Archive for the ‘evolution’ category

For A Good Time On The Intertubes Today (And Forever): Annalee Newitz Takes Survival To Extremes

April 23, 2014

Very short notice this time, folks, but once again, I’m doing the funny intertube-radio thingee.  Today’s broad/podcast brings io9 founding editor Annalee Newitz in to talk about her book Scatter, Adapt, And Remember.*

We’ll be talking at 5ET, 2PT (about an hour and half from now).  Listen live or later on Virtually Speaking Science, or join us in the virtually live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life, where an implausibly tall and fit Levenson avatar will interrogate Annalee’s robot self.

The focus of our chat — death, destruction, and the possibility of slipping the noose.  Annalee’s book looks at what it will take for the human species to survive another million years — avoiding the threat of mass extinction along the way.  Her book really does two things.  For one, it provides a very good short introduction to the science of mass extinction, what we know and how we’ve figured out about the five times in Earth’s history that ~75% or more of all species on the planet went caput.  Then in the second half, Annalee examines the threats humankind have already confronted, looks at what that history tells us about current dangers, and writes about the ways we can now think about near and long term escapes from the worst outcomes.  It’s a combination (as you’d expect from the mind behind the “We Come From The Future” brigade over at io9) of bravura science writing — imaginative and rigorously grounded accounts of current inquiry — and plausible, exciting speculation.

David_Teniers_(II)_-_Apes_in_the_Kitchen_-_WGA22060

To emphasize:  this isn’t a work of speculative writing, fiction or non-fiction.  It’s an argument that includes speculation, given its weight through the third element of  Annalee’s title:  “Remember.”   There’s a beautiful section in the middle of the book in which Annalee discusses the science fiction of Octavia Butler.  There, she grapples with the nub of the book.  Whatever actual path(s) we take, should descendents of 21st century humans persist for geologically noticeable swathes of time, they will do so as one or many species increasingly divergent from our own.  What will be human about them, Annalee argues, will turn on the power and persistence of memory.  That sounds exactly right to me.

Come join us for the chat.  Should be fun…and more than that too, I hope.

*You can take up that title’s Oxford comma-hood in the comments, if you’re that kind of person.  Me, I’m an agnostic.

Image:  David Teniers the Younger, Apes in the Kitchen, c. 1645.

Oklahoma, Jake

March 13, 2014

I have to confess.  Can’t claim I’m terribly surprised by this:*

There’s not been a lot of discussion of evolution in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos so far, and yet a very slight reference to it was so upsetting to Fox’s Oklahoma City affiliate that they just “happened” to run a promo for the nightly news over the show’s sole mention it, as you can see in the above video.

Hit the link (to the delightful io9) to see what so spooked the delicate sensibilities of the good folks at Fox25 Oklahoma City.

quot+God+is+an+ever+receding+pocket+of+scientific+ignorance+quot+_a3dcb3c771a4785a3e2fa249e2b4633e

On the one hand, I’m glad:  the competitive advantage of the science-friendly states can only grow in the face of willed ignorance elsewhere.  On the other, I’m terribly sad.  I don’t live only on my block; I’m a citizen of a commonwealth, a country and a member of  a global commons.  The more such idiocy persists, the more we all lose.

*Back when I was working w. Neil deGrasse Tyson on the NOVA series Origins, I made the film on the evolution of the universe to the chemical conditions compatible with earth-like life.  I wanted to call it “In the beginning,” for obvious reasons.  My elders and betters morphed that to “Back to the Beginning” — which manages to offend those who would be offended anyway while losing all the force of original.  So it ain’t just Fox, ya know.

Image via.

It Hurts Too Much To Laugh…

July 15, 2011

…And I’m too old to cry:

Via Josh Rosenau’s fine blog Thoughts from Kansas, this video compilation of Miss USA thoughts on evolution seems a perfect comedy/tragedy hit to engross whilst consuming the first of the weekend cocktails:

<div align=”center”></div>

Miss Connecticut gets the prize for stating the obvious with no fuss or bother.  As for the rest, I couldn’t stick to it long enough to tally the full march of folly.  Fortunately, Josh kindly provides a complete transcript at the link above, for those gluttonous for punishment.

But of course, this is nothing that a voucher + religious charter school education reform can’t solve.

If the Soviets launched Sputnik today, we’d ramp up to match them with a private sector RFP seeking designs for the flying dinosaur that carried Jesus to heaven.

But I can’t get too worked up on this fine afternoon.  The only question I’m going to tackle is how much lime to put into that lowball glass.

Cheers!

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:

<div align=”center”></div>

**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.

Image:

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

My Contribution to Closing the Enthusiasm Gap this Fall + Some Link Love

July 28, 2010

You’ve all heard, no doubt, that the big advantage the GOP + its tinfoil auxiliaries have this fall is the reported greater enthusiasm for such goals as repealing the non-existent-but-zombie-death-panels than that felt on the Democratic side for, among much else, preventing the return to power of those that got us into our current fix.

Well, there’s lots to do about that, and what follows won’t help much.  But it won’t hurt, either.  Enjoy:

Now, some links for edification, amusement, and perhaps action.  (Don’t miss the one above — Sen. “Diaper” Dave Vitter is a source of never ending wonder.

