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of a Chapter from Why Darwin Matters

In the opening chapter of Why Darwin Matters, Michael Shermer recounts his voyage to and research in the Galapagos islands with Frank Sulloway as they retraced Darwin’s footsteps to better understand how the British naturalist discovered natural selection; Shermer then explains what evolution is, and how he began college as a creationist and how, in time, he came to realize that evolutionary theory was true and one of the greatest explanatory theories in the history of science. Listen to this chapter on your computer, iPod/iPhone, or MP3 player, and if you like it you can purchase the entire book for a modest price (compared to the normal price of audio books).

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In this week’s eSkeptic, James N. Gardner reviews Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell. James N. Gardner is an Oregon attorney and the author, most recently, of The Intelligent Universe: AI, ET, and the Emerging Mind of the Cosmos.


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Complexity Redux

a book review by James N. Gardner

The best popular science books are those that give the reader the sense of looking over the shoulder of a leading researcher doing cutting-edge work at the frontier of scientific inquiry. Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Einstein belongs in this category. So too does Melanie Mitchell’s comprehensive new book chronicling the latest advances in the sciences of complexity.

Mitchell, a professor of computer science at Portland State University and an External Professor at the famous Santa Fe Institute that specializes in the study of complexity, is one of the world’s leading experts in the field of genetic algorithm research. This is a special kind of computer science that has the audacious goal of coaxing software to evolve on its own through a process of natural selection that resembles Darwinian evolution.

Research into genetic algorithms is representative of the broad portfolio of disciplines comprising the sciences of complexity because it relies on a fusion of seemingly disparate scientific fields —computer science and evolutionary biology —to produce a hybrid possessing (in complexity lingo) emergent properties. For instance, evolutionary computation can yield solutions to seemingly intractable engineering challenges that no human designer could have imagined.

The pervasiveness, power and sheer intricacy of evolutionary forces is a unifying theme of Mitchell’s book and of the scientific breakthroughs she describes. Some of her best discussion focuses on the seething debate, largely shrouded from the eyes of laypersons, regarding the deficiencies of the so-called Modern Synthesis, which united Darwin’s theory of natural selection with Gregor Mendel’s path-breaking work in genetics.

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Skeptic magazine cover (8/3)

Check out Skeptic magazine Volume 8, Number 3: Chaos & Complexity. To see all of our products on this topic, go to skeptic.com/shop and enter the word complexity into the store search. ORDER this issue

Current research, made possible by new DNA sequencing technologies, is revealing that some of the fundamental tenets of the Modern Synthesis may be wrong or least seriously incomplete. For instance, the synthesis asserts that natural selection is the major mechanism of evolutionary change and adaptation; that evolution is an inherently gradual process reliant exclusively on small random variations in individuals; and that the origin of new species can be satisfactorily explained by the microscopic process of gene variation and natural selection.

As Mitchell demonstrates lucidly, these conclusions are being seriously undermined by researchers who are starting to view the phenomenon of evolution through the prism of the sciences of complexity. Here are just a few of the startling insights that have emerged:

  • Genes are not static but jump around on their chromosomes and between chromosomes. As Mitchell puts it, “The result can be a much higher rate of mutation than comes from errors in DNA replication.”
  • The complexity of living systems is largely due to networks of genes rather than the sum of the independent effects of individual genes. This explains how human beings and mustard plants can have roughly the same number of genes (about 25,000) but exhibit vastly different levels of biological complexity.
  • The new field of Evo-Devo (short for evolutionary developmental biology) is providing insights into how evolution can sometimes move at warp speed (for instance, during the Cambrian Explosion half a billion years ago when multicellular animals emerged in a geological blink of an eye). The apparent mechanism is not mutation of ordinary genes but rather mutation of “master genes” that regulate the formation and morphology of many of an animal’s body parts.

The late physicist Heinz Pagels once wrote that he was “convinced that the nations and people who master the new sciences of complexity will become the economic, cultural, and political superpowers of the next century.” When you read Complexity: A Guided Tour, you will get a good sense of why Pagels reached that conclusion.


Skepticality: The Official Podcast of Skeptic Magazine
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TAM7 Field Report

This week on Skepticality, Derek & Swoopy recap The James Randi Educational Foundation’s Amazing Meeting 7 conference, which took place this past week in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Derek recounts his many adventures as a TAM7 attendee, including his interviews and discussions with TAM Guests including Ray Hyman, Jennifer Oullette and MythBuster Adam Savage. Looking at this epic convention in a new way, Swoopy shares her impressions of following the conference from home via social networking websites such as Twitter, Facebook and uStream.


