Nov 17th, 2008 by ravi
Luck and evolution

Here is a simple truth that you won’t hear from all the high priests and popularisers of science (in this case, biology):

“If you dissect the past, you can see that luck is a big part of everything in the grand scheme of evolution,” says lead author Stephen Brusatte, a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History.

The researchers whose work is being commented upon above, examined the historical record of dinosaurs and crurotarsans:

[E]arly dinosaurs were contemporaries of crurotarsans, croc ancestors, during the late Triassic period about 230 to 200 million years ago. This reptilian group ranged from quick predators to two-legged vegetarians to leisurely grazers. Then, as the Triassic turned into the Jurassic, the creatures roaming the planet changed drastically. Most crurotarsans disappeared from the fossil record. But many dinosaurs survived—and flourished, diversifying into meat-eating giants, armored warriors and winged aviators.

But, they caution:

If dinosaurs were more fit for the environment, they should have had a higher rate of evolution and more diverse body types. Instead the researchers found that the two groups evolved at similar rates and that the crurotarsans had a wider range of body types, suggesting that they had actually adapted to more lifestyles and ecological niches.

The authors argue that because dinosaurs and crurotarsans were living parallel lives together for so long, it is unlikely the dinosaurs necessarily ruled. If you could travel back to the Triassic, Brusatte says, you would have guessed that the crocodilians would have won out. “There’s no way you could argue that dinosaurs were superior to them,” he says. Instead, he thinks an extinction event at the beginning of the Jurassic some 205 million years ago—like runaway global warming or an asteroid crash—may have just been bad luck for the crurotarsans.

The orthodoxy has objections:

“I think that the conclusions of the authors aren’t warranted,” says Kevin Padian, a dinosaur paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Good luck isn’t an evolutionary force…. Extinctions aren’t random.”

I am no evolutionary biologist or paleontologist, but this sort of response seems to miss the point, logically speaking. Properly understood, there is no implication that there is true randomness in evolution — or rather survival (after all, all events have causes). Rather, it seems to me, the parsimonious claim is that species flourish or perish not entirely due to their own adaptations in the constant presence of environmental pressures (and while we are at it, I thought multi-level selection was taboo and we are only to talk of individuals, not species?), but also often due to large environmental events that alter their fate. One could of course present these events as selective pressure and the pre-existing advantages of the organism as “adaptations” but I think such a tautology would rob the theory of much of its value.

[ Link: Was the Dinosaurs’ Long Reign on Earth a Fluke?: Scientific American ]

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Jul 20th, 2008 by ravi
Lewontin on Gould, and the practise of science

In a predictably excellent essay reviewing The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould (Ed: Steve Rose) and Punctuated Equilibrium by Gould, Lewontin offers two valuable reminders. One is the essential and important difference between a “public intellectual” like Gould who works to disseminate knowledge of his field to the general public and someone like Dawkins who (my words) is after slick overarching ideas that can be turned into bestsellers or service personal aggrandisement. The second, perhaps more important (and quoted below) is a reminder of the nature of scientific activity:

Free Expression: The Triumph of Stephen Jay Gould, By Richard C. Lewontin

There is hardly a chapter in the main body of The Richness of Life that does not repay a careful reading. Of all the essays in it the one that is most important to the public understanding of science is “Measuring Heads: Paul Broca and the Heyday of Craniology,” for it deals with an issue that is so discomfiting for scientists that they avoid it when they can. Despite the myth of detached objectivity that scientists propagate, their motivations are as messy as everyone else’s. In particular, they have political, social, and personal concerns that may influence what they do, how they do it, and what they say about it. Putting aside deliberate fraud, of which we have an embarrassment of examples, the gathering of data, their statistical representation, and their interpretation offer many opportunities for unconscious bias toward conclusions that we already “knew” to be true.

In particular, scientists have repeatedly reported that whites have larger brains than blacks. Gould shows that when the preserved brain is measured before the race of its former owner is revealed, this difference disappears completely. Similarly, claims of larger heads of professionals as compared to laborers are not statistically significant because of very large variation from individual to individual. What is important about this essay is not that it reveals what we already know to be true about the existence of racism and sexism, but that it shows how any claim that something is “scientifically demonstrated” should be treated with the same skepticism that we invoke when there is any reason to think that the investigator has something to gain, either ideologically or professionally, as we do when financial gain is involved.

