January 21, 2009

Swing and Miss

(From a comedy website pitch. It failed, but that's too much writing to toss aside, so here ya go.)

If you asked people who the biggest names in science are, you'll get the usual lot: Newton; Curie; Asimov. Francis Bacon only comes up because it's so much fun to say.

Go ahead, try it. Bacon. Bacon Bacon Bacon. Mmmm, Bacon. Francis Bacon. Could you imagine calling a child that today? "Hey, Bacon! Eat me!" "Are you Franks or Bacon?" "Is your dick kosher?" "Bite my Novum Organum!" Children are so, so cruel.

Sorry. Where was I? Right!

One name you'll hear over and over again (especially this year) is Charles Darwin. Who doesn't know his brilliant work on the formation of coral atolls, or the definitive The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms? Oh, and that other thing he did, popularizing and explaining the theory of evolution by publishing On the Origin of Species one hundred and fifty years ago this November and it's been in print ever since.

Despite his other work, that one small portion of it seems to drive a certain element of the population to their wit's end. No, really: they seem to have left all semblance of intelligence behind in protest of evolution's popularity. These are a few of the most egregious.

5) People make watches, so Darwin = wrong.

The Argument: If you were walking in the middle of a field, and you saw a watch, you'd know it was a complicated instrument, so you would assume that it was manufactured and that someone had dropped it, not that it "evolved" from nature. Anything that has a complex structure has to be created.

The Problem: Would you change your mind if you then found a watch tree? Say there was a small shrub with watches just like the one you found growing from it at the edge of the field. And say you took a cutting from that shrub home, planted it, and watched it grow, producing many watches. Then went and found more Time Shrubs (you found 'em, you get to name 'em!) of differing varieties and produced a variety of watches in different materials, colours, and qualities. Well, that's pretty much what we've done with every living thing on earth in the past 200 years. And guess what? It all has complex structures, and none of it looks like clockwork.

This argument, by the way, has been around longer than Darwin. Not Darwin's book: longer than Darwin. Time to move on, wouldn't you say?

4) If people came from monkeys, why do monkeys still exist?

The Argument: Okay, fine: apes, then. Jeeze, you evolutionists are a touchy lot! Anyhow, if everything evolves, and everything is still evolving, then everything like us should be us, right? If dogs came from wolves, then the wolves should be gone (they all became dogs). So if we're apes, and all the apes came from a similar ancestor, then they should all be evolved the same amount: us!

The Problem: Everything of the same age is evolved the same amount, just in different directions. There has to be a reason for a new mutation (or even a new means) to be advantageous, or it simply won't stay around. Why learn how to run when you can swing through the trees? You'd learn how to run if the trees started to vanish, for instance... Do it well enough, bringing home enough food, and those strange-looking feet the other chimps laughed at you for suddenly become the hot ticket to successful mating, boyo!

You can see exactly that happening right now in the Chambura Gorge in Uganda, if you'd like. Or we can go on to the next argument...

3) Hold it! No one has ever seen a new species evolve, so it's not science! (AKA "It's just a theory")

The Argument: Science has to be testable, and evolution is not testable in any controlled way, so it's not science.

The Problem: Do you have any idea what sort of time frame we're talking about here? No? Somewhat more than 6,000 years, anyways. Still, if you insist on claiming fruit flies don't count (inability to breed is considered a change of species: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-06/uor-nsf061203.php) then perhaps Escherichia coli will. A research project at the University of Michigan that's been running for 20 years now has been studying 44,000 generations of E. coli, all started from the same strain, and separated them. Doing nothing else but watching, one of those populations (and only one of them) developed the ability to eat the medium of the petri dishes they were living in.

Boom! One clearly different strain, including a beneficial mutation, that was unique to it despite sharing the same genetic starting point as all the other strains. Bear in mind that was a single study on frikkin' bacteria, and it still took twenty years. If you want to see a dog give birth to a cat by next week, you're SOL. Ain't gonna happen.

2) If I don't understand it, no one else does either.

The Argument: Look at the astronomically small odds of a single chain of RNA forming. For the universe to be accidentally created, it would be like winning the lottery every day for the rest of your life! And for a series of accidental mutations to "just happen" to become us, well, the odds of that are so small as to be considered zero!

The Problem: Two different complaints, one end result. First, it's pointless arguing that the universe shouldn't be here when it so obviously is. We don't know the time frame, or how many iterations it's gone through, or even what exactly the universe is, so that's simply going to have to stay in the realm of the philosophers for now. But let me put it to you this way: if you went with an infinite amount of time, you wouldn't even need a million monkeys at typewriters to reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare. One would do fine, if you could keep it alive. Unfortunately, you'd also get everything else: every piss-poor emo high school poet; all the lyrics from WHAM!'s Make It Big album (in order); the instruction manual for your Toshiba AM/FM compact disc player. Everything. That's what infinity means, bub: don't mess with it.

The other argument is that the mutations should accidentally be to our benefit. Actually, no, they rarely are to our benefit: for the most part, we don't even know they exist until circumstances create evidence of them. Resistance to the last bout of Black Death, for instance, is still carried around by a bunch of us Europeans thanks to the lucky few who had the mutations that made them survivors. Malaria still plays hell with us, though - unless we've also got Duffy negative blood from West Africa in us, too. But then there's the sickle-cell anemia to deal with... And so on.

The point being that these inherited traits aren't "accidental" - they are selected, much like that lucky monkey (okay, ape) back in argument 4 is going to have a slew of descendants because his mutation is suddenly very sexy. That's selection.

Put it another way: to recreate all of Shakespeare's Hamlet, generating random phrases while keeping those letters that were accurately placed (selecting for them, you could say) took a computer program written by Richard Hardison of Glendale College less than a week. Nature does not choose randomly - nature chooses what works.

And the stupidest argument against evolution is...

1) Evolution is evil!

The Argument: No one was ever picked on before evolution came around, and ever since him millions of people have died. So it's all his fault. So nyah!.

The Problem: Oh, for... Are you really going to make me go there? *sigh* Fine.
Welcome to the world of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which took 90 minutes to explain that Darwin caused the Holocaust. Yes, they went there: the entire movie is , so any reference to Nazis in the comments is allowed. In an interview (http://boingboing.net/2008/05/01/ben-stein-science-le.html) on the Trinity Network, the presenter (Ben Stein) came up with this gem:

"Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people."

Yup, science leads you to killing people. I suppose this is true in that discovering force = mass x velocity can bring you to the conclusion that a club is better for hitting people with than your hand, so who am I to argue?

Still, the idea that somehow Darwin's work led to racism and genocide is more than a little ridiculous, even if it is an old meme: Social Darwinism, which was a combination of eugenics and classism. Problem for those who say this was what Darwin thought is that it's not what Darwin thought. Eugenics came from Francis Gaulton, who thought of breeding programs for animals being applied to humans, and Thomas Malthus brought up social pressures being applied to have people restrain themselves when they outstrip their resources. (Malthus thought, interestingly enough, that God made us breed beyond our means to teach us a lesson.) Others took that to mean poor kids should be shuffled off to workhouses. Herbert Spencer coined "survival of the fittest" to economics, and Ernst Haeckel decided it should apply to races, too.

Darwin himself was frankly horrified by a theory in biology being applied to social welfare, but much like a maker of cream pies, once you put the product in the hands of the public, what they do with it is out of your control.


posted by Thursday at 5:19 pm


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