Showing posts with label Richard Dawkins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Dawkins. Show all posts

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What science is saying

These days, the general public is being offered countless presentations of scientific conclusions concerning the origins of human beings. The tone of some of these presentations is so clear, and their contents are so striking, that most people should grasp what is being said, and be impressed by the scope and depth of such explanations. I would imagine that most young people react seriously to such presentations, whereas many adults probably find ways of shielding themselves from the impact of revolutionary facts capable of disturbing them.

Near the start of The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins presents readers with a spectacular thought experiment: that's to say, a virtual project carried out, not in a laboratory, but in your imagination. You're asked to stack up portraits of your father, your father's father, your father's father's father, and so on: that's to say, all your paternal male ancestors. The huge stack of images—extending backwards in time—might be laid out on bookshelves, enabling you to browse through them in an orderly fashion to examine the portrait of any specific male ancestor.

If you browsed back to the portrait of your 4,000-greats-grandfather, you would discover a bearded dark-skinned fellow not unlike men you might see today, say, in a Moroccan village. If you browsed back much further, to the portrait of your 50,000-greats-grandfather, you would come upon an individual who looks like the proverbial caveman. Dawkins then asks you to browse all the way back to your 185-million-greats-grandfather. What might he look like? With the help of brilliant illustrations from Dave McKean, Dawkins supplies an answer, which might shock certain readers:

This portrait of a grandpappy is far removed from the typical paintings of distinguished oldtimers in the portrait galleries of aristocratic families. The ancestor who most impressed me was our long-snouted 45-million-greats-grandfather, shown here having a snack:

To appreciate these ancestral illustrations and explanations, you really must get a copy of this splendid Dawkins book, which is packed with all kinds of fascinating tales (including myths) and science stuff.

A few evenings ago, on the Arte TV channel, I watched an interesting documentary on population genetics. Viewers were introduced to the fabulous possibilities of examining DNA specimens to determine the genealogy of various ethnic communities. Personally, I prefer to acquire my knowledge of population genetics and large-scale genealogy through reading books, articles and Internet stuff rather than depending on TV. I would imagine however that this documentary must have been an eye-opener for viewers who were unaware of state-of-the-art findings and thinking in this complex domain.

The subject was tackled in a controversial style (rightly, I believe) by insisting on the fact that the old-fashioned concept of human races is totally rejected by modern research. All human beings who exist today on the planet Earth are the biological descendants of a small group of Africans who were probably similar to the community known today as South African Bushmen. In a sense, therefore, we are all Africans! This poetic declaration charmed 80-year-old Desmond Tutu.

Certain facts are likely to amaze white-skinned Europeans and citizens of the New World, and maybe make us more humble. For example, there is no doubt whatsoever that our prehistoric ancestors were black-skinned, and that our present whiteness is a freakish new-fangled affair brought on by the physiological fact that fairer ex-Africans survived better in cold climates. So, alongside "black is beautiful", we might proclaim that "negro is normal", whereas "white is weird".

These days, research in population genetics is advancing so rapidly that certain major breakthroughs have occurred in the short time since the French TV documentary was completed. For example, there have been amazing revelations concerning the early date at which the ancestors of Australia's Aborigines left Africa. In the 1920s, a lock of hair was taken from an anonymous young Aboriginal male near Kalgoorlie. Well, this DNA specimen was sufficient to enable, recently, an analysis of the subject's genome. And it became obvious that the ancestors of Australia's Aborigines had in fact left Africa at least some 50 millennia ago: that's to say, well before the exodus that gave rise to communities of Homo sapiens in Asia and Europe.

A tribal elder described this DNA-based breakthrough as "just a white-fella story", and said he would continue to believe in the tribe's mythical creation legends.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dawkins gives Miss Anscombe a role

I've just started to read with enthusiasm the latest book by Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality, which might be described as a science-oriented picture book for youngsters from 8 to 80. I was amused to discover that the excellent graphic work by Dave McKean depicts a casual conversation between two individuals whom I mentioned six months ago in my blog post entitled Voices from Vienna [display]. I'm referring to the Vienna-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889-1951] and his English disciple Elizabeth Anscombe [1919-2001], who was both a professor of philosophy at Cambridge and a devout Roman Catholic. As I mentioned in that blog post, I had an unexpected opportunity of meeting up with Anscombe in Brittany, at the home of Christine's parents. Members of the Mafart family, including Christine, had frequent contacts with a Dominican priory in Staffordshire known as Spode House, which had also become a regular retreat for the Anscombes.

