Sunday 26 June 2011

Are humans immune from extinction?

Steve Zara made interesting post about a discussion PZ Meyers is having on Twitter.  Steve argues that humans have developed technology which is close to bringing human evolution to a halt, that we will soon leave Earth and colonise the solar system and thereby become immune from global catastrophies.

I would like to explore a counter argument: I maintain that humans are still subject to natural selection.

The greatest selection pressure of all is death of an embryo or foetus from developmental defects - such as a missing circulatory system - which make development impossible.  The majority of fertilised ova do not survive to birth, and many of these don't even make it to implantation.

We have made great strides in combating disease, yet we remain in a microbiological arms race.  Modern medicine provides an enormous selection pressure on human pathogens which are evolving to get around it.  MRSA and C-Diff are examples.

Our abilities to survive modern diets also provides selection pressure.  We have evolved the ability to digest lactose into adulthood within the last 10,000 years, since we domesticated dairy animals.  No other mammal species can do this.

We haven't colonised space yet, and in my opinion it will be some considerable time before off-world colonies become completely independent of humans on Earth, if ever.

We need only a pandemic which wipes out enough people that space travel is abandoned as an expensive luxury.  Then we are all eggs back in the same basket, and vulnerable to global catastrophe.

Finally, the very technologies which allow us to manipulate ourselves and our environments, makes us vulnerable to the failure of those technologies.  A catastrophe which disables modern communication, high-tech industry and global commerce, would leave people with complex prostheses or reliance on drugs for survival, facing imminent doom.

I know how long it takes me to be debilitated when my internet connection goes down, but if it never came back up, or I could never buy car fuel, pay with a credit card or shop for food, I'd be back in the pre-industrial age in days.

I have great confidence in human adaptability, ingenuity and ability to survive extreme conditions.  But I don't think we're any more immune from extinction than the dinosaurs were.

Friday 17 June 2011

Why versus How

I've just been looking through The Really Simple Guide to Humanism, (which is an excellent introduction btw), and in particular a video on the question Without a God, or religion, why should we care about anything?  About 2/3 of the way through, Colin Blakemore brings up an old point that science should address questions of how and leave questions of why to religion.  Of course, in the context of humanism, this means the why questions are suspicious back doors into religious thinking.  But I fundamentally disagree.  And here's why.

Why addresses issues of greater complexity than how typically does, but that does not mean the question presupposes that the answer makes reference to an intelligent agent.  And the biological answer to why am I here is substantially different from that to how did I come to be here.

How did I come to be here prompts an answer which addresses the biological mechanisms around reproduction.  It may include sexual dimorphism, meiosis, fertilisation, mitosis and embryology.  It is a perfectly valid discussion to have, but has a narrower scope than discussions which why questions prompt.

Why am I here prompts a biological explanation which is far more profound, and addresses fundamental questions of existence, which are not the exclusive domain of religion.  For example, I may answer that you are here because your parents succeeded in making you, that their parents succeeded in making them, and that every one of your ancestors, unlike most of their competitors, succeeded in leaving offspring who also succeeded against the competition to leave offspring.  I could go on to point out that some of the reasons your ancestors succeeded was because they happened to have combinations of genes which made them well adapted to successfully reproduce in the environment they lived in.  Finally, we could consider that your ancestors were also successful, in part, because they passed on the genes which gave them their success, and that you are likely to possess many of those successful genes yourself.

So why am I here can prompt a discussion of the fundamentals of evolution which are often beyond the scope of how questions.  Why would any thinking person want to dismiss that?

Thursday 16 June 2011


I am beginning to hate the word 'awesome', with a passion!

How can I be so animated by a word?  Well I'm not, but I resent its use, and try as I can, I can't think of a single instance where there would not be a better choice.

It has no descriptive power and seems to be used as a place holder for a superlative adjective which the speaker can't be bothered to think of. It's this capacity for the word to dumb-down the articulation of the speaker which I resent.  Life and language are rich, powerful and colourful.  The word 'awesome' is mid-grey, colourless, non-descriptive and above all thoughtless.  It could be anything: 'blah' would do just as well.  "Oh your shoes are just blah" says precisely as much as "Oh your shoes are just awesome".  In either case it gives an impression of being disingenuous; of having to say something positive but having nothing positive to say, except perhaps that we have seen 91210.

Just imagine what we could say in its place to describe 'awesome' shoes.  We could say something like: creative; thought provoking; imaginative; beautiful; elaborate; colourful; stylish; unique; fashionable; stunning; irreverent; sexy; outrageous; delightfully expensive;... you get the idea I'm sure.  And if it's not shoes, the possibilities increase considerably.

But what if you want to describe the shoes being so singularly unique that they inspire genuine awe? Then they are truly 'awe inspiring'.

I can see no point in the word 'awesome' at all.