Friday, March 27, 2009

Why Evolution is True

The following argument is one that I imagine biologists must be very tired of making. I truly hope that I might see a day when it will no longer be necessary to say the following:

How difficult is it to convincingly present the evidence for biological evolution, and to display the failure of the "intelligent design" case in comparison? Piece of cake. Evidence exists from fossils, biogeography, and embryology. We have seen new species formed by natural selection both in the fossil record and in real time. We can see vestigial structures such as the human appendix, poor organization, and dead genes. If there were a designer, this might be considered evidence for gross incompetence.

Evolutionary theory makes testable predictions. For example, biologists can predict where, in place and period, fossils will be found. Or they can confidently make very specific claims such as: if an animal species has brightly coloured males and drab females, it will have a polygonous mating system.

Furthermore, DNA sequencing supports the evolutionary relationships of species originally deduced from EVERY fossil that we have found. Every DNA molecule that we sequence, every organ system that we dissect supports the idea that species evolved from common ancestors. And what we don’t find also provides support. We don't find mammals in Precambrian rocks, humans in the same layers as dinosaurs, or any other fossils out of evolutionary order.

We can show that the mechanism of adaptation is indeed sufficient for the emergence of complexity from simpler elements. For example, in the case of eyes, starting with the light-sensitive pigments seen in flatworms and going through the increasingly more sophisticated versions of precursor eyes respectively in limpets, the chambered nautilus, ragworms, abalones, and so upward - we can show show how every stage of the process confers some evolutionary advantage in the way of finding food, avoiding predators, and/or reproduction. The process required huge lengths of time and the billions of failures, but it did happen.

Religious efforts to derail biological enquiry waste time and energy. How credible are religious claims? How much influence should religious viewpoints have in the public square? What should be the relation between religion and science? These are all issues on which we just can't seem to agree.

Can religion and science not speak different kinds of truth? Creationists (as "intelligent design" theorists) squarely treat religion and science as direct competitors for the truth. They claim that "irreducibly complex" natural phenomena can only be explained by invoking a designer. “We don't understand this so let's say God did it.” If one cannot see how some complex thing came to be, it is not better to keep looking for the explanation, or even to accept the one does not know the answer, than to take the quick-fix of claiming that God did it?

Science starts with no prejudices, but is open and self-critical. It is the enterprise that seeks to understand and is always stands ready to revise itself in the face of contrary evidence. It is a good process. And it does not try to prove that there is no God. Science and atheism are not mutually inclusive.

Understanding technical science, especially the mathematics of it, is difficult. But can any responsible person claim complete ignorance about what many consider humanity's greatest achievement? Are there any good excuses for a lack of fundamental understanding physics, cosmology or biology with countless good books on the shelves? Nope. And might I suggest: "Why Evolution is True" by Jerry Coyne.

(I must give credit for this post to A.C. Grayling at Barnes and Noble dot com who reviewed Jerry Coyne's book. I have rearranged and simplified Mr. Grayling's words at my discretion but most of them are still very much his.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Conspiracy Theories

I have known a wide variety of people through sport. On Saturday night I spoke to a volleyballer who happens to have a gift for wise business decisions. Many people 'buy & sell' for a living but I am quite ignorant on such topics.

I am a scientist and a skeptic. After a few drinks, my friend shared a 'conspiracy theory' which was new to me. I'm all for freedom of speech and I like hearing a tale that I can disprove as much as one that can be proven. In essence, I was told that national banks and federal reserves in many democratic countries have long acted in the best interest not of their citizens but rather a small group of international bankers who have managed to 'legalize' a white-collar crime of global proportions. Naturally, these bankers belong to families with obscene wealth and power whose sole goal is to further increase their wealth at the expense of the masses. You might guess that these bankers also control the media, buy politicians, orchestrate wars, and use their tremendous influence over the boom and bust of the business cycle for personal gain. Most significantly, they cripple countries with interest payments on 'national debt'. Presumably these individuals, unlike Bill Gates, are also able to stay off of the 'world's richest' lists.

The world is full of grand conspiracies: the CIA killed JFK; the moon landing was fake; aliens visit; global warming is a hoax; Diana was murdered, and 9-11 was orchestrated by the US; and I'll leave out the very-blatantly religious ones (like 'the evolution hoax').

Each one of these claims has one big thing in common. It requires the silent collusion of many 'powerful and evil people'. My first instinct is always disbelief because I feel intuitively that such secrets are too hard to keep. One 'carefully blown whistle' would sort things out immediately. Furthermore, even though we've all heard that power corrupts and recent history has demonstrated some great villains, I do believe that most people are 'good people'. Call me naive.

But far as conspiracies go this 'evil international bankers' one is a bit unusual. On Sunday, I had a look at the web. The Internet is fantastic at quickly at disproving conspiracy theories, but details are scarce in this case. Support for it is also hard to find. It saddens me to say that I found the obvious few websites that spin a similar but strongly anti-Semitic version that I refuse to dignify with attention because it preaches hate and violence against innocent people. I did find one exceptionally-long low-budget documentary film from a few years ago that proposes this same theory without any 'hate' talk and supports it with historical quotes by famous people (which may or may not be real). The documentary does predict the current stock crash but I suspect that was inevitable sooner or later.

