Showing posts with label Charles Darwin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Darwin. Show all posts

Friday, February 12, 2016

Darwin Day

Charles Darwin was born on 12 February 1809.

It's wonderful that this birthday of one of the greatest scientists falls just one day after one of humanity's greatest scientific discoveries.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Charles Darwin [1809-1882] "relatively little known in France"

In view of my total enthusiasm for the work in evolutionary biology of my hero Richard Dawkins, it's surprising that I should be equally enthusiastic about living in France, where Charles Darwin [1809-1882], founder of the theory of evolution, is designated, rightly or wrongly, as "relatively little known". I prefer to think it's a journalistic slip of the pen. In any case, there's a presentation at the Cité des Sciences in Paris, until the end of July 2016,  of this illustrious Englishman Darwin and his research work.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Darwin Day

This year’s sunny Darwin Day at Gamone seems like the first day of spring… but I might well be a little over-optimistic.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Varieties of orchids at Gamone

This morning, once again, I strolled up along the road at Gamone to admire our splendid wild orchids, while attempting to identify as many as I could. In yesterday's blog post [display], I indicated the presence of many Monkey orchids (Orchis simia). I picked a few specimens and brought them home to be photographed. The monkeys in the following specimen have dark purple paws:

[Click to enlarge images.]

In another specimen, the monkeys are pale and slender... and the fellow at the bottom has an erection!

I don't know whether they're two slightly different varieties, or whether the first plant is simply more mature than the second. In the following specimen, probably a Military orchid (Orchis militaris), the form still has arms and legs, but it's more like a woman in a bulky skirt than a monkey:

I haven't been able to identify the following fine specimens, whose flowers have the form of a person wearing baggy pants, but they might be Burnt-tip orchids (Neotinea ustulata):

In various places on the slopes above the roadway, there are entire walls of Pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis).

From a distance, you might mistake each plant for a single flower. But, when you examine them more closely, you realize immediately that each pyramidical head is indeed a group of orchid blossoms.

The larger flowers at the bottom reveal the typical asymmetrical form of each orchid blossom, composed of three small sepals, two small petals and a large third petal, double-lobed, called the labellum.

Finally, the most exotic orchid specimens I discovered at Gamone were members of the Ophrys variety, whose labellum looks like a large insect.

I examined this specimen from every angle, and compared it with photos on the web, in an attempt to identify the exact variety.

I concluded that it could well be an Ophrys fuciflora (Late Spider-orchid), or maybe an Ophrys apifera (Bee Orchid).

Click here to access an excellent website with examples of many wild orchids. Incapable of identifying with certainty my Ophrys specimen, I decided to contact the creator of this website, Philippe Durbin, who's an expert on French orchids. Here's an English translation of his reply:
I can understand your problem, because it's not obvious! I would imagine a hybrid between Ophrys fuciflora and Ophrys apifera. No certainty, however. See if you can find its parents in the vicinity.
Trust me, on my initial orchid excursion, to find a puzzling specimen! Now I'll have to wander back up on the slopes and look around for the mum and dad of this orchid love child. Why couldn't they simply procreate in a hermaphroditical fashion, like most self-respecting Ophrys orchids? Or with the help of a bee, like those queer orchids that get a kick out of bestiality? Maybe the parents of my puzzling orchid specimen had heard of "the good effects of intercrossing" in a book published in 1862 by a celebrated English naturalist.
Charles Darwin: On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing.
Click here to access this surprising document, which proves (if need be) that the great Charles Darwin was indeed an amazing observer and scholar.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Finch drops in for sunflower seeds

In this poor-quality photo—taken yesterday through the smudgy glass of my bedroom window on an overcast afternoon—the little creamy-hued tit seems to be awed by the massive beak of the finch.

The visitor loitered on the edge of the clay pot for about five minutes, during which time no tit dared to dive in for a sunflower seed.

I don't see many finches at Gamone. Rare visitors impress me and obtain my respect (I'm as awed as a tit) in the sense that I've always imagined finches as co-inventors, in the company of Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands, of the principle of evolution.

Clearly, if this solitary finch happened to go out of its way to visit an evolutionary enthusiast at Gamone, I would imagine that the bird was aware of the approach of Darwin Day [display], which falls tomorrow, on 12 February.

[I'm aware that Darwin's so-called "finches" were not in fact common chaffinches of the Gamone variety.]

