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, August 25, 2005

The tapestry of life

There's to be a colloquium on what is technically called "anastomosing evolution", or "lateral transfer", but which is better expressed as the "tapestry of life" here. This is the idea, nicely summed up in an image on Carl Zimmer's Loom, of the entanglement of the tree across branches, formed by lateral genetic transfer, hybridisation, endosymbiotic capture (where parasites and food organisms end up as part of the host organism and are reproduced along with it - our intracellular organelles, such as the mitochondrion, are examples), and so on.

The evolutionary tree metaphor still mostly holds. At the organism level, apart from the hybrids that form massively in plants and occasionally in animals and who knows how often in fungi, bacteria, algae and so on, species tend to split, and so larger scale groups tend to diverge over time. But we are finding, as is often the case in learning something new, that what we had down as the basic pattern of life is not all that neat.

Another example of Hull's Law: There is nothing so strange that some organism somewhere doesn't do it. Intuitions are unreliable, and teaching models are just for teaching...

I love the word "anastomosing". It is applied to the tiny capillaries in your body that turn red blood into blue blood that gets sent back to the lungs for reoxygenation. Phylogeneticists also use the terms "reticulation", "tokogeny" (for recombination at the sexual level), and "polytomy" for when three or more species cannot be distinguished in terms of branching order. Hybridisation causes polytomies ("many cuts") because the historical information about order is lost, although we cna perhaps retrieve it by using gene trees instead of taxon trees.

It has taken quite a while for reticulating (from retarius, Latin for net) evolution to be taken seriously, although everyone has known about hybridisation since Aristotle. Even Linnaeus recognised it, the famous Peloria case. So this is an interesting area to keep an eye on.

Nelson gets worse

Brendan Nelson is increasingly display signs of political ambition by pandering to the ideological dumb. Now he wants to spoil a perfectly reasonable response to the voluntary student unionism law by rejecting a compulsory levy to provide services.

VSU is a rejection of the old style compulsory unionism that used to be endemic in Australia. For reasons of political philosophy, the conservatives argue that there should be freedom of choice, and the ways in which student unions used to take overt political stances, there is, perhaps, some merit in that.

But the downside is that under VSU, basic services to students will suffer - health, dentistry, food cafs, sports facilities, and so on. To charge full user-pays would put these services out of the reach of students. They aren't political, but our Beloved Minister wants to treat them as if they are.

User-pays is a damned fool notion. It would mean that we should charge the full cost of train services, including line construction and maintenance, in the ticket price. It would mean that car drivers should pay a fee that allows the full construction costs of roads to be recovered. It means that infrastructure, which benefits the entire society, would become impossible. What's next, full cost recovery of the police?

Infrastructure that serves the community is very well charged back to the entire community - even if a student never uses dental and other services provided now by the Union of their uni, they benefit by having other students at the university as a result. And hey, guess what? The entire nation benefits from having an educated populace.

We've seen this user-pays notion of public infrastructure capitalism pushed for about 30 years now - it doesn't work, it has never worked, and it is stupid ideology. One doesn't need to be a socialist to see this. It is the Common Wealth. That's the foundation for society.

So let's adopt this sensible suggestion by Labor, and have our freedom, and our eateries too.

Nelson seems to me to be running a public campaign - is he planning to run for the leadership when Howard moves on? God help us all.. if the choice is between him and Costello, or worse, Tony Abbott, then bring on the radical socialists, I say!

Bill Maher's New Rules

I don't know who Bill Maher is, being geographically challenged and all that, but I love his New Rules:

1. Stop blaming the summer box office slump on DVDs and video games, and demographics.

2. Competitive eating isn't a sport. It's one of the seven deadly sins.

3. I don't need a bigger mega M&M. If I'm extra hungry for M&Ms, I'll go nuts and eat two.

4. Celebrities must stop using their TV shows to hawk their other projects. A point I should have made in my book, New Rules. Polite musings from a timid observer. Available in bookstores everywhere, and on amazon.com. Itunesaudible.com and Costco. Audio tape from Phoenix. Audio void where prohibited by law.

5. You don't have to teach both sides of a debate, if one side is a load of crap.

Maher follows up Rule 5 with this gem: I quote it entire, because it will undoubtedly increase sales for his book...
Now, President Bush recently suggested that public schools should teach intelligent design, alongside the theory of evolution. Because, after all, evolution is quote, "just a theory." Then the President renewed his vow to drive the terrorists straight over the edge of the earth.

Now, here is what I don't get. President Bush is a brilliant scientist. He's the man who proved you can mix two parts booze with one part cocaine, and still fly a jet fighter. And yet... yet he just can't seem to accept that we descended from apes.

It just seems pathetic to be so insecure about your biological superiority, to a group of feces-flinging, rouge-buttocked monkeys, that you have to make up fairy tales. Like we came from Adam and Eve, and then cover stories for Adam and Eve like, intelligent design. Yeah, leaving the Earth in the hands of two naked teenagers. That's a real intelligent design.

