R M Cullen
MD MSc MFM BA DipStats DipProfEthics
|elite athlete development||diabetes||economics||evolution|
|Pro-Pare™||diabetes reversal||midinomics||chance or design?|
|tamaki sports academy||diabetes blog||genome topology|
|some thoughts||some opinions|
what this course is
This is a graduate level full semester course in evolutionary theory suitable for biologists, non-biologists, and non-science majors. It may even be suitable as an extension course for senior High School students.
There are no formal prerequisites bar an open mind and an ability to think critically.
Approximately half of the course is a critical study of Darwinian and neo-Darwinian theory, examined through the lens of evolution as something that may potentially be engineered (directed by man). There are substantial gaps in, and problems with, the Darwinian story. Students with a fixed view that ‘Darwin got it right’ are advised to find another course.
With this theoretical background the field of molecular genetics is introduced, together with ontogeny and genome topology.
The latter third of the course considers whether, and how, humans might be the masters of their own future evolution.
The course concludes with an introduction to some ethical issues in the context of the considerable commercial and military value of (human) evolution by design.
The course has around 20 lectures, and some summary information about many of the topics can be foundby following the links in the adjacent box. However, the course is interactive and I have found that the actual path the lectures take is often not that close to the summary as we follow lines of enquiry, backtrack, and jump forward in the course of our discussion. So sorry, but that's post graduate philosophy for you. I haven't given a summary for some of the lectures.
At this level of study, teachers have opinions. For clarity, here are some of mine.
I believe that scientific knowledge is a collection of justified beliefs, almost all of which are false. Many are approximately true, or true under certain conditions. Some are simply wrong. Scientists do not know which are which. This is a "Popperian" view (after Karl Popper). The central idea is that all conclusions are viewed with scepticism. Some may be useful, even if they are not the whole truth. The role of a scientist is to test everything and to believe, provisonally, only those 'truths' which have survived examination and for only so long as they survive attempts to falsify them.
I am not a great fan of the 'Wikipedia' view of evolutionary terms. Evolution is not 'changing allele frequencies'. Those are the effect of natural selection. Evolution means descent with modification. That is, entirely new features and entirely new species appear, and replace the incumbents. Darwinism is descent with modification through the mechanism of natural selection.
I do not believe that natural selection is the only driver of evolution. That is, I am not an adaptationist. In the Dawkins vs Gould battle of ideas, I favor Stephen Jay Gould. I am more extreme than him actually. I believe that genes or the genome should be viewed merely as a box of tools. Which tools are used when is, in the first instance, a result of interaction between the organism and the environment. Evolution is what happens when more tools are added to the toolbox in a non-uniform environment. Natural selection (ie differential reproductive rates of specific genes) is one, but only one interaction and its relative importance is unknown. My belief (and it is probably wrong, see the comment on Popper above) is that the environment in general, and acquired characteristics in particular, determine genome topology i.e determine which set of genes is available for transcription when.
what this course is not
This course is not in any way an examination of the historical question – are humans the product of intelligent design?
Nor is any view expressed on the truth value of “creationism”.
Students are required to submit three essays, choosing three of the six topics below. Students can submit four essays in which case the three highest grades will contribute to the final grade.
A. Imagine that the clock is wound back some period of time (from 6 million to 4 billion years). If time were restarted would life on Earth, and humankind in particular, be substantially as it is today when the tape finished replaying?
B. There is evidence for the transmission of some acquired characteristics from parent to offspring. Discuss the following: some of this evidence; suggested mechanisms for this "Lamarckian" inheritance; the role of Lamarckian inheritance in human evolution to this point in time; and any potential role of Lamarckian inheritance in engineering human evolution from this point forward.
C. Select any one of the six "Problems for Darwin" (the step to human, convergent evolution, intermediate forms, punctutated equilibrium, irreducible complexity, the origin of life) covered in this course. Discuss.
D. Species don't evolve. Ontogenies evolve. Discuss.
E. Describe human 2.0, the next step in human evolution (there is no right answer to this part of the essay topic). How might human 2.0 be engineered?
F. Imagine that the first human-other primate hybrids (HOPS) are to be released for sale. Judge Johns has ruled that HOPS are non-human primates, must be born sterile, and can be produced and customised with whatever features are required to render them fit for purpose. HOPS must have at least twice as many "other primate only genes" (OPOGS), that is genes or gene variants found in other primates but not in humans as "human only" genes (HOGS), genes or gene variants found in humans but not in other primates. President Shrub has announced the military will purchase the first 100,000 HOPS. The president of the Springfield nuclear power plant has said that the plant will purchase a HOP for Homer Simpson on condition that it comes to work in his place. Is this a morally or ethically objectionable scenario? Students are welcome to argue their position from a fixed religous, spiritual, or ethical point of view.
There is no word limit for these essays, although around 2,000 words is suggested. 10,000 words is far too long. 500 words is not going to be enough both to demonstrate a grasp of the issues and to develop an argument that might convince a disinterested sceptic.
suitable reference books
Readings and a reading list will be supplied with the notes for each lecture. However, these five books are ones you might choose to dip into most frequently during the course. They are all useful background reading. The covers are all from amazon.com so it is only fair that the covers link to that web-site.
the structure of evolutionary theory
Stephen Jay Gould
This 1,400 page book published in 2002 remains the gold standard. It is far too long to read cover to cover, and each chapter contains more words than are needed. However, it is an excellent resource. Just dip into it at random for 10-20 pages at a time!
why evolution is true
Jerry A Coyne
This book from professor Coyne of the university of chicago is non-technial and presents the standard responses to the "problems" with Darwin discussed in this course.
the ancestor's tale
This is a personal view from a noted popularizer of science. Professor Dawkins is an atheist first, second, and third. He sees evidence for human evolution as evidence against the existence of God, and his work is sprinkled (not so much in this book) with hate speech against creationists.
Stephen C Meyer
Dr Meyer is a christian first, second and third. His book identifies one "problem for Darwin" (the Cambrian explosion) and argues that 'intelligent design' provides a better explanation.
more about the assessment essays
Essay writing is stressful, especially so when the final product is to be graded.
You are writing for an audience of one - a middle aged somewhat pedantic chap who has heard it all before and doesn't have a fixed view on any of the topics.
You must demonstrate an appreciation that intelligent people have different answers to each of the essay topics. Your first task is to show the marker that you understand at least the two main opposing positions and the evidence supporting each.
Then you must take a stand, justify that stand, and (for options A to E at least) propose some observation or experiment that might well sway people who don't agree with you to your point of view.
For example, if you support some version of the muli-regional hypothesis for the "step to human" then the finding, in Australia, of "human ancestor" bones that predate the first emigration out of Africa would be helpful.
Your opinions are important. Don't be afraid to express them. However, you must not claim someone else's work as you own. At the very best this is unacceptably sloppy and merits a fail. At the worst this is plagiarism and merits expulsion.
Two final points. These essays are to be written in English. Please ensure that the marker can recognize this as the language in which you are writing. You do get points for organizing your essay and making it interesting to read.