New Under the Sun:
Volume 5, Issue 7
Last month’s provocative newsletter disturbed some, but also intrigued/stimulated others. Those who were disturbed shut down discussion, so I do not know their positions on the importance of understanding evolutionary biology if we are to live a better, healthier life. Those who were intrigued by the topic want the discussion to continue. And so it shall in this month’s Book Club section, which, due to its length, will be the primary component of this month’s newsletter.
Book Club: Magic and mystery. These are key terms based on some of the comments I’ve received on last month’s essay and book discussion. My correspondents feel that science in general and evolution in particular may cause uneasiness, anxiety, even fear in many individuals because they feel that life has no meaning without magic and mystery; without something otherworldly. If science is left unchecked, it will eventually explain everything and there will be no wonder left in the universe. To this I respond, one, why would explanations negate wonder? The fact that I understand the process of gestation and birth does not make the birth of a baby any less wonderful. And two, as the Polish security official once said, “Is not that simple.” The universe doesn’t make things easy.
At the beginning of the 20th century, physicists felt there was nothing left to learn. Then the field of quantum mechanics burst that bubble, probably to the relief of physicists. In the mid-20th century, medical researchers were convinced that within a short period of time infectious disease would be a thing of the past. Nature is not accommodating to those who ignore evolutionary principles.
Wonder and mystery are what drive scientists. In some ways, scientists have kept the innocence of childhood by constantly asking “Why?” We have questions and we want answers. Dawkins’ books are all about explaining why obtaining answers is better than remaining in ignorance.
One of the correspondents this month did a nice analysis of each chapter in Part 1, Science and Sensibility, of Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain. So Kenneth Iczkowski, MD will be guest commentator for the book club this month. Below each of his review/commentary sections are my own comments on that section.
1.1 A Devil’s Chaplain
K.I. The phrase “devil’s chaplain” was used by Darwin in one of his letters, regarding the inherent cruelty and wastefulness of nature. Natural selection is actually callous, not kind nor cruel. But this doesn’t mean we should embrace social Darwinism in human affairs and politics. Humans are the only product of evolution that actually understands evolution. Thus we have the power to use that knowledge to change the world rather than be enslaved by it.
K.F. The critics of Darwin who are not motivated by creationist beliefs often confuse social Darwinism with biological evolution. This confusion is used by creationists to add “firepower” to their complaints about evolution. Social Darwinism has, indeed, been used in negative ways, especially when it is stated that those individuals currently at the top of society deserve to be there and those at that bottom got what they deserved. Of course, then they try to shape society to maintain this disparity. This attitude is in part the result of viewing evolution as progressive and themselves as top of the heap. But evolution isn’t progressive; it is just change. Traits that provide for successful adaptation today may be detrimental tomorrow if the environment changes. You may not be able to survive the changes, but if your descendants represent a more diverse mix of traits, they may well be successful in the changed environment.
1.2 What is True?
K.I. Contemporary philosophy tends not to acknowledge any absolute truth. Instead, some things are absolutely true, and genuine scientists have the job of discovering these truths. Just because the senses cannot perceive some of these truths does not make them any less true. Our senses were designed to notice “medium sized objects moving at medium speed through medium distance in Africa.” But there is much to delight in with an understanding of the truths that go beyond our senses, and my field of molecular biology and pathology is full of such truths and discovering new ones daily.
K.F. As Dawkins’ states in this chapter: “Scientific truth is the only member of the list [of cultural/ethnic truths] which regularly persuades converts of its superiority. People are loyal to other belief systems for one reason only: they were brought up that way, and they have never known anything better.” [p. 15]
1.3 Gaps in the Mind
K.I. The main point here is that evolution is continuous, but humans tend to have discontinuous minds which means that lines that are drawn between species are arbitrary. Along the entire chain of “ape family” evolution, descendants have differed only imperceptibly from their parents. Thus, it is rather chauvinistic to view ourselves as “special.” i.e. “speciesism.”
