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The Left’s War on Science

How politics distorts science
on both ends of the spectrum
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Believe it or not—and I suspect most readers will not—there’s a liberal war on science. Say what?

We are well aware of the Republican war on science from the eponymous 2006 book (Basic Books) by Chris Mooney, and I have castigated conservatives myself in my 2006 book Why Darwin Matters (Holt) for their erroneous belief that the theory of evolution leads to a breakdown of morality. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that “58% of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years,” compared with 41 percent of Democrats. A 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 81 percent of Democrats but only 49 percent of Republicans believe that Earth is getting warmer. Many conservatives seem to grant early-stage embryos a moral standing that is higher than that of adults suffering from debilitating diseases potentially curable through stem cells. And most recently, Missouri Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin gaffed on the ability of women’s bodies to avoid pregnancy in the event of a “legitimate rape.” It gets worse. (continue reading…)

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The Science of Righteousness

Evolution helps to explain why parties
are so tribal and politics so divisive
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Which of these two narratives most closely matches your political perspective?

Once upon a time people lived in societies that were unequal and oppressive, where the rich got richer and the poor got exploited. Chattel slavery, child labor, economic inequality, racism, sexism and discriminations of all types abounded until the liberal tradition of fairness, justice, care and equality brought about a free and fair society. And now conservatives want to turn back the clock in the name of greed and God.

Once upon a time people lived in societies that embraced values and tradition, where people took personal responsibility, worked hard, enjoyed the fruits of their labor and through charity helped those in need. Marriage, family, faith, honor, loyalty, sanctity, and respect for authority and the rule of law brought about a free and fair society. But then liberals came along and destroyed everything in the name of “progress” and utopian social engineering.

Although we may quibble over the details, political science research shows that the great majority of people fall on a left-right spectrum with these two grand narratives as bookends. And the story we tell about ourselves reflects the ancient tradition of “once upon a time things were bad, and now they’re good thanks to our party” or “once upon a time things were good, but now they’re bad thanks to the other party.” So consistent are we in our beliefs that if you hew to the first narrative, I predict you read the New York Times, listen to progressive talk radio, watch CNN, are pro-choice and anti-gun, adhere to separation of church and state, are in favor of universal health care, and vote for measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich. If you lean toward the second narrative, I predict you read the Wall Street Journal, listen to conservative talk radio, watch Fox News, are pro-life and anti–gun control, believe America is a Christian nation that should not ban religious expressions in the public sphere, are against universal health care, and vote against measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich. (continue reading…)

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Alfred Russel Wallace was a Hyper-Evolutionist, not an Intelligent Design Creationist

A couple weeks ago, I participated in an online debate at Evolution News & Views with Center for Science & Culture fellow Michael Flannery on the question: “If he were alive today, would evolutionary theory’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, be an intelligent design advocate?” The following is my opening statement in the debate. A link to Flannery’s reply can be found near the end of this page.

The double dangerous game of Whiggish What-if? history is on the table in this debate that inexorably invokes hindsight bias, along the lines of “Was Thomas Jefferson a racist because he had slaves?” Adjudicating historical belief and behavior with modern judicial scales is a fool’s errand that carries but one virtue—enlightenment of the past for correcting current misunderstandings. Thus I shall endeavor to enlighten modern thinkers on the perils of misjudging Alfred Russel Wallace as an Intelligent Design creationist, and at the same time reveal the fundamental flaw in both his evolutionary theory and that of this latest incarnation of creationism.

Wallace’s scientific heresy was first delivered in the April, 1869 issue of The Quarterly Review, in which he outlined what he saw as the failure of natural selection to explain the enlarged human brain (compared to apes), as well as the organs of speech, the hand, and the external form of the body:

In the brain of the lowest savages and, as far as we know, of the prehistoric races, we have an organ…little inferior in size and complexity to that of the highest types…. But the mental requirements of the lowest savages, such as the Australians or the Andaman Islanders, are very little above those of many animals. How then was an organ developed far beyond the needs of its possessor? Natural Selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one but very little inferior to that of the average members of our learned societies.

