Evolution and climate change

On twitter, journalist Dave Roberts wrote:

Evolution is not a free-floating “theory.” It underlies all of modern biology & ecology. Similarly for climate change: it’s a foundation.

I wrote back:

I agree (hence @NCSE’s work on both). But AGW is less foundation than integrative and crucial knowledge, built on other foundations

As NCSE shifts to combat attacks on climate science in classrooms, I’ve been thinking about the similarities and dissimilarities of these sciences, as well as the denialisms surrounding both.

Evolution is foundational to modern biology because all life evolved. That means that every cell, every molecule, every gene, every bone, and every ecological interaction exists in an evolutionary context. Evolution explains everything in biology (at the right level of abstraction). You can’t teach a biology class without teaching about evolution, not if you want it to make any sense. Evolution is the grand unified theory of biology (recalling that a theory is an explanatory framework that integrates evidence, hypotheses, and predictions, not just the loose thing it’s taken to mean colloquially).

As a consequence of all that, it’s highly integrated with other sciences. What we’ve learned about evolution ties into what we know about radiometric dating of rocks, and about molecular biology, and medicine, and ecology, and mathematical game theory, and engineering, and a host of other topics. If someone wants to uproot evolution, they have to tangle with the consequences for all those other fields as well. If the evolution is wrong because the earth is only 6,000 years old, it means radiometric dating is wrong, which means that very basic physics is wrong. It also means astronomy is probably wrong.

Climate change is not a scientific foundation in the same way. It is not meant to be a grand unified theory of climate, but it arises as a necessary consequence of basic climate science. Carbon dioxide traps heat. This is basic science, first demonstrated as Darwin was putting together The Origin of Species. We’re adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, as was known through the 19th century, and documented in detail in the 1950s. The effect of that added carbon dioxide is to increase global temperatures, a concept first described in the late 19th century by Svante Arrhenius, whose estimate of the effect of added carbon dioxide on global temperatures was pretty accurate, for being essentially a back of the envelope calculation.

The precision of that estimate, and estimates at finer resolutions, have improved markedly with global climate simulations, but the result hasn’t. And those simulations integrate everything we know about climate. So when people say that human activities couldn’t be causing climate change, they are challenging fairly basic issues in physics, either the basic physics of molecular bonds, or the flow of energy through the atmosphere.

But the real analogy comes in considering the consequences of climate change. Because the climate influences just about everything, and energy production influences pretty much every part of human society. Which means that no matter what you’re studying, there’s probably a way that climate change connects.

That makes it an important topic to address in schools. Not because it underlies everything, but because it links to everything. It integrates different parts of science, and of the social studies curriculum. Done right, it reinforces and helps make sense of complex but critical concepts in earth science and in biology. It’s a topic every student in school today will have to be dealing with for the rest of his or her life, which makes it interesting and relevant, and makes it all the more important to grant it a central role in science education.

I’m at a workshop on climate change education today and tomorrow, and the first speaker is arguing against placing such a premium on climate literacy, arguing in particular that it’s a “waste of time” to focus on climate change outside the context of a comprehensive earth systems course. As you might expect, this seems to have some people riled up. More on that anon.

Analogies between evolution denial and climate change denial are a bigger topic, and I’ve got a paper in prep that I don’t want to scoop, so I’ll leave that for later.

Comments

  1. #1 Juice
    August 31, 2011

    Carbon dioxide traps heat

    Not much though.

  2. #2 Collin
    August 31, 2011

    The most important difference is that evolution is basically eternal, whereas global warming is a specific event that started recently.

  3. #3 dean
    August 31, 2011

    Juice has been around posting inconsequential stuff on other sites too. His crap is a useful reminder that no matter how thorough the explanation, or how complete the supporting evidence, a hard-core group will dig in and deny there is a problem (whether they don’t/can’t understand the science, or they won’t try, or because they’ve latched on to some loony conspiracy). Those “comments” are similar: there is no attempt to rebut the science, only short little rejoinders like the one at 1 here. Just enough for their like-minded brethren to look at, nod, and think “darn right”.

    It’s a topic every student in school today will have to be dealing with for the rest of his or her life, which makes it interesting and relevant, and makes it all the more important to grant it a central role in science education.

    Probably true, but I can see a long time required for the added emphasis to filter from teacher ed programs to the classroom.