To celebrate Darwin Day, I urge you to visit the WWF website [access] and sign a petition aimed at "killing the trade that kills the elephant".

BREAKING NEWS (announced an hour ago)
Miracle on the eve of Darwin Day: Benny 16 resigns!
Darwinians of the world, let us unite and launch a lobby designed to spread a great idea: namely, that nobody should ever replace a pope who has resigned.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Darwin documentary

Yesterday evening on TV, like millions of viewers, I could have watched the election of Miss France. Instead, I was attracted by an Australian-produced documentary fiction on the Arte channel: Darwin's Lost Paradise, written and directed by Hannes Schuler and Katharina von Flotow for Chapman Pictures of Petersham (Sydney).

This movie, which came out in 2009, describes the four-year voyage of Charles Darwin on the small 240-ton brig Beagle, under the command of Robert FitzRoy. Technically and pedagogically, the movie is perfect, and I agree entirely with this review in Télérama:

The French journalist Emmanuelle Skyvington criticizes the dramatic style of this otherwise splendid production: "The fictional parts, cruelly lacking in force, are limited to illustrations of what was seen by Darwin (mute from the beginning to the end of the movie) and the specimens he encountered." I would go further than my daughter and claim that most 19th-century fictional documentaries produced by Germany, Britain, the USA and Australia are inevitably technically audacious but absolutely lousy from the point of view of casting, acting and dramatic content. That's to say, in a nutshell, they're rarely realistic. For some strange reason that I've never understood, only the French seem to excel in producing extraordinary 19th-century movie stuff, with actors that behave like real human beings. Recently, for example, I've seen some marvelous presentations of short stories by Guy de Maupassant, often in rural settings.

In the special case of the Darwin movie, the problem is that the director and writer are so respectful of their hero, Darwin, that they're simply afraid to transform him into a real person. So, he remains perpetually insipid, like the motionless subject of an oil portrait. The unfortunate fellow doesn't even have the right to make facial expressions, or express himself in any visible way whatsoever. So, he's utterly devoid of emotions. We're told that he was extremely seasick at the beginning of the voyage, but it would have been unthinkable for the German creative team to show our hero with a green face (not that I particularly wanted to see such an image) feeding the fishes over the side of the Beagle. All Darwin's allowed to do, from one end of the movie to the other, is to admire nature, collect specimens, stroll around a little, attend church services aboard the ship, and write. I was reminded of the old-fashioned images of Catholic saints, who are expected to appear as perfect creatures in an artificial world. Ah, my poor Saint Darwin!

Finally, the English title of this movie annoys me greatly. Darwin never lost any kind of paradise. On the contrary, he revealed to us the magic mysteries and beauties of science. And his ingenious explanations concerning the marvels of the living world made it clear to us that we inhabit a glorious world where there are no gods.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Eye of God

If God were a cyclopean creature, then his huge eye might look like this:

This artificially-colored NASA image of the Helix nebula combines photos taken from both the Hubble telescope and an observatory in Arizona. No sooner was it published by the NASA in 2003 than imaginative viewers labeled it the "Eye of God". What's more, certain believers claimed that the intense contemplation of this image could indeed give rise to miracles. So, with a bit of chance, the present blog post might cause the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk and—who knows?—the dead to rise! [Please send me feedback.]

Andy Thomson is a practicing psychiatrist in Virginia. With the help of a medical writer, Clare Aukofer, he has just brought out a "concise guide to the science of faith" entitled Why We Believe in God(s), which is less than a centimeter thick (144 pages, readable in an hour). And they've put a copy of the "Eye of God" on the cover. Besides, there's an enthusiastic foreward by an Englishman named Richard Dawkins. Clearly, these two fellows are on the same wavelength. Furthermore, they both write brilliantly.

It's amazing that so many novel ideas can be packed into such a small book, and expressed so convincingly. Thomson's basic thesis is that, since the dawn of humanity, gods have been made-made entities. Like music and, more recently, fast food. And it's often far from easy for ordinary humans to turn their back on their gods… just as it's hard, for many individuals, to resist the temptation of gorging oneself on hamburgers and sweets.

