The difference between astronomers and biologists

The debate about intelligent, extra-terrestrial aliens goes on, with the usual divide: astronomers insisting that the galaxy must be swarming with alien intelligences, which is popular with the media, and the biologists saying no, it’s not likely, there are probably swarms of single-celled organisms, but big multicellular intelligences like ours are probably rare. And the media ignores us, because that answer simply is not sufficiently sensational.

But we will fight back! Here’s an interesting review of the alien argument. There is actually a historical and conceptual reason why astronomers think the way they do.

In response [to a paper arguing that SETI was a waste of time], Sagan co-wrote a paper with William Newman “The Solipsist Approach to Extraterrestrial Intelligence” which right from the title attacks Tipler for believing Earth to be unique. Sagan is of course citing the Copernican Principle, which roughly states the Earth is NOT the center of the heavens. The Copernican Principle is the modern foundation for Astronomy, Cosmology and Relativistic Physics. Sagan thought anyone claiming the Earth to be special must be doing bad science. Here’s a typical quote: Despite the utter mediocrity of our position in space and time, it is occasionally asserted, with no sense of irony, that our intelligence and technology are unparalleled in the history of the cosmos. It seems to us more likely that this is merely the latest in the long series of anthropocentric and self-congratulatory pronouncements on scientific issues that dates back to well before the time of Claudius Ptolemy.

It’s all about our perception of the rules. Astronomers see a universe with uniform laws that set up similar patterns everywhere: stars, rocks, gas. Life is lumped in with rocks as a phenomenon that just pops up everywhere, and with their limited idea of biology, just see all life as life like ours. Biologists also see universal laws, but we know from our experience that those laws generate endless diversity — there are millions of species on this planet, and each one is unique.

Now unlike Astronomy, the discipline of Biology takes a highly favorable view of uniqueness. Evolution constantly discovers quirky and highly contingent historical paths. Biology takes it for granted that everybody is a special snowflake. In fact the third sentence of Tipler’s 1980 paper calls this out:

The contemporary advocates for the existence of such [extraterrestrial intelligent] beings seem to be primarily astronomers and physicists, such as Sagan (2), Drake (3), and Morrison (4), while most leading experts in evolutionary biology, such as Dobzhansky (5), Simpson (6) Francois (7), Ayala et al. (8) and Mayr (9) contend that the Earth is probably unique in harbouring intelligence, at least amongst the planets of our Galaxy.

And as quoted in Mark A. Sheirdan’s book, we have eminent Evolutionary Biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (“Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution“) joining the fray:

In his article Dobzhanksy turned Sagan’s argument on its head. Dobzhansky cited the fact that of the more than two million species living on Earth only one had evolved language, extragenetically transmitted culture, and awareness of self and death, as proof that it is “fatuous” to hold “the opinion that if life exists anywhere else it must eventually give rise to rational beings.”

And here’s a nice, short table to summarize the differences.


I have to add that it is probably another of those universal laws that Darwinian replicators will expand to fill an empty ecosystem, but that there are many ways to do that. It’s also a rule that the replicators are exploiting short term advantages to supplant competitors — there is no teleological imperative that says Strategy X is a good one, because while it slows our species down for the next billion years, there’s a chance we might build spaceships two billion years from now. Spaceship building is never going to be a selectively advantageous feature — it’s only going to emerge as a spandrel, which might lead to a species that can occupy a novel niche. And that means that spaceship builders are only going to arise as a product of chance, which will mean they’re going to be very rare.

On the other hand, a species that does successfully exploit space as an ecosystem is going to have a phenomenally fascinating future history of radiating forms. Think of the first space colonizers as equivalent to the first cells that evolved a metabolism that allowed them to exist outside the coddled, energy-rich environment of a deep-sea vent. It’s only the first step in a long evolutionary process that’s going to produce endless forms most beautiful…and also unexpected variations. It’s silly to expect that the successful, thriving interstellar life forms will be bipeds adapted to life on a planetary surface, living in large metal shells as autonomous agents crewing a spaceship. The real thing would be alien, and probably terrifyingly incomprehensible.

My zombie story

The zombie plague was a dud. When the first cases emerged, scattered around the globe, everyone knew exactly how to put them down: destroy the brain. The world had been so saturated with zombie comic books, zombie TV shows, zombie novels, and zombie movies in the greatest, if unplanned, public health information program ever, that the responses to the outbreaks was always swift and thorough. In fact, most civilian casualties were caused not by the zombies themselves, but by the way everyone had been conditioned by the media to respond to lumbering, moaning, disheveled humanoid forms with instant and brutal violence.

