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Science, and antiscience, in action

December 28th, 2007

It’s a familiar story. A striking, though minor, scientific finding, is used to illustrate a well-established scientific theory, and becomes the target of those opposed to the theory, and to science in general, for political or religious reasons. Minor errors in and procedural criticisms of the work supporting the finding are conflated into accusations of fraudulent conspiracy that are then used to attack the theory as a whole. Distorted versions of the whole story circulate around the parallel universe of antiscientific thinktanks, blogs and commentators, rapidly being taken as established fact.

This time, the story looks set to have a happy ending. The case of industrial melanism in the peppered moth was long used as a textbook example of evolution (I remember it from high school). Before the Industrial Revolution, the peppered moth was mostly found in a light gray form with little black speckled spots. The light-bodied moths were able to blend in with the light-colored lichens and tree bark, and the less common black moth was more likely to be eaten by birds. As industrial pollution increased, blackening trees, black forms became more prevalent. With more recent declines in pollution, the process is set to be reversed.

But in the late 90s, it turned out that some of the experimental work used to establish the bird predation hypothesis had been unacceptably sloppy, at least by modern standards. Under ferocious attack from creationists, some textbooks stopped mentioning the peppered moth. Claims of fraud proliferated, and the creationists celebrated a famous victory.

Now for the happy ending (which I found via New Scientist (unfortunately paywalled).

Over the last seven years, Michael Majerus has painstakingly rerun the experiments on bird predation of peppered moths, producing results which he describes as a complete vindication of the peppered moth story, and saying “If the rise and fall of the peppered moth is one of the most visually impacting and easily understood examples of Darwinian evolution in action, it should be taught. It provides after all the proof of evolution.”

Of course, this won’t stop the creationists or their tame journalists and politicians. But as the New Scientist says, this kind of episode shows science at its best, and its enemies at their worst.

Update While I’m at it, a nice piece on skepticism and scientific consensus.

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  1. Anthony
    December 28th, 2007 at 11:01 | #1

    From memory I believe the original peppered moth experiment actually glued moths to trees.

    That said the concept of allele ratios changing due to the environment. I understand that allele ratios in fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) heat shock proteins are being used to measure environmental change.

    So I think that whatever the outcome of the peppered moth saga the idea of natural selection is fairly well backed up.

  2. December 28th, 2007 at 11:30 | #2

    The peppered moth proves natural selection and adaptation but obviously it does not prove speciation which is what most creationists seem to object to and what most of them seem to mean when they talk of evolution being bunk. For proof of speciation we need to turn to a bigger body of work.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution#Speciation

    The biggest problem for creationists however is not in their failure to refute such experiments but rather in their failure to produce verifiable evidence of their own alternate theory. If they were merely agnostic about the origin of species then I think they would not be so far behind the eight ball and might occasionally make a positive contribution.

  3. jquiggin
    December 28th, 2007 at 11:36 | #3

    Anthony, your memory is unsurprising, since this bogus claim was made by creationists. Although moths were pinned to trees for photos and for some procedural tests, the main experiments did not do this. The details are in the Wikipedia article.

    This kind of thing is typical of the antiscientific method.

  4. observa
    December 28th, 2007 at 13:17 | #4

    I sorta get the evolution bit about the moths in the middle, but you’ll need to run the beginning and end bits by me again. You know the beginning bit about the big bang and how all the water appeared for the amoebas to crawl out of and evolve into moths and then the end bit about how different critters evolve, but none are more evolved than others.

  5. mugwump
    December 28th, 2007 at 13:47 | #5

    It [the rise and fall of the peppered moth] provides after all the proof of evolution.

    I’m no creationist, but I have to aver. The rise and fall of the peppered moth proves natural selection, but it does not prove much about the origin of man.

  6. December 28th, 2007 at 14:08 | #6

    I actually think that when the intelligent design people came up with the theory of irreducible complexity (originally with the eye and more recently with other examples) they actually helped to strengthen the evolution argument. The response to the theory of irreducible complexity and the various examples that have been countered in the process has been very compelling and enlightening. Both in terms of how complex nature is and how simple mechanism can lead systematically to complex outcomes. Not to mention how clever people are at deconstructing processes and finding common patterns.

    In so far as the theory of evolution is about a dynamic process that involves decentralised creation (ie no prime mover) I think it has much to offer by way of analogy on how we can best organise our societies. If nature can produce such wonders without a central planning commitee then I can more readily retain my faith in the idea of a free society.

  7. December 28th, 2007 at 14:13 | #7

    Not to mention my faith in wikipedia.

  8. December 28th, 2007 at 14:17 | #8

    terje, i believe in hyenas and lions too, but social organization is why we’re here in front of the screen, and they’re getting rained on in ‘natural’ zoos.

  9. Katz
    December 28th, 2007 at 14:26 | #9

    If nature can produce such wonders without a central planning commitee then I can more readily retain my faith in the idea of a free society.

    Purposive action had nothing to do with changes in the sizes of various types of pepper moth. (Human intervention in the form of pollution was accidental).

    Purposive action had nothing to do with the evolution of homo sapiens from earlier hominid species.

    That’s why this process is called “natural selection”.

    But now purposive action by humans can influence the course of evolution for every species on the planet, including humans.

    We are now in a position where unnatural selection may stand alongside natural selection in the story of evolution.

    Perhaps its time for some committees to step in to decide whether that’s a good idea.

    Interestingly, this is an issue that unites sections of the Left with sections of the Right.