In this delightful little book, I was happy to discover Andy Thomson's constant evocations of the great Charles Darwin. Towards the end of his book, Thomson introduces the fascinating subject of mirror neurons, which have become a preoccupation of my old Australian friend Michael Arbib, a distinguished professor at the University of Southern California. I was most interested in Thomson's descriptions of fabulous neurochemical products—serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline, oxytocin and the endorphins—which seem to play a far more significant role in religious experiences than any of the alleged holy texts. Indeed, one has the impression that, accompanied by the appropriate neurochemical cocktail, even a phone directory could appear to be a sacred text of profound spirituality.

Let's suppose that you're the sort of run-of-the-mill believer who has grown up considering that God created the Cosmos and Mankind. And all you need to know now is: Who created God? If you happen to be in that kind of situation, then this is the book you need!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Darwin Day

In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote timidly:

Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.

As Richard Dawkins points out in A Devil's Chaplain, Darwin's monumental understatement is on a par with the famous words of James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, on the potential of their discovery of the structure of DNA:

This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest. […] It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

Great scientists rarely shout. They rarely need to.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Famous book for sale

The problem, if I don't manage to sell this book—which I bought out in Australia in 1961, shortly before leaving for Europe—is that I might end up tearing it apart in a fit of rage… which would be a pity, in a way. You see, I'm convinced that there are many people, out there in the wide world, who would love to own an old copy of the English translation of this celebrated essay by the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I myself, at the age of 20, was convinced a priori that this would surely be one of the greatest works of scientific literature I had ever met up with, because of the planetary reputation of this paleontologist who had attempted to blend together Darwin's theory of evolution and a belief in the existence of a divine creator. But then I made an attempt to actually read the book, and I was rather discouraged. In fact, huge sections of The Phenomenon of Man are no more than strings of words (including weird French neologisms such as hominisation) thrown together in an unexpected manner, forming heaps of unintelligible garbage. Interspersed with all this muck, there are small sections of technical stuff about various hominoid fossils, designed to trick you into imagining that the entire thing is a work of science. Appalling…

In France, during the first half of the 20th century, the prestige of Abbé Breuil [1877-1961] had accustomed people to imagining that a good dose of Catholic faith was a fine attribute for researchers in paleontology. Soon after meeting up with my future wife, I was intrigued to learn that Christine's maternal grandmother—an intelligent and artistic woman from Provence, whom I admired immensely—was a profound disciple of Teilhard de Chardin. But that merely proves something we knew already: that the Holy Spirit works in devious ways…

Today, with the Internet, Teilhard de Chardin would never have been able to get away with the production of such a mess. In any case, prospective readers would have learned already, in 1953, that Teilhard de Chardin had been one of the "experts" duped by the biggest science hoax ever: the discovery in England of the so-called Piltdown Man. Apparently the Jesuit priest had been tricked into believing that a filed-down canine tooth, found at the Piltdown site, was a genuine attribute of the creature. Today, not even a school student in biology, equipped with a microscope and a minimum of instruction, would be pardoned for making such a gigantic blunder. Incidentally, another alleged expert in paleontology who fell for the Piltdown hoax was my compatriot Grafton Elliot Smith, whom I presented recently in an article entitled Prehistoric encounters [display].

I've been rereading A Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins, a collection of essays published in 2003.

One of his reviews celebrates the literary style of the British Nobel laureate in medicine Peter Medawar, who penned a vitriolic attack of the notorious book of Teilhard de Chardin. Medawar's short critique, which is brilliant stuff, can be downloaded from the web. Click the portrait to access it.

Getting back to Teilhard, a thing that annoys me greatly is the condescending way in which he set out to tell his readers what had happened "since the days of Darwin and Lamarck", as if these two men were to be grouped together, and then discarded as out-of-date. At another spot, he speaks of "the heroic times of Lamarck and Darwin". Today, on the contrary, the work of Darwin is more alive than ever. What is totally archaic, on the other hand, is the tasteless and indigestible soup of the Jesuit priest who once tried [if I may mix metaphors] to pull the paleontological wool over our eyes.

My copy of the book should not be particularly expensive. That will depend, of course, on the volume of demands.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Scottish cuckoo's nest

In his Pharyngula blog [display], the biology professor PZ Myers warns us immediately of every tiny flame of crazy Creationism or insipid Intelligent Design that dares to flicker on the surface of our Darwinian planet. And that makes it easier for us ground troops, under the supreme command of Field-Marshal Richard Dawkins, to drag our fire hoses to the scene and quench the flame of the match before it attains the dangerous dimensions of a candle. Often we get airlifted to foreign lands. Today, for example, our front has moved to Scotland, where we're faced with a particularly nasty inferno: an entire cuckoo's nest has suddenly burst into flames!

