Dazzled and Deceived by Peter Forbes

This is a book about mimicry and camouflage; principally in nature but also in human use — i.e. the military. I heard about it because it won the Warwick Prize for Writing 2011, and the subject sounded interesting, so I thought I’d give it a go.

It’s certainly pretty good, but I wasn’t blown away by it. It didn’t help that I was familiar with many of the examples already.

My other slight gripe is that it spends a lot of time using examples of mimicry and camouflage as a way to shed light on deeper ideas about evolution. Which is, obviously, a valuable exercise, and not in itself a Bad Thing. But I’ve read loads of stuff about evolution already, thank you, and so reading yet another explanation of evo-devo is not enormously exciting. I would much rather have been reading about extra examples of strange and curious animal mimicry.

So, you know, a good book; but I am not its perfect audience. Still, if nothing else it introduced me to the jaw-dropping amazon leaf fish pictured above.

Life Ascending by Nick Lane

Full title: Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. The ten ‘inventions’ are: The origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness and death. Lane explains how each of these work and how they evolved, at least as far as current knowledge can take us — which in some cases, like the origin of life, is apparently rather further than I had realised. The consciousness chapter, if you’re wondering, was rather less persuasive.

What sets this book apart from most popular accounts of evolution is that Nick Lane is a biochemist rather than, say, a palaeontologist or an ethologist. So this is a book which focuses on evolution at the micro level: it’s all biochemical pathways and enzymes and the genes which code for them. This is the real nitty gritty of how evolution works, how it actually achieves things; but it’s also the stuff which I generally find is a complete headfuck. No matter how many times I have read accounts of the inner workings of a cell over the years, it just doesn’t stick.

So it is not a small compliment to say I found this book was not just full of new and interesting information, but also managed to be clear, engaging and enjoyable. I still ending up having a long pause halfway through, and I’ve already forgotten a lot of it, but I enjoyed it as I read it.

» The picture is Cytoplasm to vacuole targeting from the Journal of Cell Biology, used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. Picked because it’s a striking image rather than because it’s relevant in any way beyond basic thematic appropriateness.

‘The cytoplasm to vacuole targeting (Cvt) pathway uses Atg11 to direct Atg9-containing membrane from mitochondria (top right) to forming autophagosomes (center) before eventual fusion with the vacuole (bottom right). Original painting by David S. Goodsell, based on the scientific design of Daniel J. Klionsky. (JCB 175(6) TOC1)’

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 17: Green-tailed Sunbird

Still on the dinosaur thing, because it is genuinely fascinating, I think. Yesterday I picked a bird that looked like a bit like a dinosaur to illustrate the point, but of course they’re all evolved from dinosaurs, even ones like the Long-tailed Tit, or this Green-tailed Sunbird:

And it’s not a distant relationship, in evolutionary terms; birds fit right into the middle of the family tree of dinosaurs. Here’s something I just learnt from Wikipedia, which I don’t think I’d appreciated before: Velociraptor, the predatory dinosaur made famous by Steven Spielberg, had feathers. Indeed it had stiff, quilled ‘wing feathers’ on its arms, although it didn’t use them for flight. It had hollow bones. It brooded its eggs. Some of the smaller species in the same family probably used their feathers for gliding.

However, the other scary predatory dinosaur in Jurassic Park, the Tyrannosaurus rex, did not have these kind of quilled feathers. Which means that Velociraptor shares a common ancestor with modern birds which it does not share with T rexVelociraptor is more closely related to the Green-tailed Sunbird than it is to Tyrannosaurus.

And Tyrannosaurus, in turn, shares a common ancestor with the sunbird which it does not share with Iguanadon, or Stegosaurus, or Diplodocus.

It’s an extraordinary thought.

» I didn’t want to get too sidetracked because the details are complicated and I’m only getting most of this stuff from Wikipedia myself, but just a couple of pedantic points. Firstly, the velociraptors in the film are much too big, apparently, although there is a larger related species called Deinonychus which is the right sort of size. The real Velociraptor was about turkey sized. Still too big to glide though.

