Category Archives: Charles Darwin

Black swans and other deviations: like evolution, all scientific theories are a work in progress

EPA, CC BY-SA

Discussions about the nature of science and scientific theories are often confused by the outdated view that such theories are rendered false when anomalies arise. The notion of a scientific theory as a static object should be replaced with the more current view that it is part of a living research programme, which can broaden its scope into new areas.

For example, take the hypothesis that all swans are white, which seemed pretty good to Europeans until Dutch explorers found black swans in Australia in 1636. So what happens to our hypothesis? There are a number of options.

1) Redefine swan-ness to include whiteness. Then black swans aren’t really swans, and the hypothesis remains true by definition.

2) It’s been disproved. Discard it.

3) Compare different species of swan the world over, and see how well black swans fit in.

(1) is the least useful. Definitions can only tell us about how we are using words. They tell us nothing about the world that those words attempt to describe. (2) is based on the common-sense idea that hypotheses should be discarded when falsified by observation. This was the idea put forward by philosopher Karl Popper in the 1930s, to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

He saw psychoanalysis, for example, as pseudoscience because disagreement with its findings can always be explained away as a result of repression. Popper’s 1930s view has a great deal to commend it, but throws out a lot of babies with the bathwater. (3) is how science actually works, as Popper and his colleagues, who challenged traditional views of how science works, had realised by the 1970s. https://www.youtube.com/embed/mE590aeTdqE?wmode=transparent&start=0 GoJo Media/YouTube.

In our example, the black swan was an anomaly, but any major scientific theory will have anomalies. Newton’s theory of planetary motion could not explain the orbit of Mercury, an anomaly that was known for decades before Albert Einstein explained it with his general theory of relativity. Despite this anomaly, Newton’s theory was retained because there is so much that it does explain. A theory is not meant to be a final statement of how things are, but just the latest stage of a research programme in continual progress.

Evolution as theory and research

In the 18th century, the existence of family relationships between different species was spelt out in the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus’s grouping of living things into species, genera, orders and so on, but there was no suggestion of how things got that way. By the 1820s, the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was talking about inheritance of characteristics acquired as the result of striving (as the giraffe’s ancestors strived to reach higher into the trees).

By 1859, naturalist-biologists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace independently came up with the idea of natural selection as the primary driver of evolution. Natural selection, that is, operating on variation, but with no understanding of where the variants came from, or how that variation was inherited.

In the early 20th century came the discovery of mutations as a source of variants and the incorporation of the Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel’s genetics into evolution science, but as yet without knowledge of the material basis of mutation and inheritance. This emerged in the 1940s, when DNA was recognised as the genetic material. Then from the 1950s onwards there was the determination of its structure and the cracking of the genetic code that revealed how it directs the formation of proteins.

Alfred Russel Wallace discovered natural selection along with Charles Darwin.

Since then, we have recognised that evolution is governed by chance as well as by selection, that inheritance is complicated by things like gene duplication (where a chunk of DNA is copied twice and each copy can then evolve independently), horizontal gene transfer (where DNA is transferred between species), and even the incorporation of genetic material from viruses into our own genetic material. And of course there are plenty of other things that we still don’t understand … Yet.

So at every stage, we have an imperfect theory, full of gaps and inconsistencies, but one that emerges all the stronger from scrutiny of its imperfections. Like atomic theory, it has developed in ways that its originators could not even have imagined, with growing understanding at all levels from individual molecules to the genetics of populations. And like atomic theory it is fundamental to our understanding of the science that has grown up around it. Biology without evolution is like chemistry without atoms.

The possibility of correction

Sometimes we tells students that “the scientific method” consists in gathering data, formulating hypotheses to explain them and then collecting more data to see if the hypotheses stand up. At other times, we tell them that it consists in formulating hypotheses, collecting data and rejecting the hypotheses if the data don’t fit. Such views are much too simple and make scientific research sound like following a rather boring recipe.

The first step in any scientific enquiry is deciding that something is worth looking at. So the possible results must be worth having and the research programme must have some prospect of success. The next thing is continual dialogue between hypotheses and data. The hypotheses must be open to modification in the light of the data and must always remain open in principle to correction in the light of further knowledge. This commitment to the possibility of correction is known as fallibilism, and is one thing that all scientific endeavours have in common.

Beyond that, I see no point in pretending that science has a single method (it doesn’t), or in trying to draw a hard and fast line between scientific knowledge and other kinds of knowledge about the world (there isn’t one).

What about the swans?

Meantime, DNA evidence shows that the different white swan species whooper swan, tundra swan and mute swan are closely related, with the Australian black swan as their first cousin. Surprisingly, the black-necked swan of South America is a more distant relation.

Europeans thought swans were white until Dutch explorers discovered black swans in Australia in the 17th century. EPA, CC BY-SA

Other questions suggest themselves. Is there any link between geographical distribution and closeness of relationship? When and where did the separate species arise? Do the differences in colour have any survival value, and if so, what?

