Evolving Ideas and Intelligent Design

Well, it seems that my earlier post on Darwin has ruffled some feathers in the Intelligent Design (ID) camp, so they’ve been trolling the comments section on my personal blog. This post started out as a response, but I decided to expand it to include some of the context surrounding Darwin’s work.

A comment by VMartin

…One wonders why no one noticed “natural selection” before. And there were ingenous minds in the history! One answer might be this – it was never observed because it doesn’t exist. Darwin implanted this speculation there. And “On the origin of species” reads sometimes like comedy. One should try to count how many times Darwin used words like “which seems to me extremely perplexing” etc….

One reason why some scientific theories have been slow to come to light

One reason why some scientific theories may have been slow to come to light

It’s interesting how ‘simple’ natural mechanisms and systems can take longer to be acknowledged than one might have thought. Heliocentrism is another example of something that now seems very obvious, but was historically slow to be recognised (and is still not recognised or not known about by some). It’s easy to blame organised religion for the suppression of such observational truths about the universe, since challenges to traditional belief were seen as heresy and dealt with accordingly, but there’s far more to it than that.

Let’s set the scene – Darwin’s formative years were tumultuous with regard to sociopolitical events. The Napoleonic wars drew to an end with the Battle of Waterloo when Darwin was six years old, the Peterloo Massacre occurred and the Six Acts were drawn up by the Tories to suppress radical reformers when he was ten – reflecting the ongoing social division between the establishment and the public. When Darwin was in his twenties the power of the strongly traditional British establishment finally began to wane, when the Whigs came to government allowing the 1832 Reform Act and the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act to be passed. There was also the devastating Great Famine in Ireland when Darwin was in his thirties and all of this was set against a background of the Industrial Revolution, which was providing the impetus for science to play an increasingly important role in society.

Peterloo Massacre

This meant that Darwin’s work was by no means formulated in intellectual isolation. Theories of evolution had been proposed 2,400 years previously, but they were poorly developed. Natural philosophers like Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck raised the issue of evolution at around the time of Darwin’s birth, but the mechanisms for evolution were either ignored or flawed. Evolution was an established topic of discussion and publication by the time Charles Darwin came onto the scene, with people like Robert Grant being more radical on the subject than Darwin found palatable in his early manhood. Despite this interest, the mechanism of evolution remained elusive – perhaps unsurprisingly, since the academic community addressing natural sciences was largely composed of members of the clergy and the natural theology of the time was seen as being mechanism enough.

But a literature base that was to inspire non-traditional hypotheses was also developing at the time – Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in particular offered an alternative view that was seen as too radical by many – clearing a path for subsequent works that challenged orthodox views.  Given this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace converged on the same premise at the same time. In short, the ideas evolved to fit the intellectual and social environment. The same has been true of other discoveries and inventions where there was a requirement for the right intellectual groundwork to be laid in advance. This groundwork is required before a robust theory can take root – and Natural Selection is a component of the robust theory of Descent with modification.

Intelligent Design

The Intelligent Design agenda

The critiques I have seen of evolutionary theory  have come from people who quite clearly don’t understand it – and such critiques tend to rely on statements of incredulity rather than a strong factual base. No well-supported alternative hypotheses have been constructed or presented and a lack of understanding hardly counts as a robust refutation of a well supported theory.

An accusation by IDers is that ‘Darwinists’ (N.B. I don’t know anyone who would call themselves a Darwinists following the New Synthesis) stick with Natural Selection because they are atheist. I think I see the real agenda emerging here, particularly when you see evolution as a theory being conflated with just one of the mechanisms involved. After all, Natural Selection is not the only mechanism involved in evolutionary adaptation and speciation – there are also other factors like hybridisation, horizontal gene transfergenetic drift, perhaps some epigenetic influences and artefacts of EvoDevo processes. But these factors are still constrained by the simple fact that if they are selected against, they will not be perpetuated.

John A. Davison left this comment on a previous post:

Natural selection is a powerful force in nature. It has but one function which is to prevent change. That is why every chickadee looks like every other chickadee and sounds like every other chickadee – chickadee-dee- dee, chickadee-dee-dee. Sooner or later natural selection has always failed leading to the extinction of nearly all early forms of life. They were replaced by other more prefected forms over the millions of years that creative evolution ws in progress…

Salamander ring species (picture from Thelander, 1994)

Salamander ring species

First and foremost, the suggestion that Natural Selection prevents change is erroneous – change will occur if there is a change in the environment and/or if beneficial mutations arise in a population (tell me that mutations don’t happen – I dare you…). The obvious response to the next statement is that I can think of six different ‘chickadee’ species, with an additional three subspecies (and this is ignoring numerous other very similar members of the Paridae), all are similar, but all are different – so the statement makes no sense as it stands. Getting to the meat of what is being implied about the Creationist interpretation of species, another bird provides a good example to the contrary. The Greenish Warbler shows a distinct pattern of hybridising subspecies across their vast range, until they form reproductively isolated species at the extreme ends of their range, where they happen to overlap yet not hybridise (a classic ring species [pdf of Greenish Warbler paper]). This is a well-known example of how genetic variation can accrue and give rise to new species without any supernatural intercession.

