Category Archives: Science

Current Events Opinion Science

Economics and What? A Response to Rob Johnson.

Many economist’s only job is to model reality. This means that they must make certain assumptions to make their models practical. A model airplane that can fly and carry passengers ceases to be a model. Apparently, the modeling nature of economics is lost on one of its most senior practitioners, and critics. Rob Johnson, currently president of the “Institute for New Economic Thinking” and former Chief Economist for the Senate’s Banking Committee. In an article posted on May 14 to Yahoo! Finance, Mr. Johnson claimed that economics had become inhuman. Criticizing economic’s  ideal of objectivity, he claimed that “Without admitting it, or even worse, at times without even knowing it, economists make powerful value judgments about what matters in our society.”

Of course that much is true. Economists often must measure, quantitatively, things that may not be easily measured. And, predictably, they offer up a model to do this. I fail to see how we could expect more of them, given what we have asked them to do. But economics is useful precisely to the extent that it is inhuman. Rather that equivocate on the emotional and philosophical definition of value, economists allow us to compare things in terms everyone understands: money. Estimates of how much people value their own lives prove extremely useful in determining the usefulness of government spending on safety. But that it is an estimate must be emphasized. Economists do not professionally speculate on the “true” value of human life, that’s what all the other humanities are for.

So you can imagine my chagrin when Mr. Johnson shamelessly advertised his own brilliant reformation of the field: the New Economic Thinking’s “Economics and Theology” series, which he saved for the third to last paragraph. What could be more sensible, than to induce collaboration among have those who spend their lives measuring out evidence as precisely as they can, and making some of the most qualified and precise claims of any intellectuals, with those who persuade through fear and blatant appeals to the aptly sheeplike congregation. What could the ancient sophists possibly add to the discussion of economies? Will they propose adding eternal damnation as an opportunity cost for condoms? This is barely jest, for Mr. Johnson claims that “leading theologians… are used to thinking about life’s ultimate concerns.” Nonsense is far too kind a word, pernicious opportunistic pandering is closer to the mark. I hope Mr. Johnson’s series goes off swimmingly, and people talk of it for ages to come. I hope the theocrats catch of whiff of the standard of evidence to which the Queen of the Humanities holds itself.

References

Johnson, Rob. “Creating an Economics for the 21st Century” Yahoo! Finance. Retrieved 5/14/2013 http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/the-exchange/creating-economics-21st-century-223645471.html

 

Opinion Science

Evolution is *not* a philosophy, and, a semantic proposal

Hello all, Dave Muscato here again!

I live in Missouri, the Show-Me State. You’d think that means we’re a rather skeptical bunch, desirous of evidence and good reasons before we take a claim to heart. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen at the level of policy-making.

Right now in Missouri, a GOP representative, Rick Brattin, has introduced House Bill 291. This bill includes some outlandish policy changes: It seeks to define, officially, evolution as a “philosophy.” It also says that this philosophy “denies the operation of any intelligence, supernatural event, God or theistic figure in the initial or subsequent development of life” and that “[the] origin of life on earth is inferred to be the result of intelligence directed design and construction. There are no plausible mechanisms or present-day experiments to prove the naturalistic origin of the first independent living organism.”

This is ridiculous. But wait: It gets worse!

If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a textbook, the textbook shall give equal treatment to biological evolution and biological intelligent design.

What the what?! Didn’t we settle all of this already with the Dover case?

change-darwin

I have a proposal. Can we stop calling it the “theory of evolution”? Evolution is a fact. We have seen it happen under controlled conditions and entire fields of science depend on it. In the words of the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (who also happens to be a Russian Orthodox Christian), “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

I know that “the theory of evolution” is short for “the theory of evolution by means of natural selection,” and I understand why people shorten this to simply “evolution.” But this is incredibly misleading, and really does nothing but give ammunition to creationists, and confuse the scientifically ignorant.

What we really mean to say is, “the theory of natural selection”that is the theoretical part. There is no controversy (well, none among legitimate scientists) about whether or not evolution itself occurs. The “controversy” (which, again, is artificial) is about the mechanism responsible for these observed changes in the frequency of alleles within a population. The Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II acknowledged that evolution occurs, but the official stance was that this process was guided by God, rather than random mutations and non-random selection. This is of course unsubstantiated, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

I hope you will join me in taking care to watch ourselves in our language. When we must include the word “theory,” make sure you are talking about natural selection and not evolution. And if you live in Missouri (or even if you don’t), please write to, email, or call Rep. Brattin and tell him this bill has no place in our schools.

