F.F. I'm thinking about giving Higgs a chance to co-blog every Tuesday. Here are some of his most recent thoughts about evolution.
Higgs: After some months of co-blogging on the subject of evolution, I’ve learned that humanity has a strange obsession with finding those traits that render you uniquely human – qualities that you hope will set you apart from all the other animals. In search of those defining traits, you’ve considered self-awareness, consciousness, artistic expression, tool use, language, empathy, self-discipline, capacity for planning, fear of death, and the preference for grilled meat over raw.
Some of these traits are not shared by all humans. And some are shared with other animals.
FF: Someone wiser than I am once told me it's better not to argue with irrational people. That's usually true, but not always. At this point I'm turning the post over to my co-blogger Higgs.
Higgs: Hi people. Higgs here. I wanted to share this video which shows one of my favorite humans, Stephen Colbert, toying with a creationist the way a cat would play with a mouse before devouring it. Colbert’s swipes are so quick and skillful that his prey isn’t even sure he’s being eaten for breakfast. Enjoy.
Despite the fact that we can’t see oxygen or carbon dioxide in our air, the existence of these invisible gases is not a radical theory but a well-established science. Back in the 1800s, physicist Michael Faraday used a series of experiments involving a candle flame to show children how to reveal such otherwise invisible gases. He also demonstrated how different invisible gases behave quite differently from one another. Some fed flames, for example. Some extinguished them.
I thought about Faraday’s lectures when I read this story over the weekend in the New York Times, describing a controversy that surrounds a Discovery Channel documentary about the Earth’s polar regions.
According to the story, the film is full of visual evidence for melting glaciers, shrinking sea ice and threats to wildlife. And yet, there’s a conspicuous absence of any mention of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases as probable causes:
The relevance of evolution to the origin of life came up in the comments following yesterday's post. That may not be a coincidence, since I had been working on this piece at the time and talking to scientists who envision the origin of life as an evolutionary process. How could "chemical slop" become life? A closer look reveals that some chemicals are not as sloppy as they appear to the untrained eye.
This column will also a appear in Monday's Inquirer:
Blurring the lines between life and inanimate matter, biologists announced today that they’d created six different chemical alternatives to DNA and coaxed them to undergo evolution.
It’s not only members of the religious right who go around saying science is a form of faith. I just found out from the blog Cosmic Variance that Jon Stewart has made similar claims on his show. Stewart uses antimatter as an example of something scientists just believe in, despite our inability to see it. Read the post and watch the clip here.
Here’s what Stewart has to say about faith and science:
"I’ve always been fascinated that, the more you delve into science, the more it appears to rely on faith. You know, when they start to speak about the universe they say, well, actually, most of the universe is antimatter. Oh, really, where’s that? Well, you can’t see it. [Robinson: "Yes, exactly."] Well, where is it? It’s there. Can you measure it? We’re working on it. And it’s a very similar argument to someone who would say God created everything. Well where is he? He’s there. And I’m always struck by the similarity of the arguments at their core."
Yesterday I was trying to find something interesting to say about the second Philadelphia Science Festival, which starts this weekend. I asked one of the spokespeople what the purpose of the festival was supposed to be, and he said it’s intended to get young people interested in becoming scientists.
Seems worthy, but do we really need more scientists or fewer? Or do we just need more good scientists? One thing we don’t need are more bogus scientific papers. Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting story about a rise in retractions, and among the many reasons cited for the glut of bad science was a glut of wannabe scientists.
The so-called high impact journals – Science, Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine – have the worst record when it comes to retractions. The article quotes an editor of Science with an excuse:
I noticed in watching the documentary “A Flock of Dodos” for a second time last week that many of the intelligent design supporters were telling untruths and passing off the blame. When filmmaker Randy Olson suggests to one confident IDer that there are, in fact, some transitional fossils she replies with something like, “not according to the information I received.” Another is flummoxed that inaccurate embryology from the 1800s isn’t used in most modern biology textbooks. That’s what he was told.
It’s as if these lies get laundered the more they’re repeated, so those who parrot them can dodge responsibility.
Here are some other interesting bits of "science" you probably won’t learn about in school. A reader sent this as part of a longer email last week:
This column also appeared in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer.
Charles Darwin would surely have been mesmerized by a paper released last week showing that baboons can recognize written words and distinguish them from gibberish. This was more than a feat of memorization, since the baboons were able to do this with 75 percent accuracy even if they’d never seen the words or nonwords before.
In a paper describing their findings, the scientists say perhaps the baboons are able to do some sort of unconscious statistical calculation involving the combinations of letters most likely to form words. “We tend to think that the ability to distinguish what’s a real word is fundamentally human,” said Duke University neurobiologist Michael Platt, who wrote a commentary accompanying the paper in the journal Science.