May 07, 2003

A Dialogue on Evolution, Plumbing, and Other Subjects

The Thirteen-Year-Old: I'm depressed...

Me: Why?...

The Thirteen-Year-Old: I'm a teenager. It's expected of me. Besides, our president is a real idiot. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are now in the hands of real terrorists. And the world is full of poverty and hunger and war and terror.

Me: I know that you find this hard to believe, but...

The Thirteen-Year-Old and Me in chorus: When I/you was/were growing up things seemed much, much worse.

Me: Remember Mao Zedong?

The Thirteen-Year-Old: Old, "nuclear war would be terrible, terrible! I would lose 400 million people! I would only have half a billion left" Mao?

Me: Yep.

The Thirteen-Year-Old: But that doesn't change the fact that our president is an idiot.

Me: He's not that big an idiot...

The Thirteen-Year-Old: He doesn't believe in evolution.

Me: But...

The Thirteen-Year-Old: He's never looked at the skeleton of a whale, noticed the hipbones, and thought, "Hmmm..."

Me: He probably does believe in evolution. But Karl Rove has told him that a lot of people who will vote for him if he says he doesn't believe in evolution won't vote for him if he says he does...

The Thirteen-Year-Old: So not only an idiot but a liar. You're digging youself in deeper, Dad.

Me: OK, he's an idiot. But he's still a lot better than many leaders in world history.

The Thirteen-Year-Old: Like?

Me: Is that the Runciman that my Dad gave you? He's a lot better than King Guy of Jerusalem. And Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell are head, shoulders, armpits, chests, and abdomens above Templar Master Gerard de Ridefort and the infamous Lord of Kerak in Moab...

Me and the Thirteen-Year-Old in chorus: ...Reynaud de Chatillon!

Me: Yep. Balian of Ibelin and Humphrey of Toron had reason to complain, bitterly. You don't.

The Thirteen-Year-Old: But I'm still depressed.

Me: Why?

The Thirteen-Year-Old: Grades. I have to grub for grades.

Me: No you don't. Your mother and I are happy with whatever grades you get as long as you're trying hard and learning stuff. We will want you to get good grades when they start to cast a shadow on your future--but that's not for 2 1/2 years yet.

The Thirteen-Year-Old: That's very soon.

Me: No it isn't. I was thirteen once. When you are thirteen, 2 1/2 years is an eternity.

The Thirteen-Year-Old: If I lived in a simpler time...

Me: You'd already be doing back-breaking, mind-numbing labor in a society teetering on the edge of mass starvation. If the cholera hadn't carried you off. Or if you were lucky, and born to the warrior class, you'd be exercising five hours a day trying to build the muscles to handle a sword.

The Thirteen-Year-Old: So?

Me: Think of Mr. Borghi, but five times as bad. And you--you're quick, you're well-coordinated, you're very smart, you're hard working, but you're short, skinny, and not terribly aggressive. You wouldn't do well trying to build the muscles to wield a five foot-long two-handed broadsword.

The Thirteen-Year-Old: I'd work hard.

Me: You would. And you'd make a lot of progress. But if Reynaud de Chatillion came stalking you with In Nomine Domine, how long would you last?

The Thirteen-Year-Old: So you're saying I have it good here and now?

Me: Very good. It's hard to think how to design a society that does more to play to your strengths in its assignment of relative status. People with wit, great intelligence, good analytical skills, and industry do very well. People with aggression and strength alone do much less well--they piss off their teachers and don't learn very much, they piss off their bosses and get fired. The equivalents of Reynaud de Chatillon are not lords of provinces, but instead work the loading dock at Target for an hourly wage that is... one-tenth of mine.

The Thirteen-Year-Old: Some professional athletes do very well...

Me: How many? How many slots open up on NBA teams each year?

The Ten-Year-Old: That's not fair. That a thousand years ago he would be a prince and would be ordering you around, and today you have so much more money.

Me: That's why in this family we believe in progressive income taxation. And the hope is that our society--one that rewards intelligence and merit rather than brute strength, aggression, and who your daddy is--makes better use of talent, and we can invent all kinds of things that make life better off. So even a loading dock worker at Target today has a better life than the Lord of Oultrejourdain 830 years ago because of...

The Ten-Year-Old: Modern conveniences! Flush toilets!

Me: Don't knock plumbing until you've tried the alternative.

The Ten-Year-Old: I have. On camping trips. And at the Farm in Maine.

Me: Using an outhouse in Maine in the summer doesn't count. You have to use one in Maine in the winter. And in the Maine mosquito season. And not just for a weekend: for an extended period of time...

Posted by DeLong at May 7, 2003 01:35 AM | TrackBack

Comments

Right, I've worked it out. Your children don't exist do they? Or at least not in the form in which you portray them. These are like the conversations of Zeno, Achilles and the tortoise. By projecting your thoughts through these conversations, you can make profound statements while not exposing yourself to any backlash. That is of course unless they are real, in which case I have just insulted you most heinously.

Posted by: Eccles on May 7, 2003 12:32 AM

Nope, I'm fairly convinced that you're right Eccles. It's like one of those thought experiments or gedanken. I demand proof that these conversations are actually happening!

Posted by: Adrian on May 7, 2003 01:09 AM

At around 16 he'll probably get seriously depressed; and I think one reason for this is a substantial cognitive dissonance between what society tells him, that "lah, lah, lah, teenagers in love, puppies in the sky, rainbows round the moon", and what his body tells him which is basically that he wants to lay any female he sees, but especially the pretty ones. Converting all that sexual desire into a crush because that's what TV tells you to do is not healthy. I think the best you can do is both to explain this, and to point out that there are good reasons why society doesn't encourage teenage boys to run around acting on every wild impulse, sexual or otherwise, that passes through their heads.

Posted by: Maynard Handley on May 7, 2003 02:13 AM

While I'm not quite as deterministic about these things as Maynard, you do have the makings of a seriously bummed 16 year old. About the point when good grades do start to matter is - if he's lucky enough not to get pigeon-holed as a complete dork in high school - also the moment when just about everything in the world other than grades will seem much more important. It passes eventually, around the beginning of second year of college. Thank God the SAT's count more than grades.

As for the non-existence of the Delong loinfruit - I used to teach kids like that how to write essays for a living. Science department people produce masses of the little urchins. It screws up the SAT's of whole school districts.

But the Crusades? At 13? I suppose it's the right age to be studying medieval Europe, but I thought I was lucky to be studying industrialisation and nationalism in Western Europe at that age. I like the image of Reynaud de Chatillon working the loading dock at Target though. It does put the Crusades into perspective.

Posted by: Scott Martens on May 7, 2003 03:04 AM

To recap:


The Thirteen-Year-Old: But that doesn't change the fact that our president is an idiot.

Me: He's not that big an idiot...

The Thirteen-Year-Old: He doesn't believe in evolution.

Me: But...

The Thirteen-Year-Old: He's never looked at the skeleton of a whale, noticed the hipbones, and thought, "Hmmm..."


I'd suggest getting your child into a better biology class with an updated understanding of homology. That there are similar bone structures (or, even genes, for that matter) shared by different species is grossly inadequate to argue for a Darwinian common ancestor. The octopus and human eyes are quite similar, but even those scientists who do believe in evolution do not believe that the common ancestor of these had such an eye.

What you need is information about the developmental pathways which yield the mature adult (the whale, or human, or whatever). And there's a good bit of evidence from developmental biology that such pathways are incredibly different without any common ancestral pattern. Take a look at early photos of embryos, for example, which evidence radically dissimilar starting points. This may not be what evolutionary biology predicts, but it is what is found in nature.

You might check out Jonathan Wells' book _Icons of Evolution_. He has a short chapter on some of the problems with homology. If you're interested, I could forward some additional references for you.