(Please note the language that, were we to judge the man solely by his descriptors for indigenous peoples, would lead us to label Wallace a racist even though he was in his own time what we would today call a progressive liberal.)

Since natural selection was the only law of nature Wallace knew of to explain the development of these structures, and since he determined that it could not adequately do so, he concluded that “an Overruling Intelligence has watched over the action of those laws, so directing variations and so determining their accumulation, as finally to produce an organization sufficiently perfect to admit of, and even to aid in, the indefinite advancement of our mental and moral nature.”

Natural selection is not prescient—it does not select for needs in the future. Nature did not know we would one day need a big brain in order to contemplate the heavens or compute complex mathematical problems; she merely selected amongst our ancestors those who were best able to survive and leave behind offspring. But since we are capable of such sublime and lofty mental functions, Wallace deduced, clearly natural selection could not have been the originator of a brain big enough to handle them. Thus the need to invoke an “Overruling Intelligence” for this apparent gap in the theory.

Why did Wallace retreat from his own theory of natural selection when it came to the human mind? The answer, in a word, is hyper-selectionism (or adaptationism), in which the current adaptive purpose of a structure or function must be explained by natural selection applied to the past. Birds presently use wings to fly, so if we cannot conceive of how natural selection could incrementally select for fractional wings that were fully functional at each partial stage (called “the problem of incipient stages”) then some other force must have been at work. Darwin answered this criticism by demonstrating how present structures serve a purpose different from the one for which they were originally selected. Partial wings, for example, were not poorly designed flying structures but well designed thermoregulators. Stephen Jay Gould calls this process “exaptation” (ex-adaptation) and uses the Panda’s thumb as his type specimen: it is not a poorly designed thumb but a radial sesamoid (wrist) bone modified by natural selection for stripping leaves off bamboo shoots.

Wallace’s hyperselectionism and adaptationism were outlined more formally in an 1870 paper, “The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man,” in which he admitted up front the danger of proffering a force that is beyond those known to science: “I must confess that this theory has the disadvantage of requiring the intervention of some distinct individual intelligence…. It therefore implies that the great laws which govern the material universe were insufficient for this production, unless we consider…that the controlling action of such higher intelligences is a necessary part of those laws….”

After an extensive analysis of brain size differences between humans and non-human primates, Wallace then considers such abstractions as law, government, science, and even such games as chess (a favorite pastime of his), noting that “savages” lack all such advances. Even more, “Any considerable development of these would, in fact, be useless or even hurtful to him, since they would to some extent interfere with the supremacy of those perceptive and animal faculties on which his very existence often depends, in the severe struggle he has to carry on against nature and his fellow-man. Yet the rudiments of all these powers and feelings undoubtedly exist in him, since one or other of them frequently manifest themselves in exceptional cases, or when some special circumstances call them forth.”

Therefore, he concludes, “the general, moral, and intellectual development of the savage is not less removed from that of civilised man than has been shown to be the case in the one department of mathematics; and from the fact that all the moral and intellectual faculties do occasionally manifest themselves, we may fairly conclude that they are always latent, and that the large brain of the savage man is much beyond his actual requirements in the savage state.” Thus, “A brain one-half larger than that of the gorilla would, according to the evidence before us, fully have sufficed for the limited mental development of the savage; and we must therefore admit that the large brain he actually possesses could never have been solely developed by any of those laws of evolution…. The brain of prehistoric and of savage man seems to me to prove the existence of some power distinct from that which has guided the development of the lower animals through their ever-varying forms of being.”

