Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Review: Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution's Greatest Puzzle

[Editor's note: Full disclosure. A staff person at Penguin Press contacted and sent me a pre-publication copy of the book. I explained that his kindness would result in a book review but that I owed my profession and the author an honest and unbiased review of the work no matter the cost - or lack thereof - in obtaining the work.]

Dr.  Andreas Wagner's new work on evolution is a tightly written and well cited book on natural selection. The research for the book was exhaustive as seen in the more than 65 pages of notes, bibliography and index. The need for all of this important citation is clear. What Dr. Wagner is suggesting in Arrival of the Fittest is that based on his own research that random mutation, the essential driver of evolutionary adaptation, occurs much faster than Darwin could ever imagine. 

The author is certainly well credentialed.  He teaches evolution science at the University of Zurich and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). As a proponent of fast-paced genomic change rather than the accepted Darwinian concept of slow accretion of gene modification over hundreds of generations, the author sends a clear message that the debate in evolutionary biology is far from over.

Frankly, whether you agree with Dr. Wagner's thesis or not, the fact that ongoing discussion continues more than one hundred and fifty years after the publication of Origin of Species, suggests that like all good science no one idea or individual can rest on their laurels. 

And as new evidence accumulates the role science continues to play is to replicate and ultimately verify findings. So really there is no conflict here and open discussion ultimately enhances rather than detracts from the study of evolution science.

The author clearly suggests that the environment is a key factor in species adaptation. In an elegantly written final paragraph in one of the later book chapters he notes:

"...Environmental change requires complexity, which begets robustness, which begets genotype networks, which enable innovations, the very kind that allow life to cope with environmental change, increase its complexity, and so on, in an ascending spiral of ever-increasing the hidden architecture of life"

And the author is no slouch in offering many examples in how quick genetic adaptation can provide many species with selective advantages to continue reproducing further generations. He suggests that many types of bacterias, e coli, certain fish and even modern lactose intolerance each serve as separate and modern examples for his thesis. He both observes and presents evidence which show that when hyper-fast environmental change occurs, the organism that can adapt quickest will have the selective advantage to rapidly modify, mutate and adapt within its niche.

Make no mistake, I enjoyed reading the book and I am very pleased to recommend it to the readers of the site. Each page requires contemplation and presence and that means time to digest and think about what the author proposes. So while this is not a page turner for a hot beach day (unless you're like me and like to read about evolution while at the beach) it is worth the reader's time and effort.

As I completed reading the work, the drumbeat of "Punctuated Equilibrium" kept ringing in my ears. It appears that Dr. Wagner is solidly in this evolutionary camp. And while it's not a bad place to be, I personally still conclude the bigger sandbox is the one which accepts Darwin's slow accretion (gradualism concept) but equally acknowledges that rapid evolutionary change can and does occur. However, such fast change remains the exception to the rule, and not the rule itself.


Evidence and Reason: The Double-Helix of Truth

For most freethinkers the concept of theological absolute truth is an anathema. The central objection held by most non-believers is that religious ways of thinking require no form of knowing other than what is perceived as real through non-evidenced belief. Commonly these beliefs are based on religious faith and the philosophical underpinnings of a particular theology. Both faith and philosophy serve as subjective rather than objective responses to gaining knowledge or understanding one's environment. And each has very little to do with truth as we've come to define it in our modern world.

Even the most well developed and sophisticated religious ideas are still fundamentally based on three tenets. This troika includes an unchallenged and unwavering support of the magical and the supernatural through information sharing and ritual, a respect for controlling authority both in the ethereal realm and in houses of worship, and finally the denial of other competing religious or secular doctrines as ultimately untrue since they inevitably conflict with, distort or outright deny the theology and faith traditions of the believer's religion.

From the perspective of history we can see the earliest forms of human cohesion (as well as abandon) establishes itself on the basis of small flexible to largely complex groupings. From familial bands, tribes and clans through the formation of city-states, nations and super-nations. In every social setting religious and mystical beliefs have wielded a powerful hold on our human imagination and our individual and collective identities.

But the gulf between what feels real to a religious person who is inspired to use faith to guide their ideas, choices and reality and what is actually true based on evidence diverges when theology meets the need for scientific facts. This is why we see some contemporary faith traditions attempt to cope with modernity by adapting certain views to stay relevant.

In fact some religious institutions may even, on a limited basis, accept scientific and secular truth without violating the prime directive of their faith which is usually to abandon reason for religious doctrine and dogma. But the conflict comes crashing into existence like a Higgs-Boson when faith traditions attempt to overlay their brand of magical thinking onto modern science.

For instance the Vatican has an observatory and some very smart religious scientists. But these astronomers who fundamentally accept the natural world still need to conjure into existence a god forced special creation to fit their own and their host institution's ideas regarding nature.

The Church has tried to adapt its theology to the times. After all, the crusades and Inquisition are in the past as is the right to jail scientists for their ideas and theories. But funding and politically fighting social policies like gay rights, stem cell research, AIDs research, reproductive health and healthcare, all spring from interpretation of subjective religious doctrine.

