Monday, June 20, 2011

finishing up my review of Coyne's "Why Evolution Is True"

My early impression was that Coyne was a mess. Then, in the midst of finishing his book, I came across a CT article, noting that Coyne had described Francis S. Collins' ideas as "scary...bizarre...inane...snake oil" and that he "pollute his science with his faith". So, Coyne has quickly established that he's a jerk and a moron-- at least in terms of religion, if not science.  

But the funny thing is that Coyne's book got better as it went along. He provides a lot of good evidence for natural selection in areas from genetics to the fossil record-- much of it new to me. So, if you're looking for that, I can now recommend his book, despite the silly stuff. 

As for the silly stuff, it fades a bit as the book goes along; in a word, Coyne becomes a bit more humble as the book evolves. Picking things up in chapter 2...

-Early in chapter 2, he draws an analogy between the available fossil evidence and a scattered and torn book with only remnants of pages still remaining. Of course, Coyne feels quite comfortable drawing inferences from the remaining evidences. "Without them, we'd have only a sketchy outline of evolution." (p. 21). By any objective standard, the outline is still quite sketchy, even if one is impressed by the evidence and the accompanying narrative. (And if we're comparing Evolution to literal writing, I wonder what he thinks about the evidences for the preservation of the Bible.) 

-At times, he admits the staggering task at hand for evolution: "The theory of natural selection has a big job-- the biggest in biology. Its task is to explain how every adaptation evolved, step by step." (p. 119) Exactly. At present, only someone with a lot of (implicit or explicit) faith in the narrative can get there. Elsewhere: "We should be able to imagine a plausible step-by-step scenario for the evolution of that trait." Exactly. Imagine a scenario. With the "ability to extrapolate becomes to easier to accept that...selection could cause..." (p. 125) Yep, an exercise of extrapolation to accept (on faith) that selection could do such-and-such. Who can argue with that? And given artificial selection, "making the leap to natural selection was not so hard" (p. 127). Leap of faith, anyone?

-On transitional forms, Coyne is coy about the extent to which they matter. In his mind, we don't need many-- which happens to coincide with those we have in hand. He doesn't say what we should believe if we had fewer-- or the extent to which our faith should be bolstered by more. If it's a done deal, then we don't need any more.

-Coyne is candid about the limits of Evolution as early as chapter 2: "We have no idea what selective pressures drove the evolutionary changes in these plankton and trilobites. It is always easier to document evolution in the fossil record than to understand [and explain] what caused it..."

-Over and over again, he asserts what the creationist and ID models would predict. First, this runs counter to the frequent assertion that neither sets of models are testable. Moreover, Coyne seems confused about the extent of intervention required by ID and (old-earth) "creationism". The ID'er or God could have intervened a little or a lot. With ID, the question is whether design can be inferred probabilistically in some contexts. With old-earth creationism, evolutionary mechanisms are supposed to account for some/much of the variation we see today-- just not all. Coyne asks "Why would a creator put a pathway for making vitamin C in all these species, then inactivate it?" It's as if he can only imagine a black/white world where there is all/no evolution.

-Coyne repeatedly compares Evolution to his flawed, simplistic version of ID. "There is no reason a celestial designer...should make new species by remodeling the features of existing ones." (p. 54) Really?! "Species aren't all that well-designed, either: many of them show imperfections that are signs not of celestial engineering but of evolution." A common misperception of ID-- and it indicates that Coyne really believes these are competing hypotheses. "Perfect design would truly be the sign of a skilled and intelligent designer." OK, but that's not a criterion of ID. "Why would a creator...?" Coyne is quick to say X makes no sense if there's a creator, but slow to say that Y makes no sense if we rely on Evolution. 

-He never gets around to defining ID properly. He completely skirts it early-on, makes a half-hearted effort in chapter 3 (p. 81,85), and finally makes a much larger effort in chapter 5 (p. 136-143). Here, tellingly, he asks for some wiggle room: "In the main, ID is unscientific, for it consists largely of untestable claims." (p. 137) Jerry, I would have thought that you could pin that down a little tighter? And then he wants to take back the wiggle room he requested earlier: "The onus is not on evolutionary biologists to sketch out a precise step-by-step scenario documenting exactly how a complex character evolved." (p. 138) Jerry, I know that explanations are tough business, much tougher than narrative and faith. And it cracks me up that he talks about scientists "intelligently designing" all kinds of stuff in the lab, without ever catching the irony.

