Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Books (Science): Struck By Lightning

I haven't posted much about books lately, except for the bit on Tezuka's Buddha. Recently my reading has been rather scattered -- until yesterday I had four books on the go, jumping between them, not really able to stay focused on any one for long.

But yesterday I finished the most recent of the four, Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities by Jeffrey Rosenthal, a University of Toronto professor of statistics. It's a plain-language guide to common sense about probabilities (what Rosenthal calls "the Probability Perspective"), something that is often lacking in the general public, written in a light-hearted tone. It doesn't go as deep into the math as, say, Larry Gonick's Cartoon Guide to Statistics (which is not damning with faint praise: the Cartoon Guide gets right into the details!), but it covers its material in an accessible and friendly manner that makes it very approachable, with lots of examples from everyday life and popular entertainment (including The Simpsons and Monty Python).

Sometimes Rosenthal goes a little overboard. His sidebar examples get a little too cutesy at times, especially the "Ace Space, Probability Perspective Investigator" interlude chapter in the middle. Colin Bruce did that schtick better in Conned Again, Watson!, another common-sense guide to stats presented as Sherlock Holmes stories. Though, to be fair, Rosenthal does warn you at the beginning of the Ace Diamond story that "Serious, sober-minded readers may wish to skip this chapter".

Probably the biggest gripe I have about the book is in the first section of the chapter "Evolution, Genes, and Viruses". Rosenthal's explanation of evolution has a serious flaw:

The process [of natural selection] ensures that less fit offspring do not survive and reproduce. Thus, surviving offspring are weighted towards being more fit, more advanced, better able to live and flourish. In practical terms, this means that surviving offspring are weighted towards being more intelligent, more adaptable, and more cunning -- in short, more like humans.

The problem here is that there is no necessary weighting towards being "more intelligent", "more advanced", "more cunning", or "more like humans" in evolution. The only weighting is towards being "better able to reproduce in the current environment". Amoebas today are evolutionary descendants of amoebas from three billion years ago. Their evolution has not made them "more like humans" -- they're perfectly capable of reproducing in their modern environment.

This is one of the biggest misconceptions about evolution in the general public -- that it's goal-oriented, and that we are the goal. Rosenthal hedges a little with a parenthetical "or some other sophisticated, intelligent life form", but even that isn't the case. Sure, intelligence seems to be a pretty good survival trait, so if there's a chance for it to show up, it'll probably flourish. But if there were to turn out to be microscopic life on Mars, for instance, it will be the end-product of billions of years of evolution that never even got close to a "sophisticated, intelligent life form".

That's more of a pet peeve than a real problem with the book, though these days, with the creationist scientist-wannabes of the Intelligent Design movement muddying the waters in the US, it's something of a disservice to the public to muddy the waters about evolution. Or, more accurately, to fail to help clear the waters -- this is an already well-established misunderstanding. Rosenthal isn't making anything worse, he's just missing an opportunity to help make things better.

With luck, I'll soon get a chance to post about the last two Miles Verkosigan books I've finished (I'm a little bogged down in the latest I've started -- I'll explain later) and the most recent popular book about a very narrow aspect of science book I've started.

I'll also be doing more photo posts like the Sharp Sentre For Design one yesterday between book posts.

No comments: