Category: October 25 (page 1 of 4)

Changing the Outlook on Life: The Darwinian Revolution

The theory of evolution is one of those rare ideas that changes completely the way that the world worked when it came into being.  It not only resonated in the field of biology, but changed philosophy, and politics as well.  It was the biggest single revolution in thought that has happened in the modern era.    And it all came from a one guy named Darwin…or so we thought.

Because one of Prof. Browne’s main points is that the Darwinian Revolution was much more than “The Origin of Species”.  That that books was simply the manifestation of many ideas that all pointed to essitianlly the same thing.  The way this manifestation was and is treated today points to how a true revolutionary idea works.

Because the Darwinian Revolution did not just change the way that Biology operated.  It did do this, but it also resonated beyond science to have real human consequences for the way human society operated.  No longer was the church the authority on where we as a species came from, science could all of a sudden do that.  Science had appeal power and if it could dare to question something like where we came from it could question just about anything.  That was the Darwinian Revolution, a revolution that synthesized version of the same world changing idea into a single form, spread it to the world, and watched it’s repercussions fundamentally change the way that science and society interacted.

How Typological Thinking Affects Us Presently

The talk called The Unfinished Business of the Darwinian Revolution by Professor Judy Stone was very different from the previous Darwinian talk. While Janet Browne from Harvard University spoke about how revolutionary should Darwin be considered, Professor Stone focused more on the evolution theory itself. Stone, I believe attempts to ground us with what Darwin’s evolution theory was really about and where we should be today. More specifically, Stone’s talk engrains in us Darwin’s branching tree diagram and how this was misinterpreted and wrongly encouraged typological thinking when we should have a more realistic, non binary view of evolution. Continue reading

Progression or Regression?

More and more during the political cycle, erroneous typological statements were made by both candidates. Donald Trump has many examples of this line of thinking, which he has been highly criticized for. His questionable categorization of Mexicans as rapists and criminals, ideas around Muslims entering the country, and ideas surrounding trade with other countries in the respect to equality of trade agreements all could be categorized as typological. Possibly of the greatest concern, was the assessment that a judge, an American with Mexican heritage, would be unable to competently do his job in regards to Trump legal matters because of his background. When the assumption that someone is incapable, or capable of something because of their blood or ethnicity, it fringes upon creating structural ideas about what everyone is capable of without actually knowing any of their capabilities are, which is close to what Hitler did in Germany. Not only is this dangerous, but from an economic point of view, totally inefficient.

It would not be fair just to criticize one candidate. Hillary Clinton herself made one of the most egregious insults to the American people when she called a basket of Donald Trump supporters deplorable, which I personally think might have cost her the election, though that may be me and the media underestimating the draw of the Trump campaign. The idea that because someone is uneducated that there is something wrong with them, or that they can not think for themselves is something that is constantly perpetuated by the liberal media, politicians, and supporters. More and more the Democratic party has become the party of the educated elite, and not the party of those who would stand for and benefit from social programs and progressive change. The idea that if you have certain beliefs that you are racist or apathetic or stupid is something that we have to confront as a political party and as a nation if we are to make genuine progress.

I agree with our Professor Judy Stone in that too often ideas around science and evolution become the basis from which stupid and erroneous judgements can be drawn. In thinking about how this happens, it seems that too often science fits in with political agendas, rather than the findings of experiments being used for what they are actually meant for. It is difficult for me and for others however to separate ideas of genetics from how we can be improved, and whether or not there is an ideal type. I recognize that everyone has a unique genetic makeup, but that given the chance to change something about myself, to alter a personal insecurity, I probably would. This plays into the idea that there is a singular idea of what is supposed to be attractive, that there is a genetic makeup that is superior to others, which is exactly the idea that supporters of eugenics would argue. There is something both inherently wrong and very dangerous about that idea, however it is an idea that has been allowed to persist for far too long.

