Seeing evolution in action

Peter and Rosemary GrantThe pop-science notion is that evolution takes a long time. Millennia, many millennia; even millions of years. But is that always true? Can one actually see and measure evolution in action? Can it happen in such a short time as to be recorded?

Peter and Rosemary Grant say they have. And it’s the subject of a new book they co-authored based on their research.

Their story was reported in the April 23 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s a terrific read if for nothing more than their 40-year tale of dedication, science and adventure on the isolated Daphne Major Island, one of the smaller islands of the Galapagos chain.

Forty years studying finches together, away from human company, away from the comforts of civilization. The small birds that first gave Charles Darwin insight into the mechanics of natural selection were their focus. And the Grants report they have seen that mechanism in action on the island.

Scientists previously had reported seeing the processes of natural selection among bacteria, honeycreepers, cichlid fish, and fruit flies. As Peter Grant puts it, “Until we began, it was well understood that agricultural pests and bacteria could evolve rapidly, but I doubt that many people thought that about big, vertebrate animals.”

The Grants believe that hybridization is an important force in the rise of new species, and think this applies, too, to human evolution. For a long time, for example, paleontologists believed that Neanderthals and “modern homo sapiens” did not interbreed when they came into contact in prehistoric times, but recent research indicates that about 20 percent of Neanderthal genes have been preserved in our species. “It’s almost been a hobbyhorse of ours,” Peter says. “We were saying, ‘I bet there has been gene exchange between the lineages of homo sapiens throughout their evolution.’”

The Grants’ new book is targeted at both lay readers and scientists familiar with their work, and broadly discusses their findings about natural selection, hybridization, population variation (why do some populations of birds vary more dramatically in beak size?), the potential vanishing of a species through interbreeding, and, of course, the potential origin of a new species — the Big Bird lineage. They also touch on global warming and its possible effect on Darwin’s finches. Most of all, the book is an affirmation of the importance of long-term fieldwork as a way of capturing the true dynamism of evolution.

Continue reading “Seeing evolution in action”

3,613 total views, 5 views today

What do we know about Bell’s Palsy?

Bell's PalsyBell’s Palsy is one of those rare ailments, and one that annoys more than threatens, but can be difficult and socially awkward for sufferers. It’s also one that still baffles researchers as to its cause. And also for an effective treatment.

According to facialpalsy.org,

The name ‘Bell’s palsy’ comes from 19th-century Scottish anatomist and surgeon Sir Charles Bell, who discovered that severing the seventh cranial (or facial) nerve causes facial paralysis.

It has no vaccine, no known method for prevention, and the treatment is still uncertain.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxVHFJs1uJ4]

Wikipedia tells us:

Bell’s palsy is a form of facial paralysis resulting from a dysfunction of the cranial nerve VII (the facial nerve) causing an inability to control facial muscles on the affected side… Bell’s palsy is the most common acute mononeuropathy (disease involving only one nerve) and is the most common cause of acute facial nerve paralysis (>80%)… The hallmark of this condition is a rapid onset of partial or complete paralysis that often occurs overnight.

It also says:

It is thought that an inflammatory condition leads to swelling of the facial nerve. The nerve travels through the skull in a narrow bone canal beneath the ear. Nerve swelling and compression in the narrow bone canal are thought to lead to nerve inhibition, damage or death…
Some viruses are thought to establish a persistent (or latent) infection without symptoms… Reactivation of an existing (dormant) viral infection has been suggested as a cause of acute Bell’s palsy. Studies suggest that this new activation could be preceded by trauma, environmental factors, and metabolic or emotional disorders, thus suggesting that a host of different conditions may trigger reactivation.

Which, in essence, doesn’t tell us a lot about the actual cause or why it recurs; mostly it remains guesswork. Bell’s Palsy affects about 20 people per 100,000 population, and the incidence increases with age and with certain medical conditions.

Continue reading “What do we know about Bell’s Palsy?”