The Centre for Intelligent Design has its base somewhere in Glasgow, and a website somewhere on the Internet. The fellow in the photo is its director, Dr Alastair Noble, a former school inspector who is now engaged in the promotion of faith-based teaching in schools. The president of C4ID—to use its trendy acronym—is Norman Nevin, a professor of genetics from Belfast who has received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) award. He believes sincerely that Adam was a real historical personage and that the stories of Genesis actually happened as stated. That's to say, the universe was created in a week, God extracted a rib from Adam in order to build Eve, and Noah had to do some rapid and expert boat-building in order to save various lucky specimens from the wrath of God. The vice-president of C4ID is another doctor, David Galloway, who belongs to both the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons and a local Evangelical church. So, the institution is apparently run by distinguished gentlemen with academic titles. But will that suffice to make it any less loony?

In hearing the titles of these fellows, I was reminded of the delightful sequence in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest in which Jack Nicholson is about to embark on a fishing trip with his band of insane companions.

In an aura of dignity, he introduces them cursorily, one by one, to the puzzled boat-owner: "We're from the State Mental Institute. This is Dr Cheswick. Dr Tabor. Dr Scanlon. I'm Dr McMurphy." Miraculously, each of the mental patients remained calm, smiled and succeeded in looking, for an instant, as if he were indeed a brilliant physician.

But aboard the ark, it was soon joyous bedlam. Hey, talking of boats, a fascinating question has just sprung into my mind. Did Captain Noah actually invite an ancestor of Nessie (Scotland's Loch Ness monster) aboard his vessel? Obviously, the answer is yes, otherwise descendants of these creatures wouldn't still be there today.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Man gave names to all the animals

For a year at the University of Sydney, I attended the classes of John Anderson [1893-1962] in Greek philosophy. It wasn't very exciting stuff—a little like entering a fine-looking restaurant in Paris and being served a ham sandwich—for the obvious reason that philosophical thinking, like everything else, has evolved considerably during the two millennia since the ancient Greeks. Listening to the Scottish gentleman rambling on about Plato and Aristotle was equivalent to sitting in on mathematics lectures presenting the elements of Euclidean geometry, or attending a year-long course on the astronomy of Isaac Newton. I've already said that it was grotesque to be teaching a university course in Aristotelian logic at a time when this domain had been totally dominated for decades by so-called symbolic (mathematical) logic. As for delving into the complicated reasons why Socrates was made to drink hemlock for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens, that was a pure waste of time for students in the middle of the 20th century.

On the other hand, in the midst of all this antiquated mumbo-jumbo, I did appreciate one small but non-trivial item of philosophical culture: Plato's theory that things in the real world are mere imperfect instances of so-called universals, which are ideal models of a purely abstract nature, existing only in the mind of God. Funnily enough, my familiarity with Plato's so-called theory of ideas made it easy for me, many years later, to grasp the avant-garde approach to computer programming known as object-oriented programming. Here you start with an abstract class, which is then used to create effective instances of that class, referred to as objects.

For Plato, the countless dogs that we meet up with in the everyday world are merely instances of the divine concept of dog-ness, while cats are instances of cat-ness. And Bob Dylan seemed to be perspicacious when he pointed out that Man, in the beginning, had been obliged to give names to all the animals. This is exactly what a computer programmer does when he starts to invent the classes for an object-oriented project.

The only annoying aspect of Plato's theory is that, while it may be helpful for somebody who needs to master object-oriented computer programming, it is totally and unequivocally wrong as a philosophical explanation of our real world.

Richard Dawkins explains Plato's error brilliantly in the opening pages of his latest masterpiece, The Greatest Show on Earth, which I mentioned briefly a year ago [display]. Truly, if you plan to buy and read only one book in the immediate future, make sure it's this one, since this book proposes knowledge that is an absolute must for all informed and cultivated citizens of our day and age. The author asks a simple rhetorical question: Why has it taken so long for humanity to grasp Darwin's "luminously simple idea"? Dawkins replies that the fault lies with Plato. To understand evolution, you have to abandon your naive Platonic trust in concepts such as dog-ness, cat-ness or anything-else-ness. We exist in a perpetually evolving universe in which a single creature could well combine simultaneously a bit of dog-ness and bit of cat-ness. Or maybe this creature seems to exhibit a lot of dog-ness today, whereas his remote ancestors were better described as apparent instances of wolf-ness. In any case, there's an amazing aspect of Darwinian evolution that demolishes Plato's universals, not only in theory, but at a real-life practical level. This is the fact that the planet Earth has actually witnessed—at one moment or another, and for a lapse of time that allowed for procreation—a living specimen of every imaginable creature on the scale that separates pure dog-ness from pure cat-ness. To see why this apparently exotic claim can be made, you only have to envisage (if you have sufficient imagination) the last common ancestor of dogs and cats, which may or may not have looked physically like something in between a typical dog and a typical cat. (The chances are that it looked like neither.) Between that strange creature and a dog, evolution gave rise to a big series of intermediate animals that ended up looking more and more like dogs. The same can be said for the path from that archaic creature to a cat. So, we only need to imagine these two series of animals laid end-to-end (with their common ancestor in the middle), and we have obtained the real-life metamorphosis of a dog into a cat, or vice-versa. But, if Man had to find names for every member of this gigantic set of specimens, Dylan would be singing for centuries.

Long ago, when I first heard Professor Anderson describing Plato's theory of ideas, I was truly charmed by the image of our watching shadows cast by a camp-fire on the wall at the far end of a cave. It was a romantic Boy Scout metaphor, and I'm sad today, in a way, to realize that Plato's fire has gone out forever. Happily, though, Darwin has led us out of the obscure cave and into the light and warmth of the Sun.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hard to watch (continued)

This Irishman, John May, is a lunatic, but his accent is cute.

I don't know what he might have said after the first minute or so, because his words were starting to give me nausea, and I had to terminate the video.

This is the visible part of a dull little iceberg described in the Pharyngula blog [display]. It would appear that the hard-working godless Minnesota biologist PZ Myers has played a significant role in dissuading the Irish pollie Conor Lenihan from attending a book launch of John May's latest anti-Darwinian tripe.

If so, then this suggests that bloggers such as Myers (whom I read regularly) are not necessarily crying out futilely in the wilderness.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Barriers to my zeal

Readers of the Antipodes blog will have noticed that my enthusiasm for the ideas of Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins is such that I have a tendency towards evangelism: a constant wish to spread the Good Word. Well, at times, I've run into problems. Recently, in the course of an impromptu lunch-table conversation with Natacha and Alain, I drifted unthinkingly into a spontaneous presentation of the basic facts of Darwinian evolution. I chose an unlikely creature as the hero of my demonstration: the parasitic tick that attaches itself to mammals such as dogs and humans, and sucks blood.

A friend once told me about tick behavior. Since then, I've remained fascinated by the strange lifestyle of this creature, whose destiny appears to be invested in the tick equivalent of a perpetual grand lottery of a Zen Buddhist variety. More precisely, a young tick has a one-track mind, and that track leads to the tip of a branch of weed where the creature sets up its residence. There, it hangs upside-down, motionless, day and night, with its outstretched claws facing the heavens, like a religious hermit in a trance, waiting for a godsend: namely, the chance arrival of a warm-blooded mammal to which it can immediately attach itself, to suck blood. If such an animal arrives on the scene, then the tick can survive, indeed thrive. If not, it dies. Now, from a Darwinian point of view, that sounds like a good story. But Natacha (whom I had imagined naively as a Darwinian) turned out to be reluctant to allow me to pursue joyfully my storyteller's role.

NATACHA: "William, have you ever actually been in close contact with a tick, in the kind of situation you're describing?"

WILLIAM: "Well, not exactly, because the ticks are out there in the open fields, perched on their weed stems, waiting for a beast to pass by. But we can't necessarily see them."

