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There’s no Santa Claus, There’s no Easter Bunny and There’s No Queen of England!

December 19, 2013 6 comments
English: at the University of North Carolina in .

English: at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I went to a planetarium show with my kids. The show was an interesting blend of digital animation and puppet theatre, staged by a local puppet theatre company and animators from Morehead Planetarium and the University of North Carolina. There’s a girl who gets lost in the woods, meets a magical old lady, and she returns the sacred fire to a dragon who brings Spring back. Basically it’s the story of the Winter solstice and the changing of the seasons. I and my kids really enjoyed it. The production was high quality and the storytelling was fun and I think the kids learned something from it.

A Cute Little Bunny With Some Eggs

A Cute Little Bunny With Some Eggs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then after the show and the credits a planetarium staff member addressed the audience and said she was going to show us some basic astronomy, a few constellations and the path of the sun at the solstices and equinoxes. Then she said “Of course, it’s not dragons that change the seasons, it’s the tilt of the earth. Sorry to disappoint you.” What she said was perfectly reasonable, but I would like to question the motives of saying that to a room full of five-year-old kids. A colleague of mine, who is also a father of a five-year-old boy said “Yeah, and there’s no Easter Bunny either!” I don’t think the planetarium staff member was mean-spirited about what she said, but I have some ideas about where she’s coming from making such a remark, and I think it raises some questions about the intellectual climate of science at this time. Incidentally, just guessing by her age, I think this person knew a lot more about astronomy than she knew about kids, so again, this isn’t personally about her, but about the intellectual environment that we create when we insist on militant scientific positivism in all areas of life.

The question I raise is whether everything needs to be science. Are there kinds of knowing, learning and being in the world that are served better by other enterprises? Does science really have to dominate everything we do? Science is great. It’s not just my job; I really love it, and yes I’d probably be a lot worse off without vaccines and blah blah blah. None of that is at issue. The question is whether that disqualifies the rest of human endeavors. Are other kinds of thinking allowed? Without someone sneaking up behind you and saying “Well, actually the temperature differential between points A and B leads to variation in pressure that…”

Cover of "A Child's Introduction to the N...

Cover via Amazon

Here’s another illustration of the problem. I have read, a few times with my kids, the book A Child’s Introduction to the Night Sky by Michael Driscoll. This is an excellent book about astronomy and I recomend it whether you have kids or not. Children’s books are really great to read: they are packed with information, presented in easy-to-remember ways, and they have all the basic background. I always feel like I’m missing something when I read age-appropriate (I won’t say “adult”) books on technical topics. I especially like this book because in addition to telling kids the typical stuff about the solar system, it tells kids what they can see with a telescope or their own eyes. In other words, it teaches kids how to collect their own data. That’s how I aim to teach science, so I really love seeing it in a children’s book. This book might even be where I got the idea.

The topic comes up late in the book about the history of astronomy, the zodiac and astrology. The author makes the claim that priests and fortune tellers were just as interested in the stars as “early astronomers.” He fails to mention that these were the same people. The occupation “scientist” is a fairly recent invention, and so is the distinction between astrologers and astronomers. Even a paragon of empiricism such as Isaac Newton was a far out mystic by today’s standards (and Wikipedia says he’d be considered a heretic by the standards of his day). The author seems to go to a lot of trouble to make sure kids know that there are scientists and non-scientists. In his defense, he tells the Greek myths the constellations are based on, and explains where the zodiac signs come from and how they are associated with astrology without judging astrology harshly. I believe the author’s motives are totally beneficent. But again I ask why do we tell this sort of thing to kids? What goal does it serve? Who does it serve?

Perhaps we can re-examine those motives and see if they really check out. I’ll use myself as an example. What motivated me to tell The Truth to people for a long time, was that I thougth people would be happier if they knew The Truth (i.e. my version of it). I thought that if people could accept science then they would see the wonder of the natural world, have an idea of where they came from, and all the things I was excited about. This sounds weird, but I really wanted to help people. I thought “this is my way of helping people,” this is my role, this is my purpose. Unfortunately the way it came out was cussing out a room full of Christians and telling them that the speaker was lying to the audience (he was, by the way). So, as much as I wanted to help people, it came out simply as rude and inconsiderate. When people wouldn’t listen, I would just shrug and say “Well, if they want to live their lives as morons, I guess I can’t stop them.” Looking back, I see now that this isn’t that different from saying “Well, you’re the one who’s going to Hell.”

So what message do we send when we say things like “Well, actually it’s not dragons.” My concern is that we are telling kids that it’s not okay to have an imagination. Now put yourself in my shoes, trying to teach science to people with no imagination. What I’m thinking is that insistence on science as the One True Way can dull people’s imaginations just as much as a fundamentalist religion. When we fail to see the value of other ways of thinking, we could be tying kids down to only one set of mental habits, limiting their flexibility. I think the scariest thing about hearing people say stuff like this is that reminds me of myself in middle school and high school, when I refused to see the value of anything other than science.

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Espera...

English: Santa Claus with a little girl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My ninth-grade English teacher is going to love this: myths have their own value. What is the value of the Santa Claus myth? It teaches kids about giving, but not in a didactic “You better do this” kind of way. It also teaches them that it’s nice to receive gifts. There is someone who will just give you something because that’s his job. That’s just what he does. The Easter Bunny? That teaches kids about the changing seasons, about how life comes from somewhere, and that spring and changing seasons are something to celebrate. Telling these stories also teaches kids the value of story telling. As kids get older, big brothers tell these stories to little brothers (that’s how it works in my family, anyway) and the cycle starts all over again. Gee, maybe there’s a story about the world being full of cycles? Kids get the idea that you can learn from these stories, and that playing and pretending that they’re real is a great way to learn about the world. They’re also just fun, and there’s plenty of value in that. Not only does not everything have to be science, but not everything has to be about money, or values, or even learning. As long as you’re not hurting somebody, fun is a perfectly good reason to do something.

The biggest problem I see with thinking everything needs to be science is that we will fail to see the value of other modes of thinking. Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris and others seem to think that religions and mythology are “failed science.” This seems true as long as everything is trying to be science. Maybe not. Perhaps the goal of telling stories is not to get at what an empiricist thinks is The Truth. I ask if it’s at all conceivable to you, as a scientist reading this, that myths about natural phenomena are actually about the course of human lives, about how people change, and about valuable lessons in how to get along with people (like how if you keep transforming yourself into animals and raping virgins your wife might get a little peeved). Perhaps there’s value in learning how to live with people and there’s something called wisdom that it’s hard to get through studying science. Myths could serve this purpose, but not if we tell the story and then dismiss it by saying “Well, I’m glad we know better now, thanks to modern science! What a bunch of baloney!”

One final question (not bloody likely) is what are we left with if we don’t bother to think in terms of anything other than science? What do we have if we dismiss every story and myth as just plain wrong? Seems to me like we’re left with a bunch of seventh-grade boys. All we have left is “Well, technically…” and “I heard there’s this virus that can eat your brain” and “Nuh-uh” and “Yuh-huh” and…

Don’t we all remember how stupid that was?

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Jerry Coyne’s anti-religious promotion of evolution

August 17, 2012 9 comments

I just finished reading a piece by Jerry Coyne published in this month’s issue of Evolution. Coyne lays out the problem of belief in evolution, belief in God, and questions whether there can be compatibility. He’s basically asking how we, as scientists, can get more people to accept evolution. Relying mostly on poll data and sociological assays of religiosity in the United States and elsewhere, he concludes that the problem is that the United States is a more strongly religious nation than most others. He then argues that science and religion are incompatible unless we redefine religion, and hence cautions that acceptance of evolution will have to wait until widespread social change makes religion less important to Americans.

Coyne’s primary argument that science and religion are incompatible is an argument also used by Richard Dawkins, based on the idea that scientists discover Truth (with a capital “T”) . Coyne distinguishes between “scientific truth” and “religious truth” and then conveniently shows that religious truths are not supported by science. There are some logical problems there, but I would rather ask the question: is that really what scientists do? Do we discover the Truth? What is the Truth? I don’t know any way to communicate Truth to anybody: what I experience as Truth is based on my subjective experience, and is inconvenient to communicate in any reliable way. What I think is going on here is that Coyne, Dawkins and many others take science too seriously: science is a way of communicating. Science is a way of using objective criteria to describe nature so that we can talk about the common aspects of our experience.

However, is that Truth? Or is it just what we can learn using science? Science is very effective in doing what it does, but it is also intentionally very limited. Science cannot do a lot of things that people might find very interesting: certain experiments would not be science because there would be no further experimenting with them. For example, there were widespread experiments with telepathy, prayer and other forms of supernatural communication around 1900, but the experiments were hard to conduct and the results were hard to interpret. So what did the scientists do? They did what scientists always do and they backtracked to something that they could work with. That’s the point: science is about experimenting with things in small steps that are fun to play with. Science is incredibly limited, very slow, and usually very crude in its means of experimentation (“Hmm, this week let’s cut out this part of the brain!”) . Such a method could hardly come close to finding “The Truth.” Nevertheless, it is still fun, enlightening, and people learn a lot doing it. There’s no greater hell for scientists than feeling that they are not learning. Let’s see science for what it is — a good way of learning and communicating — instead of relying on it for The Truth.

My real question is why this is so important to Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. The title of the essay is telling: “Science, religion and society: the problem of evolution in America” (my emphasis). Non-acceptance of evolution is a problem to be solved. Really? What is exactly the problem to solve? What do we accomplish by having more people accept evolution? What does anybody gain, except learning more science? This is kind of like complaining about not getting a third cookie: we scientists do accept and study evolution and get our own benefits from doing that. Do we really need more scientists? I think what is motivating these authors is that they believe that they are reporting The Truth, and it’s always in the best interests of people to know The Truth. Then I ask how evolution is different from Christianity or Islam: how are atheists any different from the religions they oppose in saying that they themselves have the truth and everyone would be better off to agree with them? Has evolution become ideology?

The other possible answer is that scientists believe that they are right in another sense. Not that they are ideologically correct, but that they have the right information, the right data, the right facts. This is a syndrome of people believing that being right is the most important thing. I would venture to ask if compassion is not more important than factual correctness. Have you ever been in a conversation with a person who absolutely didn’t care about your feelings in any way, but just wanted to show you how wrong you were about some arbitrarily tiny little matter of fact? If it was me, then I’m sorry.

Religion, Coyne concludes, is a symptom of a sick society, and America is completely sick. Might that mean that Americans need religion more than they need evolution? Is being factually correct really important when people are just hurting, feeling misunderstood, feeling abandoned by a rigid, competitive society? Again, perhaps compassion is more important — and the means of conveying that compassion is inconsequential. If you don’t think Americans are ill, then why are they killing themselves with terrible food? Why are they watching their neighbors kill themselves on TV? Why are so many Americans addicted to pain medication? I agree with Jerry Coyne here: if we live in a society where people are so bad off that they need religion, is making them accept evolution really important? What bothers me is that his only seeming concern for the problems of his fellow human beings is clearing it all up so that they’ll finally accept his version of Truth.

Wiki-based learning: a proposal for college science courses

December 30, 2011 1 comment

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about teaching methods, and here’s one I think we should try in biological sciences: wiki-based learning. The goal of a semester in evolution/population biology would be to produce a professional quality free textbook. This would be the equivalent of a ‘wiki-sprint’ where students would each be responsible for a topic. Students that are particularly active can receive the role of editor. No exams; all grading is based on participation and quality of wiki-work. The intervention of the instructional staff should be minimal. All incentivization will be social or based on quality of work.

This incorporates project-based learning, and “scientific teaching.” Students are asked to produce something whose quality they can all see. They can check each other, edit each other. Those who trash-edit/vandalize can be seen by everybody, not just the instructors.

Students should be encouraged to incorporate other free materials. The quality of the material will always be subject to review. They will learn about copyright, authors’ rights and the re-use of material (which is a fundamental part of science). It will be very difficult for students to receive a good grade if they wholesale copy other wikis (for example, those of previous semesters). They wouldn’t be actively participating. However, it will be good to copy and incorporate from previous semesters, as they can learn how to improve the material. They will need to understand the material to improve it.

This would not be a special class. This would be the standard course in evolution, probably a required class. What would be the role for the instructors? TAs would show people how to use Wiki software (easy!) and advise them on topics. The professor’s job would be to clarify good topics for articles/chapters. The overall goal is synthesis. Students can learn terminology and concepts on their own. However, to synthesize topics, they can use the project. The role of the instructor in synthesis is what? Mainly in advising people on good topics for articles, philosophical directions and coordinating between students, rewarding students with the title of editor, etc. The professor could also steer students in the direction of good primary literature and advise them on scientific writing style. “Lectures” would consist mainly of reviewing articles and critiquing them as a class.

What do you think? Something similar has been done at CMU in electrical engineering. Does anyone have the means for trying this out?

Declaring war on the Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection

August 30, 2011 3 comments

If you read the theoretical and mathematical literature of evolutionary biology as much as I do, you’ll quickly notice that three-quarters of a century has been spent trying to verify a cryptic statement made by Ronald Fisher and declared the Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection. The “theorem” states that when mutation and genetic drift are negligible (e.g. in a large population) the rate of increase of mean fitness is equal to the variance in fitness in the population. Most of the time in that case we can use mean fitness as a Lyapunov function to demonstrate asymptotic stability of equilibria.

Unfortunately, most of the work on the FTNS shows that it doesn’t apply in most interesting cases and Fisher’s original derivation had some serious problems. Many have concluded that Fisher’s motivation and conclusion were unclear. Despite that, I’ve recently read that the FTNS is comparable to Newton’s Second Law of Motion. I disagree. I remember using Newton’s Second Law to solve tons of problems, and I have never used the FTNS to solve a problem in evolutionary theory. Never.

On top of all this, we have a substitute: there happens to be an actual theorem whose proof is rigorous, applies to any set of aggregate quantities and includes all the evolutionary details. I have just rederived yet another set of famous evolutionary equations from The Price Equation in less than five minutes this morning. Try it sometime! You can derive everything, from the most basic equations of single-locus selection, to mutation-selection balance, and everything else, from the Price Equation. I use Price’s Equation the way I used the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, and the Fundamental Theorem of Linear Programming. As a universal problem solver. I don’t use Fisher’s theorem that way.

Price’s Equation truly is the Fundamental Theorem of Evolution and I, for one, am going to make my efforts to reverse the typical ordering of things. Fisher’s “theorem” (it’s not even a theorem!) is called “Fundamental” and the selection component of Price’s Equation is called the “secondary theorem.” Dude, that’s bogus: you can derive Fisher’s FTNS from the Price Equation!

To see just how fundamental Price’s Equation is, use the full equation, with the transmission bias component to derive equations for

  • Single-locus selection dynamics
  • Two-locus-two-allele selection dynamics
  • Equilibrium between forward and backward mutation
  • The Breeder’s Equation

You’ll see what I mean.

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