Mar 27, 2009

Is Earth 10,000 years old?

Darwin used to be a deeply religious man. He studied theology at Cambridge and as a young man he looked forward to the lifelong service of a cleric. His professional outlook changed dramatically after he embarked in 1831 on a five-year voyage around the world aboard the HMS Beagle. His observations led him to develop the theory of natural selection, the process by which organisms that are best adapted to their environment produce more offspring while those less suited eventually die out. In a stroke of unparalleled genius he obtained the scintillating insight that all living beings are connected through a long lineage that goes back billions of years, to a common ancestor. That indeed all life is one.

For the next twenty years he meticulously crafted and weighted the implications to his theory. One the one hand, evolution tied well with his egalitarian and anti-slavery ideas. It demonstrated in a scientific and rational way that all humans were born equal regardless of race or color of skin. But Darwin was deeply concerned because his insight clashed directly with the biblical description of life. So he decided to keep his work virtually secret, confiding only to a few of his closest friends. Fortuitously, Darwin was a man of his time. In the heart of the Victorian Era, there was much evidence pointing to the uneasy fact that Earth was very much older than the 10,000 years religious scholars estimated to be. Lyell’s geological notions and Malthus’s theory on demographics spurred Darwin on, while torrents of collected fossils poured into England from all corners of the British Empire illustrating that Earth had been through many previous epochs when other, now extinct, creatures lived. Why didn’t the Bible say anything about that? The untimely death of Darwin’s daughter Anne in 1851 at the age of ten threw a devastating blow to Darwin’s religious beliefs. Nine years later he finally decided to publish his seminal book on “The Origin of Species”.

Just as Darwin predicted, the reaction to his ideas from religious believers was a combination of denial and ridicule…which happened mostly on the other side of the Atlantic. By the beginning of the 20th century many States in the US had passed laws that banned the teaching of evolution at schools, a situation which lasted well into the 60s. It was the Soviets putting Sputnik in orbit that prompted President Eisenhower to reexamine the quality of scientific education for young Americans, and therefore insist that science, and indeed evolution, be taught at secondary level. America had to regain its scientific edge in order to win the Cold War, and the Congress agreed that the constitutional separation between Church and State ought to be enforced in the schools. Federal Courts begun to try cases where teachers were persecuted from State School Boards, for teaching evolution. In a series of famous rulings the courts defended science and declared “Creationism” – the notion that Earth and Humans were created by God just like it says in the Book of Genesis – as well its pseudoscientific offshoot “Intelligent Design” to be religion, not science.
And yet, despite all that, recent polls indicate that only 14% of Americans believe that humans evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. On the contrary, nearly 45% completely trust the Biblical version of Adam and Eve. It seems that no matter what Federal Courts decide and what scientists publically decry, minds are next to impossible to change.
But why is this so important? Because confusion between evidence-based science and faith-based religion can only lead to the detriment of the former. Take, for example, alchemy and chemistry. Both deal with matter and reactions between chemical substances. Their respective laboratories may look strikingly similar to the untrained eye. And yet they differ in something very fundamental. Alchemy is obsessed with the transmutation of metals to gold. After many centuries of trial and error it produced nothing. Chemistry on the other hand, once it separated from faith-based alchemy and adopted the scientific method, managed to produce the wonders of our technological civilization, including medicinal drugs that have saved - and save - millions of lives. Abandoning scientific enquiry, rejecting evidence whenever it clashes with scripture, sanctioning academic liberties on the basis of dogma, and obsessing with “proving” religious notions, can only result in our world returning to the Middle Ages. That’s what is at stake here.

And is not an American problem only. Greece has the lowest public acceptance of evolution in the EU. Thirty per cent of the population accepts the Genesis narrative, and another twenty percent strongly doubt that humans evolved from apes. A few years ago the then General Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs (sic), when asked about the Ministry’s view on evolution, responded that “evolution is just a theory”, meaning that it has not been proven yet! Evolutionary theory, although included in the school’s textbooks, is almost never taught because it is part of the material that Greek students are examined upon. Elsewhere in Europe the situation is only slightly better, and even in the United Kingdom evolution is seriously challenged by Christian fundamentalists and Islamic hardliners.

