Mike the Mad Biologist

Evolution: The Utility Defense

During one of the many framing-related flare ups (kinda like zits, aren’t they?), I argued that biologists have done the following things well while confronting creationism:

  1. Calling creationists fucking morons (because they are).
  2. Arguing that a better understanding of how life evolved is good in and of itself, and can imbue us with a certain sense of wonder.
  3. Refuting specific creationist claims.

But this is what I thought was missing:

What we rarely do is make an affirmative, positive argument for evolution (as opposed to against creationism). I proposed one particular argument: we can’t do applied medical genomics at all without using evolutionary theory and tools. There are many other examples that can be made (I merely chose this one because I know it rather well).

In light of that, I bring you a virologist’s response to an anti-evolution billboard that he has to drive by on his way to work (italics mine):

I first have to express my thoughts on evolution. To me, it is a tool. I use evolution as a carpenter uses a hammer or a hunter uses a gun. To take evolution away from me limits the scope of my work tremendously. I can’t describe to you the many times I have performed genetic alignments on evolutionary divergent viruses in order to hone in on DNA sequence similarities which reveal regions of functional importance. The idea is that the more evolutionary conserved a region is, the more important it is. It is amazing how often this is true in molecular biology and how often it discovers novel truths about, not only viral, but human biology.

My first inclination after realizing that my livelihood was being threatened was to contact the advertising company that allowed such inflammatory garbage to be posted in public view.

As a thought experiment (hopefully, it remains that), if we were to ban the use of evolutionary biology, so much of what you read about here at ScienceBlogs simply would not happen. One example is genomics. Without evolutionary biology, we can’t make sense of any of the data we produce.

I also liked his discussion of how these ridiculous billboards came to be:

The irony is that a nurse started up Billboard Ministries. She undoubtedly has helped saved lives using technologies that were developeed in laboratories which used evolution as a tool. Was her biological training not sufficient enough? If a nurse is uneducated about evolution, what about the rest of the country? According to their site, billboards have been placed in 13 states. I’m sure other fundamentalist groups are doing the same — spreading their anti-evolutionary message around the country. I realize it is quite possible, and possibly more likely that she had learned about evolution in college yet her fundamentalist beliefs trump her science education. If that is the case, is the answer to this conundrum to simply educate the public about evolution? It may help, but I think more is necessary. Perhaps we need to find out how to make fundamentalism less fundamental in our society.

I think a more productive approach would to blame scientists for their poor communications skills.

If nothing else, it would be far more civil.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob
    September 1, 2009

    You forgot the part where this is all PZ Meyers’ fault.

    Otherwise I agree with your analysis. From now on I’m going to sit down, shut up, and leave science communication to the professionals. After all, it’s the civil thing to do.

  2. #2 cakeforme(mo)
    September 1, 2009

    You forgot that you can’t clonate at all without evolution: This is why selection of bacteria which received a specific plasmid works, after all.

    So we wouldn’t have human insulin, KO-genetics or monsanto without this. Or everything that happened in the sciencees of biology, medicine and pharmacy for that matter.

  3. #3 frog
    September 1, 2009

    Way too weak still. Most creationism means ALL OF PHYSICS is wrong. All of it. We’re not just talking genomics — basically, you can throw out all the tools of science altogether.

    If all our dating tools our wrong, if all our measurements are wrong — you’d have to be insane to trust that your computer doesn’t have a demon in it waiting to eat your brains.

    That’s what flabbergasts me — how do people not see it? Any form of creationism requires a willful disregard of the inconsistency between technology and such a basic failure of science.

  4. #4 Mary
    September 1, 2009

    Yeah, I’ve thought that before too. At one point I even thought we should train up some scientists and give ‘em some slide sets kinda like the Al Gore Climate Team and send them out into their communities to tell the story where ever they might get a platform: certain churches, community groups who want speakers, etc.

    I think people would be interested. It’s becoming clear to me on a couple of fronts that scientists have become too remote from their communities. We are losing the public trust and understanding on this topic, vaccines/public health, environmental issues….

    I would like to have some kind of community “defenders of science” movement. I’m not sure how to structure it yet, though.

  5. #5 RBH
    September 1, 2009

    Mary wrote

    I would like to have some kind of community “defenders of science” movement. I’m not sure how to structure it yet, though.

    There are a couple of ways already there. For example, start (or participate in) a Cafe Scientifique. I have, and it’s great fun. Offer to give a talk at a local library or church. I have — I did a three-talk series on evolution at a local Protestant church and had standing room only audiences. Offer to help middle school and high school science teachers with materials and resources. Join NCSE and use their resources. Write letters to the editor on every appropriate occasion.

    The Web is full of resources and ideas: Use it!

  6. #6 Mary
    September 1, 2009

    @RBH: that’s great on the local church, that’s exactly what I mean as a start on the proactive side. But why aren’t we teaming up, sharing slides, coaching each other, supporting each other at these events–that’s what I mean.

    And the cafe sorts of things I find are a lot like blogging: talking to the choir.

    My immediate issue is that I went to a CDC meeting on H1N1 flu this past weekend in my town. It was full of anti-science cranks. Full. The crank bat-signal was fully activated and they all turned out. The science bat-signal….nothing. Now, I’m a short walk or T ride from a number of prestigious science institutions. But scientists did not show up for this.

    We are losing public health right now, and we don’t have a network like the creation battlers have as far as I know. And we need to.

    Does NCSE have a vaccination team? That would be cool, but when I was looking around the other day I didn’t see anything like that.

  7. #7 Noam GR
    September 1, 2009

    The problem runs deeper than mere lack of communication between scientists and the general public. I actually think scientists are doing a fine job of getting the message out–from youtube, to blogs, to live video chats, to the mainstream media. The problem is that the people at whom this message is directed were never taught how to *understand* it.