I Ain’t Got No Type

While we may see difference and variation in the world around us, it is important to differentiate between classifications. For example, when we see two people of different heights, it is easy to think that they have different “types” of genes, which contribute to their height. While their genetic makeup is different, there is no gene that serves as a default for height, instead everyone’s genes are varied. The variance that we see all around around us is continuous, and not a deviation from a certain “type.” It is about this very subject, as well as the dangers of typological thinking , that Professor Judy stone spoke to a great length about in her lecture on the Unfinished Business of Darwin’s Revolution. Like rap group Rae Sremmurd, professor Stone made it clear that genes “ain’t got no type.”

Stone started the lecture by taking a look at the works of great philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, which influenced many of Darwin’s ideas. In Plato’s Theory of Forms, the philosopher  leads with the idea that every object or quality has an it’s own unique essence, or “type”.  Also looking at Aristotle’s Biological Classification, which states that species are categories or types within broader categories such as genera,a ush for typological thinking can be seen. Following the logic of Aristotle and Plato leads to seeing any variation within a species as deviance. However, even though he studied the work of these philosophers, Darwin was able to recognize the variation within a species as normal, and central to the idea of natural selection.

Darwin was able to take the previous model of evolution, a ladder, and reconstruct is to look like a branching tree. Reinforcing the idea that there are no set steps to evolution, but that everything is varied and complicated.

These two conflicting views of evolution, and the results of them, can be seen in modern day science. Within the field of evolutionary biology and genetics, there have been two main types of scientists: biometricians and mutationists. Biometricians believe in the theory natural selection and the importance of small changes and variance within a species.  Conversely, mutationists  believe in the transmission of large differences within a species, which follow a certain type, by studying the inheritance of discrete traits.

As can be seen, typological thinking is main point of view in certain areas of science. The ascendance of the gene has only exacerbated this more, leading to the irreversible and criminal impacts in evolutionary science. The view of genes as types, that  are different between different groups of people, made it possible for physicians to start basing their medical treatments on the race of their patients. Typological thinking can also lead to the belief of a racial basis of intelligence, because if every race has a different “type” of gene, then naturally some must be stronger/weaker than others.

Overall,  I believe that is is clear to see that typological thinking is overall negative. Anything that advocates for the separation of races be “gene” is not good to me. I agree with professor Stone wholeheartedly.

Do we see the Evolution of Discrimination?

In recent years, I have noticed several repeated phrases, and one of these is criticizing a linear model for many ways of thinking. I heard this once again in Professor Stone’s lecture on ‘The unfinished business of the Darwinian revolution.’ I do not mean to sound like the asking of people to reconsider linear models is overstated and overused, but in fact, the opposite. Prior to each of these times I had not considered there could be a better and more accurate way of portraying a theory or an event, as I had simply accepted that that was the way it has always been portrayed, and Professor Stone’s argument was no exception. She forced us to analyze the universal image that represents evolution: the linear model of a crawling primate transforming to a walking man. What does this show? First, the acceptance of the theory of evolution and natural selection through the different changes from natural selection that evolved apes into humans. However, it also displays humans as the dominant species through the rising levels of each new transformation and through the idea that humans are the last form. It’s easier to critique the big theories and ways of thinking, and easier to neglect analyzing the smaller details and models that perpetuate an unfair and inaccurate portrayal. Not surprisingly, this ideology that man is best, or typology, is often perpetuated in society, as we have seen again and again in history.

The idea of characterizing a being based on physical traits reminded me of the many ‘theories’ that were socially accepted in the past that we now know was not based on any truths. There was the manuscript, ‘The Scale of Creatures’ by Sir William Petty that stated all living beings were created by God and were part of a hierarchical pyramid, with Caucasians at the top. This might sound ridiculous now, but we to some extent, this ideology is still very much present in modern society. Then there was the study of phrenology, in which it was believed the measurements of a human skull could denote that person’s intelligence and other characteristics. There was also physiognomy, the assessment of a person’s characteristics based on his outer appearances as a way of determining whether a person looked like a criminal or not. Once again, ridiculousness. Even though we now know that none of these theories are scientifically accurate and that the biological difference between people of different ‘races’ is smaller than the biological difference between people of the same race, societies are still judging people based on appearances. The ways in which we do this may be more subtle than in Petty’s day, but I would argue that this could be more dangerous, as the people who recognize discrimination as deplorable may not even be able to see the nuanced representations of inequality.