After some research and thought, I remain skeptical and unconvinced but I am also aware that although I have grown up in a very peaceful and stable world, it is far from perfect. I am not ignorant of the fact that just sixty years ago 'everyone' was at war. 

One thing is for sure: the global economy is ridiculously complicated.  The possibility that some wealthy people might be 'cheating' seems plausible enough.  But who really knows?  I'd like to hope that the American government is regaining control of their financial mess.  If you believe the golden rule: "Whoever has the gold, makes the rules" then maybe you should have bought some 'gold' last year because everything else is just paper. As I understand it, most economists agree that the current global financial system is fundamentally flawed. Growth is unsustainable. Inflation can't go on forever. Further from obvious is an alternative, or a solution. My blog-post-inspiring-friend predicts that the stock market (although it may improve in the next few months) is still 'years from hitting bottom' and he also speculates that you and I are likely destined to live through a complete global financial collapse accompanied by rioting and war. I sure hope he's wrong. And so does he.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Stewart and Colbert

I love what Jon Steward and Steven Colbert do for us. Brilliant - both of them. Especially Colbert, with his entire show 'in red-state character'. The guy is an absolute genius. So much of American news and politics seems to be tailor made for comedy. When I get time to watch them, usually in long bunches online, Steward and Colbert never fail to impress. The shows are funny - VERY funny - but also a bit sad. Blunt sarcasm is probably the best way to present some of the ridiculous realities of the world around us. America is a particularly strange beast. The whole world has its problems but the US has such vast quantities of both good and bad qualities - sense and nonsense – that the contrast is hard to fathom. When these comedians show it to us, and they do it well, I suppose it is inevitably both sad and funny. Full episodes commercial free are streamed online. I am a huge fan.

So here’s the interesting bit: since March 4'th, Jon Stewart has attacked financial news network CNBC for their lack of responsible reporting of the stock market before the crash last year. He has essentially accused them of criminal behaviour. For the episode that aired on Thursday March 12'th, I think Steward should get a medal. The Daily Show and the Colbert Report both stream an archive of episodes online. I recomment you watch a few now and again if you need a laugh. But this one was special.

Friday, March 13, 2009


We volleyballers love our Advil but 'real' painkillers are new to me. After an injury to my back a few weeks ago I've been on a hefty cocktail of anti-inflammatories, muscle-relaxants, and 'real' painkillers. The type I could sell on the street to help pay off student debt.

I'm uncertain of the appropriate etiquette of sharing personal medical details on a blog but it's all new and interesting to me and it seems like a reasonable act in this case so here ya go: The source of my troubles was of course a volleyball tournament. But to the point - I recently witnessed a GP pick up of the phone and politely order an MRI of my lower back which was done at a specialized 'scanning' clinic just four hours later. Turns out the Aussies have a pretty functional health care system. I saw awesome pictures of my insides! The framework of my spine (and yours) is composed of bones and 'discs'. Bricks and mortar. Sadly a piece of mortar - one of my lowest disks - has attempted to escape. It chose rear exit through an angry 'doorman' called 'my spinal cord'. If anyone has experienced a sensation that the pros have referred to as 'severe sciatica' you will have some idea of the associated discomfort.

I write about this here for you partially because my wifey posted this picture on facebook and, although I am clearly smiling, some family and friends have expressed sympathy and concern accompanied by questions.

I am a fan of answers via this forum so your summary is as follows: I'm not in a wheelchair :) but have briefly used one a couple times in the past weeks. Not briefly enough to avoid that picture. The finest experts have prescribed the following treatment: a single injection of cortisone into one of my 'nerve roots' followed by the often applied optimistic-wait-and-see-strategy accompanied by physiotherapy. (At least they sound optimistic - but as I will note in a moment - doctors lie if they believe it is useful) I will not discuss any other treatment options today. I am now a day or so post-injection. The pain of which - brief but RIDICULOUS - I was so unprepared for that I still smile at the thought of the several doctors who could have, but presumably for my own good did not, warn me. The procedure seemed complicated - sliding me in and out of a big fancy CAT-scan machine repeatedly to make adjustments to the needle sticking into back. Needless (no pun intended) to say, I hope never to re-live the experience. On the bright side the cortisone has worked its magic and I already feel like a functioning human being again. Unfortunately I think it’ll be a long, long while before I feel like an athlete, even just an old one again. Still I can walk comfortably so I’ve gotta give some respect to modern medicine. Way to go... medicine!

I know I’m not the first 'tall dude' faced with recovery from a herniated disc. I've already played enough volleyball for two lifetimes. My life is not threatened - I do not feel sorry for myself and I do not want sympathy from anyone but my wife (and that's only becuase she brings me stuff like cups of tea if I say I can't move :). But if you have a positive rehab/physiotherapy story I'm more than interested. Cheers.