To confer, converse, and otherwise hobnob

Tomorrow I fly out to Minneapolis for Evolution 2008, the joint annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the Society of Systematic Biologists. I’m going to be presenting an ancestral trait reconstruction that traces the origins of the yucca-yucca moth interaction. Should be a blast!

In which I’m still not excommunicated

So The Mennonite has published my letter about their painfully naive review of the anti-evolution movie Expelled. The version that made print has been pretty heavily edited (a whole paragraph on Darwin’s view of eugenics is gone), but the residue is more focused, and they retained my recommendation of Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, which I’d consider the most important point.

Not only has this not got me expelled (hah!) from Mennonite Church USA, it’s actually not the only Expelled-critical response they got. Arden Slotter wrote in to point out that Intelligent Design is an untestable hypothesis:

If a scientist states that his work in science leads him to conclude that there is no Intelligent Designer involved in the creation and operation of the universe, that conclusion is not scientifically based because no scientific test could show it to be false. If scientists who are Christian state that we are confident that God is the Intelligent Designer who created the universe as best we know in a way consistent with the explanations of biology, geology, astronomy and cosmology, then that is a statement of faith, not a scientific conclusion.

Well, put, Arden. It’s always good to know you’re not alone.

A more evolved faith?

New York Times Magazine has a brief on Michael Dowd, a UCC pastor who has decided that Christians should not just accept the fact of evolution – they should embrace it. Based on the article, and a quick perusal of the website for Dowd’s upcoming book Thank God for Evolution, Dowd’s gospel seems center on the idea that we can better come to terms with our sinful nature if we understand its evolutionary origins. It also has more than a hint of Teillardian influences:

When I speak of evolutionary emergence I’m referring to the fact that ‘the Universe’ (Nature/Time/Reality/God) has consistently, though not without setbacks, produced larger and wider scales of cooperation and complexity over time. [emphasis Dowd’s]

It’s inaccurate, at best, to say that biological evolution has some sort of grand purpose behind it – there may be trends that are visible in retrospect, but these are the emergent result of undirected processes, not evidence of a divine plan. It feels a bit churlish to make that kind of objection, though. Even liberal Christians don’t usually know what to do with evolution, beyond accepting it as fact. No other modern thinker, as far as I know, is actively grappling with the ways in which evolutionary thought might actually inform Christian theology. (The closest I know of is Michael Ruse’s Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, which is excellent, but resolutely agnostic.) If Dowd’s ideas are less than perfect, they do make a good starting point. And Christianity could use a good starting point for thinking about evolution. I might have to track down a copy of Dowd’s book.

Burmese tragedy is the bitter fruit of Iraq invasion

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright makes the case that the international community’s inability to deal with the Burmese junta’s blockade of international aid for victims of Cyclone Nargis is a direct result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Not for the obvious reason that we just didn’t have the manpower to go in there and force aid through, but because the Iraq invasion has made international intervention diplomatically impossible:

The global conscience is not asleep, but after the turbulence of recent years, it is profoundly confused. Some governments will oppose any exceptions to the principle of sovereignty because they fear criticism of their own policies. Others will defend the sanctity of sovereignty unless and until they again have confidence in the judgment of those proposing exceptions.

In other words, it may be years – or decades – before the international community can rebuild the mutual trust and sense of purpose necessary to override the prerogatives of national sovereignty when governments turn against their own people. How many innocent people will die at the hands of twenty-first century tyrants because the Bush Administration got an itchy trigger finger?

Science 2.0 revisited

Back in March, Science ran a Perspectives piece in which computer scientist Ben Shneiderman suggested that the wealth of new data on human interactions provided by the Internet (Facebook, customer records, &c.) would require a new approach to science, which he called “Science 2.0” [subscription]:

… the Science 2.0 challenges cannot be studied adequately in laboratory conditions because controlled experiments do not capture the rich context of Web 2.0 collaboration, where the interaction among variables undermines the validity of reductionist methods (7). Moreover, in Science 2.0 the mix of people and technology means that data must be collected in real settings … Amazon and Netflix became commercial successes in part because of their frequent evaluations of incremental changes to their Web site design as they monitored user activity and purchases.

Science 2.0 sounded, to me, a lot like what ecologists and evolutionary biologists often do – hypothesis testing based on observations, manipulations of whole natural systems in the field, and the clever use of “natural experiments” sensu Diamond [subscription]. I said as much in a post shortly after Shneiderman’s article ran, and also wrote a brief letter to Science.

And now it turns out they’ve published it! My letter, along with a response from Shneiderman, is in the 6 June issue [subscription]. You can read it in PDF format here. In very short form, I say:

… what Shneiderman calls Science 1.0 has always included methods beyond simple controlled experiments, such as inference from observation of integrated natural systems and the careful use of “natural experiments” (1) to test and eliminate competing hypotheses.

Shneiderman’s response concedes the point on natural experiments, but says he was actually talking about manipulative experiments conducted on large online social networks:

Amazon and NetFlix designers conduct many studies to improve their user interfaces by making changes in a fraction of accounts to measure how user behaviors change. Their goal is to improve business practices, but similar interventional studies on a massive scale could develop better understanding of human collaboration in the designed (as opposed to natural) world …

That still sounds to me like ecological experimentation, but with people’s Facebook accounts instead of (to pick an organism at random) yucca moths. Maybe I’m just not getting it, but I don’t see anything in Shneiderman’s description that qualifies as a new kind of science.

Shneiderman B. 2008. Science 2.0. Science 319:1349-50.

Diamond J. 2001. Dammed experiments! Science 294:1847-8.

Yoder, JB, and B Shneiderman. 2008. Science 2.0: Not So New? Science 320:1290-1.