[ Link ]

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Oct 6th, 2006 by ravi
Collins Sokals Sokal’s own!

Well, not really, but it’s an interesting new twist in the Science Wars:

Sociologist Harry Collins poses as a physicist
By Jon Lackman – Slate Magazine

In a recent experiment of his design, British sociologist Harry Collins asked a scientist who specializes in gravitational waves to answer seven questions about the physics of these waves. Collins, who has made an amateur study of this field for more than 30 years but has never actually practiced it, also answered the questions himself. Then he submitted both sets of answers to a panel of judges who are themselves gravitational-wave researchers. The judges couldn’t tell the impostor from one of their own.

There are more details on the reaction from Sokal himself, further down in the article.

[ Link ]

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Sep 22nd, 2006 by ravi
Science in a free society

The title of this blog post is an intentional reference to Paul Feyerabend, who would have been glad to read this bit of news:

BBC | Public ‘needs to drive science’

A new project funded by the UK government aims to give the public a chance to drive science policy.

[ Link ]

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Apr 16th, 2006 by ravi
A bicycle is not enough


I was re-reading Philip Kitcher’s comprehensive critique of SocioBiology over the weekend. Titled "Vaulting Ambition" its a serious and detailed work that  works through the arguments and the models. The book has the convincing mathematics inside; I will stop at posting the more simple and emotional appeal in the introduction:

 A Bicycle Is Not Enough

When I was growing up on the South Coast of England in the 1950s, I was haunted by a vision of judgement. […] Those of us whose families were not rich enough to sidestep the state educational system knew that judgement awaited us at age eleven. An examination would separate the academic sheep from the academic goats. We did not want to find ourselves among the goats.

For those who failed the famous British eleven-plus — about fifty percent — judgement was virtually final. Institutions suited to their perceived abilities awaited them. These establishments tried, usually unsuccessfully, to combine sound discipline with the inculcation of mechanical skills. Once committed to them, few of my contemporaries would return to the company of the educational elect.


[Kitcher goes on to list the now famous statistical fabrications of Sir Cyril Burt in order to advance his perverse theories of intelligence, and derives a caution from such episodes in science on how we evaluate current attempts at quantifying or describing human capabilities. He then ends:]

In the early 1970s, on a visit to England, I went to see a distant cousin. One of her children had just failed the eleven-plus — the old system of final judgement lingered on in the bastion of Conservatism in which I spent much of my youth and in which my cousin lives. Like many children before her, the girl had been promised a new bicycle if she passed the eleven-plus. Like many parents before them, her mother and father had given her the bicycle anyway. The daughter was visibly depressed. She felt that she had failed her parents, and she was not looking forward to the beginning of the school year when she, together with the other "failures", would transfer to a new school. Still, the bicycle was there, a small consolation to her and a token of parents’ continued support. As she wobbled down the sidewalk (the bicycle was somewhat too big for her), pride in her new possession temporarily overcame her sense of inadequacy. As I watched her, I remembered many of the children I had known, and the ways in which the educational system had narrowed their horizons at an early age. Those whose asprations have been mangled and whose lives have been reduced through the application of misguided sicence direct us to lok closely at any theorizing that lead us to further mistakes. Their descendants deserve better. A bicycle is not enough.


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Feb 22nd, 2006 by ravi
Machismo takes another reality bite

Rigour is often confused with toughness and it is only a short leap from there to machismo. We are urged to accept various theories not on the basis of rigourous proof or reasoned argument, but through what is the equivalent of “deal with it”. The left, forever afraid of being seen wussy, is often first to turn on its own with calls for accepting the “reality”, with the palliative that the “is” does not hinder the “ought”. Hence we have the scientistic attacks on postmodern philosophy, the examples from previous entries on neo-darwinism, the claims of dearly departed Larry Summers of Harvard about the innate disabilities of women, and so on down the road that leads to Joe Leiberman’s [what should not be] dismaying abandonment of his party.

In that category lies the repeated need to see human beings as a predatory and carnivorous species. Glorious male hunters showed us the way, and such anomalies as feminism or vegetarianism are sentimental niceties… never mind the inconclusive, or better, nuanced reality presented by actual data. These tough images need sustenance and that comes in the form of macho rhetoric and selective analysis and presentation of the data: when is the last time you saw a lion cub die in a nature show, except of course the rare segment where they are killed by the even more macho alpha male lion, despite the fact that a whole lot of them die within the first six months of life? On the other hand, there is no dearth of footage of fawns getting slaughtered by the predator of the moment? One must not get sentimental about baby Bambi!