Interestingly, I’d read that the percentage of our DNA that differentiates us from other chimps is quite small, less than 2%.
Although Dawkins only briefly alludes to it, the same might be said for “races” within the human species. The concept of race has been a tool for perpetuating prejudice through the ages. But people from all lands are on the same continuum.
K.F. The discontinuous mind is a huge problem. While it makes “thinking” simpler, it has little to do with reality. Discontinuous thinkers wish to see everything in black and white, right and wrong. They want no shades of gray or continuum of behavioral choices.
Various DNA hybridization
studies have found 1 –2% genetic differences between chimps and humans.
Both chimps and humans are equally distant from gorillas, and all three
are equally distant from orangutans. Chimp and human genomes have now
been fully sequenced so individual genes can be more precisely compared.
Research published in the June 29, 2006 issue of Nature found that
the evolutionary separation between the two species is more complex than
we realized. Based on this research, it appears that the two species began
diverging about 6.3 mya, that they may have remerged at some later point,
and that full divergence into two distinct species did not occur until
after 5.4 mya. We are first cousins. Speciesism makes little sense in
such a context.
1.4 Science, Genetics and Ethics
K.I. Science really can empower the human spirit. The human genome project (HGP) raises new possibilities for medicine. Doctors will be able to determine what diseases patients are susceptible to, and the patients themselves will live with this knowledge. DNA evidence is seen as a good thing for the legal system, and for improving happiness by disclosing paternity (the Maury Povich Show notwithstanding!)
It is also mentioned that Prince Charles wants to spend public money in “alternative medicine” research. Dawkins says that alternative medicine is largely nonsense, and if alternative medicine wants to gain credibility it must pass the same standards as conventional medicine, with double-blind testing.
K.F. This chapter on ethics logically follows the chapter on the discontinuous mind. The discontinuous mind sees continuity where it wishes to, but discontinuity where it does not. This is obviously inconsistent. To quote Dawkins: “…science cannot tell you whether abortion is murder, but it can warn you that you may be being inconsistent if you think abortion is murder but killing chimpanzees is not. You cannot have it both ways. “ [p. 34]
AnthroHealth News has covered the problems with the alternative “medicine” of homeopathy and its failure to pass double-blind testing in a past issue: volume 4, issue 9.
1.5 Trial by Jury
K.I. Dawkins considers the practice of trial by jury unscientific. This is because the jurors do not make independent decisions but engage in groupthink like what gull chicks do when they copy each other’s tendency to peck at certain colored spots. Having 2 or 3 independent juries would be better. The most well-known example of a questionable jury verdict was in the O.J. Simpson trial of November, 1995. There was a widespread opinion that he got off too easily. I remember that it was said that the loss of confidence engendered by that decision discouraged people from applying to law school.
K.F. I think Dawkins’ view of trial by jury is crystal clear when he states, “…if I am innocent,…please give me a judge.” [p.41] And speaking of crystals…
1.6 Crystalline Truth and Crystal Balls
K.I. In New Age “theology,” crystals are supposed to have magical properties. Dawkins explains that the precise repeating pattern of crystals is actually more fascinating than the mysticism. Truth is stranger than fiction. Much of the universe is hard to understand, and awe-inspiring, so who needs “magic?” But, the belief in magic dies hard.
One of the most influential philosopher-psychologists of the 20th century was Dr. Albert Ellis. Ellis points out in his books that there is a biological tendency of humans to be gullible (There’s a sucker born every minute) and latch onto religious or spiritual beliefs of some sort with no evidence. Later in the book (3.2), Dawkins asks whether we really need mysticism at all.
K.F. Charlatans don’t want you to look behind the curtain. And there are those who don’t want to know what is there. They prefer the mystery. But scientists want to know what is behind the curtain. They want to pull it back for everyone to see because it is more fun to solve the mystery, and to use that information to solve other mysteries, than to live in ignorance. In the next chapter, Dawkins takes on academic charlatans.
