Category Archives: Biology and Evolution

Seriously?!

Look, I know that all kinds of people are up in arms about this autism “epidemic,” but few of these idiots have actually been thinking rationally.  I came across this idiot over in the comments at this post from a great blog I regularly frequent.

I try to understand these people.  I really do.  But when they start invoking Godwin’s law and just start spouting crazy I can no longer take them seriously.  These people seem to be completely devoted to the fact that their son/daughter cannot be developmentally delayed due to anything other than vaccines, environmental “toxins,” or some other bullshit excuse.  I’m not saying that those things may not play a role in their development, but to blame those things, and ONLY those things, with little to no empirical evidence is irresponsible at best.  Development is a fickle beast affected by many things, but genetics plays the largest role.  In fact, most teratogens have a relatively narrow window during which they have the terrible effects of which you hear.

Essentially what this comes down to is what you are willing to believe based on the evidence.  Using the best evidence we have (and it’s damn good evidence) vaccines don’t cause autism.  I’m far from an expert, but being in neurobiology for as long as I have I do know human cognition and other basic medical principles very well.  Here is my take on this.

What is currently known as autism (or ASD) is a wide range of relatively mild to severe cognitive disorders that have been common in humans for centuries.  The reason for the wide range in autism disorders is due to our relative lack of knowledge about the origins of the disorder and our current need to classify anything and everything that isn’t “normal” as a disorder (don’t get me started on the fucked up reasons why), so we just lump them all into the super-diagnosis of what the DSMIV (and soon to be V) calls ASD.  There hasn’t been an increase in the number of people with autism, but there has been an exponential growth in the awareness AND diagnosis of autism, making the overall numbers appear to be skyrocketing when in fact they have probably been pretty stable for the past few decades at least.  Those kids you used to make fun of for being weird back in the ’70s and ’80s?   Yeah, they’re now diagnosed with mild autism or Aspergers.  Does that mean that the number actually rose?  No, it doesn’t, we’re just changing what it’s called.

Do I have any fool-proof evidence of this?  No, I do not, and I don’t pretend to (unlike those anti-vax freaks).  I’m using personal observation and common sense to piece together information that doesn’t appear to make a whole lot of sense otherwise.  For instance, if mercury poisoning is what was causing so many autism cases then why did the numbers continue to grow even after taking thimerosal out of the most prevelent vaccines?  Oh wait, you’ll just blame it on the other “toxins” in the vaccines.  Sorry, I forgot that logic doesn’t play a part in your thought process.  I shouldn’t be surprised though considering nearly all of you “vaccine caused my baby’s autism!” people lack even the most basic understanding of biological principles and yet still talk like you know something.

My advice: shut the fuck up, love your child for what he/she is, and do your very best to raise him/her regardless of the circumstances.

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Filed under Biology and Evolution, crazy, just sad, medicine, pet peeve

A post worth reading, I promise. You’ll learn a some important things.

In place of the post I was going to write about my fantastic weekend I decided to write one about (go figure) evolution, religion, and my mom.  The idea about this post came about through a conversation I had with my parents over dinner and the ride to the bus station.

A reoccurring theme in my time since college has been a low-intensity war between me and my mother over our disagreements in the science vs. religion wars.  This current episode was sparked by an article in my parent’s local newspaper by an old scientist with “fifty years experience” whatever the hell that means (couldn’t find it online, but I’ll add a link if I do in the future).  I read his opinion piece and much of it made perfect sense.  He correctly, if simply, described what science is and then went off the deep end.  Huge jumps of logic were made by describing biological features and then, with no explanation given, attributing those features to his idea of God (which happens to be the standard Christian one).  This gentleman then finishes his article by calling evolution an “invalid theory” and attributing everything to God.

I think my mother thought she had me cornered when she had me read this op-ed.  I mean, here is a guy who apparently has some credentials (but so do these people, and they’re all nutjobs) and is arguing against what she believes to be my position.  Largely, she was correct in that assumption, but when it comes to something as complex as science and religion the devil is in the details.  Through the conversation I had with my parents (though mostly my evangelical mother) I had to continually correct a number of false ideas about their understanding of science.  Namely, science never does, and never can, PROVE something.  This is a subtle, yet critical point about science that is often overlooked by those not intimately involved in the process.  Over and over I had to correct my mother when she said the word “prove” because science doesn’t “prove” anything (at least in the strict definition of the word).  The word “prove” can be, and often is, used colloquially within certain circles out of simplicity.  If I find, through rigorous scientific trials, that there is less of a certain protein in cell A I will often tell other scientists that I “proved” it because I know they understand what I mean.  However, outside of those circles syntax and semantics become increasingly important and slip-ups need to be corrected.

(I swear this rambling is going somewhere.  This is getting to the crux of my argument with my mother.)

While most people are taught about the scientific method at some point very few are taught about the basic premises of the philosophy of science.  One premise essentially states that natural processes have natural causes (go figure).  This is called methodological naturalism and is the basis of scientific thought.  My mother has a problem with this premise because it leaves no place for a god to exert it’s will upon the natural world.  Now, this is a very important distinction that I am going to explain.  Gods are, by definition, SUPERnatural (OUTSIDE/ABOVE nature) while methodological naturalism (science) is based only upon nature.  Therefore, if you add the premise of a SUPERnatural being in a scientific argument you invalidating it due to one of your premises being inherently flawed.  Science has no preconceived notion about the existence of a supernatural being (one may or may not exist), but it acts as through all natural processes have natural causes.

That was my mother’s main problem (though she had many others), but I was able to get through to her.  I made her honest as a Christian by admitting that her problems with science, and particularly evolution, were not scientifically based, but were instead based only on theology.  Science didn’t back her story up, so she decided to believe what she wanted to in order to continue believing in her idea of God.  I showed her what science has proven beyond a reasonable doubt (but not an unreasonable doubt) and she has decided to reject it based on her understanding of the Christian God.

