Archives For evolution


When we think of ancient biological killers, we typically think of a Black Plague or a smallpox, an often recurring disease that wipes out millions of people and has been recorded since humanity started recording things. The plague killed more than a third of all Europeans in outbreaks from the fall of Rome while smallpox killed well over a billion people over the last 10,000 years. What rarely gets brought up in this pantheon of ancient killers, however, is cancer. It’s been with us a very long time, found in Egyptian mummies over 4,000 years old and named by Greek doctors puzzled by patients who died of “crab-like growths” as they were described, from which we get the disease’s name. But cancer doesn’t just affect us. It kills all living things. Even dinosaurs got tumors because cancer isn’t one disease but abnormal cell growth that is often fatal. If you’re a complex multicellular organism, chances are that there’s a cancer you can develop in time.

One of the most common alt med tropes employed to convince you to buy some new snake oil preaches that frequent cancer diagnoses are a result of our world becoming too polluted and a toxic cocktail of Cthulhu-knows-what circulating through your tissues is to blame. In reality, the reason why so many people get cancers today is because humans are living longer than ever, and are armed with the technology and knowledge to catch more varieties of it earlier, allowing them to subdue it and extend their lifespans even further. In fact, someone I personally know is a survivor of three cancer diagnoses, each a different type, and each was cured with outpatient surgeries. Just a few decades ago, this person would’ve been diagnosed too late and die swiftly even after surgery and chemotherapy, and it’s very likely that with age, there will be yet another cancer diagnosis because cancer is degenerative. The longer you live and the more cells are in your body, the more chances there are for a tumor to spawn after a botched cell division.

But it seems that no one told that to our pachyderm friends, who, despite being large and with fairly long lifespans, have cancer mortality rates half to a fifth of ours. How? Is their blood full of chemo drugs? Not exactly. Their secret weapon against cancers is their genome. Instead of a single copy of the gene encoding the protein p53 like we do, they have 38 in 20 versions. Since this is a protein used to suppress tumor growth, it’s critically important for fighting cancer during its first and most vulnerable stage. More versions of it means better ability to recognize growths that could turn cancerous and a chance to destroy all affected cells earlier. Elephant cells prune such mutations so aggressively, it’s difficult for a new tumor to take hold and this results in their much lower susceptibility to the disease. Given that we’re currently experimenting with medical gene therapy, a hypothetical pop sci afficionado might wonder, could we engineer our very own versions of p53 encoding genes to create a similar resistance to cancers and deal our decisive blow to nature’s murderous defect that’s plagued us since the dawn of complex life?

Sadly, probably not. These p53 variants evolved in elephants against types of tumors that often affect them and which went through millions of years of trial and error in pachyderms, not in us, which means that whether our own gambit to follow this strategy would be successful is unclear at best. Instead, humans could more easily adopt the biochemical strategy employed by naked mole rats, which uses p53 alongside several other mechanisms, including a special sugar, that simply prevent cells from clumping together, breaking up cancerous tumors as a side-effect. It’s a more viable method of combating earliest stage cancers and wouldn’t require inserting some dozen new genes into our DNA, a cocktail of drugs could change how existing genes work. We should continue to study the elephants’ genome to see if we can actually figure out a way to be more proactive with our own evolution to help resist cancer, but for now, we need to take what certainly is a very neat little tidbit of information and keep in mind that anyone in the media who tells us that we could just edit our genes to be more like a pachyderm’s — which we all know will happen sooner rather than later nowadays — is using coming book science for attention…

heisenberg artisans ad

Almost 200 years ago, British economist William Forster Lloyd was writing about the overuse of common goods and coined the term tragedy of the commons. When people act solely in a very self-interested way with no regard for others, certain scenarios end up making the public worse off and scrambling to figure out why a little selfishness or greed got them in such trouble. Over this past week, one such scenario was perfectly illustrated by the hedge fund manager with an exceedingly colorful history of caring about only what’s best for him at an exact moment, and at the expense of anyone in the way of him making another dollar, as he tried to profiteer from an obscure generic drug with a predatory rate hike. And while Shkreli’s attitude and a social media presence that exudes the vibe of a stereotypical entitled bro who thinks he’s beyond all criticism because he has money made him a poster boy for small pharma profiteering, he is far from the only one doing it. In fact, mini-monopolies are hiking up the price of many rare drugs.