The middle sections of this lengthy paper review additional human features that Wallace could not conceive of being evolved by natural selection: the distribution of body hair, naked skin, feet and hands, the voice box and speech, the ability to sing, artistic notions of form, color, and composition, mathematical reasoning and geometrical spatial abilities, morality and ethical systems, and especially such concepts as space and time, eternity and infinity. “How were all or any of these faculties first developed, when they could have been of no possible use to man in his early stages of barbarism? How could natural selection, or survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence, at all favour the development of mental powers so entirely removed from the material necessities of savage men, and which even now, with our comparatively high civilisation, are, in their farthest developments, in advance of the age, and appear to have relation rather to the future of the race than to its actual status?”

Modern Intelligent Design creationists generally (with few exceptions) believe that the designer is God. Nowhere in this paper does Wallace invoke God as the overarching intelligence. In a footnote in the second edition of the volume in which this paper was published, in fact, Wallace upbraids those who accused him of such speculations:

Some of my critics seem quite to have misunderstood my meaning in this part of the argument. They have accused me of unnecessarily and unphilosophically appealing to “first causes” in order to get over a difficulty—of believing that “our brains are made by God and our lungs by natural selection;” and that, in point of fact, “man is God’s domestic animal.” … Now, in referring to the origin of man, and its possible determining causes, I have used the words “some other power”—“some intelligent power”—“a superior intelligence”—“a controlling intelligence,” and only in reference to the origin of universal forces and laws have I spoken of the will or power of “one Supreme Intelligence.” These are the only expressions I have used in alluding to the power which I believe has acted in the case of man, and they were purposely chosen to show that I reject the hypothesis of “first causes” for any and every special effect in the universe, except in the same sense that the action of man or of any other intelligent being is a first cause. In using such terms I wished to show plainly that I contemplated the possibility that the development of the essentially human portions of man’s structure and intellect may have been determined by the directing influence of some higher intelligent beings, acting through natural and universal laws.

Clearly Wallace’s heresy had nothing to do with God or any other supernatural force, as these “natural and universal laws” could be fully incorporated into the type of empirical science he practiced. It was not spiritualism, but scientism at work in Wallace’s world-view: “These speculations are usually held to be far beyond the bounds of science; but they appear to me to be more legitimate deductions from the facts of science than those which consist in reducing the whole universe…to matter conceived and defined so as to be philosophically inconceivable.”

In Wallace’s science there is no supernatural. There is only the natural and unexplained phenomenon yet to be incorporated into the natural sciences. That he left no room in his evolutionary theory for exaptations of early structures for later use is no reflection on his ambitions and abilities as a scientist. It was, in fact, one of Wallace’s career goals to be the scientist who brought more of the apparent supernatural into the realm of the natural, and the remainder of his life was devoted to fleshing out the details of a scientism that encompassed so many different issues and controversies that made him a heretic-scientist.

If modern Intelligent Design theorists restricted their visage to only natural causes they would, perchance, be taken more seriously by the scientific community, who at present (myself included) sees this movement as nothing more than another species of the genus Homo creationopithicus.

Read Flannery’s reply to my opening statement and tune into Skepticblog in a couple weeks for my response to him.

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Egypt, Watson & the Future of Civilization

What does the democratic uprising in Egypt and other Arab nations have to do with IBM’s Jeopardy champion Watson in determining the fate of civilization? Think bottom up, not top down; think exponential growth, not linear change; think crowd sourcing, not elite commanding; and think open access and transparency, not closed entree and secrecy. Under the influence of these four forces, such seemingly unconnected events are, in fact, connected at a deeper level when we pull back and examine the overall trajectory of the history of civilization.

