Friday, February 27, 2009

Randi on Sagan

Here is your regular dose of Sagan (tip bad astronomy):


Also, check out this Science & the City podcast on Sagan's search for God with Ann Druyan, Steve Soter, and Neil deGrasse Tyson (tip from Open Parachute). Its a bit long (1hr 23min) but there is some excellent discussion about wonder and nature, and on the use of the word spiritual. Perhaps one of the high points of the podcast is a little past the mid-way point (just after Steve reads the last passage from Cosmos) where Neil raises the question if this naturalistic-spiritual way of life is enough to comfort those who have lost a loved one or a child? Check out Ann's response to this question.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The evolution of Harun Yahya's "Atlas of Creation"

Harun Yahya may not accept evolution but his Atlas of Creation is certainly evolving. The process is not natural selection nor is there much intelligence at work here. We are left with a newly discovered process that we may call the Harunian omission (Yahyan omission - just doesn't have the correct pazzaz to it). Harunian omission is the mechanism by which ignorant mistakes are omitted in the hopes that no one will notice the change. It works on individual or groups of claims - but all of this has to take place while sounding belligerent towards those pointing out the mistakes. The key is never to admit that there was ever a mistake in the first place.

Couple of months ago I had posted a video of Dawkins picking apart Harun Yahya's Atlas of Creation. He pointed to several examples of clear idiocy in the Atlas. For example, on page 468 of the Atlas, Yahya urges us to look at the picture of a modern eel and compare it with an ancient fossil of an eel-like creature. Based on their resemblance, Yahya claims that this is a clear example where species have not changed - and hence it invalidates evolution. Well - apart from the misunderstanding of how evolution works, the picture in the Atlas was not that of a modern eel - but rather that of a snake. Last July, Dawkins had posted this picture along with his comments under the title, Venomous Snakes, Slippery Eels and Harun Yahya:
Given that the entire message of the book depends upon the alleged resemblance between modern animals and their fossil counterparts, I was amused, when I began flicking through at random, to find page 468 devoted to "eels", one fossil and one modern. The caption says,
There are more than 400 species of eels in the order Anguilliformes. That they have not undergone any change in millions of years once again reveals the invalidity of the theory of evolution.
The fossil eel shown may well be an eel, I cannot tell. But the modern "eel" that Yahya pictures (see left) is undoubtedly not an eel but a sea snake, probably of the highly venomous genus Laticauda (an eel is, of course, not a snake at all but a teleost fish). I have not scanned the book for other inaccuracies of this kind. But given that this was almost the first page I looked at . . . what price the main thesis of the book that modern animals are unchanged since the time of their fossil counterparts?
To my surprise, I received a comment that Dawkins should be more honest about his criticism, as the picture that Dawkins is referring to is simply not in the Atlas of Creation. I immediately downloaded the Atlas of Creation from Yahya's website and sure enough I did not see the picture of sea snake under the section of eels. Was Dawkins lying? How sleazy of him to make false assertions about an honest revolutionary like Harun Yahya. What better can you expect from an atheist like Dawkins? Of course, with my mistrust of Dawkins at all time high, I wanted to double-check with the physical Atlas of Creation - that I happen to have (courtesy of Laurie Godfrey of UMass-anthropology). To my surprise, I found Dawkins' sea snake prominently displayed as Dawkins had claimed (see the picture below). Now I know that Harun Yahya - the author of hundreds of pamphlet-like books - cannot possibly be wrong. I am left with only one possible conclusion: this must be Harunian omission at work!! It almost feels like a miracle.











Harunian omission at work: (left) Sea-snake included as an eel in the print version of Atlas of Creation (p 468). After Dawkins pointed out the obvious, the electronic version (right) replaced the snake with an eel. Now some people think that Dawkins was lying. Instead, it is the miracle of Harunian Omission.

Now we come to the more famous example of caddis flies and fishing lures. The rumor was that the picture used by Yahya in the Atlas was stolen from another website - and that the picture was not a real caddis fly, but rather a fishing lure. In fact, the infamous PZ Myers claimed that the people who have produced the Atlas of Creation are so inept that they did not even notice the hook quite easily visible in the actual image. Dawkins of course parroted these claims on his website:
Finally, PZ has already called attention to this on Pharyngula, but I include a picture for completeness. On page 244, Yahya wishes to say that caddis flies have not changed since some 25-million-year-old insects preserved in amber. Once again, the caption:
These living things have survived for millions of years without the slightest change in their structures. The fact that these insects never changed is a sign that they never evolved.
By now, we have come to expect something pretty good when we look at the photograph of the modern animal. What will the modern 'caddis fly' be? A minnow, perhaps? A garden slug? A king prawn? No, in a way is better than any of these: A fishing lure, complete with prominent steel hook!
Lets look at the picture of the famed hook-fly first:

The picture above shows a metal hook under the fly.

Now, I know that Harun Yahya and his people can't be that inept to have not even noticed that it's a fishing lure with the hook clearly visible. After my utter refusal to believe in this level of incompetence, I went to the electronic version of the Atlas of Creation. I was again vindicated, as I did not see the image of any hook-fly. I did see pictures of flies - but the metal hook was not visible in any of the images. Of course, to look for Harunian omission in action, I also checked the hard-copy of the Atlas, and what do you know, the hook-fly image was prominently displayed on page 244.











Harunian omission at work again: (left) Fly with a metal-hook visible in the hard copy of the Atlas of Creation, but removed from the electronic version (right).

What have we learned from all this? Harun Yahya has clearly shown that facts and logic should not stand in the way of making claims. Even having basic knowledge is unnecessary. And if such ignorance is exposed, Harunian omission usually kicks in to cover up the tracks. Second, the Atlas can potentially become more than a door-stopper if Dawkins can go through and point out mistakes page-by-page.

But who knew that the Atlas of Creation will end up evolving itself.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

John Haught's Science & Religion Lecture Cancelled

We were scheduled to have theologian John Haught for our Science & Religion lecture series at Hampshire College tomorrow (2/26). However, due to health reasons, he won't be coming to Massachusetts. We all hope he is feeling better.

Our next Science & Religion lecture is by philosopher, Philip Kitcher, on Thursday, April 2nd. The title of his talk is Religion after Darwin?. I will post details later.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Darwin's tasty mistake

See Darwin's biography can be highly entertaining. Check out this very funny segment from All Things Considered: Darwin's Very Bad Day (its about 8 mins long).

