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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Darwinism and popular culture: Darwinism becoming the West's myth, doctor says

My friend and colleague Deborah Gyapong reports on a recent talk by Dr. John Patrick, Ottawa pediatrician and retired professor of medicine, noting that
the “Darwinian myth” is becoming the “ordering myth” for the West, replacing the Christian story, with potentially disastrous consequences.

“Who would you rationally trust when we legalize doctor-assisted suicide?” he asked. “A Darwinist physician or a doctor who believes in judgment after death?”

Darwin’s theories of natural selection, survival of the fittest and of evolutionary progress are making an impact on health care, even though Patrick describes the art of medicine as “very anti-Darwinist” in its care for the sick and the vulnerable. But that is changing as society becomes “profoundly incoherent,” he said.

Patrick was speaking at a conference of Christian medical doctors, June 3-9 at St. Augustine College in Ottawa. Unfortunately, other speakers attempted to soothe the audience with tales of some kind of accommodation with Darwinism, as long as the Darwinists would just remember that Darwinism is not supposed to be the ordering myth of the West. Yeah really.

The most interesting aspect of the current aggressive promotion of evolutionary medicine (Darwinism in medicine and veterinaray practice ) is its sheer clinical uselessness.

The proclamations are grand, to be sure:
"Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution," is the oft-quoted title of a 1973 article for biology teachers by the great evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky. In it, he writes, "Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole."

Evolution's role is equally central in the subset of biology addressing human health and disease. The co-evolution of humans and our pathogens, the rapidly shifting resistance of those pathogens to our antibiotics, and our persistent vulnerability to chronic disease all gain significance when viewed in the context of continuing evolution. These subjects form the core of "Darwinian medicine," also known as "evolutionary medicine."

But how exactly do these ills "gain significance when viewed in the context of continuing evolution"? For the purpose of counselling and treatment of the patient in the present day, it hardly matters when they appeared or who - besides immediate ancestors and sibs, and people who live nearby - has them.

Consider, for example, an illness for which there is apparently a genetic predisposition: alcoholism. Fundamentally, the patient has decisions to make (Will I drink or not? Will I get drunk or not?) What if Alley Oop had the same problem? What if he didn't?

For that matter, what if there is really no genetic predisposition to alcoholism? It makes no difference to the patient in the end. He either drinks or he doesn't, and accepts the consequences.

One could say the same thing about obesity, that other scourge of the family practitioner's office in prosperous countries everywhere. If the Willendorf Venus was fat, so what? What if she had been thin? I doubt that most Stone Age women were as certain of their next meal as she must have been. But in the end, today's woman decides whether she wants obesity, along with its problems, or not. And she's the only one who can really do something about it.

Similarly, with antibiotic resistance (an often-cited passage in the Gospel According to Darwin), I have it on good authority that the main cause of the resistance is overprescription (and other overuse) of antibiotics. We helped the bugs get where they are. We could stop helping them. But that doesn't mean telling the old, old story of Darwinism over and over again; it means getting patients to accept alternative treatments. They will only do that if they can be persuaded that other approaches work.

I suspect that Darwinian medicine will just go the way of evolutionary psychology. I wonder how much harm it will do first.

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Newly discovered life forms raise old question?: 600 Antarctic deep-sea animals

Nearly six hundred new species of crustacean were discovered recently by a deep sea probe (ANDEEP), 80 percent of which are new to science:
Recent expeditions to Antarctica's Southern Ocean have uncovered nearly 600 never-before-described organisms inhabiting that blackened abyss, including the carnivorous moonsnail. "Astonishingly high and unexpected" is how Angelika Brandt from the Zoological Museum Hamburg in Germany, describes the vast biodiversity she and colleagues have discovered in the depths of the Southern Ocean. Not quite the words I'd use, but then again, you'd have to stop me from screaming first.

Jasmin Malik Chua's article, "Aliens of the Deep", points up the fact that many ocean creatures are still unknown, especially those of the deep sea.

The reader who kindly sent me the link comments that many of these crustaceans look a lot like crustaceans of many millions of years ago. If so, that wouldn't be any surprise because a recent find that included soft body parts showed that crustaceans have not changed much in 425 million years:
'What is particularly interesting is the remarkable evolutionary stasis this fossil demonstrates,' said Dr Siveter. 'There are many species alive today of the myodocopid group of ostracodes, to which this fossil belongs, and the detail of the fossil shows us that they haven't actually changed much in 425 million years.'

This is one of the problems of evolution, called stasis: Complex body plans arise early and persist for hundreds of millions of years, with little change.

As Australian biologist Stephen E. Jones writes,
The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism: 1. Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless. 2. Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and `fully formed.'" (Gould, 1977a, p.14). "For millions of years species remain unchanged in the fossil record," said Stephen Jay Gould, of Harvard, "and they then abruptly disappear, to be replaced by something that is substantially different but clearly related" (Lewin, 1980, p.883). "At the core of punctuated equilibria lies an empirical observation: once evolved, species tend to remain remarkably stable, recognizable entities for millions of years. The observation is by no means new, nearly every paleontologist who reviewed Darwin's Origin of Species pointed to his evasion of this salient feature of the fossil record. But stasis was conveniently dropped as a feature of life's history to he reckoned with in evolutionary biology. And stasis had continued to be ignored until Gould and I showed that such stability is a real aspect of life's history which must be confronted .... For that was Darwin's problem ... Stasis, to Darwin, was an ugly inconvenience." "The principal problem is morphological stasis. A theory is only as good as its predictions, and conventional neo-Darwinism, which claims to be a comprehensive explanation of evolutionary process, has failed to predict the widespread long-term morphological stasis now recognized as one of the most striking aspects of the fossil record." (Williamson, 1981, p.214).

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

My other blog is the Mindful Hack, which keeps tabs on neuroscience and the mind.

NEW!! Evolution in the light of intelligent design - look up intelligent design topics here.

Animations of life inside the cell, indexed, for your convenience.

Anti-God crusade ... no, really! My recent series on the spate of anti-God books, teen blasphemy challenge, et cetera, and the mounting anxiety of materialist atheists that lies behind it.

Catholic Church A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

Collins, Francis My review of Francis Collins’ book The Language of God

Columnists weigh in on the intelligent design controversy A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

Darwinism dissent Lists of theoretical and applied scientists who doubt Darwin

Gilder, George A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

Intelligent design academic publications.

Intelligent design-friendly students should be flunked, according to bio prof Evolutionary biologist’s opinion that all students friendly to intelligent design should be flunked.

Intelligent design controversy My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy, or my talk on media coverage of the controversy at the University of Minnesota.

Intelligent design controversy timeline An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

Intelligent design and culture My review of sci-fi great Rob Sawyer’s novel, The Calculating God , which addresses the concept of intelligent design.

March of the Penguins A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

Origin of life Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.

Peer review My backgrounder about peer review issues.

Polls relevant to the intelligent design controversy A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

Stove, David O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

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