1.7 Postmodernism Disrobed
K.I. The main point is that when writers want to seem “intellectual” and don’t have much to say, they like to use jargon to inspire the reader’s confidence in the profundity of their message.
Dr. Fuller criticized the propensity of D’Adamo, the blood type guru, to use jargon to impress his readers (volume 3, issue 3). This creates a lot of “psychobabble” and pseudoscience. If a paper uses all the right words, it can get accepted into journals such as Social Text.
An analogy can be drawn with biomedical science, which reminds me somewhat of my own situation as an academic pathologist. I have an interest in prostate cancer research. The most elite journals look upon papers presenting fancy, new molecular mechanisms in cancer cell lines as the highest priority for publication. But cell lines grown in flasks are not necessarily representative of real patients, and the most intricate theoretical mechanisms, which when charted out look like “spaghetti,” don’t save lives or improve clinical practice in the here and now.
A few years ago, as a young pathologist relatively new to my academic Department, I gave a lecture on prostate cancer in which I included my study on needle core biopsy length. I found that the length of tissue sampled by prostate biopsy “guns” varied tremendously from millimeters to over 2 centimeters, and that the length of the tissue cores sampled correlated with likelihood of cancer detection. This would seem to be an important message for the doctors who perform the biopsies. But my chairman remarked to me afterwards, “interesting study, but doing things like this won’t get you promoted.” My research evolved from using more patient material to more abstract, molecular mechanisms. I would not say that the latter was meaningless, but doing more practical work is not the most prestigious!
The real howler of the essay is saved till the end of the essay: the postmodernism generator on the Internet can use random fancy words to compose a medium-length essay signifying absolutely nothing! Pretty funny!
K. F. Even Dawkins has been attacked for the clarity of his prose by those who view an intelligible writing style as evidence of a scientific lightweight. My view: if a writer cannot explain a process in terms that the general reader can understand, then I question how well that writer really understands the process and/or cares about the reader.
You can click here to generate your own postmodern essay: http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo] Don’t even bother trying to understand it!
1.8 The Joy of Living Dangerously: Sanderson of Oundle
K.I. Sanderson was an English schoolmaster who lived from 1857-1922. He disliked testing and individual competition and encouraged cooperation in learning. Nowadays, there is an increased tendency of politicians such as Jeb Bush in my state of Florida, to impose increased testing on schools to make sure they are doing their jobs. Advancement in any profession, most especially medicine, requires scoring high on numerous tests. The competition in college to get into medical school often is said to de-intellectualize the experience. More and more high school children are taking advanced placement courses, the curriculum of which is dictated by the test for the course. But, the increased testing makes teachers obligated to “teach to the test” and thus stifles creative teaching.
K.F. There is little that is more likely to turn students off from learning than “teaching to the test” or, as I put it, cramming down and then regurgitating data bits on demand. Certainly, there are data bits we all need to know. But there are better ways to learn them such as by the experiential method preferred by Sanderson. “What matters is not the facts but how you discover and think about them: education in the true sense, very different from today’s assessment-mad exam culture.” [p.60]
Thank you, Dr. Iczkowski for providing your insights on the first section of Dawkins’ book. We will continue this “conversation” next month when we review Part 2: Light Will Be Thrown. If other readers would like to participate more fully in our conversation next month, feel free to do so.
AnthroHealth Tip of the Month: Make some rhubarb sauce. It’s fast, easy, and chock full of calcium: 348 mg/cup. A cup of low-fat milk has 301 mg/cup. And even though the milk is low-fat, it still has fat and cholesterol, which the rhubarb sauce does not. As I’ve stated before, it is not necessary to ingest dairy products to obtain your daily dose of calcium. And remember, if you have optimized your vitamin D levels, 500 mg/day of calcium is adequate. Higher levels are pushed by the dairy producers, which should come as no surprise. So, instead of milk, hit the sauce. Rhubarb sauce, that is!
© 2001-2009 Kathleen E. Fuller, PhD. All rights reserved.