Until next time,

Dave

Science Statistics

The Odds Must Be Crazy: Two Blokes Broke Spokes

highlight_oddsmustbecrazy

If you haven’t checked out the Odds Must Be Crazy (http://www.theoddsmustbecrazy.com/) and submitted a crazy story of your own, do so… NOW!

 

A few weeks ago, I was heading to my local bicycle shop to get my bike
repaired. Just as I was about to enter I heard “hey, John.”
It was my friend and coworker Leeman Parker. “hey Leeman Parker,
what’s up, man?”

Though it was a nice surprise, I wasn’t too shocked to see Leeman. We live
in a similar area. We both frequent this bike shop. And, having the
same job, we have a similar schedule.

Then Leeman explained, “just need a fix; one of my spokes fell out.”

“Oh snap! One of my spokes fell out, too.”

“On your back tire?” Now even Leeman was surprised; no small feat
for a man who is usually described as a comedic robot.

Yep, we both had a single missing spoke in our back tires. I think it’s
important to note here that we have very similar tires: street tires
or what the kids call ‘slick tires’, I believe. Though Leeman’s bike
is a one gear bike, whereas mine is a full road bike. That is, he has
a “fixie”, and I’ve got a badass racing bike. He’s got
something usually associated with emasculated hipsters, and my bike
might be what Lance Armstrong uses to go to the store. I’m just
explaining that I’m awesome so Barbara Dresher doesn’t have to waste
any of her analysis time going over that point. Though I do
appreciate the thought, Barbara, thank you. So we have very similar
tires, we ride on the same streets, during the same hours, for almost
the same distance. It’s only likely that we will experience similar
damage on our bikes. However, neither Leeman nor I have ever had a
spoke break on us. Not on these tires, not on these bikes, not on any
other bike in any other city we’ve ridden… In our lives… EVER!…
BAM!… The Odds Must Be Crazy!

Science

Three Minutes in the Moon’s Shadow

My awesome MS-Paint rendition of a total solar eclipse progression. You know you love it.

Last month I had the unforgettable experience of watching a total solar eclipse for the first time in my life. I’d say it is, hands down, the most spectacular natural phenomenon that you can observe with the naked eye.

It’s a sight that many people only get to see in pictures and videos during their lifetimes, unless they happen to live in the right place at the right time or have the wherewithal to travel there.

Given that I married into a family whose favorite pastime is travelling the world to observe solar eclipses, I’d say I lucked out. They’ve been everywhere from the jungles of Zambia to a plane flying over the Arctic ice to watch the moon blot out the sun for just a few minutes at a time. They’re self-proclaimed eclipse chasers, and my father-in-law runs a website and blog dedicated to their hobby.

My in-laws decided that it was time for me to lose my eclipse virginity, so they brought me along on a voyage to the South Pacific.

(For an excellent interactive map of where this eclipse was visible, you can go here.)

Some eclipse chasers elected to go to Australia to view this eclipse from land. Our group had a different idea.  Our destination: 26 degrees South, 166 degrees East.

And so we traveled to Fiji, and left on a cruise ship chartered by a bunch of astronomy nerds for the specific purpose of seeing the eclipse at sea. Having not yet seen an eclipse, I was amazed at the lengths that people would go to in order to get good seats to the show. I was certainly looking forward to the trip, but still had no idea how amazing the experience would be.

read more »

Ethics Science

Free Will and the gap between philosophy and neuroscience

Hello all,

Dave Muscato here again. Last night, a group of us from MU SASHA attended a public lecture at Mizzou from guest speaker Michael Gazzaniga, the renowned psychobiologist famous for his research on “split brain” patients: people who have had the two hemispheres of their brains surgically separated from one another, in order to treat epilepsy. It was a real treat to hear someone so well-known in his field speak in person, and I was privileged to be able to attend.

He spoke about free will: Do we have it? What does “free will” mean? What are some of the implications, specifically legal, if we do not?

