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Darwinism and Its Discontents – Book Review Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Posted by henry000 in anti-creationism, anti-fundamentalism, anti-ID, Behe, biology, book review, Charles Darwin, Christianity, consilience, creationism, Darwin, Darwinism, Dawkins, evolution, genetics, geology, God, Gould, Haeckel, human evolution, philosophy, Piltdown Man, punctuated equilibrium, rationality, reason, religion, science, scientific theory.
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I have been thinking about the ideas in this book for about four decades and have decided that the time has come to put them all together.

This is the opening sentence of Professor Michael Ruse’s latest book Darwinism and Its Discontents. Ruse is a well-known evolutionary philosopher and has been a great defender on Darwinism for a number of years. And with an opening statement like that, naturally I was thrilled to read what the discontents are all about, and if they matter at all.

The book is a defender of Darwinism and the fact of evolution from all sides of attacks, and is understandably light on refuting creationism of various flavours, so read this book to cement your understanding of Darwinism and evolution – I certainly learned a good deal from it.

Darwinism is defined as a particular theory in which evolution works. Its heart lies in the concept of natural selection, the chief causal process behind all organisms, and is the widely accepted evolutionary mechanism by the scientific community. However, it has always been under attack from various disciplines in social science, philosophy, religion, and even within science itself, and Ruse writes how these attacks are categorically mistaken.

Darwinism and Its Discontents Cover

The first chapter goes through the historical background of Darwinism. Ruse includes a number of notable historical figures ranging from people who did not have direct contribution to Darwinism such as Lyells and Malthus, to modern day scientists such as Fisher, Haldine and Wright. The conclusion of the chapter is right on spot – why was Darwin important? Because it was after him that a revolution happened – that life is a naturalistic, not a supernatural or God-inspired one.

The next few chapters are, I think, the highlights of the book as they outline what the fact of evolution is, its path, its cause and its limitations. Ruse presented the concept of consilience argument – that is, direct evidence supporting evolution from a myriad of fields of studies: palaeontology, biogeographical distribution, classification, morphology, embryology and so on. These chapters are essential in understanding the science of Darwinian theory of evolution – population genetics, adaptation, physical constraints on the phenotype, drift, and of course, natural selection, as well as a dash of Gould’s famous punctuated equilibrium theory.

The second half of the book then takes a different turn. It examines humans, the mistakes and dishonesty made in the history of evolutionary science (such as the Piltdown Man and Haeckel’s drawings) – and finally, Ruse looks at Darwinism from philosophical and religious point of views.

Overall I thought this book is very well balanced and not too technical for the layman; however it is definitely not an introductory level kind of book. If you are looking for the whole creationism vs. evolution debate then this is not an ideal book; conversely if you are looking for a book that covers a wide areas of Darwinian evolution – from past to present and across various disciplines, then this book is it.

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A Step Closer to Designing New Organisms Friday, July 6, 2007

Posted by henry000 in evolution, gene flow, genetic engineering, genetics, genome, horizontal gene transfer, moral issues, organisms, science, science experiment.
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Can humans one day achieve the unthinkable of “playing god” in designing and making new organisms to solve problems?

In this fascinating article, it is reported that scientists have been able to transfer an entire genome – not just a few genes – from one microbe to another, thus making the latter like the original donor.

It is known that in nature individual gene transfers occur. This takes in the forms of gene flow and horizontal gene transfer. The former is the mechanism of exchange of genes between populations, usually between the same species; and the latter is the process of transfer of genes between organisms that do not have hereditary relationship.

It follows that in genetic engineering, genes are transferred so that organisms can develop desired traits:

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Notable Quotes #3 Saturday, June 9, 2007

Posted by henry000 in biology, Catholics, Christianity, church, consilience, embryology, evolution, genetics, morphology, Notable Quotes Series, paleontology, pope, religion, science, Vatican.
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Pope John Paul II stated in 1996 that the theory of evolution is of no threat to religion:

New knowledge has led to the recognition that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.