Another comment by VMartin

…But no wonder that Darwin considered “natural selection” for such a complicated force. Even nowadays Dawkins speculates that NS operates on genes, whereas E.O.Wilson has brushed up “group selection” recently (citing of course Darwin as debeatur est .

So may we “uncredulous” ask on which level “natural selection” operates?

As to this question about the level on which Natural Selection operates, I thought the answer was pretty obvious – it operates at every level. Change the focus of Natural Selection from passing on genes to the only alternative outcome – the inability to pass on genes. It doesn’t really matter which level this occurs at or why – be it a reduction in reproductive success when not in a group, or a deleterious single point mutation – if it happens then Natural Selection can be said to have occurred. Being ‘fit’ simply means that an organism has not been selected against.

There’s a lot more to modern evolutionary thought than Darwin’s key early contribution, but Darwin is still respected because he was the first to provide a viable mechanism by which evolution is driven. This mechanism has helped make sense of an awful lot of observations that were previously unaccounted for and, moreover, evolution has been observed and documented on numerous occasions [here’s a pdf summary of some good examples].

I fail to see why Intelligent Design has been taken seriously by some people – it relies on huge assumptions about supernatural interference (so it fails to be a science) and I have as yet never seen a single piece of evidence that actually supports ID claims. The only research I have seen mentioned by proponents of ID are old, cherry-picked studies that report a null result from an evolutionary study – this is not the same thing as support for ID, as anyone who can spot the logical fallacies of false dichotomy and Non sequitur (in particular the fallacy of denying a conjunct) will tell you.

Intelligent design as a scientific idea

Intelligent design as a scientific idea

I like to keep an open mind, but as soon as I see logical fallacies being wheeled out I lose interest in getting involved in the discussion. This may be a failing on my part, because I should probably challenge misinformation, but quite frankly I don’t have the time or the patience – much as I hate to stoop to an ad hominem, my feelings on this are best summed up by the paraphrase:

when you argue with the ID lot, the best outcome you can hope for is to win an argument with the ID lot

and my time is far too precious to waste arguing with people who ignore the arguments of others and construct Straw man arguments based on cherry-picked and deliberately misrepresented information. I have no problem with other people believing in a god, but please don’t try to bring any god into science (and heaven-forbid the classroom) – since it is neither necessary nor appropriate.

If you love homeopathy…

I was recently struck by an odd blog post “If you love homeopathy – don’t vote Liberal Democrat!

This is a post which berates Dr. Evan Harris MP for all manner of misdemeanours, not least his strong and vocal position against homeopathy. The blogger (one Sue Young) goes so far as to quote two articles from the GMC code that she feels Dr. Harris is contravening through his activities [update 14th Feb 2010 – apparently the blog post was based on a letter written by Lionel Milgrom, see Gimpy’s blog for details]. I wrote a comment relating to the fact that the overriding focus of the GMC guidelines is care to patients and it seems that Dr. Harris is fulfilling his duty to the GMC by attempting to “protect and promote the health of patients and the public” by illuminating the lack of evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy. It appears (unsurprisingly) that my comment did not make it through the comment review process, so I have posted it (and my follow-up) below.

It is not the berating of Dr. Harris that struck me as odd, nor the call to boycott the Liberal Democrats – it is the use of the term “if you love homeopathy”. This is a bit incongruous. I can understand someone loving what they do; after all I love my job, but I wouldn’t think to rely on my (admittedly irrational) fondness for dead animals as a way of motivating people to see things from my perspective. Moreover, “love” has some important connotations – not least unconditional acceptance or bias. It is here that we begin to see where the problem with homeopathy really lies.

I have said before (a couple of times) that homeopaths are believers in a 200 year old doctrine – which is why homeopathy has not changed appreciably in those two centuries. It is the inability to see past their love for their discipline that has meant that it has not been allowed to adapt and evolve. As a result homeopaths keep practicing their art with complete faith in its efficacy, despite the fact that evidence has repeatedly shown that homeopathy does not work appreciably beyond placebo (unless the studies assessing it are of low quality). Even where studies conclude that homeopathy is not effective, there are examples of homeopaths cherry-picking statements and citing them as support.