NATACHA: "You seem to be describing a horde of goblins…"

The bottom fell out of my didactic presentation of a tick-oriented Darwinian case study. It never took off. The ticks are still waiting there, patiently…

Later, I was under the charm of the Dawkins presentation of dam-building beavers, which constitute a spectacular case study in The Extended Phenotype (which the author seems to think of as his major scientific publication). Basically, the general idea is that a beaver's genes result in the existence of dams in exactly the same way that my friend's genes, say, produced her blue eyes. There's an obvious difference, one might object. The blue eyes are actually an intimate part of my friend, whereas nobody would seriously suggest that the gigantic log constructions are bodily appendages of their beaver builders. Dawkins astounds us by saying no, there's no essential difference. The beaver's determination to build dams and my friend's blue eyes can both be considered as phenotypes of the individual's genetic heritage. The fact that the color of my friend's eyes is inside (her body), as it were, while the presence of the beavers' dam is outside (their bodies), changes nothing. The blueness and the "damness" are perfectly comparable consequences of the phenotypical effects of genes.

Well, in much the same way that I had wished to transmit my Darwinian enthusiasm to Natacha, I found myself obsessed by the challenge of telling my son François about the wonders of beaver dam-builders, as explained by Dawkins.

WILLIAM: "François, imagine a young beaver who gives the impression that he's about to decide what he's going to do with his life. Is it imaginable that he might be in a position to choose between a traditional dam-building existence and some other lifestyle that has nothing to do with building dams?"

Retrospectively, I realize that the wording of my rhetorical question was silly, falsely naive, indeed awkward and wrong to the point of offering my son an invitation to produce the following delightful scenario, entitled The Emancipated Adolescent Beaver, which annihilated instantly my zealous didactic pretensions:

FRANCOIS: "Yeah, man, I'm a young beaver, and I decided I don't have no time for all that old shit from my parents about buildin' dams. They been doin' it for ages, but it don't get them nowhere. Ain't no sense in it, believe me. They been doin' that out in the wild country. Me, I moved into the city. Shit, man, on a Saturday night, do you see me tellin' the brothers and sisters that I ain't gonna stay with them, coz I got a mother-fucken dam to build? Fuck that, man. I'm an emancipated beaver…"

Obviously, I'm in need of better Darwinian/Dawkinsian examples.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Necessary rebuttal

In my article of 8 February 2010 entitled Mystery as philosophy [display], I deplored the announcement of a book (which I'm not at all keen to read) entitled What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, in which they apparently contend that Darwin's idea of natural selection is illogical and unsupported by empirical evidence.

Like countless Darwinists, I was shocked that distinguished academics would dare to write such stuff today. I was aware, though, that their arguments were technically complex, and would require some serious unraveling. Fodor (professor of philosophy at Rutgers) and Piattelli-Palmarini (professor of cognitive science at the University of Arizona) are far removed from the arena of crackpot creationists. One had the impression that they were thoughtless renegades rather than declared enemies. In any case, it was clear that it would take a talented heavyweight scholar to bring these deserters to their senses.

Fortunately, Jerry Coyne (professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago) has set himself the task of cleaning up the mess. Click the banner to read his excellent article in The Nation entitled The Improbability Pump. Before his rebuttal of the groundless ideas put forward by the philosopher and the cognitive scientist, there's a bonus: a beautiful review of The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins. Please allow me to quote Coyne quoting Dawkins quoting the DNA of a tiger:

Dawkins describes selection as an "improbability pump," for over time the competition among genes can yield amazingly complex and extraordinary species. Here's how he describes the evolution of tigers:

A tiger's DNA is also a "duplicate me" program, but it contains an almost fantastically large digression as an essential part of the efficient execution of its fundamental message. That digression is a tiger, complete with fangs, claws, running muscles, stalking and pouncing instincts. The tiger's DNA says: "Duplicate me by the round-about route of building a tiger first."

Only Dawkins could describe a tiger as just one way DNA has devised to make more of itself. And that is why he is famous: absolute scientific accuracy expressed with the wonder of a child—a very smart child.

Tiger building! What a splendidly imaginative way to produce new stocks of a chemical product known as deoxyribonucleic acid...

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

No black holes yet

The world has learned that the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] was revved up to cruising speed yesterday.

