Sunday, 19 May 2013

Let's try to find out

I'm glad people are moving away from 'god did it' and are going with 'let's try to find out'. We no longer need to rely on faith for the answers to anything. We have investigative methods that we can use to show us actual answers. Verifiable answers. Answers that are unambiguous and need no interpretation. 

The problem with 'god did it' is that it's the ultimate non-answer. It's totally intellectually unsatisfying. Once you've assumed god did it where's the desire to pursue knowledge? What fuels the quest to find out more? If one assumes that our universe was created by a god and that all that we see is part of this god's plan then why would we bother to try to find out what's really going on? We would stop looking because we assume we already have the answer - 'God'. 

Alternately the joy of learning is fuelled by the desire to know more. It's curiosity about what we don't know but want to know. We investigate, study and analyse. We show our results to our peers and get them to check that what we've done is valid. We ask them to look into things too and see if their findings are the same as ours. We're not satisfied with knowledge gaps and nor should we be.

We should be comfortable with not knowing everything *yet*. Comfortable that we have a gap in our knowledge, while we actively try to fill that gap. What we shouldn't be comfortable with is trying to fill that gap with the strange superstitions of pre-science shepherds. When we do this 'God' basically becomes a synonym for 'I don't know and I'm either too stupid or too lazy to find out'. How can anyone possibly find that satisfying?

Imagine the possibilities if everyone thought 'hey, let's look into that' instead of praying to deity that's never going to answer them. I wonder how many bright minds have been wasted by the thought 'god did it' rather than 'how do you suggest we find out?'

As a society I think we'll benefit far more if we are driven by the desire for knowledge rather than being held back by the desire to worship. I want our children to reject the idea that we should rest our understanding of the universe on 'well how else did we get here?' Instead of 'Well if god isn't real, where did all this stuff come from?' We need only ask, 'From where did all this stuff come?' 

If we investigate and find that the superstitious writings of pre-science shepherds are actually accurate then, and only after this investigation, should we accept them. And if this happens I'll stand on a busy street corner and shout 'I was wrong!'

But until this happens, let's not settle. Let's not rely on the guesses and assumptions of people that didn't have investigative skills. Let's keep looking. Let's keep investigating and testing and experimenting and checking. 

I much prefer 'this is what we think and this is why we think it' over 'you just need to have faith'. I don't want to accept anything on faith - I want evidence. I don't understand why anyone is happy to have 'faith'. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

An open letter to argumentative evolution deniers.

I've read many and been part of many conversations about evolution. It's always atheists (often biologists) on one side and theists (never biologists) on the other. Most commonly it's theists refusing to accept any argument for evolution whilst continuing  to argue against something that evolution is not. 

It includes tweets that  show a lack of understanding that we are animals, that we "believe evolution as fact without evidence" and the old standard "r u saying u believe evolution to b 100% true? U just admitted its a theory."

It's a shame and a frustration that people think like this. I was part of yet another one of these conversations yesterday. For some reason it felt more frustrating than usual. There was something about the dogged determination of the people on the denial side. That happens all the time, but...there was a level to this that went beyond what I'd seen before. I then happened across a tweet that said 'It's like talking to a brick wall'. This was not one of the biologists to another biologist (which would have been perfectly understandable), but one of the theists to the other. It prompted me to send a few tweets which I'm turning into an open letter to argumentative evolution deniers.

Dear Evolution Denier. 

I understand that talking to someone who won't accept the evidence before them can be likened to talking to a brick wall. There's a unique frustration when presenting someone with evidence and they have a steadfast refusal to accept it. 

It does seem, though, that  you have a terrible misunderstanding of what evolution is. Actually, it seems that you're completely clueless as to what evolution is. Evolution: the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. Is that really so hard to understand? Now don't get me wrong, there's a lot more to understanding evolution than just that, but that's it at its most basic definition. 