– Pope John Paull II

The “convergence of various fields of knowledge” is also known as the consilience argument, in that various unrelated studies all agree and point to one fact. In the case of evolution, studies such as paleontology, fossil records, biogeographical distribution, morphology, genetics, embryology, biological classification, modern medicine… and so on, has independently verified evolution.

Dollo’s Law Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Posted by henry000 in anti-creationism, biology, Dawkins, Dollo's Law, evolution, genetics, Richard Dawkins, science, sea snails, Stephen Gould.
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Dollo’s law is one interesting hypothesis in the theory of evolution. In its original form, it states that evolution is irreversible – that is, once an organism has lost or discarded a structural feature during the course of evolution, then it cannot regain that feature.

This law was proposed firstly in 1890 by a biologist named Louis Dollo. In its modern form, this law should be understood as one that hypothesises that evolution is highly unlikely reversible – that is, it is highly improbable that an organism would regain a lost feature.

This law kind of makes sense under the first impression – life evolves from simple to complex, and it seems that there is no known case of organisms regrowing a previously discarded feature. However, on a second thought, one must pause and examine the issue further. None of the evolution mechanisms – natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, genetic mutation, genetic recombination, symbiogenesis and so on – dictates that organisms cannot completely regain lost features. In fact, scientists have argued that at least theoretically there is no block to evolutionary reversion.

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“Out of Africa” Theory of Human Evolution Gets Further Confirmation! Saturday, May 12, 2007

Posted by henry000 in Africa, anthropology, Australia, Australia Aborigines, evolution, genetics, homo erectus, human evolution, Melanesian, New Guinea, science, world.
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The fascinating tale of human evolution gets another important story added to it, this time with a new DNA research done on Australian Aborigines and Melanesians from New Guinea, which further confirms the hypothesis that all humans originated from a group of people from Africa around 50,000 years ago. This is known as “Out of Africa” or the single origin theory.

Up till now the fossils and tools found in Australia have cast doubt on the Out of Africa hypothesis, since they differ significantly to South Asia. This implies that the early settlers in Australia might have interbred with the local homo erectus population that was already there (which migrated out of African some two to one million years ago), “or because there was a subsequent, secondary migration from Africa”.

But the research done using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y chromosomes DNA shows that:

there was no evidence of a genetic inheritance from Homo erectus, indicating that the settlers did not mix and that these people therefore share the same direct ancestry as the other Eurasian peoples.

The researchers suggest that the variations in fossil and tool records can be explained with the thousands of years of isolation that the aboriginal population faced, since the land bridge joining Australia and Asia was submerged into water some 8,000 years ago.

This, in combination with an earlier report, further confirms that the Out of Africa hypothesis is becoming the firm theory of how humans have evolved. We can mainly thanks to the advancement in the science of genetics.

Below is a map of mtDNA migration, courtesy of Wikipedia:

mtDNA Migration, Wikipedia

Genes and Brains Tell the Tale of Human Evolution Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Posted by henry000 in Africa, anthropology, Australopithecus, evolution, genetics, homo erectus, homo sapien, human evolution, science, world.
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This wonderful article titled “Beyond Stones & Bones” provides a great summary of recent discoveries to human evolution, in particular in the area of genetics and brain science.

The great tale of human evolution is just so fascinating. A vital part of it is the use of genetics to tell the story. A delightful example provided in this article is that of using body lice to infer when human lost their body hair for good. It goes like this: body lice live in cloths, so by the time they appeared, human would have started to cover themselves with some sort of clothing, which implies loss of body hair. Now body lice is evolved from head lice (which lives in our hair), so by comparing their DNA changes, which happens at regular rate, we could calculate when human started to lose body hair for good. Using this clever technique, scientists concluded that this happened about 114,000 years ago.

Human Evolution

Using DNA scientists have worked out that humans and chimps evolved apart around 5 to 6 millions years ago, supported by the fact that the climate became dramatically colder around that time. The recent discoveries of the HAR1 and PDYN genes shred some light on how the brain plays its part in the evolution. The HAR1 gene may “… likely helped the cortexes of our ancestors develop the elaborate folds characteristic of a complex brain”, and that the PDYN gene may have advanced brain chemistry.

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