My home in France is not far away from the Franco-Swiss border where the subterranean device of the European Organization for Nuclear Research [CERN] is located. If ever the physicists happened to start creating tiny black holes, it's not unthinkable that some of them might stream through the ground and finally burst out into the air through the limestone cliffs of Choranche. And, if they emerged here, these black holes would surely start to gobble up various elements of the landscape, with greater or lesser effects, depending on the volume of the disappearances. If a black hole from the suburbs of Geneva were to hit one of my donkeys, say, then it's likely that the disturbance would only be noticed by me, the remaining donkey and, of course, my dog Sophia... who would no doubt smell the nasty odor of an approaching black hole, and start barking. On the other hand, if a black hole were to take out the entire Cournouze mountain, then this modification of the landscape would surely be noticed by many observers (including me, the inhabitants of Choranche and Châtelus, and countless skiers from the Drôme, driving past on their way up to Villard-de-Lans.

There's a down-to-earth question that puzzles me constantly. What would it feel like if you stepped inadvertently, while out walking, on a microscopic black hole that had just fallen onto the ground after being catapulted here from the CERN? Would you suddenly see your foot disappear mysteriously into thin air? Would you have time to jump aside before losing an entire leg? Would this kind of amputation be painful? I imagine naively that this would be a particularly "clean" kind of surgery, since any excess blood or dangling flesh would no doubt disappear into the hole, leaving the patient/victim with a nice smooth germ-free wound, which would no doubt be heal rapidly.

Enough silly joking about black holes. Let me be serious. The BBC website has produced a few excellent pages that explain the basic principles of the LHC. The stuff concerning the computing aspect of this affair, based upon a gigantic system called the Grid, is amazing. Everything about the LHC is fabulous, and I'm tremendously proud that Europe can get involved in this kind of research.

Recently, I was just as enthusiastic about this whole field of scientific investigation as I am today about genetics. In particular, I've admired the two books of Brian Greene about strings.

It's fascinating to try to compare research work and challenges in two different domains such as genetics and physics ("compare" is an inadequate word). The fields in which Richard Dawkins writes so brilliantly are in fact relatively down-to-earth, almost commonsensical, compared with the LHC universe. Even though there are still countless fuckwits who do their silly best to declare that Dawkins is wrong about almost everything, the truth of the matter is that he's operating in a scientific domain whose concepts and laws are fairly well specified by now. That explains why Dawkins can now amuse himself (as I'm sure he does) by fighting verbal battles with adepts of religion, creationism and quackery in general. I'm not suggesting that he doesn't have any more serious scientific work to do. No, I'm trying to say that, since he's standing on such firm ground, he can afford to take time off from scientific challenges in order to tackle the social and human tasks that consist of educating his fellow human beings.

In the world of physics, on the other hand, the great researchers are not yet in a comfortable position enabling them to get involved in comprehensible discussions with the general public. When geneticists set out to unravel the human genome, they had a clear idea of what they were looking for, and what they would eventually find. But there is no such clarity in the case of the LHC. There's even a distinguished Israeli physicist named Eliyahu Comay who's convinced that the CERN researchers won't find anything at all by means of the LHC: neither the Higgs Boson nor strings. And why not? Simply because such entities, according to Comay, cannot possibly exist! Any dumb nincompoop can enunciate his fuzzy personal reasons for dating the start of the universe, or the age of dinosaurs, or for demonstrating the existence or nonexistence of God. But it's a different kettle of fish when you decide to talk about the Higgs Boson and strings. Even Pope Benedict XVI wouldn't normally be expected to state his profound opinion on such matters. We know beforehand that, no matter what the people at CERN find out about the universe through the LHC, the facts and their conclusions will remain totally incomprehensible for the vast majority of observers.

In fact, that's what's nice about scientific domains that are based upon extraordinary concepts and advanced mathematics. These obstacles filter out the fuckwits. Inversely, the problem at the level of Darwin, Dawkins and DNA (just to name these three pillars) is that everything's so beautifully simple, immediately obvious and totally proven... except to loud-mouthed peanut-brained fuckwits.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Darwin Day

A year ago, I wrote my first blog article on Darwin Day [display].

This National Photographic photo must be dedicated grudgingly to the memory of our hero, because Darwin apparently thought that the fabulous marine iguana, symbol of the Galapagos Islands, was ugly. He also dared to straddle the back of a Galapagos tortoise.

That's not the first time we've heard of otherwise intelligent individuals behaving as silly sporting tourists. So, we should be prepared to pardon posthumously the young naturalist for his frivolous behavior. In any case, Galapagos is where the theory of evolution seems to have been conceived. I imagine these islands as a sacred place: our Jerusalem.

In Christian theology, certain great figures have been linked to animals.