It takes no 'faith' to accept this. It's not a belief or a religion. It is an observable and demonstrable fact. As species reproduce, things change and we can see it happen. We can MAKE it happen. We can see it happen with Ring Species, we've made it happen with dogs (modern canines are descendants of long-ago wolves). These are just two examples. The process is slow. For example, mouse sized mammals to elephants took around 24 million generations. The changes are slight, not dramatic. If you follow your evolutionary path back to the origin of life, you'll see that each generation is as similar to the previous as you are to your own parents. Evolution takes A LONG TIME. To quote a shampoo commercial, it doesn't happen over night, but it does happen. 

What evolution is NOT is one species giving birth to a new species. A monkey is not going to give birth to a human (more on why there are still monkeys later). Evolution is also NOT the existence of strange half-breeds such as the Crocoduck. What you evolution deniers fail to understand is that a monkey giving birth to a human being or the sudden appearance of the Crocoduck would actually DISPROVE the theory of evolution. This is how much you misunderstand what evolution is. One species suddenly appearing, fully formed, as the very next generation to a different species is NOT what the theory of evolution says. Remember what I wrote about each generation being as similar to the previous as you are to your parents? THAT is what evolution says. So please, quit demanding that we show you a Crocoduck, and quit asking for a monkey to give birth to a human being. Saying these things only confirms your massive misunderstanding of what evolution is. 

Speaking of monkeys, why are there still monkeys? It's a very common question about evolution. As I child I asked the question myself. Evolution deniers get it into their heads that human beings evolved from modern day monkeys or apes. If that is the case, they ask, how is it that we can still see monkeys? Surely if we evolved from them, they should be extinct! And here in lies the problem, yet another misunderstanding. We humans did NOT evolve from modern monkeys or apes. We ARE apes and we evolved WITH the other apes. A term you should familiarise yourself with is 'common ancestor'. Humans and the other apes share a common ancestor. We ALL evolved from it. Our evolutionary timelines split at different stages. Our common ancestor with the Orang-utan is a lot further back than our common ancestor with Gorillas. Our common ancestor with Gorillas is a lot further back than our common ancestor with Chimps. Chimps and Bonobos share a closer common ancestor again, one that we don't share with them. Professor Richard Dawkins explains this below. It's just 1 minute a 47 seconds. Please spare the time...

If you have a bit more time (7 minutes 2 seconds for example) please watch the fantastic presentation by Steve Shives. Steve goes into a bit more detail and also explains how one species can still exist even if another has evolved from it. 

I hope you took the time to watch them, they are short, but really quite informative videos. 

As Steve explains in his video. part of the issue with 'why are there still monkeys' is the assumption that humans are further along the evolutionary ladder than the monkey. That if we 'the new and improved model' exist, how can the old and inferior model exist? I need to point out here that evolution is not a ladder, it's not lineal and there is no reason to think that humans are evolution's 'goal'. (If evolution did have a goal, I would certainly hope that humans were not it!) Evolution is a tree, not a ladder. There are millions of branches and we are as evolved as all other current species. Part of the blame for this misunderstanding must lie with pictures like this: 

This picture makes it look a chimpanzee gave birth to a more upright monkey/ape type thing and this process repeated as we stood straighter and straighter, lost most of our hair until out of an ancestor hominid popped 'modern man'. As discussed above, this is not how evolution works. 
This picture:

Is a MUCH better graphical example of how evolution works. For a larger version of this picture, click here. As you will see, fungi, centipedes, sea urchins, and salmon are as far, in terms of years, from the start of evolution as elephants, rabbits, and humans. They have just evolved down different paths. They have branched differently to the path taken to get humans. And to reinforce an earlier point, take a look at the number of years involved...evolution takes a long time!

Now if you've made it this far, and thank you if you have, you're possibly thinking to yourself 'How can you be going on about this, evolution is just a theory'. Yes, well the short answer is 'so is gravity, but I bet you won't leave a tall building via a 12th storey window'. 

