Log in

No account? Create an account
entries friends calendar profile Elf Sternberg's Pendorwright Projects Previous Previous Next Next
A disappointing misunderstanding - Elf M. Sternberg
A disappointing misunderstanding
Someone wrote:
A good theory will explain what the world IS and how we can be a part of it--interact with it, make use of it, and so on. Evolutionary biology and Intelligent Design both posit an explanation as to how we got here today. Frankly, is that entirely useful?
This is a saddening, and saddeningly common, misconception about evolutionary biology, one that makes less sense the more you study real biology and its modern implications.

Evolution has almost nothing to do with "how we got here today," any more than modern physics is important to "how the sun got where it is today."

If you look at the real world, the one around you, it's made up of biological organisms that demonstrate a remarkable number of correspondences: organisms with similar taxonomic characteristics all group together in amazingly consistent, nested patterns: all bats are mammals, all mammals are vertabrates, and so on. The taxonomic system is amazingly useful in a way that "designed" systems are not.

For example, there is no relationship between an automobile and its options: there is no nested hierarchy of taxa within automobiles: it's not as if only "all Toyotas have air conditioning" and "all front-wheel-drive cars have power steering." But only mammals have milk, hair, four limbs, endothermia, and a host of characteristics that are shared by all mammals.

What's even more amazing is that this nested hierarchy is confirmed twice: it's in our bodies, in the shapes of our bones and the layout of our organs and the patterns of our hair, and it's in our very genes; we find gene patterns in some species in nested, historical patterns that exist nowhere else. The genetic residue found in each species matches that of its taxonomic history, in a way that is consistent with common descent.

I don't know what you believe "evolution" to be, but I know what evolutionary biology is: it is the unifying framework in which all biology can be understood. Without evolutionary biology, we would have absolutely no hope of understanding the biology going on around us.

Right now, evolutionary biology is helping us understand the emergence of infectious diseases; helps us deal with multi-drug resistance; provides better tools for dealing with falling vaccination efficacies; explains the emergence of xenoinfectious agents like HIV and bird flu; is the very foundation of phylodynamics, which shows how viri and host populations evolve together. But it's not just infectious diseases that evolution helps us deal with: non-infectious diseases like cancer have long been known to have a genetic component, and evolutionary etiology is the hot topic right now in dealing with cancer: how to keep the rapidly mutating cancer cells from evolving effective resistance to chemotherapy, and how and why cancer emerges in some populations in the first place.

Assuming evolution is true now allows researchers to target counter-actives to various hormone processes in the body, which means that searches for new drugs that used to take decades now take months. If you want to know what hormone is most important to, say, hunger, you find some hormone in common between yeast, mice, and fruit flies that regulates appetite, then look for common analogue in humans. Then, if you want to know which one is really important, you search for the cross-mammalian gene sequence that has been preserved the most over millions of years: that got the obestatin team down from 3000 possible candidates they would have had to test in lab animals... to just one.

You cannot make those assumptions any other way that assuming we got here through evolutionary processes. The historicity of evolutionary theory is a consequence of biology: because the interrelatedness of all creatures is a demonstrable fact useful to creating new controls (like obestatin, like antibiotics, like chemotherapies), the historicity of evolution is consequentially true.

Intelligent design reduces biology to stamp collecting, and sends our knowledge of medical and biological necessity back to the 15th century. It was a miracle back then when people started to order lists of flowers and plants by alphabetical order, but taxonomy was still a century away. You have no reason to assume taxonomy is meaningful without assuming evolution. You throw away everything we've learned and cherished in the past century.

I see this sentiment again and again, mostly from poorly informed creationists with an axe to grind: "Evolutionary theory is a historical science that tells us nothing about the present."

