Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Simon Conway Morris at the Royal Tyrell Museum 07-08-09

Simon Conway Morris, from the University of Cambridge, England, will give a free public lecture at the Royal Tyrrell Museum on Friday, August 7, 2009.

In a talk entitled “Darwin's Compass: Why the evolution of humans is inevitable,” Conway Morris will present his argument that evolution has a limited number of “solutions” to particular “needs,” as demonstrated by the numerous cases of parallel evolution observed among living organisms. This argument suggests that evolution is not random, but follows guiding principles, a point of view that leaves room for both science and religion in the study of evolution.

Simon Conway Morris holds an ad hominem chair in Evolutionary Palaeobiology at the University of Cambridge. As a palaeontologist, he is renowned for his insights into evolution and is a leading authority on the Burgess Shale fauna, the rise of multicellular organisms, the Cambrian Explosion, and the topic of evolutionary convergence.

This talk concludes the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s 2009 Speaker Series dedicated to naturalist Charles Darwin.

Admission to the talk is free, however, to visit the galleries regular Museum rates apply.

Friday, April 17, 2009

And another upcoming event

A duplicative post, but in case you needed another reminder: If you want to hear me share my newly-gained knowledge of the Origin, I'll be giving a "guided tour" of the book to Nature Calgary (aka Calgary Field Naturalists' Society) at their monthly meeting in May. The event is free and open to the public.

"Darwin's Origin of Species: A Guided Tour"
Wed. May 20, 7:30 pm
Burnswest Theatre, Fort Calgary

More info here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Upcoming Darwin event

The next lecture in our public lecture series Introducing Darwin is Mon. May 4, 7 pm at the Discovery Dome, Telus World of Science. Chris Brochu from U Iowa will speak on "The Hierarchy of Certainty: How the Past is Predictive." Basically, he's going to talk about how we can use Darwinian principles not just to reconstruct past evolution, but to predict future evolution. Chris is a paleontologist who mostly works on humungous crocodiles, but it's my understanding that his examples won't all be paleontological (which I suppose they can't be, if he's talking about future evolution). Word is that he's a really good speaker ("Awesome" sez Josh).

The event is totally free, so come on by and tell your friends. Chris will speak for about an hour tops, and there'll be question-and-answer with the audience afterwards.

As with Mott Greene's lecture, I need a couple of volunteers to man the microphones for the question-and-answer session that will follow the talk. Email me if you're interested.

After Chris' talk the various Darwin events will be on hiatus until the fall. Watch for more events then, including John Brooke's public lecture on evolution and religion.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Too good to be true

Off topic: Here is the promised reference for John Maynard Smith's essay in Nature debunking the notion that the "beauty" of a scientific theory implies anything about its truth. Maynard Smith asks the reader to try to think of the most beautiful false hypothesis ever proposed; his own candidate is very beautiful (and very clever) indeed.

Maynard Smith, J. 1999. Too good to be true. Nature v. 400, p. 223.

Actually, perhaps this post isn't entirely off-topic: Maynard Smith considers Kelvin's incorrect estimate of the age of the Earth as a candidate, but rejects it as insufficiently clever.

Monday, April 13, 2009

So, I was talking about Darwin in lab

And one of my labmates was all like "Was Darwin married? Did he have kids?" and I was like "Yeah he married his cousin, she had 10 kids, 7 who survived" and they were like "Oh, I guess I ...never cared enough about him to know these kinds of things."

(stops talking like a teenager for a bit)

It's entirely possible to do biology, evolutionary or otherwise, without having the slightest clue who Darwin was, besides:

Just the same as its possible to do physics without knowing who Newton was, or be a political writer without knowing who Machiavelli was, or be a speculative fiction writer without knowing who H.G. Wells was. But it's deeply ironic when people who care about the past (particularly of a prehistorical nature), and spend their time discussing events that occurred to the ancestors of the ancestors of us and our pets and their fleas, are not willing to employ a bit of the same interest in discovering the ancestry of the science they study.

Obviously reading through the Origin is in no way as naturally uplifting as seeing where australopithecines once walked the Great Rift Valley, or seeing the collected corpse of someone who we now know as Turkana boy, or peeking at the flattened skeleton of Eomaia and trying to find the family resemblance between you and a pile of fossilized hair and bones.

And to act like a Hennigian dogmatist for a second (with a slight usage of Dawkinsian lingo thrown in for good measure), of course Darwin can not be proved to be an intellectual ancestral taxon, we can only argue that his memes had unique synapomorphies which are shared with the evolutionary scientist crown group.

