Friday, February 23, 2007

For First Time, Chimps Seen Making Weapons for Hunting

SOURCE: The Washington Post

AUTHOR: Rick Weiss, Washington Post Staff Writer

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

Friday, February 23, 2007: Chimpanzees living in the West African savannah have been observed fashioning deadly spears from sticks and using the tools to hunt small mammals — the first routine production of deadly weapons ever observed in animals other than humans. The multistep spearmaking practice, documented by researchers in Senegal who spent years gaining the chimpanzees' trust, adds credence to the idea that human forebears fashioned similar tools millions of years ago. The landmark observation also supports the long-debated proposition that females — the main makers and users of spears among the Senegalese chimps — tend to be the innovators and creative problem solvers in primate culture.

Using their hands and teeth, the chimpanzees were repeatedly seen tearing the side branches off long, straight sticks, peeling back the bark and sharpening one end. Then, grasping the weapons in a "power grip," they jabbed them into tree-branch hollows where bushbabies — small, monkeylike mammals — sleep during the day. In one case, after repeated stabs, a chimpanzee removed the injured or dead animal and ate it, the researchers reported in yesterday's online issue of the journal Current Biology.

"It was really alarming how forceful it was," said lead researcher Jill D. Pruetz of Iowa State University, adding that it reminded her of the murderous shower scene in the Alfred Hitchcock movie "Psycho." "It was kind of scary."

The new observations are "stunning," said Craig Stanford, a primatologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California. "Really fashioning a weapon to get food — I'd say that's a first for any nonhuman animal."

Scientists have documented tool use among chimpanzees for decades, but the tools have been simple and used to extract food rather than to kill it. Some chimpanzees slide thin sticks or leaf blades into termite mounds, for example, to fish for the crawling morsels. Others crumple leaves and use them as sponges to sop drinking water from tree hollows.

But while a few chimpanzees have been observed throwing rocks — perhaps with the goal of knocking prey unconscious, but perhaps simply as an expression of excitement — and a few others have been known to swing simple clubs, only people have been known to craft tools expressly to hunt prey.

Pruetz and Paco Bertolani of the University of Cambridge made the observations near Kedougou in southeastern Senegal. Unlike other chimpanzee sites currently under study, which are forested, this site is mostly open savannah. That environment is very much like the one in which early humans evolved and is different enough from other sites to expect differences in chimpanzee behaviors.

Pruetz recalled the first time she saw a member of the 35-member troop trimming leaves and side branches off a branch it had broken off a tree.

"I just knew right away that she was making a tool," Pruetz said, adding that she suspected — with some horror — what it was for. But in that instance she was unable to follow the chimpanzee to see what she did with it. Eventually the researchers documented 22 instances of spearmaking and use, two-thirds of them involving females.

In a typical sequence, the animal first discovered a deep tree hollow suitable for bush babies, which are nocturnal and weigh about half a pound. Then the chimp would break off a branch — on average about two feet long, but up to twice that length — trim it, sharpen it with its teeth, and poke it repeatedly into the hollow at a rate of about one or two jabs per second. After every few jabs, the chimpanzee would sniff or lick the branch's tip, as though testing to see if it had caught anything.

In only one of the 22 observations did a chimp get a bush baby. But that is reasonably efficient, Pruetz said, compared with standard chimpanzee hunting, which involves chasing a monkey or other prey, grabbing it by the tail and slamming its head against the ground.

In the successful bush-baby case, the chimpanzee, after using its sharpened stick, jumped on the hollow branch in the tree until it broke, exposing the limp bush baby, which the chimp then extracted. Whether the animal was dead or alive at that point was unclear, but it did not move or make any sound.

Chimpanzees are believed to offer a window on early human behavior, and many researchers have hoped that the animals — humans' closest genetic cousins — might reveal something about the earliest use of wooden tools. Many suspect that the use of wooden tools far predates the use of stone tools — remnants of which have been found dating from 2.5 million years ago. But because wood does not preserve well, the most ancient wooden spears ever found are only about 400,000 years old, leaving open the question of when such tools first came into use. The discovery that some chimps today make wooden weapons supports the idea that early humans did too — perhaps as much as 5 million years ago — Stanford said.

Adrienne Zihlman, an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said the work supports other evidence that female chimps are more likely than males to use tools, are more proficient at it and are crucial to passing that cultural knowledge to others.

"Females are the teachers," Zihlman said, noting that juvenile chimps in Senegal were repeatedly seen watching their mothers make and hunt with spears.

Females "are efficient and innovative, they are problem solvers, they are curious," Zihlman said. And that makes sense, she added.

