By Dov Michaeli

I thought we hit bottom during George W’s cowboy administration, when the White House forbade scientists to speak their mind, altered their scientific reports to fit an ideology, and tried to dismantle all science-based accomplishments in cleaning the air we breathe, the water we drink and preserving our natural heritage. I guess I underestimated how much worse things can get. I watched in disbelief when in the first Republican debate in Iowa the moderator asked the candidates “whoever does not believe in evolution, please raise you hand”; all hands went dutifully up. Hardly anybody in the media picked up on this dismal spectacle at the time. I guess our media gurus excused this shameful performance by attributing it to political expediency. I thought so too, until Rick Perry stormed onto the political stage. Out- cowboying the cowboy that preceded him, he announced that the whole global warming idea is a vast conspiracy by thousands of scientists to get grant money, and that evolution is “just a theory, full of holes”. Isn’t there in the republican Sodom just one righteous man? Well, Paul Krugman in his 28 August column “republicans Against Science” found one:

Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and ambassador to China, isn’t a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. And that’s too bad, because Mr. Hunstman has been willing to say the unsayable about the G.O.P. — namely, that it is becoming the “anti-science party.” This is an enormously important development. And it should terrify us. “

But Paul Krugman is an economist, and a liberal at that! Not quite an acceptable source of unbiased opinion. Well, Richard Dawkins, a British eminent evolutionary geneticist posted the following on his blog site on August 25.

“There is nothing unusual about Governor Rick Perry. Uneducated fools can be found in every country and every period of history, and they are not unknown in high office. What is unusual about today’s Republican party (I disavow the ridiculous ‘GOP’ nickname, because the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt has lately forfeited all claim to be considered ‘grand’) is this: In any other party and in any other country, an individual may occasionally rise to the top in spite of being an uneducated ignoramus. In today’s Republican Party ‘in spite of’ is not the phrase we need. Ignorance and lack of education are positive qualifications, bordering on obligatory. Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.

Any other organization — a big corporation, say, or a university, or a learned society – -when seeking a new leader, will go to immense trouble over the choice. The CVs of candidates and their portfolios of relevant experience are meticulously scrutinized, their publications are read by a learned committee, references are taken up and scrupulously discussed, the candidates are subjected to rigorous interviews and vetting procedures. Mistakes are still made, but not through lack of serious effort.

The population of the United States is more than 300 million and it includes some of the best and brightest that the human species has to offer, probably more so than any other country in the world. There is surely something wrong with a system for choosing a leader when, given a pool of such talent and a process that occupies more than a year and consumes billions of dollars, what rises to the top of the heap is George W Bush. Or when the likes of Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin can be mentioned as even remote possibilities.

A politician’s attitude to evolution is perhaps not directly important in itself. It can have unfortunate consequences on education and science policy but, compared to Perry’s and the Tea Party’s pronouncements on other topics such as economics, taxation, history and sexual politics, their ignorance of evolutionary science might be overlooked. Except that a politician’s attitude to evolution, however peripheral it might seem, is a surprisingly apposite litmus test of more general inadequacy. This is because unlike, say, string theory where scientific opinion is genuinely divided, there is about the fact of evolution no doubt at all. Evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science, and he who denies it betrays woeful ignorance and lack of education, which likely extends to other fields as well. Evolution is not some recondite backwater of science, ignorance of which would be pardonable. It is the stunningly simple but elegant explanation of our very existence and the existence of every living creature on the planet. Thanks to Darwin, we now understand why we are here and why we are the way we are. You cannot be ignorant of evolution and be a cultivated and adequate citizen of today.

Darwin’s idea is arguably the most powerful ever to occur to a human mind. The power of a scientific theory may be measured as a ratio: the number of facts that it explains divided by the number of assumptions it needs to postulate in order to do the explaining. A theory that assumes most of what it is trying to explain is a bad theory. That is why the creationist or ‘intelligent design’ theory is such a rotten theory.