That attitude is not just wrong, it's viciously, horribly wrong. It's an attitude that condemns people to death.
Are we going to use this knowledge to predict what our great-great-great-...-great grandchildren are going to be
Who the fuck cares? Really? I don't. But evolution isn't about us, and it's arrogant in the extreme to assume it is. On the other hand, I (and my parents, and my children) ought to really, really care about what disease is going to evolve out of the existing collection of inimical diseases wandering around the planet right now. Because they could evolve as soon as tomorrow. And we if ignore the science that lets us monitor and respond (that is, "to control") them as best we can, we truly deserve the suffering we'll encounter.
As you point out, where ID wins is reliability. Not worrying about "how things got to be" frees us from wasting time thinking about it.
I don't know about you, but I don't believe that reading history is a waste of time. I don't believe that understanding the past is a waste of time. I love history; I love paleontology; I love archeology. To some degree, my understanding of these is shallow and constitutes entertainment, but at least I'm careful to separate what we can know from what we cannot. I was 12 when I realized Chariots of the Gods was fashionable and clever and complete, utter nonsense.

A lack of curiosity is a sad, sad thing.
Accepting that any apparent causality has no discernible nor predictable theory because there is no actual causality because it was all the work of an Intelligent Designer, means that we can focus on how to control our world.
What? "Because we cannot predict and control the world, that gives us power to predict and control the world?" Or are you one of those people who'd rather just be resigned to his or her fate?
Personally, I tend to believe that Evolutionary biology may more likely be the correct explanation rather than Intelligent Design, but I would hate to see ANY money spent on researching either.
102 years ago, Einstein first published the theory of special relativity. It was an interesting theory with no practical applications at all. In fact, it had no practical applications for the first fifty years of its existence. Nobody could really think of any use for it.

Today, our modern computational infrastructure depends upon it. The global positioning system and nuclear magnetoresonance imaging wouldn't exist without out, and both save thousands of lives every year.

But I guess you'd hate to have seen money go to that, too. Five decades ought to have been enough for everyone to realize that throwning money at it was a waste, right?

You can't escape it: either the twin nested hierarchies of morphological taxonomy and genetics exist, are predictive, and are useful, or they aren't. If they are, then the historicity of evolution is undeniable, and it would be perverse to claim otherwise.

Current Mood: confrontational
Current Music: Black Sabbath, War Pigs

3 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 12th, 2007 01:27 am (UTC) (Link)

GPS Dispute

There is a documentary film coming out in 2008 called "Einstein Wrong" that has as one of its backers, a well-known GPS scientist who disputes that relativity is used for GPS.

Just thought you liked to know...

jordan179 From: jordan179 Date: December 12th, 2007 02:53 am (UTC) (Link)
But only mammals have milk, hair, four limbs, endothermia, and a host of characteristics that are shared by all mammals.

That isn't strictly true, but the way in which it isn't actually offers more support for evolutionary theory.

Some birds produce milk-like substances which they use to feed their young, and all birds, some archosaurs, and some fish are endothermic. However, the precise mechanisms by which these are accomplished in different groups differ in ways that clearly show ancestry.

For instance, the archosaur endothermic mechanism seems to have evolved once, and this is why crocodilians are mildly and avians strongly endothermic: the structure of dinosaur bones show how endothermy was carried through dinosaurs and improved to produce modern avian endothermy. Likewise, bird lactatatory mechanisms are not based on exaggerated ventral sweat-glands, but instead on secretions from the crop (an organ mammals don't even possess!) (*).

An Intelligent Designer would presumably have designed one mechanism (say the columbiformid crop) and repeated the design for mammals. Instead, we see that two separate mechanisms accomplish the same thing -- and in a manner that combines with other chracteristics to argue that all mammals evolved from a common ancestor, all birds evolved from a common ancestor, and that it was a different common ancestor.

And so on ...

(*) Interestingly, the avian mechanism seems to be inherently more efficient. This is a common theme with birds, who had to develop very efficient organs to allow them to be light enough to fly.
rapier From: rapier Date: December 12th, 2007 08:05 am (UTC) (Link)
But but but the Lord works in mysterious ways!
3 comments or Leave a comment