Here is a picture of a rhea:


Here is a more tastier picture of rhea:

Cherry-picking evidence

Now I can let go of many things - but not misrepresentation when it comes to movies. So here is a pointless piece from Washington Post that argues that movies with "faith and values do much better than movies that overtly attack traditional faith and values." And here is the evidence in defense:
As we will see during Sunday's Academy Awards, last year was no exception. Six of the most successful movies of the year -- "Wall-E," "Iron Man," "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," "Prince Caspian," "Gran Torino," and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" -- contained strong redemptive content with positive Christian references.
...
Not only did moviegoers prefer heroic movies with very strong moral virtues, they also rejected movies with anti-Christian, secular, nihilistic, and atheist content like "Religulous," "Adam Resurrected," "Save Me," "Wanted," "Hounddog," "Bloodline," "Hamlet 2," "The Love Guru," "Stop-Loss," and "Saw V."

The difference between the domestic box office averages for these two categories was $59.9 million per movie for the positive movies versus only $10.4 million per movie for the negative ones.

This is what we call cherry-picking the data. I'm going to ignore whether the "positive" movies mentioned above have Christian references or not - or whether anti-war films, like Stop-loss are really anti-Christian. Instead, let me just focus on the cherry-picking of data:

If we go by box-office numbers, then the biggest movie of 2008 was, by far, The Dark Knight, and it has just crossed $1 billion mark worldwide. It is odd that while the whole article is about the box-office success of "positive Christian" movies, the movie that pokes a hole in the theory is conveniently ignored. In fact, by looking at the top-grossing films of the past 3 years (Spider-Man 3 - 2007; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest- 2006; Star Wars: Episode III - 2005), Hollywood should decide to definitely ignore movies with "positive Christian values".

Hey! Leave the movies alone.
Read the full article here (there are more idiotic claims in there).

Another example of cherry-picking data is this claim from a review by Ziauddin Sardar (the same claim is also made in the second part of BBC radio program, Islam & Science). Talking about science in the Muslim world, he writes:
The nexus between science and the abuse of political power is much more than a coincidence, Masood argues. Even today, science is in comparatively better shape in countries with dictatorial regimes, such as Egypt, Pakistan and Iran.
Ok - so I'm assuming that they (Sardar and Masood) are only talking about Muslim countries (otherwise the claim is obviously false). This statement may in some ways be true - but there are clear and important counter-examples that need to be mentioned. For example, Malaysia is one of the most scientifically advanced Muslim countries - but it is not a dictatorship. Ditto for Turkey. In terms of science & technology, these two are giants in the Muslim world. Plus, the Iranian example is complicated. Iran does have regular elections (fairer than most in the Middle East) and its science has improved significantly since the Revolution - which overthrew a dictator. So where does Iran fit in? I think this particular claim linking progress of science with dictatorships in the Islamic world is waaay too simplistic - it fits well for Pakistan - but it omits crucial counterexamples (including numerous dictatorships where science is not ding so well...).

Monday, February 23, 2009

BBC Radio program: Islam & Science - part 2

Here is the second episode of the BBC radio program: Islam & Science (post about episode 1 here). The focus here is on investment in science and its impact (if any). This episode is set almost entirely in Pakistan. There is no question that Pakistan has seen a substantial increase in scientific investment - and a lot of credit for that goes to chemist and former minister of science, Ata-ur-Rehman (he is interviewed here). At the same time, Pervez Hoodbhoy, among others, has been a vocal critic of the way some of these policies have been implemented (just check out this recent opinion piece by Hoodbhoy in Dawn (Feb 9th,2009): How greed ruins academia).

Two interesting things from this episode:
1) There is a good illustration of the impact of terrorism on education and science. Karachi has now improved quite a bit - but still violence can erupt at any time. In fact at the time of the interview, the Karachi University was closed because of clashes in the city. The situation in Karachi was also quite bad in the mid 1980's and I remember we had to check the newspaper in the morning to see if the exams were going or not. But everybody gets used to it - as is illustrated by one of the professors in the interview. But the larger scale terrorism - now gripping the northern parts of the country, including Islamabad, makes it really hard for any meaningful cooperation with any western education institutions. As Hoodbhoy was lamenting, that it is very hard to even organize a small seminar or symposia where they could invite scholars from abroad.

2) The last part of the episode is spent on women pursuing science at universities in Pakistan - and I think that is the best part of the series so far (starts around 23 minutes into the episode). While interviews with these women scientists/students illustrate the number of challenges they face (far more than their male counterparts), it is also quite heartening to see their enthusiasm. Perhaps this is a perfect illustration of the current state of Pakistan: On the one hand, there are increasing number of women getting educated and pursuing the sciences. On the other, we have the Taliban in Swat and elsewhere, blowing up hundreds of schools for girls. The future hangs in balance.

Hear the full second episode here.

Short documentary about the school situation in Swat

Here is an excellent 14 min documentary from NYT about the situation in Swat. It focuses on an 11-year old girl and her optimistic/cheerful father - who also happens to run a girl's school in Swat. I totally love Ziauddin and his daughter in the video. But also a warning: some of the images in the documentary are a bit disturbing - but it is crucial to know who we are dealing with in Swat. On the flip side, this is a great example of the hunger for education in a country where literacy rate hovers around 50%. Going to school should be a bit more easier than this.

See the video here.

Couple of previous posts on Swat:
Sharia in Swat - what now?
Taliban, education, and diary of a 7th grade school girl from Swat

Friday, February 20, 2009

Galileo's Astronomical Ale

Forget Darwin. We have already moved on to Galileo. And this seems to be the best way celebrate 400 years of the use of telescopes (Darwin bicentennial had cakes - but astronomers, it seems, are doing better). From Science (Jan 30):
Brewer Ken Grossman has demonstrated his love for astronomy by helping to finance a community observatory and an outdoor planetarium in his hometown of Chico, California. Earlier this month, the co-founder of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company extended that love to attendees at the American Astronomical Society meeting by treating them to a special beer marking the International Year of Astronomy.

Branded "Galileo's Astronomical Ale: Theoretically the best beer in the universe," the light-bodied beverage flowed freely at the premiere of 400 Years of the Telescope, a documentary that will air 10 April on PBS. Grossman loaned filmmaker Kris Koenig, a fellow Chico resident, seed money for the film. "It seemed like a cool project," says Grossman (left).

Grossman says the ale may show up at a few more astronomy events this year, but the legal hassles of introducing a small product line will preclude bringing it to market.

Enjoy! And here is a link to the upcoming documentary 400 years of the Telescope and its trailer below (it looks very cool!).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Short (sci-fi) story from the New Yorker

Here is an excellent Outer Limits style short story from the New Yorker: The Invasion from Outer Space by Steven Millhauser. I really like the way it sets up the mood. But what can we say about the ending (read it - its only 2 pages long)? In order not to spoil the story, I have put my 2 cents in the comments section. What do you think?

Religion in government

Rewriting the Bible to eliminate miracles, hanging of Quakers in Massachusetts, regular burning of Pope's effigy. Here is an interesting Fresh Air interview with Steven Waldman about religion in America at the time of the writing of the US Constitution. He also talks about the Establishment Clause - and how initially it was not applicable to individual states. It took the 14th amendment after the Civil War to change that. All new to me.

