the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:

Tag Results

Folk Science

Why our intuitions about how the world works
are often wrong
magazine cover

Thirteen years after the legendary confrontation over the theory of evolution between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (“Soapy Sam”) and Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”), Wilberforce died in 1873 in an equestrian fall. (continue reading…)

read or write comments (6)

Rumsfeld’s Wisdom

Where the known meets the unknown is where science begins
magazine cover

At a February 12, 2002, news briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained the limitations of intelligence reports: “There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld’s logic may be tongue-twisting, but his epistemology was sound enough that he was quoted twice at the World Summit on Evolution. The June conference, hosted by San Francisco University of Quito, was held on the Galápagos island of San Cristóbal, where Charles Darwin began his explorations. Rumsfeld’s wisdom was first invoked by University of California at Los Angeles paleobiologist William Schopf, who, in a commentary on a lecture on the origins of life, asked: “What do we know? What are the unsolved problems? What have we failed to consider?”

Creationists and outsiders often mistake the latter two categories for signs that evolution is in trouble, or that contentious debate between what we know and do not know means that the theory is false. Wrong. The summit revealed a scientific discipline rich in data and theory as well as controversy and disputation over the known and unknown. (continue reading…)

Comments Off

The Domesticated Savage

Science reveals a way to rise above our natures
magazine cover

Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond of the University of California at Los Angeles once classified humans as the “third chimpanzee” (the second being the bonobo). Genetically, we are very similar, and when it comes to high levels of aggression between members of two different groups, as I noted in last month’s column on “The Ignoble Savage,” we also resemble chimpanzees. Although humans have a brutal history, there’s hope that the pessimists who forecast our eventual demise are wrong: recent evidence indicates that, like bonobos, we may be evolving in a more peaceful direction.

One of the most striking features in artificially selecting for docility among wild animals is that, along with far less aggression, you also get a suite of other changes, including a reduction in skull, jaw and tooth size. In genetics, this is called pleiotropy. Selecting for one trait may generate additional, unintended changes. (continue reading…)

Comments Off

Show Me the Body

Purported sightings of Bigfoot, Nessie and Ogopogo fire our imaginations. But anecdotes alone do not make a science
magazine cover

The world lost the creators of two of its most celebrated biohoaxes recently: Douglas Herrick, father of the risibly ridiculous jackalope (half jackrabbit, half antelope), and Ray L. Wallace, paternal guardian of the less absurd Bigfoot.

The jackalope enjoins laughter in response to such peripheral hokum as hunting licenses sold only to those whose IQs range between 50 and 72, bottles of the rare but rich jackalope milk, and additional evolutionary hybrids such as the jackapanda. Bigfoot, on the other hand, while occasionally eliciting an acerbic snicker, enjoys greater plausibility for a simple evolutionary reason: large hirsute apes currently roam the forests of Africa, and at least one species of a giant ape — Gigantopithecus — flourished some hundreds of thousands of years ago alongside our ancestors.

Is it possible that a real Bigfoot lives despite the posthumous confession by the Wallace family that it was just a practical joke? Certainly. After all, although Bigfoot proponents do not dispute the Wallace hoax, they correctly note that tales of the giant Yeti living in the Himalayas and Native American lore about Sasquatch wandering around the Pacific Northwest emerged long before Wallace pulled his prank in 1958. (continue reading…)

read or write comments (2)

I, Clone

The Three Laws of Cloning will protect clones and advance science
magazine cover

In his 1950 science-fiction novel I, Robot, Isaac Asimov presented the Three Laws of Robotics: “1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”

The irrational fears people express today about cloning parallel those surrounding robotics half a century ago. So I would like to propose Three Laws of Cloning that also clarify three misunderstandings: 1. A human clone is a human being no less unique in his or her personhood than an identical twin. 2. A human clone has all the rights and privileges that accompany this legal and moral status. 3. A human clone is to be accorded the dignity and respect due any member of our species.

Although such simplifications risk erasing the rich nuances found in ethical debates over pioneering research, they do aid in attenuating risible fears often associated with such advances. It appears that the Raelians have not succeeded in Xeroxing themselves, but it is clear that someone, somewhere, sometime soon is going to generate a human clone. And once one team has succeeded, it will be Katy bar the door for others to bring on the clones. (continue reading…)

Comments Off
next page »