Archive for: February, 2011

Ich bin ein Gastblogger I: Road to the Renaissance or One Thing Leads to Another

Feb 28 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Please allow me to introduce myself

I’m a man of dubious taste

I like maths and history

The Renaissance is the place

I write posts on astronomy

Astrology and the rest

I a fan of mathematici

Kepler was the best

Pleased to meet you

Hope you guess my name

But what’s puzzling you

Is the nature of my game?1

I shall be attempting to entertain you with four guest posts over the next two weeks. In the invitation asking me if I would like to undertake this task it was suggested that I could use my first guest post to tell the readers something about myself. If you want to know who I am you can pick up the information here or here and if you read German here where you can even find out what I look like. As there is already enough biographical information floating around in cyber space I decided instead to tell the story of how I came to concentrate my researches as a narrative historian of science on the history of Renaissance mathematics.

I’m one of those awful people who not only like mathematics but I was always good at it. As I have often mentioned in the past when I was sixteen my father gave me a copy of Eric Temple Bell’s Men of Mathematics and I discovered for the first time that there was such a thing as the history of mathematics and fell in love with it. From all of the stories in Bell’s book I was most fascinated by the story of the discovery of calculus by Newton and Leibniz because calculus was my favourite area of mathematics. Of course being English I was fascinated by Newton as I had been introduced to him as an English hero when I was still at primary school. Over the years I deepened and widened my knowledge of the history of mathematics learning about the Greeks, the Babylonians and the Egyptians, the Indians and the Chinese but somehow I would always circle back to Newton.

Later I came to formally study history and philosophy of science at the University of Erlangen in Franconia in Germany and devoted a large part of my studies to deepening my knowledge of Newton and Leibniz and everything that connected them and not just the calculus. Due to illness I never formally finished my studies and for a number of years I quit academia although I kept up my interest in the history of science but only simmering on a low flame.

When I returned to serious considerations of the history of science, I took up an old interest of mine examining the relationship between Newton and the third book of Jonathan Swifts Gulliver’s Travels (a paper that is still waiting to be written!). These investigations led me to reconsidering Newton’s reception of Kepler’s astronomy, which in turn led to a consideration of the relationship between Kepler and Copernicus. Around the same time a friend of mine was teaching a course on Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and I asked him if I could participate. He agreed and knowing that I had read the relevant literature he asked me if I would hold a talk in his course on Rheticus, the Wittenberger professor of mathematics who travelled to Frauenburg and persuaded Copernicus to publish his life’s work. Whilst preparing the talk it occurred to me for the first time to ask the how come De revolutionibus was published by Johannes Petreius in Nürnberg? Living as I do just down the road from Nürnberg somehow this became a very personal question. Although there is a whole library of literature about Copernicus and his book none of it contains an answer to what I originally thought was a simple question. Finding no ready-made answer I started researching the question myself.

Now the simple naïve answer is that the book was published in Nürnberg because Rheticus brought it there. The next question of course is why did he bring it there? Trying to answer this question and all the ones that followed this answer led me to an in depth analysis of Renaissance mathematics, early scientific publishing, intellectual culture in Nürnberg at the beginning of the 16th century and a whole heap of other historical themes, the Reformation, Renaissance universities, and so on and so forth. (The full answer to my original question is another paper that is waiting to get written!)

I was captivated. I can’t actually say why it was simply a case of love at first sight. I, as a historian of mathematics, had lived near one of the most important European Renaissance cities that has a deep and significant history of Renaissance mathematics for many years and had no awareness of that history, from then on I reoriented my studies to Renaissance mathematics in general and that of Nürnberg in particular.