9,818 total views, 40 views today

The dangerous idiocy of the anti-vax movement

Measles outbreakMeasles is on the rise in Canada. There have already been many cases in 2014: in PEI, London, Ottawa, southern Alberta, Regina, Qu’Apelle, Calgary, Fraser Valley (320 cases), Hamilton, Halton, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Waterloo, Nanaimo and other locations. Eleven cases in Ontario this year alone. Nine in Alberta.

That ancient, deadly foe we recently believed we had conquered, is coming back. And it’s going to kill children again, this time with the complicity of their parents.

Fifty years ago, science found the cure and made a vaccine for it. In 2000, the United States optimistically declared ongoing measles transmission had been eliminated. But it’s come back.

So have mumps and whooping cough – both easily and safely prevent by vaccinations. Both are deadly threats to children again.

Who’s to blame? And why is this happening? Why are people putting children at such risk?

It’s because of the anti-vaccination movement, a cult of pseudoscience, anti-medicine sentiments, gullibility, fear, superstition and mostly quackery promoted by witless and devious celebrities and greedy marketers, then spread on the internet to people who jump on every passing bandwagon. Parents who get their medical advice from unreliable online sources – mostly lies, rumour, gossip and unfounded allegation, like all conspiracy theories – or from quacks, not doctors.*

Health Link Alberta tells us how easily measles can spread:

Close contact with an infected person is not necessary to catch measles.
It is an extremely contagious airborne disease that can spread by coughing and sneezing, and through air currents.
Although there is no specific treatment or cure for measles, it can be prevented through immunization.
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunization program in Alberta.
Children should receive their first MMR dose at 12 months and the second between the ages of four and six years. Both doses are required to be fully protected.

The anti-vaxxers are creating a public health disaster. Rather ironically, North American parents have that in common with the Taliban:

In Pakistan, polio remains an epidemic because the Taliban has banned aid workers from vaccinating children. They say they fear that vaccination efforts are simply a ruse meant to disguise espionage. Health workers attempting to distribute vaccines there have been attacked and killed. A total of 101 polio cases have been reported in the country as of mid-November, and another 240,000 children have not been vaccinated.

Continue reading “The dangerous idiocy of the anti-vax movement”

3,532 total views, 5 views today

Sunny with a chance of squirrels

Bella sittingWhat is going on in that furry little head of yours? I was standing on the porch one day last fall watching Bella, our terrier-cross dog, and latest addition to the Chadwick pack. She was watching Diego, our ginger tom cat who was watching something in the trees. Bella stared, then turned to look where Diego was looking. Together they stared at something I couldn’t see, but which captivated them to the point of obsession.

Heads moved in unison as they stared, fixated. Tails twitched in syncopation.  I looked, unable to see what fascinated them. Suddenly they gave up, again in unison, and looked elsewhere.

Humans are often just befuddled observers of this stuff. Most of my thoughts about pets these days begin with the phrase “What the hell…?” I ask myself over and over what is in that furry head. Pick a furry head – we have four cats and two dogs (our max was once three dogs, seven cats and 23 ferrets, so this is a small pack… most of whom were abandoned or rescue animals, by the way, and they all had a good life within our walls).

Bella at fireplaceThought I understood dogs fairly well, I did. Thought I had had enough experience with all sorts of breeds and varieties. After all, I studied animal behaviour for years;read dozens of books on dogs and their inner selves. Spoke at length to breeders, animal behaviourists, dog trainers and owners.

But as much as you think you know, a lot of it is guesswork. Or just anecdotal experience that doesn’t apply to other dogs. There are days when I think dog behaviour is a pseudoscience like astrology or phrenology: just hot air and codswallop.

Bella reminds me daily that there are new horizons of dogdom I have yet to comprehend. She’s a delight, but sometimes as crazy as a bag full of bloggers.

It’s been nine months since we got her and we’re still learning her ways. When winter arrived, we learned much to our surprise that she likes snow. loves it, in fact, and will happily charge into drifts that almost swallow her.

She also likes to eat snow. A lot. Can hardly walk 10 metres without her snapping up some snow to crunch on. Crazy dog, for a dog that loves the heat so much she sits in front of the fireplace when it’s on. Not the roll-in-the-snow every few metres that Sophie likes, but loves to run and play in it anyway.