So by now, our original swan hypothesis, based on appearance, has been greatly modified, and given rise to a whole range of new questions involving molecular similarities, adaptive evolution vs neutral drift, biogeography and the fossil record. That’s science.

Paul Braterman, Hon. Research Fellow; Professor Emeritus, University of Glasgow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

“Gold of the gaps”, the Discovery Institute, and Intelligent Design

The Panda's ThumbThis from Matt Young on pandasthumb:

Gold of the gaps

Does gold have a purpose? asks an unnamed author in Evolution News & Science Today. The author goes on to observe that there is more gold on earth than astrophysicists can account for and also that gold has risen to the surface of the earth faster than might be expected. They go on to note the “availability of many essential elements at the surface of the earth …” and also discuss the use of gold in medicine. They are somewhat breathless at the discovery that the body can metabolize gold:

Gold nanoparticles, which are supposed to be stable in biological environments, can be degraded inside cells, [boldface in original]

even though, as they note, gold salts have been used for decades in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

At any rate, the article stresses the “mystery of biological gold” and claims several hints why gold may have a purpose: its abundance and seemingly unlikely transport to the surface of the earth, the ability of cells to “metabolize” [sic] gold, the fact that gold persists in the body, and the usefulness of gold for therapeutics. The conclusion of the article is Read the rest of this entry

Evolution, creationism, and US VP Mike Pence

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Mike Pence is a highly intelligent and extremely able trial lawyer, and a committed creationist. As I write, he is one heartbeat (or should we now say one breath?) away from being President of the United States, and in the event that Donald Trump manages to retain power in November, will be his heir apparent. Here is what I wrote about his stated views on creationism and evolution not long after he was sworn in as Vice-President. I hope that four weeks from today all of this will be of historical interest only, and am reposting this in order to help make that happen.

Above: Donald Trump risen from his hospital bed to reveal himself to his followers (Getty Images via Business Insider)

The now Vice-President of the United States stands accused of having said that evolution is “just a theory”; see here and here. No he did not say that. What he did say (full text below, with notes) was far, far worse. Much more detailed, much more closely argued, and much more dangerous. Read the rest of this entry

A new argument against evolution

This from the Hebrides News:

If, as evolutionists claim, all of mankind evolved from the same primitive life-source, then how did we end up with 7,000 different languages? The Bible teaches in Genesis 11: 7-,9 that God created all the different languages at Babel…

If mankind had advanced through a so-called evolutionary process, then there should still be developing languages today. However, the stark fact is mankind’s languages are vanishing from civilization at an alarming rate – thus proving that evolution is a lie. And if evolution were true, then the process by which mankind has obtained 7,000 languages would be continuing today. Has the evolutionary process ceased? According to the Bible it never happened in the first place.

The Earth, of course, is 6,000 years old. As for purported evidence to the contrary, Read the rest of this entry

The Case Against Evolution – turning Chick on its head!!

From Old Earth Ministries by way of my friend Michael Roberts. Covers the scientific bases clearly and comprehensively, before exposing the contorted theology of Young Earth Creationism, and the arrogant presumption of its claim that evolution is incompatible with Christianity.

Disclosure: I see difficulties with religious beliefs, but these are not increased (perhaps the contrary) by our knowledge of evolution, and since they are not my difficulties it is not my place to comment on them, other than to point out that the YECist claim to “own” Christianity (or any other religion) is plainly false

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

Another good strip cartoon arguing for evolution in the style of Jack Chick  – without the spite

Source: The Case Against Evolution

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What the Bishop said to the Biologist; a Victorian scandal revisited

Yes, Bishop Wilberforce really did ask TH Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”, whether he would prefer an ape for his grandfather, and a woman for his grandmother, or a man for his grandfather, and an ape for his grandmother. And Huxley really did say that he would prefer this to descent from a man conspicuous for his talents and eloquence, but who misused his gifts to ridicule science and obscure the light of truth. This and more at the very first public debate regarding Darwin’s work on evolution, only months after the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Oxf-uni-mus-nhL: The Oxford Museum of Natural History, where the event took place. Click on this and other images to enlarge

The debate took place at the May 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The actual exchange is whitewashed out of the account of the meeting in the gentlemanly Athenaeum, leading some historians to wonder whether it really occurred, but a recently rediscovered contemporary account places the matter beyond doubt. What I find even more interesting, however, is the way in which argument and counter-argument between Wilberforce and Huxley, and between other supporters and opponents of the concept of evolution, prefigure arguments still being used today.

image from upload.wikimedia.orgR: 150th anniversary commemorative plaque, outside the Museum

The Athenaeum account is freely available here. The fuller account, Read the rest of this entry

How to learn from creationists

“The wise learn from everyone.”1 The freak success (half a million reads) of my recent piece How to slam dunk creationists, and the subsequent discussion, have again set me thinking about how to learn from creationists. It is not enough to say, as Dawkins notoriously said, “[I]f you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” Conversation is a two-way street, I have certainly learnt from creationists’ attacks on evolution, and if I am learning from them it is at least possible that they are learning from me.

