Monday, October 09, 2006

Pre-human history

What would happen if, instead of teaching evolution in science class, we taught it in history class--teaching only the non-controversial mechanics of evolution (like adaptation, natural selection, variation etc.) in science class. It doesn't seem to me like it would be as controversial. I'm not sure why it wouldn't, having a few chapters on pre-human history, but it just doesn't. Perhaps it is because people are used to debating about history.

12 Comments:

Blogger Noumenon said...

There isn't much debate in history textbooks -- not nearly enough.

I never learned evolution in school, but from what I've seen since I graduated to the Web, many consider it essential to understanding biology. This would be kind of like suggesting we teach trigonometry in art class instead of math class, because of the triangles. Logically, it belongs in the discipline that builds on it: mathematics and calculus.

4:22 AM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

There isn't much debate in history textbooks -- not nearly enough.

That is because, as Lies my teacher told me pointed out, history books tend to focus on the dead past, because recent history, that which is within living memory, is highly controversial.

but from what I've seen since I graduated to the Web, many consider it essential to understanding biology.

Response by AIG on the essential nature of evolution.

After reading the article, you'll probably get why it belongs more in history than in biology.

7:56 AM  
Blogger Noumenon said...

Nonrecent history should be nearly as controversial, but it isn't. Basically history books are made up of a combination of Thomas Friedman and Karl Rove -- blithe, unsupported narratives that sound good and conscious revisionist framing. I dunno, it's not that bad, but I'm always prepared for any "historical fact" I know to be overturned by some actual research as in LMTTM.

From AiG:
Think about it this way: is a belief in molecules-to-man evolution necessary to understand how a computer works, how planets orbit the sun, how telescopes operate, or how plants and animals function?

No, no, no, yes. Well, you can study "how" they function without believing in evolution, the same way you can understand "how" planets orbit the sun without believing in gravity, like Kepler. But if you want to know why they work the way they do, you need evolution. You can't understand living animals' psychology, behavior, and design without explaining how it conforms to the mandates of natural selection, and when you couldn't explain their behavior that way, like with ants, you knew you didn't really understand them yet. Without evolution, all you've got for "why do they act this way?" is "Because they like to. Instinct." Doesn't predict anything.

The article asks, "Has any biological or medical research benefited from a belief in evolution? No, not at all." Carl Zimmer (basically reading Carl Zimmer's blog is the experience that gives me the sense that scientists use evolution in their work all the time) wrote a post about using evolutionary trees to identify weaknesses in new strains of the HIV virus. He wrote another one about how evolution guided scientists to identify a major gene that works in the brain. (They couldn't just look in the brain because this gene doesn't code for a protein anywhere, it codes for RNA molecules.)

Notice how these posts are 90% science and 10% evolution; that's what makes them more convincing than the mere arguments I was using up above. (Well, they're 10% advocacy arguments too.) I can imagine AiG reading these articles and coming up with explanations of why this is only microevolution or why most science doesn't depend on evolution this much or why the evolution isn't necessary to understand the results, but it's hard for them to make me believe evolution isn't used in biology when Zimmer makes me feel like I've "seen it with my own eyes."

11:53 AM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

You can't understand living animals' psychology, behavior, and design without explaining how it conforms to the mandates of natural selection,

Natural selection is a mechanism of evolution, not evolution itself. Natural selection operates equally well in an environment of degradation, with initially perfect species becoming less and less robust.

The nature versus nurture argument is silly, the question is actually, what does nature do in this environment? Natural selection kills off those organisms that perform least well in this environment--even though they may not be the most "evolved". Specialization, the end product of natural selection, is the death of species. Example: (one often found in science textbooks) there are rabbits with various amounts of fur. A harsh winter kills off all but the thickest-furred rabbits. Ah, natural selection. Improving evolution. Except it destroyed the genes provided for thinner furs, thus reducing the potential range of the rabbits, and make them more prone to climate change an habitat loss, and thus less competitive. There has been a net loss of information, and a reduction in biological potential, and natural selection still operates without requiring historical evolution. The mechanics of evolution work equally well (in fact better) as braking mechanisms in a degrading world than they do as the engine of an improving world.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

using evolutionary trees to identify weaknesses in new strains of the HIV virus.

I'm not addressing the use of evolutionary trees directly, but the virus in question has become less competitive. It kills its host more quickly, and not only kills, but makes him sicker sooner, thus reducing the ability to spread to new hosts. The ability to resist retroviral drugs is also an evolutionary disadvantage. Aids drugs don't actually kill the virus, but make it harder for it to reach critical mass--all the while allowing the host to remain relatively healthy and spread to new hosts.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Noumenon said...

Natural selection is a mechanism of evolution, not evolution itself.

