Saturday, April 11, 2015

American anti-science, unlikely to improve

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, evolution, creationism, religious prejudice

Bill Nye ("the Science Guy") claims to be cheerful and optimistic. I sure hope so, because the goal of his new book is unlikely to be realized. He rushes into the creation/evolution debate that underlies American resistance to science education, somewhat reminiscent of the old "fools/angels" proverb. But he's no fool.

Bill Nye, with coauthor/editor Corey S Powell, opens Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation with an account of his debate against Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, early last year. The core "sound bite" is this: both Nye and Ham were asked, "What would it take for you to reconsider your position". Bill Nye answered that it would take only a single piece of evidence that favors "creation science", and that stood up to scientific scrutiny. Ken Ham said that such a thing is not possible, because he has "the book" (meaning The Holy Bible) and will not give credence to anything not found in it.

Nye acknowledges that any possible battle has already been lost, for the allegiance of evangelical Christians who follow Mr. Ham's way of thinking. But he has hope that well-taught science in our schools can still reach their children. I'll explain just how slender that hope is shortly.

But with this hope in mind, the 37 chapters of Undeniable describe 37 aspects of evolution, evolutionary theory, and how an evolutionary understanding of biology affects our daily life. Just for instance, if you've ever had to switch antibiotics because the bug you had is resistant to the first medicine, you're a victim of evolution in action. And if your grandfather did any moth collecting in England in the early-to-mid-Twentieth Century, the Peppered Moth provided evidence in hand of natural selection in action: Prior to laws that greatly reduced air pollution, and thus to light-colored tree bark being seen again as the grime washed off, most members of this moth species were dark colored, but in the years since, the light colored varieties have again become more common, almost to the exclusion of the darker ones.

Also in England, specifically London in this case, an annoying species of Culex mosquito has diverged into two species, with the new one inhabiting subways only. About 60 years were enough for physical near-isolation to become reproductive isolation. Culex pipien was the native species in the area prior to 1940, but then "budded" a new species, Culex molestus, by around 2000. WWII is the culprit. Londoners used the subways as bomb shelters in the early 1940s, which attracted lots of Culex pipien mosquitoes underground. This near-24-hour occupation of the subway tunnels by humans and their pets meant the little biters had no reason to return above ground. They stayed, they bred, and in 50-60 generations they diverged enough to become the new species.

The book abounds with examples of contingency in evolutionary development. How else to explain a nerve in a giraffe's neck that loops down, up and down again, except by comparing it to the path of the same nerve in short-necked ungulates to which giraffes are related? Then we see that, as the neck elongated, a nerve that follows a straight path between two blood vessels when necks are short has to loop around now that they have become further and further apart. Apparently, an innocent choice of nerve routing 50 million years ago has led to a rather unusual path for that nerve today. There is a similar loopiness in the male human urethra, which can be puzzled out by comparing with the very small primates that probably most resemble the first primates. Nye doesn't mention this one; after all, he's writing for youngsters.

There is a powerful argument in Chapter 21: "good enough". There is a lot of talk in creationist circles about the "perfection" of the human form. It is manifest that we are far from perfect, in form or in any other way. The standard riposte is that Adam was perfect, and we have degenerated. I wonder: did his urethra loop around in the same nonsensical way as ours? What we see throughout the biosphere is creatures that are good enough to thrive in their environment, but no better. Why should they be better than they have to be? It isn't cost-effective.

Tropical climes have abundant species of all kinds because, all year, it is Summertime, and the Livin' is Easy. It is just easier for all sorts of critters to make a living there. Go to a high mountaintop or into the high Arctic or Antarctic, and only a small number of species are found. Life is harder, and few species have the adaptations needed to survive there.

I just recalled that Krill, the tiny shrimplike critters that most baleen whales eat, do best in water very near 40°F (4.5°C), and die of overheating at 50°F (10°C). From time to time some are carried too far from the pole by shifting currents and perish as the water warms. I suppose a Krill would me "more perfect" if it could survive higher temperatures, but making the extra chemicals to do so would cost something, using more energy and resources. The cost-benefit balance that evolution has struck works well for the species. They are good enough.

So, our bodies and minds are good enough for us to earn some kind of living (usually), reproduce (usually), and raise our children (usually) until they can fend for themselves (usually) and also reproduce (usually). That is five "usually"s, because there are no guarantees. Think of this: Abraham Lincoln had four children. He has no living descendants. Every descending line died out by the late Twentieth Century. Whatever benefit the genes of Honest Abe might have had for humanity, all are lost except those few that survive in the descendants of a few of his cousins.

But none of the 37 items in this book will convince someone who has been taught that evolution is anti-Bible. And just how does one reach the children of Evangelical Christians (in whose ranks most anti-evolution folks reside)? Many entire congregations seem to exist for no other reason than to support the Ken Hams of the world and propagate that message. Though I think it "another Gospel" and thus anathema, they don't see it that way.

I see both sides. I am an Evangelical Christian, meaning that I favor gospel preaching and take a rather literal view of The Holy Bible. But I am also a scientist, with degrees in Geology and Geological Engineering. I excelled at paleontology as an undergraduate, and I still like to collect the odd fossil now and again. But even though I am "fluent" in both "languages", the scientific and the theological, there's no convincing most of my fellow believers that evolution is no threat to their faith. They have been taught an interpretation of the Bible that is in error. They would think me a heretic.

The fact is, most people, religious or not, are insecure. It seems the only people who are totally secure in their self-image are psychopaths. To be insecure and religious is to be in near-constant fear of "damaging" your faith somehow. This simple fact underlies every form of religious extremism. It is also well known that, no matter what religion, about a third of the children defect, at least inwardly, during their teen years, and no more than a third of those return to the faith. Christian churches in particular nearly all have special classes for parents trying to "win their children back to the faith." Those parents don't need one more reason for paranoia.

The more fearful among them place their children in private schools or get supplementary religion-sanctioned instruction, if they can afford it. Actually, most American Christians aren't sufficiently afraid of evolution nor of science in general to worry what their children might be learning in any school, private or public. But the terrified, noisy anti-science bunch have a disproportionate effect in the churches. It is they who drive out any pastor who doesn't toe the line of hyper-Creationism. It is they who have the energy to undertake ecclesiastical and public politics. They who vote in, and campaign in, school board elections. And thus they control science education where they can, and influence it everywhere.

Bill Nye calls his arguments "undeniable", and they are, to anyone capable of scientific thought. The terror-stricken Evangelical Creationists cannot think scientifically, and do their best to ensure their children will mirror them. Poor "Science Guy". You're up against a behemoth, and only the tiniest of victories is possible for at least the next couple of generations. I hope humanity survives.

No comments: