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January 08, 2011

Evolution, Genes, "Race," Denial & "Justice"

When the young Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos in September 1835 as part of a daunting around-the-world voyage on HMS Beagle, he couldn’t have expected to gain the critical insights that would make him famous within his lifetime and leave him both hated and revered today, some 180 years later. Back when the voyage began in 1831, he was a youthful medical school drop-out whose decision to quit his studies had disappointed his physician father, yet he'd still managed to persuade the older Darwin to finance a position for him as resident “naturalist” on the Beagle’s ambitious (and risky) project of global circumnavigation, a voyage that would last five years.

As we now know, the younger Darwin was familiar with the then-new concepts of Geology pioneers James Hutton and Charles Lyell ; thus he knew that the discovery of marine fossils on upland slopes was casting serious doubt on traditional Biblical notions of time, one of the many Enlightenment discoveries that would prepare him for the insights he would be exposed to on his now-famous voyage. Those insights began with observations made during a relatively short visit to a cluster of volcanic islands off the coast of South America. The Galapagos, then nearly unknown to Europeans, are now recognized by the scientifically informed as one of the few locations on Earth where evidence hinting at Evolution would have been obvious enough to catch the attention of even a prepared mind like Darwin's in the early Nineteenth Century. Even so, other circumstances would be required to nurture those insights to fruition: the financial means to pursue what became a life-long obsession, a supportive family, and the production of an historic manuscript that would both satisfy Huxley and electrify the world in 1859.

Thus did Charles Darwin labor long and hard to generate a hypothesis that is still either unknown to, or resisted mightily by over half the world's humans. Even where it has been heard of, vested interests oppose it; primarily on religious grounds. At the same time, Evolution has matured into the most important biologic theory yet. It guides progress in the Life Sciences and has been further confirmed by Mendelian Genetics, a Science that didn't exist before Darwin (Darwin and Mendel were probably unknown to each other). Also elucidation of the structure of DNA (published in 1953), has led to a progressive understanding that a complex chemical has probably enabled inheritance in all life forms, provided invaluable forensic tools, and still offers exciting new possibilities such as back-tracking human migrations.

All of which brings up the distinction between an hypothesis and a theory: the former is an explanation proposed for an observed natural phenomenon. As such, it's also a preliminary form of the latter; to the extent an hypothesis proves useful, it tends to be retained as a guide to further investigation. At some point successful hypotheses becomes theories. Those that don’t fulfill their original promise, may be either radically modified or completely discarded. Phrenology is a good example of the latter: its logic depended on the localization of brain function demonstrated by the work of Hughlings-Jackson, but alas, bumps on the skull could not be similarly related to personality.

The process by which theories are discussed, modified, or discarded has itself evolved along with empirical Science. In general, the entrance of government into such discussions has been neither helpful no efficacious and often had the opposite effect.

Many glaring examples are provided by the Drug War, which is itself bereft of a coherent hypothesis (except, perhaps that "drugs" of abuse," as decided by a lawyer, should be prohibited in the criminal code). That notion has only fostered crime, murder and corruption in every nation that has implemented it, an observation readily confirmed by Google, but not acknowledged in the "mainstream" press of any nation.

Thus a reasonable litmus test for a rational drug policy becomes failure (refusal?) by the American "Drug Czar" and NIDA director to acknowledge the carnage "marijuana" prohibition is causing along our border with Mexico

That NIDA is now headed by a native Mexican is hardly an auspicious omen.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at January 8, 2011 07:52 PM