Get vaccinated

It never ceases to amaze me just how many anti-vax people there are out there. Every time I bring up the topic it isn’t the pro-vaccine people who come out in support. No, instead it’s almost exclusively the anti-vax quacks. I suppose the same thing happens with circumcision, 9/11, and a history of Obama’s life: the anti-circumcision crowd, truthers, and birthers are going to immediately overwhelm the discussion. But even with this massive selection bias, the sheer number of nuts out there is incredible. I suspect to see as much regarding this post, should it garner a response at all. However, as a decent human being with a little bit of knowledge, I feel duty-bound to present a few vaccine facts.

Vaccines are incredibly safe. This is true of all vaccines, but especially of the flu vaccine. The most likely side effects anyone is going to suffer are mild soreness or a low grade fever. A study from about 10 years ago did find that one version of the swine flu vaccine from the mid-70’s was associated with a tiny increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome, but correlation is not causation. No one knows why there was such an association, but for this reason those with a history of the syndrome are cautioned and should speak with their doctor to assess their exact situation. Also, those with severe egg allergies are cautioned, plus those who are currently sick with one thing or another should wait.

Vaccines change each year because of evolution. From time to time I’ll hear an objection to the fact that the flu vaccine is different each year. Why, the argument seems to go, scientists are just guessing. That’s not true. While they are making an educated guess, it’s more than just throwing up a prayer and hoping they get it right. Each year’s vaccine is based upon the most recent research and information available. This is necessary because of the speed of a virus’ evolution.

Everyone over 6 months old should get vaccinated. This, of course, takes into account the caveats I’ve already presented, but for the vast majority of people, vaccination is recommended. Vaccines save lives, and if that’s not important enough to you for some crazy reason, they also save money by cutting down on sick days.

The flu vaccine is effective. Exactly how effective the flu vaccine is will vary from year to year, as well as from age group to age group. A person’s overall health is also a factor. In general, though, the vaccine’s effectiveness ranges from 50-80%. The most common (and most annoying) ‘counter’ to this is to look at absolute risk reduction. A person who does this is usually either a quack or has gathered information from a quack. It isn’t that absolute risk reduction is invalid. It’s a perfectly good way to understand how wide-spread a disease or sickness is and how our health policies are dealing with it. For the flu vaccine, the actual reduction in risk is about 1.5%. That sounds miniscule, but we can make a lot of things sound miniscule. What’s happening here is we’re looking at the total population and calculating the number who would get the flu without any vaccine. That’s a very small percentage. Then we’re looking at how likely it is that of the percentage that actually gets vaccinated is going to not get the flu as a result. Again, this is useful. However, when presented in the context of this discussion, it isn’t useful. It would be as if someone argued that since the absolute risk of contracting HIV in Tanzania is very low over, say, intercourse with 5 different partners, the 97-99% effectiveness of condoms is moot. Why, who needs condoms? You probably won’t contract it anyway! Pshaw.

Vaccines, not sanitation, have eradicated or nearly eradicated disease. While it’s obviously true that increased bathing, hand washing, and better filtered water have made us healthier and less likely to contract various diseases, these alone cannot get rid of disease. Smallpox has been eradicated for over 30 years now because of vaccines, not because more people than ever are buying bars of Irish Spring soap. Polio is nearly eradicated because of vaccines; India was recently declared polio free – that isn’t a country exactly known for its impeccable sanitation practices. Yellow fever persists because so many people go unvaccinated (even though the vaccine is 99% effective), and no amount of sanitation is going to change how many people die from it each year since its primary vector is the mosquito.

There are far more thorough sources out there that have vaccine facts covered in much better detail than I have here, so this is far enough for me. I simply wanted to address some of the issues that bother me the most about the vaccine misinformation floating about. For nearly every single person, vaccination is the smart option. The caveats are small and specific, the side effects minor and manageable. Get vaccinated.

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Theistic evolution

The problem I have with theistic evolutionists who believe humans are special is that they seem to be ignoring or unaware of the fact that evolution is a continuum. At no point does one species simply become another species. It is simply the presence of time and absence of generation-by-generation fossils that allow us to declare one group such-and-such species and another group this-and-that species.

