Tag Archives: biology

Pathological Science and mtEve

While reading The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, the author discussed the concept of ‘pathological science.’  ‘Pathological science’ results from scientists who cling to their ideas even when there is plenty of evidence against them.  For instance, Kean discusses the idea that megalodon sharks might still be circling the deep oceans even though there is no evidence for this, while there is evidence that those sharks died out at least one million years ago.  Yet, some scientists are pathologically attached to the idea that the megalodon lives.

I realized that ‘pathological science’ was the perfect term to describe what happened over the past 25 years with the rise of mtEve and the demotion of Neanderthals to non-H. sapiens status.  There was/is little evidence to support mtEve as a concept, but it so excited many otherwise respectable scientists, not to mention the media and the general public, that mtEve swept away anyone who disagreed that she was the mother of all modern humans.  This was a pathological science creation event par excellence. If this non-existent entity had been named mtMable, the rush to embrace her probably would not have occurred.

The name ‘mtEve’ fed into the creation stories many scientists were raised with; even if they no longer believed the stories, the concepts still manifested at an unconscious level. For the media and the general public who did/do still believe these creation stories, mtEve provided immediate validation that humans were special.  Humans were not just another animal; not just another result of evolution.  Pathological scientists also want ‘modern’ humans to be viewed as special, distinct, better than any preceding humans who were ‘archaic’ and different, more like an animal, less intelligent.  Given the location of mtEve (Africa) and the poorly-derived date of mtEve (it varies a great deal, but many use 250,000 years ago), Neanderthals were relegated to the ‘archaic’ heap.

I have spent the past two-plus decades fighting against this pathological science, only to see it become accepted dogma even in textbooks. This is disturbing. If scientists can be so swept away by their emotions that they totally ignore evidence, is it any wonder that respect for science is softening?  Fortunately, science is eventually self-correcting. It’s taken too long, but it is finally becoming clear that Neanderthals were no less ‘modern’ than so-called ‘moderns.’  There was no creation event 250,000 years ago in which mtEve popped into being and begat the first modern human.  For 25 years, I asked for evidence of how speciation occurred between ‘archaics’ and ‘moderns’ and was shown no evidence.  I was not surprised since there was and is no such evidence: mtEve was a creation of pathological science.

Robert G. Bednarik’s chapter, “The Expulsion of Eve” in his book The Human Condition, is a precise and detailed refutation of mtEve and the concept of ‘modern’ and ‘archaic’ humans. He slices and dices the ‘evidence’ (morphological, genetic, lithic, and cultural) until there is nothing left but hot air.  While Bednarik does not use the term ‘pathological science’, it is clear from his analysis that mtEve proponents were and are acting pathologically.  “…the Eve supporters have led the study of hominin origins on a monumental wild-goose chase.”


	

Plundering the Deep

As I discussed previously, we humans are who we are in part because of a fish/shellfish diet that allowed for advanced brain development.  Without these items in our diet, I think it is doubtful that our hominin ancestors would have advanced much beyond the bonobos/chimps.  What will happen if we no longer have access to these food sources?

Given that we live on an ocean planet, this fear would seem pointless.  The world ocean is vast and immensely deep.  And yet, we are destroying its productivity at frightening speed.  The 1990s saw the total collapse of what had been one of the most productive fisheries on Earth: the cod fishery of the Georges Bank off Newfoundland.  Almost overnight, families who’d produced fishermen for generations were suddenly out of work.  A great book on the story of cod is Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky.  Cod were once so large and numerous that they could be scooped from the sea with buckets.  Now they are so scarce and tiny, that fishing for them is under extremely strict regulation and management.  Without such management, cod have little chance of rebuilding a healthy, sustainable population.

But it isn’t just cod.  Factory ships are scraping the seabed clean of everything, whether they want it or not.  Unwanted sea life is dumped overboard becoming sea death.  These ships are devastating the seas and the livelihoods of traditional fishing groups, and destroying the life of the seabed.  They are also threatening the survival of seabirds who rely on these same sea food sources the factory ships are harvesting or destroying with abandon.  More information on the problems associated with overfishing can be found at Oceana.org.

