Monday, 9 February 2009

Pro Evolution Suckers 2009 (or how a Telegraph columnist beat science!)

With it being 200 years this month since the birth of Charles Darwin, there's quite rightly been a lot of interesting stuff in the papers and on TV about evolution. The downside, of course, is that we're also seeing a lot of anti-evolutionist bollocks as a result, as the publicity riles columnists who either don't believe it or clearly don't understand it. Possibly the worst mainstream column written about it so far is Christopher Booker's Telegraph piece, Charles Darwin zealots have made science a substitute religion. From the very title you just know it's time to strap a pillow to the edge of your desk to cushion the head-bashing that will no doubt ensue. If there's a more tedious and disingenuous argument than 'Weeeell, science is a lot like religion when you think about it', then please, don't tell me about it, I value my mental health. It's bad enough coming from kneejerk anti-authority forum posters who think they're the first person to say it, but when you read it in an actual newspaper, written for money, it's painful. Booker sets the bar for the standard of evidence we're going to be seeing in this piece with the opening line:

As councils ran out of the grit they had failed to stockpile because they fell for the Government line that climate change made it unnecessary, Britain was last week doubly-carpeted, partly by snow, partly by a blizzard of tributes to Charles Darwin.
An irrelevant dig at the Government, there, with no evidence that 'the Government' has advised councils not to keep stocks of grit, or that it had anything to do with climate change. Bonus points for implying that snow is somehow ruled out by climate change! (Booker is a high-profile climate change 'skeptic' who has form for winding people up with his interesting scientific views). Still, that's just the intro, maybe he's about to shake the scientific world to its core with some hot new arguments that will leave scientists embarrassed, chucking their lab coats to the floor while admitting they've wasted their lives before retraining as plumbers?

One great stumbling block to his argument [that evolution takes place by natural selection] is that evolution has repeatedly taken place in leaps forward so sudden and so complex that they could not possibly have been accounted for by the gradual process he suggested - “the Cambrian explosion" of new life forms, the complexities of the eye, the post-Cretaceous explosion of mammals.
I used to go to school with a guy who told me he'd asked out the same girl over 140 times, getting an exactly equal number of negative responses (ranging from 'no', through 'fuck, no!' to 'please get off my doorstep'). His approach was pitched somewhere between endearing, try-hard romantic comedy protagonist and creepy stalker whose eyes will one day be staring out at you from a TV screen over a newsreader's shoulder in a story about missing prostitutes. Perhaps more the latter. Anyway, the way he lobbed the same question hopefully at this girl over and over again, hoping that one day he would simply grind her down to the point where she's so desperate she gives up seems quite similar to the way people who think evolution is a crock endlessly toss out the same boring, debunked arguments about the eye and such.

It's amusing that he frames his piece with reference to David Attenborough's recent BBC Four documentary, and then goes on to mention 'the complexity of the eye' as a massive problem for Darwin's theory, as if scientists have either overlooked it or are just keeping quiet about it. In fact, Attenborough devoted a fair portion of 'Darwin's Tree of Life' to this very issue, explaining how the eye could have slowly developed from a simple light-sensitive cell, through various more complex stages to the eyes we see today, and he cited numerous examples of modern-day animals and organisms with massively less complex eyes than we have. The 'irreducible complexity' of the eye is such a boring anti-evolutionist canard that everyone with even the remotest interest in evolution has been talking about it for years, particularly Richard Dawkins, who also dealt with the eye issue in his recent Darwin doc. It formed a major plank of Michael Behe's failed argument in the now infamous Kitzmiller vs Dover trial in which Intelligent Design proponents got a massive smackdown. It's so overused that one old Talk Origins page on it even correctly points out that people who mention it will quote Darwin as saying "that the evolution of the eye seems 'absurd in the highest degree'", which Booker indeed does here.

Booker's other arguments are similar tropes that you'd expect to see from some kind of boring Dembski-fellating pisswit on a forum, except he's actually getting paid to say things like implying that the "Cambrian explosion" (duration: over 50 million years) was impossible with natural selection. And then this...

Years ago, a good illustration of this was Attenborough himself claiming to 'prove’ Darwin’s theory by showing us a mouse and a bat, explaining how one evolved into the other. He seemed oblivious to the obvious point that, as the mouse’s forelegs evolved by minute variations to wings, there must have been a long period when the creature, no longer with properly functioning legs but as yet unable to fly, was much less 'adapted to survive’ than it had been before.
Booker, as is traditional for this type of article, misrepresents evolutionary arguments before going on to profess incredulity at them. Evolutionists argue merely that mice and bats evolved from a common ancestor, and again this is a textbook Intelligent Design argument which has been dealt with numerous times, for example here and here. He assumes that a leg which also has some of the functions of a wing would be an evolutionary failure, a claim which sounds faintly plausible until you realise that a basic wing can be formed from a leg with a big flap of skin on, and that there exist to this day birds with functioning claws on the front of their wings, and creatures like the flying squirrel and sugar glider who can glide long distances and yet have fully-functioning legs, as pointed out here:

Ah, the classic argument from personal incredulity. If a creationist cannot imagine how something might have happened then it must not have. Fortunately nature is not limited by the imaginations of creationists and all one must do is look at other living things to find a few reasonable analogues for the ancestral bat.
Back to Booker, and he returns to his theme to beef up his 'evolutionists are basically religious zealots, ahhhhhhhh!' argument like this:

...he [Darwin] has been followed by generations of 'Darwinians’ who have found his theory so beguiling that, like him, they have refused to recognise how much it cannot explain.

