Stupidity…close to home.

If you’ve ever traveled overseas, you’ll know that Canadians are easy to spot; many of us carry some sort of small Canadian flag on our luggage. The purpose of this, as near as I can tell, isn’t so much pride in being Canadian as it is avoiding being mistaken for an American. After all, Canadians dont suffer from the same ass-backward thinking as many (but certainly not all) of our neighbours to the south, right?

Perhaps we spoke too soon.

It appears, according to a recent poll, that more than 4 out of every 10 Canadians (41%) do not believe in the scientific fact of evolution or are “not sure”. Even more alarming, in my home province of Ontario, the techological and financial hub of the country, only 51% of people recognize that human beings have evolved from simpler organisms, over millions of years, through the non-random process of natural selection. This is alarming because the percentage of rational, intelligent Ontarians (apparently no greater than about 51% of the population) is lower than the percentage of similar Americans (53%).

This is scary, people.

Evolution by natural selection is a fact. There is no controversy. Like any scientific theory, there are open, honest debates about the precise mechanisms through which evolution occurs. But the core principles of common descent, detailed here , are extraordinarily well-supported by evidence. For evolution to be falsified would take a complete upheaval of virtually all of the biological sciences, including comparative and developmental biology, cell biology, and molecular biology. Geology, paleontology, those are out too. As has been said before, nothing in modern biology makes sense without the unifying theory of evolution by natural selection.

I wonder what would happen if we conducted a poll about belief in special relativity. What percentage of the population believes in time dilation? Or the constancy of the speed of light?

My guess is that most people would “believe” in special relativity not because it is so well supported by evidence (which it is, incidentally) but because it does not conflict with any particular core belief about the superiority of human beings. “If time slows down with increasing velocity (relative to a stationary observer, of course), so be it. But I refuse to believe that human beings are just apes in blue jeans!“, a creationist might say. Naturally, the objections to evolution come from those who have presupposed the nature of life, a nature with which evolution, however well-supported (and it is SERIOUSLY well-supported) is not compatible. This is dogma, pure and simple.

As Richard Dawkins has postulated in his concept of “Middle World”, evolution is difficult for many people to grasp because of the enormity of the time scale; belief that the Earth is 6000 years old is equivalent to the belief that the distance from New York to San Francisco is 28 feet; “not a trivial error” indeed!

But I don’t think this is a sufficient rationale for the disbelief in a scientific fact for which there is an overwhelming amount of evidence, all of which converges on a single conclusion. It may be difficult for most people to conceptualize one million years (let alone several hundred million years), but it is also difficult for people to conceptualize the fact that an electron displays properties that are both wave-like and particle-like; still, “belief” in quantum physics is rampant. One only has to look at the “New Age” section of any large bookstore to see all the woo-woo books about “Quantum Feminism” or “Quantum Beekeeping” or some other such nonsense. And yet, only 51% of Ontarians profess a “belief” in evolution.

No, it takes genuine stupidity and dogmatic thought to avoid believing in evolution. It may be hard to conceptualize, and it may be repugnant to those who claim (without evidence, I might add) some kind of superiority for the human race, but evolution has occurred and will continue to occur so long as random mutations occur and so long as population is subject to non-random selection pressures. ALL of the evidence supports this claim. It takes real idiocy to fail to “believe” in what so demonstrably true.

I’ve talked at length about the lunacy of the claim that the apparent coincidence of our existence suggests that life was “designed” by god (to put a name to the designer); this argument is intellectually bankrupt and easily refuted by anyone with even a passing understanding of the Anthropic Principle. In fact, most people make the argument every day without knowing it. But when it comes to their own existence, which is too special to be left to coincidence, all reason and intelligence is abandoned in favour of dogma and Iron Age wisdom.

And so-called “theistic evolution”, the idea that god has used evolution as a tool over millions of years, is a vacuous cop-out, made by those who are able, in an act of sublime acrobatics, to compartmentalize their brain into the logical, rational, evidence-based side that knows that the evidence for evolution is so vast and so powerful that there is no way to avoid the logical conclusion and the dogmatic, woo-woo side that still has to cling to the existence of one or more (but usually one) sky fairies. “Theistic evolution” is an easy target for Occam’s Razor, and moreover, acceptance of this asinine “theory” eliminates the possibility that human life is, in any real way, any more “chosen” than any other form. If god wanted to create man in his own image, there are a lot better ways than waiting hundreds of millions of years for the off chance that human life would evolve based on random mutation and selection pressures that may or may not have allowed for human development. “Theistic evolution” is a ridiculous concept which still presupposes that human beings are the apple of god’s eye, and is thus religious woo-wooism cloaked in a scientific facade; that one of its chief proponents is the head of the Human Genome Project is absolutely bone-chilling.

We, the intelligent, rational, evidence-based thinkers, are losing this battle. Now is not the time to “play nice”; now is the time to educate and inform wherever possible; now is the time to stop providing intellectual cover to Iron Age ideas about science and morality; now is the time to stand up and say “there is no controversy!” It is no longer acceptable for intelligent folk to simply sit by while religion continues to dictate our national discourse and to pollute minds with dogma-based “fact”; ideas about the physical nature of the universe must stand up to the evidentiary standards to which we hold all else.