Here's the drawing of Elizabeth Anscombe and Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Wittgenstein was intrigued by the fact that people had once believed, unanimously, that the Sun went round the Earth. He wondered why this belief was so universal. Anscombe replies—with a massive dose of common sense—that people no doubt found that it looked as if the sun went round the Earth. Wittgenstein hits back with an interesting rhetorical question: "What would it have looked like if it had looked as if the Earth turned on its axis?" In other words, what kinds of visual impressions would have been needed to make people believe spontaneously in a heliocentric theory?

We can find plausible answers in the ordinary experience of air travel. When a plane hits turbulence, passengers never have the impression that it's the Earth and its atmosphere that are being jolted up and down. They're convinced intuitively that the aircraft, which had appeared to be calm and motionless just a minute earlier, is now being shaken by disturbing forces. So, that suggests an answer to Wittgenstein's question. If only the planet Earth were to run into zones of turbulence every now and again, humans would have surely been more ready to feel that their planet was indeed turning on its axis and moving around the Sun.

Air travel provides another striking experience of rapid movement. When an aircraft, preparing to land, plunges down obliquely through wispy layers of cloud, passengers are suddenly made aware of the great speed at which they are moving. Ideally, we might imagine vast rings of dust, orbiting the Sun at roughly the same distance as the Earth, with trajectories that intersect at right angles with ours. Periodically, Earth-dwellers would notice that we were about to run into such a dust ring, since it would be visible in the sky above us. Then, as we whizzed past the dust in a kind of near-miss encounter (hopefully surviving), we might well observe a parallax phenomenon—involving the alignment of the Sun, the dust ring and our planet—suggesting that we are indeed moving around the Sun.

It's preferable, though, to judge such affairs using the methods of scientific reasoning. If Karl Popper had been eavesdropping on the conversation between Ludwig and Miss Anscombe, he might have suggested wisely that they should abandon their jobs in the philosophy department and enroll humbly as science undergraduates…

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Front page of the New York Times

The English biologist Richard Dawkins was featured yesterday on the front page of The New York Times, and the excellent article was prefaced by a casual video.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Myths versus truth

In my recent blog post entitled Children's books [display], I indicated that Richard Dawkins has a book for children coming out soon, on the theme of evolution. Last night, he was interviewed on this subject by the BBC.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Figs in my yard

My friend Tineke Bot has often claimed that she can distinguish spontaneously and effortlessly dozens of different shades of green. Here in Choranche, this kind of chromatic sensibility is an asset. Without it, an observer would have the impression of looking out on a world that is homogeneously green. In the case of the following photo, for example, I've played around with Photoshop settings in an attempt (not particularly successful) to get the leaves of the fig tree to stand out as much as possible against the background.

[Click to enlarge]

For the first time ever, the tree is covered in figs, and they're truly delicious. This is the tree given to me by my Provençal friends Natacha and Alain. Two years ago, in my blog post entitled Great fig tree, but low yield [display], I said jokingly that the annual yield of the young tree had been one edible fig. Clearly, since then, it has evolved exponentially. They're small dark spheres, firm and sweet: the variety of figs used to produce tarts and cakes.

I take this opportunity of including a link back to my blog post entitled Fabulous fig story [display], in which I referred to fascinating biological information from Richard Dawkins concerning the fig tree.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Children's books

Some children's books can be appreciated by readers who ceased, long ago, to be children. No doubt the finest cases of such literature are the works of Lewis Carroll… but one might claim that the author imagined his juvenile readers as intellectually-endowed individuals capable of being intrigued by logical enigmas, linguistic bizarreries and all kinds of puzzling things.

I've always thought of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows as a splendid example of a children's book that can be enjoyed by adults.

On the other hand, certain books that I found extraordinarily exciting as a child had lost all their charm when I rediscovered them years later. The most disappointing case of this kind, for me, was the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. When I was about 11 years old, these adventure stories—of a Boy Scout and Girl Guide tone—were the summit of thrilling fiction.

These days, I would imagine that many adults have derived pleasure from reading the Harry Potter books. Personally, having seen some of the movies on TV, I became rapidly bored by all that pointing of magic wands and riding of flying broomsticks. It's definitely not my kettle of fish, but I can understand that many adults might appreciate this kind of stuff.

