Archive for the ‘Darwin’ category

Because No One Knows The Essence Of Blackness…

October 8, 2015

….like an  old, filthy-rich white guy.


Here’s noted sociologist of race and authenticity, Rupert “Bug-Eyed Monster” Murdoch

“Ben and Candy Carson terrific. What about a real black President who can properly address the racial divide?…” [via TPM]




Take it from a  fellow person of the Caucasian persuasion:

You don’t get a vote.

Or, consider the shorter:

Bugger off, mate.  May all your chooks become emus and kick your dunny door down.

(PS — anyone besides me think it … let’s just say “odd” … that the new owner of National Geographic should fall in love with a stone-cold evolution denialist? Just askin’.)

Image:  Brady & Co, Cabinet card portrait of Georgia politician Alexander H. Stephens with a servant, formerly a slave c. 1875.

Albert Einstein was a Friend of Mine, and I Can Tell You, Representative: You Are No Albert Einstein*

April 15, 2011

From Think Progress (h/t Daily Kos) we learn that in the midst of yet another creationist eructation, a Tennessee state representative invokes the ghost of the good Dr. Einstein to defend the teaching of woo to the unwary:

Rep. FRANK NICELEY (R-Strawberry Fields): I think that if there’s one thing that everyone in this room could agree on, that would be that Albert Einstein was a critical thinker. He was a scientist. I think that we probably could agree that Albert Enstein was smarter than any of our science teachers in our high schools or colleges. And Albert Einstein said that a little knowledge would turn your head toward atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head toward Christianity.

I don’t have much truck with the argument from authority, but just this once, let me let it rip.

Dude:  I wrote the book here.**  Well, not the book, but one more in the seemingly limitless pile of Einsteiniana that has chased the poor man through the years.

So, a couple of things.  First:  Einstein himself was high school and college science teacher.  He taught secondary school briefly during the years between his graduation from Zurich’s ETH (1900) and the start of his job at the Swiss Patent Office (1902), tutoring a private student or two as well.  He became a university professor in 1908, and taught at that level until his move to Berlin in 1914.  He’s part of the set that the Representative — perhaps stunned by a too-prolonged exposure to tangerine skies — would seek to diss.

But the real howler, the grotesque lie, comes with the claim that Albert Einstein, famously Jewish and equally so an atheist by most senses of the word, would suggest that deep learning and understanding would make a person a Christian.

This is, of course, nonsense, and worse that that — a willful deception and one more example of the urge to invent a comforting falsehood when reality bites too hard.  Which sums up the whole modern GOP world view, sadly. (Cue the Rogers (kfMonkey) post in 3…2…1)

But for the record:  Albert Einstein disdained the notion of a personal god.  He was dismissive of god-talk in public affairs.  He saw nothing in the acquisition of knowledge that would tend one towards organized faith; quite the reverse.  He located the source of knowledge to be material experience, whose signals were to be processed by the 1200cc or so of very intricately organized meat we (most of us) keep in a round-ish vessel above our necks.

And just so we all get our fill of Einsteiniana, here are some supporting quotations:

In an autobiographical essay published in 1949, Einstein told of his loss of faith as a child:

“…through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.  The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.” (in Paul Schilpp, ed. Albert Einstein,  Philosopher-Scientist, Open Court, 1949, p. 5)

Of the demand for a personal god, Einstein wrote in a letter to a banker in Colorado that

“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals….” [taken from Alice Calaprice’s collection The Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 1996 p. 146]

Of the presence of a god intervening in history, he wrote, famously and bluntly to a correspondent calling down divine wrath on the British during World War I:

“I see with great dismay that God punishes so many of His children for their ample folly, for which obviously only He himself can be held responsible…only His nonexistence can excuse him.” [AE to E. Mayer 2 January 1915 Collected Papers of AE vol VIII doc. 44]

Of the independence from divine fetters of human knowledge, he wrote,

“No idea is conceived in our mind independent of our five senses.” [From Quotable Einstein p. 154]

And on the claims to authority of religion in general and his own Jewish heritage in particular, the year before his death  he wrote this:

… The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.

Enough.  As you all know, no doubt, I’m of the John Foster Dulles school of blogging, but I think the point is clear. Rep. Niceley (R-Delusional) is an ignorant and/or deceitful man defending the indefensible by stealing the mantle of someone way too dead to respond for his own part.  Niceley does so to support exactly what Einstein would have both loathed and ridiculed.  The desire to live in the world one wishes for is human enough — pretty childish, I’d say, following my man Al here.  But the indulgence we give children does not extend to granting them power over anything that matters…

…which is why the current Republican Party must be not merely defeated, but destroyed and replaced.