-I wonder the extent to which evolution is falsifiable-- really. Coyne says that we will find an early land-dweller with reduced gills and limbs in freshwater sediments from 380 million years ago (p. 38). But what if doesn't work out that way? I'm figuring that the theory gets adjusted and we move forward, right? It seems unlikely that Coyne would reject everything if he's wrong on this prediction. 

-In addition to the supposed evolution from land-bound mammals to whales, I'm surprised that he's so comfortable in imagining Indohyus (a raccoon-sized animal) turning into a something so large (p. 49-51). But he wraps up that section with the glib remark: "The sea was ripe for invasion. All of its benefits were only a few mutations away." Then, we find that evolution can easily go the other way too-- as glyptodontsThen, he concludes-- with no touch of irony-- that "Creationism is hard-pressed to explain these patterns." (Volkswagen-sized ancient armadillos with two-inch armor) are supposed to evolve into contemporary armadillos (p. 96).

-It's interesting that Evolutionists imagine the ostrich evolving to flight and then away from it (p. 57). Why was a smaller appendix better for us? Could it grow or shrink again? Likewise, he claims that eyes have evolved in and then out. And he claims that eyes take a lot of energy to build and can be easily injured (p. 59). True to some extent, I suppose, but it's difficult to imagine either of those as significant factors. Later, he asserts that a rudimentary light-patch could start-- and then the evolution to a retina and an optic nerve would follow through natural selection (p. 142-143). OK, Jerry-- if you say so!

-I don't understand the information component of the genome, but why would it degrade while unused? (p. 65)

-There is a fascinating discussion of the Asian giant hornet vs. European and Japanese bees (p. 111-113). The introduced European bees are at a severe disadvantage-- interesting if not unusual, since new species often gain and hold an upper hand. In contrast, the Japanese bees are claimed to have evolved a response that is effective against the hornet. But it seems odd that the evolution of an individual could survive to evolve into a group that was so powerful.

-One thing that gets some attention (to his credit), but ultimately is the subject of immense hand-waving, is the ability of mutated creatures to reproduce-- and survive and thrive-- over and over and over again. Sure, "once sex has evolved, sexual selection follows inevitably..." But how did sex evolve in its beginning? And relying on sex for natural selection is reasonable. The biggest problem? Assuming that the gene-- which promotes the ability of the female to identify the healthier males-- is able to evolve systematically. It's also interesting (and seemingly troubling) that more energy to non-productive characteristics is good in an evolutionary sense. But this is a problem of credibility: only the healthy can afford the sacrifice.

-Toward the end, Coyne takes evolution fans to task (p. 228)-- those who try to "Darwinize every aspect of human behavior, turning its study into a scientific parlor game...imaginative reconstructions of how things might have evolved are not science; they are stories".  He then invokes Stephen Jay Gould and "Just-so-Stories". I wish he had talked about Gould's idea of "punctuated equilibrium", but maybe that's a little too close to home...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Moses: America's Prophet

That's the title of Bruce Feiler's fun little book. He details how the character and actions of Moses run throughout American history-- from Columbus and the Pilgrims to Hillary & Obama in the Democratic primary, including George Whitefield, Thomas Paine, Harriet Tubman, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, LBJ. He was the subject of a Thomas Mann novel and a famous film by Cecil B. DeMille. He's in Washington's letters; his writing is on the Liberty Bell. Moses is even a long-lost cousin of Superman. ("Americans may or may not have noticed Superman's Jewish identity, but Hitler sure did." [p. 225]) It's been used to promote civil rights and gay rights-- and it's been used to bring attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. It's been used to describe Bill Gates against IBM and then, Steve Jobs against Microsoft. Reagan was the Moses of conservatism and Clinton had his New Covenant. And so on.

Feiler argues that "no single thinker has had more sustained influence on American history over a longer period than Moses...You can't understand American history...without understanding Moses. He is a looking glass into our soul." 

Off-and-on throughout the book, Feiler wrestles with why the touchstone is Moses more than Jesus. He provides a few reasons-- his humanness, his universality, and specific references like Washington crossing the river as Moses had crossed the Red Sea and Lincoln sees the Land but is unable to cross over to the other side. He even provides data on, for example, pastors who invoked Moses vs. Jesus after Lincoln died (34 vs. 16 with 113 vs. 42 references). 

My favorite quote on this comes from his interview with Allen Guelzo, responding to whether he would have eulogized Lincoln with Jesus or Moses: "If Lincoln's greatest achievement was emancipation, then we're going to talk about him as Moses. If we think Lincoln's greatest achievement was redeeming the country from the onus of slavery, then we're going to talk about him as Christ...The Moses-Jesus track comes down to which is more important: deliverance or redemption...The private Lincoln is more like Jesus, but the public Jesus is more like Moses."

