Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Another entry in the Public Address Medical Journal

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  • giovanni tiso,

    No, what makes the difference is an organism's ability to have offspring that survive to be able reproduce themselves.

    It's not what drives evolution though. According to the theory at least - it's natural selection of replicators, not natural selection of replicators one generation down the line. Not sure where you got that from - and I'm not saying sarcastically, I'd like to know where you got that from. Perhaps I misunderstand you or the theory.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    Are they really asking themselves why it happens? What good could that do?

    Gio, you're missing the point.

    Asking 'why does X happen?' is the fundamental scientific starting point.

    Once we know why X happens, we can start to do something useful with that knowledge - we can apply it so that we act on our environment, and not the other way around.

    Take gravity. We know it happens. If I drop something, it will accelerate towards the centre of the earth at 9.81 m/s/s. We know this to always be true. But we don't understand the mechanism.

    Now, if those chaps in the white coats would actually pull finger, we could go some way towards understanding the mechanism, and using that knowledge, develop something of use. Like, say, that hoverbike I've been waiting 30 years for.

    Superbugs, as another example. We are always reacting - we are always one step behind.

    We develop a new antibiotic which kills most of them. The 10% which are resistant evolve and become the dominant strain. Process starts again. We are always on the back foot. If we understand the mechanisms of their evolution better, maybe we can get a jump on them.

    But it's not even a journey of a thousand miles we're starting with these single steps - it's effectively infinite.

    So you say

    If they work out how to inhibit it, it will be ultimately because they've somehow isolated how it happens, not why.

    Exactly. But the knowledge of 'how' will be one more step towards the 'why'.

    if mutation itself was a characteristic that organisms were somehow able to lose, they would have by now

    But why does it happen, or not happen, at all? Why are we animate, and not just a random collection of non-animate chemical compounds?

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    Asking 'why does X happen?' is the fundamental scientific starting point.

    Once we know why X happens, we can start to do something useful with that knowledge - we can apply it so that we act on our environment, and not the other way around.

    Really? I'm kind of at a loss here. I used to study physics (I sucked, but let's not focus on that) and this is the first I hear about scientists being interested in why gravity - for instance - works, as opposed to how it works. We'd like to know what unseen forces are involved, but it's still part of description, it won't tell us a reason - reason in itself is metaphysical. Similarly, we'd like to know what happened in the millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second after the big bang. What happened, and how, not why.

    What answer could there possibly be to "why" viruses mutate? They do, if there was a way of stopping them from doing it it would still be part of how that process works.

    Unless we have a different understanding of the meaning of the words. I inhale asbestos, I get cancer. That's why, in a sense, but it's also how: what it is in those asbestos fibres that is carcinogenic, how the process works. Apply that to other similar materials in development, you might be able to prevent the introduction of another carginogenic material into our environment.

    So there's a why and a how that are difficult to prise apart. But in the case of evolution, what kind of why are you looking for? What would it look like? Wouldn't that be metaphysical?

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    Wouldn't that be metaphysical?

    Yep, that's kind of what I'm clumsily struggling towards.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones,

    Favourite science passage from a work of fiction (Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Mars):

    About a year later Nirgal and the other children began to figure out how to deal with the days when they were taught by Sax. He would start at the blackboard, sounding like a characterless AI, and behind his back they would roll their eyes and make faces as he droned on about partial pressures or infrared rays. Then one of them would see an opening and begin the game. He was helpless before it. He would say something like, "In nonshivering thermogenesis the body produces head using futile cycles," and one of them would raise a hand and say, "But why, Sax?" and everyone would stare hard at their lectern and not look at each other, while Sax would frown as if this had never happened before, and say, "Well, it creates heat without using as much energy as shivering does. The muscle proteins contract, but instead of grabbing they just slide over each other, and that creates heat."

    Jackie, so sincerely the whole class nearly lost it: "But how?"

    He was blinking now, so fast they almost exploded watching him. "Well, the amino acids in the proteins have broken covalent bonds, and the bonds release what is called bond dissociation energy."

    "But why?"

    Blinking ever harder: "Well, that's just a matter of physics." He diagrammed vigorously on the blackboard: "Covalent bonds are formed when two atomic orbitals merge to form a single bond orbital, occupied by electrons from both atoms. Breaking the bond releases thirty to a hundred kcals of energy."

    Several of them asked, in chorus, "But why?"

    This got him into subatomic physics, where the chain of whys and becauses could go on for a half hour without him ever once saying something they could understand. Finally they would sense they were near the end game. "But why?"

    "Well," going cross-eyed as he tried to backtrack, "atoms want to get to their stable number of electrons, and they'll share electrons when they have to."

    "But why?"

    Now he was looking trapped. "That's just the way atoms bond. One of the ways."

    "But WHY?"

    A shrug. "That's how the atomic force works. That's how things came out-"

    And they would all shout, "in the Big Bang."

    They would howl with glee, and Sax's forehead would knot up as he realized that they had done it to him again.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    Wouldn't that be metaphysical?

