Thursday, February 12, 2009

If you want to know why education is important

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Check out these percentages:
Charles Darwin, who invented the theory of evolution, was born on Feb. 12, 1809. Marking the 200th anniversary of his Darwin’s birth, Gallup has a new poll out showing that “only 39 percent of Americans say they ‘believe in the theory of evolution,’ while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36 percent don’t have an opinion either way”
And then watch NOVA: Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.

And start to worry about returning to the Dark Ages....

25 comments:

Mahakal / מהכאל said...

I'm of the opinion that evolution proceeds by intentional choices, in mating and other behaviors by species members which are adaptive to environmental and other changes. That is to say, random mutation is not as important as directed, "conscious evolution" to survival and offspring.

ellroon said...

I'm sure you are right, especially with humans, but I'm betting the tangled impulses that drive evolution will be so complex that it will defy any attempt to explain it coherently... kinda like this sentence: complicated, somewhat intelligible, but with an aimlessness that defies logic.....

Mahakal / מהכאל said...

Well, humans are sort of the end product of a long process of evolution, or perhaps we aren't an end product but growing towards something else, but in any case, our ancestors made choices which led to us being here, now. The problem with the purely materialist view is that it denies the role of conscious choice. I tire of the arguments between Darwinists and ID advocates, both are simplistic and incomplete models.

DB said...

evolution proceeds by intentional choices, in mating and other behaviors by species members which are adaptive to environmental and other changes

Maybe to a small degree, but countless animals and lifeforms (virus', etc) that evolve hardly do anything that one could define as intentional. Perhaps I am not understanding the point.

Anyways, it is truly sad that such a low percentage of people "believe" evolution despite the fact that nearly every single scientist who has studied biology or similar sciences accept it as near fact.

ellroon said...

I wonder how our computers will affect our evolution... we'll not lose the baby finger but grow it longer for better keyboarding? The girl who can text faster gets the mate? Guys who can use the phone GPS won't get lost getting to the fancy restaurant and therefore win the girl? The mind boggles...

ellroon said...

DB, it's the misunderstanding about the word: theory. In layman's terms it means hunch. In scientific terms it means method, capable of modification but based on facts. Therefore the religious fanatics think they have a wedge to jam their faith into a scientific process.

And it will not fit. Faith and science are two different things, forever and always, amen.

Steve Bates said...

Whoa! I have to take issue with a lot of stuff, and this will spread over more than one comment. I'll start with Michael...

Michael, what you are describing is "sexual selection," a companion phenomenon to natural selection. Darwin acknowledges it, but it is almost certainly less powerful in descent with modification (the name used in Darwin's day for what we call "evolution") than natural selection. A critter that cannot survive to reproduce certainly cannot propagate its characteristics, no matter how attractive it is to the opposite sex. No, the primary process in evolution is demonstrably natural selection ("survival of the fittest") operating upon random genetic variation (the source of the changes both successful and unsuccessful, the raw material of evolution). Sexual selection is at best a distant second, and may lead to impressive antlers, big boobs and similar secondary characteristics, but not to new survival characteristics.

Steve Bates said...

ellroon, regarding the degree to which humans are the products of sexual selection, I have to note that standards of attractiveness vary dramatically from one human culture to the next. And cultural evolution is by no means Darwinian in nature: acquired cultural characteristics can most certainly be passed on, intentionally or otherwise, from one generation to another, as acquired physical characteristics emphatically cannot. For more about the (nonexistent) inheritance of acquired characteristics, look up "Lamarck" in (say) Wikipedia; he had the notion that evolution proceeded according to natural laws, but got it wrong about the laws.

Steve Bates said...

Mahakal again... no, evolution does not proceed "higher" or toward an "end point." Humans are no more advanced than jellyfish; indeed, jellyfish are far better adapted to their environment than humans are to that same environment. The "chain of being" which ellroon displays (this particular drawing all, ironically, of upright hominids with probably truly minimal genetic differences and therefore almost identical from the perspective of evolution) does not reflect "progress"; Darwinian descent with modification is not about progress. Evolutionary changes can proceed in any direction. A land-adapted species could evolve, under selective pressures, to produce a species that lives in the water; that appears to have happened more than once. "Progress" is a cultural concept, and sometimes a spiritual concept; there's really no place for the notion in biological evolution.

Steve Bates said...

DB, I think you and I probably agree a lot about this matter. :)

Steve Bates said...

ellroon, you have hit the nail on the head (and not the nail on your baby finger) in identifying the source of the "only a theory" problem. Evolution is an observable fact, of which Darwin's theory... an explanatory framework... is one of several that have been proposed. Theories are amenable to criticism and change; accurate observations of facts are not so malleable.

I was once present at a lecture by the late lamented Stephen Jay Gould (whose popular books on evolutionary matters everyone should read yesterday if not sooner). In the question session afterward, a young man stood and began, "As one who opposes evolution, I..." Gould interrupted him: "Excuse me; do you also oppose gravity?" Gould went on to point out that opposing a theory cannot involve discarding any inconvenient observable facts; any viable theory must accommodate all the facts... and evolution, like gravity, is an observable fact, like it or not.

Steve Bates said...

(Apologies, Mahakal, for using your "old" screen name in my first comment.)

ellroon said...

Thanks, Steve. These nuances are hard to catch and you've explained them nicely. I guess we think sexual selection instead of natural selection because ... it's more fun and easier to understand!

Like how the woman who just inflated her breasts to 38K will survive tsunamis and floods by having her flotation devices with her at all times... perhaps she'll pass on her DNA for stupidity....

But it's hard to think we are on this amazing journey of evolution ... with no game plan but survival. Most want to know we're doing this for a reason, that we are achieving something, that we are actually getting better. Like a Non-Zero Sum game, everything should benefit:
Ingeniously employing game theory—the logic of "zero-sum" and "non-zero-sum" games—Wright isolates the impetus behind life’s basic direction: the impetus that, via biological evolution, created complex, intelligent animals; and then, via cultural evolution, pushed the human species toward deeper and vaster social complexity. In this view, the coming of today’s interdependent global society was "in the cards"—not quite inevitable, perhaps, but, as Wright puts it, "so probable as to inspire wonder." So probable, indeed, as to invite speculation about higher purpose—especially in light of "the phase of history that seems to lie immediately ahead: a social, political, and even moral culmination of sorts."

Mahakal / מהכאל said...

Steve, I respect your point of view but I disagree that random changes account for descent with modification to a greater extent than sexual selection. As a case example, I possess two dissimilar (heterozygous) genes which both code for a similar recessive condition. This condition has very significant effects but these particular mutations do not in any way reduce fitness for sexual reproduction. Selecting for these mutations is more than possible, it is likely, due to the benefits they may confer in resistance to some diseases and elevation of intelligence, but on the other hand they have serious negative physical consequences as well. Among Ashkenazic Jews these mutations are relatively common.

As to the idea that DB suggested lower animals do not engage in decision making about reproductive behavior, I tend to disagree again. It may not be an elevated philosophical discourse on the subject, but there is consciousness in everything, even the smallest microbe.

Steve Bates said...

ellroon, when "Wright isolates the impetus behind life’s basic direction: the impetus that, via biological evolution, created complex, intelligent animals; and then, via cultural evolution, pushed the human species toward deeper and vaster social complexity," he distinguishes quite correctly between biological evolution, which is, like it or not, directionless and embeds no perceptible purpose, and cultural evolution (human and in some cases animal), which is undeniably directional and purposeful. If there is an "arrow of the history of life," it is an arrow created by the human mind doing what the human mind does best: finding or creating patterns in a physically chaotic universe. I think it is ever so important to distinguish that phenomenon from biological evolution. Human culture, including not only science but art, religion and most especially language, is the exciting and directional aspect of human existence.

