Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Where Wilkins Went and Why

Well, it's been a busy, fun, frustrating and above all hot week.

First, the plane was delayed. This meant that by the time I got airborne, the trip was already 7 hours old, and, of course, I missed my connection at LAX. So I got another plane but it got into Toronto Pearson about 7pm local time. When I finally reached the University of Gueph, it was around 9pm, after 30 hours of sleepless travel.

But wait, there's more. Guelph decided that in my honour there would be five days of several thousand per cent humidity and temperatures around 35°C. So the airless, fanless, and airconditioningless room at the Uni was a truly nightmarish place to try to sleep. A bit like sleeping with a couple hundred kilos of hot dry earth on your face.

So I was tired when I started and it got worse - people kept buying me beers. My Australian debit card won't work in North America - apparently banks here talk only to European bank computers - so I had no cash. This meant that people seemed to want to make sure I drank a lot. I am of course very grateful, but a bit mystified. I haven't drunk that much since my liver decided on a permanent vacation back in the 70s.

I met a lot of really interesting people - Names who I had only read or in some cases read about. Michael Ghiselin, Scott Gilbert, Jonathon Hodges, Staffan Müller-Wille, Phillip Sloane - they mean a lot to me even if you, dear reader, have never heard of them. I also got to meet my future colleague Stefan Linquist. He's way too young, cheerful and intelligent, but I will squash his enthusiasm in a few months. Stefan arrives, we hope, in August, if the FBI can assure Australian authorities that the only thing he has that will terrorise western civilisation is a weird sense of humour (OK, that can stay) and an infectious laugh.

Oh, and my talk at the conference actually went really well. A dozen or so folk came up afterwards to say something like, "I wanted to take up a claim you made.." which is just fine. I don't want people to agree just because it was witty, urbane, well-delivered and knowledgeable. I want them to agree because I have caused them a dark night of the soul. It's all about the Marquis de Sade.

An old net-friend, Larry Moran attended the conference too. Larry is professor of biochem at U Toronto, knows a bunch of Real Names in biology, and acts in his spare time as resident curmudgeon in the talk.origins Usenet group. Larrry is convinced (not without just cause) that philosophers don't understand real evolutionary biology - that's OK, because he thinks the same thing about most scientists, too. He has apparently formed the opinion that I am not a lost case of Dawkinsian reflexes, though, because we had a really nice time discussing what was going on, and Larry not only organised a place for me to stay in Toronto after the conference, but also arranged a Howlerfest there.

Howlerfests are meetings of talk.origins regulars that occur when a visiting dignitary, expert or beer salesperson arrives in a place where there are a few of us. In this case, it was the beer. A newsgroup kook called the evilutionists[sic] "howler monkeys" who fling poo at interlopers, which is true, and so we gleefully adopted it as our moniker (slogan semper Allouatta). We meet a lot and drink.

I was immensely honoured that so many people came to visit, from as far away as Ottowa, or in the case of Paul Myers, Morris Minnesota! He drove over 1,000 miles to meet me and drink beer. I was impressed as hell. It means a lot that someone would leave their family, spend ghod knows how much time sitting in a car listening to country and western stations (both kinds of music!), to come see an Antipodean. It helps, though, that we are twins, as you can see from the pic above. I'm the exhausted, tired, badly dressed one on the right. Paul is the elegant, satorial, and intelligent looking one on the left. I'm the Evil Twin, though...

Next to NYC, to visit Joel Cracraft at the AMNH. Joel thinks I fail to understand the modern species concepts, in particular phylogenetic species concepts, so I'm going to let him convince me (he's probably right, since I wasn't there and he was. On the other hand, there is the Traffic Accident Witness Effect). While in the Large Florescence, I will spend some time with Matt and Cathy Silberstein, who are putting me up (and putting up with me), and we will also have - you guessed - another Howlerfest. I suppose people want to come and see for themselves that somebody as inconceivable and absurd as I actually exists. Or they like beer. These are, of course, necessary and sufficient conditions to explain the event...

More later.