A new book for children will be coming out on October 4, and I've just put in an advance order for it. I'm referring to The Magic of Reality, the latest book by Richard Dawkins. I'm happy to see that the author is already exploiting this forthcoming event to promote the teaching of evolutionary science in primary schools. That would be a wonderful idea.

We've already seen an excellent specimen of writing from Dawkins for a child. I'm referring to the final chapter of A Devil's Chaplain, entitled A Prayer for My Daughter (first published in 1995), in which Dawkins provides his 10-year-old daughter Juliet with various "good and bad reasons for believing".

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Elephants no longer "grand"

In my recent blog post entitled This Texan is a raving loony [display], I said I look upon Rick Perry as an idiot. Richard Dawkins has just reacted publicly to Perry's description of evolutionary science as "a theory that's out there" which has "got some gaps in it". The Dawkins response appeared on Tuesday in On Faith, the Washington Post's forum for news and opinion on religion and politics [display].

Dawkins starts out by declaring that the GOP nickname has become "ridiculous", because the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt can no longer be looked upon as "grand". Then, in a single devastating sentence, he explains the behavior of Republican voters:

Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.

I ended my above-mentioned blog post with a rhetorical question that has often intrigued me:

How is it possible that a great nation such as the USA, with its vast resources in the domain of scientific knowledge, can give birth to, and encourage the ascension of, a shitty gutter-level specimen of shallow stupidity such as Perry, who doesn't even know what's happening in his home-state schools?

Dawkins (whose writing style is more refined than mine) seems to be puzzled by this same kind of question:

The population of the United States is more than 300 million and it includes some of the best and brightest that the human species has to offer, probably more so than any other country in the world. There is surely something wrong with a system for choosing a leader when, given a pool of such talent and a process that occupies more than a year and consumes billions of dollars, what rises to the top of the heap is George W Bush. Or when the likes of Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin can be mentioned as even remote possibilities.

It's interesting to note that Dawkins blames this situation on the Republican "system for choosing a leader". I wonder what kind of alternative system of choice would get the Republicans more credible (less stupid) leaders.

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!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


When I was a 14-year-old kid hanging around in the rough competitive-cycling environment of my native Grafton and Coffs Harbour, the very idea of a cultivated gentleman cyclist such as Cadel Evans would have been unthinkable. Inversely, I eavesdropped on many uncouth conversations about sex. Retrospectively, I believe—although I can't vouch for it—that I had already, at that time, acquired sufficient algebraic knowledge and sexual self-awareness to appreciate a remarkable law of the dynamics of male nature: The angle of the dangle is proportional to the heat of the meat. That's to say, a cold penis will hang limply and vertically (angle zero), whereas a warmed-up hunk of meat will rise magically to a right angle, or even greater. What I didn't understand clearly at that time was that the warming-up process was a largely-cerebral affair, which only needed to be triggered by the vision of a nymph, a young angel, an ethereal creature with a seductive look… accompanied generally by a luscious mouth, attractive breasts and an enticing backside. In those days, people used to talk a lot about love, even divinely-consecrated eternal love… but I had to wait a long while before I started to hear intelligent talk—from brilliant happily-married intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker—about our inbuilt animal sex drives.

Concerning my former politico-economic hero Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I must admit that a cloud of disbelief engulfed me when I witnessed the female object that apparently heated his meat. I'm not talking of the complex human being named Nafissatou Diallo, herself, but merely of her image as a sexual challenge: an object capable of augmenting Strauss-Kahn's angle of the dangle.

Once upon a time, I revered the ethereal beauty and brilliance of Anne Sinclair, who appeared to me (that's to say, to my concupiscent regard) as the epitome of the French female. At that time, I didn't yet know that she was filthy rich, attached to the USA, and capable of falling totally in love with, and protecting, a powerful male. Today, I still admire Anne, of course, but she doesn't come through quite as angelically untainted as she used to. More precisely, I can't help wondering whether she might have been duped by the indubitable promises of DSK. Even more precisely, it would be good if Anne were to tell us simply (former admirers of the journalist and partisans of DSK) how she looks upon, globally, this whole "heat of the meat" subject.

Let me turn to another distortion: Rupert Murdoch.

[Click the image for an amusing Onion satire on Rupert's distortions of reality.]