I'm sorry, folks, but it may very well may be that life is just a series of random events. And that there is no... master plan. But enough about Iraq. Let me instead restate my thesis. There aren't necessarily two sides to every issue. If there were, the Republicans would have an opposition party.

And an opposition party would point out that even though there's a debate, in schools, and government, about this, there is no debate among scientists. Evolution... is supported by the entire scientific community. Intelligent design is supported by guys online to see "The Dukes of Hazzard."

And the reason there is no real debate, is that intelligent design isn't real science. It's the equivalent of saying that the thermos keeps hot things hot and cold things cold, because it's a god. It's so willfully ignorant you might as well worship the U.S. Mail. It came again! Praise, Jesus!

No, stupidity isn't a form of knowing things. Thunder is high pressure air meeting low pressure air. It's not God bowling. Babies come from storks is not a competing school of thought... in medical school. We shouldn't teach both. The media shouldn't equate both. If Thomas Jefferson...

If Thomas Jefferson knew we were blurring the line this much between church and state, he would turn over in his slave. Now as for me, I believe in evolution and intelligent design. I think God designed us in his image, but I also think God is a monkey! God bless you and goodnight!
I wish I could write a book that good.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Nelson tells "UnAustralian" Muslims to clear off

Our increasingly worrying Federal Minister for Edumification is at it again. Now he has told Muslims who fail to accept and teach Australian values to "clear off". So, what are Australian values again?

Now I may not have been paying attention much when I was growing up, but I thought they included freedom of religion, rule of law, cultural diversity, and acceptance of those who come from overseas to make a new life here.

Possibly, I was asleep during the Australian Values class, because history, the history that Nelson appeals to, includes the rejection of the Chinese during the gold rush, the forced removal of Aboriginal children for paternalistic reasons (that turned out to be false), the retention of a White Australia policy by the Right and the Left until I was into my teen years, and so forth.

These Australian values seem to be very much the sort of values that the extremist Wahabists hold. They, too, are xenophobic, anti-diversity, paternalistic (the Imam knows best, just like Brendan Nelson) and use law as a means to a prior end, not as an end in itself as the principles of Common Law do.

So is Nelson asking the moderate Muslims to leave Australia? If so, can I tag along? I'd like to live in the country where they accept all religions and none (as I believe the Q'uran says they should, but see this verse for a worrying alternate view), and where being Christian is not seen as a duty.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Now New Zealand cops it

When I took a three week trip with my family through New Zealand a couple of years ago, I was taken with how sensible the locals were, and how unregulated their lives. They had an excellent education system, and, well, they were just like Australia before it got corporatised.

So I like New Zealand, very much, and it bothers me to have to mention that an international organisation by the name of Focus on the Family (shades of "Family First"!) is presenting trying to get its execrable DVD on ID into Kiwi schools by sending a free kit to 500 of them.

I'm guessing this is the same DVD that has played the same role in the US and here. I'm pleased at any rate to note that the newspaper is able to call it "creationism" without fear. Good on them.

More on Nelson and Family First

Chris Nedin flagged this piece from last November's Australian Science:

McGauran Out, Family First In

Howard has now dispensed with a separate, though junior, Minister for Science. Peter McGauran tried to make it appear that CSIRO and the Cooperative Research Centres would serve “the national interest” better by becoming predominantly commercial operations, directions that were dictated from on high. McGauran has been dispatched from the science portfolio and will now spend his days hosting ceremonies in the never-never land of Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs.

Brendan Nelson did not overtly exercise his power over science in the past term. Now he has become solely responsible for both large issues and detailed administration of science despite being busy bedding down his controversial changes to universities and stemming the rout of technical training.

Nelson will have his work cut out to recover from the distrust of this government among scientists. Opening conduits to scientists who are not cowed by the “managerialism” that overwhelms research institutions will not be easy following the departure of Nelson’s well-regarded science adviser, Dr Thomas Barlow, after completing his term through the last government.

If Family First, which Howard embraced with mutual exchange of preferences in the poll, exerts its influence in the Senate, Nelson could be confronted with an implicit challenge from the party’s power base in the fundamentalist Assemblies of God (AOG). Like its American counterparts, AOG is not only deeply conservative on moral and ethical issues but espouses creationism as the literal interpretation of the Bible (see Editorial, p.1). The Christian Right in the USA never ceases campaigning in state legislatures to overturn the teaching of evolution in schools and replace it with “creation science”.
Talk about your prophetic comment. So in this context we can expect that Nelson deliberately made that comment regarding Intelligent Design, and that this is part of a larger strategy, unless the Minister actually responds to requests for clarification. And it also looks like the Howard government really is turning "Christian".

Even worse, it appears that education is clearly now something that serves government policy (or whatever is declared to be government policy) in the sense of having to meet "National Priorities" which unsurprisingly leave things like pure science, humanities and so on out in the cold in favour of what politicians do (law, political science), need (economics) or hope for a big payoff from (medical research, primary industry research).

Australia is quickly becoming a banana republic in education.