Thursday, November 17, 2005

The new center   posted by Razib @ 11/17/2005 06:30:00 PM

Carl's new book, Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins, is out. In a post on the unveiling of the book, Carl concludes:

There's plenty of evidence that our species has continued to evolve in just the past few thousand years. At the same time, though, the rise of human culture, medicine, and genetic engineering may be sending our species off on an evolutionary trajectory that's impossible to predict....

YES!!! Human evolution continues. Over the past week I've become inordinately absorbed in the "Intelligent Design" "debate." As you can observe in the track of the past week's posts the topic has been sucking all the oxygen out of the air and edging other topics aside. There were a few posts that I had meant to get to this week that have been postponed. One of the worst attributes about the Intelligent Design debate is that it takes up finite time that could be devoted to the forwarding of science rather than having to shore up the base. The latter is a necessary task, and over the history of this weblog I have avoided the topic of Creationism and Intelligent Design and allowed Pharyngula and Panda's Thumb to lead the charge. Instead of debating whether evolution occurs (which, frankly, reasonable people can agree upon), the implications of evolution and its relation to our species seem a far more fascinating topic (and one avoided by many).

And yet the Intelligent Design/Creationism meme is like crack-cocaine, so bad and so good. One comment by "Alexandra" in response to John Derbyshire's response to my question on that topic triggered a blogstorm and spawned multiple posts (and frankly I had to restrain myself). And yet like masturbating to porn, after the fact I always wonder, "But couldn't I have done something better with my 10 minutes?" Frankly, IDers/Creationists don't play by the rules. Alexandra seemed to have been a rather sophisticated, if somewhat opaque, specimen. If you look at her last comment, she dismisses the whole enterprise of evolutionary population genetics (she seems to have problems with the infinite alleles model from what I can gather, but she's not the only one, and those who do reject that the widespread use of this model do not reject evolution). Now, I will assume she has read Kimura, nevertheless, her initial characterization of Fisher's Fundamental Theorem and the peculiar (unqualified or nuance) assertion about advantageous mutations and the scientific viewpoint of them does not suggest to me that she is treading on home ground. And yet she felt confident passing judgement on models which are the work of decades.

Many would characterize scientists as arrogant and self-absorbed. But one must remember that most working scientists devote a substantial proportion of their life to preparing for their research. They forgo many small pleasures so that they may attain fluency in their own disciplines. I am not a scientist, I am an observer, and I try to bring some humility in the enterprise of attempting to decode and interpret the theory and data that which are the fruit of lifetimes. I have gone on at length about the importance of having faith in the scientific system in progressing forward through the inevitable noise, so I will not elaborate on that point. But I think one reason that Intelligent Design and Creationism is so infuriating to working scientists is that it makes a mockery of their lives, of their enterprise. This attitude is found outside Creationist circles, see John Horgan's In Defense of Common Sense,1 for true arrogance on display.

The advocates of Intelligent Design and Creationism are challenging the scientific system, not presenting a new hypothesis. The fact is that for some the hypothesis of the Intelligent Designer and its dovetailing with theism is problematic. But I don't think that is the source of the rage and fury for most scientists and sympathizers with the scientific movement, rather, it is the attempt to suborn the system of science in the interests of a narrow and trivial concern. Especially in light of the fact that freeware like ClustalW and TreeView along with a few queries in BLAST can give you a gene phylogeny within 10 minutes which confirms the utility of the evolutionary paradigm. Some of you may object that the Intelligent Design hypothesis is not "narrow and trivial," but of deep interest and concern to the religious. One must be careful how one states this though, the reality is that the majority of religionists in the developed world, and the majority of religious clerics, do not subscribe to Intelligent Design. Are they not believers? My contention, roughly, is that the Creationism and Intelligent Design movement have no claim to being more authentic or true readings of the Christian faith. The situation we face in the United States is the consequence of contingent historical events. Specifically, it is a reaction to excessive modernism that swept through Protestant theology in the 19th century. Richard Dawkins has famously equated evolution with his atheism in The Blind Watchmaker, and certainly for many evolutionary theory is a gateway toward a paradigm which replaces their religious worldview. But not for all, and broadly speaking, many events and outlooks can trigger a shift from a religious to a post-religious view. There maybe be a non-trivial correlation, but I think we are looking down the wrong road if we see in Darwin the death of God.

