Eduard Kaeser introduces his theme of "science kitsch" by describing the term as an oxymoron. In science, we have the analytical critical search for knowledge about the natural world. However, the term kitsch is usually associated with works of "art" that fail to display any artistry, creativity or good taste. Kaeser's concern is that some science popularisers, whose zeal for science is marred by overstatement, are using science to give authority to personal agendas - or even worse.
"Kitsch is best known in the arts. [. . .] But science kitsch? The combination of these two words rings like an oxymoron. Science - as the common saying has it - exposes, discovers, tells the truth; kitsch conceals, covers, lies. This opposition is too simple, though. Where there is art, there is also kitsch. Where there is science, there is also science kitsch. No doubt, science is the pursuit of truth about the factual world, but there have always been elements of spuriousness making claims in the name of science that are not justified by it." (page 559)
Cover of original edition of The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994) (source here)
The author presents his analysis of science kitsch as a "reconnaissance", identifying different genres and not considering content too closely. For our purposes, it is not necessary to look at each category that Kaeser names. However, his first genre, Disillusion kitsch, is undoubtedly an important starting point for us. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, focused in his later years on the study of consciousness. In 1994, he published a book with the title: "The Astonishing Hypothesis: the scientific search for the soul". That which is astonishing is summarised in this quotation:
""You", your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." (Crick, 1994: 3)
Crick's assertion here is actually a statement of reductionism, which is presupposed by him as a principle of science. As subsequent history has revealed, Crick was speaking for mainstream neuroscience in his confidence that love, free agency and consciousness are "no more" than electrical impulses, neuronal firings and chemical reactions. Nevertheless, Kaeser gives Crick the benefit of the doubt when he comments on the quoted words:
"To many readers today this naturalistic grip on the problem of our mind and personal identity seems rather hackneyed, and I stop short of disparaging it as kitsch per se (indeed, I suspect Crick of ironically playing with reductionism). Reductionism may serve as a research programme, as heuristic metaphor, as hypothesis, as catalysing a scientific debate. A large majority of contemporary scientists are reductionists. So most would say that the behaviour of complex wholes is nothing more than the laws governing the behaviours of the parts and their interactions. [. . .] It mutates into disillusion kitsch when you assume the posture of somebody deeply sobered but also awing others by his bleak wisdom; as somebody telling us how the world is "really ticking": Listen people, forget about what you are meant to know, all this turns out to be ignorance, illusion, error! Quite often some heroic and even tragic halo surrounds the attitude of disillusion. A whiff of narcissism is always admixed. Mostly a good dose of boasting, too." (page 560)
This first genre of science kitsch may be identified as confusing science with a presupposed philosophical stance. In Crick's case (and many like him), the philosophy is naturalism that is presented as the essence of science. The problem then is a close-minded dogmatism about the way the world works. It is not possible for naturalistic scientists to follow evidence wherever it leads because their philosophy of naturalism is presupposed as true. This closes off all consideration of any evidence indicating intelligent agency. This is not the authentic spirit of science, and it is rightly described as science kitsch.
Disillusion kitsch is expressed not just by science popularisers, but by numerous leaders within the world of science. Perhaps the most widely cited is by Richard Dawkins:
"Theologians worry away at the 'problem of evil' and a related 'problem of suffering'. [. . .] On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: 'For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither care nor know'. DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music." (Dawkins R., "River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life," Phoenix: London, 1996, p.155.)
A second category of science kitsch that is also relevant to our interests here is named Theory kitsch by Kaeser. He introduces it in this way:
"Two components of this style stand out: the metaphorical and the scientific. Its fusion suggests a further kind of kitsch: theory kitsch. Hyperspace, variable diffraction, turbulence, acceleration of events, exponential instability ... Borrow some terms from physics and chaos theory, detach them from their specific meaning and inflate them with new magniloquence. Here kitsch is revealing a less innocuous aspect, drawing on the prestige of science to lend respectability and lustre to uncomprehended and undigested physics or mathematics, pretending to have detected some "deep" laws of history." (page 561)
Modern physics appears to be a happy hunting ground for many science writers wanting to make an impact. Favourite topics are Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics and chaos theory: they are all used to bridge the gap between everyday phenomena and the world of sub-atomic particles. But they do not get further than speculative hypothesis and analogy. The science is in short supply. Kaeser's example is "quantum healing". The problem with quantum theorists is that they are not theorists at all.
"They are theory looters. As Dutton puts it: "Scientific ideas and jargon are used by them as an exercise in intellectual parasitism; the essential function is not to inform us [. . .] but [. . .] to give their theories prestige". Or, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, conceptual kitsch relates to science as theft to honest toil." (page 562)
The topic of transhumanism is introduced as Cockaigne kitsch, pointing out that "advocates of transhumanism regale themselves with the gifts and promises of posthumanity". So enraptured are the advocates of this way of thinking, they look very much like evangelists of a religious sect. So we also meet Techno-religious kitsch. Artificial Intelligence visionaries stand alongside transhumanists in pointing a way of salvation for the human race.
"In fact, transhumanism is Christian redemption in technological guise, not seldom of kitschy taste. In addition to the self-congratulating character we notice here a specific self-deifying momentum. It indicates a deep-rooted religious and secular ambivalence that has always accompanied inventions and innovations. So, the appeal to the kitsch sense is often an appeal to the religious sense, too." (page 564)
Kaeser associates science kitsch with "Pop science": "In pop science you can easily find the "triple-E" characterising popular science: education, edification, entertainment." Pop science sets out to educate and entertain using all the resources of popular culture, which includes television, magazine formats and web-based formats. This is a lucrative market to work in: some scientists have found that it brings in more funding than other options open to them. But there is a down-side, because compromises have to be made.
"The pace of scientific research in many fields is so breathtaking that even interested experts in other disciplines often fall by the wayside. Let alone the general public. There's the right to know and there's the ability to understand. And there is the widening gap in between. Somehow the gap has to be bridged, be it only by creating the illusion of understanding science. Today a whole industry engages in that process of turning science into spectacle." (page 565)
In its desire to make science understandable to ordinary people, and to show that science delivers knowledge, the pop science presenters convey an authority that owes nothing to science. Kaeser perceives the influence of postmodern culture in such characteristics.
"One of the most conspicuous features of science kitsch is its immunity to criticism. You may aim all the ammunition of scientific rationality at the malarkey that is told on behalf of science, but again and again you will notice that the babble goes on. An obvious explanation of this persistence is that kitsch does not need scientific arguments because it simply does not play the game of science [. . .] The popularity of all kinds of "alternative" medicine, science and "ancient" wisdom testifies to a failure of modern rationality to satisfy deep longings for something to counteract the fragmentation, alienation and isolation that many people feel. So they look for the "science" that corresponds best to their needs. Hence, ironically, postmodernism has reinforced the fragmentation by emphasising that each culture has the right to know in its own way. There is no universal arbiter to decide what is right and what is wrong. Science is a "culture" among others, and not an "absolutistic" authority. It has to defy the competition of quacks, cranks, charlatans and woo woos more than ever." (page 566)
Whilst the discussion Kaeser provides is perceptive and hard-hitting, I do want to question his last paragraph. He wants the recognition of science kitsch to lead to laughter, showing that we do not respect the promoters of kitsch.
"So, if I am to draw a general conclusion from this reconnaissance, it is this one: The genre of science kitsch may help to regain credit by working as a probe to detect false pretensions, explanatory exuberance and exaggerations in science. Still, I recommend an old and successful home remedy against kitsch: laughter - loud, hearty and without respect." (page 567)
However, it seems to me that scientism is in the driving seat here, and advocates of scientism are not just presenters of pop science. Rather, many are leaders within the academic community. They are already seeking to make science the only pathway to knowledge. They require that naturalism be fundamental to the scientific enterprise and are routinely rooting out any signs of wavering. This is not a laughing matter, but highly serious. Instead of science, we are getting naturalism thrust down our throats and dissenters are frustrated because attempts at rational discourse are met with ideological rejection. Science kitsch is widespread, but questioning kitsch does not appear to sell books or television series. If anyone doubts this, just look at origins issues. Look at how the word evolution changes its meaning, so that changes in gene frequency can be invoked to support Darwin's thinking about common descent. Look at the emphasis placed on the peppered moth, the Galapagos finches and antibiotic resistance to justify far more than they demonstrate. Look at the responses to Stephen Meyer's book "Darwin's doubt": whereas Meyer shows the Cambrian Explosion is devastating for Darwinian evolution, pop scientists are queuing up to get their sound bites across (invariably straw man arguments). To question naturalism is to face the fury of academics, journalists and internet trolls. But our task is to champion science in the face of such hostility. Our goal is to follow the evidence wherever it leads. We seek the freedom as academics to question received wisdom and to propose alternative hypotheses that are a better fit with data. Exposing science kitsch for what it is will be a necessary task for all who value our scientific heritage.
Science kitsch and pop science: A reconnaissance
Public Understanding of Science, July 2013, 22: 559-569 | doi:10.1177/0963662513489390
Abstract: Science kitsch? The combination of these two words rings like an oxymoron. Science - as the common saying has it - exposes, discovers, tells the truth; kitsch conceals, covers, lies. I think, this "shadow" of science deserves a specific scrutiny, not only because it reflects the altered place and role of science in contemporary "knowledge" society but also because it pinpoints the task of relocating science in the "multicultural" context of postmodernism, with its different epistemic claims. The genre of science kitsch may help to regain credit by working as a probe to detect false pretensions, explanatory exuberance and exaggerations in science.
People who think sharks are "primitive" fish may be commended as being reasonably up-to-date with the evolutionary literature, but they need to take note of a new fossil fish that has thrown all the ideas into the melting-pot. Only a year ago, as an apparently coherent story was beginning to emerge, a specialist in vertebrate biology explained that the common ancestor of all jawed vertebrates on Earth resembled a shark.
"The common ancestors of all jawed vertebrates today organized their heads in a way that resembled sharks. Given what we now know about the interrelatedness of early fishes, these results tell us that while sharks retained these features, bony fishes moved away from such conditions." (Source here)
Fossil plus restoration of Entelognathus (source here)
There are four groups of early fish: the extinct Acanthodians and Placoderms, and the extant Chondrichthyes (sharks, rays and ratfish) and Osteichthyes (bony fish). It is the interrelationships of these groups that is much discussed by evolutionary scientists, and work in recent years has tended to see the Acanthodians as either a very early relative of sharks, or close to the common ancestry of all modern jawed vertebrates (for more on this, go here). The placoderm fishes had bony skulls and simple beak-like jaws built out of bone plates. This seemed to position them some way from the other groups, and it was widely thought that placoderm features bore little or no relation to the Osteichthyes.
"[Palaeontologists] thought that the last common ancestor of living jawed vertebrates had no distinct jawbones - that it was similar to a shark, with a skeleton made mostly of cartilage and at most a covering of little bony plates. The theory went that the bony fishes evolved later, independently developing large facial bones and inventing the 'modern' jaw. Such fishes went on to dominate the seas and ultimately gave rise to land vertebrates."
However, a major placoderm find from the Upper Silurian in China has stimulated a remarkably different interpretation. The fish, which has been given the name Entelognathus, appears initially to be a typical placoderm. The surprise comes when looking closely at the jawbones.
"When examined from the side, however, Entelognathus reveals itself as anything but expected. Absent are gnathal plates - simple jawbones characteristic of placoderms. Instead, the mouth is rimmed with bones that integrate with the cheek plates, the lower jaw is composed of an elongated 'box' of bony plates and cartilage, and the throat and gills are clad in a series of articulating plates. Both in the overall pattern and the specific detail of these plates, the fossil showcases traits that were once considered diagnostic of bony fishes, and entirely unknown in placoderms. Entelognathus, it seems, is a placoderm with a bony-fish-like grin." (Source here)
The jawbones are of great importance because they are much more complex than the single bone found in other placoderms. It is a case of abrupt appearance of complexity. Furthermore, this complexity is found in the Osteichthyes, but not in the Acanthodians or Chondrichthyes. There are two alternative evolutionary explanations: the first is that Entelognathus is ancestral only to Osteichthyes, and the second is convergence. It is the remarkable (jaw dropping) nature of the similarity of structure that has convinced most specialists that this find requires a re-writing of the evolutionary tree. This is how John Long puts it in a blog post, which headlines the thought that this new fossil is a missing link:
"But its lower jaw is composed of a complex set of bones, unlike other placoderms whose jaw was made of a single bone. This pattern of bones in Entelognathus precisely matches those in the lower jaw of early fossil bony fish (osteichthyans). Entelognathus also possessed special bones underneath its lower jaws called gulars, which are today only found in bony fishes. This fish shows the first appearance of the dentary bone which is found in all bony fishes, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. It is the very same bone in our lower jaw. The new discovery from China gives us powerful new insights about the building of the human body plan, which began seriously with these ancient fossil fishes." (Source here)
Whether there is a line of descent from placoderms to osteichthyans, or whether the jaw structures originated independently, there are important implications for phylogenies. Instead of sharks being "primitive", they should be regarded as "derived". The implication is that a classic scenario in vertebrate evolution is inverted. Friedman and Brazeau write in their commentary:
"[T]wo things are clear from the various possibilities proposed in their evolutionary tree. First, Entelognathus always branches outside the radiation of living jawed vertebrates, meaning that key components of the osteichthyan face are no longer unique innovations of that group. Second, acanthodians - that pivotal assortment of extinct shark-like fishes - are shifted, en masse, to the branch containing the cartilaginous fishes. This triggers a cascade of implications. If all acanthodians are early cartilaginous fishes, then their shark-like features are not generalities of jawed vertebrates, but specializations of the cartilaginous-fish branch. The most recent common ancestor of jawed vertebrates was thus probably clad in bony armour of the sort common to both placoderms and bony fishes."
A particularly interesting aspect of this "piscine mash-up" are comments on "how did we get it so wrong?" The indications are that cultural factors have been very prominent. The culture is that of progressivist thinking linked to the "Great Chain of Being" approach to looking at the world. A previous blog has explored this theme and can be consulted here. This new fossil is not just raising immensely important issues for cladistic analysis, but also is providing a case study of the human face of science - we find the continuing influence of Aristotelianism and other cultural agendas, despite assurances of science being objective and evidence-based. Friedman and Brazeau again:
"The status of sharks as surrogate ancestors seems well established, but this is an illusion of dogmatic repetition combined with spurious portrayals of present-day cartilaginous fishes as unchanged "living fossils". The popular model of a shark-like ancestor is, in the end, more a hangover of the "great chain of being" of ancient philosophy and pre-Darwinian archetypes than a product of modern comparative biology and phylogenetic "tree thinking". Added to this conceptual inertia is a historically compartmentalized approach to studying early vertebrate groups that made it too easy to dismiss shared similarities - the head and shoulder exoskeleton of placoderms and bony fishes, for example - as independent innovations without adequate evidence."
What we are seeing in the Palaeozoic fish fossils is a mosaic of character traits that are proving very difficult to portray in an evolutionary phylogeny. This is a good reason for at least considering the value of design-thinking and the potential for understanding some of this variability using the concept of phenotypic plasticity.
A Silurian placoderm with osteichthyan-like marginal jaw bones
Min Zhu, Xiaobo Yu, Per Erik Ahlberg, Brian Choo, Jing Lu, Tuo Qiao, Qingming Qu, Wenjin Zhao, Liantao Jia, Henning Blom & You'an Zhu
Nature, 502, 188-193 (10 October 2013) | doi:10.1038/nature12617
The gnathostome (jawed vertebrate) crown group comprises two extant clades with contrasting character complements. Notably, Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish) lack the large dermal bones that characterize Osteichthyes (bony fish and tetrapods). The polarities of these differences, and the morphology of the last common ancestor of crown gnathostomes, are the subject of continuing debate. Here we describe a three-dimensionally preserved 419-million-year-old placoderm fish from the Silurian of China that represents the first stem gnathostome with dermal marginal jaw bones (premaxilla, maxilla and dentary), features previously restricted to Osteichthyes. A phylogenetic analysis places the new form near the top of the gnathostome stem group but does not fully resolve its relationships to other placoderms. The analysis also assigns all acanthodians to the chondrichthyan stem group. These results suggest that the last common ancestor of Chondrichthyes and Osteichthyes had a macromeric dermal skeleton, and provide a new framework for studying crown gnathostome divergence.
A jaw-dropping fossil fish
Matt Friedman & Martin D. Brazeau
Nature, 502, 175-177 (10 October 2013) | doi:10.1038/nature12690
The ancestors of modern jawed vertebrates are commonly portrayed as fishes with a shark-like appearance. But a stunning fossil discovery from China puts a new face on the original jawed vertebrate.
The Mystery of the Missing Fossils
Darwin is to be commended for recognising that the fossil record did not endorse his gradualist approach to the origin of species. The abrupt appearance of each different type of animal and plant was known to his peers as a pervasive characteristic. He found a way of reconciling this empirical evidence with his scenario of evolution by natural selection: the extreme impoverishment of the fossil record. Yet even this did not do justice to the observation that a great disparity of hard-bodied animal life is to be found in the "lowest known fossiliferous rocks", below which are apparently barren strata. As a difficulty for his theory, Darwin described it as "very great".
In his introduction to the issues, Meyer recounts the discourse between palaeontologist Louis Agassiz and Charles Darwin. Agassiz was not convinced that natural selection acting on small variations could achieve much in the way of transformation, and he considered the abrupt appearance of animals as an argument against Darwinism. Meyer looks closely at the issues highlighted by Agassiz, and reinforces them by discussing the views of two other leading geologists: Murchison and Sedgwick. He establishes that the issues were worthy of discussion by the leading scholars of Darwin's day and that Darwinism did not supply satisfactory answers to legitimate questions.