And she tries to climb trees when she sees a squirrel in one. I’d never seen a dog trying to climb up a tree before, but she just doesn’t get it that it isn’t happening.
Continue reading “Sunny with a chance of squirrels”

3,096 total views, 5 views today

Thinking about a new ukulele

Kala resonator uke
I’ve been thinking seriously of adding another ukulele to the herd. A tenor resonator, or resophonic, like the Kala shown above. That’s the re-designed 2014 model.

I’ve played earlier models, including the 2013 version with the strings attached to a tailpiece (see photo below, left). The 2014 design (shown above) anchors the strings back into the cover plate, which I expect will be a better design; it looks cleaner, too. But I believe the biggest change is that the through-the-plate model has more tension on the biscuit (see below). And I like Kala products, too.

Earlier Kala resoI really like resonator instruments and currently own a Soares resonator tenor guitar. It’s lovely; all-metal body, but a heavy beast (20lb or so)

I owned a Republic all-metal reso uke, a few years back, but it was concert scale. Interesting uke, but I didn’t keep it. I loved the look, but I don’t like concert scale as much as tenor, and I think that concert scale strings don’t put enough tension on the biscuit to make the cone work effectively. However, it gave me some ideas about improving reso uke output.

In the physics of guitars and ukuleles, the more tension on the saddle, the greater the energy passed along through the bridge to the sounding surface (top). Thus the greater the tension, the louder the sound and the greater the sustain.

A tenor uke has more string tension than a concert, and because of this it is this is generally louder and richer in tone than a shorter scale uke.

Continue reading “Thinking about a new ukulele”

5,068 total views, 20 views today

Litter, litter, everywhere

LitterPop cans. Coffee cups. Candy bar wrappers. Fast food wrappers. Cigarette packages. Cigarette butts. Dog feces. Bags of dog feces. Flyers. Cellophane package wrap. Water bottles. Juice bottles. Chip bags. Beer cans and bottles. Disposable lighters and pens. Cardboard beer boxes. Discarded newspapers and junk mail. Plastic grocery bags.

I just don’t get littering. I’ve never gotten littering.

These are just some of the items I’ve seen stuck into snow banks and hedges in my neighbourhood, or dropped on the road the past few weeks. There’s always litter, it seems, always someone carelessly and thoughtlessly dropping garbage on the sidewalk, the boulevard or street. The snow has covered up the older stuff. Come spring it will come out again. The streams and creeks will thaw and deliver a new load of garbage into our harbour.

Why do people litter? Why would anyone pollute their own home? Dump their trash on streets and sidewalks they have to walk themselves? Why would anyone get a dog and let it crap on someone else’s lawn and not pick up after it? Or more confusingly, pick up then leave the bag of feces on the lawn for the homeowner to deal with. Or someone else to walk on.

What sort of animal fouls its own nest? What sort of person would foul a beautiful town like Collingwood? Surely we all want this to be the best, the prettiest, the cleanest and most livable town in Canada. Litter won’t let that happen.

Why would anyone – even a smoker – consider it acceptable to dump the contents of a car ashtray on the public street? After all, the public space is their space too: it belongs to us all. Would you do this in your living room? In your bed? yet I’ve often seen people do this downtown and in parking lots.

I’ve seen people buy oil and windshield washer fluid at Canadian Tire, fill their car in the parking lot, then drive away leaving the empty bottles on the asphalt. I’ve seen people walk into local pizza joints, buy a slice, eat it and drop the cardboard tray on the sidewalk only feet from the place they bought it.

I’m baffled. And I’m not the only one. Anneli Rufus wrote in Psychology Today:

I believe that the proliferation of discarded packaging peppering urban and suburban America — strewn over sidewalks, streets, gutters and gardens rather than being dropped into recycling bins and trash cans — tells us something. I just can’t figure out what.

Every day we each step over and around a slurry of discarded cups, cans, straws, snack wrappers, cigarette packets, and more – all dropped by others. Most of us pay no mind. Litter isn’t pretty, but it won’t bite. So over it we step, averting our eyes.

