Category: October 25 (Page 2 of 4)

Unfinished Business of the Darwinian Revolution

I found this semester’s second Revolutions talk about Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution more interesting than the first talk on it. This second talk looked at the Darwinian Revolution and how it has been misinterpreted in modern times to mean several things that Charles Darwin’s original theory did not state. The most telling example of how Darwin’s revolutionary theories on evolution and natural selection are misunderstood is the image of the apes turning into a man as he walks along in a straight line. This image is very misleading to audiences because it depicts evolution as simply ladder-like rather than a complex process of branching out and evolving over tens of thousands of years. This image also reinforces typological thinking of Darwin’s scholarly work; it misrepresents evolution as a process of only one kind, certain species can only evolve into certain animals. This image also depicts evolution as moving towards a goal, as if evolution is a goal-oriented process with a clear end. Evolution does not have a clear end, no scientist or evolutionary biologist knows for certain how the evolutionary process will “end”.

I found this talk about the Darwinian revolution much more engaging than the first one because it gave me a new perspective of Darwin’s work in today’s society. I understood his discoveries as being complex and not completely set in stone, but popular images and other media can misrepresent what Darwin actually studied and discovered. The first talk about Darwin did not give me any new revelations, the speaker, Janet Browne, basically discussed Darwin in a way that I have heard several times before in my biology classes in high school and college. Another misrepresentation of evolutionary science that Judy Stone discusses in her talk is the ascendance of the “gene” in typological thinking in the public mind. Headlines like “Schizophrenia Gene Discovery Sheds Light on Possible Cause” misrepresents the science behind genes. For the most part, individual genes do not affect bodily systems enough to cause diseases like Schizophrenia; genes work in extremely complex tandem with other genes to cause hereditary and other diseases. Environmental factors can also be influential in the onset of disease. One last misrepresentation that Judy Stone discusses is that in the study of fruit flies, any fly without a visible mutation are referred to as “wild type”, there is no such thing as a specific “wild type” in nature. There is no perfectly “wild” fruit fly, no two fruit flies have the same genome, so declaring certain flies as wild types carries no valid connotation.

This talk was very interesting and I will not look at popular representations of evolution and of Charles Darwin the same. His works are so critical to our understanding of how humans came to be, but many people in today’s society may have a partially skewed idea of what evolution really is because of popular media’s misinterpretation of Darwin’s key ideas.

Misinformation

Even since the very first scientific articles and journals were made available to public view, information, ideas, and themes have all been twisted so that the content being portrayed is more relatable and easier to understand.  However, as Dr. Stone notes, much of science is often oversimplified to the point where it is in fact incorrect.  An example of this misinformation is apparent with the community’s perspective on the “classic” portrayal of evolution.  As depicted in the transition from gorilla to monkey, the image suggests that the “original” species, the monkey, has the goal of eventually becoming a human, step by step; however, this is not true in the slightest.  The concept of evolution deals with a species and its ability to best survive and adapt to its current environment.  In contrast with the image, the “original” is not striving to become human, rather, humans happen to be one of the many branches which share a common ancestor.  To further emphasize this point, Dr. Stone noted that humans are not the species.  However, throughout millions of years of mutations, humans came to rise and are best suited for their environment, but not necessarily for all environments.  Suggesting that humans are the most advanced species on earth would be incorrect.  While humans may be best suited to the environment they inhabit may be correct, compare humans with bacteria that live in hot springs or bacteria that flourish in stomach acid.  Humans would be scorched and killed instantly when exposed to the high temperatures in hot springs, while being dissolved in the high acidity of stomach acid.  Evolution is not a ladder, but rather occurs through mutation, by chance.

Other misconceptions Dr. Stone noted were issues in science that seem hypocritical, yet are still used as proper scientific terms.  Anyone who has taken a high school biology class is familiar with the term “wild type” of a species: the allele that is found in nature, however, this widely unchallenged definition suggests that there is only one “allele” or version of the species that exists in the wild.  As stated before, mutation occurs in every offspring.  While a fruit fly might mostly contain red eyes in the “wild”, there is still a relevant amount of insects that contain white eyes or other traits that are not “orthodox”.  This hypocrisy in current biological terminology was possibly derived from Plato’s Theory of Forms.  According to Plato, every object or species has an idealized form.  This conflicts greatly with the research Darwin conducted during his career.  If every species truly did have an idealized form, then all species would be the same.  Having an idealized form suggests that species don’t in fact undergo evolution, but instead, undergo the ladder process depicted and improperly believed to be evolution.  Each species does not strive to be a certain form, instead, it acquires adaptations that best allow it to survive in its given environment.

