Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Is Evolution the Cornerstone of Biology?

In response to yesterday's post my frequent commenter and occasional sparring partner Salvador Cordova left the following remarks:

I do like your blog and your insights and your concerns, but I have to comment on this claim by Lynn:
“we cannot ignore this cornerstone of science”.

I keep hearing that repeated, but I just don't see that evolutionary theory is a cornerstone of science. Biology can be understood well without traditional evolutionary biology.

The few creationist biologists and physcians in the world are counter-examples to that claim. There is hardly a physicst who would deny the existence of gravity, but there have always been a minority of first rate scientists who doubt evolutionary theory (whatever evolutionary theory really is, the vague definition of the term “evolutionary theory” is suggestive it's no cornerstone of science at all).

The great Columbia University genetecist Theodosious Dobzhansky famously said “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” What did he mean by that?

In a trivial sort of way there are many things in biology that make perfect sense even without evolution. The structure of DNA, the mechanics of the Krebs cycle, the skeletal structure of the water buffalo, all of these facts can be understood without any reference to Darwin or his theories.

But of course, the same could be said for any branch of science. Brute facts can be learned and understood without any reference to theory at all. Plainly, this is not what Dobzhansky had in mind.

What he intended was that evolution is what transforms biology from a chaotic menagerie of unrelated facts into an actual science. For example, the fossil record shows a clear pattern to life's history. We begin with the simplest sort of one-celled organisms around 3.5 billion years ago, and move gradually through more complex single-celled organisms, simple multicellular organisms, and on and on through fish, amphibians, reptiles and humans. Along the way we find numerous examples of transitional series in which, for example, the reptilian skull seems to transform itself gradually into the mammalian skull. Without evolution we must simply accept this history as a brute fact. Intelligent Design offers no explanation of it, and the Young-Earth Creationists offer an explanation (that the patterns in the fossil record represent the different abilities of animals to escape the rising waters of Noah's flood) so clearly at odds with the facts that it can't be taken seriously. Salvador, if you reject evolution, tell me how I am to understand the fossil record.

And that is just one example. I could take any other line of evidence and ask the same question. Evolution lets me take a mass of disconnected facts and see them as the consequence of one simple idea. There is no rival theory with the same explanatory power. And, creationist distortions notwithstanding, there is no data that speaks against the idea. That is what Dobzhansky had in mind with his statement.

So the idea that “Biology can be understood well without traditional evolutionary biology,” is true only if by “understand” you mean, “absorb a mass of unrelated facts”.

Salvador points out that there have always been a handful of scientists who reject evolutionary theory. To which I reply, “So what?” Logic and set theory are cornerstones of mathematics, but you can have a nice long career in the field without knowing very much about either one. Saying that evolution is the cornerstone of biology does not mean that every biologist spends every moment of his working life thinking about deep evolutionary questions. Rejecting evolutionary theory will not prevent you, at least in principle, from discovering ineresting biological facts. But it will prevent you from making sense of those facts, and it will prevent you from putting those facts in any sort of larger context. And that is why no creationist has made any significant contribution to biology in the past century.

I would also point out something rather obvious. Browse through the biology journals in any university science library and you will find dozens that deal specifically with evolution. And the journals that don't mention evolution explicitly still invariably treat evolutionary questions. I have not looked at any statistics, but I suspect that academic book publishers put out far more books about evolution than on any other area of biology. The fact that every once in a while someone with a PhD, nearly always in some field of science not related to evolution in any way, will reject evolution has nothing to do with whether evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology. I need only look at what biologists do when they enter the laboratory to see that it is.

The remark about evolutionary theory being vaguely defined is precisely the sort of silly nonsense that gets scientists so irate when dealing with creationists. It sure seems to me that biologists know what mean when they talk about evolution, and the better informed creationists seem to know what they are railing against. Have you, uh, tried reading a book on the subject?

To seal the deal Salvador offers the following quote from biologist Lynn Margulis:

The practicing neo-Darwinists lack relevant knowledge in, for example, microbiology, cell biology, biochemistry, molecular biology, and cytoplasmic genetics. They avoid biochemical cytology and microbial ecology. This is comparable to attempting a critical analysis of Shakespeare's Elizabethan phraseology and idiomatic expression in Chinese, while ignoring the relevance of the English language!

