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February 19, 2014

What We Know (About Science, At Least)

We've been discussing attitudes towards science vs. religion, so when we ran across this quiz about general scientific knowledge, we had to take it:

There's room for improvement in the United States when it comes to science literacy.

The average American scores 6.5 correct answers in response to these 9 questions covering basic physical and biological science, according to the results of the 2012 General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center.

Much to our surprise, we got a perfect score. That almost never happens, by the way. That's even more surprising considering the Editorial Staff never took physics or chemistry in high school or college. The bar seems to be set awfully low here.

Posted by Cassandra at February 19, 2014 06:03 AM

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Comments

This is the sort of quiz in which I would do very badly. "Does the Earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the Earth?" Both, given an adequately long time frame.

"The center of the Earth is very hot. True or False?" Relative to what?

Posted by: Grim at February 19, 2014 12:16 PM

Well, if you're Algore, several million degrees is pretty hot relative to almost anything.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 19, 2014 12:40 PM

Question 9 is questionable, at the very least. For Creationists, the answer is a very defiant false. For those of an interogative and "chain-yanking" mind like Grim, one would ask, "Define *animal*".
I can see where the atom/electron question would throw those who don't stop to think about it. I still can't believe the percentage of people who didn't know that the earth revolves around the sun. (Grim's position notwithstanding, of course) I'm surprised the test didn't ask whether or not the planet was flat. Maybe it would have if the test's creators had known about the previous question's stupidity.
Anyway, missed one.
#9. Go fig.
0>;~}

Posted by: DL Sly at February 19, 2014 02:12 PM

those of an interogative and "chain-yanking" mind like Grim, one would ask, "Define *animal*".

That's exactly what I thought when I read that question. :)

Posted by: Grim at February 19, 2014 05:34 PM

Question 9 is the only one I hesitated over. But since I was being asked about "science" - as in, "What is the scientific teaching vs. the religious teaching", (and since I happen to believe in evolution anyway!) the answer was pretty clear to me.

Posted by: Cass at February 19, 2014 05:35 PM

Not a very challenging quiz, and I'm perturbed by the results.
BTW Sly, the recent evolution of our species happened pretty fast, which diminishes the evidence available. BTW, recent advances in forensic DNA research do clearly show that modern humans of non-African people contain genes from Neanderthals.

Posted by: CAPT Mike at February 19, 2014 05:36 PM

Biologically speaking humans *are* animals.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 19, 2014 06:17 PM

Biologically speaking humans *are* animals.

Some more than others :p

Seriously, when I read the question I thought first of the famous graphic of the evolution of mankind from primordial ooze to homo sapiens.

And then I thought, "Wait a minute - we're mammals - animals, IOW! And we're more advanced than Neanderthals so...." no matter how you looked at it, the answer was True unless you believe we're all the same as Adam and Eve (if you're a creationist, I still don't think False is the right answer because the test wasn't really concerned with what the test taker believes, but in their knowledge of what Science believes).

But that's just how I thought about.

I agree with Capt. Mike that the test was not very challenging.

Posted by: Cass at February 19, 2014 07:04 PM

"What is the scientific teaching vs. the religious teaching", (and since I happen to believe in evolution anyway!) the answer was pretty clear to me.

But that wasn't what the question said. The test was on a series of known facts: the male determines sex in reproduction; the temperature at the center of the earth is hot; an atom contains electrons; etc. The question specifically said, "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." For scientific purposes, yes, humans are genetically animals in that they are mammals, etc. But equating humans with animals, as this question's evolutionary slant seems to suggest with "earlier species of animals" is like saying humans are plants, too, because we're both carbon-based life forms.

Posted by: DL Sly at February 19, 2014 08:52 PM

That's exactly what I thought when I read that question. :)

0>;~]

Posted by: DL Sly at February 19, 2014 08:54 PM

The test was on a series of known facts.

I suspect we are not going to agree on this, but the test is titled "Test your Science Smarts" and begins with this description:

There's room for improvement in the United States when it comes to science literacy.

Science uses the Linnean system of classification. Under it, we're not only mammals. We're primates!