So is there a way to reconcile evolution with the Bible? Pope John Paul II in 1996 all but accepted the fossil record and the scientifically calculated age of Planet Earth as true. And yet the Catholic Church remains ambivalent as to the mechanisms that guide the evolution of species. Where most scientists see the mindless hand of chance genetic mutations, Catholics see the guiding spirit of divine providence. The dialogue seems like an impossible discussion between deaf people separated by a thick wall. Recently, and rather amusingly perhaps, it took the form of advertising banners on double-decker buses across London, with Christian fundamentalists defending the doctrine of God-the-Creator and atheists refuting biblical belief as nonsense.
At the heart of the debate lies the irreconcilable contrast between two fundamental narratives of Western civilization: one written by science, the other purportedly by the Word of God. It is the Book of Genesis versus the Origin of Species, the former remaining unchanged through the ages, the later continuously updated as new data come to light - from genetics and fossils - that support the workings of natural selection. You have to believe Genesis to be true, but you do not have to do the same with evolution. You can doubt evolution all you like, for science is the art of skepticism and doubt. The caveat it that science also requires you to be brave enough to accept the evidence, even when it upsets your most deeply-held beliefs.
There are of course people of faith who regard the Bible as an allegory and therefore claim to have no qualms accepting a scientific narrative too. But as Richard Dawkins has poignantly commented, they do not seem to truly appreciate the fact that was so profound to Darwin: that if one accepts evolution one must automatically exclude God from life’s equation. Because evolution explains everything. There are no missing factors or mysteries left. The fundamentalists in Texas understand this well and hence their relentless struggle to eradicate Darwinism from their schools’ curricula. So if you happen to be one who does not believe that Earth is 10,000 years old, and yet you still believe in a biblical God, think again. Unfortunately, you cannot have the cake of science and eat it too.
Published in the Athens News on 27th March 2009

Feb 21, 2009

Temnothorax de Condorcet

How the collective intelligence of social animals can provide a new paradigm for ecological decision-making (notes for a forthcoming lecture at Panteion University)

Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) was a pioneer in applying mathematics to the social sciences. His jury theorem states that if each member of a voting group is more likely than not to make a correct decision, the probability that the highest vote of the group is the correct decision increases as the number of members of the group increases. The sum of information available per juror is also proportional to the probability of the correct decision, which means that the more individuals jurors know (or understand) the more likely is that a correct decision will be reached. Democracies are thus theoretically, or potentially, better than dictatorships because they can solve problems better by means of collective decisions. However, as a recent article in the Economist correctly pointed our, human societies are prone to groupthink which neutralizes the benefits of the jury theorem.

Groupthink is typically found in modern parliaments where members vote along party lines, regardless of information available. In societies at large groupthink often manifests as a result of brainwashing by the media. For example, once the financial crisis became headline news terrorists “disappeared”. Terrorists and terrorism, was the mainstay of media output since 9/11, as if the world was at the brink of being blown up by a mad suicide atom-bomber. Groupthink in the western world meant that citizens conditioned their political thinking under the spectre of terrorist threat, mainly coming from so-called Islamo-fascists dreaming of resurrecting the caliphate of the Middle Ages. All that has disappeared now, and replaced with a new enemy of the people: the amoral bankers. The new fear is losing everything, job, savings, home in a black financial hole.

Along with the terrorists global warming has also disappeared from the foreground. Who cares about the melting of arctic ice when there is a meltdown of financial institutions? And so on.

So the question arises how are we, the human race, become able to deal with global problems (poverty, ecology, financial institutions, epidemics, etc.) when we are constantly swayed by the forever trembling cyclopic eye of the media? How can we, the jurors, arrive at the best possible decisions, when information is restricted, or conditioned by groupthink?

A possible answer may come from evolutionary biology. Darwinian sociobiologists studying the behaviour of social animals such as bees and ants, are beginning to understand the way those creatures chose between various options. The ant species Temnothorax albipennis, studied by Nigel Franks of the University of Bristol, establishes a new nest by attenuating information-sharing of best routes amongst scouts. When a suitable place is identified the scouts begin to lead other scouts to the new site. To speed things up, the ants have developed a strategy whereby efficiency is increased by means of leading scouts back to the nest via the quickest route during the phase of migration. Thus, by going to and fro, more scouts become familiar with the route and the speed by which migration takes place increases. This type of dynamic – termed by the researches “reverse tandem runs” – resembles the loading of connections in a network.

rhaps then, the ants shows us the way too. Human networks may provide the answer to getting over groupthink, and utilizing human collective intelligence and collective decision-making. There are two main characteristics in human networks: firstly, that most individuals have few connections (some friends and family members only) and only a few are highly connected (the “connectors”); secondly, networks are clustered, i.e. they tend to build around specific social groups (e.g. sharing the same profession, or hobby, etc.). If we manage to find strategies in human networks whereby we connectors increase the load of connections by means of increased information, then we may be able to get over the groupthink problem. Connectors have an obvious evolutionary motive to perform this task, namely to safeguard - or increase - their prominence and status in the network. To validate information passed to a network by the connectors, one may use the power of clustering. In clusters, peers are able to perform instant validation of information. This is apparent in readers’ commentary in news websites, as well as wikis.