And secondly: it’s true that T rex did not have quilled feathers. But apparently, some of the smaller tyrannosaurids do show signs of having had primitive, downy feathers for insulation. It may be that the only reason T rex doesn’t have these is that it is too big to need insulation, and like elephants, rhinos and hippos, it has lost it. Or maybe the hatchlings were downy but they grew out of it.

Wikipedia has an article about feathered dinosaurs. The whole business is mind-boggling, in the best possible way.

Photo credit: Green-tailed Sunbird (male) – Aethopyga nipalensis is © Mike (NO captive birds) in Thailand and used under the CC by-nc-nd licence.



The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

Full title: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I don’t need any persuading about the fact of evolution, but Dawkins is always worth reading on the subject. And Amazon had it at 50% off, so as much as I dislike hardbacks I thought I’d give it a go.

Since I’ve read so many books on evolution, not least the half dozen by Dawkins, what I’m really looking for in a book like this is interesting new examples I haven’t encountered before, and there are certainly some of those, like the wingless fly that lives in termite mounds; generally, though, a lot of it is fairly familiar: Tiktaalik, the evolution of the whale, the guppy experiment, Lenski’s E. coli, eyeless cave-dwelling animals and so on. There are good reasons why these examples are popular, of course, and if you don’t read as much about evolution as I do, they may well be unfamiliar to you. It’s certainly a different repertoire than it would have been ten or fifteen years ago. And Dawkins writes engagingly and clearly, even in the chapter about embryology, a subject I usually find a complete head-fuck. So I certainly enjoyed reading it.

The review in New Scientist complains about his occasional side-swipes at religion. The book doesn’t actually talk about religion as often as that review might suggest, but when it does touch on it, it’s about as unflattering as you would expect. It’s easy to understand why creationism is such a red rag to a biologist: his analogy is of a teacher of Latin and Roman history who is constantly confronted by people who insist that the Roman Empire never happened and that the myth of ‘Rome’ is a conspiracy. His abrasive manner when he talks about religion doesn’t bother me, although I can see there’s an argument that it is bad tactics in the battle for hearts and minds.

At least in this book he confines his comments to creationism rather than religion more generally; and I for one am not going to tell him he should be respectful towards young Earth creationism. Because 40% of the US population (and 22% of the UK) believe the world is less than 10,000 years old, when you are rude about creationists, you are being rude about an awful lot of people, and I’m sure they are largely nice, well-meaning and valuable members of society; but come on! Believing that the world is less than 10,000 years old is like believing that the Earth is flat, or that leprechauns bury pots of gold at the ends of rainbows. Or indeed that if you dilute poison over and over again until it is just water, it magically gains healing powers. These ideas are worthy of mockery.

So, I enjoyed it; I’d rather read Dawkins on evolution than Dawkins on religion any day of the week, mainly because evolution is a much more interesting subject. I’m not sure it’s an instant classic, but it’s well worth reading.

» The photo is © Troy Li and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Your Inner Fish is a book which uses comparisons between human anatomy and the anatomy of other animals, living or extinct, to show how evolution helps explain the way we are and the way our bodies develop. Shubin is the palaeontologist who discovered Tiktaalik, one of the key fossils in understanding the fish/tetrapod transition, so that features somewhat, but he also draws on a wide range of examples from other species. tiktaalik

So for example, he traces the evolution of fin into hand over evolutionary history, but also examines how the growing embryo creates a hand (or a fin) from a blob of undifferentiated cells. He uses the evolutionary relationship between the structure of the human head and the gill arches of a shark to explain why the nerves of the head have such a peculiar relationship, how hiccuping is related to our amphibian ancestry, and so on.

Most of this material is rather technical and many of the examples were somewhat familiar to me, so the book could easily have been either impenetrable or just dull. In fact I found it worked very well; even when I had encountered some of the examples before, having them all put together into one book was very helpful. I really did feel after reading it that I was more in touch with my inner fish (and inner wormy thing, for that matter).

