On evolution and League of Legends.

teemochineseOkay, here’s something that I feel like the Cosmos show did nicely – when they showed a tree representing evolutionary lineage, humans were on a branch jutting out seemingly at random to the side.  Whereas many popular science presentations of evolution depict humans as the pinnacle – we’re here at the top, and if you go back in time, our ancestors looked like chimpanzees, and if you go back farther in time, our ancestors looked like goldfish, and if you go back farther in time, our ancestors looked like sea sponges… which obviously isn’t true.  A current chimpanzee, and a current fish, and a current sponge, have gone through just as much evolutionary time as we have.

I think many scientists would feel bothered by phrasings such as “humans are more evolved than bacteria.”  Well, a statement that direct might be hard to come up with a reference for, but quite often humans are described as “higher organisms,” in comparison.  And, yeah, we are multicellular, and have nuclei – gee whiz, nuclei!  But you could quite easily argue that bacteria are more evolved.  Their generational time is shorter, so every minute effectively gives them more time to evolve than it gives us.  And they seem quite well suited for their environment – many can now thwart even directed efforts to expunge them.  I’d like to see some of those “highly evolved” humans shrug off murderous intent with such panache.

And, honestly, that was going to be the end of my essay.  I was planning to root around, find an egregious reference for a statement about how great it is that humans are so evolved, and call it finished.  But would that be cool?  I have to imagine that plenty of high school biology teachers out there have already declaimed similar truths to their students.

So, instead, here is a bonus contrasting thought – a framework in which humans are, in fact, more evolved.

Because, sure, bacteria go through many more generations than humans within any given amount of time.  But additional “rounds” of evolution won’t accomplish much if there aren’t significant options for change.  A wide range of bacteria all look pretty much the same… to me, that is, someone who is not a bacteriologist.  The times I’ve looked at them in microscopes, they just looked like bothersome squirming dots – I was doing mammalian tissue culture, so was displeased to see them, and was using relatively low magnification.  And to someone who actually knows about bacteria, the idea that they’re all the same might sound inane – some polymerize mammalian actin behind them to shoot around like rocket ships!  How is that not cool??

Well, yeah, yeah, actin rockets.

A lot of the problem, in terms of my thinking that various evolutionary descendants of bacteria are cool, is that they function much closer to the thermodynamic limit than other organisms do.  Not so much that I think it’s reasonable to generally assume that they function efficiently – yes, a mathematical model under that assumption reproduced rRNA copy number, but how many other salient features of the genome would be predicted?  – but the energetic constraints on bacteria do seem to be tighter than for many multicellular organisms.  If you are competing for resources based on reproduction rate, and a limiting step is duplication on your genome, there’ll be strong pressure to keep your genome small.  But one major driver of evolutionary divergence is gene duplication events – it’s easier to accrue mutations that might lend a new function if those mutations are in a second copy and do not necessitate the loss of a necessary pre-existing function.

So a multicellular organism, with a big sloppy genome, has a lot more tuning knobs that can be adjusted during evolution.  Which I thought was worth writing about because it would allow me to make a cutesy analogy to the current design goals of the team making League of Legends.  It’s a twitchy online variant of capture the flag that I used to play – I can’t anymore, since they made the game fancier and I’m using a computer from 2006 that needs a lot of duct tape to function.  At the four corners of the base, duct-tape holds stacks of 3 pennies each to give my computer stilts so that there’s room for the fan to exhaust and space for the battery to hang out.  Pennies seemed cheaper than buying pegs or anything to keep it raised.  And, right, the battery – it’s gotten bulgier over time, such that now, if it’s put all the way into the computer, it presses against the underside of the keyboard and makes many letters not work.  But as long as it dangles halfway out all the time, kept in place with duct tape, the computer works fine.

I’m sure a bulging battery doesn’t indicate anything potentially disastrous, right?

Anyway, the League of Legends team recently announced their goals for the new changes, and one they stressed was that they wanted to give themselves more potential variables to tweak in case the game needed balancing in the future.  And I thought, okay, that’s a sense in which you could claim that humans are more evolved – we have so many features that can be tweaked over time, compared to the set of variables available to be modified during bacterial evolution.

But a corollary to that thought is that, since there are so many variables that could change with humans, and since we have a relatively long generational time, there’s no reason to expect that we’ve gotten much right yet.  With a bacterium, you might expect that it will be sufficiently evolved that it’s near optimal for its environment.  With a human, you should have no such expectation.

Which I was writing about in my project as regards transcranial electrical stimulation.  This is a technique where you deliver excess current to certain regions of your brain with the goal of improving cognition – it often seems to work, although there have been only vague explanations why.  And the very fact that something like this might work illustrates that human evolution didn’t get incredibly far.  Much of our reproductive success is due to cognitive ability – that’s how we were able to cover the globe, and begin altering environments to suit us better (locally – globally, we may well be doing the opposite), and contemplate shooting ourselves into space.  So you might imagine that there would be evolutionary pressure on humans to make that cognitive ability as good as it can be.  Which obviously isn’t the case if you could look at a cheesy website and build something out of supplies from Radioshack to make yourself think better.

On Cosmos and working through the math.

CosmosK and I have been watching that new Cosmos television show.  The library had the whole set of DVDs, and she and I have both been tired enough that it’s felt nice to zonk out with some television in the evening while N is having her fifth dinner.

