Vanity thought #957. Cosmos E2

Yesterday I said that Cosmos is currently the hottest story in the religion vs atheism battle but that is not correct, it has been overtaken by release of Biblical flood movie Noah and creationists’ reaction to it. Apparently it doesn’t correctly reflect the flood as Young Earth Creationists imagine it. I don’t think I’m going to watch it or go into the details of the feud, so I’ll continue with Cosmos instead.

Second episode of the show was about evolution. It’s a big and important topic, of course, but it is also very predictable. Scientists would invariably explain evolutionary tree and mutations that lead to improvements and eventually to creation of new species. Creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design would, in turn, point out holes in the evolution theory and insist that natural selection can’t possibly explain certain developments. As observers we will never know the truth because facts are very complicated, we have a convergence of genetics, biology, chemistry, physics and paleontology here. DNA analysis is not for feeble minded either, so we are left to judge who presents the most compelling story from the layman’s POV, which is not the same as being closest to the truth.

As devotees we accept the evolution in a sense that not all species were created simultaneously, we are closer to Intelligent Design here, yet we also know that there’s no intelligence behind the evolution, it’s just dead matter being agitated by the modes of nature and time. There are living entities who enjoy watching this particular show of creation, notably Lord Brahmā, but he doesn’t have intelligence of his own, he just follows the sound of Kṛṣṇa’s flute that penetrates universe’ coverings and makes the matter in his brain resonate in response to this vibration.

So, even before I sat down to watch this episode of Cosmos I knew I was going to be bored and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m not going to strictly follow the familiar format even if it’s unavoidable, I’d rather try to address it from a different direction.

The episode started with demonstration of how wolves were domesticated into dogs, men’s loyal friends. The way it was presented it made perfect sense and looked very reasonable. Wild wolves approached men’s camps being attracted by the tasty smell of their unwashed bodies and also their barbecue. Men at first scared wolves away with their torches but then they realized that all they really want is some bones, not an actual confrontation. Gradually the relationship developed, some wolves got to even live with humans. Humans had their own preferences in wolves and so they bred some of them to be cute, some of them to be ferocious guard dogs, some to help with hunting and so on. In the space of ten thousand years they have bred hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of dogs – this is evolution through artificial selection.

What can we say about it? As I said, it makes perfect sense, if there actually were hunter gatherers men evolving into modern day humans. Maybe they were like apes of Rāmāyana, like Vali and Hunumān. Maybe they were like indigenous tribes of Vrindāvana. We might very well be their descendants, too, but spiritually we’ve been enlisted to follow āryans who don’t breed dogs or eat that much meat.

Creationists would challenge the evolutionary interpretation of it and their argument is just as strong – yes, we’ve been breeding dogs and we got hundreds of different breeds, but all we got is more dogs. We never got a cat or chicken or any other animal through this breeding. What we see with dogs is not evolution of new species but variation within one species. No new genetic information has been added in the process and creationists also argue that there’s no mechanism for adding new genetic information at all, mutations only tweak existing data, not create any new genes.

This sounds reasonable to me but what do I know about genetics? To be honest, I don’t know much about interspecies breeding, maybe it’s possible, they do cross donkeys with horses, for example. I’d need to investigate this closer to form an informed opinion but I’m not sure I want to go into the details at all.

What we can do instead is point out errors and fallacies in Cosmos presentation itself rather than rely on outside opinions. At the end of the dog segment Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the presenter, asked rhetorically – if we can create so many kinds of dogs in ten thousand years through artificial selection, imagine what the nature could do in millions of years of natural selection? Umm, okay, I’m trying to imagine and I am not coming up with anything.

Natural selection must work much much slower, like hundreds and thousands time slower. Our breeding conditions are unnatural, we provide all kinds of care and protection that is not available in the wild, we provide medicine, we provide food, we can make animals survive through all kinds of harmful mutations that would have killed them instantly if left on their own. When we breed domesticated animals there’s no question of survival of the fittest, it’s not a consideration for our goals at all. Think of chicken farms or force feeding geese for their liver – we can completely defy nature and get whatever we want. Why would natural selection be any more efficient?

What kind of question is that? It begs us to agree with the presenter without actually thinking of an answer, which might very well be opposite to what NDT had hoped.

And then there’s the question of creating new species – we still breed only dogs, remember, they still can’t fly or breath under water. Just because we can make them predictably big or small and in certain colors doesn’t mean nature can make them into something else. It could, theoretically, but we’ve never seen it or tested it and so this proposal in unscientific and is more like wishful thinking that result of rational analysis.

Another interesting part of the show was presentation on the evolution of the eye. Once again, attacking shows’ own deficiencies is more interesting than actual science. NDT specifically mentioned eye as an argument against evolution, this segment was specifically meant as an answer to the creationists, yet it’s in this specific aspect that it failed miserably.

When creationists say that there’s not plausible evolutionary explanation to the eye they don’t mean there’s no explanation at all, which is what NDT apparently assumed. He naively thought that all he needed to do to answer creationists’ questions is to build a simple chain of changes that could gradually make light sensitive cells evolve into eyes and so he did just that.

What creationists say is that there’s no PLAUSIBLE explanation, NDT’s simplistic chain is precisely what they object to, so instead of answering their questions he simply repeated the questionable argument. It’s such a cheap trick but it’s also very effective for people who are not familiar with the issue. They would come away thinking that NDT finally answered the eye problem while people who actually asked the questions would be incensed by such blatant manipulation.

The eye problem is much bigger than creating a possible chain of mutations. There’s a huge variety of eyes in the world, eleven different kinds of photo-censors, for example, and there’s no progression from simple life forms to more complex ones as we can observe with other organs such as brains or hearts. Some of the most primitive, oldest animals have/had more sophisticated eyes than animals that evolved millions and millions years later. There’s simply no observable progression in eye evolution and what is observable does not fit into evolution through natural selection.

In this regard someone mentioned that Cosmos’s presentation of genetics is outdated. Epigenetics, the branch of biology that deals with gene inheritance, has seriously modified earlier, simplistic understanding of how genes work. Mutations are not the driving force and survival of the fittest is not exactly what is happening in the nature. Genes and their mutations are not there to create new traits but are rather like memory banks, they can be recalled and switched on in response to external situation and then switched off if there’s no need for them anymore.

This doesn’t mean that epigenetics prove that there’s no evolution but it rather shows that text book view like the one presented on the Cosmos is NOT how it works in real life, so NDT is cheating us of real knowledge again.

I don’t know, the Bruno story I discussed yesterday pretty much discredited the show and its presenter for me already. If they can twist historical facts with such ease, why talk about science and scientific method at all? They are just charlatans. Today’s rhetorical question about dogs and shameless avoidance of answering questions about eye evolution further sealed my opinion. I don’t know if I want to watch the latest, third episode at all, I probably will but I don’t expect it to be any better.

Well, all it shows is that there’s no plausible alternative to our Vedic knowledge. Science and scientists simply don’t cut it.

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