From a cold, logical, game theory standpoint, what these executives are doing makes sense. If you own a monopoly on something necessary, you should try and find the maximum price it will garner because your job is to maximize profits and company valuations. Should the market get upset and push back, you lower the price, as Shkreli was forced to do. Eventually, you’ll find the price point at which you’re making more money while your customers are content. It’s really the same approach as in ultimatum games studied by psychologists. Your best bet is to accept any amount greater than zero when offered to split a fixed sum of cash because no matter how the money is split, you still left the experiment with more than you started. It’s the cornerstone of all game theory variants employed to explain and drive stock and commodities markets. The idea that something should be fair is irrelevant, the only things that matter are numbers, supply, and demand. Small pharma execs were using this logic when deciding on their price hikes, seeing a price increase as simply an opening salvo in a negotiations process with the market.

But humans don’t work that way. Even our closest evolutionary cousins will rebel when they find themselves unfairly treated and reject overly generous rewards not to seem too greedy. We act no differently is similar experiments adapted for our minds, and close to three in four of us don’t only reject unfair deals, but will use the rules of the experiment to make sure those who tried to slight us won’t get anything either. In other words, game theory is for machines, not us. We will much rather undermine those unfair to us than settle for whatever crumbs they leave us, even though in theory, those crumbs are more than we had. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s all perfectly logical. Just like apes, we’re social creatures and so we evolved knowing how to keep our tribes together and in order. Even newborns and little children seem to be wired to be both cooperative and friendly, though of course, this varies from child to child. We don’t like extreme inequality or tolerate being treated unfairly, and by rebelling against those who we feel are just pilfering our resources and mistreating us we keep some sense of societal balance. Unlike that tired, old creationist talking point, for us, evolution favored an innate desire to get along.

When pundits on financial news channels grouse that people are unfairly attacking businesses just trying to make a profit in a capitalistic system, they profoundly misunderstand that it’s not a matter of whether the business is making a lot of money or not, it’s how the business does it. If the main source of income is the best and most popular smartphone ever made, we won’t care how much it makes and what its profit margin is because it’s a product that’s needed, improves our lives, and can be foregone if it’s too expensive. If someone makes millions with a pet sitting company, we also won’t care because it’s a service that helps people and their companions in times of need. But if your main source of profit is off the backs of the sick and the poor, then no argument is good enough to defend your practice. We don’t care about your market share and your need to make a return on an investment. You are gouging a common resource and as far as millions of years of evolution tell our brains, you are an awful person who must be somehow punished. It’s a healthy biological imperative for us, and in fact, those who lack it are diagnosed with a pathology called sociopathy whose only natural social order results in kleptocracies.

Really then, it’s little wonder that the world’s failed states would also have the highest inequality and the most violence. Look who gets to be in charge in those places. In Africa, that’s dictators who live in wealth and luxury, protected by armed guards paid for by aid money they steal and proceeds from illegal trade. In Central Asia, it’s warlords who may or may not wear uniforms of their nations’ armed forces along with an official rank, and who are often famous for corruption, keeping sex slaves, and systematically embezzling their subordinates’ already meager pay. It’s what happens when no one even tries to mitigate the tragedy of the commons and a wealthy or violent enough sociopath gets his way enough times. Not letting someone have a monopoly on life saving drugs, or make billions from gouging the sick and the elderly is not “socialism,” or the complaints of “moochers,” but our brains rebelling at the unfairness they see and trying to bring the inequalities down to something more fair. The markets assume we’re horrible people with a very flexible moral compass, an to an extent, we certainly can be. But we also do have a built-in sense of fairness, and thankfully, we use it against those whose greed shut down theirs.

