Category Archives: Darwin

Darwin, sexual selection and Putin

Credit: RussiaFeed.

Must edge my way back in into blogging after a period of mourning. So here is something provocative.

Perhaps President Putin is “making Russia great again” in a way we haven’t thought of. Via Darwinian sexual selection?

If this song is anything to go by maybe Putin as a role model will lead to improvement in the Russian gene pool if women start preferring men with his moral and lifestyle characteristics.

Or perhaps his influence will operate more quickly by encouraging Russian men to smarten themselves up if they want to find a partner?

Is this yet another positive influence Putin has had on Russian life after the disastrous experiences of the criminal anarchy of the 1990s?

Or is it a sign that Putin has finally decided to run in next March’s Russian Presidential elections and this is his first campaign song?

Whatever – it’s a welcome (and tuneful) change from the usual demonisation of the man we get from our mainstream media. (And I expect to get from commenters here).

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Determining scientific knowledge by petition

Some readers may be familiar with the “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” petition organised by the Discovery Institute. It’s a classic example of trying to decide science by petition. The petition still gets trundled out by creationists attempting to “prove’ that the acceptance of evolutionary science is weak in the scientific community – or that many “brilliant” scientists oppose Darwin’s ideas.

Six years ago I did my own brief analysis of signatories to the petition specifically to check their scientific credentials (see Who are the “dissenters from Darwinism”?). I really only looked at a sample (those with the first name Steve, and the three from New Zealand).

The other day in my surfing I came across another analysis of these signatories at Rational Wiki (see A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism). This appears to have attempted to check the credentials of everyone on the list. It is worth having a browse to get an idea of what motivates these people..

By the way, I came across a new term I have not heard before – Wingnut welfare.

It is worth doing this sort of analysis when you come across similar petitions – the are common with those wanting to deny the current scientific consensus on an issue. Petitions like this have been produced by climate change deniers and opponents of fluoridation.

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Dawkins’ new book

Richard Dawkins’ latest book is due out next September. The title – Childhood, Boyhood, Truth: From an African Youth to The Selfish Gene

It’s yet a new genre for Dawkins – autobiography. Mind you he has reached the age where people do tend to write memoirs and autobiographies.

Richard says  this book covers his life up to the  writing of The Selfish Gene.  There will be a second volume, published in 2015, covering the second half of his life.

I have enjoyed his other books and am looking forward to this one – especially as I have a special interest in scientific biography.

These two volumes will be a good read – he is an excellent writer and has had an interesting life, scientifically.

I wonder if it will get the same sort of emotional attacks his earlier books received?

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Does religion blur understanding of evolution?

Victor Stenger has a short, but important, blog post in the Huffington Post. Appropriately (because it’s about evolutionary science) dated February 12 – Darwin Day, 204th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.

Stenger’s article, No Belief Gap, considers Gallup Poll data on the numbers of American who accept evolutionary science and who believe in a god. But in contrast to some commentators, he differentiates between those who see evolution as guided by their god or as a so-called “naturalistic” process – defined in the polls as: “Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life [and] God had no part in the process.”

This is, of course, what we mean by evolutionary science. Guidance by gods, goblins, elves or whatever is not part of that science. (Nor is it currently part of any other science). The distinction is important and it is no accident that some religious apologists like Alvin Plantinga  misrepresent the issue and are trying to create the impression that “divine” guidance is an essential part of evolutionary science (see Naturalism and science are incompatible).

Stenger finds of those accepting a proper definition of evolutionary science:

“This is exactly the same percentage of Americans who declare themselves unaffiliated with any religion.

“It may be that the only Americans who accept naturalist evolution are those who do not participate in any organized religion.”

His last comment:

“Virtually all Christians who accept that species evolve, contrary to the Bible that they believe is the word of God, think evolution is God-guided. This is not Darwinian evolution. God-guided evolution is intelligent design creationism. How many American Christians believe in evolution, as it is understood by science? The data indicate none.”

Could we draw the same conclusion about New Zealand Christians? I would be interested to see similar poll data for our country.

See also: A specious argument for the comity of evolution and faith

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The “dynamic duo” of science?

Well, that’s how someone described them.

But I have generally found the discussions between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins stimulating. I first commented on these almost 5 years ago (see Lawrence Krauss – Richard Dawkins discussion).

They have had a number of discussions recently, in a range of countries. Someone has now put these together in a single movie. Here’s the movie trailer. Looks interesting

THE UNBELIEVERS (2013) – Official Movie Trailer

Thanks to: Dawkins & Krauss making kick-ass new atheism doc

By the way, the movie includes discussions with others too. here’s a description from the YouTube site:

‘The Unbelievers’ follows renowned scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss across the globe as they speak publicly about the importance of science and reason in the modern world – encouraging others to cast off antiquated religious and politically motivated approaches toward important current issues.

