Woohoo! First it was a joke that was taken seriously only in the post-psychiatry movement. Now it’s a mainstream opinion. Soon the only discussion will be how anyone could ever have believed in the syndrome of schizophrenia.
Reblog: Iain Duncan Smith has committed contempt of Parliament and should be expelled | Vox Political
I’m about to summarise in the briefest terms just a little of the evidence that supports evolution. But this little post will in no way do the topic justice. For a much more comprehensive explanation of the evidence for evolution I strongly recommend Richard Dawkins’ excellent book:
The evidence comes from several different scientific disciplines, all of which compliment each other (an amazing convergence which is itself strong evidence for evolution). But let’s start at the beginning.
Geological strata and other measuring chronologies
We can use ‘dendrochronology’ (the science of counting tree rings – yes I kid you not) to determine the age of a particular piece of wood;
We can use radioactive clocks that variously measure timescales from milliseconds to millennia to detect the age of certain types of rocks or other organic materials (IE radiocarbon dating – AKA carbon 14 dating);
Geological sequencing: Because we know the relative ages of different strata the world over we can tell during which epoch a fossil was laid down by looking at the rock strata it is found in.
Biology and DNA
We can use biological clocks (EG variations in DNA between species) to measure the length of time between the evolution of species.
Carbon 14 dating (mentioned above) is a kind of biological clock because it measures the rate of decay and therefore the age of Carbon 14 in organic matter.
By cross-referencing fossil finds with geological strata, radioactive/geological clocks, dendrochronologies and carbon 14 dating it has been possible to build up a record of the earth’s history going back billions of years.
These clocks are remarkably consistent and to deny their accuracy is to assume that no matter how much they complement each other they are all false and the correlations between them is just coincidence, or as some creationists have proposed, just God’s little joke.
But by taking the fossil record as a whole – and it’s much more complete than many would have you believe – it is possible to observe the adaptations and differing speciation, in chronological order, to see just how humans evolved from earlier hominids, mammals, reptiles, fish and crustaceans. It’s true that the fossil record doesn’t extend much beyond that stage because soft-tissued animals like amoeba don’t tend to leave fossils – but DNA, links to more distant evolutionary cousins and even the presence of modern viruses can fill in those gaps.
And don’t worry about ‘the missing link’ – there really isn’t one – just an odd academic way of classifying fossils that makes it look like there is.
Guppies and germs
For example Richard Lenski and his colleagues at Michigan State University painstakingly bred 45,000 generations of bacteria in the laboratory and watched them evolve, not once – but twice to make use of available food stuffs. This double-whammy adaptation represents what creationists tend to describe as ‘irreducible complexity’ and yet it happened.
Then there are Trinidadian guppies who kindly adapted their markings to fulfil hypothetical predictions when Dr. John Endler changed their environments to introduce different kinds of predators.
Both these experiments demonstrate that evolutionary theory can generate, test and ultimately be confirmed by falsifiable hypotheses in ways that mere dogma and unthinking belief cannot.
Irreducible complexity (eyes and wings)
One of the favourite brickbats thrown at evolution by creationists is the argument of ‘irreducible complexity’. The argument is that since every adaptation needs to represent a viable improvement for the animal that acquires it there are some adaptations that just don’t meet the criteria. There is no benefit in having ‘half an eye’, for example of ‘half a wing’. This is regularly put forward as a logical argument against the theory of evolution by natural selection. There’s just one problem …….
It doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.
Let’s just look briefly at the two ‘favourites’.
The eye – Creationists assume that something so complex as the eye could never have evolved because the intermediate stages (before the ‘perfect’ eye evolved would be useless. But this is just not true. Even a rudimentary light sensor would be advantageous to a creature that needed to detect movement – which is precisely why some animals have just that – light detectors. The first stage toward evolving an eye. Between them and the sophisticated eye of eagles or other creatures with acute vision are a myriad of intermediaries (including the slightly less acute eyes of human beings).
I put the word ‘perfect’ in inverted commas, by the way because frankly there’s nothing perfect about the human eye at all. It’s back to front and upside down. It has a hole in the retina where the optic nerve passes through it resulting in a blind spot and it’s prone to all sorts of defects from myopia to cataracts. Hardly the work of an ‘intelligent’ designer. Quite frankly Minolta does better (and has done for years).