The longer answer is that when we say 'theory' in everyday language, we're using it as synonymous with 'guess' or a 'hunch' or perhaps it's even a little more solid than that. But this is not what's meant by 'theory' in 'scientific theory'. Eugenie Scott describes scientific terms, including Theory, here. Briefly, a scientific theory is an explanation of observed phenomena. Laws are used to describe facts and observations and theories are used to describe laws. Theories are "the most important things in science". Theories don't "grow" to become laws, laws are part of the group of data that contributes to a theory. Theories are the TOP of the scientific tree. Theories are built on mountains of evidence. They exist because all the relevant evidence supports them and no evidence disproves them. 

Important to note - Evolution is a FACT (remember, evolution is: "The change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations") The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection and Genetic Mutation is the scientific explanation of this fact. It has been studied, scrutinised and tested for 150 years and is supported by all the relevant evidence. As with asking for a crocoduck and asking why there are still monkeys, when you say 'just a theory' you are immediately exposing to everyone that you have no idea what you're talking about. Don't do it. 

Micro v Macro evolution. This is another old chestnut that we hear from creationists. When evolution was proven beyond reasonable doubt, and some evolution deniers finally realised evolution is observable, they had little room to hide. So the claims that 'micro' evolution is true but 'macro' evolution is false, because it's never been observed, started to rise. What you don't understand when you don't understand evolution is that micro and macro are the same process - macro is just over a longer time period. Macroevolutionary studies focus on change that occurs above the level of species. Microevolutionary studies focus on change that happens within a species. To say that micro evolution can happen but macro evolution can't happen is like saying you can build a brick wall, but you can't build a brick house. Or that you can move ten metres, but you can't walk 10 kilometres. 

Put simply, macro evolution is the result of micro evolution happening a lot. Remember, evolution is change over time and differences in generations take a long time to happen. Even if that change is very, very slight, do it enough and eventually you're going to end up with something very different from where you started. 

Just quickly - don't come at me with 'there's no transitional fossils.' There ARE. There are, in fact, thousands of them. Here is a great FAQ about them. When you say there's no transitional fossils, you are exposing to everyone that you have no idea what you're talking about.

My last point I'd like to address is the claim that evolution is not supported by evidence and that it requires just as much faith as religion. Wrong. Evolution is OBSERVABLE. That's right, evolution - the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations - can be OBSERVED. It's not a guess. It's not a hunch. It's observed and verified and if you bothered to do a little bit of research you would know this. The study of evolution is something you learn in university, years of university. Then you do lab work and field work and more research and more study. The basics of evolution are - basic, but evolution is complex. It's a massive area of science and it is NOT something you can expect to learn on twitter at 140 characters a time. I have never met anyone that both understands and rejects evolution. As Professor Richard Dawkins says - Evolution is almost universally accepted among those who understand it and almost universally rejected by those who don't. I can almost guarantee that you argue against evolution because you have some misunderstanding about it. 

The good thing is that there are several wonderful resources available on the internet to get a basic understanding of evolution and to allow yourself to move from uneducated and ignorant evolution denier to educated evolution accepter. Below are some of the best... A massive resource. Probably the best on the internet. Pages and pages of data, explanations and references. If you read your way through this website with an open mind and STILL reject evolution then I don't know what else I can do for you. As the name suggest a list of frequently asked questions about evolution. Great to get a basic understanding evolutionary terms and introductory level information. There's also some articles and videos. Again, as the name suggests, this is the Berkeley university 'Evolution 101' website. A wonderful resource for beginning your journey to understanding the fact of evolution.. Over 300,000 scientific articles citing evolution. cholar?hl=en&q=evolution&btnG=&as_sdt=1%2C5&as_sdtp= Over 4 million pieces of scholarly literature when searching evolution. 

There are also some books that you should read:

The Greatest Show On Earth, the Case for Evolution - Richard Dawkins

Why Evolution is True - Jerry Coyne (there's also a YouTube video of the same name by Jerry which is very much worth watching). 

Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction - Eugenie C. Scott

Well congratulations for making it to the end. I hope you have actually paid attention and have learnt something. I hope you take these points on board and if you do, for some strange reason, still feel the need to argue against evolution, please don't use any of the arguments above, because as I've said a number of times, saying those things doesn't disprove evolution, saying those things proves you don't know what you're talking about. 

Thanks for your time.