Sunday, November 29, 2009

Shermer on evolution and religion

I think this is a sensible and level-headed piece arguing that religion does not have to conflict with evolution (of course, certain type of beliefs may clash - but not all). Shermer lists the reasons for people's discomfort with evolution - and these are also applicable to the Muslim world - minus the age of the Earth issues. Perhaps most importantly, rather than insulting beliefs and believers, he strikes a positive tone in the article:

There are at least six reasons that make people resistant to accepting evolution.

1. The Warfare Model of Science and Religion. The belief that there is a war between science and religion where one is right and the other wrong, and that one must choose one over the other.

2. Belief that evolution is a threat to specific religious tenets. Many people attempt to use science to prove certain religious tenets, but when they do not appear to fit, the science is rejected. For example, the attempt to prove that the Genesis creation story is accurately reflected in the geological fossil record has led many creationists to conclude that the Earth was created within the past 10,000 years, which is in sharp contrast to the geological evidence for a 4.6 billion-year-old Earth.

3. Misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. A significant problem is that most people know so little about the theory. In the 2001 Gallup Poll, for example, a quarter of the people surveyed said they didn't know enough to say whether they accepted evolution or not, and only 34 percent considered themselves to be "very informed" about the theory. Because evolution is so controversial, public school science teachers typically drop the subject entirely rather than face the discomfort aroused among students and parents.

4. The fear that evolution degrades our humanity. After Copernicus toppled the pedestal of our cosmic centrality, Darwin delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce by revealing us to be "mere" animals, subject to the same natural laws and historical forces as all other animals.

5. The equation of evolution with ethical nihilism. This sentiment was expressed by the neoconservative social commentator Irving Kristol in 1991: "If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded -- or even if it suspects -- that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."

6. The fear that evolutionary theory implies we have a fixed human nature. The first five reasons for the resistance to evolutionary theory come almost exclusively from political conservatives. This last reason originates from liberals who fear that the application of evolutionary theory to human thought and action implies that political policy and economic doctrines will fail because the constitution of humanity is stronger than the constitutions of states.

All of these fears are baseless. If one is a theist, it should not matter when God made the universe -- 10,000 years ago or 10 billion years ago. The difference of six zeros is meaningless to an omniscient and omnipotent being, and the glory of divine creation cries out for praise regardless of when it happened.

Likewise, it should not matter how God created life, whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of God's works commands awe regardless of what processes He used.

As for meanings and morals, it is here where our humanity arises from our biology. We evolved as a social primate species with the tendency of being cooperative and altruistic within our own groups, but competitive and bellicose between groups. The purpose of civilization is to help us rise above our hearts of darkness and to accentuate the better angels of our nature.

Believers should embrace science, especially evolutionary theory, for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divinity in a depth never dreamed by our ancient ancestors. We have learned a lot in 4,000 years, and that knowledge should never be dreaded or denied. Instead, science should be welcomed by all who cherish human understanding and wisdom.

Read the full article here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Trinity of Newtons on stage

Here is a review from Science (you may need subscription to access the full article) of what looks like a fascinating play about Newton, Let Newton Be! by Craig Baxter. It recently premiered at Trinity College (Newton's old college) in London:

Baxter is unique. A playwright with a degree in zoology, he has been writing drama for 15 years. He has written ten plays, several adaptations, and a brace of radio dramas. But he has come into his own with his return to science in the past five years. His recent work includes The Altruists, about 20th-century evolutionary biologists, and Re:Design, a daring play based on Darwin's letters, composed entirely from Darwin's words and the words of his correspondents [reviewed in (2)].

Bringing Darwin to the stage was all very well. That was the 19th century, Darwin was liked and prolific, and there were thousands of genial and engaging letters from which Baxter could cut his material. Newton, however, is another country. He was troublesome. He was guarded, secretive, and paranoid. There is no consensus about his personality from his biographers. There are gaps in the historical record. There were few letters for Baxter to work with.

But there were words. Millions of them, from notebooks and personal accounts. The incomparable Newton Project, which over the past ten years has put four million of Newton's words online (making them widely accessible for the first time), has revolutionized the ways in which we can understand Newton. And Baxter has quarried these millions of words on theology, alchemy, mathematics, and physics to produce a Newton whom brilliantly he chose to split.
This is all well and good. But the way he has depicted Newton's complex personality is what is truly captivating:
Baxter gives us a trinity of Newtons: the child Isack (played by Caroline Rippin), who runs and jumps and measures and records; the man Newton (played by Neil Jones), at war with himself, contemplative, constantly list-writing, driven, and on the brink of breakdown; and the mature Sir Isaac (played by Paul McCleary), self-possessed master of the mint. It would have been easy to present Newton's life chronologically, one Newton after the other. But Baxter has all three on stage all the time, challenging and questioning one another. That produces a multidimensional Newton—one who is indeed torn among selves, split, divided, energetic, and spilling over, but whom we see as a complete being. The result is a play that barely contains its own subject. This is the theater of ideas at its very finest. It is mesmerizing, inventive, and provocative.

Director Patrick Morris brilliantly choreographed the actors to orbit one another, constantly recomposing the geometry of a disordered mind. The young Newton keeps returning to his desk and to his accounts book, recording and repeating lists—of accounts of sins, of daily routines. This was a Newton who did not know how to stop and who was always preoccupied with theology, with defining a God and defining for God. Somewhere around the middle of the play, the anguished energy spills over into nightmare, and Newton breaks down. He is held down by his servants, only to get up moments later and start all over again. This is intelligent and psychologically perceptive direction, and the result is moving.

Newton's extraordinary mind is embodied not only in the text and the trinity of selves but also in the wonderfully effective and visually exciting set designed by Issam Kourbaj, artist in residence at Christ's College. The set transforms endlessly using Newton-like contraptions that open out into chairs, then to desks, then bookcases, then into models of windmills. Flecked with red velvet and the scribblings of the Lucasian professor's handwriting, the set folds and unfolds in and out of itself: windows within windows, wheels within wheels. If Newton's mind could be represented visually, this would be it.
Very cool! I really hope it shows up at Boston or New York.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

BBC debate and more pics from the Darwin conference in Alexandria

Panel on Darwin in the world: Evolution and faith in the 21st century: From left to right: John Hedley Brooke, Salman Hameed, Bridget Kendall, Nidhal Guessoum, Samy Zalat, and Eugenie Scott.

The opening day of Darwin's Living Legacy conference featured a BBC debate on Darwin in the world: Evolution and faith in the 21st century. You can listen to the debate here. To be fair, there wasn't much of a debate as the entire panel more or less agreed that evolution and religion do not have to clash. Some of the audience comments did bring up creationism and other related issues, but we didn't really get a chance to answer specific audience questions.

Here are some more pictures from the conference:

Tom Glick (left) in a contemplative mood while Nidhal Guessoum (center) and Jason Wiles are engaged in a conversation after their panel. The room where this panel was held is called "The Fourth Floor Floating Room" and you can see it on the picture above right. It is between the two bars in the upper left side of the picture. This provides a small glimpse of the amazing architecture of Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Traveling t-shirts in front of the planetarium at Bibliotheca. Curious - Tom Glick and I are wearing t-shirts with an identical design (above). Wait a minute, I have seen these t-shirts somewhere before.

And of course, we can't skip out on birthdays - even during conferences. Here is Jason Wiles casting a spell on his birthday cake. Fern Elsdon-Baker, the head of Darwin Now project, is keeping a watchful eye on Jason and the cake.

A view from the outside of the library. Note the small figures in the picture are people cleaning windows etc.

A view from the outside of the library, with the Mediterranean in the background.

Related posts:
More thoughts on Darwin conference in Alexandria
Darwin conference in Alexandria - some pics
Darwin in Alexandria I
In Alexandria for Darwin's Living Legacy conference

More thoughts on the Darwin conference in Alexandria

Now that some time has passed since the Darwin's Living Legacy conference in Alexandria, couple of things stand out: First, it is quite wonderful that the conference did not generate much controversy both during and after the conference. Academic presentations, whether on evolutionary biology or history of science, went smoothly and usually had a lively exchange with the audience. Yes, there were creationist comments made in a couple of sessions (for example, the BBC debate, the closing panel, and the BBC-Arabic debate), but this was more of an exception during the 3-day conference. Nevertheless, it was disconcerting to hear a few highly educated Muslims defending a very crude form of creationism and displaying fundamental misunderstanding of evolutionary ideas.

Second, Adnan Oktar (Harun Yahya) was barely mentioned at the meeting. This would come as shock to many journalists in the US and the UK who have been focusing on him as the only face that is shaping the response to evolution in the Muslim world (Faithworld has a nice collection of articles on Islamic creationism in the last couple of months and notice how many are devoted simply to Harun Yahya). Oktar loves this depiction - as he thrives on publicity. But the reality is much more complex. There are many local brands of creationism in the Muslim world and Oktar's influence may actually be quite limited (even though he may appear to be the loudest). Perhaps, part if this has to do with his narrative that is directed against Turkish secularism and may not resonate as much in other parts of the Muslim world. Plus, Oktar's obsession with the end-of-days and the return of Mahdi (he hasn't said it himself, but his own predictive signs point to himself being the Mahdi) may be a major turn-off for mainstream Muslims.

Not that other brands of Islamic creationism are any better, but it is important to note the diversity of responses. Furthermore, as was evident at the meeting, there are many Muslims who don't have any problems with evolution. They may look to history and find early Muslim scholars, such as Al-Jisr, commenting on the possibility of change of species, or they may adopt Gould's non-overlapping magestaria (NOMA) to envision science and religion in separate spheres. Whatever the mode, the Alexandria meeting showed empirically that many Muslims (not all by any means) are able to accommodate evolutionary beliefs into their worldview.

Overall, it was a fantastic idea to hold this conference about evolution and Darwin's legacy in Egypt. It brought into focus the variety of ways Muslims are thinking about the topic and it enabled a valuable exchange of ideas - which hopefully will continue. Some more pics in the next post.

See earlier posts:
Darwin conference in Alexandria - some pics
Darwin in Alexandria I
In Alexandria for Darwin's Living Legacy conference

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Off topic: Picasso's Guernica in 3D

Here is another interesting experiment with a famous painting. Some may find these type of experiments as a desecration of art - but I think they enhance the original and also give us, the art illiterates, a valuable lesson in understanding great art. Check out an earlier related posts on Peter Greenaway's phenomenal exhibit on The Wedding at Cana and also about an online comparison between Caravaggio and Rembrandt. By the way, Guernica is also on Peter Greenaway's list. Can't wait to see that. In the mean time, here is Picasso's Guernica in 3D (tip from 3quarksdaily):

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"The Origin of Species" at 150!

To celebrate 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species (it was first published on Nov 24, 1859), check out this fantastic interactive website at NSF: Evolution of Evolution (tip from Laura Wenk). It is surprisingly broad and features some excellent essays and audio interviews. Also, check out this lecture by E.O. Wilson (via video) and a panel discussion that took place earlier today in the same room where natural selection was first debated. Also, see the response to the first question for the panel: What would have happened had The Origin of Species never been published?