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Mammalia
Subclass: Theria
Infraclass: Eutheria
Order: Primates

Suborder: Anthropoidea
Superfamily: Hominoidea
Family: Hominidae
Genus: Homo
Species: sapiens

As far as I know, there was at one time a debate over whether Homo Sapiens descended from earlier hominids. Recently, Neanderthal dna was discovered in homo sapiens (us). All of which strongly suggests that we do share a bloodline with them (that's how their dna got mixed with ours).

Of course, Science being Science, all of this may change next year the way they keep changing their minds about whether whole milk is good for kids or bad for them :p

Anyways.... here's a neat 'family tree' I found:

http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-family-tree

Homo Neanderthalensis qualify as an earlier animal species.

Personally, I see no conflict between intelligent design and evolution. But it seemed pretty clear to me that the test was designed to measure scientific knowledge.

Posted by: Cass at February 19, 2014 09:31 PM

Jonas, in The Phenomenon Of Life, makes an interesting point about species. You can't say what species a given being is, he argues, while they are alive.

Consider the first human (or humans). We want to say that whatever was in the generation previous to them was not, not quite, human. So they're the first ones. But they don't constitute a species by themselves: they could presumably breed back to the non-human animals that their parents were. Further, what if they'd been eaten by predators, and had produced no offspring? Then you'd just have a non-productive mutant, presumably of the same species as its parents. They became the progenitors of a species because of contingent factors: they happened to survive and not run into predators, and their offpspring did, until they were so genetically isolated that they could no longer breed back to allied creatures (which genetic isolation is the mark of a species).

So you can't actually isolate their species except in retrospect, based on the kind of creatures of which they were the first. But then that might be true of any of us: we each could be the first of a new species. So how do we know our own species for certain?

That argument may not be a problem for evolutionary theory, but it certainly is a problem for the Darwinian account of 'the evolution of species.' It turns out that species is an incoherent concept. There aren't species, not really: there are only individuals.

Posted by: Grim at February 19, 2014 09:31 PM

No, wait, I think I mis-remembered the source of that argument. That wasn't Jonas, it was Daniel C. Dennett.

Anyway, the point is that the question is in a sense badly framed. "Species" is a concept that we have and we use, but it isn't a reliable concept. We tend to treat those classifications (Phylum and Species and so forth) as if they were features of nature, but they aren't: they're features of our conceptual organization of nature.

So is it true that humans "developed from earlier species"? Well, no, not really. It's true that we say that they did. It's useful to think that they did, because it makes it easier for us to classify things. But no, it's not actually true.

Posted by: Grim at February 20, 2014 06:58 AM

No, wait, I think I mis-remembered the source of that argument.

When the boys were small, we used to call that "dismembering" :p

"Species" is a concept that we have and we use, but it isn't a reliable concept. We tend to treat those classifications (Phylum and Species and so forth) as if they were features of nature, but they aren't: they're features of our conceptual organization of nature.

Grim, you're arguing "what the truth is" whereas I think this test wasn't really designed to measure our knowledge of the un-knowable reality science attempts to explore, but rather what our current understanding or consensus is at this point in time.

I'll also suggest that neither you nor I know whether homo sapiens developed from an earlier species :p It's that whole "unknowable truth" thing - I'm not convinced that you have any better handle on The Truth than scientists do. We have belief, but not knowledge.

Posted by: Cass at February 20, 2014 11:00 AM

Really that argument sounds like the same one made to argue that Rich and Poor don't exist.

The argument goes:
Is a person who makes $100,000,000/year rich?
Is a person who makes $99,999,999/year rich?
Is a person who makes $99,999,998/year rich?
...

At what dollar amount does a person become no longer "rich"? Since one can not justify any meaningfull difference between X and X-1 no distinction can be made.

Despite this, a person making $100mm *is* rich and a person making $1 *is* poor even if one can't identify an exact boundary.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 20, 2014 11:20 AM

If you want to argue what the truth is, it turns out that's a really interesting question too. :) I was just assuming, for the sake of ease, the most commonly-used theory of truth, which is called "correspondence theory." Under that theory the claim 'Humans evolved from earlier species' would be true if, in fact, there was (or were) earlier species from which we evolved.

