Mike the Mad Biologist

Actually, Biologists Have Done That

While I’m not as bothered by the Pope’s statement about evolution as PZ is, what’s troubling is the scientific misunderstanding shown by his statements.

I agree with one sentiment, which is that biology doesn’t tell us much about meaning, since I think meaning is something we ascribe to physical reality (and events). Many biologists have made much philosophical and ethical hay of the common ancestry of humankind, so it’s certainly reasonable for the Pope (or anyone else) to do so. What is really disturbing is how ignorant he is of modern biology and science. According to the Pope:

“The pope (John Paul) had his reasons for saying this,” Benedict said. “But it is also true that the theory of evolution is not a complete, scientifically proven theory.”

Benedict added that the immense time span that evolution covers made it impossible to conduct experiments in a controlled environment to finally verify or disprove the theory.

“We cannot haul 10,000 generations into the laboratory,” he said.

Let’s take the last part first. Richard Lenski, at Michigan State, has evolved organisms (in this case, E. coli) for 30,000 generations. This is a controlled defined experiment, and because bacteria can be cryogenically stored and then ‘thawed out’, there is actually a living fossil record of evolution. For more information, check out the E. coli Long-term Experimental Evolution Project site. Granted, it’s impossible to conduct a similar experiment on elephants, but the Pope is wrong on the facts.

But the statement reveals a much more fundamental problem, which is a basic misunderstanding of the role of experimentation in science. More precisely, he does not understand the basic limitations of experimentation. Experiments, just like mathematical models, can elucidate mechanism in and only in the context of the experiment. In other words, an experiment designed to examine the role of an enzyme in a biochemical pathway in a laboratory setting really only tells us what is happening to that cell under laboratory–and usually, artificial–conditions. The unstated assumption is that ‘cells are cells’: the mechanisms won’t be too different inside the lab versus outside the lab.

Ultimately, to “finally verify or disprove” any experimental phenomenon, one needs two things:

1) Observations that verify that the experiments bear significant semblance to ‘things out there.’

2) Experiments in different conditions that approximate the range of natural settings. There’s not much point in assessing the growth of cacti in conditions mimicking tropical rainforests (unless you want a bunch of really big cacti).

Even here, there is no ‘final proof’, only a rigorous, good faith effort to falsify your hypothesis (if you’re a Popperian), or an exhaustive effort to find the most likely hypothesis (if you’re a likelihood proponent).

There’s one other odd thing: the Vatican has an astronomer. How does one do manipulative experiments in astronomy? Maybe he should have talked to his own scientists first…

Comments

  1. #1 quork
    April 13, 2007

    In breaking news, Pope Benedict has announced that the heliocentric model of the solar system is “only a theory” and has never been deductively “proven.” The pope said, “you can’t bring the entire solar system into the lab for controlled experiments, now can you?” Benedict stated that his predecessor “had his reasons for issuing a belated apology on behalf of the church to Galileo”, but that he would be retracting the apology in light of his revised opinion of scientific “theory”.

  2. #2 PZ Myers
    April 13, 2007

    The pope’s statements were what I expected. What I’m bothered by is people trying to find interpretations that favor the side of evolution — he’s not on our side, we should expect him to be on our side, and we might as well start kicking him now rather than later.

  3. #3 PZ Myers
    April 13, 2007

    I mean, we should not expect him to be on our side.

  4. #4 J-Dog
    April 13, 2007

    What can you expect from a guy that wears a big penis on his head and calls it a hat?

  5. #5 quork
    April 13, 2007

    The pope’s statements were what I expected.

    No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

  6. #6 Chromosome Crawl
    April 13, 2007

    “I find it important to underline that the theory of evolution implies questions that must be assigned to philosophy and which themselves lead beyond the realms of science,” the pope was quoted as saying in the book, which records a meeting with fellow theologians the pope has known for years.

    Herein lies the crux of the point – this statement was developed by a group of theologians, not a group of scientists. I would not want to be making statements about some finer point of the Koran or the New Testament b/c I have not undertaken a course of study in those subjects. I would appreciate it if the Pope and his theologic ilk would refrain from making statements about things such as HIV resistance and the finer points of embryology.

  7. #7 boredwell
    April 14, 2007

    The World According to Benedict: The speech/lecture given by the pope at the University of Regensburg is a standup example of theological sophism. How the pope’s handlers could sit by and allow him to malign Mohammed, dispense with Galileo’s theory and impart his solipcistic pronouncement on evolution is more of the same meddlesome and muddled tenets many religions are wont to project. This papal address should be entitled: Reducio ad nauseum.

  8. #8 Coin
    April 14, 2007

    The current pope is definitely demonstrating himself to be a step back from his recent predecessors.

  9. #9 quork
    April 14, 2007

    How the pope’s handlers could sit by and allow him to…dispense with Galileo’s theory…

    Just to be absolutely clear, my first response above was a parody, applying the general character of the pope’s misstatements about evolution to a different scientific theory.

  10. #10 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 14, 2007

    The Pope has several Biologists, who understand Evolution. The Pope has several good astronomers (Jesuits), including the current President of the American Astronomical Society (and I admire him considerably), and the Vatican Observatory.

    The Pope is interested in what these Vatican scientists can tell him, but also interested in marketing his current book, being a former professor, and Defending the Faith. To what extent these tasks are orthogonal is a matter of opinion. Or faith.

  11. #11 Dan S.
    April 15, 2007

    Benedict said. “But it is also true that the theory of evolution is not a complete, scientifically proven theory.”
    Benedict added that the immense time span that evolution covers made it impossible to conduct experiments in a controlled environment to finally verify or disprove the theory.

    The falsity and general incomprehension of this statement aside, isn’t this also a bit of the Pope calling the kettle black, given (whatever their other merits) his own far less verifiable ideas?

    There’s one other odd thing: the Vatican has an astronomer. . . .
    Perhaps one of these centuries they’ll have a biologist . . .

  12. #12 Fulfilled Darwin Youth
    April 17, 2007

    The Darwin Youth provide an alternative to Popery!

    Join today!
    http://cedros.globat.com/~thebrites.org/DarwinYouth/index.html

  13. #13 PZ Myers Sucks
    April 18, 2007

    I see that PZ Myers says above that he wants to strart kicking the Pope!

    Go for it PZ!

    You fucking fool!

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