Compendium of Scientific American articles on evolution

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Scientific American has posted what you might call a compendium of articles on evolution – some from the archives, some brand new.

The featured articles include a new article by Lauri Lebo, who details the manner in which creationists hide their true intentions by using code words such as “helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” Indeed, in a display that gives chutzpah a bad name, they invoke the name of John Scopes, because he stood up for academic freedom.

A second article includes an interview with Jennifer Miller, one of the teachers who testified at the Dover trial; Ms. Miller observes that she is no longer afraid to cover evolution and indeed spends time debunking intelligent-design creationism. A third article, a slideshow, which I did not look at, is a timeline of “Evolution in the U.S. public education system.” The fourth featured article is a 2008 article by Genie Scott and Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education, and evidently describes how “Creationists who want religious ideas taught as scientific fact in public schools continue to adapt to courtroom defeats by hiding their true aims under ever-changing guises,” but it appeared that I could not get the whole article without a subscription.

Finally, Scientific American provides links to a handful of earlier articles dating back to 2000.

Thanks to Bora Zivkovic for the tip.

35 Comments

One Scientific American article worth looking at is a 1978 article by Richard Lewontin on “Adaptation”. It has some defects – in those days Scientific American paid off the author and then rewrote the article into their own homogenized style, so the article doesn’t sound like Dick’s other writings.

But it makes an important point that I think is not well-treated elsewhere. In the abstract, natural selection seems to be a total tautology – the fittest survive, and those who survive are the ones called “fittest”. And that criticism is commonly heard from creationists.

But Lewontin makes the point that once one has an engineering task defined (such as making a fish swim faster) then the argument is no longer tautological: the variations that solve the problem are the ones that are fittest, the circularity vanishes, and natural selection then makes real predictions.

I wish we had other, more accessible discussions of this issue of circularity / noncircularity.

Joe Felsenstein said:

But Lewontin makes the point that once one has an engineering task defined (such as making a fish swim faster) then the argument is no longer tautological: the variations that solve the problem are the ones that are fittest, the circularity vanishes, and natural selection then makes real predictions.

I wish we had other, more accessible discussions of this issue of circularity / noncircularity.

This is certainly one of the characteristic shibboleths of the ID/creationists. And, as is the case with all their misconceptions, it is the product of planning and strategy meetings once they have found something that can be misconstrued.

My suspicion (I haven’t given this particular meme the same thought I have given to some of the other ID/creationist memes) is that there may be a relatively common conceptual error on which it was built; just as with the case of Morris’s thermodynamic argument which was built on some misconceptions of which chemists and physicists were at least anecdotally aware and were addressing informally in class.

The biologist teachers here may have some better awareness of such conceptual glitches they encounter frequently. I think these days all scientific disciplines have within their arsenal of pedagogical strategies some list of “gotchas” for which there are tested remedial methods.

The trick is to find the ones that congeal into that particular meme.

I know that ID/creationists do this because I have read their “instructions to students” for how to sort through “secular textbooks” to find the qualifiers and hedges in the definitions and explanations. These people are highly attuned to finding what they perceive to be the tiniest inconsistencies and blowing them up into something big.

I think that is one of the ways they get their material.

In the abstract, natural selection seems to be a total tautology – the fittest survive, and those who survive are the ones called “fittest”. And that criticism is commonly heard from creationists.

But are there any differences between those who survive and those who do not? If not, if survival is utterly random and irrespective of individual variation, then it is indeed a tautology.

I suppose the null hypothesis is that these populations are not different in any consistent or systematic way. The challenge is to demonstrate that the survivors tend more often to have certain traits. You don’t even need to demonstrate that these traits are useful.

Flint said:

In the abstract, natural selection seems to be a total tautology – the fittest survive, and those who survive are the ones called “fittest”. And that criticism is commonly heard from creationists.

But are there any differences between those who survive and those who do not? If not, if survival is utterly random and irrespective of individual variation, then it is indeed a tautology.