Factio Grandaeva delenda est.

*Here I butcher what is still my favorite political debate moment of all time:

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**I kinda made the movie too — writing and jointly producing  this two hour NOVA biography.  Just sayin:  I bin around the Einstein block once or twice, you know.


Professor Einstein’s Visit to the United States“, The Scientific Monthly 12:5 (1921), 482-485, on p. 483.

For a Good Time In Cambridge: E. O. Wilson edition

April 7, 2010

The man himself will be giving the third of the John M. Prather Lectures in Biology this afternoon.  The title:  “Consilience.”  The description:

The boundary between science on one side and the humanities and humanistic social sciences on the other is not an intrinsic epistemological divide but a broad borderland of previously poorly understood causal relationships. The borderland is now being explored, and offers increasing opportunities for collaboration across three great branches of learning. A definition of human nature will be offered and examples from the borderland will be used to illustrate it.

No one ever said Professor Wilson lacked ambition.

Time and place:  4 p.m., in the Harvard Science Center.  Map here, and more details on the lecture series here.

And a confession:  I’ll miss this one, as I missed the prior two, Monday and yesterday.  My teaching blocked Monday’s and today’s, while student work ate up yesterday, to my deep annoyance (having to, you know, actually do the job they pay you for can really suck sometimes).  But I can say that Edward O. Wilson is both one of the most important biological thinkers of the last half century and is a damn good speaker.  So if you have the chance, go and listen.

Image:  “Foraging ants (Eciton erratica) constructing a covered road—Soldiers sallying out on being disturbed.” from The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates, 1863.

Andrew Sullivan Fouls (Another) One Off — and Then Grotesquely Strikes Out: God, Evil, and Auschwitz edition, part two

October 14, 2009

Way, way back in blog years (aka, about two weeks ago), I posted the first of a three parter on Andrew Sullivan’s follies as he attempted to waffle his way around the theodicy problem.  That’s how to harmonize belief in an omnipotent and omniscient loving God with the existence of evil in the world, preferably with a sophistication (if not the blunt practicality) exceeding that of the old aphorism, “Malt does more than Milton can/To reconcile God’s ways to man.”

In that first post, I did not engage the argument head on, though, just to be open about my own dog in this hunt, I think that at this point in human history it is abundantly clear that if you wish to retain a God with personality and direct agency in the world, that deity would have to take the responsibility for deeds so grotesque that Einstein’s line — “only his nonexistence excuses him” — seems to me the only plausible response.*

For me, better to reign in hell — or rather, better, to act with firmness in the right as we may see the right** on this perhaps-not-fallen earth — than bow to any doctrine that pays homage to the author of so much misery.

But dogma, or leaps of faith, may lead others to a different conclusion.  I spent much of the prior post describing what I understood to be Sullivan’s position to argue that his error wasn’t that he thinks suffering is a tool for harrowing faith to the point of redemption– for him. Rather, he ran into trouble when he asserted that his personal experience of his God’s love in response to his pain offered anything more than an individual, subjective kind of knowing.

Such solopsism is a venial sin.***  It’s hardly unprecedented in human affairs that one Andrew Sullivan might mistake deeply felt personal experience for a truth universally to be acknowledged.

But  where he truly stumbled was when he tried to demonstrate that his theodicy possesses a naturalistic justification:  that the difference between human beings and animals lies in our  awareness of suffering.  He claimed that our conscious emotions in the anticipation of our own deaths and other losses enables God to turn our suffering for a spiritual purpose.

This is, I argued, just another God-of-the-gaps wheeze, and betrays deep ignorance of what people who actually study animal behavior and culture have been talking about for a quarter of a century or more.

That’s no surprise.  I’ve noted elsewhere that Sullivan is an innumerate thinker with a purely instrumental — and quite disdainful — view of what science actually does.

Here, as a warm up to my final, science-free rant on Sullivan’s biggest failure in this round of theodicy cage matches, I just want to add one thought.  Sullivan’s fear of science — not of any particular fact to be uncovered, but the terror that the enterprise as a whole really does have something to say at odds with his most deeply held beliefs — can be seen in the tricks he plays with language, as much as in any explicit argument.

