Steve Bougerolle steveb at
Mon Jun 17 16:42:17 PDT 2002

On Tue, 2002-06-18 at 01:23, Don Smith wrote:

> You did insult me once, and with an incorrect assertion:
> "Simple natural selection has been out of favour for over a
> hundred years.  Update yourself, Don..."

Well, I apologize if that seemed insulting.  Nevertheless, I believe it
is true that >simple< natural selection has for over a century been
considered inadequate to explain how life as we see it could have
evolved.  Do you consider genetic drift and such things to come under
the heading of "*simple* natural selection"?  Sexual selection,
refinement or not, is also something I consider not to be "simple
natural selection".  Yet what you presented to me was the most basic
natural selection argument that random changes would give some life
forms a survival advantage and those would accumulate and so on...

> These two examples a completely different. The decay rates of Uranium
> nuclei are well known. Don't use specious arguments. A single-celled
> organism is way more complex than a uranium nuclei, not to mention an
> ostrich. Even today, biologists do not fully understand how a bacterium
> works.

Atomic nuclei (and atoms in general) are very complex things!  In fact,
by current knowledge a complete description of their behaviour is
theoretically impossible, since practically all of them are systems of
more than two bound objects.  That makes them way more difficult to
thoroughly understand than cells, which at least have clear structures
and obvious order.

Of course, we DO study atomic nuclei anyway, with great success, by
making all sorts of useful and valid simplifications.  I don't see why
we can't do the same thing in biology to cut down the scale of the
computing problem.

> The problem is (insert some very large number here) times more complex
> in biology than in physics. There are no computers that powerful, and as
> I said before, biologists know that they don't know all the factors that
> would go into such a model. There are many simple models out there. No
> one claims that they model the big picture.

Most interesting problems in science are too complex for complete
numeric modelling, but we simplify them until we can produce a number. 
On the one hand, I am satisfied to hear the answer that there are
unknown factors.  On the other hand, I still tend to think we could do
this sort of thing much better now than even five years ago, so it would
be nice to see somebody try a more global analysis.

> Sure they can come up with some half-baked numbers, but what's the point
> since they will be predicting the observations used to generate them?

That doesn't stop physicists :-)

Now seriously, one point is that it's an internal reasoning check.  Of
course, it would prove nothing and you'd need some external input before
people would accept the theory as completely proven.  However, it would
give a more precise idea how plausible it all is, and would show more
clearly which areas are the weak points.

Another way to see it is that it would provide a reasonable short answer
to hand out when people argue these points.  Limiting the argument to
qualitative analysis is too convenient; it allows people (both
biologists and their antagonists) to think up any sort of outlandish
proposition and pass it off.  This makes biologists easy prey for all
those creationists they like to grumble about.

> The observations necessary to come up with hard numbers would take a
> very long time (how about at least a couple of hundred thousand years).


> You would also need to collect more data than there currently is room
> for on this planet. 

Please back that up.

> Even then they would only refer to the observed
> period. No one knows what the conditions were long ago. How do you tell
> which plant species a herbivore ate a million years ago when you only
> have some fossilized bones? You can tell that it ate plants because of
> the teeth. But which plants, you can only guess. You can't measure that
> particular selection pressure on the plant species in question because
> you just can't know. 

So you start with conditions nowadays and vary your parameters to match
the degree of change you would expect between now and, say, the
Jurassic.  Vary them even farther to account for uncertainty.  This is
all standard stuff.

> What biologist has been disrespectful? They've answered over and over,
> but still get the same arguments again and again. 

You, for example.  Your answers to me were and are way too simple and
don't answer the questions I'm asking.  You make blanket statements (see
the above about too much data for the planet) without even the slightest
hint of reasoning or evidence to back them up.  However, I don't really
mean to attack you in detail.  That's JUST an example, and that sort of
arguing style is pretty typical of disputes I've seen around
universities, read on Internet and nay, even overheard on public
transport and in dormitories.  It's only one step better than "the
answers are too technical for you to understand".

We get an endless stream of those sort of queries in Physics, too, by
which I mean things that seem obvious to Physicists but not to other
people.  At the nutty end we have Velikovsky and perpetual motion
machines. In the middle somewhere are the cold fusion theorists.  At the
more reasonable end there's no shortage of worries about power-line
radiation and the dangers of UV radiation (factor 87 sun screen,
anyone?).  However much it is tempting to blow these people off, and
even though we do give in to bursts of impatience and do it sometimes,
it is still the WRONG thing to do.  (Hard though it may be for
physicists to accept, answering perpetual motion theorists with "it
violates conservation of energy" is almost equally unsatisfactory, since
lots of other visible processes SEEM not to conserve energy.)  The right
way to handle these requests is to listen for a while, find out the
salient points people are making, and answer them as directly and
honestly as possible.

If biologists learned that from us, they'd spend less time getting
embroiled in these simplistic political battles and would have more time
to devote to advanced political battles, like getting bigger collider
rings built :-).  Besides, some of the more reasonable objections from
outside might turn out to be valid.  There was a time, after all, where
people had to object from outside that "It doesn't seem likely all these
planets revolve around the earth because their orbits are too complex". 

> The problem is that
> now the arguments are getting serious. Some are starting to require
> non-science to be taught in school as science (think Kansas). This gets
> serious scientist mad and emotions run high. Religious beliefs belong in
> religion class, not in science class.

The U.S. does seem to have its problems with religious nuts, for sure.
Still, I think the American science community makes this debate worse
for itself than need be, by foaming at the mouth and invoking emotional
memories of "Inherit the Wind" instead of being more politically savvy
and raising a bit of effort to avoid making enemies.  

If you're telling me this as an explanation of why scientists get grumpy
when people query them about evolution, I can see your point but our
recent debate only gives me cause to reinforce my answer; there are a
whole lot better ways to handle this than to simply discount anyone who
questions details of evolution.  Ironically, this is the same sort of
behaviour that used to be evident in the religious organizations people
associate with creationism, and that sort of behaviour is why so many
people were willing to listen to scientific explanations.  It really
does seem true in some ways that science has become the new religion.

Steve Bougerolle, B.Sc, M.Sc, Ph.D

Unsubscribe: send email to listar at
and put 'unsubscribe lfs-chat' in the subject header of the message

More information about the lfs-chat mailing list