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

Friday, June 03, 2005

The evolution of ruling myths

It's funny how myths get started in science. As I continue to slog my way through various eras in search of the Giant Elusive Species Concept (it's in there somewhere. I can hear it rustling around), I come across what seem to be really useful sources. One of them is a classic paper by Conway Zirkle:

Zirkle, C. (1959). "Species before Darwin." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103(5): 636-644.

According to him, species were not regarded as fixed before they were declared to be so by Linnaeus in the late 17th century. He adduces all kinds of sources, including Aristotle (of course), a bunch of late Classical writers, Augustine, Aquinas and so on. But I was a little bemused at the way he treated Aristotle, and so when he said "Theophrastus devoted almost an entire book (Enquiry into Plants Bk II) to describing how plants changed their species", I was suspicious. I had finished a review of how Theophrastus, the founder of botany (unless Aristotle did it first as rumour has it) and a student of Aristotle, had treated species in Book I, and it didn't seem to gel.

Off to the library, returning with the Loeb edition (Greek and English), and Theophrastus' De Causis Plantarum for good measure. [If ever I win a lottery, I intend to order the entire Loeb classical library.]

Guess what? Zirkle is, so far as I can tell, almost complete wrong. Theophrastus is concerned with how to propagate plants by seed, by cuttings, by grafting and so on, and apart from repeating Aristotle's belief in spontaneous generation, which I outline here, he is entirely sensible about it. He doesn't think plants or animals suddenly change their species (they do, of course, change their form, especially in metamorphosis). Like any good horticulturist, such stupidity is ruled out by a vast experience. Kudos to Theo...

Why the mistake? Well Zirkle is reading his sources through a particular lens - that of the post-Darwinian period. So he either has complete fixism of species (which, to be fair, Linnaeus did have, at least in the standard works; later he noted a case of speciation by hybridisation in the genus Pelor), or he has transmutation of species. But that isn't the right contrast for the material - its either a rigid fixism, or a rough and ready maintenance of kinds. Not "species"; at least not in the sense a modern would use it.

Originally, "species" was the "special" term divided out from a broader "general term" - "a genus". So both genus and species were "kind terms". Locke made the suggestion that we think of them as "kind" for genus and "sort" for species. In the middle ages and earlier, that's a pretty good translation. So if something changes from one sort to another, has it changed species? Not necessarily.

Anyway, it's fun getting into the mindsets of the ancients. And as I do, yet again, I realise they are not stupid or blind. Calling Captain Obvious...

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A gulag? Or just a concentration camp?

The Washington Post recently complained that the Amnesty Internation Report on human rights abuses was being unfair in comparing the Guantanemo Bay camp to the Soviet gulags. Many others have joined in, and today Prez Shrub dismissed it as "absurd" and written by "people who hate America". Well, not yet, George, but keep at it and we may all yet.

What did the report say? Actually the reports themselves were fairly measured in their tone. The "gulag" comment came from the Introduction by the Secretary General of Amnesty, Irene Khan:
Despite the near-universal outrage generated by the photographs coming out of Abu Ghraib, and the evidence suggesting that such practices are being applied to other prisoners held by the USA in Afghanistan, Guantánamo and elsewhere, neither the US administration nor the US Congress has called for a full and independent investigation.

Instead, the US government has gone to great lengths to restrict the application of the Geneva Conventions and to “re-define” torture. It has sought to justify the use of coercive interrogation techniques, the practice of holding “ghost detainees” (people in unacknowledged incommunicado detention) and the "rendering" or handing over of prisoners to third countries known to practise torture. The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law. Trials by military commissions have made a mockery of justice and due process.

The USA, as the unrivalled political, military and economic hyper-power, sets the tone for governmental behaviour worldwide. When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a licence to others to commit abuse with impunity and audacity. From Israel to Uzbekistan, Egypt to Nepal, governments have openly defied human rights and international humanitarian law in the name of national security and “counter-terrorism”.
Emphasis mine. The Wash Post, which I expected better of, complained that the gulags were a chain of detention camps, while Gitmo is only one. That makes me feel a whole lot better. Hell, they even deplore the same things mentioned in the Amnesty report. Is there anything in the comments by Khan here that one can sensibly object to? A gulag, according to the Wikipedia article, is in "the original Russian abbreviation, never in plural, described not a single camp, but the government institution in charge of the entire camp system". What is Gitmo? Well, it's the focus of an entire system of detention of unfriendly, or seen to be unfriendly, or might have been unfriendly in the view of the local military commander, persons in countries where the US doesn't have the unfettered right to do with these folk whatever it deems necessary. It's run by direct government dictate.

Is it unfair to call this a gulag? Is it unfair to compare the loss of human rights, ignorance of all the relevant international conventions, the physical mistreatment, isolation from their family and friends, denial of access to the due process of law, the public show trials, and so on of Guantanemo Bay to the Gulag? Gee, forgive me if I don't think so.

One other thing - the report outlines again and again that countries who have a drug export problem are tying it in with the "war on terror" (how does one fight an emotional reaction, I wonder?), and following the United States' example. Just as the Introduction notes, it has set a very bad example. And relating anything one happens to have a campaign against with this "war" allows the denial of rights and legal recourse for anyone the administration or its arms chooses to deny them to.

Gulag. Say it loud. It's Gulag.

Embryos and evolution

This is a short review of a book I will do a proper review of for Philosophy in Review.

Amundson, Ron. 2005. The changing rule of the embryo in evolutionary biology: structure and synthesis, Cambridge studies in philosophy and biology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

AU - Amundson, R.
PY - 2005
BT - The changing rule of the embryo in evolutionary biology: structure and
CY - New York
PB - Cambridge University Press
SN - 0521806992 (alk. paper)
KW - Evolution (Biology) Philosophy.
Developmental biology Philosophy.
Embryology Philosophy.

Ron Amundson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawai'i, has long had an interest in the history of biological thought. Here, he enters into a revision of the nature of biology before Darwin, attacking what he calls the "Synthesis Historiography" (SH). I call it the Received View, and others have their own names for it, but basically it's the view you'll find in Ernst Mayr's Growth of Biological Thought.

It has long been known that the standard view, whatever it is called, is a rhetorical device used by scientists and philosophers to affirm the novelty of the new science. Scientists do this in every science - from astronomy to geology, science is a Whig Historian, finding precursors to the present everywhere, and chronicling the triumph of the "right" view. Mayr and other evolutionists did this too. The difficulty, for a historian of science, is to figure out what interests this served, and to work out what of the past is really like it is portrayed in the textbook views.

And Amundson shows some things that may surprise readers who only know the textbook accounts. For a start, the idea that species were fixed is a mid-17th century invention. Amundson fingers Linnaeus, but I think it's John Ray or a bit earlier. Older accounts of species had them able to change through hybridism or in ways that had to do with the nature of generation.

Moreover, essentialism, one of Mayr's bête noirs, doesn't make an appearance in biological systematics until Hugh Strickland, in the 1830s. And oddly, Darwin is an enabler here - the Strickland Rules were something he was crucial in getting adopted. Amundson points out that these were not essentialist in the way Mayr wrongly thinks preceded Darwin, that species were composed of their causal essence, but only in a formal, nomenclatural and diagnostic sense - species had better have a name and a definition or else we couldn't tell what we were referring to when we used a species name. That is pretty harmless.

Worse, the Mayrian claim that ideal morphology was a creationist view, or an example of the "idealist version of the argument from design", is historically false. The ideal morphologists associated with Goethe and Oken, and present in Britain in the person of Richard Owen, were neither statists (that is, opposed to temporal change of form) nor creationists. Instead, they expected that form could change over time, and were more interested in developmental sequences than evolution in the broader sense (for "evolution" originally meant development).

He presents in detail Owen's ideas and influence on the subsequent debate, as well as that of Cuvier, Martin Barry, and others on Darwin himself. Then, in part II, he addresses the invention of heredity in science, and the neo-Darwinian accounts of evolution, in a new and fresh way. In particular he deals with the "eclipse" of Darwin, so named by Huxley and dealt with by historian Peter Bowler in a book by that name, following Jean Gayon, who argued that the reason Darwin was eclipsed from 1890 to 1930 was reasonably simple - natural selection hadn't run up the scientific credentials. By 1930, it had.

I won't go into detail with Amundson's telling of the story - it is worth reading itself, and I urge those interested to do so. One thing that Amundson does is retrieve the "hidden" history of 20th century biology - that of developmental biology, which has been itself eclipsed until quite recently. Now, with the new field known as "evo-devo", the evolution of developmental cycles has become the hot new field as it integrates into genetics and the ecological aspects of biology.

I have few criticisms of the book. Its worst sin is pretty much a pecadillo - the naming of positions as "-isms" such as structuralism, essentialism, adaptationism, and so on. I recommend it to those worried that the neo-Darwinian view is all-conquering. I recommend it also to those who think this is a good thing.

There is no comfort for creationists here, of course. The history is in fact quite inimical to creationism although there is no intention to be. It's just a side effect of re-examining the history - creationism, and species fixism, were only minor players, and aren't even traditional accounts of species.

Strongly recommended.

Monday, May 30, 2005

So Corby was convicted

OK, Schapelle Corby got convicted by the Indonesian court in Bali for drug smuggling. Predictably, the media and pundits are having a field day - the Indonesian system is wrong, the country is dangerous, blah, blah.

At the same time, nine Australians were caught with heroin strapped to their bodies. But they are either Asian or ugly. Corby was cute, and not Asian. So we don't worry about them - they get what they deserve. We worry about the "former beauty queen". And at the same time, we get to diss the Indonesians. Isn't a free media wonderful?

Don't get me wrong - I don't think that the (French-inspired) presumption of guilt legal system is so great, but it can work. I think it worked here, and by reports those reporters who spent time covering the trial thought so too. But their bosses like cute video, so this is not the spin that was spun.

Corby probably was guilty, and yes, she'd probably get off in Australia. Of course, we don't have a death penalty (which I think is a Good Thing), perhaps we should have their system, and they ours. But notwithstanding, the judges didn't apply the death penalty, and from an Indonesian perspective, that's a big thing.

So, let's all sit back and watch Australia and others denigrate the rule of law in Indonesia. It's only something to be cherished in the west, after all. Especially if the "victim" is cute and white. In the meantime, let's all act like the colonials we are at heart, and insist that local laws don't apply to us Australians.

Late note: I have been informed in the comments that the European legal system does not presume guilt. I apologise to all Europeans and former colonies...