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Bad Science, Worse Philosophy: the Quackery and Logic-Chopping of David Foster's The Philosophical Scientists (2000)


4. Why Foster Needs to Take a Basic Biology Course

Richard Carrier


Now, I have already surveyed a hodge-podge of strange notions that threw me for a loop when I read them. But Foster's mistakes extend beyond mere trifles of analysis. He also revealed a disturbing degree of scientific illiteracy for one who was supposedly not only educated in science, but who served an entire lifetime as a science advisor. The first field where some ignorance was shown was biology, and below are those errors that I, an educated layman, could detect. What other mistakes a professional biologist might discover I cannot begin to guess. But I am not entirely a lay observer: I have professional experience in sonar physics, an extensive education in the basic sciences, and my professional field is the history of science, with an M.A. and M.Phil. in ancient history.

Much of this scientific ignorance is not relevant to his overall argument. Nevertheless, such mistakes still put his overall competence in question. For example, on page 166 he states that human memories "involve no energy to maintain themselves" or, as he repeats, they do not require "energy for their maintenance." A high school student could correct him. Neurons need a steady supply of energy to maintain themselves, or else they die, and then the information they stored is permanently lost. And Foster quotes a certain Jacquetta Hawkes on page 49, taking special care to retain his last words, "the cells of my brain are at every moment dying in pale hosts." No half-educated biologist would quote this without a qualifying comment: neurons do not so casually die. After decades of living, and with the influence of free radicals and chemicals such as alcohol, neurons do die. But they do not die 'at every moment in pale hosts.' If they did, you would be suffering from severe mental problems, not to mention massive memory loss. Unlike most other cells in the human body, brain neurons are not constantly replaced. They stick around almost our whole lives.

But most of Foster's greatest biological errors are indeed relevant to his argument. On pages 42-43 he tells us with a straight face that there is no adequate explanation for what causes accidental mutations in DNA. Yet the only two explanations he mentions are cosmic rays, which are, he claims, "far too weak" in nature to cause mutations, and some ill-defined concept "of thermal origin" that is "very rare." By that I can only assume he means the operation of free radicals and natural oxidants which break down DNA over time. But he is making three mistakes here.

First, the existence of skin cancers proves that mere UV radiation is sufficient to cause genetic mutations by the millions on a daily basis, and although organisms as complex as humans maintain their gametes in well-protected locations, the gametes of the earliest and simplest life on Earth would almost certainly be vulnerable to UV radiation, especially since the ozone layer did not originally exist when life began. Recent work by Stanley Miller suggests the ocean provided the needed protection before the ozone layer developed, but even then as much as 1% of damaging UV radiation would have struck evolving life there (cf. Science News, July 11, 1998, p. 31), and we know that even at its strongest the ozone's protection has never been complete. Moreover, besides UV, any physicist would be astonished at the notion that we are not all bombarded daily by cosmic rays capable of causing mutations (indeed, people and organisms living in caves or brick or stone buildings are regularly bombarded by radiation from natural terrestrial radon). Why Foster thinks he can simply 'deny' a basic fact of astrophysics and geology is beyond me.

His second mistake is in assuming that 'very rare' mutations are insufficient to drive natural selection. I will address this seriously mistaken view at a later point. His third mistake is in leaving out the single most common cause of genetic mutation: natural errors in replication. I can still recall learning about this in my high school biology class. We were taught that errors could occur through inversion, translocation, and transposition, as well as the abnormal splitting and combination of chromosomes. Even through ordinary sexual genetic mixing, by normally combining coding with non-coding genes, and by accidentally activating once unused alleles, mutation can occur through what is called 'genetic drift.' He also fails to mention the fact that there are actual genes called 'mutators' whose entire function is to cause mutations in replication. It is clear, then, that Foster has not even done the most rudimentary homework on this topic. By this example alone I believe that his credibility as even a lay expert on biology is entirely undermined. He seems to know even less about the subject than an attentive high school student.

On page 80 Foster introduces a crucial linchpin in his argument: the specificity of hemoglobin. He asserts that "only one" of the possible permutations outlined can be the hemoglobin molecule. But that is not at all true. There are numerous hemoglobin molecules, and they vary by species. As just one example, mammals and many birds have a special cysteine amino acid not present in earlier forms of hemoglobin, which acts as a vasodilator (cf. Science News, Mar 23, 1996, p. 180). Likewise, it is well-known that a common hemoglobin mutation which causes sickle cell anemia also confers a natural defense against malaria, and consequently this hemoglobin form is more common in populations subject to malaria epidemics. How many other mutations, detrimental and beneficial, might there be that Foster has taken no trouble to account for?

Foster also draws conclusions too readily. On page 130 he claims that sexual reproduction "enormously increas[es] the magnitude of specificity, based on the unique nature of individuality." But the opposite is the case: due to the fact that sexual recombination allows an endless increase in the variety of possible individuals, the specificity of sexually reproduced animals actually drops in comparison with asexual organisms. Although they do not lose their high specificity at the level of genetic alleles until there is a relevant mutation, the specificity of codons no longer needs to be as precise as it does in asexual reproduction. And this is proven by the very same observation that Foster uses to draw the exact opposite conclusion: the massive variety of variation among individuals within the same sexual species, a variation much diminished in any asexual species. I cannot account for how or why Foster would not notice that if you can have such a variety, there must be a lower level of genetic specificity, not a higher one.

Last but not least, Foster makes one of the oldest and most common mistakes made by amateurs in evolution science: he assumes that man, and most of all man's mind, is the final and highest product of evolution. On page 152 he describes evolution as "that process which increases the effective size within which a creature can act or communicate or understand," i.e. it increases intelligence. But he fails to recognize the simple fact that an affordable increase in intelligence is always advantageous to survival and so will always be selected when it is not too expensive. Since intelligence requires a very heavy, delicate, and energy-expensive thing called a brain, its advantages must first outweigh these obvious disadvantages, if the mutation is to be an overall success in the environment. And in those few cases where a rise in intelligence was accomplished with a minimum of set-backs, we should not be surprised to see that it led to a leverage upward, and this will naturally repeat again and again, given adequate time. Certainly, it may not always lead to human-level intelligence, but that it has done so should also not be surprising.

But to conclude from such a thing that this is what evolution does is badly mistaken. The ant is a far more successful organism than man, and it is in my opinion, as far as walking creatures go, the real pinnacle of evolution. For what evolution really does is produce an increase in survival capability, or more correctly, 'differential reproductive success.' In those simple terms, the ant beats mankind, hands down. Man is a bulky, inefficient quirk by comparison with the ant. Thus, whereas Foster naively sees evolution as "the cultivation of intelligence," any real biologist will tell you that it is very obviously not that, but rather 'the cultivation of differential reproductive success,' and wherever the 'cultivation of intelligence' reduces that reproductive success, intelligence will lose. Intelligence only wins, it is only 'cultivated,' when it actually increases reproductive success. That makes the reality of evolution clear: intelligence is a possible byproduct, but it is not the direction in which evolution is going. The existence and persistence of the stupidest creature on earth proves the point: for the virus is indeed the pinnacle of evolution, when all creatures are compared. The virus is the most rapidly evolving organism on Earth, it is the most robust, the most pervasive, and the most invincible. And above all, any given species of virus that is alive today is far younger than the genome of mankind, and therefore it is the only true end-product in the history of evolution.

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