  1. Bottom up, not top down. Almost everything important that happens in both nature and in society happens from the bottom up, not the top down. Water is a bottom up, self-organized emergent property of hydrogen and oxygen. Life is a bottom up, self-organized emergent property of organic molecules that coalesced into protein chains through nothing more than the input of energy into the system of Earth’s early environment. Evolution is a bottom up process of organisms just trying to make a living and get their genes into the next generation, and out of that simple process emerges the diverse array of complex life we see today. An economy is a self-organized bottom up emergent process of people just trying to make a living and get their genes into the next generation, and out of that simple process emerges the diverse array of products and services available to us today. And democracy is a bottom up emergent political system specifically designed to displace top down chiefdoms, kingdoms, theocracies, and dictatorships.
  2. Exponential growth, not linear change. Science and technology have changed our world more in the past century than it changed in the previous hundred centuries—it took 10,000 years to get from the cart to the airplane, but only 66 years to get from powered flight to a lunar landing. Moore’s Law of computer power doubling every eighteen months continues unabated and is now down to about a year. Computer scientists calculate that there have been thirty-two doublings since World War II, and that as early as 2030 we may encounter the Singularity—the point at which total computational power will rise to levels that are so far beyond anything that we can imagine that they will appear near infinite. And not just in raw number crunching power but in cognitive processing ability, as witnessed in the difference between IBM’s Deep Blue chess playing master and IBM’s Jeopardy champion.
  3. Crowd sourcing, not elite commanding. Knowledge production has been one long trajectory of shifting not only from top down to bottom up, but from elite commanding to crowd sourcing. From ancient priests and medieval scholars, to academic professors and university publishers, to popular writers and trade publishing houses, to everyone their own writer and publisher online, the democratization of knowledge has struggled alongside the democratization of societies to free itself from the bondage of top down control. Compare the magisterial multi-volume encyclopedias of centuries past that held sway as the final authority for reliable knowledge, now displaced by individual encyclopedists employing wiki tools and making everyone their own expert.
  4. Open access and transparency, not closed entrée and secrecy. The Internet is the ultimate bottom up self-organized emergent property of crowd sourcing millions of computer users in an open access and transparent exchange of language, knowledge, and data across servers; although there are some top-down controls involved—just as there are some in mostly bottom-up economic and political systems—the strength of digital freedom derives from the fact that no one is in charge.

For the past 10,000 years humanity has gradually but ineluctably transitioned from top down to bottom up, from linear change to exponential growth, from elite commanding to crowd sourcing, and from secrecy to transparency. Together these forces are driving us to Civilization 2.0 on a scale I derived for classifying the rich array of human societies throughout history:

Civilization 1.1: Fluid groups of hominids living in Africa. Technology consists of primitive stone tools. Intra-group conflicts are resolved through dominance hierarchy, and between-group violence is common.

Civilization 1.2: Bands of roaming hunter-gatherers that form kinship groups with a mostly horizontal political system and egalitarian economy and utilizing sophisticated tools to extract what they could from relatively resource poor environments.

Civilization 1.3: Tribes of individuals linked through kinship but with a more settled and agrarian lifestyle with the beginnings of a political hierarchy and a primitive economic division of labor and employing mostly animal and human labor.

Civilization 1.4: Chiefdoms consisting of a coalition of tribes into a single hierarchical political unit with a dominant leader at the top, and with the beginnings of significant economic inequalities and a division of labor in which lower-class members produce food and other products consumed by non-producing upper-class members.

Civilization 1.5: The state as a political coalition with jurisdiction over a well-defined geographical territory and its corresponding inhabitants, with a mercantile economy that seeks a favorable balance of trade in a win-lose game against other states.

Civilization 1.6: Empires that extend their control over peoples who are not culturally, ethnically or geographically within their normal jurisdiction, with a goal of economic dominance over rival empires.

Civilization 1.7: Democracies that divide power over several institutions, which are run by elected officials voted for by a limited number of citizens as defined by race, gender, and class, with the beginnings of a market economy.

Civilization 1.8: Liberal democracies that give the vote to all adult citizens regardless of race, class, or gender, and utilizing markets that begin to embrace a nonzero, win-win economic game through free trade with other states.

Civilization 1.9: Democratic capitalism, the blending of liberal democracy and free markets, now spreading across the globe through democratic movements in developing nations and broad trading blocs such as the European Union.

Civilization 2.0: Globalization that includes worldwide wireless Internet access, with all knowledge digitized and available to everyone, a completely global economy with free markets in which anyone can trade with anyone else without interference from states or governments. A planet where all states are democracies in which everyone has the franchise.

