Category Archives: Natural Science

Descent with Random Modification … Until Now

Bernard,

In line with my self-appointed mission of cleaning up the language of evolutionary science, I offer this.

The current issue of the Skeptic contains a chapter of a book about evolution. The author writes of “[Darwin’s] discovery of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection”. I submit that the correct description is “the theory of evolution by means of descent with random modification”.

I see the concept of “natural selection” as a purely physical layer atop something more fundamental and more important to the theory. Every inanimate and animate thing changes all the time (time == change). Some living individual things prosper more than others in their current environment. The physical earth-water-air-light environment of an individual living thing usually changes relatively slowly, but the living food-family-competitors environment of an individual living thing often changes quickly. Because an individual living thing’s DNA cannot change, individuals must die. These facts drive why living things must evolve or else disappear, but they are mostly independent of how living things evolve. Living lineages evolve (change) only through descent with modification, which Darwin saw and described clearly although without knowing the mechanisms.

Descent with modification has been completely random for billions of years: random flaws in protein replication, and random recombination of genes in sexual reproduction.

But humans can now carry out purposeful, directed evolution, for example by using CRISPR to wipe out malaria by genetically engineering the mosquitoes through which it spreads, or to wipe out Lyme disease by genetically engineering the rodents through which it spreads.

We are at a singularity. Now.

Wayne

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Filed under Biology, Evolution, Natural Science, Uncategorized

What’s Wrong with this Cartoon?

From the New Yorker issue of April 23, 2018, this nicely done cartoon brings a chuckle. But it’s nearly all wrong.

The sun began “working” billions of years ago. The sun would emit the same energy whether or not any planets revolved or revolve around it. The sun’s energy is pure physics, a chance result of the Big Bang.

The sun’s emitted energy slams into this planet, which is a mote or speck in its neighborhood. This planet is a hot coal on the inside, a cold coal at the surface except where the sun beats down on it. Outside of gravity, nearly everything we see and feel on the planet is powered by the sun’s energy. In the background the planet grinds away, floating continents and spewing relatively small amounts of energy out of volcanoes and underwater vents. Life on this planet might have started around those underwater vents, but today it’s driven almost completely by sunlight – i.e. by starlight from the local star.

Our sun relentlessly presses life along. The sun doesn’t know it presses life along and it cannot care that it does. The sun does not support life! Its energy sparks and powers life, crashing into rock and dirt and water and air and other existing life, spiraling up more and more complex life forms, dancing, spinning, pushing – but always blindly, without purpose. One asteroid hit could all but destroy life on this planet. The sun could never notice.

We daily give free ammunition to creationists and intelligent-design advocates by anthropomorphizing our environment and unfolding existence. The sooner we start using accurate, unsentimental language and images to describe and discuss life on this planet, the sooner we will mature as a species and recognize our actual origin and place in the universe – as an unplanned and un-designed means by which this planet and this solar system have happened to emerge into self-awareness. I hope you’ll join me in making that happen.

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Filed under Evolution, Natural Science, Uncategorized

Global Warming VII – Carbon Dioxide History

Wayne,

Continuing my series of posts (see Global Warming I, Global Warming II, Global Warming III, and Global Warming IV, Global Warming V, Global Warming VI) about Global Warming I have graphs of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I think that these are significant for several reasons and in several contexts.

First, these data support my contention that no citizen should vote for any Republican for any office from school crossing guard and dog catcher and higher. That party must be delivered an unmistakable message from voters that it cannot invent its own reality, and it must stop damaging the world.

Second, these data show powerful evidence, through correlation, if nothing else, that human activity has led to a major and still unending increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. As the knowledge that tells us that water vapor and carbon dioxide and some other gases are major factors determining Earth’s climate and temperature goes back more than 100 years and is not in question even by global warming deniers, those deniers have the serious problem of demonstrating why the major increase in atmospheric CO2 has not caused the observed surface temperature increase of recent decades.

Third, these data show that, as many of those who deny the importance of global warming assert, the climate has always changed and will continue to do so. But those who deny the importance of global warming with this true claim, many politicians among them, neglect to mention that the change in CO2 concentrations that we are experiencing is unprecedented in the past million years, at least, and that it extends far beyond the range of any earlier fluctuations.

