February 12, 2005

FLATTERY WILL GET YOU EVERYWHERE:

The Darwinian Interlude (Freeman Dyson, March 2005, Technology Review)

Carl Woese published a provocative and illuminating article, “A New Biology for a New Century,” in the June 2004 issue of Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews. [...]

Woese is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, during which horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not exist. Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species. With its superior efficiency, it continued to prosper and to evolve separately. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became another species. And so it went on, until all life was divided into species.

The basic biochemical machinery of life evolved rapidly during the few hundred million years that preceded the Darwinian era and changed very little in the following two billion years of microbial evolution. Darwinian evolution is slow because individual species, once established, evolve very little. [...]

Now, after some three billion years, the Darwinian era is over. The epoch of species competition came to an end about 10 thousand years ago when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian.


Boy, there's no one left who believes in Darwinism, is there?

Mr. Woese's theory is exquisite for a number of reasons:

(1) It explains away why Natural Selection never occurs--we reached the stasis point when Man arose, so of course we'd never have seen it.

(2) It borrows a page from Cosmology and simply posits a period of rapid inflation in order to get around the difficult questions about how we could have gotten to this point given the observed pace of Nature.

(3) It, more openly than most, liberates Man from Natural Selection, thereby explaining away the obvious fact that we don't obey it.

(4) It makes Natural Selection not just teleological but explicitly makes Man its end.

(5) It effectively reads the possibility (probability?) of a Creator/Designer back into Evolution, since the system must end up Creating the creature who has dominion over the biosphere.

It's all quite silly, but it's so flattering you can't help but find it appealling. It's a paradigm with something for everyone.

MORE:
-PROFILE: Carl Woese and New Perspectives on Evolution (David Morrison, 12/10/03, NASA Astrobiology Institue)
-PAPER: On the evolution of cells (Carl R. Woese, May 3, 2002, PNAS)

A theory for the evolution of cellular organization is presented. The model is based on the (data supported) conjecture that the dynamic of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is primarily determined by the organization of the recipient cell. Aboriginal cell designs are taken to be simple and loosely organized enough that all cellular componentry can be altered and/or displaced through HGT, making HGT the principal driving force in early cellular evolution. Primitive cells did not carry a stable organismal genealogical trace. Primitive cellular evolution is basically communal. The high level of novelty required to evolve cell designs is a product of communal invention, of the universal HGT field, not intralineage variation. It is the community as a whole, the ecosystem, which evolves. The individual cell designs that evolved in this way are nevertheless fundamentally distinct, because the initial conditions in each case are somewhat different. As a cell design becomes more complex and interconnected a critical point is reached where a more integrated cellular organization emerges, and vertically generated novelty can and does assume greater importance. This critical point is called the "Darwinian Threshold" for the reasons given.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 12, 2005 6:05 PM
Comments

"Boy, there's no one left who believes in Darwinism, is there?"

???

At the very least, you ignore the author of the article you cite.

Though it seems that both he and you use the taxonomical term species in the same sloppy fashion.

Posted by: creeper at February 12, 2005 1:07 PM

oj, if you find it appealing, go with it! Let's add it to the schools science curriculums!!!

Posted by: Bret at February 12, 2005 3:45 PM

No, Bret, this isn't about the science curriculum, it's about the curriculum as a whole. You're welcome to keep biology class Genesis-free, or to mention Genesis in passing. But if you're going to teach any of Darwin's components (or Marx's, or any of the other modern systems-of-everything ) then you're going to have to teach all of his components. That doesn't mean kicking him out of biology class. That means dragging him, kicking and screaming, into comparative religion class and political science class, where he also belongs.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 12, 2005 4:11 PM


Sorry, chaps, but the proliferation of medication-defiant pathogens suggest that Man, far from being the telic dashboard ornament for natural selection, is doomed to be just another variety of cosmic roadkill. On average, serves him right, too (present company excepted, of course).

Posted by: Axel Kassel at February 12, 2005 4:31 PM

I'd agree with worrying about the curriculum as a whole. Schools should teach secular knowledge that can be useful for careers including those theories that can be interpreted in a "religious" way (i.e., can be thought of as a "secular religion"), and churches should teach the comparative religion classes. Thus, the whole curriculum is covered.

Posted by: Bret at February 12, 2005 4:35 PM

Bret, that's not the purpose of a public education. Public education aims to produce citizens, not technicians; and the most important piece of civic knowledge for an American citizen is disestablishment -- how to maintain separation of Church and State. And to teach that, the first thing you have to teach is an accurate census of what churches there are out there. Which we sure aren't doing now. A difficult thing to do, for sure, particularly for a public education system which is itself often an arm of the state as church; but the only thing worth doing.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 12, 2005 4:48 PM

Axel:

Yeah, we're down to only 7 billion or so.

