10 September 2011

A dismaying course, part II: evolution

Posted by Callan Bentley

Picking up where we left off on Thursday’s post on the relationship between the 2011 Republican presidential hopefuls and science, we examined their statements on climate change. Today, we look at the other information compiled by NPR, their statements on evolution.

Michele Bachmann

I support intelligent design. What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides. — Republican Leadership Conference, June 17, 2011

“Intelligent design” is the optimistic name given to the idea that we know the world’s living creatures were created by a Creator (presumably omnipotent if He can manipulate biomolecules). Starting with this conclusion, evidence is then sought that supports the idea that life cannot be explained in a fashion other than intentional planning and construction by a Creator. Technically, the Creator need not be a diety: it could be aliens doing the creating, I guess. But no advocates of intelligent design are alien-centric. They’re all religious in their motivation; their failure to explicitly finger God as the Designer is only because they know that would make it unconstitutional to teach it in American public school classrooms. This is why Ms. Bachmann supports it; not because she’s some maverick biochemist.

Intelligent design is an empty notion, and every example raised by its advocates has been debunked by real science. For a long time, they trumpeted the human eye, until it was pointed out that (a) the nerves connecting the retina to the brain are “installed backwards,” resulting in a blind spot in the center of our vision, and (b) numerous less-effective eyes can be found in the animal kingdom, all of them plausible intermediary steps, each of them granting an adaptive advantage over its predecessors and therefore prime fodder for natural selection. If the human eye were designed, it would be a prime example of unintelligent design, a botched job by an incompetent engineer. I’d rather have a hawk’s eyeball than my own (for its improved acuity), or an octopus’s eye (for a retina that faces in the right direction). Other examples of poor “design” abound in nature and in our own bodies. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of a better thumb design for the panda, a less volatile appendix in your gut, a lower back that doesn’t cause chronic pain, knees and hips that don’t wear out by age 35, flightless beetles that grow wings they will never use, or cave fish that sprout worthless eyeballs that cannot see.

The other one that IDiots natter on about is the bacterial flagellum, a complex piece of biochemical “machinery.” This was a prominent line of argument in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case in Pennsylvania in 2005. However, it appears that the bacterial flagellum started off as a “type-three” secretory apparatus, basically a bacterial syringe, and that pre-existing structure was then modified by natural selection into a whip-like propulsion mechanism. It’s actually a pretty classic case of what evolutionary biologists call “pre-adaptation” – the opposite of de novo creation (“Let There Be Flagella!”). Another example of pre-adaptation is having gill arches in jawless fish, the front set of which were then modified by natural selection into hinged, serrated structures we call jaws. (In fact, this amazing trick happened twice in moray eels!) Perhaps the most fundamental form of pre-adaptation comes from the ancestors of vertebrates, whose motile free-swimming larvae were pre-adapted to become lancelet-like proto-fish, and thus our distant predecessors. Look at a tunicate to see how fundamental such a switch can be: all this took was a change in developmental timing (sexual maturity in the larvae rather than the adults).

Bottom line: “intelligent design” is a movement without evidence, but firmly gripping a solid conclusion, a belief. It’s the opposite of science, which has the power to changes its understanding when new data are presented.

In regards to her second sentence: this one advocates a second issue, the teaching of science and/or intelligent design creationism, presumably in public schools. Ms. Bachmann advocates “putting all science on the table.” That’s the way we do it now, we already put all the science on the table. Creationism isn’t science, so you won’t see “intelligent design” on the table in any legitimate science classroom. That foolish idea can be presented to students at home, or at church, if a student’s parents or clergy see fit, but it cannot ever qualify as science. Why? Because it starts with the conclusion, and then seeks evidence to support that preconceived notion. Science starts with observations, then seeks additional information, and then formulates its conclusions at the end.

Her comments about government “coming down on one side” are irrelevant. Government doesn’t determine scientific outcomes, data do. Government’s role is to enforce the laws of the nation, including those set forth in the Constitution. That document, of course, suggests that church (including notions of Creation) are legally required to be separated from the aegis of state activities and institutions, such as public schooling. End of story.

Herman Cain

There is no record of Cain publicly expressing his views on evolution. A spokeswoman for Cain’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

In a rational world, one would find this lack of a statement on evolution unextraordinary, except that everyone else seems so eager to weigh in on it.

Newt Gingrich

[Evolution] certainly seems to express the closest understanding we can now have [and should be taught in schools] as a science, while intelligent design should be taught as a philosophy. — Discover magazine, Oct. 10, 2006

I believe that creation as an act of faith is true, and I believe that science as a mechanical process is true. Both can be true. — Associated Press, May 18, 2011

I agree with the first statement 100%, except I would change the second instance of the word “should” to the phrase “could, in households given to magical thinking.” If parents want to teach their children that organisms’ origins can be explained by Biblical Genesis, or Aesop’s fables, or that they crawled out a holy log during the Dreamtime, or they were made by the Invisible Space Teapot, or by the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or any other among the infinite number of evidence-less, faith-based ontological myths that have populated the human consciousness since time immemorial, then that’s their right. Hopefully then someone else will teach the children to think critically about every idea that gets presented to them.

As for them ‘both being true,’ see my comments below about Occam’s Razor (under Mitt Romney).

Ron Paul

I think there is a theory, a theory of evolution, and I don’t accept it. … The creator that I know created us, each and every one of us and created the universe, and the precise time and manner. … I just don’t think we’re at the point where anybody has absolute proof on either side. — Remarks made at a state Republican Party meeting in Spartanburg, S.C., Nov. 1, 2007

Dr. Paul is a medical doctor, so he should know the difference between the word ‘theory’ in the colloquial sense he is using it in this sentence (an idea you can accept or reject at your own personal whim) and the sense of ‘theory’ as it is used by scientists. While “theory” in casual conversation has a sketchy, half-baked aura to it (think 9/11 truther conspiracy theory), in science it is actually a very robust notion. A theory in science is an explanatory model that succeeds in explaining a great many natural phenomena under a single explanatory “umbrella,” and that explanation has survived a great many tests (experiments or studies designed as attempts to disprove it). It’s a far-reaching, well-corroborated hypothesis with the power to make testable predictions about the natural world.

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s “true,” just as near as we can approximate to truth with the information currently available to us. If Dr. Paul doesn’t accept it, then one would hope he would have evidence that disproves it. Without that evidence, he unacceptance is unacceptable in a scientific sense. It’s merely another example of ideology conflicting with reason. One would expect better from a person trained in the correction of the many foibles of human anatomy and biochemistry.

A second point to make is that Dr. Paul is conflating origins (“creation”) with evolution. Evolution is change over time. It is not about the origins of life, or the origins of the universe. That’s a separate (and very interesting) question, but it’s not the same thing. Darwin put forward a powerful hypothesis for the changes he observed in living things (natural selection was the mechanism that drove change), but he did not put forward a model for how life got started in the first place. Given a single living cell to start with, natural selection can theoretically produce the diversity of living organisms we see on the planet Earth today. But you’ve got to have something else get the ball rolling. Darwin’s question wasn’t whether life changed; it was how life changed.

Since Darwin, we’ve added other understanding to the mechanisms that drive evolution. Besides natural selection by the physical environment, there is sexual selection, genetic drift, chance events (think of the dinosaur’s dismal end: an incoming comet doesn’t give a flying fig how well adapted you are), and horizontal gene transfer, for instance. All these mechanisms work in concert, with their aggregate effect being the diversity of life we see before us, and written in the geologic record of the past.

Dr. Paul is correct that nobody has absolute proof of any particular ontological model for the presence of life on our planet, or sentient life in the human species. Recall that ‘Bobby Henderson’ of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster farcically proposed in his letter to the Kansas State School Board,

I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (Pastafarianism), and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.

The key point here is that there is only one avenue of inquiry in this list which is non-magical in its thinking, only one that is available for falsification, only one that qualifies to be set on Michelle Bachmann’s proverbial table. Only science belongs in public school science classrooms. None of the ideas about the origin of life is proven, but only one is dis-provable: evolutionary theory. The others can never be disproved, because they are based on faith rather than evidence. They are outside the realm of science.

Rick Perry

I am a firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect, and I believe it should be presented in schools alongside the theories of evolution. — Standard-Times, San Angelo, Texas, Sept. 11, 2010

I hear your mom was asking about evolution. That’s a theory that is out there, and it’s got some gaps in it … In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution. I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right. — Talking to a boy during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Aug. 18, 2011

Belief in intelligent design as a matter of faith? Certainly. Intellect? Hardly. See my comments above critiquing Ms. Bachmann’s endorsement of this intellectually hollow facade, this masquerade pretending to be thoughtful inquiry.

Presenting it in schools alongside the theory of evolution would be unconstitutional. A candidate for the president of the United States should not be advocating unconstitutional activities. This is outside my expertise as a scientist, but seems blatant and plain to me as a citizen. The United States of America’s founding document decrees the opposite of the illegal arrangement that Mr. Perry endorses here.

“Theories” (plural) of evolution? I wonder what on Earth this means. Anyone have any idea? Clue me in. The phrasing is unfamiliar.