Fourth, those who assert that humanity should and can merely adapt to these changes, an adaptation that they claim will not be difficult, neglect to mention that the entire span of human civilized existence, about 10,000 years, has also been a span of stable CO2 and stable climate. Thus, we have no certain ideas as to what will happen to the climate in the future nor any way to predict whether civilization will be able to maintain itself. Although this will not make much difference to me, now that I am an old guy, I am an alarmist because I believe alarm is justified.

Fifth, I apologize to coming generations for the mess my generation and a few earlier ones are leaving for them. We have much to be proud of, but global warming is a horrid blot upon our reputations. Continue reading

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Filed under Climate Change, Environment, Natural Science, Physics

Evolution is a result, not a cause

Bernard, This New York Times article, Meet Luca, the Ancestor of All Living Things, exemplifies what I see as wrong-way thinking about evolution, thinking that directly or indirectly attributes purpose and foresight to evolution. Below are examples of what it says as opposed to what I believe it should say. Added text looks like this, deleted text. The article says: A surprisingly specific genetic portrait of the ancestor of all living things has been generated by scientists…

  • I maintain it should say: A surprisingly specific genetic portrait of a proposed ancestor of all living things has been generated by scientists…
  • Comment: Is it absolutely certain that change and natural selection didn’t winnow down more complex microbes, filtering out unused genetic material, resulting in what looks like an ancestor but is actually a residue?

Wayne,

I saw that interesting report too. The researchers applied powerful tools to uncover what genes might have been those of the now long extinct Last Common Ancestor of all living things, LUCA. All knowledgeable scientists, and me too, agree with you that evolution has no purpose or goal to achieve. The fancy way to say this is that it is not teleological. The sources of modification to any creature’s genome are random, and their direction is random. Some of these changes produce changes to the reproductive fitness of that organism in its particular environment, leading to the increase of the fraction of the population with those particular changes. But natural selection is not the only mechanism that leads to changes in a population’s genome. Research in recent decades has shown that random drift in a population the result of genomic changes that are either neutral with respect to natural selection or not exposed to natural selection are important sources of genomic and species change. Continue reading

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Filed under Biology, Evolution, Natural Science

AlphaGo Computer Defeats World Champion Go Player. But Does AlphaGo Think?

Bernard,

This Google blog entry nicely summarizes what happened when a computer beat a world-champion Go player 4 games to 1 last month: “…while the match has been widely billed as ‘man vs. machine,’ AlphaGo is really a human achievement. [Korean champion] Lee Sedol and the AlphaGo team both pushed each other toward new ideas, opportunities and solutions…”. The outcome surprised many or most Go players and artificial intelligence (AI) people, coming perhaps even decades sooner than expected.

(For context, I play but not strongly, best-ever rank maybe 6 or 7 kyu. Wikipedia has a good article about the game. In chess you kill the opposing king, but in Go you only need to carve out more market share than your opponent.)

AlphaGo remembers, reasons (applies logic) and learns. But does AlphaGo think? Does it exhibit intelligence? And what does its victory say about artificial intelligence? I answer yes, yes, and some but not much.

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Filed under Biology, Evolution, Natural Science

Global Warming VI

Wayne,

As I mentioned in Global Warming V, climate scientists published a major review and additional new work about sea level rise. Here’s the excellent New York Times article about it, and here’s an informative blog about these results written by one of the scientists. I showed a couple of the graphs from Dr. Rahmstorf’s blog post to my Physics 125 students for a recent Science in the News. We don’t get to climate change in the book for several weeks, but along with that temperature graph for 2015 in Tampa, sea level rise is directly relevant to my students. Our classroom is about 10 feet above the normal level of the Hillsborough River flowing about 50 meters away.

Here’s what Dr. Rahmstorf calls “the main result.”

Fig. 1 Reconstruction of the global sea-level evolution based on proxy data from different parts of the world. The red line at the end (not included in the paper) illustrates the further global increase since 2000 by 5-6 cm from satellite data.
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Filed under Climate Change, Natural Science, Science in the News

Global Warming V

Wayne,

I confess that I have not posted Climate Change IV yet, about comparing the surface and satellite temperature measurements, but the graph below appeared along with an excellent New York Times article that reported on a recent major study and review of long term trends in sea levels. Seas Are Rising at Fastest Rate in Last 28 Centuries .

Here’s the main part of the interesting graph, which I showed to my U of Tampa students for our Science in the News discussion.

Here’s the link to this: How Much Warmer Was Your City in 2015? . Continue reading

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Filed under Climate Change, Natural Science, Science in the News