May 29, 2008

Measuring Mouthparts and Musing on Maladaptive Moral Misplacement

It has been a busy few days for me. I've just finished catching up on reading I haven't been doing since Monday. I'll never fathom how people find time to write seven or eight blog entries on a weekday. I might squeeze out three on a good day, but my brain is largely engaged elsewhere much of the time lately.

Asclera ruficollis from BugGuide.netFor instance, I've begun measuring beetles. The evolution of beetle mouth parts is a major component of my research, so I've got to measure them. Ever try measuring the mandibles on a 5 mm long beetle accurately to two decimal places? Yes, it's as tedious as it sounds, but absolutely necessary. It's been necessary for me to come up with a technique to do it, and what I've got right now is dissecting the parts out and measuring them under an optical microscope. The right mandible on the red-necked false blister beetle (Asclera ruficollis) currently averages around .12 mm in length and .08 mm in width at the midpoint. Exciting, huh? These beetles aren't in the family I'm studying; I found a number of them yesterday and am using them for practice in order to better develop my hand at working with the techniques of dissection and measurement. This way, I can mangle some common insects and not the rarer specimens that I will be working with later, such as Pseudhelops.

I spent nearly five hours yesterday doing practice dissections and taking practice measurements. This isn't even real data yet, and it isn't even all of the measurements. I'm awaiting shipment of a very accurate micrometer that will allow me to measure the thickness of two other mouth parts. When it arrives, I'll have to adapt it for my use.

This is all before I have even truly gotten started, and it's only a fraction of the data I'll need to gather for the research. All the while, I keep in mind the notion that at the end of three or four or five years accumulating such tiny, tiny steps, the world will know something more about the evolution of two important groups of organisms than it did when I started out. That's why I'm doing this. Yes, I'll get a PhD out of it (hypothetically, anyhow), but it's the answers to the questions that motivate me in wanting that in the first place.

If you've ever wondered, then, why real biologists sometimes have uncharacteristically emotional responses to Creationist rhetoric, let me fill you in on part of that equation. It's because they invest years of their lives in accumulating those tiny steps. Scientists spend significant chunks of their lifetime in painstaking work that people in other professions would never bother with. Much of what they theorize based on such evidence will later be contradicted by other scientists who accumulate other evidence in just the same way, and while that might be disappointing it also serves to refine that which even the contradicted scientist held dear to begin with; we learn more often from being wrong than from being right and we get closer and closer to an answer that every one knows from the outset is nearly never forthcoming from the work of just one person in just one lifetime. It's fine. It's the way things work. In my own research on these beetles, for instance, I draw upon previous work by people like Doyen and Tschinkel. I think their work is terrific, and I also think that some of their conclusions will be contradicted by the addition of more characters, including molecular analysis that they couldn't use 25 years ago. Does that mean I wave my hand at their own labors or that I think Walter Tschinkel is a nitwit? Of course not. I met Dr. Tschinkel while at Florida State; he's a brilliant individual (which probably goes witout saying, but I'll say it anyhow).

When Creationists fire off the rhetorical equivalent of chimps hurling feces at an interloper, though, that's what they invariably do. All the arguments from incredulity stem from the very fact that they never do any of this nuts-and-bolts work. The accumulated lifetimes of work that go into evolutionary models are dismissed with a wave of a little pennant scrawled with the words "It's Only a Theory" in purple Crayola. This, they think, deserves equal time. Scientists go through all this and come up with models that are more complex than that which intuition alone can discover, and it is this very situation that is decried as elitism. This is anti-religious because the reality we see from atop the shoulders of giants — giants who have microscopes, ironically enough — doesn't include notions of universal morality or eternal omnibenevolence. I see no evidence for such things in the mouth parts of beetles nor the hymenia of polypores and so I must, to their minds, be attempting to undermine social values. I must be looking for an excuse to obliterate the notion of human value, as if the value of a human being could ever be held between the mandibles of a blister beetles or numbered with the cystidia on a bit of hymenium. It is this utmost foolishness that is precisely demanded of me, though, when some twittering theologian complains that evolutionary biology doesn't provide a ground for morality. As far as I can tell, red-necked false blister beetles eat pollen; they do not dine on the nature of man's interaction with man. To assert that it is or should be otherwise is every bit as idiotic as it sounds at first pass.

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