icelandic lake

As the jokes about global warming go, since humans like warm weather, what’s so bad about a little melting permafrost and new beachfront properties after the seas rise? Well, aside from the aftermath of ocean acidification and its impact on marine life we eat, as well as the rising costs of adapting to the swelling tides, and replacing the infrastructure that will be damaged by thaws in the previously solid permafrost layers, there’s also the threat of disease. And not just any old chest cold or flu we’re used to, but viruses tens of thousands of years old which were menacing our cave-dwelling ancestors before ending up in suspended animation. While so far only mild or benign viruses have been found in permafrost samples, the researchers are worried that there are good reasons to suspect various strains of plague or even smallpox are hiding under snow and ice, and will thaw back to life to infect a population which considers them long gone, with a bare minimum of natural immunity to their full ravages, and plenty of perfectly viable hosts.

Now, I know, this sounds like the opening act of a low budget sci-fi movie where some terrifying ancient virus shown in the prologue as annihilating an entire civilization, Atlantis perhaps, thaws as permafrost since the last Ice Age is disturbed by a construction crew with dire consequences and it’s up to an aspiring underwear model of a scientist called by a chiseled president who may be the scientist’s old friend to hunt down the anti-body producing McGuffin in some exotic parts of the world which fails to work, and then improvise a cure at the last possible minute as his kid or love interest is about to die of the disease. If you’re reading this post from a Hollywood studio office, drop me a line, let’s do lunch. But I digress. As unlikely as this scenario is, the odds of an old human-infecting bugaboo for which we may not have effective medication on hand stirred to life as the world warms is not zero, and we may want to start looking back into the viruses’ past to identify and design possible treatments ahead of time. If we don’t, millions might suffer.

Just consider what would happen should an ancient strain of smallpox return. Before worldwide vaccination campaigns, it was the greatest killer of our humble little species for 10,000 years, a culprit behind a third of all blindness, the main contributor to child mortality, and while we fought it off over the last century, it still managed to kill as many as 300 million of us. Before vaccines, the virus traveled across the Atlantic with Europeans, wiping out 90% of Native Americans while the first New World colonies were being established. Today we do have antiviral treatments we think should be able to subdue advanced cases, and post-infection vaccinations would help the patients recover, but this assumes that we’d be fighting the product of trillions of generations of coexistence with humans. A thawed strain could be so radically different by comparison, it may as well be from another planet, which could make it benign to us, or even deadlier. And as we’ll continue warming the planet with wild abandon, we might live to experience this in real life…

flu virus

Scientists are now raising the dead and enslaving them to serve the needs of the living. This is not really much of an exaggeration because that’s exactly what happened when researchers in need of a suitable virus for gene therapy applications decided to create an extinct version of a modern virus by reverse-engineering its evolution and printing the now lost DNA into an empty capsid waiting to be activated. Let’s pause for a second and consider that this is the world that we now occupy. We can traverse the evolutionary tree of an organism and order up the DNA of its ancestors to be 3D printed on command. Beyond being basically horror movie fodder in real life though, this experiment isn’t just an exploration into seeing what’s possible. No, this turning back of the clock might become wildly effective cures for diseases and conditions for which the current treatment just isn’t enough or doesn’t really exist by producing a virus that our immune systems haven’t seen yet, and which repairs our genomes to fix what may one day kill us.

Now, I’ve talked about gene therapy and its promise before. It could combat complex disorders like cystic fibrosis, shrink, or at least arrest the growth of cancers, and eliminate problems that can be traced to single genes by altering them once and for all. While the very first human tests did get off to a rocky start, the technology is now much safer and much better understood, and has been showing some promise. In one inspiring trial, the engineered HIV virus sent an acute strain of pediatric leukemia into remission and showed evidence that precise targeting for gene therapy was definitely possible. However, current approaches have a major limitation before we can get really consistent results and that limitation is us. To be more specific, our immune cells pick up on the viruses’ signatures and attack them before they can do any good. This means a lot of good engineering that would have worked never makes it to its target and the patient just doesn’t react to the therapy. Considering that out immune systems have faced at least some of the strains we can use as therapeutic vectors, there’s not much else we can throw at them.

