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Dec 06 2011

Science overwhelmed by self-defeating awe

This video by Alexander Tsiaras is simultaneously lovely and infuriating; it’s a product of technology and science, and the narration is profoundly anti-science.

There are some technical issues that annoy me about the video — it’s a mix of real imagery and computer animation, and it doesn’t draw a line between what is observed and what is fabricated — but it’s visually stunning and otherwise fairly accurate.

But Tsiaras’s running commentary…it’s mystical airy-fairy glop. It takes awe and turns it into a celebration of ignorance.

Even though I am a mathematician, I look at this with marvel of how do these instruction sets not make these mistakes as they build what is us? It’s a mystery, it’s magic, it’s divinity. Then you start to take a look at adult life. Take a look at this little tuft of capillaries. It’s just a tiny sub-substructure, microscopic. But basically by the time you’re nine months and you’re given birth, you have almost 60,000 miles of vessels inside your body. I mean, and only one mile is visible. 59,999 miles that are basically bringing nutrients and taking waste away. The complexity of building that within a single system is, again, beyond any comprehension or any existing mathematics today.

And that instruction set, from the brain to every other part of the body — look at the complexity of the folding. Where does this intelligence of knowing that a fold can actually hold more information, so as you actually watch the baby’s brain grow — and this is one of the things that we’re doing right now. We’re actually doing the launch of two new studies of actually scanning babies’ brains from the moment they’re born. Every six months until they’re six years old — we’re going to be doing actually to about 250 children — watching exactly how the gyri and the sulci of the brains fold to see how this magnificent development actually turns into memories and the marvel that is us.

And it’s not just our own existence, but how does the woman’s body understand to have genetic structure that not only builds her own, but then has the understanding that allows her to become a walking immunological, cardiovascular system that basically is a mobile system that can actually nurture, treat this child with a kind of marvel that is beyond, again, our comprehension — the magic that is existence, that is us?

It’s not magic, and it’s sure as hell not divinity — it’s chemistry. And it certainly does make mistakes: half of all conceptions end in a spontaneous abortion, and about 15% of all pregnancies where the mother knows she is pregnant spontaneously terminate.

I genuinely despise the tactic so widely used by intelligent design creationists, and here by Tsiaris, of reciting really big numbers and babbling about complexity, complexity, complexity. Yes, it’s complicated. But you can build complicated structures with simple rules, and if you look at these systems, what you find are iterative properties and variation induced by local conditions. And if it’s beyond mathematics today, what are all those mathematicians and biologists doing modeling angiogensis?

And then there’s the rampant assignment of agency to everything. “Where does this intelligence of knowing that a fold can actually hold more information” in the brain come from? It doesn’t. The expansion of the cortex is a consequence of selected variation in mitotic regulators for that region of the brain — it expands like bread dough because the cells are replicating to large numbers, and the confines of the skull cause it to buckle and fold. It’s neurogenesis; there aren’t little angels folding pastry in there.

That entire last paragraph beginning from “how does the woman’s body understand to have genetic structure” is total nonsense. The answer is no, the woman’s body does not “understand”. There is no “knowing” there. There are physical/chemical processes guided by a molecular biology that has been shaped by a few billion years of variation and selection to produce a functional outcome. It’s not magic. It’s not guided by intelligence and intent.

THIS. IS. BIOLOGY.

Yet here is this intelligent, accomplished, technically skilled loon painting it with useless, mystical, misleading bullshit.

That kind of delusion has consequences. Right now, that video is getting featured on anti-maternal-life websites all over the internet. Here’s a self-selected sample of responses to Tsiaras’s work:

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

“Pro-choicers vanquished by Science.”

“This truly is amazing.”

“How could anyone get an abortion after watching this?”

“To say that this is a must see or fantastic is an understatement of the truth.”

I am most amused by the claim “Pro-choicers vanquished by Science.” I’ve been familiar with the developmental series shown in that video for about 30 years, and it confirms to me that there is nothing magical or special about human development that demands that we privilege the human embryo as deserving the full rights of an adult, aware, thinking person. It is meat in motion, driven by unthinking processes. Cow embryos go through the same events, and through the first month or so would be indistinguishable from a human embryo; does this somehow compel the anti-woman brigade to shun steaks?

Here, I have a video of zebrafish development. I don’t have all the gadgets and animation tools that Tsiaras has at his disposal, just a microscope, a video camera, and Quicktime software, but still…this truly is amazing. It’s a must see or fantastic.

Wow. How did a fish embryo know how to do that?

The answer is that it doesn’t. We don’t grant human beings a privileged place in our cultural ethics because they develop from embryos, or because they have a heart that beats with many miles of capillaries, or because we don’t understand every minuscule detail of their formation. If that were the case, the anti-choicers would have to be rushing to protect the fruit flies growing on the bananas in their kitchen and be picketing the battery farms producing chicken eggs. Witnessing development shouldn’t turn rational people into irrational knee-jerk defenders of embryos…it should turn them into developmental biologists who are awed at the grandeur of growth and differentiation, who will spend their lives working to figure out how it all works.