  4. #4 Steve Matthews
    August 31, 2011

    “Evolution is foundational to modern biology because all life evolved.” If that is so please help us understand 1. how did the code originate? 2. Then if there was a code how did UI Universal Information based on code arise by what kind of materialist process? 3. If 1. and 2. are unknown even then how did additional billions of units of programmed information all in the UI domain get added to the first and subsequent life forms and what were those life forms? Since you make such an absolute statement we must assume you have these answers. If you all take the opportunity and read Dr. Werner Gitt’s grounding breaking book “Without Excuse” which lays out the scientific laws of Universal Information which applies to every life form, you will quickly realize life only exists by a creative source and that source is a Genius of Genius’s. The code and programming in life is so advanced and so complex with multiple coding systems and designs and intelligence so far removed and above any technologies that ANYONE who blathers that chance processes via matter and energy were the creators of the universal information, programs, based on superior codes in life is only doing so from a religious perspective with the goal of advancing the Anti-God religion of naturalism. Do not be fooled people, God created heaven and earth and all life after their own kinds. It is written, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God.” For the record, Evolution is foundational to modern biology BUT NO LIFE EVOLVED (descent from common ancestry with modifications. The initial statement is a religious opinion only. Read Gitt and the laws and you will discover some informational laws most likely you have not heard before.

  5. #5 dean
    August 31, 2011

    “If that is so please help us understand 1. how did the code originate? 2. Then if there was a code how did UI Universal Information based on code arise by what kind of materialist process? ”

    code? That comment alone brands you as a quack, even before the middle-to-end of your little spiel is read.

    And sorry, taking an engineer (which is all gitt is) seriously on issues of biology only ads sprinkles to the stupid cake.

  6. #6 hoogreg
    August 31, 2011

    Can I have some juice with my stupid cake? It helps the sprinkles go down.

  7. #7 kermit
    September 1, 2011

    Hi, Steve! Did you know that over a thousand actual scientists named “Steve” signed a petition supporting mainstream evolutionary biology?

    Anyway… the genome is not actually a code, it a clump of molecules. DNA originated the way all molecules originated, by free atoms or other molecules interacting to form new combinations.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “Universal Information”. Do you mean that various molecules like DNA produce certain proteins on a regular basis, rather than random ones? Well, a fundamental working assumption by science is that the behavior of the universe is reliable, and – for instance – chemistry always works the same way under the same conditions. We have no reason to think that anyone is responsible, if that’s what you’re trying to imply, but feel free to offer any evidence you might have. So far, that working assumption of science has held up. Hence, we assume that events in the past were the results of universal laws acting in conditions that were prevalent then.

    Sorry about Gitt, but evolutionary science has been tested for 150 years by millions of scientists, and is supported by lines of evidence from multiple fields. When we call DNA “code”, we’re using a metaphorical shorthand. There’s nobody actually reading it and acting on it; it’s just a bunch of molecules doing what molecules always do. There are some pretty good books out there for intelligent laymen, but you don’t give the impression that you’re really looking to understand all this.

    But if you want a taste, may I recommend “Your Inner Fish”, by Neil Shubin? It’s a good read for an adult, and doesn’t require higher math or biology.

    I first learned about evolution as an adult by a devout Christian. He said “Science is studying how God does things.” You don’t have to give up Christianity to learn or do science, but you do have to be willing to give up cherished ideas if they conflict with the data. All scientists are.

  8. #8 Ema Nymton
    September 1, 2011

    Wow.

    Steve Matthews is really dumb.

  9. #9 Peter Kinnon
    September 1, 2011

    Josh Rosenau writes:
    “Evolution is the grand unified theory of biology (recalling that a theory is an explanatory framework that integrates evidence, hypotheses, and predictions, not just the loose thing it’s taken to mean colloquially).
    As a consequence of all that, it’s highly integrated with other sciences. ”

    Absolutely! Furthermore, evolution can be usefully viewed as a process that extends beyond the realm of biology. Indeed, at least from stellar nucleosynthesis right through to the present evolution of technology. (Obviously, the mechanisms for each phase differ)
    This is the model advanced in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” (free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website)

  10. #10 Peter Kinnon
    September 1, 2011

    Josh Rosenau writes:
    “Evolution is the grand unified theory of biology (recalling that a theory is an explanatory framework that integrates evidence, hypotheses, and predictions, not just the loose thing it’s taken to mean colloquially).
    As a consequence of all that, it’s highly integrated with other sciences. ”

    Absolutely! Furthermore, evolution can be usefully viewed as a process that extends beyond the realm of biology. Indeed, at least from stellar nucleosynthesis right through to the present evolution of technology. (Obviously, the mechanisms for each phase differ)
    This is the model advanced in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” (free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website)

  11. #11 dean
    September 2, 2011

    Worthless woo at Peter’s link.

    Josh, I’ve been thinking more about this:
    “That makes it an important topic to address in schools. Not because it underlies everything, but because it links to everything. It integrates different parts of science, and of the social studies curriculum.”

    and been chatting with a science faculty member at my school. He doesn’t think this is a problem (“much ado about nothing”) but admits he hasn’t bothered to read any studies (because he “knows it’s a fraud”). Surprising, because for other issues (correct teaching of evolution, modern physics, he has no time for quackery). My point: he would complain long and hard if the school his children attend began the type of policy you advocate. I have a feeling that would be widespread. I love the point of view you give here: I am really doubtful it will come to pass before a larger portion of the public has its eyes opened to the science. Public schools are running scared on evolution in too many places: I fear the admins and boards would not brook any discussion of bringing this topic in to the curriculum.

