13
Jul
15

Why Can’t Super Villains Understand Evolution?

The-Avengers-2-Age-of-Ultron-movie

I just saw Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, and I loved it. The action was awesome, the characters complex and interesting. I was blown away, but as I walked out of the theater with my sons, something bothered me. I won’t give any spoilers, but Tony Stark creates a super powerful android named Ultron to protect Humanity, and let’s just say it doesn’t go well. What, you didn’t see that that coming? Anyway, Ultron decides that instead of protecting humanity, he wants to make humans evolve, and not in a good way.

ultron-empireHe seems to think that destroying all humans will make a new, better lifeform evolve. I mean it worked for dinosaurs and birds, right, so why not human beings? The problem is that he makes the same mistake we humans have been making since Darwin came up with his theory. Everybody seems to think that the word “evolve” is synonymous with the word “improve.” As if every time something evolves, it leads to a higher and higher form, like those old human evolution posters that show chimps becoming Homo sapiens.

It doesn’t work that way. Evolution is not some sort of perfection machine that inevitably leads to higher life forms. It’s not directional. It doesn’t have a goal in mind. There is no perfect creature at the end of the evolution assembly line. That evolutionary tree, going from roots up to higher branches, that we all saw in our biology textbooks, is just wrong. It’s a lot more chaotic than that. The only goal is for organisms to be better adapted to the particular environment they happen to be living in at that time.

PT-tree-homepageIt’s not so much a tree as a noxious weed, like kudzu, spreading unstoppably in all directions. Each time one of its shoots survives, it gets to reproduce and keep on growing, but what determines whether it gets to do that isn’t whether the new shoot is superior to the last one. The new shoot simply has to be better adapted to the new place it’s growing. That might mean deeper roots in one place or larger leaves in another. Everything is dependent upon the environment. That’s what dictates which shoots survive and which ones don’t. The ones that can’t adapt to that environment go extinct and new shoots fill that place instead.

I realize it’s kind of a leap to go from sprouting shoots to genocidal androids, but they’re both playing by the same set of rules. If Ultron creates an environment that’s been devastated by his evil plans, then what evolves there is going to have to be adapted to those conditions. Those adaptations might not, and probably wouldn’t be greater intelligence or kindness or logic or anything else that you and I might consider to be qualities of a higher lifeform. I’d go into more detail about the types of adaptations it might require, but it would be difficult to imagine and involve too many spoilers.

3684534-x-men-the-animated-series-5195e4e02e61fAs much as I love Marvel comics, and I do, Ultron’s not the only one over there who doesn’t understand evolution. In the comic books, the X-Men and all those awesome mutants are given the “scientific” name Homo superior, because obviously being able to fly and shoot death rays from your eyes is way superior to being an ordinary, boring Homo sapien. Sorry, Stan, there ain’t no superior about it. They’re just Homo different. Who knows what type of environment would lead to adaptations like that. If anything, the regular humans are better adapted simply because they reproduce so much faster, Multiple Man notwithstanding.

Yeah, I know, they’re only movies and comic books and most folks don’t worry too much about them having accurate science, but the idea that evolution is inevitably leading to higher and higher lifeforms is so ubiquitous that it needs to be pointed out and questioned as often as possible. We need to pull up all those weed shoots because everyone we don’t pull is going to take root, and we’ll forever have to deal with supervillains who think they can play with the rules of evolution.marvel-logo-wallpaper-1024x552

04
Jan
15

Evolution, Entropy and Teenagers

evolutionRight before the Holidays, I had a chance to go to Philcon. It’s the Philadelphia  science fiction conventions (despite the fact that it’s held in Cherry Hill, New Jersey), and it’s one of my favorites. It’s not only a great con, but in exchange for speaking on a handful of panels, they let me in for free, win, win. As a science writer, I usually get put on one of the panels about life on other planets, a great topic, with lots of room for interesting questions. This year, there was a Creationist in the audience, so we ended up getting questions about evolution.

philcon2014_logoAfter my fellow panelists and I patiently explained that survival of the fittest did not mean that only the strong survive, he fell back on one of the Creationists’ favorite arguments, thermodynamics. It’s a fun argument and it sounds all nice and sciencey, like you’re really trying to be logical and everything. It goes something like this, “The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics says that entropy always increases, so obviously, well organized, living things can’t simply arise from disorganized matter.”