For shame, Canada. I thought you were better than this.

I remain,

Michael

EDIT: I was just kidding about the “Quantum Beekeeping” thing, but look what I found

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17 Responses to Stupidity…close to home.

  1. island says:

    I’ve talked at length about the lunacy of the claim that the apparent coincidence of our existence suggests that life was “designed” by god (to put a name to the designer); this argument is intellectually bankrupt and easily refuted by anyone with even a passing understanding of the Anthropic Principle. In fact, most people make the argument every day without knowing it. But when it comes to their own existence, which is too special to be left to coincidence, all reason and intelligence is abandoned in favour of dogma and Iron Age wisdom.

    People with only a passing understanding of the anthropic principle, like you don’t know the difference between a physics principle and a selection effect. Nor do they even know why the former does not supercede the latter, unless they can first prove that a multiverse exists.

    You’re example is a perfect case of the ignorant pot, calling the kettle, stupid.

  2. edge100 says:

    Yes, the anthropic principle is a physics principle. It is also completely relevant to the idea that life appears to be finely tuned because it would have to appear that way for life to exist at all. If things has been slightly different, something else would be here to ponder the apparently “tuned” conditions which led to its existence.

    I said nothing about multiverses; nor am I remotely interested in multiverses. The anthropic principle has perfect relevance to biology, which is my field of study.

    Seems odd to target ad hominem attacks at fellow scientists, especially ones that support the validity of the principle in the first place.

  3. island says:

    If things has been slightly different, something else would be here to ponder the apparently “tuned” conditions which led to its existence.

    That’s not the anthropic principle… and you can’t prove your claim about “something else”, so you sound like a creationist… get it?

    Seems odd to target ad hominem attacks at fellow scientists, especially ones that support the validity of the principle in the first place.

    No you don’t.

  4. edge100 says:

    Ok, let’s get to the bottom of this.

    My contention is (and I’ve stated this explicitly in my “Flipping our Coin” post) that the use of the argument that our universe appears to be designed to support life is a poor argument for creationism because it would appear this way to any form of life. As Douglas Adams said, a puddle of water could assume that the hole in which it sits is perfectly designed for it.

    My argument isn’t that the universe ISN’T designed (although I see no evidence of that), but rather than saying that the exceedingly low probablity of the existence of life as we know it (human beings and such) is a poor argument for design, in the same way that the fact that a given person wins the lottery despite the very long odds is a poor argument that the lottery is rigged. The lottery had to come out in some way, and given enough players, someone will win, and it will appear to be rigged in their favour.

    If this is a faulty definition of the Anthropic Principle (as applied to biology), I apologize and I will happily edit the original post.

    I read the first of the links you provided, and I agree with much of what you’re saying.

    But my post was about the overwhelming evidence suggesting that evolution is fact, and the bewildering notion that certain segments of the population appear to simply ignore these facts due to dogma. A scientist who does likewise is guilty of the same effect. I fail to see how “neodarwinian” scientists (let alone me personally) are doing this, my potentially inappropriate definition of the anthropic principle notwithstanding.

    Being willing to clarify and adjust one’s position is a clear sign that the position is not “fanatically motivated”, I think.

  5. edge100 says:

    There are physical constants (strength of the four fundamental forces, speed of light, etc) which, if different, would not have permitted life to exist as we know it (or even to allow planets to form, etc).

    What I’m saying is that if these constants HAD been different, we would not be here to ponder our own existence. Perhaps some other “life” form would be pondering ITS existence in our place; or perhaps we’d have a vacuous, lifeless universe. Or perhaps no universe at all.

    There are many outcomes to any random situation (like the lottery, or flipping a coin x times). Only when we artifically assign meaning to one or more outcomes is the “tuning” of physical constants an appropriate argument for “design”; I see no reason to assign this meaning to us.

  6. island says:

    I’m sorry, but I am extremely disenchanted with scientists for the very same unscientific reason that Brandon Carter correctly identified to be at the heart of rampant willful denial of evidence for anthropic preference.

    He used the same term as you did… “dogma”.

    Let me see what I can say about what you wrote…

  7. island says:

    My contention is (and I’ve stated this explicitly in my “Flipping our Coin” post) that the use of the argument that our universe appears to be designed to support life is a poor argument for creationism because it would appear this way to any form of life. As Douglas Adams said, a puddle of water could assume that the hole in which it sits is perfectly designed for it.

    1) Probabilities don’t apply until you throw your hands up to first principles, because there is a most natural expectation for the structuring of the universe that is no where close to what is observed. This is what drew physicists to the anthropic physics in the first place, because the otherwise unexpected configuration that is observed is also extremely pointed toward the production of carbon based life at a specific time/location in the history of the universe.

    2) There are very good scientific reasons why carbon based life is expected, whereas “other life forms”, (like silicon based life), are not, and there is also a runaway effect that takes over if any of the anthropic balance points are disturbed. This is a cumulative effect and any sustained deviation causes conditions for life to run so far away from your wildest dreams for what constites condition that are necessary to life that it would literally make your head swim.