Now, Lynn Margulis is as hard-core a defender of evolution as you will find. Leaving aside, for the moment, the more florid aspects of this quote, what she is criticizing is the Neo-Darwinian interpretation of evolution, not evolution itself. Anyone familiar with Margulis' work knows that what she objects to is the overemphasis (in her view) of natural selection acting on small genetic variations. She believes that symbiosis is a more important mechanism of evolution than Neo-Darwinism acknowledges. She has done some fine work in this regard, though most scientists believe that while symbiolsis is certainly important, especially in the earliest stages of evolution, it is she who is overstating her case. Since symbiosis is yet another method by which biological complexity can increase through natural mechanisms, her work is one more blow against intelligent design.

As for the business about Neo-Darwinists simply ignoring vast swathes of biology, I'm afraid Ms. Margulis can go climb a tree. That statement is both false and obnoxious. The fact that she often makes such hyperbolic statements is a large part of the reason she finds it difficult to get other scientists to take her seriously anymore.

Reject evolutionary theory if you want to, but at least try to get an accurate picture of the role it plays in modern biology. And when pulling out dramatic quotes, take a moment first to understand the point the person was actually making.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Cobb County Case Discussed on The Abrams Report

The MSNBC show The Abrams Report did a segment on the Cobb County Evolution trial last night. The transcript is available here (scroll down to the bottom, it was the last segment of the show).

Representing the forces of sunshine and goodness was the always excellent Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Defending darkness and malevolence was Matthew Staver, an attorney for the Liberty Council. And with a name that Orwellian, you can be sure they are actually the “Cower Before Our Angry God!” council.

Abrams kicks off the segment in fine style:

ABRAMS: The theory of evolution may be settled science as far as most biologists are concerned. But it remains a political and legal flash point for conservative groups, including some who believe children exposed to evolution in the class room should also learn theories more in tune with the literal word of the bible, like so-called creation science and intelligent design.

Exactly right. There is no important difference between intelligent design and creation science.

Abrams then mentioned the recent anti-evolution decisions of the School Boards in Dover, PA and Cobb County, GA. There followed a brief background segment. Then Abrams weighed in with this excellent thought:

ABRAMS: Thanks, Don. My take—Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court, crystal clear on this issue when it rejected a Louisiana law which said that evolution could only be taught in public schools unless so-called creation science was taught with it. Writing for the majority, Justice Brennan wrote the First Amendment does not permit the state to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.

Bottom line, parents and religious schools, churches, synagogues, and mosques can guide kids and teach them a wide variety of theories. But when it comes to public schools, there‘s only one theory, evolution, if separation of church and state is to have any meaning. One of my guests will not agree.

Attorney Staver then launched his first salvo:

STAVER: Well, in the case you‘re talking about in 1987, Edwards v. Aguillard, the court specifically said that its decision should not imply that you could not critique these kinds of theories. And in fact, that‘s not what the decision was about. That case actually required the prohibition of the teaching of evolution and you could only teach it if you taught creation science. So if you didn‘t teach creation science, you couldn‘t teach evolution at all.

But the court clearly left open the idea that theories such as evolution could be scientifically challenged. I think in Georgia, that‘s really what this case is about. This shouldn‘t be pigeonholed as a religious issue or a religious controversy. It should be look at for what it is, a discussion on the issue of evolution. In fact, the actual disclaimer says that the textbook contains material on evolution.

Evolution is a theory and not a fact regarding the origin of the universe. It goes on to say the next sentence that there ought to be approached with an open mind. I think we can all agree that it is not an established fact. There‘s contentious issues on both sides and we ought to look at this open mindedly and not pigeonhole it...

Staver's characterization of Edwards v. Aguillard is correct, and, unfortunatly, he's also right that the Cobb County case isn't really about teaching creationism. That is why the Cobb County label might just barely pass constitutional muster. Of course, Staver knows perfectly well that the purpose of this label has nothing to do with a critical discussion of scientific issues. That's just the cover story. But the story might be just persuasive enough to convince the judge.

But Staver goes completely off the deep end in describing evolution as a theory about the origins of the universe. As I have discussed before at this blog, it's not even a theory about the origin of life. Staver is also confused about the distinction, such as it is, between theory and fact, and about the epistemic status of evolution.

In fact, as becomes clear after Staver's next broadside, he is confused about a lot of things:

STAVER: Well, I think a lot of evolutionists, even Neo-Darwinists, question many of the theories. In fact, that‘s why we have Neo-Darwinism because the theories of Darwin didn‘t pan out, and so now you have a Neo-Darwinism theory...

