Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On the Falsifiability of Evolution

I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.

Charles Darwin (in a letter to Charles Lyell)

To reject one paradigm without simultaneously substituting another is to reject science itself.

Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)


One of the websites I most love to hate, "Uncommon Descent", has a post regarding the falsifiability of evolution. Many "intelligent design" proponents (IDiots) are sophisticated enough to claim to concede "common descent", so the poster argues that biologists can't simply invoke Haldane's "rabbit in the pre-Cambrian" argument to drive a wedge between evolution and ID (as the discovery of a rabbit in the Cambrian would falsify both views).

What numerous ID proponents seem to argue for is "common descent with meddling", the meddling being of a conscious nature. But is that really common descent? Such a view suggests discontinuity, which could/should manifest in the fossil record. When arguing with "common descent with meddling" advocates, why shouldn't a "rabbit in the pre-Cambrian" be invoked as a falsification of evolution and a confirmation of ID? The rabbit is admittedly a dramatic example of discontinuity, but it differs with myriad other possibilities (e.g. a mammoth in Australia) only in degree. When an IDiot says that evidence for common descent can never refute ID, an appropriate response may be, "what bizarre version of common descent are you imagining?" Ordinary sexual/asexual reproduction plus occasional/constant creative input from a third/second party designer is quite a distortion of the historical concept. Visualize a "tree of life" with disconnected branches held up by skyhooks. Alternatively, you can place a fairy on every fork.

Another ID view, the front-loading view, is that evolution was somehow programmed from the very beginning to be driven, or accelerated toward some end; a single, primordial instance of meddling. Here, a "rabbit in the pre-Cambrian" would clearly falsify both this view of ID and evolution. So how does a researcher falsify either of these views? I'd say that the IDiots are playing a sneaky game here: they do their damndest to conform to standard theory, sprinkle in a tad of supernaturalism/teleology, and then ask biologists to falsify one view over the other.

Obviously, the more closely a parasitic view wraps itself around the other, the harder it is to falsify one view while leaving the other intact. Given a choice of views, it seems eminently reasonable to opt for that which is supported by peer-reviewed research, practicing biologists, and which dispenses of superhuman entities. Tediously, the "Uncommon Descent" crowd spends a great deal of energy refuting this, invoking worldwide academic conspiracies, the wisdom of engineers who aren't constrained by mere biology, and the Designer Without Inferable Motives or Identity.

Above, one sees that ID takes a number of forms. The rabbit in the pre-Cambrian falsifies some versions, but not others. But proponents like Dembski and Behe fastidiously avoid formulating specific theories of ID, preferring to harp on every perceived weakness in standard evolutionary theory. They wouldn't want to favor the frontloaders versus the tinkerers versus the constant interventionists versus the creationists. At the same time, when arguing that evolution is difficult to falsify over ID, the IDiots can conveniently pull out the version of ID that best makes the case.

Given the fact that some versions of ID are hugely parasitic on standard theory, piggybacking, free-loading at every opportunity, biologists are sometimes challenged to show how evolutionary theory provides any practical benefits that competing "theories" couldn't. The responses of biologists run the gamut, from Dobzhansky's famous "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution", to Coyne's recent argument that evolutionary theory, like cosmology, need only expand human knowledge to justify its existence.

Personally, it does seem that hardcore biologists sometimes exaggerate the case for evolutionary theory's utility in a clinical setting. A compartmentalizing creationist crystallographer could conceivably concoct cofactors (sorry, couldn't resist) that inhibit enzyme function, believing all the while that the active site was the result of conscious design. However, it occurs to me that one area that ID, in most of its incarnations (we can never say "all", given ID's aforementioned slipperiness) would fail horribly is in that of "ultra-selfish" DNA. We're talking about transposons, retroviral sequences, etc., that function solely to perpetuate themselves through the host's DNA. These sequences are problematic for ID, as they confirm an abundance of "junk DNA" in the genome, something most IDiots dispute with great tenacity. At the same time, these entities are strongly implicated in cancers and other maladies. Certainly, modeling and proposed treatments for such disease pathways should be influenced by whether the sequences are primarily "selfish" or "functional". To simplify, in one case it might be possible to "attack" the sequence and its [selfish] activity; in the other, one would expect any number of side effects.

My own dogma is that scientific insight arises in the minds of those who are already strongly grounded in correct views. Is it any surprise, then, that "ID theorists" contribute nothing to biological understanding?


Below, I'll try to collect articles that do support the utility of evolutionary theory in medicine:

On the Utility of Evolution in Experimental Biology and Medicine

Hacking Evolution

Of What Value is Evolutionary Biology in Medicine?

Evolution as Policy, not Symbolism or Critical Thinking

Does Evolutionary Biology Make Predictions?

Of course, I understand that the poobahs of "Intelligent Design" may not be impressed. They'll argue that they don't deny "microevolution", so evolution of antibiotic resistance is no proof of standard theory's superiority to ID. They'll tell you that experiments in synthetic biology are an example of design, not evolution. And, of course, medical inferences based on "common descent" are taken to be "exactly what ID predicts".