Once in a while, a bit of different analysis or data makes it into the mainstream, challenging the macho stories, and I confess it amuses me greatly to be able to forward or quote them:

BBC NEWS | Predators ‘drove human evolution’:
Predators ‘drove human evolution’
By Paul Rincon

The popular view of our ancient ancestors as hunters who conquered all in their way is wrong, researchers have told a major US science conference.

Instead, they argue, early humans were on the menu for predatory beasts.

This may have driven humans to evolve increased levels of co-operation, according to their theory.

Despite humankind’s considerable capacity for war and violence, we are highly sociable animals, according to anthropologists.

James Rilling, at Emory University in Atlanta, US, has been using brain imaging techniques to investigate the biological mechanisms behind co-operation.

He has imaged the brains of people playing a game under experimental conditions that involved choosing between co-operation and non-co-operation.

From the parts of the brain that were activated during the game, he found that mutual co-operation is rewarding; people reacted negatively when partners did not co-operate.

Dr Rilling also discovered that his subjects seemed to have enhanced memory for those people that did not reciprocate in the experiment.


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Feb 21st, 2006 by ravi
In which Dennett receives a well deserved whupping…

Breaking the SpellThere is a certain vulnerability, of over-reaching, in acts of triumphalism that robs the agent of his well-deserved preening (we saw some of that in the fall of Bush (at least in popularity) in short order after proclamations of a ‘mandate’). There was a time when Selfish Gene theorists and other reductionists were somewhat of establishment outsiders and also not favourable with the public. EP and Sociobiology proponents fought hard to reach their current sales rank (Edward Wilson had to endure water being poured on him by indignant students, for instance), and with their most outspoken critic now safely in his grave, it is only natural and deserving that they enjoy the limelight to knock off a few mighty tomes of overarching wisdom.

But as the Eastwood character said in ‘Unforgiven’, it does seem to be not about deserving, at least over at the NYT Book Review, where old Dennett, all around AI and Neo-Darwinism groupie, gets a spanking in a review of his own take on Religion (following Edward Wilson’s attempt at it a few years ago). Read on (and click through) for an entertaining review that almost redeems TNR.

But before I let you proceed to the review, i have to say that I am quite tickled by the reviewer’s identification of scientism and materialism as the force behind some of these lines of thought. I am tickled because I have sitting in the drafts (for this blog) a festering rant about the American Left that ties into some of this stuff. It is particularly funny, to me, that Wieseltier (the reviewer) says:

Dennett’s book is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.

Funny because I was thinking of some parts of the left and their own omniscient white man with a long beard… ;-). But that is another blog post…

The God Genome

‘Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,’ by Daniel C. Dennett
Published: February 19, 2006

THE question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett’s book. “Breaking the Spell” is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.

The orthodoxies of evolutionary psychology are all here, its tiresome way of roaming widely but never leaving its house, its legendary curiosity that somehow always discovers the same thing. The excited materialism of American society — I refer not to the American creed of shopping, according to which a person’s qualities may be known by a person’s brands, but more ominously to the adoption by American culture of biological, economic and technological ways of describing the purposes of human existence — abounds in Dennett’s usefully uninhibited pages. And Dennett’s book is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.

In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero. He is in the business of emancipation, and he reveres himself for it. “By asking for an accounting of the pros and cons of religion, I risk getting poked in the nose or worse,” he declares, “and yet I persist.” Giordano Bruno, with tenure at Tufts! He wonders whether religious people “will have the intellectual honesty and courage to read this book through.” If you disagree with what Dennett says, it is because you fear what he says. Any opposition to his scientistic deflation of religion he triumphantly dismisses as “protectionism.” But people who share Dennett’s view of the world he calls “brights.” Brights are not only intellectually better, they are also ethically better. Did you know that “brights have the lowest divorce rate in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest”? Dennett’s own “sacred values” are “democracy, justice, life, love and truth.” This rigs things nicely. If you refuse his “impeccably hardheaded and rational ontology,” then your sacred values must be tyranny, injustice, death, hatred and falsehood. Dennett is the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name; and in a new era of American obscurantism, this is not helpful.


What’s up with the dudes with big white beards, anyway?

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