Thursday, July 30, 2009

On the recruitment of suicide bombers

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has been making excellent documentaries about the growth of fundamentalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I posted a clip from her documentary, Children of Taliban, last May. Here is her opinion piece for The Independent regarding the recruitment of children by the Taliban for suicide bombings. If there is still any room not to be disgusted and appalled by the Taliban (at least those that are recruiting these kids - there are several different flavors of the Taliban), then check out this bit:

Twenty-five children appear in a Taliban propaganda video wearing the traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez. They sit cross- legged on the ground rocking back and forth reciting the Koran. A white bandana tied across their forehead, reads: "La illaha illala: There is no God but God."

The compound they are in is bare. In one corner, three young boys hold automatic guns keeping watch. Their teacher, dressed in brown military fatigues walks around reading aloud from a book titled Justifications for Suicide bombing and makes a list on a whiteboard – "Reasons for killing a spy". The text on the screen reads "Preparing suicide bombers".

In another chilling video, three boys speak about their desire to become suicide bombers. The video introduces Zainullah, who later blows himself up killing six, Sadique, who blows himself up killing 22, and Masood who kills 28. The video contains footage of their attacks and in the background a young child sings: "If you try and find me after I have died, you will never find my whole body, you will find little pieces."

But then Sharmeen makes some generalizations that gloss over some of the complexities. For example, she writes about the madrassas:

In a country where the average family size is seven people and the daily wage is as low as £1 a day, many families choose to send their children to Islamic religious schools, where they are given free food and shelter. Now increasingly, the Taliban are recruiting from these schools and paying the families a monthly stipend in return.

The statement about the Taliban recruitment is probably correct. But the most important bit here is "many families choose to send their children to Islamic religious schools" and "many" has been left completely ambiguous. I know the issue of the numbers of madrassas is tricky (see an earlier post, Madrassas vs Private Schools in Pakistan), but still one can get a rough idea about the fraction that includes "many". Otherwise, we can't judge the seriousness (or lack thereof) of the problem.

A similar problem creeps up later in her article:

Qari Abdullah, a Taliban commander in charge of child recruitment, told me children are an essential element of Jihad. "If you're fighting, then God provides you with the means [to win]. Kids themselves are tools to achieve God's will. And whatever comes your way, you sacrifice it."

Children as young as five and six years old are being recruited from poor families, he said. "The kids want to join us because they like our weapons."

There are 80 million children in Pakistan. More than a quarter of them live below the poverty line. If the militants continue to recruit freely, then soon Pakistan will belong to them.

Is she saying that over 20 million children (or a majority of this number) can fall into the hands of the Taliban? Don't we have to first ask: How many kids living below the poverty line end up in madrassas - and not just any madrassas, but those from where the Taliban have much influence? Remember that the 20 million number represents the entire Pakistan - whereas the Taliban insurgency is limited (primarily) to the northern areas of Pakistan. Yes, some madrassas even in the urban centers provide support to the Taliban - but what is the fraction that does not? Plus, there are also Pashtun tribesmen that are fighting against the Taliban. What about their madrassas?

Let me be clear: the Taliban problem is serious - no question about it. But this opinion piece plays a bit loose with the numbers to create an even greater sensational effect. I'm sympathetic to the position she is advocating, but this gets me a bit annoyed. I felt the same way after watching Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. When he gave statistics for gun-related homicides in the US and compared it to Canada and the UK, he did not normalize those numbers by the respective population of the countries (an essential to say any thing meaningful) - thus making the distinction a lot more dramatic than the real situation. But he didn't have to do it - the normalized numbers are still bad - just not as bad as he portrayed them to be.

Yes, the recruitment of children as suicide bombers (or for war, in general) is as bad as it gets. We should certainly attempt to control the madrassas where this recruitment is taking place. But we also need to stay close to the facts and numbers we have to accurately assess and tackle this threat.

Read the full article here.

A long view of science

Science (July 10) has a review of an interesting and ambitious book: Science - A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara. The review is is decent and the book, written by a historian of science at Cambridge University, seems to have some new and interesting things to say. For example, it is great that it takes developments in China seriously and integrates those into the narrative of the origin(s) of science:
Fara has not one birthplace for science, but three. The book is almost unique among popular surveys of the history of science in devoting substantial attention to the Chinese natural philosophical heritage. Almost as ancient as the Babylonian tradition, this is certainly the oldest continuous one, and Fara draws from recent scholarship to flesh out an interesting picture. But this attention peters out fairly early, as the book shifts to the more canonical origin for science.

That would be Europe. For all the attention that Fara devotes to debunking heroic narratives supposedly perpetrated by most historians of science—Isaac Newton draws her particular ire—from Babylon and China she goes on to replicate much of the standard narrative: first Greece, next a light touch on Rome (mostly Galen), the Christian West through to the early modern era, and then a slower pace from the 18th century to the present (with a heavy, some might say excessive, attention to developments in Britain). We only glimpse China once or twice more and never really see Latin America or Africa except from shipboard. (On the other hand, her account of science and medieval Islam is spot on.) I will have to check it out for the Islamic bit. I'm teaching Science in the Islamic World this fall and there may be some good reading material in there.

Here is another interesting point about the book:
Fara tries to situate certain heroes in context, so they don't stand as lone geniuses: "During their own lifetimes, scientific heroes often appeared less important than they do in retrospect, when they are admired for leading presciently towards a future that their contemporaries could not possibly have known about." Very true. So Newton is exposed, warts and all, and Galileo is shoehorned into a brief chapter with the rest of early modern astronomy. But these figures are replaced by new, only slightly less canonical heroes: René Descartes gets a chapter all to himself, and Francis Bacon appears often as a beacon. Perhaps the history of science does need to take its heroes down a peg, but replacing them with the very next tier is surely a stopgap solution.
Ultimately, however, it seems that the scope of the book is simply too large to fit into 424 pages:
Fara's Science attempts to span four thousand years, and it would be churlish to quibble and pettifog about this anecdote or that interpretation. The book can be read with profit as a general introduction to some of what has been happening in the history of science since the 1980s. It offers pretty exciting material. But fundamentally the scale of Fara's project overwhelms it. More science, however defined, has been done since 1945 than in all of history until then. Because Fara boldly takes the long view, she is regrettably forced to foreshorten the recent past. Instead of providing a rousing crescendo, the book's discussion of the present almost whimpers: "The problem is not that scientific technology is in itself bad, but that it can too easily become a tool for domination and coercion." Of science's many histories there is surely more to be said.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Natural theology in a 1958 religious infomercial from Pakistan I'm finally back in US. And Matt, no - the freemason (ultra-secret) hand signal didn't work at the immigration. I must have used the wrong finger. In fact, I had an hour long chat with an immigration officer. The conversation was actually quite pleasant - the guy was Catholic and accepted evolution, his mother does not. Oh - and he also asked me how I spent my 20 years in the US. Yes, it is fun these days to travel with a Pakistani passport. Oh well...

