Antivaxxers and the Educated-Public-Herd Effect

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C PhD — © 2015 with updates during 2016, 2017.

New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter @EvoLiteracy@gpazyminoResearchGateAcademia.edu

Antivaxxers will only Succumb to Educated Public

[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“…It is a risky bet… to attempt to replicate the antivaxxer-meme and infect the populous with the reckless idea that we should refuse, as a matter of self-determination and individual freedom principles, to ‘put unnatural substances [vaccines] in our bodies,’ or, worse, continue to link vaccinations to ‘mental retardation and autism in children,’ a fabricated story long ago debunked by science… [The] anti-science gang will only succumb to a robust ‘educated-public-herd effect.’”

Anti-vaccination views can spread quite infectiously in society, mimicking the contagious nature of pathogens. But a “culturally immune” community —here I mean aware of the fundamentals about how vaccines work— can remain forever-protected from, or, at least, resistant to antivaxxer-memes.

The_Selfish_Gene

The Selfish Gene 1st Edition (1976)

Not only good ideas, but also ill ones, like the opposition to inoculations, can self-replicate, mutate analogously to a gene, and disseminate in a population. Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme,” in The Selfish Gene (1976), to refer to such units of information/ideas sharing, although his examples were not about antivaxxers (people who nowadays battle against vaccines on pseudo-science grounds, religion, or consensus-ignorance —my emphasis) but rather illustrated how catchphrases, fashion or melodies emerged and settled in culture. Dawkins wrote: “we need a name for [this kind of] replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.”

The word meme itself passed around as a replicator among academics, it became highly scrutinized, as well as valued, and an entire field of study, memetics, was born in the 1980s. Sadly, by 2005, the Journal Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, the peer-reviewed forum for scholarly articles, published its last issue. JM became dormant more than extinct.

The metaphorical merit of the meme concept was both its major strength (for suggesting a didactic model to explain cultural information copying from one mind to another) and weakness (for not attaining consensus in the scientific community due to its subjectivity and the challenge to measure it). However, Dawkins and later “memeticists” (specialists in memetics) did manage to keep alive the meme debate for decades, and there is no indication that the meme hypothesis is irrelevant to modern science. After all, “cultural entities” are certainly hosted in brains, mimicked, subject to variation, competition for survival, and inheritance. Good, with-adaptive-value memes stick around, bad ones are prone to vanishing, but not without first instigating considerable damage.

Herd Immunity

Source: Illustration by Autumn Mariano

But, let us go back to antivaccination memes and their harmful makeup. As long as the number of vaccinated individuals in a population overwhelms the amount of unvaccinated, the “herd-immunity effect” will continue to protect those who have not yet developed defenses. The rule is mathematically simple: the probability of infection —and death— increases when the number of unvaccinated people augments. In fact, those lacking vaccine-induced immunity to smallpox, rubella, polio, pertussis, mumps, measles or diphtheria can “free-ride” in society only when the vast majority of the population has been vaccinated at an average rate of 83-88 percent, depending on the disease. That is perhaps all a nation needs to understand to get the shots!

But if the “public good” argument is no antidote for antivaxxer-poison, here I offer a single, yet historically gruesome example that illustrates why vaccinations have become required in many countries: smallpox, the sole predator of 300 to 500 million people during the 20th century, and possibly of 20 million North-, Central- and South-American natives after the Europeans’ arrived —from the Caribbean— in the 1520s.

Smallpox is caused by the variola virus, which transferred from wild or domesticated animals to Sub-Saharan humans, at least 3,000 years ago. Variola behaves like a “hit and run” pathogen, incessantly moving to the next target. Once it enters via inhalation the airway passages of the host’s lungs, it incubates for one or two weeks in lymphatic ganglia and disseminates to multiple organs. The patient becomes symptomatic when lacerations or blisters appear in the skin and endothelial membranes (inside the mouth, nose and throat), combined with fatigue, fever, forehead ache, overall muscle soreness and joint pain, nausea and vomiting. Ineffective immune response leads to death in 1-2 days. Smallpox is fatal in up to 30 percent of cases.

Smallpox Virus Images Evolution Literacy

Smallpox virus (click on image to be redirected to source:  gettyimages)

The key point is that when the virus runs out of “fresh prey,” it dies out, and this makes it vulnerable to vaccines. Via safe inoculations of laboratory-engineered-strains of the virus, scientists can “trick” the immune system to generate antibodies against variola. Relying on this procedure, smallpox was eradicated in the late 1970s. And by vaccinating most infants, in urban and rural areas worldwide, we all gradually built the herd-immunity effect on which the unvaccinated can freely —but unsafely— ride.

It is a risky bet, of course, to attempt to replicate the antivaxxer-meme and infect the populous with the reckless notion that we should refuse, as a matter of self-determination and individual freedom principles, to “put unnatural substances in our bodies,” or, worse, continue to link vaccinations to “mental retardation and autism in children,” a fabricated story long ago debunked by science (links to references provided below).

Lethal No-Injection Cartoon Evolution Literacy

Lethal Injection vs. Lethal Non-injection

Although non-adaptive memes are destined to disappear in the milieu of great-versus-wicked ideas, the human cost, in health and lives, during the path to eradicating the anti-vaccination movement, will be regrettably painful. Still new diseases will emerge in the future, old ones resurrect, while competent physicians try to manage them in crowded environments. But the anti-science gang will only succumb to a robust “educated-public-herd effect.” — © 2015 by EvoLiteracy, with updates during 2016 and 2017, all rights reserved.

Scientific paper on a 67-country survey on the state of vaccine confidence

The State of Vaccine Confidence 2016: Global Insights Through a 67-Country Survey, see also a commentary about this article in Science.

And on the same topic: The Vaccine Wars: Debunking myths, owning real risks, and courting doubters from Science.

Graphic generated by Science with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Visual proof of why vaccines do more good than harm (Science)

Scientific papers rejecting the alleged association between childhood vaccines and autism, and between maternal immunization and autism (source PLoS)

Watch 4:34 min excellent video on “How We Conquered the Deadly Smallpox Virus”

 

Watch 8:47 min video “Just for Hits” by Richard Dawkins (2013)

 

And another video on “Should you get vaccinated?” by Piled Higher and Deeper PHD Comics 

national-average-vaccinations-usa

Above: Animation: Herd Immunity, How it Works

Above: Animation: Regional reduction in the unvaccinated population from 2000 to 2015

A - Measles Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

Measles vaccination and GDP 2014 The Economist - Evolution Literacy

B - Hepatitis-A Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

C - Mumps Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

D - Pertussis Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

E - Polio Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

F - Smallpox Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

G - Rubella Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

Additional Readings and Resources 

Memetics publications on the web.

Autism’s fight for facts: A voice for science. Convinced by the evidence that vaccines do not cause autism, Alison Singer started a research foundation that pledges to put science first. Nature 479, 28-30 ( 02 November 2011 ).

CDC AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. CDC is committed to continuing to provide essential data on ASD, search for factors that put children at risk for ASD and possible causes, and develop resources that help identify children with ASD as early as possible.

Learn about the latest Ebola research in Science Magazine.

Reduced vaccination and the risk of measles and other childhood infections post-Ebola, also in Science Magazine.

How the Anti-Vaxxers Are Winning – The New York Times

Watch how the measles outbreak spreads when kids get vaccinated – and when they don’t – The Guardian

The Next Pandemic? – The Economist

Autism and Vaccines

Source: The Scientific Facts About Autism and Vaccines nowsourcing.com

support-to-vaccinations-by-religious-group-and-ethnicity-us-pew-2016

Support to Vaccinations by Religious Group and Ethnicity United States – Pew 2016

Cartoons

Anti Vaccines Cartoons Evolution Literay

Imminent Collapse of Basic Science Under For-profit Model

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C PhD — © 2015

New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter @EvoLiteracy@gpazyminoResearchGateAcademia.edu

Imminent Collapse of Basic Science Under For-profit Model

[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“…A collapse of America’s world-leading research is imminent if higher education adopts a purely for-profit financial model… And I caution the reader to distrust when the word ‘evolution’ is deployed to advertise laissez-faire investments in academia.”

Each time my students insist that natural selection, “Darwin‘s Theory” of 1859, is the “survival of the fittest,” I correct them, but futilely –in some cases— since this misconception has permeated into popular culture as an infectious catchphrase, an adverse “meme,” which continues to be reinforced by inadequate education.

Herbet Spencer

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), British intellectual, author of Principles of Biology (1864); in his book, Spencer used the phrase “survival of the fittest” in reference to Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection (1859). Image by Deansta.

It was polymath Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin, who, in 1864, introduced the expression “survival of the fittest” in Principles of Biology, one of Spencer’s many books in multiple fields, including philosophy, economics, sociology and politics.

Although Darwin did use Spencer’s term in the fifth edition of the Origin of Species (1869), for “accuracy” and “convenience,” since survival of the “most fit” paralleled nature, where the highly adapted organisms to the environment endured and left descendants, he never advocated for the abuse of the concept of natural selection in human affairs. Darwin knew better and alerted how the struggle for life could lead to the extinction of entire populations and species.

The cut-throat economists of the late 19th century in the United Kingdom, United States and Western Europe, however, did see in Darwin’s work the “biological, natural foundations” to justify “laissez-faire capitalism,” or the freedom to do as they will in the market; to become most financially robust, via “competition,” and, thus, overpower the “unfit,” whose survival became their own fiscal responsibility. This twisted view of social existence, popular among Victorian financiers of the 1870s, still sanctions the contemporary accretion of wealth by the top 0.1%, which, in the United States, is almost the same as the entire bottom 90%.

The reality above concerns me as a citizen of our interdependent world since laissez-faire economic policies have generated the most inequality in the United States since the 1940s. But what further worries me, as an evolutionary biologist, is the current and contagious misuse of Darwinian terminology to characterize trends of institutional development at colleges and universities. And I caution the reader to distrust when the word “evolution” is deployed to advertise laissez-faire investments in academia.

A collapse of America’s world-leading research is imminent if higher education adopts a purely for-profit financial model (watch documentary Ivory Tower). I will restrict my analysis of this complex phenomenon to highlighting some crucial points.

According to the National Science Foundation Enterprise Information Systems, more than 70% of the research awards (by amount received) are granted annually to the top 100 academic institutions in the United States. The top 50 institutions take more than half of the awards; the top 10 take about 15%; and all other institutions take roughly 25%. This trend has remained steady from 2005 to 2013. In essence, the non-ranked institutions have low probability of capturing meaningful, competitive extramural support –one quarter of it is “catchable” via competition among all such institutions in the country.

NSF Awards to Academic Institutions 2013

Percentage of Awards to Academic Institutions (by amount received). On average, more than 70% of NSF awards go to the top 100 academic institutions in the United States. Source: NSF Enterprise Information Systems – October 1, 2013

Within the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) at NSF, which oversees funding in the bio-sciences, there was a 43% increase in the yearly amount of grants submitted from 2001 (less than 1,500 proposals) to 2010 (just above 2,000 proposals). Yet IOS-NSF decreased funding by 14% during the same decade. In fact, by 2014, the IOS-NSF overall success rate of awarded proposals was 8.2%.

IOS Proposal Submissions and Awards 2001 to 2010

Integrative Organismal Systems Proposal Submissions and Awards: 43% increase in proposal submissions and 14% decrease in funding (2001 to 2010). Source: IOS-NSF

IOS-NSF funding trends

Analysis of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) Preliminary Proposal Submission System at NSF. Rationale of data: 29.8% = 547 / 1,836; 27.6% = 175 / 634; and 8.2% corresponds to 150 projects ultimately awarded by NSF (= 150 / 1,836). Source: IOS-NSF

The situation for under-represented minority investigators, who conduct research in fields within the IOS-NSF sponsoring scope, continues to be disturbing: while success rate in funding increased from 4% to 7%, from 2008 to 2011, respectively, it decreased to below 6% in 2012 and 2013.

NSF funding Under Represented Investigators

Awards to Under-Represented Investigators. Less than 6% of the awards go to minority researchers. Source: IOS-NSF

But the major problem goes beyond the historically scarce funds for research. Instead, it relies on shifting from basic science –which generates new knowledge, is profound, bold, risk-taking and impactful long-term— to valuing mostly applied, profitable, safe translational work (= development spending) that benefits society in the short-term and can be “sold” to the taxpayer under the slogan that higher education and its research are “evolving” in such worthy direction.

Why should such a model of promised prosperity work at academic institutions when it already failed at the national market-oriented economy, and at a rate of 0.1% (top) versus 90% (bottom)? Why would it create sustainable research at non-ranked universities if it is destined to benefit the top 100, and at a rate of 70% (top) versus 25% (bottom)? It does not make scientific sense to imitate such a path under the vision of “survival of the richest.” But it can, of course, create the illusion that, as long as we believe in it, or try it, most of us will join the elite.

And, as per “evolution,” let us evoke it when we actually understand the concept of gradual change with modification and ancestry, driven by the laws of nature, and explained to our students and the public by competent scholars, not by the whim of the wealthy. — © 2015 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved.

Suggested Articles in Peer-reviewed Journals, plus an undergraduate honors thesis (!):

Unlikely Funding – BioScience 2014

Reforming Science: Structural Reforms -IAI Journal 2012

Funding Troubles for Evolution and Ecology – Current Biology 2011

Lost in Translation: Basic Science in the Era of Translational Research – IAI Journal 2010

And my favorite, an Honors Thesis by undergraduate Sam Shapiro Federal R&D: Analyzing the Shift from Basic and Applied Research toward Development – Department of Economics, Stanford University 2013

Recommended Documentary & Books:

Books About Ivory Tower

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Evolution Illiteracy at America’s Colleges and Universities

Massachusetts Gets an A- in Science Standards

The Incompatibility Hypothesis: Evolution vs. Supernatural Causation

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Science Challenges Golden Age of Violin Making

Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2015

New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter @EvoLiteracy@gpazymino – ResearchGate Academia.edu

Golden Age of Violin Making Challenged by Modern Science

[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“…As for the value of a Stradivari or a Guarneri del Gesu, they are priceless relics of our collective history, treasures from our always evolving civilizations. I wish they continue to be preserved for eternity, to be fervently admired for what they mean and meant; but not for what they no longer are.”

Stradivarius 60 minutes Evolution Literacy

Anastasiya Petryshak playing a Stradivarius at the Violin Museum of Cremona, Italy (CBS 60-Minutes, click on image)

Unsubstantiated beliefs interfere with the acceptance of evidence. Belief is a powerful cultural pollutant: it disrupts, distorts, delays and stops the assessment of reality, what I call in my academic work “the 3Ds + S cognitive effects of illusory thinking.” Indeed, I explore, at a scientific level, why people struggle when confronting inner beliefs with facts, and for that I examine acceptance of evolution by highly educated audiences —university professors, educators of prospective teachers, and college students at elite institutions, who, despite their fine education, embrace distinctive degrees of superstition.

But illusory thinking is not restricted to deniers of evolution or human-induced climate change, another truth rejected by the general public (although less frequently by the literate) upon the conviction that “as long as we faithfully repudiate imminent environmental menace, it shall never happen.”

Self-deceptive ideas, collectively or individually reinforced, affect our ordinary living; and science keeps documenting astonishing examples:

Let’s celebrate the New Year with music and with the most revered classical instrument, the violin. World class virtuosos believe that instruments crafted during the Golden Age of violin-making (1550s to 1750s), by Antonio Stradivari or Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesu,” outshine the quality of other violins, chiefly the contemporary ones.

Various attributes have been hypothesized to account for the tonal superiority of Old Italian violins: local weather effects on wood growth, density of early– and late–growth layers in the wood, chemical treatment of the timber, varnishing, plate-tuning techniques, and the spectral balance of the radiated sound (efficient energy propagation in each of the instrument’s sound–producing–frequencies). However, no tests had been conducted to discern between the professed value (monetary, historical, or just musical) ascribed to the antique violins in respect to the plain acoustics of their modern counterparts.

Violin Making Evolution Literacy

Violin Making — Where And How To Start If You Want To Make Violins?

The first properly controlled study on player preferences among old and new violins was published in 2012, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In it, 21 experienced violinists played and compared instruments crafted by Stradivari (one violin) and Guarneri del Gesu (two violins) with three new, exquisite exemplars. Under double-blind conditions, in which neither the violinists nor the experimenters knew the identity of the instruments, the players preferred the new violins over the old. In fact, the least appreciated was the Stradivari. And most players seemed unable to tell whether their favorite instrument was new or old.

“…the perceived monetary and historical value of the Old Italian violins were so ‘cognitively influential’ that they likely primed the violinists to believe that such instruments had better tonal quality…”

The combined estimated price of the antique violins was $10-million, about one hundred times that of the new instruments. And this was precisely what Claudia Fritz and her collaborators at the National Center of Scientific Research, University of Paris, who coauthored the study, intended to bring to our attention: both the perceived monetary and historical value of the Old Italian violins were so “cognitively influential” (my emphasis) that they likely primed the violinists to believe that such instruments had better tonal quality.

Of course Fritz and collaborators’ study ignited emotional responses among musicians. The very violinists who judged the virtues of the instruments hardly accepted the results of the trials. The research challenged conventional wisdom and a five-century old tradition. “There is nothing like an Old Italian violin sound,” goes the saying.

Violinis Itzhak Perlman 60 minutes Evolution Literacy

Violinist Itzhak Perlman “If you want to play a pianissimo, that is almost inaudible and yet it carries through a hall that seats 3,000 people, there’s your Strad… I can actually see the sound in my head …it has silk. God, it’s so difficult to describe …there is a sparkle to the sound.” (CBS 60-Minutes, click on image)

To overcome the passionate criticism –scientists adore rebuttals— Fritz and her team published a second paper in PNAS, in the spring of 2014. Their follow-up study contrasted soloist evaluations of six Old Italian (five Stradivari) and six new violins, thus increasing the sample size and sharpening the methods. Ten renowned virtuosos evaluated the instruments under, again, double-blind experimental conditions.

Six out of the 10 performers chose the new violins as “most preferred” over the Old Italians. The soloists also rated higher the preferred new violins than the older instruments in playability, articulation and projection; and at least equal to an old violin in timbre. Fritz and coauthors bravely reiterated: “some studies open new fields for investigation; [ours] attempts to close a perennially fruitless one —the search for the ‘secrets of Stradivari.’ Great efforts have been made to explain why instruments by Stradivari, and other Italian makers, sound better than high-quality new violins, but without providing scientific evidence that this is, in fact, the case.”

Belief disrupts, distorts, delays or stops the acceptance of scientific evidence. And only science can ultimately guide us to accurately explore reality, to demystify the polluters of our perception. As for the value of a Stradivari or a Guarneri del Gesu, they are priceless relics of our collective history, treasures from our always evolving civilizations. I wish they continue to be preserved for eternity, to be fervently admired for what they mean and meant; but not for what they no longer are. — © 2015 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved.

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Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution’s Wars

On Francis Collins’ and Karl Giberson “The Language of Science and Faith”

 

Dehumanizing Academia by Dismantling the Humanities

Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2014

New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter @EvoLiteracy@gpazymino

Dehumanizing Academia

[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“…our history and future survival as prosperous civilizations will depend on the integration of what we discover about ourselves via science, about our bodies, brains and cultures, and on what we internalize from such discoveries via the humanities, the sentinels of knowledge in society…”

Edward O Wilson BBC2 Evolution Literacy Paz-y-Mino-C

Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson during the interview posted online by BBC2’s Newsnight

In his latest book (2014), “The Meaning of Human Existence,” Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson, 85, makes an unwise remark: he calls Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins, 73, an “eloquent science journalist.” If Wilson’s intention had been to plea for higher standards in contemporary media reporting, then Dawkins’ exquisite communication skills, proficiency in science, sharp intellect, and always controversial presence (in the right journalistic sense), would have made him a robust role model for investigative journalism. But Wilson aimed at demeaning Dawkins by invoking the character of a profession, one that has given coverage to Wilson’s career during half a century.

The Guardian (U.K.) titled the Wilson vs. Dawkins exchange a “biological warfare.” Perhaps by now the reader realizes how journalistically treasured are these scuffles. But The Guardian’s story itself fed on a previous BBC2’s Newsnight interview, where Wilson reiterated his judgment about Dawkins. Via Twitter, Dawkins responded by reaching out to his one million followers: “anybody who thinks I’m a journalist, who reports what other scientists think –as Wilson described Dawkins’ work— is invited to readThe Extended Phenotype.” The latter, published in 1982, is a follow up to the famous “The Selfish Gene” of 1976; both outstanding scientific contributions to theoretical biology.

Richard Dawkins Evolution Literacy Paz-y-Mino-CBefore going any further, it is indeed imprudent to use the term “science journalist” as a dishonor, to discredit a colleague, and to inattentively belittle a vital occupation.

The Wilson-Dawkins crossfire was triggered by Dawkins’ review of Wilson’s earlier book “The Social Conquest of Earth” of 2012. In it, Wilson drifted away from a well established concept in biology, called Kin Selection, which helps understand why organisms that cooperate with close relatives, more than with strangers, can improve survival and reproduction, thus leaving descendants who carry the traits that make them social and altruistic. The evolution of high sociality, cooperation, altruism and intelligence in the human animal are often explained under kin selection theory (natural selection ultimately favoring kin).

Kin selection is an experimentally documented phenomenon, supported by most evolutionary biologists, to the point that when Wilson and collaborators wrote an article for Nature, in 2010 (which became part of a contentious chapter in “The Social Conquest of Earth”), challenging the kin selection principle and suggesting that high cooperation and altruism can still evolve regardless of kinship, 137 world scientists authored and signed a debunk-letter-to-the-Wilson’s position, which Nature published the following year. [Note that in a paper published in PLoS Biology, March 23, 2015, authors Liao, Rong and Queller completely dismiss the Wilson’s team proposal of 2010; in fact, Liao et al. state that “all… apparently novel conclusions –in the Nature’s 2010 article– are essentially false”].

E O Wilson Books Evolution Literacy Paz-y-Mino-CIn the 2010 paper, Wilson and associates acknowledged that kin selection could still work, but that an alternative scenario based on a combination of individual and group selection, not necessarily closely related members, results in a mathematically sounder model than the “elderly” –ossified– kin selection. The same assertion appeared in Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth,” about which Dawkins –after borrowing words attributed to American poet and satirist Dorothy Parker— declared: “this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force.” And sincere regret (Dawkins’ emphasis).

“…Creationists, of course, grew excited about the scientists’ disagreement. Not so fast. Evolution is true regardless of the dispute over kin selection…”

Creationists, of course, grew excited about the scientists’ disagreement. Not so fast. Evolution is true regardless of the dispute over kin selection [note that researchers are constantly reexamining hypotheses and paradigms, for example, see discussion about Standard Evolutionary Theory SET versus Extended Evolutionary Synthesis EES in Nature]. And both Wilson and Dawkins, as evolutionary biologists, are secular, openly and vigorously opposed to creationism, including Theistic Evolution, Creation Science, Intelligent Design, and Evolutionary Creation; all represent belief-based views of reality, which impose a Creator or Designer in the background of causality. Wilson and Dawkins have categorically stated that there is no scientific evidence in support of any style of creationism.

“…[the] American universities… seem committed to turning off the humanities, dismantling the social sciences, and replacing them with for-profit, translational research to generate goods for patents and commercialization…”

Unfortunately, the message Wilson sought to convey in “The Meaning of Human Existence” was eclipsed by the exchange with Dawkins; Ed threw unnecessary punches, while Richard diverted them back with customary power; a fight with no winner. And Wilson’s book is crucially important to raise awareness about the current dehumanization of academia at American universities, which seem committed to turning off the humanities (philosophy, history, archeology, anthropology, arts, law, literature and linguistics), dismantling the social sciences, and replacing them with for-profit, translational research to generate goods for patents and commercialization; a path leading to the extinction of curiosity-driven science and risk-taking ideas, which have modernized fundamental scientific work: wisdom driven.

In closing, Wilson makes an excellent connection between human evolution and the humanities. He reasons that our history and future survival as prosperous civilizations will depend on the integration of what we discover about ourselves via science, about our bodies, brains and cultures, and on what we internalize from such discoveries via the humanities, the sentinels of knowledge in society (including journalism, my emphasis). And he envisions the relevant humanities under no faith: “the best way to live in this real world is to free ourselves of demons and tribal gods.” — © 2014 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved.

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Hiking among Trilobites, Ancient Whales and Dinosaurs

Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2014

New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter @EvoLiteracy@gpazymino

Museums Display Truth of Evolution

[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“Q?RIUS is about ‘Early Youth Engagement through Science;’ the visitor [to the museum exhibit] acts as curator, protector of Nature’s treasures. Thus Q?RIUS empowers our youth’s innate curiosity to seek and value the truth. And there is no more powerful scientific truth than evolution.” 

Albertosaurus Evolution Literacy G Paz-y-Mino-C photo

Albertosaurus —earlier relatives of Tyrannosaurus rex. Discovered by Joseph B. Tyrrell, in 1884, the “Alberta Lizards” were endemic to today’s Alberta region, in Canada, and ruled the top-predator occupation 70 million years ago; Royal Tyrrell Museum; GPC photo © 2014

I have previously stated that to be reassured that evolution is true one simply needs to visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Its displays of skeletons of a North Atlantic right whale with a calf, a humpback, a juvenile blue, and a sperm whale can impress anyone curious to compare human bones to those of cetaceans. And such comparison suffices to infer that common ancestry connects mammalian sea gallopers — whales and dolphins — to us, the upright bipedal apes who live in cities and launch vessels to explore the stars.

My addiction to the splendid North American science museums — antidotes to the impostors “Genesis Park” or “Creation Museum” — will remain pleasurably incurable. But a latest visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., was certainly unique. It started while hiking among 540-million-year-old trilobite fossils, at the Burgess Shale deposit in the Canadian Rockies. What used to be the bottom of the sea is, nowadays, layers of flaked rock at 6,900 feet elevation, evidence that Earth’s crust moves and shapes the imposing mountains.

In 1909, Charles D. Walcott, paleontologist and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, discovered the first fossils of the Burgess Shale. He later brought to the National Museum of Natural History 65,000 specimens, mostly collected at Fossil Ridge, which runs from the Wapta Mountain to Mount Field, in British Columbia.

When alive during the Cambrian, the now fossilized Burgess Shale organisms anchored themselves to the sea floor, some were sessile, or dwellers on the muddy substrate, a few swam freely. Sponges, plenty of algae and arthropods like trilobites, or chordates like Pikaia (a tiny elongated and laterally flattened fish-shaped swimmer, related to modern vertebrates) enriched the biodiversity of the oceans. The most appealing to me are the trilobites and the predator Anomalocaris.

Trilobites Evolution Literacy G Paz-y-Mino-C photo

540-million year old trilobite fossils at the Burgess Shale deposit in the Canadian Rockies; what used to be the bottom of the sea is, nowadays, layers of flaked rock at 6,900 feet elevation, evidence that Earth’s crust moves and shapes the imposing mountains; GPC photo © 2014

To envision the complexity of the Cambrian ecology, one must immerse the imagination into the ways of the archaic ocean or, perhaps, enlarge all creatures 12 times their original size and gather people to watch them. The latter is precisely what the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Alberta — the second stop in my journey — has done. A well conceived exhibit helps visitors understand the relevance of the Burgess Shale fossils.

The adventure began in the dark. Spotlights shepherd our eyes to the colorful sponges Vauxia, Takakkawia and Pirania, which cohabited with green algae in an apparently serene environment. The cute trilobites, with their large-cockroach pretense and curled sensory antennae resembling groomed whiskers, emerged while the audience pointed at them with excitement as the lights brightened, thus bringing our sight onto additional life forms, like mollusks, sea cucumbers or velvet worms. This tranquility was interrupted by the sudden illumination of a 3-foot Anomalocaris (actual dimension of the “abnormal shrimp”). This segmented animal, distantly related to today’s arthropods, swam by undulating lateral flaps along its body. With huge eyes on stalks and two arched gripping appendages with spikes, one on each side of the mouth, Anomalocaris predated upon soft-shelled organisms and, arguably, on the armored trilobites.

Anomalocaris Evolution Literacy G Paz-y-Mino-C photo

Anomalocaris about to feed on Canadaspis; below are two sponges Takakkawia. Burges Shale diorama at the Royal Tyrrell Museum; GPC photo © 2014

The Burgess Shale exhibit was, however, just a warm up for what the Royal Tyrrell Museum had to offer: after the Cambrian interpretation dome, a world class display of more than 40 mounted dinosaurs and large mammals followed; a saturation of fauna, from the Triassic, 230 million years ago, to the Pleistocene, 2 million years ago. The museum’s most prominent specimens were the Late Cretaceous Albertosaurus — earlier relatives of Tyrannosaurus rex — discovered by Joseph B. Tyrrell in 1884. These “Alberta Lizards” were endemic to the region and ruled the top-predator occupation 70 million years ago.

Genome Smithsonian Evolution Literacy G Paz-y-Mino-C photo

‘Genome, Unlocking Life’s Code,’ an interactive touch-screen experience about how research in genetics benefits citizens and humanity; Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; GPC photo © 2014

In its entirety, the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Alberta is a celebration of the 3.5-billion-year history of life on Earth, an elegant showcase of the evidence for evolution. But the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History — the last stop in my journey — has brought technology and modernity into two contrasting new exhibits: “Genome, Unlocking Life’s Code,” an interactive touch-screen experience about how research in genetics benefits citizens and humanity, and “Q?RIUS,” a hands-on access to real specimens in the Smithsonian collection. Both exhibits are exemplars of effective informal education.

I looked for Q?RIUS eagerly while walking through ancient whale skeletons, hanging from the ceiling, and a diorama of Cetacean evolution: Basilosaurus (35-40 million years ago), Maiacetus (40-49 million years ago), Dorudon (36-38 million years ago), and Llanocetus (34-38 million years ago), which looks comparable to the baleen whales displayed at our New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Q?RIUS is about “Early Youth Engagement through Science;” the visitor acts as curator, protector of Nature’s treasures. Thus Q?RIUS empowers our youth’s innate curiosity to seek and value the truth. And there is no more powerful scientific truth than evolution. — © 2014 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved.

QRIUS Smithsonian Evolution Literacy G Paz-y-Mino-C photo

Q?RIUS is about ‘Early Youth Engagement through Science;’ the visitor acts as curator, protector of Nature’s treasures; Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; GPC photo © 2014

Smithsonian Evolution Literacy G Paz-y-Mino-C photo

The splendid Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC; GPC photo © 2014

Fragmentary Truths and the Intellectual Imbalance in Academia

Fragmentary Truths and the Intellectual Imbalance in Academia

Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2014

Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

[click on title to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“…If we ought to quote E.O. Wilson in the context of what is good for science and science education, then we must look at his unyielding journey in support to fundamental research and long-standing concerns about the future of academia. Although open to dialog with spiritualists, Wilson has never endorsed creationism under the principle of Consilience, nor sponsored profit at the expense of quality schooling…” 

Some months ago, an administrator ventured to school me by asserting: “E.O. Wilson is known for his books in popular science, but his area of research is ants.” I will return to this fragmentary truth after documenting what can be done, following Harvard Professor Edward Osborne Wilson’s example, to make outreach to students —our public— via proper science education.

 

Above, Professor Edward O. Wilson, painting by Jennie Summerall

When I arrived at UMass Dartmouth in 2007, the evolution wars were at their peak. Although Intelligent Design had been defeated in the 2005 Dover, Pa., trial for violating the rules of science by “invoking and permitting supernatural causation” in matters of evolution and for “failing to gain acceptance in the scientific community,” the 21st century anti-science crusade had just began. Current legislation constraining the teaching of evolution reigns in 12 states.

According to Intelligent Design, evolution could not explain holistically the origin of the natural world or the emergence of intricate molecular pathways essential to life, nor the immense phylogenetic differentiation of biological diversity and, instead, proposed an “intelligent agent,” a designer, as the ultimate architect of nature.

During the process of ripping Intelligent Design apart, earlier variants of creationism resuscitated —mostly in media-driven discussions, which I never considered harmless since they reflected the quiescent mind of the public— and newly emerged as, allegedly, better alternatives to Intelligent Design. I discuss them in my 2013 book “Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution’s Wars:”

Among the former were Theistic Evolution and Creation Science, creationism in principle and practice (God the maker of the universe, always present in the fore- or background of causality); among the latter was BioLogos (2000s), which aimed at merging Christianity with science by proposing a “model for divinely guided evolution” that required “no intrusions from the outside for its account of God’s creative process, except for the origin of the natural laws guiding the process.”

Supporters of BioLogos suggested that “once life arose, evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity,” including humans. After evolution got underway, “no special supernatural intervention was required” (quotes from “The Language of Science and Faith” 2011, co-authored by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins —the latter Director of the National Institutes of Health). In essence, the Creator was done, but remained in touch for eternity! This is, of course, inconsistent with everything we know about reality.

As an evolutionary biologist and university professor, I considered a duty to properly educate my students and prepare them to examine, by themselves, the anti-science cultural pollutants that aim at “zombieing” their minds, “corpseing” their innate spirit of inquiry, and perpetuating societal confusion around empirical discoveries.

New England has the highest acceptance of evolution in the U.S., only 59 percent. Back in 2008, when I first polled the UMass Dartmouth campus, our biology graduates used to join the workforce with an acceptance level evolution of 65 percent; the freshman —right out of high school— were at 52 percent. A year later, in May 2009, after I restructured the core biology courses with an evolutionary perspective, acceptance of evolution jumped to 82 percent among the youngest undergrads. Today, 95 percent of graduating bio-majors accept evolution at UMass Dartmouth, the highest score ever reported for college students in the U.S., and comparable to 97 percent of the New England faculty.

Evolution literacy matters: It correlates with understanding climate change, support for stem-cell research, vaccines, alternative sources of energy, respect for education and human rights.

And this brings me back to my allusion to Professor E.O. Wilson. Indeed, he had (still does) a celebrated career in the study of Hymenoptera (ants, wasps and bees). But there is high complexity in Wilson’s contribution to theoretical science, far beyond “ants” (which vastness has been revealed by his passionate disciples).

Forgive my professorial account: Concepts such as Island Biogeography (1967), the still controversial Sociobiology (1975), Biophilia (1984), Biodiversity (1988), Consilience (1998), “The Creation” in the context of what nature can do to assemble life (2006), are among Wilson’s seminal proposals. But he also co-founded “evolutionary biology” in 1960, in an attempt to address “the intellectual imbalance of biology at Harvard,” and his fears of seeing ecology and evolution “being outgunned, outfunded, and outnumbered” by alternative fields of investigation, as he narrates in “Letters to A Young Scientist” (2013).

If we ought to quote Wilson in the context of what is good for science and science education, then we must look at his unyielding journey in support to fundamental research and long-standing concerns about the future of academia. Although open to dialog with spiritualists, E.O. Wilson has never endorsed creationism under the principle of Consilience, nor sponsored profit at the expense of quality schooling.

Evolution Meeting in Lisbon Raises Concern

Evolution Meeting in Lisbon Raises Concern

Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2013

Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

[click on title to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“…Lisbon taught us a lesson: its beauty and history, museums and palaces, cathedrals and monuments all honored the value of discovery, the irrefutable foundation of true civilizations.”

     There is a connection between Portugal’s cultural and historical commitment to explore the unknown and what just happened at the XIV European Society for Evolutionary Biology (ESEB) meeting held in Lisbon August 19 to 24, 2013. But a preamble here is merited before I address the conference’s substantial outcomes.

     Portugal’s and Spain’s leadership during The Age of Discovery (1500s-1600s) is undeniable. The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494, aimed at sharing between both kingdoms the geopolitical control of the world, as much as it could be explored, conquered and, inevitably by post-Crusade-invasion practices, Christianized. And so it was.

Monument to The Discoveries with Henry The Navigator leading it, Lisbon, Photo © 2013 Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C.

     Exploration and discovery did nurture Europe’s curiosity for sighting the “planet’s final frontiers” in the 16th and 17th centuries, starting with the uncertainty of Earth’s shape and its implications for circumnavigation. But trade and profit were the vested motivators for the monarchies to “globalize” their understanding of the world which, 500 years ago, was not even conceived as a globe.

     In a classical Type One error effort —to use modern science terminology— Christopher Columbus, a Genoese explorer sponsored by Spain, failed at arriving to Asia via the Pacific, and instead bumped into unfamiliar terra firma in 1492. Columbus was conceptually wrong and died, in 1506, unaware of the mistake, but his maritime adventure brought, nonetheless, unprecedented wealth to Europe.

     The Portuguese Vasco da Gama tested with success, from 1497-1499, an alternative proposal: that India could be reached if sailing around Africa, relying, of course, on the Earth’s roundness, plus novel technology, instrumentation, and vessel design.

     In retrospect, Columbus and da Gama quests seeded today’s world interconnectedness. But it was science inspiring mere pursuit of knowledge —equivalent to research programs— which led to the prosperity later harvested. Both Columbus and da Gama thought the former arrived in the “West Indies.” Yet, it took additional expeditions (1499-1504), by cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, from Florence, to conjecture the existence of an entirely new continent in the Pacific, a major “paradigm shift” not unusual in science considering it relies on seeking the truth via skepticism.

Tomb of Vasco da Gama in the Jeronimos Monastery, Lisbon, Photo © 2013 Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C.

     And science, materialized for its intrinsic significance, curiosity-driven and respected for advancing knowledge and debunking myth —rather than for amassing fortune when its applications expedite income for entrepreneurs— was the spirit of 1,500 international delegates gathered at ESEB 2013.  

     Lisbon was ideal for a conference about ancestry and change, legacy and improvement, the essence of evolutionary biology. At 34 symposia and 74 plenary talks, 360 speakers and authors of 900 posters discussed genetic and non-genetic (cultural) inheritance of traits, animal behavior, mechanisms of species recognition to avoid hybridization, natural and sexual selection, host-parasite interactions, human evolution, aging and senescence, emergence of drug resistance, conservation of wildlife, online resources and quantitative simulations to teach evolution, and climate-change impacts on ecological and evolutionary processes.    

     A sense of “fundamental research is what matters, not the sheer application of science for revenue” resounded during the conference. The concern that funding for basic science is scarce worldwide, the disinterest among benefactors in sponsoring “why questions” in studies, and rather favoring the “how much return will that generate for the industry, the patenting system, the biolabs, the administrative overheads,” and the uncertainty about the future of exploring ultimate queries —the reason for science’s existence— were at the heart of small talking during the conference. 

Splendid exhibit “Forms and Formulas” at Lisbon’s National Museum of Natural History and Science, Photo © 2013 Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. 

     But ESEB 2013 was not alone in this respect. During this summer, US researchers had specifically addressed the importance of sponsoring significant investigations. The Animal Behavior Society (ABS), for example, organized at its 50th anniversary meetings in Boulder, Colorado, July 28 to August 1st, the discussion “Time to Step Up! Defending Basic Science,” under the premise that behavioral research has been “ridiculed” and caricatured by elected officials as “wasteful government spending.” Ironically, behaviorists are the “role models” who continue to inspire worldwide interest in science, and ABS provided a list of them: Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Judy A. Stamps, John Maynard Smith, and William D. Hamilton, among 15 others.

     Likewise, the American Society for Microbiology featured in Denver, Colorado, May 18 to 21, the President’s Forum “Curiosity-Driven Basic Research: Laying the Foundation for Discoveries and Application of the Future,” where “the critical importance of basic investigations and the need to articulate why discovery is so essential” was the consensus. And it cannot be otherwise at times when trivialization of reality, fed by entertainment, belief in the supernatural, disrespect for education, and self confidence nourished by how much is in the pocket, rather than in the schooled mind, can lead the populous to applaud emptiness.

     But Lisbon taught us a lesson: its beauty and history, museums and palaces, cathedrals and monuments all honored the value of discovery, the irrefutable foundation of true civilizations. — © 2013 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved.

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