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

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Alas! Poor Iraq!

What does a country racked by religious and ethnic divisions, undermined by religious fundamentalists of other countries, occupied by a wealthy but seemingly incompetent foreign power, and suffering the effects of a long term strategy of starvation and violence need the least?

That's right! Evangelical religion! Up to seven Baptist churches based on the Southern U.S. variety have been set up in Iraq since the "war" ended.

And there are people taking it up. This is unsurprising, since the religions of invaders very often are taken up by the captors, in an attempt to "get in good" with the new power elites. And it suits the victors, too, to have people acknowledge their dominance and righteousness this way. "See?", they'll say now, "We were doing God's work after all."

Such rationalisations have always been offered after conquest. But this isn't a crusade, no siree..

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Zimmer on cnidarians

Come on. You knew cnidarians are jellyfish, didn't you?

Carl Zimmer has published a very nice article on the evolution of cnidarians in the New York Times. I don't have the time right now, but I wonder if this supports or undercuts the old view of Lankester and Haeckel about the use of germ layers to reconstruct phylogenetic history at the base? This research seems to show that bilaterians (us) and jelly fish had a wormlike common ancestor at the base of the Cambrian.

Pee Zee Myashz should blog this one.

Late note: Mahirs already had blogged this one. [I wonder if tracking back to a post that tracks back to this one will cause an infinite regress and the end of civilisation as we know it? Let's see what happens.]

Blast him. I'll find something he doesn't know or hasn't heard about one day, I know I will.

Late, late note: Zimmer has put this up on his blog too. Let's see if we can make the universe disappear into a power set of black holes through recursive trackbacks...

Late, late, late note: Murzz has finally given an excellent explanation and description of this. Bless his atheist cotton socks.

Theologian admits archaic methods used

This is one of those lovely pieces that can be so misreported by journalists, I'm tempted to do it myself. I'll try not to.

Bradley McLean of Knox College at the University of Toronto in Canada has admitted that theologians and biblical scholars are stuck in the 19th century, so far as methods go. This admission is driven by funding concerns, which drive all scholars, but I wonder what he is going to suggest.

The scholarship of the 19th century (sometimes referred to by fundamentalists as "modernism", which indicates their perspectives) was document based, and used largely critical linguistic tools to uncover the meaning and authorship of the classical and biblical texts. In the time, this was as much as could be done, and nobody should criticise them any more than one should criticise 19th century biologists for not knowing molecular biology.

But what methods can a theologian replace these with? I certainly hope it is not with the outgrowth of biblical hermeneutics that made its way into literary studies, sometimes known as "critical method", for that is not an advance, that is a regression. Archeology, on which much of biblical studies relies, has its own methods, largely a mix of geological and anthropological methods and supporting techniques. How can one find out, though, the theological message of an ancient text?

In short, does theology even have a method? I think it doesn't, because theology is not a discovery discipline. When it needs to use discovery methods, it borrows them from history, sociology, anthropology, and archeology. But how it arrives at its conclusions is another matter, and not a matter either of science or scholarship in general. It is more akin to basic philosophy - the formulating of arguments and the shifts in critical opinion of the players of that game.

In my opinion...

Monday, June 20, 2005

Don't do it! Don't use Microsoft graphics!

This is a bit of a blast from my prior life as a graphics maven.

It seems Microsoft have released betas of some of their Adobe competition software for PDF, Illustrator and Flash (recently acquired by Adobe in their buyout of Macromedia).

From 20 years of working with Microsoft graphics, in particular PowerPoint, and trying to make quality graphics from that, I have one thing to say:

Don't do it!

Microsoft will do several things I don't need to even see the software running to know they will:

1. They will break their own file standards, even if they publish them as open standards. They did this with RTF, repeatedly.

2. They will continually "upgrade" their native file format so that nobody can import their graphics successfully.

3. They will limit export filters, and cripple them, so that you cannot properly use graphics created by them (apart from GIF, PNG - which they still don't properly support transparency for - and maybe TIFF) in any software other than Microsoft.

4. They will have all these features that sound great, but they won't be able to do the basic things that every graphics program can do. The prior example of this is Werd's [sic] inability to do multiple documents (FrameMaker could do this properly, stably, and consistently in 1984!).

Save yourselves. Adobe's software generally works well, is stable on more than one platform, has consistent software formats, supports (most - they bought FrameMaker and left it to die slowly) its software. Moreover, it is widely used - we don't need another electronic document format - PDF works fine and has done since it's inception (despite the naysayers). What PDF needs is structure (i.e., XML metadata).

I told you, and if you ignore me you will suffer. See if you don't.

The not-so-Great Chain

This item in Nature was brought to my attention by a post on sci.bio.evolution, which I had missed when it was published four weeks ago because I'm getting sloppy in my reading (well, I'm reading stuff published in the middle ages through to the 18th century, so cut me some slack).

It is a short comment by Stephen Nee on the tendency of evolutionary thinkers to reinvent or reassert the Great Chain of Being, a view of life first substantially and clearly expressed by historian of ideas, E. O. Lovejoy in 1936. But it goes back to Aristotle and is found throughout the middle ages until now. Basically it is the idea that there is a continuous scale of organisation from very simple living things to us.

But the Great Chain is more than a hangover; it is a durable idea. It infects anthropology, cognitive studies, and philosophy as well as biology, and it was inserted into evolutionary traditions when Lamarck borrowed the scale from Bonnet in the early years of the 19th century and turned it on its side. No longer did the ladder range from bottom to top (approaching God in the process); now it ranged from early to late, with later being better in some way.

Darwinian evolution, however, is not a Great Chain. Later is just... later. Of course Darwin himself got a bit confused about this from time to time, but the message that Darwinian evolution was not necessarily progressive, and that humans are not the single most spectacular opus of Nature ever was clear, and offensive! Rejecting this implication of evolution, in cultural evolution as well as biological evolution, became a cottage industry, involving reinterpretations of Schopenhauer, Hegel, and Kant, as well as devising sometimes mystical evolutionary accounts (Teilhard or Bergson), or special cases for culture (Gould comes to mind, but there are many others, such as Rescher).

Nobody seemed too happy to accept that humans were just another organism, special in its own way as every species is, not not special in a unique style. Nor did they seem happy to accept that history no more than biology is not linear and progressive. Still it persists. Maynard Smith and Szathmary, as noted in the article, treat the seven stages of evolution from microbe to us (at any rate the ones they deem significant) as linear and in a way predetermined.

I sometimes suspect that scientists are so keen to see the Great Chain in biology because it underpins their belief that science is likewise progressive. But science is not progressive in any simple linear sense at all - theories go dormant to be revived two thousand years later (atomism, material heredity), or they die because they are dead ends (phlogiston, ether), or bad results don't get published, leaving the implication that science progresses (Pasteur published only 10% of his results on heterogeny - spontaneous generation of modern organisms - discarding the "wrong" ones. It caused a scandal in France when this was published). The impression that science or biology progresses can only be maintained by ignoring all the "wrong" events, processes and tendencies.

So, boys and girls, I strongly recommend you all purge yourselves of the belief that it's getting better all the time. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes being us is no real improvement by any measure.

Lovejoy, A. O. (1936). The great chain chain of being: a study of the history of an idea.
Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.