And it’s well written, as well. There was a rather clumsy bit in one the first chapter where he attempts to explain cladistics via a visit to the zoo, which had me worried that the book was going to be aimed at eleven-year-olds, but fortunately it turned out to be a blip. Generally the book seems well-pitched for intelligent adults who are curious about biology.

Darwin’s other finches

The Galapagos finches are an icon of evolution. But you don’t have to go all the way to the Galapagos to see finches which have evolved different beaks and different body shapes in order to specialise for different kinds of food and different lifestyles.

These are all species of finch that Darwin might conceivably have seen in his garden in Kent, or perhaps when he dropped off his family at the church on Sunday and went for a country walk while they were in the service. Some would have been common; others are long shots. I’ve arranged them in approximate order of beak size in the classic Galapagos fashion.

The reason the Galapagos finches make such a good teaching example is that even to a casual observer they look closely related. Indeed, from personal experience I can say that they offer a tricky identification problem: when you have several species which are only distinguished by size and shape of beak, and those features are highly variable within the species anyway… it can be frustrating.

It’s very easy to use them to tell a straightforward story of a few original finches — maybe just a single pair — being blown across to the islands from South America, and then, as the population grew and split between different islands, diverging to fit into slightly different lifestyles. It is the evolutionary process reduced to the simplest possible case.

The evolutionary history of the species pictured here is no doubt rather more complicated; rather than being isolated on an oceanic archipelago, they are part of a family that ranges around the whole northern hemisphere and into Africa. And they look rather more distinct than the Galapagos species.

Even so, apart from a general similarity of body shape and behaviour, there are some suggestions in the plumage that these birds are related. The fact that so many species of finch have one or two pale wingbars is probably not a coincidence. And, after all, that’s what we mean when we say that species are part of the same family: they are all descended from some single ancestral species of finch. Perhaps that original finch had wingbars. Notice as well that they nearly all have slightly forked tails.

And although the story of these finches is so much more complicated and wide-ranging than the Galapagos species, it is essentially the same thing. Those first few finches may not have been isolated on an oceanic island, but it is still a story of a few ancestral birds, somewhere, who bred and spread into different areas, formed different populations, and adapted to subtly different ecological niches. There are still plenty of similarities; they are basically seed eaters, they tend to have complex songs, they are largely arboreal. But they vary from goldfinches who eat thistle seeds to hawfinches with a beak strong enough to crack open a cherry stone.

Darwin actually mentions finches in The Origin of Species. Since 1859, we have become more used to the idea that taxonomical groups (like ‘finches’) equate to shared bloodlines. But the things we know intellectually may still be hard to internalise. So it’s not surprising that, before he had told the world his idea, Darwin found people were uncomfortable with it:

when I first kept pigeons and watched the several kinds, knowing well how true they bred, I felt fully as much difficulty in believing that they could have descended from a common parent, as any naturalist could in coming to a similar conclusion in regard to the many species of finches, or other large groups of birds, in nature. One circumstance has struck me much; namely, that all the breeders of the various domestic animals and the cultivators of plants, with whom I have ever conversed, or whose treatises I have read, are firmly convinced that the several breeds to which each has attended, are descended from so many aboriginally distinct species. Ask, as I have asked, a celebrated raiser of Hereford cattle, whether his cattle might not have descended from long-horns, and he will laugh you to scorn. I have never met a pigeon, or poultry, or duck, or rabbit fancier, who was not fully convinced that each main breed was descended from a distinct species. Van Mons, in his treatise on pears and apples, shows how utterly he disbelieves that the several sorts, for instance a Ribston-pippin or Codlin-apple, could ever have proceeded from the seeds of the same tree. Innumerable other examples could be given. The explanation, I think, is simple: from long-continued study they are strongly impressed with the differences between the several races; and though they well know that each race varies slightly, for they win their prizes by selecting such slight differences, yet they ignore all general arguments, and refuse to sum up in their minds slight differences accumulated during many successive generations. May not those naturalists who, knowing far less of the laws of inheritance than does the breeder, and knowing no more than he does of the intermediate links in the long lines of descent, yet admit that many of our domestic races have descended from the same parents—may they not learn a lesson of caution, when they deride the idea of species in a state of nature being lineal descendants of other species?