Similar arguments can be made for wings. A rudimentary flap of skin that assists gliding (even slightly) is better than no wing at all (and some species of tree squirrel have precisely that). There’s nothing ‘irreducible’ about either of these. In fact there’s nothing irreducibly complex about any part of the human body. Some body parts evolved from slightly advantageous prototypes of the ‘final’ form whereas other evolved from organs that were once used for completely different purposes (a process known as exaptation).
But the real proof of the pudding is in the eating. Can evolutionary theory predict species we don’t know about yet based purely upon what we know about the ‘rules’ of natural selection? Well – yes, it can and it has done.
Perhaps the most famous example is the long-proboscis moth ‘Xanthopan morgana praedicta’ (Darwin’s famous ‘Hawk Moth’ ) which Darwin predicted long before it was discovered because it ‘just had to’ exist if natural selection was correct . But there are others – the theory of evolution by means of natural selection allows scientists accurately to predict species and adaptations and has done for years.
All of this evidence, taken from many sources and lines of inquiry matches up. There is almost no way that any incorrect theory could be son consistent across so many different subjects.
This variety of supporting evidence, together with the absence of any contradictory evidence is what makes the theory of evolution so strong. It is, in all but the most scientific circles, a ‘fact’. As proven today as the fact of gravity or nuclear fission and far more plausible than some of our most cutting edge scientific theories such as string theory or the multiverse.
In short, to deny evolution by means of natural selection is to deny the evidence of your own eyes, the findings of generations of rigorous scientific inquirers and the effectiveness of evolution-based developments such as antivirals, gene therapies, HIV treatments and even antibiotics.
The Western world is awash with people claiming that their product or service is ‘healthy’ because it’s ‘natural’. From beauty and skin care products to healthy eating and a range of alternative therapies we are sold the message that natural is somehow ‘better’. Often these advertisements are dressed up in ‘sciencey’ language to add credibility but still the basic message is that natural is best. More significantly for this post the idea is that ‘natural’ is the same as ‘how it ought to be’.
This idea that ‘natural’ is the same as ‘ought to be’ is the essence of the naturalistic fallacy. It has dogged our understanding of the world and spawned entire political movements simply because people haven’t quite grasped the simple truth that describing something isn’t the same as supporting it.
Of course natural isn’t necessarily best at all. It’s not that simple. There are many natural poisons and a number of naturally occurring bacteria that will happily kill you given half a chance. There is much more to the equation than that. But that’s only one part of the naturalistic fallacy. The really dangerous one is the idea that natural shows us how things should be – that it can inform our ideologies.
That’s the fallacy that has created the biggest problems in our society.
In the context of evolution let’s consider Social Darwinism – a bastardisation of Darwin’s theory of ‘Evolution by means of natural selection’ that brought nothing but confusion, misery and death to mankind.
Charles Darwin brought us the theory of evolution in the mid nineteenth century and demonstrated how via the mechanism of survival of the fittest our species (along with every other modern species) evolved and outlived weaker competitors over unimaginably long periods of time. That’s why human beings exist at all – because the Australopithecines were good at escaping from predators and because Homo habilis learned how to be a little more creative than the next guy.
But Darwin didn’t make any sort of moral or ethical judgement about natural selection and the survival of the fittest. He merely described the reality. Nature doesn’t care about our sensibilities. It doesn’t care about anything. Nature just is. Natural selection doesn’t give two hoots about our happiness either – it can’t – it’s an unconscious, inanimate process that has nothing to do with right and wrong, individual contentment or anything else except getting genetic material (DNA) into the next generation.
It’s true that evolution by natural selection has a great deal to do with our sense of morality (as we shall see later) but that most certainly doesn’t mean that our morality is particularly moral. In fact – in many instances it’s easy to see how, from a moral perspective, human evolution has left us sadly lacking. There is no benefit at all in assuming that the way we evolved in the ‘Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation’ (EEA) or ‘Ancestral Environment’ for short will be effective or even desirable today.