The argument is that can't be true if species don't really exist, except as conceptual categories of ours, because conceptual categories don't reproduce and reproduction is how evolution is supposed to work. That doesn't actually touch the question of whether humans evolved from earlier, non-human animals -- just whether there is really such a thing as "species" outside of our heads.

Anyway, my whole point here is that I do badly on these kinds of tests, not that your answers were wrong. :) I'm not claiming to have a better handle on the Truth than scientists, for that matter: a good scientist should object to the phrase "very hot" without a standard to which it is relative, or to the simplified physics by which the Earth goes around the sun in a simple way, etc. The objection to those points isn't philosophical, but scientific.

(But what is it to be a science instead of philosophy? Well...) :)

Posted by: Grim at February 20, 2014 11:28 AM

Despite this, a person making $100mm *is* rich and a person making $1 *is* poor even if one can't identify an exact boundary.

That's a Sorites problem, which I was trying to talk to Cass about last week. The usual solution is to agree that the idea of "rich" and "poor" are real enough, but that there's a vagueness problem that leaves us unable to know the truth in certain cases. In addition to Sorites himself, there's an interesting book on the subject by Timothy Williamson.

He goes on to apply his general theory about vagueness to knowledge claims broadly, so you're right, it's a problem that can be brought out of the thought examples and into real life issues of 'what we know' very easily. In fact, it's a huge problem that comes up all the time.

Posted by: Grim at February 20, 2014 11:31 AM

It's different from the species problem, however, which isn't that "species is real, even if we can't establish a real boundary." This isn't a question about vagueness, but about what the nature of the reality of "species" is. Is it a real thing in the world, which our language is just describing? Or is its reality as a human mental concept, which we find useful in a way, but which doesn't actually correspond to the world?

It's a worthy question. In addition to Dennett's problem, ask: What is a species, exactly, if it's not just a conceptual structure? Well, some say it's bounded with by what animals you can actually reproduce -- that 'reproductive isolation' is the mark of a species. But horses can reproduce with donkeys, and we treat them as separate species; dogs with wolves; etc. (Mules, for that matter -- what is their species? None, because they can't usually reproduce? But sometimes they can, although rarely. So what are they then?)

So I think it's right to say that species aren't physically real things, they're conceptually real only. And that being the case, they don't reproduce, and they therefore don't evolve.

Posted by: Grim at February 20, 2014 11:36 AM

I think it's more a case of "difference are real, even if establishing a boundary is somewhat arbitrary".

No one was ever saying (that I know of) that species were physical things. They are a classification system that is useful; a shorthand for talking about differences.

It makes no sense to me to argue that humans can't evolve, or that we didn't evolve from some earlier form of humans that clearly isn't recognizable from the humans of today. That's what you're really saying when you say "species can't evolve", and it makes no sense.

Posted by: Cass at February 20, 2014 01:35 PM

"I suspect we are not going to agree on this,"

But, I've already agreed...For scientific purposes, yes, humans are genetically animals in that they are mammals, etc., so I'm not sure why the need for the specie breakdown.
Where I disagree is in the presentation of the question wrt to the other questions. As you said, this is a test of scientific knowledge, or fact. The first eight questions were presented in a straight-forward manner (well...except for the Grim's of the world 0>;~}). This final question is not. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animal.
Using a method you speak of often, if we switch the subjects to something else, say cats and birds, (which is a true statement, btw, wrt to the test) instead of humans and animals, would it better illustrate my point? By switching the subject phrase in the question, the simple straight-forwardness of the test changed, too. And we end up with a discussion on semantics, evolution and intelligent design!
0>;~}

Posted by: DL Sly at February 20, 2014 02:07 PM

It makes no sense to me to argue that humans can't evolve, or that we didn't evolve from some earlier form of humans that clearly isn't recognizable from the humans of today. That's what you're really saying when you say "species can't evolve", and it makes no sense.

That's not what I'm saying. I'm making a very pedantic point, in a way, which you could even take as an irritating quibble with the wording of the question.

