Thursday, May 13, 2010

Seven Million Years

Obviously the rationale of this blog has effectively mutated to reflect the post-Dubya reality. Who cares what Dubya does or does not read these days? Not much, I'm sure. However, I suppose it's worth the observation that Dubya must reject such a book as this, which already starts by assuming the jury has come in on evolution, and evolution works, even for us. So now:

Reactions to and a Quickie Assessment of Seven Million Years: The Story of Human Evolution by Douglas Palmer

It was my reaction to page 119 that encouraged me to write about this book. That's where he rather crudely touched on the nature versus nurture debate. His presentation was muddled, but it seems he's mostly trying to come down on the side of nature without sufficient understanding of what it means to be a Turing Machine. Of course we are constrained by our physical reality, and that may even include certain predispositions in the genetically-driven neural wiring, but one of the essential things about Turing Machines is that they are in a sense 'universal'. We may not run certain programs as effectively as other programs, but I think we have almost complete freedom as to the 'mental programs' we choose to run. It's not that we are unconstrained, but even then we have the freedom to fight against every form of constraint.

In the concrete context of the book at that point, it got me to thinking about the crucial importance of clothing. He very much downplays the topic, with a single reference in the index and at least two overlooked and unindexed references in the text (since I had become sensitized to the word), but my realization at that point was that the simple act of adding or removing a garment would vastly increase the effective range of humans in comparison with any other animals--and do it at a speed that evolution can't possibly match. It takes some large number of generations to adjust the skin's coloration or the amount of hair, but a simple cape can achieve better effects at a speed that can match today's weather.

Ergo, I was already predisposed to regard the book as a rather superficial introduction to the topic. The bulk of the book was just a kind of trivial low-level biography of anthropologists--a list of who found what, when, and some mentions of who disagreed with which categorizations. Then the author seriously annoyed me during his superficial presentation of genetic analysis, which was treated as a rather minor topic late in the book--but polluted by the use of presidential politics in a distinctly inappropriate context.

Overall, a kind of trivial book. I don't like to say a nonfiction book was a waste of my time, but that's mostly how I wound up feeling about this book. I can't recommend it, even after struggling to think of an appropriate scenario...

1 comment:

shanen said...

Obviously Palmer's book should be compared to Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. This is another rather superficial introduction to evolution for laymen, but from the perspective of comparative anatomy mixed with paleontology. There were some surprising and interesting details here, but mostly Shubin is still preaching to the choir. Yes, he did try to present some of his arguments in ways that address some of the main arguments offered against evolution--but he can't overcome the fundamental bias of the opponents of evolution when they consider ANY evidence. Presenting more and better evidence, describing it more clearly, and analyzing the meaning of the evidence more carefully are fundamentally irrelevant when the conclusion is preordained.

Pretty sure it will not help, but it is an example of the fundamental difference between the scientific viewpoint and the religious viewpoint. The faith-based perspective is fundamentally immutable. There's a good reason they call themselves fundamentalists. In contrast, a scientific viewpoint must change in response to new evidence, and must always consider new evidence and new analyses of existing evidence.

In my own case, my (scientific) understanding of genes has significantly changed over the last year or two. I used to understand genes as similar to a blueprint, but I now understand the genetic information as much more similar to a recipe. This really makes a difference in how we should interpret evolution--but of course it doesn't make a whit of difference to the religious fanatics.