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

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Victorian Education Minister says ID a religious faith

Wonderful! Lynn Kosky, the Minister for Education in my prior home state of Victoria, has declared that Intelligent Design is a religious belief not to be taught in science. A bit of pre-emptive nonsense prevention.

See what can happen if you have a state religion? You are able to tell the difference between religion and science...

Kosky is, however, a member of the horrible nasty socialist party, AKA the Labor Party. No matter that their policies are indistinguishable from the Liberals (who aren't liberal), it is an out to the IDevotees.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Why do we NEED terrorism laws?

Foreign readers can translate this into their own local terms. But the Australian federal government seeks to set up draconian legislation which will allow suspected terrorists to be imprisoned without trial, or judicial oversight. And I am left pondering something that nobody seems to have raised in the public forum - why?

Why do we need to have legislation to deal with terrorism? We have laws against murder, against the use of weapons, against discrimination, and so on. These laws are overseen by judicial control, by habeas corpus, protection from unreasonable seizure and imprisonment. All these things were installed in our tradition because we have seen what happens when judges, police, governments and authorities in general lack oversight. We know about the Star Chamber, about arbitrary prosecution, about police harassment and "verballing" (an Australian practice, probably international, of writing "confessions" that were supposedly made verbally and recorded by police). When did we become amnesiac?

Secret agencies and secret detentions will cause, inevitably, injustices and lead to a loss of rule of law. We know this. So perhaps someone can tell me this - why do we need to revoke these rights and protections? Is there something that terrorists do that is a new kind of crime? They murder - we have laws about murder. They act in conspiracy - we have laws against conspiracy. They use "weapons of mass destruction" (i.e., bombs) - we have laws to control that too.

Either fix those laws in a manner consistent with our legal protections and rights, or use them as they are. We do not need new Star Chambers.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Fitness landscapes and the modeling of evolution

This is really a report from the frontal lobes. It' s not coherent yet, if ever, but I wanted to share.

I have been aware for some time of the work of Sergey Gavrilets, at the university of Tennessee in Knoxville. He has been doing what seems like abtruse mathematical modeling of speciation and adaptation in various kinds of fitness landscapes, which he terms amusingly "holey", "rugged" and "smooth" and so on. But being a math-challenged individual (I blame my fourth form teacher, who managed to destroy my confidence totally. I am sorry to say that both my children have encountered his descendents), I was unable to make much of it, apart from seeing it as significant.

Last year, Gavrilets released a book entitled Fitness Landscapes and the Origin of Species, through Princeton. I didn't go look for it, because speciation, the process whereby new species are formed, was tangential to my interests in species concepts for my own book. But last weekend, I was driving a bunch of philosophers of biology about, and one of them, Jonathan Kaplan of Oregon State (the picture with the Koala was taken when he was here) happened to mention Gavrilets' work. I got interested again, and now I'm reading it. The book has some maths, but I can "bleep" over that, as Linus told Charlie Brown he did with the Russian names in War and Peace. The result is some evocative ideas.

One of them is this. A fitness landscape, a metaphor introduced by Sewall Wright back in the 30s, is best conceptualised, says Gavrilets, as a hypercube of n dimensions, one for each locus on a genome. Each point in the "space" (technically known as a "state space" or "phase space") represents a combination of some alleles in a population, and it has a fitness value assigned to it by the environment.

A biologically realistic fitness landscape will typically have millions, if not billions, of dimensions, for each possible gene and alleles. It follows, according to Gavrilets, that in a suitably complex space, there are going to be "ridges", or as I prefer to think of it, corridors in that space which are pretty much the same fitness values, and which are the most fit in that region.

The result is this: selection will tend to maintain a population at the fittest local "peak", but there is a way in which ordinary genetic drift - random collations of effects like mating chances, stochastic sampling of gene pools, and environmental noise - will enable a population (and hence the species made up of these populations) to wander about in the fitness landscape. In short, both selection and drift cause biodiversity in a way I hadn't previously understood.

What this means is that selection keeps organisms more or less adapted (there are lag effects, "you can't get there from here" situations, and competing fitnesses for different genes that almost guarantee that no organism will be entirely fit or well adapted), but the form of the adaptation suite will vary in a random manner.

These nearly-equivalent corridors also enable species to escape local adaptation peaks. If they are connected as networks, as Gavrilets shows they are, then once you get to another place in the "corridor", you may find a different branch that will enable you to ramp upwardly in fitness.

As I said, I'm still digesting a lot of this. Gavrilets also has a very nice conceptual mapping of the different processes of speciation. I'll address this later, I hope.

My pessimistic sermon on the new Dark Ages

Every so often, the Muse strikes me and I post a sermon, but she's depressive. I posted the following in talk.origins, and it's been re-released by Jon Pieret, so I guess I have to put it up here too.
The problem isn't creationism. It isn't Intelligent Design. It's every and all antimodernism that's ever been around from the antivaccination crowd to flat earthers to antigenetics to antiecology to antinuclear power to these two idiocies. It's the fact that most of the world can't cope with defeasible knowledge and change from comfortable certainties. Humans do not, as Aristotle wrongly thought they did, desire to know. Humans desire to be convinced they are right.
We managed for a few generations to convince those who made policy that knowledge gained honestly through toil, but which was tentative and reviseable, was to be preferred to faith and dogma as a way of knowing the world. We made great strides and were too convinced that the world was following us who thought science a good thing. But while the world likes the output of science, they don't like knowledge most of the time. They would be very happy for science to stop right where it is at any time. So far, as no further, would be fine, if the mullahs, priests and prophets had their way.
Since about 1970 the popular mood has shifted away from science in favour of technodazzle, from learning in favour of infotainment. Critics of science moved from legitimate concern to ideological objection (or else why is it that nuclear power is not regarded as a legitimate alternative to hydro-, coal- and the weak solar-power options?).
We are living in the post-scientific era. What we do here is to maintain an interest in real science (it happens that I care most about evolution and biology, but the same thing can be said in a host of other domains). We do this because learning is a Good on its own, but also because as ignorance and opinion overtake knowledge, some learning will be held in common to support the next generation when it needs it.
My fear is that we will see society in the west fall to pieces as the knowledge it needs is overtaken by real junk science for political and social reasons. My hope is that it will persist in societies that still see it as the way to improve their lot, in China, India, Russia, the rest of Asia. They may one day reseed the west after it has passed through the next dark ages. Historians will date it, I think, around 1970. I hope they set the end of it no later than 2100.
Before you go cut your wrists, allow me to say that this isn't new. Society has always had trouble with knowledge, because if it can't be controlled, it tends to undercut the power relations of the status quo. My hope, for I am still that awed teenager at heart, reading all about the marvels of science, is that the bias of those who want to control things doesn't undercut the enterprise of gaining knowledge. It may become harder, but I think it will continue even where the theocratic masses get control.

Or I might just move to Korea.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Against ID in The Age

The Age, the leading Melbourne newspaper, has dropped considerably in my estimation of late but this piece, by a student of a Catholic girls school, is a very nice essay on religion, science and Intelligent Design. Here's a quote
Why does it [ID] seem to want to gain converts by subterfuge? Perhaps its proponents have despaired of the more accepted means of helping the poor, healing the sick and being there for people who need a friend.
Go read...