Of course, evidence suggests, what we today call humans evolved from a kind of being that we would call something else. But the process by which evolution occurs, in theory, is via errors in sexual reproduction: and species don't sexually reproduce, because they aren't animals. They're concepts. A "species" is an after-the-fact conceptual framework we human beings impose upon a group of animals in a rather arbitrary way, and only after the process of evolution has already occurred. That is, we call the ancestor being a member of a 'separate species' only because the evolutionary process has already happened: the production of a new species, as a concept, can only happen after the animals conceptually belonging in that species are already alive. So one species doesn't produce another: one animal produces another, sexually, and at some point we divide them conceptually into two "species."

So, it's right to say that humans evolved (or seems to be). But it's wrong to say that we evolved 'from an earlier species.' A species isn't the kind of thing that can evolve, nor is evolution how species come to be. They come to be conceptually, and are produced by the minds of scientists. Heck, you even gave the name of the man who invented the system by which the currently recognized species were produced.

The point being, if I were taking this test, I'd get the question wrong because it was a true/false question. I'd say the claim was false, and there are good scientific reasons why I'd be right to say it -- but I'd still be wrong according to the scoring of the test.

Posted by: Grim at February 20, 2014 02:28 PM

Well, some say it's bounded with by what animals you can actually reproduce -- that 'reproductive isolation' is the mark of a species.

The typical definition of a species I've seen is not just bounded by what animals can reproduce, but also whose offspring can also reproduce. Horses and Donkeys are difference species because the offspring, mules, are infertile. Wolves and dogs are not different species because their offspring is fertile. The domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) is a subspecies of wolf (Canis lupus).

Neanderthals are likewise considered a subspecies of Human because Homo neanderthalensis interbred with Homo sapiens (as such Neanderthals weren't our ancestors but kissing cousins) some even classify them as subspecies of Homo sapien as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis where todays humans are classified as Homo sapiens sapiens.

So one species doesn't produce another: one animal produces another, sexually, and at some point we divide them conceptually into two "species."

Which is why I brought up the Rich/Poor divide. Because individual animals produce the next generation the N and N+1 generations are indistiguishable. Under this rubric poor people can't "evolve" to rich people (or vice versa) because "poor people" isn't a thing in itself, but a concept humans impose in an arbitray way after those changes have occured in the past.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 21, 2014 10:24 AM

The domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) is a subspecies of wolf (Canis lupus).

Excellent example. We used to think that, but our classification system appears to be wrong.

So if the one isn't a subspecies of the other, but both are subspecies (or descendant species) of a third species, then we need to "produce" a third species, and then -- if we want consistency in our system -- alter the other names accordingly.

Say we do -- after all, biologists do it just occasionally based on new information. Why would dogs then become a "different species" than they are now? Not from evolution -- the facts of evolution are unchanged. What's changing is the system. What's changing is our concepts, not the world.

Because individual animals produce the next generation the N and N+1 generations are indistiguishable.

Well, it's not a continuum, because there is the assumption that you can get significant alteration in a single or few generations via mutation and selective breeding (e.g., as caused by geographic isolation, which can cause recessive traits to be brought forward; just as selective breeding in captivity can cause significant changes in the first generation, e.g. the difference between a Friesian and a Warlander). So you would indeed have an N+1 or N+2 that is different enough from N that you can make a division.

There's still a question about just where to make the division, but it isn't because of indistinguishability. This, at least, isn't a Sorities problem.

Posted by: Grim at February 21, 2014 12:14 PM

What do you mean be "Produce"? Create or find?

In any case, dogs and wolves would still belong to the same species. In the same way, a Friesian and a Warlander may have different characteristics but still belong to the same species: Equus ferus.

Current evolutionary theory is that there are no evolutionary leaps. Genetic isolation takes a great many generations and thousands of years. Even for "big" changes. Humans are sometimes born with 6 fingers (on their right hand?) and given enough selective breeding you might even be able to reliably produce a 12 fingered human. But there would still be a huge overlap of interbreeding before you would even classify a subspecies, much less produce genetic isolation that would make any offspring between the two infertile or not even possible. You aren't going to produce a new species in 1 or 2 generations.