By the way, there is also a fight in Pakistan over the interpretation of the views of its Founding Father (only 1). The main dispute is over Jinnah's speech on Aug 11, 1947 - his opening address to the new state of Pakistan. While Pakistan was partitioned on the basis of religion, in the speech he went for a separation of religion and state. This is what he had to say about religion and state:
We should begin to work in that spirit and in course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community, because even as regards Muslims you have Pathans, Punjabis, Shias, Sunnis and so on, and among the Hindus you have Brahmins, Vashnavas, Khatris, also Bengalis, Madrasis and so on, will vanish. Indeed if you ask me, this has been the biggest hindrance in the way of India to attain the freedom and independence and but for this we would have been free people long long ago. No power can hold another nation, and specially a nation of 400 million souls in subjection; nobody could have conquered you, and even if it had happened, nobody could have continued its hold on you for any length of time, but for this. Therefore, we must learn a lesson from this. You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State. As you know, history shows that in England, conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some States in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God, we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. The people of England in course of time had to face the realities of the situation and had to discharge the responsibilities and burdens placed upon them by the government of their country and they went through that fire step by step. Today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain and they are all members of the Nation.

Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

Ooh...this last sentence has increasingly become more contentious - especially since the successful Islamization attempts by Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980's. Those on the left never let go of an opportunity to mention it, and those on the right want simply to forget it. Of course, it is also a nice reminder at a time of the Talibanization of Pakistan's northern areas - such as Swat.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Evolutionary Psychology and Religion - from Sci Am

Here is a podcast of a lecture by Hofstra University religion professor, John Teehan, on evolutionary psychology and what it tells us about religion (I also hope to see him at the upcoming Darwin's Reach conference at Hofstra in mid-March). The first 2/3 is a nice summary of the field. The last 5-10minutes of the talk address the inroads of evolutionary ideas in explaining the origins of moral thinking among humans and whether Darwinian evolution necessitates atheism. I think he does a very nice job addressing these questions and he presents a potential way out for religions - i.e. different religions are striving "to give expression to a deeper and commonly shared moral sense and perhaps this deeper source of our religious traditions is what people refer to as God. In this case, religion becomes the effort to bring out this common thread of our humanity" - and he concludes with a nice defense of Humanism - along with a good dose of John Dewey. This is great - but may not sit well with most religion.

Evolutionary Psychology and Religion: Scientific American Podcast

Also see this Hampshire Science & Religion lecture by David Sloan Wilson on evolutionary origins of religion.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

BBC Radio program: Islam & Science - part 1

I think Islam & Science is a companion radio show to go with the recent BBC documentary. While the documentary was primarily focused on history, the radio show (30 minutes long) picks up on the decline of science in the Muslim world (also see Epiphenom's excellent take on this issue) and brings us to the present. At the end of the episode, there is a talk of a "mini-renaissance" - but I'm not sure if this claim can really be justified. Yes, more money is being poured into the sciences and internet and satellite communications are forcing Muslim societies to be more open - but without any tangible results, should this be counted as a mini-renaissance? I'm skeptical.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, about 2/3rd of the way, is (as usual) quite forthright about the problems. He finds that the biggest problem lies in the culture where questioning authority is actively discouraged - and he points to religion as one of the main culprits producing this atmosphere in Pakistan. Not related to religion, but I remember my niece in Pakistan telling me about a mistake in her 7th grade science book (I'm too old to remember examples from my school -BVS - Parsi- in Karachi). The book stated that Mars is also known as the "Red Star". My niece pointed out that it must be "Red planet", since Mars is...hmm...a planet. Her teacher's response is instructive (and this was at one of the better schools). She snapped at my niece and told her that the book is right and she (my niece) is not an astronomer to correct her. But to be fair, these kind of anecdotes can be gathered from any where - but I think Hoodbhoy's point is about the general culture of over-respect and obedience, that is prevalent in Pakistan.

Hear the full first episode here.

Purgatory years

There is again an opportunity to reduce the years spent in Purgatory - though the offer and the punishment is for Catholics only (the philosophers can rest easy on death). It seems that an emphasis on indulgences is back:

Like the Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, the indulgence was one of the traditions decoupled from mainstream Catholic practice in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of bishops that set a new tone of simplicity and informality for the church. Its revival has been viewed as part of a conservative resurgence that has brought some quiet changes and some highly controversial ones, like Pope Benedict XVI’s recent decision to lift the excommunications of four schismatic bishops who reject the council’s reforms.

The indulgence is among the less noticed and less disputed traditions to be restored. But with a thousand-year history and volumes of church law devoted to its intricacies, it is one of the most complicated to explain.
And here is an explanation:

According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.
I was wondering, as an astronomer, on the issue of "length of days" in the afterlife (by the way, Islam also has a temporary place for souls, called Barzakh, until Judgment Day) and how indulgences take that into account. A Purgatory (or Barzakh) planet with the same orbital period as the Earth? Well...Slate has a response article and it talks about some of these issues:
How do Catholics calculate spiritual sentences in the first place?

They don't. A Spanish theologian from the late Middle Ages once argued that the average Christian spends 1000 to 2000 years in purgatory (according to Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory). But there's no official take on the average sentence. According to the church, only God knows the exact amount of time a person must spend in purgatory before attaining a state of purity. It's assumed, however, that the severity of one's punishment will be directly proportional to the severity of the crime. (See this Explainer for more about the gradations of Catholic sins.)

Contrary to what the Times article suggests, partial indulgences don't come with specific amounts of time off for good behavior. Because it's generally understood that time works differently in purgatory than it does on Earth, "five weeks off" has no practical meaning in the afterlife. Properly speaking, purgatory is a process rather than a place—the popular image of purgatory as something with spatial and temporal dimensions dates back to medieval times but isn't actually part of official church doctrine.

Read the NYT article here and the Slate article here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sharia in Swat - what now?