The Galapagos finches, incidentally, are not actually ‘true’ finches. That is, they are not members of the Fringillidae, the family that includes all the species pictured here. They were previously thought to be in the Emberizidae, another large family of seed-eating birds including the buntings, American sparrows, juncos and towhees. But apparently (and I’m only getting my information here from Wikipedia) the latest thinking is that they are tanagers.

Meanwhile, DNA testing has shown another notable island family, the Hawaiian honeycreepers, are in fact finches that have evolved to become nectar eating, with long, narrow curved beaks like sunbirds. And the euphonias, a group of blue and yellow birds that were previously thought to be tanagers, have been moved into the finches as well.

These changes are part of a revolution in taxonomy that has been enabled by DNA testing technology. How Darwin would have loved it.

» The finches pictured are, from top to bottom: siskin, redpoll, goldfinch, chaffinch, brambling, linnet, greenfinch, bullfinch, crossbill and hawfinch.

All the pictures except the goldfinch and the linnet are © Sergey Yeliseev and used under a Creative Commons by-nc-nd licence. The goldfinch is © Isidro Vila Verde and used under a by-nc licence. The linnet is © Ian-S and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

The final chapter of The Origin of Species — Darwin’s ‘Recapitulation and Conclusion’ — states the case for evolution as well as any short account I have ever read. It’s tightly written, it argues a case, it summarises all the different kinds of evidence and shows clearly why they are important. It’s pithy, confident: great stuff. 

Which left me feeling look, Darwin, if you can write like that, why have the previous 400 pages been such hard work? Because he did produce some turgid paragraphs. He’s better when he’s talking about specifics — particular animals and experiments — but when he gets into generalities and abstract ideas, his prose often turns to mush. Here’s a sample sentence: 

The forms which possess in some considerable degree the character of species, but which are so closely similar to other forms, or are so closely linked to them by intermediate gradations, that naturalists do not like to rank them as distinct species, are in several respects the most important for us.

OK, that’s not particularly difficult to understand, but it doesn’t have a lot of oomph, either. Not much forward momentum to keep the reader going.

Large-flowered Bee Ophrys

That sentence is taken from the chapter ‘Variation under nature’, and part of the problem in that chapter and elsewhere is that Darwin is struggling against the limitations of his knowledge. Variation and heredity are absolutely central to the idea of natural selection, so of course he has to talk about them a lot; but without knowing about genetics, let alone DNA. And at times he seems to be floundering a bit. I’m very aware, reading it, of how much he doesn’t know; I’m curious how much he felt that lack of knowledge himself. He certainly had enough evidence of other kinds to argue convincingly that all living things evolved from a common ancestor, and that natural selection was a plausible explanation for how it happened; but without genetics there is certainly a jigsaw piece missing.

That’s not the only gap which is obvious with hindsight: for example, he talks about the distribution of species as evidence for common descent, but without continental drift, there are certain details he can’t quite explain. So if someone wanted to understand evolution, they should start with a more modern text. I suppose the question is: why read The Origin at all? Well, the immediate reason I re-read it is that we’re currently building up to Darwin Year. 2008 is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of the Darwin/Wallace theory of natural selection at a meeting of the Linnean Society, and 2009 is both 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species and also Darwin’s 200th birthday.


