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, November 03, 2005

Terror law change 'unnecessary'

Well duh...

From the Australian Financial Review.

On postmodernism

As I am wont to say, I don't know what postmodernism is post to, but whatever it is, I'm in favor of it - I'm a prepostmodernist (modernism, an architectural movement, can't possibly be what it is I'm opposing to postmodernism, so I have to name it somehow).

Courtesy of Leiter's blog, here is a nice essay by Keith de Rose on why analytic philosophers find postmodernism to be, well, unphilosophical:
My duties on humanities divisional committees have involved me in reading quite a bit of material by (what I at least take to be) postmodern writers. I would have to classify a lot of the material I’ve had to read as philosophy, but it is written by people who teach in various different humanities departments other than philosophy departments at various schools. And I generally find it to be dreadful.

Only having "certain doubts" is a very mild reaction, as far as I am concerned. So why is PoMo so popular among otherwise quite sensible intellectuals? I know intelligent folk who love this stuff. I suspect it is because the game they play, as opposed to the game analytic philosopher play, is of a totally different, almost aesthetic, order. For an analytic philosopher, "critique" means to discuss the actual ideas formally, clearly and logically. For the PoMo thinker, it is more like allusion, playing with intuitions, feelings, values and so on in the mode of a poet. Which is fine, if you want poetry.

PoMo writings suggest all kinds of things, but as the organiser (and therefore chair) of our philosophy seminar series this year, I got to hear a number of these lectures, and I was struck at how little criticism actually goes into a PoMo talk - a "critique" tends to be restricted to assertions of the "problematic nature" (or worse, "problematicity") of some other writer.

Colour me skeptical of radical skepticism, I guess. To each their own, takes all kinds, and a funny old world, innit?

900 years of faith-based opposition to reason

Here's a nice little essay on the ID argument looking back nearly a millenium, by Phillip Ball in Nature. One has to like an essayist who starts out quoting Adelard of Bath:
"I do not detract from God. Everything that is, is from him, and because of him. But [nature] is not confused and without system, and so far as human knowledge has progressed it should be given a hearing. Only when it fails utterly should there be recourse to God."
Alas! Such sentiments escape the finer discrimination of the Intelligent Design proponents...

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Using paleontology and molecular clocks

This image from Myers' post about vaginal evolution in mammals intrigued me enormously. It has two trees with the same topology but using "hard" data - the fossil record - for the black version and "soft" data - molecular clock estimates - for the red.

I imagine a cone of decreasing probability from the paleontological record back to the molecular point, so that the likelihood that the lineage existed within that range decreases (actually, it would decrease to the lower of the error interval of the molecular date). Time erases information - it's a fact of history. We don't know within a strong confidence interval when many evolutionary events took place - at best we know that they took place. I think there is something deep about the philosophy of history in this.

Just thought I'd share.

The evolution of... you know what.

Lest our genteel readers take offense, we are now discussing the evolution of intimate reproductive plumbing in mammalian females. You know, it...

Mhyerhsz has done it again - making good science accessible and interesting. I wonder when they'll stop him?

Monday, October 31, 2005

Security from public debate?

The federal government's refusal to put the text of the proposed new anti-terror bill in the public domain is totally confusing to me. An earlier draft was leaked by the ACT Chief Minister, which allowed for a public debate and a backdown by other state premiers in their support for this shadowy piece of legislation. But the PM and his cronies (yes, I think they are now worthy of that derogatory label) have threatened any state minister who puts what will be, after all, a piece of public legislation in the free and clear public domain with legal action.

Sorry? We are not allowed to see this draft because why? Is it a threat to national security or something? Are we worried terrorists will get legal advice and lobby for a watering down of the terms? Or is somebody aiming to sell copies and make, so to speak, a killing?

I cannot believe that we are putting up with this. It's a crucial act of parliament, for gods' sake. It promises to roll back legal rights of centuries' standing. We ought to be able to see it and have a public debate. But it appears the first time we will see this is when it has been passed. Something is going on, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.

I suspect this is similar to the changeover of the instrumentalities of Prohibition in the States to the drug prohibition agencies, back in the 30s. We are seeing government agencies like ASIO seeking more power and broader empires, and this is a good way for it to happen. Perhaps they were jealous of the totally draconian and arbitrary powers of the American DEA. But it's a power grab, pure and simple.

This is how democracy dies, Princess Amydala; not with thunderous applause, but with bureaucratic maneuvering.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Tribalism, evolving societies, and Popper

I generally lay into Popper a fair bit in my travels, particularly as a philosopher of science, and so it is only fair that I should given this site, on tribalism and other collectivisms, a nod. Here we see an excellent article by Roger Sandall, on Popper's book The Open Society and Its Enemies, which of all Popper's books is most influential on my thought. Sandall notes the equivocal nature of the term "tribe" in these days of indigenous rights, and how it plays out in the current Islamist crisis.

