Posts Tagged ‘richard dawkins’

Communing with your inner fish

September 3, 2008

Continuing (and concluding) my series entitled “Books I Bought in Seattle,” I will now regale the reader with my impressions of Neil Shubin’s recent book, Your Inner Fish.

The book is an exploration of the history of human evolution, in the only place available to us: the bodies of other animals, extand and ancient. Shubin points out the one-to-one correspondence between the bones in our limbs, and the limbs of all other tetrapods, to those of the Devonian fish he helped discover, Tiktaalik. He describes how the general body plan of vertebrates was in place 550 million years ago in the Cambrian, and perhaps even in the Precambrian, as evidenced by the famous Ediacaran fossils. He similarly explores the evolution of vision, of hearing, of the sense of smell, and points out how all our wonderfully complex sense organs have analogues in far more (seemingly) humble creatures.

Shubin’s lively and playful writing captures the breathless excitement that surrounds each new scientific discovery, and I delighted in his accounts of the findings that shaped our knowledge of evolution. He succeeds in portraying scientists as ordinary people, whose job happens to be probing the underlying nature of the universe. I have to thank him also for his clear explanation of the gene Sonic hedgehog. The only complaint I would level against it is that I fear he sometimes dumbs down his accounts too much; there was more than one place in the book that I felt would benefit from the actual terminology, rather than a more general explanation by analogy. But this is a minor complaint, as evidenced by the fact that I did not provide an example.

The fundamental theme of the book is that, as remarkable as we are, we are an inextricable part of the tapestry of life, no more and no less remarkable than anything else that lives. Everything that makes us what we are is derived from something that ran or flew or swam upon the Earth before. Within each of us is an inner fish, and an inner ape, and an inner reptile, and an inner bacterium (trillions of these, actually); reading Shubin’s book is an excellent way to gain acquaintance with them. (Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale is another.)


Next time someone says evolution is “just a theory…”

June 13, 2008

I waited far too long to listen to this discussion between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss. The topic was science education, and the points the two men raise are absolutely fascinating.

There was one point in particular I wanted to focus on, being the point that inspired the title of this post. The two scientists were having a bit of a laugh at the ancient creationist one-liner “It’s just a theory,” and of course Professor Dawkins pointed out that creationists refer to the colloquial definition of the word “theory,” while scientists use it in a very strict sense. What he said next was fascinating. He explained that when creationists and scientists speak of theory, they’re actually speaking two different languages. In the language that scientists use, which is a rigorous, academic language where words have precise meanings, the creationist word “theory” actually means “hypothesis.” In the colloquial language of creationists, the scientists’ word “theory” translates far better as “fact.”

Professor Dawkins then went on to compare the theory of evolution to the theory that the object on stage was in fact a table, and that empirically all one can hope for is to fail to disprove the hypothesis that it is in fact a table. Perhaps the best job of exposing the ridiculousness of the “it’s just a theory” line I’ve ever seen. I haven’t done it justice, please listen to the discussion!

Can we rebel against our genes?

May 21, 2008 has recently posted a speech by Professor Dawkins at something called the New Scientist & Greenpeace Science debates. As I began to listen to it, my hackles began to rise slightly, because his ideas seemed to clash with passionately held ideas of my own. Fortunately I kept my ears open and my brain switched on, and I think that ultimately I do agree with Professor Dawkins’ thesis, though I’m not sure if I’ve understood it in the way he intended. I will try to put my thoughts in order here.


The Hovind Scale

May 9, 2008

I spend what most would probably consider an unhealthy amount of time discussing and arguing in favor of (and mostly learning about) evolution at the forums. Because it’s a pretty high-profile site, a lot of creationists try to argue their “case” as well. This is fine, of course, and I actually came to anticipate them, as they provide good practice for arguing the unassailable side of science. As I read the creationists’ posts, however, and saw the same tired misunderstandings of science and the same egregious quotemines of respectable scientists, I came up with the idea for a method of objectively categorizing just how scientifically inaccurate, just how mendacious, just how wrong creationist arguments are. I came up with the idea for the Hovind Scale. (You may need a membership at the forum to see it there.) It’s named of course, for Kent Hovind, and for scales.


Sexuality and Discontinuous Thinking

May 8, 2008

I can’t recommend Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale enough. The UK hardcover edition, at least, is beautifully bound, breathtakingly illustrated, and endlessly fascinating. But I’ll leave the commercial there. I bring it up because in a part of the book called “The Grasshopper’s Tale” (if I remember correctly) Dawkins cautions against “discontinuous thinking.” This is the habit of grouping things into distinct, mutually exclusive categories, such as “short” and “tall” or “black” and “white,” when in reality these qualities fall on a continuum. A Scientific American podcast I listened to recently referenced a study into sexual orientation that suggests that “gay” and “straight” may need to be added to the list.

The podcast referred to an article in Scientific American Mind, which is freely available on the author’s website. (I acknowledge that this is pretty old.) The article appears to be mostly a persuasive piece, but at the end Dr. Epstein describes his index, the Sexual Orientation Continuum, which is designed to tell you how “gay” or “straight” you are. (Why “straight?” Are gay people “crooked?”)

This is a fascinating idea to me, and one I endorse purely for aesthetic reasons, though I’d like to see more research done. I think, for example, that much of the difficulty many people have in accepting evolution is their habit of looking at different species as distinct “kinds” of organisms. They are victims of discontinuous thinking, failing to understand that “species” is a purely arbitrary distinction, useable only because so many of the intermediate species are extinct. It seems to me that this same difficulty pervades many people’s thinking about sexual orientation.

The article boils down to this: people can’t be tidily assigned to either the “homo” or “hetero” camps. There is a continuum from 100% gay to 100% straight, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle (though for obvious evolutionary reasons, the distribution skews strongly to the “straight” side.) Dr. Epstein’s test can be taken for free online. Why not give it a try?

(I got a mean of 0.5 with a range of 1, for anyone who’s wondering. How boring!)