Agassiz insisted that Darwin's picture of the history of life "contradict[ed] what the animal forms buried in the rocky strata of our earth tell us of their own introduction and succession upon the surface of the globe. Let us therefore hear them; - for, after all, their testimony is that of the eye-witness and the actor in the scene." (cited on pages 12-13)
So, to test Darwin's hypothesis, it was necessary to search for relevant strata and study their organic remains in more detail. The quest for ancestors of the Cambrian animals thus became a major issue for students of earth history. The first big find was in 1910, when fossils of the Burgess Shale greatly expanded knowledge of animals living in the Middle Cambrian Period. Meyer shows that the discovery amplified the tension between Darwinism and the fossil record because the observed diversity of phyla and classes was not at all what theory predicted. Those familiar with Gould's "Wonderful Life" will already be aware of the mismatch between theoretical predictions and empirical evidence. However, as Darwinism was dominant in 1910, an explanation of the discrepancy was needed that would respond to the challenge of Agassiz. It emerged as the "Artifact hypothesis": the ancestral animals were evolving in deep sea waters away from continental land masses, so that these ancestral forms still awaited discovery.
The next spotlight shone on the fossil record illuminates the multicellular organisms prior to the Cambrian Period. These are known as the Ediacaran fauna, but no one is sure what they are. Despite this, Darwinists have tended to regard these organisms as evidence of a fuse leading to the Cambrian Explosion. However, such ideas cannot be regarded as having scientific weight. This is because the Ediacarans do not have the diagnostic features of animals, there are no linkages which support animal ancestry, gradualism is not in evidence and the timescales are inadequate. Meyer provides a powerful quote from two specialists in the field:
"The expected Darwinian pattern of a deep fossil history of the bilaterans, potentially showing their gradual development, stretching hundreds of millions of years into the Precambrian, has singularly failed to materialise." (page 96)
If fossils are not documenting the story of the origin of animals, are there other clues for researchers to follow? Meyer turns his attention to the way genetic information has been used to map the Precambrian-Cambrian tree of life. Researchers regard sequence similarities as a witness to common ancestry, and sequence differences as evidence that can be used to determine the timescales involved. Such studies usually extend the origins of the animal phyla many hundreds of millions of years, and the emerging phylogenetic trees are used to cast doubt on the idea that the Cambrian diversification was explosive. Meyer argues that there is a methodological problem relating to the interpretation of data. Evidence supporting this claim is provided by the conflicting divergence times. At the root of the problem are questionable assumptions: the constant ticking of molecular clocks, and the descent of all animal forms from a common ancestor.
"Thus, the deep-divergence studies do not, in any rigorous sense, establish any Precambrian ancestral forms. Did a single, original metazoan or bilateran ancestor of the Cambrian animals actually exist? The Precambrian-Cambrian fossil record taken on its face certainly doesn't document such an entity. But neither do deep-divergence studies. Instead, these studies assume the existence of such ancestors, and then merely attempt, given that assumption, to determine how long ago such ancestors might have lived." (page 111)
The concept of "common descent" is so entrenched in evolutionary thought that its advocates find themselves unable to distinguish between theory and evidence. For them, there is no argument - the case for common descent is overwhelming. To address this issue in greater depth, Meyer analyses "The animal tree of life" in Chapter 6. He critiques the way the concept is handled and shows that "common descent" is a dogma imposed on the evidence. The published animal trees all show common descent, but this is "because they all presuppose it, not because they demonstrate it." As an example of the mental block exhibited by evolutionists, consider the case of Larry Moran in his blog: "Darwin's Doubt: The Genes Tell the Story?" (Sandwalk, 6 September 2013). Moran writes as follows:
"There is strong evidence from molecular evolution that the major animal phyla share common ancestors and that these common ancestors predate the Cambrian by millions of years. In other words, there's a "long fuse" of evolution leading up to the Cambrian Explosion. Meyer refers to this as the "deep-divergence" assumption.
There are many versions of these trees. The one shown here is from Erwin et al. (2011). It's the one shown in the book The Cambrian Explosion by Douglas Erwin and James Valentine. It isn't necessarily correct in all details but that's not the point.
The point is that molecular phylogenies demonstrate conclusively that the major groups of animals share common ancestors AND that the overall pattern does not conform to a massive radiation around 530 million years ago."
The last sentence is an example of the conceptual problem identified by Meyer: the illustration used by Moran in his blog does not demonstrate anything conclusively! The Precambrian tree structure is entirely derived from the assumptions adopted by the researchers. Incidentally, Erwin et al. (2011) is referenced on page 461 of Darwin's Doubt, and cited on page 104.
The last chapter of Part 1 is devoted to the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium, whose architects were Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge. Whilst their orientation as palaeontologists allowed them to recognise that stasis is data and that abrupt appearance in the fossil record is ubiquitous, they did not succeed in explaining the Cambrian Explosion (which does not show small-scale diversity preceding large-scale disparity). Nor did they explain the abrupt appearance of complexity - finding themselves appealing to Darwinian mechanisms for building intricate structures. The problem of developing a coherent evolutionary theory that explained the data of the Cambrian Explosion remains.
Meyer summarises Part 1 in this way:
"To this point I've examined one main aspect of the mystery surrounding the Cambrian Explosion: the mystery of the missing Precambrian ancestral forms expected on the basis of Darwin's theory. The next group of chapters will examine a second, and perhaps more profound, aspect of the Cambrian mystery: that of the cause of the Cambrian explosion. By what means or process or mechanism could something as complex as a trilobite have arisen? Could natural selection have accomplished such a feat? To answer this question we will have to look more closely at what it takes to build a new form of animal life. And we'll see that an important part of the answer to that question will have to do with the concept of information." (page 155)
To be continued.
Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design
by Stephen C. Meyer
HarperOne (HarperCollins), New York, 2013. 520 pp. ISBN 9780062071477.
It may come as a surprise to learn that evolutionists have a great deal of work to do to put their house in order. Although the title of Kevin Padian's article refers to common misrepresentation of evolution in textbooks and the media, the abstract makes it clear that many of the problems are "confusingly discussed in the scientific literature" (meaning that professional evolutionists are also at fault). Nevertheless, textbooks are Padian's main target, and we agree with his thesis that changes are long overdue. Nevertheless, the details of the proposed changes need to be considered critically. We cannot discuss in this blog all the issues raised by Padian, but we shall look at some in each of the three sections in his article.
The Cobb County textbook sticker was deemed unconstitutional, but the need for critical appraisal of evolutionary concepts has not gone away. (Source here)
The ideas and language of evolution
What does the word "evolution" mean? There are several meanings, says Padian, and he is correct to argue for greater precision of terms. What he does not say is that demonstrating validity for one meaning of evolution should not be used to validate or reinforce other meanings of the word. As an example, consider this sentence: "science understands that life has evolved through time, and there is no reasonable doubt about this anywhere in the scientific community." When textbooks develop this argument, they use the peppered moth or the Galapagos finches as case studies of evolution. There are changes over time and no one can deny this evidence. There is no controversy here and no one contests the observed variations. Where the problems start is when textbooks treat this evidence as validating Darwin's thesis of common descent by natural selection acting on varying traits. Padian does not even acknowledge that this problem exists.
Take another example: evolution is "a change in gene frequency in a population". This definition also is uncontroversial and is not contested. Yet how many times is it used to stand as evidence for the evolution of all life's diversity from the first living cell? Padian overlooks this abuse of the word "evolution" and contents himself with the words: "This simple (or simplistic) definition gets to one level of the processes of evolution (yet it misses many processes from speciation to what causes changes in gene frequencies in populations)." Yes, it is simplistic - but that is not the real problem.
Padian reflects approvingly on Darwin's definition of evolution as "descent with modification". He claims: "It is as useful on a short timescale as on a long one; it suggests minor evolutionary modifications as well as major ones." But this claim IS controversial! Of course, Darwin thought that evidence for minor evolutionary modifications over short timescales (which are observed) is also evidence for major evolutionary transformations over long timescales (which are not observed nor are they documented in the fossil record). This is the issue that is urgently in need of clarification - but which Padian covers over. He refers to pre-Darwinian concepts and to a century of debate about what controls morphology and asserts (wrongly) that Darwin's approach settled this debate:
"Darwin brushed away this conflict in a single paragraph by showing that common descent could explain the common body plans of related organisms, and that natural selection could explain their adaptive differences as they were modified to fit the conditions of existence." (page 2)
Historical and philosophical aspects of evolution
Padian points out that the architects of the Modern Synthesis (Neo-Darwinism) made much of "slow and insensibly small changes". However, Darwin's use of the word "gradual" was closer to the root meaning of "step" (from the Latin gradus or step). Padian goes on to suggest that Darwin would have seen "little difference between the evolutionary tempos of classic Mayrian 'gradualism' and 'punctuated equilibria'." It is surprising to see these arguments being presented again - they were (apparently) fully explored before Gould's untimely death. The issues go much deeper than a consideration of the question: how large can a step be? In particular, the evidence for stasis needs to be considered. Darwin's branching model of descent with modification did not anticipate stasis, nor does the fossil record provide a good fit with any form of Darwinian gradualism. Padian's approach appears to rob students of some interesting discussions.
