Science Changes

State Department, in its wisdom & generosity, is allowing me to take a two week course on environment.  I am learning lots of new things, reviewing even more and updating my outdated conceptions.  The last of these things may be the most useful.  As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”    Anyway, it is fun and I believe it will be useful to my work in Brazil, where environment is a big part of our bilateral engagement.

Today we got an afternoon field trip to the Smithsonian.  I have been there many times before, but never in the back room.   Less than 1% of the Smithsonian’s collections are on display.  The rest are filed away, available for study.  The Smithsonian’s mission is to increase and disseminate knowledge.   The museum part is only a part of a much bigger whole.

One of the curators explained the importance of the physical specimen.  Of course, we could take pictures and all the measurements and we would have everything we need … today.   But what about the future?  One of the most powerful tools for understanding nature today is DNA analysis.  When many of these birds were collected, nobody has any idea about DNA.  It would not  – could not – have been recorded.  That information would have been unavailable.   We don’t know what sorts of tests will be available in the future.  We should not bind the future to our backward techniques any more than we would want to be tied to the techniques of the Victorian Era. We should give the future the same sorts of opportunities our predecessors gave us.

Science is dynamic.  Many of the things I learned as a kid are just plain wrong.  DNA is redrawing family trees and making us think about evolution in very different ways.  Some relationships were not clear from looking birds or animals. Other things that seemed related were not.

Of course, we should be humbled by this.  If “their” science, i.e. the science of the recent past, could be so wrong, how do we know ours is going to stand up any better?   Maybe future scientists will discover something as revolutionary as DNA and as mysterious to us as DNA would have been in Darwin’s day.  We are not stupid and neither were our ancestors.  But we all are always ignorant in many ways.  

We can never give up.  Mark Twain was right about knowing.  But maybe we should also quote TS Eliot, from “The Wasteland” I think it applies to science.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It is getting harder to collect and advance science.  Many countries now object to collecting and some fear that genetic material will be misused or they will somehow be cheated. This is anti-science.  When you get knowledge, the total available knowledge expands. Nobody loses.  Everybody wins, unless we cease from exploration.

Meeting Charles Darwin

Alex and I went to see a Darwin interpreter at the Smithsonian.  It was very interesting, although not exactly what I expected.   Richard Milner did Gilbert & Sullivan songs about Darwin in between his story telling and interpretation.  

Alex was probably the youngest person in the room, by far.   I might have been in close contention for second place.  I bet the median age was around sixty.   Mr. Milner told lots of jokes that I understood but depended on cultural nuances from before Alex’s time. Jimmy Durante, Bing Crosby & Jack Benny survived into my time but even I know them largely through reruns of old movies.   This kind of thing worries me.  I also have trouble adapting new jokes.   There are humor generations and it is hard to bridge that generation gap.   Our references are just different.

I was crowd watching as much as performer watching.  An evolution audience is peculiar and the performer pandered a bit to their prejudices.  I don’t think there is any doubt that evolution explains our world, i.e. it is true scientifically.   I also believe that Darwin was the greatest thinker of the 19th Century and the only one whose ideas are still broadly useful today.  But I don’t partake in the Darwin hagiography and the kind of snooty superiority on display in this otherwise very polite and reasonable crowd.   Dare I say that they treat Darwin with almost religious reverence.

The Darwinism of the 19th Century, i.e. the original ideas, is wrong in many details.  This doesn’t really subtract from Darwin’s genius.   Almost all the science of genetics, much of statistical analysis and most of the archeological record of early hominids was unavailable to Darwin.   You can look at this in two different ways.   Accolades say that it shows Darwin’s prescience and genius that he could still get so much right even w/o all that science.   I would also praise Darwin’s skill, but say that he was very lucky in his guesses and made some seriously unscientific extrapolations that turned out well.  We don’t have to believe that man was some sort of superman.  We can still admire him.

Speaking of supermen, this is another problem with overdoing Darwin.   Darwinism is closely associated with scientific racism, Nazism, abusive eugenics and so called social Darwinism.    Darwin didn’t take part in this and he didn’t foresee it.   You could say that all these things are ignorant misinterpretations of Darwin, and you would be right.   

But when you look at something in totality, you have to consider what will become of it when it faces the grit and error of the real world.  Academics argue academic theories that are manifest nowhere in reality.  Reality matters.  The best example of how reality can turn a minor intellectual pathogen into a deadly disease is Marxism. In theory, Marxism is just kind of silly.  In practice it is deadly.   Darwinism was not like this, but it was abused in the service of politics.

Let me make one small note about evolution.   The common conception of it is … wrong and that is one of the reasons why the theory got abused.   If you look at the various charts and timelines, you think that evolution is moving toward a goal.   In fact, evolution doesn’t imply progress in any way.  Fitness means only that organisms have reproductive success.   In modern terms, the “Octomom” is the most successful and fittest human woman of our age and perhaps the most successful of any age.  She evidently has fourteen children with a good chance of surviving into adulthood.  Some sleaze who fathers a dozen kids out of wedlock is fitter than the childless Noble prize winner – kind of depressing.  The related wrong idea is that species evolve from each other with the idea of progress, so that a fish or a frog is lower on the evolutionary ladder than monkey or a man.   In fact, the science of evolution doesn’t have anything to do with this kind of idea.   The fish that successfully reproduces is more successful than a man who doesn’t.

