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, April 01, 2006

At last! A creationist theory of the Cambrian explosion

Afarensis has resolved the problem of Precambrian Archaeology. Of course, there are still some details to be filled in, and a few inferences to be tidied up. But after all that waiting, something we can actually test.

Apologies for the commercialisation

Dear folks, I'm trying to generate a moderate amount of income by including ads here. It's to pay for the domain name and a few other incidentals, and occasionally to pay for a book. I hope you don't mind. I've tried to filter out the creationists and intelligent designers, but if anything gets by, email me and I'll fix it. Thanks.

Friday, March 31, 2006


It's a denial of the obvious...

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Adventures in Ethics and Science: Fuller on Mooney on science.

Dr Freeride (aka Janet Stemwedel) is doing a great fisking of Steve Fuller on Chris Mooney's book The Republican War on Science which Fuller thinks is advocacy for "clients". Read it.

One thing that occurred to me is that talk of "clients" suggests that scientists are somehow just another interest-bearer in the public polity. While this is true, that's a bit like saying that elite athletes are just another interested party in professional sport. The point of science is that scientists do it for reasons of gaining knowledge. If they do other stuff that is universally human, like jockey for funding and position and contributing to the social "discourse" (i.e., free-for-all), then that is to be expected. But that doesn't mean that science is only about personal or professional interest. It's also about the science, stupid.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

These quizzes are evil. And so am I

You Are 56% Evil

You are evil, but you haven't yet mastered the dark side.
Fear not though - you are on your way to world domination.

I promise no more for a while.

Aid and comfort and credit where none is due

Recently there has been a bit of a kerfuffle about Michael Ruse, the author of many books on Darwinism and design, releasing to William Dembski the private email of Daniel Dennett. Now there is a very bad Op-Ed piece in the Grauniad. Pharyngula, Evolution Blog, and Pulp Adair dispose of this, so I won't, here.

But I wonder what it is that Ruse and Dennett are doing, exactly? Ruse appears to be giving the Intelligent Design movement way more credit than it is due, intellectually. Is it just that there's nothing much else about that interests him and he's bored? Or is it that he is being funded to do so? Or what? I mean, the ID movement isn't even as intellectually significant as the execrable Kalam Cosmological Argument and that gets precious little coverage. So why?

Dennett on the other hand appears to be arguing some potentially reasonable views that I think are just unsupported by simple appeals to evolutionary biology. And here is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. [Disclaimer: I haven't read his book or Dawkins' yet, and may not for some time.] Biology may explain religious belief, or it may not completely explain it and leave some of the explanatory work to be done by the social sciences. But no matter what, so far as I can tell evolution doesn't require atheism. In fact, I would argue that it cannot. There are no conclusive arguments either for or against the existence of any or all gods. At best we have rational bets based on priors and personal preferences.

Why do people insist on making an ideology out of a scientific theory? I mean, I can understand that ID is an ideology - it is precious little else (there is certainly no explanatory power in the Designer). And I know that ID is opposed to a scientific theory. That doesn't mean we have to go out of our way to accept the way in which ID and religious claims in general frame the debate. That would be like allowing the defendant to set the rules of the trial.

Ruse's project is unclear to me, even after reading a number of his recent books. If he's arguing that evolution is sometimes used as a religion, sure. That much was obvious in the 1860s. If he's arguing that religion can coexist with evolution, fine. Some obviously can't, but rational religions revise their views in the light of facts. What else?

Ruse appears to think that there is an ideological movement called "Darwinism". I'm not sure why, apart from the tendency of historians and philosophers to reify abstract positions with labels that have capital letters. There have been any number of people who have called their views "Darwinism" - I'm thinking of the despicable views in the early 20thC of Benjamin Kidd and John B. Haycraft - but calling it "Darwinism" doesn't make it so. The term has also been employed in many contexts within science, usually to mean just an emphasis on natural selection. But there are people in the evolutionary field whose views differ enough from other people I would call Darwinian that we need a more differentiating name than "Darwinism". Gould and Eldredge tried to revive some terms of Darwin's student George Romanes used against Weismann and Wallace: "ultra Darwinian" and "neo Darwinian". Dennett and Dawkins appear to enjoy being so tarred. Fine. Even this phrasing is insufficient to bring out the actual nuances in the debates.

