November 09, 2004

Where to Start?

from - smijer

The Morning Press doesn't have permalinks. To me, that's permission to quote whole posts. I'll try to discipline myself and just excerpt the most jaw-dropping portions:

Don't tell me you "don't believe in evolution." Turn on the television on Sunday afternoon. Look at the football teams there. Do you remember when offensive lineman Bob Brown used to get sent home from training camp with the Los Angeles Rams in the late 1960's until he got his weight down under 300 pounds? They wanted him at 240, but accepted him at 273.

If you're 240 pounds today, you'd be laughed off the offensive line. You can't even be an offensive lineman unless you're 300 pounds.

My son is bigger, stronger and faster than I was at his age 30 years ago. I'm bigger, strong, faster and a whole lot smarter than my grandfather.

We evolve. People evolve, ideas evolve -- everything evolves. You believe in evolution. You're a part of it everyday .

Now the theory of evolution as the origin of species has massive, gaping holes in it. Anybody who argues defensively that it doesn't has no credibility. I get just as frustrated at the closed-minded, defensive, narrow-minded people on that side of the evolution-versus-creation argument as I do those with tunnel vision on the religious side.

Wow. Now, I know that not too many radio stations require high marks in high school biology for consideration as a talk show host, but surely these people can be expected to acquaint themselves with the issues they want to talk about before they get on the air? I have a good mind to call the station and throw down the gauntlet.

For anybody that might be reading this and thinking, "what's he so upset about?"... let me break it down, relying on the handy-dandy Talk Origins archive for help.

The variation in physical strength between the Morning Show host (Jeff?) and his son is the sort of variation upon which natural selection can act at the population level. However, it represents "evolution" only in the most generic English-language sense of the word. Yes, we witness "evolution" in some sense in our daily lives. No, that isn't the kind of evidence that should convince us of the accuracy of the neo-darwinian synthesis (aka the standard model).

There is plenty of evidence for the standard model. Here are 29+ classes of evidence that should convince a modern skeptic that the "holes" in evolution as an explanation for "the origin of species" are actually quite small - that is, there is virtually no room for doubt - at least as far as the "big picture" is concerned. Scientists themselves were swayed long ago, based on their own studies of an overwhelming array of evidence, far too massive to be boiled down to a simple internet web-page.

Yes, there are unanswered questions. No, an unanswered question does not, by itself, produce a "hole". The real credibility gap is lop-sided. This isn't an issue for artificial "balance". There is a scientifically correct side, and a scientifically incorrect side. The lack of credibility lies with those who pontificate without understanding the issue they are discussing.


Posted by smijer at November 9, 2004 09:25 PM

Is it fair to call evolution a "theory"?

univar.jpg Posted by Buck on November 9, 2004 10:08 PM
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As long as what you mean by "theory" is "scientific understanding", then that would be fair. S.J. Gould suggested that we can think of evolution as both fact and theory.

univar.jpg Posted by smijer on November 9, 2004 10:31 PM
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If it is a fact then why would you bother to call it a theory? I was taught evolution in public school like everybody else was but hell, it never occurred to me that it was anything but a theory. It seems I read in the local paper a few days ago about some group of parents wanting to put a sticker in the science books stating that evolution is a theory. What is wrong with that? I guess they could compromise by putting another sticker in the book stating that creationism is a myth. Reckon everybody would be happy then?

univar.jpg Posted by Buck on November 10, 2004 04:01 AM
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The link I provided explains why you might use either "fact" or "theory" terminology in describing evolution. Let me ask you this. "Germs sometimes cause illness": fact, theory, or both?

The problem with the stickers in the textbooks is that they don't just say "evolution is a theory" - which is true, so long as you understand and apply the scientific meaning of the word "theory" instead of the common use meaning. The problem with the stickers is that they suggest that there are non-evolutionary scientific theories that might answer the same set of questions just as well. The effort is to leave the impression that there is some doubt about the overall accuracy and power of the body of theory known collectively as "evolution". This is not the case, and the stickers are invitations for kids to waste class time trying to argue in favor of their own favorite pseudoscience.

I guess they could compromise by putting another sticker in the book stating that creationism is a myth.

"Creationism" (i.e. "creation science") is not a myth so much as it is a pseudoscience. There are a lot of people not comfortable with the seeming dissonance between their holy books teachings about the origin of biological diversity and scientific discoveries about the same subject. Some of them have decided to engage in a program of making scientific-looking argument that there is physical evidence against evolution or for the viewpoint that comes from their understanding of scripture.

"Creation" - the view that supernatural being(s) created the world and the life in it is the myth, but there is no point saying that such is the case in a science class. That would be like going out of your way in American History to remind the class that infant baptism is rejected by protestant fundamentalists. It's true, but it isn't relevant to the subject being taught.

univar.jpg Posted by smijer on November 10, 2004 06:17 AM
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"Germs sometimes cause illness": fact, theory, or both?
I had always thought of this as a fact but science has never really been a strong point with me. I am a Literature guy.