Padian advises educators to use care in characterising the religious beliefs of historical figures. These people may have championed ideas that are out of favour today, but they do not fit into the predetermined profiles devised by popularisers of science. In the main, historians of science have recognised that these scholars deserve a more rigorous analysis and Padian draws attention to some relevant literature. What would have been helpful would be to give the same advice about the religious beliefs of contemporary influential thinkers who question evolutionary theory. Popularisers have a highly polarised view of dissenting scientists. What appears to matter to them is whether they can be labelled as mainstream evolutionists or creationists (of any kind). This means they rarely engage with rational arguments and they end up contending with strawman adversaries.
The article promotes the NOMA principle advocated by Gould. This requires a strict separation of "science" and "religion". It leads to statements such as the following:
"All science is non-theistic, by which is meant that it does not entail or require any concept of a god or other supernatural being or force. In fact, science is completely independent of any ideas about gods or other supernatural beliefs. But science is not anti-theistic: it does not deny such beings or forces, any more than it accepts them (or leprechauns or unicorns), because these things are not within the purview of science."
There are numerous problems with this approach: historical, philosophical and theological. The NOMA principle turns a blind eye to the scientific revolution of the 17th Century, when all the leaders of science were theists whose science was an expression of their Christian calling. The autonomy of science came with the 18th Century Enlightenment - which is when Padian seeks to ground the roots of science. By contrast, many Christians today do not regard the Enlightenment as a positive intellectual movement. In stressing the autonomy of reason, Enlightenment scholars drove a wedge between Christianity and science. This led to the mechanical view of man, and ultimately spawned a plethora of non-rational ideologies that were driven by the search for meaning and purpose in a mechanistic universe. These issues are with us today. Students should be exposed to the alternative view that all science is theistic. The axioms of theism that are relevant to science, and which were important for triggering the scientific revolution, are: nature is real; nature is good; nature is created; creation is rational; creation exhibits "laws"; creation is designed. These axioms have their roots in the Bible, but cannot be derived using reason alone. The Enlightenment scholars took the axioms they liked and built on them. However, reason alone does not provide these foundations.
Natural selection and related concepts
There have always been concerns that natural selection is perceived as a force that moulds organisms, as in the phrase: "Natural selection would favor the acquisition of such-and-such a feature". It has often been pointed out by both evolutionists and dissenters, that this leads directly to Darwinian story-telling rather than science. Padian has helpful things to say here:
"This phraseology suggests a naive faith in the optimality of evolutionary processes, and some omniscience on the part of the author, in continuing to personify natural selection as if it were a conscious being. Of course, scientists do not really think these things (do we?); we just write as if we do. Natural selection is a description of a process, not an actor; we recognize it as a post hoc outcome of the struggle for existence."
"Remembering the previous point, it is more accurate to say that in the struggle for existence, some individuals are weeded out before they can reproduce. This process is not creative, any more than a lawnmower is creative with your backyard grass." (page 9)
This interaction with Padian's article has had to be selective, and there are many other issues worthy of discussion. Padian's desire to see evolutionary theory taught well is commendable, and he puts his finger on a number of relevant topics. However, in many cases, Padian does not succeed in counteracting the misrepresentation because he replaces one form of misrepresentation with another.
Correcting some common misrepresentations of evolution in textbooks and the media
Evolution: Education and Outreach, 25 June 2013, 6:11 | doi:10.1186/1936-6434-6-11
Abstract: Topics related to evolution tend to generate a disproportionate amount of misunderstanding in traditional textbooks, other educational materials, and the media. This is not necessarily the fault of textbook and popular writers: many of these concepts are confusingly discussed in the scientific literature. However, faults can be corrected, and doing so makes it easier to explain related concepts. Three general areas are treated here: ideas and language about evolution, historical and philosophical aspects of evolution, and natural selection and related concepts. The aim of this paper is to produce a template for a more logical, historically and scientifically correct treatment of evolutionary terms and concepts.
Ever since Darwin, there has been a tension between the theory of biological transformation (stochastic tinkering) and the concept of progress. Two Italian biologists have scanned 67,413 scientific articles published between 2005 and 2010 in 16 top science journals. They were looking for examples of progressionist, pre-evolutionary language because they suspected that evolutionary biology has retained some cultural baggage implying a direction to evolutionary transformation. According to their thinking, the Great Chain of Being concept, historically known as the scala naturae, has a persistent unacknowledged influence over the minds of many in the research community. This concept assigns a place to every entity in the natural world, whether animate or inanimate, "from the lowest steps of the ladder occupied by fire, air and water, up to the highest steps hosting monkeys, apes and humans".
"Despite the explosion of tree-like diagrams in the recent biological literature, evolution is indeed often perceived as a linear, progressive process rather than as a story of unceasing branching and diversification ultimately resulting in a tree. This misleading progressionism is scientifically undefensible (e.g., Dawkins 1992; O'Hara 1992, 1997; Gould 1994, 1996; Nee 2005; Gregory 2008; Omland et al. 2008; Casane and Laurenti 2013)."
1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana. (Source here)
The concept appears to be rooted in philosophies developed by Aristotle and Plato, picked up and repackaged by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century, and developed by other natural philosophers as a way of making sense of the extraordinary diversity in the world. After Darwin, many tried to link evolutionary theory with the Great Chain of Being. This is seen in the way evolutionary trees were presented (as linear pathways rather than structureless bushes); in portraying organisms as "higher" and "lower" in the evolutionary spectrum; in the free use of the term "missing link"; and representing a trend to complexity as something inherently significant. Social Darwinists developed the concept in terms of cultural progress, with innately fit groups of humans possessing superior attitudes and modes of behaviour.
"From an educational perspective, Werth (2012) has recently remarked that students referring to "higher" and "lower" life forms retain an Aristotelian view of the great chain of being, a wrong view of evolution to be corrected by training them in the theory and practice of cladistics. Correct reading of the tree of life is indeed less common than we should expect. Besides the persistence of the progressionist language ('lower' vs. 'higher') discussed below, based on data extracted by the recent literature, let us briefly consider the widespread use of 'basal', as applied (illegitimately) to a branch of the tree of life, or to a terminal taxon, rather than (legitimately, in a comparative context) to a node. Krell and Cranston (2004) have forcefully argued that this use, simply, does not make sense, as both branches originating from a node are of equal age and (in some sense at least) have undergone equivalent evolutionary change. Parallel to what we argue in this paper of labeling taxa as 'lower' or 'higher', "Considering clades or taxa as 'basal' is not only sloppy wording, but shows misunderstanding of the tree and may have severe semantic and argumentative implications" (Krell and Cranston 2004, p. 280). In front of a rooted cladogram, many authors ask: "Which of the species is the oldest? Which is youngest? Which is most ancestral? Most derived? Most primitive? Most advanced? Most simple? Most complex? The answer is that a phylogeny provides no information about any of these questions! While this answer may seem inconvenient to researchers looking to phylogenies to provide that information, these are the incorrect questions to be asking" (Omland et al. 2008, p. 856)."
Since the scholarly papers were selected based on their being described as biological, it can be expected that most of them are concerned with empirical science rather than providing evolutionary perspectives. Nevertheless, the two authors found 1,287 papers that used scala naturae language in a way that gave them cause for concern.
"Articles with scala naturae language were particularly frequent in Molecular Biology and Evolution (6.14%), BioEssays (5.6%) and Annual Review of Ecology Evolution and Systematics (4.82%). The fact that two of these three journals are in an area of evolutionary biology shows that the use of pre-evolutionary language can survive even in the most renowned professional journals."
There is a dearth of analytical discussion in this paper. A possible role of Lysenkoism is considered to have influenced Russian authors, although the cognitive connections are not clarified. Progressivism may be more "entrenched" in Western cultures, but the lower percentages from Indian, Korean and Turkish authors do not lead to a discussion of how cultural factors might explain the data. The conclusion is this: "the great chain of being is still with us, 153 years after Darwin (1859) published The Origin of Species". The justification for announcing the findings in this way is that an "appreciation of the extent to which progressionist language survives in scientific papers is the first, necessary step towards its eradication." The route to eradication is said to be "a robust training in tree thinking".
There has been a long tradition of saying 'more education needed' to sort out unwanted cultural legacies. However, the track record of those who follow this tradition is not good. Somehow, the perceived problems do not go away. In this case, there is a need to probe a bit deeper and analyse the worldviews associated with progressivist thinking. This is particularly important as the authors are all educated to higher degree level and represent the cream of the evolutionary biology community. With this problem, we are not talking about student term papers, but research articles in high-impact journals!
The theme of progress in the minds of the intelligentsia has been tackled by Professor John Gray in several books, the most recent being The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013). An insightful review of Gray's contribution is by Robert W. Merry in The National Interest. Gray traces the concept of progress partly to Socrates and much more to Christian thinking about redemption.