I have a backlog of posts. But first, here is a fascinating clip of a Pakistani religious infomercial from 1958. I don't know where was it screened or how widely it was viewed. If any one knows that, please let me know. My guess is that it was made for TV - perhaps shown prime time.

The clip is in Urdu. However, couple of things to note. Notice that this is a setting for a university or a college. There are no Taliban-style beards - with either the instructor or the students. They are also all dressed in western clothes. I'm sure a comparable movie today will have a very different atmosphere - tracing the changes in Pakistan itself.

The main point of the clip is natural theology. It starts with the story of Adam and Eve, but quickly moves to highlight harmony in the world: the day-night cycle, the flow of rivers, the perfection of rainfall, the animals and their respective niches. Fascinatingly, it singles out the phrase "survival of the fittest" and rejects it (yes, it is used in English at 5:53 in the clip). But evolution or natural selection is not the focus at all. This is just an off-hand comment in the clip. In contrast, the adaptation of animals to their environments is presented as further evidence of God's perfect creation: since birds have been given the ability to fly in the air and fish to swim in water, it doesn't happen that birds give birth in water and fish on the land. You get the drift (and you can find detailed versions of this type of Natural theology in William Paley and others in the 18th and 19th centuries). From the visuals perspective, note that the clip predominantly uses footage of animals living (happily?) together rather than eating each other. Take that Tennyson. And the Shark Week.

In any case, enjoy the clip - and its 1950s docu-music (tip Zakir Thaver):

Monday, July 27, 2009

Book recommendation: The Road

If you can stomach violent imagery then you will find Cormac McCarthy's The Road to be a phenomenal read. It is as dark as it can get in its depiction of a post-apocalyptic America, and yet it is gripping in its details and in tracing the survival instincts of humans. But it is not a depressing book (disturbing, yes, but depressing, no). In fact, the occasional positive side of human nature stands out in the chaos and complete breakdown of the society depicted by McCarthy. In addition, the book is great story of the bonding between a father and a son. Here is a sample:
No list of things to be done. The day providential to itself. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.
But don't worry, there is plenty of utter poetic darkness too.
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

As I have mentioned before, a movie based on the book is coming out this coming October. It has a fantastic cast: Vigo Mortensen, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, and Charlize Theron. Plus, it is directed by John Hillcoat, who directed the fantastic Australian western, The Proposition (no need to remind you again that its screenplay was by Nick Cave). Needless to say, I'm looking forward to The Road - the movie. However, if you get a chance, read the book first. This way you will create your own imagery of a post-apocalyptic world. Also read this excellent NYT review of the book. Here is a quote from the review:

This is an exquisitely bleak incantation — pure poetic brimstone. Mr. McCarthy has summoned his fiercest visions to invoke the devastation. He gives voice to the unspeakable in a terse cautionary tale that is too potent to be numbing, despite the stupefying ravages it describes. Mr. McCarthy brings an almost biblical fury as he bears witness to sights man was never meant to see.
While we wait for the film, here is the trailer:

Travel blues

The pleasures of summer travel. Before I get to that, let me say that Venice kicks ass! Florence is also phenomenal - but (unsurprisingly) has a very different feel to it. A review of a Galileo exhibit coming up soon.

However, here I want to chronicle the pleasures of summer travel (of course, the internet was also not functioning at the hotel for the last few days - so life was definitely on hold).

Last 48 hours:

  • Florence - Taxi to train station (10 minutes - left hotel at 10am)
  • Train from Florence to Venice (2 hours 40 minutes)
  • Venice - Water bus from train station to Rialto on the Grand Canal (15 minutes)
  • Venice - Water bus from Rialto to Bus station (20 minutes - left hotel at 7am)
  • Venice - Bus to Venice airport (20 minutes)
  • Plane from Venice to Zurich and then Zurich to London (total of 4-5 hours)
  • London-Heathrow: Passed through immigration (45 minutes) and discovered that the scheduled American Airline flight to Boston has been canceled
  • London-Heathrow: Placed on waiting list for an earlier flight to Boston. Ecstatic! Went through a long boarding line - picked out by the security for special screening - and waited for the boarding to end without me (total of 80 minutes)
  • London-Heathrow: Sent to the transfer desk to find a flight to Boston on another airline. Unsuccessful. No way to get to Boston today. So booked for a flight tomorrow (Tuesday) morning (takes about 40 minutes for walk back from the gate and for negotiations)
  • London-Heathrow: Provided a hotel next to the airport - but they keep my luggage. Since I'm back inside the terminal, I'm asked to go through immigration again. Yes, again (this time it takes 90 minutes to go through the immigration).
  • London-Hethrow: Bus to the hotel (wait plus travel: 30 minutes)
This journey is not over yet.

Here is a preview for tomorrow (if all goes according to plan):

Bus to London-Heathrow (15 min), plane from London to Boston (7 hours - if not canceled), shuttle from terminal to long-term parking (30 min for wait plus travel), drive back from Boston to Northampton (100 minutes).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blown away by Peter Greenaway

It is not very often when one has the opportunity to say, "I have never seen or experienced any thing like this before". This was my reaction when I saw an exhibit by Peter Greenaway (best known for The cook the thief his wife and her lover) in Venice, The Wedding at Cana (tip from Olga Gershenson). A description of this work can hardly do justice to the experience. He has taken the amazing 16th century painting by Paolo Veronese, The Wedding at Cana, and has added music, dialogue, special effects. No - this is not a movie. The painting (actually, he has used an exact replica of the original - measuring 24 feet by 33 feet) depicts the wedding feast at Cana, where according to the Gospel of John, Jesus performed his first miracle - by turning water into wine.

The painting has phenomenal detail and includes 126 characters. Greenaway makes the wedding come alive by imagining a conversation at the feast and giving dialogue to each of the 126 characters. We don't see any of the mouths move (its a painting!) and yet we get a feeling of a lively event. But, the most incredible thing is Greenaway's play with shadows. This not only provides depth (a 3D feeling on a 2D surface) to the painting but it allows him to create a sense of passing time during the day. He is also able to show as if there is fire on the street behind the wedding feast at one point and pouring rain on the wedding guests at another. It is realy hard to describe the experience and understate the dynamism of this work. The whole event lasts about 50 minutes.

If you are in Venice (yes, I was in Venice yesterday) or are planning on visiting there before the second week of September, please please check out Greenway's take on The Wedding at Cana. In addition, the exhibit is on a small beautiful island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where the original hung from 1562, when Veronese finished it, until 1797 - when Napoleon cut up the painting into pieces and took it back to France as war booty. Idiot!