  10. December 28th, 2007 at 14:35 | #10

    Al – I am all for social organisation. I just don’t think it requires or benefits much from imposed central planning. And in fact I think much social organisation is in spite of imposed central planning rather than because of it. Wikipedia is a good example of a decentralised creative approach although clearly it required some innovative centralised enablers (ie good software logic). The political system of a free society should be like that software logic. It should exist primarily in order to allow people to get on with creation in a decentralised way. It should provide the necessary means by which people can collaborate, resolve differences discuss ideas and ultimately go their own way if they desire. Jimbo Wales who helped create wikipedia seems to share something of this worldview:-

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimbo_Wales#Personal_philosophy

    But we digress.

  11. mugwump
    December 28th, 2007 at 14:36 | #11

    Perhaps its time for some committees to step in to decide whether that’s a good idea.

    Katz, your faith in committees is touching.

    In my view “unnatural” selection as you put it is the most exciting thing to happen on planet Earth and possibly in the entire history of the universe (no evidence yet of extra-terrestrial intelligence).

    What could be more intriguing than a physical system that evolves sufficient complexity such that it can change the rules of its own evolution? We’re like a physical embodiment of Godel’s theorem.

  12. zebbidies spring
    December 28th, 2007 at 14:45 | #12

    Observa

    I think UQ does biology undergraduate degrees. Probably easiest if you sign up now and come back with any further questions in 4 years time.

  13. Katz
    December 28th, 2007 at 14:54 | #13

    Why yes, Mugwump.

    It might be possible to remove human memory. Then people would never be troubled about how good things have become since … since when, again?

  14. mugwump
    December 28th, 2007 at 15:20 | #14

    You think “things” are not better than they have ever been?

  15. Katz
    December 28th, 2007 at 15:28 | #15

    I don’t remember saying that.

  16. mugwump
    December 28th, 2007 at 15:37 | #16

    Ahh. Joke.

    But seriously. Things are pretty exciting on the unnatural selection front. I am envious of my own children; they will live to see far greater advances than I.

  17. Ikonoclast
    December 28th, 2007 at 19:06 | #17

    In a strict sense nothing is unnatural to science. The term “nature” encompasses the entire suite of natural laws of the universe. Therefore everything that happens in the universe is natural. It is not possible by definition for anything to be unnatural.

    The term “unnatural” is not only too vague to be of use in science but it is in fact meaningless.

    However, if Shakespeare wants to use the word “unnatural” I am perfectly happy with that.

  18. Katz
    December 28th, 2007 at 20:40 | #18

    Who said anything about opposing “unnatural” to “science”?

    The appropriate opposition is “random” to “purposive”.

  19. SJ
    December 28th, 2007 at 20:58 | #19

    Ah. mugwump would like to see geniuses unfettered by committees design the planet his children will inhabit. Geniuses like Bush and Cheney, one assumes, rather than, like anyone who knows what they’re doing.

  20. mugwump
    December 29th, 2007 at 02:17 | #20

    The appropriate opposition is “random� to “purposive�.

    Molecules in a gas are random. Even an amoeba is purposive.

    Homo Sapiens’ role is more than purposive. We’re able to model our universe and use those models to change it. And pass our knowledge to subsequent generations.

  21. mugwump
    December 29th, 2007 at 02:19 | #21

    Ah. mugwump would like to see geniuses unfettered by committees design the planet his children will inhabit.

    I’ll settle for not handing the reins over to a bunch of religious fanatics (greenies).

  22. observa
    December 29th, 2007 at 04:56 | #22

    “If nature can produce such wonders without a central planning commitee then I can more readily retain my faith in the idea of a free society.”

    You mean a bit of global warming doesn’t suddenly make you lose faith in adaptation and want to come over all creative like?

  23. Katz
    December 29th, 2007 at 08:04 | #23

    An amoeba does not form intentions. Whiie a dog can form some intentions, it has absolutely no understanding of its ancestry, nor does it have any sense of influencing the fate of its offspring, beyond whelping, of course.

    Homo Sapiens’ role is more than purposive. We’re able to model our universe and use those models to change it. And pass our knowledge to subsequent generations.

    You’ll have to explain how what you’ve described here is more than purposive. I think that you’ve created a false dichotomy between purposiveness and what you describe humans as doing.

    I agree with your description of human insight and competence, but I’d simply call the behaviour that arises from them “purposive”.

  24. Sinclair Davidson
    December 29th, 2007 at 17:12 | #24

    Minor errors in and procedural criticisms of the work supporting the finding are conflated into accusations of fraudulent conspiracy that are then used to attack the theory as a whole.

    Sounds like a typical ARC assessors report. :) More seriousy, this happens all the time in referee reports, the media, the blogosphere etc. How does this differ from anything else? The ‘anti-science’ scare on the left must rate with the ‘politically correct’ scare on the right.

  25. Ian Gould
    December 29th, 2007 at 18:30 | #25

    Hmm, an article on evolutionary theory leads Observa to fulminate about global warming; Mugwump to denounce the greens and Terje to spruik libertarianism.

    Why do I get the feeling that a post on the Australia-India test or what John had for dinner last night would get much the same responses?

  26. pablo
    December 29th, 2007 at 20:07 | #26

    Ah glad you asked Ian…seems to me the Indian batsmen succumbed to a bit of MCG determinism, drop-in pitches being what they are designed for, scientifically or otherwise. I’ll leave the issue of John’s dinner…internet privacy has to count for something!

  27. December 30th, 2007 at 00:19 | #27

    It all depends what John actually did have for dinner last night. If he had “freedom fries” or “liberty beans” then I can work with that. ;-)

  28. mugwump
    December 30th, 2007 at 07:04 | #28

    Hmm, an article on evolutionary theory leads Observa to fulminate about global warming; Mugwump to denounce the greens and Terje to spruik libertarianism.

    I was provoked.

  29. mugwump
    December 30th, 2007 at 07:11 | #29

    You’ll have to explain how what you’ve described here is more than purposive.

    I was taking issue with your random/purposive dichotomy.