"But the modern world retained a powerful philosophical outlook from the classical world - the Socratic faith in reason, the idea that truth will make us free; or, as Gray puts it, the "myth that human beings can use their minds to lift themselves out of the natural world."
[. . .]
"But the power of the progress idea stems in part from the fact that it derives from a fundamental Christian doctrine - the idea of providence, of redemption. Gray notes in The Silence of Animals that no other civilization conceived any such phenomenon as the end of time, a concept given to the world by Jesus and St. Paul. Classical thinking, as well as the thinking of the ancient Egyptians and later of Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Shintoism and early Judaism, saw humanity as reflecting the rest of the natural world - essentially unchanging but subject to cycles of improvement and deterioration, rather like the seasons."
With the waning of these influences (we now live in a post-Christian culture), intellectuals have sought to retain the concept of progress by associating it with various good causes such as education, evolution, capitalism and empire building. The problem they encounter, however, is that they have no rationale for their substitute for redemption. By abandoning the sovereign God who is working out his purposes in history, the concept of progress becomes an exercise in wishful thinking.
"[T]he idea of progress is merely a secular religion, and not a particularly meaningful one at that. "Today," writes Gray in Straw Dogs, "liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world's religions.""
The Social Darwinists warmed to progressivist thinking and explored ways of predicting and engineering the evolution of humanity. The Eugenics Movement has had a field day. But the progressivist leanings of liberal humanism affects all aspects of their thinking - and this is why there is a link with the Great Chain of Being concept. Whilst these cultural trends explain the data gathered by Rigato and Minelli, there are concerns about developments within liberal humanism. We have the emergence of visionary thinkers, who are crusaders for their progressivist goals. They wage a war on any who stand in their way and are not interested in dialogue - only in conquest.
"After centuries of intellectual effort aimed at developing the idea of progress as an ongoing chain of improvement with no perceived end into the future, this new breed of "Progress as Power" thinkers began to declare their own visions as the final end point of this long progression. Gray calls these intellectuals "ichthyophils," which he defines as "devoted to their species as they think it ought to be, not as it actually is or as it truly wants to be." He elaborates: "Ichthyophils come in many varieties - the Jacobin, Bolshevik and Maoist, terrorizing humankind in order to remake it on a new model; the neo-conservative, waging perpetual war as a means to universal democracy; liberal crusaders for human rights, who are convinced that all the world longs to become as they imagine themselves to be." He includes also "the Romantics, who believe human individuality is everywhere repressed.""
Liberal humanists have achieved leadership in the world of science, and have succeeded in making their vision of the future dominant in the media. We are seeing also the politicisation of science, not only in areas like global warming, transhumanism and GMO technologies, but also in educational policy. These visionaries make it clear that if we do not follow their advice, the world is doomed to experience unimaginable disasters. The main concern in this blog is the integrity of science and the protection of education from ideological straitjackets. In both cases, dangers are with us from secular humanists promoting their agendas in the name of science. We need freedom within science to discuss these issues and we need freedom in education to recognise cultural issues within science and to follow evidence wherever it leads - even if that takes us beyond the naturalism of the humanists.
The great chain of being is still here
Emanuele Rigato and Alessandro Minelli
Evolution: Education and Outreach, 28 June 2013, 6:18 doi:10.1186/1936-6434-6-18
Abstract. Background: Professional papers in evolutionary biology continue to host expressions in agreement with the pre-evolutionary metaphor of the scala naturae (the great chain of being), when contrasting 'lower' to 'higher' representatives of a given branch of the tree of life. How pervasive is the persistence of progressionist, pre-evolutionary language in contemporary papers?
Results: We document here the prevalence of this unexpected linguistic survival in papers published between 2005 and 2010 by 16 top scientific journals, including generalist magazines and specialist journals in evolutionary biology. Out of a total of 67,413 papers, the unexpectedly high figure of 1,287 (1.91%) returned positive hits from our search for scala naturae language.
Conclusions: A quantitative appreciation of the survival of progressionist language in scientific papers is the first step towards its eradication. This will obtain by improving skills in tree thinking as well as by more careful editorial policy.
Merry, R.W. The Fallacy of Human Freedom, The National Interest | July-August 2013
A characteristic of reports about human ancestors has been the hailing of a particular fossil species as a critical link in the evolutionary chain. Invariably, this gets plenty of media publicity. With the passing of time, the discoveries do not seem so dramatic and the puzzles and challenges appear unresolved. We are currently witnessing this pattern of discourse in relation to Australopithecus sediba, known from two specimens recovered in 2008 from the Malapa Cave site in South Africa and published in 2010. The most recent analyses appeared in Science in April 2013, and some have suggested "that A. sediba may just be the most important hominin (modern humans and their extinct relatives) discovery yet." The New Scientist report commenced thus:
"Our closest non-human ancestor lived in South Africa. That's the conclusion of a battery of studies carried out on two strange skeletons discovered near Johannesburg in 2008. They represent a likely stepping stone between the ape-like australopiths and the first members of our own genus."
Fossil elements of the two partial skeletons of Australopithecus sediba. The grey shadows represent skeletons of A. africanus, adjusted for different body proportions. (Credit: Science/AAAS. Source here)
It is customary for the discoverer and co-workers to present the strongest arguments they can find to attract interest in their research. In this case, the thesis is that A. sediba is a "mosaic of ancient australopith and modern Homo features" and that this makes it convincing as a transitional form. An independent assessment of the findings has been made by William Kimbel in Nature. He is not convinced.
"[The two skeletons] have been the focus of scrutiny because of both their excellent preservation and claims that this hominin - a species more closely related to humans than to chimpanzees - lies at the base of the Homo lineage. A series of reports published in Science sheds light on the morphology of A. sediba but, in my view, does little to elucidate its role in later human evolution." (p.573)
First, Kimbel looks at dental morphology. He finds methodology problems that raise serious questions about the conclusions drawn.
"The researchers take] the unconventional step of using only the Arizona State University Dental Anthropology System - a graded series of minor crown variants originally devised to distinguish recent human populations from one another - to decipher relationships between hominin species that are millions of years old. I have serious doubts about the phylogenetic meaning of morphological similarity in this case. These concerns are compounded by the authors' reliance on the gorilla as the sole outgroup in their cladistic analysis." (p.573)
Second, analysis of the mandible suggests that insufficient attention has been given to the samples comprising a sub-adult (with only its second molar erupted) and a presumed adult female.
Third, the upper and lower limb dimensions show many ape-like affinities and suggest arboreal climbing behavior. The New Scientist report refers to this as an "unusual feature of A. sediba: its arms and legs show it was far more comfortable swinging in the trees than most australopiths."
Fourth, the rib cage and vertebral column was claimed to be Homo-like. Kimbel raises questions about what is primitive and what derived and suggests that there is nothing in the fossil material that can be regarded as unexpected.
Finally, the issue of gait is considered. Ann Gibbons drew attention to sediba's unusual way of walking in an article for Science:
"If you happened to be in South Africa about 2 million years ago, you might have seen an odd sight: an older female hominin sashaying down a wooded slope, perhaps in search of water. She walked upright, but she wasn't human, and she moved with what to our eyes would have looked like a distinctly strange gait. She was a member of Australopithecus sediba, and [. . .] she may have twisted from side to side, rolling her feet inward with each step. "Sediba's got swag," says paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. (p.132)
Kimbel is not impressed. He describes the research conclusions as controversial.
"The proposed 'hyperpronation' of the foot and extreme inward rotation of the leg and thigh suggest an ungainly bipedal stride that might have made it into Monty Python's 'Ministry of Silly Walks' sketch. The presumed inversion of the foot at the heel-strike of the surprisingly ape-like calcaneus, combined with a vertical shank (tibia), outwardly angled thigh (femur) and a long, lordotic lower back - all hallmarks of terrestrial bipedality in Australopithecus and Homo species - constrains the reconstruction. Prominent osteophytic growths on the pelvis and fibula at the attachment sites of the thigh musculature raise the possibility of a gait that was pathologically impaired, but DeSilva and colleagues argue that this locomotor pattern was adaptive. However, if A. sediba was a descendant of A. africanus, which, similarly to the even older A. afarensis (dating to between 3.7 million and 3.0 million years ago), shows no trace of this pattern, then it is hard to imagine the selective advantage that would accrue from such a kinematically peculiar gait." (p.574)
The general conclusion from Kimbel is that the grounds for claiming A. sediba to be a transitional fossil in the human lineage are weak. The research tells us more about the Australopithecenes, but little more.
"Given the mix of features seen in A. sediba, it is difficult to understand why these researchers insist that it lies at the base of the Homo lineage. Similar intellectual gymnastics are required to comprehend the authors' argument that no African Homo fossils exist from before the time of A. sediba. Although the recent papers constitute a fascinating further analysis of the A. sediba fossils, I do not think that they provide compelling evidence that this species is anything other than an unusual australopith from a Pliocene-Pleistocene time period that is already populated by a fair number of them." (p.574)
Hesitation on hominin history
William H. Kimbel
Nature, 497, 573-574 (30 May 2013) | doi:10.1038/497573a
Extensive studies of fossil skeletons of Australopithecus sediba provide fascinating details of the anatomy of this hominin species, but do not convincingly indicate its position on the evolutionary route to modern humans.