Feiler points to three themes that underline his application: "courage to escape oppression and seek the Promised Land...the tension between freedom and law...[and] the building of a society that welcomes the outsider and uplifts the downtrodden." (298-300). On freedom and law, Feiler describes this combination as covenant vs. freedom, responsibility vs. bondage, law vs. slavery, the desire to build a just society while holding onto the importance of individual responsibility.

Feiler concludes with three lessons he learned about Moses and those who invoke him: the power of story; the American narrative of hope; and the need to act (306-308).

A few other nuggets: 

-I was not aware that American Jews had invested so much in the Civil Rights of African-Americans. It is that much more bizarre that there have been a handful of notable awkward moments between African-American leaders and Jews (253-256).

-A great observation and quote about Thomas Paine (60): "Paine was the anti-religious zealot who continually cited religious examples. He hated Scripture but quoted it relentlessly."

-Union troops were buried at Gettysburg with their feet pointing downhill, so that when the dead were resurrected, they would overlook the field where they had died.

-After averaging one per year, in the decade after the Civil War, there were 94 books published on heaven.

-DeMille had Paramount put granite monoliths of the Ten Commandments on public property to promote the film. The one in Austin later became the basis for the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case that banned such displays in courtrooms.

-DeMille opens his film with an extended monologue, comparing Pharaoh to the USSR and Moses to America. (I remember being shocked when I saw that on video!) 

-More evidence that the 1950s were a period of spiritual lukewarmness. Eisenhower once said: America "is deeply founded in a deeply felt religious faith-- and I don't care what it is." In the 1950s, "under God" was added to the pledge and "in God we trust" was added to the money. Which God? The god of civil religion opposed to godless communism. 

It's an easy read. If you like history with a little bit of religious and cultural flair, pick it up!

Wickham's Folly: revolution without revolutionary change

The NAACP is being attacked by parents of New York City schoolchildren who are angered by the civil rights group's support for a lawsuit that seeks to keep 20 charter schools out of buildings that already are occupied by traditional public schools.

The suit also attempts to block the closing of some of the city's underperforming public schools, the kind of schools that make many parents clamor for a way out. In the 20 years since Minnesota enacted the first law allowing charter schools, this hybrid approach to public education has become an increasingly popular escape hatch, especially for black students.

While blacks are 30 percent of the New York City's 1 million public school children, they are 60 percent of the youngsters enrolled in the Big Apple's 125 charter schools. So black parents of charter school students in the city think the NAACP's support of the lawsuit, which was filed last month by the United Federation of Teachers, amounts to an act of racial treason.

But it's not. It is an act of revolution...

Dude needs to change his name to Orwell...Promoting the status quo-- government-run entities with tremendous monopoly power = Revolution?  DeWayne, put down the crack pipe and back up slowly.

He recovers a bit by making this distinction:

While revolts bring about reforms...revolution is needed to wipe out a system of oppression...[with charter schools] what they get is steam control — a way to vent their anger, not fix the problem...

But then this: 

The NAACP doesn't want an escape hatch for 4 percent of New York City's schoolchildren; it wants a high-quality education for all of them...What the NAACP wants is a revolutionary change, not the incrementalism — and misdirections — [of charter schools]. 

First sentence = nice assertion. Second sentence = Wickham hitting the crack pipe again. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Six Days in June...well yes, I'm posting this in June-- but that's the book's title

I have a back-log of books I've read and still want to blog about. Hmmm...back-log of books. Is that what blog stands for? 

Before Anthony Weiner stole the headlines, the most important and inflammable recent event was President Obama's remarks about Israel and its borders. Obama wants Israel to return land to re-establish the borders that existed prior to the Six Day War in 1967. This is interesting in many lights: 

1.) Why does Obama (or American politicians in general) feel the need to influence an issue like this, especially when it's halfway across the world? 
2.) Why would Obama pressure another country to give back land acquired in a recent war in which it was attacked? Can you imagine the U.S. giving back land acquired through wartime? 
3.) Why would Obama pressure another country to give back land that was important to their defense, especially in a context where it was still facing a number of related threats?

All of this became more accessible to me by reading Six Days of June by Eric Hammel. The book is a relatively lengthy (400+ pages) but easy read. Along the way, Hammel provides brief bios on many of the region's key players during that time period and afterwards: Arafat, Nasser, Dayan, Sharon, Rabin, Peres, King Hussein, Uri Ben-Ari, etc.