Unfortunately for him, this argument fails on two grounds. First, despite Creationist insistence that Darwin’s theory of evolution is invalid because it doesn’t explain how life started, the theory of evolution doesn’t explain that for the simple reason that the theory of gravity or the germ theory of disease don’t explain it. They aren’t intended or designed to. None of them have anything to do with the origin of life. Darwin’s theory simply explains how populations of living things change and adapt once life is already established.origin-of-life-cartoon-150

Second, his argument fails because he doesn’t understand thermodynamics. What the 2nd law of thermodynamics actually says is, “In a closed system, entropy always increases.” Notice the difference? He completely ignored the part about a closed system. Earth, or any other planet, for that matter, isn’t a closed system. It gets hit by meteorites and cosmic rays and all kinds of other things from space. Bits of its atmosphere slowly float away and the occasional bit gets knocked loose, and all of that keeps it from being a closed system. It is a very open system.

The biggest thing that keeps Earth from being a closed system is the sun. It’s the source of our energy. It’s busily burning up hydrogen in nuclear fusion reactions (increasing its own entropy) and pouring out billions of kilojoules of energy each second that we, humble living things, are the beneficiaries of. When those disorganized organic chemicals started coming together to form highly organized living things, they used the sun’s energy to do it. Even though that decreased entropy on our local ball of rock, entropy in the sun and other parts of the universe were increasing, thus maintaining the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

Teen girl in messy roomIf you want to properly understand entropy, the best way is to look at teenagers. If you have one, you know what I mean. Imagine that your own teenager comes to you and says, “You know, I’d really love to clean my room, but that would cause entropy to decrease. It would violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics. You wouldn’t want me to break the law, would you?”

At this point, you lovingly look at your son or daughter and say, “Are you out of your damn mind? Get up there and CLEAN YOUR ROOM.”

To this, you receive the inevitable, “Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnne,” and the kid goes back to said room. Two or three hours later, after what should have been a twenty minute job, he/she tromps back and says, “There, I cleaned my room. Are you SATISFIED?”

Going to the room to check, you see, to your amazement, that your kid has actually cleaned up the room. Entropy has been decreased. The 2nd law of thermodynamics is in ruin. Of course, you and I know that what the kid has really done is pick up all the crap on the floor and the bed and shoved it all in the closet. That room is no more a closed system than the planet Earth is. While entropy locally in the room has been decreased, entropy in the closet has increased exponentially.

It gets worse. In the course of picking up all that crap, the teen has performed work. Muscles have been used, and heat generated, thus explaining the smell. All of the energy required to do this originated in your refrigerator, which has been left a hollow, entropy filled husk.

imagesWhat does this have to do with evolution? Simple, both operate under the same physical laws, the same laws of thermodynamics. As long as there’s an external energy supply available, it’s entirely possible for simple organic molecules to organize themselves. It’s rare, but once it get going, it’s tough to stop. Even if the chances of such an organization are infinitesimally small, all you have to do is play the odds. There are over 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Current research suggests that many, if not most, of those stars have planets in orbit around them, which they’re churning out energy for. With that much energy and that many planets, the odds of life spontaneously arising are pretty good, probably better than the odds of your teenager spontaneously cleaning his/her room.

Of course, none of this really has anything to do with Darwin’s theory. As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t intended to explain the origin of life. This does, however, take away one of the main arguments that Creationists try to use against it. Perhaps if we can whittle down enough of their arguments this way, they will eventually have to give up, shaking their heads and tromping back to their rooms with a final parting, “Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnne.”EvolutionDebate

14
Nov
14

Georgia Southern University launches investigation of creationist professor

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

I’ve written several times before about how Professor Emerson T. McMullen, in the history department of Georgia Southern University (a public school) has been foisting creationism—blatantly stupid young-earth creationism—on students in his classes on science and the history of science. Following a student complaint, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a formal complaint with Georgia Southern (See my posts on this issue here, here, and here. In the interest of self-aggrandizement, and in receiving the Discovery Institute’s Censor of the Year award an unprecedented twice in a row, I have to add that I helped the FFRF demolish McMullen’s scientific claims).

The University has decided to investigate this issue, and on the highest level. Yesterday FFRF lawyer Andrew Seidel received the following email from Maura Copeland, the chief legal counsel for Georgia Southern University, which I reproduce with the FFRF’s permission.

Dear Mr. Seidel,

In the interest of keeping you updated…

View original 264 more words

24
Aug
14

Are our kids getting worse at creative writing? 6 sci-fi and fantasy books to share with the App Generation

Originally posted on ideas.ted.com:

The “app generation” struggles with creative writing — as a new study shows, they’re turning into realists. Here’s a mini summer reading list that might inspire some wild thinking.

Creative writing is part of being a kid. Writing and reading goofy stories of lost kingdoms and Mars colonies helps the imagination grow strong. But a recent study uncovers an interesting, perhaps even dismaying trend: this generation of kids seems to prefer narrative realism when they write.

In a study published earlier this year in Creativity Research Journal, researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the University of Washington asked the question, “How have the style, content and form of adolescents’ art-making and creative writing changed over the last 20 years?”

