Sunday, January 15, 2012

Items of Interest

Two articles on the same page of yesterday's Otago Daily Times caught my attention.  One from the regular column giving some history on people buried in local cemeteries.   This week it featured Otago Harbour's first pilot, the aptly named Richard Driver.  He was one of the area's earliest European residents, although when he was a young man he almost didn't survive an attack by local Maori when he and several of his fellow crew-members stepped onto what is now known as Murdering Beach.  Fortunately he was saved by Motoitoi, the daughter of Kahutia: she threw her father's cloak over Driver and soon after married him.
This is where my interest in the story rose: he had three daughters by Motoitoi, and, after she died, a son by his Maori housekeeper.  That's four children.  In 1849 he married a 17-year-old called Elizabeth Robertson.  She bore him three more children, and then seven more who were all born dead.  That's fourteen children in effect, with Elizabeth being pregnant ten times up to that point.  Once they shifted from the area they lived in, she bore him eight more children.  Thus she was pregnant eighteen times.  He was the father, to all intents and purposes, of 22 children, beating J S Bach by one.  (Though far more of Bach's children actually survived.)

He produced 15 living children - it's not surprising that the writer notes: their descendants today number many hundreds. 

The second article begins: A baby's cries are tuned to trigger a uniquely fast response from adults, research has shown.  Scientists compared volunteers' reaction times while listening to babies crying, the sounds of adults in distress, and birdsong.   Right.  We all respond quickly to birdsong.   The study's leader noted that it is almost impossible to ignore crying babies on planes and the discomfort it arouses.   Well, well, there's a finding for you.

So far this would have been all right - it's basically yet another study that tells us what we already know, but that's hardly uncommon.   Innumerable studies are done to show us that what we know is what we know.  However, the sentence that niggled me (because of the sheer lack of any scientific basis) was this: Evolution has decided that it is a good thing for us to look after our young, and there is something in the acoustic properties of babies' cries that evokes a very basic response that appears to be hardwired in ancient parts of our brains. 

I don't think 'evolution' (which is a person or thing) has ever decided to do anything.  Nor, from my understanding, do we have 'more ancient parts' in our brains.  This is literary science, the kind that tells stories about research but doesn't actually base these stories on anything factual.   It's metaphor, not science. Science is based on experiments that can be replicated not just once, but over and over.   There is no experiment that can show evolution ever 'deciding' to do something.   This is typical of the idea that pervades science: that evolution can be regarded as being responsible for anything and everything, without anyone actually showing this to be the case.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
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