Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Blame Game - the game you play but don't admit

How to destroy public education

The pinup boy for unfettered competition, Alan Fels, has predicted that a voucher system such as is often proposed in America by neo-conservatives to allow parents to move from public to private schools without (much) extra to pay, will "revolutionise" Australian secondary education.

It most certainly will. It will effectively gut public schools and allow private schools to do whatever they like secure in the knowledge they are regarded as better than the rest. Educational standards will surely slip rapidly.

What is the underlying rationale for this? Usually it is posed in terms of parental choice and not having to pay twice - once through taxation for education, once through fees - if one chooses to send a child to a private school. But this, like all totally individualistic accounts of social interaction, fails to recognise that even those who send their kids to private schools benefit from living in a society which is broadly educated to a good standard. This was one of the reasons why we instituted a universal education system in the first place, and one of the reasons that the west did so well economically.

Moreover, it is now known that many initial sets of conditions can drive a "free market" to ruin, both in biology and society. One of the most well-known of these is the Tragedy of the Commons, from a paper by Garret Hardin by that title; others are known to game theory. This is not new, either - these results are 40 years old. So why do some "economists" persist in claiming that a free market is an unqualified good thing?

The Law of Unintended Consequences is always operating. Why do the ideologically driven fail to see that? [Did I just answer my own question?]

Ach! Zis iss KAOS!

Don Adams has died. I hope Hymie can cope.

The real issues in the Dover case

Australians and other furriners may not know this, but Intelligent Design is presently being tested in a US court, in Dover, Pennsylvania. Usually, when journalists report on these issues, they seem to think it is all some kind of Scopes Trial rerun, or that it is a rather cute drama. However, the seriousness of the attack upon science in the US has become apparent to an increasing number of journalists and they are beginning to stop the "balanced reporting" garbage (you don't need to report it evenly if one side is crap, as Bill Maher noted). This piece, from the new bureau Knight Ridder's Washington correspondent, Robert Boyd, has some interesting quotes. Here's a sample:
The vast majority of working scientists contend that biological evolution is an established fact supported by overwhelming evidence. They say that evolution's mechanism is well explained by the process of random mutation and natural selection that Charles Darwin described 147 years ago. Darwin's theory - updated and confirmed by recent genetic discoveries - eventually will answer all or most questions about the origin and history of life, they say.

To buttress its case, the Discovery Institute has collected about 400 signatures on a statement labeled "Scientific Dissent from Darwinism." About 80 of the signers are biologists; the rest are mostly philosophers, mathematicians, chemists, computer scientists, historians and lawyers.

The statement of dissent, however, doesn't even mention intelligent design. Instead, it simply raises doubts about the present state of evolutionary theory. In its entirety, the statement reads:

"We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."

"That statement is one that most scientists can or should be able to sign," said Martin Poenie, a cell biologist at the University of Texas in Austin, one of the signers.

Some who signed the statement of dissent said that doesn't mean they support intelligent design.

Species concepts are too important

So, now that the Book is in the hands of the publishers (we wait with breathless anticipation), it pleases me enormously that this paper shows how differing species concepts affect the ways in which conservation biology is to be undertaken.

Comparing the biospecies concept of Ernst Mayr and more recently Jerry Coyne and Allen Orr in their book Speciation, with the more recent phylospecies concept (actually there are a lot of things that go by this name; here the authors are considering what I call the Autapomorphic Species Concept, where a species is a terminal node in a cladogram, specified by their autapomorphies, or uniquely derived traits), Shaun Dillon and Jon Fjeldsa of the Zoology Department of the University of Copenhagen examined how each conception affected the measures of biodiversity of the entire bird fauna of sub-Saharan Africa.

The result is that diversity is pretty well fractal - although the phylospecies concept has caused what some worry is a kind of taxonomic inflation, both concepts uncover the same areas of richness and paucity. Since any diagnostic difference will give you a phylospecies, phylospeciesists tend to be splitters, while biospeciesists tend to be lumpers (but not too lumpy - they will still identify as "good" species parts of species complexes that will occasionally hybridise).

It's an interesting paper, and they use an amazing tool - WORLDMAP - devised by Paul Williams and his colleagues at the Natural History Museum in London.

[I wish they'd tried to operationalise a few other species concepts, too. There are around 25 of the buggers.]

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Alternet evolution

Here is a good piece by a self-confessed nerd who has been touched by the Flying Spaghetti Monster (but hopefully able to wash the stains on her shirt out) at Alternet. Check out the comments - at least one comment corrects her on DNA inheritance. Damned science fans, not permitting any mistakes! Why can't they learn from the Aldente Institute that the theory of Intelligent Design by Pasta doesn't need facts?