why you really need to pick the right experts

February 17, 2011

While today, scientists who actively participate in skeptical movements and run blogs with topics which cover more than just their areas or research, are wondering about which experts would want to promote a variety of sciences to the general public and those who fund research through government organizations, they’re also not thrilled with popular scientists who cross their lines of competence. One of the experts frequently shown on what remains of The Science Channel after he wrote several books about radical ideas in bleeding edge physics, Michio Kaku, has done just that in declaring that human evolution ended, and earning the blistering fury of PZ in the process. I have to say though, the fury is not without a good justification because Kaku does seem to know an awful little about human evolution and the fact that it’s actually speeding up, insisting that our civilization has virtually ended the natural selection that’s supposed to keep us evolving, despite that just last year, the web was abuzz with a recently discovered case of significant natural selection in humans.

Now, I could just refer you to a biologist for a list of reasons as to why Kaku is wrong and leave it at that, but it would miss a bigger issue with his repetition of the canard regarding our biological future. This notion of the static human who pretty much domesticated himself, left with nowhere to go but down, appears constantly in science fiction and among the amateur techies flocking to Kurzweil-styled transhumanists, who tell them that either merging with machines or transcending our physical bodies is "the next step in our evolution," and that we’re essentially destined to become immortal as soon as the technology gets here. If you remember a very particular sci-fi show that went on way too long after its expiration date, Stargate SG1, you’ll probably recall its habit of using transcendence to immortality via some highly evolved psychic powers in episode after episode, even using it to bring characters back from the dead. And we certainly can’t forget New Age woo devotees who flock by the thousands to hear post-modernist cranks coo about "the spiritual evolution of humanity" while they liberally pepper what amounts to nonsense with trendy, sciency-sounding buzzwords, chanting "quantum" as if they are Zen Buddhists reciting their mantras during an intense mediation session.

Of course, I could cite other examples of this trope rearing its head in pop culture, but you probably see where this is headed. Human evolution’s supposed end is a very popular mistake and like many urban legends, its constant, uncritical repetition has ingrained it in a whole lot of minds, even those of scientists who really don’t follow biology or didn’t pay much attention to it during their schooling. And all too often, the media forgets that scientists actually have very, very narrow areas of expertise and the broad labels we give them often engulf a whole lot more than their actual research. A scientist we call a marine biologist might spend her entire career studying two species of squid, and one we call a theoretical astrophysicist could work only on the behavior of accretion disks around black holes for the next decade. But because they’re scientists, journalists and editors like to assume, they must be really, really smart and can give us a valid opinion on everything. It’s basically an inversion of a falsum in uno, falsum in omnibus fallacy where we assume that because someone like Kaku has a fair bit of weight in the world of exotic physics, he should also know a lot about human evolution or is a good authority on artificial intelligence and cyborgs, which by the way, he’s not. So really, I’m not surprised to see a random pop sci canard better suited for a show on whatever it is the Sci-Fi channel wants to call itself nowadays, from a scientist being asked a question out of his depth. Disappointed. But not surprised.

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  • http://glacialtill.wordpress.com Ryan

    I was just as dissapointed with is interview on CNN when he portayed himself as an expert on the Yellowstone caldera. He comes off as windbag more than anything. He should learn to leave biology to the biologists and geology to the geologists.

  • Josh

    @Ryan i agree, the way that he he speak (like a condecending big brother) made me want to punch him.

    I think that Kaku needs to read both this post and PZ’z at Pharyngula and actually take the time to do a bit of research into human evolutionary biology, Rather than just giving an answer that sounds smart because he does not think that the audience will be able to tell the difference between sciency words and BS. I mean how stupid can you be SyFy is full of nerds, a majority of which probaly know more about biology than he does.

  • Josh

    Damn i should have read the post a little bit closer remove SyFy channel reference and insert “this seems like a company asking a pesron a question he does not know the answer to and that person then compounding the stupidity by trying to answer that question”.

  • http://avianarchitexture.wordpress.com alex c

    I receive the email updates from Big Think to see what kind of content they’re pushing from week to week even though I almost never have time to watch the videos. A friend of mine wrote for them when they were just starting up and they seemed to want to rival TED (seemingly without putting in the work). As far as I’ve seen they failed to find a real niche and will just pay people to say stuff about anything on there as long as they’re an “expert” on something. It gives the site cred when it doesn’t have much else to run on. Really, really disappointing stuff.

  • matt

    I inferred very little from the video that matches your critique.

    — His main hypothesis is that “gross” evolution has slowed or stopped for humans. The more intermingling we have, the more alike we become. Makes sense to me. Yes, there will still be some evolution but not in a statistically significant way.

    — As I understand, a big influence on evolution is the dying-out side of the equation which can lead to a breakpoint where “strong” genes outpace not-so-strong genes. We seem to be moving toward keeping more of the population alive than before, so weakness is not as much of an issue as it used to be. I guess one can say that health still plays a factor — from diseases and mutations that prevent survival.

    — If the outrage is due to confusing the causes of evolution (‘genetic drift’ + ‘natural selection’), then I wonder if that’s really anything to be outraged by.

    Then again, I’m no expert either.

  • Greg Fish

    Matt, the problem with these points is that they’re actually quite wrong and we are really evolving faster than ever thanks to our growing population. Not only is human evolution ongoing, but it’s very statistically significant, and natural selection still happens. Sure, we do mingle a lot, but we also live in new places, experience genetic drift, and there’s plenty of war, disease, and resource crunches to create competitions where only those able to survive and reproduce in a particular environment live long enough to do so. It’s actually a sad fact that in much of the developing world, infant and adolescent mortality is quite high and a lot of kids don’t grow up to be parents.

    What Kaku seems to be saying is that because over the last 100,000 years we haven’t evolved a third eye or night vision, or something radically drastic, that means evolution has stopped for humanity. Considering that 100,000 years is a blink of an eye, that an ongoing genetic shift towards drastic new features takes five or six times longer to fully manifest itself, and that we’ve actually made huge strides on the evolutionary relevant scale of 2 million years, that assessment comes of as uneducated and impatient.

  • MutantBuzzard

    Man haz never evolved, he haz only adapted. However he will evolve via geniticaly engneired desiner offspring, proving that evloution doesent happen with out a creators say so. There is a lot more evidence for extinction than evloution..

  • Greg Fish

    “Man haz never evolved, he haz only adapted.”

    And what is evolution but a series of mutations that come off as adaptations?

    “However he will evolve via geniticaly engneired desiner offspring…”

    Just like that? We’ll snap our fingers and have designer offspring that will start evolving even though you say evolution never happened? Things don’t quite work that way.

    Also, just curious, do you pay attention to the fact that you’re contradicting yourself and are you familiar with the concept of proofreading? I know this is just the web, but still, at least a cursory effort would be welcomed.

  • Paul

    MutantBuzzard,

    “However he will evolve via geniticaly engneired desiner offspring, proving that evloution doesent happen with out a creators say so.”

    In exactly the same way that jet aircraft prove that birds are jet powered.