Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Nice and Nasty Rats.... Religion and Science

Today's science section of the New York Times has several articles worth noting.

Some remarkable experiments were started in the former Soviet Union in 1959 by Dmitri Belyaev, who decided to study the genetics of domestication and find what qualities were selected for by the neolithic farmers who developed most major farm species about 10,000 years ago. He decided to select for a single criterion: tameness. Starting by breeding silver foxes from the wild, after only eight generations animals that would tolerate human presence became common, and after 40 years and the breeding of 45,000 foxes, a group had emerged that were as tame and as eager to please as a dog. The tame silver foxes had begun to show white patches on their fur floppy ears, rolled tails and smaller skulls, like many other domesticated species. They also exhibited the unusual ability of dogs to understand human gestures (something Chimpanzees can't manage at all). Belyaev also bred a parallel colony of vicious foxes, but realizing that genetics can be better studied in smaller animals, he started working with local wild rats. In only sixty generations separate breeds of very tame and very ferocious rats were obtained. Paabo's laboratory in Germany is now crossing the tame and aggressive strains to find genetic sites that correlate with these behaviors. Such sites could then be examined in tame and aggressive individuals in other mammalian species, including humans... Perhaps an important part of homminid evolution was a human self-domestication that involved ostracizing (blocking the breeding of) individuals who were too aggressive.

The article by Dean in the same NYTimes issue provides a review of recent books on the clash between religion and science, and the debate over whether faith in God can coexist with faith in the scientific method. Professors of either faith or science acknowledge that they cannot prove that God either does or does not exist. Evolutionary psychological explanation of why religious belief seems to be universal among Homo sapiens are still "just-so" stories, very far from being proved.

The book by Lewis Wolpert "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief" (published in England, due in the U.S. in January) looks quite interesting:

"Dr. Wolpert writes about the way people think about cause and effect, citing among other work experiments on how we reason, how we assess risk, and the rules of thumb and biases that guide us when we make decisions. He is looking into what he calls “causal belief” — the idea that events or conditions we experience have a cause, possibly a supernatural cause.

Human reasoning is “beset with logical problems that include overdependence on authority, overemphasis on coincidence, distortion of the evidence, circular reasoning, use of anecdotes, ignorance of science and failures of logic,” he writes. And whatever these traits may say about acceptance of religion, they have a lot to do with public misunderstanding of science.

So, he concludes, “We have to both respect, if we can, the beliefs of others, and accept the responsibility to try and change them if the evidence for them is weak or scientifically improbable.”

This is where the scientific method comes in. If scientists are prepared to state their hypotheses, describe how they tested them, lay out their data, explain how they analyze their data and the conclusions they draw from their analyses — then it should not matter if they pray to Zeus, Jehovah, the Tooth Fairy, or nobody.

Their work will speak for itself."

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