So think about this. It’s generally estimated that humans, as we anatomically know them today, came about around 250,000 years ago. (It’s 100,000 by other estimates, but let’s just pick a number, so in this case we’ll say 250K.) That doesn’t mean that in 250,000 B.C. we went from one Homo primate to Homo sapiens. It was gradual. Now, if we stretch things out, it becomes easier to make distinctions. So 500,000 years ago, let’s say, it’s pretty clear there are no humans walking the Earth. How about 400,000? Nope, still none. 300,000? We’re closer, but humans aren’t there yet. Then we get to 250,000 and it looks like we’ve got humans, more or less. But what if we had more exact fossils? Could we say 260,000? How about 255,437? Would that even make sense?

The answer is an emphatic “No”. The viable offspring of two sexually reproducing organisms isn’t a different species. Sure, we have things like mules and ligers, but those only go to the point being made here – they aren’t viable. And if they were viable, it wouldn’t be worth declaring them different species. It’s all a continuum.

So the question to put to theistic evolutionists who believe humans are special is, At what point did we become special? If it was in 255,437 B.C., then why weren’t the parents of that human special? What made them fundamentally different from their offspring?

Cornelius ‘Common Creationist’ Hunter

Cornelius Hunter has a history of struggling to understand simply concepts. Today is no different:

As with the so-called vestigial structures—another evolutionary construct—function is, ultimately, irrelevant. A structure is “vestigial,” or DNA is “junk,” not by virtue of any objective criterion dealing with function, but because evolutionists say so.

His post was primarily about so-called ‘junk DNA’, but I’ve addressed that topic in the past, so I will only mention it to note that it only ever betrays a deep ignorance when creationists talk about it. What I really want to discuss is Hunter’s mention of vestigial structures. First, let’s define our term:

[Vestigial] refers to an organ or part (for example, the human appendix) which is greatly reduced from the original ancestral form and is no longer functional or is of reduced or altered function.

Vestigial structures provide a clue to the evolutionary history of a species because they are remnants of structures found in the ancestral species.

It’s easy to see Hunter’s error. A vestigial structure need not be related to function whatsoever – and that doesn’t therefore mean that it is merely the say-so of biologists that makes it vestigial. The human ear, for instance, has vestigial muscles that don’t do anything; in our ancestors (and cousins), their function is to swivel the ear for better directional hearing. That’s vestigial, it’s evolutionary, and it’s science. DNA comparison can, does, and will show that when looked at. Furthermore, a vestigial structure can have a function while still being vestigial. For instance, whales have remnants of hind legs that clearly are not used for walking. However, they do play a role in where muscles are attached. Again, that’s vestigial, it’s evolutionary, and it’s science. Hunter just isn’t familiar with these things.

Jellyfish Lake

Here’s a neat video about jellyfish that have evolved to utilize photosynthesizing algae that produce sugars, in turn providing food for the belled organisms:



These jellyfish are locked in a freshwater marine lake that formed within pieces of volcanic land that ‘sprung’ up in the Pacific; the lake filled in some 12,000 years ago as rising ocean levels reached its basin. Jellyfish Lake With no notable predators (sorry, sea anemone), the jellyfish have reproduced to incredible numbers (10 million by one estimate). They have faced huge die-offs over temperature differences and toxicity levels in years past, indicating that they are part of a fragile environment, but they are currently going as strong as ever.

As evolution predicts, these creatures have lost abilities no longer useful to them. Whereas many of their salt water counterparts are painful sons-of-bitches, the stingers on these guys are closer to being cute than harmful. This, luckily, makes it possible to swim alongside the jellies (and since every article and paper I’ve found on them takes care to note that 15 meters below the surface is a heavy layer of hydrogen sulfide, I suppose I’ll do the same – the stuff can kill you).

Visiting this lake is definitely on my bucket list.

Thought of the day

The fact that we all have the same genetic building blocks strongly suggests a single point of origin for all of life. That we can trace our genetic heritage and cousinships in a hierarchical and expanding way which matches morphology, behaviors, and the fossil record helps to make the case for evolution one of the strongest cases for any theory in the history of science.

Natural selection is a serious problem for theism

Natural selection is the process by which different traits and, ultimately, alleles spread or shrink throughout a population over time. It is a key mechanism in evolution and an understanding of it is necessary to knowing anything important about life itself. It demonstrates how we can have such a long history with so many seemingly lucky ancestors, culminating in such a massive variety across the planet. But perhaps most importantly, it sheds light on some of our most fundamental questions about existence.