Hammel documents how the Israeli air power and its surprise attack were devastating and instrumental to winning the war so quickly and completely. Along the way, he describes the wars in 1948 and especially 1956-- and their impact on preparation for what would become the war in 1967.

Hummel also credits the vision with which the Israeli armed forces were constructed, emphasizing a "leadership throughout the ranks" approach that encouraged initiative and critical/creative thinking, while avoiding many of the top-down problems in a central command approach (chapters 6-8). In essence, he described a "production" model that reduced transaction costs and allowed quicker movements with fewer "timeouts" (awaiting instructions).

A number of miscellaneous things: 

1.) Unintended consequences: I enjoyed the brief vignette on Israeli spy Eli Cohen and the escapades of Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Cohen was caught in Syria and even the controlled revelations of his efforts led to a military coup (p. 7). Nasser's bravado-laden bluffs (p. 29-31) and his desire to lead the "Arab Nation" (p. 8's competition with the Syrians) led to all sorts of problems-- by Hammel's accounts, one of the chief catalysts for the timing of the war (earlier than ideal for Israel's enemies). 

2.) Attempts at collusion and the free rider problem: Israel benefited to some extent from having multiple enemies that could not coordinate well-- both in a technological sense and in terms of the Prisoner's Dilemmas inherent in group behavior. On the latter, each of their enemies were trying to avoid or instigate action-- what was in their own interests, but detrimental to the overall goal of sacking Israel. 

3.) A great example of propaganda gone wrong: Radio Amman reported the death of the Israeli Air Force and uncontested penetration by Egypt into Israel-- all while they were getting their butts kicked.

4.) The many examples of meddling and passivity by the United Nations. It's ironic that they would commit both sins of omission and commission. 

5.) Big surprise: The French were far more helpful to the Israelis than the Americans in terms of providing materiel and technology.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Brad Snyder's "interests": school district vs. children, parents and taxpayers

Charter school advocates are crying foul over the New Albany-Floyd County school system’s effort to get around a July 1 mandate to make its vacant school buildings available for their use.

The Floyd school board passed a resolution at its meeting Monday to lease the shuttered Galena and Silver Street elementary schools to its building corporation...wouldn’t have to be made available to charters under a state law passed in April...

Floyd Deputy Superintendent Brad Snyder defended the resolution, which he introduced Monday. “We have our interests to look after...”

Unfortunately, those interests do not coincide with the interests of children, parents, and taxpayers. Brutal...

And then another quote: “We hope that by taking this positive action on behalf of our community, we can remain engaged in protecting the community history and interests of Galena Elementary School."

Snyder is confusing "community" with his "interests" (and those of the school district) and I'm not sure how he's defending the interest of a closed school. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

is ObamaCare unconstituional (cont'd)?

A top Obama administration lawyer defending last year's health care law ran into skeptical questions Wednesday from three federal judges here, who suggested they may be ready to declare all or part of the law an ominous sign for the administration, the judges opened the arguments by saying they knew of no case in American history where the courts had upheld the government's power to force someone to buy a product.

"I can't find any case like this," said Chief Judge Joel Dubina of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. "If we uphold this, are there any limits" on the power of the federal government? he asked.

Good question!

Katyal argued that health care is unique and unlike purchasing other products, like vegetables in a grocery store. "You can walk out of this courtroom and be hit by a bus," he said. And if such a person has no insurance, a hospital and the taxpayers will have to pay the costs of his emergency care, he said. 

Unique or different than vegetables? Services are typically more complex than goods. Let's consider education where the govt makes it compulsory up to some arbitrary age. They allow you to pursue schooling services (largely) as you would like. And they subsidize their own schools, forcing those who pay taxes to pony up for others. Similar, but probably a first or second cousin. Let's consider auto insurance, where many (all?) state governments compel you to purchase auto insurance, if you want to drive. This seems like the closest analogy, although it's at the state level.

It's interesting that Katyal acknowledges the if/then potential in this debate: If govt is going to do this (unconstitutional thing), can they do another (unconstitutional thing) to compensate for that?

Katyal argued that Congress could reasonably decide that since all citizens are likely to need medical care at some time in their lives, everyone who can afford it should pay part of the cost.

That's weaker. We're not at all going to use medical care to the same extent and we're not all equally able to pay for "it". 

And he said the courts should uphold the law under Congress' broad power to regulate commerce in this country. 

Now, that's a weak argument and really dangerous (although it has precedent). 