Or at least not much else that exists, thought the researchers in question here. Our bodies had not seen the viruses they brought back through their modern evolutionary history, so bringing a long lost ancestor back from the dead by identifying which mutations happened over the many generations and reversing them, would find our bodies defenseless. Which is exactly what we’d want for gene therapy. Before our bodies can mount a defense, the infection has spread so far and wide that the therapeutic edits should have had their intended macro effect. Just think of it as sending high altitude stealth bombers and special operations teams instead of flying enough conventional fighter planes and tanks against formidable defenses to get at least some through enemy lines. Just far cooler because it involves resurrecting extinct genomes. But rest easy for now if you’re worried about scientists trying to create a real Jurassic Park with this method. The technology we have now can’t just create mammoth and dinosaur DNA we can use to grow full creatures. Well, at least not yet, though we may have to revisit that question soon enough…

woman on bench

Once in a while, the internet remembers random things, such as a woman who wanted to trim the male population by at least 90% and use the survivors as breeding stock to reduce gender inequality across the world. While MRAs believe that this is what all feminists secretly want and most people understand that this is little more than a joke that went too far and has absolutely zero chance of happening, ever, all of the online discussions on the subject have focused on a trip down the histrionics-laden minefield of gender politics instead of a relevant scientific issue that should be front and center. Sure, being one of the few males left on Earth and given a life filled with relative luxury and constant sex sounds like the plot of a particularly wishful porn film which I’m sure has been made a few hundred times by now. But would it actually work? What’s the consequence of eliminating up to 99% of men from the gene pool? Well, it could very likely doom our species in the long run, even with heavy reliance on artificial insemination and gene therapy. We thrive thanks to variety, and reducing our genetic diversity will only harm us.

Let’s say that 90% of men are somehow culled. With about 10 women for every remaining man we’d quickly end up with the same problem as Iceland worldwide. In just a few generations, the attractive stranger with whom you’re flirting is likely your half-sibling. Sure, you can curate who gets to reproduce and how, but the sheer lack of new male genes will quickly have you trying to fight math. Artificial insemination using same sex donors is possible and has been done, but it’s still a very touchy, expensive process that doesn’t always work. Women in poverty or in remote, undeveloped parts of the world are going to have extremely limited access to this resource and women in wealthy nations will be looking at high costs and failure rates. Nature got really, really good at this whole reproduction thing over 3.5 billion years and re-inventing the wheel is not an easy feat. Today, the best we can do with tried and true technology is successful about 15% of the time per implanted zygote on average. After just ten generations, there’s going to be a very serious threat of a genetic bottleneck which spells evolutionary doom for any organism.

An even more base, but still relevant question in the face of us no longer being able to just out-breed our way through genetic defects and weaknesses as we do today, is what about women who want monogamous, long-term heterosexual relationships? That’s close to 90% of those on the planet in this post-male apocalypse world. Instead of having a boyfriend or a husband they just plain want, they’re now on waiting lists among rationed men who also can’t have any sort of meaningful relationship. While more women than men admit to same-sex fantasies, and acting on them, you might end up with artificially high same-sex pairings among women simply out of emotional and physical necessity. It’s one thing if you’re homosexual and have your choice of a partner everywhere you look. But if you’re not, your choices are to get on a waiting list for some person to whose gender you have a strong innate attraction, pair up with a same sex partner to release some stress until you can’t do it anymore, or be lonely. Again, there are good reasons why nature prefers a 50/50 ratio between the sexes, one of which is more choices in mating.

