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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Son of Letters to the Editor (a sequel)

Not every evolution-denier is necessarily religious (see, for example, my letter to the editor of the Anchorage Daily News 30 June 2007 in response to an agnostic).

I'm by no means prolific (little and less time of late), but this bit caught my eye (written by Jeremiah Brunnhoelzl, published in the June issue of Make a Scene magazine, a tabloid printed in Wasilla):

The Futile Search For Missing Links
Charles Darwin was a nineteenth century thinker that changed the way we interpret biology. His keen observance of nature led him to subscribe to the theory of "dialectical materialism"-the viewpoint that matter is the sole subject of change and all change is the product of conflict arising from the internal contradictions inherent in all things. While this theory was an attractive one in Darwin's day, his theories are starting to show signs of decay and are forcing members of the scientific community to scrutinize the very foundation of their education. The fundamentals of Darwin's theory are very simple. Life on Earth has evolved through a series of biological changes as a consequence of random genetic mutations working in conjunction with natural selection. One species will eventually over time turn into another, and those species that adapt to ever-changing environmental conditions are best suited to survive and thrive, while the weaker die out. This produces the most well known principle of Darwinism - survival of the fittest.
While this theory is easy enough to explain to school children with cute pictures, and diagrams of monkeys turning into humans, it is the only scientific theory taught worldwide that has not been proven by the rigorous standards of science. For example, Darwin's 'abominable mystery' remains the evolution of flowering plants. Scientists have searched for one hundred years in the fossil records for evidence linking primitive non-flowering plants to flowering without any luck. The "missing link" has never been found, much like the link between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. Darwin was well aware of the weaknesses contained in his theory. He anticipated trouble with the absence of transitional fossils, stating that, "It is the most serious objection that can be urged against my theory." The problem with the sudden appearance of flowering plants is that there is a very high degree of organization among the plants. Most flowers are specifically designed to accommodate bees and other pollinators. So, how did the primitive non-flowering plant, which for eons relied solely on asexual reproduction, suddenly grow all the structures necessary for sexual reproduction? As there is no current evidence of a transitional species of flower, the subject remains at debate. While its easy nowadays to make a career of disproving and nay-saying seemingly basic knowledge, the fact remains that it's our job as the general public to take in every side of every argument and make assumptions of our own based on those arguments. If we let ourselves be swayed to one side or another without taking the time to detach ourselves from the situation, we will only be left with ignorance to guide us to our conclusions.


So I sent the following response (it hasn't appeared yet; MAS is a monthly, so it may not for a while):

Was Darwin wrong? I quote my November 2004 National Geographic:
NO.

Jeremiah Brunnhoelzl's commentary in the June 2007 Musician Soapbox is thoroughly misinformed.

Jeremiah is completely wrong when he states that scientists are questioning their educations with regard to Darwin. I am familiar with the technical literature covering evolutionary biology, yet I can find no reference to the so very huge paradigm shift that would indicate an abandonment of the theory of evolution by natural selection. On the contrary, I find it is becoming useful to fields outside of biology, such as medicine and computer science (see, for example, genetic algorithms). I find no indication that Darwin is being "abandoned." I find the opposite.

Scientists are also creating resources on the internet in order to refute the notion that workers in the biological sciences are abandoning Darwin's work. See, for example, the website The Panda's Thumb, which features in blog form the ongoing debate regarding the origin of species, or Pharyngula, the blog of PZ Meyers, who teaches biology at a midwestern university in the US. I find it incredible that he would suggest he we keep an open mind on all sides of the matter, when for anyone familiar with the science, this is simply not a matter worth debating.

Strangely, he is dismissive of the ease with which evolution can be taught based upon diagrams which are not used in actual science periodicals. Actually, biologists develop cladograms of organisms, so phylogenies (expressed as sister-groups) are revealed based on the shared derived traits of organisms. In fact, were Jeremiah actually to read the work of science popularizers like Stephen Jay Gould (cf. Wonderful Life), he would see a repudiation of the very diagram he mentions.

Finally, his usage of the term "missing link" is annoying, since no such term is employed in the modern literature (since it no longer has any functional use whatsoever). Every fossil is a transitional form, but he also appears to think that because there are gaps in a particular lineage (e.g. flowering plants, in this case), it demolishes the many other lines of evidence which support the modern synthesis.

No, Jeremiah, it does not. It merely means that that particular transitional form has yet to be found. But it can with certainty be predicted to exist. Paleontologists once suggested the existence of a four-winged stage in flying amniotes, and then later discovered a four-winged non-avian dinosaur from China (Microraptor gui). Archaeopteryx, the earliest bird, has been shown to have flight feathers down its hindlimbs to the metatarsals.

Examples of transitional fossils are overwhelmingly legion. But he ignores them all, from Tiktaalik to Archaeopteryx and Yanoconodon and so on and on and on and on, to focus on an evolutionary sequence of flowering plants we don't happen to know everything about. But does this point of ignorance displace actual knowledge of things that are known? Of course not. If animals and non flowering plants and fungi and bacteria and protistans all had transitional forms (and they most certainly do), then we can predict that the same holds true for flowering plants. Jeremiah admonishes us to accept that "nay-saying and disproving of seemingly basic knowledge" is important but it is obvious that he lacks even the most basic knowledge in order to present a competent critique. Shouldn't a deeper familiarity with the basics of modern biology also be important?

I have no more qualifications in this matter than he. I am not a scientist. I am not even in possession of a degree of any kind. I am an autodidact, artist, and an animator with a day job in the graphic arts field. Everything I know can be had for the price of a library card and an internet connection, a little time, and a lot of honesty.

Jeremiah is welcome to do the same. Speaking personally, I find it so much more interesting on our side, what with the universe being more complicated and intricate and vast and flat-out amazing than anyone ever thought.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming.

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."
--Charles Darwin



Really, no further comment should be necessary, except to note that it precipitated an interesting discussion with the magazine's editor on the nature of science (about which he knew nothing) and how it compared to various systems of thought (I may post more on this later, since much of what transpired needs comment).

It also came out that Jeremiah was very young, as though his youth could be used as an excuse for submitting sloppy work. I don't ever recall being cut all that much slack at his age. If I sumbitted poor work, I received a failing grade for it. The real world outside of school, is routinely far less forgiving. That doesn't mean he shouldn't try again (and, this time, actually invest a modicum of effort into it).

(This entry has been reposted from the old blog on 19 January 2008.)

2 comments:

Zach Miller said...

I believe this goes beyond mere ownage and pwnage. You, sir, have BWNED that kid. And I bow my head to you as a sign of ultimate respect.

ScottE said...

So the progression of Letters of Magnitude is O, P, and then B?

Actually, sometimes I feel guilty--I don't really set out to rwned anyone, I just want someone, somewhere to do their god damned homework for a change. Is that really too much to ask?