It’s a bit like first-year advising, only it’s Darwin

Earlier this week I was asked to write something for This View of Life and Darwin Day: what would surprise, delight, and possibly disturb Darwin about modern evolutionary biology? I did, but I guess it didn’t make the cut: you can find the better ones at What Would Darwin Think About Modern Darwinism?

It’s OK that they didn’t print mine, because now on this busy day I can just reuse it as blog fodder.

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My Darwin Day debate in Fargo

Good morning, everyone! I’m in Fargo, and I need to go home, so I’m looking at a few hours on cold roads next. But I was in a debate with Dr Fazale Rana of Reasons to Believe last night, and I said I’d post my opening statement, so here it is.

In general, my strategy last night was to go meta on him. He’s trained as a biochemist, so I expected he’d try to slug it out toe-to-toe with lots of facts about biology, but I didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that he would be trying to use mundane, material evidence obtained by scientists who did not accept his creationist interpretations, and that his job was to provide evidence of the miracles that he would insist must have occurred in the history of life on earth. So I hammered him to give specifics about any divine intervention — to not just say we don’t know what happened in the Cambrian or at the beginning — and to explain how he knew it was definitely a supernatural transition rather than a natural one, like all the other examples he used. I think it worked and wrecked his rhythm and got him to stagger off of his planned script, which was enough.

I can’t declare victory though — as I predicted in the opening, the Christians didn’t abandon their beliefs, the atheists (there was a pretty good contingent of them there) weren’t going to join the church, and all we could hope to do is to get people to think.

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The neuroplasticity bait-and-switch

As long as we’re talking about brains this morning, here’s another topic that irritates me: the abuse of the term neuroplasticity.


Way, way back in the late 1970s, my first textbook in neuroscience was this one: Marcus Jacobson’s Developmental Neurobiology. (That link is to a more recent edition; the picture is of the blue-and-black cover I remember very well, having read the whole thing). I came into the field by way of developmental biology, and that means we focused on all the changes that go on in the brain: everything from early tissue formation to senescence, with discussions of synaptogenesis, remodeling, metabolism, transport, and functional responses to activity or inactivity. This is all under the broad umbrella of neuroplasticity, a term that’s at least a century old, and that is well-established as both a phenomenon and a science. That the brain modifies itself in response to experience is so thoroughly taken for granted that you can basically define neuroscience as the study of the responsiveness of neural tissue.

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Memories: trust provisionally, but verify always

Steven Novella makes an important point: memories are fluid. There’s no VCR in your head, and no tape recorder either, and memories are constructs. You remember the framework (sometimes very poorly) of a past event, and your brain builds a plausible set of details around it. When you picture Christmas at your grandmother’s house when you were 12, you don’t have a record in your head of how many logs were in the fireplace or a second by second recording of the flickering of the fire. You remember that Grandma had a fireplace, and sometimes she had logs burning in it, and maybe there was a fire that year, and your brain obligingly assembles an image for you.

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Bill Maher, nevermore

I never watched Oprah, because she was a gullible woo-artist; I don’t watch Dr Oz, because he’s quack; and now all I can say is fuck Bill Maher, because he’s a crank on so many things. On his latest show, he surrounded himself with Marianne Williamson, a “spiritual teacher” and proponent of prayer, Amy Holmes, a news announcer for The Blaze (Glenn Beck’s spinoff), and some guy who didn’t say much, and he went off on a grand tour of kook talk, confident that his panelists wouldn’t disagree with him. Watch. Be embarrased for him.

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I hear the Danes don’t much like Lomborg, either

Once again, I am reminded that I’m in the wrong business to make money. Bjorn Lomborg is in the news again, and I learn that the man makes $775,000/year for running the Copenhagen Consensus Center…which is a drop box in Lowell, Massachusetts. I don’t think buying a mailbox is the secret, though — I think you also have to convince the Koch Brothers to deposit checks in it. Apparently the trick behind that is to lie persuasively about science in a way that allows very rich people to become more rich.

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