What is fascinating about the Darwinians is their inability to accept just how much they do not know. Armoured in their certainty that they have all the answers when they so obviously don’t, neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins rest their beliefs just as much on an unscientific leap of faith as the 'Creationists’ they so fanatically affect to despise.
Now, I don't want to argue from authority, but what always strikes me about this point when I see it (and I see it a lot), is the belief inherent in it that scientists basically don't think about this kind of stuff, or merely toss it aside, and that you as a columnist/lay person are among the select few with the startling clarity of thought to see through it. To suggest that evolution, a science which over the past 200 years has been backed up with piles of evidence from the fossil record, from biology, and crucially from genetics among a plethora of other fields, is the same kind of leap of faith as creationism, a theory which takes as its starting point a line in an ancient book which says "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" and argues from there, is to conflate two worldviews so utterly different as to render the act of comparison meaningless. If you wish to criticise evolutionary theory, fine, but for fuck's sake don't attempt to draw a parallel with religion in terms of 'leaps of faith', because it makes you look like a simpleton who has to reduce everything to such stark black and white terms that there's no point discussing anything with you. Booker goes on to return to his 'climate change, that's a right load of shite as well!' thesis, one that he lays out with all the finesse of a man down the pub moaning about bloody scientists.

(Incidentally, can anyone explain to me the thinking behind this old 'Scientists reckon they know everything, the arrogant dicks' claim? Wouldn't scientists claiming they'd discovered everything there is to know be somewhat doing themselves out of a job, given that their primary function is to keep researching in order to discover new things? It's a wonder any new papers get written at all!)

I realise as I read this that I could write a lot more about the actual science of evolution and where Booker is misrepresenting it, and I could go on about transitional fossils or DNA or Richard Lenski's awesome E.Coli research and subsequent epic pwning of Andrew Schlafly but it hardly feels like there's any point. Booker, like me, is no scientist, but a columnist whose apparently enjoys trolling for hits, and will no doubt take the detailed critiques of his article that have appeared in the comments as proof that 'Darwinists' (because we all just slavishly follow Darwin, right?) can't take any criticism or let people have their stupid opinions in peace.

I suppose I can understand why writers like Booker have a hard time with the idea of evolution. Perhaps he applied the 'survival of the fittest' mantra to journalism and realised that since he's still in a job despite repeatedly holding forth on science topics he knows little about and getting embarrassed in the process, the whole thing must be nonsense. If only selective pressures were applied to journalists...well, I certainly wouldn't have started this blog.


  1. I think a major problem, outside the few deliberately obtuse idiots who seem keen to win their arguments through deception, is that science is so often fundamentally misunderstood. This seems to spring from the way in which much of the public learn from science, lines of fact churned out by an uninspired science teacher, or grossly misrepresentive media pieces which present the distorted results of a five year study in a pithy fifty word paragraph. They are presented by the spoils of science, with no sense of the methodology, the trials, debates, failures and re-workings that take place within the general scientific community. Not only this, but all too often those orders from on-high that they seem to have received have been filtered through the lenses of PR, and a need to drive newspaper sales. Thus to many science seems dictatorial, facts delivered from nowhere, and in many cases telling them things they'd rather not hear, the identification of a risk factor immediately sounds like an insistence to avoid that factor, rather than simply information to help people make a better decision.

    Science isn't about facts, it never has been. It is how we look at the world, make models and predictions and hold them up to be destroyed. Scientific progress is shaped as much by its failures as its successes. We know we are not gods, we realise that we are striving toward a truth that we will never fully realise; but we search for that truth, we don't define it. We realise that our findings are base on assumptions of cause and effect, and on the truths of empiricism. We have to, nihilism gets us nowhere.

    There is also the problem of the media's warped idea of balance. In attempting to avoid accusations of bias, too often they will give as much time to those against an idea, as in favour of it. This gives the mistaken impression that the scientists, and the evidence are similarly split. It also doesn't help that any truthful scientist will admit that there is a non-zero probability that they are wrong, science relies on its falsifiability.

  2. Hi mate,

    Just a quick comment to say that I'm really enjoying your blog. Intelligent, thoughtful, impassioned stuff. Keep it up!