But hey: Each of these items got where it is because someone was holding it in his or her hands and then let go…

Public areas are ringed with recycling bins and other trash receptacles. Litterers are nearly always within sight of at least one receptacle when they choose, instead, to litter. And it is a choice. Something is in your hand; then it isn’t. It ceases to be in your hand. How? Reaching the nearest trash receptacle would mean only grasping the item a few seconds longer, two or three minutes at most. But somehow, for countless someones, that wait isn’t worth it.

I understand somewhat that not all children have been taught not to litter, and that a child’s sense of social responsibility is often under-developed. Some of the garbage I see is from elementary students walking to school. Candy wrappers, chocolate milk containers, that sort of thing. I’ve seen them drop it, even while parents escort them home. Sometimes the parents even stop and pick it up.

But coffee cups and cigarette butts – these are adults. I’ve seen adults at sports fields and events cheering their kids on in some game, then leaving coffee cups, discarded food wrappers and condiment bags on the ground at their feet when they leave. Usually there is a waste bin a few feet away. No wonder their kids litter; no wonder they don’t develop a healthy sense of social responsibility: they learn the lesson from mom and dad.

Toronto StarI’m sure every reader here has seen images of Canada Post superbox installations awash in the discarded junk mail people simply drop on the ground rather than take home and dispose of responsibly. A Google search will produce hundreds of such images, if not. Disgusting, I suspect you will say when you see them.*

These are adults, not children doing this. Adults are supposed to know better. We’re supposed to be the role models for children: responsible, aware, conscientious, ethical. Stewards of the environment. Not lazy litterers.

And I’m sure everyone of them who did it knows full well that littering is irresponsible and anti-social behaviour. So why do it?

Continue reading “Litter, litter, everywhere”

19,585 total views, 45 views today

Feb. 12: Happy Darwin Day

Charles DarwinFebruary 12 is international Darwin Day, the day when we collectively celebrate science and reason. And, of course, we recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday: February 12, 1809 (the same birthdate as Abraham Lincoln, by the way).

If Collingwood made such declarations, I would propose we recognize the day in our municipality. Other Canadian municipalities have done so. Maybe we could raise a flag with Darwin’s face on it outside town hall.

Darwin Day was first celebrated in 1995 and has been growing in recognition and popularity ever since. As Darwinday.org tells us the celebration was:

…initiated by Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Stephens and took place at Stanford University. The first EVENT sponsored by the Stanford Humanists student group and the Humanist Community, was held on April 22, 1995. The famous anthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the early fossil human called ‘Lucy’, gave a lecture entitled “Darwin and Human Origins” to over 600 people in the Kresge Auditorium.

In subsequent years the location and date of the celebration was changed to coincide with Darwin’s birthday and was held on, or near, February 12 each year. The success of the venture is reflected in the list of speakers which include Richard Dawkins, 1996; Paul Berg, 1997; Robert Sapolsky, 1998; Douglas Hofstadter, 1999; Michael Shermer, 2001; Robert Stephens and Arthur Jackson, 2003; Robert and Lola Stephens, 2004; and Eugenie Scott, 2005.

And, as the site also adds, “Celebrating Science and Humanity within our various cultures throughout the world is an idea that is overdue…”

I would hope, too, that people would take some time out of their busy days to read something of Darwin’s, even if only a few pages. He wrote beautifully, albeit rather obtusely at times.

Of course, I don’t expect creationists will break out of their cult mentality and celebrate science today: they haven’t in more than 150 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. But while we celebrate Darwin, we should give some thought to creationism on this day, not just to critical thinking, if for nothing else than to remind us that we still have a long way to go to get universal appreciation of science and reason.

Especially, it seems, in the USA, where 43 percent of Americans believe in young-earth creationism. Not entirely bad news, given that figure has dropped from 54 percent in 2009. But still very, very scary.*

On Facebook today there were a couple of links to articles about creationism worth reading on this Darwin Day.

Creationism museum displayFirst is a cutely risible piece on Buzzfeed called “45 Things I Learned At The Creation Museum.” For those who don’t know it, the Creation Museum in Kentucky is where Bill Nye recently successfully debated creationist Ken Ham. It’s probably the most strenuous effort to rationalize away science ever constructed.