The last paragraph of the Origins is beautifully written and nicely captures the scale of his book. Here is the now famous paragraph:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers,
having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

As it turns out Darwin had been thinking along these lines for a long time (well, at least since 1837). Here is a fascinating look at the Evolution of the End of Origin by R.W.D. Nickalls in Science, a few weeks ago (Nov 6, 2009):


Astronomers might formerly have said that God foreordered each planet to move in its particular destiny. In the same manner God orders each animal created with certain forms in certain countries; but how much more simple and sublime [a]powerlet attraction act according to certain law, such are inevitable consequences—let animals be created, then by the fixed laws of generation, such will be their successors. (1)


There is a simple grandeur in the view of life with powers of growth, assimilation and reproduction, being originally breathed into matter under one or a few forms, and that whilst this our planet has gone circling on according to fixed laws, and land and water, in a cycle of change, have gone on replacing each other, that from so simple an origin, through the process of gradual selection of infinitesimal changes, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been evolved. (2)


There is a simple grandeur in this view of life with its several powers of growth, reproduction and of sensation, having been originally breathed intomatter under a few forms, perhaps into only one, and that whilst this planet has gone cycling onwards according to the fixed laws of gravity and whilst land and water have gone on replacing each other—that from so simple an origin, through the selection of infinitesimal varieties, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been evolved. (2)


There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (3)


  • 1. F. Darwin, Ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (John Murray, London, 1887).
  • 2. G. de Beer, Evolution by Natural Selection (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1958).
  • 3. C. Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection... (John Murray, London, 1859)

Galileo's fingers to be reunited!

I had a chance to see Galileo's middle finger at a Galileo exhibit in Florence this past summer. It seems that two more fingers and a tooth (his last one) were also taken as a relic from his body, when it was moved to the church of Santa Croce. But now the other two fingers have been found and will soon be reunited with his middle finger (tip Janine Solberg):

Three fingers were cut from Galileo's hand in March 1737, when his body was moved from a temporary monument to its final resting place in Florence, Italy. The last tooth remaining in his lower jaw was also taken, Galluzzi said.

Two of the fingers and the tooth ended up in a sealed glass jar that disappeared sometime after 1905.

There had been "no trace" of them for more than 100 years until the person who bought them in the auction came to the museum recently.

The owner who bought the fingers wants to remain anonymous, Galluzzi said, so the museum is not giving more details about who sold them or when.

The museum plans to display the fingers and tooth in March 2010, after it re-opens following a renovation, Galluzzi said.

The museum has had the third Galileo finger since 1927, so the digits will be reunited for the first time in centuries, he added.

Now, if you are asking why take these parts?

Removing body parts from the corpse was an echo of a practice common with saints, whose digits, tongues and organs were revered by Catholics as relics with sacred powers.
The people who cut off his fingers essentially considered him a secular saint, Galluzzi said, noting the fingers that were removed were the ones he would have used to hold a pen.

Yes...yes, you can fill in your own ironic comments here as well. But we still have to ask, who removed his fingers? Well, here is a bit from Curious Expeditions (remember that Galileo died in 1642):

As with a fine wine, it took some years for Galileo’s finger to age into something worth snapping off his skeletal hand. The finger was removed by one Anton Francesco Gori on March 12, 1737, 95 years after Galileo’s death. Passed around for a couple hundred years it finally came to rest in the Florence History of Science Museum. Today is sits among lodestones and telescopes, the only human fragment in a museum devoted entirely to scientific instruments.

And Anton Francesco Gori was a priest. Again we see it is hard to shape a clear-cut science versus religion narrative. Not to mention the fact that Galileo's remains were transferred to Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence - the largest Franciscan church in the world. He is not alone there. Apart from Franciscan nobles, remains of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Rossini also reside in the Basilica.

Here is the full view of the Galileo sculpture inside Santa Croce in Florence (a close-up of his bust is above-right). It is very nicely done and has a prominent place in the church (Michelangelo's sculpture is across from Galileo's and is of the same size). Notice that people light up candles for him. His body is underneath this sculpture, one floor below.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

From Poison to Cow Dung: A History of Philosopher's Deaths

If you have ever wondered how philosophers have died through history, is Simon Critchley providing some examples. Ibn-Sina is included in the list (seems to have been enjoying life) and also check out Hume's view of death mid-way through this clip. Also, see an earlier post Dead Philosophers on Death.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Obama's science envoys for the Muslim world

A few months ago, President Obama announced an outreach effort to bolster science & technology in the Muslim world. Three science envoys have now been appointed and they will travel to different Muslim countries to forge collaborations and to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges facing the Muslim world. This is an ambitious undertaking and can have a significant positive impact. At the same time, for long-term sustainable benefits, I hope they expand their focus to include basic research as well. But this looks like a good beginning - and lets see how this program unfolds.
The U.S. Science Envoy program is part of President Obama’s “New Beginning” initiative with Muslim communities around the world that he launched in a June 4 speech in Cairo, Egypt. He pledged that the United States would “appoint new science envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, and grow new crops.” The initiative received key support from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senator Richard Lugar.

In the coming months, the first Science Envoys will travel to countries in North Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. They will engage their counterparts, deepen partnerships in all areas of science and technology, and foster meaningful collaboration to meet the greatest challenges facing the world today in health, energy, the environment, as well as in water and resource management. Additional U.S. scientists and engineers will be invited to join the Science Envoy program to expand it to other Muslim countries and regions of the globe.

Dr. Bruce Alberts is widely recognized for his work in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology. Dr. Alberts is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco. As president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) from 1993 to 2005, he was instrumental in developing the landmark National Science Education standards that have been implemented in school systems throughout the U.S.

Dr. Elias Zerhouni, M.D., was director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 2002 to 2008. Dr. Zerhouni is currently a senior advisor to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and was instrumental in creating the University’s Institute for Cell Engineering. Dr. Zerhouni received his medical degree at the University of Algiers School of Medicine and completed his residency at the John Hopkins School of Medicine.

Dr. Ahmed Zewail is the Linus Pauling Chair Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Physics at the California Institute of Technology and Director of the Institute’s Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology. Dr. Zewail was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999 for his pioneering work in femtoscience, which allowed observation of exceedingly rapid molecular transformations. Most recently, Dr. Zewail was appointed to the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The envoys will be supported by new embassy officers who will also engage with international partners on the full range of environmental, scientific and health issues, from climate change and the protection of oceans and wildlife to cooperation on satellites and global positioning systems. They will work with multilateral institutions, non-governmental organizations and private sector partners to promote responsible environmental governance, foster innovation, and increase public engagement on shared environmental and health challenges.
Read the full announcement here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Accept the mystery - go see "A Serious Man"

I know some people cannot stand films by Coen brothers and others absolutely adore them. I have to confess that I fall in the latter category. Their latest, A Serious Man, is again a fantastically crafted film with a story that centers on uncertainty and death, and also on the rational and the mystical. The protagonist, Larry Gopnik, is a Jewish physics professor whose life has started to unravel - from his marriage to his tenure. The film centers on his search for explanations. He believes in the certainty of mathematics, and yet he mathematically demonstrates the Uncertainty Principle. Go check it out. And no, unlike No Country for Old Men or Fargo, or Miller's Crossing, this film does not contain any violence (well, almost any). The prologue of the film is in Yiddish and it sets up the movie perfectly. There is another phenomenal sequence in the middle of the film that deals with numerology and dentistry - and somehow it illustrates the theme(s) of the story wonderfully. I will leave it at that. When you watch the movie, also notice the score for the film. It has two melodies. It almost always starts with a light, bouncy music, but is quickly overlaid (and then often dominated) with a heavy, foreboding sound. Comic and dark. A perfect way to illustrate the world created by the Coen brothers.

Here is the preview of the film:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A wind farm vs sacred rituals

Here is a messy case of an effort to develop a wind farm on Cape Cod (the picture on the right is of a Danish wind farm) and how it affects the rituals of the tribe, Wampanoag. As usual, here is a mixture of politics, science, business, environmental issues and Native property rights:

The Wampanoag — the tribe that welcomed the Pilgrims in the 17th century and known as "The People of the First Light" — practice sacred rituals requiring an unblocked view of the sunrise. That view won't exist once 130 turbines, each over 400 feet tall, are built several miles from shore in Nantucket Sound, visible to Wampanoag in Mashpee and on Martha's Vineyard.

Tribal rituals, including dancing and chanting, take place at secret sacred sites around the sound at various times, such as the summer and winter solstices and when an elder passes.

The Wampanoag fight to preserve their ceremonies has become the latest obstacle — some say delay tactic — for a pioneering wind energy project that seemed at the cusp of final approval.

"We, the Wampanoag people, who opened our arms and allowed people to come here for religious freedoms, are now being threatened with our religion being taken away for the profits of one single group of investors," Green said.

The Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag claim Nantucket Sound is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property. The tribes say the designation, which would come with new regulations for activity on the sound, is needed to preserve not only their pristine views but ancestors' remains buried on Horseshoe Shoal, where the turbines would be built.

Of course, things are not that simple:

Cape Wind supporters say the tribes' claim for a National Register listing for the sound is baseless and was sprung late, in league with the project's most vociferous opponents, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.

"I think this is clearly a tactic for delay, for delay's sake," said Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind. "I think it's fair to say, looking at the past eight years, that opponents to Cape Wind have tried every conceivable strategy to slow down or stop the project."

But the question hinges on what can be included as Traditional Cultural Property?

A parks service decision that the sound should be listed a Traditional Cultural Property wouldn't kill Cape Wind, but it could add months to the approval process by forcing developers to comply with the designation's various standards.
Two Massachusetts environmental and economic development officials, Ian Bowles and Greg Bialecki, produced a list of commercial activities — from commercial fishing to sand mining — they said would be hurt by the ensuing new regulations. They also argued the Supreme Court has ruled that a vast, unenclosed body of water such as the 560-square mile Nantucket Sound isn't eligible as a Traditional Cultural Property.

"It seems clear that this request for such a designation, coming at this time, is an attempt to block or further delay renewable energy development in Nantucket Sound," their letter said.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Darwin conference in Alexandria - some pics

The conference was wonderful but then we have the usual pleasures of travel. I left Alexandria for Cairo at 4am and and now I'm sitting at London, Heathrow, as I missed the connection to Boston. Oh well. In any case, here are some pictures from the conference below, and check out the first and second day reports of the conference by Riazat Butt in the Guardian. And another interesting one on Darwin's reception in China. Plus, here is a report in London Times and on Islamonline.

But of course, you want to see some pics. So here are some snapshots from the conference:

Eugenie Scott, Ron Numbers and Jason Wiles

Hmm...dinner. Did I tell you that food was plenty and excellent? Well, here is a sampling.

Josh Rosenau and other (unidentifiable) people in front of the phenomenal library

Planetarium and the three suited Musketeers. Note the artsy blurriness (out-of-focus) introduced by the photographer.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Darwin in Alexandria - I

Two days have passed and the verdict is in. The quality of speakers (excluding some crazies) and food (excluding coffee) is phenomenal at Darwin's Living Legacy conference in Alexandria. Some quick thoughts: There have been some anti-evolutionary comments made in the sessions that dealt with religion and evolution - but overall, the reception seems to have been quite positive - both in Egyptian newspapers and among the local participants. Ultimately, it is fantastic to see leading evolutionary biologists and historians of science presenting their cutting-edge research in Egypt! Excluding the people on my panels, my two favorite talks so far: Richard Wrangham on Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Humans (basically arguing that pre-humans started to control fire and eat cooked food somewhere around 2.6 million years ago and that there is good evidence for the resultant reduced gut size and reduction in molars by 1.6 million years ago - somewhere between Homo habilis and Homo erectus) and James Secord on Darwinism and the Global Circulation of News (stressing the importance of newspapers in the dissemination of Darwin's ideas - though he talked about a number of other things including the mention of first Arabic translation of Origins in 1918 - pretty late, but not as late as in Turkish in 1970).

Yes, there have been some depressing moments as well. In particular the TV debate organized by BBC Arabic. It featured Nidhal Guessoum, Ramez Maluf, and...and...and...Zaghloul El-Naggar. If you are wondering who is Zaghloul El-Naggar. Well, he was responsible for the bizarre Al-Jazeera coverage of the discovery of Ardi - and yes, he made plenty of crazy claims in the debate as well. The debate was in Arabic but I listened to it via (bad) live translation into English. I think a discussion between Nidhal and Ramez and a subsequent interaction with the audience would have been terrific and probably would have brought out not only a discussion of evolution but also about other science-related topics. However, the presence of El-Naggar totally polarized the debate and evoked an equally polarizing reaction from the audience.