To put it another way:  you can see how much this stuff matters to him by the way he commits the very sin he condemns so swiftly when performed by those attempting to justify more obvious wrongs.  When someone calls torture “enhanced interrogation” — Sullivan knows what is being done, and contemns it.

But when he says “Darwinist” in the title of this post, “What is Evil to a Darwinist?”  he attempts the same sleight of hand.  By mislabeling the object of scrutiny he attempts to weight the scales towards a false conclusion.  (And yes, I know that the title is taken from the text of the email he quotes below; I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Sullivan’s readers know precisely what the construction “Darwinist” implies; it parallels his term “Christianist” — which denotes an ostensibly religious person committed to a particularist and overly literal interpretation of Christianity that blinds him or  her to the variety of messages and meanings one might find in more modest faith.

A Darwinist in this context is an evolutionary literalalist and a fanatical materialist, blind to the reality of spiritual experience.  Worse, he or she is a member of a cult, slavisly serving the author of a revealed text, presented to humanity by none other than the devil’s chaplain himself.

Of course, the proper term, in reference to Jerry Coyne, Sullivan’s principal antagonist in this latest round of the theodicy chronicles, and to the relevant group as a whole,  is “evolutionary biologist.”

But if you then used that term, then the offending headline asks this question:  “What is evil to an evolutionary biologist?”  — and the fraud becomes obvious.

What is evil to a physicist?  To a diesel mechanic?  To a cook?  To me, to you, to Andrew Sullivan, to my nine year old?****

There are evils specific to, say, an evolutionary researcher.  Lying is evil — and not lying in general, but specifically committing fraud or deliberately obscuring what is known or not in a given field.  The Creation Museum is thus evil — but it is so within the specific confines of its claim of scientific authority.  If it were simply a religious exhibit, conceived and presented as such, it might be silly, but it would not be sinful, at least not within the context of the professional concerns of an evolutionary biologist.

Evil to a cook? According to Ruth Reichl, contempt for the cuisine you present.

Evil to a kid:  breaking small “f” faith, arriving earlier than discussed to end a play-date or failing to launch into as promised the next goddamn iteration of the Lego game you’ve only repeated 73 times that day (not that I mind, mind you)…

That is:  If you are a scientist, or a banker, or any person working in the world, then (while I agree with Hilary Putnam and many others who dispute the fact-value dichotomy) the evil to be understood in the theodicy issue is not one of a bounded professional ethics, but moral reasoning.  And pace apologists, one does not need a single divinity, a single text…and/or one does not need all of a text as an indispensible aid to such judgment.  (To see what I mean, look no further than the contrast between the moral worlds of Samuel, chapter 15, and that of Micah, chapter 6.)

But if you are a Darwinist, then, like the Christian, or the Christianist, you are on the spot.  You aren’t a human being with expertise in a certain area and intellectual method.  You are a believer, a member of a cult, a person of the (a) book.  Your failure to advance a theory of evil to contest with that of the revealed-religious believer is dispostive; the laurels must go to those who enter the lists.

Hence the usefulness of the such rhetorical posturing, and the deceit.

And what is most galling about this is that Sullivan truly does know better.  He has no time, none at all, for the enablers of torture.  He has justified contempt for every attempt to weasel some language of essential difference to justify distinctions in law between gay and straight.  He has no patience for coded racism.  He knows langauge, and he knows how it can be used for harm…or dare I say it, for evil ends.

No excuses then, for this.

One last note:  he may defend his headline as merely a quote from a post that is in its entirety a reader’s email.  That doesn’t wash, at least not for me.  First — he chose to run the email himself, and he bears responsibility for its rhetorical sins as well as whatever else it may contain.  Second, he wrote the headline.  He had alternatives.  He chose this one; he owns the word, and its sins.

*from a letter written in response to learning that his friend Nernst’s two sons had been killed in action in World War I.

**and yes, I am aware of the crucial edit there.

***though it certainly can lead pretty directly to literally mortal ones.

****I’m deliberately not delving into the folly of the post itself here — but as this headline was in fact taken from the linchpin passage in this reader’s email, you may get a sense of the poverty of the argument there.

Images:  “The Ruins of Lisbon,” after the Nov. 1, 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed that city. German copperplate engraving.

Darwin cartoon from the London Sketchbook, 1874

Heads Up! — Pigeons on the Loose at So Simple A Beginning

March 23, 2009

It’s not just this blog that has suffered a bad case of the slows lately; so has So Simple A Beginning a group-ish effort to blog against The Origin of Species in anticipation of that books 150th anniversary coming up this November.