What is not the case is that the evolutionary theories of biology have much to do with the metaphysical theories of ID or the Double Ds. Dawkins and Dennett generalise the theory to give analogies outside its biological domain, and interpret it to give support to their own metaphysics. At best, though, evolution removes one or a few of the prior objections to being atheist. It doesn't in any way give a positive reason to be atheist. And to argue with the IDevotees is to give them credit they haven't earned. Philosophically, everything they offer was demolished over a century ago. Politically, they need to be opposed, because they would introduce into science a failed epistemology. But there's no philosophical meat there.

Ruse is on track to end up like Steve Fuller - although unlike Fuller he doesn't think ID is science, by giving it the credence he does, he is perilously close to the sort of epistemic nihilism that Fuller espouses. Either science is the best way of knowing about the natural world, in which case ID is bankrupt and not worth dignifying, or it isn't, and Ruse's entire corpus is based on a mistake.

The third way is to say that a scientific theory, like evolution, must be assessed in its own right, and not in terms of how it affects the religious or irreligious (or the artistic community, or political thinkers, or...). Let Dennett be an atheist - I'm not bound to follow because I accept the validity of evolutionary biology. Let Ruse engage the religious objections to science; it's a field of its own intrinsic interest. But let's not think that the science actually supports either viewpoint. That way lies Dancing Wu Li Masters, Deepak Chopra and other such new agey nonsense.

I have met both of these guys, briefly. Dennett and Ruse both seem to be nice people (and so are they all honourable men), although they are as opinionated as the territory requires of its alpha males (but rarely, have you noticed, the alpha females?). And both are significant figures. But neither define this debate for all the press coverage. And what on earth was Ruse thinking in giving that master of prevarication and obfuscation, William Dembski, private emails?

And now, a word from the prophet

It's not often I get email from a bona fide prophet. Even rarer (N = 0) does a prophet offer me a new new testament. Of course, there's a catch - you have to buy it. Now we here at Evolving Thoughts do not as a rule endorse commercial products. This is because we have no disposable income. But sometimes the Word has to get out. As a practising Pastafarian (linguini last night), I am duty bound to spread this Word, in a nice pesto sauce...
Fellow Believers,

Our day has finally arrived! The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is at last here. Maybe not inscribed on stone tablets, but it is a book. And maybe not THE Good Book, but at least A Good Book.

Delivering His Divine Message is my life’s work, and as I’ve said before, all proceeds from the book will go toward our pirate ship fund. Because as you know, global warming is the direct effect of the declining number of pirates, and His Noodliness, while he endorses boiling pasta, is against boiling the planet. With your help, and with the sails blowing on our bad-ass pirate ship (with flags, cannons, and weevils in the flour barrels below deck), we can spread His Word and save the environment at the same time.

Remember that ours is a small boutique religion, but we have BIG ideas (some, arguably a bit al dente) and we must share this rich booty of ideas with others. Within the pages of The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you will find FSM history, helpful propaganda, scientific evidence of His existence (including the 100% verifiable fact that no one has sued any school boards about us), as well as pictures and illustrations that surely test the limits of copyright law. But as pioneers we’re not afraid of a little controversy.

Since The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster goes on sale tomorrow, March 28th is a Holy day. I encourage you to dress in your Pirate’s best—paint one of your pant legs to resemble a wood finish, maybe wear an eye patch or get a parrot, and eat some cacciatore with a side of linguine. Then, go to your local bookstore to let them know that The Church of FSM is strong in your community. I can honestly say that if everyone on this e-mail list goes out and buys the book, it will be a bestseller. That would certainly get some people’s attention.

Our future is in our own hands. And in His noodly appendage.

Bobby Henderson

You can order the book online from Amazon, BN, or Powells.
Happy FSM Day!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Evolving cancers

Evolutionary Biology Research Techniques Predict Cancer

Here's an interesting study - precancerous tumours, those that are not yet proliferating but are mutant cell clusters, are more likely to become cancers if the genetic diversity in the cells is high. On reflection this is obvious - if becoming malignant depends on having a series of mutations that ends up with a cell line not apoptosing when crowded, then a variety of mutations that fail to stop growth will increase the chances that some further mutation will interfere with the apoptotic cascade[s]. But they did the hard empirical work and described 32,000 genotypes in precancerous lesions.

The logic of evolution (which in this case means both changes in allele frequency and also diversification, that is, a kind of cell phylogeny) is that the higher the viable variation, the more likely a viable further variant is. Since cell lineages are rather like asexual lineages of, say, bacteria, the same models ought to work.

Just give me my Green Card

You Passed the US Citizenship Test

Congratulations - you got 8 out of 10 correct!