"They are pregnant or lactating or carrying a kid for most of their life," she said. "And they're supposed to be running around in the trees chasing prey?"

Frans B.M. de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, said aggressive tool use is only the latest "uniquely human" behavior to be found to be less than unique.

"Such claims are getting old," he said. "With the present pace of discovery, they last a few decades at most."


Yet another supposedly significant difference between humans and non-human animals falls by the wayside. It would be really interesting to know when this behavior first began, and where (and by whom). Based on what we already know about chimp learning behavior, it is very likely that a young female first tried this technique, possibly modeling it on the already well-developed technique of using a twig stripped of its branches to "fish" for termites in termite mounds. Also, it is likely that the technique has spread via imitation, rather than by directed learning. Chimps (like many other primates) are very good at imitative learning, but apparently do not actually "teach" each other how to do things...but maybe this will also be observed at some point in the future.

Furthermore, it is clear that the female chimps fashioning these spears are doing so intentionally: they perform a specific, learned behavior with the intent to use it to extract food (i.e. bushbabies) from locations that would otherwise be inaccessible. A clear case of "design" in a non-human animal, and clearly learned/based on experience (i.e. not innate/hard-wired). Anyone who argues that "design" or "intentionality" does not exist in nature is either deliberately self-deceived or stupid.

Does this mean that "design" is an intrinsic property of nature, however? Not at all; rather, it shows that "design" (i.e. intentional behavior) can be an emergent property of a particular class of natural entities. We know that we are capable of intentional behavior, and now we have solid evidence that chimps are as well. However, none of this is evidence for the kind of "intrinsic design" that "intelligent design theorists" propose as an explanation for the origin of complex adaptations. Rather, it is evidence for the kind of "emergent design" that Ernst Mayr explained as fully compatible with evolutionary theory more than thirty years ago.


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Saturday, February 17, 2007

More on Steve Fuller and "Social Epistemology"

SOURCE: Cornell IDEA Club

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

The debate begun in my previous post continues...

A poster to the Cornell IDEA Club listserve wrote:

"Fuller '... deserves to have his ideas discussed instead of lambasted.'"

Okay, here's something to discuss (a direct quote from Fuller):

"In this respect, 'our' side pulled its punches in the Science Wars when it refused to come out and say that the scientific establishment may not be the final word on what science is, let alone what it ought to be." [emphasis mine]

In that one sentence alone is encapsulated nearly everything that most practicing scientists find so deeply objectionable about Steve Fuller and his ilk. Let's take it apart:

"'our' side"

What precisely does Fuller mean by this? "Our side" in what way? "Our side" in the evolution/ID debate? The natural science/social science debate? The science/sociology debate? The "culture wars" that Phillip Johnson says ID is part of? What does it mean to say you're on a "side"?

When I debate with other scientists about scientific subjects, those debates can be pretty heated, but generally we're all on the same "side": the "side" of empirical verification/falsification of explanations of natural phenomena. In other words, we're all on the "science side," the side that does what it does based on the premise that such explanations should be grounded in observation of nature and the investigation of natural causes for natural phenomena.

I don't think that's what Fuller means by "our side." Sociologists in general, and "social epistemologists" in particular have as a basic starting assumption that all explanations of all phenomena (natural or otherwise) are ultimately socially constructed.

Now, I have no problem with that idea per se, as I believe as well that such explanations are indeed socially constructed. What I and other scientists have a problem with is the seemingly inevitable logical extension of that idea which most sociologists (and I would put Fuller in this camp) seem prone to: that nature itself is therefore "socially constructed." That's what "social epistemology" means, isn't it? That what we know about reality (i.e. epistemology) is socially constructed, and that therefore we can't actually know anything about nature at all outside of our social construction of it.

But this is precisely what science was and is supposed to be about: the discovery and understanding of what nature is, independent of our opinions and "social constructions." That's why statistical analysis was developed, to remove as much as possible our subjective/socially constrained interpretation of what our observations mean vis-a-vis our explanations about how nature works. That's why we have "double-blind" experimental protocols, and why we argue so vehemently over the validity of data and what it means for theories: because, in the end, all scientists agree that this is the best we can do at understanding how nature works.

But Fuller and his cohorts do not agree; they think that real scientific objectivity (and hence the entire scientific enterprise) is impossible, and that since all scientific explanations are "socially constructed," it all comes down to "sides" and "debates" and, most of all, WINNING. It call comes down to politics, in other words.

"Science Wars"

Here it is in a nutshell. Wars between whom, precisely? Between scientists, who believe that they really are able to say something about the nature of nature, and non-scientists, who believe that it's all really about political power and "hegemony" and "patriarchy" and winning. What happens when you fight a "war", including a "culture war"? Somebody WINS.

"the scientific establishment"

More tired 1970s radical political rhetoric, all dressed up in "scienciness" (like "truthiness" only more "scientific") to impress the gullible and gratify the "politically correct". Yes, I'd be the first to admit that there are "science establishments" - I live and work in one of them. But that's not what Fuller is talking about here. He's talking about the capital E Establishment: the "bad guys" on the other "side", the scientists who believe that they are describing physical reality, when what they are really doing is "oppressing" the poor and downtrodden of the world, the victims of "patriarchy" and "political hegemony" and their advocates, the "social epistemologists", who tell them that there is no objective reality outside of social discourse, and debates are all about WINNING and not about refining our understanding about how nature works.

His mention of the Sokal affair is also telling in this respect. The Sokal affair decisively exposed the intellectual bankruptcy at the heart of sociology and "social epistemology" - the belief that everything is socially constructed. Not just our understanding of reality, but reality itself.

"the final word on what science is"

Hmm, well, what does this tell us about Fuller et al? Who should have the "final word" about anything? The people doing it, or the people criticizing it? Who is the real subject - the monster or the critics (as Tolkein so eloquently put it)? True, scientists sometimes don't completely understand why they do things the way they do (i.e. some of them follow instructions, like an apprentice emulates a master), but this does not mean that scientists don't really understand why we do what we do and need somebody like Fuller to tell us.

Why not? Because social "scientists" like Fuller (and like ID "theorists") don't do natural science. They "interpret" or "criticize" or "analyze" what natural scientists do, but they don't do what natural scientists do. If they did, Alan Sokal's trick would not have worked, but instead it sucked them all in, so deep that some of them still don't realize how completely their intellectual bankruptcy was exposed by the "Sokal affair."

"let alone what it ought to be"

And there it is, right there in plain English. The people who DO science are probably the last people who should have anything to say about how science ought to be practised, right? Because, of course, we're all "blinded by science" and don't understand that it isn't about objective analysis of nature, it's about "social construction of reality" which ultimately is about politics (from the Greek polis, for "people"), which is about WINNING.

So, yes, I find it fascinating that ID advocates, the vast majority of whom are deeply committed Christians, can find common cause with Fuller and other "social epistemologists." Christian belief, as I understand it, is ultimately based on unshakable faith in the truth of the Word: the logos of the gospel of John. But, to somebody like Fuller, the Word is just another form of "social discourse", just part of a political struggle of which the ultimate point is WINNING. Why does Phillip Johnson call what he's doing part of a "culture war?" Why does William Dembski and Robert Crowther and Stephen Meyer and Jonathan Witt and Benjamin Wiker (but, significantly, not Michael Behe nor Gullielmo Gonzales, both natural scientists) agree with Johnson? Because that's what they're doing, they're fighting a war, and as I said in my last post, wars aren't about truth, they're about WINNING. Truth be damned, so long as your side WINS. "Lying for Jesus" is justified, and no amount of distortion of experimental results or character assassination or egregiously twisted and vicious propaganda is too much, so long as your side WINS.

Isn't the quotation from Fuller that stands at the top of this post an indication that he sees what he and other "social epistemologists" do is ultimately all about winning? Seems like it to me...


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Thursday, February 15, 2007

On the "Darwin Fetish" and Other Political Oxymorons

SOURCE: Cornell IDEA Club

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

The IDEA Club at Cornell has recently been discussing the following quote by Steve Fuller, a sociologist and one of the "experts" who testified in support of "intelligent design" at the Dover trial in Pennsylvania last year:

"If you want to stop use of the word 'Darwinist' to capture modern evolutionary theory, then you should encourage people like Dawkins, Jones, Wilson, Watson, Ridley and (were he alive) Gould to stop talking about 'Origin of Species' etc. as if they were books of some secular Bible. This kind of thing doesn't happen in physics. The world-view implications of physics can be discussed, while giving due respect to Newton, Einstein, etc., without trying to find bits of their texts that anticipate or legitimise what the author wants to say today . From a sociological standpoint, the Darwin fetish is very weird, and doesn't seem to be related to any claims that creationists or ID people are making. Marx and Freud are the only figures who have been treated this way in recent memory – and you've seen what's happened to them…"

Here's my take on all of this:

It sounds to me like Fuller is objecting to the idea that biologists, especially evolutionary biologists, cite Darwin as a published authority when writing (and talking and teaching) about their own work. However, this is exactly what you're supposed to do in science: back up your assertions with citations whenever your assertions are not completely original. Fuller, who is not a natural scientist but rather a sociologist, doesn't seem to understand this basic fact. Indeed, he seems to think that citation is somehow illegitimate in science, even that it may indicate some kind of slavish adherence to dogma, rather than simply an attempt to ground one's own work in previous work on the same subject.