Roughly speaking, the vast majority of those who would assent to the theses of Intelligent Design or Creationism are the types who will aver that "A is not A." This is maddening. No matter what losses are incurred, they are impervious to scientific rebuttal. The most frustrating aspect for me is the bad faith in which they argue, in that they will often ask disarmingly simple questions which demand complex, nuanced answers. Upon their satisfaction that their question has been answered, they will proceed to the next simple question! When I was using IRC in the mid-90s I idiotically spent 2 hours responding to a Creationist who would ask me, "Now answer me this: [insert canned question]." There was no hesitation or processing of any of my answers, if I wasn't stumped, she was prepared with her next question. In short, it is as if they are attempting to "run out the clock." Ultimately, they don't care about the results of the discourse, they know the truth, and they know you are in error. They are simply attempting to "catch you" in a mistake, or intimidate you. When I was often confronted by Creationist friends with the Second Law of Thermodynamics "disproof" of evolution, but could respond with a canned talking point (i.e, "Open system vs. Closed system"), they were absolutely unabashed and didn't push the argument. Upon further questioning I realized 1) they really didn't understand what "Thermodynamics" was, 2) they were just trying to intimidate me, 3) they were brushing up on other "gotchas" now that that one didn't work (fossil gaps, etc.). This is why the "they are just humble folk trying to make sense of the world" schtick doesn't ring true to me as apologia for anti-evolutionists, I knew them as a kid, and they weren't humble and naive, they knew very well what they were trying to do and what they believed, and they were willing to go to great lengths to validate their own self-worth and system of thought. They didn't care, or give thought to, what the cost of adding another notch in their faith-belt might have been.

But I didn't start out this post intending to talk much about Creationism. Rather, I wanted to point to Carl's contention about recent human evolution. We are certainly on the Bruce Lahn bandwagon, and to my mind that is the most spectacular and mind-blowing possibility of the power of selection. Nevertheless, when talking to people about human evolution, that's not where I start. I often meet individuals who are somewhat interested in science, but repeat to me assertions which imply that God or nature has stabilized humanity over the past 50,000 years. Being educated people, they have likely imbibed the Tooby-Cosmides dogma that evolution ceased after the Pleistocene, along with Lewontin's Fallacy. But there are easy ways to point out the salience of recent evolution, consider the spread of lactose tolerance. In Eurasia, this gene likely began to increase in frequency ~10,000 years ago with the domestication of cattle. The genetics implies that the Eurasian alleles probably have their origin geographically in Northern Europe, but a selective sweep has pushed the frequency of lactose tolerance as high as 70% as far as Northern India. It is a common assertion that humanity is no longer subject to selection because we reshape our environment to suit our biases, but the reality is that our affect on the environment is inducing a feedback loop so that the forces of selection are being modulated. The logic is not particularly difficult, and ultimately examples like lactose tolerance can convince the uninitiated rather easily.

This is why I would much rather aim at those who deny the importance of evolution in regards to humans today, though they accept evolution. This is not an "A is not A" situation, there is a common ground of reference which I can draw upon. The discourse is not always in good faith (i.e., a rejection of recent evolution is often characterized by progressively more implausible models whose selection seems ideologically driven), but I can conceive of the other individual's general cognitive architecture, so it is far easier to pinpoint and leverage weak points in the design. Instead of focusing on pointless and purposeless intellectual guerrilla wars against an enemy which knows no code of honor and is willing to take civilians hostage, it is far more pleasurable to conquer new territory, even if the enemy has the commanding heights. The strategy in this case is simple, war by attrition and artillery. Better a bloody inch than another wound as you sink into the mire and lose sight of the blue sky above.

Addendum: If you are curious about the Intelligent Design movement, I recommend you check out The Access Research Network, The International Society for Complexity, Information and Design and William Dembski's weblog Uncommon Descent. Some readers might find H. Allen Orr's smackdown of Dembski of interest. Unlike some, I don't think that Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box, is really the front & center intellectual in the ID movement. Though somewhat delusional2, Behe seems sincere enough. On the other hand, Dembski plays the wizard, trying to obfuscate with mathematics.

1 - One of the biggest problems I have with Horgan's manifesto is that it seems to totally ignore that the reality that science is not a hereditary institution. If he was really curious about the topics and wanted to transcend common sense, all he needs are some books and some teachers.

2 - From page 232 of his book: "The result of these cumulative efforts to investigate the cell-to investigate life at the molecular level-is a loud, clear, piercing cry of "design!" The result is so unambiguous and so significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. The discovery rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrodinger, Pasteur, and Darwin."