Ooh, my brain is exploding. You know, evolutionists agree with this. They say natural selection is the "theory" part and evolution is the facts the theory attempts to explain. And you need other theories to explain it all, natural selection isn't enough. But in my brain, I still identify the two and I can't believe creationism can really let natural selection's nose inside the tent without getting into trouble. But I can't prove it.

A harsh winter kills off all but the thickest-furred rabbits. Ah, natural selection. Improving evolution. Except it destroyed the genes provided for thinner furs, thus reducing the potential range of the rabbits, and make them more prone to climate change an habitat loss, and thus less competitive.

So what you're saying is polar bears would be more competitive if we introduced genes into their genome that caused them to sometimes be born without any fur?

This is one of those well-informed "zingers" in the sense that I had to compose about four paragraphs in reply to this in order to gain an understanding of where the argument was weak.

the virus in question has become less competitive. It kills its host more quickly, and not only kills, but makes him sicker sooner, thus reducing the ability to spread to new hosts.

According to the Wikipedia on optimal virulence, it depends how easy it is to find a new host. If you don't need this host for long, go nuts. HIV's not really like that, though. Maybe it's like this: "Another factor is the presence of multiple infections in a single host leading to increased competition among pathogens. In this situation, the host can survive only as long as it resists the most virulent strains. The advantage of a low virulence strategy becomes moot."
I guess once you start destroying your patient's immune system, you're not going to be the most virulent thing around for long.

I shouldn't be discussing this whole topic. (How long have I been writing this post, an hour?) I didn't bring the HIV up as an example that evolution was increasing fitness, I brought it up as an example of evolution aiding in medical research.

Wait a second, you're arguing both ways here! When HIV "makes him sicker sooner, thus reducing the ability to spread", you say it's "less competitive." But "allowing the host to remain relatively healthy" is an "evolutionary disadvantage." HIV can't win!

1:12 PM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

I can't believe creationism can really let natural selection's nose inside the tent without getting into trouble. But I can't prove it.

Natural selection is science--it is a repeatable, observable, and testable occurrence. It's theoretical function, however, is disputable.

Natural selection is to evolution as creative destruction is to economics. They are both a vital part of the theory, but by themselves they create nothing. Natural selection is, if anything, overly destructive. It selects too well for the impact of environment on biology, and thus leaves creatures unable to adapt to further climate change.


I guess once you start destroying your patient's immune system, you're not going to be the most virulent thing around for long.

That's true. AIDS does seem rather uncompetitive from that angle, doesn't it?


So what you're saying is polar bears would be more competitive if we introduced genes into their genome that caused them to sometimes be born without any fur?

Polar bears are rapidly losing habitat due to the warming of the polar areas. They've specialized into a very threatened environment.


Wait a second, you're arguing both ways here! When HIV "makes him sicker sooner, thus reducing the ability to spread", you say it's "less competitive." But "allowing the host to remain relatively healthy" is an "evolutionary disadvantage." HIV can't win!

I phrased it poorly. A level of resistance sufficient to avoid being killed in its current environment (the anti-retroviral laced one) is an advantage because it can continue to spread. AIDS has achieved an optimal virulence (until the next drug comes along, anyway). The bug in question is overly virulent for its environment. It sickens and kills its host, which, given the nature of transmission, is anti-competitive. Having much less resistance, which allowed the drugs to kill it, would also be anti-competitive.

3:25 AM  
Blogger Noumenon said...

I had to think about this for quite a while before really understanding what you're saying, but now I see how you're breaking it down. You're saying "competitiveness" isn't just how well an animal is adapted to its environment, it's a combination of that plus its ability to adapt to new environments. Natural selection only explains the first kind of competitiveness. You need some other source of genetic variation to increase the second kind The first time I read this I thought you were trying to ask way too much of natural selection by requiring it to adapt an animal both to its current environment and to all the other environments that might come up later.

In my brain now I'm dividing evolution up into two halves: the genetic variation and what makes separate species out of that variation. Natural selection will explain maybe 3/4 of the second half, and mutations will explain at least 1/4 of the first half, so the camel is halfway under the tent now.

7:15 AM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

so the camel is halfway under the tent now.

Perhaps the camel is already in the tent, because the gatekeeper walked it inside. As the Good Book says, "Test everything, hold on to the good." As I said earlier, natural selection is testable, repeatable, and observable in the present. It is science. Natural selection is the quality assurance of evolution, and not a very good one, as it selects only for the current run, and eliminates things which may be needed later. It has nothing to do with the production.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Noumenon said...

Because I believe that natural selection causes speciation, I have to disagree. You can produce any amount of genetic variation within a species and it'll never evolve into something else if you don't have something to prune it.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

Define speciation, please.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Noumenon said...

I didn't want to let this discussion metastasize into that whole argument. So I just stated the premise that's at the root of this current disagreement so that we could say, "OK, we've reduced this argument to a special case of the speciation argument, there's no point in continuing it here."

10:19 AM  

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