I have long thought, and Sandall reminds me why I think it, that the objection to the modern world found in creationism, Islamism, and other antimodernisms, is really a playing out of the general human condition of tribalism. We mark out our tribes in the modern world in different ways than we did in the past, because now our tribes are interspersed geographically. In earlier societies we marked out tribes territorially, something that mattered seriously when we used territory ot gather, hunt and later farm our food resources [on which, see David Rindos' The Origins of Agriculture, and Diamond's derivative Guns, Germs and Steel]. Now we do it by religious, linguistic, cultural and sporting markers. But we still use tribal markers. Urban life is not some "artificial" state we find ourselves in; we are always in our "natural state". And we shoudl expect that each new form of life we evolve we will employ our ordinary behaviours.

Popper's Open Society is often regarded as individualistic and an apology for capitalism, but it seems to me that he was defending something deeper than that. We lived, once, in an open society. Nazism, Communism and Capitalist collectivism all threaten that. While many things Popper said were either overly optimistic or overly pessimistic, and sometimes naive, he put his finger on a terribly important point. Freedom flourishes only when we do not allow tribalisms to control us.

PS: Thanks to Richard Frost for bringing this to my attention.

Garrison Keillor on politics

A post by Merghers on Halloween as a Republic Holiday (you scare everyone half to death and gobble up as much as you can without concern for the consequences) led me to this lovely column, by the famous Garrison Keillor, who invented or reported Lake Wobegon (where all the children are above average).
If your alderman introduced a resolution in the city council called the Salute To Our Boys In Uniform Resolution, which proclaimed that we support the troops in their mission to light a beacon of freedom in a dark world, etc., and in small print in Section II, Division A, Paragraph 4, Line 122 was a provision giving the alderman's brother-in-law Walt the contract to haul garbage, the honorable gentleman would be denounced as a crook and a dodo. And yet this same dodge has worked beautifully for Republicans in Washington, who have clubbed their hapless opponents over the head with Old Glory and then set up shop and profited mightily, and more power to them. I am in favor of corruption so long as it makes people truly happy. And so long as somebody writes a good confessional memoir like John Dean's "Blind Ambition."
It's nice to see corruption given its true place in the democratic process. Particularly in America, where the right to happiness is guaranteed by the Constitution and Nature.

The phylogeny of blogs, and other things

There's a nice little discussion on Science and Sensibility about the evolutionary relationships between science blogs (which he kindly, and unrealistically, classifies my blog as). In doing so, David, the author, introduces some of the techniques used to generate trees as classifications. There's some discussion in the comments worth reading.

It raises a deep question for me. A tree diagram can be seen as a classification based on resemblance, or a classification based on causal processes that generate lineages. "Lineage" is a term used to denote any ancestor-descendent chain. Now it isn't the case that blogs spawn other blogs, and in culture generally a lot of the problem of historical influence lies in determining what actually gave rise to what (for instance, in meme theory). So is the fact that PZ Myers (or whatever the spelling is) outed my initial blog a causal process? Not really. I've been an opinionated sumbitch for years, and I didn't need Paul to encourage me to share my "insights". A general lull in background noise is enough for me to do this.

So is a cladogram/phylogram sufficient to classify these relationships, or should we use a network rather than a tree? It's a tough question.

But it seems the same problem is to be found in actual biology, too, what with Lateral Genetic Transfer, endosymbiosis, and other "phylogenetic signal" obscuring processes being discovered and taken into account. Was Darwin's metaphor of a tree a good idea? Or should we have stuck with his "coral" metaphor, which lacked the structure of a tree, with its always-articulating and never-reticulating branches? [I love the fact that a net is reticulus and the gladiators who used nets were reticulari. The classical allusions of biology are great fun.]

In cultural evolution, we expect, or so many say, that there will be lots of horizontal transfer. It is a key disanalogy between biology and culture. And yet, when it comes down to it, most of the time we chart influences, traditions, schools, languages, and the like as, you guessed, tree diagrams. It may be simply that evolutionary processes make trees over time, but I think it more likely that we can "see" trees through time unless there is too much confusion of the signal. So I think that when two traditions merge or share their "memetic" material too greatly, we simply lose sight of them. Otherwise, we can differentiate them from each other, and "see" a tree.

Phylogenetic signals, are, in other words, the retention of sufficient history for us to see what happened in the past. And this allows us to use tree diagrams to represent that history...

A Sunday musing.