Here is more information from Peter Greenaway's site. Here is a review from the New York Times (here is apt line from the review: "If nothing else, it is possibly the best unmanned art history lecture you’ll ever experience").

By the way, he intends to have a similar exhibit for several other paintings, including Picasso's Guernica. Can't wait for that one.

For a taste of a similar exhibit (though his The Wedding at Cana seems a grander project), see this 2 minute video extract from Greenaway's The Last Supper:

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ibn Battuta and Mars

An advisee of mine at Hampshire College (Lindsay Barbieri) is working this summer at Brown University mapping Martian gullies and looking at their geology - a fantastic project. She pointed me to the Ibn Battuta Center that is also working on Mars. I think its very cool that this center has equated planetary exploration with this remarkable 14th century Moroccan journey man who traveled for 30 years. Here is the wiki entry for Ibn Battuta. But in relation to Mars, here is the description of the Ibn Battuta Center:

The main aim of the Ibn Battuta Centre for exploration and field activities is to support the exploration of Mars and others planets, and to provide opportunities for scientists and the public for experiencing the exploration on Earth and in the Solar System.

The Ibn Battuta Centre for exploration and field activities was established in 2006 by the International Research School of Planetary Sciences (Pescara, Italy) to prepare and execute tests of rovers, landing systems, instruments and operations related to the exploration of Mars and Moon. The Centre has a major partner, the Universite’ Cadi Ayyad of Marrakech (Morocco) where it is located.

Although the main aim of the Ibn Battuta Centre is to develop tests for the Martian and planetary exploration, it is also organising several activities such as field courses for students and professionals, summer schools, field trips and expeditions. These activities are linked to the research on terrestrial analogues of Mars and to the geological sciences. The Centre is strongly based on the field activity and devoted to the scientific studies and applications in planetology and geology.

The Centre is named after the famous Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta (born in Tangier on 24th February 1304 – 703 Hijra) who explored a large part of Northern Africa and Asia. During his travels Ibn Battuta visited almost the entire Muslim world and travelled more than 120,000 kilometres.

I don't know much about the center - but it looks interesting. You can find out more information here. And if you are interested in Ibn Battuta, check out the first part of this documentary, The Journey of Ibn Battuta:

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Islamtoday" on Evolution

Usually, Islamic responses to evolution have been based on straight forward misconceptions about biological evolution ("just a theory", missing links, etc.) rather than taking the theory seriously and looking at a theological response (see links below). Here is a response prepared by the "Research Committee of under the supervision of Sheikh `Abd al-Wahhâb al-Turayrî". They specifically ask the question of human and non-human evolution and the process of evolution, natural selection. But the key difference from other Islamic responses: They address only the religious aspect and leave aside the scientific merits of the theory.

So what they have to say? Well...they take a literal interpretation of the Adam and Eve story and conclude that they were especially created:
We also see that Allah created Adam directly without the agency of parents.

Allah says: “The similitude of Jesus before Allah is as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him: ‘Be’ and he was.” [Sûrah Âl `Imrân: 59]

We also know that Eve was created from Adam without the agency of parents.
However, they give it an interesting twist at the end:
The direct creation of Adam (peace be upon him) can neither be confirmed nor denied by science in any way. This is because the creation of Adam (peace be upon him) was a unique and singular historical event. It is a matter of the Unseen and something that science does not have the power to confirm or deny. As a matter of the Unseen, we believe it because Allah informs us about it. We say the same for the miracles mentioned in the Qur’ân. Miraculous events, by their very nature, do not conform to scientific laws and their occurrence can neither be confirmed nor denied by science.

This is interesting as most religions today do seek validity from science. While their conclusions may be suspect, their logic is correct here: If it was a miraculous event, then science won't be able to say any thing as it doesn't deal with miracles.
Thus, their perspective requires a special creation - an event that is now out of bounds for science (how convenient? :)). Ok...but in this case a conflict is inevitable - as there are two competing explanations, one from science and one from religion. We know how this will end up.

For non-human evolution, they seem to be quite open:
What about other living things, besides the human beings living on the Earth today? What about plants, animals, fungi, and the like?

When we turn our attention to this question, we find that the Qur’ân and Sunnah do not tell us much about the flora and fauna that was present on the Earth before or at the time of Adam and Eve’s arrived upon it. The sacred texts also do not tell us how long ago Adam and Eve arrived upon the Earth. Therefore, these are things we cannot ascertain from the sacred texts.

The only thing that the Qur’ân and Sunnah require us to believe about the living things on Earth today is that Allah created them in whatever manner He decided to do create them.

Allah says: “Allah is the Creator of all things and over all things He has authority.” [Sûrah al-Zumar: 62]

Indeed, Allah states specifically that He created all life forms: “And We made from water all living things.” [Sûrah al-Anbiyâ’: 30]

We know that “Allah does what He pleases.” Allah can create His creatures in any manner that He chooses.

Therefore, with respect to other living things, the Qur’ân and Sunnah neither confirm nor deny the theory of biological evolution or the process referred to as natural selection. The question of evolution remains purely a matter of scientific enquiry. The theory of evolution must stand or fall on its own scientific merits – and that means the physical evidence that either confirms the theory or conflicts with it.
The emphasis is the original. Now, I'm confused. If "Allah does what He pleases" and he may have created evolution via natural selection, I'm not sure why humans were not created in a similar manner. I mean, one still has to interpret the meaning of "clay" and other things in the Adam and Eve story too. Why not take a similar stance of God's absolute providence there too? least they thought about the topic a bit mroe than some of the other reactionaries. However, their answere regarding human evolution will definitely lead to a conflict with science.

Read the full article here.
Also see:
Ghamidi on Islam and evolution
The evolution of Harun Yahya's "Atlas of Creation"
Zakir Naik's rant against evolution
Yusuf Estes' ignorance and hilarity combo about evolution
Maududi on evolution

"Oh God said to Abraham..."

Ok..this is funny (tip Pharyngula)

And of course, any chance to include Dylan in a post. From Highway 61 Revisited:
Oh God said to abraham kill me a son
Abe said man you must be puttin me on
God said no, abe said what
God say you can do what you wanna but
The next time you see me comin you better run
Well abe said where dyou want this killin done
God said out on highway 61
Here is the full song:

Friday, July 17, 2009

A roller coaster conference

I must say - this conference has been a bit strange. I have heard some amazing talks here. For example, Ron Numbers on creationism in the global context, John Evans in bringing sociological research to science & religion, Marwa El Shakry on the early reception of Darwinism in the Arab world, and today' talk by Jon Roberts on the religious reception of Darwinism in America 1859-1920 (summaries in an upcoming post). I'm familiar with Ron and Marwa's work, but it was fascinating to hear John Evans bringing in quantitative analysis to understanding anti-evolution reaction of conservative Protestants in the US and then Jon Roberts tracing the reaction of Protestants after the publication of Origin of Species and their split into Protestant Evolutionist and Conservative Protestants.