Take care,

Steve

Posted by: Steve T. on May 7, 2003 05:59 AM

>>That there are similar bone structures (or, even genes, for that matter) shared by different species is grossly inadequate to argue for a Darwinian common ancestor.<<

That a whale has hipbones is powerful evidence that either (a) an ancestor of a whale looked very different and lived very differently, or (b) that the devil is trying to trick us by planting evidence of evolution in the natural world. What does a whale need with hipbones?

Posted by: Brad DeLong on May 7, 2003 06:15 AM

Yes, the Thirteen-Year-Old and the Ten-Year-Old do exist. And, yes, my father did give the Thirteen-Year-Old Steven Runciman's three-volume History of the Crusades. And, yes, he devoured and is redevouring it...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on May 7, 2003 06:17 AM

I, for one, would feel a lot safer if Brad's 13-year-old and GWB could trade places . . .

Posted by: rea on May 7, 2003 07:00 AM

I don't see Brad going for that. GWB would be an expensive dependent, and probably much less fun to talk to.

Posted by: Ben Vollmayr-Lee on May 7, 2003 07:15 AM

Try washing the clothes in a cold Maine stream for a week or so. I once took the tour of the U.S.S. Constellation in Baltimore's inner harbor. After the guide showed us the berths the crew had to share, which seemed about the size of litter boxes, he detailed the bone crushing workload, which afforded a few hours sleep in awful conditions, punctuated my miserable nutrition, and capped off with, if I remember correctly, one day of shore leave PER YEAR! My laconic brother turned to me and muttered, "Our ancestors were tough little f******." Indeed. Depression has been with us always, but I wonder if it bloomed only when industrialization afforded us the luxury of being depressed. If the Thag the Caveman exhibited the symptoms of depression, he probably was some animal's meal before too long, or met some other uncomfortable fate. I take the widespread diagnosis and pharmacological treatment of depression to be a sign of great progress, then.

Posted by: Will Allen on May 7, 2003 07:18 AM

The book Icons of Evolution by the Reverend Jonathan Wells is an exercise in the twisted logic that creationists use to make their arguments. Wells examines textbooks that teach evolution, finds a few examples that are inaccurate, then argues that the evidence for evolution is weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. The evidence for the theory of evolution is very strong, even stronger than the evidence for the theory of gravity.

The Wells argument is:

A, B, C ..... are facts that support evolution.
As stated in the textbook, B is false.
Therefore A, C ..... are all false.

The Wells argument is clearly not logical.

To argue that the explanation in a K-12 textbook is inadeqate ignores the reality that textbooks often oversimplify complex arguments to make them more accessible to readers in that age group and level of overall learning. That does not mean that the argument with all the facts, evidence and details enough to make its own book is incorrect or does not exist.

BTW- the eye of the octopus is NOT similar to the eye of vertebrates. Yes all eyes share some similar features because of physics and the nature of light. The vertebrate eye is innervated in front of the retina. The octopus eye is innervated from the back of the retina. The different construction suggests different origens.

There is a lot of money made by creationists selling their wares to easy marks who want to believe the pretty pictures they were shown in Sunday School and willingly pay to be told what they want to believe is true.

Posted by: bakho on May 7, 2003 07:22 AM

Brad and his son who would seem to be a prodigy, are referring to the existence of vestigal features not homology. It really isn't that hard to get--unless one doesn't want to.

Posted by: ArchPundit on May 7, 2003 07:37 AM

The dialogue is a powerful case in point for public education: Why should GWB be deprived the knowledge of Reynaud de Chatillon just because GWB at 13 years of age was not The Thirteen-Year-Old of DeLong fame?

Posted by: PK on May 7, 2003 07:45 AM

Hey, take it easy on gravity there! Not to take anything away from evolution, but there's a LOT of quantitative evidence for Newton's gravity, and even a fair amount for Einstein's corrections to Newton's gravity (which become significant in high mass density situations). There are things we don't know about gravity, but what we do know about it is damn well verified.