I’ve spoken in the past about Richard Lenksi’s E. coli experiment. He has been tracking a dozen different lineages of the bacteria for the past 25 years, carefully cataloging the genetic changes that take place and when they happen. What he has found is that mutations are often contingent, meaning that for Mutation #2 to happen, Mutation #1 is first needed. However, in his most interesting finding, it turns out that neither of these mutations will necessarily be useful at first. That is, they are neither advantageous nor deleterious, instead merely being neutral, as is so often the case. Yet they persist. It is only by chance, so it is a lucky persistence, but it happens. And, with time, Mutation #3 (or 4 or 5, etc) happens, and it is that mutation which is advantageous. Here natural selection goes to work, causing the new allele to near or reach fixation. But this does not happen in every lineage. Indeed, when Lenski re-runs his experiment using generations he had frozen earlier, he has found that sometimes the mutations all happen again, but more often they fail to occur. The reason is clear: there is nothing but chance that can maintain a neutral mutation. (This is why microsatellites are great for studying short-term generational changes, but not deep evolutionary time.)

I bring this up because Lenksi’s work crystallizes in experiment the words of Stephen Jay Gould:

Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.

Gould went further, however, than us. No single trait, and certainly no entire species, is inevitable in evolution, he rightly said. Perhaps some features are more likely than others – the eye is said to have evolved independently 40 different times – but no specific feature (such as wings or bipedalism) can be firmly predicted. Indeed, Gould spent much of his time arguing that evolution drives not towards complexity or specificity, but rather diversity; life finds itself at many forks, but it never ‘knows’ which road it will take.

This presents a significant problem for theists. For the young Earth variety, the issues are glaring. That group of people is nothing but woefully ignorant, denying even the most obvious and established science. They don’t deserve any more of my time here. For the older Earth variety that opts for theistic evolution, however, the problems they face are merely buried just far enough away from mild, easy thinking to be ignorable for most. That is, they’ve admitted to the fact of evolution, but they are necessarily ignoring that if humans evolved just like everything else, there was a point where our ancestors weren’t human; we were no different from any other mammal in the distant past. (It is only time and space which allows us to define a species.) That destroys any argument that says, in the eyes of some deity, we might be more special than, say, a giraffe.

The counter to this, as per the Catholic Church and others, is to simply declare that we were infused with souls at some unknown point in our evolutionary history. This isn’t much of an answer: No member of a species gives birth to a different species; evolution is continuous. So to believe the theist’s argument, we must conclude that at some point in our ancestry, a mother with no soul gave birth to offspring that did have a soul. That is, one was not essentially human while, magically, the other was.

The one version of theism that gets around some of this is where it is declared that all of life is equally special, so it doesn’t matter that no particular species or even traits are inevitable. This, however, has its own problem. Namely, it makes the given deity (or deities) entirely superfluous. It’s no more a viable position than seeing a door blown inward from the wind and declaring that there was also a ghost pushing from the outside.

For me, I find it far easier to simply accept natural selection and its clear implications. I have no need to make seemingly comfortable lies comport with contradictory facts.

Darwin v Lincoln

As many may have noticed, today is the birthday of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Each was born in 1809 and each made a massive impact on the world. For Lincoln, he maintained the United States and freed millions. Darwin, however, had a much more worldwide impact. His theory of evolution proved to be the cornerstone of one of the most important branches of science; as Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Of course, this wasn’t all his theory did. Indeed, Darwin’s most emotional critics came from religious camps. If man evolved right along with all the other animals and organisms, they said, then we are no longer special. Unique, perhaps, but not special. On that point I believe they were and are right. Unfortunately, far too many people believe such a point is a valid basis for dismissing fact.

It’s no secret that most scientists are not religious. This includes biologists, in large part due to what Darwin had to tell us all. In fact, one reason many lay people reject religious dogma is because of evolution (amongst many other areas of science); science is a part of our culture and it influences our fundamental views about the world. This is huge.

With the importance of both Lincoln and Darwin in mind, I have to wonder who had the bigger impact. Surely most Americans will automatically say Lincoln, whether they be creationists or rational, but this isn’t a popularity contest. In terms of changes to world views, to the day-to-day lives of individuals, and to world cultures as a whole, my money is on Darwin.