I think it's safe to say that Staver hasn't the foggiest idea of what he is talking about here. He knows that evolution contradicts certain idiosyncratic religious views, and apparently that is enough for him. He clearly has never bothered to learn anything about evolution.

If he had, he would know that Neo-Darwinism emerged in the 1940's and represented the vindication of Darwin's ideas, not their rejection. Essentially, Neo-Darwinism represented the unification of the then new theories of genetics with the work of evolutionary biology. It was during this period that natural selection was restored to its status of being the primary mechanism of evolution, just as Darwin argued. In the early part of the twentieth century the importance of natural selection was downplayed for reasons that were plausible at the time but were later shown to be incorrect.

I suspect Staver could not give a coherent description of any current disputes in evolutionary biology. If he could, he would know that the various expansions of evolutionary theory over the last twenty years have all been in the direction of enriching the theory, not calling it into question.

The idea that “even Neo-Darwinists, question many of the theories,” is nothing but a silly talking point Staver has learned to use at the appropriate time.

Abrams called him on this assertion, and the following exchange took place:

ABRAMS: Wait. But that‘s not suggesting that it—that‘s still not the answer to the question, which is which scientists have concluded that evolution—forget about aspects that have come over, over the years, but evolution as a whole, is there any current science—and you‘re the one who said it‘s not religious, so I‘m trying to focus on the science...

STAVER: There‘s...

ABRAMS: ... yes, go ahead.

STAVER: Yes, Dan, there‘s a two-volume set by Wendell Byrd, and it‘s called “The Origin of the Species Revisited” and it has two volumes chock full of information that questions the theory of evolution by evolutionists themselves. And I‘m not saying that they‘re not saying that they don‘t ultimately believe in evolution, but the issue ought to be more objectively considered instead of looked at as complete dogma considering which you can never object, you can never question, and I think that‘s where it‘s come today. We‘ve come 180 degrees post the Scopes trial.

Interesting. Abrams asks for current science challenging evolution. Staver replies with a reference to a two-volume set by Wendell Byrd, a lawyer. Of course, this is just another worthless talking point. Anyone familiar with Byrd's work knows he is, to put it mildly, not a reliable source of information on this topic, but that doesn't matter. Staver just needed something he could say to address Abrams' obvious question.

Barry Lynn went next:

LYNN: This is all a battle about religion from the same people who tried to ban evolution, then to give so-called equal time to this pseudo science creation science and evolution. And on the science, you know, Matt‘s just plainly wrong. And I‘m not a scientist. None of us are scientists.

But if you read the latest issue of National Geographic, the cover story is “Was Darwin Wrong”. The first word of the article is no. That‘s because all of the evidence is tending in precisely direction, Dan that you‘re talking about, evolution. There isn‘t any evidence pointing in the opposite direction. This is all about whether science teachers, science professors, and scientists get to write school books and not try to undercut with this religious dogma the idea that a theory in science means, of course, that you collect a lot of facts and this is a unifying principle.

It‘s not a guess. It‘s not a hunch, and no scientist in his or her right mind honestly believes that this is not fundamentally a religious issue. And Dan, just one other point, you can, in fact, talk about creation stories from a multitude of religions. It ought to be to be in a social studies class, not in a biology class like Mr. Staver...

I think that's about as good as you can do in this sort of forum.

Abrams went back to Staver at this point, and argued that any scientific theory can is potentially offensive to someone's religious sensibilities, and that once we start altering school curricula to worry about such things we will be effectively unable to teach any science. Here's Staver's reply:

STAVER: Well no, for example, there‘s no way to look at gravity in two different ways. The law of gravity is the law of gravity. The law of thermo dynamics is the law of thermo dynamics. There‘s no theories on that. There‘s no question on that...

I would reply to this silly statement, but Lynn saved me the trouble:

LYNN: Yes, another point is the theory of gravity, like the theory of evolution, is being refined on a regular basis. All you need to do is read the newspapers and you see that people who think seriously about this are moving the science forward. But this is a battle about religion. This is one more example of the so-called religious right trying to use clout to cloud an important issue. And if our kids and the kids in our public schools are going to compete in the 21st century with children around the world, we cannot ignore this cornerstone of science...

Well said.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Kerry Won the Atheist Vote. Should he be Ashamed?

Paul Kengor tackles that question over at BreakPoint:

While liberals complain about the religious vote that went for George W. Bush, they refuse to discuss—and perhaps happily accept—the non-religious vote that went for John F. Kerry. Which ought to be considered a greater liability for an American president: to receive the overwhelming support of devout Protestants and Catholics or to be backed by atheists? Which speaks worse? Don’t we have this backward?

