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Posts Tagged ‘evolution

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”*…


We’ve looked before at the methodological problems that beset (too) much science, and at the work of John Ioannidis, who’s done more than anyone else to uncover them (see here and here).  Ioannidis is back…  and the news is troubling:

Over the past decade, scientists have increasingly become ashamed at the failings of their own profession: due to a lack of self-policing and quality control, a large proportion of studies have not been replicable, scientific frauds have flourished for years without being caught, and the pressure to publish novel findings—instead of simply good science—has become the commanding mantra. In what might be one of the worst such failings, a new study suggests that even systematic reviews and meta-analyses—typically considered the highest form of scientific evidence—are now in doubt.

The study comes from a single author: John Ioannidis, a highly respected researcher at Stanford University, who has built his reputation showing other scientists what they get wrong. In his latest work, Ioannidis contends that “the large majority of produced systematic reviews and meta-analyses are unnecessary, misleading, or conflicted.”

 Systematic reviews and meta-analyses are statistically rigorous studies that synthesize the scientific literature on a given topic. If you aren’t a scientist or a policymaker, you may have never heard of them. But you have almost certainly been affected by them.

If you’ve ever taken a medicine for any ailment, you’ve likely been given the prescription based on systematic reviews of evidence for that medication. If you’ve ever been advised to use a standing desk to improve your health, it’s because experts used meta-analyses of past studies to make that recommendation. And government policies increasingly rely on conclusions stemming from evidence found in such reviews. “We put a lot of weight and trust on them to understand what we know and how to make decisions,” Ioannidis says…

More at “The man who made scientists question themselves has just exposed huge flaws in evidence used to give drug prescriptions.” See also “The Inevitable Evolution of Bad Science” and “Trouble at the Lab.”

And lest we think “hard scientists” alone in their misery, consider the plight of economists: “The Emperor’s New Paunch.”

*Daniel J. Boorstin


As we check, check, and check again, we might send disingenuous birthday greetings to Trofim Denisovich Lysenko; he was born on this date in 1898.  A Soviet biologist and agronomist, he believed the Mendelian theory of heredity to be wrong, and developed his own, allowing for “soft inheritance”– the heretability of learned behavior. (He believed that in one generation of a hybridized crop, the desired individual could be selected and mated again and continue to produce the same desired product, without worrying about separation/segregation in future breeds.–he assumed that after a lifetime of developing (acquiring) the best set of traits to survive, those must be passed down to the next generation.)

In many way Lysenko’s theories recall Lamarck’s “organic evolution” and its concept of “soft evolution” (the passage of learned traits), though Lysenko denied any connection. He followed I. V. Michurin’s fanciful idea that plants could be forced to adapt to any environmental conditions, for example converting summer wheat to winter wheat by storing the seeds in ice.  With Stalin’s support for two decades, he actively obstructed the course of Soviet biology and caused the imprisonment and death of many of the country’s eminent biologists who disagreed with him.

Interestingly, some current research suggests that heretable learning– or a semblance of it– may in fact be happening, by virtue of epigenetics… though nothing vaguely resembling Lysenko’s theory.



Written by LW

September 29, 2016 at 1:01 am

“We’re supposed to keep evolving. Evolution did not end with us growing opposable thumbs”*…


The CEO of Enron – now in prison – happily applied ‘selfish gene’ logic to his human capital, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assuming that the human species is driven purely by greed and fear, Jeffrey Skilling produced employees driven by the same motives. Enron imploded under the mean-spirited weight of his policies, offering a preview of what was in store for the world economy as a whole…

Frans de Waal on the flaws in the “competition-is-good-for-you” logic: “How Bad Biology is Killing the Economy.”

* Bill Hicks


As we concentrate on cooperation, we might spare a thought for Martin Gardner; he died on this date in 2010.  Though not an academic, nor ever a formal student of math or science, he wrote widely and prolifically on both subjects in such popular books as The Ambidextrous Universe and The Relativity Explosion and as the “Mathematical Games” columnist for Scientific American.  Indeed, his elegant– and understandable– puzzles delighted professional and amateur readers alike, and helped inspire a generation of young mathematicians.

Gardner’s interests were wide; in addition to the math and science that were his power alley, he studied and wrote on topics that included magic, philosophy, religion, and literature (c.f., especially his work on Lewis Carroll– including the delightful Annotated Alice— and on G.K. Chesterton).  And he was a fierce debunker of pseudoscience: a founding member of CSICOP, and contributor of a monthly column (“Notes of a Fringe Watcher,” from 1983 to 2002) in Skeptical Inquirer, that organization’s monthly magazine.


“This is the first age that’s ever paid much attention to the future, which is a little ironic since we may not have one”*…


Starting tomorrow, the U.S. National Weather Service will discontinue its historical practice of issuing all of its weather bulletins in ALL CAPS.  The agency has been sending out its forecasts with caps lock on for more than 150 years, since the advent of the telegraph. Successive generations of teleprinters used only capital letters; but with the advent of the internet, all caps came to have the affect of a siren.

From tomorrow, all caps will be reserved for actual weather emergencies warranting them.

More at “National Weather Service Takes Off Caps Lock, Will Begin Forecasting Using Inside Voice.”