I've always loved the Simpsons, who remain for me the perfect illustration of nasty life in God's Own Country. Apparently, there are evil-minded observers who would wish to see similarities between Rupert and the venerable Grandpa Simpson.

Personally, I'm profoundly attached to the past, particularly through my genealogical pursuits. On the other hand, I've always been terrified by the horrible eventuality of becoming, as my age advances, what my Aussie mates in Grafton would have labeled an SOB [silly old bugger]. For the moment, I'm sufficiently lucid, I believe, to know what I'm doing, especially in the domain of autobiographical writing, which forces me to be alert and perspicacious. But I'm terrified at times by the looming apparitions, around me, of certain former friends who seem to be transforming themselves inevitably—cerebrally, no doubt, but not knowingly, I'm afraid—into SOBs of the saddest ranting Rupert kind.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bachmann and Palin

In God's Own Country, are female Republican celebrities really as disastrous as Bill Maher makes them out to be? I guess so.

Talking about American women (which I wasn't really), the great Richard Dawkins made a lot of bad friends recently when he published this little satirical bombshell:

Dear Muslima
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself "Skepchick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so...
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

US feminists, skeptics and atheists found it hard to believe that the celebrated English professor would dare to make fun of their outspoken sister Rebecca Watson [click the photo to access her Wikipedia description], who was forced to decline a brutal middle-of-the-night invitation of a fellow she encountered in a hotel elevator. Rebecca attempted to transform her terse refusal into a feminist cry—Don’t do it, guys!—that might have shaken the male world. Were it not for Dawkins, Rebecca's sordid affair might have fizzled out into much-ado-about-nothing.

A year or so ago, intrigued by this weird woman who seemed to have charmed certain US intellectual circles whose ideas I respected, I decided to follow her personal videos. One day, she offered us a home-made thing that consisted solely of a dense self-analysis of the lady's own facial features. This narcissism nauseated me, and I promptly ceased to follow her superficial stuff.

I'm aware that I shouldn't dare to talk about US females such as those whose names appear in the present blog post, because my comments are devoid of any kind of reliable personal knowledge or experience. The truth of the matter, for me, is that such women are Martians.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

State of things

It's hard to single out the nonfiction book that marked me most when I was a young man. Objectively, I would probably have to say it was History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, since I discovered Russell's rambling and sketchy compendium in Paris in 1962 and, up until today, it has remained one of my bedside books.

Before then, a science book that made a huge and lasting impression upon me was The Nature of the Physical World by the English astronomer Arthur Eddington, written in 1928. He was a Quaker (which might have aroused my suspicions), but Eddington was also, after all, one of the first and finest interpreters of the newfangled theories of Albert Einstein. So, I was most impressed by his excellent style of science writing.

What I liked most about Eddington's views on the cosmological state of things was the fact that he left a tiny window open for spiritual beliefs and religious faith. I remember saying to myself, as it were: "OK, Eddington's explanations on the nature of the Cosmos are fine for the moment, even though they're obviously inadequate. But there's a good chance, hopefully, that we'll get around to finding God, one of these days, in the interstices." In fact, I was both a naive and lazy thinker.

In a nutshell, that's truly what I believed for years, for decades… even during the time that I fell in love, upon my arrival at Gamone, with the fabulous tale of Master Bruno, founder of the Chartreux monastic order. But the truth of the matter is that we're no longer in the same peaceful ballpark as Bruno and company. In the course of the few decades that separate me from my reading of the charming Quaker Eddington, Science has started to come apart at the seams, while Religion has been eternally rubbished.

We're awaiting news, not from a religiously-inspired science-writer, and even less from the Holy Spirit, but from the Large Hadron Collider, which talks to us in terms of String Theory. But will we necessarily understand the sacred Word of the Collider? Probably not, at least neither exactly nor explicitly, because it's all a matter of ethereal mathematics, which is akin to a mixture of abstract art and poetry. But it's infinitely better than the supposed Word of God, horribly fuzzy and irrevocably has-been.

The following video is a talk on cosmology by an amazing US intellectual, Lawrence Krauss. It lasts an hour, but I strongly urge you to get settled comfortably in front of your computer to watch it from the beginning to the end.

Insulting religion

When he criticizes religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), this 61-year-old English comedian, Pat Condell, expresses himself in a beautifully clear and persuasive manner:

He's definitely a healthy and explicit no-bullshit artist (you can Google his credentials, which include six years working as a logger in Canada), described by Richard Dawkins in the following terms: "Pat Condell is unique. Nobody can match his extraordinary blend of suavity and savagery. With his articulate intelligence he runs rings around the religious wingnuts that are the targets of his merciless humour. Thank goodness he is on our side."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Background culture

Obviously, you can only perform a certain activity correctly, or appreciate something you hear or read about, if you possess a minimum of awareness of the subject in question. I call this background culture, and I think it's a tremendously important phenomenon in our modern world. In many cases, if an adult didn't happen to pick up this background culture when she was a kid, then she'll probably never get around to acquiring it. This is particularly true, as we all know, in the case of foreign languages. Consider twin boys born to an Australian couple settled out in the bush. If one child were to be whisked away to Japanese foster parents in Tokyo, then the kid would surely grow up like a typical Japanese teenager, speaking faultless Japanese… and incapable of communicating fluently with his sibling who remained down in the Australian bush. Now, when I talk that way, readers might imagine that I'm defending the theory of the blank slate, which Steven Pinker spent an entire book in demolishing.

I might seem to be saying that a bush baby in Australia (like me, if you insist on making things personal) is born more-or-less "empty-headed", and that you only have to drop him off in a place such as Tokyo, and let nurture get to work, if you want your kid to evolve, say, into a sophisticated citizen of the Land of the Rising Sun… who might later decide to return to his birthplace Down Under and amaze all the locals, with the help of his twin brother, by setting up a genuine sushi restaurant.

Well, this impression is partly right, and partly wrong. All the Japanese stuff is perfectly correct. What's totally wrong is the suggestion that the Aussie bush twins were born more-or-less "empty-headed". On the contrary, the twins were born with an all-important stock of genes, of all kinds, inherited from their Australian parents. And, if the Japanese-speaking sibling who grew up in Tokyo turned out to be smart enough to imagine the idea of returning to Australia and setting up a sushi restaurant with his English-speaking brother, then we can surely conclude that they two fellows were equipped, right from the start, with an excellent set of genes tuned to imagination and business creativity.

In my personal case, the fact that I never heard people speaking French until I was 21 years old means that I missed out on the nurture deal as far as my accent is concerned. That's to say, I'll always speak French with a foreign accent. On the other hand, I can communicate correctly with French people on all kinds of subjects, which suggests that I arrived on the scene here in France with a set of genes enabling me to learn how to translate efficiently from one language into another… which was the same set of genes that allowed me to work professionally in computer programming.

These days, I'm constantly amused to realize that much of my background culture, enabling me to appreciate various intellectual challenges, was of an accidental acquired kind, rather than primarily genetic. Out in Australia during the five-year period between my leaving school (1957) and my departure for Europe (1961), I had the chance of picking up cultural baggage in science that is still "fueling" me today. Let me give you an example of what I'm trying to say, in an unexpected domain: games. If there's a human activity in which I have no skills whatsoever, and even less in the way of enthusiasm, it's surely the field of games. I'm quite incapable of conjuring up any kind of competitive spirit, or will to win. I'm simply lousy at playing games. Besides, I hardly ever do so. I've never played cards, or bridge, or video games. Scrabble and crossword puzzles, like chess, bore me greatly. I seem to be lacking the genes that push other individuals to play with a will to win. And this apathy extends to all kinds of games, from competitive sports through to business. I'm not exactly a loser; I'm simply a lethargic non-player, with no deep desire to win anything whatsoever.

Now, this is funny, because my son François seems to be quite the opposite. He has recuperated genes that make him a skilled competitor in quite a few domains, including billiards. I don't know where he obtained these genes, but it's surely through his mother, whose family background includes at least a couple of solid known cases of entrepreneurial success… which are lacking in my family environment (with the possible exception of my paternal grandfather's small automobile business). There are no outstanding merchants among my recent ancestors. Meanwhile, the only successful sportsman—my uncle John Walker, the track cyclist—had so little will to win that a Grafton journalist once said that he had to be "psyched up" (by encouragement from his brothers) to have any chance of winning… and I knew my late uncle well enough to understand that this was surely the case.

Now, why am I painting this utterly dismal image of myself in the games arena? Well, there's method in my madness, which I shall now attempt to explain. In a nutshell, it's a matter of a fortuitous encounter with a fundamental element of scientific culture, when I was a young man working with IBM in Sydney.