It's really a case of apples an oranges anyway. Evolution is better described as a framework than a theory. A more appropriate analogy in physics to the "theory" of evolution would be the framework of reductionism, which, like evolution, could have been completely wrong, but has worked out astoundingly well.

Posted by: Ben Vollmayr-Lee on May 7, 2003 07:46 AM

"He's a lot better than King Guy of Jerusalem. And Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell are head, shoulders, armpits, chests, and abdomens above Templar Master Gerard de Ridefort and the infamous Lord of Kerak in Moab..."

I'm not so sure--GWB & Co may just have a better propaganda machine working for them. History would have a more kindly picture of Guy if only contemporary chroniclers had properly explained that the Horns of Hattin were really all Bill Clinton's fault . . .

Posted by: rea on May 7, 2003 09:37 AM

I reiterate my argument against the idea that "a loading dock worker at Target today has a better life than the Lord of Oultrejourdain 830 years ago" on the basis that, if he developed the wish to do so, the Lord of Wherever could have taken the afternoon off any time he felt like it, and a dock worker can't. To be master of your own time is the greatest luxury, and however much technology improves, it can't put more than 24 hours into the day.

Posted by: dsquared on May 7, 2003 10:19 AM

Agreeing w/D^2, me.

Brad: give the kids blogs.

Posted by: Curtiss Leung on May 7, 2003 10:57 AM

What, is Target using slaves now? Are hypothetical dock worker can take the afternoon off - he won't be paid for it, and may not have the option of unloading boxes tomorrow either, but he CAN not show up for work.

Besides, there may not be more than 24 hours in a day, but by my math the lowly worker person works at most 1/3 of his hours, and lives twice as long as his lordship did. Assume 75 years for our dock worker, 40 for our typical prince. take away 25 for work, our dock worker has 50 years that are "his", the prince still has 40. (Note that I'm making my dock worker work 56 hours per week from the day he is born to the day he dies. Reality is more in his favor.)

Posted by: rvman on May 7, 2003 11:00 AM

Steve T.
I don't think the Thirteen-Year-Old is saying that there is a common ancestor between all hip bone having mammals. He's saying that the whale at one time probably used those hipbones. Which means the whale probably had legs. Which suggests that there was a progression from whales with legs to whales without legs.

Posted by: Gideon S. on May 7, 2003 11:14 AM

>>I reiterate my argument against the idea that "a loading dock worker at Target today has a better life than the Lord of Oultrejourdain 830 years ago" on the basis that, if he developed the wish to do so, the Lord of Wherever could have taken the afternoon off any time he felt like<<

Salah-ed-Din Yusuf, Al-Malik Un-Nasir, Sultan, Lord of Egypt, Damascus, Aleppo, and Mosul, would have had something to say about *that.* If the Lord of Oultrejourdain takes the wrong day off, he's dead at the hands of most dangerous (and most chivalrous) man of the late twelfth century.

Posted by: Brad DeLong on May 7, 2003 11:18 AM

Steve T.
I don't think the Thirteen-Year-Old is saying that there is a common ancestor between all hip bone having mammals. He's saying that the whale at one time probably used those hipbones. Which means the whale probably had legs. Which suggests that there was a progression from whales with legs to whales without legs.

Posted by: Gideon S. on May 7, 2003 11:19 AM

rvman--
So the Target worker can take the day off, but will lose his job. Repeat the pattern enough, and he becomes homeless or starves to death. This is what I call "Not free to take the day off."

Brad may have a better point--that Lord whatsisname had to watch his back at all times.

As the princes' 40 years--it seems to me that you're making a common mistake involving life expectancies. In populations with a life expectancy of 40 years, it's not usually the case that most people die around 40. Rather, a lot of people don't make it out of infancy, which drags the average down considerable. This means that a prince who made it to ruling status has a lot more than 40 years, even if the life expectancy of his population is just 40 years.