Collective decisions are complex but so are the problems that currently face humanity. Current global institutions, such the UN, or the IMF, or the G7, are built on 20th century ideas and technologies.  We must now develop new technologies and ideas in order to tap on the collective intelligence of human networks. The democracy of the 21st century will have to be less representative and more direct, in a totally new way. 

Feb 2, 2009

Darwin 101 for politicians

No other idea in human history has had a more profound impact on modern society than the evolutionary theory, independently conceived by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace 150 years ago. In neat, concise, transparent terms, it explains the multiversity of lifeforms that have replenished Earth since billions of years, the shooting of species from other species and, ultimately, the emergence of human beings. Its explanatory power is omnipotent. Evolution occurs because of natural selection. In the ever-changing environment of our planet creates conditions where certain, randomly appearing, traits in a species favor particular individuals over others, who then go on to procreate more often. By procreating they pass those favorable traits to their offspring, and this, over time, changes the whole profile of the species. A new species is thus born. From humble bacteria and viruses to sophisticated, intelligent, car-driving mammals, there has been not a single case in biology that has countered evolutionary theory. On the contrary, evolution has been confirmed again and again, not only by fossil records and discoveries in geology and the past climate of Earth but, more importantly perhaps, by probing into the nexus of life, the cell itself. The discovery of DNA as the principal promulgator of genetic information across generations has confirmed Darwin and Wallace beyond any doubt. We, and the apes, and the fish and the trees and every living thing, are indeed the products of natural selection, the descendants of a common unicellular great-great-grandfather that appeared on Earth some four billion years ago.

 It is therefore not at all surprising that such a powerful idea spilled over quickly from the curious observation of amphibious lizards and garrulous birds in the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon forest, and entered the controversial realm of human society. Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, was first to coin the term “eugenics” and reinterpret evolutionary theory as political philosophy. Faced with the dilemma of altruism that lead to medicine being supplied to the “poor”, the “feeble-minded” and the “sick”, and therefore ease the propagation of “inferiors”, he suggested that human society should develop towards a world of “superiors” by selectively breeding the best with the best. Being a liberal, Galton proposed that active measures should prune amongst the “poor” for those with talent.

 His proposition inspired, several decades later, the instigation of the welfare state in the UK. In the US, a virtually apartheid state in the beginning of the 20th century, eugenics were taken more literally and several States introduced forced sterilization of mentally-ill patients and others who were deemed “inferior”. Interestingly, Karl Marx was very excited about evolutionary theory. He sent Darwin a copy of his book “Das Kapital”, and wrote to his friends how evolution and class struggle seemed to go hand in hand happily. As species evolved through strife towards perfection so would human society, ultimately arriving at a classless utopia through the uprising of the oppressed workers. And yet later on, in Soviet Union, Darwinism fell quickly out of favor. Orthodox communists of the Stalinist era supported instead the acquisition of new genetic characteristics during one’s lifetime, which could then be passed on to one’s offsprings. This idea is called “Lamarckism” (from the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) and it made more sense to communist visionaries who dreamt of shaping man as the ultimate altruist. Trofim Lysenko, a notorious charlatan agronomist, denounced Darwin with the full support of the Communist Party and applied the flawed Lamarckian theory in Soviet agricultural projects, with disastrous effects.

 Evolutionary theory trumps all other explanations about life on Earth. Nevertheless, it is one thing to scientifically and unequivocally explain why bats have wings, or why we have five fingers in each hand instead of six, and totally different why the variation in intelligence, or prowess, or beauty. Implying a genetic cause for such inequalities - as evolutionary theory surely does - smacks of biological determinist: i.e. that you are who you are because you were born like this, and there is nothing you can do about it. Which goes against the liberal ideology of freedom to chose and the right to prosper, as well as the socialist ideal of equality and justice. Thus, Social Darwinism, the idea that competition drives evolution in human societies, ultimately collided with almost every color in the political spectrum of the 20th century, except perhaps fascism and Nazism which saw in the “survival of the fittest” the foundation of their totalitarian and racist ideologies. Eugenics, originally inspired by a liberal thinker in Victorian England, was corrupted and ultimately led to the crematoria of Auschwitz. That tragic event alone was enough to tarnish Social Darwinism with a terrible reputation which persists to our day.