Since Kengor is about to repeat the standard complaint that arrogant Northeast elites are contemptuous of red state religious folk, we shouldn't let slip his casual implication that having the support of atheists reflects badly on your character.

Fundamentalist Christians believe that they know for certain how to get to heaven, and where God stands on a variety of moral and social issues. They believe that people who think otherwise are, at best, the innocent dupes of Satan. At worst they are actively in league with him. This is not an exaggeration. Listen to their sermons and read their books if you think it is. There is no group in America more contemptuous of those who disagree with them. Remember that Bush was the one who thought it was just fine to make a campaign issue out of the fact that Kerry was from Massachusetts. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, liberals are amateurs at arrogance.

We’re hearing plenty about President Bush’s huge advantage in the 2004 election from evangelicals, and (less so) about the extremely significant fact that Catholics who attend Mass weekly voted for Bush by 55% to 44%, which is a startling religious rejection of John Kerry, a Catholic. Yet, the one aspect of the November 2 vote that is being completely ignored is the behavior not of the most devout but the least devout.

The assumption here seems to be that Catholic voters should naturally want to vote for other Catholics. And upon what, exactly, does Kengor base his assertion that Kerry's loss of the Catholic vote represents a religious rejection of John Kerry. Perhaps Catholic voters, for whatever reason, thought Bush was better able to handle issues like Iraq or terrorism. That seems likely, in fact. They may have liked Kerry's faith just fine, but may have also believed that a candidate doesn't earn their vote simply by practicing their religion. What a thought!

After citing some exit poll data about where the atheist vote went, Kengor writes:

In other words, religious voters who won the day for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential contest were countered by non-religious Americans who tried to win the day for John F. Kerry.

The agnostic/atheist vote was even larger in states where Kerry got the most ballots. In California, 24% of voters, almost one in four, said they never attend church, and they went for Kerry 63% to 34%. In New York , those who claimed no religion at all voted for Kerry by 78% to 19%. These eager atheists comprised 12% of New York voters, and they offset those Catholics in New York who favored Bush by 51% to 48%.

So, atheists were most prominent in the two bluest states. Hollywood and Manhattan made their presence known.

More casual stereotyping of hated geographic regions - Hollywood and Manhattan in this case.

Later he writes:

Liberals will maintain that Karl Rove revved up the religious vote for Bush. What they don’t want to realize is that they drove religious voters to Bush. Among the reasons were their relentless attacks on Bush’s faith. America recognizes that George W. Bush is not unusual religiously speaking, either by contemporary or historical standards. When Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd hammer Bush unceasingly on his faith, they merely preach to the choir, and unwittingly inform devout people of who is not on their side (and why they shouldn’t bother with the New York Times). The Democratic Party is paying a price by kowtowing to the liberal wing’s fear of faith, embrace of moral relativism, and support of abortion on demand.

First of all, no one, not Maureen Dowd, not Frank Rich, no one, hammers Bush on his faith. The hammering comes when Bush suggests that major policy decisions were made based on his perception of God's will, and not on any sober consideration of the facts. When Bush's advisors make snide remarks about the “reality-based community,” that's when you can expect thoughtful blue-staters to protest. If part of being devout is a belief that the government should be used as an instrument for promoting your religious beliefs, then devout people are quite right to view liberals as their enemies. But if being devout means taking the whole Bible seriously, and not just the parts about homosexuals or the parts that can be twisted to imply something about abortion, then the Democrats have plenty to offer religious voters.

Liberals have no fear of faith, but they do have a fear of mixing religion and government. As for morality, liberals believe that moral assertions must be backed up by something more substantive than a blinkered interpretation of the Bible. Since many fundamentalist beliefs can only be backed up in this way, Kengor naturally sees this as a threat. As for abortion on demand, I suspect that most liberals believe that abortion should be legal in many cases, but that some restrictions are legitimate as well. I've not seen any polling data on this however.

The fact, however, is that liberal Democrats will do neither, because they can’t resist. They are who they are, and they are contemptuous of those religious “morals” voters who beat them on November 2, who they view as stupid. That is a crass caricature born of willful ignorance, of not interacting with moderate to conservative Christians, of not visiting their websites and reading their publications—of never pausing to accurately inform themselves of those they ridicule.

