Posts Tagged ‘Science’

2012 Worfolk Lecture

Sunday, August 19th, 2012 | Foundation

Back in 2010, we created the annual Worfolk Lecture for public understanding of science. If you have missed any, or all of them, you can find them on the Worfolk Lectures website. This year’s talk, delivered by Leeds Skeptics, saw Paul Hopwood present “You Know Less Than You Think“.


Happy Copernicus Day

Sunday, February 19th, 2012 | Distractions

Why do all these days come at once?

Happy Galileo Day

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012 | Distractions

Happy Galileo Day!

More neuroscience for the soul

Sunday, December 18th, 2011 | Humanism

For the last talk of 2011, the Atheist Society had shameless plundered my Leeds Skeptics speaker (who I had plundered from Bradford Atheists) to present his talk “Neuroscience for the Soul” which he presented at Skeptics last month.

Intelligence of Genetics

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011 | Events, Science

Recently, I visited Headingley Cafe Scientifique for the first time for a talk entitled “Intelligence of Genetics.”

I had never attended the Headingley Cafe before but it seems very well attended. It was standing room only by the time the event kicked off and there were plenty of seating available – so they probably had 50+ people there.

The venue was the New Headingley Club which looked very fancy on the website but turned out to be significantly less fancy in the flesh. I got plenty of change from my round at the bar though, so will approve of that!

The event itself was somewhat disappointing. I came away from the talk not really feeling that I had learnt anything – other than that we have a one in three chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease and this massively varies depending on our genetics. There were lots of stats, but a lot of these weren’t really in much context – am I supposed to be impressed by that number? I don’t know what an average sample size for your area of science.

Still, it was good to finally make it down to the Headingley Cafe.

Humans are amazing animals. But animals none the less.

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011 | Science, Thoughts

A long time ago, and by that I mean several years ago now, I started an essay on whether humans had stopped evolving. I never quite finished it and due to its length, every time I sat down to finish it, I needed to re-read what I had written so far and then thought better of it.

Well, that has been dragging on for far too long now, since 2008 in fact, so I’ve patched it up with the few final notes I had left myself and decided to publish as is.

I’m sure if I sat down and wrote something from scratch today, it would be better. But never the less, I have some confidence in what I wrote back then, so here it is in its full glory.

Humans are amazing animals. But animals none the less.

One issue which has come up quite a lot recently is the idea that humans have evolved beyond the idea of being an animal into something higher.

Many people make this claim without meaning to or without really considering its implications. I am not talking about the people that claim that animals are merely automatons while humans alone can think intelligently. These people are wide spread, obviously within the religious community but also within the non-religious community to an extent as well but any such argument, at least from an atheist perspective, is clearly rubbish.

However what I am getting at here is people who make claims such as “humans have now evolved to control their own evolution”, “humans are no longer subject to the laws of evolution” and “humans are no longer subject to the wrath of mother nature.”

These claims may seem apparent [to be true] with some thought on the subject but when examined deeper actually come up along the same line of thinking as believing that humans are the only creatures which can think and are self-aware, it grants us a special place in creation which is a perfectly acceptable view within religious communities but one which does not fit with the atheist world view. This would be accepted by all but I suspect the people that make the sample arguments I have supplied would disagree this is the claim they are making.

However, when examined it does in fact come down to this point of view. So it is important I think that I address the points made on this line of thinking to explain why I do not believe this to be the case. Humans are still animals, we are still subject to the laws of evolution and we still play within the framework that all life does.

I believe one of the problems which lead to this line of reasoning is that we assume the same metrics used to measure what we would consider a successful person within society are equally good metrics for measuring how successful someone is in terms of evolution. In this case it is a far more simple equation – who is likely to survive and breed the most.

Take for example, the chav. In today’s society they are considered the bottom of the pile. They are uneducated, unmannered, annoying and often regarded as a group we would be better off without. It therefore seems perplexing to many people that chavs are breeding faster that well mannered well educated individuals because this suggests they are the next stage of human evolution.

The mistake here is, as stated above, that we use the same metrics to measure value in society as to value from an evolutionary perspective. Considering the problem from an evolutionary perspective, the chav is indeed the next stage of human evolution. Why? Because they are better at surviving and breeding than the smart highly educated yet less sexually promiscuous individuals (probably such as you and me if I am so bold as to make a judgment about my readership). A lot of people would at first laugh when it would be suggested chavs were the next stage of evolution but why should it not be true? How self righteous is it to presume that you must be the next stage in evolution?

As it happens in this case chavs probably aren’t the next stage of evolution. The reason for this is that there are questions raised as to how an entire society of chavs would fair and I shall return to this later but for the moment I would like to move on as this is somewhat of a side track, it does not illustrate my argument in the best way but more stands alone as an important point.

Returning to my original argument, humans are in fact in no special way in control of their evolution or protected from mother nature. Every year millions of people around the world perish in natural disasters. Of course many do not because of the efforts of mankind but this is no different than to the animal race. They too are fighting for survival and they too have a degree of success with this. Our degree of success is generally regarded as higher – but it is all on the same scale.

For example humans build themselves tools and shelter to protect against the wrath of mother nature. We have flood barriers, shelters from hurricanes, etc. But of course animals build themselves shelter too. Take a look at the humble ant, building mightly ant hills to protect themselves. These are not always successful, just as man’s efforts are often unsuccessful when mother nature claims lives in floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Both are “artificial structures” created by animals to live and shelter in.