Apart from a select few short papers, the quality has not been very good. Plus, this conference is making me a raging Dawkins defender. I think his name was mentioned in 70% of the papers (mostly in short papers) - with only one positive reference (in Evans talk). Yes, Dawkins also makes a caricature of religious positions - and yes, sometimes he can be offensive. But this is being returned in kind at this conference - often with a chuckle from the audience.

However, the craziest talk happened to be in the session of my talk. First of all, it was on an overhead projector - with transparencies! But this was the least of the problems. The talk was titled The response to Darwinism among Orthodox Jews: conflicts regarding Biblical interpretations. Actually, it sounded quite interesting and reasonable. However, after going through a very straight forward literal and metaphorical interpretation bit about the first chapter of Book of Genesis, the speaker turned his attention to finding evidence of God - from...wait wait...the K/T impact - the impact that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago! No, seriously, that was his point. He quoted several authors, such as Gould, Alvarez, etc. all saying that if the dinos had not been killed, we (humans) would not have been here. But here is the central part of his argument: If the asteroid had been smaller, it would not have killed all the dinos - and mammals would have remained the size of a shrew. If the impact was too big, it would have killed off all the species. Hence this was a special event - from God. And he pointed out that God sent the asteroid from space. Aaah!! I wanted to pull my hair out during his talk. By the way, he is a physicist (I'm sure, retired).

I did ask him why not pick any other event? Even if we stick with asteroid impacts (although we can trace events in human evolution from the first cell - and can claim any number of events that drove evolution as miracles), why not pick the impact that killed off 90% of the species 250 million years ago. I'm sure Earth's history changed dramatically after that event. Plus, asteroid impacts is that last thing to use as a miraculous event. We can calculate probabilities and predict the number of impacts as a function of size (big asteroids crash less frequently). So a 10 km asteroid that killed off the dinos - actually happens to hit the Earth once every 100 million years. No magic. It is simply form the size distribution and quantity. Hence, we've had numerous large scale impacts since the beginning of life - about 4 billion years ago. Indeed, the fossil record shows several mass-extinctions. The K/T event is no more miraculous that any other impact (or any event in evolution).

Next time, a summary of a good talk from the conference.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

At Oxford: Science Taxi, Hair Salons, and Faucets

This is my first time at Oxford - and it is a lively place! And the campus is huge. There are a lot of tourists towards the old campus - but we are fine here at Saint Anne's College. Couple of quick things: On my walk from the bus station, I saw this periodic table taxi:

I think all cabs should be like this (ok - so this is for the Oxford Science Park - but still its a cab and very cool). And then, here is a picture of a hair salon named "Philosophy" (you may have to squint - or click on the image to see the name of the salon. I was in a hurry - so didn't have time for a close-up). Now this is cool! I remember that the name of the first Harry Potter film was changed in the American release from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The distributors thought that having philosophy in the title would kill the business. But here you can go and really think about the meaning of your hair style. (Not a hair salon, but the best name for a town still belongs to the US: Truth or Consequences, New Mexico)

However, not everything is rosy here. Look at this sink in my dorm room. The hot (left) and the cold (right) water faucets are separate. Now, for the life of me I don't understand the logic behind this (I had the same problem two years ago at a conference at Lancaster University). In the current configuration, either your hand is really cold or boiling hot - but never in a happy medium (no Intelligent Design here!). All they have to do is to combine the damn pipes into one faucet. There are smart people here - they can figure out a way to do this. Is it really asking for too much? :)

By the way, the conference has started and will post about it soon.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Up with Darwin's Down House

On Tuesday I had a chance to go to the Down House. I was joined by an avid amateur astronomer from Pakistan, Umair Asim (see his post about the visit here).

Couple of comments:
If you visit London, do take some time off to visit Darwin's home. It is about 20 minutes from the trains with an added 15 minutes with a cab or a bus. I was expecting it to be an decent place of historical significance. But this turned out to be a fantastic experience. In addition, I had a rock & roll history lesson from my cab driver. Apparently, he is a local of Bromley, and he has had beer with other famous people from the area: David Bowie, Kieth Richards, and Billy Idol. Cool! (by the way, he was most excited about Billy Idol)

Back to Down House: Darwin was a rich dude - so his house and its surroundings are gorgeous. The first floor of the house (ground floor in UK) has been preserved as it was during Darwin's time - with the same portraits, books, furniture, and the layout. This is based on photographs taken before and after Darwin' s death. The electronic tour uses an ipod-like device, with a narration by David Attenborough. It has a nice structure to it. For example, the opening screen for each room provides the basic information about the room. However, you can also opt for a more detailed info. on portraits, furniture, and other objects in the room.

The narration gives you a great sense of Darwin's life. There is a focus on small, mundane details. Obviously, my favorite room was Darwin's study (right). Lined up with books, it showed Darwin's work table, writing instruments, a microscope stool - that his kids played with, and portraits of Josiah Wedgwood (Darwin's grandfather), Charles Lyell, and Joseph Hooker.

The second floor is now a fantastic exhibit. It does a great job of first taking us through Darwin's childhood (there are many interesting items - including beetles and bird eggs that he used to collect) and his voyage on the Beagle. This is very well done. Instead of focusing on big hefty quotes, they have statements from Darwin not really enjoying the ocean ride. But the best part: they have recreated the "poop cabin" - Darwin's room/study/library on the Beagle (about 10 feet by 11 feet). Visitors can only look through a window. But we can also see a holographic image of a young Charles Darwin (played by someone) busy at work. There are sounds of the seas - seagulls and from the ship itself - that occasionally distract him, but then he gets back to work. Very well done.

Then, of course, there is lots of information about how Darwin came to the conclusions he did. This bit of history was familiar to me, so I went relatively quickly through there. However, they have pages from Darwin's original draft for the Origin of Species. Pretty Cool.

But there is one other thing I wanted to highlight: Darwin was a real stickler for details and repetitions. For example, he wrote his daily expenses in a journal everyday for 40 years. There are 11 softcover books just recording his daily expenditure (he has several more lists like that).

We couldn't take pictures inside the house. But I can include some pictures of Darwin's garden.

Here is a nice view of Darwin's house and his favorite climbing plants.

Darwin's green house.

A view from in front of the dining room window. Yes, this (and more) is all his estate.

The resemblance is there, but no no, the guy with the beard is not Darwin.

Darwin's sandwalk - the path of his daily walks and the time to think about his theory. In just one short walk I have figured out that creationism makes so much more sense - plus we already know ALL the answers. This evolution business seems to require too much effort.