    Many things are non-random, but do not display the unique homo sapiens qualities of modeling, introspection and knowledge transfer. If by purposive you mean that latter collection of behaviours, then I don’t disagree, but then I’d also claim that random/purposive is not a useful dichotomy (leaves a rather large excluded middle).

  30. December 30th, 2007 at 09:20 | #30

    So, being the product of an expensive, private high school, naturally I’ve never heard of the industrial melanism in the peppered moth. Would it be correct to say that it’s a bit like Daisyworld for moths, or is that too much of a long bow?

  31. December 30th, 2007 at 11:29 | #31

    Here is an amusing review of the positions taken by George W Bush:-

    http://blogcritics.org/archives/2005/10/25/120407.php

    In short he believes in evolution, except when he doesn’t. This seems to be a common problem for US politicians. They want to have their cake and eat it.

    Given that even the vatican accepts evolution it is strange that Christianity in the USA so often continues to demand a literal interpretation of the bible.

    In the Youtube debate presidential candidate Mitt Romney (a Mormon) when asked if every word of the bible was 100% literally true said he believe it to be the case. Ironically not even presidential candidate Huckabee (a former Baptist minister) agreed with that assertion.

    http://www.youtube.com/republicandebate#qa_RF-nMaYq3QE

    Love em or hate em their defininetly a weird lot when it comes to such matters. A good example of why it is dangereous to put too much power in the hands of central governments. ;-)

  32. Katz
    December 30th, 2007 at 14:46 | #32

    Mugwump. It was your dichotomy, not mine.

    I said that the words “random” and “purposive” were in opposition to each other. I didn’t say that they covered all cases. In fact, I used the example of a dog to distinguish beteen an amoeba an a human. A dog is more purposive than an amoeba but less purposive than a human being. However, there are some human beings in a vegetative state who are ot purposive at all.

    Just because events are random doesn’t mean they are chaotic.

    In craps you’re going to throw 7s much more frequently than snakes-eyes.

    But the outcome of every individual throw is a random event by virtue of the fact that you cannot predict accurately what number will turn up.

  33. mugwump
    December 30th, 2007 at 15:14 | #33

    Ok, no argument then.

    Just because events are random doesn’t mean they are chaotic.

    Deep issue. Most random events are the result of chaotic physical processes, ie physical systems that are highly sensitive to their initial (and/or boundary) conditions. Eg, in craps, the outcome of each roll is unpredictable (random) precisely because the outcome of any roll is sensitive to miniscule changes in the initial state of the dice (exactly how they are thrown), and the state of the craps table (the tiniest fleck of dust can affect the outcome).

    But there are non-chaotic random physical processes: quantum mechanical ones. Eg, prepare an electron in a superposition of spin states and fire it through a Stern-Gerlach apparatus. There’s a 50/50 chance of observing spin up or spin down, but you have no way of knowing which and it has nothing to do with chaos: identically prepared electrons in identical apparatus still come out 50/50.

  34. Chris Lloyd
    December 30th, 2007 at 19:01 | #34

    The best proof of man being descended from more primitive animals is goose bumps. Every time you get goose bumps your body is trying to fluff up your fur to create a layer of air that will keep you warm. Fluffing up fur that you no longer have! But your brain still remembers that 2000 generations ago you were a chimp.

    There are dozens of other vestigial features of the human body that defy intelligent design – unless the intelligent designer was deliberately trying to make us look like we were descended from apes. And why the hell would he do that?

  35. December 30th, 2007 at 22:35 | #35

    unless the intelligent designer was deliberately trying to make us look like we were descended from apes. And why the hell would he do that?

    Obviously Chris it is a case of divine entrapment. Clearly you have failed the test of faith. Please give back all Everlasting Gobstoppers and exit the tour. ;-)

  36. John Greenfield
    December 31st, 2007 at 09:51 | #36

    Siclair Davidson

    The ‘anti-science’ scare on the left must rate with the ‘politically correct’ scare on the right.

    The scare I find most scary is the nuttiness into which far too many Leftist sink over religion.

  37. Pedro
    December 31st, 2007 at 12:44 | #37

    I read through all the comments, and then went back to the reference given by Terje at No 2 to do some reading.

    Terje – how does the Wikipedia article ‘prove’ speciation? I followed through several of the links and footnotes and eventually came to this article, titled: “Observed Instances of Speciation”

    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-speciation.html

    I’m not a biologist (I was once trained in undergraduate physics and chemistry, and did quite a bit of work in philosophy) but none of what is said in the Wikipedia article (and even in the linked article above) suggest to me that speciation have been ‘proved’. It seems to me there are fundamental problems with the concept of a ‘species’ (both in terms of its actual, practical definition as well as the difficulty in gathering evidence to falsfying it). This seems to me to show that the evidence in support of speciation as a general explanatory construct is pretty thin. As a concept that can account for obesrved changes in certain ‘life forms’ of a lower order (bacteria, some plants)it looks not unreasonable, but to extrapolate from that to the claim that it is ‘proven’ in terms of higher order species seem to me to be a pretty big stretch. Adaptation, yes. But speciation – I can’t see the direct evidence.

    I’m not suggesting an alternative theory (I’m not a creationist) but I wonder whether you have a response to this. Can you perhaps point me to any further reading that may be of assistance?

    Anyone?

  38. silkworm
    December 31st, 2007 at 14:44 | #38

    If the creationists get upset about the inclusion of the rise and fall of the peppered moth in the science curriculum, then all the more reason to include it.

    I’m not sure I remember being taught about the peppered moth in high school, but I definitely remember reading about it in Mind Alive Encyclopedia, which I bought religiously every week, just like Lisa Simpson.

    It was just the time when I was taught about evolution in high school, about the age of 14, that I gave up my Christian faith. It wasn’t the peppered moth that did it. It was the existence of the dinosaurs that did it. I had an argument with the pastor who had taught me Sunday school for 6 or 7 years about it. He kept insisting that the Bible story of creation was true, not the dinosaur and evolution story. It was impossible to argue the facts with him, so I left.