And in partial response to Vitter’s astonishing fail, check out Atul Gawande’s latest on end-of-life care (and the consequences of the absence of such care). I plan to blog on this a little later, but don’t wait on l’il old me.   The article is essential reading.

I’ve been meaning to tout this for a while but again, as a partial response to Vitter, to the ongoing Jeremy Lord “lynchgate” fiasco, and to a whole range of shenanigans too miserable to recall here (enthusiasm gap, remember) check out Batocchio’s elegant The Five Circles of Conservative Hell.

This is a little self-aggrandizing, given how Jennifer Ouellette begins her analysis, but she’s got a lovely takedown of Amazon anonymous reviewers of science books up at Cocktail Party Physics.

Henry Farrell’s got me salivating over a novel about, among other things, the birth of linear programming.

I’m a few days behind in my reading (days?–ed.), but I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight Kathy Olmsted’s lovely reminiscence about Daniel Schorr.  It’s not the memories that stand out, in fact, as it is the critical assessment of the state of journalism, especially on TV.  Not to give it away, but there are only two cohorts:  Schorr and not-Schorr, and one is vastly different, and better, than the other.

And what would the sultry days of summer without an official celebration of Sex Week.  Carl Zimmer is on the case.

More grimly, Ed Yong, who continues to do so much work that I suspect him of being a collective of at least three symbionts occupying the same meat envelope, writes of the dangers to phytoplankton from a warming ocean.  This is fate-of-the-planet stuff.  Which is why, of course, we should return the party of global warming denialists/defeatists to power.

And with that eternal return of the same (thanks, Freddy!), I’m done for now.

That’ll do for now.

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.

Science Online 2010 Brain Bubbles: Duck Genitalia Doggerel

January 17, 2010

As has been amply twittered, (search #scio10), one of the hit of this years Science Online conference has been Carl Zimmer’s account of the extraordinary sexual equipment of ducks.

Not only did it serve as an object lesson (and what an object!–ed.) on the intricacies of science journalism in the age of the web, it became a running theme throughout an evening in which the tool a duck’s penis most resembles received an excellent work-out.

My own response?

Why a limerick, of course.

So, for all of you who sadly had to miss this most excellent meeting, I offer you this take-home.  With no apologies.

There once was a mallard quite amorous

Whose genitalia were certainly glamorous

But its left handed screw

Rotating quite true,

Brought results that were sadly calamitous.*

*The calamity here implied could either be the destruction of the silicone vagina used in early versions of the experiment in question, or from the implications of the idea being tested that the co-evolution of duck penises and vaginas occurred in the midst of sexual competition to enable or prevent forced copulation. For the detailed account of the experiment in question — here’s the paper.

Update: Via @JBYoder, this. You will all be punished until moral improves.

Image: Song Dynasty (960-1229) album painting of a duck.

As a Mea Culpa for my Recent Case of Blog Apnea: How about a little oral tradition…

November 3, 2009

Update: boy – I find I am just a day late and a dollar short.  See the New Scientist for the video.  (h/t Sullivan)

Turns out that there may well be an evolutionary advantage to fellatio.

At least if you are a fruit bat.

“Nothing human (or mammallian?) is alien to me.” (Per Terence, via, in my case, Montaigne.)

Image:  Luis Ricardo Falero, “A Fairy Under Starry Skies,” before 1896

For A Good Time in Cambridge: Andrea Barrett, Great Fiction Meets Tasty History of Science edition…

October 15, 2009

Tonight, Thursday, October 15, Andrea Barrett — wonderful and much acclaimed novelist and short story virtuouso — will be giving a rare talk in the Boston area.

Time: 7 p.m.

Location:  MIT, building 6, room 120.  (Interactive campus map is here.)

Barrett is the perfect creator of fictions to speak to an MIT-esque audience.  She creates powerful stories, lives examined in connection with each other, under the pressure of selves, loss, time.  And much of what those characters care about has something to do with science. Barrett is best known, I think, for her jeweler-precise use of the history of biology as engines for her stories, though geology certainly comes in, and in the work I’m reading today, The Air We Breathe, the paleontology that forms one of her people’s passions jostles with the history of x-rays, chemistry, and the fact and feeling of ideas of health and disease as it organized itself around the TB epidemic of the early part of the last century.

Best of all, her treatment of all this is meticulous, accurate, engrossing — and yet always in service of the story.  Great stuff, both for those whose first love is fiction, and those, like me, who wonder how best to speak of science to our fellow citizens.

Also — if you like the public seals of approval:  Barrett won the National Book Award for Ship Fever, a story collection, received wide acclaim and best seller status for several other works, of which The Voyage of the Narwhal might be the best known, and has more recently published Servants of the Map* and The Air We Breathe.  She can add a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and finalist recognition for the Pulitzer to her trophy case — but the point for me is that the work is consistently gripping.

Come if you can.

*This collection of stories can serve as a deft introduction to the history of evolutionary biology from early nineteenth century efforts to reconcile the fossil record with scripture, through the impact of the Darwinian moment, to the present day.  It’s a full-service read, IOW.

Image:  René Théophile Hyacinthe Laennec (1781-1825): De l’auscultation médiate, 1819.

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