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

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Confusing the medium with the message

It has been reported at Wired that the American Diabetes Foundation has set up a "virtual" lab rat to test diabetes cures. Actually, it's a non-obese diabetic (NOD) mouse, but that sounds less cool.

Traditionally in diabetes research, they have used mouse strains with certain genes knocked out to test the effects of diabetes. The antivivisection lobby has in the past claimed that we can use computer models of organisms instead of real animals. This appears to show that we can do this. Expect calls for the replacement of organisms with computer models in medical research soon.

But this is misleading. It only works if the relevant aspects of the organisms are extremely well understood, and there are no confounding factors. A model is only as good as its representativeness, so to speak. And organisms are much more complex than any simulation - in the end, some experimental work will need to be done. There are no shortcuts. And for the NOD model, a lot of experimental work needed to be done before we could even begin to consider using it in research. Perhaps it will work - if so, it's because we already know what we need to know to make it work.

This is part of a much wider confusion, I believe, in science and generally, between the models and descriptions, which are abstractions, and the things in the world that are modeled and described. An organism is not an abstract system. It is very physical, and it differs in detail and occasionally in larger ways from its relatives and nearest species. And any one of those differences can, well, make a difference.

Suppose that we do figure it out well enough to model the pathways that lead to diabetes. A "cure" is delivered based on that model. Are we done? Not at all. Knowledge is not delivered in neat textbook examples, but in the interplay of those who have it and the things known about. It may be that the cure affects growth rates, or neural development, or the propensities of the organisms to develop pancreatic cancer. How can we know this? By observing the effects upon real, not model, organisms. And that either means humans, someone's children or spouse or parents, or it means model animals. Mice, rats and so forth. The very things the model is supposed to replace.

Don't leap to thinking that the medium - the model - is the message - the organism. Just as abstract things aren't concrete, abstract cybernetic systems are not the same as concrete organic systems. The Harvard Rule - that under carefully controlled conditions the organism will do as it damned well pleases - must always be borne in mind.

Friday, May 20, 2005

A bird in the hand - Frederick II

One of the aims I have, and principles I work by, while preparing my book on the history of species concepts, is the rule that people weren't stupid before Darwin, nor did they suddenly become bright after him. Depending on how you read that, I am either a cynic or an optimist.

As I read through the material I can get hold of, I am repeatedly struck by how acute some of the people are. Aristotle grows in my estimation every time I read him (he's still wrong, but interestingly), and so too do the medieval thinkers. There is a tradition of denigrating the scholastics which was instituted by renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers to draw a sharp contrast with their own, new and improved, thinking. Even Locke fell prey to this.

Sure, a few lucky precursors are acknowledged by the historians - Roger Bacon, Linnaeus, and so on, but each historian of science has a Turning Point after which Progress Was Made. For the synthetic evolutionists of the 1940s, that turning point was Darwin, of course.

But some of the more inclusive histories are not so sharp in their divisions of the rational from the irrational. A classical work on the history of ornithology is Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present (1950, Engl. 1975), by Erwin Stresemann, the advisor of Ernst Mayr. He wrote this book without much access to libraries, in his spare time, but it remains, along with Erik Nordenskiold's (1928) History of Biology a classic in the field of history of the biological sciences.

Stresemann was obviously a classically trained scholar - he discusses with acuity the late medieval writers, and one of them is graced with the following paen: "Although a great deal has been written on [ornithology] since the eighteenth century, Konrad Lorenz in 1933 was the first direct observer among ornithologists to surpass him in variety of experience and acuteness of interpretation." Who is this marvel? The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, King of Sicily and Jerusalem.

In between ruling, being a patron of the arts and sciences, Frederick had a passion for falconry. In fact, it is said that in reply to one of the Khan's interminable letters demanding Frederick's submission, he replied that he would gladly lay down his crown if the Khan would appoint him his falconer. What really got my attention, though, is that he was excommunicated not once, but twice, for refusing to submit to Papal authority in matters of state. We owe Frederick II quite a lot, I warrant.

So, what is it in his work that is so interesting to a humble historian of biology (and to me, too)? It is his entirely modern attitude to observation and rejection of simple authority.

Picture it - Aristotle's works on animals have just been translated from Arabic to Latin by Michael Scot. He is thought of as The Philosopher - usually no other name is needed. And Frederick has this to say in a manual on falconry:
Inter alia, we discovered by hard-won experience that the deductions of Aristotle, whom we followed when they appealed to our reason, were not entirely to be relied upon, more particularly in his descriptions of the characters of certain birds.

