Friday, January 23, 2009

The debate over scientific inquiry needs to evolve

Today I'm going to take a break from our regularly scheduled holiday update and bring you to one of my favorite pet-issues. The Borths family's adventures in Vienna will be arriving either later today or tomorrow, so you have Wagner and Mozart to look forward to. Today, I'm going to talk about Darwin and Lamarck.

Yesterday I was cruising my various online news outlets. I have a kind of loop I like to take across the internet from the New York Times to Newsweek and on to I checked in on Newsweek because every year they do a round table interview with potential Oscar nominees. Since I'm a movie junkie, this is always a fun issue to read. As I was listening to Frank Langella hold forth on Nixon and Mickey Rourke discuss "The Wrestler," I noticed the "Most Popular Article" bar in the lower right hand corner of the page.

Second from the top (it's since jumped to "Most Popular") was an article titled "Begley: Was Darwin Wrong About Evolution?" Well that's just click-bait as far as I'm concerned and I bit. I was treated to this article by Newsweek columnist Sharon Begley:

The actual title of the column is "Sins of the Fathers: Take 2" and the subtitle is "At tributes to Darwin, Lamarckism—inheritance of acquired traits—will be the skunk at the party." Thus the "Was Darwin Wrong" title was created by some webdesigner at who wanted to create a mini sensation. He did.

The article presents examples of physical changes in the next generation caused by the experiences of the parental generation. Once example Mrs. Begley uses is a species of water flea. If mom has some traumatic experience in her life, she gives birth to babies equipped with spikey "helmets." If mom has an uneventful life, her offspring don't get protective head gear. The offspring have the same genetic code, but express different "phenotypes" or "physical features."

She suggests this is an example of Lamarckian evolution. For centuries, really since the ancient Greeks, people have noticed that life changes. Early farmers had intimate knowledge of inherent variation in living populations as they tried to cultivate tastier corn and docile cows. However, no one could come up with a mechanism for this variation, how it arose in the first place and caused the next generation to be a little different from the parents. Lamarck was one of the first Evolutionists. He suggested experiences of the parent were somehow passed on to the offspring. His classic example was the giraffe’s neck. Momma giraffe spent her life stretching her neck to get to high leaves. Junior was born with a slightly longer neck. He spent his life stretching and passed these stretched traits on to Jeffery.

Jean-baptiste Lamarck, the 18th century French biologist who actually invented the modern definition of "biology." He also wrote about classifying organisms and some stuff about giraffes.

Lamarck was on the right track, traits from the parent get inherited by offspring, but his mechanism didn’t quite work. He was derided for his ideas by George Cuvier, the scientific big cheese in Paris in the late 18th century. Cuvier gave us the idea of extinction, but not evolution. He was an ardent anti-evolutionist because he couldn’t figure out how it worked. Thus it must not happen. He trashed Lamarck’s reputation.

Enter Darwin and his theory of Natural Selection. In “The Origin of Species,” which is celebrating its 150th birthday, Chuck lays out his idea of variation acted upon by the environment. The more useful a random trait, the more likely you are to survive and pass that trait to your babies.

Okay, history lesson over. After reading Begley’s article I felt I should comment as I didn’t think the examples she cited proved Darwin wrong. They just illustrated the fact that evolution is a complicated process that we still don’t understand completely. I click on the comments section and am greeted with a raging farce of a debate not about Darwin or Lamarck’s legacy, but about the validity of evolution itself.

I wasn’t completely surprised, given that controversial headline, but as I scrolled through the discussion I noticed that many of the opponents of evolutionary science just had their facts wrong. It was clear that either A) their science teachers failed to deliver the basic tenets of evolutionary theory, B) they hadn’t paid attention that day or C) they willfully ignored their teachers.

The Evolution/Creation debate is one that fascinates me. Personally I find it pointless as the two sides draw on different paradigms for formulating ideas. Science, by definition, relies on empirical reasoning and hypothesis testing to formulate ideas. If you can’t test it with some kind of repeatable way for others to observe, it’s not science. Creationism is based in religious revelation preserved in the Book of Genesis. Religious revelation, by definition, is a matter of faith, that is, it cannot be tested for the benefit of a third party.

Each of these avenues of discovery has its place. Scientific reasoning has produced myriad technologies and insights through hypothesis and testing. Belief has instilled in me a sense of social justice, among other things. You can’t empirically prove that it is important to reach out the disenfranchised. But you can convince someone to believe it, and I am convinced it is essential everyone believe in the inherent value of each person.

Okay, so I didn’t want to wade into this debate, but I do feel called to help people understand the process of science and the reason scientists say some of the crazy things they say. In this case, I wanted to clear up some misunderstandings people had about the Theory of Evolution I just hoped to inform the debate. So, for the first time, I entered the web community. My screen name is “The Matt.”

If you follow this link you can witness the debate. If you care to see my comments just search for “The Matt” or just “Matt” as I have a discussion with one poster going, using just my nickname. I tried to answer questions, but there’s a lot of work to do - especially when it comes to moth evolution.

If you follow this link you’ll find a more qualified biologist than I discussing the problems with this article.

One of my career goals is to help people understand foundational science and comprehend how science is done. Evolution gets picked on a lot, and many people weigh in to the debate that have not bothered to actually study the evidence for “change through time.” The same phenomenon does not occur in material science research or drug development. However, but insinuating evolutionary biologists have missed a huge piece of data (that life does not change through time) critics suggest the method used to reach evolutionary conclusions produces flawed results. That method is the Scientific Method. If it doesn’t help biologists understand how the organisms of the Earth diversify, then how do we know the Scientific Method is any good at producing alternative energy sources or developing treatments for chronic diseases?

Also, yesterday’s New York Times had an article about the Texas Board of Education considering whether “critiques of evolution” should be allowed into the Texas science classroom. Here’s a link to that article:

I really need to get off this soap box (does anyone know the way down?) to get some work done. Please explore these links though and know that it is possible to reconcile scientific inquiry and religion. But that’s an entry for another day.

Taking steps towards a more highly evolved argument.


Mama B said...

Interesting that no one is responding to this earnest post...

Matt said...

I think it reflects the readership. Preaching to the choir rarely elicits much response. That or it's a reflection of the polarity of the issue. People read it and agree or give me up as a lost cause and don't bother to enter the discussion. Either way, it shows what I'm up against.