Secondly I believe the idea that humans are now in control of their own evolutionary path is equally flawed. One of the prevailing arguments for this is that people within our society who would not survive in the animal world now survive in our society such as people born with severe disabilities.

However much like the uneducated chavs, severely disabled people rely on the infrastructure created by society in order to support them. It is a fantastic feat of human advancement and kindness that we are now able to keep alive and care for the severely disabled. But they no more form the next step in human evolution than they ever did. A society consisting purely of severely disabled people would be unable to survive effectively. Similarly a society solely consisting of uneducated chavs would be without the medical, engineering and logistical knowledge required to make modern society function effectively. Therefore the idea that human evolution will not continue along the natural path is simply unsubstantiated. Society is not about to devolve into chavs or people unable to look after themselves – the bulk of the population will remain fit, able and evolutionarily advancing individuals.

Further along this line of thought, it is worth noting that society’s apparent lack of potential to evolve further is also false. Take for example a change in the climate. Let us say it becomes colder, there is a global drop in temperature. Many people would claim this shows that human evolution has stopped because while animals (a term taken to mean non-human animals of course) would evolve thicker fur or a similar evolutionary trait, humans would simply manufacturer themselves thicker coats.

This at first glance seems to make sense but on closer examination does not in fact stand up as an argument. The main reason for this is that evolution covers the adaptation of a species – it does not state how this adaptation has to occur. Therefore, humans manufacturing themselves thicker coats to survive the cold is the human race adapting to better survive in it’s environment. It is not a case of us “breaking” evolution, it is a case of evolution happening right in front of our eyes.

This is often disregarded as it is seen as something external to us ourselves as evolving but when some thought is put into such arguments it does not seem to hold much water. Furthermore this is likely to be less true in the future as the “artificial” or “external” advancements we make become far less external as we begin to alter our own genetics and breeding ourselves fitter, healthier and better able to survive.

As we’ve already established, you have to accept humans as just part of nature, and once you do, it’s very difficult so say, “oh, that isn’t part of nature” when we do something. Animals make nests to live in and sometimes use basic tools – how is that any different to the more advanced tools we use?

Evolution seems to be continuing on humans unabated. Take, for example, height. We’re definitely getting taller as a species. If you compare the average height of someone a thousand years ago, they were shorter than we are today – and that is entirely natural if you will.

Mutations also occur at just the same rate as they ever have. Just because we’re moving faster with our own technology and improvements to life, doesn’t mean that the classic methods of evolution have stopped – mutations occur at just the same rate as they ever have. The reason it seems to be happening could perhaps be to do with the fact that it’s a very slow process and as humans we’re used to things advancing increasingly quickly.

Our basic desires also still drive us. Deep down we all still want to find a mate and have babies. It’s wired into us and the majority of people over the age of fifty will be happy to tell you that at a certain point, you just get the urge to procreate. We might be master of many things as a species, but we haven’t wiped out our basic emotions yet (and probably never will, unless people start seeing Vulcan as the ultimate utopia).

Therefore to summarise, my points are as follows. Most of us will agree on the premise that humans are animals and have no divine special place in the universe, we’re just doing pretty well. Once we agree on this there is no reason to believe that we are not subject to the laws of evolution, that we have somehow stopped evolving or that we now control mother nature.

Worfolk Lecture 2011: From Rutherford to the LHC

Friday, October 28th, 2011 | Events, Foundation

Last month, we announced the Worfolk Lecture 2011, as the second annual event since we established an annual public understanding of science lecture last year.

This year’s talk was delivered by Dr David Jenkins and was entitled “From Rutherford to the LHC”, looking at the last one hundred years of atomic research.

Worfolk Lecture 2011 announced

Monday, October 3rd, 2011 | Foundation, News

We’re pleased to announce the 2011 Worfolk Lecture.

Last year we announced the creation of a fund to support an annual public understanding of science lecture. The first of which took place in November with Dr Terrence Kee presenting a talk on “did life on Earth originate on Earth?” If you missed it, you can watch again in high definition on the Worfolk Lectures website.

This year’s talk will be presented by Professor David Jenkins on “From Rutherford to the Large Hadron Collider.” the event takes place on Tuesday 18 October, starting at 7pm. There will be a £2 on the door charge and all revenue will go to the host society – this year’s event will be hosted by Leeds Atheist Society and more information can be found on their website.

You can register online for the event here.

HSoWY talks Creationism

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011 | Events, Humanism

At last Thursday’s Humanist Society of West Yorkshire meeting, Brian Layfield and Mark Edon presented a talk on Creationism.

Brian is a long time member of HSoWY but also father of Steven Layfield, a well known creationist who is now head of Science at Emmanuel College. Mark is secretary of the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE for short) and has previously spoken at both Skeptics and A-Soc.


Sunday, March 20th, 2011 | Humanism

For the Friday of Reason Week, Mark Edon presented his talk on Creationism. Mark is a committee member with the British Centre for Science Education which is a group that campaigns against creationism in the UK – and you can tell they do excellent work because the creationists have put up an “exposed” site about them.

Mark spoke recently on the same topic at Leeds Skeptics and his colleague Professor Paul Braterman is also speaking at the Enquiry 2011 Conference.