Archive: October, 2011
Several weeks ago, I got a question via voice mail that reflected an issue Charles Darwin himself raised: "I was curious about the situation with dogs," this reader said. ". . . Some look entirely different from others. They say all dogs came from the wolf." While he understood that dogs were shaped by breeding, he wondered whether the diversity of dogs could be considered a form of evolution.
Dogs do hold the record as the world's most diverse land mammal, said Elaine Ostrander, a geneticist who studies dogs at the National Institutes of Health. The largest dogs are 40 times the size of the smallest ones. They come with different coats, head shapes, snouts, and behaviors. Ostrander's work uncovers the DNA differences that make this variability possible.
Darwin used dog diversity in the very first chapter of On the Origin of Species to help make a case for evolution and explain the mechanism behind it as a natural analogue to breeding. "Who can believe," Darwin wrote, "that animals closely resembling the Italian greyhound, the bloodhound, the bulldog or the Blenheim spaniel ... ever existed freely in a state of nature?"
Watch for my weekly column to appear tomorrow. In the afternoon I leave for Penn State University, where I’ll be interviewing various scientists about evolution and talking to biologist Andrew Read’s class in science for non-majors. He asked me address the following questions:
- how you balance stories esp when one side is loony
- how do you do complexities in 200 words - e.g. complex non-science implications, or the science itself is complex
- health stories
- you could also talk about the Mike Mann saga - how you handled that etc.
- why you do an evolution column
- what are the main challenges for science journalists?
- if you guys are doing such a good job, why is the standard of public discourse in science so poor?
More Dispatches from Darwin: “Randy Roos”, a Pig that’s “Makin Bacon” and The Ever Present Threat of Crocs
When Darwinians talk about crocs, they don't mean ugly shoes.
While on a science expedition in Northern Australia, OSU biologist Tim Berra managed to send a few clips from the NT Times, which is the newspaper that serves the people of Darwin. These stories would make any reporter in Philadelphia jealous. Sure, we have Vince Fumo but Darwinians have a sex-crazed pig named Harry Trotter who’s been rampaging through town copulating with trash cans.
The Inquirer would be so all over that story. We had a loose cow in Upper Darby once, and it didn’t have to have sex with anything to make the front page. As if that weren’t news enough, Darwinians have a kangaroo flasher.
I would totally go to this if I didn't have other plans that involve sailing. Lewis Mifsud is a forensic engineer and physicist, a member of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking(PHACT) and an all around fascinating person. He's testified as an expert scientific witness in more than 600 cases. I had the honor of meeting him last year at the PHACT Winter Solstice party.
Tomorrow he'll talk about fingerprints and DNA at Penn State Abington. The talk starts at 2:30 and I'm sure at $5 it will be a bargain. To Register email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 215-881-7800.
A reader sent this via email in response to my column on Hitler and evolution:
To answer your question: no! Religion, morality, virtue give meaning to life. Life without them lacks meaning.
Next species evolving, humans and apes included, has nothing to do with creation. I'll ask once again: if humans evolved from apes, why are apes still apes? Common sense dictates the answer. One doesn't need to purport to be a scientist to elucidate an answer.
Anyone care to take a stab at this? What better thing to contemplate on a snowy October day! It’s very similar to a question posed by Christine O’Donnell some time ago, though she asked why there were still monkeys. Here’s a little snipped from a story I wrote about the way O’Donnell’s question would have made more sense if the Lamarckian version of evolution turned out to be right. She gave me an excuse to learn something fun about the history of science:
Yesterday I had a Skype chat with Ohio State University biologist Tim Berra, who is down under in Darwin, giving talks about the town’s namesake and dodging the crocs in search of elusive nurseryfish. These river-dwellers are noted for the way the males carry eggs around on a hook-like appendage sticking out of their heads. Berra has been making trips to Darwin since 2001, navigating the Adelaide River in a 15-foot aluminum boat, which he says has more than a few crocodile bite marks.
In addition to hunting exotic fish, Berra writes about evolution. Last spring he sent me a copy of his latest book, Charles Darwin: The Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man. It’s just 100 pages but loaded with fascinating details about Darwin’s life and science, as well as the impact of his work. It’s also full of illustrations including one that explains why Darwin was so fascinated by pigeons.
Darwin the town is in the tropical North coast of Australia, where it’s now sliding from the dry season into the wet. Days are over 90 degrees, he said, but he likes it hot. So far he’s taken three boat trips and netted 16 male and 4 female nurseryfish.
Why is it that to creationists label everyone who accepts current biology as a “Darwinist”? It's as if scientific knowelged equates to some kind of political ideology. We don’t call physicists “Einsteinists” or astronomers “Hubbleites”. In this critique of my last column, Richard Weikart asserts that if I accept evolution, I must also accept that I can’t criticize Hitler. This is published on a site called "Evolution News and Views" which looks suspiciously like a creationist/intelligent design website.
She concludes her article by asking, "If our lives really did hinge on countless accidents, couldn't that notion make life ever more precious?" Again, she is smuggling ideas into her argument that are fundamentally incompatible with her worldview. "Precious" implies that something has value, meaning, and significance; indeed it means that something has more value than other things. However, a naturalistic understanding of Darwinism cannot sustain the notion that life is precious, because everything, not just life, is the product of chance and would be equally valuable, making life no more precious than anything else in the cosmos. A lump of coal or a dung heap is every bit as much the product of countless accidents as you are. Does that make them precious? Many Darwinists today, such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, reject the idea that human life is special and has any meaning or purpose.
I'm not sure Coyne or Dawkins ever said anything like that. Weikart gives no references there. As Scott Gilbert so eloquently put it in this follow-up post, we endow life with meaning and purpose.
Responses to Hitler/Darwin Column, Including an Argument That We Do Need a Heavenly Gaseous Vertebrate, aka God, To Be Good.
I received so many great responses to Monday’s column that I’ve only now finished reading them. Here’s one I think correctly points out the crux of the dispute: The contention that a fully naturalistic worldview precludes any source of morality. This reader believes that it does – and that the element of chance inherent in evolution influenced not only Hitler but serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer:
Your article examines whether Hitler was influenced by the theory of evolution, argues that Richard Weikart (who accepts , as I do, the theory of evolution as a valid, if incomplete, scientific theory) is trying to connect Darwin and Hitler to promote creationism, and suggests that science explains it all.
Of course, the fundamental question raised by your article is whether or not life has any meaning or purpose. You quote Richard Weikart as saying, "If everything is a product of chance - purposeless - which is widespread in biology textbooks ... then I don't think you have any grounds to criticize Hitler." You say, “Those are fighting words”, leading the reader to think that others have challenged the statement. But what follows is Robert Richard’s belief that Hitler was not a Darwinian. How does Professor Richard’s position on whether Hitler was a Darwinian “fight” Weikart’s statement?