In a sentence, he demonstrated that from a neuroscience (indeed, scientific) context, it is quite clear that we lack free will. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that the concept of “free will” is nonsensical and should be disposed of: Free from what? The laws of physics? No, each cell of our brain follows predictable patterns of behavior, i.e. is soul-less and automated, and our brains are “merely” highly parallel and complex conglomerations of cells. No where in this equation arises a homunculus, a “mind” within our brain that makes decisions separate from itself, no matter how much we might wish for this to be so, or how much it feels to us like this is the case.

Here’s where I think he lost us: Gazzaniga went on to argue that, while our brains do not have free will, persons (in a society) do. I don’t think he justified this leap. His argument, as best as I could understand it, was that individual responsibility arises on the level of a society, rather than on the level of the individual. He gave the analogy of a car, versus traffic. Regardless of one’s mechanical understanding of the operation or construction of a car, you cannot extrapolate or understand traffic patterns by observing a car in isolation. Similarly, humans in isolation lack responsibility—a single human just follows patterns of behavior and isn’t responsible “to” anyone—but in the context of living in a society, we can hold individuals responsible for their behavior.

This seems to me to call for the application of the is/ought problem. I think Gazzaniga was trying to say that, descriptively, societies hold individuals responsible for their behavior, and that this is permissible because individuals should be held accountable for their wrongdoings. What I don’t understand is, where did that “should” come in? Is he making an ethical argument here? Because up until that point, he’d been speaking descriptively. I understand why societies would do good to hold individuals accountable for wrongdoings, but that doesn’t mean “persons have free will” just because they live in societies. Persons may be responsible for their individual wrongdoings—it’s not like anyone ELSE is responsible for a person’s actions—but I don’t understand why he argues this means that they magically have free will.

It seems to me that there is a gap between what philosophers have to say about free will and what scientists have to say. From Sam Harris to Daniel Wegner to Michael Gazzaniga, those who study the brain tend to say that we lack free will, from what I have seen and read. So why aren’t philosophers agreed on this? I’m especially talking about thinkers who side toward religiosity (read: theologians). I understand that for the Judeo-Christian model to work, we are required to have free will, but that doesn’t mean that we do. Similarly, for the Judeo-Christian model to work, we must have souls, but—and I’ll put this gently—neuroscience has yet to discover them. I’m skeptical.

I’m considering writing a talk of my own about free will, based loosely on Sam Harris’s “Free Will,” the Free Will chapter in “The Big Questions” by Nils Rauhut, “The Illusion of Conscious Will” by Daniel Wegner, and some guided discussion questions of my own design. If I do, I’ll post a link to video of it here, or at least a summary, once I deliver it to SASHA and/or another group and can get film it for you.

Until next time,

Dave

Humor Opinion Science

Scientists in the Movies

Science in the Movies

 

I grow tired of our evil archetypes. Particularly the mad, or arrogant scientist, and the pseudo-darwinian, successful businessman. Of course, defending a successful businessman in a such liberal forum would result in me being beaten to death by a large bag of hemp underwear, so I’ll refrain from elaborating on those points. (I kid, I kid!) Many movies portray the fundamental human urge to discover and understand as a diabolical force. They play off of our current, if legitimate, concerns for our habitat and somehow manage to blame science for the mistakes of all humankind.

For instance, Stephen Spielberg seems to resent the scientists of Jurassic Park, because they have tried to understand and manipulate nature. For example Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) says in objection to the creation of dinosaurs for the sake of discovery “What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.” Rape? Trying to understand nature is the same as raping nature? Imagine if we applied this logic to romance: “Hey, how many siblings did you say you have? OH MY GOD, MY EYES.” Before that he claimed nature had “selected” dinosaurs “for extinction.” Like we are dabbling with the work of some kind of pantheistic God, and how dare we? Meanwhile I’m thinking, given the ability, I would totally create Jurassic Park. And why shouldn’t I? Spielberg’s revered Nature also “selected” almost all other species for extinction (99 percent of them), is he about to argue that we should not contest that as well? Then why should we protect the environment at all, evolution is selecting only the life that can survive human pollution. So it goes. But I’d much prefer to see some dinosaurs, thank you.