Survival of the prettiest: This is next to the bus station near the Down House. It strolled casually across the street and was totally fine.

Alone on the dark side of "Moon"

A few weeks ago I had posted a positive post about the movie "Moon". Here is now an opinion/review piece that I wrote with Kevin Anderson (he teaches film at UMass). It was in yesterday's Daily Hampshire Gazette (however, one needs a subscription to read it). Here is the full article:

Alone on the dark side of "Moon"

July 20th will mark the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing. After a long absence, there is a renewed interest in returning to the Moon - perhaps to establish a permanent outpost. If the Apollo program of the 1960s was driven largely by the desire to win the space race with the Soviet Union, the current push has commercial benefits at the forefront, from mining the lunar surface to the possibility of space tourism.

But as we prepare for a permanent presence on another terrestrial body, we must carefully look at the implications of our explorations - both on the Moon and on its human inhabitants.

"Moon," a film strategically released a month before the anniversary of the lunar landing, continues in the tradition of using alien environments to raise ethical implications of our actions and to explore the nature of being human. The movie is set in the near future on a remote mining station, Sarang Lunar Outpost, located on the dark side of the Moon.

In the movie, Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell) is the only occupant of this outpost and is just a few weeks from the end of his three-year contract. He has been given a companion on the base: a robot named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) - a clear homage to HAL 9000 from 2001. Gerty is there to help and take care of Sam, which includes cutting his hair, nursing his wounds and being a companion. Gerty has been programmed to express the semblance of emotions by displaying a limited range of comically simple facial expressions on his computer screen. Nevertheless, after his prolonged isolation, Sam appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Sam's work is relatively simple and monotonous: oversee the automated mining of helium-3 from the Moon's surface and its exportation back to Earth, where, it is suggested, helium-3 serves as a clean energy source. Exploring the likelihood and technical challenges associated with the mining of helium-3 could be an interesting theme in and of itself for a science fiction film. "Moon," however, delves deeper.

The barren landscapes in Moon, both exterior and interior, allow writer-director Duncan Jones to create a meditation on loneliness and explore the psychological toll it may extract from humans.

The cerebral focus of "Moon" gives it intrigue and relevance. Current research on long-term space travel has been concerned with the psychological impact of isolation: plans for a trip to Mars would take at least a year and a half. While not technically alone, a crew of five or six may have to spend this time either confined to their spacecraft in transit or exploring the red planet, a hundred million miles away.

Indeed, in order to understand the psychological and physiological demands of being in an enclosed environment for such an extended period, the European Space Agency's Directorate of Human Spaceflight is undertaking a cooperative project with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow called the Mars500 program. The first phase, started this March, has isolated six crew-members for 105 days. This will be followed by a full 520-day study starting later this year.

"Moon," however, is not about exploration: Sam is a solitary cosmic laborer, not an explorer. His tasks on the Moon are not the stuff of scientific innovation nor will they be worthy of celebration. Sam is caught, in more ways than one, in a mundane, repetitive existence.

His sole purpose is to keep an eye on the machines that harvest helium-3. In many ways, we can consider him an emotionally intelligent robot, not that much different from Wall-E. Considering the monotonous and routine nature of Sam's existence, along with Gerty's ability to project emotions, begs a few questions: Does interpersonal communication require "persons"? And, further, who's keeping whom company - Sam or Gerty?

In subtle ways, "Moon" raises ethical questions regarding the use of sentient - though synthetic - beings for the exclusive benefit of humanity. Perhaps predictably, the actions of the helium-3 energy company and its exploitation of labor become a target in the film. Where a lesser film would have descended into a long morality lesson, "Moon" manages to entangle these issues with intriguing questions about what makes us human.

At one point in the film, Sam's solitude is shaken by an apparent encounter with a slightly younger and more sullen version of himself. Unlike the pedantic encounter between the two Spocks in the new "Star Trek" feature, the interaction between the two Sams is intelligent and seems to be asking the question, "If you were to encounter yourself somewhere, would you like yourself?"

The tempered rhythm and contemplative narrative places "Moon" in the footsteps of such thought-provoking sci-fi films as "2001," "Solaris" and "Blade Runner."

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landings, humanity is poised to take a step towards a permanent presence on another terrestrial body - Moon, Mars or even some of the asteroids. In the tradition of envelope-pushing sci-fi, "Moon" brings us back to Earth and forces us to look at the implications of our explorations.

Salman Hameed is an assistant professor of integrated science and humanities at Hampshire College. Kevin Taylor Anderson is a lecturer in anthropology and film studies at the University of Massachusetts.

Here is the trailer again:

Monday, July 13, 2009

Science, poetry, and ficton in the 'age of wonder'

This looks fantastic and has been getting fantastic reviews: The Age of Wonder: How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science by Richard Holmes. Here is a review from the New York Times (tip from Laura Sizer):
William Herschel, the German-born, star-gazing musician who effectively doubled the size of the solar system with a single discovery in 1781, was not regarded as a scientist. That word had not been coined during most of the era that will now be known, thanks to Richard Holmes’s amazingly ambitious, buoyant new fusion of history, art, science, philosophy and biography, as “The Age of Wonder.” And Mr. Holmes’s excitement at fusing long-familiar events and personages into something startlingly new is not unlike the exuberance of the age that animates his groundbreaking book.

In Herschel’s day (and that of his sister, Caroline, who functioned as his doting assistant to the point of feeding him like a baby bird), science was deductively methodical. And astronomy was no amateur’s game. But Herschel charted the skies as if making musical notations. And when he lacked instruments with enough precision, he painstakingly invented a telescope with startling new powers of magnification.

Looking through it, he noted a starlike object, twice as far from the Sun as Saturn, that appeared to be moving yet did not have a comet’s tail. He identified this as the planet Georgium Sidus, first named for George III of Britain but later known as Uranus.
Beyond enlivening the story of Herschel’s discovery into a gripping narrative, this book speculates fascinatingly about the ramifications of such a breakthrough. Thanks to Herschel the idea of a fixed universe was challenged, replaced by a cosmos in flux. Was that cause for wonder or terror? What were its theological implications? How would it influence a future generation of poets? (The thrill of this breakthrough would later figure in one of Keats’s most famous sonnets, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.”) Where would it figure in the relay race of scientific discoveries?
Actually, even more dramatic was the discovery of Neptune - since it was predicted by mathematical calculation rather than empirical observations. Just think about it. In the 19th century, astronomers predict not only that there is an unseen planet out in space but they also predict its location! A phenomenal case for the power of scientific predictions. But we are getting sidetracked here. Back to the The Age of Wonder:
A particularly inspired section of the book relates Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to dissection, to the debate about the existence of a life force, and to the way fiction writers and poets could invoke spiritual power while avoiding making reference to God. But by the time the book reaches the Age of Wonder’s concluding event, Charles Darwin’s five-year voyage on the Beagle beginning in 1831, it has raised both the antecedents and ramifications of today’s most enduring scientific debates, on subjects from global warming to extraterrestrial life to intelligent design. It is impossible to understand where these arguments are headed, “The Age of Wonder” maintains, without knowing where they began.
The bit about the existence of a life force is interesting - and, of course, it also played out in debates over biology. I think it was in the middle of the 19th century when it was shown that lifeforms are actually made up of chemical elements (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, etc.) quite common in the universe - thus providing the foundations for the origin of life research. In addition, the 18th/19th century debates about extraterrestrials were fascinating. I will have a separate post on this topic later. I recently bought The Extraterrestrial Life Debate: 1750-1900 by Michael Crowe and I plan to use readings from it for my spring semester class, Aliens: Close encounters of a multidisciplinary kind.