Posted by: Matt Weiner on May 7, 2003 11:55 AM

>>I don't think the Thirteen-Year-Old is saying that there is a common ancestor between all hip bone having mammals. He's saying that [an ancestor of the] whale at one time probably used those hipbones. Which means the [ancestor of the] whale probably had legs.<<

Either that or the Devil gave the whale hipbones in order to trick and confuse us and cause us to turn away from the One True Living God!


Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on May 7, 2003 12:21 PM

-- I don't think the Thirteen-Year-Old is saying that there is a common ancestor between all hip bone having mammals. He's saying that the whale at one time probably used those hipbones. Which means the whale probably had legs. Which suggests that there was a progression from whales with legs to whales without legs. --

Fair enough. I've seen too much of the homology thing lately (a recent issue of National Geographic comes to mind, which made comparisons quite like the one mentioned), and suppose I was a bit oversensitive to it. Thus I took Mr. DeLong's 'vestigial organ' remarks as an argument from similarity. Still, if we do have such structures arising from very different pathways, without a common ancestor, this is more difficult to explain on an evolutionary paradigm than via design.

Having said that, an example like this of variation over time in a species is relatively uninteresting compared to the thesis of evolution from a common ancestor.

-- What does a whale need with hipbones? --

Some have suggested that legs on a whale could have aided in copulation or performed some swimming function. I don't think changes on this order would require adopting the controversial form of evolution the original post seemed to indicate.

Take care,

Steve T.

Posted by: Steve T. on May 7, 2003 12:31 PM

Let's not forget - the dock worker can buy a 5 lb. bag of flour for $0.69!

Posted by: George on May 7, 2003 12:46 PM

What does a whale need with hip bones?

Whales don't need hip bones, that is why they are vesitigial. However, there is a series of fossils leading from the turtle-feeding Mesonychids through Ambulocetus, an intermediate with legs, reduced hips and a streamlined body, and Rodhocetus that is closer yet to the body shape of modern cetaceans.

The bottom line is that whales don't need hip bones, but their ancestors, the Meosnychids needed them for walking on the shore.

Steve T, you should read the dialog on this blog between the economist and the senior administration official. Creationists are just like the SAO, selective in the facts they accept and unable to listen to arguments that conflict with their core ideology.

Posted by: bakho on May 7, 2003 01:02 PM

Of course, the devil also placed all of the transitional forms in order as well
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/section1.html#morphological_intermediates_ex4

And the devil was busy planting all sorts of other evidence as well:
http://www.talkorigins.org/features/whales/

"I don't think changes on this order would require adopting the controversial form of evolution the original post seemed to indicate."

There is no scientific controversy over the form of evolution the original post seemed to indicate. There is a political controversy by those who don't bother themselves with actual evidence.

Posted by: ArchPundit on May 7, 2003 01:04 PM

Of course, the devil also placed all of the transitional forms in order as well
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/section1.html#morphological_intermediates_ex4

And the devil was busy planting all sorts of other evidence as well:
http://www.talkorigins.org/features/whales/

"I don't think changes on this order would require adopting the controversial form of evolution the original post seemed to indicate."

There is no scientific controversy over the form of evolution the original post seemed to indicate. There is a political controversy by those who don't bother themselves with actual evidence.

Posted by: ArchPundit on May 7, 2003 01:09 PM

===Still, if we do have such structures arising from very different pathways, without a common ancestor, this is more difficult to explain on an evolutionary paradigm than via design.

You mean these common ancestors
http://talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/section1.html#morphological_intermediates_ex4
http://www.talkorigins.org/features/whales/

====don't think changes on this order would require adopting the controversial form of evolution the original post seemed to indicate.

There is nothing controversial about the form of evolution the original post indicated.

Posted by: ArchPundit on May 7, 2003 01:16 PM

buggers--damn browser is doing it again. Sorry Brad.

Posted by: ArchPundit on May 7, 2003 01:20 PM

OK, granted I used the wrong "expected life" statement for when Reynald was an adult. However, he was an infant, once. By the time he was "important" enough to not be at anyone's command, though, he had less than 15 years left until his execution at age 63. At age 50, my dockworker has expectation of at least 25 years, of which 18-20 at minimum are his own. (Comparing the actual realization of Reynald to a statistical dockworker) (In any country of the middle ages, only a few people could take the day off without leave from someone - Reynald wasn't one of them until he married Stephanie.)