But now I’m pleased to report that we’re finally getting on to Chapter one, starting off with a wonderful post by science writer Courtney Humphries.  Humphries, a graduate of America’s Finest™ Graduate Program in Science Writing — that at mine own institution,  MIT — is the author the acclaimed book on pigeons in all their glory, Superdove, published last year.  Check out what she has to say about Darwin’s use of the descendents of the humble and ubiquitous rock pigeon, Columba livia.

Image:  Anonymous, “Young Woman in Oriental Dress with Pigeon Post.” 19th century.

Mental Floss: Darwin/Evolution funnies division

March 4, 2009

So PZ posts this video, featuring the latest German Superheroine Susie Smartypants….

….which leads me via the magic of the intertubes to this true rarity: the only rock and roll appearance by the man of the bicentennial himself, Mr. Charles Darwin:

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: Monday/Newton+Darwin Edition

February 23, 2009

Cross posted at So Simple A Beginning.

Up to now, we’ve been talking around the edges of what Darwin said to ease his readership into his ideas. Now it’s time to dig into the meat of the introduction to The Origin. (Past time, given the week or more that has passed since the epochal birthday – the celebration of which has already given at least one learned observer a bit of a hangover.  What would Chris Norris think of a whole year, give or take, immersed in Mr. Darwin’s Abstract?)

So to begin:  It’s going to take me a moment or two to get there, but what I want to point out here how much debt, and how much use Darwin makes of an approach to scientific argument originated by someone who is often seen as something of the anti-Darwin in subject, personality, and style.  That would be the one man with a clear claim to the title of greatest English scientist ahead of the master of Down House:  Isaac Newton.

It seems an unlikely comparison.  Opinions divide on the quality of Darwin’s prose, but there is no doubt that The Origin is at least a reasonably painless read.  Not so the Principia, even in its best translations.  (Here is my choice for an English version, which comes complete with Newton’s text and an invaluable guide to the work by the great Newton scholar I. B. Cohen.)

Where Darwin coaxes, Newton commands. Only once as I read the text does Newton break character and seem to give in – just a little — to the urge to persuade.  In Book III, as he describes how his new mathematical physics allows him to predict the paths of comets, he writes, “The theory that corresponds exactly to so nonuniform a motion through the greatest part of the heavens, and that observes the same laws as the theory of the planets and that agrees exactly with exact astronomical observations cannot fail to be true.” (Book III, prop. 41, problem 21.)

Even here, of course Newton buttresses his claim with a three – step chain of logical inference. The big stick of a formal proof seems to lurk in the shadows.  Still, that “cannot fail …” has a hint of rhetorical pressure, there to give its push to the reader.

Against such a modest expression of a hope for the reader’s assent, Darwin is ever-ingratiating, almost deferential.

After explaining the sequence of events that led him to write The Origin, for example, he begs that “I hope I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.”

On the significance of the observation of domesticated animals, he almost craves pardon, writing that “I may venture to express my conviction of the high value of such studies, although they have been very commonly neglected by naturalists.”

Even when he states the central theme of the Introduction and the work as a whole, Darwin remains unfailingly polite, and conscious of the sensibilities of his reader.  In the paragraph on page 3 in which Darwin finally stops clearing his throat, he writes:

“In considering the Origin of Species, it is quite conceivable that a naturalist, reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution, geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion that each species had not been independently created, but had descended, like varieties, from other species.”

But for all the quites and the mights here, there is no disguising the muscle beneath the softness, as tough as Newton’s declaration that herein lies truth.  What follows actually bears more connection to Newton’s approach to the presentation of radical argument than may be obvious under the warming blanket of Darwin’s verbiage.

Remember:  Newton, for all the seeming artlessness of Principia – its apparent “just the facts ma’am” sequence of one demonstration after another –produced a book with a clearly articulated structure that enhanced the power of the content itself.* Crucially, in his introductory material, he laid down his famous three laws of motion as axioms, principles known (or to be seen) as true from which all else could be derived.

Newton’s use of this device was not new, (he said himself that he modeled his book on the works of the ancients) but it hadn’t been used in this way in the context of the new science of the seventeenth century, and he deployed it in the Principia to devastating effect.  By developing a seemingly exhaustive analysis of matter in motion based on the derivation of theorems from that handful of basic principles, Newton laid claim to more just the truth he proclaimed near the end of Book III. His book, like Euclid’s before it, promised a method to discover new truths — in Newton’s case, by subjecting motion to number, and thus to the rigorous scrutiny of mathematical analysis.**

Did this triumph have an influence on Darwin?  Not directly.  Those susceptible to its charms had to possess more stomach for mathematics (or, like John Locke, be willing to take the proofs on faith) than Darwin ever did.

