Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ayala to IDers – ‘God is the greatest abortionist’

Francisco Ayala, one of the world’s greatest evolutionary biologists, AND one of the most renowned biological scientists openly defending the compatibility of evolution and religious belief, has been a busy man with the controversy over “Expelled.”

And, he’s not afraid to be as blunt with IDers as Richard Dawkins:
In fact, he said, evolution “is more consistent with belief in a personal god than intelligent design. If God has designed organisms, he has a lot to account for.”

Consider, he said, that at least 20 percent of pregnancies are known to end in spontaneous abortion. If that results from divinely inspired anatomy, Dr. Ayala said, “God is the greatest abortionist of them all.”

Or consider, he said, the “sadism” in parasites that live by devouring their hosts, or the mating habits of insects like female midges, tiny flies that fertilize their eggs by consuming their mates’ genitals, along with all their other parts.

For the midges, Dr. Ayala said, “it makes evolutionary sense. If you are a male and you have mated, the best thing you can do for your genes is to be eaten.” But if God or some other intelligent agent made things this way on purpose, he said, “then he is a sadist, he certainly does odd things and he is a lousy engineer.”

That is also the message of his latest book, “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion.”
Ayala also offers his take on the “teach the controversy,” or similar statements, espoused by many evolution doubters from President Bush on down, as well as evolution denialists:
He dismisses the argument that it is only fair to teach both sides of the evolution/creationism controversy. “We don’t teach alchemy along with chemistry,” he said. “We don’t teach witchcraft along with medicine. We don’t teach astrology with astronomy.”
Ayala’s work on behalf of evolutionary biology is greatly appreciated.

But, his comments also underscore part of why I became an atheist.

If you accept the idea that God, in the Western monotheistic version, cannot be “all,” how much of a “less than all” do you accept and still find worthy of the label “God,” as far as powers or skills of design?

Or, second question – how much below “less than all” do you get until you recognize that your “God” is nothing but a “god of the gaps” and that these gaps have been being closed by both science and philosophy for 300 years or more?

Or transferring this issue beyond what philosophers call “natural evil” to “moral evil,” how much “inhumanity” (the older Mark Twain would say it’s quite human) do you accept as the production, whether active or passive, of a “morally less than all” divinity before junking the idea entirely?

And, that said, at the end of the NYT story, Ayala himself refuses to discuss whether he is still a religious believer or not.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Language can shape our perception of the world

This has been a back-and-forth in both philosophy and psychology ever since Benjamin Whorf mythically claimed the Eskimos had 100 different words for snow. (He didn’t, actually.) For a long time, in relatively recent years, well, ever since the discovery of DNA and the crumbling of Skinnerian behavioralism, Whorf’s ideas were cast by the wayside.

But now, a Cornell researcher has partially resurrected them.

At least with color discrimination, Gary Lupyan says a specific language background does make a difference:
Language helps us learn novel categories, and it licenses our unusual ability to operate on an abstract plane, Lupyan said. The problem is that after a category has been learned, it can distort the memory of specific objects, getting between us and the rest of the nonabstract world.

This fits well with the general idea of “man the category-making creature.”

But, not everybody is ready to buy into even a limited version of Whorfian linguistics redivivus.

On the contrary side? Evolutionary Psychologist (yes, with the double capital letters, see my tages) Steve Pinker. (That, of course, means there’s a good chance the theorizing is right and he’s wrong.)
This separation of language and thought is emphasized in a recent book by Steven Pinker, at Harvard University, a skeptic of “neo-whorfianism.” In “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature,” Pinker explores the complicated ways that language and thought relate to each other. He cautions against confusing the “many ways in which language connects to thought.” “Language surely affects thought,” he writes, but he argues that there is little evidence for the claims that language can force people to have particular thoughts or make it impossible for them to think in certain ways. With numbers, the importance of language evidence is much clearer. It appears that the ability to count is necessary to deal with large, specific numbers. And the only way to count past a certain point is with language.

He’s overstating the case. Lupyan didn’t say anything about forcing. Rather, as with human genes, we might say that in certain categories of reasoning, one language may create a predisposition (and perhaps no more than a mild one) toward reasoning in one way rather than another.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Darwinism looks to explain collective behavior

Wired has a great article on what the next frontier, or hurdle if you will, is for the explanatory power of modern neo-Darwinism — the development of groups and collectives. This includes bees in a hive, ants in a colony, bacteria in a collective, and even more complex things such as the vast array of bacteria that make up 90 percent of the cells in our own “human” bodies.

The main question is, how can neo-Darwinian theory as currently constituted explain these developments of evolutionary biology — if it can?

Down in front, creationists and IDers. Wired is a serious magazine and isn’t asking for “explanations” from you.