It was a very difficult two hours explaining this to my parents, but in the end it was all worth it.  My mother is no longer delusional about science and I am happy with my efforts to defend what I have come to know and love, but I can’t help but feel a bit sad at my mother’s dismissal of the only way of truly knowing what goes on in this world around us.  It’s sad really, and I hope other Christians (and all other followers of religions) can one day be as truthful as my mother and admit that they don’t “believe” in evolution based solely on theological principles and stop hiding behind pseudoscience in order to sound more legitimate.

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Filed under Biology and Evolution, christianity, crazy, home, religion, Those Other Sciences

A new class of antibiotics? Don’t hold your breath.

Science reporting of new advances often pisses me the fuck off.  Take this for example.

Sounds great, right?  Of course it does!  It’s a fucking miracle antibiotic because it doesn’t trigger resistance.  Too bad it’s pure shit.

This isn’t the first time we have thought we could outsmart simple evolutionary processes and it won’t be the last (Carl Zimmer’s book Microcosm covers one or two of these false hopes if I remember correctly – it was an amazing book by the way).  The problem is that a single-celled organism is a very complex beast that has numerous ways of getting around nearly every problem it can come across because this organism doesn’t act as an individual.  Evolution works though populations, and an entire population of bacteria can arise from a single individual cell.  All it takes is one (what I term the Highlander Cell); this poses a serious public health issue.

These bacteria are crafty little buggers and every single year we learn more interesting things they do to survive and thrive in the face of even the most extreme environmental insults.  All we can do is attempt to slow their progress though an intelligent use of our current arsenal of weapons while continually developing new ones.  Current antibiotic resistance issues arise mainly because we use the few weapons we have in a very haphazard manner, and articles such as this one will do nothing to better educate the public to respect their single-celled invaders and urge those in charge of public health to act in the best interest of the public.  Instead, I see this therapy going the exact way every other antibiotic has gone in the past; it works great at first, but it is a false sense of security that will then lead to its overuse and eventual resistance.

I know I’m looking at the glass as half empty, but what else do you expect when ALL the glasses you’ve seen have been half empty?

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Filed under Biology and Evolution, just sad, news, sleep deprived, Those Other Sciences

The abuse of “theory”

Few scientific concepts are regularly abused as much as the scientific concept of a theory (I’m pretty sure the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is up there, but not quite reaching this level). What confuses most people is that the colloquial usage and the scientific usage are completely different.

The everyday usage typically hovers somewhere between “wild-ass guess” and “what kind of drugs are you on?” For example I have a theory that one of my neighbors is a serial killer and keeps the heads of his victims in his freezer and another one about how Courtney Love killed Kurt Cobain. Of course, I have no proof of this, but that’s not what the colloquial usage is all about. No proof is needed because it’s not something that is taken very seriously (or at least it shouldn’t be).

A scientific theory is about as far removed from the everyday usage as it could be. Essentially, it is an explanation based on a large amount of accumulated empirical evidence that is then used to future results. It is also the greatest honor that can be bestowed on a scientific idea. Atomic theory, the germ theory of disease, gravity, special relativity, and, of course, evolution are all well respected theories. While very few people will question the first four examples there are many who speak of evolution being “just/only a theory.” The reasons for this are legion and I don’t even want to begin to go into them since they mostly center around religious idiocy, but it just goes to show one thing: most people can’t tell a scientific theory from a pile of cat shit in the corner (my cat just pooped in the corner).

Part of this may be due to the way most people think about science. Lay people I have talked to give me the impression that they believe scientists to be dogmatic conservatives (not in a political sense) who are incapable of giving up their cherished theories. This definition is only partially correct. Science is extremely conservative in nature due to the relatively common false positives that plague all facets of scientific exploration. So, in order to supplant an accepted theory a scientist must have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that their new theory is better than the previous one. There are many theories out there, but not all of them are created equally and that’s why we don’t teach all of them in schools and this “teach the controversy” shit that’s going on right now is pure bullshit.

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Fucking crazy creationists piss me off.

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Filed under Biology and Evolution, christianity, just sad, pet peeve, religion, social, Those Other Sciences

Random musings on what evolution is and isn’t

It isn’t a drive towards complexity.  Plenty of species actually become simpler due to evolution.  The easiest examples of this is secondary eye loss among many cave dwelling species.

Evolution isn’t set in stone.  As with all science it is provisional and incomplete.  However, because it is a science it is also self-correcting (can’t say that about intelligent design creationism because that isn’t science).

It doesn’t mean a chimpanzee turned into a human at any point in the past.  However, we are very distantly related cousins.  Repeat: not mother/father, but distant cousin.

We shouldn’t find a cat/bird or fish/snake hybrid in the fossil record since evolution doesn’t work that way.

DNA allows for evolution to occur and it IS NOT analogous to computer code except in the most basic (and nearly meaningless) sense, so stop using it as one.  Can’t stress this one enough.

Positive natural selection isn’t the only mode for evolution to take place.  Remember about neutral selection, drift, and flow.

EVOLUTION HAS NO BEARING ON MORALITY!  Let me put it more bluntly: you can be a hard atheist who accepts evolution to be true and still be a very moral human being.  It’s logical and I know plenty of them.

In a similar vein, evolution doesn’t disprove the existence of a god or gods.  It doesn’t help those arguments either.

Evolution isn’t abiogenesis.  It doesn’t concern the big bang either.

I could go on and on, but I think I’ll end here.  Any questions?

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Filed under Biology and Evolution, morality, Those Other Sciences