The death of a few homeless or mentally ill people, or others who just weren’t perky morning people, was considered a small price to pay for the ruthless efficiency with which the zombie problem was eradicated. There was talk of giving George Romero a Nobel peace prize; Time Magazine ran an issue with “Heroic Humanity” featured on the cover; the public acquired a cocky attitude and brain-smashing weapons of destruction became the hot new fashion accessory. The horror of the worst catastrophe we could imagine, the emergence of an evil twin of our species, corrupt and mindlessly destructive, had been met and dismissed with arrogant ease.

An important lesson was not learned. Zombies were our mirror image, big animals that were short-sighted and heedlessly destructive, and we had easily wiped them out…because big animals are delicate, fragile things with a limited population size, requiring immense amounts of cooperation to survive. Our pride was undeserved. We had discovered how easy it was to kill small groups of bipedal primates. Nature laughed at our trivial accomplishment.

The same plague had been burning through rat populations. Every city, every small town garbage dump, every ship, had been boiling with upheaval in the darkness as the zombie rats spread the infection everywhere. The rats were numerous, and it took three months for the disease to consume them…and then the undead rodents slithered upwards, looking for a new food source. They were ubiquitous and silent and sneaky, and found ways into bedrooms at night, where the smug humans lay with shotguns and pistols and hammers for demolishing large-skulled stupid targets, their doors safely (they thought) barred against 70 kilogram intruders. The little, mindless zombie rats scurried forward, and gnawed.

Homo sapiens was extinct within a year.

(I had this idea for a great and accurate zombie novel that would reveal the true message of the zombie fad — come on, look at yourselves, it’s all about rapacious humans with no restraint — and would also make me millions of dollars. I got up this morning all excited and rushed to start writing it, and then I discovered that I could tell the whole story in five paragraphs. Oops. Is there much of a market for one-page novels? With a totally depressing conclusion?)

Timothy Ray Murray is an Oklahoman and Republican.

Although Oklahomans and Republicans may not wish that news spread widely. He was a candidate in a congressional primary, but he got clobbered by his opponent, Frank Lucas. Murray got 5.2% of the vote.

But he is contesting the election, for some rather novel reasons. He claims Frank Lucas is dead.

News Person,


The election for U.S. House for Oklahoma’s 3rd District will be contested by the Candidate, Timothy Ray Murray. I will be stating that his votes are switched with Rep. Lucas votes, because it is widely known Rep. Frank D. Lucas is no longer alive and has been displayed by a look alike. Rep. Lucas’ look alike was depicted as sentenced on a white stage in southern Ukraine on or about

Jan. 11, 2011.


This is a situation similar to the Senators’ from Kentucky situation in the 2012 election. I am contesting that this matter has happen since his election was blocked, because of the U.S. Defense Department’s use of Mr. Murray’s DNA. To my knowledge, the U.S. Defense Department has not released to the public that information, as it is their confidential information about many people. Congress is likely wanting me to state that all my DNA used will not result in benefits to people I have never had relations with of a family nature. I have been bound to protect that information unless it causes harm to The People.


I don’t think he should bother contesting the election. When Sarah Palin runs for President on the Tea Party ticket, she can pick Murray for her running mate — they’re a perfect match. Then when she resigns two weeks after taking office, he’ll be president, and representing his Republican electorate perfectly.

Molyneux makes no sense

Stefan Molyneux is an atheist, an author, a philosopher, an online radio show host (he’s fond of declaring it the “world’s most popular philosophy show”), and is apparently frequently invited to speak at Libertarian conferences. His book on atheism (I haven’t even seen it) has a foreword by Peter Boghossian, the hot new It Boy of the atheist movement. He’s a fanatical and extreme Libertarian who advocates for statelessness, Bitcoin, and other weird, impractical, libertarian schemes. He’s also a misogynist idiot.

Here’s a short excerpt from a two hour youtube rant in which he assigns all responsibility for all the evil in the world to…women.

You don’t want to sit through it? I don’t blame you. It makes no sense at all. He’s talking about how assholes come to be, and it’s all silly buggers about a complex character trait that’s transmitted in an absurdly simple and nonsensical way. So I’ve translated his rant into genetics-speak to help myself understand what he’s trying to say, since I’m not fluent in either Libertarian or Misogynist.

  1. Assholism is a strongly heritable trait.

  2. Assholism is only transmitted by males; women do not carry it, but only passively enable male carriers to transmit it to the next generation.

  3. Assholism is under extremely strong sexual selection. Women will only have sex with men who carry it, spurning those who lack it.

  4. Assholism is otherwise so deleterious that the trait would go to extinction in a single generation, absent support from women. It is basically a conditional lethal mutation.

  5. Assholism is strongly dominant and epistatic to all other personality traits: if you inherit the assholism factor from your father, you are an asshole, no matter what other inheritance or experience you have.

  6. On the other hand, males are completely plastic. Their personalities are entirely defined by the influence of women.

  7. The influence of women is invariably directed towards fostering assholism in their sons, never towards ameliorating it.

  8. Therefore, while men are invariably the perpetrators of all evil, from brutal prison guards to nuclear weapons, they are actually blameless puppets, manipulated by their asshole factor, inherited from their fathers. Their fathers are also not to blame, because their mothers sexually selected them.

  9. Final conclusion: Women are evil, and everything is their fault.

None of it makes any sense. And this guy is amazingly popular. I’ve looked through a few other youtube videos featuring him or criticisms of him, and there always troops of fawning Libertarian fanbois drooling over him and declaring how reasonable and sensible he is. It’s a mystery. It’s also a mystery that he gets away with calling his crap “philosophy”. I keep expecting a mob of real philosophers to show up with truncheons and rough him up to get him to stop. Although, of course, the philosophy goon squad never shows up for Plantinga, either, so I’m constantly disappointed.

Another mystery: he’s Canadian. Canadians are always so nice and rational when I meet them, but apparently the national psyche harbors a few bizarre twists here and there.

The courts giveth, and the courts taketh away

While we’ve all been pleased to see the courts enforcing minority rights by striking down restrictions on same sex marriage, the flip side also happens: the Supreme Court has now ruled that abortion protesters can’t be restricted by a ‘buffer zone’ around clinics. Their rationale is some nonsense about “sidewalk counseling”.

Some of the individuals who stand outside Massachusetts abortion clinics are fairly described as protestors, who express their moral or religious opposition to abortion through signs and chants or, in some cases, more aggressive methods such as face-to-face confrontation. Petitioners take a different tack. They attempt to engage women approaching the clinics in what they call “sidewalk counseling,” which involves offering information about alternatives to abortion and help pursuing those options. Petitioner Eleanor McCullen, for instance, will typically initiate a conversation this way: “Good morning, may I give you my literature? Is there anything I can do for you? I’m available if you have any questions.” If the woman seems receptive, McCullen will provide additional information. McCullen and the other petitioners consider it essential to maintain a caring demeanor, a calm tone of voice, and direct eye contact during these exchanges. Such interactions, petitioners believe, are a much more effective means of dissuading women from having abortions than confrontational methods such as shouting or brandishing signs, which in petitioners’ view tend only to antagonize their intended audience. In unrefuted testimony, petitioners say they have collectively persuaded hundreds of women to forgo abortions.

So the court recognizes that many protesters use “aggressive methods”, but they side with the sweet little lady who claims to be kindly offering pamphlets, rather than with the women who are being frightened away from medical care. If there is a buffer zone, poor Ms McCullen is denied her right to be condescending, but if there is no buffer zone, patients are denied the right to seek legal medical treatment without harassment.

I fail to see how this “unrefuted” claim that their tactics of suppression actually work is relevant to their claim that their right to lie to patients trumps the patients’ rights to care.

But I wonder how the court deals with the stark reality that abortion clinics need volunteer clinic escorts to help women get through the lines of shouting protesters? Isn’t the fact of their existence evidence that there is a problem with access? Apparently not. The escorts are the problem.

…theBoston clinic uses “escorts” to greet women as they approach the clinic, accompanying them through the zones to the clinic entrance. Petitioners claim that the escorts sometimes thwart petitioners’ attempts to communicate with patients by blocking petitioners from handing literature to patients, telling patients not to “pay any attention” or “listen to” petitioners, and disparaging petitioners as “crazy.”

It’s clear where the judges’ sympathies lie.

It’s great when the courts are on the side of justice, but not so great when you’ve got bought & paid-for clowns of the reactionary right, like Roberts and Scalia, calling the shots.

This is amusing. The Supreme Court is surrounded by a rather restrictive barrier.


But what if I want to give the justices some ‘sidewalk counseling’?