Tuna and salmon are especially problematic fish whether wild caught or farmed.  Farmed salmon develop lice that spread to wild salmon.  Catching wild tuna and salmon with factory ships has all the problems mentioned above.  The best thing to do is to quit eating tuna and salmon.   Switch to sardines.   Get all the brain and health benefits of eating fatty fish without the problems associated with tuna and salmon.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium has developed Seafood Watch which gives guidance on the best fish and seafood to eat and which should be avoided in order to preserve ocean productivity.

We still have so much to discover about the world ocean.  How can we continue to support activities that will destroy it before we are truly able to explore the Deep in all its glory?

 

 

 

 

Focusing on Differences Can Lead to Mistakes

Anyone who has studied the concept of Natural Selection knows that one of the requirements is a variable population.  Adaptation to a changing environment cannot occur if every individual in the population is very similar.  So, variability is a given.  However, when scientists look at fossil material, many of them seem to forget this important tenet.  Any differences they find in fossil material are given, minimally, a new species name, and frequently, a new genus name.  That fossil then becomes the type specimen of a new species, and any other material found in that region that looks different will be given yet another new species name instead of considering whether, in fact, it is just a new individual in a variable population.

Or, in the case of dinosaurs, a juvenile rather than a small adult of a different species.  Jack Horner’s TED talk on this topic is both amusing and enlightening. Paleontologists who focused on differences created many dinosaur species which had no juvenile forms.  Horner felt that this was not only odd, but clearly impossible.  By carefully analyzing the skeletons, he discovered that many species of dinosaurs were just the juvenile forms of other species.  The focus on differences was a mistake.

Focusing on differences and assigning new species names to every new find is also common among many paleoanthropologists who study primate/human origins.  Natural selection and population variability are thrown out the door.  If we treated present human diversity the way we treat past diversity, every different population of humans would be a different species.  We know this is not the case since all humans can potentially mate with each other.

There are two major groups of paleoanthropologists: those who operate from a population viewpoint and those who operate from an essentialist viewpoint.  For instance, populationists view Neanderthals as a population of modern humans, while essentialists view Neanderthals as a different species.  Why does this matter to the average person?  It matters because the underlying viewpoints affect how we view each other.  Essentialists view anyone who differs from their idea of the ‘norm’ (generally someone like themselves, i.e. of European ancestry) as deeply biologically distinct from themselves.  In effect, that there are distinct races of humans that are somehow quite different from each other.  Populationists, on the other hand, expect there to be many people who differ from themselves because that is what a successful, adaptable population requires.  They do not view these differences as creating deep distinctions.  That is, they do not view humans as being divided into distinct racial groups.  Rather, humans form varying, over-lapping, constantly mixing populations.  They also hold that this has been true since the beginning of the Homo genus.

Genes flow, drift, mutate, select, and adapt as the individuals carrying those genes meet, mate, and adapt.  For the past two million years our ancestors have been meeting,mating, mixing, and adapting to differing environments as one unified, but variable species.  Just as the lack of juvenile dinosaurs was an artifact of paleontologists who operated from an essentialist mindset, the many “species” of human ancestors are an artifact of paleoanthropologists who operate from an essentialist mindset.  The juvenile dinos were there all along.  The necessary variability of the human population that allows it to adapt to the vast array of environments on our planet has been there all along, too.  The essentialist’s mistake has been to divide that variability into different species or races.

 

Science is Political

I recently finished reading Shawn Lawrence Otto’s book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.  Otto co-founded Science Debate 2008 which was an effort to get the presidential candidates to have a debate on the important science issues affecting the United States.  Despite strenuous efforts, the candidates refused to agree to such a debate.  The only outcome was that the final nominees, Obama and McCain, did finally agree to answer, in writing, not in debate, “The 14 Top Science Questions Facing America.”   I would like to think that there will be an actual Science Debate in 2012, but given that the only Republican candidate who seems concerned about science and the scientific illiteracy of his fellow candidates is Jon Huntsman, a man who has no chance to be the Republican nominee in 2012, this seems improbable.