I am understanding you to say that evolution is the only scientific theory we have and therefore should be the only theory taught in schools as science. That makes sense to me. I have always felt that it should be taught with the "as best as we can tell this is the way it happened" attitude rather than "this is it and there ain't no more".

Evolution is just something that I do not feel like I absolutely must believe in order to go forward with my life. I think to most scientists it has this "virgin-birth" like quality and if you do not believe it then you are not scientfically "saved".

Maybe I am misreading the whole thing.

univar.jpg Posted by Buck on November 10, 2004 11:11 AM
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It's not something to be "believed" as much as it is to be "understood". It's real easy for a non-scientist to go through life without knowing anything about how living things got to be the way they are now. But for people who do have or feel a need to know, the answer isn't just "maybe". It's about as certain as anything else we know about the real world. That is to say it isn't quite 100% certain, but it is close enough that there isn't much real need to hedge bets.

univar.jpg Posted by smijer on November 10, 2004 01:17 PM
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Where does the disagreement between scientists come in? I hear a lot about "a group of scientists" that do not accept the theory of evolution. What is their problem with it?

univar.jpg Posted by Buck on November 10, 2004 02:34 PM
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A very tiny minority (not even a functional "group") of scientists and engineers, only a very few of which even work in a relevant field, who oppose it on religious grounds. It isn't an actual scientific controversy. It is only a religious and political one.

univar.jpg Posted by smijer on November 10, 2004 03:54 PM
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Perhaps some of the 'regular' people with 'regular' brains are wondering why there are still stages of life or (to put it another way) life that did NOT evolve. Also, why did some cells evolve into birds and others into snakes, and others into say foxes etc? I am far from being a scientist, but I have never read any evolutionary textbook that even scratched the surface of explaining creation.

univar.jpg Posted by Goldie on November 14, 2004 07:03 AM
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Goldie, it is quite possible (and reasonable) for people who haven't studied a lot of science to have questions such as the ones you brought up. Fortunately, if they are genuinely interested, they may have success learnign about the answers to many of those questions that have already been discoverd. Unfortunately, those answers are sometimes very complex, and it may take a fair amount of study to get to the bottom of them. More unfortunately still, there has arisen in this century a cottage industry of exploiting people's unfamiliarity with the topic and the complexity of it in order to try to deceive them that evolution is less certain than germ theory, gravity, or any other scientific knowledge. These professional deceivers call themselves "scientific creationists" or "creation scientists" or some such. But it turns out that they are merely trying to undermine science in order to preserve some dogma that comes from their human understanding of one of their holy books.

For your specific question: "why do some organisms not evolve"? Well, the answer is that all life evolves. Occasionally some related group of organisms becomes extinct. And in nature, becoming extinct is the only way to avoid evolution. I think the question you are asking is why some groups of organisms (an extremely tiny minority) endure with very little physiological change for great periods of time. The answer to that question is a complicated one as well, but I can give you the easy summary. Those species or genera survive with little physiological change because they are well suited to an environmental niche which has remained relatively unchanged in quite a long time. The more detailed answers would have to come from someone who does the science for a living. the Pandas Thumb is a weblog dedicated to the subject of evolution, and whose contributors include people who do scientific research professionally. For an all around answer guide, I recommend the Talk Origins Archive.

univar.jpg Posted by smijer on November 14, 2004 03:05 PM
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I just posted this on The Panda's Thumb and I want to post it here and on every site that I can find.

Reader, please consider:
For those of you who do not know, here is what the first amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

When a teacher tells her class that the universe appears to have an intelligent design, is that teacher establishing a religion? Of course not! The liberal, socialist, secular, usually atheistic agenda that is being promoted in our government schools has convinced a generation of people that the first amendment will not allow the name of God to be voiced in public schools, but that was never the intention of our founding fathers. Our founding fathers only intended that we not establish a national religion that we reguire our citizens to become affiliated with or that we not force them to worship any particular deity. If this error is not corrected soon, it is going to be too late to correct it.

univar.jpg Posted by Jan on November 16, 2004 07:24 PM
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That teacher would be teaching the students about his religious belief about the appearance of the universe. (Scientifically speaking, there is no evidence of a designer, so it is not true that it "appears" to have one...) Acting in the role of agent of the state and national government, he would be indoctrinating students in a religion ("creationism" to be precise). What does a government have to do to establish a religion? School attendance is compulsory. For those who cannot afford private schools, public schools are their only choice. When the state requires kids to come a place in order to listen a person teaching their religion, how is that not church? That action by the state: how is that not the establishment of a church?

I hope you will check back often at the Panda's thumb for replies to your remark.

univar.jpg Posted by smijer on November 16, 2004 08:04 PM
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What would happen if the teacher said

"Kids, God took a monkey and turned him into a man!"

I guess any reference to "God" makes it a religious belief, right? Sounds reasonable.

Hell, who cares. Nobody listens in school anyway.

univar.jpg Posted by Buck on November 17, 2004 03:09 PM
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