Rather like a parent is biased towards their child because of their love, homeopaths are biased towards their discipline. Evidence against the efficacy of homeopathy merely makes homeopaths feel more defensive. Logical refutation of the principles of homeopathy leads homeopaths to doubt well established facts about physics and biology rather than change their assumptions about homeopathy. It’s like a parent being confronted with video footage of their child shoplifting and responding by saying “but my child would never do that – you must be mistaken”. This is not how science works. This is certainly not how medicine should work.

Until homeopaths can put aside their love of homeopathy they simply cannot be trusted to work with the best interests of their patients in mind. Ignoring or twisting evidence to make it fit what is already believed is not beneficial. If homeopathy is ever going to be more than a dogmatic anachronism it needs to start accepting criticism and more to the point it needs to start recognising the inherent bias introduced by those that love homeopathy.

My comments:

It should be pointed out here that article 46 and 47 is not intended to defend the actions of colleagues who do not fulfil the duties of a doctor registered with the General Medical Council:

Patients must be able to trust doctors with their lives and health. To justify that trust you must show respect for human life and you must:

  • Make the care of your patient your first concern
  • Protect and promote the health of patients and the public
  • Provide a good standard of practice and care
  • Keep your professional knowledge and skills up to date
  • Recognise and work within the limits of your competence
  • Work with colleagues in the ways that best serve patients’ interests

It seems that Dr. Harris is fulfilling his duty to the GMC by attempting to “protect and promote the health of patients and the public” by illuminating the lack of evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy.

My follow up comment:

I see that you only publish comments that support your opinion. How wonderfully hypocritical in a blog about bias, but I suppose it’s only to be expected that a homeopath will cherry-pick what they want to hear.

Inspiring science

For the sake of clarity, ‘inspiration’ is here defined as: ‘arousal of the mind to special unusual activity or creativity‘.

Inspiration is important; after all, every human cultural advance or achievement is the result of someone being inspired to do something new. I want to explore some of the ways in which people are inspired to undertake scientific investigation, but I also want to consider how the outcomes of science feed back and inspire broader culture.

Charles Darwin provides us with a topical place to start – it’s exactly 150 years since the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life‘  (later changed to the more snappy ‘On the Origin of Species‘); a book containing an idea inspired by a complex web of circumstances and experiences and which has subsequently inspired a new understanding of our place on this planet.

Darwin himself was inspired by a wide variety of factors: people (family,  friends, mentors, colleagues); books (e.g. White’s “The Natural History of Selborne“, Paley’s “Natural Theology“, Herschel“Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy“, Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population“); cultural institutions (Museums, the Royal Institution, the Linnean Society,  Zoological Gardens); places (Santiago, the Falkland Islands, Quiriquina, the Galapagos, Downe); hobbies (shooting, fishing, insect collecting, gardening, chemistry), and of course his experiences with nature (from earthquakes to earthworms, tropical forests to his Bromley garden). Interestingly he was not inspired by his schooling (neither at Mr Case’s grammar school nor Shrewsbury Grammar School) or University education (both in Edinburgh and Cambridge); for example, Darwin initially dismissed geology as dull based on his experiences at Edinburgh University under the tutelege of Professor Robert Jameson, yet 5 years later under the guidance of Professor Adam Sedgwick he became an avid geologist. Facts alone seldom inspire; it is how they are presented and how they can help us understand and formulate new ideas that can make them inspirational.

I’ve discussed fact-based science before (more than once), with the take-home message that it provides the best method that currently exists for checking what we think is true. Science is all about asking questions and finding ways to answer them by observation of the world around us (preferably in the controlled conditions of an experiment); the initial questions that scientists ask need to be inspired by something and answering that question takes motivation. Of course, absolutely anything might motivate a person to pursue a question, but some things will be more motivational than others.

Necessity is the mother of invention, which is why need will often provide the inspiration and motivation required for science to address a problem. Life and death situations are a prime example of how science has often found its inspiration and motivation – just look at the funding in science and it immediately becomes obvious that health, the military and agriculture are way up there. These things are directly relevant to people’s everyday survival – they are necessities.

However, there is more to science than catering to basic needs – science is about understanding our universe and thereby allowing us to better address the bigger questions that our over complicated human brains enjoy cooking up. Where once we had to make do with simple explanations that didn’t really work (like echoes are spirits shouting back at you, schizophrenics are possessed by demons, rainbows are Gods way of reminding himself not to flood the world again) now we can delve into the causes and reasons for the odd things we witness and we can turn that to our advantage. Understanding the deeper mysteries of the universe requires a lot of imagination, so it’s little wonder that the fringe of science tends to be populated by people who extrapolate beyond the fringe (this is where science fiction is born) or are being pushed back as the fringe expands (which is where homeopaths, psychics and those with a deep-rooted fear of change still linger).

