Month: February 2012

162. University of Chicago Biology Professor, Dr. Jerry Coyne, Fails History

Interview with historian and Alfred Russell Wallace scholar challenges evolutionary biologist, Dr. Jerry Coyne. Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Professor Michael Flannery, author of, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life.  During the interview Flannery discusses Wallace's contributions to the theory of evolution: Alex Tsakiris: During the last episode of Skeptiko we were talking to Dr. Jerry Coyne and he had a number of things to say concerning the history of the theory of evolution and the relationship between Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.  In particular, Jerry was emphatic in claiming Alfred Russel Wallace never connected biogeography to evolution, “Wallace did not use biogeography as evidence of evolution. I mean, never!” That’s not how I remember this history, so I decided to check with Wallace biographer Professor Michael Flannery. Professor Flannery: Well, he seems to really be unfamiliar with Wallace’s body of writing on that topic. The famous paleontologist and geologist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, he’s sort of an icon in the field, referred to Wallace’s Sarawak Law Paper as “A very strong argument for the Theory of Descent and a bold declaration from a strong and fearless Evolutionist.” And actually if you’d like sort of an icing on the cake reference, Ian McCalman, who has written a pretty good book recently called Darwin’s Armada, refers to Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper as, “The first ever British scientific paper to claim that animals had descended from a common ancestor and then produced closely similar variations which have evolved into distinct species.” Alex Tsakiris: All this might seem like a lot of minor detail that no one cares about, but this little bit of history is actually quite important in the culture war debate over the theory of evolution. Why does an otherwise smart guy like Dr. Jerry Coyne say these things which are so obviously incorrect? What’s the real agenda here? Professor Flannery: Well, my guess is that he is either just unfamiliar with Wallace’s work, although that’s kind of hard to believe… I actually think that it just doesn’t serve his purpose.  When you look at his book, Why Evolution is True, one of the things he’s writing against is Intelligent Design. To bring Wallace into the picture becomes problematic for him because Wallace himself came to view evolution as being guided. Professor Michael Flannery's Alfred Russel Wallace Website Reply to Dr. Jerry Coyne on Biogeography Roy Davies: In terms of biogeography Coyne doesn't know what he is talking about Play It: Download MP3 (21:00 min.) Read It: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode of Skeptiko I have a short follow-up interview with Professor Michael Flannery from the University of Alabama, Birmingham. He’s the author of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life. Now you’ll recall that at the end of the last episode of Skeptiko I told you I was going to do this interview because when we were talking to Dr. Jerry Coyne during the last interview, he had a number of things to say about this relationship between Darwin and Wallace, and in particular about whether or not Alfred Russel Wallace ever connected biogeography to evolution. This sounds like a little bit of inside baseball and detail-oriented stuff that you may not care about in the bigger picture of science, but it turns out to be pretty central to this culture war debate surrounding the theory of evolution. Here’s my interview with Professor Michael Flannery: Alex Tsakiris: So I’ve managed to get Professor Mike Flannery on the phone here and Professor Flannery was nice enough to actually review the interview that we had with Jerry Coyne when I sent it to him. I thought there were some kind of direct points about the Darwin versus Wallace thing that he certainly knows a lot better than I do. I thought we’d have Professor Flannery back on here. Mike, thanks for joining me. Professor Flannery: Sure.