But (at last, having travelled the long road home!) the introduction to the Origin shows the debt Darwin owed to the Newtonian style.  For all the cushioning of the blow, the essence of what Darwin said as he summarized the chapters to come turn on the axiomatic presentation Newton had deployed to such effect 150 years before.  Instead of Newton’s three laws, Darwin offers just two principles – but they are sufficient, he promises, to the matter at hand.

That is:  the concept of the descent of one species from another – the proposition to be demonstrated — he wrote, cannot be affirmed “until it could be shown how the innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified, so as to acquire that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly excites our admiration.”

And now, writes Darwin, it can be told: this modification takes place through the operation of just two facts of nature:  variation and selection.  On variation, Darwin says that  “we shall thus see that a large amount of hereditary modification is at least possible, and, what is equally or more important, we shall see how great is the power of man in accumulating by his Selection successive slight variations.”

As for natural, as opposed to human or artificial selection – that too will gain the status of a truth universally acknowledged, in Darwin’s promised treatment of “the Struggle for Existence: amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase”:

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”***

There is no deference here.  No hesitation designed to obscure a possible discomforting moment for the reader.  At the point of the issue Darwin does not obscure the hard truth:  living things vary.  That variance has consequences, and if we must reproduce,**** then those consequences will include the differential selection of those better able to survive (and reproduce again).

All this could be, of course, just rather long-winded glimpse of the obvious:  that in The Origin of Species Darwin made use of the two concepts we all know he did, variation and selection, to organize all the observations and interpretations of nature to come.

I’m actually trying to say something a bit different (kind of you – ed.). Darwin’s ideas emerged for him from his close introspection on the mass of facts he collected on the Beagle and afterwards.  But his presentation of theory of evolution to the public proceeds the other way round:  within a brief, seemingly (and deceptively) simple logical structure, the facts follow theory.  As Newton had before him, Darwin presented his work in a way that framed individual facts – the track of a comet, the existence of nipples on male chests – into a weave of logic and prediction such that both theories cannot fail to be true.

Darwin was not Newton.  He would never put the matter quite that baldly.  But even if Charles was more polite than Isaac, he was no less aware of the real claim he was making.

And this speaks to an issue that runs through a modern reading of any 19th century text on biology.  It is a commonplace to say that Darwin got lots wrong, and that there is a lot that is missing in The Origin. In later posts, I’ll wrangle with what it means to say that Darwin made errors.  But leaving aside much of what I think is anachronistic in the “trip the genius” game (both as it applies to Darwin and to Newton, inter alia), the point is that Darwin, like Newton, was concerned in his book with the issue of creating a world view, a way of understanding all the specific phenomena each man sought to analyze.

Here, the axiom-and-application model is key.  It is the structural device through which Darwin asserted that he had a theory of evolution, in the full, robust Newtonian sense of the term.  Darwin was not merely arguing for that the current state of knowledge suggested the modification of species:  he was demonstrating the explanatory power of a view that showed how modification could account for both what was known, and what was to be discovered.  Q.E.D., for the last 150 years.

*I write more about the way Newton put together the Principia here, to be available in June.

**The phrase “to subject motion to number” originates with Alexander Koyré, who applied it to Galileo.  It works here too.

***To be sure, by the end of the book the catalogue of biological laws expands to five:  growth with reproduction; inheritance; variability; the struggle for life induced by high rates of increase; which induces natural selection, leading to divergence (of species) and extinction.  The core ideas remain the same, however, or clearly logically connected to the starting two principles.

****In conversation about matters evolutionary with Olivia Judson this week, she pointed out that, of course, reproduction requires death; immortality would preclude sex (for those species that so indulge).  I asked how many 18 year olds would choose deathlessness over sex; she answered, correctly in my view, none.

Images: A.Starilov, designer, USSR postage stamp, Scientists series, “Portrait of Isaac Newton (mathematician and physicist),” date of issue: 8th October 1987.  (The image is a copy of this Sir Godfrey Kneller portrait of Newton completed in 1689.)

Newton’s first and second laws of motion, from the 1687 (first) edition of Principia.

Anton Braith, “Kühe auf dem Heimweg mit Hirtin” [Cows on the way home with their Shepherdess] 1860.