At least until scientists start intelligently designing things. But we all know that's unscientific. :-)

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 21, 2014 03:14 PM

I mean create -- just as they created the existing structure, the one you first cited, which is wrong. If our conceptual structures about how the world is organized can come apart from the facts of the world, we aren't "finding" them in the world, as one might find a stone on the beach. We're making them as best we can.

Sometimes -- indeed, quite probably always -- we make them wrong in some way, and often we have to go back and make new ones to replace the old ones when we discover just how we made them wrong.

I'm not sure who you're thinking of when you speak of "current" evolutionary theory. Rather than argue about it, though, just let me say this: it's still not a Sorities problem of the type you're describing, because "Rich" and "Poor" are contraries in a way that the animals never are.

I'll explain what I mean. Even if you get to a kind of continuum where you have an N, N+1, N+2... N+N, where N and N+N are "different species," there will be an N+N-1 about which we have to talk. Now in a Sorities problem, we'd have to say about N+N-1 that it was neither rich nor poor, because the only alternative is to say that it is both rich and poor, which is a contradiction.

But there's no contradiction in saying that N+N-1 is both in N's species and in N+N's species. After all, it isn't reproductively isolated from either. Indeed, it is the progenitor of the new "species" we want to identify, so by definition it must be reproductively linked to the "new species." Species as a concept doesn't have contraries the way that Sorities problems do, so that we have to have a zone of vagueness: we can, and really probably should, say that it is a member of more than one species because it satisfies the criteria for membership.

Posted by: Grim at February 21, 2014 03:42 PM

I mean create...

The common ancestor, however, may already be classified *and* classified correctly.

We thought we had A->B->C and instead had A->B and A->C. We didn't need to "create" A. A already existed all that changed was the relationship between them.

where N and N+N are "different species,"

I'm not thinking of N, N+1, N+2, ... species, but generations. The N generation is indistinguishable from the N+1 generation. The N+1 generation is indistinguishable from the N+2 generation.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 21, 2014 06:01 PM

That's fine, as long as by "generation" you mean "individual parent within a generation." Animal N+N-1 is indistinguishable from N+N, but if N+N is the point at which we choose to divide the species, it makes sense to say that N+N-1 was in both species -- not neither species, and not only one of them either.

Posted by: Grim at February 21, 2014 06:49 PM

Hey, hey, hey.......it's Friday!
No math!!

Posted by: Math Nazi at February 21, 2014 06:51 PM

My point is that for any given individual throughout all of history the parent and the child are of the same species. It is only between an individual and their great great great ... great grandchild that a difference in species can even be noticed.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 21, 2014 08:53 PM

My point is that for any given individual throughout all of history the parent and the child are of the same species.

That's fine with me. It's not a point I've been arguing against, and in fact underlines the point I've been trying to make.

But it seems to make your argument worse. I haven't been arguing that evolution doesn't happen, but only that it is animals that change and not "species." Now if every parent is the same species as its child, then the species can never change -- Species X in parent N will pass to child N+1, which will pass it intact to N+2, etc.

That's not a problem for the theory of evolution, because the animals change right along. But it is a problem for the idea that "species" is anything except a conceptual category. Just because of this point you're making here, the species can't change. It's logically bound. What we find is that the individuals drift over generations, until it is helpful to us (and perhaps points to some meaningful difference) to classify them differently than we did before.

Posted by: Grim at February 21, 2014 11:23 PM

Now if every parent is the same species as its child, then the species can never change

Just as adding a single dollar to someone's earnings doesn't change their status from poor to rich.

And yet, somewhere along the line, that change happened anyway. That change is very real. Even if we can't exactly demarcate it.

And that's been my point. Discussing evolution through the frame of an individual animal giving birth to another individual animal is like discussing the progression from poor to rich through the frame of individual dollars. You are in a Sorites problem.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 24, 2014 09:58 AM

You aren't in a Sorites problem per se, because of the lack of contraries, as we've discussed.

