Showing posts with label evolution. Show all posts
Showing posts with label evolution. Show all posts

Thursday, November 24, 2016

How did giraffes come to have long necks?

I’m always thrilled whenever I rediscover by chance a typical Richard Dawkins gem like this one.

A nice old-fashioned answer is that God, knowing that He had cunningly placed the most tasty leaves at the top of tall trees, designed giraffes with extra long necks so that they would have no trouble in reaching this good food.

A less religious answer is that, over a certain period of time, Nature caused the necks of giraffes to grow longer and longer, because Nature was smart enough to realize that hungry giraffes would be needing bigger necks to attain leaves that were moving higher and higher.

Well, that god-free answer is closer to the truth, but we still need to improve the wording. We merely have to introduce a pair of freak events. So, let’s go. At a certain point in time, most giraffes had medium-sized necks, whereas a minority of freaky giraffes were born with slightly longer necks. At about the same time, during a few freak seasons, leaves happened to grow so high that all normal giraffes with shorter necks couldn’t reach them. These poor animals gradually died of starvation. Only the freaky longer-necked giraffes survived and bred children who, like their parents, had long necks. Longer necks had started out as just a random happening… but they soon became a matter of life or death.

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.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Baby beasts at Gamone

About a month ago, I caught sight of a small animal cantering down the road from my house, in the style of a rabbit. I only had a rear view of the moving animal, from a distance of some 50 metres, and it disappeared quickly, so I wasn't able to examine it. I concluded that it was probably a stray cat. Still, the cantering (or maybe galloping) movement seemed to be rather weird for a cat. And I have never seen rabbits or hares at Gamone. I came across a few small black turds on the road near my house, and they too didn't seem to have come from a cat. Besides, there are no scraps left lying around the house to attract cats. So, the identity of the small animal remained a mystery.

This morning, just after the annual passage of the fellow in a tractor who cuts the weeds alongside the narrow road up to Gamone, I think I finally solved the mystery. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to take photos, but here's a Web image of the kind of beasts (same size and colors) that I saw quite clearly, at close range, half an hour ago.

In the vicinity of my mailbox, Fitzroy and I suddenly found ourselves alongside three baby wild boors (called marcassins in French) which promptly cantered off down the road, with my dog on their heels. They disappeared into the grass alongside the creek, and Fitzroy didn't seem to be capable of picking up their scent. A few seconds later, one of them reappeared on the road, and he squealed in terror when he found that Fitzroy was chasing him. But the marcassin disappeared instantly, and all ended well. I have the impression that Fitzroy was just as surprised as me to come upon such small beasts at Gamone.

I left a message with a friend in Châtelus, Daniel Berger, who's a hunter and an expert in the behavior of wild boors, asking him for advice on how I should handle this affair. Wild boors, as their name indicates, are wild beasts, and I don't know whether it's a good idea to have a litter of marcassins just alongside the house. I can imagine some of my readers saying: "Oh, they're so cute. William should catch them and keep them as pets, as friends for Fitzroy." Yes, a great idea... but totally impossible!

Seriously, I don't deny that I would indeed be pushed by an obscure physical desire to cuddle such splendid little beasts (like I cuddle Fitzroy) and to experience the power and determination they would no doubt exert in trying to break free. I would be fascinated, above all, by their marvelous little snouts, used both as a marvelous sensory device (enabling them to carry on dozing in the undergrowth while dogs abound all around them) and as a tool for digging up hard soil and rocks in their search for tasty food. Of the same order as basic human sexuality, the attraction that emanates from domestic and wild animals is a wonderful and mysterious force that surely takes me back mysteriously to my evolutionary origins as an African ape (an expression employed regularly by Richard Dawkins). I often feel that the silly adjective "cute" might in fact be based upon this profound archaic association (resuscitated thanks to a handful of surviving genes) between our ancestors and us. I'm reminded of these links, every morning at about 7 o'clock, when Fitzroy wanders upstairs into my bedroom, moves his front paws stealthily up onto the bed, reaches around until he finds one of my hands (I'm usually still half-asleep), and then starts to lick it conscientiously, cleaning me up (symbolically, at least) for the approaching day.