Of course, those extrapolating beyond the fringe of science can help inspire new science and technology, from communicators in Star Trek inspiring mobile phones to lasers taking cues from The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1927). The moon landing shown on TV sets in 1969 was pre-empted in 1902 by Le Voyage dans la lune; Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea provided a visionary new concept of what submarines might achieve and spurred advances in the field, and we all know that good old Leonardo Da Vinci was great at letting his imagination wander way beyond the fringes of the science of his time (yet still be informed by his own observations) – who knows the full extent of what Da Vinci has inspired (I’d wager it goes beyond a ropey Dan Brown book).

Of course, each new development in science does more than push back a theoretical fringe; it inspires new ideas that lead to further developments. Science and technology move quickly and are seldom permitted to stagnate – which is good, because stagnation of ideas is what gives rise to dogma and suppression of alternative viewpoints.

For something to be inspirational it needs to open someone’s mind to a previously unknown world of possibilities, a conceptual space ripe for exploration. It needs to spark the imagination – with the possibility that the spark will ignite the interest and enthusiasm needed to fuel the exploration and investigation of the wider universe, of which we are a tiny part.

What is science?

N.B. If you’re after a quick answer then see here, if you want an in-depth outline see here or if you want to know how science works see here– this blog is more concerned with the broader conceptual framework within which science fits.

Knowledge is an interesting concept – how can we really “know” anything? How do we determine truth from untruth? Does knowledge even require what is “known” to be true? I don’t think so – I think it merely needs to appear true.

The human brain looks for explanations – being able to identify cause and effect is a powerful capability, after all, it underpins all human achievement. For example, if our ancestors were unable to identify that seeds grow into plants, we could never have established agriculture (and subsequently civilisation).

There are a variety of ways in which we make links between cause and effect, from straightforward reflexive Pavlovian classical conditioning, through more complex methods of identifying concept-based causation, to the rigourous statistical analysis of double-blind randomised controlled trials of modern biomedical research (which marks our current best attempt at linking cause to effect, whilst minimising the influence of coincidental factors). However, one of the most common ways in which we find explanations is by relating an observed occurance with an observed outcome – we look for a correlation.

Of course, the trouble with correlations is that you will often be spotting a relationship that doesn’t really exist. Factor A might occur at the same time or increase at the same rate as factor B, but it could be due to factors 1,2 and 3. For example, seasonal sales of ice-cream in the UK can be directly correlated with seasonal umbrella sales in Australia – obviously they are not directly related to each other, but they share the factor of seasonality in their respective hemispheres. So a summer in the Northern Hemisphere sees more ice-cream being bought, whilst in the Southern Hemisphere it is winter and people are buying umbrellas to keep off the rain. This is a simple illustration that is intended to be clear, but unfortunately most of the time we find it very difficult to identify what the factors involved in a correlation actually are – but that doesn’t stop us drawing conclusions from what we see, or think we see.

Identifying cause and effect?

Identifying cause and effect?

So what else do we use as a way of acquiring knowledge Continue reading

WTF is homeopathy?

My first exposure to the word ‘Homœopathic’ was at Hampton House, a hall of residence at Bristol University which was an ex-homœopathic hospital (and is now the student medical centre). All I knew was that it was a magnificent building that used to be a hospital of some sort – but I never really thought about what the ‘Homœopathic’ bit meant – I just assumed it was another branch of medicine. Continue reading

Thoughts on humanism

I thought I’d write a piece on humanism because it seems to have a lot of confusion surrounding it. Some view it as a religion or cult, others see it as an organised anti-religious sect of militant atheists. The confusion arises because the term “humanist” can be used to describe a variety of philosophical approaches both contemporary and historical.

I am a Secular Humanist, which effectively means that I am an atheist with beliefs about the ability of people to improve their lives and the lives of others (including other species) by behaving in a rational and socially responsible way. Humanists subscribe to the ‘Golden Rule‘ (don’t do things to others that you wouldn’t like to have done to yourself) as a simple moral guideline and rather than relying on the supernatural as the source of moral principles, humanists rely on rational consideration and those human values that have arisen as part of the evolution of human social behaviour. In short, humanism is explicitly being good without god. Continue reading

Creationist rules of engagement

It appears that my post on Creationist trolls was quite prophetic. Not only was my derision of journalistic missing-linkism validated days later by the over-hyped reporting of the Darwinius masillae specimen (fantastic and informative as it may be), but I was also immediately harangued by a Creationist who went on to fulfil all of my expectations. Thanks TFYOW. Continue reading