What a waste of an opportunity. But this craziness has been balanced by a very high quality of talks.

Some pics coming up in the next post.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A question about Darwin and Muhammad biopics

I was posed the following question by the folks at Science and Religion Today: Would a Muhammad biopic be more controversial than a Darwin movie? Here is part of my response:

I’m not even sure if the Darwin biopic Creation has really been controversial (beyond speculations on the blogosphere). Yes, it was not immediately picked up for U.S. distribution, but, as far as I know, it was not because of any protests or opinion pieces in newspapers. It may have been a self-imposed reluctance on the part of distributors, but then it’s a bit odd, as far more controversial films get picked up regularly (Currently, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is playing in theaters and is distributed by IFC Films in the United States.) Furthermore, Darwin’s biopic did get picked up for U.S. distribution within a month of its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Does this really qualify as being controversial?

The Muhammad biopic, on the other hand, has the potential of being controversial. However, from what I have read so far, it won’t be. It is quite clear that the movie is going to portray nothing but a glowing picture of Muhammad and the early days of Islam. One place of potential controversy, of course, would be the character of Muhammad on screen. If the filmmakers do that, then yes, the movie will become very controversial. However, I’m pretty sure that Muhammad will not be on the screen, nor will his son-in-law Ali (revered by Shia as well as Sunni Muslims) or his wives.

This is not unprecedented. The 1976 movie The Message starring Anthony Quinn told the story of early Islam. The character of Muhammad was never shown on the screen—though sometimes, he was the camera’s point of view. In addition, none of the first four caliphs of Islam (Abu-Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali) were shown on screen, and the new biopic will most likely follow this principle.

Here is the link to Science and Religion Today.

Friday, November 13, 2009

In Alexandria for Darwin's Living Legacy conference

I have just arrived in Alexandria, Egypt for Darwin's Living Legacy: An International Conference on Evolution and Society (Nov 14-16), organized by the British Council. It's a big conference (over 250 participants) and is taking place in Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Here are three areas that are the focus of this conference:

Cutting Edge Evolutionary Science
Current research focusing on: Genetics; Genomics; Speciation; Origin of Adaptation; Epigenetics; Evolutionary Microbiology; Molecular Biology; Evolutionary Ecology; Biodiversity.

Applications of Evolutionary Science
Agriculture and Plant Sciences; Biomedicine; Engineering; Anthropology; Economic development.

Social and Cultural Impacts of Darwinism and Evolution
Historical debates; Reception of Darwinism across cultures; Evolution and Education; Evolution and Ethics; Science, Religion and Society.

Of course, I fall in the last category. It is incredible that this conference is taking place in Egypt. I don't know what will be the reaction here. Simply by its location, it may remove some of the stigma regarding evolution in the Muslim world, or it may end up generating a backlash. Frankly, I have no idea about the reaction.

I'm scheduled to be on the opening panel on Evolution and Faith in the 21st century, and I'm very excited that I will be sharing the stage with John Hedley Brooke and Eugenie Scott! The chair of the panel is BBC's Bridget Kendall and other panelists include Nidhal Guessoum and Samy Zalat (I briefly met Bridget at dinner and have never met Nidhal and Samy). A portion of the panel will broadcast on BBC (radio) on November 22nd.

On Saturday evening there is an interesting open forum organized by BBC Arabic. Here is the description:
This will be aired as a BBC Arabic's Open Agenda programme. This special episode, will discuss the freedom of knowledge and scientific research in the Arabic world on 14 November during the British Councils Darwin's Living Legacy conference at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The panel will include two speakers from the conference Prof. Nidal Guessoum and Prof. Ramez Maluf.
Issues to be debated will include: How much the Arabic society will accept the freedom of knowledge? What is allowable and what is not? What is the limit of the science research in our society? Is there any struggle between the freedom of knowledge and the restrictions of religion?

The Open Agenda programme will discuss also the degree of development and participation in scientific research in Arab countries.
I will be in the audience (they will have live english translation) - and again, I have no idea what to expect here. But it is fantastic that this sort of debate is taking place on BBC Arabic. Will report on that later.

Also - I will be going to a panel on evolution and education. Eugenie Scott is chairing the session and the panel includes Reverend Michael Reiss, Jason Wiles (go Jason!), Touria Benazzou, and Amy Sanders (I just met her on the shuttle from Cairo to Alexandria - the shuttle that took almost 4 hours to get to our respective hotels!). So stay tuned - if there is wireless at the conference (hey - there better be - its the Bibliotheca!), I will try to send updates.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nature editorial on Darwin through a cultural lens

Nature (Oct 29) has an excellent editorial (may require subscription) that urges scientists and policy makers to frame their arguments in way that takes value systems, cultural backdrops and local knowledge gaps into account when communicating ideas like evolution. This is not something completely new. Nisbet and Mooney wrote about Framing Science a few years ago. However, this Nature editorial uses historical cases from other cultures to provide support for their argument, and the journal plans to publish a series of articles over the coming month that will cover the international reception of Darwin's ideas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The public reception of scientific ideas depends largely on two factors: people's ability to grasp factual information and the cultural lens through which that information is filtered. The former is what scientists tend to focus on when they give popular accounts of issues such as climate change. The assumption is that if they explain things very, very clearly, everyone will understand. Unfortunately, this is an uphill battle. The general public's average capacity to weigh facts and numbers is notoriously poor — although there is encouraging evidence that probabilistic reasoning can be improved by targeted education early in life.

