Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Exotic pilgrimage

In a book I've been reading over the last few days, I was delighted to come upon an outline of an activity that used to interest me greatly (and still does, as an aficionado): Macintosh programming.

The Mac has a toolbox of routines stored in ROM (Read Only Memory) or in System files permanently loaded at start-up time. There are thousands of these toolbox routines, each one doing a particular operation, which is likely to be needed, over and over again, in slightly different ways, in different programs. [...] If you look at the text of a Mac program, whoever wrote it, in whatever programming language and for whatever purpose, the main thing you'll notice is that it consists largely of invocations of familiar, built-in toolbox routines. The same repertoire of routines is available to all programmers. Different programs string calls of these routines together in different combinations and sequences.

Jargon such as that last sentence suggests that the writer is more than a mere user of computer products. Clearly, this didactic author is not in the same basic ballpark as the countless millions of lucky folk who perform their daily work with the help of a Macintosh. The writer would appear to have gone a big step further, and actually gotten his hands dirty in writing Mac software. In an earlier paragraph, he had explained in modest terms his relationship with this machine:

The computer I happen to be familiar with is the Macintosh, and it is some years since I did any programming so I am certainly out of date with the details.

Who is this former adept of Macintosh programming? And why is he is writing about his technical experience in this domain?

In The Ancestor's Tale, published in 2004, Richard Dawkins calls upon the paradigm of Mac software to demonstrate the functioning of a genome. More precisely, he's trying to explain why we should not be alarmed to learn that the human genome is no bigger than that of a mouse: some 30,000 genes. If you were to compare the architectural blueprints of an Olympic edifice at Beijing with a rough drawing I once made of the future shed at Gamone for my donkey Moshé, you would see immediately which of the two construction processes was designed by a planetary people capable of generating artificial fireworks, and which one was sketched by an Aussie hillbilly. In the same spirit, why shouldn't a human genome and a mouse genome, placed side by side, be vastly unalike?

The answer is simple. Genomes aren't blueprints; they're computer-like programs. Over the last day or so, front-page news stories have described Apple's ire at discovering that a proposed iPhone program is pure bullshit. Expensive to acquire, this iPhone application does nothing more than display ostentatiously the fact that the purchaser is apparently wealthy. [This kind of second-degree gag amuses me immensely.] Well, if you were to take out some kind of magic magnifying glass and examine this bullshit program, you would probably find that it "looks" more or less the same, in terms of digital volume, as any of the more brilliant iPhone applications. The difference is not in the vulgar quantity of bits, but in the way they are organized to form a complex computational entity capable of performing big things.

I could ramble on for ages about this brilliant book by Dawkins, but the best thing, dear reader, is that you should buy it and absorb it slowly and languidly, as if you were seated at a table of rare venison and unworldly wines, served by medieval Botticelli maidens against a sonorous background of Monteverdi... or something like that. The brilliant idea of Dawkins consists of leading us on an exotic backwards pilgrimage towards the dawn of creation, in which we meet up with all our genealogical cousins: chimpanzees, gorillas, etc... right back to the origins of life on the planet Earth. This magnum opus by Dawkins is yet another specimen of beautiful writing, fabulous literature and magnificent science. His literary style was inspired, of course, by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Replacing vast phylogenetic trees of Earth's animals by my own humble genealogy, I think of my father. He went through life burdened by a pair of ridiculous Christian names: King Mepham. I explained the first element in last year's article entitled November 11 [display]. As for the second name, it all gets back to Kentish ancestors at a village named Meopham [website], associated with an ancestral Simon Mepham who was an early archbishop of Canterbury [1328-33].

In the cosmic Dawkins saga, the intrinsic "value" of a Mepham forefather on the ancient road back through Canterbury might be likened to that of our concestor [a Dawkinsean neologism for "common ancestor"] who witnessed the disappearance of the dinosaurs. None of these creatures [including probably the archbishop] was the kind of clear-cut individual you might have invited back home to meet up with Mother, let alone Father. They were tiny inconsequential but lovable minuses, like all of us. We can't even imagine what they might have looked like. But we know they existed. Meanwhile, I've spent hours trying to determine what an ancestor of me and my dear cousin Sophia—a descendant of wolves—might have looked like. I have my ideas...

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