This post is a little off-piste for me but what is blogging for, if not to occasionally skate on or over the edges of one’s knowledge. This month is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the web is awash in articles about Darwin and the theory of evolution. Having read many of these articles, I have now come to agree with the New Scientist’s introduction to 24 Myths About Evolution when they say If you think you understand it, you don’t know nearly enough about it.
One of the more egregious myths of evolution is that whatever exists must be the result of thousands and thousands of years of adaptation, a kind panglossian sense that we must live in the best of all adapted worlds.
If I have a sense of smell, it is because thousands of years of natural selection helped those with a better sense of smell to survive in the wild by being better to able to track down prey or smell a predator. Ok, seems plausible so far. But what about something more esoteric like my love of music. Well, if you’re the Economist, you believe that my appreciation for music has helped me pick up girls thus increases my chances of propagating my genes.
Err, hello? To start with, my early dating career is proof positive that this theory is broken. But more to the point, just because phenomena can be explained by something does not lead to the inescapable conclusion that natural selection must have shaped it thus. It is worth reading the letters to the editor.
A similar point is made about successful wall street traders by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his books Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan but if you want the short, witty, and brutal version, watch his Pop!tech talk. Taleb has an ego the size of Umberto Eco’s library but has an intellect to match.
Karl Popper set the bar for good science. It’s about not about provability, it’s about disprovability. Things that are impossible to disprove are not very interesting from a science point of view. Science is all about continuously poking holes in the accepted body of knowledge refining, breaking, re-assembling. For a brilliant visual display of this as well as an impassioned defense of Open Access, watch Dave Gray’s Free the Facts.
Finally, before I let this rambling thread go, it does occur to me that on complex issues like evolution, from an epistemological perspective, my money is on Wikipedia and not The Economist. When The Economist makes an egregious error, you might get a letter printed as a rebuttal, you may make a comment in their online version, but that’s it. The original article stands and is far more likely to be read. How much better to argue the toss and come up with a better explanation that will be the revised source? Wikipedia was never intended as a primary source and it certainly knocks the spots of most secondary sources.