It seems that the provincial government has agreed to the enforcement of Islamic law in Swat in exchange for a peace deal. What does this mean? First of all, this is really bad news for the state of war there. Furthermore, the deal is struck by one of the most secular parties in Pakistan (ANP), which is currently ruling the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The news is bad for three main reasons:
a) The deal was struck after the failure of the military to defeat the militants. Lets be clear: The government was forced into making this deal by people who have been bombing schools and beheading people for the past few months. In return, the militants have a declared a 10 day cease fire. Prior peace deals in the tribal areas have mostly resulted in a stronger militancy - and many doubt that the outcome will be any different here. But this deal primarily gives us a status report of Pakistan army's fight against the militants.
b) Taliban expert, Ahmad Rashid, has been warning about Swat for a while. He suspects that, because of the success of drone attacks, Al-Qaeeda and Taliban leaderships are moving into the Swat district. This area has highly developed infrastructure and is only a 100 miles from Islamabad. But most importantly, it is quite far away from the Afghan border and the tribal areas and so may be safe from the drone attacks. Even if the drones are flying from bases in Pakistan, as Diane Feinstein recently stated, it will still be harder to attack on areas inside main Pakistan. If the Taliban and Al-Qaeeda leadership are indeed moving to Swat, this deal will further allow then to take control of the area.
c) This may be considered a model for other areas. Granted Swat has a peculiar history (all areas in Pakistan have their own peculiar histories), the strategy of terrorizing the population may be implementable in conservative enclaves in major cities, especially in Peshawar and Quetta, not to mention in other smaller districts of NWFP. Thus, the slow march of Taliban toward the more populous areas of Pakistan will continue. Remember, if Iraq with a population of 26 million was hard to control, then what hope do we have in a country of 170 million.

All of these reasons make Swat a crucial test for the battle against the Taliban. But things are not that simple. The people of Swat are relieved at the peace deal. They have been stuck for months between the brutal Taliban and an indiscriminant brute-force Pakistan military. For them, this is the only hope for peace and many are greeting this development with optimism (see this diary from Swat at BBC and Swat civilians caught in the crossfire. And some of them are not spared respite even in New York - see this story about Swati's in New York feeling the Taliban heat. ).

Sharia rule in Swat is in itself a complicated topic. Swat, for historical reasons, did not come under Pakistan's penal code until 1974 and even after that, the legal system has been spotty at best (yes, even compared to Pakistan standards). In the 1990s there was a negotiated attempt at enforcing Sharia system here - but later that got fizzled out. The ground reality, a decade later, is completely different. Whereas, in the previous attempted system a Sharia court decision could be challenged in state or federal court, the new deal eliminates that possibility. (Also, see Tom Heneghan's post at Reuters on the mixture of religion and politics behind the Sharia drive in Swat, and an analysis from the BBC (it also provides a nice historical context))

What does all of this mean for education, especially for girls? So far the militants have been blowing up schools. With legal authority in hand, they may simply put a ban on girls' education (co-education is certainly out). Well - at least they won't be blowing up schools. This is what we call today silver-lining in Pakistan. Welcome to the wild (north) west of Pakistan.

Dead Philosophers on Death

Here is a NYT review of Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley. This may be nice companion to Nothing to be Frightened Of. In any case, here is a good motivation for collecting views of philosophers on death:
As long as we are afraid of death, Critchley thinks, we cannot really be happy. And one way to overcome this fear is by looking to the example of philosophers. “I want to defend the ideal of the philosophical death,” Critchley writes.

So he takes us on a breezy and often entertaining tour through the history of philosophy, looking at how 190 or so philosophers from ancient times to the present lived and died. Not all of the deaths recounted are as edifying as Socrates’. Plato, for example, may have died of a lice infestation. The Enlightenment thinker La Mettrie seemed to have expired after eating a quantity of truffle pâté. Several deaths are precipitated by collisions: Montaigne’s brother was killed by a tennis ball; Rousseau died of cerebral bleeding, possibly as a result of being knocked down by a galloping Great Dane; and Roland Barthes was blindsided by a dry-cleaning truck. The American pragmatist John Dewey, who lived into his 90s, came to the most banal end of all: he broke his hip and then succumbed to pneumonia.
And what do we learn from musings on death?
It’s hard to find a consistent message here. Montaigne trained for the end by keeping death “continually present, not merely in my imagination, but in my mouth.” Spinoza went to the contrary extreme, declaring, “A free man thinks least of all of death.” Dying philosophically means dying cheerfully — that is what one would presume from the examples cited in this book. The beau ideal is David Hume, who, when asked whether the thought of annihilation terrified him, calmly replied, “Not the least.”
Hmm...lets go with Hume on this one. Read the full review here. Also read the first chapter here.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Darwin bicentennial in Pakistan

I have bits and pieces of information about Darwin's bicentennial in Pakistan. The news is a bit of mixed bag. There have been some very good opinion pieces urging television networks and others to use Darwin's bicentennial to highlight evolution and its applications. However, most of these got published in Pakistani English newspapers, which cater to the more liberal-educated (and elite) segments of the population. But still it was great to see mainstream newspapers addressing an issue many feel controversial in Pakistan. At the same time, as far as I know, cable channels did not show any documentaries on the subject. I know that Zakir Thaver had even made all the arrangements to get the rights to air the fantastic PBS series, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea at a significant discount, but was unsuccessful in convincing Dawn News or others on airing it in Pakistan. I don't know what happened on Darwin Day in other Muslim countries. If someone knows about it, let me know.

Here are couple of Darwin related articles and activities in Pakistan from the past few weeks:
Isa Daudpota wrote two opinion pieces in Dawn. The first one, Darwin's year: time to reflect (you'll have to scroll down to see it), was published on January 11th, and among other things, it talked about the Museum of Natural History in Islamabad:
During the visit I walked to the lowest level. This is where the museum explicitly shows how the evolution of life took place on earth. You enter the moderately sized room with its four walls painted to show quite nicely the story of life. Starting on the right one sees in almost seamless progression the appearance of primitive life forms in water, moving on to fish, reptiles, amphibians, land-based animals, primates and then early humanoids, the hunter-gatherers, finally getting to modern humans. This brings one back to the door where one began the journey. If you stand in the middle and turn around you see the panorama of life before you. A good teacher of biology could keep a class occupied for several hours in this room alone.

One wonders how many teachers in Pakistan would, however, notice the white pillar from floor to roof, over one foot wide, that separates the pictures of the hordes of apes from the hunting humanoids. (Nowhere else in this room are the different life forms shown separated from other groups.) More importantly, will the teacher on noticing this anomaly, point it to the students and discuss it? A clear discussion on this issue alone could lead to a much better understanding of biology (and life generally) than a year of learning facts that fail to unify the subject.

I gathered a number of museum staff nearby to ask their opinion about why the museum chose to separate the apes from the humanoids, given that after Darwin it was generally accepted that human are primates, i.e. closely related to monkeys and apes. Most remained quiet. One said, in true bureaucratic fashion, that I would need to contact the director who designed the room. Another said that if the connection was shown the museum would be burned down by religious fanatics. The museum’s stagnant website, perhaps reflecting this attitude, has no mention of Darwin or evolution. Instead, it should be the main institute explaining and displaying artifacts of natural history on the foundations laid by scientific Darwinian ideas.
Well...part of the problem is that everyone is assuming a threat from the religious circles on this topic. So there is a preemptive self-censorship (redundant?). It seems that cable stations are also reluctant for the same reason. But we don't know - what if turns out to be not such a big deal. After all, Iqbal (revered as the national poet) in the early 20th century had accepted evolution (granted, with some reservations). Dr. Israr (no one can accuse him of being a liberal) has also openly defended evolution. So perhaps things are not as hopeless as we believe they are.