Where Tsiaras sees ineffable unapproachable mystery, I see interesting problems to be solved.

(Also on Sb)

41 comments

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  1. 1
    jamessweet

    how do these instruction sets not make these mistakes as they build what is us?

    Not make mistakes?? Is he joking?

    Most human bodies IME have plenty of little errors. Slight asymmetries, excessive mole growth, impacted wisdom teeth, you name it. Our bodies are riddled with errors!

  2. 2
    AussieMike

    My 5 year old daughter has spina bifida and hydrocephalus. What was he saying about no mistakes. However, she is still perfect.

  3. 3
    diraccone

    It’s very telling that in the animations of birth or really any of this the mother isn’t shown as anything but a skeleton. It’s like she’s not even important.

    I also like the argument, “Here is a complicated thing. In order to make this point here’s a few big numbers. It’s difficult to describe. THEREFORE GOD!” I mean it’s difficult to describe the positions and momenta of all the particles in the air in this room. In fact there are more than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 degrees of freedom that i would spend many lifetimes just writing out before working out the interactions etc. I mean how could a room of gas just come into being? THEREFORE GOD@! whew. That was a lot more productive than working out thermodynamics and a whole lot easier.

  4. 4
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Giving mathematicians a bad name. *grumble*

  5. 5
    tulse

    I see a 300 sequel in the offing:

    Tsiaris: This is complexity!

    PZ: THIS. IS. BIOLOGY! (boot)

  6. 6
    therationalizer

    This guy should team up with iERA. They could make a 62 minute film based on 2 lines of text :-)

    My question is though, how does a leaf know which way the ground is when it falls from a tree. It’s divine!

  7. 7
    Janothar

    Who is this clown? He doesn’t show up as a mathematician in any of the standard searches…in fact, his TED profile says “Alexander Tsiaras is an artist and technologist.”

    His not being a mathematician shows. He says

    The complexity of building that within a single system is, again, beyond any comprehension or any existing mathematics today.

    which is quite patently bullshit. Frankly, I’ve met 5 year olds who can tell you what sort of mathematics describes this. They’re quite popular…called fractals (more properly dyanamics and chaos).

  8. 8
    faehnrich

    Fucking magnets embryos, how do they work?

  9. 9
    Lycanthrope

    “Technologist”? What the fork does that even mean?

  10. 10
    Ernst Hot

    Dear Alexander Tsiaras, mathematician:

    z[n+1] = z[n]^2 + c

    That is all.

  11. 11
    Crow

    A technologist is a specialist in technology, of course.

    You know, they can use indoor plumbing, drive a car, operate an elevator, use a computer or cell phone, etc.

    It’s quite a diverse field, actually.

  12. 12
    Sastra

    In Alan Cromer’s book Uncommon Sense: the heretical nature of science I came across a term — and a concept — which I found useful and have applied over and over again through the years: egocentrism. I have come to believe that the innate human characteristic of being egocentric lies at the heart of all magical thinking, whether it be in religion, spirituality, superstition, or woo. And here we have yet another example.

    Egocentrism isn’t the same as ‘egotism.’ Instead, it’s a failure to distinguish the internal world of thoughts and feelings from the external world of objects and events, leading to the instinctive belief that we can have direct, intuitive knowledge of the external world. Religious belief is I think ultimately derived from the primitive “undifferentiated stew of mind and matter” of the egocentric mind.

    We all tend to do it, or did it as children. Some people grow out of it or learn to think their way out using reason and objective methods like science. Other people embrace it as ‘deep wisdom,’ a ‘way of knowing’ which is direct and thus superior to reason and empiricism. A lot of people do both — and religion is committed to making sure the confusion is never abandoned or brought down to a reasonable level by entrenching the idea of a different ‘realm’ which uses different rules.

    If there is one universal human characteristic, it is a pervasive irrationality based on the egocentric confusion of self and other…Animism is the attribution of aspects of the self to objects and events. It isn’t a projection of consciousness into animate and inanimate objects but a primitive mentality that has yet to differentiate between the internal and external, between thought and object, between a name and thing named. All children are metaphysical realists in that they believe words are the thing they name: the sun is called “sun” because it is hot, or it is red. The concept of words as nominal representations of objects and the concept of thoughts as subjective mental images develop much later than we might think, and then only after years of formal education. (Cromer)

    I think this is a very interesting approach for trying to understand and explain what the hell is going on in this video. Tsiaris’ commentary is an example of egocentrism. The “wow experience” the narrator feels internally is being infused into the external object and process that is causing the narrator to feel “wow.” He’s not separating the two. It’s not just that he’s anthropomorphizing the process — or, rather, he IS anthropomorphizing the process, but at a very fundamental level. The process is part of the emotional stream.