What any theory of life needs to explain is functional complexity. Complexity can be measured as statistical improbability, and living things are statistically improbable in a very particular direction: the direction of functional efficiency. The body of a bird is not just a prodigiously complicated machine, with its trillions of cells – each one in itself a marvel of miniaturized complexity – all conspiring together to make muscle or bone, kidney or brain. Its interlocking parts also conspire to make it good for something – in the case of most birds, good for flying. An aero-engineer is struck dumb with admiration for the bird as flying machine: its feathered flight-surfaces and ailerons sensitively adjusted in real time by the on-board computer which is the brain; the breast muscles, which are the engines, the ligaments, tendons and lightweight bony struts all exactly suited to the task. And the whole machine is immensely improbable in the sense that, if you randomly shook up the parts over and over again, never in a million years would they fall into the right shape to fly like a swallow, soar like a vulture, or ride the oceanic up-draughts like a wandering albatross. Any theory of life has to explain how the laws of physics can give rise to a complex flying machine like a bird or a bat or a pterosaur, a complex swimming machine like a tarpon or a dolphin, a complex burrowing machine like a mole, a complex climbing machine like a monkey, or a complex thinking machine like a person.

Darwin explained all of this with one brilliantly simple idea – natural selection, driving gradual evolution over immensities of geological time. His is a good theory because of the huge ratio of what it explains (all the complexity of life) divided by what it needs to assume (simply the nonrandom survival of hereditary information through many generations). The rival theory to explain the functional complexity of life – creationism – is about as bad a theory as has ever been proposed. What it postulates (an intelligent designer) is even more complex, even more statistically improbable than what it explains. In fact it is such a bad theory it doesn’t deserve to be called a theory at all, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be taught alongside evolution in science classes.

The simplicity of Darwin’s idea, then, is a virtue for three reasons. First, and most important, it is the signature of its immense power as a theory, when compared with the mass of disparate facts that it explains – everything about life including our own existence. Second, it makes it easy for children to understand (in addition to the obvious virtue of being true!), which means that it could be taught in the early years of school. And finally, it makes it extremely beautiful, one of the most beautiful ideas anyone ever had as well as arguably the most powerful. To die in ignorance of its elegance, and power to explain our own existence, is a tragic loss, comparable to dying without ever having experienced great music, great literature, or a beautiful sunset.

There are many reasons to vote against Rick Perry. His fatuous stance on the teaching of evolution in schools is perhaps not the first reason that springs to mind. But maybe it is the most telling litmus test of the other reasons, and it seems to apply not just to him but, lamentably, to all the likely contenders for the Republican nomination. The ‘evolution question’ deserves a prominent place in the list of questions put to candidates in interviews and public debates during the course of the coming election.”

Nobody could have said it better.

The Lesson of History

I used to think that the more extreme those Republican crazies get, the better; the by and large sane people of America are bound to reject these fools. But I am having some second thoughts about it. In post-WWI Germany there was a deep economic crisis and a moderate, progressive government. A small fringe party, the National Socialist party, abbreviated the Nazi Party, promised to create jobs for all, cut the deficit, default on the  German debt incurred as a result of the war, get rid of the foreign immigrants and  gypsy and Jewish minorities, and send all “Marxists and Bolsheviks” to concentration camps. And how did the Marxists react? They said “bring it on”, and the educated and civilized middle class will reject this crazy talk. The government of the time –social democratic and totally inept, somewhat like our own Democratic party, failed to counter the propaganda machine of the Nazis.  Echoes of our situation today?

 Krugman sums up his column thusly. “Now, we don’t know who will win next year’s presidential election. But the odds are that one of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges — environmental, economic, and more — that’s a terrifying prospect”.

Indeed.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

3 COMMENTS

  1. “I watched in disbelief when in the first Republican debate in Iowa the moderator asked the candidates “whoever does not believe in evolution, please raise you hand”; all hands went dutifully up.”

    Wait. “All hands”?

    Are you talking 2011, or 2007? In 2007, only 3 whackos raised their hand, and it was pretty widely reported.

    I’ve seen no evolution/hand-raising question in the 2011 debates. And I doubt very seriously Huntsman or Ron Paul would raise their hands.

  2. I want to second Jim’s comment- THANK YOU for being a voice of reason. It scares me to think of what could come of these elections, and subsequently, the progress we could make in medicine and health care if people in office think scientists are a bunch of scam artists and see it virtuous to embrace creationism over evolution.

  3. Thanks Dov. Your blog is educational and insightful. Intelligent, educated people sit there watching this circus and wonder what the hell is going on. Are we that stupid as a nation?
    Jim

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