What are the “gaps” Mr. Perry refers to when speaking to the child in the second quotation? We have the raw material (genes determining phenotypes in conjunction with epigenetic constraints), we have dozens of sources of genetic/pheotypic novelty (mutation, evo-devo, sexual recombination, viruses, and “junk” DNA being a few), we have multiple demonstrated mechanisms (including artificial selection, the most readily controlled of the list), and we have evidence of evolution occurring [a] in the past via the fossil record, [b] in the present in ecological variable settings (I’m thinking of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s work with Galapagos finches), and [c] in the laboratory (I’m thinking of the Long Term Lines of Richard Lenski). Where are the “gaps” That Mr. Perry is suggesting exist? We know the raw material, the mechanisms, and the results. The only gap remaining must be in his own understanding – a gap doubtless wedged open by his own religious belief.

Mitt Romney

I’m not exactly sure what is meant by intelligent design. But I believe God is intelligent, and I believe he designed the creation. And I believe he used the process of evolution to create the human body. … True science and true religion are on exactly the same page. They may come from different angles, but they reach the same conclusion. I’ve never found a conflict between the science of evolution and the belief that God created the universe. He uses scientific tools to do his work. — The New York Times, May 11, 2007

Mr. Romney could take a look at the explanation up under Ms. Bachmann’s quote if he’s unsure what’s meant by “intelligent design.”

Mr. Romney endorses evolution (good) but then suggests it as the mechanism for God to enact his handiwork (meh). You can’t disprove that notion, but neither can you disprove me when I say the gremlins in my glove compartment supervise the production of sparks by my car’s spark plugs, the explosion of gasoline, the pushing of the piston, the turning of the crankshaft, and finally the movement of my car in a forward direction. This old chestnut illustrates the idea of Occam’s Razor – the idea that a simpler explanation is a better explanation. You can explain my car’s movement without invoking the glovebox gremlins at all, and so the gremlin-less explanation is better than the gremlin-supervised explanation. Ditto for the presence of sentient organisms, or the evolution of life in general, on our planet: we can explain it with evolutionary theory, and have no need for a supernatural supervisor.

Mr. Romney is entirely wrong when he suggests that science and religion are “on the same page” or “reach the same conclusion.” Science reveals material explanations for natural phenomena, and diminishes the plausibility of a role for magical deities in determining the course of nature’s affairs. It would be nice to think that the two are somehow compatible, but the truth of the matter is that the God hypothesis is no more needed than the Glovebox Gremlin hypothesis. It’s a superfluous notion, and evolution is indeed one of the many ways that science shows that.

Rick Santorum

I’m not comfortable with intelligent design being taught in the science classroom. What we should be teaching are the problems and holes, and I think there are legitimate problems and holes in the theory of evolution. And what we need to do is to present those fairly from a scientific point of view … And we should lay out areas in which the evidence supports evolution and the areas in the evidence that does not. — NPR, Aug. 4, 2005

I believe in Genesis 1:1 — God created the heavens and the earth. … If Gov. Huntsman wants to believe that he is the descendant of a monkey, then he has the right to believe that — but I disagree with him on this and the many other liberal beliefs he shares with Democrats. For Jon Huntsman to categorize anyone as ‘anti-science’ or ‘extreme’ because they believe in God is ridiculous. — The Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 23, 2011

Mr. Santorum should be acknowledged for stating unequivocally that intelligent design (creationism) should not be taught in the science classroom. But…

What “problems”? What “holes”? What is it that he’s not satisfied with (other than the final conclusion)? I wish a specific question would be laid out as a source of non-understanding on the part of these politicians. Then the people who understand evolutionary theory could step in and explain it. The generalizations are likely pleasing to the unscientific portion of the Republican pool of primary voters, but the specifics are what interest me. Ditto for “the evidence that does not” support evolution: What specific evidence is he referring to, other than his own pre-conceived ideas about being created by God?

I applaud Mr. Santorum for stating plainly the source of his belief – the Biblical story of Genesis, a tale on which I have commented a bit, and will have more to say in the near future (having just read it myself last week). This is exactly what I would have liked him to do when referring to “problems,” “holes,” and evidence which does not support evolution: pointing specifically to a source, fact, or observation which we can then examine together.

In his quotation, we again see the conflation of “creation” and evolution. As I pointed out earlier, evolution is about change once established, not origins. It is forever frustrating to me that this distinction is not more widespread.

He then repeats a tired misconception – that accepting evolution means being “the descendant of a monkey.” Monkeys are modern organisms. Humans are modern organisms. Because time is a one-way feature in the universe, any one modern species is not capable of being descended from another species existing at the same time. A more accurate way of putting it is this: monkeys and humans share a common ancestor, an ancestor who was not a monkey, and not a human, but something else. Fossil and genetic evidence suggest this organism existed around 45 million years ago. Whatever you want to call it, its descendants split into two groups: one that would go on through 45 million years of evolution be monkeys, and the other group which went on to evolve into apes, great apes, and around 7 or 8 million years ago, hominins, some of whom eventually produced the population we call humans. But perhaps I’m putting too fine a point on it. Yeah, we’re basically a lot like monkeys, and descended from something that probably looked roughly like a monkey.