I suppose the null hypothesis is that these populations are not different in any consistent or systematic way. The challenge is to demonstrate that the survivors tend more often to have certain traits. You don’t even need to demonstrate that these traits are useful.

The “certain traits” may be the key to the misconception. It’s that lottery winner fallacy again.

There are a number of simple “templates” on which the concept of natural selection can be built. And these don’t “play favorites” with what survives; they just single out what remains given the “environmental sieve” through which they passed.

Thus when a swollen river erodes a dam, that part of the dam that remains is the result of the convergence of a number of factors such as specific weaknesses in parts of the dam along with the specific river currents at specific locations on the dam.

There may be nothing particularly “special” about the part of the dam that survived; small changes in circumstances could very well have produced something different.

Flint said:

In the abstract, natural selection seems to be a total tautology – the fittest survive, and those who survive are the ones called “fittest”. And that criticism is commonly heard from creationists.

But are there any differences between those who survive and those who do not? If not, if survival is utterly random and irrespective of individual variation, then it is indeed a tautology.

I suppose the null hypothesis is that these populations are not different in any consistent or systematic way. The challenge is to demonstrate that the survivors tend more often to have certain traits. You don’t even need to demonstrate that these traits are useful.

Once again, history is written by the winners. How do you examine the genes of creatures that didn’t live long enough to get laid?

As to whether natural selection is tautological or not:

The part that’s tautological is:

Varieties that tend to produce more descendants will usually have more descendants. (This is relative to environment.)

The part that’s not tautological is:

Genetic variation (due to mutation, recombination, drift, etc.) produces varieties that sometimes vary in their tendency to produce descendants. (This is also relative to environment.)

Henry

Scientific American takes the name AMERICAN. Then it should treat Americans, who in fact are its money supply to the magazine and all research it covers, with rights to defend herself against criticisms from authors. If there is articles attacking the character and motives of creationism(s) then if there is no defence its just worth what any accusation is worth in life. Is is smart to question creationists motives/character in a new society where questioning evolutionists is becoming a common and cultural thing? Monkey see, monkey do.

Creationists mostly are Christians. In real America Christians have great credibility. The demographics of Main street America and these small circles of science magazine writing might not be the same. Anyways who are they trying to persuade? Not creationists. Why not SA allow a article by the best creationist writer with the best stuff for a defence? Then the readership could “test” which portrayal of creationists is right. NOW thats science.

Scientific American takes the name AMERICAN

It also takes the name SCIENTIFIC. There’s nothing scientific about your goofy superstitions. Go away.

Robert Byers said: NOW thats science.

No: that’s debating (please, note the apostrophe). It would be interesting all the same, IMO, but it is not science.

You don’t test a scientific hypothesis through accusations, rebuffing, equal times or any other political consensus forming strategy.

Utterly simplified, the process of forming consensus in science boils down to: “these are my figures, show me yours.”

Creationists mostly are Christians.

Again, no. What’s wrong with Muslim creationists, for instance? Or with Hinduists ones? Like, some 600 millions of them (out of approx. 1.2 billions Hinduists)? Of course, THEIR creation myth is somewhat different from our.

Of course, THEIR creation myth is somewhat different from our

And, of course, Robert Lyers never explains why his particular chosen batch of fairy tales should be taken as being dichotomous with science. Not that we need yet another demonstration of his singular inability to think, reason, comprehend, spell, argue, or construct a proper English sentence.

Hey Bobby, should American public schools present the Raelian creation myth as science? Why or why not?

There’s a worked out example in population genetics at the hemoglobin locus that actually shows natural selection preventing the fittest genotype from spreading! Most people are familiar with the variant hemoglobin allele that causes sickle cell anemia. This allele tends to persist in places where malaria is common because while two copies have a very low fitness one copy has a better fitness in that environment than the wild type. Less commonly reported is that there is a 3rd version of the gene that doesn’t have the downside risk of the sickle cell version and still provides resistance to malaria. The quirk is that as it is a rare allele (except for a tiny local population) it most commonly experiences selection as a heterozygote where it is not as fit as the other 2 alleles. It’s the best of the 3 overall, but by virtue of how selection actually works it’s more or less locked out of ever sweeping through the population. And any notion of tautology is DOA.