    I went on to explore other religions, and later joined the environmental movement. However, there was no real religious component to my environmental consciousness. It was based on a scientific worldview. Now in my later years I am an atheist, but I am still an environmentalist. I have met many environmentalists in my time, and I can say that most environmentalists are atheists and see religion as a social negative.

    It is just as ridiculous to say that the Greens are religious as it is to say that atheists are religious. Anyone who says the Greens are religious is just playing a cheap political game.

  39. December 31st, 2007 at 15:17 | #39

    Terje – how does the Wikipedia article ‘prove’ speciation?

    I did not mean to imply that the Wikipedia article proved anything, although I can see that my comment could have created such an impression. I merely included the link to the wikipedia article because I saw it as a good starting point in terms of outlining what speciation is.

    Can you perhaps point me to any further reading that may be of assistance?

    Not readily. However if somebody else comes up with something I would also like to take a look.

  40. December 31st, 2007 at 15:29 | #40

    I went on to explore other religions, and later joined the environmental movement. However, there was no real religious component to my environmental consciousness.

    Yet strangely you seem to imply that one replaced the other. I’m not sure why you feel the need to mention them in the same breath if there is no actual relationship.

  41. December 31st, 2007 at 15:30 | #41

    p.s. How does one “join” the environmental movement. Is there a special place where you sign up? Do you get a badge? Is there a secret handshake?

  42. observa
    December 31st, 2007 at 15:33 | #42

    News flash! Climate change is good for evolving http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,22989973-23109,00.html

  43. The Doctor
    December 31st, 2007 at 20:22 | #43

    Pedro@37;
    Speciation is difficult to define, but the best I’ve heard was from E.O. Wilson (I think?) who said that a species was a population that either could or would only breed with itself. In essence, a population has to be isolated by some means or other(geographic, food specialisation or gender preference – it’s not always the females being choosy!) for a long period of time, and with luck a viable new species will occur.

  44. pablo
    December 31st, 2007 at 20:52 | #44

    Silkworm.
    It would be an interesting poll of ‘committed’ environmentalists to assess their religiosity. I think I would agree with your experience that most regard religion as a ‘social negative’. Not sure they would nominate atheism as their choice however, but if they did it would certainly clear the decks for a no-holds-barred attack on GHW should they ever get the chance. Hawkey where are you when we need you?

  45. mugwump
    January 1st, 2008 at 00:59 | #45

    It was just the time when I was taught about evolution in high school, about the age of 14, that I gave up my Christian faith.

    My mother, being religious, sent me to a Christian private school for the first three years of my schooling. My earliest memory of religion is being punished in grade 1 for innocently remarking to the teacher that many of the bible stories were obviously fabricated (I was stunned to discover that adults actually believed this stuff. I thought everyone knew they were just stories. I mean water into wine? Loaves and fishes? walking on water??).

    Modern environmentalism has replaced religion for Western middle classes. It is not science, but it has the imprimatur of science. Environmentalism is fundamentally a value system that puts nature ahead of humanity, and in that sense it is a religion.

  46. January 1st, 2008 at 08:15 | #46

    Religion without a central deity. Which is why it is consistent with atheism and often disparagingly referred to as paganism.

  47. mugwump
    January 1st, 2008 at 12:39 | #47

    Although the human psychological need for a central deity is still present. Whence Gaia.

  48. Donald Oats
    January 1st, 2008 at 12:47 | #48

    Environmentalism is (in part) the view that protecting the environment is a moral imperative for humankind; implicit in that is the assumption that humans are the principal agents of negative impact upon the environment.
    I don’t see any essential relationship between environmentalism and religion, or for that matter, between atheism and environmentalism.
    A broader definition of environmentalism includes the view that protection of the environment is also a practical concern for humankind; most environmentalists that I have met over the years seem to take this broader view.
    I think that the key phrase in projection of environmentalism as some kind of religion is “protection of the environment”. How this is to be interpreted makes all the difference. For example, we could (tacitly) suffix this with “at all costs” to obtain an extreme view, or with “in a sustainable manner” to obtain a more moderate view, or with “where it doesn’t cost jobs” to obtain a different extreme view. Games of equivocation like this can be too easily played by politicians, journalists, and other heavily invested parties.
    To tie back to the original topic, I think the only workable long-term defence against these sort of games, especially in the case of evolution versus ID, is to equip students with the tools and skills to understand just what it is that scientists do in the practice of science. These tools should include modes of analysis, scientific scepticism, observation and measurement, experiment, (the rather messy) history of discoveries, and an appreciation of forms of rhetorical argument in contradistinction to scientific argument.
    In my opinion, too many people have a functionally incompetent notion of what science is, and unfortunately the representations in many textbooks provide no insight into it either. In the arguments over evolution versus intelligent design, the IDer’s have a large target for rhetorical attack; namely the highly stylised (and historically inaccurate) depictions of Darwin’s original theory of evolution. Reading the original works of Darwin should be a part of biology, tied in with the kind of scientific practice course I envisage. As a general example of a target, many scientific hypotheses start out as a creative idea with limited evidence; the idea’s promise provides some scientists with the impetus to seek out supporting evidence, while other scientists will attack the weak areas of the idea using basic principles of scientific practice – testing the hypothesis against experiment or observations, as well as testing observations and experiments for reproducibility and validity. Eventually the idea stands, falls, or lies dormant until new evidence can discriminate one of these alternatives. This is a messy and drawn out process, quite unlike the idealised one in textbooks.
    Anyone else have thoughts on this?

  49. mugwump
    January 1st, 2008 at 13:26 | #49

    Anyone else have thoughts on this?

