Pharyngula

Science overwhelmed by self-defeating awe

This video by Alexander Tsiaras is simultaneously lovely and infuriating; it’s a product of technology and science, and the narration is profoundly anti-science.

There are some technical issues that annoy me about the video — it’s a mix of real imagery and computer animation, and it doesn’t draw a line between what is observed and what is fabricated — but it’s visually stunning and otherwise fairly accurate.

But Tsiaras’s running commentary…it’s mystical airy-fairy glop. It takes awe and turns it into a celebration of ignorance.

Even though I am a mathematician, I look at this with marvel of how do these instruction sets not make these mistakes as they build what is us? It’s a mystery, it’s magic, it’s divinity. Then you start to take a look at adult life. Take a look at this little tuft of capillaries. It’s just a tiny sub-substructure, microscopic. But basically by the time you’re nine months and you’re given birth, you have almost 60,000 miles of vessels inside your body. I mean, and only one mile is visible. 59,999 miles that are basically bringing nutrients and taking waste away. The complexity of building that within a single system is, again, beyond any comprehension or any existing mathematics today.

And that instruction set, from the brain to every other part of the body — look at the complexity of the folding. Where does this intelligence of knowing that a fold can actually hold more information, so as you actually watch the baby’s brain grow — and this is one of the things that we’re doing right now. We’re actually doing the launch of two new studies of actually scanning babies’ brains from the moment they’re born. Every six months until they’re six years old — we’re going to be doing actually to about 250 children — watching exactly how the gyri and the sulci of the brains fold to see how this magnificent development actually turns into memories and the marvel that is us.

And it’s not just our own existence, but how does the woman’s body understand to have genetic structure that not only builds her own, but then has the understanding that allows her to become a walking immunological, cardiovascular system that basically is a mobile system that can actually nurture, treat this child with a kind of marvel that is beyond, again, our comprehension — the magic that is existence, that is us?

It’s not magic, and it’s sure as hell not divinity — it’s chemistry. And it certainly does make mistakes: half of all conceptions end in a spontaneous abortion, and about 15% of all pregnancies where the mother knows she is pregnant spontaneously terminate.

I genuinely despise the tactic so widely used by intelligent design creationists, and here by Tsiaris, of reciting really big numbers and babbling about complexity, complexity, complexity. Yes, it’s complicated. But you can build complicated structures with simple rules, and if you look at these systems, what you find are iterative properties and variation induced by local conditions. And if it’s beyond mathematics today, what are all those mathematicians and biologists doing modeling angiogensis?

And then there’s the rampant assignment of agency to everything. “Where does this intelligence of knowing that a fold can actually hold more information” in the brain come from? It doesn’t. The expansion of the cortex is a consequence of selected variation in mitotic regulators for that region of the brain — it expands like bread dough because the cells are replicating to large numbers, and the confines of the skull cause it to buckle and fold. It’s neurogenesis; there aren’t little angels folding pastry in there.

That entire last paragraph beginning from “how does the woman’s body understand to have genetic structure” is total nonsense. The answer is no, the woman’s body does not “understand”. There is no “knowing” there. There are physical/chemical processes guided by a molecular biology that has been shaped by a few billion years of variation and selection to produce a functional outcome. It’s not magic. It’s not guided by intelligence and intent.

THIS. IS. BIOLOGY.

Yet here is this intelligent, accomplished, technically skilled loon painting it with useless, mystical, misleading bullshit.

That kind of delusion has consequences. Right now, that video is getting featured on anti-maternal-life websites all over the internet. Here’s a self-selected sample of responses to Tsiaras’s work:

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

“Pro-choicers vanquished by Science.”

“This truly is amazing.”

“How could anyone get an abortion after watching this?”

“To say that this is a must see or fantastic is an understatement of the truth.”

I am most amused by the claim “Pro-choicers vanquished by Science.” I’ve been familiar with the developmental series shown in that video for about 30 years, and it confirms to me that there is nothing magical or special about human development that demands that we privilege the human embryo as deserving the full rights of an adult, aware, thinking person. It is meat in motion, driven by unthinking processes. Cow embryos go through the same events, and through the first month or so would be indistinguishable from a human embryo; does this somehow compel the anti-woman brigade to shun steaks?

Here, I have a video of zebrafish development. I don’t have all the gadgets and animation tools that Tsiaras has at his disposal, just a microscope, a video camera, and Quicktime software, but still…this truly is amazing. It’s a must see or fantastic.

Wow. How did a fish embryo know how to do that?

The answer is that it doesn’t. We don’t grant human beings a privileged place in our cultural ethics because they develop from embryos, or because they have a heart that beats with many miles of capillaries, or because we don’t understand every minuscule detail of their formation. If that were the case, the anti-choicers would have to be rushing to protect the fruit flies growing on the bananas in their kitchen and be picketing the battery farms producing chicken eggs. Witnessing development shouldn’t turn rational people into irrational knee-jerk defenders of embryos…it should turn them into developmental biologists who are awed at the grandeur of growth and differentiation, who will spend their lives working to figure out how it all works.

Where Tsiaras sees ineffable unapproachable mystery, I see interesting problems to be solved.

(Also on FtB)