False Pearls before Real Swine

“In today’s lecture, I will be casting false pearls before real swine”

… I won’t tell you who said that, but when he did say it, he was in front of a classroom of several hundred Harvard freshmen, and he was referring to the idea of telling little white lies to the unwashed masses in order to achieve the dissemination of greater truth. No one in the room but the wizened teaching assistants, clustered off to the side furtively consuming their lunch in the “no food allowed” lecture hall, got the Biblical reference. There were spit takes.

But the problem with false pearls is that they don’t dissolve once they are used. They may serve a purpose, and we see this purpose served not only in Harvard lecture halls but also in the media and even, I fear, on blogs. But then, when they are done being useful, they can become falsehoods.

I’ll give you an example. Question: Do humans take in any oxygen through their skin? Implication: If so, painting a human with plastic would suffocate them, but that is not true despite one rumor from Hollywood that some of you may have heard. False Pearl: “Ah, no, it is simply not true that humans breathe through their skin, as proved by Mythbusters.” Unspoken truth: Well, yes, we do absorb oxygen through our skin, a surprising amount actually, but when that is not working because our skin is covered or we are at high altitude or something, our circulatory and respiratory systems compensate. It is not know if there is a real medical risk to having one’s skin “smothered” while suffering from cardiovascular or respiratory disease. Greater truth: All eukaryotic cells, including plants, fungi, and your skin cells, respirate (take in oxygen, put out CO2), or evolved from such a form (there are many secondarily anaerobic eukaryotic life forms, though this is not the norm). This is one of the things we learn in basic biology. Conflict: The false pearl, which is the response of skeptics, denies what is learned in science class in order to avoid letting people mistakenly think that an actress in a James Bond movie died when her body was covered with gold makeup.

That was an example of a falsehood within a falsehood (yes, we breathe through our skin, but not like you think, so we’ll just pretend that the “truth” is that we don’t) which is especially interesting in the context of what I like to call “skeptical skepticism.” This is where some aspect of reality, some truth or another, bothers the skeptical world model of a Snopes or Mythbuster, and they come to believe that a certain thing is not true because it can’t be true, even though, well, it is. And they just have to take their skeptic hat off, brush off the dust, and put it firmly back on their heads and dive into the often too nuanced for a single blog post reality that we actually live in.

Falsehoods are especially common in the area of biology. Teaching Evolutionary Biology is hard. It is not easy, like teaching astrophysics would be. Nobody really knows anything about astrophysics, so all the instructor has to do is find the empty space in the student’s brain and put some astrophysics in there. Simple.

The problem with Evolutionary Biology is that everybody already knows lots of stuff about it. Everybody already knows all about animal behavior because they have a cat. Everybody already knows all about human behavior because they are a human. Everybody already knows all about mating systems because they have a mate. Or wish they did. On top of this, we have the venerable science press and the Discovery Channel. Evolutionary biology, especially the part about human evolution, is very cool. Therefore, new findings by evolutionary biologists always get press. Even old findings get press on a slow news day. But reporters are often not really reporting the science. They are writing for an audience; an audience that they have created over time with their particular way of reporting, and to which they must now attend with … well, references to and use of falsehoods, often falsehoods that started out as little white lies. False pearls before swine.

A very clear example of this is the concept of a Missing Link. Scientists seem to generally agree that there are no missing links in science. Evolutionary biologists reject the concept of a missing link. We don’t use that word. We think it is incorrect and misleading. Yet, it is as difficult to find a news story about a fossil that does NOT use the phrase “Missing Link” as it is to swing a dead cat and not get in trouble with the SPCA. (Not that I’ve not actually tried that…) By the way, reporters know all about this missing link problem. Or at least, science reporters know about it. They always apologize just before they write the story about the missing link. Having said that, it is interesting to note that the term “missing link” (as well as the term “ape-man” by the by) are routinely used by South African Palaeoanthropologists who are very respectable in every possible way. And, I don’t think they are using “missing link” in correctly. I think, rather, that they have a different idea of what it refers to, perhaps a different idea of what a “link” is, or maybe, what a “chain” is, which makes the term work.

In other words, the term “missing link” sucks, but skepticism about the word “missing link” … if it is simply a knee-jerk reaction, as it almost always is … does no better. Indeed, there actually are “links” in an evolutionary sense and some of them are missing. The problem is not that such a thing does not exist. The problem is that looking for the missing link is rarely the main objective of the science, most new fossil species are not really missing links other than by the most trivial definition of the term (in which case every fossil is a missing link, and so is my Great Aunt Tillie) and many things are called “missing links” because they are newly discovered, and for no other reason.