Insect eyes may be tiny but they belong to a "remarkably sophisticated class of imaging systems". They have compound eyes, made up of hundreds or thousands of optical units or facets. Considered as optical systems, these facets are simpler than the vertebrate eye design because there are no moving parts to focus the light.
"In the case of the 'apposition' eye of daylight insects, each facet is optically isolated from its neighbour and equipped with its own lens and set of photoreceptors. Because each facet accepts photons from only a small angle in space, the light sensitivity of apposition eyes is rather low and the spatial resolution is limited by the number of facets that can be packed on to the small head of the insect. However, apposition eyes provide their bearer with a panoramic view of the world as well as with an infinite depth of field, without the need to adjust the focal length of the individual lenses." (Borst & Plett, 2013, 47)
The hemispherical digital camera with nearly 200 tiny lenses (Credit: John A. Rogers, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Source here)
In addition to the wide field of view and the infinite depth of field, compound eyes have low aberrations and high acuity to motion. This latter characteristic is very desirable for flying insects and for micro aerial vehicles (MAVs). Thus far, most MAVs have been fitted with fisheye lenses that provide a wide-angle field of view. However, the information gathered has limitations for calculating the special movement that is required to facilitate motion stabilisation alongside navigation.
"With regard to potential applications, the camera proposed by Song et al. might constitute an optimal front-end visual sensor for tiny aircraft called micro aerial vehicles (MAVs). [. . .] Song and colleagues' camera would provide all the advantages of an apposition eye. Using it to compute a MAV's self-motion could on the one hand facilitate motion stabilization in space while on the other enabling spatial navigation." (Borst & Plett, 2013, 48)
Several research groups have taken up the challenge of developing "compound" cameras that mimic a hemispherical arthropod eye. Precision engineering with dimensions measured in micrometres must be combined with recently devised electronic technologies to achieve the goal. The research paper describes the use of elastomeric compound optical elements, deformable arrays of thin-film silicon photodetectors, and the means by which the necessary alignments can be achieved.
"Here we present a complete set of materials, design layouts and integration schemes for digital cameras that mimic hemispherical apposition compound eyes found in biology. Certain of the concepts extend recent advances in stretchable electronics and hemispherical photodetector arrays, in overall strategies that provide previously unachievable options in design. Systematic experimental and theoretical studies of the mechanical and optical properties of working devices reveal the essential aspects of fabrication and operation." (Song et al., 2013, 95).
By adopting the strategy of biomimicry, the distinctive characteristics of compound eyes are clarified.
"The arthropod eye offers resolution determined by the numbers of ommatidia, and is typically modest compared, for example, to mammalian eyes. Two other attributes, however, provide powerful modes of perception. First, the hemispherical apposition design enables exceptionally wide-angle fields of view, without off-axis aberrations. [. . .] The second attribute is the nearly infinite depth of field that results from the short focal length of each microlens and the nature of image formation. In particular, as an object moves away from the camera, the size of the image decreases but remains in focus. A consequence is that the camera can accurately and simultaneously render pictures of multiple objects in a field of view, even at widely different angular positions and distances. [. . .] Even though movement of the object away from the camera changes its size in the corresponding image, the focus is maintained. Objects with the same angular size that are located at different distances produce images with the same size, all of which is consistent with modelling." (Song et al., 2013, 97-98).
We should note that arthropod eye designs do not conform to the cobbled-together architecture that is associated with evolutionary tinkering. The driver for biomimetics research is the recognition of exquisite design that extends and inspires human creativity. Exquisite design is the hallmark of an intelligent agent. For more on this point, go here.
Recent discoveries of fossilised compound eyes of the Middle Cambrian predator Anomalocaris, and of an Early Cambrian arthropod, have documented clear examples of modernity in some of the earliest known arthropods. These exquisite fossil eyes provide evidence of abrupt appearance in the fossil record. There is no 'audit trail' here to support blind, tinkering, evolutionary transformation. Thus, biomimetic research and the fossil record provide complementary sources of evidence for intelligent design.
Digital cameras with designs inspired by the arthropod eye
Young Min Song, Yizhu Xie, Viktor Malyarchuk, Jianliang Xiao, Inhwa Jung, Ki-Joong Choi, Zhuangjian Liu, Hyunsung Park, Chaofeng Lu, Rak-Hwan Kim, Rui Li, Kenneth B. Crozier, Yonggang Huang & John A. Rogers
Nature, 497, 95-99 (02 May 2013) | doi:10.1038/nature12083
In arthropods, evolution has created a remarkably sophisticated class of imaging systems, with a wide-angle field of view, low aberrations, high acuity to motion and an infinite depth of field. A challenge in building digital cameras with the hemispherical, compound apposition layouts of arthropod eyes is that essential design requirements cannot be met with existing planar sensor technologies or conventional optics. Here we present materials, mechanics and integration schemes that afford scalable pathways to working, arthropod-inspired cameras with nearly full hemispherical shapes (about 160 degrees). Their surfaces are densely populated by imaging elements (artificial ommatidia), which are comparable in number (180) to those of the eyes of fire ants (Solenopsis fugax) and bark beetles (Hylastes nigrinus). The devices combine elastomeric compound optical elements with deformable arrays of thin silicon photodetectors into integrated sheets that can be elastically transformed from the planar geometries in which they are fabricated to hemispherical shapes for integration into apposition cameras. Our imaging results and quantitative ray-tracing-based simulations illustrate key features of operation. These general strategies seem to be applicable to other compound eye devices, such as those inspired by moths and lacewings (refracting superposition eyes), lobster and shrimp (reflecting superposition eyes), and houseflies (neural superposition eyes).
Borst, A. & Plett, J., Seeing the world through an insect's eyes, Nature, 497, 47-48 (02 May 2013) | doi:10.1038/497047a
Beciri, D., Arthropod eye design inspires novel digital cameras, rob-aid, (2 May 2013)
In February 2012, The Journal of Medical Ethics prepublished electronically an article by two academics from an Australian Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. Their paper had the title: "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" It developed arguments that many considered to legitimise infanticide for handicapped children. A vigorous debate ensued, with strong criticisms of the paper and its authors. The journal was also criticized for giving a platform to such views, which appeared to add so little to previous cases of advocacy of infanticide. Its editor, Julian Savulescu, contributed this on 28 February 2012:
"As Editor of the Journal, I would like to defend its publication. The arguments presented, in fact, are largely not new and have been presented repeatedly in the academic literature and public fora by the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world, including Peter Singer, Michael Tooley and John Harris in defence of infanticide, which the authors call after-birth abortion. The novel contribution of this paper is not an argument in favour of infanticide - the paper repeats the arguments made famous by Tooley and Singer - but rather their application in consideration of maternal and family interests. The paper also draws attention to the fact that infanticide is practised in the Netherlands."
Consequently, on 2 March 2012, an "open letter" was produced by the authors that was intended to dampen down the flames:
"the article was supposed to be read by other fellow bioethicists who were already familiar with this topic and our arguments. [. . .] We started from the definition of person introduced by Michael Tooley in 1975 and we tried to draw the logical conclusions deriving from this premise. It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y. We expected that other bioethicists would challenge either the premise or the logical pattern we followed, because this is what happens in academic debates. [. . .] However, we never meant to suggest that after-birth abortion should become legal. This was not made clear enough in the paper. Laws are not just about rational ethical arguments, because there are many practical, emotional, social aspects that are relevant in policy making (such as respecting the plurality of ethical views, people's emotional reactions etc). But we are not policy makers, we are philosophers, and we deal with concepts, not with legal policy."
Moving to the present, the article has now been formally published in an issue of the journal wholly devoted to the debate. Papers are included that present different views on the issues. Professor Udo Schuklenk authored a paper on academic freedom, from the perspective of one who is also an editor of a bioethics journal. In this paper, he expresses concerns about the flak that "academic bioethicists and academic bioethics journals are subjected to by political activists applying pressure from outside of the academy." He identifies two activists that he considers to be abusing academic freedom. The first is Wesley J. Smith, who writes the Human Exceptionalism Blog. The second is Michael Cook, editor of BioEdge. The main complaint appears to be that they are reading articles in academic journals but critiquing them in the public square. Defences of this practice have been made, along with corrections of misinformation, by Wesley J. Smith and by Michael Cook. However, there is also a criticism of the two authors of the controversial academic paper. He does not like their attempt to distinguish a philosophical argument from public policy:
"It is reasonable to demand that those who suggest that this is a purely academic exercise ask themselves why they came up with very practical conclusionsÃ¢â‚¬â€that now somehow they don't mean us (and their many critics) to take very seriously. [. . .] Still, bioethics analyses offering practical conclusions are not theoretical games. Michael Tooley and Peter Singer who have defended similar views for decades can undoubtedly tell many a story about harsh criticism and threats to their persons, but until today - to the best of my knowledge - they have not declared their views a mere thought experiment, undertaken for the sake of it, not really meant to be taken seriously, etc. They do take responsibility for views they hold, and they are right in doing so. Respect for free speech has a flipside, requiring of us to take responsibility for the views that we defend. On what other grounds could we expect our views to be taken seriously. What kind of debate could we reasonably have with discussants who - when cornered - will say 'I didn't really mean it'?" (page 305)
There is therefore some common ground here: it is entirely reasonable to infer that ethical stances lead directly to policy implications. This connection would appear to be clearly implied in the workplace of the two authors: the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. However, there are divergences of view over the issue of academic freedom.