161. Outspoken Atheist Dr. Jerry Coyne Sees No Connection Between Consciousness Research and Evolutionary Biology

Interview with University of Chicago professor and author of, Why Evolution is True,  Dr. Jerry Coyne. Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Jerry Coyne, author of, Why Evolution is True.  During the interview Dr. Coyne discusses the connection between free will and the theory of evolution: Dr. Jerry Coyne: My interest in free will did not really grow out of evolution. It’s just something I’ve been interested in lately trying to ponder human behavior. Alex Tsakiris: Okay, but I think it is pretty important when we talk about what are the agencies of evolution. One of the articles that I sent you was on the research of Jeffrey Schwartz at UCLA. He studied Obsessive-compulsive disorder and found that self-directing thought could actually rewire their brain, something called neuroplasticity. This research fits into this broad category of research that shows that intention, mental thought, can actually change the physical. Doesn’t that have an impact on the overall picture of evolution? Dr. Jerry Coyne: I’d have to be convinced by reading this article that brains can change themselves without any external inputs from either the other parts of the body or the environment. Alex Tsakiris: But it sounds like you are open to the idea that that would be directly relevant to evolutionary theory? Dr. Jerry Coyne: No, I’m not. Again, I don’t understand why you keep trying to connect evolution with free will. Free will is, I believe, an illusion that we have that we can somehow affect the workings of our brain and free them from the laws of physics. My answer to that is no, we can’t arrange the subject of the laws of physics because they’re material entities. The feeling that we have free will, which of course we all have, we all have that feeling of agency. Whether or not that’s proactive evolution or whether it’s an epiphenomena or anything like that is something that I don’t know. None of us know the answer to that question. Jerry Coyne's Website Play It: Download MP3 (57:00 min.) Read It: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode of Skeptiko we’re going to dig into evolutionary biology. I have to tell you, I’ve never been that interested in really exploring evolutionary biology. The reason is from the very beginning I saw the issues of consciousness being much more central to these core big picture science questions that we want to talk about. I mean, consciousness trumps evolution when we want to ask the questions of who are we really, where did we come from, what happens to us after we die? Consciousness more directly gets to those questions. The people who are on the cutting edge of consciousness research really, I think, have a lot more to say about these things. For example, when we look at former guests like Dr. Rupert Sheldrake and his Morphic Resonance theory, his idea that somehow there is a habit that’s formed in this field of consciousness that we have and it drives us in a certain direction. He has some pretty interesting experiments that he’s put together that establish that that may in fact be happening. When you look at what the impact of a theory like morphic resonance is on evolutionary biology, it kind of relegates evolutionary biology to a mere sideshow in this larger question of how did we come to be who we are? The same can be said for a lot of the guests that we’ve had on Skeptiko. Dean Radin, for example, and his presentiment work. What might it mean if our actions right now are somehow influenced by the future? And then there’s the larger question of mind equals brain. Are we just biological robots? Again, Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne will tell you that you don’t have to look any further than evolutionary biology to answer those questions. But it just seems obvious to me that we want to ask those questions more directly and look at direct evidence, for example, the near-death experience science that we’ve looked at on this show. I think anyone would have to acknowledge that it certainly is more direct in getting to that question of whether or not our mind is something more than just this biological brain that we have. So these are the connections I was trying to make when I set up this interview with Jerry Coyne. These were the topics around evolutionary biology that I think are most interesting and I wanted to ask him about. But as you’ll see, we never quite got there. Here’s my interview with Dr. Jerry Coyne: Today’s guest is one of the leading authorities on evolutionary genetics and speciation. Dr. Jerry Coyne is a professor at the University of Chicago. He’s published many popular as well as many scholarly articles on the Theory of Evolution, free will, science and religion, and Atheism. He’s also penned several popular science books including, Why Evolution is True. Dr. Coyne, welcome to Skeptiko. Thanks so much for joining me. Dr. Jerry Coyne: My pleasure.


160. Dr. Christof Koch on Human Consciousness and Near-Death Experience Research

Interview with Cal Tech professor and author of the upcoming, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist,  Dr. Christof Koch. Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Christof Koch, author of, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.  During the interview Dr. Koch discusses the limits of near-death experience research for understanding consciousness: Dr. Koch: …once again it’s all about the details. The only way you can do such an experiment would be to have a near-death experience while your brain waves are being recorded, while you’re in a brain scanner. Because otherwise, how do I know? Otherwise, the guy wakes up an hour later, right, and then you ask what happened to his brain an hour before. Of course, an hour before he wasn’t in the brain scanner. So the only way to do the experiment is while you’re having this near-death experience. Alex Tsakiris: Great. And that makes it impossible to do the experiment. We’re back to ground zero. But hold on. I don’t think that’s the case. You referenced the GLOC experiments with the pilots. Well, by deduction you’re incorporating in human experience. You’re saying that of course, which is obvious, people can say what happened to them. The other thing about it is that they have this continuity of experience, right? They say, “Oh, I was awake and then I started blacking out and then this happened and then I woke up.” They have a continuous experience. Now you can say they recreated that continuous experience after they woke up but the burden is really on you, especially when it’s consistently reported as a continuous experience. Why would we assume that it’s not continuous? That’s the way it’s being reported. Dr. Koch: When I go to bed I suddenly wake up inside and I fly. I just did this tonight. I have no experience of the intervening two hours, right? So suddenly I’m flying. Well, wonderful. So now what? So now you’re going to say it’s not up to you to find out through which space that I flew? No. I have this experience every night. My brain gives rise to all sorts of experiences. Of course I realize them. I don’t deny them for one second. But they’re caused by specific brain activity. Christof Koch's Website Bernardo Kastrup's Response Play It: Download MP3 (47:00 min.) Read It: Today we welcome Dr. Christof Koch to Skeptiko. Dr. Koch is recognized as one of the world’s leading consciousness researchers. He has a very distinguished academic career and was a Caltech professor before becoming the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Christof, thanks so much for joining me today on Skeptiko. Dr. Koch: My pleasure, Alex.