Also pursuing this big-screen zeitgeist is Gene Roddenberry’s Straw Vulcan*, more commonly known as Spock. Apparently, his logic means ignoring all emotion. Even regarding decisions where emotions are an extremely important factor. Julia Galef did a good job at pointing out the problems with this at Skepticon 4.** She played a clip that is an excellent example for just this sort of thinking. In it, Spock is stranded near some irritated locals, but he is baffled when they still appear aggressive, even after his spectacular show of force. Clearly, he thinks, these people should realize an attack is illogical. Clearly, I think, Spock thinks everyone is Spock. And this foolishness is not limited to fiction. In fact, I think of this type of thinking as the German mistake, that is, assuming other people think like us. In 1940 Nazi Germany’s prestigious general Gerd von Rundstedt planned to invade Great Britain over the narrowest part of the English Channel. So later, in 1943, in light of the impending Allied invasion, he prepared his defense in the same area that you’ve probably never heard of because it’s not where we landed.***

Most recently of all though, what is this nonsense coming out of the mouth of the “archaeologist” from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus? Now, I’ve studied under an archaeologist, and she was the most professional intellectual I’ve met in college thus far. Not at all the kind of person to conclude that aliens created us because several ancient peoples carved the same motifs. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), on the other hand, believes not only in this ethereal creationism, but also that the sentient life she has discovered has created humankind literally because that’s what she “chooses to believe.” And this was in response to the biologist aboard, who later dies from a serious case of horror-movie logic. (A scarily fast alien penis-snake! I should definitely pet it.) He actually asks our squid-incubating protagonist on what grounds she neglects the now ancient law of Darwinism. What she chooses to believe indeed.

My plan is to mock these depictions as much as possible, until enough people find them intolerable that the writers will catch on. I mean, it mostly worked for colored people dying in the first three seconds of the action… didn’t it?


*Not my term: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StrawVulcan
** Julia Galef’s presentation at Skepticon 4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLgNZ9aTEwc
*** From Chester Wilmot’s The Struggle for Europe, Prelude to Overlord.

Opinion Religion Science

Atheism, Mental Illness, and Coping

I want to preface this piece a little bit. I originally wrote it several months ago, when the storm of blogging about mental illness was just getting started among the popular atheist community bloggers, as an argument for why Skepticism should pick up mental illness as a talking point. We’ve seen Jen McCreight and Greta Christina come out and discuss mental illness, JT Eberhard give a tearjerker talk at Skepticon IV, and many others come out to our community (including your own Ellen Lundgren). So while I may have missed the boat a little bit, it is never too late to discuss something which afflicts a very significant portion of the population, claiming many of those lives as well.

I don’t suffer from mental illness, but I’ve become intimately acquainted with it in many folks whom I love and care for, and they deserve my help and support. So, color me an advocate.


Time and time again, when dealing with socially defined taboos – and the groups of people directly affected by them – we see that closets with closed doors leave the isolated in the dark. And in combating this, we’ve seen various movements towards yanking these closet doors wide open within the skeptic & atheist, LGBTQ, and mental health communities. As is often discussed (here by Greta Christina), the relationships between and, albeit partial, intertwinement of the LGBTQ and atheist movements have offered both groups new and effective coping mechanisms. Atheists have learned how to come out of their closets and into the streets in droves, and the LGBTQ community has been offered more prominent humanistic perspectives and secular reasoning to add to their, and everyone’s, arsenal for why people with non-heteronormative sexualities deserve to be treated as humans. Sufferers of mental illness deserve this same support network, and it’s time for secularism to help blow the doors off the closet of neurochemical imbalances.

Psychological studies have shown that, in later life, depression and psychological decline can be abated by the presence of religious influence1. In their review, “Religion and depression in later life,” Braam et al. found that late-life religiousness mostly negatively correlates with depressive symptoms, and the association is more pronounced in elderly Americans in poor health. Further, they outline four dimensions of religiousness which may affect psychological states, to varying degrees: cognitive – beliefs and convictions, affective – spirituality and religious trust, behavioural – church attendance and private practices, and motivational – personal importance. It is clear that cognitive and affective religiousness can directly influence psychological states related to depressive moods, and the social support networks present in religious communities are exactly why so many skeptical people within churches fear the dive away. And once depressed, it’s possible for affected individuals to positively influence remission through religious salience.1

So how does secularism even begin to touch that? It’s often argued that even if beliefs and hopes are false, they should be left alone if people find personal comfort in them; PZ Myers will be one of the first to say that false hopes are socially damaging and should be avoided (he noted this in a panel discussion at the University of Minnesota in 2011), but how can atheism work to replace the documented positive effects of religiousness in certain mental health patients? We start by talking about the origins of mental illness, delusions, and neurodegeneration in reality-based, scientific terms.