Robert Byers said: Why not SA allow a article by the best creationist writer with the best stuff for a defence?

While the best creationist writer might well be an American, a creationist article - even with the “best stuff” - would not be SCIENTIFIC.

Tell you what - why don’t you and Floyd and IBIG get together and submit an article and see what happens?

Paul Burnett said:

Robert Byers said: Why not SA allow a article by the best creationist writer with the best stuff for a defence?

While the best creationist writer might well be an American, a creationist article - even with the “best stuff” - would not be SCIENTIFIC.

Tell you what - why don’t you and Floyd and IBIG get together and submit an article and see what happens?

There is clearly an opening for a journal with the title of “Unscientific American”. The potential readership is obviously huge, particularly you use the definition of “North America” that includes Canada, so that Mr Byers is allowed to read it, though the publication will, of course, more resemble a tabloid newspaper (at least of the British sort) with lots of pictures, and a a tendency large font sizes to disguise a paucity of material.

Robert Byers The Moron said:

Why not SA allow a article by the best creationist writer with the best stuff for a defence?

Because creationists are untrustworthy liars, and their very best stuff always turns out to be incompetently written garbage.

NOW thats science.

Not even close, moron. “Science” would involve doing experiments and then submitting reports about those experiments to peer review.

Pleading for a vote of popularity is not science.

JGB said: There’s a worked out example in population genetics at the hemoglobin locus that actually shows natural selection preventing the fittest genotype from spreading!

…The quirk is that as it is a rare allele (except for a tiny local population) it most commonly experiences selection as a heterozygote where it is not as fit as the other 2 alleles. It’s the best of the 3 overall…

Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point (if so, please explain!), but the second quoted comment would seem to belie your original point. If the heteorzygote is not as fit as the others, it being selected against is not counter to natural selection, that is natural selection.

I think what you are saying is that there is a known optimum solution for the entire popluation for the current ecological environment (a “peak in the fitness landscape”) which natural selection cannot get to because of its path dependence. The mountain has a moat. :) This can be true, and you’ve found an interesting case which I wasn’t aware about (so thanks for that), but its nothing new.

And any notion of tautology is DOA.

Agreed. :)

Bandwagoning on what Mike E. said, I think the reason general notions of fitness often sound tautological is because fitness factors are very dependent on local context. There is no single definition of fitness, rather there are many definitions. When we try and talk about it as a general concept, we have to leave specific fitness factors out (because they don’t always apply), and so it often comes out sounding tautological.

For the nth time: Please stop feeding the Byers troll. It has nothing to add to any discussion, and it does not learn. The Byers troll has had its say; I will remove further comments from it or in response to it.

Joe Felsenstein said:

But it makes an important point that I think is not well-treated elsewhere. In the abstract, natural selection seems to be a total tautology – the fittest survive, and those who survive are the ones called “fittest”. And that criticism is commonly heard from creationists.

But Lewontin makes the point that once one has an engineering task defined (such as making a fish swim faster) then the argument is no longer tautological: the variations that solve the problem are the ones that are fittest, the circularity vanishes, and natural selection then makes real predictions.

Would it be correct to say that in a global sense “surivival of the fittest” is a tautology, with “fittest” only being defined by “survive,” and “survive” by “fittest,” but that evolution doesn’t take place in this kind of global arena, but rather in a specific environment where “fittest” can have a specific meaning, one separate from “suvival?”

David Fickett-Wilbar said:

Would it be correct to say that in a global sense “surivival of the fittest” is a tautology, with “fittest” only being defined by “survive,” and “survive” by “fittest,” but that evolution doesn’t take place in this kind of global arena, but rather in a specific environment where “fittest” can have a specific meaning, one separate from “suvival?”