POST SCRIPTUM: The property of my neighbors Jackie and Fafa, a couple of hundred metres further up the road, is bordered all around by woods. So, it's logical that they receive more visits from wild animals than I do. Jackie tells me that he has often seen a couple of marcassins hanging around their house.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

An eye for an eye

As a child in South Grafton, I was expected to admire a gushy poem penned by a young American Catholic fellow named Joyce Kilmer, killed in 1918 by a sniper's bullet on the Western Front in France.

I would imagine that countless English-speaking people of my generation can recite most of this poem by heart:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
The US musician Oscar Rasbach [1888-1975] wrote music for Kilmer's celebrated poem, and our local radio station 2GF in Grafton used to play constantly the version sung by the Austrian-Jewish tenor Richard Tauber [1891-1948]... whose Teutonic accent irritated me almost as much as the syrupy sentiments of the song.

The only aspect of Kilmer's poem with which I agreed was that it had been written by a sentimental fool. I was accustomed to wandering around on my father's bush property, which provided me with ample visions of trees. Not one of them, however, gave me the impression that it might be pressing its hungry mouth against the "sweet flowing breast" of the dry ground. If I observed lots of "leafy arms", they did in fact seem to be lifted most often in a plea for rain, but I never imagined for an instant that God might be playing a role in this meteorological affair. True enough, certain trees wore nests in their "hair", and the birds who had built them were generally either raucous crows, screeching parrots or savage magpies. There may have been robins in the bush, but I don't remember them. And the idea that snow might ever lay upon the "bosom" of one of our eucalyptus trees was frankly unthinkable. (I was 21 years old when I came in contact with snow for the first time in my life, in France.)

The final line of Kilmer's poem annoyed me most of all, with its silly idea that God might "make" trees. We all knew that Australian gum trees proliferated everywhere with no need for any kind of divine intervention. Indeed, the only domain in which my father would have surely appreciated a helping hand from God was ring-barking, designed to clear land so that our cattle would have sufficient grass to eat.

I realize retrospectively today that one of the advantages of growing up in rural Australia was that I soon developed a healthy respect for the power of Nature, which was often brutal, with no apparent concern for the welfare of us humans. The harsh Australian environment is not the sort of place in which a clear-thinking dweller would invent the quaint notion of a benevolent Creator. I've always considered that the Christian divinity is basically a humanistic Mediterranean concept: the intellectual reflection of a setting distinguished by harmony, where Nature is regulated by pleasant seasons. No authentic Australian (such as our Aborigines, above all) would have ever been inclined to invent the gentleman who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

Once, as a boy, I asked my father why he never went to church (as had become my habit). I have never forgotten his marvelous reply: "Billy, you probably won't understand what I have to say. My cathedral is my bush paddock." In fact, not only did I end up understanding my father's metaphor, but I finally got around to adopting a similar attitude. At the age of 14, I came upon a little book on pantheism, in my grandparents' library, and I was so impressed by this primitive philosophy (which sees the natural world—in a similar spirit to that of our Aborigines—as a vast assembly of autonomous divinities) that I dared to reveal my enthusiasm explicitly to Dean Warr of Christ Church Cathedral... who was not exactly impressed by my revelation. Fortunately, my emerging fascination for mathematics and physics soon dissuaded me from delving more deeply into the archaic metaphysics of pantheism. Meanwhile, my encounter with the mildly sacrilegious book Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan took the wind out of my slack and flapping Christian sails forever.

These days, the terms "creationism" and "intelligent design" designate the variety of religious faith that exploits the splendors of the natural world as proof that a Supreme Designer must have been at work in the beginning. There again, it's difficult for an Australian to be a creationist, because almost everything in the Antipodes seems to have been designed differently (if at all) from what you find in the Mediterranean world. If God thought that jumping was a good mode of locomotion for our kangaroos, why didn't he design jumping creatures for the Northern Hemisphere? If he thought that waddling in an upright position would enable Antarctic penguins to move around easily on ice, why didn't he use the same principle for Arctic creatures? Either the Supreme Designer worked in an experimental fashion, and often got things wrong, or else there was a team of several senior designers who didn't necessarily adopt the same principles.