The four Evangelists are associated with symbolic creatures: a lion for Mark, an ox for Luke, an eagle for John, etc. It's high time to update theology. I proclaim: Henceforth, our beloved Saint Charles D will be represented by an iguana, our living Saint Richard D by a tortoise.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Mystery as philosophy

We Aussies never forget that the world is a stage, and that we are actors. No matter what our field, we have a knack of looking the part.

It goes without saying that, with my years, my rural existence in France and my thinning hair (nearly seven years ago, already, when Natacha took this photo), I'm no exception.

David Chalmers is the 43-year-old professor of philosophy at the Australian National University in Canberra. His major claim to fame was the invention of the concept of the so-called "hard problem of consciousness", which simply means that we naked apes inhabiting the planet Earth find it difficult, if not impossible, to fathom the phenomenon of consciousness. Apart from that, what else is new? Well, it appears that David, armed with a powerful Canon camera, has become the official photographer of attendees at international philosophy conferences [display], but his photos are rather dull, not particularly philosophical.

A British philosopher, Colin McGinn, has gone one step further by declaring that the Chalmers enigma has no solution. That's to say, he thinks that we'll never know why we think as we do. Big deal. McGinn has become the leader of the school of New Mysterianism.

Now, it wouldn't be so bad if these guys who claim that we'll never know everything about everything were to hibernate calmly in the background, while awaiting further revelations. But no! They attract adepts, some of whom are quite bright fellows (atheists, of course), intent upon gaining recognition.

One such latter-day mysterian is the US professor of psychology Jerry Fodor. I have the impression that this distinguished academic is upset about not being on the Dawkins/Pinker bandwagon. He feels left out of things. So, he and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini have decided to create a storm in a teacup by bringing out a book with a provocative title: What Darwin Got Wrong. It's hot off the press, so I haven't had a chance of reading it yet. But, needless to say, through its mere title, this book is going to be divine manna for all the nitwit young-earth creationists and advocates of so-called intelligent design. It's just too good to have a reputed US professor of philosophy shouting out that Darwin got things wrong.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

There is grandeur in this view of life

Today, November 24, is the 150th anniversary of the publication of a celebrated book:

Its author was Charles Darwin [1809-1882].

On the web, you can obtain free an entire copy of the original edition [display]. Here is the final paragraph of that momentous work:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

In the most recent book by Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, the entire final chapter is devoted to a line-by-line analysis of the above paragraph. The words of Darwin and, today, Dawkins present a vision of life in which the primordial ingredient is expressed ideally by that great French word: grandeur.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Latest Dawkins book

This year, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. And it so happens that the world has just been introduced to Ardi, our most ancient identified ancestor with most of her bones available for inspection. So, the time is perfect for another book by Richard Dawkins, presenting the evidence for evolution.

It's utterly amazing that countless Americans, today, still consider stupidly that evolution is a mere theory, in which they refuse to believe. That's to say, they ignore that evolution has become an established element of contemporary science.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Silence can be golden

It's only recently that I've fully grasped the fact that there are times, particularly in a media context, when it's preferable to say nothing whatsoever about certain subjects.

The bicentennial of Darwin's birth strengthened this attitude in my mind. I've always found it outrageous that numbskulls should dare to compare the preposterous fantasy of creationism, not to mention the fable of Genesis, with the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, whenever a serious scientist gets dragged into a public argument with Genesis believers and creationists (basically the same kind of people), the supernaturalists receive extra publicity, even though they might be thrashed intellectually. And the fact that they're placed in the limelight is likely to make these silly folk more sure of themselves, and more outspoken, than if they were to be simply ignored. So, there's a strong case for refraining from ever paying attention to them in any way whatsoever.

The same thing can be said about journalists who turn their projectors towards perpetrators of the ridiculous Moon Hoax, according to which NASA's Apollo missions were mere Hollywood productions.

In general, I think it's always worthwhile, at least in the beginning, to allow conspiracy theorists of all kinds to air their views, because we can often learn from them in various unexpected ways. But, as soon as it becomes clear that such-and-such a theory is no more than hot air, its proponents should normally be ignored. The problem is that, the more an observer is convinced that he can easily debunk the allegations of a mindless conspiracy theorist, the more the intended debunking runs the risk of being transformed into nice publicity for the silly ideas.