The Dark Side of Darwinism

Revolutions are often considered progressive, as the birth of new thought and ideas moves society forward and compels citizens to be more open minded. However, some revolutions can be twisted to aid regression, and science can be used to support pseudoscientific, backwards thinking. This was one unfortunate result of the Darwinian Revolution. While Darwin’s research undoubtedly brought essential scientific knowledge to light, it also gave rise to Social Darwinism and ushered in a flawed method of scientific thought. Therefore, this revolution simultaneously propelled society forward and backward.

The Darwinian Revolution encouraged “typological thinking” in which evolution is thought of as a logical progression, moving in one direction, instead of the complex set of interrelationships that it is. This is problematic because it reduces the complexity of evolution, rendering one of the fundamental tenets of science overly simplistic. Scientific findings that build off of evolution, then, are also simplified. For example, evolution suggests that after humans evolved, they no longer mated with their chimpanzee ancestors and continued to evolve as an isolated species into modern humans. However, more recent findings suggest that early humans continued to mate with early chimpanzees for so long that a species of remarkably human-like chimpanzees actually evolved. These findings are so recent because evolution has not always been viewed as a complex, branching ancestry but a simple ladder-like progression. Other developments have also possibly been delayed due to this way of thinking.

A much more unfavorable result of Darwinism was Social Darwinism, where the concept of natural selection was applied to the human population to justify racism. While this has now been identified as pseudoscientific and been discredited, it caused immense pain as it was used to justify injustices such as eugenics and the outlawing of interracial marriage. This was only due to the unethical and incorrect appropriation of science, but shows an important aspect of revolutions. This new knowledge most directly resulted in scientific progress, but was also used to perpetuate social inequality and give it a scientific basis. This is especially dangerous because it makes these racist assumptions more credible to the public; scientific knowledge can, surprisingly, be antithetical to social progress in some cases.

However, it must not be assumed that these results of evolution were all-encompassing; not everyone even accepted the theory. This is another negative impact of the revolution because it seemed to place people in two camps, based on whether they would accept the concept and use it to their advantage or deny it altogether. Many religious groups initially decided evolution contradicted their beliefs. This even divided people who belonged to the same religion, though, because Social Darwinism was used to justify imperialism. Imperialism was also in line with religious beliefs because missionaries could christianize colonized areas. Therefore, the pseudoscientific application of the novel theory could be advantageous to some religious groups while the theory itself contradicted their beliefs. This most likely created internal strife and confusion.

While it led to future progress, it seems that Darwinism was not entirely beneficial throughout history. It inadvertently encouraged a limited way of thinking about science and a backwards view of the social realm. Religious confusion arose regarding whether acceptance of the theory would be beneficial to the spread of western religions or chafe too strongly with Christian beliefs. This side of Darwinism shows how not all revolutions transfer into uninhibited social progress.

Darwin Today

The widespread interpretation of Darwin’s work is largely driven by the classic picture of evolution from ape to human—a series of linear steps moving towards a goal. But this, the ladder-like progression to perfection, is the pre-Darwinian view of evolution. From Darwin, we actually derive the pattern of a branching tree and the process of evolution by natural selection. So, thank you to Judy Stone for helping us finish up the unfinished business of the Darwinian Revolution.