"When all is said and done, this is an academic freedom issue. It has to do with ensuring both that we are able to ask difficult questions, and that we are able to defend conclusions that most people will disagree with. For what it is worth, the infanticide debate is not even a paradigmatic example of the culture wars between the religious and the secularists. Secular bioethicists such as the late Mary Anne Warren have been highly critical of the utilitarian rationale offered in this context. To her birth is a crucial marker event conferring moral standing to the newborn. Academics have always challenged assumptions taken for granted by the mainstream." (pages 305-306)
Academic freedom and academic responsibility go together. We do not have freedom to ignore views that we think are taboo. Anyone discussing issues of abortion and infanticide should take seriously reasons why people affirm the sanctity of life. This requires grappling with issues like mankind being made in the image of God. It is not a case of expecting ethicists to agree with these views, but they need to understand the arguments and engage with them. If they are expunged from academic discourse because these views are "religious", then the result is an imposition on the scope of discussion. This is a denial of academic freedom on upholders of the sanctity of human life who are not allowed to bring such arguments into their academic work. However, the words "sanctity" and "image" are lacking in these papers.
The root problem is that academic ethicists have absorbed a secularised worldview. Over a decade ago, Wesley J. Smith described it in this way:
"Mainstream bioethics reached a consensus long ago that religious values are divisive in a pluralistic society and thus have little place in the formulation of public policy. Those who believe in abortion rights but also hold that all born humans are equally endowed with moral worth, along with those who subscribe to the "do no harm" ethos of the Hippocratic oath, have little impact, since mainstream bioethics rejects Hippocratic medicine as paternalistic and shrugs off equal human moral worth as a relic of the West's religious past."
In this academic ethicists have adopted the philosophical naturalism of academia in general. This turns science into scientism and humans into molecular machines. Everything about humanity has to be portrayed through the reductionist filter of scientism. Our consciousness, our values and our sense of free agency must all be 'explained' via material causation. This straitjacket is illustrated in a recent article (in the Wall Street Journal)on the views of Dr Leon Kass, who has often found himself in a minority among bioethicists when it comes to abortion, euthanasia, embryonic research, cloning and other right-to-life questions.
"Take the concept of human dignity. In a 2008 essay highly critical of Dr. Kass's work on the Bush bioethics council, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker questioned the value of dignity as a moral guide. "Dignity is a phenomenon of human perception," Mr. Pinker wrote. "Certain signals in the world trigger an attribution in the perceiver." The perception of human dignity, Mr. Pinker went on, is no different from how "converging lines in a drawing are a cue for the perception of depth." That such an outlook is both blinkered and dangerous, Dr. Kass thinks, should be obvious to anyone who has ever been in love or felt other great emotions. "There's no doubt that the human experience of love," he says, is mirrored by "events that are measurable in the brain. But anybody who has ever fallen in love knows that love is not just an elevated level of some peptide in the hypothalamus.""
Academics adopting the secular materialist worldview will always find themselves demolishing traditional values. They have failed to develop any ethical principles based on secular materialist foundations and they end up as pragmatists, postmodernists or social constructivists. Their conclusions about infanticide are entirely predictable. What is controversial is not that they say such things, but that they are so hostile to philosophical theism appearing in the pages of their academic journals. This is the crunch issue for academic freedom that has yet to be recognised.
After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?
Alberto Giubilini, Francesca Minerva
Journal of Medical Ethics, 2013; 39(5), 261-263 | doi:10.1136/medethics-2011-100411
Abstract: Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call 'after-birth abortion' (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
In defence of academic freedom: bioethics journals under siege
Journal of Medical Ethics, May 2013, 39(5), 303-306 | doi:10.1136/medethics-2012-100801
Abstract: This article analyses, from a bioethics journal editor's perspective, the threats to academic freedom and freedom of expression that academic bioethicists and academic bioethics journals are subjected to by political activists applying pressure from outside of the academy. I defend bioethicists' academic freedom to reach and defend conclusions many find offensive and 'wrong'. However, I also support the view that academics arguing controversial matters such as, for instance, the moral legitimacy of infanticide should take clear responsibility for the views they defend and should not try to hide behind analytical philosophers' rationales such as wanting to test an argument for the sake of testing an argument. This article proposes that bioethics journals establish higher-quality requirements and more stringent mechanisms of peer review than usual for iconoclastic articles.
Klinghoffer, D. What Darwin's Enforcers Will Say About Darwin's Doubt: A Prediction (Evolution News & Views, 8 May 2013)
Sixty years have passed since Watson and Crick unveiled the structure of the DNA double helix and tentatively explained how it encodes hereditary information. The Central Dogma of genetics soon followed: that "DNA makes RNA makes protein" makes cells and organisms. Once this "River out of Eden" was flowing, the story of life was deemed to be essentially understood. Genes were considered to provide the blueprint of life and the task of filling in the details had begun. The blueprint motif was prominent in media coverage of the Human Genome project - any who questioned its veracity were regarded as subverting science. But is the consensus position robust? At least one commentator (Philip Ball in Nature) is prepared to say that it is misleading.
"But I can tell that the usual tidy tale of how 'DNA makes RNA makes protein' is sanitized to the point of distortion. Instead of occasional, muted confessions from genomics boosters and popularizers of evolution that the story has turned out to be a little more complex, there should be a bolder admission - indeed a celebration - of the known unknowns." (page 419)
In 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson described the double helix structure of DNA. (source here)
Numerous discoveries have been "unsettling old assumptions". First, the ENCODE project has put the spotlight on regulation rather than transcription. Not only are genes transcribed (about 1% of the human genome) but so also is at least 80% of the human genome. Numerous regulatory roles have been determined for many of these RNA transcripts, and every week brings more examples of functionality to our attention. Not only do these findings challenge "the old idea that much of the genome is junk", they also show us that we are only beginning to understand the genome's role in the cell.
"According to evolutionary biologist Patrick Phillips at the University of Oregon in Eugene, projects such as ENCODE are showing scientists that they don't really understand how genotypes map to phenotypes, or how exactly evolutionary forces shape any given genome." (page 420)
Second, the field of epigenetics has introduced previously unsuspected constraints, whereby environmental factors influence the phenotype without affecting the genotype.
"For example, epigenetic molecular alterations to DNA, such as the addition of a methyl group, can affect the activity of genes without altering their nucleotide sequences." (page 420)
Third, positional information is not revealed by the documenting of amino acid sequences within the DNS molecule, but this information, when recognised, is significant for development.
"Genes can also be regulated by the spatial organization of the chromosomes, in turn affected by epigenetic markers. Although such effects have long been known, their prevalence may be much greater than previously thought." (page 420)
And there are more evidences to throw into the melting pot. Ball refers to the way gene networks are structured: the genes are the same, but differences in organisation of these networks can result in differences in phenotype. Similarly, changes in regulation could be more significant than changes in the genes themselves. There are big questions about the role of natural selection at the molecular level and it is by no means agreed that natural selection is the dominant driver.
"In short, the current picture of how and where evolution operates, and how this shapes genomes, is something of a mess. That should not be a criticism, but rather a vote of confidence in the healthy, dynamic state of molecular and evolutionary biology." (page 420)
Whilst saying this is not a criticism, there are nevertheless aspects of these developments that should be criticised. Notably, it is necessary to vigorously critique the evolutionary consensus that dominates education and the media. Take education first - and recall how vigorously evolutionists have opposed all attempts to introduce critical, evidence-based thinking about evolutionary theory. They have portrayed this as religiously motivated anti-science lobbying, and have ensured that the consensus positions have prevailed. In this they have betrayed a whole generation of biology students.
"A student referring to textbook discussions of genetics and evolution could be forgiven for thinking that the 'central dogma' devised by Crick and others in the 1960s - in which information flows in a linear, traceable fashion from DNA sequence to messenger RNA to protein, to manifest finally as phenotype - remains the solid foundation of the genomic revolution. In fact, it is beginning to look more like a casualty of it." (page 419)
Furthermore, it is a scandal that the whole spectrum of contemporary thinking in genetics is largely hidden from the broader scientific community. The media provides a welcoming stage for celebrity scientists to pronounce on their outdated views, but dissenters find it hard to present on a science platform. When reading the following quotation, it is worth noting that Prospect magazine has honoured Richard Dawkins as the "world's top thinker" as a result of a recent poll of its readers.