Also, it may be hard going by the standards of modern popular science writers, but for one of the key documents in the history of science, it’s incredibly (perhaps uniquely) accessible. I haven’t actually tried reading James Clerk Maxwell’s original papers on electromagnetism, or Einstein’s on relativity, but I don’t think it’s defeatist to say I wouldn’t understand them. Darwin is entirely manageable for a non-technical reader. He uses some technical terminology without defining it, so you might be checking the glossary a bit if you don’t know, for example, that ‘cirripedes’ are barnacles; but the book is mostly dealing with familiar concepts and entities: species and varieties, pigeons, bees, flowers. The only comparison that springs to mind is another book written at the early stages of a science, when scientists were still grappling with everyday concepts and the visible world: Galileo’s Dialogue Relating to Two New Sciences (which, by the way, is well worth reading).

And when Darwin hits his stride, when he gets stuck into the details, the book is still full of interesting material. For example, discussing the means by which plants are distributed between places:

I do not believe that botanists are aware how charged the mud of ponds is with seeds. I have tried several little experiments, but will here give only the most striking case. I took, in February, three table-spoonfuls of mud from three different points, beneath water, on the edge of a little pond. This mud, when dry, weighed only 6¾ ounces. I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew. The plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup! Considering these facts, I think it would be an inexplicable circumstance if water-birds did not transport the seeds of fresh-water plants to vast distances, and if consequently the range of these plants was not very great. The same agency may have come into play with the eggs of some of the smaller fresh-water animals.

That passage is a great demonstration of Darwin’s practical turn of mind. For someone who is known for having produced a famous theory, he was a great experimentalist. Faced with the argument that, for example, seeds couldn’t be distributed on ocean currents because salt water would kill them, he tried the experiment, leaving seeds in salt water for different periods of time to see if they would still germinate. He wanted to know more about the process of selective breeding in domestic animals, so he started breeding fancy pigeons. He wanted to know how inherited instinct could enable bees to make such elaborate and perfect honeycombs, so he provided a hive of bees with specially prepared blocks of wax to see what they would do with them.

goose barnacles

If anything the book is more convincing as an argument for the historical fact of evolution — common descent with gradual changes over time — than the theory of natural selection. He does make a good case for natural selection, mainly by analogy with selective breeding in domestic animals, but because he didn’t know about genetics or DNA, there’s an inherent fuzziness about the details right at the centre.

But his argument for evolution is I think particularly strong because he was consciously writing for an audience of educated people who believed in the immutability of species. So he points out that varieties (what we now usually call subspecies) blur indistinguishably into species, so that experts frequently disagree whether to classify them as full species or not. That different continents have basically different flora and fauna; so the animals in the Amazon are related to those of the Andes rather than those of the Congo, even though the Congo is a much more similar habitat. And oceanic islands normally have very limited fauna; that what they do have tends to be those animals that can fly (insects, birds and bats, but not other mammals) or can survive salt water (reptiles but not amphibians). And again, that the inhabitants of those islands are related to the inhabitants of the nearest continent, even when the island habitat is quite different. All these facts are easily explained by evolution; there is no reason why any of them would need to be true if species were created in place.

» To illustrate this post I thought I’d break away from the most obvious stuff (Galapagos finches etc) to pick some of the other things Darwin studied: orchids, earthworms and barnacles. The orchid photo is one I took in Crete; the earthworm is by Jonathan Spangler and is used under a CC by-sa licence; the goose barnacles are by pshab and used under a by-nc licence.


Bones, Rocks and Stars by Chris Turney

Or to give it its fuller, more informative title: Bones, Rocks and Stars: The Science of When Things Happened. It is what it sounds like: a brief (under 200 pages, including the index) overview of dating technologies for a general audience: radio isotope dating, dendrochronology, Antarctic ice cores and so on. And I enjoyed it; Turney writes well, and he whizzes through the material leaving me feeling a bit better-informed without it being too much like hard work. And I think that’s pretty good going for what is a very technical subject.

Interestingly he starts with what I don’t think of as a ‘scientific’ technique at all: his first example of dating is an attempt to fix a plausible date for King Arthur by looking at all the different manuscript evidence and trying to coordinate it. This carries all the usual problems of early medieval history: sparse evidence; second, third, fourth-hand accounts written many years after the event; confusions between different calendars and so on.

