Saturday, 28 February 2009

Thinking again, growing up, and being ambivalent

No posts here recently, as my blogging time has been saturated by a couple of discussions over at The Blogging Parson:
  • "Missiological assumptions?", on what was actually going on when (many) churches shifted to informal services, and informality more generally; and

  • "In praise of difficult children", a response to an Adam Phillips piece in the London Review of Books on "truancy", self-betrayal, and self-understanding. (The link to Phillips' essay is here, but you'll need a subscription to read all of it.) If you think this sounds like something that earnest Christian types might have trouble assimilating, then of course you'd be right. The discussion has turned into a dialogue between myself and some others, in which I am I hope with some subtlety, but no doubt at far too great length, arguing that we should get with the program.
Anyone interested in these issues, or in my own related concerns, will find a great deal on them ad loc: the first discussion, on liturgy and more general church practice in this town, has generated a lot of heat; but also some light. A couple of excellent posts by Laurence (known to some readers of this blog) are a case in point.

I read The Blogging Parson very regularly, and participate in discussions there quite often, but remain (as previously mentioned) ambivalent about it. Michael has the gift of making initial posts that are both informed and provocative, and that generate real discussion; but some of that discussion is frankly dismaying. It's a partial answer to point to the grim nature of much online discussion generally, but only a partial answer.

Along related lines Michael is kind enough to hat-tip me for some rather slight help I gave him in thinking through an issue for an article in Southern Cross. I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, people read SC, and Michael is a reasonable man whose opinion I respect, so I'm happy that he is writing for it; on the other, I thoroughly disapprove of the magazine and think my friend is wasting his time or worse. But did I mention the part about me respecting his opinion?

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

xkcd on the Neutral Point of View

Randall Munroe comments on Wikipedia's sententious “Neutral point of view” policy in the latest xkcd comic, Neutrality Schmeutrality.

As usual, the mouse-rollover extra is worth the effort.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Happy Birthday, Uncle Charles

Charles Robert Darwin (1809—1882), gentleman amateur, med-school dropout, ground-breaking geologist, youthful traveller, lifelong naturalist; devoted husband, father, and homebody; authority on barnacles and worms; theorist on coral reefs, and both natural selection and sexual selection in evolution—a man both of and before his time—was born 200 years ago today.

Some articles in celebration:

In the London Review of Books, a heartbreaking poem by Ruth Padel, ‘The Sea Will Do Us All Good’ (subscription only, alas)

In the New York Times Science pages:
Darwin, Ahead of His Time, Is Still Influential
Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live
Genes Offer New Clues in Old Debate on Species’ Origins
Crunching the Data for the Tree of Life
Seeing the Risks of Humanity’s Hand in Species Evolution
Darwin the Comedian
and an interactive feature: On Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’

(Last year Olivia Judson ran a small series along similar lines, for the sesquicentenary of the announcement of natural selection: Darwinmania!, An Original Confession, and Let’s Get Rid of Darwinism.)

As the most provocative of those essays argues, Darwin is not evolution, and evolution is not Darwin. (We should also be careful to give Wallace his due.) In the limits of a few words, I tried to be precise about him: Darwin did not give us evolution, but he did give us natural selection and sexual selection—he gave us mechanisms for the process; and he gave us evidence. In any organised enquiry, evidence has to count for something. And in the natural sciences, mechanism counts for a lot.

His legacy is so distorted by the still-ongoing struggle of our culture to assimilate evolution: it's important to note that the concept not only predates Darwin, but also predates its own scientific respectability; and that the objections mostly concern a cluster of ideas in ethics and political economy that have little to do with biology. Yet, as some of the above-listed authors complain, it has all become bundled together in a package called “Darwinism”. (The idea of Evolution, with its permanent capital letter, is not much better.) In modern times at least, this reaction runs smack into many scientists' reverence for Darwin himself, and so the drama becomes knotted and unending. I hate to think what Darwin, a reflective and sensitive man, would have made of it.

It may ultimately be a distraction in understanding biology, but scientists are people too, and the worship of Darwin is as much about character and values as about the content of the science. The Old Man was painstaking, patient, and empirical, placing evidence before theory; intellectually honest but hating to give offence, devoting his life to his work but devoted to a personal life beyond it: he is every scientist's sainted Uncle Charles, the standard we know we can't live up to. Newton and Maxwell are authorities we respect; Galileo and Einstein are prophets, champions, and men of genius; and in my field, at least, Feynman is revered as a clay-footed hero. But Darwin ... Darwin is loved. Loved by many scientists, myself most certainly included.