Posted by: oj at February 12, 2005 5:41 PM

I might also point out that that's not the purpose of a church! Were I a devout Catholic (again, I'm not) I'd have no interest in teaching Mormonism, even comparatively, if I thought it endangered the souls of my flock. Disestablishment is a legitimate piece of state business.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 12, 2005 5:44 PM

Bret:

It has all the necessary ingredients of a new paradigm, Provided that Mr. Woese grows a beard...

Posted by: oj at February 12, 2005 5:45 PM

On the other hand, "telic dashboard ornaments" would be a really great name for a band.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 12, 2005 5:57 PM

joe,

Were in solid disagreement then. In my opinion, parents should raise good citizens, not the state (via the schools). I don't the that the state/schools can possibly produce good citizens - there's too much inherent bias. Public education should be for providing knowledge to the next generation so that they can produce wealth. That wealth is then taxed to provide education for the next generation, and so forth.

Posted by: Bret at February 12, 2005 7:00 PM

Bret: [P]arents should raise good citizens, not the state (via the schools). This is one of those supposedly unanswerable statements that is meant to shut down discussion, and, of course, we don't want the schools raising out children. Nonetheless, this statement is answerable:

1. Bad parenting drives out good parenting. Children will adopt the least restrictive standards they can find from anyone in a position of authority. It is nonsense to suppose that parental insistence on sexual abstinence, for example, simply negates the message from the schools, from the govenrment and from the culture that sex is natural and an insistence on abstinence is not only unrealistic but cruel.

2. We can't make the best the enemy of the good. Obviously, we want parents raising their children, but we also need children to be raised properly. My society need not be at risk to lowest common denominator parenting.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 12, 2005 8:19 PM

David,

Are you saying that you think the public schools/state are doing a "good" job of creating citizens now? Or just that, in theory, they could be changed to do a good job of creating citizens?

Posted by: Bret at February 12, 2005 8:36 PM

By the way, Happy Darwin Day! ;-)
www.darwinday.org/

Posted by: Bill Woods at February 12, 2005 10:58 PM

Happy Darwin Day to you too!

Posted by: Bret at February 13, 2005 1:23 AM

Um, you guys do remember there's another holiday coming up this week, right? Because I'd hate to see you take your wives out to dinner for Darwin Day and then miss that other one. On Monday. That rhymes with "Shmalentine's Hay."

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 13, 2005 2:06 AM

Shmalentine's Hay? "Lincoln's birthday" doesn't rhyme with that?!??

Posted by: Bret at February 13, 2005 2:09 AM

Joe:

Some of us aren't married, so we get to sit at home and contemplate the fact that we aren't helping propagate the species.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 13, 2005 2:13 AM

Bret: Some schools are doing OK; most are not. But everytime we try to change the schools to make them better at raising good citizens, we're told that raising children is not their job.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 13, 2005 9:17 AM

Even though that's why they exist at all,

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2005 9:30 AM

"...we're told that raising children [as good citizens] is not their [the schools] job."

Yes. I agree with the "tellers" in this case. In my opinion, the state is in a serious conflict of interest position if charged with directing the indoctrination of future voters who will ultimately be responsible for controlling that government. In a totalitarian regime, that would make perfect sense, but not in a democracy. In my opinion, the government should have limited involvement in teaching people how to view the government.

Now, back to earlier comments:

"It is nonsense to suppose that parental insistence on sexual abstinence, for example, simply negates the message from the schools, from the govenrment and from the culture that sex is natural and an insistence on abstinence is not only unrealistic but cruel."

To me, this seems to support my argument. In my opinion, the schools/state have no business weighing in on the subject of abstinence. If the state keeps its nose out of it, then parents, churches, and other community entities would have more influence. Problem solved.

"Bad parenting drives out good parenting. Children will adopt the least restrictive standards they can find from anyone in a position of authority... My society need not be at risk to lowest common denominator parenting."

If it's true that "children will adopt the least restrictive standards they can find from anyone in a position of authority" then either society must be structured such that no bad parents are considered to be in a position of authority or the children will still adopt the least restrictive standard available leading to "lowest common denominator parenting". Simply adding another authority, for example the State or schools, won't address the problem, unless it somehow strips bad parents of their authority. The catch is that only stripping bad parents of authority in the eyes of children, while not impacting the perceived authority of good parents, seems quite unrealistic to me. I would consider stripping all parents of authority disastrous (that would be Swift's Lilliput).

We'd be in far more agreement if we were talking about one school at a time. In other words, I couldn't care less what your school teaches your children, even if it includes religion and morals with which I don't agree. In fact, I'd think that was just great if it made you and your children happy. I do, however, worry greatly about which morals and religion are taught at my children's schools. Indeed, your example regarding schools implicitly (or explicitly) teaching anti-abstinence is exactly what I'm worried about.

I think that the parents whose children attend a school should have complete control over what the school teaches, without government interference, and that parents should be able to have their children switch schools if they don't like what's being taught (I'm vouchers fan in case that's not obvious). If I can't have that, then I'd prefer the schools to stay away from the topics of religion and morality.