To answer that, researcher Emily Weinstein and her co-authors, including Katie Davis, co-author of The App Generation (and a speaker at this week’s TEDSalon in Berlin), examined two…

View original 1,318 more words

22
Jul
14

Why Are We Still Arguing About Evolution


scopes-trial-cartoon89 years ago this week, a jury in Dayton, Tennessee convicted substitute science teacher John Scopes of violating the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine

Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Scopes was convicted of violating the act by teaching evolution and fined $100. That

John Scopes being arrested for teaching evolution.

John Scopes being arrested for teaching evolution.

conviction was later overturned on a technicality, but it would take 42 years for the Butler Act to be repealed.  Of course, that didn’t settle the matter. To this day, biblical literalists have been trying, to the dismay of biologists everywhere, to deny evolution and have Creationism taught in the classroom.

This begs a number of questions. First of all, why do these religious zealots have it in for biology? Just because some people believe that the world rests upon the back of a cosmic turtle, doesn’t mean that anyone is calling for legislation banning the teaching of planetary motion in physics classes. The Bible talks about Jesus changing water into wine, but nobody demands that chemistry textbooks be changed in accordance with that. It also teaches that Moses parted the Red Sea, but the publishers of oceanography books don’t seem to be under much pressure to cover it. Why does Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection merit such special attention? What put such a biblical bee in their bonnets? I don’t have an answer for that one.

scopes_trial_0210The second, and more important question is, why not teach creationism alongside evolution? That one’s easy to answer. It would utterly destroy science. That sounds hyperbolic, but it’s not. Science depends upon evaluating evidence. If we allow science students to simply ignore the evidence they don’t like or that contradicts their beliefs, it undermines the entire scientific method.

It also contradicts the entire language of science. Many Creationists will argue that evolution is only a theory, without any clue of how scientists actually use the word theory. Contrary to its use in common speech, a theory is not simply a guess. Even what scientists call a hypothesis isn’t just a guess. A hypothesis is a specific testable prediction. For instance, Darwin made a hypothesis when he said that if populations of animals and plants change over time, we should be able to see those changes in the fossil record. If we couldn’t see those changes, the hypothesis would have been disproven and Darwin would have had to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new hypothesis. He didn’t.

SCO_EVOLThe word theory, as scientists use it, refers to a well-researched explanation for something that is supported by large quantities of data, and can stand up to rigorous attempts to question or undermine it. Evolution has passed that test. It has, not simply a few pieces of evidence supporting it, but literally mountains of evidence. For over a hundred and fifty years it has withstood every challenge.

There have been minor changes, for instance, Darwin thought that evolution occurred over a long period at a constant rate. Today we know that it can occur suddenly over a relatively short period, what scientists call punctuated equilibrium, but in spite of that, the central tenet of Darwin’s theory remains intact. When the environment changes, organisms with advantages that help them survive are more likely to survive and pass those advantages on to their young. Those without the beneficial advantages go extinct. You can imagine that this is a natural phenomenon or that God designed this mechanism, but whether or not it happens is not up for debate.

03
Jul
14

Ebola Outbreak has Killed Nearly 500 People

Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in Kenema, Sierra Leone, June 25, 2014.  REUTERS/Umaru Fofana

Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in Kenema, Sierra Leone, June 25, 2014. REUTERS/Umaru Fofana

The West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are currently in a confirmed outbreak of the disease known as Ebola. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) as of Wednesday, July 2, 763 people were known to be infected and there had been 468 fatalities. The first cases began appearing in south-east Guinea back in February. By March, it had spread to Liberia, and in May, Sierra Leone confirmed that it too had cases of the disease. In June Medicins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders, declared the outbreak “out of control.”

The first reported cases of Ebola appeared in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo along the Ebola River. It was first brought to the attention of much of the public with the publication of Richard Preston’s book The Hot Zone in 1993. Caused by a virus,

Source: World Health Organization.

Source: World Health Organization.

it does not respond to antibiotics. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) the early symptoms resemble the flu with fever, headache, weakness, joint and muscle aches and loss of appetite. It can progress to include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain and both internal and external bleeding. Symptoms can appear anywhere from 2 days to 3 weeks after infection. There is no known cure, and the disease typically kills 9 out of 10 people infected.

It is considered highly contagious and is spread by direct contact with body fluids. Healthcare workers treating victims of the disease are at particular risk of infection. One factor contributing to the rapid spread of the disease may be traditional West African burial practices, which involve the body of the deceased being washed by hand by members of his or her family.