Adepts of creationism and intelligent design apparently find it difficult to believe that an organ as complex as the human eye could have emerged from Darwinian evolution. They raise doubts concerning the feasibility and evolutionary benefits of the intermediary stage that is often designated as "half an eye". In his Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard Dawkins devoted an entire 54-page chapter to the fascinating subject of the evolution of various kinds of eyes, which have emerged independently from scratch at least 40 times in the history of the animal world. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins returned to the question of eyes, and insisted upon the fact that our human eye provides a case study in "unintelligent design". In a recent issue of the UK's Daily Mail, there's an extraordinary collection of fine photos [access] of eyes of all kinds.

Let me conclude this rambling post by a lovely photo of a pair of astonishing eyes: those of a baby Madagascan lemur born recently in a French zoo.

Blogs are written by fools like me,
But only an adult lemur couple can make a baby lemur.
My words don't have the same poetic impact as those of Joyce Kilmer. What's more, they're not entirely true from a clinical viewpoint, since they neglect the theme of what we used to call "test-tube babies".

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Two careers of Richard Dawkins

I would imagine that most people have heard, by now, of the English intellectual Richard Dawkins.

But it's unlikely that they've all made an effort to read Dawkins's books. Besides, those on the technical aspects of evolutionary biology can be quite difficult. The following short video makes it clear that Dawkins has had two careers, as it were: first, as a celebrated scientist, and later as an advocate for a world without gods.

Dawkins attempts to attenuate this "two careers" interpretation of his work by suggesting that the germs of his atheism could be found in his earlier books on biology. While this was certainly the case, such an explanation is likely to go above the heads of those observers who see the outspoken professor primarily as a strident atheist. Consider, for example, an amazing specimen of big-mouthed ignorance: George Pell, an Australian cardinal. Judging from the applause during his recent debate with Dawkins, the Catholic chief has a certain number of numbskull supporters.

[That's not the extract of the Dawkins/Pell encounter that I had hoped to include, but I don't have the courage to search through all the cardinal's rubbish in the hope of finding his statement about Neanderthals.]

I would like to make a naive confession. There are two aspects of the professor's behavior that I've never clearly understood. First, why does Dawkins waste his time taking part in an alleged "debate" with a religious guy who's so stupid that he would dare to place atheists in the category of monsters such as Stalin and Hitler? A guy who's so ignorant at the level of contemporary knowledge that he imagines that people like Dawkins think that Homo sapiens descends from Neanderthals? My second question is closely associated with the first one. What rare quality prevents Dawkins from ever exploding in anger when confronted with the ineptitude of a guy as dumb as Pell? How come that the professor can remain so calm and polite, and retain even a few fleeting smiles?

I suspect that Dawkins senses the existence of some kind of underlying long-term vocation or mission that gets him through all these constant challenges of dealing with ignorant numbskulls. I guess it's something akin to the talents, that in other walks of life, enable certain gifted individuals to operate ceaselessly as physicians, psychologists, judges, etc. In fact, it's an admirable expression of humanism and an outlook that might be described as intellectual democracy: the belief that every individual you meet up with has the right to be listened to, no matter how silly he or she might be. Dawkins seems to exhibit quite naturally a splendid kind of Christian charity... which is weird, to say the least.

Speaking solely for myself, I've never possessed this rare talent... but that's neither here nor there.

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.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

This Texan is a raving loony

Rick Perry (who could well become the next US president) is an appallingly dumb guy, with a big mouth and a tiny intellect, who knows fuck-all about science.