Reaching Civilization 2.0 is not inevitable. As we are witnessing in Arab countries this month, resistance by nondemocratic states to turning power over to the people is considerable, especially in theocracies whose leaders would prefer we all revert to Civilization 1.4 chiefdoms. But by spreading liberal democracy and free trade, science and technology and the open access to knowledge through computers via the Internet will, in the words on a plaque posted at the Suez Canal: Aperire Terram Gentibus—To Open the World to All People.

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Fossil Hunting Without Creationists

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This past weekend, December 17–19, 2010, I joined paleontologists Donald Prothero from Occidental College and John Long from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County on a fossil hunting, rock hopping, geology viewing, petroglyph scanning excursion through the Mojave Desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Through the entire trip I kept thinking “I wish the creationists and Intelligent Design theorists would try their hand at some actual field work because then they would see (and hear and smell and especially touch) what nature is really like and what the history of life reveals in the rocks, instead of sitting in an air-conditioned or heated office in some think tank building or school of theology department, trolling through published papers by real scientists who do this field work, trying to find some little gap that must be filled by the creating designer.

At this site (see photograph above), for example—a trilobite bed east of Amboy near Cadiz smack dab in the middle of nowhere (see what I mean on Google Maps)—we sat for hours with our hammers and collecting bags sifting through thousands upon thousands of shale pieces looking for that fossil gem, and finding a few here and there. These are 550 million year old creatures who once roamed through shallow seas but are now swimming in stone (in the elegant phrase of John Long, whose book by this title is a magnificent testimony to the power and beauty of paleontology). There is simply no denying evolution when you see it raw in the rocks (see especially Don Prothero’s book on proving evolution through the fossil record.

We also visited the coolest slot canyon I’ve ever seen, north of Las Vegas, off of Highway 168 (between Highway 93 and Interstate 15), down this miles-long dirt road that required four-wheel drive. This is Arrow Canyon, and the slot cut exposes a kilometer-thick Carboniferous to lower Permian succession, the upper part of a much thicker Paleozoic section ranging back to the Cambrian. The outcrop is nearly 100% exposed due to the arid conditions and sparse desert vegetation, enabling documentation of facies cyclicity and allowing beds to be traced laterally for hundreds of meters. (If you like it when I talk dirty this way I’m afraid that the credit goes to Don Prothero, whom I am quoting in this last sentence from his field guide for this trip!)

Check out the photo of our expedition group in the slot canyon, along with the photo of the tilted geological beds. There is simply no way that this slot canyon could have been cut through this hard rock in a flash (Noahian) flood, nor could these beds be laid down from ancient seas, compacted under extreme pressure and heat into layered beds, and then uplifted by slow geological forces into what we see today, all in only a few years of biblical times.

In the slot canyon, by the way, there were petroglyphs. Sadly, as you will see, some pinheads managed to find the canyon and decided to leave their mark on or around these ancient pictograms, thereby ruining them forever:

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click the photo above to see both petroglyph images in this gallery

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I did find something for the creationists to crow about. Check out the photograph (below) of a very ancient rock formation on the hike into that slot canyon. Here, embedded solidly on that rock, is a clear and unmistakable footprint with a clear demarcated heal! (I estimate about a men’s size 13.)

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So there you go creationists, get in your four-wheel drive and head for Arrow Canyon, find that rock (it’s on the right side going into the canyon, about half way to the petroglyphs), photograph it, write up a paper about it, then submit it to the Journal of Young Earth Creationism. Alternatively, if Erich Von Daniken happens to be reading this, you can do the same thing but claim that it is evidence for alien visitation hundreds of millions of years ago. I think it was a Bruno Magli shoe. Adam (or Alien) had expensive taste.

If you are interested in geology tours, you won’t want to miss the Skeptics Society’s 7-day Alaskan Glacier Cruise. If you can’t make it to that tour, sign up to receive advance notification of future tours.

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