I think it is all a matter of time.

Tautology: “survival of the fittest: those organisms survived, thus they were the fittest”.

Prediction: “survival of the fittest: those organisms appears to be the fittest of their population, so they will survive (better/longer/and have offspring)”.

Predictions can also be made in the past, although it is not that obvious.

Matt Young said:

For the nth time: Please stop feeding the Byers troll. It has nothing to add to any discussion, and it does not learn. The Byers troll has had its say; I will remove further comments from it or in response to it.

I am appalled by the utter unsimpateticity (verging to open hostility) many participants of this site demonstrate towards us trolls. I can not help but chastise this discriminating and sectarian behaviour that clearly violates the most basic of Troll Rights and, to some extent, even some Troll Lefts.

(:-P

Robert Byers said:

Scientific American takes the name AMERICAN. Then it should treat Americans, who in fact are its money supply to the magazine and all research it covers, with rights to defend herself against criticisms from authors. If there is articles attacking the character and motives of creationism(s) then if there is no defence its just worth what any accusation is worth in life. Is is smart to question creationists motives/character in a new society where questioning evolutionists is becoming a common and cultural thing? Monkey see, monkey do.

Creationists mostly are Christians. In real America Christians have great credibility. The demographics of Main street America and these small circles of science magazine writing might not be the same. Anyways who are they trying to persuade? Not creationists. Why not SA allow a article by the best creationist writer with the best stuff for a defence? Then the readership could “test” which portrayal of creationists is right. NOW thats science.

The Dishonesty Institute is open to such creationist articles and the commentary Byers seeks, Byers is free to publish there, along with Luskin and every other creationist, but despite its “academic freedom” rantings, no real science is allowed. On sites that allow one to indicate yes/no, LTTE (including SA), etc., or “thumbs up/down I found this useful,” the Dishonesty Institute allows only “Yes, I found this useful,” but no optiion for “No, this was not useful” dissension allowed. That should be in keeping with Byers line of thinking.

Actually, in The Extended Phenotype Dawkins says that “fitness”, in order to be a useful concept, had to be made tautological (see the chapter “An agony in five fits”).

You can argue that many physical laws are tautological; you can argue that all of mathematics is tautological. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be used to make predictions which can be refuted by experiment, or that they are unscientific.

Gabriel Hanna said:

You can argue that many physical laws are tautological; you can argue that all of mathematics is tautological. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be used to make predictions which can be refuted by experiment, or that they are unscientific.

Indeed.

That is what self-consistent solutions to math and physics problems are all about. You assume that what persists is what will be consistent.

But it is simply another perspective on already understood relationships and processes.

One can also point out that “tautological” means it’s true, and as their goal is presumably to somehow show that natural selection is incorrect, claiming it to be true would seem counterproductive to that goal.

“Survival of the fittest” can be easily translated into business terms as “survival of the profitable”. A tautology it may be, or just a simple observation of fact sitting on top of a mountain of knowledge of workable business practices and their unworkable complements.

mrg said:

“Survival of the fittest” can be easily translated into business terms as “survival of the profitable”. A tautology it may be, or just a simple observation of fact sitting on top of a mountain of knowledge of workable business practices and their unworkable complements.

Our current Republican Party will be pleased to know that they are Social Darwinists.

Mike Elzinga said:

mrg said:

“Survival of the fittest” can be easily translated into business terms as “survival of the profitable”. A tautology it may be, or just a simple observation of fact sitting on top of a mountain of knowledge of workable business practices and their unworkable complements.

Our current Republican Party will be pleased to know that they are Social Darwinists.

Do we have to have irrelevant political asides? I like your commentary otherwise.

Just because we both have Ph.Ds in physics and we both are against creationism doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything else. Unless you think that your political views are derived from fundamental physical laws, and you think I just was sleeping in class when that was derived.

Gabriel Hanna said:

Just because we both have Ph.Ds in physics and we both are against creationism doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything else. Unless you think that your political views are derived from fundamental physical laws, and you think I just was sleeping in class when that was derived.