Even more crucial, however, are the effects of the cultural lens. Over the coming month, Nature's Opinion pages will explore particularly vivid examples of these effects in the world's widely divergent reactions to Charles Darwin's ideas about evolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
And here are some examples:

In China, Darwin's ideas were seen as supporting Confucians' belief in the perfectibility of the cosmic order. Evolutionary theory also became fodder for political movements of revolution and reform, and eventually laid the groundwork for communism. Latin American politicians initially reacted to Darwin's ideas by attempting to entice white Europeans to emigrate and intermarry with local populations, believing that this would 'improve the stock'. But after two world wars had made European culture look less impressive, Latin America began to see its racial diversity as an advantage, and moved towards a social view that favoured a homogeneous blend of cultures.

In nineteenth-century Russia, meanwhile, a tendency to distrust rabid, dog-eat-dog capitalism helped incline naturalists away from a view of evolution that emphasized competition between species. Instead they embraced a 'theory of mutual aid', an account that focused on the role of cooperation in ensuring survival in a harsh environment.

And here is the bit about framing:

The lesson for today's scientists and policy-makers is simple: they cannot assume that a public presented with 'the facts' will come to the same conclusion as themselves. They must take value systems, cultural backdrops and local knowledge gaps into account and frame their arguments accordingly. Such approaches will be crucial in facing current global challenges, from recessions to pandemics and climate change. These issues will be perceived and dealt with differently by different nations — not because they misunderstand, but because their understanding is in part locally dependent.
I think this is a crucial point. Also, remember that this framing is a supplement - not a replacement of factual information. For the Muslim world, where religion plays an enormous role in societies, it would be prudent (actually necessary) to highlight that evolution does not equal atheism and that there are a number of Muslim evolutionary biologists who are also practicing Muslims. This approach is not much different than the one adopted by the National Center for Science Education(NCSE) and should resonate with Muslims as well (with Muslim examples).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Measurable and the unmeasurables

Alan Lightman has written a new book-length poem, Song of Two Worlds. If you don't know his work, you should check it out. He is an excellent novelist as well as a top-notch physicist. By the way, his technical writing is also very good. We used his book (co-written with Rybicki), Radiative Processes in Astrophysics, in our first year of graduate school and it provided a fantastic foundation. In case you are wondering how can he be so productive - well he doesn't use e-mail (what?!!).

Back to his book/poem, Song of Two Worlds. Here is a brief note from last week's Nature:
In Song of Two Worlds, he writes from the perspective of a man reassessing his life after a tragedy. Lightman splits his epic into two sections; in the first, he marvels at the measurable world, the glory of geometry and fact. In the second, he explores the unmeasurable, the pleasure and pain of love, the beauty of a sunset and the night sky. An excerpt from the latter section is reproduced here.

Excerpt from Song of Two Worlds

I am a fragment
That hurtles through space
While the breeze of the universe
Ruffles my hair.

Evening. I gaze
Through my telescope,
Searching the colors of stars.
Some are the hues of goats' wool,
Some ochre olive,
Or pink bougainvillea.

In chasms of space
I see stars born from gases,
Great thrumming furnaces oozing their heat,
Convective motions, electron opacities —
Elsewhere stars dying,
Cold cinders
Or giant explosions, eruptions of light,
Cities consumed in a nuclear blast,
Billions of years dimmed in a second.

I have learned
That the heavens are violent and fragile
And doomed to destruction,
Just as this thimble the earth.
All in the cosmos is failing,
And nothing remains,
And we measure the hour of the stars,
As I measure one morning's light.

Here, in the glass of this eyepiece.

Absolutely love it! Here is a link to his book.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Off-topic: Fashion week in Karachi - an apt answer to the Taliban is one way to respond to the Taliban idiocy in Pakistan: host a fashion week. It was held in Karachi last week and, perhaps as expected, got some good worldwide coverage. Here is an article from The Independent, Pakistan fashion week begins under the shadow of Taliban and you can see more pictures here and here. And of course, it is the Miami Herald that had to take the headlines just a bit too far: Dresses, not suicide vests, parade at Pakistan's Fashion Week.

Very cool. At the same time there are some interesting musical experimentations going on in Pakistan. Here are two videos that recently caught my attention. The first one is by Overload. It is a psychedelic-inspired video and the women that sings in the first half is imitating the singing style of the 60s. But I like the drums-dhol combo in the second half.

Here is Chal Bulleya from the highly acclaimed Mekaal Hasan Band. A fantastic use of classical singing, guitar, and flute. (update: 11/10 - Or for a more direct sample of their music, you may want to check out their 1o minute live version of Ya Ali)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Washington Post on Creationism in Turkey

It appears that this is the season for newspapers articles on creationism in the Muslim world. Here is a recent one in Washington Post, and it focuses primarily on Turkey.
Sema Ergezen teaches biology to Turkish students interested in teaching science themselves, and she has long struggled with her students' ignorance of, and sometimes hostility to, the notion of evolution.

But she was taken aback when several of her Marmara University students recently accused her of being an atheist, or worse, for teaching anything but the doctrine that God created the Earth and everything on it.

"They said I was a liar if I called myself a Muslim because I also accepted evolution," she said.

What especially disturbed -- and amused -- the veteran professor was that the arguments for creationism presented by some of the students came directly from the country where she was educated in the biological sciences years before -- the United States. Translated and adapted for a Muslim society, the purported proofs that Darwinism and evolution were wrong came directly from American proponents of Christian creationism and its less overtly religious offshoot, intelligent design.

To John Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research in Dallas, however, the news could hardly be more encouraging.