When we follow the evidence of natural history we can understand what has happened and even how it happened but we cannot draw any conclusions about what ought to happen. We particularly can’t use nature as a justification for what we’d like to do next. And yet that is precisely what the social Darwinists did. They took the knowledge of natural history and natural selection and confused it with the ideal of creating a master race. In its most extreme form it spawned the eugenics movement and inspired much of the thinking behind the holocaust in World War 2. And yet it is profoundly ill-informed and ridiculous.
Just because something is a particular way does not mean that it ought to be that way.
The naturalistic fallacy confuses reality with ideology and the results are not only foolish – they’re also extremely dangerous. The idea that if it’s natural it’s also how it ought to be has been used as a justification for social Darwinism and also by creationists to oppose evolution:
“It can’t be right if it’s not what God said!”
Both of these ridiculous assumptions are as bad as each other. They’re two sides of the same coin. Just as we can’t use the naturalistic fallacy to decide upon right action we can’t use ‘The Agency Fallacy’ either. Substitute the term ‘Natural selection’ for ‘God’ in any statement about how things ought to be and you have an equally silly proposition. In each case you have rules (conscious or unconscious) that suited a different time, place and culture but that have little or no real relevance here and now.
Evolution by natural selection is the mechanism that brought us to where we are now. But it has nothing to do with right and wrong and it has nothing to do with God or Gods (except that it can explain how we evolved the tendency to believe in Gods in the first place).
Of course many people will disagree vehemently with this assertion and in fairness, there’s no reason why they should believe me just because I said so. The next post will outline the evidence for evolution by natural selection, building upon the idea of ‘falsifiability’ described in part 2.
In many ways this chapter may be the hardest for me to write. That’s not because evolution is particularly complicated but because it’s so obvious. At least it is to me. But it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I really struggled with the whole concept of evolution. Again, that wasn’t because it’s complicated – it was because I really didn’t want it to be true.
However, regardless of what I wanted to believe all those years ago, evolution is true – it is a fact as indisputable as gravity or heliocentric theory (the notion that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa). In fact we have more evidence for the fact of evolution than we have for the theory of gravity, heliocentric theory, or even most of what we think we know about quantum mechanics.
So why did I once find it so difficult to accept evolution? The answer to that is both simple and complicated….
I found evolution to be challenging because I was a fundamentalist, creationist Christian – a ‘young earth’ creationist at that and evolution contradicts most of what I chose to believe. That’s the simple part.
I was a fundamentalist, creationist Christian for a variety of reasons, mainly social and based upon a need to ‘belong’. That’s the complicated part.
I’m aware that some readers of this blog – some of whom are good friends of mine will find these concepts just as challenging as I once did. To those people I say this…..
I have no wish to attack you and nothing that follows is intended to offend anyone. However, this information is based upon the best available evidence, at least the best evidence available to me – evidence which I will try to introduce as this series progresses.
But first we need to say a little about the nature of evidence, how we know what is true (or at least how we make our best guesses) and how we know when something is likely to be false. This will involve a little detour before we begin talking properly about evolution and evolutionary psychology – bear with me.
By far the easiest way to test whether something is true is to see if it can predict what we might find in the real world. That’s why scientists come up with hypotheses (possible explanations for stuff) and then devise tests to see if what really happens is what we would expect according to the hypothesis. Hypothesis really means ‘an explanation with little or no supporting evidence’. The more tests the hypothesis passes the more evidence it acquires to support it until eventually it moves beyond the status of hypothesis and becomes a ‘theory’.
Hypotheses with loads and loads of supporting evidence are still technically just theories although in common language they become known as facts. That’s the situation with the theory of evolution. It’s still a theory because in science everything is only a theory – an explanation that is supported by evidence – but nothing is a fact because there’s always the chance that new evidence might arise to disprove it. In fact the bulk of scientific testing is designed to try to find conflicting evidence, to disprove theories. If no evidence can be found then the theory is accepted provisionally. But the moment evidence is found that proves it cannot be true the theory is abandoned. That’s how science works. The process of trying to find evidence to disprove a theory is known as ‘falsification’. Remember that term – it’s really important. Falsification.
It’s a bit of a paradox but we can only really know what’s true by trying to disprove stuff – trying to prove our theories are correct doesn’t work. Here’s why…
Let’s assume that I have a hypothesis – I suspect that all mammals live on the land and so I set out to prove it. I go to the internet (doesn’t everyone use the internet these days?) and I type into a search engine ‘land-dwelling mammals’. Instantly I’ll find loads of evidence confirming what I already thought and I’ll be more convinced than ever that my hypothesis is correct. I’ll elevate my hypothesis to a theory because I have the evidence to support it – even to ‘prove’ it but I’ll be wrong.
Had I typed a different search term into my computer I’d have come up with a completely different result. If I’d looked for the evidence against my hypothesis instead of just trying to confirm it I’d have a much better way to test it. What would happen if I searched for ‘sea-dwelling mammals’?
Instantly I’d have been confronted with images of whales and dolphins and my hypothesis would crumble before my eyes. I’d know that my hypothesis was incorrect and I’d have to modify it. I’d eventually end up, as most people already know, with a hypothesis that ‘most’ mammals live on land but that there are a few exceptions. Such is the power of ‘falsification’.
This idea is so powerful that a famous philosopher of science called ‘Karl Popper’ suggested that falsification is the key condition when trying to solve what he called the ‘demarcation problem’ – the difference between ‘science’ and ‘psuedoscience’ or even ‘science’ and ‘nonsense’.
‘Psuedoscience’ and ‘nonsense’ seek only to prove their claims whilst ‘science’ seeks to disprove hypotheses and theories – it seeks to ‘falsify’ claims.
That’s why scientific ideas progress. As each hypothesis or theory is disproven, scientists modify their beliefs and retest, all the time coming closer and closer to reliable truth. Psuedoscientists and nonsense merchants do the opposite – they seek only to find evidence that supports their existing beliefs and ignore or suppress ideas that contradict them. This process of looking only for supporting evidence is what researchers call ‘confirmation bias’, a tendency that scientists work hard to ‘factor out’ of their research methodologies. The confirmation bias lulls us into a false sense of security, even a false sense of competence – we believe that we were right all along and so we don’t ever try to improve upon our existing beliefs.
That’s why creationism hasn’t really changed for thousands of years whereas the theory of evolution keeps getting more and more refined and so more and more reliable. It’s because of this process of falsification. The attempts to falsify evolutionary theory mean that the overall picture is continually refined. We now talk about the ‘modern synthesis’ of evolution – a significant improvement upon Darwin’s original idea which, however brilliant it was (and make no mistake Darwin’s theory was brilliant) was incomplete. Modern theories are also incomplete but they’re getting better and better with every research study. So much so that although some of the fine details are still being refined we now have more than enough evidence to talk about the ‘fact’ of evolution in all but the very strictest, scientific terms where ‘theory’ is as certain as one can ever be.
That’s because, if it wasn’t true, evolution would be easy to falsify. The esteemed English biologist JBS Haldane, when asked what discovery would falsify evolution retorted:
“Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian”
That’s because, according to the theory of evolution (and it is a theory – it’s not just a hypothesis) rabbits didn’t evolve until well after the Precambrian era (around 500 million years ago) so fossil rabbits in those early geological layers would pretty much discredit all (or at least most) of evolutionary theory. In fact, almost any ‘out of time’ fossils would be a major problem for evolution and a number of organisations have dedicated themselves to trying to find such an anomaly – so far without success.
Remember the principle of falsification – the more you try and fail to falsify a concept the more reliable it becomes.
Contrast this with the idea of creation by intelligent design (the latest incarnation of creationism). It’s hard to think of a single piece of evidence that would falsify creationism because whatever evidence we throw at the problem the creationist will simply say that God designed it that way. Creationism is ultimately unfalsifiable (at least by its own standards) and therefore it’s impossible to prove as well. It’s a perfect example of what Karl Popper would describe as ‘nonsense’ or, in its latest form of ‘intelligent design’ (ID for short), ‘psuedoscience’.
You see the evidence is the thing – that and the lack of sought after falsification. That’s how we know what we know and also why we don’t have to base our beliefs on the origin myths of a handful of middle-Eastern desert nomads who lived several thousand years ago and knew nothing more about genuine scientific inquiry than their ancient Egyptian counterparts who worshipped Osiris and Ra.