I was slightly surprised by this way of starting the book, but actually it’s quite a good way into the subject. Without any of the technical stuff about radioactive isotopes it illustrates the same kind of problems you might have dating a fossil or anything else: trying to reconcile various kinds of data, each of which carries its own particular problems and sources of error.

knitted ammonite and belemnite on Flickr

The choice of King Arthur, as opposed to any of the other myriad shadowy early medieval figures, is an indication of his popular instincts: he does like to use colourful examples. So we get the Turin Shroud, the Pyramids, Thera, Java Man. Which is fine by me.

So brief, colourful, and not too technical overview of what is really a vast and complex subject, but if that’s what you’re looking for (and on the whole I think it was), it does a good job of it.

» Pictures from Flickr. iggy6, the felt Iguanadon, is by feltfinland; the knitted ammonite and belemnite is by audreym.



Ospreys, monogamy and stupidity

There’s an exceptionally stupid article by Magnus Linklater in the Times today. He talks about the recovery of the British osprey population over the past 50 years with reference to their apparent monogamy and long-term pair bonds. The article ends:

What the osprey demonstrates is that, whatever indiscretions may be committed in the course of a relationship, a stable family background is ultimately the best guarantee that the species will prosper. It works for ospreys. It probably works for humans too.

So why is this exceptionally stupid? Well, it seems like almost too obvious to have to say, but: we are not ospreys.

And all you have to do is choose a different species and it enables you to draw a completely different lesson. Like for example that other fine Scottish bird, the capercaillie, which teaches us that the recipe for a successful species is for all the men to gather together and fight over the best spots to dance and sing in front of the women, with a handful of the strongest, funkiest and loudest men fathering children on all of them. Or perhaps we should learn from the herring, and millions and millions of us all gather together once a year and have a vast mass orgy.

By all means argue for monogamy: just don’t drag the ospreys into it.

» Ospreys mating was posted to Flickr by allspice1 and is used under a CC by-nd licence.

40 Days and 40 Nights by Matthew Chapman

Full title: 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin®, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania. In other words, it’s about the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania where the school board tried to put Intelligent Design into the biology classes and were found to be in breach of the constitutional separation of church and state.

evolution mural from Dover High School

I’m not quite sure why I felt the need to read a second book about this; the blurbs promised a more entertaining read, and it’s certainly livelier and bitchier than Monkey Girl, but didn’t tell me anything new. And despite what Hollywood would have you believe, trials are not inherently charged with drama. Especially this trial, which, with eleven plaintiffs and a bucketload of lawyers and expert witnesses, lacked a personal dramatic focus.

Chapman largely concentrates on personality and anecdote and glides past a lot of the technical evidence; understandably, I guess, but I would have liked more to get my teeth into.

» The photo above, which I found rather unexpectedly on Flickr, is of a mural painted by a student at Dover High School which helped kick off the whole controversy when one of the school board took offence at it and took it on himself to take it away one weekend and burn it. It’s used under a by-nc-sa CC licence.

Monkey Girl and teaching evolution in the US

I’ve just finished Monkey Girl by Edward Humes, an account of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District court case about the constitutionality of teaching Intelligent Design in biology lessons. I was slightly underwhelmed by the book—you can read my review here—but the subject is interesting. How do you manage science education in a country where so many believe that the mainstream scientific orthodoxy is not just false but offensive and morally suspect?

If you have to resort to the court system and the separation of church and state to keep evolution in the classroom, and creationism out, you’ve already lost. It seems clear that teaching religious beliefs in state-run schools is unconstitutional, and that principle is worth defending; but evolution should be taught in biology lessons not because it’s the secular option, but because it’s what working biologists believe to be true. Teaching anything else isn’t just a victory for religion over secularism, it represents a complete collapse of respect for education and scholarship.

And although keeping religion out of the classroom is vital, it sounds like the equally important battle to keep evolution being taught is nearly lost. Even in places where evolution is specified on the curriculum, it sounds like many or most biology teachers teach as little evolution as possible and glide over the most potentially controversial areas of speciation and human origins; not necessarily because they themselves doubt evolution but because they know it will create too much awkwardness with the parents.