The film includes interviews with celebrities and other influential people who support the work of these controversial speakers, including:

Ricky Gervais
Woody Allen
Cameron Diaz
Stephen Hawking
Sarah Silverman
Bill Pullman
Werner Herzog
Tim Minchin
Eddie Izzard
Ian McEwan
Adam Savage
Ayaan Hirsi-Ali
Penn Jillette
Sam Harris
Dan Dennett
James Randi
Cormac McCarthy
Paul Provenza
James Morrison
Michael Shermer
David Silverman
…and more.

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Pulling the wool over the eyes of the faithful

Occasionally I watch videos, or listen to podcasts, distributed by the Intelligent design crowd at the Discovery Institute. So, I wasted a few minutes on this video below where one of their tame scientists, Ann Gauger, spoke “authoritatively” on population genetics and why this proved Darwin wrong!

It’s a load of old rubbish, aimed at convincing the gullible with sciency sounding words, but causing giggles from real biologists. However, I was interested in the background chosen for the interview. Could this be a lab in the much vaunted ID Biologic Institute? The one set up by the Discovery Institute to do “real” research. The lab where no journalist or non-ID scientist has been allowed access.

Well, it turns out that the background is false. It’s a green screen, using a stock photo (see The Disco ‘Tute’s fake laboratory).


Stock photo used for background in video

Why go to such trouble?

Well, I guess the simple answer is they don’t have a lab, or access to a lab, they can use as an impressive background – so they fudged it. But of course, there’s more to it than that.

The whole purpose of forming the Biologic Institute was to impress. I mean, to impress their convinced adherents (because no-one in the scientific world is impressed by such a façade). It’s the “silo effect” such ideological communities go in for. They can maintain beliefs because they have their own tame experts and members of the community usually self-censor. The faithful can go along with the pretence their beliefs are supported by scientific evidence and avoid having to deal with real science and scientists.

The ID community provides the amenities require for such a blinkered outlook. They even have their own list of “scientists” rejecting Darwinism. The faithful can thus repeat the lie evolutionary science is on its last legs. That high ranking scientists have proven it wrong.

The Discovery Institute and the Biologic Institute also provide another element of the façade – peer reviewed publications supporting ID. To this end they have established their own “scientific journal” – BIO-Complexity. This presents a veneer of a peer-reviewed journal – but look at it. A small handful of papers, all by the same people listed under the “staff” of the Biologic Institute.

Again, this fools no credible scientist but it can be used to fool the faithful.

But what a a situation – having to lie to your own supporters.

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Time for philosophical honesty about Darwin

Credit: The Teaching Company

John S. Wilkins, at the Evolving Thoughts blog, has a nice short article, Why is Darwin’s theory so controversial?, on the so-called “controversies” around Darwin’s theories. I think he nails it. He shows that the usual tired old objections to Darwin’s ideas are just excuses.

The excuses

“Darwin thought species are mutable.” But:

“This was a widely held view by preachers, moralists, Aristotelians, naturalists, breeders, formalists, folk biology, and even biblical translators.”

“Darwin had racist ideas about humans.”

“He never did and the racism that is sometimes associated with his ideas preceded him by centuries (and were good Christian virtues) and were mediated by those who disagreed with him.”

“Darwin thought the age of the earth was large:”

“This preceded him also, and was settled in the late eighteenth century, although the present value wasn’t finalised until the 1960s.”

“Darwin’s claim humans are animals contradicted the Bible.” But:

“Linnaeus knew humans were animals a century earlier, and indeed the only issue was whether humans were animals with souls (or if all animals had souls), which Darwin never implied anything to the contrary.

Moreover, it was Christians who rejected the literal interpretation of the Bible, long before Darwin (beginning with the Alexandrian school in the second century), and those who realised that the global Flood was a myth (or an allegory) were Christian geologists a half century at least in advance of Darwin.”

The real controversy

John explains:

“No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple. Darwin argued that complex designs could arise without a mind to guide it. In short, his controversial idea was natural selection (and sexual selection, but even that preceded Darwin). Almost from the day it was published, critics attacked the implication that the living world was not all that special, and that it lacked a Plan or Meaning. Theologians, moralists and even scientists objected to this, and while even most of the Catholic Church accepted common descent and modification of species, it was natural selection they hated.”

But instead of honestly confronting and debating the real issue they lie and slander:

“All the supposed “controversies” of Darwinism (or that phantom, “neo-Darwinism”) are post hoc attacks based on the prior objection to the lack of a guiding hand in biology. Don’t like natural selection? Attack Darwin by calling him a racist or blaming him for the Holocaust. Say he is antiessentialist. Say he is anti-religion. No matter how much evidence one puts forward that these are deliberate lies manufactured by those who hate Darwin for natural selection, it won’t stop the prevarication industry.”

A basic philosophical conflict

Wilkins says:

“Sensible philosophical critics of Darwin focus on selection for that reason. It undercuts our prior belief that We Are Special. Human mentation, cognition, language, morality, religion or economics is somehow privileged in the universe. Bullshit. We are an animal and we arose without the universe seeking us.”

But some philosophers will devote their energies to attacking this position while refusing to justify their alternative:

“The human exceptionalism which critics like Fodor, Fuller, Plantinga and the rest presume but do not argue for unfairly places the onus on Darwinians. It is time to stop taking them seriously.”

Amen to that.

But I want to add something to John’s analysis – and I do hope he doesn’t feel I misrepresent him.

Time for philosophical honesty

Darwin’s approach of looking to nature, and not to scripture, for the explanation of nature was simply being scientific. It extended the progress made by modern science in physics, astronomy, etc., into the understanding of life – including human life. Galileo in the early 17th Century argued our understanding of the world should be based on evidence from the world – not on fallible interpretation of scripture. Scientific knowledge, or natural philosophy in those day, should be based on evidence from reality and resulting ideas and theories tested and validated against that reality.

Today, sensible philosophers (even sensible philosophers of religion) accept this approach in the physical sciences. We no longer hear them talking about, or justifying, divine guidance in the movement of stars and planets, or the reaction of chemicals. Why should Fodor, Fuller and Plantinga so adamantly wish to sneak divine guidance into the biological world?

As they are so keen on divine guidance why not try to find and deliver some evidence for it instead of relying on logical possibility alone? That would be the scientific approach. And if they were really consistent they would also be arguing for, and producing evidence for, divine guidance in the physical world.

Now, that would put them in context.

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The prejudiced journalist

The media interview is sometimes problematic for the scientist. There’s all the problems of getting one’s message across in a way that the public can appreciate and in the allotted time span provided by news bites.

But one problem that really annoys me is the motivated, or dogmatic, journalist. You know, the one who has an ideologically motivated picture of your science, has probably already written the headline and conclusions, and is just trying to get quotes to fit their prejudices.

Dr. Maggie Turnbull – a freelance Astrobiologist

In this respect I have mentioned Suzan Mazur before (see Self-exposure – a journalist out of depth and  Suzan does a mini- Monckton). Well she has surfaced again, and again the creationist/intelligent design echo chamber have latched on to her. They are making a lot of her interview of Dr. Maggie Turnbull,  a freelance Astrobiologist who does some contract work for NASA (see Is Life an “Artificial Category”? for the interview and At NASA, Another Crack in the Darwin Consensus? for the misrepresentation of the interview).

Turnbull’s answers are relatively common sense and straight froward – but some of Mazur’s questions are real woozies. She is so clearly trying hard to generate responses she can quote to undermine evolutionary science, and science in general. Here are some examples:

Suzan Mazur:You’ve indicated that the laws of life are being drawn too narrowly, saying you “mentally resist” defining the parameters of life because so far we only have one example of it — life on Earth. You’ve also said that “as scientists we always want to categorize everything, but is it possible that it’s just a continuum of a one-based system?” Would you expand on those comments?

Maggie Turnbull: It’s a very human tendency to want to put things in categories: This is alive and this other thing is not alive. But those categories are artificial. The Universe does not know anything about those categories.

We want to be thinking in terms of a continuum. That continuum can be along whatever parameter — different behaviors, different relationships with other parts of the system. But defining life as a category — as something in a box and whatever is outside the box is non-life — will continue to produce exceptions.

By some definitions, a human would not even be considered to be alive. If only one human were in a box in space, there’d be no way that human could reproduce. A single human would in that instance not fully qualify as a life form.

Even though categorizing things according to specific characteristics is useful for organizing human thought, it will never allow us to describe the whole system. We need to get over our obsession with defining things as living and non-living.

Suzan Mazur: NASA’s official definition for life is no longer still limited to “a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution,” is it?

Maggie Turnbull:
All I can say is, if NASA has an official definition of life, I don’t agree with it, and neither does life.

Suzan Mazur:
Would you know if NASA is still financing and otherwise supporting research pegged to the Darwinian model?

Maggie Turnbull:
I don’t know exactly what you mean by “pegged to the Darwinian model.” NASA supports research in genetics and in mechanisms that allow for survival in extreme conditions.

It’s really all about our collective desire to investigate things and the technology catching up as well as our understanding of how the Universe works. Scientists in many ways are their own worst enemies. There’s so much disagreement in the scientific community because of all the objectives being pursued simultaneously. Often the result is a loss of focus. Scientists end up rehashing the same questions and the mission disappears.

For example, the mission concept I’ve been developing the past few years is one where most of the technologies are now available and it’s a matter of organizing those technologies to demonstrate that they can be effective in combination to observe Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Not far-away stars like with Kepler, but the stars you can see with your naked eye. In order to do that we need a more collective agreement that we’re going to invest in such a mission.

Suzan Mazur: Funding of origin of life research is increasingly a contentious issue because there’s a schism between the neo-Darwinists on one side and on the other many of the evo-devo scientists, symbiogeneticists, geologists, mechanical engineers, natural scientists, cognitive scientists, linguists and others. Would you comment?

Maggie Turnbull:
I don’t know much about it. I’m really an astronomer at heart. My focus is on the stars. I have very simple objectives when it comes to finding habitable planets and whatever the biologists want to say about the evolution of life is fine with me. At the end of the day though nothing matters until we find it.

Suzan Mazur:
Until we find what?

Maggie Turnbull: Until we find life on another planet.

Suzan Mazur:
So you don’t think that much about origin of life issues.

Maggie Turnbull: I think about origin of life, but personally I’m more interested in exploring other environments and finding out whether there are life form systems there. Evolutionary biologists would get a lot out of that search as well. I’m looking for the variety of life in the Universe.

Suzan Mazur: How much of science would you say is social momentum, i.e., not objective?

Maggie Turnbull: I would say a lot of it is social momentum because science is about a community of thinkers. By thinkers I mean scientists as well as non-scientists. Because when the American public is keenly interested in something, it is much easier for Congress to make the case for funding it. What scientists want, however, often does not concur with what the public wants. I don’t mean to be harsh in saying this, but the truth is that when scientists want to do what they want to do, they try to sell it as something the public should care about.

It takes so long to get a PhD and to build a career in science. Once that’s achieved, a scientist is hemmed-in as far as what they’re expert at and able to work on. A scientist can’t easily reorient their research just because the American public wants to study something else. So scientists try to persuade Congress to pay for the research they want because that’s what they know how to do. Scientific progress thus is 99% a wait for consensus.

Currently the Discovery Institute (intelligent design headquarters) is working hard to spread these questions and answers through their creationist internet silo. But you have to wonder why – because Suzan Mazur does tend to discredit herself with her questions, doesn’t she?

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Toss out the moderator for a better discussion

Here’s an interesting video – a discussion between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss at the Australian National University recently.

I have a couple of thoughts about this event:

  1. It really only took place because both speakers were in Australia for the recent Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. I think this endorse a point made by one journalist that such conventions do have important spin-offs. Of course there are economic ones – and this convention, which attracted over 4000 participants, would have brought tourists and money into Melbourne and Australia generally. That’s why governments actually help fund events like this.
    But this journalist was also talking about the intellectual and cultural benefits the convention brought to the country. The in the country inevitably leads to other events – TV interviews, debates, lectures and discussions like this. This contributes to the intellectual and cultural life of the country.
  2. Just look at how many people there were in the audience. it is gratifying to see top rate scientists creating such interest and drawing such crowds.
  3. The format of the discussion. Richard Dawkins has for some time expressed disappointment in the debate and moderated argument format. He repeats his reasons at the beginning of this video. Consequently he has undertaken a number of unmoderated discussions along the lines of this one. Personally I think they are successful – and much prefer them to debates which can end up as just glorified verbal boxing matches. I welcome readers thoughts on these formats.
    I look forward to such an unmoderated discussion where the participants have stronger difference. I like to think it could be successful. What do you think?

Thanks to:  Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss in conversation at ANU | The RiotACT.

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Theological mental gymnastics over evolution

Darwin Day is this weekend so I thought I should do a couple of relevant posts.

Here I want to comment on a popular reaction to evolutionary science by mainstream Christians.  I am referring to the regular church-goer or adherent who will claim they accept scientific knowledge – not to creationists or similar people like the adherents of intelligent design who actively campaign against, or deny, this knowledge.

Theistic evolution?