Anyway, I take the pragmatic approach to knowledge.  We can never find absolute truth.  Science cannot give that to us, since science is in the process of becoming.  It is always in revision.  We can, however, achieve USEFUL knowledge and that is enough for most of us most of the time.  Just never get too enthusiastic about any particular ideas, don’t attribute infallibility to any human and don’t hold that lack of infallibly against them.  

Even a genius is wrong most of the time because to err is human.  And that is why I don’t feel it is a contradiction to believe in both science and transcendence.

Above is sunset from my office window behind the construction of the Institute of Peace. 

BTW – I found a good article on this subject after I wrote this.  It is at this link.

Survival of the Fittest

I have been reading a book called Survival of the Sickest, about how seemingly deadly genetic factors can be explained.  For example, genes for a potentially deadly genetic condition called hemochromatosis helped protect people from the Black Death in the middle ages.  

Below is a mural at the 21st Street entrance at State Department,

A that really matters for the genes is whether or not you can reproduce, so adaptations that help you do that will be maintained even if they have downsides.  This is especially true of traits that appear in later life.   Throughout most of human history, people rarely lived beyond around thirty-five years old, so anything that happened after that age just didn’t matter. Usually you just had to make it into your early teens in those days to send your genes into the next generation. That explains why a lot of deadly conditions are manifest in later life.  (BTW – It is not survival of the fittest with regard to being strong and good.  Evolutionary fitness just means you succeed in reproducing.  In this respect, the Octomom has us all beat.)

The book also goes into the interaction between genes and environment and choices.  In that respect, I read a very interesting article today in NYT called “Mugged by our Genes.”  It seems a lot of genetic factors are manifest more in later life.   This doesn’t make much sense at first, since your body and brain are finished developing by the time you are twenty-one.    What is important here is choice.  Many personality traits are genetically influenced and we make choices based on these traits.   A person with a risk taking personality may have chosen a lifestyle that exposes him to more dangers, so is more likely to be injured etc. 

Science sure has changed since I was in school.  Back then if you talked about genetics having a role in society you were shut down by your professor and labeled a racist, sexist etc.  It was a generally accepted idea that people were influenced only by their environments.  As I recall, when the famous and now honored geneticist Edward O Wilson came to speak at my university in the 1970s, somebody tossed a sandwich in his general direction (who knows what that meant, but it wasn’t a sign of acceptance.)  

Wilson, BTW, studies insects and he observed that Marx was right that socialism works; he just has the wrong species (good for ants, not humans).  

Today we understand that both genes and environment play roles and it is the combination of influences that makes us human.   They influence each other to an extent that it is often impossible to separate the causality.  Another interesting book I read called Nature via Nurture explained how some genes are activated by particular environments.   The author talked about a particular gene the produce a propensity for violence that is activated by the experience of violence in childhood.  If the kid doesn’t have the gene, violence in his youth doesn’t doom him to be a violent adult. And if he has the propensity but doesn’t experience violence as a child he will not turn violent.   But in the case when the gene and violence are present, the problems come.  (I read the book three year ago so I didn’t explain this perfectly. Look at the book if you are interested in the longer version. Here is an article re.)

Anyway, we have a significant ethical dilemma and it gets worse the more we can understand and predict behavior.  A person may be violent through no fault of his own, but he still IS violent.  It is unethical to restrict someone for crimes they have not yet committed.  It is also unethical to allow someone to be hurt or killed when we have a moral certainty that it will happen. 

Evolving Science

I was watching the History Channel today about Neanderthals.  Back when I was in school, we learned that they were a separate species from modern humans and that it was likely that anatomically modern humans were hostile to them and maybe wiped them out either through competition, conflict or a combination of both.   The Neanderthals were portrayed as brutes, who lacked the skills and organizational abilities that made modern humans so successful.   Now the Neanderthals have been upgraded.   According to scientists on the show, these guys not only were among our ancestors, but may have contributed the gene that makes it possible for us to learn language – the quintessential human trait. 

Science is not neutral.  It is embedded in current culture and sensibility.   Even if scientists answer all the questions in an unbiased way, the questions themselves are heavily influenced by the surrounding society.   The original theories of the Neanderthal were postulated in the 19th Century, in an age when conflict and competition was accepted as a part of nature.   Today being cooperative and inclusive is in style, so it should come as no surprise that we now see our long lost cousins in kinder and gentler terms.   I don’t know what the Neanderthals were like.    Nobody does.   We I do know is that our speculations often depend more on us than on what they were really like.

BTW – a fascinating book on the subject is Before the Dawn, which traces human prehistory by studying changes in our DNA.   The interesting thing is that evolution didn’t end; it is just not operating to the same sorts of characteristics.    Evolution doesn’t always go in the direction of improvement.  Fitness in the Darwinian sense just means that you contribute more genes to the next generation.  To accomplish this in the natural environment, you usually needed to be stronger, faster, smarter or very lucky, but the pressures have abated.   By Darwinian standards, the fittest person in history may be that woman who just had eight kids, on top of the seven she already had. 

Another change in interpretation has to do with dinosaurs.  I learned that giants were clumsy, lumbering reptiles.  Now we hear that some we agile and maybe were warm blooded with feathers.  Who knew?  Most of today’s real cool dinosaurs, such as raptors, were largely unknown when I was a kid.

Above are little dinosaurs? 

BTW – Chimps are very aggressive, as we were reminded by the recent chip attack.  In the wild about 1/3 of male chips die from violence. Primitive man was/is violent too.  That is our heritage that we struggle to overcome with our civilization.  There is no such thing as a noble savage (and Rosseau sucked anyway.)