But the Origin is the book that brought biology into the materialistic, mechanistic universe that Newton helped introduce to European science. Natural theology, vitalistic forces, special creation, the concept that life was somehow intangibly different than non-life: all of these ideas were slowly or quickly thrown out of biology due to the materialism that Darwin brought to the table and forced everyone to drink.

"A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again."

Due to his legendary stinging wit, I imagine Pope would say something not nice about me (or maybe my own wits) for using his words to back up the destruction of theological biology. And despite my Dawkins fanboy tendencies, I'm not in anyway insinuating that Chuck D is an atheist icon. His wife would have smacked him.

(Though I will agree with Rick D that, for the most part, the Origin does make it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. But that's another story.)

Darwin is simply a very good critical thinker who linked together some observations about the world, made some predictions based on those observations, and formulated a simple but powerful mechanism for how large change can happen in small pieces over large pieces of time. Some of his arguments make as much sense now as they did back then, while others (like his insistence to ever talk about use and disuse, ARGH) have faced criticism and been sloughed off.

The intellectual lightweights who consider Darwin to be the devil's lieutenant make a big deal of the man and his works. Reading enough about him to recast the story in a more realistic light is the least an evolutionary scientist should do to honour thine ancestors.

To paraphrase another 19th century European theorist, "Evolutionary scientists of the world, unite, and read Darwin, you have nothing to lose but your chains (and a coupla days)!"

Charles Darwin's Place in History

Surveying what often seems to be the purposeless waste of history from ancient empires to modern times many have sought refuge in the thought that the one thing worth struggling for amidst wars, famine, and utter disaster is a greater understanding of the universe: who we are, where we came from, and what in the blazes it all means. Often, however, the protagonists in historical writing are those chieftains and knights, generals and politicians, who fight to preserve the liberty of others so they may pursue those questions in whatever way they see fit, by way of whatever religion, science, or philosophy they may choose. No statesman or general has a precise knowledge of the universe and never has all the answers, but part of their noble struggle is to provide for their peoples the opportunity to live, breath, and think, in the hope that one day someone might discover the answers they themselves are unable to seek. By devoting their lives to serving and protecting others they enable people of all backgrounds to discover the laws of the universe and find meaning in their lives in various and diverse fashions. One of the most sublime shining lights in the senseless struggle and slaughter of human history is to keep alive a glimmer of hope that one day our understanding of the universe may be furthered.

Only a minority of historical tracts actually spend much time focusing on the result of those endeavours. Historians focus on human movements and in their narratives too easily take the progress of science and discovery for granted as a gradual process which forms 'the background' of dramatic tales of battles, corruption, and human frailty. But those people in 'the background' are often some of the most decisive and dynamic of all those who forge human destiny, without whom our story would be completely and irrevocably altered. Darwin was one of those people.

On the Origin of Species drives home, to my mind, how the progress of civilisation, its science and ideas, is entirely dependent on solitary human action. Darwin devoted much of his life to amassing facts and developing his theories. It was a labour of love. He anticipated to a staggering degree modern conceptions of evolutionary thought. What is still more impressive is how many of those ideas remained dormant and largely unappreciated while the debate raged all around him during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even now, people across the globe are still coming to grips with the full force and significance of his findings.

In reading the Origin I found one of the most impressive aspects of Darwin's theory was his insistence of a common ancestry and his definition of species. For Darwin, a species was defined by its degree of variation from other forms of life. In addition if one goes far enough back, one finds common ancestors for those species. Even while life on earth is constantly changing into wondrous new forms and is locked in a complex struggle for survival, all life itself sprung from a single source. Species may war against one another but their differences are subjective and not eternal, their rivalries and enmity natural, not mortal. The unity of descent is even more profound when narrowed to the human realm, undermining much of the theories of so-called Social Darwinists. In the great clashes of the twentieth century men were too quick to lay emphasis on the significance of being a 'separate race' of man. Little did many of them realise the man whose theory of 'survival of the fittest' they so eagerly espoused had one hundred years earlier concluded a common unity that connects intimately all life found on earth. How meaningless do the small differences between man and man, nation and nation, how trivial does the brief story of our tumultuous history seem next to millions upon millions of years of evolution!