Often these Christians accommodate the science and their religious dogma by describing their beliefs as “theistic evolution.” I have never understood that term. Evolutionary science is evolutionary science – one doesn’t go tacking on your ideological adherence. Are we going to have Marxist thermodynamics, conservative chemistry, libertarian zoology, etc? No, of course not. Science is science – it is informed directly by reality, not religious belief.

So I have always assumed that people who claimed belief in “theistic evolution” were simply saying that they believed in a god and also accepted evolutionary science.

But now I am not so sure. I recently heard a Christian speaker declare his acceptance of evolutionary science and claim it did not conflict with his religion – because he believed the evolutionary process was guided by his god! This description brought home to me that he did not accept evolutionary science – because that science explains evolution of life on earth as an unguided  process. The only “guiding” is in the process of natural selection – involving the environment and interaction with it.

The unguided nature of evolution was the great discovery, the revolutionary nature, of the ideas proposed by Darwin and validated against reality. It seems to me that to re-insert a guiding hand, as some of these “theistic evolutionists” appear to desire, is definitely throwing out the baby. Its like claiming to accept Newtonian mechanics, the laws of planetary motion, etc., and then claim they result from angels guiding the planets!

That is complete reversal of science –  a negation of the modern scientific revolution.

OK, I recognise that some people who all themselves theistic evolutionist are not saying this. They may simply mean that the accept evolution is a natural unguided process but occurrence within the nature created by their god. Well, good luck to them – my beef is with those who want to impose a divine guidance on evolution. To rewrite the science.

Religious apologists rewrite science

Alvin Plantinga, a philosopher of religion and religious apologist is one such person. He asserts, in a recent book based on his debate with philosopher Daniel Dennett, that Christian claims are consistent with “Darwinism.” (See Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?). As he describes it:

“God could have caused the right mutations to arise at the right time. He could have preserved populations from perils of various sorts, and so on. And in this way, by orchestrating the course of evolution, he could have ensured that there come to be creatures of the kind he intends. Now what is not consistent with Christian belief, however, is the claim that evolution and Darwinism are unguided or I’ll take that to include being unplanned and unintended. What is not consistent with Christian belief is the claim that no personal agent (not even God) has guided, planned, intended, directed, orchestrated, or shaped this whole process. Yet precisely this claim is made by a large number of contemporary scientists and philosophers who write on this topic. There is a veritable choir of distinguished experts insisting that this process is unguided; indeed, sometimes insisting that it is part of the contemporary scientific theory of evolution itself to assert that it is unguided so that evolutionary theory as such is incompatible with Christian belief.”

So he is telling those Christian who do accept genuine evolutionary science that their acceptance is “not consistent with Christian belief,” ” incompatible with Christian belief.”

Now – this is Plantinga’s claim, not mine. I am happy to see Christians like Ken Miller who accept and teach evolutionary science truthfully. That accept the evolutionary process is unguided – despite the myths in the holy books. But Plantinga is asserting that one cannot accept evolutionary science, which is unguided, and be a Christian!

Plantinga is being extremely disingenuous to assert:

“There is a veritable choir of distinguished experts insisting that this process is unguided; indeed, sometimes insisting that it is part of the contemporary scientific theory of evolution itself to assert that it is unguided.”

As if these experts are somehow misrepresenting the science. Of course they aren’t. However, Plantinga is. He is trying to reintroduce a pre-scientific concept, divine guidance, into a modern science. He is attempting to portray scientific experts as somehow the rebels in this situation. He  in fact is attempting to rewrite the whole nature of evolutionary science – as I said to throw out the baby.

The ultimate in cherry picking

And what does he do to put a pseudo-scientific gloss on his distortion of science? He refers to biochemist, and promoter of intelligent design, Michael Behe. To his use of the argument from ignorance – that he cannot see how anything as complicated as a living cell could possibly have resulted from an unguided process! Bloody hell – he relies on Behe and ignores Darwin and all the other scientists, biologists, biochemists, evolutionary scientists etc. Is that extreme cherry picking or what?

Of course – there is method in Plantinga’s apparent madness. Having redefined evolutionary science to require a divinely guiding hand (turning it into its opposite) he declares that conservative and fundamental Christians can happily accept evolution – because they are not the rebels. It’s those horrible atheists and naturalists who have got it wrong. Because they don’t accept divine guidance they cannot accept evolutionary science. He finishes his presentation with the words:

“Evolution, however, is one of the pillars of contemporary science. Hence, there is a science/religion or perhaps science/quasi‐religion conflict in the neighborhood of evolution alright. But not between evolution and theistic religion. The real conflict is between evolution (that pillar of contemporary science) and naturalism.”

It’s amazing what a bit of motivated ideology and some mental gymnastics can do to the honourable subject of philosophy.

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