Archive for evolution

the intelligent-life lottery

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , on August 24, 2014 by xi'an

monkey at Amber FortIn a theme connected with one argument in Dawkins’ The God Delusion, The New York Time just published a piece on the 20th anniversary of the debate between Carl Sagan and Ernst Mayr about the likelihood of the apparition of intelligent life. While 20 years ago, there was very little evidence if any of the existence of Earth-like planets, the current estimate is about 40 billions… The argument against the high likelihood of other inhabited planets is that the appearance of life on Earth is an accumulation of unlikely events. This is where the paper goes off-road and into the ditch, in my opinion, as it makes the comparison of the emergence of intelligent (at the level of human) life to be “as likely as if a Powerball winner kept buying tickets and — round after round — hit a bigger jackpot each time”. The later having a very clearly defined probability of occurring. Since “the chance of winning the grand prize is about one in 175 million”. The paper does not tell where the assessment of this probability can be found for the emergence of human life and I very much doubt it can be justified. Given the myriad of different species found throughout the history of evolution on Earth, some of which evolved and many more which vanished, I indeed find it hard to believe that evolution towards higher intelligence is the result of a basically zero probability event. As to conceive that similar levels of intelligence do exist on other planets, it also seems more likely than not that life took on average the same span to appear and to evolve and thus that other inhabited planets are equally missing means to communicate across galaxies. Or that the signals they managed to send earlier than us have yet to reach us. Or Earth a long time after the last form of intelligent life will have vanished…

on intelligent design…

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on August 19, 2014 by xi'an

chicken In connection with Dawkins’ The God delusion, which review is soon to appear on the ‘Og, a poster at an exhibit on evolution in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which illustrates one of Dawkins’ points on scientific agosticism. Namely, that refusing to take a stand on the logical and philosophical opposition between science and religion(s) is not a scientific position. The last sentence in the poster is thus worse than unnecessary…

les sciences face aux créationnismes [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2014 by xi'an

I spotted this small book during my last visit to CBGP in Montpellier, and borrowed it from the local librarian. It is written (in French) by Guillaume Lecointre, who is professor of Biology at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, specialised in population evolution and philogenies. The book is published by Editions Quae, a scientific editor supported by four founding French institutes (CIRAD, IFREMER, INRA and IRSTEA), hence no wonder I would spot it in an INRA lab. The theme of the book is not to argue against creationism and intelligent design theories, but rather to analyse how the debates between scientists—interestingly this term scientist sounds much more like a cult in English than the French noun scientifique— and creationists are conducted and to suggest how they should be conducted. While there are redundancies in the text, I found the overall argumentation quite convincing, with the driving lines that creationists are bypassing the rules of scientific investigation and exchange to bring the debate at a philosophical or ideological level foreign to science definition. Lecointre deconstructs the elements put forward in such debates, from replacing the incompleteness of the scientific knowledge and the temporary nature of scientific theories with a total relativism, to engaging scientific supporters from scientific fields not directly related with the theory of evolution, to confusing methodological materialism with philosophical materialism and more fundamentally to imply that science and scientific theories must have a moral or ideological content, and to posturing as anti-establishment and anti-dogmatic free minds… I also liked the points that (a) what really drives the proponents of intelligent design is a refusal of randomness in the evolution, without any global or cosmic purpose; (b) scientists are very ill-prepared to debate with creationists, because the later do not follow a scientific reasoning; (c) journalists are most often contributing to the confusion by picking out-of-their-field “experts” and encouraging the relativity argument. Hence a reasonable recommendation to abstain from oral debates and to stick to pointing out the complete absence of scientific methodology in creationists’ arguments. (Obviously, readers of Alan Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax will be familiar most of the arguments produced in les sciences face aux créationnismes.)

relativity of falsification?

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , on October 13, 2013 by xi'an

IMG_1568“It seems entirely reasonable to believe in the effectiveness of T.C.M. and still have grave doubts about qi… The causal theory that’s concocted to explain the practical successes of treatment is not terribly important or interesting to the poor schlub who’s thrown out his back or taken ill.”

In the train to Roissy airport, I read an old New York Times, as I had no time to download today’s issue. One surprising article was about Chinese medicine, for it was written by a philosopher (or at least a professor of philosophy!) but did not hold much depth in its analysis. The writer was making an argument about the relativity of Scientific proofs, mixing Popper (of course!), Kuhn and Feyerabend (whose deconstructionism he misrepresented as a complete abandon of the scientific method) with Conan-Doyle’s belief in spirits and curses. As if a (talented) writer like Conan-Doyle could bring any scientific weight in the debate… And opposing Western versus Eastern science. The author actually seemed to question the relevance of Popper’s falsification principle, on the grounds that (a) established science does not readily accept falsifications of its current theories and (b) beliefs may turn into scientific theories if we find new experimental ways to test (falsify) them. Point (a) is confusing Science with the scientific establishment, which has repeatedly proved itself a bastion of conservatism (even though caution makes sense as well), while point (b) sounds like opening a Pandora box fuelled by extreme relativism: see e.g. “Maybe in years to come we will discover some subtle chemical properties in turtle blood that ameliorate certain illnesses“. There is no relativity in the way (reproducible) experiments are conducted and analysed. I liked (not!) the argument that masters of Traditional Chinese medicine took years to learn their anatomical maps, as it reminded me of medieval medical doctors having to master astrological maps to gain their degree… As a very minor aside, I also got surprised that the Buddhist author of the article agreed to have a turtle killed just to drink its blood towards treating a cold, while entertaining (reasonable) doubts about the efficiency of the treatment!  (Disclaimer: I am not dismissing traditional Chinese medicine versus occidental medicine, as I think they both involve both empirical learning and a-scientific aspects. This is about the philosophical arguments in the article.)

After writing that piece in the train, I alas missed my flight to Warwick (by 3 minutes, not due to writing the post!) and then checked the paper on the Web where I found this much more detailed criticism by Jerry Coyne (professor at U of Chicago and author of a book called Why evolution is true?)


Posted in Books, Kids, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2012 by xi'an

Today, I was reading in the science leaflet of Le Monde about a new magnitude in sequencing cancerous tumors (wrong link, I know…). This made me wonder whether the sequence of (hundreds of) mutations leading from a normal cell to a cancerous one could be reconstituted in the way a genealogy is. (This reminds me of another exciting genetic article I read in the Eurostar back from London on Thursday, in the Economist, about the colonization of Madagascar by 30 women from the Malay archipelago: “The island was one of the last places on Earth to be settled, receiving its earliest migrants in the middle of the first millennium AD…“)

As a double coincidence, I was reading La Recherche yesterday in the métro to Dauphine, which central theme this month is about heredity beyond genetics. (Double because this also connected with the meeting in London.) The keyword is epigenetics, namely the activation or inactivation of a gene and the hereditary transmission of this character w/o a genetic mutation. This is quite interesting as it implies the hereditability of some adopted traits, i.e. forces one to reconsider the nature versus nurture debate. (This sentence is another input due to Galton!) It also implies that a much faster rate of species differentiation due to environmental changes (than the purely genetic one) is possible, which may sound promising in the light of the fast climate changes we are currently facing. However, what I do not understand is why the journal included a paper on the consequences of epigenetics on the Darwinian theory of evolution and… intelligent design. Indeed, I do not see why the inclusion of different vectors in the hereditary process would contradict Darwin’s notion of natural selection. Or even why considering a scientific modification or replacement of the current Darwinian theory of evolution would be an issue. Charles Darwin wrote his book in 1859, prior to the start of genetics, and the immense advances made since then led to modifications and adjustments from his original views. Without involving any irrational belief in the process.