    Sure, you’re looking in the wrong place. Science has nothing to say about any of the forms of environmentalism, based as they are upon moral beliefs, not scientific facts.

    For example, you don’t seem to realize how laden with moral assumptions your own views are, eg:

    For example, we could (tacitly) suffix this [protection of the environment] with “at all costs� to obtain an extreme view, or with “in a sustainable manner� to obtain a more moderate view, or with “where it doesn’t cost jobs� to obtain a different extreme view.

    Why is avoiding job losses (or more generally, negative economic impacts) extreme? Where does science support that point of view?

    As far as I can see, humans have radically altered most of the earth’s environment, and will continue to do so. What’s left is mere tinkering around the edges. There is no scientific basis for an environmentalism under which protection of economic growth some cost to the “environment” is considered “extreme”.

  50. John Greenfield
    January 1st, 2008 at 15:51 | #50

    silkworn

    The pagan theo-Gaia-Leftist is mankind’s greatest scourge.

  51. Katz
    January 1st, 2008 at 17:29 | #51

    Those folks bloviating about Gaia ought to expain what they think they are talking about.

    James Lovelock, the propounder of the hypothesis, is now a major proponent of nuclear power. If nothing else, that fact should cause said bloviators to gulp a few times before engaging their keyboards with their prejudices.

    In its primary form, the Gaia Hypothesis states that it is very difficult to upset the equilibrium of the earth’s systems to the point where life becomes impossible on the planet.

    Now, you can agree or disagree with that hypothesis, but I think it should be acknowledged that it is the opposite of what committed environmentalists assert about the earth’s processes: viz., they are being derailed and terminated by human activity.

  52. John Greenfield
    January 1st, 2008 at 20:07 | #52

    Katz

    When it comes to ancient Greek and Near Eastern religion, you’d best shut your pipe-hole and stick to your Luvvie-knitting. My patience with Luvvie ignoramus ponces was exhausted last year. 2008 will be the year of No Prisoners.

  53. Donald Oats
    January 2nd, 2008 at 01:20 | #53

    Actually mugwump [49], I am quite aware of the moral assumptions in the three examples in my post [48]. That was the point. We both agree that environmentalism is about moral values, as I made clear when defining it in my first sentence.
    However, in [45], your last sentence defines it thus:
    “Environmentalism is fundamentally a value system that puts nature ahead of humanity, and in that sense it is a religion.”
    I disagree with you here; while it is a value system, environmentalism makes no moral claim to put nature ahead of humanity; merely that protection of nature is a moral concern. My three examples in [48] are about different assignments of priorities between nature and people, and how all three assignments are within the terms of definition of environmentalism. Only the first example, ie “protection of nature *at all costs”, comes close to your definition, and as I explained in [48], I fail to see any essential relationship between religion and environmentalism as I have defined it (my definition is a common one, eg see Dictionary of Philosophy, Thomas Mautner, 2005).

  54. mugwump
    January 2nd, 2008 at 01:48 | #54

    I disagree with you here; while it is a value system, environmentalism makes no moral claim to put nature ahead of humanity; merely that protection of nature is a moral concern.

    We’re obviously not talking to the same environmentalists. The overwhelming message in the media, in the blogosphere, from the leaders of environmental organizations and green political parties, is one of nature over humanity (nature over nurture?).

    When was the last time you heard Bob Brown talk about the spectacular advances in global welfare made possible by cheap (and CO2-emitting) energy? Or Al Gore discuss the plight of the Chinese and Indian peasants condemned to continued poverty by his proposed massive CO2 cuts? Or the leaders of Greenpeace admit that Japanese eating abundant whale species is no different from Australians consuming cow?

    When every aspect of their public message places nature ahead of human interests, the only logical conclusion is that “Environmentalism is fundamentally a value system that puts nature ahead of humanity, and in that sense it is a religion.�

  55. Katz
    January 2nd, 2008 at 06:29 | #55

    Putting one set of interests ahead of another set of interests is in no way a marker of religiosity.

    Otherwise a person who espouses business interests over employee interests would also have to be called “religious”.

    That’s a nonsensical extension of the concept.

    One may have a value system that inspires one to act with absolute consistency in accordance with that value system without that value system being in the least “religious” in any spiritual sense.

    To be called “religious” in the spiritual sense one would have to be deemed to be inspired to a greater degree than consensually normal by faith in some larger than human intelligence. And probably one would have to believe in the power of that larger than human force to transform the mundane.

    If Bob Brown and Al Gore are going to stand as representative of the supposed religious impulse of enviromentalists, a moment’s intelligent reflection on their careers and their utterances will demonstrate that they exhibit none of the tendencies I discussed.

    In short, both of Brown and Gore appeal explicitly and exclusively to human effort. There is no extra-human intelligence to be found in any of their utterances, beyond at least the conventional religiosity of the Mid-South in the case of Gore.

    In relation to their discussion of the relationship between nature and humanity, it isn’t “nature over humanity”, it is “nature for humanity”. Clearly they believe that the natural parameters for human life are narrower than those espoused by Mugwump.

    So the question devolves down to what are the natural parameters for human life. Narrower or wider?

    And who is to say that Mugwump’s answer to that question is any less “religious” than Gore’s or Brown’s?

  56. January 2nd, 2008 at 09:09 | #56

    Or the leaders of Greenpeace admit that Japanese eating abundant whale species is no different from Australians consuming cow?

    Actually the following from Tim Flannery on this topic pleasantly surprised me:-

    “In terms of sustainability, you can’t be sure that the Japanese whaling is entirely unsustainable,” Professor Flannery told The Daily Telegraph. “It’s hard to imagine that the whaling would lead to a new decline in population.”

    http://www.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/story/0,22049,22987914-5001021,00.html

  57. mugwump
    January 2nd, 2008 at 10:21 | #57

    To be called “religious� in the spiritual sense one would have to be deemed to be inspired to a greater degree than consensually normal by faith in some larger than human intelligence.

    No, by religion I mean taking things on faith rather than applying rational enquiry.

    So the question devolves down to what are the natural parameters for human life. Narrower or wider?

    And who is to say that Mugwump’s answer to that question is any less “religious� than Gore’s or Brown’s?

    I ask only that you approach the question rationally. Neither Gore not Brown do. Had environmentalism existed 200 years ago, they would no doubt have foretold of the disaster awaiting a humanity that continued to industrialize and expand agricultural land use. Yet, here we are and the sky has not fallen.

    In fact things are far far better than they could possibly have been with people like Gore and Brown in control.

  58. mugwump
    January 2nd, 2008 at 10:23 | #58

    “In terms of sustainability, you can’t be sure that the Japanese whaling is entirely unsustainable,�

    He’d make a good politician. Obviously he thinks whaling is entirely sustainable, but he has to couch it in weasel words to appease his evangelical base.

  59. Katz
    January 2nd, 2008 at 10:41 | #59

    Had environmentalism existed 200 years ago, they would no doubt have foretold of the disaster awaiting a humanity that continued to industrialize and expand agricultural land use. Yet, here we are and the sky has not fallen.

    But we both agree that environmentalism didn’t exist 200 years ago.

    Perhaps therefore it can be argued that environmetalism exists today not because of a change in spiritual attitude of folks but because of a change in material conditions.

    You are basing your conclusions on faith that the conditions that pertained 20 years ago aren’t materially different from those that pertain today.

    To turn this from a statement of faith into a statement of fact you need to produce evidence that such is the case, or at least you need to produce evidence that all arguments to the contrary are not the case.

    For example, it is unarguable that there have been mass extinctions of economially important species during the last 200 years. It is up to you to explain how these extinctions bear no relation at all to the survivability of a growing human population on earth.

    Presumably, also, you would agree that there is a maximum number of humans that the earth can sustain. If you do, then you agree that there is an upper limit to growth.

  60. January 2nd, 2008 at 10:49 | #60

    Actually that phrase seems to suggest a repudiation of the pre-cautionary principle but I doubt that this was his intent. Anyway good for Tim taking on the sacred cow of whaling. The irony is that the international whaling body that restricts whaling was originally set up to protect the industry.

    Have you seen the news that the Rudd surveilance of Japanese whaling will be covert? In other words it might be happening or it might not be happening.

  61. silkworm
    January 2nd, 2008 at 11:54 | #61

    Environmentalism is not a faith. Neither is anti-environmentalism. However, anti-environmentalism is often an ideological stand taken by conservative Christians who hide their own faith. Conservative Christians see environmentalists as a threat to both their conservatism and their Christianity.

    The fact that Christian conservatives will hide their faith was made apparent in the Dover School ID vs evolution court case in the States. Judge Jones said that not only were the attacks on evolution religiously motivated, but that the proponents of ID were lying when they said their attacks weren’t religiously motivated.

    So it is with attacks on environmentalists and environmentalism. These attacks are religiously motivated, and the charge that environmentalism is a religion is simply a projection of the attacker’s own faith.

    Now watch the attackers lie about their faith.

  62. January 2nd, 2008 at 12:19 | #62

    Whilst I don’t think concern for the environment is without merit I do spend a fair bit of time digging around at the foundations and laughing at some of the more silly aspects of environmentalism. For example who can’t find amusement in the “The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement”?

    http://www.vhemt.org/

    So it is with attacks on environmentalists and environmentalism. These attacks are religiously motivated, and the charge that environmentalism is a religion is simply a projection of the attacker’s own faith.

    Poppy cock. Some are and many are not. I’m not sure if my views on environmentalism consitutute an attack however I’m an athiest (in the proper sense of the word) so if I am on the offensive it is not because of some desire to uphold Christianity or some other proxy for theism. Unless of course I’m a liar who seeks to uphold God and the Bible by deceptively denying their veracity. You’re playing a silly game in reflexively impuning that everyone who fails to become an environmentalist and denies religious inclinations must therefore be a liar.

  63. January 2nd, 2008 at 12:31 | #63

    Penn & Teller are long term commited athiests (and libertarians besides) but it doesn’t stop them have fun at the expense of enviromentalism. This one is amusing:-

    http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=yi3erdgVVTw
    :-)

  64. silkworm
    January 2nd, 2008 at 12:40 | #64

    Almost all attacks on evolution come from creationists, but attacks on environmentalists come from two quarters, who operate in a strange alliance – conservative Christians and libertarians, who adopt an ideology that borders on religious. Perhaps the epitome of the Christian conservative libertarian fusion can be found in Lyndon Larouche. Perhaps the epitome of the atheist libertarian anti-environmentalism is Ayn Rand. In both cases, these anti-environmentalists play into the hands of the big corporations.

  65. Donald Oats
    January 2nd, 2008 at 13:05 | #65

    silkworm [61] and Katz [55] have homed in on what I was trying to get at in the first part of my post [48]; that narrowing the definition of environmentalism to a restricted subset, and then using that restriction to characterise the original definition of environmentalism as religious, is a classical rhetorical method. Having in effect redefined environmentalism to be a religion (as mugwump does in [45],[49], etc), the debater is now free to attack any environmentalist as religious, and by tacit extension, as someone incapable of rational argument. But such techniques shed no light on the merits or otherwise of the topic under debate.

    My original purpose in [48] was simply to highlight this sort of rhetorical trick as a very effective one that is hard to guard against, because it plays upon our individual assumptions – hence my discussion in [48] on why students should be taught to recognise these techniques and how they differ from scientific discourse. Intelligent Design versus evolution is a modern example of how murky the waters may become. Anthropogenic global warming is another example, GM yet another.