K really likes the show.  Things were perhaps stacked in her favor: she is a scientist, she likes Neil deGrasse Tyson, and she teaches Earth & Space Science, which covers a lot of the same topics as the Cosmos show (and is, incidentally, not the field of science either she or I was trained in – E&SS just happens to be what you need to teach if you want to work with people who get signed up for the most introductory level science class in this state.  Elsewhere I think the equivalent course is Integrated Chemistry & Physics or something?).

So, K likes Cosmos.

Whereas I have mostly failed to enjoy the show as much, even though it’s clear that a  lot of people worked very hard on it and it has some very redeeming qualities, too.

So, last night we watched the episode about Faraday’s experiments with electricity and magnetism.  And then this morning I went berserk and had to set N up for some self-directed play while I watched a video deriving the Maxwell equations.  Which is something I used to know, and probably still should, but almost a decade has passed since I last used them.  And when they were flashed up on the screen at the end of the Cosmos episode, I realized that I couldn’t think through the derivation.  That felt sad.  I’ve already been feeling sad about being very unpracticed with my math these days, to the point that shortly before N was born I picked up a book on differential equations and another covering specifically Fourier transforms.  I did not work through very much of either before she was born and have not picked them up since – as it happens, taking care of a baby can be a fair bit of work.

But my reason for feeling uncomfortable about Cosmos isn’t just that it reminds me of my own current ineptitude.

For me, the problem is that the show often seems to be contrasting stories from mythology, often Christian mythology, against stories as elucidated by science.  But all of it is presented without math, and much of it is presented without data of any kind, or even descriptions of the necessary experiments.  I have to admit, the particular episode that made me sad did a better job of that than most – many of Faraday’s experiments were described.  But, still, the Maxwell equations were tossed up at the end with no attempt at an explanation.

And I know that mathematical and scientific literacy is often described as, um, not good in this country.  And television is not a very good medium for conveying math.  I’ve watched some math videos online (Dr. Arthur Mattuck at MIT made some charming ones), and, yes, sometimes you might space out, or maybe want to pause them, or glance at the screen and read an equation wrong and feel confused.  But not everybody can pause broadcast television.  And a lot of mathematics presupposes familiarity with basic concepts that many people haven’t had a chance to feel comfortable with.

But the problem is, in my opinion, that science without math is very akin to mythology.

It becomes an expert telling you what you ought to think because he happens to be blessed with great truths, either because he can do the math or because he has studied his bible or communed with god or read the portents from an eagle overhead.  I am teaching you, and you should believe.  Whereas I think that science should be presented more humbly.

Yes, to my mind, having (once upon a time) worked through the math, science is more real than any religious claims.  But for someone who has not worked through the math, and currently can not work through it, I can see how scientific or religious claims would seem like equal mysteries.  You have to trust an expert.  Maybe you choose an expert in a white coat, maybe you chose one in a black cassock.

So I would much rather see science outreach like Cosmos attempt to guide people through the details – this is how the math works, and these are resources you could consult if this is hard, and these are experiments that you could do to reproduce these findings.  Which is hard, obviously.  I am (was?) pretty good at math, but I don’t have the training to follow serious astrophysics.  I did well with the physics of small things (quantum mechanics) during college and graduate school, but I’ve never studied the physics of big things.  I don’t really know gravity, for instance.  That’s something I’d like to take a few courses in, after I finish the novel I’m working on.  So, sure, there is a lot of complicated math involved.

But I’d like to think there are better ways to convey a respect for people’s lack of exposure to math than trying to convey science without it.  Obviously, it’s tricky.  I’m not trying to argue that the team that made Cosmos didn’t try very hard, or aren’t clever, or anything like that.  I’m just not super happy with the final product, even if I couldn’t necessarily do it better.  Like, okay, the introduction to Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm seem to do a good job of walking cheerily through some basic statistics.  And, sure, there are differences – statistics is an easier branch of mathematics for people to understand visually than some of the math you need for astrophysics, and, more importantly, Dataclysm is a book, which means there’s less worry that someone will get bored and change the channel during a brief math interlude – but I felt as though Rudder conveyed a more respectful attitude about wanting his audience to know where his claims were coming from.

And, right, it’s not as though this problem – trying to convey science sans numbers to non-scientists – is unique to Cosmos.  I feel a lot of similar frustration in reading editorials by scientists or medical doctors regarding the recent upsurge in Americans opting out of vaccines.  Which, again, I should make clear: I am a scientist.  I have been vaccinated against many diseases.  My daughter has received all her recommended vaccines on time.  But my impression is that scientists and medical doctors promoting vaccines do not always show sufficient sympathy.

Like, okay, there was a research paper claiming that vaccines cause autism, which I am not linking here.  There are research papers claiming that vaccines do not cause autism.  Sure, there are more of the latter, but for someone without enough scientific literacy to evaluate the data for themselves, you’re stuck picking someone to trust.  And, honestly, scientists and medical doctors have done some pretty terrible things, often in the guise of vaccines – you could have a pretty unpleasant weekend reading about some of these in Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America.  So there are reasons why someone who was just picking whom to trust would not choose the doctors.

So, it’s not that I think the Earth is only 6000 years old.  Or that I think anyone should believe that.  I just think that, by trying to present science without math, the product is a competing narrative that still relies on faith.  As with vaccines, as with climate change.  And, who knows, maybe I am watching their show with the wrong attitude – maybe they were not hoping that people would watch and say, “oh, the Earth was actually formed 4.5 billion years ago,” maybe they were hoping that people would watch and think, “gee, that’s cool, I should learn how to figure this stuff out myself.”  But that’s not the impression that I got.