23 May, 2009

You Talk Way Too Much

What could it possibly be, you wonder?

"What if everything you knew was a lie?" - well, that would clearly be on a par with the moon landing, the New Deal Jesus, Pearl Harbour, JFK assasination, Obamania, 9/11... and some other ones I can't work out, but don't seem too important. Our Air, Our Water, Our Life... Creation! 25/05/09!!! What on earth could this be?

Prepare to be underwhelmed. It's the unveiling of a fossil. Specifically, it's the unveiling of the first Darwinius masillae fossil, a very well preserved one, named Ida:

Ida is a VIP (very important primate) - and as Ed Yong reports, the media response has been nothing short of rapturous. This revolves around the notion of a "missing link" - even before we knew what the discovery was, John Wilkins on Evolving Thoughts had his doubts about this term - he also worries about announcing the "common ancestor of primates".

We are by now very much aware of the hype our media plasters over news stories. To translate them to large numbers of people in an interesting way, in our contemporary news-as-entertainment culture, they have to be blown up to significant proportions, and made 2-D and digestible in the process. It's difficult to imagine a more inappropriate or common example of this than in scientific discovery, where a public that often lacks the scientific knowledge to comprehend the raw importance of discovery needs it processed. This is the root cause of the foodstuff-causes-cancer news story.

In this week's Bad Science column, Ben Goldacre draws attention, as he does most weeks, to shoddy and hyped reporting of science news, including the current "men experience worse flu" story, which has nothing to do with flu (the pathogen tested causes food poisoning), may not be applicable to humans (tested in transgenic mice), and isn't as globally applicable as advertised. Scientific discovery gets mangled into headlines on a near-daily basis.

And in this case, there are even doubts as to the real meaning of this discovery - this article on Laelaps is fairly technical, but the consensus being reached is that the PR-heavy unveiling of Ida is ugly business. PZ Myers on Pharyngula describes it as Barnum-esque, and even to a total layman the comparison to the earth-shattering dates in the advert above seems totally absurd. For one thing, there is no single link between primates and the rest of the animal kingdom.

Ida is a significant fossil that should have been remembered for its incredible degree of preservation, and the energising effect it could have had on palaentology. Instead it could be remembered as a watershed event in our mangling of scientific coverage. Unfortunately, I fear it will be no more than a really great example - both as a primate fossil, and a hysterical headline.

20 May, 2009

A Placeholder; An Idea; A Dire Warning

I am very, very busy, being a very busy person.

However, I need to put up a thought while it's here in my head. Recently, friends have raised the idea of teleology in evolution. Traditionally, biologists are very much not fans of teleological notions in evolution, possibly much more wary of it than they should be - I think this is at heart a matter of starting points, of didactic necessity, of the tendency to over-stress differences between new and old schemas of thought in order to press their significance. Sometimes the short-term necessity is to rebuff too strongly, spilling over into the awkward reversal some way down the line, in our constantly-revised science.

I am specifically looking at Simon Conway Morris' speculation that convergence is meaningful, and too much emphasis has been placed on contingency. My major problem with Conway-Morris on this issue is that he is very happy to pick patterns of convergence in evolution, but it is unclear what they mean. For example - squid and humans develop eyes, independently (Praise the Lord! - unfortunately, this is ultimately where SCM's argument ends up). It is unclear to me why this is meaningful, and further, if it is meaningful, does the fact that our eye is wired backwards also become significant? What does it mean where species continue to diversify?

More specifically still; Conway-Morris seems to believe that the existence of human beings is a unique mould that life would inevitably pour into, a gentle restatement of the anthropic principle. I have always found this anthropocentrism to be scarcely above contempt - to postulate that because this universe exists in this way, and not another one, x must be true, seems to me to represent the most profound lack of imagination and wilful disregard for existence in general. To propose a convergent principle of my own: where sentient organisms exist, they will come to the conclusion they are unique and the universe exists in order for them to be just so.

With this in mind, it should be clear that certain tentative trends could be expected in evolution. In exploring the gene-space Dawkins postulates in The Blind Watchmaker (this is essential reading, a powerful visualisation of the step-wise nature by which incredible variation can be reached - and also a demonstration of how deploying simple computer programming can produce valuable models) we might realise we come across stronger forms and weaker forms. Flight, sight, predation on other species and increased decisison making power are good candidates here; major advantages that can be reached. And if they can, presumably they will, eventually. And if they will, one imagines they will establish a niche, all things being equal. But contingency must rule here also - the variety of individual steps that can be made are huge, and yet elephants will not develop wings soon, and bats have little use for eyes.

I find it amusing that the internal evolution of evolutionary theory into a non-directional and thoroughly atheistic area of study is in fact a work of contingency, as is the subsequent backlash. Let us re-wind the tape of scientific discovery, press "play," and see if Dawkins re-emerges. Another little aside to evolutionary history is the similarity of teleological rebranding with that of Stephen Jay Gould and the Punctuational Equilibrists - a re-placing of emphasis on a theory that can already handle the disputes being laid on it, possibly a useful re-balancing of certain skewed views.

Critically, however, Stephen Jay Gould and his cohort were not loading their rejection of gradualism with theology. Conway-Morris considers his convergence to give evidence for the theistic nature of evolution - a belief I've always felt one shouldn't think too hard about, and pressing onto others is fraught with difficulty. Assuming a deity is involved in a process in a manner basically indistinguishable from the naturalistic method itself kicks up endless questions, not least the harped-on-about-yet-very-real problem of suffering.

In this article, Conway-Morris reveals his hand. You'll have to imagine the sneer, and it is admittedly difficult to read:
"But there is more. How to explain mind? Darwin fumbled it. Could he trust his thoughts any more than those of a dog? Or worse, perhaps here was one point (along, as it happens, with the origin of life) that his apparently all-embracing theory ran into the buffers? In some ways the former possibility, the woof-woof hypothesis, is the more entertaining. After all, being a product of evolution gives no warrant at all that what we perceive as rationality, and indeed one that science and mathematics employ with almost dizzying success, has as its basis anything more than sheer whimsy."
There is a reason that scientific discovery heavily stresses experimentation, the referentiality of theory to the world outside it. We take apparent confirmation seriously - although unfortunately we don't have the luxury of a divinely-sustained universe with clearly delineated truths. Removing absolute knowledge of truth from the table is regrettable, but I'd be lying if I said I relied on it much in my day-to-day existence anyway. Relying on God to sustain a universe we increasingly describe in material terms is a folly - there are reasons to consider a deity, but these are not them.

To take issue with one more thing: SCM, having rather inelegantly and confusingly typed his way to conclusions, leaves a real horror for those who venture into the final paragraph:
"Of course our brains are a product of evolution, but does anybody seriously believe consciousness itself is material?"
As I have said in conversation: be very careful, theists. I don't want to watch anyone reaching their hand over the nearest boundary of human knowledge and plucking an argument for god out. It has happened before, again and again, and I don't expect it to ever produce empirical evidence for God - indeed, I think it would be a very cruel God indeed that would wait until we had developed so far, technologically speaking, before revealing himself. It would be some coincidence if the next frontier turned out to be the last one. This is a route religion does not want to go down.