Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Viral reality

If you are of the opinion that more evidence is necessary for demonstrating the correctness of the evolutionary model, I give you: a paper by biologist Justin R. Meyer of the University of California-San Diego et al. that has conclusively demonstrated speciation occurring in the laboratory.

The gist of what the team did is to grow populations of bacteriophage Lambda (a virus that attacks and kills bacteria) in the presence of populations of two different potential food sources, more specifically E. coli that had one of two different receptors where the virus could attach.  What happened was that the original bacteriophages were non-specialists -- they could attach to either receptor, but not very efficiently -- but over time, more of them accrued mutations that allowed them to specialize in attacking one receptor over the other.  Ultimately, the non-specialists became extinct, leaving a split population where each new species could not survive on the other's food source.

Diagram of a bacteriophage [Image licensed under the Creative Commons GrahamColm at English Wikipedia, Phage, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Pretty amazing stuff.  My response was, "If that isn't evolution, what the hell is it?"  Of course, I'm expecting the litany of goofy rejoinders to start any time now.  "It's only microevolution."  "There was no novel gene produced."  "But both of them are still viruses.  If you showed me a virus evolving into a wombat, then I'd believe you."

"Anti-evolutionists," see "Goalposts, Moving the."

Nevertheless, this sticks another nail in the coffin of both Intelligent Design proponents and the young-Earth creationists, the latter of whom believe that all of the Earth's species were created as-is six thousand or so years ago along with the Earth itself, and that the two hundred million year old trilobite fossils one sometimes finds simply dropped out of God's pocket while he was walking through the Garden of Eden or something.

So as usual, you can't logic your way out of a stance you didn't logic your way into.  Still, I have hope that the tide is gradually turning.  Certainly one cheering incident comes our way from Richard Lenski, who is justly famous for his groundbreaking study of evolution in bacteria and who co-authored the Meyer paper I began with.  But Lenski will forever be one of my heroes for the way he handled Andrew Schlafly, who runs Conservapedia, a Wikipedia clone that attempts to remodel reality so that all of the ultra-conservative talking points are true.  Schlafly had written a dismissive piece about Lenski's work on Conservapedia, to which Lenski responded.  The ensuing exchange resulted in one of the most epic smackdowns by a scientist I've ever seen.  Lenski takes apart Schlafly's objections piece by piece, citing data, kicking ass, and taking names.  I excerpt the end of it below, but you can (and should) read the whole thing at the article on the "Lenski Affair" over at RationalWiki:
I know that I’ve been a bit less polite in this response than in my previous one, but I’m still behaving far more politely than you deserve given your rude, willfully ignorant, and slanderous behavior.  And I’ve spent far more time responding than you deserve.  However, as I said at the outset, I take education seriously, and I know some of your acolytes still have the ability and desire to think, as do many others who will read this exchange.

Sincerely, Richard Lenski
And if that's not spectacular enough, check out one of the four P.S.s:
I noticed that you say that one of your favorite articles on your website is the one on “Deceit.”  That article begins as follows: “Deceit is the deliberate distortion or denial of the truth with an intent to trick or fool another.  Christianity and Judaism teach that deceit is wrong.  For example, the Old Testament says, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.’”  You really should think more carefully about what that commandment means before you go around bearing false witness against others.
I can only hope that there was a mic around after that so that Lenski could drop it.

So there you have it.  Science finding out cool stuff once again, because after all, that's what science does.  The creationists, it is to be hoped, retreating further and further into the corner into which they've painted themselves.  It's probably a forlorn wish that this'll make Ken Ham shut up, but maybe he'll eventually have to adapt his strategy to address reality instead of avoiding it.

You might even say... he'll need to evolve.


The sad truth of our history is that science and scientific research has until very recently been considered the exclusive province of men.  The exclusion of women committed the double injury of preventing curious, talented, brilliant women from pursuing their deepest interests, and robbing society of half of the gains of knowledge we might otherwise have seen.

To be sure, a small number of women made it past the obstacles men set in their way, and braved the scorn generated by their infiltration into what was then a masculine world.  A rare few -- Marie Curie, Barbara McClintock, Mary Anning, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell come to mind -- actually succeeded so well that they became widely known even outside of their fields.  But hundreds of others remained in obscurity, or were so discouraged by the difficulties that they gave up entirely.

It's both heartening and profoundly infuriating to read about the women scientists who worked against the bigoted, white-male-only mentality; heartening because it's always cheering to see someone achieve well-deserved success, and infuriating because the reason their accomplishments stand out is because of impediments put in their way by pure chauvinistic bigotry.  So if you want to experience both of these, and read a story of a group of women who in the early twentieth century revolutionized the field of astronomy despite having to fight for every opportunity they got, read Dava Sobel's amazing book The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars.

In it, we get to know such brilliant scientists as Willamina Fleming -- a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid, but who after watching the male astronomers at work commented that she could do what they did better and faster, and so... she did.  Cecilia Payne, the first ever female professor of astronomy at Harvard University.  Annie Jump Cannon, who not only had her gender as an unfair obstacle to her dreams, but had to overcome the difficulties of being profoundly deaf.

Their success story is a tribute to their perseverance, brainpower, and -- most importantly -- their loving support of each other in fighting a monolithic male edifice that back then was even more firmly entrenched than it is now.  Their names should be more widely known, as should their stories.  In Sobel's able hands, their characters leap off the page -- and tell you a tale you'll never forget.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

No comments:

Post a Comment