Like all great discoveries, Darwin's theory of evolution raised as many questions as it answered. Perhaps infinitely more. The world after 1859 became a much less familiar place. The indisputable pillars of creation in religious faith were shaken. The nature of the universe became less clear. We have yet, with our ideas, to illuminate more than one bright spark of understanding in a vast darkness of endless space. And while science holds open the possibility of widening our understanding, most, if not all of us, will pass on from our short lives without much extending our sight. The souls of men and nations just as the fires of stars, however brightly they may burn, are destined to one day flicker out. As such skeletons, the ruins of temples and ancient cities, and the wastelands of dead stars and planets are remarkably similar. They are monuments of what was once alive and great but is no more. But what genius can those fires forge while they burn! Darwin's legacy is indicating to us how each passing life is part of a greater more magnificent process, sublime and of vast incomprehensible grandeur:

"There is grandeur in this view of life," he said, "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."

Final Thoughts on Darwin and the Origin

When I first signed up for this course I wasn’t entirely sure what I expected to get out of it, other than interesting discussions and a chance to finally read the Origin, a book that has sat on my bookshelf for years collecting dust. The thing that impressed me most, and I’m sure it’s going to sound a little repetitive at this point, is the wide breadth of knowledge and numerous fields of science (geology, paleontology, biogeography, embryology, etc) that Darwin incorporated and referenced throughout the book. In addition to his broad scope, Darwin gave such specific examples and minute details. The shear volume of evidence to support the theory of evolution via natural selection is truly impressive; especially considering it was just an abstract.

I was also constantly surprised by how relevant the Origin still is today. Darwin was rarely completely off the mark, which is all the more impressive considering all the advances we have made over the last 150 years, of which Darwin was completely ignorant. It was particularly fun to read statements that in a way were prophetic. I wish I could have seen Darwin’s reaction to the discovery of Archaeopteryx! But then again, that’s one of the things that set Darwin’s theory apart from those of other evolutionary scientists of his time. Predictability! This course gave me a better idea of why (and how) Darwin’s theory was so significant and revolutionary.

Something I had never really thought about until recently is how evolutionary science itself is changing and evolving. Not having an extensive biology background, I had always thought of evolutionary biology as (relatively) immutable and was surprised to realize that the science itself is evolving. It makes complete sense, that in any field of study the more you learn, the more questions you ask, and the new directions you take. I just never really thought about it before.

I was also very impressed with Darwin’s “faith”, for lack of a better term, in his theory. He dedicated a whole chapter to problems with his theory and was fully willing to admit that he didn’t have it all figured out. Despite this and the heavy scrutiny he was under, he stood by his theory and didn’t back step (at least not on the main points?). I haven’t read the later editions.

I also respect the fact that Darwin made a clear distinction between his science and his religion. Considering the topic he was discussing one would expect Darwin’s personal beliefs to be somewhat more on the forefront in the late 1800’s. Even today there is a lot of speculation about Darwin’s personal beliefs, but he kept it separate and private, an incredibly wise move in my opinion.

I have really enjoyed reading the origin and listening to the weekly discussions. They have also made me much more curious about Darwin “the man”, which we got a taste of in Janet Browne’s biography and in some of the discussions. When I have a little more time for myself, I want to read some of Darwin’s letters and his other works. Hopefully they won’t collect too much dust before I crack their spines!

Final thoughts on Darwin's "Abstract"

I can say unequivocally that the Origin is the best 490-page argument I’ve ever read. His conclusion in particular is a work of art, and is worth rereading more than once. I was struck by just how subtle and sophisticated Darwin’s actual claims are, compared to the gross caricatures of his views you might be subjected to, both by those who argue for and those who argue against his view. Also, it is funny how some modern creationists (‘intelligent designers’) are just rehearsing objections which Darwin himself brought up in 1859, and fully answered.

Perhaps the one thing that will stick in my mind the longest is just how anti-essentialist Darwin was about species. Species, for Darwin, were NOT essentially different from varieties; in fact, varieties could be seen as incipient species. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but he seems very conventionalist: surely there are groups of animals which differ more or less from other groups, but there is no magic criterion which marks groups as different in kind from others - our labels are just that, and our labelling system may be more or less useful. Wonderful!

I won’t rant on and on here about the quality of this book. But I just have to say that I was pleasantly surprised at how accessible it was to me, a non-biologist (there is very little jargon), and that I really think it would be impossible to read it without feeling the full force of the theory of evolution by natural selection; that is, just how many facts it predicts and explains. Darwin took pains to amass ridiculous amounts of evidence for his theory before publishing it, and remember, this book is just an abstract of what he really wanted to say! Darwin himself said that the person who is more impressed by the problems of a theory than with its solutions may at once reject his theory, but of course this would have turned out to be to their detriment in this case. The ‘problems’ have turned into entire (fruitful) research programs, all elucidating and confirming (if we want to be realists) the theory of evolution via natural selection that much more.