Perhaps one of the more entertaining essays was written by Irfan Hussain, again in Dawn. He used an idiotic statement of Pakistani cricket legend turn politician, Imran Khan, as an excuse to talk not just about evolution but also about the state of thinking on these matters in Pakistan:
Many religious people have viewed the Darwinian theory of evolution as an attack on their faith. Others have reconciled belief in a supernatural being controlling events in the universe with a scientific theory that pulls together a vast plethora of evidence. Whatever one’s position on the truth of Darwin’s revolutionary exposition, it would take a foolhardy person to dismiss it as a ‘half-baked theory’ as Imran Khan has done recently.

Titled Why the West craves materialism and why the East sticks to religion, the essay is dated Nov 8, 2008, and was sent to me via email by a reader. In this article, the politician and ex-cricketer describes his personal journey from the westernised, secular outlook of his youth to his present faith-based worldview.

In a sense, Imran Khan’s view of Darwin’s life work captures the essence of our backwardness. By rejecting a vast body of scientific research and analysis as ‘half-baked’, he exposes his own ignorance. He is, of course, entitled to his own opinion on any subject under the sun. But as he is a role model for many young Pakistanis, he has a duty to choose his words with greater care. He may refuse to accept the consensus behind Darwinian theory in the international scientific community, but to dismiss it out of hand risks influencing impressionable young minds into following him.

As it is, there is not a single world-class university or research institute in the Muslim world. The reason for this is not hard to find. By refusing to accept and internalise the rational method of empirical research and analysis, we discourage and suppress scientific and objective scholarship.

In Imran Khan’s mind, as in many others, reason is a western monopoly. So anyone using rational analysis as a tool is dismissed as ‘western’, a pejorative term deployed to undermine any argument. Unfortunately, this widespread trend has had profound significance over the centuries. By ceding scientific research and progress to the West, Muslims find themselves in their current predicament. By contrast, countries like China, Japan and Korea have made tremendous progress by accepting reason as the basis of their education and public discourse. So when Imran Khan says ‘the East sticks to religion’ in the title of his essay, he is effectively ignoring well over half the East.
I actually like Imran Khan. I think he is one of the very few (only one?) honest politicians out there. However, he has been over-compensating for his wild cricketing days - and is frequently found in strange alliances with right-wing conservative political parties. The Darwin slip is just a symptom. But I'm quite certain that Imran Khan is not really familiar with evolution nor has he given it a serious thought. He is a smart guy (despite evidence to the contrary), and I'm sure if someone (other than his Jamaat-e-Islami friends) properly explains to him the basic ideas of evolution and the evidence behind it (see these 15 evolutionary gems from the journal Nature (pdf)) and 12 examples from Wired Magazine), he would be fine with it (by the way, here is the link to Imran Khan's Why the West craves materialism and why the East sticks to religion).

Close to Darwin's bicentennial, The Daily Times had an opinion piece by Munir Ataullah. Talking about the bicentennial, he asks:
Will we in Pakistan be in step with the rest of the world? I doubt it. For, apart from the odd pocket of sanity here and there, our people know better: most of us unequivocally reject such crude attempts to impose ‘Western cultural hegemony’ — in this case, under the insidious guise of pseudo-scientific fact — upon those who are blessed enough to be vouchsafed eternal truths. Check for yourself what — if anything — the vernacular media has to say on the occasion.
In addition, after failing to convince cable stations, Zakir screened Darwin's Dangerous Idea - the first episode of PBS series, Evolution, at - where else - The Second Floor (T2F).

Yes, the numbers are small - but these conversations are essential. Congrats on all these efforts! To those who could not attend the screening at T2F, here is Darwin's Dangerous Idea:




Update (2/15): There was also a seminar in Quetta, Baluchistan on Darwinism: Evolution, Genomic, and Medicine (organized by faculty of Biotechnology and Informatics at Baluchistan University of Information Technology, Engineering & Management Science - BUITEMS) to mark Darwin's bicentennial (thanks Zakir). I am really curious about the presentations. BUITEMS is a perfect example of the complex practical situation: They have a course on evolution and diversity which looks like a pretty good course. At the same time, there is a requirement to take a first semester course on Islamic Studies. (By the way, BUITEMS is also offering a new BS program on Islamic Studies with Computer Technology (!). So when we talk about evolution, we have to take into account this complex ground reality).

Nerd President on Science (and Darwin)

Science eh? It seems that it can actually be useful. Enjoy (tip Pharyngula):

Friday, February 13, 2009

Interview with Religion News Service

I was recently interviewed by Religion News Service about evolution and Islamic creationism. Here is the link: 10 minutes with ... Salman Hameed (and comments on beliefnet).

Darwin 200 at Hampshire College

First, a happy 200th anniversary to Charles! We got together at Hampshire for some talks and some cake yesterday evening. The 8 person faculty panel "Darwin & Me" worked very well (each speaker was limited to 5-minutes and one slide), and the topics ranged from Darwin's work on emotions and how it applies to psychology, philosophy and studies of animal behavior, the emergence of new form of American poetry (including very long poems) in the later half of the 19th century that was inspired by the principle of evolution, the role of genetics in determining races, improvisational music with its inspiration from natural selection, Darwin's contributions to geology, evolutionary and genetic programming, and even dance - what can we learn about movement from the knowledge of our evolutionary past. Phew!! The whole event was fantastic and went without a glitch. So kudos to Laura (Sizer) for organizing this and for putting the whole semester-long Darwin Across the Disciplines together (and, of course, for yesterday's choice of chocolate cake).

Update (2/14): You can find an excellent summary of the presentations at To Find the Principles.

But this is not all. As part Hampshire's Darwin-related activities, Charles Ross last night launched a semester long Evolving Hampshire project. Here is the description:

Evolving Hampshire is an experiment designed by evolutionary biology professor Charles Ross that will attempt to model the principles of descent with modification (evolution) and natural selection. Throughout the spring the campus community will watch an idea evolve as it moves from class to class. Participating classes in a variety of disciplines will answer the question: “What is Hampshire?” The question will start in one class, then move through a series of classes over time, with selected answers moving forward with modification.

Each student in a class will select the best answer from those produced by an earlier group (generation). Then, individuals will modify the answer from the perspective of their course’s focus or discipline—be it history, 20th century film, dance, or geology. Answers can be presented in any medium. Student facilitators will visit the participating classes to give presentations on the basic principles of evolution by natural selection, as well as to handle logistical details. The process of selection and the evolving results will be tracked and presented to the campus community at the close of the semester.