Other theologies have a more difficult time adapting to the reality offered by evidenced science. These more fundamentalist faiths twist or wholly ignore scientific truth if it cannot be interpreted and bent towards their view of religion. This is why a Creation Museum can be built in Kentucky and (at least for a short time) flourish within the evangelical community.

Except outside of this community few take the museum seriously.  And the sect cannot win adherents when it espouses and is deeply committed to a 6,000-year-old Earth and a literal interpretation of The New Testament. The pressing truth and evidence offered by numerous scientific disciplines are then a constant and heavy weight to ignore which sits upon one's evangelical shoulders.

And of course you don't have to come from a Christian sect to have conflict with objective reality. Other faiths have no issue admonishing science or secularism when their theology and customs are called into question. After all why circumcise, why not eat pork or cow, why have women dress in ways which deny self-expression, why grow beards or shave heads, why wear certain clothes and headdresses, why only educate males, why disallow women from driving, why have prohibitions against drinking, why allow for fatwas, or shunning, or stoning or xenophobia, why mikvahs and menstrual huts? These exist because the troika exists. Eliminate the troika and you eliminate so much suffering and subjective reality.

Over the last century-and-a-half what we've uncovered and learned from nature through our objective science leads skeptics and others to conclude that basing one's whole personal and moral philosophy on a few books written by unknown authors more than 5,000 or as late as 2,000 years ago is a central objection to both reason and modernity as well as to a common healthy human future.

And this is precisely why, if we are freethinkers, we must individually and collectively remain on the side of secular humanism, non-belief and also a have healthy respect for theoretical, applied and observational science.

Democracy demands that we allow ourselves the liberty to seek objective truth rather than rely on the troika of subjective delusion. The skeptical generations who came before us and those non-believers who will follow require that we continue to be the strongest links in the rational chain.

And for everyone's sake, and this includes our friends and our foes, we best hold each other and be strong.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

When Animals Bite Back

"To me nature is… spiders and bugs, and big fish eating little fish, and plants eating plans, and animals eating… It's like an enormous restaurant, that's the way I see it."
- Writer & Director, Woody Allen

We seem so surprised when sharks, bears or large cats capture and kill human prey. I often wonder why we don't accept as uneventful the experience of having other carnivores, essentially meat eating animals that hunt or forage for food, attack humans. From the hunter's perspective coming across a slow moving and barely defensible human is the equivalent of winning the animal protein lottery.

Without the use of tools humans are easy to pick off should we encroach or unknowingly venture into the niche of carnivorous animals.

After all, we don't have sharp claws or very good sight or smell, or large canine teeth to defend ourselves. When we go into environments not our own we do so at our own risk and essentially are prayerful that we survive. But unconscious and unbiased nature typically only answers the prayers of the hunter and not usually the hunted.

Our ability to succeed is totally and fully connected to our bipedalism that freed up our hands. Our success as a species is also deeply connected to the evolution of our large brains and our individual and collective imaginations. Each enabled our species to create both tools and culture.

In more ancient times and verified by the fossils of australopithecines, we find specimens with deep indentations and even punctures on the occipital and brow portions of their skulls. These markings match perfectly with the spacing of large cat canine teeth. And this evidence more than implies that both scavenged and hunted early humans were held in the mouth of these big cats and perhaps dragged or carried into their den or up a tree for dinner.

Certainly breaks and chew marks in the long bones of these and other hominid fossils also imply that early in our prehistory we faced the same danger that many animals face today as they look upon us as their predators.

Forgetting that we humans are actually part of nature rather than apart from it is one of our biggest collaborative  cognitive blunders. Perhaps this is why we are so myopic and blindsided when nature acts like nature.

And perhaps this narcissism will be our species ultimate undoing if we don't annihilate ourselves through overpopulation, deforestation, intra-species violence, or a lack of collective understanding of each other or the science we have created. Upset the ecology and such change has its ramifications.

And while big kills make the news we should recognize that nature has an unconscious dark side and is ready to pull the trigger if it is upset too frequently or deeply. After all more than 3 million people are killed by mosquitoes every year. Deer strikes kill as many as 130 people per year in auto accidents. Bee stings kill about 50 people and spiders bites about seven. Snakes kill another 5 people per year and even our beloved pets can cause us harm.  Almost 40 people per year die from domestic dog attacks. However, while these animals and animal-related accidents may leave us for dead we're typically not eaten by these animals that kill us - they are not predators in the way sharks and jaguars are built by nature.

However nothing reduces us to humiliation and fear more then when one member of our species is directly killed and eaten by a wild animal. This is so disturbing and taboo that we typically create a posse of law enforcement and animal control officers to hunt down the offending animal. If caught, there is no rehabilitation as the posse plays judge, jury and executioner and will euthanize the animal.

It's as if the internal and normal action to hunt, kill and eat meat is somehow suspect in our animal brethren when we are the targets of their nutritional desires. The act of eating human meat by carnivorous animals is somehow so  unusual that it is considered an act of conspiracy and rebellion against our species.

Clearly such incidents are an affront to our sensibilities and to our self-proclaimed place in the food chain. Only time will tell if we remain where we are given our short stay on the planet to date. If we are here longer then a slow rate of incidents will continue to occur. But if we should slip and fall down a few rungs we may be looking up from the plate more often than we care to imagine.