For the record, I think the argument that being "the master of your own time" is the greatest luxury doesn't mean that you can't at least partly compensate for not having that luxury with more material luxuries. (For one, how loving do you think his marriage was?) Maybe not from zero time to 24 hrs. per day, but surely for 24 vs. 16, or 18. Also, Reynald wasn't master of his own time - could he have used it to criticize the pope, or travel to Hawaii? For every limitation you place on the dockworker with economic shortage, you can place one on Reynald with technical or cultural shortages.

Posted by: rvman on May 7, 2003 01:54 PM

Resolved: Today any decent salary at Target will allow you to command more and better goods and services such as the Knights and Lords of the 12-1400's could not even dare dream of. From home via the TV you can see more images from foreign lands than the most interpid traveler then could in a fraction of the time. You are also highly unlikely to die of cholera, typhoid or other similar diseases of poor or undeveloped sanitation systems. You have at your command to pay for your entire daily caloric requirements with about 1 hours wage, and this is possible any place in our land. No matter how poor you are you are almost assured of receiving better health care than was even imagined in the Middle Ages. And with about $100 you can also buy a weapon to defend your home from any putative invading marauders that would be about 10 times more effective than any sword. You need not be trained (long) on this weapon either to be far deadlier than any knight. For all our troubles, we have achieved much.

This still does not negate the problem of Mr. Bush being a craven, reckless opportunist who is willing to bankrupt the nation to feed his wealthy partisans more unneeded tax cuts. We may be rich now, but if things continue as they are, this lad will be much poorer than his dad, for reasons we could scarcely explain to him some 20-30 years out.

Posted by: VJ on May 7, 2003 06:50 PM

I maintain that living the life of a king and warlord is a more interesting, stimulating and enjoyable thing to do than living the life of a minimum wage dockworker.

I also note that I have occasionally been on holiday for extended periods of time in countries where I no longer had access to flush toilets and stood a material risk of catching cholera and malaria. I did not, subjectively, feel the decline in my overall level of utility that this theory would predict.

Posted by: dsquared on May 7, 2003 11:18 PM

"this is more difficult to explain on an evolutionary paradigm than via design."

Which is a good illustration of why "design" is so useless as a scientific theory--it easily explains everything (why is the fossil record the way it is? Because God, excuse me, the designer, made it that way!) but its explanations are not falsifiable and have no predictive value . . .

Posted by: rea on May 8, 2003 06:53 AM

I think it is conclusively proved that dsquared would prefer to be a 11th century warlord and despot than a 21st century dockworker. I believe many to most of us would make a different choice.

I do have a question for dsquared, though - did the fact that antibiotics would have been available to help you impact your willingness, and indeed indifference, to accepting the risk of getting malaria and cholera? Or were you just willing to die for the chance to visit these countries? I think most of us are much more risk averse than you, if the latter.

Posted by: rvman on May 8, 2003 07:11 AM

This is not alt.talk.origins, but...

>>Still, if we do have such structures arising from very different pathways, without a common ancestor, this is more difficult to explain on an evolutionary paradigm than via design.<<

On the contrary, the fact that the eye of an Octopus and the eye of a Human are so similar is a powerful argument for evolution. Both see. But the eye of an Octopus has the nerve fibers pointed the "right" way, out of the eye. As a result, the Octopus doesn't have a blindspot. Vertebrates do because the optic nerve has to exit through the retina.

Only a truly Unintelligent Designer would have designed the Vertebrate eye...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on May 8, 2003 03:41 PM

Actually the newsgroup is talk.origins.

I primarily bring it up to point out that Mary Rosh came after me in there one time in an off-topic discussion. 'She' was no more forthcoming than when I was trading e-mails with Lott.

Posted by: archpundit on May 8, 2003 09:55 PM
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