(I've avoided references to game theory. A former girlfriend's father was a Nobel nominee in mathematics for his work in game theory, and I share her reluctance about authors who indulge in tossing about mathematical terms in nonmathematical contexts.)

Steve Bates said...

Mahakal, your personal example, ironically, shows how a characteristic can be selected for, because of its survival benefits (disease resistance and enhanced intelligence), even if it has "side-effects" that we would consider negative. Nature knows nothing of the concept of a side-effect; effects are just effects. Your case exemplifies natural selection at work, not sexual selection: individuals are necessarily created in aggregate, not trait-by-trait. It is certainly fair to impose a human evaluation on the results; humans quite reasonably have their own criteria for goodness... but Nature has only one: survival to reproductive age and the production of offspring.

Steve Bates said...

Afterthought: Mahakal, I see now what you intended, I think. You are talking about the selection that occurs when human partners reproduce because they are both part of a limited subpopulation (in this case, being a Member of the Tribe, as a friend calls it). I suppose one could argue that that is sexual selection, but the limitation has more to do with geography and culture than with attractiveness. In any case, Darwin never denied the existence and influence of sexual selection; he (and many naturalists afterward) only said that natural selection, because it decides who lives and who dies, is usually the overwhelming factor.

Mahakal / מהכאל said...

Steve, I think you mainly get the point but I think you mistake sexual selection for natural selection in this case. There is an element of natural selection in weeding out the more aggressive mutations which remove candidates from the gene pool, and some variants of my condition result in early fatality, either as an infant or juvenile. Once you get beyond that, a carrier or someone with the adult form has no greater chance of reproducing, and probably less than average due to the negative physical consequences. Yet through the emphasis on mating for certain characteristics like intelligence, the same genes may be continued.

We could argue indefinitely over which aspect is the more important. Random mutation usually results in a defect which reduces fitness. While it is unquestionably true that fortuitous mutation may sometimes lead to evolution, sexual selection always plays a role in reproduction, and the reasons that a particular mate is chosen are more complex than genetics. As I said, my objection to the Darwinian view is its oversimplification. It is the same objection I have to the ID crowd. Both are incomplete descriptions, and both seek to deny the validity of the other perspective. Consciousness is fundamental to everything.

ellroon said...

(I've avoided references to game theory. A former girlfriend's father was a Nobel nominee in mathematics for his work in game theory, and I share her reluctance about authors who indulge in tossing about mathematical terms in nonmathematical contexts.)

Maybe I should throw out String Theory to you guys and see what happens!

I'll just go over in this corner and randomly mutate...

Steve Bates said...

"Consciousness is fundamental to everything." - Mahakal

Mahakal, life on earth arose somewhere between three and four billion... that's billion, with a B... years ago. Hominid species for which fossils survive seem to be at most a few million years old. H. sapiens is about 200,000 years old, give or take a lot of debate.

If you are saying that consciousness is fundamental to the nature of humankind from any meaningful cultural perspective, I certainly agree with you. But if you are saying that the billions of years of evolution from the very beginning of life to the emergence of the earliest hominids (or even the earliest animals that could reasonably be said to have consciousness) are insignificant, or have no bearing on who we are as a species, I couldn't disagree more. Haldane's assertion that God had "an inordinate fondness for beetles" (quoting from memory; hope I got the particulars right) could just as well have attributed to God "an overwhelming fondness for blue-green algae, manifested over many ages." Much of our essence predates consciousness by a very long time span indeed.

Steve Bates said...

ellroon - you've got the world on a string; will you be sittin' on a rainbow? :)

ellroon said...

incredibly so....

Mahakal / מהכאל said...

I'm not sure what your point is about beetles and things, Steve. All life is consciousness. Just not necessarily human consciousness.

Mahakal / מהכאל said...

The Secret Life of Plants

ellroon said...

Fun, thanks, Mahakal!