Evolution is cleverer than you are: cockroaches avoid poison baits by rewiring their taste system (and another paper on gene-culture coevolution)
The latest issue of Science contains two papers (references below) worth reading. Sadly, both are behind paywalls, but judicious inquiry might yield a pdf). One, a short perspective by Simon Fisher and Matt Ridley, emphasizes that a lot of genetic changes supposedly responsible for major features human evolution—like the highly-touted FOXP2 gene, whose evolution was supposedly the cause of human speech,since mutations in the gene degrade human speech and that gene evolved quickly on the hominin branch of the ape lineage—might have evolved quickly only…
Happy New Year from Science and Atheism.
I want to apologize for the lack of updates on this blog, but I have been very busy with personal issues and I haven’t been active here. I have added some new members of the team on the Facebook page and I have offered to let them write here as well. I hope that in the new year that I am able to get back into blogging here.
Please feel free to leave a comment about what you hope to accomplish this year.
Before you skip over this post, no, this isn’t going to be a rant about ‘those idiot creationists’, and it isn’t even going to be a case of me getting up on my soap box and shouting to the world that they’d better accept evolution or the consequences will be dire. I’m writing this blog from the perspective of education, regardless of the audience or the atmosphere, and hopefully to expand on why evolution is such a point of contention – and that it still would be even if we didn’t have any religion around.
The world of science education is a strange beast. Science is like nothing else we learn about in life. If we think about how we learn things growing up, we come up with a whole lot of scenarios where we encounter things with our senses, and learn by interacting with the more concrete aspects of reality. We learn by doing, learn by seeing and touching… but what does science do to us? It throws us into a world of technical jargon, abstract symbols and mathematics, theoretical models, hypotheses, hypothetical ‘thought experiments’ if you’re a physicist, abstract generalisations of principles and laws… basically a whole bunch of things that are not stuff we can see and touch. The consequence of all this, is that when faced with scientific learning, we’re thrown into a world of knowledge we’re often quite unfamiliar with managing in our minds. How often have we seen the likes of Ken Ham utter the phrase: “but were you there?” when faced with something we have deduced about past? How often have we seen those who oppose evolution asking if anyone has ever seen an ape evolve into a man? These are cases of people asking for concrete observations, when in fact the world of abstract thought – the world science is riddled with – is actually completely sufficient to deduce that evolution has happened. But why do some people find the less concrete arguments SO unconvincing? They’re perfectly valid arguments… aren’t they?
The answer comes from how our cognitive development progresses, or more specifically, where most of our population resides along that progression. If you’ve studied anything to do with education, chances are you should have heard the word ‘constructivism’ before. If you were paying attention, you may even be familiar with someone named Jean Piaget. Jean Piaget came up with four stages of cognitive development as a child grows up. Broadly speaking, as we grow up, we progress through these stages, from learning purely via our senses at the ‘sensorimotor’ stage, eventually becoming able to mentally work with symbolisations at the ‘pre-operational’ stage. Then we move up to the ‘concrete operational’ stage where we have the ability to perform mental operations on our knowledge we gained through concrete interactions with the world, and finally we reach the ‘formal operational’ stage where we can perform mental operations on abstract thoughts. Guess where a lot of science resides? Right – the last stage. People who haven’t reached that stage will obviously have a lot of trouble with science, since it deals with so much abstract thought.
But what has all this got to do with evolution? Well – evolution is one of those things beyond our senses. It’s something we deduce must have happened in the past to our ancestors. Perhaps the point we start putting the pieces of the puzzle together is when we realise that the final stage of development – the ‘formal operational’ – is when we can start using deductive reasoning instead of inductive reasoning. We can deduce what must have happened, instead of relying on seeing something, and then generalising what we’ve observed. We can’t see an ape evolve into a man today (and boy do the creationists remind us!) but we don’t need to – we still have that valid reasoning in the abstract, symbolised, hypothetical, mental model. Sure, it’s backed up by evidence – lots of it. But if we’re stuck at the concrete operation stage, it’s very very hard to start considering hypotheticals such as “well, what would it mean if?”…What would it mean if some generic unspecified trait (rather than one we can see in front of us) was better for survival? What happens as a result of some trait (again, not specifying a concrete example) being passed on to offspring more often than others? What happens (hypothetically) as a result of populations being split by natural events, followed by continuing to pass on their traits separately for generations? These are hypotheticals – abstract scenarios of mental invention. The concrete operational person has a lot of trouble drawing conclusions from these, and it’s just not reasonable to expect it to be simply understood. No wonder there are some people who consistently reject valid reasoning, and instead sit there asking if we’ve ever seen the things we know to have happened. They don’t have the tools mentally to even fully grasp how deduction itself makes sense.