    Yep, that's kind of what I'm clumsily struggling towards.

    But isn't metaphysics by definition not the concern of scientists? At least in the current setup, I mean.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Josh Addison,

    Re: "how" vs "why", it sounds a little but like you're phrasing the same question in different ways. Sort of like "Where is X?" vs "What is the location of X?" Same question, different W words ("how" starts with a W for the purposes of this analogy).

    Onehunga, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 298 posts Report Reply

  • Rob Hosking,

    Last time I looked in here the topic was eczema: I come back and its Neil Diamond. Only on PA...

    Re eczema: I've lately discovered myrrh is useful treating my eczema. I have it on the legs - as a kid it was all over my feet and legs, especially in the spring and early summer. The main ointment I recall being used was betnovate – buckets of the slimy stuff. I now see it has a host of side effects listed. Oh well.

    I also used to get it on the scalp but that doesn’t happen so much since my scalp became less of a sweaty rainforest and more like a fairly sparse savannah.

    I’d only ever heard of myrrh in the Bible – and in a Peter Cook sketch about Christmas – but a masseuse recommeonded it to me. She also slipped a bit in the oil she was using on me and didn’t tell me about it until the next visit. It had worked. So no placebo effect there.

    You can either rub it on or stick it in a bath (I do the bath thing, along with Epsom salts, which also help. Its also very relaxing. Deep sleeps.) You can get it in health shops etc. It smells like someone squeezed the juice out of some particuarly soggy bark.

    The benefit wears off after about a week – which is the same as happens with the steroid cream my doc has given me. But the myrrh of course has the advantage of not being a steroid cream.

    On the science/alternative medicne theme – I’m a natural skeptic on most of the alternative stuff but hey, if it works in practice I don’t care that it doesn’t work in theory.

    My other half, who has a first class degree in biochemistry and can’t really be said to have an unscientific outlook on life, sees an osteopath for her fybromyalgia. It helps better than anything else we’ve tried.

    On evolution being proved or not: a biologist friend once explained to me, in great and lengthy detail, that evolution is a theory but natural selection isn’t – it’s a solid scientific fact.

    ...although it may have been the other way round. Not sure now.

    I saw Neil Diamond! At the Houston Rodeo. He was actually kind of great, with a knowing cheesiness. And leather pants.

    This made me (a) laugh and (b) think of Graham Brazier.

    Neil Diamond did some classic 3 minute pop singles until about 1970. Then he tried to be a…not a prog rocker, perhaps a prog popper. Only without the whimsy. And it was never going to work without whimsy.

    I'm guessing someone had been told to include popular songs and so be relevant to the kids but hadn't really thought the whole thing through.

    My primary school supplemented the official song book (‘King of the Road’ was big, I seem to recall) with whatever last year’s ’20 Solid Gold Hits Vol xxx’ was. Which meant ‘Delta Dawnn, wots that flau-wa you have on…’ and ‘Down ba the banks/ of the Oh- High – Oh..’

    Along with selections from Joseph and His Amazing whosamy wotsit.

    We never had to sing 'Sounds of Silence' but in 4th Form we had to study it as a poem, along with 'Eleanor Rigby'. I think some teacher or curriculum setter had a thing for music from 1966.

    South Roseneath • Since Nov 2006 • 830 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    Diamond's in the rough... Golfing a dead horse?
    C'mon Joe - Captain Sunshine is a Neil Diamond song!! : )

    Beyond the Pale(ontologists)...
    Creation Museum visit

    Meat Physics...

    Evolution doesn't care any more than gravity does. ;)

    Gravity sucks!

    Yrs
    Ian Stein
    away with the theories

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7950 posts Report Reply

  • JackElder,

    It's not what drives evolution though. According to the theory at least - it's natural selection of replicators, not natural selection of replicators one generation down the line. Not sure where you got that from - and I'm not saying sarcastically, I'd like to know where you got that from. Perhaps I misunderstand you or the theory.

    True; I guess I'm talking about the broader sense of inclusive fitness (as in, it can be a useful construct to think of an organism as "more fit" if its descendents are similarly more likely to reproduce). This is a theoretical framework to consider the general movement of evolution across generations. Because, of course, evolution only happens across generations - individuals live, possibly reproduce, and then die, and the resulting change to the gene pool is evolution. Any given individual themself doesn't evolve (except in relation to their ancestors or descendents).

    But do you get my point about asexual vs sexual reproduction? I guess the point I'm making is that you seem to be arguing that asexual reproduction would avoid mutation and hence confer an advantage, but I think that one of the reasons that most species use sexual reproduction is because this isn't so. Even in species that are perfectly capable of reproducing asexually, the majority also still go through the tedious business of having sex to make babies as well.

    Apologies if I've missed your point, but. ;)

    Wellington • Since Mar 2008 • 708 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    Re: "how" vs "why", it sounds a little but like you're phrasing the same question in different ways.

    How is the journey, why is the reason.