Misinformation and fear are also aiding the spread of the disease. Liberia’s deputy health minister, Bernice Dahn was quoted by Reuters News Agency as saying, “In Liberia, our biggest challenge is denial, fear and panic. Our people are very much afraid of the disease.” She went on to explain, “People are afraid but do not believe that the disease exists and because of that people get sick and the community members hide them and bury them, against all the norms we have put in place,”

WHOWest African health ministers from affected and surrounding countries are currently meeting in Ghana to develop a regional plan to deal with the outbreak. On Friday, the WHO issued a warning to the neighboring countries of Male, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Guinea Bissau to be on the lookout for infected people spreading the disease into their countries. Dr. Bart Janssens, director of operations for MSF told reporters, “The WHO, the affected countries, and neighboring countries must deploy the resources necessary for an epidemic of this scale. In particular, qualified medical staff needs to be made available, training in how to treat Ebola needs to be organized, and awareness-raising activities among the population need to be stepped up.”

08
Aug
13

Mega Whoops

Image

In the interest of full disclosure, let me just say up front that Megalodons are awesome. I mean, what could be cooler than a shark similar to the great white, but three times the size, who fed on whales? They may have been the single scariest predator to ever swim the seas, armed with the most powerful jaws of any creature that ever lived. These remarkable animals are more than interesting enough to hold the interest of an audience who wants to hear about real scientific discoveries. They don’t need an agent or a publicist or a script writer who thinks that Sharknado was just a titch too academic.

megalodon-shark

Megalodon in comparison to T-rex.

The Discovery Channel apparently didn’t realize this. In a craven attempt to get their Shark Week off with a bang, they presented a 2 hour-long show called Megalodon: The Monster Shark Live. Right off the bat let me point out that these magnificent creatures aren’t live. They went extinct approximately 1 to 2 million years ago, and there is no credible evidence that they’ve been swimming around any more recently than that. The Discovery Channel didn’t let a little thing like that stand in the way?

 

They presented a plethora of “scientists” who claimed otherwise, and gave accounts of “real-life” encounters with the beast. These included supposed camera phone video taken by passengers aboard a charter boat attacked and sunk by the prehistoric monster. As the footage ends, the narrator informs the audience that the bodies were never found. Later, the scientist excavated a fossilized Megalodon tooth they claim was intermingled with the fossil skeleton of a whale that the shark killed. The fossilization process was so complete, that not only was the tooth completely intact, but it appeared to come out of the ground already polished.

megalodonWhy would any respectable scientist lend his or her name to such a sensationalistic piece of coprolite? Well, they didn’t. It turns out that the experts in the show weren’t scientists, respectable or otherwise. They were actors. There were no real scientists involved. No research was performed. The entire thing was what’s known as a mockumentary, a work of fiction presented to make it seem like a real documentary. Hey, I love This is Spinal Tap as much as the next guy, but if that’s the kind of thing the Discovery Channel wanted to do for entertainment purposes, then they should have been more up front about it.

Discovery_Channel_logo_800w_600hThat’s not what they did. Discovery Communications, which owns the Discovery Channel, along with The Learning Channel, Animal Planet and the Science Channel and bills itself as “the world’s #1 non-fiction media company,” foisted this thing upon the public as if it were an actual documentary. Yes, they did have a disclaimer, but It came during the end credits, and was just explicit enough to cover their asses, but vague enough to let anyone without a law or science degree think the Megalodon they nick named “Submarine” might still be swimming around out there ready to munch on any unwary charter boats to come its way. Here is their disclaimer.

 “None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents. Though certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized, sightings of ‘Submarine’ continue to this day. Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still debate about what they might be.”

Is that clear enough for you? The deception was so complete that after the show aired, the Discovery Channel had the gall to do its own on-line poll, and surprise, more than 70% of the respondents who watched said they believed there was evidence that Megalodon was still alive. When confronted with a social media barrage by outrage viewers who knew better, the producers defended the show and the way it was presented. They did, however, remove the poll. This isn’t the first time the company has tried to pull the wool over the eyes of its viewers. These are the same folks who aired Mermaids: The Body Found on Animal Planet.

children_tvFor any company to broadcast material like this under false pretenses is unethical. For the Discovery Channel and its partners to perpetrate this sort of fraud is unforgivable. Not only do millions of viewers tune in to watch what they believe is real information about real creatures, but millions of parents consider it educational, and let their children watch specifically because they think it will help their kids learn something. Apparently what they were supposed to learn is that ratings count more than science, advertising trumps ethics and, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”




About Mad4Science

I've always aspired to be a mad scientist. The closest that I have come is being a science teacher since 1997. This gives me an excuse to play with glassware full of bubbling chemicals, electrical devices, creepy and crawly creatures and other cool mad scientists stuff. Along the way, I have tried to convince my students that science isn't a bunch of dry facts to be memorized. It's a way of exploring the universe, of harnessing our wonder, and a great excuse to play.

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