Since I am occasionally fairly forceful about my atheism, I imagine this post might come across as part of that, but really it’s not. It’s as an enthusiast for natural history that I find this most troubling. Children should be exposed to the ideas of natural selection and evolution because they are beautiful, surprising and have enormous explanatory power even about the most directly observable life around you. Of all the great theories of science, natural selection is the most approachable by an interested amateur. It can be explained without reference to mathematics. The subject matter—birds, fish, people—can be seen without the aid of a radio telescope or a particle accelerator. Of course the study of modern biology gets you on to statistics, biochemistry, genetics, radiometric dating and other more technical disciplines, but an enormous amount of the study of evolution was done, and is still being done, by direct observation of easily approachable things: digging up fossils, dissecting animals, breeding pea-plants, watching finches.

Monkey Girl by Edward Humes

This book is about the Dover, Pennsylvania school board’s decision to put Intelligent Design into the biology curriculum and the ensuing trial that ruled it a breach of the constitutional separation of church and state.

It’s interesting enough, but not particularly special. Perhaps they were keen to get to press quickly and the book is less finished than it could be. Specifically I think it lacks a clear focus or narrative; it spends too much time going over the history of legal conflicts over teaching creationism, and makes that background rather dry. It doesn’t really get any momentum until it gets on to the trial itself in the second half of the book, which is quite well done.

In terms of the balance these kinds of books have to strike between lively reporting and melodrama, I felt too often it was telling me things were dramatic rather than communicating what must have been the real human drama of the situation.

I also didn’t feel I was in the hands of someone who really had a bone-deep understanding of the issues at stake. Humes is clearly on the side of the scientists, although I think he tries to avoid being flamboyantly partisan, and I felt that some of the of the anti-ID arguments were being reproduced in a rather uncritical and undigested form. This is a trivial example of the kind of thing that sets off my alarm bells: Humes is taking Ann Coulter apart (not difficult) and says that in a three sentence, 69 word passage, there are ‘five lies and one ludicrous error’. He says this, about the phrase ‘Liberals’ creation myth is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution…’:

It is a lie to characterize the modern science of evolution as “Darwin’s theory,” as it now encompasses genetics, DNA analysis, microbiology, embryology, artificial life experiments, and a host of other findings, methods and scientific disciplines that Darwin (and apparently Coulter) never heard of.

It’s true, of course, that biology and the understanding of evolution has moved on a lot since Darwin’s time. Coulter’s phrasing is simplistic and reductive, and may well be calculated to create a misleading impression that the idea of natural selection is outmoded or based on a personality cult. But even so, as a five word description used in brief for the theoretical underpinnings of biology, ‘Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution’ is surely not outrageous. And it certainly isn’t a ‘lie’ in the sense I understand that word.

It’s not like you have to stretch very far to find Coulter talking crap—the next sentence is a doozy—and it doesn’t do his credibilty any good to be imprecise when he attacks her.

I’m about as naturally sympathetic an audience as this book could hope to find, so if I find myself feeling it could usefully be more even-handed, there might be a problem. It’s only nuances, though.

Evolved belief?

Scavella asks:

And the real question is why. What evolutionary purpose has this tendency, whose existence, even among the most rational of us, suggests that the search for transcendence may be hard-wired into human beings?

I would need some persuading that religious belief is a specific adaption; i.e. that we have evolved the tendency to believe in the same sense that we have evolved opposable thumbs.

This kind of argument is discussed at more length in that article you linked to, but my version of it would run something like this:

Let’s assume that a need to explain and understand things is hard-wired into human beings by evolution. We know so little, really, about how the mind works, that even that assumption is arguable, but it’s probably less of a leap than asssuming religious belief as an evolved tendency. But there are a lot of things which it is virtually impossible to understand by just looking around and being observant and thoughtful: weather, disease, earthquakes, existence, morality. Not only is religion in a position to fill in the gaps, but it may actually often be preferred to the true explanation because it’s more psychologically satisfying. Just because we evolved reason and a desire to explain things doesn’t mean we will always settle on the most accurate explanation.

