Saturday, August 20, 2011


There are three very common accusations that are repeatedly levelled against the theory of evolution. They're all fundamentally flawed accusations but they are used constantly in an attempt to discredit the theory. Two of the criticisms are even, strictly speaking correct, but that does not make them credible criticisms - it is simply a misunderstanding of terminology. The three accusations are as follows

  • It's just survival of the fittest
  • We're all descended from monkeys
  • It's only a theory

It's Just Survival of the Fittest

Survival of the fittest is a phrase that now tends to be avoided in science because it has become so widely misunderstood. It is most commonly interpreted as kill or be killed. The logical but flawed conclusion of kill or be killed is that if you are able to kill and live off another species then ultimately you will wipe that species out - that is most commonly understood to describe survival of the fittest.

Survival of the fittest however has a more nuanced definition than that. Survival of the fittest means the ability of a species to survive despite the existence of its predators. It is the ability to reproduce in sufficient numbers that you cannot be wiped out.

Consider the ant and the anteater. The anteater by definition, eat ants. It has done so for millions of years but it has so far failed to wipe out the ant population and in fact, the demise of the ant population would very quickly result in the corresponding demise of the anteater population. The anteater has no interest in eating all the ants in the world so there are none left and the ant has developed the ability to reproduce in sufficient numbers that it can continue to survive, despite relentlessly being eaten by anteaters. This makes the ant fit for survival and an excellent illustration of the phrase survival of the fittest. The ant is a very fit creature. As a species, it'll probably outlive us all.

We're All Descended from Monkeys

We're not. The theory of evolution states that we, and monkeys, share a common ancestor. It does not state that we are descended from a species that exists alongside us nor does it claim to know what that common ancestor is. That would be ridiculous.

The common ancestor the theory states we share has long since departed the planet and we have no idea what form it might have taken (we're probably talking primordial soup here) but there are sufficient similarities between us and other species to conclude that, despite our lack of absolute knowledge about that ancestor, we can still almost certainly conclude it was shared.

It's Only a Theory

Yes, that's correct. It is only a theory. But to dismiss it as simply being a set of ideas which have somehow gained a fashionable following which is what people are implying with this criticism is wrong. It fails to acknowledge the correct scientific definition of a theory.

A scientific theory is an idea which is constantly tested and whilst it may never be proven to be fact gains creedence over time the more it is tested with additional data. Many theories are accepted as fact despite science continuing to describe them as theories because science does not allow something to be described as fact unless it can be definitively and unquestionably proven as such. Theories simply become more credible as more and more data is pumped through them and the theory continues to hold up. It may however never be possible to prove a theory is fact because you may never have access to all the data.

Consider the following example. I choose to measure the height of all adult members of my family. The heights of these people are facts. I could, based on these facts, develop a theory that the average height of any adult person is five feet and six inches. That would be a poor theory (not enough data) but a theory nonetheless. I would need a lot more data to make it a plausible theory.

If I then measured all the people in my street I might refine my theory and state that the average height of any given adult person is five feet and five inches. I still could not describe this average height as a fact but I've just made it a more reliable theory. I could then measure all the people in London and I might still have the theory that the average height of any given person is five feet and five inches. The theory is looking better and better.

I could spend the rest of my life measuring people and come up with an incredibly accurate figure for the average height of any given person. That average figure would eventually reach a point where regardless of how much more data I fed into it, it would barely change. You might then be able to say this average figure is a fact, but in absolute scientific terms it would still be only a theory.

For my theory to be accepted as fact I would need to absolutely know the height of all people. I would need all the data. The theory of evolution has had a lot of data fed into it and continues to hold up but yes, it's still only a theory but after all this time and all this data, it's a bloody good one.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Last Week in London

Well, it's been an interesting week. When the city you live in gets the kind of global news coverage that has recently been reserved for Cairo, Tripoli and Damascus the temptation is to comment and perhaps try to moderate the excesses of the global - and worse still, local - media. This is my modest attempt at some sort of perspective.

I'll try to avoid commenting on events elsewhere in the country which despite being related (in a copycat manner) to the events in London were in places I do not know well and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment.

The first thing to point out is we do not have a revolution on our hands which is how I believe events were portrayed in certain parts of the media around the world. What we had was certainly a civil disturbance on a significant scale that was initially and very tenuously motivated by the police shooting an individual in the course of his arrest. He had a loaded and functioning weapon which was not fired. Other details of this event are still unclear. It may be worth mentioning that UK police are not routinely armed. As far as I am aware, police only arm themselves if they expect to attend a scene where they believe they will encounter armed resistance.