But if you find yourself with a vagueness problem, then you've established that the status of "species" is that of a linguistic concept. Those are the only things that are usually thought to be capable of vagueness. (Counterarguments are available through the link, although I don't think you'll find them very convincing.)

And that's all I've been arguing all along. "The change is very real" isn't the issue -- the animals are quite different from here to there. The question is what kind of thing a "species" is. The vagueness argument is strong support for the position that it is a purely conceptual entity, and not something physically true about the world (or the animals in the world).

Posted by: Grim at February 24, 2014 11:20 AM

because of the lack of contraries

Why isn't Homo erectus/Homo sapiens a contrary like big/small?

Certainly it's not its binary nature as you could have miniscule/tiny/small/medium/big/huge/massive. An animal would only be classified as a member of one species and not of multiple. We may disagree or change our mind about which class it falls into (just as we may disagree or change our mind as to what is classified as rich/poor). But the assignment is either/or not both.

But regardless. It sounds like you are using the vageness to argue that the differences are not physical reality. If I am reading your link correctly (Google did not clear things up): I think you are making the mistake of calling clouds "vague". True, they don't have well defined borders, especially at small enough scales (one nanometer is not meaningfully different than the next adjacent one).

But I think it's still incorrect to conclude from that statement that clouds are a linguistic concept and not physically true about the world.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 24, 2014 01:37 PM

"Why isn't Homo erectus/Homo Sapiens a contrary like big/small?"

The question has to do with whether the contraries are logical opposites. The problem with big/small (or rich/poor) is that you have a formal contradiction if you say that a thing is both X and not-X in the same sense, at the same time, and in the same place. So, we're not talking about a case like 'He was poor for an American, but rich for an Irishman.' You also aren't dealing with cases where you're talking about different senses of 'rich,' e.g., 'He was poor in wealth for an American, but rich in spirit for an American.' Sorities problems deal with issues where you'd have to say something like, 'He was poor in wealth for an American, but rich in wealth for an American.'

So what we have to say about problems like this one is that there's a zone of vagueness, where we can't be sure any more that your man is still poor, or yet rich. But the ends (as you've said) are clear enough.

But there's no similar logical contradiction involved in speaking of species, because two species are not logically opposed. There's no logical contradiction involved in noting that the ancestors of Homo sapiens could, at some point, have bred back to Homo erectus had they encountered some. Maybe they even did! So it may make sense to say that they are of the species Homo sapiens, as parents to children who must be of the same species; but also that they belong to the species Homo erectus, as they aren't yet drifted far enough to have fallen into reproductive isolation.

Re: clouds: You and I see eye to eye on the subject. My side of that debate is that the cloud isn't vague at all: it's an object which has definite qualities. Our description of the cloud can fall into vagueness ("It's sort of a cumulus cloud, but almost a cumulo-nimbus"). The vagueness comes from us, because the way we categorize things may not fit just what they are. "Species" is a thing like "type of cloud," where we can run into a problem -- though not a logical contradiction -- in sorting out to which of our categories it most properly belongs. But that's our problem, not the cloud's.

Posted by: Grim at February 24, 2014 06:32 PM

There's no logical contradiction involved in noting that the ancestors of Homo sapiens could, at some point, have bred back to Homo erectus had they encountered some.

Um, no. The definition of species is that they could not interbreed (at least the offspring would not be fertile) so no genetic line continues.

So it may make sense to say that they are of the species Homo sapiens, as parents to children who must be of the same species; but also that they belong to the species Homo erect

Again, no. The classifications of species are mutually exclusive. A particular animal is classified as one *or* the other, not both. We may be wrong about the species classification. We may even later change our minds. We may even be uncertain. But all of this is also true of the poor/rich divide.

My side of that debate is that the cloud isn't vague at all

Your form of argument suggests that it should be. If you take a line through a cloud and measure the composition of air of every cubic nm along that line. You can find no cubic nm where there is a distinct difference. The air transitions smoothly from not cloud to cloud. Any cubic nm could be swapped with any adjacent cubic nm and no one would be able to tell the difference. That is: the Nth cubic nm and the Nth+1 cubic nm are idistinguishable. And yet, you say, clouds v/s clear air is "real". Likewise, the Nth dollar and the Nth+1 dollar are indistinguishable. And yet, you say, poor/rich is "real". The Nth animal (parent) and the Nth+1 animal (child) are indistinguishable but unlike the other two, you say, this means species X/Y is not "real".