Types of comment

Comments I have had from creationists fall into three broad groups (and note that contrary to what Dawkins says, some of these are at least partly informed, highly intelligent, and completely rational):

1) Simple misstatements

2) Appeal to the Bible

3) Purportedly scientific arguments, some without merit, while others refer to important issues.

From simple misstatements, not very much can be learnt, except perhaps the source of the misinformation. Remember that if someone quotes wrong information, the burden of proof is not on you but on them. Leave it there, as in this actual exchange: Read the rest of this entry

Darwin’s Boulders

From my friend the Rev Michael Roberts. How Buckland and then Darwin, exploring in Wales, came to accept Agassiz’ Ice Age theory, with Michael’s own stunning images of locales. And no kittens, I’m afraid, but a field assistant [sic] dog

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

In June 1842 Charles Darwin undertook his last geological field trip. He was at his father’s house, The Mount  in Shrewsbury, that month and after a winter of sickness, he felt somewhat better. Thus, he went in his gig to Snowdonia to assess whether Buckland was correct in identifying proof of a former Ice Age. In October 1841 William Buckland travelled to Wales with Thomas Sopwith (his grandson designed the Sopwith Camel, a WW1 fighter plane) to see whether Agassiz could be right about a former Ice Age. In a few days of horrendous Welsh weather Buckland identified all the main glacial troughs

Buckland

Buckland dressed for Welsh Glaciers by Thomas Sopwith

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View from top of Y Garn 3104ft showing the Llugwy trough leading to Capel Curig, Llyn Idwal, a morainic lake.

To the left is Nant Francon, viewed below – with embellishments.

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In 1831 de la Beche painted this watercolour…

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Creationist nonsense on geology; the odd case of Prof McIntosh D.Sc.

Image result for andy mcintoshCatastrophism versus gradualism; this controversy was laid to rest by TH Huxley in his 1869 Address to the Geological Society, but UK Young Earth Creationists persist in parading the corpse as if it presented a living challenge to current thinking. Perhaps it appeals to their absolutist binary mindset.

McIntosh himself is a member of the group mendaciously mislabelled Truth in Science, which distributed the equally mendacious neo-creationist tract Exploring Evolution to UK schools some years ago, and is an author of the error-saturated Origins, Examining the Evidence, published by that group. BCSE has published a detailed review of Exploring Evolution here.

This piece by my friend, the geologist historian Anglican priest Michael Roberts, will tell you more about McIntosh’s writing than you wish to know, but will convey a wealth of fascinating geological and historical information in the process.

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

THE GEOLOGY OF GENESIS FOR TODAY

Image result for andy mcintosh

One of the best selling British creationist books is Genesis for Today by Andy McIntosh, which is now in its 5th edition. https://www.dayone.co.uk/products/genesis-for-today

Most of the book is a popular exposition of Genesis 1 to 11 – and some of it I agree with, but not his insistence that it is literal history.

In Genesis for Today McIntosh gives three scientific appendices, which are much the same in the 1st and 5th editions.  I could either go through and nit-pick his geological errors or consider them under main headings. I have chosen the latter.

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Most would think that a professor in a scientific discipline at a leading university (with a first-rate geology department) would be able to make a reasonable showing on geology.Many amateurs and non-geologists I’ve met in geological societies have a clear grasp.

From the whole of his book, other writings and…

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Sahelanthropus, evolution, and the word “theory”; what Mike Pence really said

The now Vice-President of the United States stands accused of having said that evolution is “just a theory”; see here and here. No he did not say that. What he did say (full text below, with notes) was far, far worse. Much more detailed and much more dangerous.

L: Pence being sworn in as a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee (CNN)

After reminding us that he was trained in law and history, he mangles the historical facts and legal significance of a key court case (the Scopes trial).

By quotemining a secondary source,* which he treats as if primary, he twists the then-recent discovery of Sahelanthropus into an argument against the underlying science. It is changeable, he argues, therefore it is uncertain.

He justifies this manoeuvre by harping on the ambiguous word “theory”, and making a falsely rigid distinction between theory and fact.

Below, R: Sahelanthropus tchadensis, photo of cast by Didier Discouens, via Wikipediahttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fc/Sahelanthropus_tchadensis_-_TM_266-01-060-1.jpg

And worst of all, he asks his colleagues to “demand [emphasis added] that educators around America teach evolution not as fact, but as theory”. The proponent, when it suits him, of small Government wants Washington to tell teachers how to teach.

Pence has been accused of stupidity because of the factual and logical errors contained in his speech. On the contrary, Read the rest of this entry

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