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Freedom & Skepticism in Las Vegas

In this week’s Skepticblog post, Michael Shermer tells us about The Amazing Meeting 7 and Freedom Fest, both held this past weekend in Las Vegas.

While you’re there be sure to read the blog posts of the other Skepticbloggers: Brian Dunning, Kirsten Sanford, Mark Edward, Phil Plait, Ryan Johnson, Steven Novella, and Yau-Man Chan.

6 Comments »

6 Comments

  1. Peter Robertson says:

    The complexity that is mentioned in this edition of eSkeptic is an interesting field, but it brings to mind what I consider to be the biggest problem facing computing, namely complexity in its common sense.

    Computing is the only engineering discipline I can think of where increasing visible complexity is thought to improve a product. It seems that there is little natural selection happening in software and hardware designs to keep them outwardly simple and effective: there are lots of sheep who accept every suggestion as being good and scarcely any predators to apply reason and plain common sense.

    All religions are bad, but the religion of complexity, with its lure of High Priest status, is going to lead us into a technological Dark Age unless it is stopped in its tracks.

  2. Eric says:

    Not sure how the statement ‘…that the origin of new species can be satisfactorily explained by the microscopic process of gene variation and natural selection.’ is ‘being seriously undermined’ by the three insights given since they all seem to be examples of gene variation.
    These insights may be more applicable to the statement ‘that evolution is an inherently gradual process reliant exclusively on small random variations in individuals’ although I dont think anyone has ever used the term ‘exclusively’ in this context.

  3. Bill Burke says:

    The very first sentence in this review seems a truly horrible example of conjecture dressed up as certain knowledge and would seem an insult to the intelligence of almost anyone with a reasonable degree of scepticism. I.e., the intended reader here, presumably.

    My Imaginary Friend in the Sky! Don’t we get enough false certitude from other sources without letting it invade this supposed sanctuary of reason?

    Aren’t these articles edited for at least surface allegiance to the notion of reasonable scepticism so as not to impeach the the credibility of “Skeptic”? It doesn’t seem so, does it.

  4. John Beck says:

    I concur with Bill about that first sentence – as an assertion it is quite flimsy. The only thing I could say in its defense is that the advertising industry has rendered the word ‘best’ completely meaningless – so its use can be defended by pointing out its vagueness.

    In my not-so-humble opinion, the best popular science books (of which I have read hundreds) are the ones which are clear, informative, and keep my (the reader’s) interest. I do not wish to look over the shoulder of leading researchers – as a scientist who is familiar of the hygiene and people skills of many top researchers in my field, I’d prefer not to be in the same room as them.

    This raises an issue that has been bothering me for some time now: why is it obligatory to stuff science books with ‘human interest fluff’? Do we really need to know that Dr X, who smashes atoms by day, beats his dog at night? Does that have any relevance on his or her work? Doesn’t that nurture the ‘cult of personalities’ which runs counter to the scientific ideal of not respecting any authority, rather let the work stand on its own? Do publishers think that we need to ‘connect’ with these guys (I’m using the gender neutral ‘guy’) to appreciate their work?

    BTW: This fluff isn’t only pervasive in popular writing, it has found its way into textbooks. Open any Freshman astronomy text and you’ll find numerous mini-bios on Newton (who was a right bastard), Tycho (who was a colorful character but they leave out the best parts), Jocelyn Bell (who was screwed out of a Nobel prize by her adviser – but that’s not mentioned).

    Now that I write this I guess my problem all this human interest is they never tell the juicy bits of gossip about scientists – it’s all People magazine but no National Inquirer!

  5. Oddvar Kloster says:

    “human beings and mustard plants [have] roughly the same number of genes (about 25,000) but exhibit vastly different levels of biological complexity”

    How is the difference in levels of biological compexity ‘vast’? Both organisms are built on a base of very complex cellular machinery. Granted, humans seem to have a more complex body plan and certainly more complex behaviour, but I would call this difference small compared to the complexity that anyone needs just to get off the ground as a multicellular organism.

    Some people seemed to take offense when it was discovered that a lowly parasite (Trichomonas vaginalis) has more than double the number of genes than a human. Good thing that we can invoke network effects to hold on to our sense of being the bestest, complexiest organism around!

  6. Matthew says:

    So…where did “first life” come from? Are you saying it came from “non-living” materials?

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