“But hold on!” I hear you say, “Piaget said that we reach that final stage by 12 years old!” Well yes, but the more we look into it, the more we see that Piaget was wrong about that benchmark age. Studies have repeatedly discovered in amongst their other research that the majority of us, even right through into college education, still function at the concrete operational stage. We’re locked into reasoning with what’s put in front of us and open to sight and touch. Few have the ability to reach beyond and start considering hypotheticals, or deducing what must have occurred before we came along and saw the data.
Given the nature of evolutionary theory, and the fact that even at university level, those who are well equipped to deal with deductive reasoning and hypothetical though are the minority, is it any wonder such a high proportion of the population rejects evolution? Even WITHOUT the more vocal religious groups adding to the problem? Perhaps now we can understand why around 50% of Americans, and not that much fewer in the UK, reject a concept like evolution which requires so much deductive reasoning and hypothetical thought.
So does religion play into any of this? Well, the answer is yes, and not in the way you might expect. There are more subtle things going on here aside from the overt rejections of evolution by some religious figureheads. We teaching types talk about ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ order thinking skills. Lower order being rote learning, understanding and application of that knowledge. This is contrasted with higher order thinking, which involves ability to analyse, evaluate and create new knowledge, moving into what us teachers call the ability to get into the ‘extended abstract’ (if you’re a fan of john Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy). Two guesses what kind of cognitive ability one might develop by being asked to reach higher order thinking skills. You guessed it – the sort necessary to grasp scientific concepts like evolution. You see – those higher order skills are all about picking apart what we already know, analysing it, making evaluations about it, generating independent thought. The lower level thinking skills are about rote learning, putting it into practice, learning an understanding of what we’ve gained knowledge of… without taking those further steps of critical thinking and coming to new independent conclusions. Basically, remembering what we’re told and putting it into practice. None of this new independent ideas and critical thinking stuff.
I’ll leave it up to readers to match to what religion encourages with the lower or higher order thinking skills, and what implication it might have for the cognitive development of our kids.
I will however, leave you all with one fact. The republican party of Texas literally opposes critical thinking and higher order thinking skills within its education policy:
I can’t help but wonder what mindset generates such a view… and can’t help but connect this sort of culture in Texas to the fact nobody there seems to believe much in evolution. It’s also interesting to reconsider the question: Why does belief in God and religion decrease as intelligence increases?… I think there’s a few things correlated here.
On October 23, 2010, I published (with the writer's permission) an email I'd gotten from someone who'd been a dyed-in-the-wool, prosyletizing creationist, but had given that up because of this website. I verified his identity to be sure it wasn't a hoax. Here are two excerpts from that email:
I’m a 25-year-old fellow from the backwoods of the Appalachias with little education to speak of.
I'm no rocket surgeon, but even I understand the importance of enlisting the help of intelligent people when seeking answers to difficult questions.
To that end, there's a well documented inverse proportional relationship between IQ and religion. Generally speaking, the higher your intelligence, the less likely you are to believe in God or value religion.
At the beginning of Oct I gave a public talk on Human selection and I have finally gotten the video edited together. Let me know what you think!!
I went to a Christians vs Atheists discussion this evening with the theme of “even if there was a God, I wouldn’t worship him”.
As part of the Christian framing of the question the lady speaking kept repeating that she had met Jesus and God and that she knew them. I questioned her on it but didn’t get a good answer because the discussion focused on sin and why we need to be forgiven. The Christians really didn’t seem to have a good handle on the subject.
My primary question to the Christians is “what have you done at birth that is sinful?” This is what I asked and there was much waffle on the subject. But on my train journey home I had a better question.
“What have you done that requires the attention of the creator of the universe to forgive?”
I’m not an angel but even if the police caught me at my naughtiest there would be no charges, so what could I possibly have done that would require the creator of the universe, a being that presumably spends its time watching galaxies evolve, to forgive?
This is a bit like sending a jaywalker to the supreme court, yet worse.