Now if you look at standard mainstream histories of mathematics you wont find an awful lot about the Renaissance. In the opinion of the writers of such history real mathematics in Europe takes place in Greece in antiquity disappears with the gradual collapse of Romano-Hellenistic culture has a brief guest appearance in the Golden Age of the Islamic Empire and returns to Europe at the end of the Renaissance signalling the beginning of modern science, during the Renaissance there was no real mathematics. In fact, although the Renaissance concept of what constitutes mathematics is very different to the current one it is a fascinating potpourri of practical applications of various aspects of mathematics. This difference in substance is the reason why I prefer to use the Renaissance term mathematicus and not the modern variant mathematician and why when I started blogging about the history of science I became the Renaissance Mathematicus.

In my next post I shall write about the history of mathematics but I shall be leaving the Renaissance and returning to Newton and Leibniz

1) With apologies to the Glimmer Twins and JFK’s speechwriters for the main title!

11 responses so far

"Try Art"

Feb 27 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

My shift as a Scientopia guest blog starts today.  I'll mostly be blogging about the history of women in science, but maybe some other topics too.

A bit of introduction:  I liked science as a kid; I gobbled up science magazines and science television on PBS, I postered my room with space images, I even won the physics award in high school.  In college, I found other things I liked more.  And when a TA for my freshman physics class wrote "try art" on one of my quizzes, I saw his point -- I had drawn a beautiful diagram of an arm lifting a weight, but completely failed to solve the torque problem correctly.  I eventually earned degrees in geography and education, and have mostly done historical and art-related projects over the last twenty-some years.   Right now I'm president of the Disability History Association, and a research scholar with the UCLA Center for the Study of Women.  (Need more specifics?  My online CV is here.)

So how did I land at Scientopia as a guest blogger?  Short answer:  I was invited, by Zuska.  I can enjoy and respect the way science works and the truths it can tell, without actually being a scientist.  (It might help that I married a physicist, but I think I'd still follow science blogs without his influence.)  When I was teaching eighth grade in the early 1990s, I wanted to make a bulletin-board display about women scientists in history.  So I pored over every page of a biographical dictionary looking for their stories, trying to get beyond Marie Curie and the other usual suspects.  No Googling in 1992.

Now, I have more efficient ways to search for those names and stories.  Even better, I have ways to contribute to the general pool of knowledge about them.  Two examples:  I'm volunteering right now with the brand-new WikiProject Women's History, which already has a taskforce on Women in Technology; and the Smithsonian's uploads to Flickr Commons include a set of 110 portraits of Women in Science, some of which still await proper IDs.  If you've ever wondered who exactly does crowdsourcing projects, I'm one of those "bored people" (as I heard us described at THATCamp SoCal in January).  I like adding machine tags to images, or tracking down a birthdate for a paleobotanist, or transcribing old ships' logs.    And I still "try art" to bring women's history in science into more conversations.

4 responses so far

Future of Engineering

Feb 26 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

As my final guest post here I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the future of engineering: both in education and in western society. I thank you all for reading my few posts here, not as many as I would have wanted, but of course I keep myself busy posting on my own blog Design. Build. Play. and over at Engineer Blogs. I have really enjoyed the conversations and comments here.

On that note, on my first post here a subject that came up in the comments was whether to teach engineering in school. But even in my public education experience we did plenty of engineering projects, only didn't know what that's what they were. I'm sure many students are familiar with the infamous egg drop project.

There's been discussions on the 'net about how we teach science before college. There have been a lot of complaints that teaching science in elementary, middle and high schools is akin to teaching auto repair without actually having a car to work on. I think more hands on experiments are crucial for where we want to go before college and in college as those were my most memorable experiences.

I've built an egg drop case, a car that was propelled by a C02 cartridge, a ramp and even a trebuchet. The problem with the last two were that a lot of work was required on our own and for those of us who didn't have parental support in building these projects they were much more difficult and it was much easier to cut corners. It'd be nice if build projects in school were done with access to a school shop and school materials. This is what made my engineering projects actually doable. It's not teaching if you have to do and learn everything on your own.

The other concern is if we're recruiting only people who have a familiarity with the topic due to the support of family and friends. And that's not always going to bring in the most qualified people.

