“Selection pressures” are metaphors. So are the “laws of physics.”

Coyne: Selection Pressure are metaphors

Why Evolution Is True

I mentioned offhand the other day that the notion of “selection pressures” in evolutionary biology is a metaphor, not dissimilar to the metaphor of a “selfish gene,” but Matthew convinced me that this idea was more profound than I thought (LOL!), so I’ll write a bit more about it.

A quick refresher: the other day Andrew Brown wrote one of his usual muddled columns in the Guardian, claiming, as he often does, that Richard Dawkins is a malign influence on evolutionary biology.  His argument was the usual blather that gene aren’t really “selfish,” and that this metaphor has led to deep confusion.  In the comments after his piece, Brown repeats this claim in response to a criticism (h/t to moleatthecounter for finding this):

Picture 1If you can’t read the above because the print’s too small, Brown says that “. . . Dawkins got confused by his own title. This confusion…

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Stewart Meets Dawkins – A Disappointment

I must start this post by saying, I love Jon Stewart; I think he is the funniest and one of the most influential people alive today. Also, he is a most often right about things. So, when I heard that Richard Dawkins was going to be on the daily show last night I was thrilled! Two of my favorite thinkers engaging in humorous discourse – what more could I ask for?  As it turns out, I could ask for a lot more.

The first question they tackled was whether the end of civilization will be brought about by religion strife or scientific advancement. First, I have issues with this question – and Dawkins addresses this – religion often uses scientific advances to bring down society. Scientists and engineers made bombs, but it is the religious fundamentalists who feel the need to use them. Stewart goes on to say that this ‘lets science off the hook’ and they may ultimately create something that results in worldwide disaster. I personally think that the goal of scientific research has never been to hurt or destroy but rather to create and understand. The creation of awful weapons has most often been asked of rather than offered up by scientists.

Stewart then goes on to paint a picture of irresponsible scientists and their creations destroying the world. As a side note: he fails to acknowledge the difference between scientists and engineers.  Stewart evidently isn’t aware of all the regulatory, ethics and permitting committees that do such a great job of maintaining the hoops that many of us have to jump through to get things done. There may have been a time for irresponsible science, but it isn’t now; if anything, the community learns from previous mistakes and becomes more responsible every year. Finally, it isn’t the questions that do harm but the use of the answers. You shouldn’t attempt to curb the curiosity, but you should regulate the applications.

Dawkins on The Daily Show (9/24/2013)

In the second part of the interview the conversation moves away from the fear of scientific advancement and back to religion. Stewart attempts to place religion with positive cultural products such as poetry and music. The biggest problem with this idea is that religion requires blind faith in ideas that are highly improbably and poetry does not. Truth to a religious person is what they make it or what they are told rather than fact. This is inherently dangerous. At this point Stewart veers dangerously close to the ‘since the scientists don’t know exactly what happens therefore religion’ argument used most famously by Ray Comfort. Believe me, it hurts me to compare the two. Stewart asks Dawkins whether he knows what happens to us after we die and then jumps on him when he doesn’t know for sure. He proceeds to use the there is a possibility that something happens to our consciousness after death bait. No scientist can resist this bait, simply because we will admit that anything is possible, however improbable. Just because something is possible, that doesn’t mean it is true.

At the end of the second segment, the conversation circles back to the idea the religion is a human construct and therefore our brains are flawed. I do support the idea that our brains are flawed, but Stewart goes on to say since science comes from our brains it must be flawed too. I agree with this as well, science makes mistakes. However, the trend of science is to improve and surpass what has come before us. We used to believe the universe was constant, the earth was flat, and species were unchanging: those were all mistakes. When the scientific communities realized these were mistakes they were rectified and ideas changed.  To address the threat of scientific advancement idea: science and engineering advancements led to flux of fossil fuels into the atmosphere resulting in global warming. Scientists discovered that this was an issue and have united in challenging our dirty energy lifestyles and have investigated and developed alternatives. In all the cases mentioned above it has been the religious who have remained staunch in their beliefs and refused to yield to new evidence. This is what separates religion from science, despite their shared usage of the human brain. I thought Jon Stewart knew that.

You can watch the interview here and be disappointed for yourself>>> Extended interview