"Barely a whisper of this vibrant debate reaches the public. Take evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins' description in Prospect magazine last year of the gene as a replicator with "its own unique status as a unit of Darwinian selection". It conjures up the decades-old picture of a little, autonomous stretch of DNA intent on getting itself copied, with no hint that selection operates at all levels of the biological hierarchy, including at the supraorganismal level, or that the very idea of 'gene' has become problematic." (page 420)
Philip Ball does suggest some reasons why there has been a reluctance to acknowledge biological complexity. Whilst not disputing the various points he makes, the analysis is not deep enough. The closest he gets is in the last paragraph:
"When the structure of DNA was first deduced, it seemed to supply the final part of a beautiful puzzle, the solution for which began with Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. The simplicity of that picture has proved too alluring." (page 420)
It is not just that simplicity is too alluring; it is that the worldview of the scientists demands simplicity. They are predisposed to look for simplicity and they fall into a trap of confirmation bias. It happened in Darwin's day, when the cell was conceived as a simple building block, and organisms were portrayed as assemblages with varying degrees of complexity (see here). This worldview derives from Deism or Atheism, where everything has to assemble itself: from the cosmos to organisms. The only way that people can imagine this happening is incrementally, deriving complexity from simple building blocks. This is Richard Dawkins explaining the point.
"Darwinian evolution is the only process we know that is ultimately capable of generating anything as complicated as creative intelligences. Once it has done so, of course, those intelligences can create other complex things: works of art and music, advanced technology, computers, the Internet and who knows what in the future? Darwinian evolution may not be the only such generative process in the universe. There may be other "cranes" (Daniel Dennett's term, which he opposes to "skyhooks") that we have not yet discovered or imagined. But, however wonderful and however different from Darwinian evolution those putative cranes may be, they cannot be magic. They will share with Darwinian evolution the facility to raise up complexity, as an emergent property, out of simplicity, while never violating natural law."
Ultimately, then, we have worldview issues to evaluate. Those with a naturalistic mindset interpret all complexity as emergent from natural law with a sprinkling of chance. However, their approach is testable - they require ultimate simplicity and blind (tinkering) processes. Arguably, this approach has been falsified in innumerable areas of science. What we find is ultimate complexity and an extraordinary richness of information. This finding is consistent with, and predicted by, advocates of intelligent design. To move the debate in science forward in a meaningful way, both these avenues of inquiry need to be fully and fairly evaluated.
DNA: Celebrate the unknowns
Nature, 496, 419-420 (25 April 2013) | doi:10.1038/496419a
On the 60th anniversary of the double helix, we should admit that we don't fully understand how evolution works at the molecular level
Watson J.D. and Crick F.H.C. Molecular structure of nucleic acids: A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature, 1953, 171, 737-738. (also here)
This year marks the centenary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, sometimes portrayed as "Darwin's goad". However, as Andrew Berry argues, Wallace should be remembered as a "visionary scientist in his own right, a daring explorer and a passionate socialist". He was awarded the Order of Merit, the highest honour that could be given by the British monarch to a civilian. He has left a -
"- huge scientific legacy, which ranged from discovering natural selection to defining the term species, and from founding the field of evolutionary biogeography to pioneering the study of comparative natural history." (page 162)
The portrait of Wallace is unveiled at the launch of Wallace100 (Source here)
Wallace's first exhibition (four years in the Amazon rainforests) ended in disaster and he narrowly escaped death. As he sailed home in 1852, the ship caught fire and all the specimens he had so carefully collected, including numerous living animals, were lost. Wallace watched the burning wreck from a lifeboat, and it was 10 days before rescuers arrived on the scene. Ever the scientist, he wrote:
"During the night I saw several meteors, and in fact could not be in a better position for observing them, than lying on my back in a small boat in the middle of the Atlantic." (page 163)
Two years later, he was off to the Far East for an 8-year trek. During this time, he established himself as an academic writer and an extremely successful collector, with over 1000 specimens new to science. A landmark paper pointed out that related species tend to be found in the same geographical area.
"Wallace had a prodigious ability to spot patterns in the apparently chaotic (and largely uncatalogued) world of tropical diversity. This is the skill of the true naturalist: to generate a mental database of observed plants and animals that can be referenced when similar forms are encountered elsewhere. It led to his first attempt at biological generalization, a paper he wrote in 1855 while in Sarawak, Borneo: 'On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species' (often called the Sarawak Law)." (page 163)
Ten years later, Wallace proposed a remarkably modern definition of the species concept:
"In his brilliant 1865 paper on the papilionid butterflies of southeast Asia, he parses variations within and among populations, among subspecies and species, and arrives at this definition: "Species are merely those strongly marked races or local forms which, when in contact, do not intermix, and when inhabiting distinct areas are generally believed to have had a separate origin, and to be incapable of producing a fertile hybrid offspring."
It is emblematic of history's neglect of Wallace that most undergraduates today are taught that the biological species concept was introduced in 1942 by Ernst Mayr." (page 163)
Many students have been introduced to the role played by Wallace in 1858 in triggering a joint presentation alongside Darwin of evolution by natural selection. Suffice to say here that the last word on this has not been written.
However, although Darwin's name is now dominant in evolutionary theory, Wallace is perceived as the Father of historical biogeography. The groundwork was laid in 1857, in a paper about the Aru Islands (off New Guinea). Textbooks today record his discovery of the distinction between Australian fauna and Asian fauna, separated by Wallace's Line.
"It is tempting to see echoes between Wallace's serendipitous path through life and his contingent interpretation of natural systems: his most famous biogeographical discovery also had a dose of luck. In 1856, having missed a connection as he tried to make his way to Sulawesi, he spent a couple of months on the islands of Bali and Lombok, and noted drastic differences in the wildlife even though the islands are only some 35 kilometres apart. To the south and east, the Australian fauna dominated; to the north and west, the Asian one. He had identified an ancient biogeographic split across southeast Asia that biologist Thomas Henry Huxley later dubbed 'Wallace's Line'." (page 163)
Wallace the scientist is often contrasted with the "other Wallace" who dabbled in "suffrage and socialism", "spiritualism and phrenology". But Berry cautions against thinking like this. "But Wallace's worldview was far more coherent than is often claimed." (page 164) Differences with Darwin came to the fore regarding human evolution. Whereas Darwin expected evolution by natural selection to transform an ape-like animal into a human, Wallace rejected this scenario. He argued for "some kind of non-material intervention in the genesis of humans". His religious views allowed him to be open to this hypothesis, although his arguments were drawn from scientific observations of different races of humanity.
"The more I see of uncivilized people, the better I think of human nature on the whole, and the essential differences between so-called civilized and savage man seem to disappear." (page 164)
"[Wallace realised that] many humans have abilities that they never have the opportunity to use. Such a situation, Wallace reasoned, cannot evolve through natural selection alone, which promotes only those traits that are useful. Wallace concluded that human evolution required some divine intervention. This argument shows an excellent appreciation of the mechanics of natural selection [. . . ]" (page 164)
Darwin's reaction reveals his own worldview, which was sometimes deistic and sometimes atheistic - but which never allowed any active role for God in the history of life. Berry puts it this way:
"Darwin was horrified, writing to his friend in 1869: "I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child."" (page 164)
Whilst Berry is willing to respect Wallace's integrity in departing from Darwin in this key issue, he does not elaborate on the broader implications of worldview thinking. No mention is made of Wallace's Man's Place in the Universe (1903), which discusses the teleological anthropic principle, or his World of Life (1910), which is devoted to intelligent evolution. Wallace saw himself as a theistic scientist who recognised design and purpose in the natural world. Thus, he is a powerful witness against those who portray intelligent design per se as antiscience. People are free to reach different conclusions, but Wallace should not be dismissed as someone who sacrificed reason and science to satisfy religious scruples. This is a worldview issue and, at this level, both theists and atheists are equally religious in their thinking. We can echo Berry's closing words, with the proviso that in the "etc., etc., etc." are found Wallace's advocacy of intelligent design in the natural world.
"As we remember Wallace 100 years after his death, let us celebrate his remarkable scientific achievements and his willingness to take risks and to advocate passionately for what he believed in. He was, after all, both a scientist, and, in his own assessment, a "Red-hot Radical, Land Nationaliser, Socialist, Anti-Militarist, etc., etc., etc." In short, a whole lot more than Darwin's goad." (page 164)
Alfred Russel Wallace: Evolution's red-hot radical
Nature, 496, 162-164 (11 April 2013) | doi:10.1038/496162a
Sidekick status does Alfred Russel Wallace an injustice. He was a visionary scientist in his own right, a daring explorer and a passionate socialist, argues Andrew Berry.
Flannery, M. Why Darwin Is Remembered More than Wallace, Evolution News& Views (5 March 2013)
Flannery, M. Hijacking Alfred Russel Wallace, Evolution News& Views (24 January 2013)
Tyler, D., Why Alfred Russel Wallace deserves to be remembered, ARN Literature Blog (11 March 2008)
Website: Alfred Russel Wallace
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