    In which case I'd be tempted to suggest that evolution doesn't have a 'why', just a bunch of 'hows' flowing backwards through time.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    PS: and a tonic for the NZ film industry - The EczeMen franchise starts here - casting tips anyone?

    Hasn't Michael Gambon already definitively scratched all Dennis Potter's itches?

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12370 posts Report Reply

  • Danielle,

    So weird: I was just listening to the Singing Detective OST this morning. Yeah, as far as 'films about debilitating skin conditions' go, that's the last word. (The only word?)

    Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3828 posts Report Reply

  • Danielle,

    ‘Delta Dawnn, wots that flau-wa you have on…'

    Wow. My lifelong fondness for massive 70s country-pop hits is explained by this. I was brainwashed at a young age!

    Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3828 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    But do you get my point about asexual vs sexual reproduction? I guess the point I'm making is that you seem to be arguing that asexual reproduction would avoid mutation and hence confer an advantage, but I think that one of the reasons that most species use sexual reproduction is because this isn't so.

    I agree, asexual replication doesn't mean there will be no copying errors. Perhaps it was Rich who was saying that?

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Rob Hosking,

    but I think that one of the reasons that most species use sexual reproduction is because this isn't so.

    I prefer to think it is because (a) its more fun and (b) the Cosmic Ironist in the Sky thought it would be a good way to both give us some light relief from existence and also to mess with our heads.

    South Roseneath • Since Nov 2006 • 830 posts Report Reply

  • Hilary Stace,

    Tell that to this lonely dugong and 'fanstastic bloke'.

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 3226 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    But isn't metaphysics by definition not the concern of scientists? At least in the current setup, I mean.

    Yes, but it's a situation which begs for a 'why' question - why are they separate?

    Ask enough 'why' questions from either a scientific perspective or a metaphysical perspective (or religious), and you start getting convergence towards the vanishing point - 'why are we here?'

    How is the journey, why is the reason.

    Yes. Gio's question was entirely on point, though.

    There is considerable overlap between 'why?' and 'how?' when you are looking at what is directly in front of your face.

    But when you start looking beyond the immediate, the difference between 'why' and 'how' gets a bit more important. 'Why are we here?' is a completely different question from 'how are we here?'

    The best answer to 'why' that science can currently offer is, as Mr Jones pointed out:

    [shrug] That's how things came out in the Big Bang.

    But why did the big bang happen? In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God? A troubling thought if you're a filthy non-believer like me.

    Perhaps it was Rich who was saying that?

    Not me. Merely noting that there are built-in copying errors, but that we cannot adequately explain why that is the case.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    Yes, but it's a situation which begs for a 'why' question - why are they separate?

    Isn't that what the enlightenment is based on? Science and technology shall henceforth be the means of describing and manipulating the material world; let religion and philosophy deal with the metaphysical stuff. You don't trust a scientist to tell you why, nor a priest or a philosopher to tell you how. It's where we're at.

    I'm not saying it's not open to critique, and we could always go back to the Aristotelean model, of course - will you join me in lobbying Jake?

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones,

    Dawkins has a go at the non-overlapping magisterium thesis Giovanni's just expressed. Can't remember the details, but it made sense at the time (a brave atheist reads Dawkins on a plane).

    And I'm not a Mr, Rich. Most blokes don't get homeopathy foisted on them via pregnancy care books. Unless there's been a miracle of modern medicine, of course :-)

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    Isn't that what the enlightenment is based on? Science and technology shall henceforth be the means of describing and manipulating the material world; let religion and philosophy deal with the metaphysical stuff. You don't trust a scientist to tell you why, nor a priest or a philosopher to tell you how. It's where we're at.

    Civiliation has almost reached a stage where we're getting all tangled up in string theory, and searching for particles that may or may not even exist in theory. Most of the cutting edge stuff in physics these days doesn't really seem to have much to do with 'the material world'.

    Perhaps we need to start thinking about a bit of reconvergence?

    Just a thought.

    I'm also trying to think of a way to work in a good prog rock joke
    . Someone help me out?

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    And I'm not a Mr, Rich.

    Many apologies.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    Dawkins has a go at the non-overlapping magisterium thesis Giovanni's just expressed. Can't remember the details, but it made sense at the time (a brave atheist reads Dawkins on a plane).

    Can you remember the gist, or the book? Some evolutionary psychologists do claim to have worked out what conscience and sentience actually are, and to be able to "explain" the mind and hence our humanity. Is that what you mean?

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones,

    It was The God Delusion, and it was more about how religion makes claims about reality all the time, and we should call it on it. Not quite what you're after.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • JackElder,

    I agree, asexual replication doesn't mean there will be no copying errors. Perhaps it was Rich who was saying that?

    No, you were very clear about this from the start - even in asexual reproduction there will be occasional mutations when the copying goes slightly wrong. But you seemed to be arguing that asexual reproduction would have an evolutionary advantage over sexual reproduction, as it wouldn't have the problem of mutations reducing the fitness of individuals. That's the position I was arguing against.

    Wellington • Since Mar 2008 • 708 posts Report Reply

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