The results will be unveiled on April 28th. We have no clue what we will get at the end (see see...like evolution...), but we are hoping that we may get an idea what Hampshire really is. Stay tuned for the results.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Twisting Darwin's beliefs

Here is a well-intentioned piece in Washington Post about Darwin and Lincoln - but then it lumps Darwin into a believer category to make a point (by the way, the piece is on culture wars - especially regarding gay marriage...):
Both Lincoln and Darwin were much more complex than the sides that celebrate them and their legacies often admit. The truth is Lincoln was more concerned with preserving the Union than with freeing the slaves, and Darwin was a religious man who saw his science as bringing glory to the God in whom he believed.
Hmm...well, yes and Darwin was more complex than is being presented in this article. Indeed, at one point Darwin was religious - and was quite impressed by Paley's Natural Theology. But while developing his ideas about natural selection, he deeply thought about religion and his views moved far far away from natural theology. Here are two quotes that may capture his views about God and nature:
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.
and
What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of nature!
I'm not exactly sure if these quotes really qualify as "bringing glory to God". So lets not twist Darwin's beliefs - even to make a good point. Its unnecessary. He was a complex guy - and lets keep that complexity. On his actual beliefs, see this earlier post (psst...he says - he is an Agnostic).

Life, God, Language and an Amazonian tribe

About two years ago, New Yorker had a fascinating article about a linguist, Daniel Everett, who went to an Amazonian tribe, with his wife and daughter, to convert them to Christianity. Its a long article, but if you have time, please read it - it is very well written. The article also presents Everett's struggles with his own beliefs (he ends up as an atheist) and how different facets of his life shapes his views. Now Everett has a book out, Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, detailing his experiences with the tribe and his linguistic discoveries. Here are portions from a review in Science (subscription required):
Contemplate your life as it is now, the things you hold most dear to you, family, and the beliefs and values you have adopted and hold true. What would your life become if you were to lose them all? Who might you be? These are questions that Dan Everett faced in the course of his fieldwork among the Pirahã people of the Amazonian jungle. Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes offers Everett's personal account of the language and life of the tribe and, at the same time, a close-up of his life and experiences in making sense of this new world.
As a trained linguist and devoted Christian, Everett (now in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Illinois State University) set out with his wife and three children to bring the word of God to the Pirahãs. Aiming to succeed where other missionaries had failed, he tried to master the famously difficult Pirahã language (for which the tribe is notorious in linguistics circles) and to break their recalcitrant rigidity toward alien faiths. In a twist of fate, Everett lost all: God, wife, and even linguistic ideology. The Pirahãs left him stripped of these but, in return, provided their own take on life.
No no - the story does not really go in the direction of any serious romantic notions of life in the tribe. Rather, it bring up the fact that the Pirahãs lack temporal organization - and pretty much live in the present (according to Everett, they also have "no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few”—terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition"):
They taught him about the "immediacy of experience"--the principle he locates at the heart of the Pirahã language and culture. According to Everett, living and speaking for the moment allows the tribe's members to enjoy each day as it comes, to avoid stress and the burnouts that result from worrying about the future, and to disregard the regret and guilt of the past.

The book has two parts. The first describes everyday life within the tribe. Although lacking any temporal organization, this narrative talks in an honest and raw voice about birth, death, eating, hunting, rituals, spirits, sex, family and kinship, growing up, and community among the Pirahãs. The people and stories are intertwined with Everett's own life: as a husband fighting to save his wife and daughter from a near-fatal bout of malaria, as a linguist and fieldworker coping with first-language and first-culture biases, as a Christian coming to terms with dissipating faith, and as a foreigner in a community plotting to kill him.
And the second part is more on linguistics:
The second part focuses on the linguistic aspects of Everett's Amazonian experiences (primarily on the Pirahã language and, more generally, on the author's own ideas). The author trained within the generativist school, founded by Noam Chomsky, that has largely dominated the linguistics arena over the past 50 years. Generativists endorse the idea of an innate universal grammar and propose that language acquisition is, at least to some considerable extent, innate. Like many of the beliefs the author held when he arrived in the Amazon, generative grammar was soon questioned and discarded because it had "little enlightening to say about the Pirahã language." The "straight head," as the Pirahãs term their language, appears to lack terms for color, number, (distant) past events, and quantifiers. Everett goes so far as to claim that the language lacks recursion, the ability to put one phrase or sentence inside another (in a "matrioshkadoll effect," as eloquently put by Everett). The absence of recursion is extremely difficult to swallow--not just by Chomskyans, but by any linguist. These claims remain highly controversial and many linguists dismiss them; however, a field often benefits from the reexamination of some of its more cemented assumptions. Nonetheless, although such health checks are good for the field, they are often extremely tough on those who instigate them.
...
The book is fascinating. In part, that is because Everett provides a personal glimpse of a tribal people living in a remote jungle. More important, we see the world of the Pirahãs through the lens of a unique source: someone whose own world is turned upside down and who possesses an inquisitive and adventurous mind that is, at times, very much in conflict with itself.
You can also find more details about these linguistic details in the New Yorker article. I'm not a linguist, so I can comment much about it - but the presentation of these debates is highly engaging. Also see this Edge article: Recursion and human thought and why the Piraha don't have numbers and Everett's exchange with Pinker and others. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Singing Darwin

Well ... after all this week is all about Darwin. Here is an entertaining view of Darwin:


And of course, the best material comes from Darwin's bulldog:

Mr. Milner’s show provides sound bites from Huxley’s famous 1860 debate in Oxford against Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who scornfully asked Huxley whether he was descended from an ape through his grandfather or his grandmother. Huxley had the last word years later, when the bishop died after being thrown headfirst from a horse.

“His end has been all too tragic for his life,” Huxley wrote in a letter. “For once, reality and his brains came into contact and the result was fatal.”

Ouch! Read the full article here.

By the way as part of Darwin celebrations, Amherst College Museum of Natural History has a special talk and a museum tour led by Kate Wellspring and Steve Sauter this Friday, Feb 13th, from 2-3pm. I can totally see Kate as a singing Darwinian scholar - and may be she will sing on Friday.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Darwin celebrations at Hampshire College

If you are in the area, please join us in celebrating Darwin's bicentennial and 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. There are several events planned this semester. Here are the details (psst...I know there will be cake on the 12th):

Hampshire College Celebrates

DARWIN ACROSS THE DISCIPLINES
To honor Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of
The Origin of Species

Thursday, February 12, 5:15pm FPH Main Lecture Hall
Happy Birthday Darwin!
A celebration of Darwin's 200th birthday
Darwin & Me: faculty from across the College discuss how Darwin and his ideas influenced their work.

February 26, 5:30pm FPH Main Lecture Hall
Evolution, Religion, and the Search for Meaning: a Science & Religion lecture by theologian, Dr. John Haught.