Read the full review of The Age of Wonder here and an excerpt from the book here.

Law & Order: The "genie" unit

I was thinking that I won't have much entertainment while I wait in Boston to catch a flight for London. But fear not - we have this story from Saudi Arabia:

It seems that a jinn ("genie") in Saudi Arabia is being sued for harassment. A local court is investigating the charges:

A family in Saudi Arabia is taking a "genie" to court, accusing it of theft and harassment, reports say.

They accuse the spirit of threatening them, throwing stones and stealing mobile phones, Al Watan newspaper said.

The family have lived in the same house near the city of Medina for 15 years but say they only recently became aware of the spirit. They have now moved out.

A local court is investigating. In Islamic theology, genies are spirits that can harass or possess humans.

"We began to hear strange sounds," the head of the family, who come from Mahd Al Dahab, told the Saudi daily. He did not want to be named.

"At first we did not take it seriously, but then stranger things started to happen and the children got particularly scared when the genie started throwing stones."

He added: "A woman spoke to me first, and then a man. They said we should get out of the house."

A local court says it is trying to verify the truthfulness of the claims "despite the difficulty" of doing so.

Wow! Of course, my biggest concern is the mechanism by which they are going to get the jinn to pay up. Plus, what kind of currency do the jinns use? Do they have a universal monetary system, do they follow international human boundaries, or do they have their own nations (and fight for them to)?

This story reminded me of the mention of jinns in Pervez Hoodbhoy's book, Islam and Science. Pervez pointed put a series of insane papers (for example, one presenter calculated the "Angle of God" using mathematical topology) presented at an Islamic Science conference organized during the time of General Zia in the 1980s. Of course, the topic of jinns was broached. For example, a senior scientist at Defense Science & Technology Organization (DESTO), Dr. Safdar Rajput, made the case that the origins of jinns is methane, together with other sarturated hydro-carbons, because these yield a smokeless flame upon burning. As Hoodbhoy reports on Rajpit's paper, "This conclusion is predicated on the known fact that God made jinns out of fire, together with another known fact that no jinn emitting smoke has ever been found" (this paper was titled, "The Dichotomy of Insan and Jinn & Their Destiny", published in Science and Technology in the Islamic World, Vol 3, No 1. pp 28-48). For some reasons, he also concluded that "the Jinns are the white races". I have to get a hand on this phenomenal paper. But there are actual uses of jinns also. In 1980, a senior director at the time of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, Bashiruddin Mahmood, had recommended that jinns, being fiery creatures, ought to be tapped as a free source of energy.

Hey...when is the boarding call? Please fly me away.

Friday, July 10, 2009

In England next week for a conference

I will be attending Religious Responses to Darwinism 1859-2009 conference at St. Anne's College, Oxford (from Jul 15-18). In addition to that, this coming Tuesday, I plan to take a day-trip to Darwin's Down House (right) outside of London. There is a new exhibition there to celebrate the bicentenary of Darwin's birth. I will try to blog from the conference and will include pics from the day-trip.

In the mean time, you can find more information about the conference speakers here and contributed papers here. My paper is titled Muslim Responses to Darwinism in South Asia 1859-2009 and here is the abstract:

Muslim scholars in South Asia have debated Darwin's theory of evolution since the 1870s. The primary debates have not centered on the scientific details – but rather they have primarily been motivated by political and cultural factors. For example, Syed Ahmad Khan, an advocate of the adoption of British values and education system for the progress of Muslims, not only accepted Darwin 's ideas in 1870s, but he reinterpreted them to be in harmony with the Qur'an. In 1881, while visiting British India, Jamal-al-din-Afghani, wrote the first major Muslim response against evolution. However, the primary focus of his book was to counter the political stance of some of his contemporaries, such as Khan. Today, we continue to find a complex reaction to evolution in Pakistan: the theory is presented as a scientific fact in high school biology textbooks, but human evolution is omitted. The growth in biomedicine and biotechnology is concurrent with widespread rejection of the theory (only 14% of Pakistanis accept evolution). I will present an analysis of the reception of Darwin's theory by Muslims in South Asia – both historically (in British India) and in contemporary Pakistan (by religious scholars, medical doctors, and biology teachers).

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Leading an army into the afterlife

Now this is really cool. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, 2200 years ago, prepared an army of lifesize replicas of Qin soldiers (Terracotta army) and horses to empower him in the afterlife (from this week's Science):
In life, he subdued China's warring states and became the country's first emperor. In death, he brought an army to heaven to perpetuate his rule. Since the stunning discovery of Emperor Qin Shihuang's tombs 35 years ago, archaeologists have unearthed about 1300 life-size terra-cotta soldiers and horses and a wealth of other artifacts that illuminate the brief but world-changing Qin Dynasty 2200 years ago. Last month at the renowned site, archaeologists began the latest round of excavation in a pit untouched for 2 decades. They hope to penetrate lingering puzzles about the Qin Dynasty, and they will test a new method of preserving the terra-cotta warriors' exquisitely perishable hues.

Perhaps the biggest mystery is why Qin led an army into the afterlife. "We've never found anything like it in the tombs of earlier kings," says the excavation's executive director, archaeologist Xu Weihong of the Museum of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Emperor Qin Shihuang here. T
here are several theories, including a popular one that Qin believed his army would awaken and empower him in the spirit world. Supporting that idea, archaeologists have uncovered only real weapons—no facsimiles—interred with the soldiers. But the evidence is not decisive. "The larger question of the significance and purpose of burying life-size replicas of Qin soldiers remains, in my opinion, largely unanswered," says Jeffrey Riegel, an East Asia scholar at the University of Sydney in Australia.

And it seems that he was plenty busy in pre-afterlife also:
Contemporary accounts paint a broad-brush view of Qin Shihuang's life. Born in 259 B.C.E., the future emperor, Ying Zheng, ascended to the throne of Qin State when he was 13. Nine years later a regent ceded him power, and the young monarch was soon tested by internal revolt.Ying pacified Qin and then proceeded to conquer China's other six states. He proclaimed himself emperor and took the name Qin Shihuang in 221 B.C.E.

