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

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Mark Perakh, a fire, and a flaming

Mark Perakh is an astonishing person with whom I have communicated but never met. Mark studied physics in the old USSR, escaping under dire circumstances to the US. Recently, his house burnt down, and he lost untold amounts of papers and other material, mostly done by hand before the era of computers. Wesley Elsberry has blogged this well. My thoughts go to Mark and his family.

Ed Brayton takes this as the starting point for a demolition of the morally bankrupt and as usual completely ignorant attacks on Mark by a moron by the name of Dave Scott, to whom Dembski recently gave control of his blog. If you had any doubt about either the lack of morality or competence of IDevotees, go read.

More on fraud

Janet Stemwedel, over at Adventures in Science and Ethics, has a couple of nice posts on this topic. Her first one, "Are fakers outliers or bellwethers?", discusses the motivations of fakery like Hwang's, riffing off PZ Mghcgs' post, and her second, "Science's neighborhood watch" is partly a response to mine.

I particularly like her characterisation of what David Hull called the "I'm going to get that son of a bitch" motive in science.

It's hard to get research to work. It's a bother to write it up. It's a pain to get it published, especially in a "high impact" journal. Add to that the pressure of spending all kinds of time scrambling for money to support the research (which means identifying a "sexy" problem, catching up on the literature, gathering preliminary data, and writing grant proposals that must also undergo peer review). What's the payoff? If you find something really good, maybe you get fame (you name in the textbooks!), fortune (patent rights!), and the opportunity to do a little superior dance in the general direction of all those other violently competitive scientists in your field.

Oh yeah, and the warm feeling you get from having made a contribution to scientific knowledge.

But really, beating those bastards in the lab across town, that's the reward that stays with you. Especially since you're pretty sure that one of them was behind sinking the review of that important grant proposal that you submitted last year, and then because you didn't get the grant, you didn't get tenure, and now here you are starting off again at another school, so IN THEIR FACE!!

Putting one over on people you hate because they've bloodied you in the fierce competition for resources and recognition ... maybe wouldn't leave you feeling as conflicted as putting one over on people you like and respect. There might be a clue here about ways to raise the cost, or lower the payoff, of being a cheater.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Evolution, rules and laws

Evolution is a historical process, and like many such processes it is hard to make generalisations about it. But the supposed hallmark of science is that it makes generalisations, and so biologists have labored to produce these laws of evolution. As a reprobate reductionist, I think that the laws that govern evolution will be physical, in the end, but it seems that some rules have survived.

One of these is Cope's Rule, which states that body sizes tend to increase in a lineage over time. Ironically, this rule was formulated by an evolutionary biologist, Edward Drinker Cope, who rejected Darwin's mechanism of natural selection and who also thought that Lamarck was correct about inheritance. But Darwinian evolutionary biologists have tried to account for this rule without much success.

A new study has argued that there is no such tendency on the part of phylogenetic lineages, which is to say that there is no bias in speciation events to larger body forms, but that there is evidence of selection within lineages, that is, species, towards larger body size when temperatures change. I haven't seen the paper yet, but it looks like when sea temperatures dropped, the optimum body size of deep water ostracods (a kind of crustacean that looks like a clam) increased over 40 million years.

This indicates that body size is purely a microevolutionary effect of optimisation for local conditions. As such, no general rules can be formulated without knowing what conditions the organisms will encounter. And this goes also to undercut our assumptions that "evolution" is a general process of a single mechanism. It is no more so than "weather" is. We won't be able to predict more than a limited amount of change, nor develop "laws" of evolution, because the extraneous variables are so complex, contingent, and unforeseeable.

And yet evolution remains science. The atomic physicist Ernest Rutherford famously quipped that there were two kinds of science - physics and stamp collecting. Justifiably, biologists, who do a substantial amount of fact collection, protested, and before he died Ernst Mayr published a book that defended the independence of biology from physics and chemistry. But everything that we have been able to investigate substantially reduces to physics. The independence of biology is heuristic rather than ontological.

Biology needs only the laws of the physical universe - they will be economic (thermodynamic), chemical, and so forth. But for creatures of limited cognitive capacity, it makes perfect sense to break problems down into bite-sized chunks that can be addressed. If we were Laplace's Demon, able to track everything at the microstructural level, then perhaps there would be no biology. But we have only the cognitive capacities that nature has given us, and what we can generate by linking together in scientific disciplines, and so biology is a heuristic necessity.

Even Laplace himself knew this, defending his Exposition du systeme du monde with the comment that
If man were restricted to collecting facts the sciences were only a sterile nomenclature and he would never have known the great laws of nature. It is in comparing the phenomena with each other, in seeking to grasp their relationships, that he is led to discover these laws...
Biology has to make generalisations, but it doesn't have to make laws. And these generalisations are defeasible. Another "law" is Bergmann's Rule, which says that warm-blooded animals increase their body size as they move into polar, colder, climates. This makes perfect sense for endotherms, but it is a puzzle why it should also hold for exothermic animals like ostracods. I posit that the laws of physics rather than the actual temperature regulation system, are what counts here. Perhaps some metabolic reactions just need bigger bodies in colder climates, whether or not the animal regulates its temperature? Who knows?

Here's a link to the paper.

Late note: As mentioned in the Comments, coturnix blogged something else about laws that I wanted to do, but he beat me, the bastard. See Constructal Theory, which aims to show how periodicity is an expected outcome of certain systems.