You can't have it both ways.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 25, 2014 09:42 AM

If you insist that species are mutually exclusive, and also that every child is the same species as its parent, then species can't produce new species. Those two rules make it impossible for species to drift. Extending it out to N+N won't fix it, because these are logical rules that hold at every level.

Now, in fact, it appears that animals do somehow 'drift' from one species to another over many generations. So, what we're saying is that these logical rules that we've come up with to govern what is (or isn't) a species don't really describe what is going on. They're concepts of ours, and inaccurate ones.

And yet, you say, clouds v/s clear air is "real". Likewise...

I think you're missing the fundamental distinction. What I say is "real" is the physical object. "Cloud" or "type of cloud" or "rich" or "poor" are concepts. They are real in a way, too -- they're real as concepts. But they aren't physically real things.

So the amount of water vapor in a given space is real in the physical sense -- "real," if you like. Any conceptual label we tie to it is not real in the same sense: "That is a cloud," or "That is a cumulus cloud," or "That dude is really rich." There's a distinction between the physical object and the conceptual object. If we find a vagueness problem, it's always with the concept, not the physical thing in the world.

Posted by: Grim at February 25, 2014 11:21 AM

If you insist that species are mutually exclusive, and also that every child is the same species as its parent, then species can't produce new species. Those two rules make it impossible for species to drift.

Rich and poor are also mutually exclusive. $1 and $2 are also the same "species". That is, $1 is the species "poor". $2 is also of the species "poor". For any given N and N+1 they are of the same "species".

And yet it drifts even though you said that is impossible.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 25, 2014 11:50 AM

Good! You have isolated the distinction I can see that you are missing.

You say, "And yet it drifts." But you are running together two things, and treating these two separate things as a single object: "it."

One of the things is a set of physical animals, which drifts over generations. The other thing is a pair of conceptual categories, say, "Homo erectus" and "Homo sapiens." These don't drift, both because of definitions that don't allow them to overlap, and because of logical rules imposed on them like 'parent and child are always indistinguishable.'

Indeed, the only reason you can say that there is drift in the animals is because of the stability of the conceptual categories. If the species -- the concept -- drifted with the animals, we'd be unable to distinguish between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. We'd just have to say something like, 'This is what humans were like then, and now they're somewhat different -- so much so that they couldn't breed with earlier humans.' It's the unchanging stability of the species as category that makes it possible to talk about a change of species.

So yes! There's drift. I didn't say it was impossible for the animals to drift. I said it was impossible for the categories to drift, given how they'd been defined. And good that it is, because that stability is what allows you to talk about the change you want to talk about.

Posted by: Grim at February 25, 2014 12:11 PM

By the way, this lack of recognition of the distinction between physical-objects-in-the-world and the conceptual-objects-in-our-mind that relate to the physical objects was also present in Aristotle's natural philosophy. Precisely because he took the form of the animal and the conceptual form in his mind to be identical, he believed that species were eternal. They'd have to be, because how could the form change? It is bound by its definitions, and the definitions can't change because there is no logical mechanism for it.

Through empirical observation, we've since learned that he was wrong about that. The form in your mind is not identical with the form in the object (or, if you prefer, the form the object is in). The two things come apart. That's what explains vagueness problems, and also a host of false predictions that we make from our concepts about what will happen empirically with the physical objects.

Posted by: Grim at February 25, 2014 12:19 PM

One of the things is a set of physical dollar amounts, which drifts over time. The other thing is a pair of conceptual categories, say, "Rich" and "Poor." These don't drift, both because of definitions that don't allow them to overlap, and because of logical rules imposed on them like 'adjacent dollar amounts are always indistinguishable.'

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 27, 2014 11:46 AM

We may speak meaningfully of "The Poor" drifting and becoming "The Rich". Even if we only observe miniscule and indistiguishable changes at each step.