The mind/body duality, as well as allusions to divine intervention, promoted by various religions and philosophies over the centuries are intrinsically damaging to the acceptance and treatment of mental illness. Colloquially known as the “it’s all in your head” falsehood, the concept of mental illness as being separated or excluded from obvious physical illness is cemented by the very idea of separation between the psyche and the body. Depression, social anxiety, and the hosts of other neural misfires from which many of us suffer, are rooted in neurobiology and neurophysiology – but so are the emergent properties of the “mind”, e.g. consciousness and self-awareness. So, the sooner the secular movement stabs at this duality misconception within the context of recognizing mental illnesses as physical diseases, the sooner taboos are killed and closets are emptied.

For the social-network savvy younger generations, taking the plunge and admitting to suffering from mental health issues, without the motivational benefits of religiousness, is less difficult than for those of greater generations. And to address the issues of mental health, false hopes, and atheism at more advanced ages could prove exceedingly hairy due to familial and social implications. The existence of religious community and support networks justifies addressing these issues at such a pivotal time in the human condition, and yeah, we atheists have those too. So with such a plethora of safety nets at our backs, why not start addressing mental illness from a secular perspective – at any age? Especially considering that “atheistic belief-based coping can be as effective as religious belief-based coping in helping individuals adapt to various issues that accompany ageing and old age”.2 In their findings from a case study pairing 11 subjects with strong atheistic beliefs with 8 strongly religious subjects, Wilkinson and Coleman write the following:

“Considering Dawkins’s four traditional functions of religious belief [explanation, guidance, consolation, and inspiration], [-], this study provides some evidence that a strong atheistic belief system fulfils [sic] the same role in people’s lives as a strong religious belief system in terms of the explanations, moral guidance, consolation and inspiration that beliefs bring. While science has arguably long surpassed any religion’s explanation of life and the universe, and while man’s moral nature is beginning to be examined in terms of evolutionary psychology, Dawkins admits that religion may trump an atheist’s worldview when it comes to issues of consolation (Dawkins 2006). He no more than suggests that an atheistic outlook on life is just as inspiring as a religious one, if not more so (Dawkins 1998, 2006). Virtually all the interviewed atheists at some point mentioned how inspiring they find science and that their understanding of one’s infinitesimally small position in material reality helped them transcend their own problems.”

If religion truly trumps atheism in the consolation and comfort of mental illness patients, it is only through external consolation and the deportation of control and personal influence. In accepting our depressions, our anxieties, and our personality disorders as physical ailments of the brain, we’re rejecting the religiously-enforced idea that there is something metaphysical about our minds – that there is an impassible gap between our bodies and the roots of mental illness. In discussing mental illness and coping mechanisms within the secular movement, we’re creating a safe space for affected individuals outside of organized religions. And in offering up our communities and compassion to closeted sufferers of mental illness, atheists can protect and advocate for yet another bloc of misinterpreted, misunderstood, and mislabeled people.

Sources

  1. Braam, A. W., Beekman, A. T. F., and van Tilburg, W. Religion and depression in later life. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. Volume 12(4), July 1999, pp. 471-475.
  2. Wilkinson, P. J., and Coleman, P. G. Strong beliefs and coping in old age: a case-based comparison of atheism and religious faith. Ageing & Society, Cambridge University Press. Volume 30, 2010, pp. 337-361.
Current Events Religion Science

Don’t take freedom of speech for granted – Blasphemy Rights Day

Today is International Blasphemy Rights day, as designated by the Center for Inquiry (see Astrid’s previous post for some of the history behind it). It used to be called Blasphemy Day; the word “Rights” was inserted to more accurately represent the purpose behind it.

It’s not about infidels and apostates having a day to antagonize people who still hold religious beliefs. It’s not about members of a mainstream religion ritualistically taunting and harassing people of a minority faith. It’s not about goading religious extremists into a murderous rage.

It’s about people who value freedom of speech raising awareness of how easily that freedom can be trampled upon. It’s about recognizing that as another set of claims in the marketplace of ideas, religion should not be immune from the same scrutiny, criticism, and satire that we freely apply to other forms of speech. It’s about believing that offending someone’s religious sensibilities is not a crime.

