Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Atheist's Nightmare is Banana Hands

"Protective buttressing of the human fist and the evolution of hominin hands"

 There is nothing as great as a hand
It can high-five, punch, and demand
When a jaw needs to be kissed
You just make a fist!
Just as evolution has planned.

In apes, a tiny thumb lingers
Which makes them more slappers than ringers
But we're grasping at straws
To say fist-fighting caused
A shortening in our other fingers.

This is a classic example of disappointing sparkle-hand science - something which occurs a lot when a scientist gets into the rut of trying to prove the reasoning behind an evolutionary direction. The actual methodology behind the article doesn't come across too poorly, and had some interesting conclusions: they had people punch bags with their fists, then with open palms, then with fists using the thumbs as a support structure, and found no difference in strike force only in the levels of flexation. The actual science concludes that performing the five point palm exploding heart technique is more likely to break your fingers, but you can put just as much force behind it, which is a pretty valuable piece of information that kung fu movies should take note of.

Unfortunately when dealing with our own evolution human beings become overly-involved in their theories, particularly ones that aren't testable (which this one isn't - it's very much testable, at least to a certain degree, which is the WORST BIT). The real struggle of this article is when it starts traipsing blithely down the path of Denying the Antecedent, with an extended sideways jaunt into Unrelated, Dear God What a Stretch road.

Meaghan has a huge, throbbing science boner for one of Dr. Carrier's earlier theories, so she really, really wanted to like this article. Instead, she let a little bit of her soul die while reading through the series of unproven, untestable, and frankly unrelated hypotheses that made fists still mightier than the bitch-slap that her idol then didn't bother to test. If you want us to believe that the sexual dimorphism of arm length in men versus women has anything, goddamn it anything to do with the evolution of hands, you need to test that, not vomit pseudoscientific glitter on a discussion section and hope that your wool-gathering is impressively deluded enough to slip past further scrutiny. Instead the authors blithely and prolifically cite things as support that actually have very little to do with the topic, like a paper that says that men and women differ in the lengths of their middle and pinky fingers when their whole article is about thumbs versus other fingers.

Listen, guys, if your introduction has the defense that babies make fists and therefore it's the natural posture of anger, you might want to check yourself cuz it's likely you're about to head down the path of soft science into the realm of Nuh-Uh land. After all, babies also suck on their thumbs, but that doesn't mean that human thumbs are their natural food group. Plus, they poop their pants on a very regular basis, and taking candy from them is ridiculously easy - using them as an expert in any situation is probably a bad idea, unless you're discussing the validity of the aftermath of a baby food hurricane as an art form.

The whole thing reads like a drunken Thanksgiving argument: it's mostly that one uncle preaching dramatically after consuming too many hot-toddies, tossing out a few tidbits you think are probably true and may have to google later, and wrapping them all up in a big blanket of bullshit suppositions. However, even this hot mess of a scientific article is better than Self-Proclaimed Hand-and-Banana Morphology Expert, Ray Comfort.

There once was an evolving plant
who accomplished what others can't
It fits my hand!
Isn't that grand!
Bananas are Darwin's Rembrandt

Of course there's another conclusion:
That this is the banana's choosin'
The tastier they grow
The more seeds we'll sow
Cuz being better leads to greater profusion!

Ahh, bananas. Nature's perfectly packaged, delicious, seedless - OMG WHAT IS THAT NIGHTMARE FRUIT? Oh, that's a wild banana? And the glorious yellow laxative we pick up for cheapsies in the grocery store is actually a highly refined, genetically modified monster? Interesting - and probably great for the banana. While we like to put a lot of emphasis on the difference between artificial and natural selection, the truth is that the delineation between the two is rooted in anthropocentric thinking. Today, the domesticated banana grows in over a hundred countries, on six continents. Yes, that success is due to humans cultivation and spread - which we never would have done if the banana hadn't been so delicious, especially the new hybridized species that was selected for by human consumption. If that's not the definition of success by the banana's standard, what is? The banana isn't the Atheist's nightmare, it's a botanical evolutionary powerhouse - it's a model of what selection can achieve.

Now, if the above "science" hasn't yet turned you off the topic yet and you're looking for a mental palate cleanser for all the stupidity we made you endure, we recommend checking out "the spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme," by Gould & Lewontin. It discusses the pervasive scientific problem of focusing on the why, rather than the how of evolution... but instead of making you want to tear your own eyeballs out and stomp them into oblivion, it'll probably make you point emphatically at the screen and shout "yes, yes, that's exactly what I thought!" And what could make a weekend better than having the same thought process as Stephen Jay Gould?