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Does Belief in Evolution Matter?

When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled. -Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

In response to Gallup’s survey and Andrew Sullivan’s commentary, Kevin Drum argues that “belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything.”  Drum still agrees that the biography of life should still be taught in schools “because it’s true,” but he overlooks the importance of the subject.

Gallup alerts us that 46% of Americans believe that God magically caused man by instantaneous creation.  As evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky noticed, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Therefore, we have around 46% of Americans that neither understand nor will directly or indirectly promote biology, the science that The Economist proclaims will be to this century “what physics was to the 20th.” Drum waves some of that concern away by asserting that “nobody wants to remove it from university biology departments.” Besides being totally wrong about that (here’s the “biology” department at the “University” that one of our major presidential candidates, ahem, just gave the Commencement Address at), who does Drum think will populate our research facilities? Kids don’t just go from outright rejection of science to fully analytical college students after a summer off. Even if they did, education could advance more easily if undergraduate college didn’t have to function as a remedial transition school. Knowledge is cumulative.

Besides light’s ability to illuminate, it also has the power to disinfect and transform. The question of mankind’s origin and his place in nature is uniquely both the cause and the consequence of fundamentalist religious faith. The radiance of Darwin’s idea corroded this keystone to anthropomorphic theistic superstition, the argument from design.

If belief in evolution didn’t have such grave consequences to traditional religious teleology and morality, it’d be a real mystery why creationists care so much about Drum’s unimportant topic. Rather than wondering if evolution has any “real-life impact on anything” it makes more sense to ask if there is any fundamental question that evolution doesn’t alter. The meaning of life, our ethical obligations to all creatures, our stewardship of the environment, our sex lives, our religions, our sciences, whether we have free will – these subjects all differ after contact with Darwinian knowledge.

Next time Kevin spends “an entire day arguing politics and economics and culture with a conservative” without mentioning evolution, he should ask himself what a natural account of life on earth does to arguments against stem-cell research, to objections to unnatural homosexuality, and to just deserts economic philosophy.

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New Atheists Hurting Science Literacy?

December 22, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s a common critique made of “the New Atheists” that they harm their own cause of science literacy by so harshly attacking the religion that supports inaccurate beliefs about the world. These critics (e.g. here and here) argue that we shouldn’t attack religion but rather should frame science in a way that seems more compatible with faith. Despite that this is what the scientific community has been trying to do for decades with no apparent success, any deviation from the status quo is presumed to be automatically counterproductive.

The New Atheist movement, if one insists on calling it that, started around 2004 with Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and propelled to increasing popularity with Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in 2006. So let’s check to see if the popularity of their approach had any obvious negative effects on the acceptance of evolution like critics like Robert Wright and Chris Mooney assume.

1982-2010 Trend: Views of Human Origins (Humans Evolved, With God Guiding; Humans Evolved Without God's Involvment; God Created Humans in Present Form)(from here)

Now it is possible that the upward trend in acceptance would be higher or the drop in hard creationism would be steeper had Dawkins and Coyne never written their books, but it is clear that there isn’t any positive evidence that the New Atheism is harming the cause of science. The reality of course is that this movement’s effect on science literacy is likely extremely minor. For critics to insist that atheists shut up because they are harming science is ridiculous.

Evidence For Evolution, ctd

December 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Another amazing video from QualiaSoup.

Categories: Evolution, QualiaSoup

Evidence for Evolution, ctd: Facebook Edition

May 12, 2010 3 comments

I had a little Facebook debate with a friend’s friend on whether evidence exists for “any species evolving into another species. ” Here’s the debate as it currently stands. I’ll be sure to add any updates. I wrote my remarks at 1 in the morning so I’m taking the liberty of cleaning up a few grammatical errors (nothing of substance) and linking a few more of my points for easier reference for any curious readers. I cut out some random Boo Yahs! and such things by some commentators before and in between the substance of our debate. 



RMBScientists are sure of evolution in the sense that Darwin’s Finches had changing beaks, but there is very little and very weak “evidence” of any species evolving into another species. I’m just saying…


Me: I hate to break it to you (by which I mean, I “love”) but even with evolution at that level there is a huge amount of evidence. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you haven’t looked that deeply into the mainstream scientific literature. There is an amazing amount of fossil, genetic, geological, and other evidence (no quotes) for evolution. Any critiques that say otherwise are deliberately misreading the facts or ignorant of them. I’m not slamming religion in this instance, but consider why opposition to evolution is WHOLLY theological, not scientific, and that should tell you everything you need to know.


RMB: this is a hard forum in which to really have this discussion but let me just say that I have read works by famous evolutionists like Gould, Asimov and Dawkins and I always feel that there is a stunning disregard of facts and glossing over things that have little or no evidence to support them. The fossil record supports me in my view. Rather than showing long periods of minor changes that clearly lead to a new species, there are long periods of minor change followed by a blink of a few million years in which thousands of new species suddenly appear. And I prefer to leave religion out of it. Thhe fact is that transitional species don’t exist in any real way. Even Crick (Nobel Prize winner for co-discovering DNA) believed that DNA changes that would cause one species to become another are so implausible that is is more likely that extraterrestrials left what some see as the building blocks for evolution on our planet in a last ditch effort to keep life in the universe when they faced extinction. And thats a crazy thing for a very intelligent person to say, so it’s saying quite a bit about how he felt about evolution. 
As for me, well I think that some primordial soup turning into human life is about as likely as a tornado whipping through a junkyard and coming up with a boeing 747.


Me: Well I’m glad you’ve clearly studied the creationist (read: “non-scientific religious”) literature on the issue (e.g. the boeing 747 fallacy). In case you’re curious, evolution has very little to do with random chance, but rather non-random natural selection. 


Let’s clean up some other misrepresentations you let clutter your argument. First off “a
 blink of a few million years” (which sounds ludicrous already but I know what you’re getting at) is more like 20 million years! You must be referring to the Cambrian Explosion. Although that is a short period of time in the geologic history of the earth, it is still a very long time for evolution to work. The emergence of evolved fossils during this period is mostly explained by soft bodied creatures developing harder mineralized bones and shells which more easily fossilize. If we followed your faulty logic we’d have to conclude flatworms just appeared! After all, they (and their cousins) are incredibly common (about as many types as there are mammals) but not a single fossil of one has ever been found.

It’s also telling that you’re pulling out-of-context statements from evolutionists to somehow disprove evolution, as though they support your view. If they were making arguments which disproved evolution, they wouldn’t be evolutionists would they? I couldn’t find exactly what quote you were referring to in reference to Crick [update: I found it: he’s referring to the origin of life, not evolutionary change], but understand he certainly accepts evolution by natural selection and is a harsh critic of creationism. Here’s a quote from him: “They [creationists] also usually deny that animals and plants have evolved and changed radically over such long periods, although this is equally well established. This gives one little confidence that what they have to say about the process of natural selection is likely to be unbiased, since their views are predetermined by a slavish adherence to religious dogmas.”

Let me just close by saying, even if no fossils were ever found, evolution today should not be in doubt, but the fact remains that the libraries we have filled with fossils should convince anyone willing to look with an open mind. I don’t mean to be rude, but to argue that “transitional species don’t exist in any real way” is a willful disregard of the evidence. Here’s just wikipedia’s incomplete list.

My favorite recent example is Tiktaalik.

What is amazing about that find, other than its clarity, is that the scientist who found it predicted a creature like that must exist in that specific area where it was found. Then found it. Read his book: Your Inner Fish.

Amazingly, if you look at all the fossils discovered from earliest to most recent, you see a clear path from more primitive to what we find in modern animals today. Not a single out of place fossil! No rabbits in the precambrian, as the quip goes. What else could explain that except for evolution? All disparate fields of modern science converge and confirm the truth of evolution. Pretending that the science is on your side is disingenuous – admit that your opposition is motivated by religion not science; your string of creationist talking points already gave you away.


(image from Discovery News)

Happy Birthday Mr Darwin!

February 12, 2010 2 comments


It’s time to celebrate one of the most significant lives in our species. Charles Darwin’s remarkable theory permeates more of science every year expanding our perspective on life on this planet. In one of my favorite books looking at Darwin’s influence on science and our understand of ourselves, Dan Dennett best describes the theory as a “universal acid.”

In honor of his birthday, here’s a great recent column by Olivia Judson. Enjoy.
Each ciliate has something called a micronucleus; this contains two complete versions of its genome. During sex, the micronucleus divides in such a way that each individual keeps one version of its genome for itself; it then gives an exact copy of this version to its partner. Afterwards, each individual fuses the two genomes (the one it kept and the one it got) to make a new micronucleus.

This has three odd consequences. The first is that, by the end of sex, the two individuals have become genetically identical. It’s as if you and your mate began coitus as yourselves and finished as identical twins. The second odd consequence is that, partway through its life, a ciliate can radically alter its genetic make-up; genetically speaking, the transformation is so extreme that it’s as if you changed into one of your children. Talk about being reborn.

Remembering the year (biologist style)

December 30, 2009 Leave a comment

Olivia Judson adds a new post on different types of memory in honor of the end of the year.

Another year; another 584 million miles traveled on our endless journey ’round the sun; another set of joys and regrets, disasters and triumphs. And sitting here, reflecting on the year, I am also moved to reflect on the nature of memory — and on memory in nature. For the conscious, brain-based memories that we humans set so much store by are not the only memories out there.

She goes on to discuss memory in the immune system in animals and defensive memory in plants such as a wild tobacco.
We tend to think of memory as unique to animals. But it isn’t. Plants also have a form of memory. Yes: they, too, are shaped by what happens to them, and alter their responses to future events based on their experiences in the past.

[…]

Tobacco plants attacked for the first time take longer to mount their defense than tobacco plants that have previously experienced an attack. This isn’t because the previously attacked plants keep on producing a higher level of nicotine — they don’t. Nicotine is expensive for a plant to make (it takes a lot of energy and requires large amounts of nitrogen, which the plant might prefer to use for other purposes), so they only do it when necessary. No: the previously attacked plants respond to new leaf damage more quickly. And plants that have been attacked twice are faster to respond than plants that have only been damaged once. Somehow, they remember.
I saw Olivia Judson on a NOVA program today (on Tuesday the 29th) discussing evolution which got me thinking. Just as scientists compare and contrast, say, the genomes and embryos of different forms of life to learn their evolutionary heritage, I wonder if anyone has looked into whether plant and immune system (as well as any possible others) memory are evolutionary precursors to conscience memory. What, if any, are their relationships? I threw that question up in the comments section under her blog post so if anyone responds with anything interesting I’ll share it.

Origins of Morality, A Reply to Francis Collins

October 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Dr. Andy Thomson is back with another wonderful video.

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