For better or worse, the survival of humanity depends on having plenty of men available, and a significant amount of genetic diversity. Look at every successful species in history. They thrived in enormous numbers because they reproduced efficiently and had many mates available on a moment’s notice. Small, inbred populations nearly always die out because they lack the genetic diversity and numbers to absorb a change in diet, or the environment, or new diseases to come out on the other end as strong as ever. Humans survived a supervolcanic eruption which left an uncomfortably small population that might have dropped to as few as 10,000 individuals, awful plagues, and an ice age. Had we become too dependent on over-structured breeding systems, or had our species grown far too sex-lopsided, we would’ve went extinct. So an idea involving a reduction of up to 99% of one sex shouldn’t just be met with political and social objections, but it should be first dismissed from the most important point of all: that of evolutionary biology.


The bizarre creature pictured above is an arthropod, a distant relative of crabs and lobsters, an amazing evolutionary blip during the Cambrian Radiation. We know three things about it. It was predatory, it was one of many such weird animals trying to eek out a living in the shallow water off uninhabitable coasts, and considering its lineage, it was likely delicious steamed and with a measured touch of melted butter. We also know that despite being an evolutionary dead end, it’s an important species because it shows us the sheer variety of life able to emerge when animals were a blank slate, starting with little more than disc-shaped bacterial colonies that evolved very primitive organs for filter-feeding. Who knows what they could’ve become had they managed to survive and their ancestors branched out, undergoing billions of years of change. What would a planet dominated by the direct descendants of such predators look like? Certainly very alien.

Just think about that for a minute. Consider that this spiny, eldritch thing really existed and what you would think were you to come across it today, and compare it to UFOlogists’ declarations of alien life that looks like really skinny gray humans with bug eyes and big heads. Of all the forms life has taken even here, on our home world, an alien planet around a distant star, with its own environment and evolutionary history managed to produce another intelligent life form which by sheer coincidence just so happens to look like us? It’s absurd! Who says there is a limit to how many appendages an intelligent life form could have? As long as it’s clever enough to build the shelter it needs and harvest the resources it requires, it has the potential to mull other life on all the worlds across its night sky, and maybe even build a ship to explore beyond its own world. If anyone tells me that he has seen aliens and they look like us post-nuclear apocalypse, and with a penchant for nudism, excuse me if I point at Cambrian fossils and scoff at such a notion.

alien bacteria

We’re using far too many antibiotics. That has been the cry from the FDA and the WHO for the last several years as more and more antibiotic-resistant strains have been found after they had colonized or killed patients. Of course these bacteria aren’t completely immune to our arsenals of drugs, they’re just harder to kill with certain antibiotics or require different ones, but a rather small, yet unsettling number, have required doctors to use every last antibacterial weapon they had available to even make a dent in their populations. There’s not much we can do because in effect, we’re fighting evolution. The more antibiotics we throw at the bacteria, the more chances we give for resistant strains to survive and thrive. Doctors are starting to prescribe less and the pressure on farmers to stop prophylactic use of antibiotics is mounting, but we’re still overdoing it and the problem is growing and in need of some very creative new solutions.

Enter a genetic engineering technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 which replaces DNA sequences that short snippets of RNA are encoded to identity with ones provided by scientists. It’s not new by any means, but this is the first time it has been used in an evolutionary experiment intended to stem the rise of antibiotic resistance. Israeli researchers essentially gave bacterial colony an immunity to a virus, but at the cost of deleting genes which gave it antibacterial resistance. The bacteria happily propagated the immunity as they grew while maintaining the new weaknesses to antibiotics which were only marginally effective on them before. There’s a real advantage for the bacteria to propagate this new mutation because the virus to which it was now immune was lethal, acting as the greater selective pressure, and the susceptibility to antibiotics just wasn’t an important factor, so the bacteria acted like it got a fair deal.