Variation is the Raw Material for Natural Selection

In this lecture by Judy Stone we learned more about some topics discussed in Janet Browne’s lecture on Rethinking the Darwinian Revolution. This lecture also discussed the the misleading icon of the evolution of humans from monkeys, however, Professor Stone went even further in depth about how this icon was a misleading depiction. She informed us of how it should truly depict evolution as more of a branching diagram then the latter-like one shown in the common diagram that is falsely associated with Darwin’s research. She also states that this diagram shows evolution as something that has an end goal, or a final result, which she reinforced is also not true and inaccurate because species will continue to evolve and through natural selection will continue to adapt and change over generations.

Something Professor Stone also helped to clear up about evolution and Darwin in her lecture was the classification of species and how if species are types, then the variation in those species represents imperfection from the ideal member of that species. This was recognized by Darwin as the central key in all species evolving. This variation is the raw material for natural selection, and without any variation, there would be no evolution because all members of the species would be the same and there would be no members of a species that are better suited for survival. Professor Stone then proceeded to relate this discussion of variation to the typological thinking in our society that also reinforces racial boundaries. This is because the ascendance of the gene in the public mind has lead to many people having a typological way of thinking about species and about humans in general.

This idea of the gene reinforcing typological thinking in our public mind directly relates to Darwin and his research but this typological thinking is just inaccurate. In this public view and way of thinking, the variation in species is considered to be abnormal. As we can see from evolutionary history of species however, this is not the case, and many many variations in species have lead to better ability for that organism to survive and this survivability lead to this concept of natural selection and the overall evolution of that species. This typological thinking is referred to as mutationist thinking, and it has led to many failures in modern medicine, such as thinking things such as different species need different medicines because they have different genomes.

This is extremely interesting to examine in relation to the fact that in different regions of the world, certain diseases run rampant and effect entire populations, while at the same time those same diseases would have little to no effect in other regions of the world. This fact is not of course attributed to differences in their genetics but instead can be attributed to their region and the technologies and medicines available there. However, the public’s thinking that variation is a flaw, abnormal and undesirable leads to the idea that these people have undesired genes and that they are somehow a less powerful or inferior species. In this way, it is clear this way of typological thinking, that has been reinforced by the emergence of the gene, is a dangerous way of thinking and has lead to many failures in our modern era.

The Deception of Evolution

Evolution at this point in our history serves as the dominant conception of the ways that biological life on this planet has arisen in its modern form. From ideas of natural selection, diversity of species, and the inter-relatedness of species  evolution and its many contributors continue to form the way we understand our past and future. Most recognizable, Charles Darwin’s contributions to evolution and our conception of life on earth was unquestionably revolutionary during his time period. However as we continue to move forward as a species the legacy and the roots of evolution and particularly Darwin’s ideas must be re-examined and critically analyzed. Specifically Darwin’s typological thinking, species centered humanism, and visual orientation of species must be examined in relation to its historical effects.

Professor Judy Stone outlined the historical contexts of Darwin’s ideas as being the product of notions on evolution, population genetics , natural selection, and biological classification. That is Darwin was working in a particular context that valued the separation of species and noted their separations in deviation of linear genealogies that seem to be moving toward a next step. This idea however worked in direct contradiction with his working knowledge of the ways that all humans in particular are of the same genealogy. How can humans be the same yet different at the same time? Stone noted this as a root flaw to his legacy in evolution as this topological thinking as a conceptual model implicitly and explicitly delineates racial boundaries, genetic determinisms, and creates racial hierarchies.

Now why does this matter today? Surely there is no way this explicit practice of racial classification persist today, I mean we aren’t a society that condones Eugenics or Racial Darwinism in national studies or surveys. Well no, but also kinda. To start, I believe we still assert this notion of genetic determinism in the ways we go about arguments between populations. That is, this notion that certain segments of society has caused their own predicaments and the segments that have succeeded are clearly superior in intelligence, craftiness, or etc. Now this is not verbatim arguments but this is the sentiment and in part language used by scientist, politicians, and educators today. This is a conception of reality that Darwin helped create.

Judy Stone said herself that variable traits within populations aren’t the cause of some cosmological destination of species or indication of superiority but the result of complex biological mutations that have arisen out of environmental factors over thousands and thousand of years. We cant just accept these artificial racial boundaries as objective science, and although Darwin contributed to our conception of past, present, and future we must continue to challenge. We must continue to question and analyze and thwart the legacies of evolutionary scientist, not because they were inherently bad men or women but because they were the product of a point in history and as such we must take from them the ideas we can build on a eradicate the ideas that continue to separate us.

Typical Thinking versus Evolution Theory

Charles Darwin and his evolution theory made a huge impact on science and society. Before Darwin’s theory, there were many weak evolution theories. Some depicted evolution as ladder-like rather than branching and evolution as moving towards a goal. These descriptions reinforced typological thinking. For example, the conceptual foundation was the great chain of being, which was enormously influential during 1500 to 1700 A.D in Europe.