The lack of creativity of ID proponents is sometimes mind-blowing. In addition to the aforementioned inability to come up with their own theories and research, there's the consistent flow of arguments that boil down to incredulity...I can't imagine it, so it can't be true. There's also this childish tendency to try to parrot back the criticisms of their opponents: evolution is a religious belief, evolution requires too much faith, blah, blah, blah. This is the tact adopted by children who, having been insulted, can't conjure up a decent comeback.


Click here for a more artful "rabbit in the Cambrian" image.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Samak's Nose

Above is a shot of former Thai Prime Minister and Bangkok Mayor Samak Sundaravej. He had some highly lampoonable quirks, as you'll see.

Amongst numerous segments of Thai society that reviled him were the artists. That's largely because of his efforts to open a shopping mall/car park where an art museum had been planned. To Bangkok's benefit, the artists ultimately got their way. Way back in 2001, however, things were up in the air, and the artistic community staged a protest event. Participants were given canvas and paint. You can now see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of their efforts on the top floor of the art museum.

Samak was a cat fancier. The fish represents the museum. "Cats eat fish; the mayor eats the art museum". In English, we don't really have a slang word for "eat". In Thai, however, the word "daeg", used in the work, is considered quite nasty. These artists weren't pulling any punches.

A five minute browsing of a guide to Thai etiquette informs you that you should be careful where you point your feet. Samak is represented as the red foot above, squashing hopes for a museum. How do I know that the red foot represents Samak? Read on and take a second glimpse at the pic.

The above pic actually takes a swipe at foreigners: "Black head [like a real Thai], face like a foreigner". Apparently, a Japanese consortium was behind the shopping mall efforts.

The pic above references Samak's TV cooking show. The translation is a bit tricky...something like "we want an art museum; don't eat it you stupid man".

"Evil mind, Evil thoughts, Evil culture".

Now, if you haven't already noticed, all the pics target Samak's distinctive nose.

More nastiness. The nose, which needn't even be embodied anymore, is also given the attributes of a buffalo. More so than any other animal (with the possible exception of a water monitor), you shouldn't liken a Thai to a buffalo. It's the sort of offense that could earn you a punch.

Adding another level of abstraction, the nose takes the form of a rampaging rose apple!

Above is just a small selection of the works.

Google "Samak's nose" and you'll find that TV sign language interpreters simply touched their noses to indicate "Samak Sundaravej". Though the translation had persisted for a decade, some of Samak's supporters caught on and protested. To quote one article: "Stung by the controversy, the association [for the deaf in Thailand] has been examining other ways to indicate Mr Samak, for instance a reference to his passion for cooking."

I'm not sure how sign-language interpreters now refer to Samak.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

3,2,1 Buddhas

(The last one is a friend's pic, actually)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Tom Yum Poong Plah (Thai Fish Maw Soup)

My dinner Thursday night!

Below you see "Plah Deuk Foo"...shredded and deep fried catfish. Properly prepared, it's not nearly as greasy as you'd expect. It's standard fare. Often, it's served with mango yum, which cuts through the oiliness. This time, though, there's a kind of curry sauce. A nasty, cheesy aroma wafted off it. They actually added milk to the sauce...a bit unusual in the country where the populace has the lowest lactose tolerance in the world.

The next course is "Yum Gorp". Chilis, spices, and frogs! The blackish blobs are the frogs. In a Thai restaurant in the USA, where the waiter might ask you to specify your spice-tolerance on a scale of 1-10, this would rank 100.

Next is "Gratai Put Pet". Rabbit. The green spheres are fresh black peppers.

Take a moment to grok that pic. It appears primed to spontaneously ignite. I've been here long enough to derive honest masochistic pleasure from extreme spiciness; nevertheless, it would be nice to actually experience the rabbitness of that rabbit. You can slosh some beer around in your palate and launder the remains of the critter, but it won't help much.

Here's the real treat. It looks innocent enough as it's placed on the table....

But there are some jewels under the placid surface...

Tom Yum Poong Plah...Thai Fish Maw Soup (ต้มยำพุงปลา). That veined, maggoty entity is an egg sack. I think.

Just to be sure, we asked the waiter if everything in that bowl was edible. "Mai mee kee", he said ("no have shit"). Reassured, we dug in.

For foreigners who straddle the border between novelty-seeking and health concerns, Thais almost always remove the shit from the fish they serve. The exception would be small fish, where the diner must perform the "shit-ectomy" with fork and spoon.

It's not subtle. It's not French cuisine. But it IS gamy, spicy (to an extreme, if you're unaccustomed), complex, and intense. You sweat and drink beer at a high flow rate. It's hard to imagine legally available food products eliciting more sensation per neuron.

It would be all the more amazing accompanied with, say, some trance-inducing "Mor Laem" music. But, of course, management sees the farang enter the joint and promptly whips out a selection of Abba and Carpenters tunes. Oh well.


I just showed these pics to a Philippino friend. She then proceeds to tell me about cow testicle/penis soup. Apparently, you simply ask for "Soup Number 5", and everybody knows what you're talking about. Of course, it's supposed to increase virility. Sometimes they even throw in a sea cucumber for extra phallicity. Are there any dishes that perform the opposite function? Boiled eggplant?


On second thought, maybe the choice of music wasn't entirely inappropriate.