If I ever get to Kentucky, I will pay a visit, but I expect I’ll get escorted out for laughing too loudly at the exhibits. And if you’re like me, you will probably enjoy the virtual tour in the Buzzfeed article more than actually being there, because you don’t risk being ejected. After all, how can you keep a straight face when confronted with a sign that claims all dinosaurs were vegetarians before Adam?

Uh, and those razor-edged, pointed, cutting, slashing teeth were for… broccoli? Okay, stop snickering or they won’t let you in the museum either.

Continue reading “Feb. 12: Happy Darwin Day”

5,255 total views, 10 views today

Psychics 2013: the silly, the scams, the failed predictions

Joke...Action News, an ABC affiliate, ran a late-year story with the headline “Psychics interpret pets’ thoughts.” No, it’s not April Fools’ Day: this was December 26. Yet the reporter treated it seriously; just like it was a real story; actual news, rather than a steaming heap of superstitious dung. That reporters for any media outlet treat would such codswallop as “news” calls into question their ability, their competence and their education.

Lorrie The Pet Psychic has been tuning into the thoughts of animals for 18 years, appearing on Oprah after she helped locate a local dog who was blown away by a storm and then found alive.
“I feel very honored, you know, because I get to give animals a voice. Especially with the older pets that are getting ready to cross over and their owners get to say goodbye,” said Lorrie.

I don’t know whether to laugh at Lorrie’s ludicrous statements, or weep at the gullibility of people who have used her “services” for 18 years.

“Cross over”? You mean die. Kick the bucket. Shuffle off this mortal coil. Run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. Pet ghosts talking to former masters? Sheesh… if dead pets could talk, why don’t these “:psychics” get messages from dead raccoons, or other roadkill? The mouse that died in the trap? the bird caught by your cat? Wouldn’t the afterlife ether just crackle with that noise?

Psychics and so-called clairvoyants feed on people’s fear of mortality; they create a culture of alternate realities and other worlds populated with dead people (and pets – or is it all animals?) in order to suck the money from your wallet when they pretend to be in contact with people who “cross over.” Now, it seems, they can contact pets, too, living and dead.

“I think he likes his hair a little longer,” said Psychic Eve. “He prefers it that way. He feels more, I don’t know, macho more desirable.”

That’s what another self-described “psychic” told the credulous reporter, who dutifully wrote it down and printed it. Come on – a dog being “macho” over its hair? What journalism school taught you to be so naive?

To add insult to intellectual injury, the reporter then lists contact information so the simple-minded readers can call these “psychics” and give them their money.

If you want to know what sort of justification “pet psychics” give to their clients before denuding them of their finances, on How Stuff Works, you can get pages full of their gibberish:

According to most pet psychics, you communicate with your pets telepathically all the time, without even knowing it. Your cat hides and your dog gets ready to play because of signals you send with your mind, not because of your actions… According to pet psychics, electromagnetic energy surrounds and penetrates everything in the universe, much like the force in “Star Wars.” This energy is part of the radio spectrum, but scientists haven’t figured out how to detect it. Pet psychics can use energy to contact animals, no matter how far away the animals are or whether they are still living.

Enough to make your brain hurt, isn’t it? The real message, though, is buried in the article:

For a fee, they then relay telepathic messages to and from pets. The pets don’t even have to be present — often, psychics use photographs or descriptions to make contact.

There’s the hook in the worm: a fee. Of course they charge a fee because they make their living fleecing the gullible.

I have a tough time telling my black cats apart some days even when they’re sitting side by side. Who would be dim enough yet willing to pay someone to “telepathically” converse with a photograph of a black cat?

Here’s what my dog would say if a “pet psychic” could communicate with it:

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

And I learned that without shelling out money to a “psychic!”
Continue reading “Psychics 2013: the silly, the scams, the failed predictions”

7,326 total views, no views today

American belief in evolution is growing: poll

Alien SaintA new Harris poll released this month shows that Americans apparently are losing their belief in miracles and gaining it in science. The recent poll showed that American belief in evolution had risen to 47% from its previous poll level of 42%, in 2005.