Otto’s main thesis is that for the last several decades, scientists, while busy doing science, ignored the erosion of the public’s confidence in science and the rise of a belief system that claimed there is no objective reality; that we each create our own subjective ‘reality;’ therefore, the conclusions of science are only one way of viewing the world, and not necessarily the ‘best’ way.  This flight from objective reality may well be why the United States ranks #23 in the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test of scientific knowledge.  In addition, the United States ranks just above Turkey in a graph of countries depicting the percentage of the population accepting the validity of evolution, based on research published in Science. The educational system is failing the United States given that the researchers found that percentage accepting evolution actually declined over twenty years.  Otto is convinced that this is because scientists failed to recognize that science is political; that scientists have to write for and speak to the public in language that will make it clear that science is necessary for the future stability, growth, and well being of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin understood that science was political.  Their goal was to create a country where science could flourish.  They would be appalled to discover that at the beginning of the 21st century, a huge chunk of the population is retreating into the anti-science mysticism of the centuries prior to the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

One of the key concepts that has been lost in the relativistic present is that there are not necessarily two sides to every argument.  Otto points this out in the following example (p. 10):

Journalism: There are always two sides to every story.  Bob says 2 + 2 = 4.  Mary says it is 6.  The controversy rages.

Science:  Most times, one side is simply wrong.  I can demonstrate using these apples that Bob is right.

Politics:  How about a compromise?  New law: 2 + 2 = 5.”

Journalists create controversy where, based on the scientific facts, there is none.  “If one side presents knowledge and the other ‘but faith, or opinion, but not knowledge,’ [John Locke] simply reporting both sides is not balanced journalism and constitutes malfeasance by the press.” (p.204-05) Such malfeasance is in large measure due to the fact that few media sources in the United States actually have scientifically-trained reporters.  In fact, according to Otto, most media sources have cut or cut out their science departments.  This is in contrast to the rest of the world where science news remains a vital part of media coverage.

Otto also discusses de Tocqueville‘s views of American democracy, published in 1835, after his travels throughout the new country.  While impressed by many things, de Tocqueville also saw cause for concern.  He saw Americans as tinkerers/inventors rather than as thinkers.  The focus was on practicality rather than the search to understand the unknown; i.e. pure research without thought of how it might be used.  “His [de Tocqueville’s] tale [of 19th century China’s retreat from science] suggests the dangers posed by embracing tradition and precedent at the expense of openness and creativity, applied research at the expense of basic science, fear at the expense of wonder, utility at the expense of beauty, and an insistence on financially quantifiable projections before an investment is made, the idea of which runs contrary to the entire process of discovery and creativity.” (pp. 58-9)

“If knowledge does not have primacy in public decision making, then no truth can be said to be self-evident, and we are left with the tyranny of ideology enforced by might (p. 219)…led [by] a generation of leaders that are at once arrogant and ignorant…(p. 134) Ignorance is not bliss.  It’s tyranny.” (p. 252)

Otto points out that scientifically-literate children are most likely to have parents who are scientists or, and this is critically important, parents who are immigrants.  “Fully 70 percent of the finalists in the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search competition were the children of immigrants–a stunning figure considering that immigrants make up only 12 percent of the US population…” (pp. 291-92)

This matters because if the United States continues to restrict immigration and/or makes life difficult for immigrants, these talented students will be lost to the United States, while at the same time providing a ‘brain gain’ to other countries.  If anti-science attitudes continue to prevail in the United States, it will lose the future to other nations, particularly those in Asia.  During the Middle Ages, science burned brightly in the Islamic countries.  But fundamentalist, anti-science views came to dominate in those regions, and science was lost.  To say such a future is not possible in an anti-science United States is arrogant ignorance.

 

 

 

 

 

Bounding in to Solve the Textbook Cost Dilemma

Students are always strapped for cash.  Textbooks cost a bundle.  Some schools are now renting textbooks to students who cannot afford to buy new and/or for whom used texts are unavailable.  Many students hope to get by without buying the textbook.  But that can be a risky option.