Happy birthday to you, sir.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

A rather random list ...

... of things I've been reading while trying to stop obsessing about the change of government in the US.

The New York Times:
On why Big Pharma is not the only villain in the drugs business
On telling the Holocaust like it wasn’t
On one of our basic needs: Instruction in manners
On single-mothers-by-choice, and the second child
On the joys and pains of being an animal
On rude placenames in the United Kingdom
On the wording of the presidential oath

Stanley Fish:
On Barack Obama's prose style
On academic freedom: Finkin and Post's book, and an extreme case

On less serious subjects: you may have seen the news that Ricardo Montalbán died a few weeks ago; the NYT obituary reproduced my favourite quote about him, from a review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan:
With his fierce profile, long white hair, manful décolletage and Space Age jewelry, Mr. Montalbán looks like either the world’s oldest rock star or its hippest Indian chief ... Either way, he looks terrific.
And in a bout of unashamed nostalgia, I looked up Willow Tree on YouTube: a 1990 song from the folk/acoustic/world/whatever band Not Drowning, Waving. The video is not much chop, but the song is superb: I don't remember anything quite like it, for capturing a certain kind of adult longing for childhood --- that part of childhood, at least, that you would want to revisit.
So we swing
On the big willow tree
We all glide through the air
On the branches that hang
We all know just where we want to be ...

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Getting some perspective: (6) On Barack Obama

Gail Collins, columnist and former editor of the New York Times' editorial page, on Obama and his dealings with Republicans over the stimulus package:
I don’t know how many times we need to go over this, but this is actually a real-life version of what Obama promised during the campaign. Didn’t you jump up and cheer when your guy promised that he’d get Republicans and Democrats to work together?
This is a point Ms Collins was making as long ago as July:
He talked — and talked and talked — about how there were going to be no more red states and blue states, how he was going to bring Americans together, including Republicans and Democrats.

Exactly where did everybody think this gathering was going to take place? Left field?

When an extremely intelligent politician tells you over and over and over that he is tired of the take-no-prisoners politics of the last several decades, that he is going to get things done and build a “new consensus,” he is trying to explain that he is all about compromise. Even if he says it in that great Baracky way.
Her style is quite unlike that of any other newspaper columnist I've read, and she uses it in service of observations that others seem just not to make. And there is a genuine warmth in it towards people she disagrees with, a commodity in short supply in political commentary. As, by the way, is patience among the left-of-centre.

Her appraisal of the election and the day after was also a delight.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Getting some perspective: (5) On bitterness

A friend recently reminded me of Jill Sobule's song Bitter, from the 1997 Happy Town album: it's been uploaded to YouTube in the original version (including lyrics), and as a live performance. It's one of those songs that sticks in the mind because it's smarter than it first appears. And because it's just fun.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Getting some perspective: (4) On the environment

From Earth, the Not-So-Lonely Planet, a NYT article offering a long-overdue correction to out-of-control language on the environment:
The living Earth is tough on scales it is hard to credit. Life has watched continents crash together and tear themselves apart; skies glowing like bright coals; tropical seas frozen into stillness: it has endured. Slaked in radiation from nearby supernovae, pummeled by asteroids, it has barely faltered and never stopped. Our civilization may be — is — out of balance with its environment; current human ways of life are frighteningly precarious. But to read the fragility of our way of life onto life itself is foolish.
The point of this article is staringly obvious to me, as a scientist, but I suspect it would be news to many people on the street. I wonder if there's enough cultural space to present this kind of argument. Because, like the author, I think it needs to be made.

In some sense, all misunderstanding is bad. Some misunderstandings are more consequential than others, but as a scientist I am committed to caring about understanding apart from consequence (although, not independent of it). Yet this very day, in an informed discussion of nuclear disarmament, I read a throwaway reference to the arsenals of America and Russia — incomparably larger than those of other nations — as being large enough to destroy the planet. This kind of talk may be time-honoured, and it may have some poetic or mythical grounding, but as a literal statement it is the purest nonsense. Do these people really want me to bore them with a description of what it would take to destroy life on earth, let alone the planet itself, in any meaningful sense?

Public discussion is becoming much better-informed on environmental issues and mechanisms: talk that used to be restricted to scientists and their groupies, in the Seventies and Eighties, has long gone mainstream. So aren't we in a position to call “Time” on the most lurid kind of disaster-talk?