Thanks to Jeremy and the other class members for putting up with a philosopher for an entire semester; I feel like I am a much better person for having been able to share the experience of reading the original Origin with you all.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sabrina's Slant

This is the first time I have ever posted on a blog! I've made comments, but it isn't the same. So I hope it works!

Anyhow, I have enjoyed this class. It has been interesting to read and listen and think. I would like to read 'The Origin' again - perhaps when I am less busy with school and extracurricular activities, and have more time to really digest it.

Let's see....
Well, like Dr. Fox, I am impressed at the breadth and depth of Darwin's understanding. At how much he was able to piece together and comprehend. And certainly at how much he strove to produce evidence to substantiate his arguments. I am intrigued by the man himself - how he had this brilliant idea, yet wanted to make sure it was fool-proof before he presented it to the world. And then when he was forced into early publication, I am impressed at his civility towards Wallace - in the face of possibly losing recognition for his life's work. One reason why I wanted to read 'The Origin' was to see for myself what it was really about. I believed that Darwin got a bad rap for a lot of stuff that wasn't necessarily true. And in the end, I still believe that. I think that many people (especially religious) have a 'fear' of Darwinisim and evolution - and think that Darwin was an early version of our friend Dawkins. Thankfully (to me, at least!) that is not true. I also think that there are many common misconceptions about the process of evolution - one of the simplest being, "If man descended from apes, why do we still have apes?" People don't seem to understand that the theory is that of a common ancestor.

As for me personally, I found this an interesting time to reflect on my own beliefs. I certainly didn't find anything to cause me to not believe in God. I know that we just can't comprehend everything, but that the more we learn, the more the 'mysteries of God' will be 'unfolded' to us, as it says in scripture. If I can never solve all these questions in this life, I am content to wait to learn the answers in the next. Balance is very important to me, so if I know one side of the argument, then I had better know the other, too.

Thanks to everyone for all your insights.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Taking Home Darwin's Species Concept

I found, through our discussions of the Origin, that I was able to get a better grasp of what Darwin meant be 'species' and perhaps what many biologists really mean by 'species'. It is hard to describe what I have established in my head as Darwin's picture of how a phylogeny would really look versus how we present it. It is more an image than anything verbal. At some point I will do a painting of it, scan it, and put it on here so you can share in my take home. For now, though, all I can do is declare that Darwin's concept of species still makes more sense to me than any of those I have heard in the Philosophy of Biology thus far. The continued applicability of Darwin's ideas never ceases to impress me.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Darwin's egg

You never know what you'll find in the back of a drawer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Someone else's reflections

If you need additional inspiration for your reflections on the Origin, have a look at John Whitfield's final thoughts at Blogging the Origin.

He makes the excellent point that Darwin can be, and has been, claimed as a founding father by different schools of evolutionary thought. One is what John aptly names the 'lean and mean' school of evolutionary theory (R. A. Fisher, Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, George Price, with Richard Dawkins as their most famous popularizer). This line of thinkers (mostly skinny Englishmen, as Whitfield points out) tends to focus on elegant mathematical models that strip evolution to its bare essentials, and views natural selection as both the most powerful and most interesting evolutionary force. This group appreciates Darwin for his ability to see the simple general principles underlying the polyglot diversity of nature. By contrast, the more loosely defined 'let a thousand flowers bloom' school (think Stephen J. Gould) admires Darwin the natural historian (the fact hound rather than the theoretician), and tends to see the polyglot complexity of nature as the net outcome of many complex interacting factors, of which natural selection is only one. I'm mostly a 'lean and mean' man myself, though I think there are interesting questions about the interplay of natural selection and other factors that both schools of thought tend to ignore.

In a previous post, Whitfield also notes, correctly I think, that a big part of Darwin's genius is his ability to see how patterns in space (say, biogeographical patterns in the distribution of species) can be generated by processes operating over time. Darwin had an extraordinary ability to visualize past sequences of events and how they could've resulted in present-day spatial patterns.


Having asked everyone else to reflect on the Origin and post their reflections, it's only fair that I should do so too.

I enjoyed the book tremendously, and I'm glad I no longer have to embarrass myself by admitting I hadn't read it. I'm even secretly proud of having read the first edition, when most other people have read the sixth. It's a bit like being able to boast that you saw the original version of a great foreign film rather than the Hollywood remake.

I've come away hugely impressed with Darwin's prescience. It's just stunning (even a little scary) how many modern ideas in ecology and evolution are already there in Darwin, and how they all fit together in his mind in pretty much the same way they do for us today. And his error rate is so low--that surprised me. I expected to see that Darwin would have a firm grasp of the core idea of evolution by natural selection, and he does. But I expected that his thoughts on peripheral details and specific examples would often be somewhat wonky. They're mostly not. It's rare that you catch Darwin failing to extend an idea to its logical conclusion (as in his failure to see that what we now call antagonistic pleiotropy can explain vestigial organs in cave dwellers as well as in parasites), or just proposing a strange-sounding hypothesis (as in his explanation for brood parasitism in birds). I'm sure some of this is luck, but I don't see how all of it could be. Darwin's just too right, too often. As the saying goes, it's best to be good and lucky. And it's extraordinary that he managed to see all this without knowing anything about transmission genetics or developmental biology. Even Wallace, who had the same basic idea, never came close to working out all its implications or marshaling all the various lines of evidence given by Darwin.

Ironically, the one area where Darwin's reasoning disappoints me a bit is in the explanation of the origin of species. Darwin's terrific on the origin of adaptation, on how you get Design without a Designer. And he's terrific on the evidence for evolution, and on how his theory ties together a huge body of apparently-disparate facts in fields as different as embryology and biogeography. But as I've described in another post, I don't think he had a sufficiently strong appreciation for how selection pressures could vary from place to place, and I think this is what led him to propose the Principle of Divergence. This principle is clearly crucial to his understanding of how natural selection leads to speciation, but it doesn't stand up to empirical or conceptual scrutiny, and I think its flaws could've been seen even at the time.

I'm also impressed with Darwin the fact hound. He's determined to get things exactly right, even if that means rejecting an idea he'd worked his butt off on for years. I'd like to read some of his letters to get a sense of how much of this impression is just a rhetorical pose. Surely he wished and hoped that evolution by natural selection was The Answer, right? But how could he wish that and at the same time put that wish to one side and truly take seriously all possible criticisms of his idea? My experience is that science proceeds on a sort of adversarial model (what philosopher David Hull called "science as a selection process"), whereby competing theories each have their advocates and the court of scientific opinion sits in judgment, with peer review "selecting" for the best theories. Of course, I do try to criticize my own ideas, if only because I worry that if I don't I'll get trashed by peer reviewers, and I think other scientists do as well. But I'm not sure that Darwin's self-critical approach is a dominant one.

Closely associated with Darwin the fact hound is Darwin the polymath. The age of specialization began before Darwin (Leibnitz was said to be the last man who was an expert in every field of human knowledge), but it hadn't yet gotten to the point where one couldn't be expert in all the fields Darwin draws on: geology, paleontology, ecology, etc. I flatter myself to think I'm slightly more widely read than my fellow community ecologists, at least in certain fields. But I'm absolutely a dilettante compared to Darwin.

Going in, I had no idea that Darwin took "special creation" as a serious alternative hypothesis, or that his argument against it isn't so much that it's falsified by the data as that it explains and unifies nothing. This is rather different from the arguments you see deployed against various versions of creationism today. And of course, those arguments are only deployed in the context of political debates today. It's interesting to be transported to a time when creationism really was a viable scientific hypothesis.

Darwin's reticence on the implications of his theory for people (and God) strikes me as very wise. It's a rational choice for someone like Darwin, who always wants to be completely sure of his ground. But it strikes me as an ethical choice, too. It shows respect for those with other, possibly conflicting ideas. Richard Dawkins has many virtues, but one of his vices is failure to take seriously alternative points of view with which he disagrees. Dawkins doesn't suffer fools gladly, but he also gives the distinct impression that he has all the answers and that anyone who disagrees with him is foolish.

So if I admired Darwin before (and I did), he's one of my heroes now. Evolutionary biologists are sometimes accused of "worshiping" Darwin, as if he were a god himself (this is the "Darwin the Myth" of Mott Greene's recent lecture). I can see why now, and I couldn't before.

The Ethics of Culture

Totally non-Darwinian post: If you want to check out Samuel Fleischacker's The Ethics of Culture, it's out of print but still available through various sellers at amazon.com. There's also a brief but highly positive review of the book from "A Customer" whose identity you may be able to infer...

Mistaken identity

I have been mistaken for someone who knows a lot about Darwin and the Origin (this happens a lot), and so have been invited to speak on these topics at the next meeting of Nature Calgary (aka the Calgary Field Naturalists' Society). The talk is on May 20 at 7:30 pm at Ft. Calgary. Apparently the meetings are open to the public if you want to come along. But if you'd rather not spend an evening listening to an illustrated synopsis of the class you've just taken, you may want to give it a miss.