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Mystery "Solved"

Scientists now have a plausible, and likely theory for what created the Burgess Shale:

By looking over hundreds of micro-thin slices of rock taken from the famous shales, the researchers have reconstructed the series of catastrophic underwater landslides of "mud-rich slurry" that killed tens of thousands of marine animals representing hundreds of species, then sealed them instantly - and enduringly - in a deep-sea tomb.

The mass death was "not a nice way to go, perhaps, but a swift one - and one that guaranteed immortality (of a sort) for these strange creatures," said University of Leicester geochemist Sarah Gabbott, lead author of a study published in the U.K.-based Journal of the Geological Society.

I use the scare quote because that's the word used in the headline. This kind of language, I think, is (at least partly) what bothers people who continue to rebel against evolution, and science. It is a certainty of language (like "fact," rather than "theory") that they consider hubristic, and arrogant. After all, when Sherlock Holmes "solved" a case, it generally was the last word, case closed.

In this case, what the word means is that scientists have come up with a plausible explanation for an event for which they'd been struggling to come up with one for a long time, and it is sufficiently plausible that there are few scientists who argue against it, thus presenting a consensus. Does it mean that they have "proven" that this is what happened? No. As I've written many times, science is not about proving things--scientists leave that to the mathematicians. What scientists do (ideally) is to posit theories that are both reasonable and disprovable, yet remain undisproved.

There may be some other explanation for what happened up in what is now Yoho National Park that corresponds better to what really happened, but until someone comes up with one that makes more sense, or comes up with some inconvenient indisputable fact that knocks this one down, it (like evolution itself) is what most scientists, particularly the ones who study such things for a living, will believe.

And of course, I won't even get started on how upset some anti-science (and yes, that's what they are, even if they don't recognize it) types will get over the statement that one of the ancestors of humans is in that shale.

[Update a few minutes later]

Oh, the main point about which I put up this post. This is an excellent illustration of how rare are the circumstances in which we find the keys to our biological past. Those that demand that we cannot know the history of life until every creature has died on the body of its parents, perfectly preserved, are being unreasonable. To paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, we do science with the (rare) evidence that we have, not the evidence we'd like to have. There will always be many huge holes in the fabric of the evidence, barring the development of a time machine to the past. We simply do the best we can with what we have, and put together theories that best conform to it. To say that God (or whoever) did it isn't science--it's just a cop out. And that is true completely independently from the existence (or not) of God (or whoever).


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Carl Pham wrote:

Well, in all fairness to the other side, they don't consider the origins of life, or at least of human life, to be a quotidian scientific problem. To them, an assertion that life spontaneously evolved from rocks and water and dirt, or that human consciousness spontaneously arose as a weird by-product of the competition between baboons and hyenas over leftover lion kill, is an "extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary proof," just like claims of telepathy or telekinesis. To them such claims are so wildly contrary to "common sense" that they feel they must meet a much higher standard of proof.

That's not an intellectually-inconsistent position. The plain fact is that what is "obvious" to you isn't the same as what is "obvious" to them, so you feel different evidentiary standards apply, and there's the rub.

The further difficulty is that we are generally not talking about people who want to suppress evolutionary theory, or research into it, or Federal funding of it, or even it being taught to college students if they sign up for the course. They just don't want it taught as a required subject in elementary school to their children, to whom, presumably, they want to pass on undisturbed their own "common sense" about the necessarily divine origin of life.

Again, that is not entirely unreasonable. All of us wish to pass on to our children at least initially our own sense of how to make sense of the Universe. Scientists and engineers want to pass on a strong sense of empiricism, of putting measurable facts above emotionally compelling narrative. Folks with different personalities want to pass on different ways of thinking about things. It is not unreasonable that we practice a little bit of "live and let live" with respect to each others' ability to raise our children as we'd like to, with the values and ways of seeing the world we prefer, so long as these things are not obviously dangerous.

It's a pity both sides are so intransigent, that now the point really becomes, even for the scientists, a desire to shove something down the other side's throat, with all the corners out, to extract revenge for their stubborn refusal to Think Correctly.

A reasonable compromise might have been reached otherwise, for example in which the adaptation of species to natural pressures, which is what is really important in understanding modern biology, what the anti-evolution folks tend to call "microevolution," is taught, and the loaded question of the ultimate origin of life or the human species is left untouched until children reach maturity. I don't think that would facility the re-emergence of the Inquisition and a new descent into the Dark Ages.

Bill Hensley wrote:

Carl, your comments are about the most generous I have yet heard from someone on the "pro-evolution" side of this controversy. It is a pity there isn't more effort on both sides to understand the other. As you say, neither side is necessarily being irrational, but rather tracing out the logical consequences of their respective worldviews. For it is not just differing ideas of "common sense" that divide the camps, but some fundamental philosophical precommitments. Many want to say that religion should have no bearing on science because the two disciplines have no common ground. But that is true only under certain definitions of "science" and "religion" that not everyone is willing to accept. In particular, science is considered by many today to be the pursuit of natural explanations for all observable phenomena, past, present and future. This definition entails the idea that all phenomena indeed have natural causes, which clearly presumes that God, if he exists, does not now and has not ever intervened in his Creation. That is, of course, a presupposition that Christians such as myself are unwilling to grant. And if there are any points in history at which God might be expected to get involved, it would be the origin of the universe and the origin of life. From that perspective, of course, it is hardly surprising that we Christians might have a very keen interest in what is or is not being taught to our children about such matters.

