Plus - Letters to the editor

Tackling questions on evolution ahead of Richard Dawkins’ visit

Leo Fernando has several questions for Richard Dawkins (Sunday Times, October 23). I hope he will put these questions to the professor when he visits Sri Lanka next year. As a devout follower of science and reason and an admirer of Professor Richard Dawkins, I would like to take the liberty to answer these questions.

Is evolution a mere theory?

Let’s get one thing straight: evolution is not a theory, it is a fact. But how evolution occurred is a theory. When Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species”, in 1859, he proposed the simple yet elegant mechanism of “natural selection”. How this mechanism works, its beauty and complexity, should be the subject of a separate article.

I have no idea where Mr. Fernando gets his statistics from when he claims that most scientists prefer the non-scientific theory of intelligent design. Almost all respectable biologists accept evolution by natural selection, although some may disagree on the finer details of the evolutionary process.

The belief that the universe around us is intelligently designed does not explain how the designer went about his task of creating life around us, or the universe in the first place. Intelligent design should not be taught in schools because it is not science. If you want your children to learn intelligent design, send them to Sunday School.

Is evolution mathematically improbable?

Ah, yes, the classic probability argument. This is an argument parroted by creationists around the world. A lay person who has no idea how evolution works would be impressed by the trickery employed by the creationists who use mathematics and statistics for their ends.

Creationists have a favourite analogy, borrowed from Fred Hoyle: they point to the improbability of a hurricane blowing through a junkyard to assemble a Boeing 707. But such analogies are completely misleading.

Evolution is not a result of “random chance” but a process whereby natural selection weeds out unfavourable variations and improves the likelihood of events.

In his books, including “Climbing Mount Improbable” and the “Blind Watch Maker”, Richard Dawkins has provided interesting examples and computer models to show how easily this can be done.
Anyone who knows anything about probability should know that you cannot make the probability argument after the fact. If you do, then any complex sequence of events becomes extremely improbable, even though they have actually occurred.

For example, estimate the probability after the fact that, out of all the millions of events and actions in your life, you should be reading this particular newspaper at this particular moment. Naturally, the probability of this happening exactly this way is simply enormous. According to mathematics, you shouldn’t exist. But you do.

Why aren’t first cells and the DNA that drive them being created right now, as they were some 3.8 billion years ago?

People wonder why prebiotic reactions that occurred on the infant Earth are not happening all the time in the world around us. Many scientists say it is not happening naturally right now, which makes the creation of life a one-off event.

Why? The answer is simple: the world around us is swarming with the ravenous, finely-honed products of billions of years of evolution – creatures like bacteria, that would readily swoop down on any accumulation of nucleotides and consume them before the kind of reactions that were seen billions of years ago on Earth could even take place.

It would take a thoroughly sterilised lab and many precautions to create a kind of coddled environment for life to evolve.

So far, scientists have not been able to create a fully replicating cell. However, under laboratory conditions scientists have created some 12 out of the 20 amino acids regarded as the basic building blocks of life.

In 1953, Stanley Miller, a young graduate student of the University of Chicago, created four out of the 20 amino acids with a simple apparatus comprising sealed tubes and an atmosphere inside the tubes rich in nitrogen, ammonia and other elements, and, of course, hot water, thus recreating as closely as possible conditions on Earth billions of years ago.

Evolutionary biology has not answered every question. But thousands of scientists around the world are working on those questions even as we speak about and write the story of creation. Invoking a “God of the gaps argument” will not help the cause.

Hiran Hanwella, Colombo 15

Bank of Ceylon does a good job of testing the patience of the poor pensioner

Bank of Ceylon pensioners must sign an undertaking every year. Without this document, the bank will not credit the pensioners’ monthly remittance to their respective accounts. The undertaking has to be witnessed by two in-service bank officers, one of whom should be an A class officer.