There is another reason why we do not follow implicitly the Prince of Philosophers: he was ignorant of the practice of falconry – an art which to us has ever been a pleasing occupation, and with the details of which we are well acquainted. In his work "Liber Animalium" we find many quotations from other authors whose statements he did not verify and who, in their turn, were not speaking from experience. Entire conviction of the truth never follows mere hearsay.
His aim, he says in De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus (The art of hunting with birds), is "to show things that are as they are." And not content with just saying that, he really does. He identifies species of birds accurately, describes them, and notes, in complete anticipation of later taxonomic problems, that
a description of the essential characters of individual birds [i.e., of a species] is more difficult to furnish, whether they resemble or are different from another in the shape of the limbs, the movements they make, the way they feed, the care of their young, their mode of flight, and their style of defense. Let it, however, be remembered that, in general, their bodily conditions and their other peculiarities are due to definite causes.
This is astonishing. Here it is the 13th century. 300 years later, Scaliger reports that he himself has seen the Barnacle Goose form from the wood of a tree branch. Here's Frederick's comment:
There is also a small species known as the barnacle goose, arrayed in motley plumage ..., of whose nesting haunts we have no certain knowledge. There is, however, a curious popular tradition that they spring from dead trees. It is said that in the far north old ships are to be found in whose rotting hulls a worm is born that develops into the barnacle goose. This goose hangs from the dead wood by its beak until it is old and strong enough to fly. We have made prolonged research into the origin and truth of this legend and even sent special envoys to the North with orders to bring back specimens of those mythical timbers for our inspection. When we examined them we did observe shell-like formations clinging to the rotten wood, but these bore no resemblance to any avian body. We therefore doubt the truth of this legend in the absence of corroborating evidence. In our opinion this superstition arose from the fact that barnacle geese breed in such remote latitudes that men, in ignorance of their real nesting place, invented this explanation.
This is something that might have been written in the 19th century, or at latest in the 18th. The book is a marvelous compendium of knowledge about raptors, all drawn from experience. Yes, he adopts the Aristotelian division of waterfowl, land birds and "neutral" birds, but when it gets down to brass tacks, he says this:
the same genera and species are given different names by diverse authors. Sometimes the same bird may have a variety of synonyms; and the same name applied to diverse birds so dissimilar that one cannot establish the true identity of a species simply by its name.
Any modern taxonomist would agree.

Then, just to make it even more astonishing, he notes that “productive Nature” formed organs for each species that are benevolent for one species but malevolent for another, and that it
must be held, then, that for each species, and each individual of the species, Nature has provided and made, of convenient, suitable, material, organs adapted to individual requirements. By means of these organs the individual has perfected the functions needful for himself. It follows, also, that each individual, in accordance with the particular form of his organs and the characteristics inherent in them, seeks to perform by means of each organ whatever task is most suitable to the form of that organ.
All that is missing here, is a claim that the most fit will become the most widespread form, and we would have an anticipation of Darwin.
Now it is easy to go to the other extreme and find precursors for just about anything and anyone, but I am truly impressed by Frederick. When I read him, I read a modern mind, in contrast to the bestiaries and herbals of his day, filled with rubbish mostly gleaned from Pliny.

The tragedy is, that had he not been excommunicated, his book would have been widely circulated (although it was read by many of the aristocracy, who loved falconry - even Albert the Great, who had access to Frederick's falconers when writing his compendium De Animalibus, was keen on it, depict being a monk), and so the scientific mindset might have gotten a broader hold 350 years sooner.

But it does prove that stupidity is a constant, not a historical period.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Teaching Human Nature

I came across this item in the Washington Post, about a school in Washington, the Amistad Academy, which teaches black and Hispanic students they do not have to fail. They do something that I find rather interesting, and which cuts across what might be thought of as Standard Educational Philosophy - that students need to be treated in an egalitarian non-elitist fashion, and be allowed to "express themselves".

To achieve their aim, they give sanctions - both positive and negative (shock!) - and offer markers of status within the school community, as well as markers of being in the community (a school shirt - if you misbehave, you lose the right to wear it, and must wear an ordinary shirt). This is a deliberate attempt to overcome gang membership markers and status.

Why I find this interesting (apart from the what seems to me obvious point that children are unfinished by definition, and have to be shown how to express themselves, and mostly what it is acceptable to express) is that this melds nicely with some ideas I have been floating for some time now (and which aren't original to me): that humans are pack animals striving to find the best available position in their pack, and use a variety of behavioural and cultural markers to identify those who are in-pack and those who are out-pack.

Human behaviour - in schools, in workplaces, and in the broader social polity - is driven by this strategy we all have for establishing as best we can our position within the pack, and increasing our status. Bullies in the playground or the office are asserting dominance over others using their prior position or physical attributes. Drivers of expensive but impracticable cars are asserting their social position in their pack, as well as identifying which pack they are in. Gangs are a kind of mutual aid society, and the amount of aid you'll get depends critically on what status you have in that gang.

Leave it there, and we have the beginnings of an argument for social Darwinism of one form or another, but it doesn't stop there. Knowing that forms which survive are fitter than others in biology, for instance, merely states a fact about the animals. If you want to save the endangered bilby you don't do it because it is already fitter than its competitors, you do it because the bilby has value to you and you want to protect it for that reason.

Knowing these things about ourselves - that we are status-driven pack animals - enables us to overcome our biology to an extent, and to channel it so that the outcomes are more in line with our values. Kids matter, in non-dominant social groups as well as dominant ones, so we should use our knowledge of ourselves to make sure that black and Hispanic and indigenous and other minority groups can succeed. If you compete with a gang, as this school and its supporting society does, you need to supplant their tribal markers with your own. This is what Amistad seems to be doing.