Close, and please forgive the off-topic rant. It happens (sadly IMO) that in the US one political party and its leaders are increasingly forming their views from premises that run counter to fundamental science (as well as well-evidenced history), and as such they deserve all the snide political asides we can muster, at least until enough people who ARE sleeping through the current class become aware of that fact and stop supporting them. If you are not one of them, then we’re not talking to you.

Gabriel Hanna said:

Do we have to have irrelevant political asides? I like your commentary otherwise.

Just because we both have Ph.Ds in physics and we both are against creationism doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything else. Unless you think that your political views are derived from fundamental physical laws, and you think I just was sleeping in class when that was derived.

Before you continue to engage in self-righteous aloofness from politics, let me remind you that I was there when the physics community sat on the sidelines and snickered about the creationist war on evolution.

Henry Morris and Duane Gish could have been easily slam-dunked by the physics community back in the 1970s. Instead they allowed the biology teachers and biologists to take the brunt of the hits as the creationists ran rampant on campuses and in the news, spreading garbage in physics as well as in biology and geology. My own colleagues questioned my own meager involvement even though it was done on my own time.

I have watched as that movement became assimilated into the Culture Wars exploited by the Right Wing which in turn has been assimilated into the current “Republican” Party.

Both political parties do it, and Lee Atwater and his protégé Karl Rove turned these tactics into a carefully crafted and extremely well-funded war on their political rivals.

The problem with the science community continues today; and the physics community is still tepid about getting involved cleaning up the dirt these bastards continue to spread.

Check out Barbara Forrest’s Darwin Day 2011 talk, especially the Q&A at the end. One doesn’t get tenure by helping colleagues under political attack by ideologues. You need to be aware of who is behind this and how it is being financed.

One day they will come for you.

Mike Elzinga said:

Before you continue to engage in self-righteous aloofness from politics…

Stopped beating your wife yet? I’m not actually aloof from politics. It’s perfectly appropriate here to criticize politicians and political activists of whatever stripe who pervert science. But that isn’t what you did, you just said “Republicans are Social Darwinists”, which they are not, any more than Democrats are Marxists. Is it necessary to needlessly alienate people? Do we need to be in political lockstep in a forum ostensibly devoted to the defense of science?

So here we are getting further and further off-topic. Feel free to have the last word.

Gabriel Hanna said:

So here we are getting further and further off-topic. Feel free to have the last word.

It’s your right to take offense if you wish. Indeed you have.

Well, I suppose it’s progress when we move from ALL politicians being dirty bastards, to only ALL politicians of one party. This means half of all politicians might enjoy redeeming features.

Someday, someone might notice that the battle the culture warriors are fighting, they have already lost. Within living memory religion was ascendent, taken for granted in all parts of public life from school prayers to civic holiday decorations to pious overtones to the news. Laws that today prohibit preaching in science class, were quite recently prohibiting unGodly science. Many careers in science were most open to the most devout; today the bias is the reverse.

So I think we should recognize what the creationists and their political power represent, but also recognize that at the time the US was inserting religion into pledges of allegiance and changing the national motto on our coins to a religious motto, the US was also leading the world in many admirable things it no longer leads in. One of which was academic performance, as demonstrated by students who recited Christian prayers first thing every morning, be they Jew, Muslim, atheist, or whatever.

Now, my argument (unlike the creationists) isn’t that this pervasive religiosity CAUSED such broad leadership, only that it does not appear to have stifled US achievements even at its peak. Similarly, I have doubts that eliminating religion from the public square will cure whatever has been going wrong.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

I’m seventy-nine years old. I went to public schools from 1938 to 1950 then to the University of Illinois for two masters degrees then taught in the public schools for thirty eight years. Never did I have to or hear of any student reciting a prayer at anytime of the day. And, by the way, what was it that the US was leading the world in?

Can we PLEASE do something about the spammers that are popping up around here???

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on February 28, 2011 5:36 PM.

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