  12. #12 Howard A. Landman
    September 2, 2011

    “1. how did the code originate?”

    This is a very good (and very hard) question, or rather two questions. The first is the historical question: How did the genetic code actually originate? It is probably impossible to get a certain answer, because almost all of the hard evidence was destroyed billions of years ago. What we have left is mainly the genetic codes of existing organisms, which we think are all descended from the LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor) which came MUCH later than the origin of life or of the code.

    The second question, to which we have only partial answers, is the plausibility question: How could something like a genetic code evolve from something simpler? Probably the best approach at the moment is that due to Eors Szathmary. He notes that in an RNA world filled with ribozyme-based organisms that have no RNA-to-protein translation mechanism, there would be a benefit to RNA which could grab on to an amino acid and use it as a “tool tip” to perform some chemical reaction. This is because amino acids and proteins are about 100 times more effective at catalyzing reactions than RNA is. Thus it would be possible to evolve things that looked a lot like today’s Transfer RNAs, having several loops of RNA specialized to select and hold a particular amino acid. These might also (as today’s tRNAs do) have a lot of self-binding by means of complementary sequences, to provide structural strength and protection against hydrolysis.

    If we now imagine such an RNA strand breaking at one point, which would surely have happened a lot, it could happen to break so that one part was the main structural body, and the other had the “hand” for holding an amino acid and perhaps a fragment of complementary sequence that would tend to cause it to stick to then main body in precisely its former location. The combination might still work pretty well, but the two could now co-evolve in ways that the one couldn’t. For example, the main part could evolve into having two or more binding sites, which is a LOT easier than having to evolve a second or third “hand” from scratch.

    This is somewhat sketchy, but it’s the best idea we have so far. What we are much more certain of is that, after it originated, the genetic code itself evolved. Creationists usually talk about “the” genetic code, as if there was only one. But in fact there are more than a dozen slightly different genetic codes operating in living beings today. In fact, you have two different genetic codes in your own body! The code in your mitochondria is not the same as the code in your nuclei. (We believe that mitochondria came from a fusion event where two different cell types merged into one. Over time, some of the genes migrated into the nucleus, but the extent to which this has occurred is not the same in all organisms, so that by comparing them we can get a rough idea of the order in which this happened.) At any rate, it is possible to construct an evolutionary tree of all the different genetic codes, and though it is much coarser, it maps pretty well onto the consensus evolutionary tree of life. The original genetic code was certainly much simpler, less specific, and coded for fewer amino acids. Vestiges of this can be seen in the redundancy of the current codes. A tree constructed from the similarities of tRNAs also supports this idea.

  13. #13 Laura James
    September 2, 2011

    The commenter who is saying that DNA contains a code is getting his/her information from an author who is passing on the most fundamental misunderstanding of DNA. DNA “does not” contain a code. It “is” a code.

    Another fundamental misunderstanding passed around by creationists or I.D. proponents is their argument of the first cell. Evolution does not concern itself with the first cell in order to explain the origins of the species. We do not have to go all the way to abiogenesis when we have overwhelming evidence from a convergence of all the life sciences showing that all life evolved.

    Materialism is another fundamental misunderstanding. It is a word used as a means to say that science is only concerned with the physical rather than spiritual matters. Science has to concern itself with the physical or you can’t expand your intellect in order to solve problems. The spiritual can be discussed in a different discipline, like philosophy.

    All that I can say is that these questions coming from an author that demands equal time for an intelligent designer in which there is no known professional application for such a belief, other than a public speaker, author, or philosopher is wasting everyone’s time.

  14. #14 Howard A. Landman
    September 3, 2011

    Well, yeah, Gitt is a well known idiot. His first book consists of a sequence of unproven assertions, many of which are just flat wrong. It contains many things called “theorems”, but no proofs. In another article, he claims that Jesus personally (not God, and not the Holy Ghost) created all the information in DNA.

    I haven’t read the new book yet, but I wouldn’t expect much different.

    The only good thing about Gitt is that he seems to be in search of a mathematical theory of meaning. This is a very hard problem, one that Shannon wisely chose to avoid, but it would certainly be nice if someone could make some progress on that front. Gitt, sadly, is simply not up to the task. He gets too many basic things wrong before he even starts: doesn’t understand Shannon’s Theorem, assumes that information is non-physical when everything from Maxwell’s Demon to Quantum Information Theory tells us that it is entirely physical, etc. And then he doesn’t seem to be able to reason his way out of a wet paper bag. I find it astonishing that anyone takes him seriously.