Posted by: Bret at February 13, 2005 2:04 PM

Ah, you're under the impression that the schools are not currently trying to raise our children, or that they can abstain. I take it you don't have school age kids. The schools are going to be used to indoctrinate our children -- as OJ notes, that's their main purpose. The only question is who chooses, the community or the NEA.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 13, 2005 5:31 PM

No, I'm not under that impression at all and I do have two school age kids. My point is that the public schools need to stop raising my children or raise them the way I want. That's the change that I think we should be working towards, not installing a different way of raising my kids that I still don't necessarily agree with.

And yes, I understand that the main reason the government got involved in education was for the purpose of indoctrination. That doesn't mean that it's a good reason nor does it mean that it can't be changed.

Posted by: Bret at February 13, 2005 6:41 PM

Obviously it can't be changed--you give them your kids for 8 hours a day 180 days a year. The only question is what kind of indoctrination they get.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2005 6:59 PM

"The only question is what kind of indoctrination they get"

I agree with that. If the type of indoctrination is decided at the national level (NEA), then I think said indoctrination should minimize moral and religious elements (as well as anti- religious elements, though I stick to my assertions that evolution and Darwinism are not inherentl

Posted by: Bret at February 13, 2005 7:20 PM

Bret:

Religious morality is the point of the indoctrination--the Founders correctly thought it necessary to the survival of a Republic.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2005 7:33 PM

I sent my previous comment from my cell phone and it got cut off for some reason. I can't imagine why, I send far longer emails and those work. Oh well.

I think it went on to say something like: ... I stick to my assertions that evolution and Darwinism are not inherently anti-religious). If the indoctrination policy is decided locally, school by school, then the parents should have ultimate control of the policy and preferably this would be coupled with school choice (I am big fan of the voucher concept, though I think more experimentation is required), so parents who didn't like the indoctrination policy at one school could move to another.

Posted by: Bret at February 14, 2005 1:48 PM

"Religious morality is the point of the indoctrination"

That's why, in my opinion, it should be kept to a minimum.

"the Founders correctly thought it necessary to the survival of a Republic."

Perhaps, but I don't think a lot of them thought that the federal government (or even state governments) should be responsible for imposing it.

Posted by: Bret at February 14, 2005 1:56 PM

Bret:

Read them. It's the only reason they give for supporting public education and in the Northwest Ordinance (1787) they said:

Art. 3. Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

Posted by: oj at February 14, 2005 3:02 PM

It say encouraged, but it doesn't say imposed, controlled or funded by the federal government. As I've written elsewhere, as long as it's done at the community or school level, I don't disagree. If it's done on a nationwide basis, I think it's disastrous.

Posted by: Bret at February 14, 2005 6:04 PM

I think you guys are aiming too high. Here are the life and society changing lessons that are going to be learned, one way or another, in elementary school: Are there consequences to not showing up on time? Are there consequences for not meeting your commitments? Is authority excercised reasonably or arbitrarily? Can those who exercise authority be trusted? Indoctrinate a kid with the right answers, and chances are you have a good citizen. If there's time left over to introduce them to the American civic religion, all the better, but first things must go first.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 14, 2005 7:16 PM

So what are the right answers? Here's mine:

Showing up on time to school: Since our kids go to a charter school, my wife and I are responsible for driving them there. My daughters aren't late all that often, but when they are, it's more often than not my fault, my wife's fault, or the other sibling's fault, so it would be ridiculous for the school to impose consequences for being late. It would usually be punishing the wrong party. Thus I don't think that schools, at least those like the ones my daughters attend, can teach this.

Meeting commitments: Surely a very important thing, but how would a school teach such a thing - especially without the cooperation of parents?

Reasonable exercise of authority: Each child is going to perceive that some teachers and adminstrators exercise authority reasonably, others arbitrarily. In my opinion, it is far beyond the ability of those in authority to ensure that children think their exercise of authority is reasonable. That's because it's mostly silly things that children take as being unfair exercise of authority. For example, my older daughter is taking part in a play for which they practice after school for about 10 hours a week. She has a small part, and when her part isn't actively involved, not only does the director insist that she sit quietly (which my daughter finds perfectly reasonable), she also insists that my daughter not do other homework. My daughter takes homework very seriously and this restriction is totally stressing her out since this play is significantly eating into her homework time. So while I'm sure the director's exercise of authority is reasonable, she hasn't conveyed that to my daughter who perceives it as completely arbitrary and cruel. I think this is one of dozens of examples that happen virtually every week.

Trust of authority: I think ability to trust is partly an innate trait, not completely teachable. For those naturally distrustful, teaching them to trust authority is a herculean effort, well beyond the capabilities of a school environment, in my opinion. Also, I'm not sure trusting authority is a particularly useful thing to learn anyway.

I'd prefer that elementary school stick with reading, riting, and rithmetic, and maybe a little science and history, but what are your answers?

Posted by: Bret at February 14, 2005 8:00 PM
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