"Why I'm so interested in seeing creationism succeed in Turkey is that evolution is an evil concept that has done such damage to society," said Morris, a Christian who has led several searches for Noah's Ark in eastern Turkey. Members of his group have addressed Turkish conferences numerous times.
Speaking in his home and television studio overlooking the Bosporus, Oktar asserted responsibility for "defeating" Darwinism in Turkey and said that Americans had helped him do it

Oh - what strange bedfellows. Read the full Washington Post article here. But how big is the creationism issue in Turkey? We had some mixed views on this at our conference on Darwin & Evolution in the Muslim World - some believed that this is the symptom of increasing religiosity of Turkey, while others considered it a relatively marginal issue within the Turkish cultural context. I think that the issue of evolution is perhaps playing a proxy in the political battle between the secular and Islamic-leaning parties in Turkey and its quite possible that it may get untangled - especially if mindless rejection of evolution only brings international ridicule without much political payoff at home. But this remains to be seen. And Razib on Gene Expression, perhaps correctly, does not view Turkey as becoming more religious - rather that the more religious population is becoming more assertive over the secular elite:

Without more longitudinal data it is hard to say, but I think this is wrong to view this a renaissance of Creationism driven purely by the government or outsiders. Turkey isn't becoming more religious, the majority of Turks who have always held to Islam as it is practiced in most of the Muslim world are becoming more assertive at the expense of the secular elite. Kemal Ataturk was an autocrat who leveraged his incredible victories against European powers in the wake of Word War I, which preserved the Turkish state from being cannibalized, into enough personal authority to wage a one man culture-war in which he was mostly victorious. But he's been dead for 70 years.

Read Razib's post here.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Hajj and the swine flu

Well...a gathering of 2.5 million people from 160 different countries may be ideal for making Swine flu a full-scale pandemic. This is the concern for the Hajj later this month - and its good to see a serious effort to deal with it:

The Saudi authorities, fearing that the hajj could turn their holy city into a petri dish for viral mutations and a hub for spreading a new pandemic wave around the world, are working hard to head that off. They have asked some worshipers, including pregnant women and the elderly, not to make the trip, which is scheduled for the last week of November.

“The hajj is a central ritual of Islam, and our country tries to make it easy for everyone to come,” said Dr. Ziad A. Memish, the country’s assistant deputy minister for preventive medicine. “We’ve said we won’t turn away anyone who arrives at our borders. But we are recommending to other countries whom they should let come.”

Although the Saudis have turned to the World Health Organization and other health agencies for help in previous public health threats to the hajj, this year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American government’s lead disease-fighting agency, is more deeply involved because it has so much experience with this new flu strain. Consultants for the centers have gone back and forth to Riyadh, flu experts at American medical schools have been called in and the United States Navy’s medical laboratory in Cairo is preparing to help with any complex flu testing that is beyond what Saudi laboratories can do.
The Saudis reacted because this new strain is the first pandemic flu since 1968. Any new flu carries the risk of gene-swapping that can form mutant viruses, and this one has some swine and avian genes that, before this April, had never been seen in humans. Both the new strain and seasonal flus will be circulating in the world, increasing the risk of flus mixing in Mecca.

By the way, not to distract from this very serious issue, but this is exactly the reason why good biology education, that includes evolution, is essential in the Muslim world. Otherwise, Saudi officials will always have to call-up American medical schools to understand the evolution of the flu strain.

Read the full story here. Also, hear the story on NPR here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Robert Boyle - a gullible fool?

Was Robert Boyle (1627-91) a great scientist or a gullible fool (not because of his religious beliefs)? I did not know that his first biographer, Thomas Birch, destroyed all the papers that he thought may impact Boyle's reputation as a great scientist. Well, here is a review of a new biography, Boyle: Between God and Science, by Michael Hunter:

What on earth are we to make of Boyle? For the simple truth is that he was something of a prize fool. He was completely taken in by Valentine Greatrakes, who went around apparently curing the sick by stroking them. He spent much of his life trying to turn base metal into gold (he is claimed as a founder of modern chemistry, but rather he was, with Newton, the last of the magicians); indeed he seems to have thought he had succeeded, or at least he was close enough to success to think it prudent to campaign (successfully) for a change in the law, which threatened anyone making gold with the death penalty.

And so, of course, Boyle was the perfect target for the sophisticated con artist. A Frenchman called Georges Pierre persuaded Boyle that he (Pierre) was the agent of the Patriarch of Antioch, the head of a society of alchemists that had members in Italy, Poland and China. To become a member Boyle had to hand over his own alchemical secrets, and also valuable gifts - telescopes, microscopes, clocks, luxurious fabrics, large sums of money. In return, Pierre reported on the manufacture of a homunculus in a glass vial. Pierre told a good story - one meeting of his secret society had, he assured Boyle, been disrupted by disgruntled employees who had blown up the castle in which the society was meeting. And Pierre went to great lengths: he planted stories about the Patriarch of Antioch in Dutch and French newspapers on the off chance that Boyle would come across them. Unfortunately it turned out that when Pierre was supposed to be in Antioch, he was actually in Bayeux, having a jolly time with his mistress. And his wild stories had already acquired him the nickname in his hometown of Caen of 'honest Georges'.

And may be this will shed some light on Boyle's motivation:
Why did Boyle fall for Pierre? Because, Michael Hunter tells us, Pierre had an extraordinary understanding of Boyle's personality, in particular of his insatiable need for deference, admiration and sympathy. If Hunter's biography has a fault, it must be that he shows Boyle just a little too much deference himself. Was Boyle a great scientist? Perhaps, or perhaps not: his air-pump experiments were designed and performed by his employee, Robert Hooke, who was surely a greater scientist than Boyle. There is considerable dispute about who first formulated Boyle's Law, but the one thing that seems certain is that it wasn't Boyle. And alchemy, for goodness sake - you only have to remember Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist to know that for a century or so most sensible people had realised that it was a game in which con artists separated fools from their money. Yet Boyle's experience with Pierre did nothing to shake his faith.
Well...Boyle doesn't come off very good here. But the reviewer makes an interesting point the way modern historians of science treat alchemy and astrology and problems with approach:
The convention in modern history of science is that alchemy and astrology should be treated with respect, as if they were genuine sciences (although strangely, the most successful historians of science avoid writing histories of alchemy and astrology - Shapin, for example, has yet to write a book on Boyle's alchemy). But there were plenty of contemporaries who could tell the difference between sense and nonsense. Galileo, to take one example, was never confused (at least not after 1611, when he gave up astrology). He had friends who were astrologers and alchemists, and he let them get on with it and avoided discussing such subjects with them. He was constantly being presented with perpetual motion machines - he soon recognised that they all depended on harnessing changes in temperature and atmospheric pressure. So there is nothing anachronistic about saying that Boyle, unlike Galileo, was a gullible fool.
Oh..and we only happen to know about this Pierre episode by chance:
We would know even more about his foolishness (or, if you prefer, his esoteric learning) had his first biographer, Thomas Birch, not gone through the extensive archive Boyle left at his death and destroyed all the papers that he thought might detract from Boyle's reputation - we only know about the Pierre episode because Birch's assistant, Henry Miles, could not read French, so Pierre's letters to Boyle survived by chance. Since Birch, the scholarly world has been waiting for a proper biography of Boyle. Michael Hunter, who has been the leading figure in Boyle scholarship for many years, has now provided it - but readers will have to supply their own measure of scepticism and worldly wisdom, according to taste.
Read the full review here.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