I've already evoked John von Neumann in my blog article of Christmas Day 2006 entitled The meaning of life [display]. He's the fellow who invented the idea of programs stored in the memory of a computer. He also put forward a theory of replicators (which he referred to as self-reproducing automata), and we now know that the spiral helix mechanism of the DNA molecule is indeed such a replicator, at the origin of all life on the planet Earth.

Well, von Neumann had yet another claim to fame. With Oskar Morgenstern [1902-1977], he was the coauthor of a pioneering book, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior… a copy of which happened to be hanging around in the offices of IBM Australia, in North Sydney, when the company hired me as a computer programmer in 1957. At the time, I was amazed to learn that what I looked upon as a relatively superficial activity, playing games, could become the object of mathematical theories. In any case, while I continued to have little enthusiasm for games themselves, I was enthralled by the theories that had been invented to explain them.

Now, things might have stayed like that for me, permanently, were it not for the ingenious insights of an English evolutionary biologist and geneticist, John Mayard Smith, who decided to apply games theory to the biggest game of all—the greatest show on earth, as Richard Dawkins put it—namely, evolution. Unfortunately, it would be beyond the possibilities of my blog to tackle the precise ways in which, say, a college student on a date might be exploiting a strategy (unconsciously, in most cases) akin to a poker player. Dawkins introduces this gigantic theme, in a typically brilliant fashion, near the beginning of The Selfish Gene.

To be quite honest, I must point out that it can become mentally tiresome to follow the mathematical mechanisms of a games-theory interpretation of activities in the domains of courting, love and marriage, and rearing children. As I said at the beginning, it helps a lot if you happen to possess a minimum of background culture in the theory of games.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happiness is a great science book

In the humble and peaceful existence that I lead at Gamone, it's a fact that one of my greatest pleasures consists of having the privilege of getting stuck into various exceptional books. Some of them have become regular companions, which I've reread several times over. For example: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, and The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch. Over the last decade, various new book-reading elements have been falling into place, making it easier for a science aficionado such as me to get deeply involved in this activity. I'm thinking primarily of the Internet, which enables us to learn of interesting new publications, and to obtain in-depth background information concerning, not only the authors and their books, but also—and above all—the scientific domains to which the books refer. This is particularly true of the various life sciences that interest me—biology, genetics, psychology, human paleontology—but it is also the case for websites about physics and cosmology. All that you then need is time and solitude to carry out your reading. This is ideally the case for me at Gamone, where my only annoying distractions are the present blog (which nevertheless has a few meaningful justifications) and a little too much TV (generally high-quality) at times.

I'm perfectly aware that this kind of totally-introspective almost "absolutist" lifestyle is not helping me to become a well-behaved member of any kind of "society", be it my daily real-life environment at Choranche, or the less-tangible community of individuals with whom I enter in contact through the telephone and the Internet. But I don't look upon my personality, character and behavioral faults as things that need to be modified or "improved". I'm too old for that, and I'm really irreparably obsessed and dominated by my passion for a scientific understanding of my existence.

Today, happiness is not simply a great science book. It's rather a monumental document: The Hidden Reality, the third element of Brian Greene's trilogy that started with The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos.

I've just received it, hot off the press, and I'm taking my time to get stuck into it. I'm like my dog Fitzroy sniffing around a new food delicacy, posing it on the lawn, and trying to figure out the best angle of attack.

The subject of Greene's new book is really powerful stuff: the fascinating mind-boggling mysteries of parallel universes, or so-called multiverses, whose "existence" is strongly suggested these days by quantum mathematics and string theory (Greene's ongoing preoccupation).

I've always looked upon the respective domains of Richard Dawkins and Brian Greene as perfectly complementary quests. Dawkins is telling us what has been happening for a while on this precious little green and blue bubble named Earth, whereas Greene is concerned by a much bigger picture: the Cosmos. If I may push my favorite metaphor to its dizzy limits, the Earth and the Cosmos appear to me as Antipodean partners. For as long as we remain preoccupied by our familiar home planet, even to the extent of examining the unbelievably small and strange entities known as viruses, the Cosmos is a weird otherworldly phenomenon where common sense appears to be walking on its head. But, as soon as we turn to the Cosmos, it's suddenly the gene-based world of Dawkins that seems to be unimaginable, walking on its head, since it contains that extraordinary "thing" called consciousness. Dawkins and Greene are two sides of a single coin. Today, what is utterly amazing is that, through a certain number of great books, we can take hold of that coin and turn it over between our fingers.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Churchy physicist hits the jackpot

I often use the term "churchiness" (giving rise to the adjective "churchy") to designate a quaint tradition that consists of treasuring various aspects of the established church of a purely cultural non-theological kind. Today, I'm writing about a spectacular case of Anglican churchiness in Britain, but this phenomenon—which might be described as appreciating the religious icing more than the cake itself—can be found in all faith contexts, even in Judaism (where its adepts often describe themselves as "secular Jews").

In my article of 22 May 2008 entitled Coincidences that appear to be amazing [display], I spoke of one of the nicest little science books I've ever come upon: Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees. In that article, I resorted to humorous irony in a feeble attempt to demonstrate that we often tend to get our thoughts backwards, as it were. It would be ridiculous to assert that chance has caused celebrated rivers to flow precisely through the middle of many great cities. It's the other way round. If the Seine flows through the center of Paris, it's because the founders of the future city decided to settle on the banks of that river, at the propitious geographical site that would later be known as Paris. If a great temple existed at Ephesus, once upon a time, it wasn't the goddess herself who erected it at that particular spot, so that her followers would gather there to worship her; Ephesus was a place where many people just happened to be devout followers of Artemis, and it was normal that they should build a great temple that would soon attract hordes of worshipers of the goddess. Likewise, as Rees says, we should not seek fuzzy metaphysical explanations concerning the precise values of six physical constants that have shaped our universe. While certain observers find it nice to conclude that God alone could have dictated those six values in order to enable us mortals to come into existence and to worship Him (that capital "H" is a remnant of my personal churchiness), the obvious objective explanation—designated as the anthropic principle—is that, in the case of all other theoretical values of those six famous numbers, we humans simply wouldn't be here today, on the planet Earth, to talk of shoes and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.

Telling tale: The celebrated scientist Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society) was enamored of traditional British values to the point of getting a kick out of being known officially as Baron Rees of Ludlow. And this self-proclaimed atheist has taken churchiness to its extreme limits by declaring that the Church of England is a "force for good", and that we should preserve the choral traditions and architectural legacy of Anglicanism. That's crazy thinking, but brilliantly British! I would not hesitate in labeling Rees as a charming intellectual eccentric… but I prefer by far the healthy language of an authentic (non-eccentric) British intellectual such as Richard Dawkins, whose profound culture consists of dispensing with all convenient subterfuges such as churchy nostalgia. OK, we can maybe allude to churchiness, for literary reasons (as Dawkins does, when he refers fleetingly to All things bright and beautiful), but we shouldn't actually take it seriously, as something that deserves to be preserved, on a par with the findings of science. Let me say, to clarify my personal feelings, that churchiness is certainly the stuff that should be exhibited in cultural museums (which may, or may not, exist today as such), but its intellectual remnants should never be mistaken for good clear thinking.

Today, we are all alarmed to discover that the good lord (Rees, not the other fellow) has apparently sold his soul to the US spiritual force of the Dollar Deity by accepting the notorious Templeton Prize: over a million and a half lovely little tax-free greenbacks. Churchies of the world, let us arise and praise the Lord! Meanwhile, let me give my guide Dawkins the final lighthearted word: "This will look great on Templeton's CV. Not so good on Martin's."

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 8, 2011


Many years ago, back in Paris, one of my former employers told his assembled staff: "The challenge of becoming rich involves two aspects. On the one hand, you have to earn as much money as possible. On the other hand, you must spend as little as possible."

I've often thought that our health situation is similar. On the one hand, you must have access to top-quality medical services… including, above all, an excellent GP (general practitioner). On the other hand, you have to avoid running into health problems. Elementary, my dear Watson. (Apparently Sherlock Holmes never pronounced this apocryphal phrase in any of the sixty detective novels written by Arthur Conan Doyle.) I consider myself fortunate in the sense that, in my personal case, both these conditions appear to prevail.

I drop in at the GP's rooms in Pont-en-Royans once every three months for a renewal of the prescription for three or four pills that I've been taking over the last six years. The ritual is always the same. The GP tries to imagine what kind of medical tests he might be able to impose upon me, through his specialist colleagues in the nearby cities of Valence and Romans. Since my prostate has been removed, and since I perform regular checks for colon cancer, I've become a relatively dull candidate for tests… but I'm sure my GP will think of something one of these days.