Chances are that right now as you read this, you are committing blasphemy against someone’s religion. It might be the clothes or jewelry you’re wearing. It might be a symbol or phrase you have tattooed on your skin. It might be the person you are in a relationship with or are attracted to. It might be the “unclean” food digesting in your stomach right now.

Forbidden food AND irreverence to a revered tale! It's sacrilicious!

It might be the lighthearted joke you made about a traditional practice. It might be the way you celebrate a certain holiday. It might be the particular translation of your religion’s holy book that you read. It might be a recent (or centuries old) scientific discovery that you now know as fact.

It might be the fact that you find a particular supernatural claim so absurd that you snicker at the very idea of it.

His Merriness will not be mocked!

The bottom line is that someone somewhere believes that their god hates what you’re doing right now, and that person would be deeply offended to know that you’re doing it so brazenly. In some parts of the world, that makes you a criminal who deserves fines, imprisonment, torture, or the death penalty.

If you live in a country where treating religion with anything short of veneration is legal, consider yourself lucky. Don’t take freedom of speech for granted.

Science

Why some people don’t accept evolution: a layperson’s perspective

I’ll come right out and say that I am not especially well-educated in science.  I studied the liberal arts in college and never took a course beyond Intro to Biology.  I do think that I gained a fundamental literacy of the science through my minimal classroom study (and copious independent reading as a child), to the point that I can understand what science journalists and bloggers are talking about even without being able to make sense of the raw data myself.

Image credit: Ethan Hein

I do understand, at the most basic level, how evolution works and why it works, even if I can’t wrap my head around the intricate processes that drive it.  I’d be out of my league attempting to teach it to someone or to debate a creationist on it (a position in which we atheists too often find ourselves, as if we’re all PhD biologists in the minds of creationists).

Even as a layperson (especially as a layperson?) I feel that scientific literacy is a vital part of being an informed citizen.  I’m troubled by the widening knowledge gap I see between scientists and everybody else, and particularly by the anti-intellectual sentiment that is rising alongside populism.

Denial in favor of design

To many atheists (and even theists who are skeptics about most everything but gods), it may seem shocking and frustrating that so many people in the United States dismiss evolution as wild conjecture.

When we see the notion of “intelligent design” being taught alongside actual science in biology class as if the two had equal weight, our first reaction may leave a palm-shaped depression in our foreheads (or a forehead-shaped indentation in our desks).

Sure, there are a number of people so hopelessly dedicated to ancient origin stories that they don’t want evolution to be true. It would turn their entire world upside down were they to accept that they are part of a 3 billion year old solar-powered chemical reaction rather than a unique, purposeful creation apart from nature.  It would mean to them that they are no better than their animal kin and take away all incentive for civilized behavior in their minds.

The threat of such a crisis of conscience has been used as an argument against evolution since Darwin first proposed it.  It was used by the prosecution in the infamous John Scopes trial, and even today is rehashed and regurgitated by creationist groups like Answers in Genesis.

I’m not so sure that there’s a way around this roadblock. How does one persuade a person to step over a ledge if said person is utterly convinced that they’ll tread onto a slippery slope?

Framing it like a religion instead of science

There are others still who are taken in by deceitful rhetoric like “evolution is just a theory”, people who don’t believe the science because they don’t understand it.

I suspect that a major reason why people don’t “get” evolution is that they try to understand the theory as something that it’s not: an infallible history that’s conveniently spelled out for them.  Unfortunately, science doesn’t offer the romance or clarity of religious mythology, no matter how badly our human minds want it to (not to say it can’t be exciting in its own right if you embrace your inner nerd, but most don’t).

The narrative of Darwin on his epic odyssey through the harsh environment of the Galapagos, suddenly experiencing a “eureka!” moment as the idea of natural selection dawns on him, is false.  It is nevertheless taught that way to schoolchildren to make the subject more fun (the same goes for the myth of Newton and the falling apple revealing to him the concept of gravity).

On the Origin of Species was a breakthrough 150 years ago, but it isn’t a sacred text.  A century and a half of new discoveries have rendered it obsolete, and the biologists of the 2160s will likely say the same about our most cutting-edge scientific literature today.

