plus mutation.  In many ways, mutation is still a black box to biologists, but this makes it fine camouflage.  Either I’m old and poor because some god-thing hates me for having offended it in some way, or I’m old and poor because I’m not very fit and I’m being properly stomped by that magical force, natural selection.  Either way, the “banksters” win.

This is the wrong debate.  Creationists’ beliefs belong in the comparative religion class.  In the biology class, we should be comparing actual theories of evolution.  I know, Richard Dawkins and his fellow gatekeepers of the holy theory act as if all of this were settled science, but it isn’t.  Just because he’s sold a lot of books over the years doesn’t make it so.  If we got into a real discussion over a theory of evolution based on natural selection compared to one derived from the second law of thermodynamics and its behavior in systems open to the flow of energy, neo-D would lose.  A theory based on the 2nd law offers a vastly more accurate picture of/explanation for what we see in the real world.

The gatekeepers on both sides of the “debate” are powerful, and there is no place for me or the other scientists I write about in More Than the Sum.  But I know there are smart people out there who may have vague misgivings about this “debate,” thoughts they can’t quite articulate.  I want to encourage your skepticism and outline an alternative!

Posted in Evolution and politics, On science, On theories | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

What’s wrong with being a theory?

I often hear evolutionists claim that evolution is not a theory, but a fact.  I argue that this is not so.  Organisms living or fossilized are facts.  The characteristics they share, such as backbones or hair or flowers, are facts.  (And sometimes we get confused about these things, too.)  Evolutionary theories, one or more of them, have been constructed to explain the existence of these biological facts of planet Earth.  To call evolution a fact makes it hard to criticize, to re-examine, to amend.  This makes evolution more of a focus of faith than an argument of science.

To call something a theory doesn’t make it weak, as some may think.  On the contrary, theories are strong because they must stand up to testing.  A theory that manages to remain a rational explanation in the face of empirical evidence or criticism is stronger than something you either believe or don’t.

I confess to being the suspicious type.  When I hear evolutionary biologists claim that, “Evolution is more than a theory.  It’s a fact.” they are almost always talking about neo-Darwinian evolution, with natural selection and survival of the fittest and all those other claims that are rather nonsensical in the face of biology.  This elevates a rather poor excuse for a theory to a revealed truth.  This makes for bad science!  Like Karl Popper said, “All knowledge is human.”  The idea that everything is open to criticism is the thing that makes science strong.

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