An intro to "Why Jerry Coyne is False" OR why his thinking needs to evolve a lot more

Here, I'm going to spend extended time on Coyne's introduction and chapter 1-- piece by painful piece.  

"Evolution gives us the true account of our origins, replacing the myths that satisfied us for thousands of years."

I'd like him to define "true". The term "account" tries to mask but alludes to the vast narrative aspects of his claim (along with the implied comparison to "myths"). And of course, he'll have little or nothing of value to offer on the origins of life-- and nothing close to a full-blown explanation for the origins of human life.  

"Why teach a discredited religiously-based theory (myth)...alongside a theory so obviously true?" 

I thought religious theories, creationism and intelligent design could not be tested, but Coyne makes the claim that they have been discredited. Hmmm... Then he follows that up with the conflation between evolution which is true and Evolution which is largely narrative and not "true" in nearly the same sense. Later, he makes false claims about ID-- and again, implicitly, asserts that the two can be tested against each other. If he's not careful, he's going to have his Master Evolution debater card taken away. 

Later, he sidesteps the claim that Darwinism can predict how things will evolve in the future. I hadn't thought about that previously, but a.) why not?; and b.) theories that come from ex post observations are not nearly as impressive as those that can make ex ante predictions. 

He uses "creationism" freely, but doesn't define it (at least early-on). He takes great pains to define aspects of evolution and Evolution carefully. That said, throughout the opening, he conflates evolution as "process" and Evolution as the claim/narrative that "all of life was the product of evolution". Only a moron, a demagogue, or a fundamentalist would do this.  

He notes that trouble with evolution (or Evolution) is "spreading to other countries", but he has no explanation for this-- other than the other side is very good at propaganda. Maybe it's because reasonably bright people don't like to be jerked around on basic definitions, Jerry?!

He plays fast and easy with the impact of beliefs about Evolution's worldview, morality, and so on: 

"It does not inevitably lead to the dire consequences that creationists always paint...needn't turn you into a despairing nihilist...won't make you immoral...nor need it promote atheism"

Coyne chooses wiggle words to distinguish between the straw man of determinism and the (prospective) incentive effects (tendencies) of holding a belief in the Evolution narrative (over and above belief in the fact of evolution).

Finally, this gem from the end of chapter 1:

"The theory of evolution is more than just the statement that 'evolution happened': it is an extensively documented set of principles that explain how and why evolution happens."

Actually, Jerry, most people do a lot of hand-waving with evolution-- as much as the average theist in pointing to a creator God. (And you've done a good bit of hand-waving yourself, even through chapter 1!) And again, Jerry is confused-- or trying to confuse his readers-- that having a set of principles on how and why evolutionary mechanisms might have done something is not the same as an explanation for how those mechanisms did those things in any given context.

In a word, check out Shubin, but don't waste your coin on Coyne.

an awesome cartoon-- and brief reviews on two books-- about evolution & Evolution

Second, I finished reading Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish a week ago or so. (Sam Sloss had recommended it to me.) It's a good read and helpful for those who are a.) those who are open to (interested about) the role that evolutionary mechanisms might have had in the development of life on Earth; and b.) those who want to bolster their a faith in Evolution (the combination of scientific explanation and mostly a scientific-flavored narrative that the mechanisms of evolution are fully responsible for the development of life we see today). 

Shubin shares his personal experiences in fieldwork, describes advances in the field, and lays out some of the "missing links". The biggest value-added for me was his description of DNA and how various parts of it are "turned on" in different cells, within each type of animal.

I was hoping for much more on the development of vital and reproductive organs. Of those, Shubin was most compelling on the development of the ear. But why two nostrils instead of one? Why did it take so long to get bodies? The discussion of the eye was unimpressive, but was the best he could do, I suppose. In a word, he talks about why we have X, correlations between Y and X, and how we might have transitioned from Y to X, but he doesn't (can't) explain how and why evolution took us from Y to X.

I appreciate his humility at times. For example: "No sane paleontologist would ever claim that he or she had discovered 'The Ancestor'." And even though he brims with confidence at other times, he comes off well.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same thing about the book I just started (also recommended by Sam &/or Chris, I think): Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Although I didn't think about it until getting through the introduction: from the title, you can tell that the book is going to be somewhere between simplistic and propaganda. It's not as novel as Shubin's work; it looks like it'll be a primer on evolutionary mechanisms and Evolutionary claims. And it's irritating, because he does the same things he finds irritating in others-- out of ignorance or deceit...and neither is attractive. 

I'll pound his introduction and chapter 1 in a separate post (linked here).