An analogy would be poetry. Poetry of some sort is pretty much a human universal, but I don’t think it needs to be explained as an evolutionary adaption. Having evolved language, there was a situation where those people who could find ways to use it that were powerful—exciting, moving, funny—would be able to use it to gain status, in a broad sense. Or just find pleasure in it for themselves. The evolution of language created an opportunity; from that point, normal cultural development seems a sufficient explanation for the invention of poetry, story-telling and so on.

I think also it’s easy to talk rather glibly about something being a ‘universal’ human trait. Language is universal: if an adult human has no language, there is something wrong with them. The same is true of psychological traits like empathy or fear. It’s not clear to me that the same can be said of religious belief or a search for transcendence. it might be hard to find anyone who was completely free of irrational beliefs and superstitions, but there are plenty of people who aren’t religious. Not just those who are explicitly atheist or agnostic, either; even in societies where everyone is nominally the member of a faith, I would suggest there are plenty of people who are believers in name only, and people for whom it just isn’t very important.

Religious belief clearly isn’t counter-adaptive, and if it isn’t hard-wired, it is at the very least well-suited to the human way of thinking. But so what? The history of science is one long process of learning the hard way that our intuitions about how the world works are usually wrong.

Darwin’s prose

I recently found Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary, being posted ‘live’ on the internet with a mere 175 year time-lag (see also Pepys, Thoreau).

He’s only just reached Brazil, so there’s plenty of time to join the fun. This is from today’s entry:

The houses are white and lofty and from the windows being narrow and long have a very light and elegant appearance. Convents, Porticos and public buildings vary the uniformity of the houses: the bay is scattered over with large ships; in short the view is one of the finest in the Brazils. But their beauties are as nothing compared to the Vegetation; I believe from what I have seen Humboldts glorious descriptions are and will for ever be unparalleled: but even he with his dark blue skies and the rare union of poetry with science which he so strongly displays when writing on tropical scenery, with all this falls far short of the truth. The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind, if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over, if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future and more quiet pleasure will arise. I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another Sun illumines everything I behold.

A little on the flowery Victorian side, but still a fine bit of prose. What’s interesting is that you’d never know he could do it on the basis of The Origin of Species, a book which is well written but rarely sparkling. But in the diaries, notebooks and letters he can be a lively, engaging writer. One of my favourite quotes from the notebooks: ‘He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke’.

The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner

This book was recommended to me when I was in the Galapagos; I finally got round to reading it and I’m really glad I did. It’s an account of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s long-term study to measure the effects of natural selection on finches in the Galapagos. When this book was published in 1994, the study had been going for twenty years, but it’s still ongoing.

The choice of Galapagos finches isn’t just because of their iconic status in history of evolution; they’re an isolated population, they’re particularly variable, and a few very similar competing species live together in a very simple environment — only a few species of food plant, and almost no other small birds.

Over that period, they and their students have collected a staggering amount of data; detailed measurements of every finch on the island of Daphne Major, and records of who breeds with who, where their territories are, what songs they sing, what they eat, which territories are most productive, how the food supply varies from year to year and so on. That data has enabled them to show not just that tiny variations (in this case, particularly beak size) can have a measurable effect on the survival and breeding prospects of a bird, but that a change to the environment — a very wet year or a drought — can select for different physical characteristics to the extent of having a measurable impact on the average measurements of the population.

In effect, they have showed that you can observe evolution in action and that in the right circumstances it can happen extremely fast.

I really thought this was an excellent book. The detailed account of a single large research study sets it apart from all the other popular accounts of evolution I’ve read. There’s easily enough material to sustain a whole book and Weiner does an excellent job of communicating all the details with enough human interest to keep the book getting bogged down.

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