After unifying China, Qin Shihuang set out to modernize it. Annals recount how he abolished the feudal system, built roads to China's far corners, and standardized weights, measures, and handwriting. During his reign, hundreds of thousands of laborers erected much of the Great Wall and scores of palaces. Legend has it that in his 40s, the emperor grew obsessed with death and searched for an elixir of immortality. But he failed to even attain old age: Qin died when he was 50. In the power vacuum that followed, rival armies vied for control of the empire. The victor was Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty.
But his obsession with afterlife seems to be central to his life (and it seems for his subjects):

Soon after Qin took power, he began preparing for the afterlife. Construction of his mausoleum at Mount Li, 35 kilometers east of Xi'an, took 38 years. The mausoleum, once crowned with pavilions, was never a secret, and even today it is visible as a kilometer-long wooded mound that rises a gentle 75 meters above the surrounding land.

Nearby, one of archaeology's greatest surprises lay hidden for centuries. In March 1974, farmers digging a well discovered pottery fragments about 1.5 kilometers east of the mausoleum. Excavations revealed the smashed-up remains of Qin's terra-cotta army—8000 clay soldiers and horses, researchers estimate—arrayed in three vast pits.
Very cool! Not for war, but I think an army of postdocs for the afterlife may not be a bad idea - just to subdue some pesky scientific problems. I think there is an NSF proposal here some place.

Since I get all of my history from the movies, I remembered seeing something about Emperor Qin and his unification of China. Well...of course, there was a mention of that in the visually spectacular Hero (Ying xiong) (from 2002). If you haven't seen it, check it out (but watch it on the biggest screen possible - its an absolute visual delight). Here is the trailer:

Update (Jul 10):
Laura has pointed me to another movie that involves this terracota army more directly: The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. I didn't see it and Laura doesn't recommend it. Plus it inexplicably attributes the army to one of the emperors of the Han dynasty rather than Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who preceded them. Yes, the film makers wanted to make sure you don't incidentally get any history from the movie. By the way, Jet Li is in both of these films. Think about his confusion in all of this. Here is the trailer:

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Madrassas vs private schools in Pakistan

A reader here recently pointed me to this fascinating article, The Madrassa Myth by Asim Khwaja. The main argument is that the importance of madrassas in Pakistan (and their subsequent impact on terrorism) has been greatly exaggerated. If nothing else, it provides an alternative view point that can be debated based on data:

The post-9/11 emphasis on Pakistan continues to portray madrassas (religious schools) as a focal point – their rising prevalence the subject of great concern. What is surprising is that this “myth” persists despite evidence to the contrary – that madrassas are in fact not the real revolution in the Pakistani educational landscape but rather it is affordable private non-religious “mom-and-pop” schools that now dot the (rural) landscape.

In a series of papers in the past few years using publicly verifiable data sources and established statistical techniques my colleagues and I have documented this private sector revolution and the relative absence of a madrassa revolution.[1]

And here are the numbers:
Using the latest publicly available educational census data, Madrassas in 2005-06 still only accounted for 1.3 percent of enrolled children (In Pakistan’s four provinces), versus 34 percent in non-religious private schools and the remainder in public schools. The graph below shows that while there is indeed some increase in madrassas over time, the far more striking growth is for non-religious private schools.Moreover these non-religious private schools are increasingly catering to the middle and poor class. With monthly fees less than a days' unskilled wage rate, they are affordable and attract students from even the poorest households. Madrassas are therefore simply not the schools of last resort. For the average Pakistani child, even among the poor living in rural areas and in urban slums, the most likely alternative to a decrepit public school is not a madrassa but a private school, or no schooling at all. Moreover, despite the low fees and low wages (a fifth of public sector teacher wages) and less qualified (local women) teachers, they offer substantially higher quality education than public schools (likely by better incentivizing and selecting their teachers).
Now, while reading this post, I was thinking about the number of unregistered madrassas. Pakistan government has been trying for some time to get a real handle on the number of madrassas. Sure enough, the first comment to this article brings up this very issue and I agree with the assessment:


Though i agree with you when you talk about the "Madressah Myth" i believe your data source i.e., National Education Census 2005 does not take into account the large number of unregistered madressas in the country. In your paper you quoted an intelligence report presented to the cabinet which put the number of unregistered madressas at 25,000 (1992). The 90s was the decade when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan and it had a spill-over effect on the bordering areas of Pakistan, along the Durand line in NWFP and Balochistan. And that probably seeped into Punjab and Sindh gradually. So that 25,000 looks a bit low in my opinion.

I wonder how much of a surge the 1.3% would see if you incorporate the "unregistered" madressas presumably not covered by the census. I personally believe that though the hoopla surrounding the role played by madressas in media has been a bit exaggerated in the past, the 1.3% is a tad too small a figure.

The former government was in the process of "registering" madressas and "enlighten their curriculum" but i doubt those efforts have born any fruit.

Once again, i agree with your argument, and am looking forward to see your work covered in the Pakistani media.

But it was also good to see Saleem Ali, author of Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan, chime in for a critique of the madrassa myth:

Unfortunately Asim and colleagues are really missing the trees for the forest. As someone who has studied madrassas for the past five years and published a book on this topic recently, I am quite alarmed by this continuing narrative from Asim who I respect greatly. appear to be functioning with two rather errant premises:

a) that the absolute number of madrassas is somehow an indicator of conflict development

b) that private schools can somehow drain out the madrassa students and the institution of madrassas will then just wither away.

I am also alarmed that the authors refuse to consider that almost all of the recent suicide bombings in this year have been carried out by madrassa students (I am basing this on interviews I conducted recently in Lahore with police personnel). The claims of madrassa linkage to violence are thus not "unsupported," but frighteningly real. Must we forget the Red mosque episode in Islamabad only two years ago? (that was a madrassa as well).

However, I have not given up on madrassas as an institution and feel that they can indeed be reformed internally as I have tried to provide evidence for in terms of madrassas in other Muslim countries.

Sadly this is an example of using quantitative research erroneously to suggest policy change without having clear ethnographic familiarity with the situation.

This is an excellent example of the complex situation in Pakistan. However, much is riding on our understanding of the topic and on the resulting policy decisions. Read the full article here.