If I were to cite W. D. Hamilton on the subject of kin selection, for example, does that mean that I have some kind of "Hamilton fetish?" What if everyone who works on kin selection does the same thing; does this mean that we're "deifying Hamilton?" No, the whole idea is absurd; citation is both an accepted and indeed required part of standard science writing, teaching, and speaking.

It goes deeper than this, of course. The reason that Fuller was chosen as one of the "experts" in defense of "intelligent design" at the trial in Dover, PA was because Fuller (like many sociologists today) is a "post-modernist." This means that, like post-modernism's founders such as Foucault and Derrida, Fuller believes and promotes the idea that "all knowledge is reducible to 'discourse'" in which politics is the ultimate force, and political victory over one's intellectual opponents is the ultimate goal. Fuller and others like him argue that there is no such thing as "objective knowledge" at all, only competing ideologies. According to this view, science is just another way for the "dominant white patriarchal class to extend its hegemony" by forcing others to believe in its politically motivated view of reality, and that all intellectual debates are really just part of the ongoing class struggle for political power.

It surprises me, therefore, that "intelligent design" supporters would cite Fuller and promote his ideas, which are of course ultimately based on Marxist (and therefore atheist) theories. Politics indeed makes for strange bedfellows, and to see Christian supporters of ID cite Fuller and others like him as authorities and supporters of their world view strikes me as laughable and ultimately self-defeating.

Yet at the same time, it doesn't surprise me, because that's what "intelligent design theory" started out as and has remained: not science, not the legitimate search for knowledge derived from empirical analysis of nature, but rather politics, pure and simple. This is why IDers don't publish in scientific journals, but rather push their agenda in the media, the courts, and in elections. ID isn't science, it's politics, conducted by press release and lawsuit, and its goal isn't the expansion of knowledge or understanding, it's winning by whatever means possible: distortion, misrepresentation, mischaracterization, even character assassination and outright lying are sanctioned, so long as they promote the ultimate goal: the victory of ID (and therefore the forces of "good," i.e. Christianity) over evolution (and therefore the forces of "evil," i.e. evangelical atheism).

How else to explain such masterpieces of political propaganda as Phillip Johnson's The Wedge of Truth or Benjamin Wiker's Moral Darwinism? The former was written by the acknowledged founder of "intelligent design theory," and the latter was published with a foreword by William Dembski in which he lavishly praises Wiker for getting down to the real issues in the evolution/intelligent design debate. IOW, it's not about knowledge, it's all about winning folks, and cultural warfare (Johnson's term) is just politics by other means. And in cultural warfare as in war in general, the first casualty is the truth...


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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Kansas: Anti-Evolution Guidelines Repealed

ARTICLE: Kansas: Anti-Evolution Guidelines Repealed

SOURCE: Associated Press

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

First, the news item, followed by a few brief comments:

ASSOCIATED PRESS (Published: February 14, 2007): The State Board of Education repealed science guidelines questioning evolution, putting into effect new ones that reflect mainstream scientific views. The move was a political defeat for advocates of “intelligent design” who had helped write the standards being repealed. The intelligent design concept holds that life is so complex that it must have been created by a higher power. The board removed language suggesting that basic evolutionary concepts were controversial and being challenged by new research. It also approved a new definition of science, limiting it to the search for natural explanations of what is observed in the universe. The state has had five sets of science standards in eight years, each affected by the seesawing fortunes of socially conservative Republicans and a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans.

This was inevitable, given the outcome of last year's state board of education elections, but it's still nice to know that the newly elected board of education candidates followed through on their campaign promises. An interesting sidelight to this story comes from an email I received late last week. The email came from Rob Crowther of the Discovery Institute, home church of the "intelligent design movement" (yes, I'm on their mailing list; it's always good to know what the other side is doing). In the email, Crowther railed against the new Kansas science standards, but the interesting thing is that he railed specifically against the removal of an item about the abuse of science (the rise and fall of eugenics in the 20th century and the Tuskegee syphilis study were the main examples). The email encouraged me to send an email to the board of education protesting the new standards because they included this change. Interestingly, there was no mention at all in the email of the fact that almost all of the proposed changes are to the parts of the old standards dealing with evolution and "intelligent design." appears that deliberate prevarication is part and parcel of the Discovery Institute's modus operandi. Crowther is a master propagandist, and his work in this case would have made Goebbels proud...


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