True, it’s not an overwhelming increase, and it’s still less than half the population, but it is an improvement. Belief in creationism dropped 3% during that time, to 36%. Good news, of course, but don’t break out the champagne yet. There’s other data and it’s not all so good.

At the same time more Americans are believing in the science of evolution, American belief in many religious teachings is falling. Belief in miracles, heaven and others has dropped since the last poll:

  • 72% believe in miracles, down from 79 percent in 2005;
  • 68% believe in heaven, down from 75%;
  • 68% believe that Jesus is God or the Son of God, down from 72%;
  • 65% believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, down from 70%;
  • 64% believe in the survival of the soul after death, down from 69%;
  • 58% believe in the devil and hell, down from 62%;
  • 57% believe in the Virgin birth, down from 60%.

CNS News also tells us the poll shows:

  • Absolute certainty that there is a God is down vs. 10 years ago (54% vs. 66% in 2003).
  • Outside of specific religious samples, the groups most likely to be absolutely certain there is a God include blacks (70%), Republicans (65%), older Americans (62%), Baby Boomers (60%), Southerners (61%) and Midwesterners (58%), and those with a high school education or less (60%).
  • There continues to be no consensus as to whether God is a man or a woman. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39%) think God is male, while only 1% of U.S. adults believe God is female. However, notable minorities believe God is neither male nor female (31%) or both male and female (10%).
  • 19 percent of Americans describe themselves are “very” religious, with an additional four in ten (40%) describing themselves as “somewhat” religious (down from 49% in 2007). Nearly one-fourth of Americans (23%) identify themselves as “not at all” religious – a figure that has nearly doubled since 2007, when it was at 12%.

The Harris Poll has some not-so-good news to report, as well. According to the pollsters, more Americans believe in ghosts, reincarnation and UFOs than in 2005:

  • Reincarnation: 25%, up 3%
  • Ghosts 42%, up 1%
  • UFOs 36%, up 1%

I’m not sure whether to blame this lapse in critical thinking on ‘reality” TV or the internet. Either way, it’s troubling.

Belief in witches is down to 5% to 25%, and belief in astrology remains unchanged at 29%. Belief in angels is down 6%, but still staggeringly high at 68%. Imaginary beings are losing followers, while pseudoscience still hangs in there. The good news, if one reads it thus, is that belief in the science of evolution is finally higher than the belief in witches, ghosts, UFOs, astrology, creationism and reincarnation. But not angels.

Continue reading “American belief in evolution is growing: poll”

6,193 total views, 35 views today

We have heading up for your net

Spam cartoonI have to admit that I frequently read the spam comments WordPress traps for my moderation, and I often do so with a smile. The clumsy, crazy constructs, the awkward English, butchered punctuation and the twisted word use just make me laugh.

Yes, like everyone else, I detest spam, and I quickly delete the comments into whatever digital wastebin they descend to. But I often chuckle to read them first. They make me wonder: are they deliberately written poorly, are they the sincere efforts of someone struggling to learn English, words strung together in random order by a bot, or are they the result of some Google translation gone awry?

Some have question marks which suggest symbols from other languages that didn’t get through the translation process. or are they just machine constructs dropping in characters at random?

This one is a good example, taken from today’s lot waiting for the delete button:

Of training course exceptional post. We have heading up for your net. Usually publish with your very own encounter and share. Oh! really grateful.

Some read like odd poetry, if you parse them so. Take the above, for example and write it thus:

Of training course exceptional post.
We have heading up for your net.
Usually publish with
your very own encounter
and share.
Oh!
really grateful.

Okay, not great poetry. Reads like computer-generated poetry, though, doesn’t it?

Continue reading “We have heading up for your net”

2,499 total views, no views today

Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism

Anti-intellectualismThere’s a growing – and disturbing – trend in modern culture: anti-intellectual elitism. The dismissal of art, science, culture, philosophy, of rhetoric and debate, of literature and poetry, and their replacement by entertainment, spectacle, self-righteous self ignorance, and deliberate gullibility. These are usually followed by vituperative ridicule and angry caterwauling when anyone challenges the populist ideals or ideologies.