Even better, edits were made by a specially engineered virus, meaning you can, in theory, just infect bacteria-prone surfaces with it and demolish their antibiotic resistance, right? Well, yes, it would be possible. However, the researchers worry that new antibiotic resistant mutations can still evolve and that there’s no way to prevent the bacteria’s genetic drifts from accepting genes for viral immunity while holding on to its existing antibacterial mechanisms. But this technique is still useful for reducing the number of resistant bacteria or targeting strains with very well known resistance mechanisms to allow doctors to use existing antibiotics. Ultimately, what will help the most would be more research into new antibiotics, curtailing their use in doctors’ offices for any viral infection regardless of the patients’ complaints, and eliminating preventative use of animal antibiotics on farms. Still, research like this can still help us identify new resistant strains and give us a fighting chance to slow them down while we find new ways to fight them.

See: Yosef, I., et. al. (2015). Temperate and lytic bacteriophages programmed to sensitize and kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1500107112

t. rex fossil

Last time we tackled the question of whether the mighty T-Rex was a predator or a scavenger, the math seemed to point to a mix at the very least. There was no way a creature that large had enough to eat just by moving from carcass to carcass and picking off the scraps left by the apex predators of its day if we take into account the average distances between the kills, decay, and the need to compete with smaller, faster scavengers. But on the other hand, there was the issue of not finding any clear signs of T-Rex predation. Sure there have been some teeth marks on a couple of fossilized bones but all of them could be equally explained by both scavenging and by hunting, with a few specimens having teeth marks in such awkward places that they were hard to explain in the first place. Now, however, there’s proof that the Tyrant Lizard King was indeed the fierce predator we always imagined. One of its fangs was found buried in the hip bone of a duck bill dinosaur, exactly where one would expect a predator to bit to take out the hind legs of a prey animal, and it shows signs of infection and two months of healing after the attack.

Well that’s pretty definitive then. The fossil record has given us a little forensic puzzle that points to a moment in time when a T-Rex tried to chase down a duck bill and the herbivore escaped to live for another two months or so with a terrifying souvenir in its body. Alternatively, we can try and imagine other scenarios during which the T-Rex didn’t have to chase it down. Maybe it was sleeping and attacked by surprise. Maybe it fell and managed to defend itself from a huge beast that came to gnaw on it. But either way, we have pretty clear signs of predation that can put the debate to rest. Now, of course T-Rex would’ve also scavenged because all predators do it as an occasional supplement to their diet. If someone else already took the risk and did the work that goes into a big kill and can be scared off, why not simply take the carcass like lions and hyenas often do from each other? But with predation now verified, little kids can keep on safely thinking of these enormous creatures as intimidating hunters stalking the plains, looking for a chance to strike quickly and violently with enough force to chew through a car…

And of course there’s another interesting fact that this debate about the nature of T-Rex’s diet and predatory habits reveals about science. Because there are always questions to answer in the process of learning more about our past, scientists really are comfortable going after even the most sacred cows. Since the first fossil of this creature was discovered and erected into the towering, fierce stance that was its trademark for almost a century afterwards, paleontologists have been figuring out how it really looked, how it really stood, and how it really moved, which raised questions about what and how it really ate. In the process they lowered its body, raised the giant, muscular tail, leveled its enormous head to its now horizontal spine, and found out it moved faster that first thought, as did its prey. Now we know it really was the terrifying beast we always thought it was, but we know this based on concrete, well, fossilized evidence, not just the popular imagination of what it might have done with its banana-sized chompers. And that’s the beauty of science. It gives us the tools not just to imagine, but to really know.


Generally, we tend to associate powerful theories with the people who first proposed them and say that without Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg, Turing, or all the other scientists featured in countless books as visionaries, our world wouldn’t be the same, and the knowledge we take for granted now would’ve never made it to us. Well, this is somewhat true. Change who discovered, say, germ theory and how it was proposed, and you’d have different criticisms and politics, and adoption curve by the scientific establishment of the day so the world would indeed be a different place. But when it comes to the knowledge, it would largely be similar. That’s one of the greatest things about science. Call physics "objectology" and change the variables in the formulas, and the body of work will still describe pretty much the same processes with the same mechanics because that’s just the way nature works. The differences would be in what bleeding edge ideas would dominate the debate among the experts and professionals, not the basics.

And so, a new book by historian Peter J. Bowler, argues that without Darwin, biology as we know it today would be virtually the same. Were the young naturalist thrown overboard during a storm as he traveled the world, compiling evidence for his theory, there were many scientists waiting to fill the role of evolution’s historical focal father. Wallace probably fits the bill best since it was his version of the theory that prompted Darwin to dust off his by then 20 year old manuscript. And if Wallace’s ideas failed to get any attention, the idea of natural selection was still in the air, it just needed a solid footing to really take off and fuse with genetics. If anything, argues Bowler, neo-Darwinian synthesis might have actually been expedited with Wallace because his theories had more developmental underpinnings, and would turn the field’s focus to complex genetics we’re trying to master to the forefront sooner. And of course there would’ve still been vocal creationist opposition to the idea in all forms. It’s basically a given, much like gravity and entropy.

Even the charges of evolution inspiring eugenics and the horrors of the Holocaust would’ve still persisted because the people who were ultimately responsible for them were looking for any kind of excuse to reshape humanity to their liking. Considering that their understanding of selection was pitiful and their knowledge of hereditary mechanisms was non-existent, they weren’t exactly interested in the science. They just wanted a patina of facts to hide their bigotry and racism, and anything that sounded like it could be bastardized into serving their goal was used. Hundreds of years before them, religion was used to justify mistreatment of minority groups throughout much of the Western world, be it selective accusatory clauses from the Old Testament, or invoking the loathsome Deicide Doctrine to defend systematic segregation and prosecution of Jews. In fact, much of the legendary Witch’s Hammer reads like the furious ranting of a misogynist who would easily show up any self-appointed Men’s Rights Activist on the web, the 15 century male version of Andrea Dworkin. Would Kramer have abused evolution to fuel his misogyny? Absolutely.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that Darwin’s accomplishments were trivial or that Galileo was simply stealing from Eratosthenes, or that the re-invention of the steam engine was no big deal. There was a good deal of research, work, and insight involved in doing what they did and being the first to have your work recognized and adopted so widely is still a feat. It doesn’t matter that others could’ve done it too because how nature works will always be there for someone to come along and discover. What matters is that they seized the moment and advanced our civilization, giving us new fields to explore. But Bowler’s exercise also proves an important point. Science is ultimately about the facts. The data comes first, the theory to explain why the data is this way is second, and the people who put it all together come third. And while visionaries deserve all their accolades, they are not completely indispensable At worst, their absence from history would’ve delayed a discovery. Nature didn’t uniquely open up to them to grant them insight Anyone can discover something new and fascinating, and sometimes something that can change the way we think about the entire universe. And that’s what makes science such a terrific endeavor.

dingy lab

Granted, it’s been a few weeks since the Panda’s Thumb caught the Discovery Institute using a stock image for one of their research labs, but this seemingly little thing really matters because it’s another glaring example of how creationists are desperate to present “I don’t know, therefore an unspecified creator or designer which sounds suspiciously like a Biblical deity,” as science. I can imagine Luskin’s train of thought now. Scientists like to show people labs, right? So if we get an image of a “scientist” in what looks like a lab, they’re bound to think that we’re also scientists doing serious research, right? Not really, it’s just taking cargo cult science a notch down and no green screen added lab makes a supposed biologist’s ridiculous musings any more legitimate.

Come on, we have Biologist Ann Gauger, PhD telling us that it’s premature to assume that two similar species must have some common descent without telling us how else these species can get their genetic and anatomical similarities without invoking magic or the supernatural. I’d really like to know the kind of research she produced to show a causal agent for genetic similarity with no evolution involved in that gloomy lab of hers. I’m sure we’ll find it in all the top journals which are always on the lookout for some paradigm-shifting discovery. Though the fact that no one at the Discovery Institute and its offshoots can even define evolution as we know it might be a big impediment to producing work of any scientific value, with or without a real lab…

[ illustration from Far Cry 3 ]