    In one thing I agree with creationists: Evolution should not be taught in primary school.

    The way science is “taught” in public schools is all backwards. You learn about the facts– evolution, gravity, the big bang, positive vs. negative charges, etc.–, but if you want to understand how we came to actually discover these facts, what the logic behind all these terms they make you memorize is… well, then you just have to wait until your first year in college.

    I remember my own frustration in high school. I felt like the teachers were throwing all these meaningless facts at me, but every time I asked a question like “but how do we *know* that things can’t travel faster than light”, I’d be told not to worry about it, that that’s the sort of stuff we won’t learn until much later on.

    This drove me to feel very frustrated, to actually hate science class; and in the case of my friends, who never got to that “much later on” stage, it drove them to believe that science is just another religion, full of meaningless facts that you just *have* to accept. No wonder they don’t want to hear it!

    In Einstein’s words: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Kids first need to learn the logic behind a mathematical and scientific proof. The knowledge will come later; it’s useless now anyway when they don’t know how to use it. First they have to learn the rudiments of reasoning, they need to learn about logical fallacies, how to explore and expand ideas; the scientific method. Only once they have a good grasp of how a scientist derives a theory from all those seemingly unrelated facts, only then should they even hear the words evolution and gravity.

    We don’t talk to a 5th grader about hyperplanes or cardinality; we don’t lecture him on Joyce’s use of bodily functions in Ulysses– so why are we trying to drill him with the theory of evolution before he even knows what a theory is?


    http://noamgr.wordpress.com

  8. #8 karimtalib
    September 1, 2009

    Aesthetic Defense of Evolution

    We should believe in evolution, even if it’s wrong- because it is simple, elegant and works. What more could you want in a belief. It beats cramming dinosaurs on an Arc and saying the world was created with fossils already there.

    I studied philosophy and don’t understand why evolution is not defended on philosophical and aesthetic grounds. The best thing about evolution is its parsimony and simplicity. Apart from any data supporting evolution, the theory itself is worth believing because it is the most elegant idea that humanity has created. Evolution says “Look at all this incredible diversity, complexity and history- we can explain it in a few words- Changes that help life live long enough to reproduce stay with us.” Evolution gives us a way of understanding the world without catechism, indoctrination, interpretation or manuscripts, etc.

    Ocham’s razor is the idea that given two equal theories (and evolution has NO equal), you should accept the theory that is most simple and involves the fewest assumptions. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocham%27s_razor). Ocham, a 14th century logician, would have marveled at evolution.

    I’d really like to hear more of a defense of the elegant simplicity of evolution.

  9. #9 travc
    September 1, 2009

    This is quite similar to how I ‘defended’ evolution when TAing intro bio. We were going over top level systematics near the very start of the course, and I had just put the big old ‘tree of animalia’ on the whiteboard noting the characteristic differences between clades.

    “Now, this makes a lot more sense and is *a lot easier to remember* if you think of the evolutionary transitions.”
    Not a single creationist complaint. (BTW: This was a bio for non-majors course).

  10. #10 Keith Harwood
    September 1, 2009

    Noam GR @ 7:

    When I went to school we did get “How we know” in science classes. We had Dalton’s atoms, phlogiston, Cavendish `weighing the Earth’, Galileo and his swinging candelabrum.

    And, no, it’s not because those things were at the leading edge of science (though I will admit that there were only 94 elements known at the time). (That’s a thought; if Pluto is no longer a planet, does that mean that plutonium is no longer an element?) Much of what we learned was “Here is what people in the past did, this is what they deduced from it, so here is what we now know” and it was implicit that the rest of what we learned had been similarly discovered. The actual process of science was never refered to, but it was constantly displayed.

    karimtalib@8. I tend to disagree regarding “accept the theory that is most simple”. Occam’s razor tells us nothing about the truth or otherwise of an hypothesis and therefore gives us no reason to accept or reject any one. Rather, it gives us a guideline for further investigation. The simpler the hypothesis, the more fruitful the investigation. In this evolution wins hands down over creationism. Evolution has produced an enormous amount of knowledge, saved millions of lives, inspired profitable industries and generally made the world a better and more interesting place. Creationism has produced nothing.

  11. #11 Tony P
    September 2, 2009

    I’ve noted that those in the medical field tend to be the biggest Jesus freaks around.

    I don’t consider medicine a science, it is more an art form. Think about it, the average M.D. used rote memorization to get where he/she is. The spark of curiosity isn’t there.

  12. #12 Tony P
    September 2, 2009

    Computers are my forte! Believe me, I know there isn’t a demon inside but you’d be surprised how many people I run across and the military term FM (Fucking Magic) could apply to them.

    Computers are no mystery. They just push electrons around.

  13. #13 cecilia
    September 2, 2009

    Computers can be used to avoid real social compromise. People think that computer can solve all problems. Thats not true. Otherwise, evolutionatory psico pretends to demostrate the consecuences of facts, which really are uncertain to us.

  14. #14 Don
    September 3, 2009

    NoamGR’s comment on science education should be incorporated in the Constitution of the United States.

  15. #15 Robert Luhn
    September 9, 2009

    Thanks for the mention of NCSE. You can find us at http://www.ncse.com. As for a vaccination team…alas, no. We’re pretty much focused on defending and promoting the teaching of evolution. That’s what we’re all about. So if there’s a flare-up relating to a creationist “event”, someone teaching intelligent design, a board of education going off the rails, someone trying to pass an “academic freedom” bill, issues related to science denial, and that sort of thing…well, that’s right up our alley. –Robert Luhn, NCSE

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