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James Brody January 23rd, 2009 11:55 AM

More than a kiss...
Networks are not only in how our brain organizes ideas but in how Todd, Fred, and Tom were organized. A kiss can be very much more than a kiss and sometimes directly and sometimes through viruses, genes move laterally, sometimes in creative ways and sometimes in ways that will kill you.


From New Scientist:

"THERE is nothing new to be discovered in physics." So said Lord Kelvin in 1900, shortly before the intellectual firestorm ignited by relativity and quantum mechanics proved him comprehensively wrong.

If anyone now thinks that biology is sorted, they are going to be proved wrong too. The more that genomics, bioinformatics and many other newer disciplines reveal about life, the more obvious it becomes that our present understanding is not up to the job. We now gaze on a biological world of mind-boggling complexity that exposes the shortcomings of familiar, tidy concepts such as species, gene and organism.

A particularly pertinent example is provided in this week's cover story - the uprooting of the tree of life which Darwin used as an organising principle and which has been a central tenet of biology ever since."

More at

And at Http://

TomJrzk January 23rd, 2009 01:55 PM

Re: More than a kiss...
Before Fred gets carried away with this, too. Here's another quote from the same article:

"As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, we await a third revolution that will see biology changed and strengthened. None of this should give succour to creationists, whose blinkered universe is doubtless already buzzing with the news that "New Scientist has announced Darwin was wrong". Expect to find excerpts ripped out of context and presented as evidence that biologists are deserting the theory of evolution en masse. They are not."

James Brody January 23rd, 2009 08:02 PM

Re: Faith & Fingertips
1) None of my believer friends fret about New Scientist.

2) John Brockman's stable has a special on faith and science.

More at


Fred H. January 24th, 2009 11:53 AM

Re: More than a kiss...
In Edge Coyne asks:

Poor question, although it does provide an opportunity for atheists to pontificate on the splendor of their atheism. But then since atheism unavoidably and inevitably reduces to nihilism, and since most atheists seem to lack the intellectual honesty and rigor to acknowledge that rather unpleasant inevitability, poor, irrelevant questions from atheists are to be expected.

The more relevant question is this: Does the available science and evidence (not to mention parsimony) that we’ve discovered so far point to the existence of a first cause creator, or to the only available alternative, some sort of infinite, eternal multiverse (wherein truth is, at best, nothing more than a subjective mental construct)?

The science and evidence indicates that we are beings capable of discerning and discovering objective truth (certainly objective mathematical truth), that we find ourselves in a universe that had a beginning having inexplicably low entropy; and our gut tells us that we have some amount of free will and moral responsibility, that human life has a unique intrinsic value; and that all points to some sort of first cause creator.

Nevertheless, atheists prefer the alternative, the infinite, eternal multiverse, where truth is, at best, nothing more than a subjective mental construct, where there is nothing that is inherently right or wrong, good or bad; where life has no inherent meaning or purpose . . . where most atheists are unable or unwilling to acknowledge that their atheism inevitably reduces to a nihilism that their universe/multiverse inevitably and unavoidably implies.

Fred H. January 24th, 2009 01:24 PM

Re: Darwin's tree of life
Regarding the “uprooting of the tree of life which Darwin used as an organizing principle,” notice how that uprooting does not diminish the natural selection/survival or the fittest notion? Why? B/c the NS notion is a tautology where fitness is defined by survival----it’s “true” by definition.

Whether there’s a tree of life, a web of life, horizontal gene transfer, space aliens seeding our planet, whatever, the NS tautology dictates that the fittest traits survive b/c if they weren’t the fittest they’d obviously not have survived. It’s an overwhelmingly powerful tautology, and I expect neo-Darwinians will never cease to believe in it.

I suggested in another post that the only thing that might disconfirm the NS tautology in the eyes of the typical neo-Darwinian (other than a decree from Dawkins, unlikely since he too is such a devout NS believer) would be a proclamation from space aliens disconfirming NS; but even that would not convince the typical Darwinian b/c they’d insist that the aliens themselves had to be products of NS----that’s the power of a tautology in those that completely buy into it with a religious-like zeal.

James Brody January 24th, 2009 05:27 PM

Re: More than a kiss but less than a tautology...
Our training differs.

Mine is that tautologies can be necessary, powerful things.

