PZ Myers misconstrues Mark Steyn's appreciation for small differences and goes on to argue both that small differences are of little significance, and that small differences illustrate that mankind does not rule the planet.
[PZ Myers is quoting Mark Steyn, but with a link that no longer points to the source material.]Well, I dunno whether it's right-wing rubbish, and I'm not much into the intelligent-design debate. My view on genetics and evolution was stated in my Crick obituary for The Atlantic. Some geneticist had pointed out that man (and woman, oops) is 89% identical to the pumpkin. If that's so, then clearly it's the 11% difference that's key, not the 89% similarity. Likewise, with our 98% or whatever identity with the ape. The remaining one or two per cent is so awesome in its difference as to make you wonder whether a scale of measurement that produces those percentages is really terribly useful. The fact is that this is a planet overwhelmingly dominated and shaped by one species, and our kith and kin – whether gibbons or pumpkins – basically fit in in the spaces between. That's pretty much the world the Psalmist outlined in the Old Testament thousands of years ago. By comparison, the evolutionists' insistence that we're just another "animal" seems perverse and irrational and refuted by a casual glance out the window. I am coming round to the view that hyper-rationalism is highly irrational.
That's a truly remarkable upchuck there, and it's impressive how much he got wrong.
We aren't 89% identical to a pumpkin. If you use a very loose determination of homology (so loose, that mice and people are nearly 100% identical, having the same suite of genes), we're about 20-25% homologous to plants.
I seem to have just summarized the latest assessment of genetic similarity with chimpanzees. There is only a few percent difference…but rather than something "awesome", most of it is in the immune system, recognition proteins in sperm, a few obscure regulatory proteins, that sort of thing. Our differences aren't awesome at all, but subtle.
The thing is, as any engineer realizes, subtle changes tend to be the most awesome. Changing a single line of code can turn a program into incomprehensible garbage; a single subtle systemic change can mangle the code itself into indecipherability. Adding or removing resistors -- mere hunks of metal or ceramic -- can completely change the operation of a circuit. A few quarts of oil will drastically affect the performance of a vehicle weighing several tons. A single skipped heartbeat, out of three billion in an average lifetime, constitutes an awesome yet subtle difference.
Later, PZ Myers goes on to ridicule the idea that mankind rules the earth, but each of his points falls flat.
His last ideas—that he lives in a world dominated and shaped by his species, as he can tell simply by looking out his window—are chilling. They reveal differences far greater than can be found between Homo sapiens and Cucurbita pepo.
He must not possess a gut populated by intestinal bacteria. We are at their mercy; without them, we suffer horribly for a while and die.
We're not at their "mercy", since bacteria have no will; using that word anthropomorphizes unconscious biological machines. Bacteria don't process our waste out of generosity, but because their own survival depends on it.
He must live in a world without parasites or other small creatures. I'm a home to all kinds of interesting invertebrates nesting in my eyelashes and pores and crawling on my skin.
None of which, presumably, impede PZ Myer's actions even slightly.
He must not have any wooden furniture in his home, or plastic…made from the carbon left by ancient forests.
These implements are, in fact, perfect examples of how man has brought nature under his dominion. We are not ruled by our furniture, rather we rule it.
He must not eat. We human beings are heterotrophs, entirely dependent on the production of other organisms as an energy source.
Energy which we grow and harvest according to our tastes and whims.
It's a good thing he doesn't eat, or he'd have to excrete—without any bacteria or fungi or nematodes or flatworms, the shit would just pile up (this would explain his written output, though).
Again, animals that process our waste, generally in locations designed by humans for that purpose.
Steyn must never, ever have a cold, or the flu, or an infection.
All dominated by man through the use of medicine; they're still a threat, but only because our control is not yet complete. It may never be, but who's winning?
Good ol' dirt. It's made by the action of wind and sun and ice on rock, processed by bacteria and fungi and more of those tiny creatures invisible from Mark Steyn's window. We didn't make it. They did.
So what? We use the dirt however we want, and no other organism has a say in the matter.
And oh, my gosh…oxygen! Our entire atmosphere is the product of action by billions of years of work by bacteria and algae and plants! There must not be any air where he lives.
Ironically, oxygen is a waste product of the plants and bacteria PZ Myers just praised for processing our waste. We take care of theirs, and they take care of ours. The difference is, we could make our own oxygen if we wanted to.
He must not have ever watched lizards bask in the desert sun, or seen the life swarming in a rich Pacific tide pool, or stood in an old growth forest and listened to the wind blowing through the hemlocks, or seen fish darting in a Cascade lake so clear it was like canoeing on glass, or watched salmon thrash and spawn in an icy cold mountain stream. I'm sure he's never put his eye to a microscope to see what lives in the puddle outside his door, or split slate to expose 400 million year old fossils. There's a world of millions of species living outside my door, built from the struggles of millions more over billions of years, and all he sees is one.
No; if I may speak for Mr. Steyn, he sees one species that dominates all the others, and that power is due to an awesome 2%.
(HT: Chris Bertram.)