    Thanks all.

  66. January 2nd, 2008 at 13:30 | #66

    Having in effect redefined environmentalism to be a religion (as mugwump does in [45],[49], etc), the debater is now free to attack any environmentalist as religious, and by tacit extension, as someone incapable of rational argument. But such techniques shed no light on the merits or otherwise of the topic under debate.

    Yes but this technique is also used to get people to crawl out from beneath the cloak of enviromentalism and moral certitude and to address the merits of the topic under debate.

  67. January 2nd, 2008 at 13:35 | #67

    So, what have we learned from this thread?

    You can’t be religious and believe in environmentalism. (Wrong.)

    You can’t be an environmentalist without being dogmatic and unreasonable. (Wrong.)

    Whaling is ‘okay’ just because Pope Flannery the first says it is. (Wrong.)

    And I thought the silly season was over. ;)

  68. mugwump
    January 2nd, 2008 at 15:36 | #68

    For example, it is unarguable that there have been mass extinctions of economially important species during the last 200 years. It is up to you to explain how these extinctions bear no relation at all to the survivability of a growing human population on earth.

    “No relation” is too strong. There may be some relation, although judging by the population growth over the last 200 years, probably very little. Obviously, avoiding extinction of important species is a morally good thing. But modern environmentalism has gone way beyond that. Eg, in my old home town of Adelaide, any tree greater than 2 meters in circumference, native or otherwise, is now sacred: up to a $30,000 fine for chopping one down.

    Presumably, also, you would agree that there is a maximum number of humans that the earth can sustain. If you do, then you agree that there is an upper limit to growth.

    An upper limit to the growth of the human population, yes. But an upper limit to all growth? No. I don’t see technology ever stopping. There may come a point when understanding leading-edge science and technology exceeds the capabilities of our own wetware but long before then we’ll have worked out how to enhance our own intellectual capacities with silicon or biological addons.

    As for human population, I have no idea what the upper limit is. 50 billion? 100 billion? It depends a lot on technology. When we have fusion power, and can manipulate biology as we please, then the limit is likely to be essentially infinite.

  69. Katz
    January 2nd, 2008 at 15:52 | #69

    But as soon as you establish an upper limit to the number of humans living on earth you become an environmentalist.

    Even if we use our hypothesised biological capabilities to miniaturise ourselves, thus allowing for more humans per cubic metre, there still comes a moment when further miniaturisation is impossible.

    The final question, therefore, is always an environmental question.

    So look at how far we have come in 200 years Mugwump. 200 years ago environmentalism was a concept impossible to grasp, and today you have recognised that it is impossible not to be an environmentalist.

    No need to thank me. I just like to make a difference.

  70. silkworm
    January 2nd, 2008 at 16:47 | #70

    At Black Sun Journal, “[c]omments bearing the tu quoque fallacy will be deleted. (In other words, stating that atheism and religion are both equally bad, two sides of the same coin, both guilty of us/them thinking, atheism is a ‘belief system,’ etc.). If that’s what you think, this site is not for you. We assert that religion is a coercive phenomenon involving scripture, group psychology, and social control. Atheism has no scripture or foundational text, and supports individual inquiry and freedom of thought, tempered by empirical observation and reason.”

  71. January 2nd, 2008 at 19:56 | #71

    I had to look up Tu Quoque. The following seems to explain it:-

    http://www.fallacyfiles.org/tuquoque.html

  72. mugwump
    January 2nd, 2008 at 23:57 | #72

    Katz, when we get close to human population limits I’ll start worrying about it. Today’s environmentalists claim we’re already well past the point.

    When every tree is sacred you know the world has gone mad. After all, trees do grow on trees.

    Atheism has no scripture or foundational text, and supports individual inquiry and freedom of thought, tempered by empirical observation and reason.

    Which makes me curious as to the correlation between atheism and libertarianism. Both reject central authority.

  73. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 06:22 | #73

    But the important point Mugwump is that you have acknowledged that you are an environmentalist.

    Do you feel religious?

    If not, then there is no necessary relationship between environmentalism and religiosity.

    QED.

  74. mugwump
    January 3rd, 2008 at 07:30 | #74

    Katz, acknowledging there is an upper limit to the number of humans living on Earth no more makes me an environmentalist than acknowledging an infinite number of angels can’t dance on the head of a pin.

  75. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 09:22 | #75

    You’re in denial Mugwump.

    Is your reference to angels further evidence of your religiosity?

    For the record, I don’t believe in angels, or in the tooth fairy. I do believe that there is a limit to the carrying capacity ofthe earth.

    The central thesis of environmentalism is that there are limits to growth.

    The central thesis of liberal, pre-environmentalist thinking is to be found in John Locke who posited the notion that there is no limit to nature, that there will always be a frontier beyond which there will always be wilderness. According to this view the world is boundless.

    Locke’s idea was so incredibly pervasive that it became a truism. Not any longer.

    Surely you don’t seriously assert that the world is boundless.

    Therefore, you aren’t a Lockean.

    Therefore you are an environmentalist.

    (There is no excluded middle here.)

    QED. Again.

  76. January 3rd, 2008 at 09:47 | #76

    Which makes me curious as to the correlation between atheism and libertarianism. Both reject central authority.

    The Christians would argue that Jesus had some issues with central authority also.

  77. January 3rd, 2008 at 10:12 | #77

    The central thesis of environmentalism is that there are limits to growth.

    You should not automatically conflate economic growth with impact on carrying capacity. The earth no doubt has a limited carrying capacity but not all economic growth demands more of the land and environment.