But, some of the evolutionary biologists quoted in the story say that something, either a greatly modified neo-Darwinianism or else some appended theory of emergent properties, based on things like chaos theory, complexity theory, and the “tipping points” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, is going to be needed to do the trick.
”There’s nothing wrong with neo-Darwinian evolution in its own right,” Carl Woese said, “but it’s not large enough to encompass what we know now.”

Woese’s specialty is bacteria, and he’s not afraid of bold theories that turn conventional scientific wisdom on its head. In 1977, he and colleague George Fox rearranged the animal kingdom from five branches into three, two of which comprise microbes.

Microbes make up much of Earth’s biomass, and they also cast into relief the shortcomings of neo-Darwinian evolution. A bucket of seawater can contain 60,000 bacterial species, and to Woese, these must be seen as a collective rather than as disparate units.

At the collective level, said Woese, bacteria exhibit patterns of organization and behavior that emerge suddenly, at tipping points of population variation and density called “saltations.” Natural selection still favors — or disfavors — the ultimate outcome of these jumps, but the jumps themselves seem to defy explanation solely through genetic changes or individual properties.

Such jumps don’t just call into question whether evolution is capable of producing sudden rather than gradual change. That debate raged during the later stages of the last century, but has been largely settled in favor of what paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould termed punctuated equilibrium. By contrast, Woese invokes yet-to-be-quantified rules of complexity and emergence. These, he said, may also explain other exceptional jumps, such as the transition from protein fragments to single cells and from single-celled organisms to multicellular ones.

Contrary to IDers, creationists, or New Agers, etc., Woese works with rules that have a basis in science and/or mathematics, rules that are ultimately testable through construction of hypotheses.

Part of the issue hinges on debate over an idea stated most forcefully by philosopher Daniel Dennett: Is neo-Darwinism algorithmic or not? I am guessing Woese would either say “I don’t know,” or “possibly not.” Other evolutionary biologists might agree with Dennett, yet others might reject his claim forcefully.
”Selection probably happens at all scales, from gene to individual to species to collection of species to ecosystem to we don’t even know what,” said Maya Paczuski, head of the Complexity Science Group at the University of Calgary.

Paczuski’s group sees evolution as taking place at all these levels, with what happens in ecosystems rippling down to individuals, back up to populations, across to other populations, and so on — all simultaneously, and in tandem with the mysterious dynamics of networked complexity.

But does it all happen mechanically? Or does evolution obey some larger imperative?

University of Nevada evolutionary biologist Guy Hoelzer calls that imperative biospheric self-organization. "The idea of evolution is embedded within self-organization,” he said. “It coordinates the ecological roles of species so that ecosystems persist and process a great deal of energy.”

I, too, doubt Dennett’s idea, though as a scientific layperson (but not a philosophical one), I don’t think I have enough of a scientific background to be able to reject it forcefully. I do think that, to some degree, the developmental processes we eventually discover in the emergent properties of biological groups, collectives and ecosystems will show enough discontinuity with neo-Darwinism to be likely to develop as separate subfield within evolutionary biology.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Irony alert – New York Philharmonic

The NYPhil is tonight, on its national concert broadcast series, playing Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” as conducted a few years ago by Kurt Mazur.

But… Easter was last week. And… Passover hasn’t yet happened.

Will we get Stravinsky’s “Abraham and Isaac” next week? The NYPhil may not even have played that in the past 20 years for all I know.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Illiterate science journalism at Morning News confuses nature and nurture

In a health story today at The Dallas Morning News, (don’t forget the initial capital!) freelancer (I’m sorry, “special contributor”) Elsa K. Simcik made a whopper of a mistake on nature vs. nurture. She says:
Reed also didn't realize that being African-American automatically put her at high risk for developing colon cancer. According to the American Cancer Society Web site, “African-Americans have the highest colorectal cancer incidence and mortality rates of all racial groups in the United States.”

Yes, but there is NO definite evidence linking anything genetic in African-Americans to the higher colon cancer rates, therefore, Martha Reed was NOT “automatically” anything.

There are a variety of environmental risk factors, to be sure. Lower screening rates and detection often being in more advanced states of cancer both contribute to the higher fatality rate. Traditional black foods, higher in saturated fats and lower in fiber, are certainly likely contributory to higher rates of occurrence.

BUT … those are all “nature” factors, not “nurture” ones.

As for claims of genetic-driven difference, all of them are weak at this stage, and even if they do pan out with more research, nonetheless, their effects will be seen as much smaller than the environmentally-caused ones.

I know the Snooze got rid of its fantastic science editor, Tom Siegfried, in what seems like an eon ago. But, that’s not an excuse for not having at least a staff writer with some science writing doing this story.