Karl Hallowell wrote:

Bill, you wrote:

This definition entails the idea that all phenomena indeed have natural causes, which clearly presumes that God, if he exists, does not now and has not ever intervened in his Creation.

Or that whatever is labeled by "God" is natural. Course then we'd have to wonder why God hasn't been observed yet. I'm a pure empiricist. As I see it, if there is no way to tell the difference between two states (eg, God exists and God doesn't exist), then they are equivalent. Unless one is going to present evidence for one side or the other (and in many cases, the nature of the debate precludes that), it makes no sense to argue either side.

As I see it, there are reasonable natural explanations for the existence of life that don't require anything more unusual than the appropriate chemicals and luck (eg, abiogenesis). There's only one real unresolved problem and that is why isn't the universe in a maximum entropy state. As I understand it, the universe is far from maximum entropy, and if one considers our guesses into the past to the "Big Bang", it used to be a lot further away from some equilibrium than it is now.

It could just be observer bias (ie, the anthropic principle), though I'd naively expect a more likely universe to have us exist inside a much narrower entropy range.

Bill Hensley wrote:

Karl, good point on the question of entropy in a universe of infinite age. I don't have anything like the physics or the "branes" (forgive my pun) to know whether the entropy question is effectively being answered by the various multiverse hypotheses that have been proposed in recent years. On the matter of abiogenesis, though, I would not be too hasty. Lacking still a detailed understanding of the path by which simple molecules might have developed into simple organisms, I don't think there is a reasonable basis yet to estimate the probability that it might have happened here in a few hundred million years or so. Until the theories are a bit more specific and quantifiable it's hard to judge their scientific merit. It seems to me their main appeal today is non-scientific. If you are convinced the origin of life must have been a natural phenomenon, then we ourselves constitute a sort of "existence proof" that one or the other of our scientific theories is correct. Naturally this depends, again, on philosophical precommitments and a sense of "rightness" that lies outside of science per se. That's the point I was trying to make, and which I have discussed in more detail elsewhere. (Click the link on my name above, if you care to read my further thoughts on that subject.)

Anonymous wrote:

Pro Evolution is a lot different than accepting Darwin's theories of evolution and THE substantiated and unified theory, when in fact it does not. It doesn't have an answer for organ growth, new species growth, or the sometimes nearly generational differences between the offspring and their parents.

All Intelligent design does is to point out those areas where Darwin falls short AND DARWIN DOES fall short.

I don't see how belief in darwin as the Be all end all theory even relates to religius beliefs anyway since A) Science and Metaphysics are two different things completely and b) God certainly would be intelligent enough and as master of physics and all else could easily have been the author of Darwinism. Don't people get that? Wouldn't the being that ostensibly set up the laws of physics and created the world, fairly easily be able to create darwinian conditions?

Rand Simberg wrote:

All Intelligent design does is to point out those areas where Darwin falls short AND DARWIN DOES fall short.

In other words, ID is not a theory. It is merely a critique of a theory (and a pathetic one).

Glad we got that straight.

But given the rest of your post, I (sadly) suspect that you don't even understand my point.

Karl Hallowell wrote:

All Intelligent design does is to point out those areas where Darwin falls short AND DARWIN DOES fall short.

This got me as well. If questioning the theory of evolution is all it does, then why is it called "intelligent design"? Shouldn't it be called something like "a list of things we think the theory of evolution doesn't explain well enough"?

Vanderleun wrote:

Seems to me that if I were God with an extremely large universe to run whipping up something like evolution and letting it rip would be just the thing.

Wouldn't want to be coming around all the time just to whip up a platypus or a Presbyterian.

Jeff Mauldin wrote:

"And of course, I won't even get started on how upset some anti-science (and yes, that's what they are, even if they don't recognize it)..."

Actually, if the definition of all science is that we have to investigate everything with the prior assumption that there is no intelligent manipulation at work, I'll grant you that I am, about some things, "anti-science." So I think I recognize myself as being anti-science by that definition.

However, that would mean, it seems to me, that something like, say, investigating how the Egyptian pyramids were constructed could not be science--science would be figuring out how such amazing structures occurred naturally. Looking for signals from extraterrestrial intelligences would seem to be anti-science as well, rather than looking only for natural causes of signals which might otherwise appear to be from intelligent sources. Perhaps forensic medicine might also be nonscientific, since it often assumes an active purpose behind some occurrence, rather than positing a purely natural cause ("Well, Horatio, he has poison in his system. I think I have a scientific explanation for how the poison accumulated in the trees over time, and then dripped into his mouth as he took an outdoor nap. Don't charge his wife.")

I think he definition of "science" is not so clear cut, and I think the people who study the philosophy of science agree with me.

Also, I promise that I'm not upset about statements about our ancestors--I'd have to spend too much time being upset if things like that really bothered me, and I'd just be cranky and no fun to be around all the time. Statements about specific more recent ancestors might get my goat more, but even then it usually pays to be reasonable rather than upset.

In the interest of being as reasonable as Mr. Pham, I'll also grant that the theory of evolution is an honest attempt to explain how the origin of species came about while making the initial assumption that it came about without "supernatural" intervention. It's certainly a better theory than earlier ones that life simply appears out of nowhere all the time, and that fossils are evidence of life "trying to" appear spontaneously in the middle of rocks. And I don't object to evolution as being taught as the theory most life science scientists believe to be true, because in fact I think that is indeed what most (but not all) life science scientist believe to be true. I don't even tell my kids to argue with their public school science teachers, although I know they are at a very impressionable age. I'd be quite happy with Mr. Pham's proposed compromise as well.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on February 22, 2008 3:11 PM.

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