why you really need to pick the right experts

Michio Kaku is an expert in theoretical physics. This is why it's not surprising that he's reciting for sci-fi cliches about evolution instead of the actual science.

michio kaku

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.

# science // biology / evolution / human evolution / media

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