Unfortunately, people don’t seem to want an amendable explanation that says “We can’t know for sure, but this is what most probably happened based on what we’ve found so far.”  It doesn’t satisfy that desire for certainty that nags at all of us.  It leaves room for doubt, and makes many people uncomfortable.  No, people want an ironclad explanation that says “We know that this is what happened, for these irrefutable reasons.”

Science can’t offer that.  It’s driven by uncertainty – that’s what leads to new discoveries and new questions to be answered.  Until the American public learns to accept that, how can we expect them to accept evolution?

Science

Remember: Not All Primates Are Monkeys!

Every year my research group take a trip together, and this year we decided to travel to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. I hadn’t visited this zoo since I was a teenager, so I was really looking forward to it.

The Cleveland Zoo has been in its current location for over 100 years, and boasts one of the most diverse collections of primates in North America. Fortunately, I work in Kent State’s Anthropology Department, and many of the people I was traveling with are primate experts. This meant, of course, that the primate exhibits ranked #1 on our list of things to see.

It was strikingly apparent, however, that despite the enthusiasm of the other visitors, most of them had real trouble identifying even the most basic differences among primates.

For example, I saw one child watching an animal climb a tree and heard him ask if it was a squirrel. This was a forgivable mistake, since he was around 4 years old, and the animal in question was about the size of a large squirrel. However, what really struck me was his mother’s reply. “No, it’s just a monkey,” she said dismissively, despite the fact that display was clearly labeled Mongoose Lemur (Lemur mongoz).

Not a squirrel! A Mongoose Lemur (Lemur mongoz) at the Cleveland Zoo. © Daniel Sprockett 2011

I understand that the average person is not an expert in primate taxonomy. But this mother would have never told her child that a that a lion was a cheetah, or even a tiger. Despite their superficial similarities, it is obvious that these animals are fundamentally distinct. Parents know that even young children are capable of telling them apart. People don’t use their names interchangeably simply because they are both big cats. So why is it acceptable to use the name “monkey” for all primates?

Lets take a look at when these examples actually diverged from each other. Lions, cheetahs, and tigers all belong to the family Felidae, which first arose about 25 million years ago. According to the Time Tree of Life, a website that gives approximate divergence times for various groups of organisms, lions (Panthera leo) and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) diverged about 9.4 million years ago. Lions and tigers (Panthera tigris) are actually two species in the same genus, and only diverged about 3.7 million years ago. In fact, lions and tigers are so closely related that they can even form hybrids, know as a liger (if the male is a lion) or tigon (if the male is a tiger). Yet these two species of cat are almost never confused.

Lemurs, on the other hand, are drastically different from other primates. They are classified as a suborder of primates called strepsirrhini, which forms its own branch of the primate family tree. Lemurs diverged from other primates around 77.4 million years ago, and began evolving separately when they became geographically isolated on the island of Madagascar. The other major lineage of primates is the haplorhines, which includes platyrrhines (New World Monkeys) and catarrhines (Old World Monkeys and Apes).

As you can see in the figure above, the word “monkey” doesn’t refer to a single group of animals. All monkeys share a common ancestor, but that ancestor gave rise to more than just monkeys. Evolutionary biologists describe this type of pattern as being “paraphyletic.”

A Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus) reflects on life at the Cleveland Zoo. © Daniel Sprockett 2011

Later that day, I was taking this photograph of a flanged adult male orangutan when I overheard a child ask if these were the chimpanzees. “No,” her dad replied, “chimps are monkeys.”

Now, I know that lemurs are not the most well-known primates. In fact, the only famous lemur I can think of is King Julien XIII, the ring-tailed lemur voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen in the Dreamworks movie Madagascar. But that excuse goes right out the window when you begin talking about apes. Apes are by far the most well-known primate group – you literally see them every day!

I’m not the only one that feels this way. Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth recently recounted some of her negative experiences attempting to educate zoo visitors on the differences between apes and monkeys:

Apes are gibbons, siamangs, orangutans, gorillas, chimps, and people. We apes don’t have tails and we have big brains and advanced cognitive skills among other traits. Monkeys have tails (even ones that look tailless have little stubs) and most have much smaller brains (an exception being the capuchin).

Apes and monkeys are separate categories of animals. This is why calling an ape a monkey sounds absolutely crazy and that is why some people just can’t help themselves and morph into prickish pedants around ignorant zoo visitors.

So the next time you visit a zoo, please remember: not all primates are monkeys!