A lot of what Darwin said is not commonly known and I still don’t know. But maybe if his work was better known then it would have more positive implications for society. There was, and still is, the notion of an idealized “type.” We think of what an apple, a pine tree, a squirrel, a human “should” look like. Darwin recognized the centrality and importance of variation within species, and how many things that may appear different are just part of that diversity and very important, not a defect. However, that did not stop the typological thinking. In fact, this mentality continues to be reinforced in the public mind, recently with the increased prominence of “the gene.” As is often and understandably the case, scientific advances must be watered down and distilled to a level that the public can comprehend. Not only does the science need to be simplified, but it also needs to be attention grabbing. The gene fit the bill but it also helps to put people in boxes. Professor Stone noted how there was one a report of what was referred to as a “schizophrenia gene.” This was a completely uninformed representation by the media that mischaracterized scientific findings just to gain readership. This example of how science can be trivialized to a harmful level is not unique, and the role of special interests in science on tobacco and climate change, for example, are similarly disturbing in other ways. Professor Stone was quick to point out that there is certainly no specific single gene mutation that would designate a person as schizophrenic. Reinforced typological thinking and the misunderstanding of human genetic variation have both contributed to widespread societal issues. Optimistically, Judy Stone hope and suggests that a genomics revolution could help us overcome typological thinking and its negative impacts. We certainly hope that if there was more outreach done by evolutionary scientists then racist ideas could finally be broken.

Switching gears a little bit, there were a few things mentioned during the lecture that I vaguely remember from documentaries before but they still managed to blow my mind (probably for the second time). Humans are a very young species, thought to be roughly 150,000 years old, thus we are not all that diverse of a species. We trace out origins back to fourteen different geographically separated populations. It is fascinating to think that there were other hominids roaming the earth not all that long ago and it’s certainly a science that I would like to read up more on in the future.

 

Dangers of Darwin

Evolution, a staple topic in Biology, is widely regarded as one of the most crucial pieces of understanding human, plant, and animal physiology, and their relationships with the Earth. Professor Judy Stone explored in her talk the misconceptions brought by explanation of evolution, particularly with the common and iconic image of evolution, portrayed in in general media and society – an ape quickly transitioning into a “modern” human, with only a few steps of transition separating the two stages. One major contention with this model, is the particular labeling of “modern” human. Humans are constantly transforming, growing, never reaching an endpoint defining current humanity, despite a silhouetted picture of a muscular-seeming man. The issues of equating evolution to steps on a staircase, lie in the lack of transitional description that defines evolutions. In between each hypothetical step is a hundred of other steps, with thousands of steps in between those steps, and so on. Evolution is dependent on gradual development, as there is no beginning, middle or end – it is an idea, not a list of actions.  Additionally, Darwin’s evolution was built on the basis of branching, not direct growth. The silhouetted model depicts a single line of growth, while in reality, it has much greater resemblance to a patch of trees, where each species is a branch on one of several trees, having stemmed from a similar, or entirely different base species. Evolution is a never-ending, ever present process. Thanks to Darwin’s phenomenal work, this is all made clear, even when muddled by societal interpretations of evolution.

Does this really matter though? Why are we still talking about Darwin and evolution? This issue of typological thinking promotes the abnormality of abnormality, that variation is an issue. Unfortunately, this is so often reinforced negatively today, with scenarios such as President elect Donald Trump. With a campaign built entirely on hate and the opposition to difference, this typological perspective is perpetuated into the American people. Citizens of different race (assuming straight, white, male as normative) are admonished, distrusted, and even disregarded as “proper” Americans, creating significant divide in the American people. This is of course very dangerous, as it introduces the idea that genetic variation is responsible for creating a social hierarchy dependent on factors such as skin color, despite this having no factual basis. This ability to manipulate information, while not at all stemming from Darwin, can be falsely associated with the misinterpretation of Darwin’s evolution model, creating for unhealthy human perspectives.

Continuing the Darwinian Revolution

This Tuesday for our STS class, we welcomed Professor Judy Stone for a talk titled “The Unfinished Business of the Darwinian Revolution”.