It’s weird to find that so threatening. If you go back further in time, we’re a lot like every other mammal, and descended from something that probably looked like a tree shrew. We’re also a lot like lizards, and descended from something that looked a lot like a lizard. Further back still, we’re a lot like amphibians, and descended from something that looked a lot like a salamander (or, dare I say, a ‘newt?’). We’ve got a lot of characteristics in common with fish, and hundreds of millions of years ago, we shared a common ancestor with fish. We’ve got a division of cellular labor that is the same as other multicellular animals, and over half a billion years ago, we shared a common ancestor with all other multicellular animals, both extant and extinct. Each of these is equally valid as a “we’re descended from” candidate in the sense Mr. Santorum is using the phrase. Yet you’ll never hear Mr. Santorum stirring up resentment of evolutionary theory by falsely caricaturing it as “us being descended from sea squirts.” It doesn’t engender the same inherent repulsion as do non-human primates. Monkeys get the bad rap. Weird, right?

So, regardless of the details (monkeys vs. “last common ancestors of monkeys and humans”), it’s important to note that the overall statement is a statement by science, not a statement by liberal Democrats. By falsely assigning evolution as something only Jon Hunstman and the Democrats believe in, Mr. Santorum further alienates his political party from verifiable reality, a disservice to his constituents and the nation.

People who are anti-science are ‘people against the verifiable conclusions that science produces,’ not ‘people who believe in God.’ God (with his supernatural pals Vishnu and the Great Spirit and Baal and Apollo and leprechauns and the Tooth Fairy) is outside the realm of science. You can accept any of them or all of them, and that doesn’t necessarily effect your acceptance of scientific conclusions one way or the other. The rejection of magical beings as an explanation for natural events is a philosophical one, and one that makes sense to me for the reasons that Occam’s Razor suggests. But belief in a deity does not mean you need to reject science. It’s just an extra thing that you can tack on to verifiable scientific conclusions, as you see fit. Plenty of smart people have faith in a supernatural deity, but that should have zero bearing on whether they accept reason and empiricism as the way to explore the natural world.

Jon Huntsman

I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy. — Twitter, Aug. 18, 2011

The minute that the Republican Party becomes the … anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people that would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012. — ABC News’ “This Week,” Aug. 21, 2011

Except for that “believe” bit (arrggghh… make it stop), this seems like the only way to go. The quote NPR displayed is the same as the one they chose for climate change (that I commented on two days ago), but the fact should be re-emphasized that Mr. Huntsman is not invoking a particular deity to explain the natural world or our place in it. He is going with reality instead, and though I may disagree with some of his particular avocations of policy, I’m pleased with his acceptance of science. He gets my permission to be considered as a viable candidate.

Overall reflections:

It strikes me as a fundamentally bizarre situation when a major political party in a first-world nation (a nation known for its innovation and intellectual advances) adopts anti-scientific rhetoric like we see displayed here. I’m chagrined that there are actual candidates for the most powerful elected office in the world whose grasp on reality is so fundamentally different than mine. Not only that, but the majority of this collection of candidates reject major scientific conclusions about the state of the world. There are only three (Newt and the two Mormons) who seem to be generally reality-based, though two of them make a point of explicitly tacking supernatural additions onto their discussions of evolution. What sort of pool of candidates is this? It strikes me as a shameful accumulation of superstition and ideology, and a rejection of the sole avenue of human inquiry that results in advances in our quality of life (and perspective on our place in the universe).

It’s a ludicrous state of affairs that scientists have to actively debunk false and misleading statements by the people who are supposed to be coordinating the workings of the world, smoothing the fabric of society. Someone has to call these people on their misstatements, and if we don’t do it, who will? I hope my critique of these statements has been useful, but I worry it was more an exercise in venting my own frustration with “leaders” so different from myself.

It’s a depressing prospect that someone as disconnected from (what I perceive as) reality as Ms. Bachmann or Mr. Perry could plausibly be elected to such a powerful position in my country. I sincerely hope that Republican primary voters will select a candidate who doesn’t have a cognitive block against empirical revelations.

I should mention that I’m not thrilled with the Democratic candidate, either: though Mr. Obama has talked the talk about taking action on climate change and “restoring science to its proper place” in the American discourse, he hasn’t taken it nearly far enough for my taste. His intentions may have originally been to make science and conservation of natural systems more of a priority, but he got handed a recession and wanted to improve health care, and so my highest priorities were set aside in favor of these apparently-more-urgent matters. Oh well. Those are the cards we’ve all been dealt.

These are the candidates we have to choose from. I hereby wash my hands of the whole lot. Good luck making your choice.