I think we can meaningfully speak of one species drifting and becoming another in exactly the same fashion.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 27, 2014 11:55 AM

Well, no, you can't, because "the Poor" who become "the Rich" are the same people. There's a single thing (the person who is rich and becomes poor) that you can talk about drifting between two opposing contraries. (This is Aristotle's schema too, from the early books of the Physics. for a change to be possible, you need two contraries and a substrate that moves between them. Did you know you'd inherited so much from his way of thinking about changes and "species"? It's no wonder, since all of Western natural sciences -- what used to be called natural philosophy -- is rooted in his work (indeed, the Greek word we translate as Physics just means "Nature"). But insofar as Aristotle was wrong about some aspects of this, we should be prepared to revisit the schema.)

The thing about "species" is that it isn't there. The species isn't a substrate, it's one of the contraries. The thing doing the moving are not species, but just animals. What species they belong to is a concept, and it's not even a good concept (at least as you've phrased it, which I think is scientifically wrong) because it forbids what must in fact be true: for there to be a transition from one species to another, there must be an animal or set of animals who are of the previous species, but who turn out to be founders of the new one. Thus, they are meaningfully of 'both' species. Insofar as the definition precludes that, it's a contradiction in terms.

That doesn't bother me, but it ought to bother you because you want to talk as if the category "species" had some greater reality than a sort of thumbnail sketch around what kind of breeding is possible for a given animal. There's nothing there, though.

Posted by: Grim at February 27, 2014 03:18 PM

It's not necessary for there to be a person. In the classic Sorites example it was a "heap" of kernels on the floor. The observer of these kernels/dollars could classify that amount of kernels/dollars as either not a heap/poor or a heap/rich. Thus it is the number of kernels/dollar amount that transitions, not a person.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 27, 2014 04:26 PM

Well, the question was when you get a "heap." So the heap isn't the kernels themselves (i.e., the heap isn't in the kernals). It's one of the contraries too. There is no heap. There is no spoon!

(Well, no. There is a spoon. That's the kind of thing there is. :)

Posted by: Grim at February 27, 2014 04:32 PM

The point is still: at what minute incremental change does one thing become another?

At large enough scales this can be clear. Measured at 10s of meters it's easier to say that one point is inside the cloud and the adjacent is outside. At nanometer scales this is impossible. At scales of 100,000s of dollars it's easier to say that one point is poor the adjacent is rich. At scales of a penny, this is impossible. At scales of bushels it's easier to say that one amount qualifies as not a heap and the adjacent does. At scales of a single kernel, this is impossible.

None of these mean that poor/rich, cloud/clear air, heap/not heap and their transition from one to the other aren't realities of the physical world.

At scales of 100,000s of years it's easier to see the genetic changes that distinguish one species from the adjacent one. At scales of a single generation, this is impossible.

This too, does not mean that species1/2 and their transition from one to the other aren't realities of the physical world.

I think it's impossible, when focusing on the tiniest quantum scale (that of a single animal and it's adjacent offspring) to see that something that wasn't a heap before became one anyway.

In any case, I think we've scared off the normals. In as much as that term applies around here. :-)

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 27, 2014 06:22 PM

No doubt.

It's certainly easy for us to apply linguistic terms on larger scales than smaller ones. I maintain that the physical things are what they are, whether you're adding one or 10,000 of them. We have different names for them for reasons of our own, but naming them doesn't change them, and quibbling about which of our names applies especially doesn't change them.

The only thing that happens when we name something is internal to us. It's easy for us to see the difference between Mt. Everest and the next peak over, but the mountains were there before us and may well be there after we are gone. Whether they are "really" one mountain or two is a discussion that interests us, but has no bearing on their reality.

There is nevertheless an unrelated problem of changing scale, but I hesitate to bring it up given how long the discussion has gone on. It's the problem of how apparent order rises out of apparent chaos, which really does seem to have something to do with scales of observation. Here the observer (and perhaps his names) becomes important.

Posted by: Grim at February 27, 2014 08:12 PM

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