Three entrepreneurs decided to solve this dilemma by creating a company that produces open-sourced, online textbooks matched to a popular textbook in a particular subject that students can access for free.  Free!!  How do they do that?  Well, with a major venture capital investment and a lot of contracted consultants, including me.

I worked on the college Biology textbook: mapping content, validating the content others mapped, and synthesizing the content of still other consultants into cohesive chapters that covered the same topics in the same order as in the chapters of the reference Biology textbook.  We consultants scoured the web for the best open-source materials on a particular topic.  The end result is an interactive text with graphics and video clips embedded within the text.  It looks great and functions well.  And it’s free.  Boundless Learning also has free textbooks for college Economics and Psychology.  They plan to produce free textbooks for more subjects in future months.

I was involved, in one way or another, in the creation of about 40% of the chapters.  So, believe me when I say, “This was a huge endeavor.”  Student-user input will be used to tweak and modify the text for an even better learning experience.  Is this the future of textbooks?  Maybe, for a subset of the most commonly-used texts; but probably not for the vast majority of textbooks for at least two reasons:   it is not that easy to re-create a textbook using open source material; and professors are unlikely to willingly give up both the prestige and revenue stream of writing and publishing textbooks.

What is this firm that is creating these free textbooks?   Boundless Learning was founded in March, 2011, in Boston, MA by three serial entrepreneur friends (Aaron White, Ariel Diaz, and Brian Balfour) with venture capital funding of $1.75 million. While their track record as entrepreneurs and knowledge of funding sources surely played a large role in obtaining those funds, improving education and educational products is very ‘sexy’ right now.   Bill Gates invests millions in schemes to improve education. Peter Thiel (of PayPal) has his own take on higher education: skip it and start a business.   He is providing fellowships to 20 young entrepreneurs under age 20.

Anyone who pays attention knows that education does need an overhaul, so the Boundless Learning Trio made a smart decision to move into this potentially lucrative field; which makes it intriguing that they are giving away their product.  Their ultimate goal appears to be to hook students with the free textbooks, and then to later offer premium services that will include ‘online tutoring, prep test help, and premium study aids.’  This is smart marketing, but will their funding carry them through until they are profitable?  This seems doubtful, so I presume they are looking for more funding from their original investors and from new investors.

Another concern is over how they will differentiate their premium products from those already offered by the Princeton Review or Kaplan, among many others.  How is the Boundless Learning team going to shake up the market for online tutoring and test prep?  And are those really the premium services they should offer?  In a phone conversation I had with Arial Diaz on October 18, 2011, I asked him about the viability of the premium services Boundless Learning is thinking about offering.  He admitted that even though students do have plenty of disposable income for pizza and movies, it may be difficult to turn free textbook users into paying customers.  Currently, only about 10% of those students who downloaded a textbook use it once a week or more.  At least 50% of the students appear to use it only to study for exams.  This is a major hurdle the team will have to overcome if they want to move these students into premium products.  Students may not know what they really need to succeed.  Tutoring and test prep have their place, but if Boundless Learning really wants to be on the cutting edge of an educational revolution, the team needs to think beyond the typical products.

According to Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, business leaders want employees who demonstrate Seven Survival Skills:

•    Critical thinking and problem solving
•    Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
•    Agility and adaptability
•    Initiative and entrepreneurialism
•    Effective oral and written communication
•    Accessing and analyzing information
•    Curiosity and imagination

Perhaps Boundless Learning could really differentiate itself from the pack by developing premium services that aid students in achieving those Seven Survival Skills.  I suggested to Ariel that his team develop a game that increases critical thinking skills and offers a certificate of achievement for reaching the highest levels.  If they could get support for such a product from major businesses who recruit on campuses, this would encourage students to play the game so that they could show the certificate to recruiters.  Developing products and services which offer students the opportunity to increase their Seven Survival Skills may be a more difficult task than offering online tutoring and test prep services, but it would be more exciting, cutting edge, and a potentially huge game-changer in education.