  15. #15 Anthony McCarthy
    September 3, 2011

    Laura James, where were you when I was having a knock down, drag out brawl at Laden’s blog where I said that while evolution was known from the enormous amount of physical evidence that it happened while the origin of life was entirely unknown due to the absence of any evidence of how it happened, what it was like and what the first hundreds of millions of years of evolution were entirely to us due to lack of evidence? In that case it was a bunch of materialists who were spinning creation stories in support of their ideological preferences.

    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/07/we_can_know_nothing_about_the.php

    The presence of ideological materialism, very emotionally held by its proponents, is widespread among scientists, would be scientists and the sci-fans who seem to believe that as long as they come up with some plausible sounding materialist lore about something that physical evidence to back it up is more than just optional, it’s unnecessary. That is one of the most widespread illogical assumptions about science held by those who believe themselves to be the carriers of the flame, or, as it’s been asserted to me several times, a little candle in the darkness.

    The denial of the presence of ideological materialism as the predominant dogma within the present day, would be, educated class only goes to show that the denial of obvious reality isn’t just for the benighted religious fundamentalists but is quite within the repertoire of atheist fundamentalists as well.

    You are right about the inability of science to discuss anything but the physical universe, I’d add, restricted to that part of the physical universe that falls within its ability to collect sufficient information through physical evidence, but that is certainly not a limit which is widely observed in a number of would be scientific disciplines and is virtually unknown among the credulous sci-fans who make up the majority of the commentators on the Scienceblogs. The rejection of the requirement that there, eventually, be physical evidence in science is typical of new atheists and “skeptics”, even those who make their living in science and is ubiquitous among those in the so-called sciences.

  16. #16 Anthony McCarthy
    September 3, 2011

    Howard A. Landman, where did this “RNA world” filled with ribozyme-based organisms come from? I believe that the known chemistry of genetic inheritance probably evolved in living organisms but that doesn’t tell us how it happened. No proposed simpler scenario will get you out of having to come up with how the hard problems of how cellular organisms first came about. If you propose a single common ancestor far later than what you would call the “origin of life” you would have to explain how it overcame all other lines of life of which there don’t seem to be any survivors or fossil evidence. Coming up with the alleged spontaneous creation of many alternative kind of life multiplies problems of how those arose and what they were like and only puts off many of the hard questions as to how the more complex structures of known organisms arose to start with. Why did a containing membrane form, is one that intrigues me.

    The real, hard problem of the origin of life is that it happened only in the way that it did happen and that any proposed mechanism that isn’t an accurate description of what did happen is, in fact, false. Seeming plausibility in the absence of evidence of how something happened is no substitute for actual information about what happened. For all anyone knows it could propagate till the end of the species and become absolutely held dogma but be entirely wrong for the entire time it is believed.

    It was the success of science that any ideas proposed for adoption by scientists could be held up to what they were proposed to address in reality to see if they fit. In the case of the origins of life, that part of reality is lost, almost certainly forever. That might be unfortunate but as of today, it appears to be a fact. No proposed origin of life can ever be held up to the actual event, the actual organism(s) to see if that proposal stands up against what really happened because that evidence is lost and can’t be reliably known through simulation.

    I think it would be a lot better if scientists concentrated on maintaining life now instead of trying to find confirmation about something out of the remotest past they will never be able to confirm. Even evolution, about which we can know many things, is less important than stopping global warming which will kill many species and could kill us off as well.

  17. #17 Ed Darrell
    September 4, 2011
    Carbon dioxide traps heat

    Not much though.

    Enough to make a difference. Think the starfish story.

    CO2’s heat trapping is enough to make this planet warm enough for life as we know it, instead of the cold ball it would be without that greenhouse effect.

    So we know that CO2 is significant as a heat trapper, even if it’s “not much.” But for CO2, you and I would not be here now.

    Can excess CO2 cause warming beyond the zones where life is easy (and the fishin’ is good)? Certainly. CO2 doesn’t stop working like CO2 at any particular temperature or concentration. Physics and chemistry work the same, everywhere, all the time.

  18. #18 Ed Darrell
    September 4, 2011

    God created heaven and earth and all life after their own kinds.

    That’s right: Descent with modification, “after their own kinds,” and not clones.

    Genesis endorses Darwin. You would do well to study both — nothing in scripture denies Darwin’s observations, nor his extrapolations of theory.

  19. #19 mark
    September 6, 2011

    Many Creationists will say that the Genesis story of Creation (of Man and Sin) is the basis of their entire religion; without it, the ongoing story of sin and salvation is meaningless.
    Some Creationists (even some running for President of the United States) say that what others may ascribe to anthropogenic global warming is part of the same story–messages from God warning His Chosen Nation to stop being so tolerant.
    It’s all part of being specially created at the center of the cosmos.

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