Two pensioners also can be witnesses, but one should have been an A class officer and other a B class officer at the time of their retirement. This is the requirement for all Bank of Ceylon (BoC) pensioners. If these steps are not observed, the bank will suspend the pension payment.

Some pensioners face difficulties and embarrassments when they go to the banks to get this form witnessed, as most staff members working as managers and executives are not personally known to the bank’s ex-staff members.

Another example of BoC indifference to making things easy for the poor pensioner, the bank insists that the medical claim form for the purchase of a pair of spectacles be certified by an A class bank officer or an A class pensioner. The claim form also says the witness should be shown the purchased pair of spectacles.

How fair is all this?

W. G. Chandrapala, BoC pensioner

PSC more façade than facility

N. Lekamvasam’s letter (Sunday Times, 16 October) prompts me to write about my personal experience with the Public Service Commission.

After 20 years’ service, I was forced to vacate my post in 1975, due to unavoidable circumstances. Ten years later, I appealed to the Ministry for pension rights. This was rejected and I was advised to appeal to the PSC.

This appeal was rejected by the PSC, with the following reply: “Your appeal cannot be considered since you have vacated post.”

I was shocked and dismayed. Two of my colleagues who had also vacated post like me obtained pension rights from the PSC after an appeal. I am personally aware that one of them had the backing of a Cabinet Minister, while the other had the influence of a member of the PSC board.

The PSC is by and large a façade to show the world that government servants’ grievances are addressed and resolved.

Ex-Govt Servant, Panadura

Full marks to chest clinic

For several months a family member underwent continuous treatment at the Colombo Chest Clinic, in Borella. We wish to express our appreciation of the fine work of the doctors and staff at this government clinic.

The doctors are dedicated and caring and the nursing staff helpful and always smiling. The lab and X-ray technicians and minor staff carry out their duties well.

Our numerous visits to the clinic also brought us into contact with other patients, from all walks of life, and they too spoke highly of the clinic’s doctors and staff.

The clinic is well run and orderly. A sincere thank you to the doctors and staff of the Colombo Chest Clinic.

Mrs. Y D

Beautification or covering up the rot within?

There is no doubt that the affluent in Colombo are almost ecstatic over the beautification of the city, forgetting that, 'beauty is but skin deep'.

Scratch the surface and anyone with a modicum of sensitivity will see the deep, dangerous and cryingly urgent problems of survival that face the people, of not merely this city, but of the entire Island.
Of course, it is expecting too much of this complacent elite who live in their own cocoon of indulgence, attending extravagant parties at five star hotels, and beauty contests etc, to notice these ills.

If not for the fact that the word 'beatification', as far as I know, is used only for the conferring of a state of holiness on a saintly individual, one could say that what the city and the entire country urgently needs is not beautification, but 'beatification' -- a genuine attempt at least of stemming the rot and evil of massive corruption, squandering of state funds by highly placed individuals who carry on regardless of the findings of the Auditor General and responsible agencies answerable to parliament, and a restoration of a certain inner state of moral health and beauty which really touches the people.

The latter have been driven to a state of helpless despair, because they can see for themselves the complete breakdown of law and order and the total irresponsibility of some of those holding the most powerful positions in the land. The word accountability seems to have lost all meaning to those in power, be they politicians or highly-placed government officials maintained by the people's hard-earned money. The buzz word seems to be 'show biz'!It does not require an expert on governance for the people to know what ails this once beautiful land.

There is no need for me to highlight the multiple life-threatening illnesses this land has been suffering from during the tenure of successive governments, at one time dark green at others dark blue.
The darkness that has prevailed and continues to prevail has been written about by some brave souls, but to this day, instead of being served by a Hippocrates to save the dying patient, the people have to wilt under the weight of widespread and increasing hypocrisy.

A final thought. We hear a great deal of exchanges of compliments between this tiny island and our giant neighbour. Perhaps close study of what has been happening in that country, not among those who govern, but among the mass of the governed, could be a salutary experience to those who control our destiny.


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