Best to you and to Shelley!


Fred H. January 26th, 2009 11:44 AM

Re: More than a kiss...
JimB says:

Our training differs. Mine is that tautologies can be necessary, powerful things
Tautologies are what they are. They are powerful to those that find them so, and if ever they’re deemed necessary, it’s only to those that so deem. Certainly they’re not science, since only science can be science.

Although our training has differed, I suspect our chosen environments haven't so much, explaining why we do see an assortment of things similarly, e.g. AGW as something less than science, religion as necessary, intelligence as heritable, NS as little more than a tautology, etc.

ToddStark January 29th, 2009 11:39 PM

Re: More than a kiss...
Pretty good article, though "Darwin was Wrong" is a cheap misleading headline. "Tree of Life Uprooted" is slightly better but technically also misleading because HGT and other mechanisms don't tell us that species are no longer related in a discernable historical pattern, they tell us that the branches are looking increasingly less like a nicely pruned sycamore and more like a web of tangled brambles, at least in many spots.

"What Really Drives Evolution?" would have been my choice if I wanted to sensationalize the point. This speaks somewhat to the point that Fred and I discussed earlier regarding Will Provine. Mutations are not really keeping their traditional status as the sole or perhaps even primary drivers of evolutionary novelty, and "selection" fails to carry the rest of the burden on its own, as powerful an idea (or "tautology") as it has turned out to be. A number of notable folks have long pointed that out, sometimes being excorciated for it. Mayr (and Gould) were at pains at times to emphasize the role that behavior plays in driving evolutionary change. Various folks pushed the endosymbiosis and horizontal gene transfer ideas against determined resistance.

It's good to see the conversation changing to one that accepts a broader view of evolution, although we take some unfortunate noise with that new conversation as well, and sensationalistic journalism mostly just encourages the noise.

kind regards,


TomJrzk January 30th, 2009 10:23 AM

Re: More than a kiss...

Originally Posted by ToddStark (Post 5977)
the role that behavior plays in driving evolutionary change.

What of behavior is not driven by genes? Yours, to me, is a moot point; mutations change behavior, including tendencies to mimicry, curiosity, etc. and these mutations are either advantageous or not.

Of course, I'm a determinist.

ToddStark January 31st, 2009 11:15 AM

Re: More than a kiss...
What of behavior is not driven by genes? Yours, to me, is a moot point; mutations change behavior, including tendencies to mimicry, curiosity, etc. and these mutations are either advantageous or not.

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your reply. The crucial point here for me that makes this interesting rather than moot is that new behaviors that affect the course of evolution are not themselves caused simply by the appearance of a mutation.

The whole point of arguing for "behavior first" evolution is that it is not at all moot whether species can shape their own adaptive environment, and that this behavior is not in any useful sense just the predictable causal result of a mutation. To me these are not moot points at all.

The behavioral implications of the mutation have to be exploited within a biological context. It is the definition of that larger context (life itself!) that makes biology more than just the sum of physical and chemical processes.

For example, I would respond to your "what of behavior is not driven by genes" just a little tongue in cheek with: "What of the Macy's Christmas Day Parade is not driven by the actions of molecules?" Not much, really, or maybe something, but who cares? The causal leash is too long to really make much of an argument of it.

Or less tongue in cheek and more relevant to the real point, "what is it that you think you can derive about mimicry and curiosity from the chemical actions of nucleic acids, enzymes and proteins? You have to already *have* a biological understanding of behavior in order to see the relevance of genes to it. A virus might be carrying some of the same genes as I have, that doesn't mean it expresses them in behaviors.

It's not like the genes themselves have behaviors written in their code. The same genes have different behavioral effects in different species, different environments, and even in different sexes in the same species. That's the sort of thing that makes biology different from physics and chemistry, and a historical science.

So in humans, psychological explanations derive from both biological and physiological levels of causal model. Even if you don't grant them their own independent level of explanation, psychological explanations at least require the biological context of our species, we cannot derive all of our behavior from chemistry (although there are interesting exceptions in things that date way back in evolution!).

I don't know if that helps, but I don't really want to dive into the "greedy reductionism" discussion anymore than I want to debate "free will." I enjoy discussions more once they get past those anachronisms, which is why I commented favorably on the New Scientist article.

kind regards,


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