To me, there are two kinds of actual “links” in the fossil record. One is the simple phylogenetic link. For instance, we know that humans and chimps have a common ancestor that existed several million years ago in Africa, and that was pretty much chimp-like in morphology, behavior, and ecology. However, we don’t have any fossils of this population or anything close to it. As you may or may not know, depending on what kinds of falsehoods you labor under, it is rare to actually find members of any given hypothetical or desired population. Usually, we find what we call “representative forms.” These are species that are close in time and space to the population we would like to see, and close in overall morphology and ecology, so they stand in for the focal fossil creature. One difficulty is, of course, that it might be very difficult to be sure that you’ve got the original population (say, a last common ancestor of two living forms) or a “representative” But we assume that finding the focal population … the actual Last Common Ancestor … is difficult and unlikely, so we make the guess that we are mainly looking at representative forms.

Having said that, if we found the fossils of the human-chimp LCA, or a representative of it, I think that would be a “link” (or a representative of the link) and since it is now missing, one could say “Missing Link Found!… (or at least a representative).

The second kind of link is sometimes known as a “transitional form.” Now, the current rhetoric from palaeontologists and other evolutionary biologists is that the whole concept of a “transitional form” is bogus, that in a way everything is a transitional form, and that yes, the creationists are always saying there are “no transitional forms” but every time we find one, that does not shut them up … it just creates two new spaces in which there are no transitional forms, on either side of the newly discovered fossil!

Well, this is a case of reacting to the critiques in a way that damaged our own discourse. There are transitional forms, some are unknown (theorized) and others are well documented. Not every species is a transitional form. Rather, it works like this: For many animals (and I’d prefer to stick with animals here) there are categories that make sense. Adaptations do not form a continuum across the natural world and neither do species. For instance, there is a group of mammals that are today represented by land mammals as well as sea mammals (the seals and their land-mammal relatives). Those are two dramatically different categories … terrestrial vs. marine. Something happened there in an evolutionary sense. To go from terrestrial to aquatic is a big deal, and … transitions must have happened. The difference between the terrestrial and aquatic species is nothing like trivial, and even though the differences among, say, the different species of seals are important, those differences pale in comparison to the terrestrial vs. aquatic differences.

From an evolutionary point of view, understanding this transition is very interesting and very important. The species that straddle this transition are transitional forms. There may be many, as there may be many steps in the transition. And the actual species we find may be “representatives” (see above). But they are all links, and those that are not found yet are … missing links.

I think that people who claim to find the missing link but who are just using the word and have not really found a phylogentically important Last Common Ancestor or a truly interesting transitional form that was not previously known should be flogged. Reporters and science writers who throw the term “missing link” and “transitional form” around like salt on an icy Minnesota driveway should be flogged as well. Flog them all, I say! Preserve these terms for what they mean, not what sells copy.

Of course, it is almost certainly too late. The misusers of these terms have ruined it for everybody. In two ways. One way is just ruining the terms themselves, so we can’t use them. The other is more insidious. By creating the backlash to the misuse of the term, you have otherwise perfectly intelligent paleoanthropologists and other evolutionary biologists, teachers, speakers, textbook writers, and science journalists running around talking about how there are no “missing links” and there are no “transitional forms” every time they hear the term used, rather than simply talking about what the terms may mean.

So, at this point, I think we have the idea fairly well laid out in examples. Things like breathable skin, missing links, and ape men (which we’ll talk about some other time) are Falsehoods with a capital F. When a certain term is used, a certain phrase uttered, the people in the room hear it and things that are not true materialize in their heads, even if there may be truths in what was spoken. But by unraveling the details, examining the nuances, examining the data and refining the models, we come out at the other end of the process less misinformed and more informed at the same time.

A falsehood is an incorrect or muddled belief widely enough held to be notable, and possibly dangerous. A falsehood is also a potentially powerful teaching tool. Evolution generally, and human evolution in particular, is loaded with them.

My favorite falsehoods are those that get people mad at me. I’m not sure why, but somehow watching someone’s ears turn red because they have been told that a cherished belief regarding their own superiority in the word is incorrect makes me laugh. Not funny haha laugh, and not funny strange laugh. More like funny-bwahahaha laugh.

For instance, did you know that it is a falsehood that poor people have more babies than rich people? Or that the placebo effect is a psychological response? Or that humans evolved from apes, nature maintains a balance, that humans have stopped evolving or that primitive cultures are simple while civilizations are complex? Falsehoods, all of them! Falsehoods I say! Bwahahaha!!!!!

Stay tuned. Falsehoods II, Return of the Falsehoods is right around the corner.

For all the Falsehoods II posts, click here.

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan
    March 20, 2012

    The false pearls before genuine swine story I heard many years ago was that James Bryant Conant, a chemist who became president of Harvard, one day stormed back from a class of graduate students saying loudly that he had just been throwing false pearls before genuine swine.

    I wonder which version of the origins of this story, if any, is the true one.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    March 20, 2012

    There is enough overlap … could have been either way.