London is a big city. Very big. What you saw on your tv screens were major and significant disturbances but these were generally contained within small pockets of the city as a whole. Within these areas a small but critical mass of individuals managed to outnumber the police to the point where they could pretty much roam with impunity and do whatsoever they pleased facing little or no resistance. This manifested itself in gangs of mostly teenagers and young men - but also women, attacking innocent bystanders, looting shops and setting fire to buildings and vehicles.

The looting of shops was comprehensive with small independent local businesses targetted as well as major multinational chain stores. Local people attacked their own area. There was no anti-capitalism angle to this looting. Shops were looted solely if they were expected to have goods of value within them. The prime targets were electrical goods, alcohol, tobacco and clothing. In one area, apparently the only shop to remain undamaged was a bookstore - go figure.

The initial media response was to attribute this behaviour to the inevitable tensions that build up in the deprived and non-affluent areas of a city that generally portrays itself to the outside world as overtly prosperous. Some people tried to defend the actions of those involved suggesting that they were a deprived underclass who had been excluded by society as a whole and were simply expressing their justifiable anger at their inability to share in the prosperity of London.

What quickly became apparent however was that whilst the earlier shooting may have been a trigger to riot, the subsequents looting and other criminal acts were the realisation of the mob that in sufficient numbers, the police could be easily outnumbered and therefore they could do as they pleased. Once word got around that it was open season on the local high street others joined in the looting. Whilst I suspect the majority of people involved were simply making the most of an opportunity to steal from shops without any police intervention, it was also apparent that certain sections of the group were also taking the opportunity to commit acts of violence and intimidation on any innocent individual that passed before them. This was and is the most worrying aspect of recent events. Violence directed at the police or state, whilst distasteful is I suppose understandable. Violence against innocent bystanders is not.

At time of writing this there have been about 1,600 arrests relating to these events. These people are currently being fast-tracked through the court system and prosecuted. What is becoming apparent is that whilst many are habitual offenders a small proportion are from a section of society that you would not normally expect to see before the magistrates. So far this has included a member of the teaching staff at a primary school, a graphical designer, an organic chef (who apparently decided to trash a budget chain restaurant), privately educated university graduates and bizarrely, a ballerina.

Most of the theft commited during these disturbances was opportunistic. The realisation by individuals that given the opportunity to steal and not be confronted doing it, a large number of people decided this was an acceptable thing to do. Underpinning this was a more sinister core of individuals who were intent on committing acts of violence and firestarting for the same reason - they were unchallenged.

There were five murders. As far as I can tell this was murder for the sake of it (if such a phrase makes sense). Innocent people going about their business finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This is not over. There will be more events like this, perhaps not on the same scale, but they will definitely happen. A certain section of society realised this week how easy it is to organise and commit co-ordinated acts of mob crime. For every individual that was caught and prosecuted there will be ten people who got away with it and right now the people who got away with will have a new idea to ponder - crime, for the moment, pays. As I sit at home right now, 7:30pm on a Friday evening, I can hear police sirens in the distance.

These were not race riots. These were not anti-capital riots. There was no political justification. They were however - and this is a surprise to no-one except apparently politicians - a realisation that a large number of people in this city seem to have little or no hesitation in commiting crime simply if they think they can get away with it. It was mostly however motivated by that most basic of human failings - greed.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011


Don’t you just love German synth pop. They have taken something - pop music - that should be trivial and flighty and fun and turned it into some sort of existential angst. Only some po-faced Germans would try putting an Edgar Allan Poe poem to music. The German film director Fritz Lang was also an influence. Heavy. But you know what? They somehow managed to pull it off (sorry, this clip is rather long but I think, worth it).

I remember this band from the 80s when earnest music like this was seen as a cut above the rest - up on the intellectual high ground that Duran Duran and their like could not even dream to inhabit. New Order were up there as well. I also remember being extremely intrigued as a very young man by Claudia Brucken and also, but not quite as much by Susanne Freytag. Claudia could do things with a German accent that I didn't think possible - she could make it sound deeply sexy.

As a band, they burned briefly but brightly. Critically acclaimed, they rather imploded, managing to fall apart for more reasons than any other band I can recall - disagreements over performing live, artistic differences, personal differences, bad contracts with their record company, personal relationships that caused resentment among the band and many other reasons. The initial lineup lasted little more than 18 months.

Twenty five years on and looking back at some of their output, I still think their music stands up today, far better than most of what was produced in the eighties. I think/hope they had a sense of humour - they appeared to have a lot of fun making the video below. I dearly hope they weren't trying to make some sort of deep meaningful statement with it because that would almost certainly ruin my enjoyment.