 Enter sociobiology, which many critics consider as Social Darwinism in disguise. Originally inspired to explain complex behavior in the animal world, sociobiology is routinely applied to interpret just about everything, from the dot com and real estate bubbles, to why rich men attract women more and why wealth is relative and never absolute. A new breed of economists, inspired by evolutionary thinking, takes issue with Adam Smith’s original assumption of rational players in the economy. These “behavioral economists” explain the stock markets in terms of instincts genetically inherited from our hominid ancestors that rummaged the ancestral savannas of Africa. Greed that drives markets up is seen as a battle for status amongst players who want to increase their wealth and therefore their chances of mating with a preferred member of the opposite sex. Fear – the factor that swings markets down - as the result of not wanting to lose high status, which in human societies is determined, and defined, by money.

 Notable sociobiologists such as E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, contend that sociobiology is science, not ideology. That, unlike Social Darwinism, it does not say what ought to be done but why something happens. Yes, but surely if one has an explanation for social behavior then one ought to be compelled to take action according to that scientific knowledge. If Darwinism explains, for example, murder as a way for hierarchically-low (i.e. poorer or destitute) young males to assert their dominance, then punitive measures should be restructured accordingly. Moreover, critics of sociobiology, such as the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, argue that traits such as genre or identity are social constructs and have nothing to do with inherited genes. It is nurture not nature, they say, that carries the day and therefore a socialist utopia of socio-economic equality is ultimately feasible.

The debate of nature versus nurture is bound to define political thinking in the current century too. For, if evolution provides us with a scientific insight to human nature, we must rid ourselves of ideology, whether liberal or socialist, and embrace a neutral, scientific perspective on society. The only caveat, alas so common in science, is to distinguish between cause and effect. Are we humans what we are because of our genes? Or are we because of what we think ourselves to be?

published in the Athens News, on Friday 30th January

Jan 4, 2009

The roots (and futility) of conservation

The modern idea of conservation was born in 19th century evangelical United States and has its roots in literary - i.e. anti-evolution - Christian ideas about life on Earth and the age of our planet. According to these ideas, life on Earth is static and does not evolve. It was created ex nihilo by an omnipotent designer a few thousand years ago. The last of the designer’s creation, us humans, were bestowed with the obligation of presiding and preserving Earth’s Garden of Life, God’s Creation. Hence, the creation of Yellowstone, the first national natural park of the world, was vociferously argued by Theodore Roosevelt on the basis of Christian duty, thus swinging the republican vote in favor of spending a considerable sum of federal money on the project.

Since then, natural conservation has an aura of sanctity about it. This sanctity has an appeal for many, and brings together very disparate groups of people under one umbrella, namely the “saving of the planet”. Such a premise is misled, unscientific and dangerous.

I have already argued the reasons for being misled. It is unscientific because to try to “preserve” a dynamic system such is life on Earth is simply futile. It is like trying to preserve a sunny day for ever. The difference is one of time scale only. Our “sunny day” is the Pleistocene (plus Holocene – for those who like making the distinction) Era. We, today, see the world in an evolutionary, geological and climatic snapshot of its last 1.8 million years. However, the film reel so-far is 4.5 billion years, or 4,500 million years. “Conservation”, in the sense that is currently dominant, is the unscientific attempt to stop the film of evolution.

 That is why conservation can be also dangerous. The current climate debate is an example. The idea that humanity can somehow “stop” the planet getting warmer, and somehow” return” to a pre-industrial time of low CO2 levels, is not only unscientific and futile, but diverts considerable global resources to the wrong kind of project.

 So what can the “right” project be? Certainly not to lay waste on Mother Earth by polluting the air, the ground and the sea, and killing every living species! The idea of conservation must undergo serious scientific overhaul. The emphasis should shift from static to dynamic, and should encompass three main action areas:

 Increase our understanding on Earth’s systems and their interplay. Instead of studying systems separately, we need a cross-disciplinary approach to include the concurrent study of geological, climatic (i.e. atmospheric and oceanic), space and life feedback systems.

  1. Develop monitoring systems to observe and measure human interference with Earth’s feedback systems.
  2. Develop technologies that can support a comfortable and healthy life for all human beings, which operate in harmony with Earth’s feedback systems.

 The current political, and dominant scientific, agenda must change.