Arab Science Jouranalism

Last week's Nature had a series of articles focusing on science journalism. One of them addressed science journalism in the Arab world. It paints a relatively optimistic picture - with an increasing interest in science. This is positive news indeed, but I wonder if the author is more talking about technology. I don't read Arab newspapers, so I can't say much about that, but I know that science content has, if anything, gone down in Pakistani newspapers. Dawn, the leading English language newspaper in Pakistan, used to have a fantastic science writer, Azim Kidwai. I grew up reading his weekly science column. He died in the early 1990s and he was never replaced. The science section today is heavily focused on technology and software with some sprinkling of science stories (though syndicated stories are helping things a bit). Hope this will change. Here is the view from the Arab world:

When I started covering science for in Egypt about ten years ago, I did an Internet search for 'science journalism' to see if such a profession even existed. I had not heard the two words put together before, at least not in an Arab context.

Things have changed. In 2006 I helped to launch the Arab Science Journalists Association (ASJA), which has since grown to 179 members as of May 2009. We are now co-bidding — with the US National Association of Science Writers — to host the 7th World Conference of Science Journalists in Cairo in 2011 (the 6th conference is being held in London next week). But as Arab science journalism gains strength, we need to ensure that its quality grows in step with its quantity.

Perhaps the more surprising thing is the number of science writers for the newspaper (though - I am curious about the output of 20 full-time science journalists for a weekly section of one newspaper alone, Al-Ahram. Any one familiar with it?):

Although the science staff of media organizations in the United States and Europe face cutbacks, a survey of ASJA members in January 2009 indicated that full-time jobs for Arab science journalists have remained relatively stable over the past five years, and freelancers report more opportunities. The Al-Ahram daily newspaper in Egypt, for example, which started a regular weekly science section in the 1950s, employs 20 full-time science journalists. The Washington Post, a US paper with a similar circulation, has eight. Al Jazeera, despite being one of the largest and most famous Arab news outlets, has no full-time science reporters, but Egypt's Al-Manara science research channel has 40 full-time staff. This promising situation is partly attributable to a heightened interest in science by Arab audiences, and a growing amount of scientific research and conferences in the region.

Rest of the article talks about some of the challenges of science reporting in the Arab world. It is an interesting read. Read the full article here.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Tracing human evolution via mistakes

Kenneth Chang has post on Tierney Lab about the role of natural mistakes that have provided some of the strongest evidence for evolution. Some simple conceptual predictions - and fantastic confirmations. Science at its best. Here Chang quotes from a recent talk by Ken Miller. If you don't want to read the whole thing, I have also embedded below a relevant segment from the NOVA episode about the Dover trial, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial:

Dr. Miller told an anecdote of how he caught two students plagiarizing.

Two of my students cheated on a written assignment by submitting the same paper. And I called them in and said, “Guys, I caught you.”

They said, “Well, our papers aren’t that similar. We have different titles. We begin in a different way.”

What they had done was rearrange all of the paragraphs and put in new words and stuff like that. At superficial glance, they looked entirely different. And they said, “Our thinking is the same, because we’re roommates, of course. And we had discussed this, we talked about it, so it’s not surprising we come to the same conclusion. But look, none of the paragraphs in our two papers match.”

And they were right about that. So they said, “How would you think we copied?”

I said, “I ran your papers through a program that looks for unusual matching strings. You guys misspelled the same six words in the same six ways. And when you have matching mistakes, there is no other explanation other than a common ancestor for the paper.” And they broke down, and they threw themselves on the mercy of the court.

In the same way that the spelling errors pointed to the students’ copying from an earlier paper (or one another), Dr. Miller said, genetic errors point to the lineage of different species.

The human genome includes five copies of the gene that produces beta-globin. In the middle of these genes is a stretch of genetic code that clearly was once a sixth beta-globin gene. But this so-called pseudogene now contains mistakes that prevent it from producing RNA that can be transcribed into beta-globin protein. Dr. Miller continued:

It turns out that there is an organism that has matching mistakes in its beta-globin pseudogene. That organism actually turns out to be the chimpanzee, and also the gorilla – beta-globin pseudogenes with exact matching errors. And there is only one explanation for that at the molecular level, which is common ancestor.
But perhaps, even a dramatic evidence comes from human chromosome number 2 - evidence for which was also presented during the Dover trial. Here is Ken Miller again:

In 2005, a couple of weeks before the start of the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial in Pennsylvania over the teaching of “intelligent design” in public schools, the journal Nature published the full chimpanzee genome. Humans and chimps share about 98 percent of the DNA and most of the genes. That general fact had been known for some time and by itself is not immensely convincing. But there are stronger arguments in the details, and Dr. Miller discussed one argument presented at the trial. Again, the evidence centers around a glitch.

We had to put this into terms – no offense intended here – that were so simple that even an attorney could understand them. And I want to show you how we did this.

We humans have 46 chromosomes – 23 pairs. All of the other great apes have 24 pairs of chromosomes. So how is it that we are missing a pair of chromosomes that all these recent relatives actually have?

Is it possible that a pair of chromosomes just got lost in our lineage? Well, no. There are so many important genes on every chromosome that the loss of both members of a homologous pair would be fatal, wouldn’t even get past embryonic development. So the only possibility is two chromosomes that are still separate in other primates must have gotten accidentally stuck together to form a single fused chromosome in us. And that’s the explanation that exists in evolution. Here is why evolution is science and not conjecture. If that’s true, we want to be able to find that fused chromosome. So if we can, that is a powerful confirmation of an evolutionary prediction.

Well, can we find it? It turns out it is much easier to recognize a fused chromosome than you might think. The tips of all chromosomes are covered with a very special DNA sequence, in a region called the telomere. It is really easy to recognize. Near the center of every chromosome is an equally recognizable region called the centromere. If one of our chromosomes was formed by the fusion of two primate chromosomes, you know what it would have? It would have telomere DNA at the center, and it would have two centromeres. Should be very easy to recognize.

We scanned the human genome. Do we have a chromosome like that? The answer is, you bet we do.
It is called human chromosome number two. Our second chromosome has telomere DNA at the center. It has two centomeres. We have placed it as being from primate chromosomes 12 and 13 and so exact is the correspondence that people who work on the chimpanzee genome now call the chromosomes they used to call 12 and 13 2A and 2B, because they correspond to those two halves of the human second chromosome.

Is there any question, to explain these facts – and these are facts, this is not hypothesis or conjecture – any way to explain these facts in light of the view that our species was uniquely designed or intelligently created? The answer is no. You can only explain this by evolutionary common ancestry. About the only thing you could say is maybe the designer wanted to fool us into thinking we evolved and he rigged chromosome number two to make it look that way.

And the only thing I can tell you is if that was his intent, he did a heck of a job. Because the marks of evolution are literally all over our chromosome.
And here is the Nova segment relevant for the role of the second human chromosome (you should watch the full episode here - it is fantastic and it also won a 2008 Peabody award). This is also great about the nature of science and it clears up some of the confusion about the way scientists use the word theory. Of equal importance, the documentary successfully conveys the notion that science is primarily driven by unanswered questions. Enjoy.