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Constantly Questioning

Similar to Dr. Janet Browne, Professor Judy Stone also expressed having some issues with Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution. While Darwin’s theories of evolution are still heavily praised within the scientific community and were incredibly innovative for his time, their misrepresentation can be extremely difficult to correct. His book, “On the Origin of Species”, published in 1859, was revolutionary in it’s introduction of his new theory of evolution. However, since then there have been artistic depictions and misrepresented figures that have muddled the concepts surrounding evolution. Currently, the general public can agree that evolution is real and likely how species evolved. However, Judy Stone questions if they truly understand the complexity of the science behind it.

Not completely comprehending the science behind evolution can lead to other issues with what evolution implies. Judy Stone was able to successfully demonstrate how misunderstandings about evolution have lead some people to believe that there are genetic differences within “races”. Professor Stone was extremely adamant about the fact that there are no genetic races, but rather human culture has created the concepts of race based solely from physical appearances of individuals.

One quote from her lecture, “If species are types, then variation is imperfection”, really resonated with me. When applying this concept to the human species, this carries many social implications about individuality and human identities. Judy Stone completely disproved this quote in her lecture. She shows importantly that variation within species (both phenotypically and genotypically) is important.

I particularly liked her analysis about the current typo-logical thinking. Due to the demands to reach a larger audience, science can often be translated in a way that will make sense to all readers. However, the issue in doing this is that a lot of the scientific accuracy and precision is lost. Professor Stone analyzes this within the context. As a scientist herself, her frustration with the misrepresentation of data is completely justifiable. Science, when misrepresented, has the potential to completely skew people’s thinking.

Professor Stone’s ability to call into question the scientific “facts” that have been released to the general public is truly revolutionary. She reminds us to question science and not immediately take everything as fact. Science, like any other field of study, requires criticism and constant development.

The Darwinian Revolution – Still Unfinished?

Professor Judy Stone, a Biology professor at Colby College discussed “The Unfinished Business of the Darwinian Revolution”. She highlighted “the evolution” of thought, well before Darwin entered the scene. Notably, it was intriguing as to how much the idea of evolution has changed, and even when Darwin postulated his theory, it was misinterpreted and took many years before its acceptance in the sciences. However, as Stone briefly discussed, this revolution to understanding Darwin is unfinished; but what do we do with this information and what does it imply?

 

As Stone noted, much of our understanding today is misrepresentative of Darwin’s true reasonings. Individuals are plagued with the stereotypical ape to human image, which misrepresents evolution as a moving, ladder-like process with an end goal. These even extend to Intro. to Biology courses across some colleges and high schools, further digging in this skewed image. What does this mean though? Such a misunderstanding is important; it shows that it is acceptable to misinterpret conclusions, and allow a false story to develop. This is problematic, and quite common, in all domains in life. Often the media portrays, and draws false conclusions, from all forms of people: Politicians, celebrities, newscasters. Moreover, academics may unintentionally misinterpret past, or new, research, and much like the story of evolution, create a new one that is far from indicative of the truth. This is especially rampant today, given the mass exchange of information across many domains.

 

However, what do we do with this seemingly common problem? Call a revolution to truly grasp the point being made before synthesizing or altering it? Perhaps not, but it does offer a space for individuals, like Stone, who seek to correct the falsely told narrative. Within this process, we might actually gain more; such misrepresentations motivate passionate people to re-examine the original source in depth, and strive to correct whatever misconstrued story has been told. Albeit the truth may never overpower the strong misinterpretations, like the iconic ape to human image, it will continue to foster discussion and push people to learn more about whatever process they deem misled.

Is Science Racist?

No – Science is not racist. The systematic study of the natural world around us through observation and experimentation is not on its face “racist”. When professor Stone gave her talk last week, however, she wasn’t just blowing off smoke about a problem that doesn’t exist. Sometimes, the way scientists classify variations within a given species by their typological differences has the potential to promote a stereotypical ideology that can be harmful to the way we as a species see and define the world.

For example, when I was a kid growing up learning about heredity and genes my science teacher, an elderly woman who by no fault of her own as she was jus working with the tools she was given, had us read a textbook circa 1980 that felt the need to provide profiles to differentiate genetic variation. That’s why I nearly laughed during the lecture when the slide came up showing the different boxes of “types” of humans – I had seen that before! There was a  latino person blocked off from a red-headed person as if they were completely different species. That alone might be an unfortunate coincidence, but the textbook went further than that. On the next page, there was a chart that showed dominant genes vs recessive genes and increased melanin was one of the dominant genes – so you can see the possible racial intonation to that kind of ‘educating’. It might have been a product of budget cutting or something not the fault of the educators, but it was science that enforced a kind of racism that science should, by definition as an intellectual and practical discipline, be divorced from. Stone’s lecture was a timely reminder that our preconceptions can leak out into any field.