We knew that already. What we didn't know, until this morning, is that this idiot has an amazingly fuzzy conception of what is currently being taught to school kids in his home state. In New Hampshire, a little boy asked Perry what he thought of evolution. Here's Perry's reaction: "It's a theory that's out there. It's got some gaps in it. In Texas, we teach both Creationism and evolution." Well, just about everything in Perry's reply happens to be disastrously off the mark—that's to say, wrong—in a way that blows up in his silly face.

• The first two sentences—about evolution being a theory with gaps in it—are so ridiculous that we need not waste time in demolishing them.

• Things become fascinating, on the other hand, when Perry asserts—off the top of his silly head—that Creationism is being taught in Texas. Everybody knows that, in educational environments, fundamentalist Creationism of the primitive Genesis kind went out of fashion long ago. It was replaced by a pseudo-scientific thing known as Intelligent Design. Genuine scientists repeat that Intelligent Design is nothing more than Creationism served up deceptively in a new sauce… and Perry's words to the schoolboy add weight to this accusation.

• Perry is totally wrong, however, when he attempts to make the boy believe that Texan schools propose textbooks that present an alternative to evolution, no matter whether it's called Creationism or Intelligent Design. The only teaching materials authorized in Texan schools today are based exclusively upon evolution.

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?

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.

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.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dawkins talks to us informally

This is a great video. Towards the end, we discover Richard Dawkins reposing on a sofa in front of a fireplace and reading out his hate mail, full of four-letter words and all sorts of marvelous expletives. It's amusing entertainment!

After the entertainment, I encourage you to return to the opening questions in order to fully appreciate Richard's amazing didactic skills, particularly when he explains his major reason for believing in Darwinian evolution. There's a wonderful afterthought. If a divine creator had indeed planted, in myriad animals, all the genes that find there these days, then it could be truly claimed that God had manifested a devilish desire to trick us. If this were so, then what a bastard!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Gamone evolution

My article of October 27, 2019 entitled Donkey expedition day [display] described the long walk of Sylvie Rozand and me, leading three donkeys, from Presles to Gamone. Yesterday afternoon, Sylvie returned here, with a friend from Presles, to retrieve her two adult donkeys Nina and Margot. The operation went off with no problems whatsoever. We had nevertheless had certain apprehensions: How would Fanette react to the sight of her mother Nina being led away? How would Nina feel about leaving her 6-months-old daughter behind? Would Sylvie run into problems in trying to coax her two donkeys through the road tunnel up towards the plateau at Presles? Back here at Gamone, how would my Moshé and his new friend Fanette get along together on their own?

As of yesterday evening, I was delighted to realize that not a single one of those problems had arisen. In other words, everything went off like a charm. Fanette didn't appear to be concerned by the departure of her mother and the other adult donkey. When she returned to Gamone late in the afternoon to pick up her car, Sylvie told me that Nina and Margot had strolled eagerly back up to Presles, and that they didn't seem to be bothered by the idea that little Fanette had remained with Moshé at Gamone. This morning, I took this photo of the donkeys and Fitzroy:

As usual, my two dogs get on marvelously well together. Their relationship remains asymmetrical. As I've pointed out already, Sophia spends most of her time lounging in her big wicker basket on the kitchen floor, whereas Fitzroy is a strictly outside dog, now completely accustomed to the idea of getting into his kennel from time to time.

Preventing Fitzroy from moving inside the house is not even a personal choice of mine. It's rather a survival issue, in the sense that many objects inside the house (furniture, books, clothes, tools, etc) probably wouldn't survive for long if Fitzroy were to get in physical contact with them. Fitzroy's genes are such that he likes to be bossy with recalcitrant beasts such as cattle, sheep and donkeys. So, why would he be unduly worried about tackling a lounge chair, say? Out on the lawn, Fitzroy is fascinated by a permanently running hose from the Gamone spring. He drags it all over the lawn, meaning that puddles spring up every now and again in unexpected corners. He has trouble understanding why he can't simply pick up the water jet in his mouth, as if it were a stick, and dash around with it clenched between his teeth. In attempting to fathom this philosophical mystery, Fitzroy often gets soaked… and he then moves onto the straw in his kennel to dry himself out.