    The Douglass Adams “shot” is not even close to being a valid analogy of the extreme, pointed, and unexpected physics.

  8. edge100 says:

    I’m going to cut this discussion short, not because I don’t agree with what you’re saying, but because it is straying far outside of the realm of (a) my original post and (b) my understanding of the necessary physics.

    There is much that I have not (or, admittedly, cannot) say about theoretical physics and the anthropic prinicple; this is not central to the argument I made in the original post, and this paragraph could be removed without altering the meaning.

    My understanding is this: had the physical constants been different, we wouldn’t be here. Perhaps all of the configurations of the physical constants would result in some carbon-based life form. I don’t have the physics background to state this. But this is irrelevant.

    My point is that creationists (like Francis Collins…”theistic evolution” my ass!) use this argument all the time to “prove” the existence of a “designer” (god, when he’s at home), and that it doesn’t pass muster when you consider that we are not the only possible outcome, and that there is no reason to pre-suppose that we are in any way more “special” than any other potential carbon-based life.

    Of course the universe looks finely tuned for our existence; we exist! What would one expect to see? A universe that looks inhospitable to our existence?

  9. island says:

    What would one expect to see?

    Not what we see… and that is the whole point that you still miss, because it is not that simple:

    Is Our Universe Natural?
    http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0512148

    It goes without saying that we are stuck with the universe we have.

    Which, is what you are trying to say justifies our existence.

    Nevertheless, we would like to go beyond simply describing our observed universe, and try to understand why it is that way rather than some other way. Physicists and cosmologists have been exploring increasingly ambitious ideas that attempt to explain why certain features of our universe aren’t as surprising as they might first appear.

    “Increasingly ambitious attempts” to explain the otherwise “surprising” configuration that is observed are a cop-out on the natural expectation for the structure and evolution of the universe.

    In context with an anthropic principle, the most natural expectation would include carbon based life as a specially relevant feature of the mechanism that constrains the forces to the otherwise unexpected configuration that is observed… via… FIRST PRINCIPLES.

  10. edge100 says:

    Which parts of our existence “aren’t as surprising as they might first appear”? I agree with this statement, based on the idea that ANY outcome is as unlikely as any other outcome. If what you’re saying (and perhaps the evidence of this is beyond me) is that carbon-based life is more likely than another outcome, this doesn’t change what I’m saying: we are merely one example of carbon-based life.

    Besides, this whole discussion is really immaterial. Evolution by natural selection was the topic of the post, and this is supported by mountains of evidence such that there can be no reasonable doubt as to the fact of evolution; you’ll find that virtually all those who don’t “believe” in evolution all suffer from a common affliction: dogmatic retention of one or another idea of the creation of human life, as we see it before us today, by a supernatural being, at some point in the past. The phrase “as we see it now” is the most objectionable part of this dogma, and is the most at odds with demonstrable evidence.

    The creation of the universe, and indeed abiogenesis, was not a central topic of my post.

    Perhaps we do live in a universe in which carbon-based life is guaranteed in at least one place (and likely far more than this); this does not provide one iota of evidence suggesting that the universe was created as such by a supernatural designer. It may be, as you seem to agree, a DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC of that universe, just as “paper-like” is a defining characteristic of paper.

  11. island says:

    No, what’s missed because of “non-special dogma” like yours is investigation into the real scientific plausibility that we are not here by accident.

    This is true, for example, if the anthropic constraint on the forces means that the universe is “Darwinian”.

    And that means that the theory of evolution is defining the theory of everything via these first principles and the most accurate cosmological principle.

    So you tell me why any Darwinian would cut off their own willfully ignorant nose?

    You should take time and actually read the articles to that I linked because they answer many of your erroneously derived logic.

  12. edge100 says:

    I’ve read the links…you aren’t Alan Sokal, are you? I’m finding it very hard to decipher any real “evidence” for anything. At first I thought it might be due to my admitted ignorance of advanced physics. I’m not so sure anymore…phrases like “…our own local self-regulating ecobalance, whose chaotic cycles we directly contribute to enhance over time” sound a lot like the “Quantum Beekeeping” I was discussing. Your posts can, I think, best be described as ‘a lot of words’.

    The theory of evolution, which is better-supported by multiple converging lines of evidence than virtually any other scientific theory, is not the defining theory of everything. But it is true, and life as we know it HAS evolved from simpler organisms, over hundred of millions of years.

    The origin of the universe and abiogenesis are not a part of the theory of evolution.

    Our universe may not exist by accident, but human beings, like all other species, DO exist because of two fundamental concepts: (1) random mutation and (2) non-random selection. There is no way around the mountain of evidence suggesting this is true. By contrast, the arguments for “special creation” lack evidentiary support and are logically bankrupt. Unless, of course, you’d like to provide some scientific evidence suggesting otherwise, rather than just obfuscatory references to ‘ecospheres’ and such.

  13. benalbanach says:

    Island .995 of us have no idea what you are getting at…How would you explain this in terms of intelligent design ?

  14. benalbanach says:

    Make that 99% ….

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