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

Friday, February 10, 2006

Political interference

Pharyngula makes the point that legislation to ensure that evolution is taught, offered up in Wisconsin as a counter to the antievolution bills spate seen recently, is a Bad Thing. The point is not a political solution, other than getting politics out of science, and science education.

A similar thing has just been dealt with here in Australia, although it's about getting politicians out of medical care not science. The abortifacient RU486 was until now available only at the (federal) minister's discretion, although abortion is a state issue, not a federal one. But the conservative government of John Howard, which has shown an increasingly religious bent lately and includes several high-profile religious ministers (Tony Abbott being the minister in question), wanted to control abortions.

A private member's bill in the Senate was passed 48-21 in favour of stripping the minister of that discretionary power and handing it back to where it ought to go, the Therapuetic Goods Administration, which employs experts to decide on the availability of drugs apolitically. All but three conservative women Senators voted for it.

Naturally Abbott is spinning this, and expect to see a sustained campaign for the vote in the House of Representatives, but surely it is a fundamental principle of Westminster democracy that politicians make policy, not administer it. In any case, we don't want to see the Australian equivalent of recent Republican wars on science they don't like here.

Sympatric speciation again

The Questionable Authority has blogged what a grant application prevented me from blogging. Speciation and sympatry, and a couple of neat papers in Nature ... And he got a better handle on it. I'll make him pay for that (in beer, or chocolate).

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Sarkar Lab blog moves

The Sarkar Lab weblog has moved addresses. Sahotra Sarkar is the head of the Biodiversity and Biocultural Conservation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin. A philosopher of science and a biologist working in conservation biology, he's worth keeping an eye on, if only to make sure he doesn't drink your beer.

The feed is here.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Researchers evolve a complex genetic trait in the laboratory

Eureka Alert is reporting that Frederik Nijhout, of Duke University, and his colleagues have evolved a complex phenotypic trait, called a "polyphenism" (a complex trait that has several expressed forms) in the lab (see also the Science summary and links to the paper if you have access to it).

Taking black hornworm larvae, they exposed it to conditions of higher temperatures, in which a related species expressed a green phenotype. After ten generations, they have a variety that turns green. This is a process that Conrad Waddington called "genetic canalisation", in which mutations that make the selected trait easier to develop can become selected for. Typically this is done by heat shock of this kind.

Genomes under heat stress may be more susceptible to mutation, which may explain why this works, but Nijhout hypothesises this is due to selection for increased levels of the hormone that regulate development - a small increase in the hormone is enough to trigger a radical shift in phenotype (although fixing it in the population still requires mutations).

Children and racial preference

Cognitive Daily has a very nice discussion of the cognitive biases of children involved in identifying and evaluating races. One of the results was that "racial preference" decreases over time.

Obligatory disclaimer: there are no human races, just geographical and genetic variation that is reinforced by social assortation. The "race" here is a social construct. What is interesting is that these social constructs appear to have some foundation not in biological differences among people, but in the sorts of superficial markers used to identify groups.

Those damned cartoons

Here's an interesting problem for me... two people who I respect, disagreeing over the importance or not of those cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that satirise Islam. One, PZ Myers (yes, I can spell his name) argues that we should not seek to offend a religion by playing on stereotypes (and also makes the point that the Muslims who are rioting aren't helping with those stereotypes at all). On the other hand, Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars, makes the point that the cartoons were supposed to illustrate the very problem here - that Muslims will forbid the use of images, however vaguely like Mohammed they may be, by non-Muslims.

Who to agree with? Well, I agree with parts of both - they are both curate's eggs. The issues as I see them are these:

1. In a secular democracy, even one in which the majority are of a certain religion, the rules of a religion are non-binding on unbelievers, and this is a good thing.

2. In any society, we have to strive to not offend others' way of life and beliefs, no matter how silly we might think they are, as a matter of public order and social cohesion.

3. One of the things that makes secular society possible is freedom of thought. This doesn't automatically translate into freedom of speech, however. But atheists and non-Muslims are as free to think Islam is a reactionary (or whatever) religion as they are to think that of Scientology or Mormonism.

4. Agressive atheism, while entirely understandable given the fact that atheists are disadvantaged in nearly all societies because they are always a minority, is generally unhelpful. There is something to be said for the genteel contrarianism of Bertrand Russell or Thomas Huxley. We want people to think, not react by reflex.

So how do we balance all these? Islamists want for there not to be a secular society. Christians object to this unless it is they who want control over the social reins. Given the fact that the secular society is a protection from religious oppression by other religions, we should reject entire and without hesitation any attempt by a religion, be it Catholic, Baptist, Wahabist, Hindu fundamentalist or Marxist, to impose its values and restrictions on t hose who do not choose to be part of that faith community. This is the basis for civil society. It takes priority.

Once that is satisfied, we can attend to the feelings of minorities (and majorities) and try to reduce offense. My home state of Victoria introduced "hate speech" legislation to prevent the demonisation of minorities like Jews (as it happens, in part by Muslim imams in Australia). It should be applied evenly. If racists can't incite hatred against Jews legally, Christians can't incite hatred against Muslims, or atheists, or (even them) Scientologists (despite the idiocy of leading members of that "church").

But none of this overrides the right of those who oppose aspects of the religion to express that opposition. We might not be able to sow discord about Scientology as a faith, but the illicit activities of that church can be, and should be, opposed. Likewise Islamism. But that doesn't equate to stereotyping all Muslims. I know several educated and civil Muslims. You probably do too, although they're most likely a bit scared to identify themselves as such in your society given the hatred drummed up by no less than the American government (at least here there's been a fair bit of possibly disingenuous effort by the government to dissociate Muslims from Islamism). So we shouldn't do that. It's just bad manners.

I find evangelical atheists a bit hard to take, myself. Surely, if atheism is correct, there's more to life than trying to convert people away from a religion, or to try to reduce the role religion plays in society. I don't mean the secular arms of government and public policy - religion can influence, but not be allowed to control, that. But no matter what a rationalist or skeptic might think, religion will always be a large part of society, and the only acceptable way to oppose it is by education and debate, not stereotyping.

So I'm sort of with both Paul and Ed, and against them too. The problem we face is trying to balance and properly weight competing ideals. Some ideals are more fundamental than others, however, and the right of a non-Catholic to mock the Virgin Mary, or a non-Muslim to mock Mohammed, is very basic indeed, or else everyone's religion is at risk of being marginalised.