One devil’s advocate argument that could be made against this kind of reasoning is the idea that typological science is a useful way to separate certain variations within plants. How else would we classify certain shrubberies from one another? Is there some kind of gray area to all of this? Can typological science be useful in some instances? I think it can be but we need to be careful when and how it is used because the way we learn about genetic variation as children does determine the way we think of different races and ethnicities.

Dar”Win”ian Revolution

Darwinian Evolution is wrongly depicted, according to Professor Stone, through the iconic image of man’s ladder-like evolution from ape. The theory of evolution, specifically Darwinian Evolution, should instead be viewed as a branching process. If we think of evolution as a tree, then the theory becomes entirely based on contingency. For instance, the root of the tree, we may suppose to be the common ancestor of all life. The fact that today, humans exist, is not accounted for by a predestined path that the earliest life form followed, for throughout evolutionary history there has been potential for species to branch off in different directions. Thus, natural selection, which Darwinian Evolution grounds itself in, is a product of circumstance. For example, natural selection would state that giraffes with long necks survived because all those with short necks died out for being unable to reach the leaves on tall trees. However the fact that the leaves giraffes eat grow on trees that are very tall, or even that giraffes eat leaves at all is contingent. In other words, the desirable trait of long necks rested on the circumstances that giraffes ate leaves and that those leaves grew high up in tall trees. It could have been just as likely that giraffes ate plants that grew on the ground, and then short necks would be a desirable trait.

 

The point of the scenario I presented is that throughout species there is variation. The traits individuals possess are not inherently good or worse, but more or less agreeable with the environment that they find themselves in. This, as Stone talked about, is what distinguishes evolutionists from mutationists. Mutationists are concerned with the fact that mutations are the source of variation within species, and that natural selection hinges on how well the mutations fare. Whereas evolutionists, in comparison, recognize mutation (inter-species variation) as not so fundamentally different from variation across species. An entire species, that is to say, is made of individuals that are exceptionally different from one another, but linked together by biological classification.

 

The prior point is where I thought Professor Stone really drove home her argument. If we can think of mutation on the level we think of variation across species, then typological thinking may be overcome. Stereotyping, racial profiling and other types of prejudices would then become obsolete. As is every individual, living creature, humans too are all different. Though we have certain qualities that we classify under homo sapien, each person is his or her own unique individual. Like snow flakes, we all share certain properties, or are made from the same stuff/material, but our structure is unique.

Consequences of Coastal Living

Professor Kerry Emanuel of MIT was an interesting view from a very committed climate scientist. I found his work very interesting and look forward to what he continues to publish about climate change and hurricanes. The most interesting parts of his talk for me were about the coastal living. As someone that has a family house on Cape Cod, I have always been on the look out for sea level rise predictions for the area, as it is in such a vulnerable location on the coast. Not only is it exposed, it is also entirely on a pile of sand instead of bedrock.

Professor Emanuel spoke to the coastal destruction that was executed in areas such as Florida and Louisiana. It was interesting to hear why these places are continuously destroyed and rebuilt. I have never understood d why people would remain in a place that they had had their house destroyed. This is because coast are a place where culture seems to grow and thrive. Little thought is put into building somewhere it is safer inland. Along the coast of Florida and Louisiana, houses are constantly being destroyed and rebuilt in the wake of devastating Hurricanes. People still decide to take the chance of building in those locations, which seems extremely risky to me as someone who lives in New Hampshire (not at risk of getting a hurricane anytime soon).

I guess that even though hurricanes can destroy and devastate entire coastal developments, sea level rise is even more of a risk that we will be forced to face in the coming years. There is no rebuilding after sea levels rise, you can only move further inland to prevent further flooding and destruction of your home. There are also unforeseen consequences with sea level rise that are not just the flooding of settlements. One of these consequences is the contamination of the water supply. Even houses that are inland can be effected by this because their water supply may be effected from water table changes. Houses on the Cape that currently have clean drinking water from wells and underground water sources may struggle with contamination from salt water. Contamination from salt water will then render the water sources unusable by contamination from salt water.

These are some of the scary realities that Professor Kerry Emanuel of MIT made my think about. I think that being a climate scientist sounds extremely  interesting and useful in the coming years as we see our planet greatly effected by climate change. This is something that we will have to address in the coming years as the coast lines will be drastically changing. People will have to move, entire families will loose their homes. Many people will not be able to sell their houses for profit because no one will want to buy them. Climate change has many, many unforeseen consequences we will have to adress as a country in  order to make sure it does not continue at the rate it is currently going at.

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