“Sometimes entire animals such as the stormy petrel and the candlefish of the Pacific Northwest were threaded with a wick and burned as candles.”

from here.


pheasant in the garden

There was a nice healthy-looking, shiny, brightly coloured male pheasant in the garden yesterday – which is pretty unusual in south London. What with the Ring-necked Parakeets and the Beast of Sydenham, it’s starting to seem pretty exotic around here.


gay penguins

An amusing thing.


teaching ID alongside natural selection

I do actually think there’s an argument for teaching about the idea of Intelligent Design alongside natural selection.

Or, to be more exact, in teaching natural selection in the context of ID.

That’s not because I think ID is a valid alternative to NS. It’s clearly not. On the contrary, school biology lessons ought to be teaching a very basic version of what biology is as a professional discipline, and natural selection is the unchallenged theoretical basis of academic biology, the context by which all data is understood.

So why teach about ID, if it’s a bad theory?

I found a lot of science teaching boring at school, even though I was generally interested in science and good at it (I could easily have ended up studying Maths or Chemistry at university instead of English Lit). I am still interested in science and still read a lot of popular science and science history. So why was it so dull at school? What you get from reading a biography of Darwin, which you don’t get from a typical school lesson on biology, is a sense of the interaction and development of ideas. At school you get taught the answers without being told what the questions were. Insights which brilliant men slaved over for decades are presented as though they were obvious and trivial, and all the excitement is drained out of the subject.

A non-biology example. Everyone knows the anecdote about Newton watching an apple fall and having the idea for gravity; but all they take from it is that Newton saw an apple fall and thought “there must be a force that makes apples fall”. But the *important* insight is: the force that makes the apple fall is the same as the force that keeps the Earth circling the sun. Not that long before Newton, people thought that the movement of bodies on the Earth needed to be understood completely differently to ‘superlunary’ bodies. Someone as brilliant as Gallileo tried to explain the movement of the planets in terms of an inherent tendency they had to move in circles, while a falling apple was being moved by a completely separate force. What Newton did was come up with four simple laws – the laws of motion and the inverse square law of gravitation – which taken together are enough to explain not just the orbits of the planets and the falling of an apple, but the movement of all objects. The entire universe becomes one system. As Pope put it,

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

That kind of historical understanding of gravity is no use to an engineer, but for most people, who will leave school and never use physics again, it’s a lot more important than being able to calculate the speed of a falling body or the period of oscillation of a pendulum. I also think the historical context helps you learn the science, because knowing how the ideas developed helps you remember them.

In the case of biology, Intelligent Design was the reigning theory before Darwin. An intelligent designer is a good way to explain the complexity of living things. The reason that Darwinism is important is that it provides a materialist alternative to ID. That’s one reason why Richard Dawkins keeps harking back to creationism in his books – he recognises that it is the only competing theory for the complexity of life. A book like ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ is one long engagement with the idea of an intelligent designer because ID is the context which makes Darwinism important.

So, if I was trying to teach evolution, I’d be tempted to start with ID as the context before moving on to natural selection and pointing out all the things that NS (and evolution) can explain that ID doesn’t – like the fact we have an appendix, the way that animals tend to live in the same geographical areas as their relatives, that all mammals have the same bodyplan and so on.

Teaching ID as a viable alternative to natural selection, on the other hand, is completely insane.


birds as clever as mammals

The assumption that birds have more primitive cognitive abilities than mammals is a mistake, according to the Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium.


RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2005

I just took part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2005.

If you’re living in Britain, there’s still time to take part – you can do it today or tomorrow. My list (numbers are maximum seen at once):

great tit – 4
blue tit – 9
coal tit – 1

greenfinch – 2
chaffinch – 2

nuthatch – 1
robin – 2
starling – 3
goldcrest – 1
dunnock – 1
blackbird – 2

feral pigeon – 6
woodpigeon – 1

green woodpecker – 1
great spotted woodpecker – 1

carrion crow – 2
magpie – 3

black-headed gull – 12

Which is pretty mediocre, to be honest. Some birds I regularly see in the garden that didn’t turn up in my hour slot: jay, goldfinch, heron, long-tailed tit, collared dove, ring-necked parakeet. Jay was probably the biggest gap in the list.