Kengor believes that liberals cling to certain stereotypes about conservative Christians. He replies with a slew of vicious slurs and caricatures of his own. Lovely.

Speaking for myself, I have spent a ludicrous amount of time over the last four years reading conservative Christian books and websites, and attending their conferences. My view of the sort of Christianity that seems to hold sway over so much of the South and Midwest has gone way down as a result. Before moving to Kansas in 2000, I tended to view Protestant fundamentalism as an abstraction. But after reading the work of people like Hank Hanegraaf, D. James Kennedy, Norman Geisler, Tim LeHaye, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Phillip Johnson, William Dembski and countless others, all of whom enjoy wide popularity in Evangelical circles, I can only conclude that their form of Christianity is based entirely on hatred towards perceived enemies. Their arguments are tissue-paper thin, but they are held with such certitude and expressed with such venom that there is no hope of convincing them of that.

There are no stereotypes in the world more vicious than those held by conservative Christians of anyone who dissents from their view of life.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Mooney's Latest

Be sure to catch Chris Mooney's latest article, from the Columbia Journalism Review, is now available. The subject is about how a misguided understanding of journalistic “objectivity” allows fringe science to gain a foothold in mainstream press outlets. Here's an axcerpt:

Political reporting hardly presents the only challenge for journalists seeking to go beyond he said/she said accounts, or even the most difficult one. Instead, that distinction may be reserved for media coverage of contested scientific issues, many of them with major policy ramifications, such as global climate change. After all, the journalistic norm of balance has no corollary in the world of science. On the contrary, scientific theories and interpretations survive or perish depending upon whether they’re published in highly competitive journals that practice strict quality control, whether the results upon which they’re based can be replicated by other scientists, and ultimately whether they win over scientific peers. When consensus builds, it is based on repeated testing and retesting of an idea.

Journalists face a number of pressures that can prevent them from accurately depicting competing scientific claims in terms of their credibility within the scientific community as a whole. First, reporters must often deal with editors who reflexively cry out for “balance.” Meanwhile, determining how much weight to give different sides in a scientific debate requires considerable expertise on the issue at hand. Few journalists have real scientific knowledge, and even beat reporters who know a great deal about certain scientific issues may know little about other ones they’re suddenly asked to cover.

Moreover, the question of how to substitute accuracy for mere “balance” in science reporting has become ever more pointed as journalists have struggled to cover the Bush administration, which scientists have widely accused of scientific distortions. As the Union of Concerned Scientists, an alliance of citizens and scientists, and other critics have noted, Bush administration statements and actions have often given privileged status to a fringe scientific view over a well-documented, extremely robust mainstream conclusion. Journalists have thus had to decide whether to report on a he said/she said battle between scientists and the White House — which has had very few scientific defenders — or get to the bottom of each case of alleged distortion and report on who’s actually right.

Are the Georgia Labels Unconstitutional?

In Thursday's posts I reported on the trial currently underway regarding the decision by the School Board of Cobb County, GA to insert the following warning labels into their biology textbooks:

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Now, all sensible people can agree that this one dumb label. But is it unconstitutional? That's a tough call. Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars offers his thoughts here:

After reading the complaint and the response, as well as talking about it with a couple of people, I'm not entirely convinced that the disclaimer really is unconstitutional. Certainly the argument here is thinner than it has been even in past disclaimer cases, the most obvious one being Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education. The only real argument is that the school board was motivated by a desire to protect the religious views of some students and parents with the disclaimer, but is that motivation enough to overturn it on establishment clause grounds? One can envision many circumstances in which a government body, whether a legislature or a school board, would exercise an entirely legitimate authority with a religiously-derived motivation. But if it's a legitimate authority being exercised, does the motivation make it illegitimate? It's a very close question, I think. I'd be interested in hearing the opinions of the attorneys who read this blog on that question.

According to the Lemon Test, for a state action to be allowable under the Establishment Clause it must serve some secular purpose. It is not clear to me what the secular purpose is behind this label. Specifically, what secular purpose is there for singling out evolution for critical scrutiny? It has been reported elsewhere that a proposed warning label that would encourage students to critically analyze all scientific theories was turned down. I have not seen the response of the School Board to the ACLU's complaint, but it seems to me they would have to find some secular purpose for singling out evolution that wasn't served by a more general label. I can't imagine what that purpose would be.

It's definitely a close call, though. Since everyone knows the intent of the label is primarily religious, the trial will come down to how convincingly the School Board's representatives can lie about the reasons for the label.