NYT on Darwin & Evolution in the Muslim World conference

Today's Science Times has a nice article that brings up our last month's conference on Darwin & Evolution in the Muslim World at Hampshire College. Just in case you didn't see all the the participants, here is the group picture again and read the full NYT article, Creationism, Without a Young Earth, Emerges in the Islamic World.
From left to right
Back: Amina Steinfels, Sarah Bean, Anila Asghar, Jason Wiles, Laura Wenk, Saad Shafqat, Thomas Glick, Uwe Vagelpohl, Laura Sizer, Andrew Dole, John Schoeberlein, Martin Riexinger, Taner Edis, Don Everhart
Front: Betty Anderson, Berna Turam, Monica Ringer, Ron Numbers, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Saouma BouJaoude, Salman Hameed, Ehab Abouheif, Aykut Kence

Monday, November 02, 2009

Is Darwin a problem for Hollywood?

Darwin biopic, Creation, had a hard time landing distributor in the US. The likely explanation is that Hollywood is squeamish about the topic and does not want to offend religious sensibilities of the US movie going audience. I'm not sure if I buy all of this explanation. Among other things, Hollywood thrives on controversy. For example, US distributors have been picking up gay-friendly films for years and religious opposition in the US has not really been a deterrent). But may be the distributors did get conservative regarding Darwin - I don't know. In any case, Creation has now been picked for distribution by Newmarket - which also released Memento and The Passion of the Christ (Hmm...yes, Mel Gibson's movie). Now here in an interesting article by David Kirby tracing Hollywood's discomfort with Darwin and evolution - detailing censorship efforts in the 20s and 30s:
After the highly publicized Scopes Monkey trial in 1925 the notion of a human/primate connection changed from one of comedy to one of horror in cinema. Several post-Scopes films, beginning with The Wizard in 1927, feature “mad evolutionist” characters who design evil experiments in order to prove their “crazy” evolutionary theories about humanity’s connection to the animal world. Likewise, the goal of the mad evolutionists in The Beast of Borneo (1934) and Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942) is to prove humanity’s link to the animal kingdom. In front of a chart detailing the evolutionary “ladder of life,” the mad evolutionist Dr. Mirakle (played by Bela Lugosi) from Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) informs an unbelieving carnival audience that “the shadow of the ape hangs over us all” and that he will mix human and gorilla blood to “prove Man’s connection with the ape.” While this evolutionary-minded scientist is ultimately punished for his heretical conceptions, the film actually conveys the human/primate connection through Mirakle’s grotesque appearance and his clearly “animalistic” actions. In mad evolutionist films, the only human beings with a clear connection to primates are the evolution spouting evil scientists and their simian-like assistants.
Despite the comeuppance these mad evolutionists received for their beliefs, many of these films actually ran afoul of censors for their inclusion of evolution and Darwinism. The 1922 Lon Chaney, Sr., film A Blind Bargain was re-cut after test audiences found the movie too favourably disposed to Darwin and evolution. This included changing the original book the mad scientist uses to reach his secret lair from Origin of the Species[I1] to a less controversial tome. Murders in the Rue Morgue was not shown or was severely edited in several states because some censor boards objected to the theme of “Man’s descent from the Apes.”
and here is the conclusion that Kirby reaches:
Given the treatment of Darwinian thought in these horror films it is not surprising that Creation faces an uphill battle in American theatres.
This may be the case, but I'm not sure how much we can trust drawing a straight line from Hollywood's early censorship days to the cinema in the late 20th and early 21st century. After all evolution has been mentioned quite neutrally (however superficially) in blockbusters such as Jurassic Park and the X-Men franchise. But even if we leave that aside, David Kirby should not get to his conclusions without addressing Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind from 1960 - even though its not in the horror genre. It starred some top Hollywood actors of the time (Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly), it was a successful mainstream film, and was nominated for four Oscars, including for best actor and best adapted screenplay. But the protagonist in the film is Clarence Darrow (ok - Henry Drummond in the original play) is clearly on the side of Darwin & evolution and is portrayed in a very positive light. Sure, the movie is looking at the 1925 Scopes Trial through the cultural lens of the 1950s political scene - but the basic premise is fully in support of those who accept biological evolution.

Similarly, looking at the sci-fi/horror genre for evolution can be a bit tricky. The inspiration for many of these films is Shelley's Frankenstein (1818, written before Darwin) or Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) with an emphasis on humans playing God with nature. This is a rich premise and because evolutionary experimentation provides an obvious means, the Mad Scientist often happen to be an evolutionary biologist (though chemists are not that far behind - oh the things they can brew in their beakers).

I think Kirby's piece is interesting - but he has cherry-picked evidence to provide a neat and clean narrative. The reality, as usual, is messy and complex. I'm looking forward to Kirby's forthcoming book where I'm pretty sure he deals with Inherit the Wind and other related films.

Read the full article here.

Other related posts:
Idiocy around Darwin's biopic - Creation
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