As if having a brain, as if having any aspirations to culture, to art, to learning – or worse, to science – was an evil, malicious thing that must be stomped upon. As if the literati were plotting world domination by quoting Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society Cambridge, August 31, 1837.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new – Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1963 – but it has become highly visible on the internet where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have developed unchallenged into popular anti-science and anti-rationalist countercultures, many followed and accepted by millions.

Hofstadter wrote,

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

He warned in his book that intellectualism was “on the run” in America. It still is.*

Just look at the superstitious Jenny-McCarthyites who fear vaccinations with the same religious fervour medieval peasants feared black cats crossing their paths. Or the muddle-headed practitioners and followers of homeopathy. The chemtrail conspiracists. The anti-wind turbine and the anti-fluoride crowd. Any Scientologist. Or any religious fundamentalist. The list of true believers in the anti-intellectual crowd is huge.

Online technology didn’t create these mythologies, or the gullibility of their followers, but the internet is the great equalizer and the great popularizer. It’s not making us smarter; in fact, it may be dumbing down a lot of folks. That’s because anyone, anywhere, can have his or her say and there’s no way to easily discern the intellectual wheat from the. abundant chaff without doing some hard thinking and analysis.

Technology has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort.

Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories that identify posters as more relevant or more important than others. If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.***

All messages we post have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any post as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. So it becomes easy to derail a discussion by spurious claims and allegations, but innuendo, lies or simply confrontational language.

We’re all equally important on the internet. One person’s belief in magic, superstition or conspiracies gets the same opportunity to be heard and seen as those about science and empirical fact. In the online land of the blind, the one-eyed man has no special significance.

Facebook image

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

When they can’t respond with an intellectual counterargument – as is often the case – the anti-intellectuals respond with the ideology of their peer group (see the religious content of the message in the image taken from Facebook on the left) or ad hominem attacks. Name calling. Belittling and demeaning the opponent.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times, said,

The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian…

But it’s not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response.

Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

Continue reading “Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism”

15,064 total views, 25 views today

Survival of the Fittest

Herbert SpencerCharles Darwin has long been associated with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” For a century and a half people have used it to refer to their understanding of his explanation of how species evolved.

But it wasn’t his. And it has obscured the understanding of Darwin’s own theory.

It came from a contemporary, Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin – an English polymath:  philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist liberal political theorist, utilitarian – and, by some accounts, an early libertarian. His ideas came from people like Malthus and Adam Smith (read more about his philosophy here). Wikipedia tells us:

For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. Spencer desired the elimination of the unfit through their failure to reproduce, rather than coercion or state intervention to initiate their physical annihilation.

He wrote his interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in an 1864 textbook of biology:

“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Spencer was really trying to apply Darwin’s ideas to his own ideas about economics, class struggle, competition and politics. He also believed in Lamarckism – the inheritance of attributes gained in one generation by the next – which has long since been discredited. But whether you agree with Spencer’s views, his reduction of Darwin’s theory to a convenient axiom did the theory an injustice.

In the public mind, Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were confusing and challenging. They became conflated with Spencer’s ideas and somehow the phrase stuck – the Victoria era equivalent of a bumper sticker phrase. It became wildly popular, and was soon applied to social and political phenomena, not simply biological.

It was so popular as a catch phrase that in the 1869  fifth edition of his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin – unfortunately – added this line:

“But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”

The problem is really in how the word “fittest” is defined. Like its sister term, theory, it has both a common and a scientific meaning.*

Survival of the FittestFittest, in Darwin’s sense, doesn’t mean the biggest, best, toughest, strongest or even the most competitive. It’s not the macho concept of superiority. It isn’t about power, control or brute force.

It means the “best suited for the immediate environment.” It has also been described as a “property of the relationship between the organism and the environment.” That might be a different colour, smaller size, less active. Whatever offers the best opportunity to survive and breed. Having offspring is key.

It’s a far more subtle notion than commonly used. As Wikipedia says:

Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes will become more common in the adult population of the next generation.

Continue reading “Survival of the Fittest”

5,374 total views, 15 views today