    Egocentrism is subjective thinking in all its aspects, and it is a basic aspect of the human condition.–Cromer

    I think this sort of “mystical airy-fairy glop” is what happens when a person is unaware of their cognitive biases and gives in to them, treating them like great insights into the meaning and structure “behind” the material world instead of what they are — sloppy thinking. Atheists are thought to be insensitive because we’re clearer about where we end, and what we’re looking at begins.

  13. 13
    redmcwilliams

    To second AussieMike’s sentiment, my oldest daughter has, among other things, 22Q13 deletion syndrome. That is exactly a mistake in the instructions.

    If there was some being directing her prenatal development, he or she is one cruel sumbitch and most certainly not worthy of my time much less worship.

  14. 14
    doktorzoom

    It’s a zebrafish, not a “choice.”

  15. 15
    mathnerde

    Put me down as another unimpressed mathematical type. The structures mentioned, capillaries and brain folding, are certainly fractal like. So there isn’t anything surprising about complex structures coming out of (relatively) simple rules.

  16. 16
    ksnider

    Does anyone know the reference for the frequency of spontaneous abortions? I love the point, but can’t seem to find the citation after 5 minutes on google. Thanks!

  17. 17
    Ingdigo Jump

    A mathematician not knowing fractals is like a sailor not knowing waves

  18. 18
    mechanizedcaffeine

    faehnrich, thank you I needed something hilarious this morning!

    faehnrich (Post #8):
    Fucking magnets embryos, how do they work?

  19. 19
    spamamander, internet amphibian

    Um yeah. No mistakes. Not that I haven’t mentioned it 1000 times before but I have a daughter with trisomy 21- a Robertsonian-type translocation where she has an extra piece of a #21 stuck to one of her existing #21 chromosomes.

    Beautiful complexity resulting from simple rules acting on local sources. Amazing, but not ‘god’.

  20. 20
    markr1957

    He talks about folds in the brain, but exhibits few in his own – from his thinking and speaking style I’d venture to guess that his cortex looks like a marble.

    I remember the ‘technologist’ term from my younger days in the British Army, where (some) officers had diplomas in the subject, and at best they could recognize man-made objects most of the time. If you were really lucky they might even know what the objects were for too.

  21. 21
    Felix

    You’re all big meanieheads. You pretend babby making is mistake, but really is mistake from SIN come by Eve eating lying fruit from TREE frobidden. Babby flawless perfect, human evil wretched make babby wrong.

    /”§%”!)

  22. 22
    chigau (違う)

    felixhoefert
    yeah, that wut me thunk two

  23. 23
    What a Maroon, el papa ateo

    My question is though, how does a leaf know which way the ground is when it falls from a tree. It’s divine!

    Well, obviously it doesn’t. In fact, the leaf stays still. It’s the ground that rises to meet the leaf.

  24. 24
    Ouabache

    The complexity of building that within a single system is, again, beyond any comprehension or any existing mathematics today.

    He fails to understand that just because it is behind his comprehension doesn’t mean that it is beyond everybody’s comprehension.

  25. 25
    madscientist

    I’ve had many discussions with my wife about shows with such video in them; I’ve spent a lot of time explaining how I can tell that the images are fake. The shows never fail to get me hopping mad about the dishonesty of the producers (many shows which portray fantasies about Hubble Space Telescope images of nebulae also get me screaming). I can never stand these misleading “visual aids”; in most cases the ideas are very simple and don’t need any drawings for the ADD audience.

  26. 26
    benkvi

    Does anyone know the reference for the frequency of spontaneous abortions? I love the point, but can’t seem to find the citation after 5 minutes on google. Thanks!

    If this is not a lie, you must be the weakest googler in the galaxy.

  27. 27
    Chris Booth

    Yes, I concur with benkvi in #26.

    A couple of seconds, using your own search term:

    Google ==> “spontaneous abortion” ==> go to the first entry,
    “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002458/”;
    a few carriage returns down you find this:

    It is estimated that up to half of all fertilized eggs die and are lost (aborted) spontaneously, usually before the woman knows she is pregnant. Among those women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is about 15-20%. Most miscarriages occur during the first 7 weeks of pregnancy.

  28. 28
    leonpeyre

    Where Tsiaras sees ineffable unapproachable mystery, I see interesting problems to be solved.

    Which makes this video another fine example of why religion is a science stopper.

  29. 29
    Chris Booth

    leonpeyre in #28:
    Yes, religion is a science stopper. Unfortunately, it is not a gob-stopper….