Filed under: Critical thinking, Hard wired, plausible nonsense, Religion, skeptic | Tagged: confirmation bias, Darwin, demarcation problem, evolution, fact, falsification, Haldane, hypothesis, intelligent design. creationism, Karl Popper, rabbits in the precambrian, science, theory | Leave a Comment »
Faith healing GP Accusations have come forward that a Staffordshire Dr. told his patient God would heal her & to stop taking her psychiatric medication. The GP denies any wrongdoing and claims that the allegations represent an attack on his Christian faith.
Whether or not this particular GP is guilty of such serious misconduct is a question yet to be answered. However it wouldn’t be the first time such medieval recommendations have been made in UK. The last few years have seen UK psychiatrists like Rob Waller refer psychotic patients for exorcism, several deaths resulting from exorcism worldwide and an Archbishop calling for exorcism of ‘the mentally ill’ in the House of Lords.
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.
This blog by SKWalker is long but fascinating.
If you have any interest in truth, justice, the future of the NHS or the way that cynical politicians & the right wing press manipulate the public then you really must read this.
Let me put it another way….
This may be the most important blog a UK citizen can read this year. It has implications way beyond the Francis report & Stafford hospital.
Read it. Read it now.
Just a short point (may become a blog series in time)…
If we are to complain about Islamic fundamentalism, as the English Defence League never tire of doing, we must also complain about the abuses of Jewish & Christian fundamentalism. They’re all based upon the same God of Abraham (what Dawkins describes as “The bronze age God of war”).
Have you read Leviticus lately? Whatever charges of brutality can be brought against Islam can also be brought against Christianity and Judaeism. There’s plenty of stoning, sexism, genocide, rape and general nastiness on God’s part in all three religions. Fortunately though not everyone goes in for such antisocial practices.
The reality is that most Europeans (including European Muslims) reject fundamentalism in favour of a more pragmatic approach to society – live & let live. Let’s face it there’s a huge difference between Muslim & Islamist just as there is between Christian & Creationist. That’s why European law & the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) regularly chastises the more extreme devotees of all three religious groups.
Let’s celebrate similairity instead of fighting about difference.
People are just people!
You will never ‘win’ any debate unless you can persuade the other person to take you seriously. This means that you need to take the subject (which may well be very close to the other person’s heart) seriously. You will need to demonstrate that you genuinely are interested in sharing information and that gaining honest insight is much more important to you than merely being ‘right’.
That means being prepared to acknowledge when you have made a mistake – when you may have been wrong. Mature debaters are able to do this because they understand that to err is human and that there is no implied weakness or catastrophe in making a mistake. They simply admit their error and move past it. They learn from it, in other words.
Paradoxically – the debater who cannot admit to being mistaken is much more likely to make the same mistakes over and over again. The first step in refining our opinions is to acknowledge our errors. Failure to do this is a failure to learn.
So if you want to be taken seriously you must first stop taking yourself so seriously that you blind yourself to the possibility of error. That’s what children do. Such a perspective is perfectly acceptable among teenagers (black and white, concrete thinking is a normal, adolescent developmental stage) but in adult psychology it’s the hallmark of the ignoramous.
Learn from criticism
So don’t just ignore criticism – learn from it. Even if the criticism is unfounded (see the entries on ‘straw man arguments’, ‘ad hominem attacks’ and ‘not listening’) you can learn a lot about the debating ‘style’ of the other person. This is useful information in deciding whether or not to continue the discussion. Let’s face it, sometimes it just isn’t worth it.
The individual who refuses to engage with genuine discussion and who prefers instead to meet your attempts at engagement with cheap ‘point-scoring’ probably isn’t yet capable of genuinely reflective interaction. It’s OK to stick around for a while and try to help them to grow a little but there comes a point (in my experience it’s quickly obvious) when the discussion ceases to be worth the effort (more on that later).
So when your ideas are criticised you can learn useful information about your point of view – let’s face it we can all be wrong;
When the other person confines themselves only to criticism of you as an individual you can learn about their closed-mindedness;
Either way – the more you listen and try to understand, the more you learn.