March 10, 5:30pm FPH Main Lecture Hall
Mutation, Survival, and Reproduction of Darwinian Thought in Science: a lecture by Charles Ross, Assistant Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Hampshire College

April 2, 5:30pm FPH Main Lecture Hall
Religion after Darwin?: a Science & Religion lecture by Dr. Philip Kitcher, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University

April 28, 5:30pm FPH Main Lecture Hall
Evolving Hampshire
We unveil the results of a semester-long experiment in evolution that is making its way through Hampshire College classrooms.

Sponsored by: Dean of Faculty's office and FPR-HC Program in Culture, Brain & Development.

For more information: darwin200.hampshire.edu

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Responding to terrorism in Pakistan

Perhaps, the Taliban takeover 0f Swat may turn out be a true wake-up call for Pakistanis. Remember, that Swat is quite further removed from the tribal belt and is only 100 miles from Islamabad. When I was visiting Pakistan just this past December, there was a weird attitude of denial towards the Taliban. Every event was being interpreted by TV pundits and other talking heads (yes, I know its a broad generalization - but you get my drift) as a conspiracy against Pakistan - it was siege mentality at its best. It was also the time of the Mumbai attacks - so everyone's attention shifted back to India - the enemy Pakistanis love to hate. But the real threat lies on the western border and already inside Pakistan. And this enemy is brutal. So its great to see this editorial in today's Dawn, A Country's Soul, about religion and terrorism in Pakistan:
Pakistan was not like this a few decades ago. True, sectarian trouble used to flare up from time to time, but the scale of the conflict simply cannot be compared to the mayhem that is now on display. We have amongst us not just one but several generations of brainwashed young men who believe that the path to heaven is lined with death and destruction. Kill Shias and your place in paradise is promised, they believe, murder Sunnis and God will greet you with a kindly eye. Meanwhile, many influenced by orthodox ideology are convinced that theirs is the true interpretation of Islam and that killing Sufi pilgrims will book them a place in heaven. All this has happened in Pakistan in recent years and will no doubt continue to take place until we wake up and shout and demand that this madness must end.
Yes, this is a crucial time. Taliban are continuing to blow up schools in Swat and in the tribal belt, and violence has started to hit major city centers. Here is Dawn's call out to religious groups who are often the most vocal (read - loud without substance) in Pakistan:
Where are the religio-political parties when schools are bombed or burned down in Swat and the tribal areas? If they don’t condemn suicide bombings, should we assume that their interests are linked to those of the Tehrik-i-Taliban? What we get is the same old prattle to the effect that Muslims couldn’t possibly be behind such heinous crimes. Nothing could make less sense and it is important that we stop living in a state of denial. Wake up and smell the reality. What we have in this country is Muslims killing Muslims, and a society that is becoming increasingly intolerant of difference. The manner in which different sects of Islam interpret the holy word ought to be a source of discourse, not conflict.
And about taking responsibility:
We blame the West and America for all our ills but don’t for a moment stop to think how we are destroying ourselves. Hatred oozes out of our pores, we are quick to brand as an infidel anyone who takes a broad-minded view. Many amongst us feel that those who think differently are worthy of death. We have only ourselves to blame for our misfortunes.
Read the full editorial here. Also see this Pakistani campaign against terrorism: Yeh Hum Naheen and the "Band Aid" inspired song (video below)
Yeh Hum Naheen was a unique musical event. Featuring the vocal talents of some of Pakistans biggest music artists, including Haroon, Ali Haider, Ali Zafar, Shufqat, Strings, Shuja Haider and Hadiqa Kiani, uniting to sing out the message the world needs to hear.

Written by Ali Moeen, Pakistans foremost lyricist, with music composed by Shuja Haider, its the central message of the song that has compelled so many people to become involved. It is a message of reconciliation, a message of peace and a message of truth. Capturing the imagination of people across the board, Yeh Hum Naheen has given a voice to the silent majority, those in the Muslim world who have for too long been mis-represented. These are the people who although not appearing on our television screens are saddened and shocked at the high-jacking of Islam by terrorists, and want to stand up and shout “This is Not Us”. The song was the brainchild of Waseem Mahmood, author and media consultant, who took inspiration for the project from his children. The song was recorded during a three month period from November 2006 to January 2007 at Sound of Speed studios in Karachi.



Not to complain on this effort - but a more gender balance on the song would have been nice (though the images do keep the balance). But its fantastic to see this effort. Here is the link to this foundation.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Shermer on the use of "survival of the fittest"

Actually, more appropriately, it is about the misunderstanding of natural selection. In particular he focuses on two myths that may be traced to the unfortunate use of the phrase "survival of the fittest" (coined by Herbert Spencer), to describe the process of natural selection. From what I remember from Janet Browne's Darwin biography, Darwin himself was unhappy with this phrase, but in the absence of another short way of describing his theory, he went along with it. Here is Shermer on two key misunderstanding that stem from using this phrase:

Unfortunately, that is what happened, and it led to two myths about evolution that persist today: that there is a prescient directionality to evolution and that survival depends entirely on cutthroat competitive fitness.

Contrary to the first myth, natural selection is a description of a process, not a force. No one is “selecting” organisms for survival in the benign sense of pigeon breeders selecting for desirable traits in show breeds or for extinction in the malignant sense of Nazis selecting prisoners at death camps. Natural selection is nonprescient—it cannot look forward to anticipate what changes are going to be needed for survival. When my daughter was young, I tried explaining evolution to her by using polar bears as an example of a “transitional species” between land mammals and marine mammals, but that was wrong. Polar bears are not “on their way” to becoming marine mammals. They are well adapted for their arctic environment.

Natural selection simply means that those individuals with variations better suited to their environment leave behind more offspring than individuals that are less well adapted. This outcome is known as “differential reproductive success.” It may be, as the second myth holds, that organisms that are bigger, stronger, faster and brutishly competitive will reproduce more successfully, but it is just as likely that organisms that are smaller, weaker, slower and socially cooperative will do so as well.

and here is the second misunderstanding that stems from using survival of the fittest:

This second notion in particular makes evolution unpalatable for many people, because it covers the theory with a darkened patina reminiscent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “nature, red in tooth and claw.” Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s “bulldog” defender, promoted this “gladiatorial” view of life in a series of popular essays on nature “whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day.” The myth persists. In his recent documentary film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein linked Darwinism to Communism, Fascism and the Holocaust. Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling misread biologist Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene to mean that evolution is driven solely by ruthless competition, both between corporations and within Enron, leading to his infamous “rank and yank” employee evaluation system, which resulted in massive layoffs and competitive resentment.