  30. 30
    TheVaccinator

    Hmm, methinks the image at approx 9:19 is a bit strange. While twins are not uncommon, and a delay between the first and second regularily occurs, WHY did she put on her panties between the births? Oh, and how does she manage to keep her white panties clean?
    :-)

  31. 31
    camelspotter

    It doesn’t matter how many times gifted science writers explain how natural selection can create the powerful illusion of design, intentionality etc., the mystics will never be satisfied with a materialist explanation of their precious ineffable something or other.

  32. 32
    federicobar

    @What a Maroon (#23).

    After many years living with the optical illusion that I saw autumn leaves falling towards the ground, I am delighted with your rectification of therationalizer’s theory (# 6).

  33. 33
    camelspotter

    @ #29 LOL (<- sorry PZ)

  34. 34
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Tulse:

    I see a 300 sequel in the offing:

    Tsiaris: This is complexity!

    PZ: THIS. IS. BIOLOGY! (boot)

    Actually I’d pay $10 to watch PZ kick the richly deserving down the well for two hours straight.

    Ken Ham: “This is God!”
    PZ: “THIS. IS. EVOLUUUUUTION!!” <boot>

    Chris Mooney: “This is framing!”
    PZ: “THIS. IS. APPEEEEEEEASEMENT!!” <boot>

    R. Joseph Hoffmann: “This is philosophy!”
    PZ: “THIS. IS. INTELLECTUAL MASTURBAAAAAAATION!!” <boot>

  35. 35
    Tigger_the_Wing, Back home =^_^=

    No mistakes? Rubbish. If God exists, and is responsible for creating every single life, it is at best incompetent or at worst sadistic.

    One of my twins has spina bifida (fortunately mild, like his father and his paternal grandfather). He was born eighteen minutes after his brother because, like the second twin in the video pointed out by dansoppel-rot, he was much smaller and (unlike the one in the video) took the opportunity of the sudden extra space vacated by his larger twin to turn sideways on. I certainly didn’t put my knickers back on; the midwives and pædiatrician were too busy trying to turn him back. In the event, he came out feet first.

    Also, I have lost three that I know of (one of them was my daughter’s twin) in the first three months; it is anybody’s guess how many fertilised eggs failed to implant at all. At least eight, if the 50% statistic is accurate in my case.

    If God exists, not only is it not anti-abortion, it is the most prolific abortionist in history; and, unlike human surgeons, shows great enthusiam for terminating wanted pregnancies.

  36. 36
    Tigger_the_Wing, Back home =^_^=

    That should be ‘enthusiasm. Oops.

  37. 37
    Tigger_the_Wing, Back home =^_^=

    Damn. I just realised that I wrote ‘pædiatrician’ when I meant ‘obstetrician’. The two pædiatricians and two pædiatric nurses were there to revive the babies if necessary when they were born, because they were only 34 weeks. Yes, the room was rather full.

  38. 38
    Holms

    1) Is the mentioned 50% spontaneous abortion rate before the mother is even aware of being pregnant due to the error known as implantation failure?

    2) Why oh why did my previous username vanish and require me to sign up again…

    3) Why oh why was the new one not permitted upper case letters, when I can clearly see plenty of people with them…

  39. 39
    Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD

    @holms

    1) I suspect it’s estimated, because it’s really hard to measure miscarriages in people who don’t know they’re pregnant. But I wouldn’t be surprised.

    2) Due a Troll, I think called Chris who spammed some of the threads with long bits of germanic/italian looking lyrics registration was necessary. I don’t think previous ones were removed though.

    3) If you signed up via the FTB registration then the username has to be all lower case but the Display Name (look at the bit near the dashboard. There will be an opportunity either via the dashboard or under your name to edit your profile)

  40. 40
    Holms

    Cheers – turns out the dashboard was blocked by the FF plugin ‘noscript’. I’m really starting to reconsider that thing.

  41. 41
    crowepps

    @holms – it’s my understanding most of the reproductive failures are due to errors in the zygote which cause it to fail to begin developing or to reach a point at which continued development is no longer possible because the ‘instructions’ are garbled.

    You might find the perspective of a fertility researcher interesting:

    “Much more often than not, the process fails. Although the statistics on the failure rate of human fertilization are not entirely robust, given the biological and ethical delicacy of conducting research in this area, the numbers consistently suggest that, at minimum, two-thirds of all human eggs fertilized during normal conception either fail to implant at the end of the first week or later spontaneously abort. Some experts suggest that the numbers are even more dramatic. John Opitz, a professor of pediatrics, human genetics, and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah, told the President’s Council on Bioethics last September that preimplantation embryo loss is “enormous. Estimates range all the way from 60 percent to 80 percent of the very earliest stages, cleavage stages, for example, that are lost.” Moreover, an estimated 31 percent of implanted embryos later miscarry, according to a 1988 New England Journal of Medicine study headed by Allen Wilcox of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.”

    http://discovermagazine.com/2004/may/cover

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