 

Following suit of Professor Janet Browne’s talk on Darwin’s theories, Professor Stone broadened the topic by discussing the biological implications of the Theory of Evolution. Specifically, Stone stresses that it is common for people to interpret that “progress” is the hidden message in the evolution theories: there is one ideal type that a species strives to achieve, and the rest are unideal individuals. However, this is far from the truth.

 

The first argument from Professor Stone is that variation is as important as adaptation. When environmental changes come, the exterior factors would select individuals with certain genes and traits to survive and reproduce. However, environmental changes could be multi-dimensional and even back and forth, eliminating the possibility that there is an ideal type that the species would end up with. In fact, since environmental changes are very unpredictable, it is important to maintain a high level of variety to improve a species’ ability to adapt, since mutations and varieties typically take a long time to establish and it would be impossible to generate diversity immediately at the time of change.

 

Secondly, Professor Stone argues that we need to recognize the diversity within our own species and race is merely a socially constructed illusion. Instead of categorizing people with simplistic terms like “black” and “white”, Professor Stone shows us a collage that shows the vast diversity of people inhabiting Africa: they share very different skin tones and features, and the term “black” is simply not applicable. Furthermore, usually no one single gene is responsible for one single trait. A trait is usually regulated by many genes that are shared by people who do not even express this certain trait, and at the time of environmental change the more diversity we have the more coping mechanism we possess.

 

Lastly, humans are a rather homogeneous species. Stone points out that there are no subspecies for homo sapiens, which is unusual for a species. The human race is only 150,000 years old, and therefore, as a newly formed species, humans are very homogenous. There is no genetic base for subgroup divisions, as we are in fact very similar to each other. Professor Stone concludes that it is very important for us to recognize the diversity and homogeneity of our species, and cherish our diversity as it is our natural line of defense against environmental changes while treating each other equally with dignity and respect, as we are after all too genetically similar to justify any discrimination.

 

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Popular science is science that’s not for scientists. However, when we examine the exact boundaries between popular science and real science, they break. What counts as genuine scientific knowledge? What is popularized science?

The traditional model of popularization splits the production of scientific knowledge in two steps: the scientists develop real knowledge, and the popularizers spread it to the public. The popularization aims to be an “appropriate simplification” of the genuine. This way, one scientific theory has two superimposed interpretations: the actual scientifically rigorous one, and the “vulgarized” popular one. In translating actual knowledge into non-scientific terms, some scientists fear that there is a distortion and oversimplification that lose sight of the essence of the subject.

Popular science may be taken as less valid because it is easier to understand than real science, and loses value because it may be “dumbed down” for the general public. However, this claim assumes that the essence of scientific knowledge can be contained in the words and figures of genuine sources like journals and science for scientists. This gives scientists the power and authority to determine which popularizations are more valid than others. This follows what Eric S. Raymond calls the cathedral: knowledge is released, but the legitimate science and its popular representation is restricted to an elite group of scientists who choose which ones are appropriate. (Even our lecturer told us a trick that she uses to get rid of books she doesn’t like from the library.)

Scientific popularization definitely needs quality control and supervision—only the ones who produce the knowledge actually know what is appropriate or not. However, popularization should not be discarded so quickly: there is value in simplification and abstraction. Abstracting the signal from the noise in order to explain something in layman’s terms forces scientists to rephrase certain principles and maybe even realize they’ve made a mistake. Maybe sometimes they just find a better way to phrase a principle.

In this light, the questions stated at the beginning change to the following: should science be left to the scientists alone? How can the general public participate in science without necessarily being a scientist? This is more attuned to the cathedral’s counterpart—the bazaar. In the bazaar model, science is developed over the community, in view of the public. The bazaar lets the public cooperate in the development of science. The participation of the public in scientific affairs does not have to be in the laboratory, just understanding the scientific principles is enough. This way, the public can make more informed and rational decisions, can support science and understand its benefits, and can act in a rational manner.

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