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evolution

An outcry from the scientifically righteous swept the media when Luc Besson’s latest action flick “Lucy” turned out to hinge on the old “myth” that humans use only 10% of their brain capacity. Another dumb Hollywood product that gives a damn about getting the facts right, and another disservice to public education in science. That’s what many critics must have thought, and some stepped in to set things right online. But, as we’ll see, it’s not so clear who is doing more of a disservice to the public, Hollywood or its detractors. Read More

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Science writer Michael Brooks lists “five discoveries taking science by surprise“.1 Number 5 is that “human beings are not special”. Think culture sets you apart from the beasts? Chimps, crows, and dolphins have it, too. Personality and morality? Elephants, rats and spiders are there with you. The ability to feel? Nah, even cockroaches do it.

But maybe things cultural and mental are too soft to build such momentous distinctions on? Well, maybe, but there’s no consolation in that. Brooks knows  that “even the hard facts are letting us down”: we’re sharing over 99% of our genes with other species. The genetic difference is almost non-existing. Read More

Today we understand evolution mainly as a fact about nature, but its historical root is that of an explanation of a much older fact: that the living world consists of different types of organisms. Where did theses species, as they were called, come from? In pre-Darwinian times, God was seen as having created them to be eternal, immutable entities arranged in a linear hierarchy. The Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet wrote in 1779

Nul changement ; nulle altération ; identité parfaite. Victorieuses des élémens , des temps & du sépulchre, les especes se conservent…

No change; no alteration; perfect identity. Victorious over the elements, time and death, the species are conserved… (p. 231f., my translation)

With Darwin, species became fluid. They changed continually and transformed into each other in a process called evolution. Both evolution and the mechanism by which it was proposed to occur, natural selection, were debatable concepts. Both were, in fact, debated, the latter much longer than the former. But the existence of species as distinct phenotypic categories would not seem to be up for debate, for it was the very thing these two ideas were meant to explain. To change it would be to change the subject. And yet, later history revised the definition of evolution in such a way as to remove the target of explanation after the explanations themselves were already in place. Read More