Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It's only evolution but I like it...

Notes on the talk: "Why evolution is right and creationism is wrong".

On Creationists: "I don't mind if [they] burn my books... as long as they buy them first". - Prof. Steve Jones at the Royal Society, 11/04/06.

They said it would be popular, and boy they weren't kidding. Arriving outside the Royal Society at 5.30, the queue already stretched round the block [1]. By the time we got to the head of the line, the main auditorium was full, the overspill room was rapidly approaching full, and the queue still stretched around the south side if Waterloo Place and back out onto Carlton Square. A queue of rock 'n roll proportions. Not bad for a science talk on a rainy Tuesday evening - it restored my faith in man as rational being, to some extent at least.

The talk itself was fantastic - I've been to open lectures by Steve Jones before, and he is one of the most consistently engaging speakers I know of. He speaks uncompromisingly on matters of religion, sex and both the follies and the wisdom of human behaviour. Nevertheless, he is unlikely to face the same charge of arrogance that has been leveled at some critics of creationism: his talks are enjoyably peppered with humour and gentle self-deprication. Perhaps most impressively, he is able to explain complex ideas clearly to an audience of non-specialists in a way that is neither dry nor patronising.

I won't attempt to expound on the technical content - though I will retell one of his jokes at the end of my little panegyric. However, I will relate one thing that caused my jaw to drop. He showed some astounding data on the evolution of HIV, including the work of an intrepid researcher whose name I omitted to note but will try to chase. This researcher went to the DRC to hunt out "fossil viruses", samples of HIV from decades ago. The genome of the sample he found lends elegant support to theories of how HIV has mutated, where it came from and when. Seeing this data point, sitting right on the line where theory had predicted it should be was awe-inspiring and a moving testimony to the work of the scientists involved.

It struck me again, forcibly, last night that the work geneticists and evolutionary biologists do is often difficult, largely thankless, and sometimes (for example, virus hunting in the DRC), downright dangerous. They willingly sacrifice even cherished ideas for the sake of consistency with observed evidence. This is so far removed from the approach of the creationist and ID movements, both of which cherry-pick data to buttress their theories, that it appalls to hear otherwise intelligent people suggest that their ideas should be treated as somehow scientific.

Creationism certainly wasn't the main thrust of the talk, despite the wonderfully polemical title, but mention was made of the motives of "creation scientists" and "intelligent design" proponents who are demanding that their ideas be considered the intellectual equal of the study evolution. Prof. Jones mentioned the "Wedge Approach". The avowed aim of some of these groups is to have creationism (or ID) accepted as literal truth, but to use this as a "gateway drug" to encouraging the wholesale acceptance of biblical literalism. Suddenly the claim that ID is not a religious position looks even less tenable.

And now the promised joke - I'm currently on the train back to Aber so I'm looking forward to touting this one 'round the office this afternoon:

A welshman in Aberystwyth goes to a chinese restaurant. The (chinese) waiter, approaches the diner. "Nos da," he begins, and proceeds to take the order in fluent Welsh. At the end of the meal, the patron approaches the (welsh) manager and says "Well I never," (in Welsh) "However did you find a chinese man who speaks Welsh?" "Shhhhhhh", replies the manager, "We told him it was English".

It loses something for not being told in Prof. Jones' mellifluous welsh accent - for that you'll have to see the webcast.

UPDATE: As reported on the Register over 400 people were turned away last night after the rooms (plural - at least two) filled up! Rock with a side of roll please! (I know, I know, that was a 66% exclamation mark punctuation ratio for this paragraph. But see - here's some brackets, a hyphen four commas and three full stops. The punctuation is sane again, move along now please.)

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