The other evening, on French TV, I watched a fascinating US program on the subject of our prehistoric ancestors. Directed by Graham Townsley, its English title is Becoming Human, and it was made last year. The fact that such a show can be seen in prime time on a Saturday evening (dubbed in French) is yet another tribute to the excellence of French TV. Here's the opening episode:

Well, one of the recurrent themes in this series of documentaries was well expressed in the latest book by Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth. Here are his words:

We've been land animals for about 400 million years, and we've walked on our hind legs for only the last 1 per cent of that time. For 99 per cent of our time on land, we've had a more-or-less horizontal backbone and walked on four legs. We don't know for certain what selective advantages accrued to the individuals who first rose up and walked on their hind legs…

Not so long ago, people used to explain that bipedalism came about because we needed to get up on our hind legs so that we could use our hands for carrying things… but that's surely a case of putting the cart before the horse. We still don't know the complete answer to that question, although both Dawkins (in The Ancestor's Tale) and the Townsley documentaries propose various speculations on this subject. Getting back to my dog Fitzroy, I often have the impression that he might already be working hard, with the help of his mentor Sophia, at evolving into bipedalism.

In this tandem position, when Sophia decides to move forward, Fitzroy is perfectly capable of following her on his hind legs, like a ballet artist. I'm convinced that, soon, he won't need to lean on Sophia's back any longer. He'll simply raise his front paws in the air, as if he were praising the Almighty for the gift of bipedalism, and he'll wander off in an easy upright gait. Maybe I should get in contact with Dawkins and Townsley, to see if they're interested in writing a book or making a movie about Fitzroy. In fact, I suspected, right from the start, that Fitzroy (who'll be 4 months old next Wednesday) was a wonder dog. Maybe I should look into the idea of teaching him to read...

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.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Cousins of all kinds

In 1987, when I was lecturing in computing out at the Curtin University in Perth, I once told my students (who knew I'd been living in France for most of my adult life) that I'd never knowingly met up with a genuine Tasmanian… let alone visited that southern island. I imagined that certain members of my audience would be surprised by this declaration… but not at all. Just like me, apparently, none of those young people had ever been in contact with that out-of-the-way place.

In an article entitled Tasmanians [display], I evoked Truganina, the queen of the Tasmanian Aborigines. In another article, entitled Ray of hope for our devils [display], I mentioned the terrible cancer epidemic that could possibly wipe out these exotic creatures.

Over the last few years, because of my non-stop intellectual diet of the extraordinary words of Richard Dawkins, I realize that my entire attitude towards Life (with a capital L) has been changing—evolving, you might say—in an unexpected but colossal manner. As a "born-again atheist" with the pretentious conviction that I understand vaguely, at last, what Existence is all about (at least the parts that a human brain can tackle), I'm aware that I've become a totally changed individual over the last few years. The aspect of life that amazes me most is the idea that all creatures—animals, plants, bacteria, etc—can be thought of as "cousins" of varying degrees of remoteness. For any pair of specific creatures—say Truganina and me… or even a Tasmanian Devil and me—we can imagine that we once shared a specific couple of N-great-grandparents, where N represents the number of times you would need to repeat the term "great" in order to ascend to this ancestral couple. In the case of Truganina and me, this couple would have surely looked a little bit like Truganina, a little bit like me, and a big bit like countless folk who were still living over in Africa some 50 millennia ago. On the other hand, in the case of the Tasmanian Devil and me, it would be vastly more difficult to imagine seriously what our last common ancestors might have looked like.

Talking of Tasmanian cousins, I'm particularly fond of this pretty fellow, some ten centimeters long, who apparently still exists today:

Known as a handfish, and located in the waters of Hobart, it uses its fins, not to swim, but to stroll around on the ocean floor. Concerning our common ancestors, I would imagine that, one day long ago, they happened to walk up onto an African beach or river bank, where they were totally charmed by the new environment. So, hand over hand (maybe hand in hand, if we wished to give this tale a romantic touch), they just kept on walking…