* Arthur C. Clarke


As we reach for our umbrellas, we might recall that it was on this date in 1925 that John T. Scopes was given a preliminary hearing before three judges. He had been arrested and charged under a new Tennessee state law, the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution in public schools.  The judicial panel greenlit what became Scopes vs. The State of Tennessee (aka “the Scopes Monkey Trial”).

Tennessee legislators had responded to the urgings of William Bell Riley, head of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, and passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution (the Butler Act); in response, The American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend anyone accused of violating the Act.  George Rappleyea, who managed several local mines, convinced a group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, a town of 1,756, that the controversy of such a trial would give Dayton some much needed publicity. With their agreement, he called in his friend, the 24-year-old Scopes, who taught biology in the local high school– and who agreed to be the test case.

The rest is celebrity-filled history, and star-studded drama.

Scopes in 1925

Written by LW

May 10, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination”*…


Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction…

The fantastic tale in full at “The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality.”

[Image above source]

* John Lennon


As we question everything, we might recall that it was on this date in 1810 that Beethoven wrote Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor (WoO 59 and Bia 515) for solo piano– better known as “Für Elise” (click to hear).

Some scholars have suggested that “Elise” was Beethoven’s mistress; but others have suggested that the discoverer of the piece, Ludwig Nohl, may have have misunderstood the Master’s handwriting, and transcribed the title incorrectly, that the original work may have been named “Für Therese”–  Therese being Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza, a friend and student of Beethoven’s to whom he proposed in 1810… though she turned him down to marry the Austrian nobleman and state official Wilhelm von Droßdik.  Today, Therese is forgotten; Elise, celebrated. In any case, it’s a beautiful piece…

The famous opening bars



Written by LW

April 27, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Cloning is great. If God made the original, then making copies should be fine.”*…



Every new step in the direction of simplification – toward monoculture, say, ore genetically identical plants – leads to unimaginable new complexities…”
― Michael Pollan

In any case,

Animal cloning has been around for nearly 20 years, but has mostly been done for the sake of research. Now, a new commercial venture in Tianjin, China, plans to clone 100,000 beef cattle a year for meat production beginning in the first half of 2016.

The enterprise, made up of several academic and commercial organizations with financial support from the Chinese government, has the ultimate goal of ramping up production to a million cow embryos a year…

Read on at “China Planning Huge Facility to Clone Cows, Dogs & Racehorses.”

* Douglas Coupland


As we ruminate on reproduction, we might send biological birthday greetings to Erasmus Darwin; he was born on this date in 1731.  Erasmus was an accomplished doctor (he declined an offer to be personal physician to Charles III), but is better remembered as a key thinker in the “Midlands Enlightenment”– a founder of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and author of (among other works) Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, which contained one of the first formal theories of evolution… one that foreshadowed the theories of Erasmus’ reader– and grandson– Charles… all of which may soon seem quaint.


Written by LW

December 12, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Every technology, every science that tells us more about ourselves, is scary at the time”*…


Further to last weekend’s visit with Silicon Valley’s security robots...

Researchers led by the University of Cambridge have built a mother robot that can independently build its own children and test which one does best; and then use the results to inform the design of the next generation, so that preferential traits are passed down from one generation to the next.

Without any human intervention or computer simulation beyond the initial command to build a robot capable of movement, the mother created children constructed of between one and five plastic cubes with a small motor inside.

In each of five separate experiments, the mother designed, built and tested generations of ten children, using the information gathered from one generation to inform the design of the next. The results, reported in the open access journal PLOS One, found that preferential traits were passed down through generations, so that the ‘fittest’ individuals in the last generation performed a set task twice as quickly as the fittest individuals in the first generation…

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“Natural selection is basically reproduction, assessment, reproduction, assessment and so on,” said lead researcher Dr Fumiya Iida of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who worked in collaboration with researchers at ETH Zurich. “That’s essentially what this robot is doing – we can actually watch the improvement and diversification of the species… We want to see robots that are capable of innovation and creativity…”

See and read more here (and here).

* Rodney Brooks


As we select naturally, we might spare a thought for Blaise Pascal; he died on this date in 1662.  A French mathematician, physicist, theologian, and inventor (e.g.,the first digital calculator, the barometer, the hydraulic press, and the syringe), his commitment to empiricism (“experiments are the true teachers which one must follow in physics”) pitted him against his contemporary René “cogito, ergo sum” Descartes…



Written by LW

August 19, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek”*…


Photographer Ryan Deboodt and his team hiked (for days)…

… then flew a drone even further into the belly of Vietnam’s Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest known cave.

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See more extraordinary photos (and larger versions of those above) on Ryan’s site.

* Joesph Campbell


As we go spelunking, we might send crusty birthday greetings to Adam Sedgwick; he was born on this date in 1785.  One of the founders of modern geology, he proposed both the the Devonian and the Cambrian periods of the geological timescale.  Sedgwick was a fierce critic of the theory of evolution when it appeared, calling it “”utterly false… from first to last it is a dish of rank materialism cleverly cooked and served up”; nonetheless, he and Charles Darwin (one of Sedgwick’s students at Cambridge) were friends until Sedgwick’s death in 1873.



Written by LW

March 22, 2015 at 1:01 am

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