A long time ago, he informed me that my cervical vertebra resembled worn-out parts in an aging automobile, and that this could well bring about fits of vestibular giddiness. Back at the time the GP said that, I didn't really believe his diagnosis. On the one hand, I never have a stiff or painful neck (in spite of sitting upright in front of a computer screen for hours on end, seated on a hard wooden chair). On the other hand, if I felt giddy at times, particularly when I looked skywards, I imagined this as the first symptoms of some terrible form of cerebral decay. Maybe I had inherited it from my ancestor Charles Walker, innkeeper on the Braidwood goldfields, who used to drink too much of a beverage invented by a Scotsman named Johnnie Walker who, I believe, was his brother. If Charles had died in 1860 of delirium tremens, and if his great-great-grandson felt giddy from time to time when he was wandering around on the slopes with his dogs at Choranche, it's clear that this had nothing to do with neck bones; it was the inherited fault of bad neurons.

Reluctantly, however, I was obliged to admit to my GP that, one morning a month or so ago, I woke up with both a sore neck and a bit of giddiness. Later on in the morning, just to see whether or not it might work, I performed energetic exercises with my arms, neck and shoulders. By midday, both the pain in the neck and the giddiness had totally disappeared. So, that certainly proved something… and my GP agreed! I did have the impression, however, that he looked at me with a puzzled expression when I was telling him this story, as if I might indeed have decaying whisky-soaked neurons in my inner brain.

The GP's test for blood pressure always follows a similar ritual. Lying on my back, I tend to forget that he's busy trying to determine my blood pressure, and I carry on talking, in anything but a relaxed state. He frowns because his reading is lower than expected. At that stage, he always asks me the same question: "Do you check your blood pressure regularly at home?" And I always tell him that I wouldn't have the faintest idea about how to perform such an operation. By that time, I'm standing up, and my body is no longer tense. And, in this position, the GP's new reading of my blood pressure reverts to its normal value, which seems to please him greatly.

After that incident, the GP sets his computer in action, so that it prints out a new copy of my regular prescription. He functions in multi-processing mode by simultaneously recording my payment, signing my prescription and talking on the phone with his wife. Besides, this red-blooded lady's man seems to be amused when I say that this kind of aptitude is generally strictly feminine.

At that point in my visit to the GP, the serious part of our encounter can get under way. I'm talking of our regular conversations about books, science, the Internet, etc. The other day, the GP set the ball rolling.

GP: "I bought the two Dawkins books you mentioned, and found them highly interesting."

Knowing nothing of the quality of French translations of books by Richard Dawkins, I had nevertheless recommended that he might read The God Delusion and The Greatest Show on Earth. Parts of the first book, on atheism, had apparently impressed my GP greatly. In particular, he liked the explanations about the plasticity of the minds of tender children, who can be made to believe anything they're told. Meanwhile, the overall American situation was news to him.

GP: "I was amazed to learn that declaring oneself an atheist in the USA prevents you from being considered as a decent citizen, capable of becoming an elected politician."

William: "At least it's not like that in France."

GP: "It's the opposite here. Politicians like to make themselves out to be free-thinking Republicans, liberated with respect to religious bias. But, as soon as one of their leaders dies, they all flock along to the cathedral of Notre-Dame to pray for the soul of their dead companion."

Talking of believers and non-believers, an interesting Harris poll has just been conducted here in France, where we imagine that the faithful continue to flock to Sunday Mass, albeit in dwindling numbers.

Roughly a third of the population say they're believers, and a third, atheists. The remaining third is characterized by the fact that they simply don't know whether or not God exists. Among them, most people feel that this question is interesting, whereas others say it's not. Those results are unsurprising. What amused me greatly, on the other hand, is the fact that a third of the religious folk who said they were Catholics went on to reveal that they nevertheless don't really believe in the existence of God. Now, I like that approach! That's the kind of Catholic I myself might be, if I set my mind to it. Besides God, the Devil and the Holy Ghost, though, I would also refuse to believe in popes, saints, miracles, priests and all the rest of the ugly rubbish, including relics.

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.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Evolution on a keyboard

When I saw Richard Dawkins sitting down in front of a piano, I was afraid that he might be about to give us a rendition of an old Anglican hymn, say, such as Onward Christian Soldiers or Abide with Me. (That's because I often do such strange things.)

His use of the keyboard to illustrate the vastness of evolutionary time is most eloquent.