This view of life need not have become the dominant one. In 1902 the Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin published a rebuttal to Huxley and Spencer in his book Mutual Aid. Calling out Spencer by phrase, Kropotkin observed: “If we... ask Nature: ‘who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?’ we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest.” Since that time science has revealed that species practice both mutual struggle and mutual aid. Darwinism, properly understood, gives us a dual disposition of selfishness and selflessness, competitiveness and cooperativeness.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Darwin's beliefs

Here is Darwin's letter to John Fordyce, in which he states his position on religion. More importantly, he stresses that his views on this matter should not be of concern to anyone but except himself. Do we listen to him? No - of course not. We look at his letters and publish them on blogs.

Here is his letter to John Fordyce, dated May 7, 1879:

Down Beckenham | Kent

May 7th 1879

Private

Dear Sir

It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.— You are right about Kingsley. Asa Gray, the eminent botanist, is another case in point— What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

Dear Sir | Yours faithfully | Ch. Darwin

His personal religious views aside, he does not see a problem with someone being a theist and accepting evolution at the same time. Of course, it rules out certain conceptions of God (especially a personal and an intervening God) - but perhaps it leaves open the possibility of some form of Deism. But Darwin was clearly an agnostic.

Here is the link to the Darwin Correspondence Project.

Evolution and Religion in US

It is exactly one week before Darwin's bicentennial. You will see a lot more posts on Darwin and evolution here at least for the next few weeks. In the mean time, the Pew Forum has released a very useful study of evolution-religion interaction in the US (hat tip to Tom Heneghan at Faithworld). Here are the major sections of the report:
Overview: The Conflict Between Religion and Evolution
Religious Groups' Views on Evolution
Graphic: Religious Differences on Evolution
Darwin and His Theory of Evolution
Evolution: A Timeline
Fighting Over Darwin, State by State

Here is the histogram of acceptance of evolution with religious beliefs in the US:

I am actually surprised that unaffiliated is only in the low 70s. But kudos to Buddhists, Hindus and Jews in the US. But why are these percentages still only in the 80s? I would have expected some of these groups in the upper 90s - after all that is the number amongst scientists. And mixed results for Muslims. These numbers are far higher than those in other Muslim countries (pdf) (though the question was asked differently in the Muslim world ... and may be a significant factor responsible for lower numbers). At the same time, on average, these US Muslims are expected to be more educated (I don't know the statistics on that) than their counterparts in the Muslim heartlands. It would be great to dig more into those numbers and find factors that correlate with education and economic factors.

Find the full report here.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Step aside Sputnik - here comes Iran

Iran has successfully launched an orbital satellite - roughly four decades after Sputnik. Actually, it is still no mean feat. But here comes the predictable hysteria:

In Washington, the State Department called the event worrisome. “Iran’s development of a space launch vehicle establishes the technical basis from which Iran could develop long-range ballistic missile systems,” said Robert A. Wood, a department spokesman.

Aerospace experts said the action had a number of potential military implications, even though the satellite was small and lightweight compared with a nuclear warhead.
While I'm against any country having nuclear weapons - I do think that Iran has been treated quite unfairly. In addition, I actually don't think that Iran will be any more stupider in its use than the US, and perhaps much smarter than Pakistan and possibly even India (retired generals on both sides just love their bomb). So lets not go over board with the launch of a small satellite (or even if its a large satellite for that matter) - Iran will not go out and bomb across continents as soon as it develops the technology. Though it may give it deterrence - and that may actually prevent some wars.

But there are some sane voices also:

“This is no reason to panic,” Charles D. Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. “It shouldn’t force us to make a missile defense decision in Europe.”

He said Iran’s action had more to do with sending a message to Washington and asserting influence as a regional power than with achieving a new military capability. “It’s a way for the Iranian people to stand proud,” he said, “but to do it in a way that is still within a civilian program.”
Read the full story here.

The Tree of Life

Here is David Attenborough's very cool tree of life (tip from Pharyngula):


And of course, I can't resist bringing in Sagan at this point. Computer simulations are old - but still very effective. Here is another way of presenting the relatedness of all species - from 29 years ago:

Monday, February 02, 2009

A new book on Haeckel and his evolutionary thought

As expected, there are loads of books about Darwin coming out this year. But there is an equal interest in Darwin's contemporaries and their role in shaping our views about evolution. Ernst Haeckel is known for some controversial ideas - but he was also responsible for popularizing evolutionary ideas in Germany. Here is a review of an interesting biography about him, The tragic sense of life: Ernst Haeckel and the struggle over evolutionary thought by Robert J Richards:
As the title The Tragic Sense of Life suggests, however, Richards’s Haeckel is often more melancholy than sanguine. This is mainly because of the death of his first wife Anna in 1864, just as his career as an evolutionary biologist was taking off. Haeckel lived a long and eventful life, but no other event is as important to Richards’s interpretation as this one—Haeckel never gets over this loss. Darwinism fills the emotional void created by Anna’s death and merges with the rest of his intellectual background into a comprehensive worldview. Haeckel then wields his Darwinism with a vengeance against reassuring religious lies, but he can also find comfort in Darwin, along with new ways of seeing and loving the beauty of nature. (Very appropriately, the book conveys Haeckel’s aesthetic appreciation of nature vividly through color reproductions of his artwork.)
And here is a bit about Haeckle's views on evolution and ethics:
Haeckel’s evolutionary view of ethics has been another lightning rod for criticism. Critics fall into two camps: militant theists, including creationists, who think there can be no moral standards that are not God-given; and those who, after World War II, wanted to trace the moral decline of Germany back into the 19th century. Both groups have given Haeckel a larger-than-life role in opening the door to Hitler or otherwise inspiring Nazi ideology, but Richards objects to these sorts of cautionary tales for both factual and methodological reasons. By 19th-century standards, Haeckel’s views on race were moderate, and in particular, he had an unusually high opinion of Jews. The Nazis themselves repudiated Haeckel and banned his books. And considering everything else that had to go wrong in Germany to result in the Holocaust—the complex of social, psychological and political developments that serious historians have been analyzing for half a century—it makes no sense to single out a 19th-century scientific writer as the crucial factor.
There is some interesting discussion about the role of aesthetics in his view of nature (see the picture - it is one of Haeckel's illustrations) and its connection to Romanticism. But back to evolution:
When he compares Haeckel and Darwin directly, Richards makes it clear that the two agreed on key points. Their conceptions of common descent, heredity, variation and natural selection were similar; both men recognized the usefulness of evidence from morphology and embryology for reconstructing evolutionary history; and both rejected predetermined, teleological trends. Richards’s analysis brings Haeckel and Darwin closer together than ever before, even for those of us who resist making Romantics of them both. By doing so, and by defending Haeckel from the excesses of his critics and bringing out the personal side of his science, this book marks a major rehabilitation of Haeckel as a mainstream Darwinian, and a full-blooded one at that. It writes Germany into the larger story of the international development of Darwinism in a new way, and it injects welcome doses of drama, romance and natural beauty into the story.
Read the full review here.