    If Peter Garrett was to release a new song and it became wildly successful and it was sold online for download to iPods then the marginal impact on the environment would be next to zero but the contribution to economic output wouldn’t be. Likewise if I decided to drive a Porche Boxter instead of a Holden Commodore the extra physical materials required for the creation of the Porche is probably less than for the Commodore but it’s production and sale would register as a higher amount of economic output. Likewise a $100 dollar haircut registers as more economic output than a $10 haircut but the marginal increase in terms of carrying capacity requirement is negligible.

    If we increase crop yields using GM or some other technique then we need less land for cropping. And in crude land area terms if everybody on the planet moved to Queensland the area of land per person would be 50% higher than it is today in Hong Kong.

    Economic growth need not mean a correlated increase in demands on the environment.

  78. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 10:28 | #78

    You should not automatically conflate economic growth with impact on carrying capacity. The earth no doubt has a limited carrying capacity but not all economic growth demands more of the land and environment.

    Here you are confusing the absolute size of economic production with the way in which that economic production is calculated by monetary means.

    Of course, Peter Garrett can record a song and sell it, making himself rich and increasing GNP, but only by as much the next best opportunity for production. He might have written a book of poetry instead and sold very few of them.

    In the second case, the consumers would have bought something else.

    Further, what if every person on earth recorded a song. Even if they were all equally excellent, there would be very little change in consumption patterns because consumers use only dicretionary income to buy recorded music. The rest of their income they use to keep themselves alive.

    As limits to the carrying power of the earth are approached it takes a higher proportion of total income simply to live. Discretionary income shrinks, as does Peter Garrett’s market for his songs.

    I’m not suggesting that we have reached that point yet. However, the growing shortage of oil and the absence of viable alternatives for many, though not all, uses of oil is an example of how discretionary income is being squeezed by this environmental limitation upon growth.

  79. mugwump
    January 3rd, 2008 at 11:44 | #79

    Katz, your false dichotomies are getting tedious. At first I thought you were just taking the piss, but apparently not. For the record, a belief in finite population limits is not the same as modern environmentalism. Nor is one either a Lockean or an environmentalist.

  80. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 11:58 | #80

    For the record, a belief in finite population limits is not the same as modern environmentalism. Nor is one either a Lockean or an environmentalist.

    1. Stop putting words in my mouth. I never said that belief in finite population limits is the same as modern environmentalism. I said that environmentalism is predicated on that observation. I hope you can see the difference.

    2. Likewise I never said that you can either be a Lockean or an environmentalist. You can be many other things, including a providentialist, wherein you believe that God will come along and save us all by changing the rules of the environmental game. What I ded say is that if you are a secular liberal who does not believe in the efficacy of interventions from beyond our world, you must either be a Lockean or an environmentalist.

    If you want to argue with straw men, then feel free. However, don’t give them my name.

  81. mugwump
    January 3rd, 2008 at 13:03 | #81

    I no longer have any idea what you are talking about.

    Katz[69]:

    But as soon as you establish an upper limit to the number of humans living on earth you become an environmentalist.

    ie, “belief in population limits” implies “environmentalist”. Poppycock.

    Katz[80]:

    I never said that you can either be a Lockean or an environmentalist.

    Katz[75]:

    Surely you don’t seriously assert that the world is boundless.

    Therefore, you aren’t a Lockean.

    Therefore you are an environmentalist.

    (There is no excluded middle here.)

    Let’s make a truth table.

    A = “Lockean”.

    B = “environmentalist”.

    You say ~A implies B. Which means (by contrapositive law – no excluded middle remember?) ~B implies A. So we have (this may not format well):

    A | B | Allowed
    ——————
    T | T | Y
    T | F | Y
    F | T | Y
    F | F | N

    Which is the truth table for the boolean function A or B.

    So, you did say one is either a Lockean or an environmentalist. (one sometimes suffixes this with “or both” but the logical “or” has the possibility being both built in. If both is not allowed then you’re talking about exclusive-or (parity)).

  82. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 13:35 | #82

    Wrong again Mugwuamp.

    I said if one were a secular liberal one would have to be a Lockean or an environmentalist.

    And as you have already stipulated, you are a secular liberal. You see, I pay you the compliment of reading your posts and carrying information forward.

    If you hadn’t already stipulated this, I’d have been forced to argue against providentialism. Fortunately, you save me the trouble. (Or so I thought.)

    (All of that table-typing for nothing. Tsk. tsk.)

  83. mugwump
    January 3rd, 2008 at 14:54 | #83

    Since you’re now spinning in very small circles, I don’t really care what you think you said. But for the record, when you first discussed Locke at [75] (the post to which I responded), you did not predicate your dichotomy on me being a secular liberal.

    However, even had you done so, your contention that “[a secular liberal] would have to be a Lockean or an environmentalist” is still poppycock.

  84. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 15:03 | #84

    How so Mugwump?

  85. mugwump
    January 3rd, 2008 at 15:20 | #85

    It only works if you define anyone who believes there are human population limits to be an environmentalist.

  86. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 15:29 | #86

    Well yes.

    What is an environmentalist? Someone who asserts that the environment is not endlessly bountiful — that it has limits to its carrying capacity, and that it can be damaged, perhaps irreversibly, although not necessarily.

    What other limits are there to capacity to carry any species, including human?

  87. mugwump
    January 4th, 2008 at 00:22 | #87

    Google it. You are in the minority with that overly broad definition.

  88. Katz
    January 4th, 2008 at 06:25 | #88

    If you have an objection to my definition, instead of waving vaguely in the direction of the internet, either make specific criticisms or provide a better alternative definition, or better still, both.

    My argument is with you, not the internet.

  89. mugwump
    January 4th, 2008 at 12:17 | #89

    Suit yourself. Keep your definition. While you’re at it, define black to be white and get yourself run over on some pedestrian crossing.

  90. Katz
    January 5th, 2008 at 08:10 | #90

    Mugwump bails.

Comments are closed.