But as I discussed in my last post on this guest blog, how do you recruit people into an industry that has its problems?  Besides the obvious problems I mentioned there there's a lack of government and public support for the STEM fields right now. I mean, there's a pretend support that we "need more scientists and engineers" but that has yet to be backed up with government money or private corporations doing business here.

One of my fellow engineers, Chris Gammel, just wrote a great post on starting a technology manufacturing company- then and now. He looked at the success of the guys who started HP and the relative comparison of startup costs and how to compete with low cost foreign manufacturing sectors.

It's definitely difficult to start up a company that actually makes something in the US these days and that's a problem much of western society has had to deal with. When intellectual property is often absorbed by the countries that make the high tech devices designed by engineers here they no longer need the education and higher paid engineers in the west.

But there are still some places where western nations could succeed and even cooperate with the rising and growing manufacturing countries. I think about Germany that's been able to keep much of its manufacturing by focusing on high precision and high quality items. In fact, German engineering is renowned in many places and many auto components manufacturers are based over there with not only the engineering but the manufacturing as well. And that may be where other countries can find their niche.

Right now we're exporting software and financial instruments. But these are not products from a country that was great because it could make things. Auto makers, aviation and defense manufacturers tend to be the last holdouts in this country and I think we can do better. There's probably not enough profit in green and sustainable energy by itself but combine that with space exploration, machine manufacture, energy equipment for industrial applications, and high tech building design and I think we have a start. If we could take back much of the computer, cell phone and medical device manufacturing we've exported I think we'd be even stronger.

So I hope the future in education and in the grand art of making stuff is bright. Thanks for reading me, please chime in with your own opinion on STEM education and the future of engineering and manufacturing, and I hope to still have great conversations with many of you I've met here in the future.

One response so far

Who’s that trotting over my bridge?

Feb 26 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Alas, my time here at Scientopia is running out and the time for a new guest blogger draws nigh. I've written far less than I had hoped, but hopefully you have enjoyed at least some of what I have written. Part of the reason for the paucity of posts was that I became somewhat side-tracked by moderating and responding to comments from proponents of a version of Intelligent Design, who had picked up on the mention of Darwin in my first post and started trolling.

Don't feed the troll

Many other science bloggers have been bothered by the now infamous John A. Davison (and his trusty sidekick VMartin) and John usually ends up being banned. He thinks it's because his dazzling insights are too much for entrenched 'Darwinians', but I think it has more to do with his modus operandiPZ Myers has provided his reasons for banning John here.

Fortunately I am not in the same position as PZ Myers when it comes to visitor figures, so I don't need to worry so much about huge volumes of nonsense being posted in my comments sections. It means I can afford to be a bit more tolerant of cranks and kooks that inhabit the internet. My grounds for banning relate to behaviour towards other commentators - I am a supporter of free speech, so I didn't want to ban John on the grounds of his content, but I did come close to barring him for his lack of respect for the privacy of others.

Unfortunately, due to my time limitations I never really got to address John and VMartin's points in any detail, which is something that I find a little irksome, since their points are very clearly spurious. I know that I won't change their minds, but I hate to give the impression that I am unable to see the flaws in what they say. But of course, that's how trolls work, they make inflammatory statements that take time to refute (often such statements are copy-pasted to save their own time - for example, compare John's comments from 2011 with his comments from 2007), they then ignore or fail to engage with the response. The best bet is to simply not bother trying - don't feed the troll.

When I first started blogging one of my earliest posts was about Creationist trolls and their comments and from the inevitable response to that I wrote myself a list to remind myself of the rules of engagement adopted by Creationists. Good old Johnny-boy doesn't fall into the Biblical Literalism camp, but many of the rules still apply to him and his buddy VMartin. The differences (where they occur) tend to relate to interpretations of evidence, so the rules of engagement that John uses includes use of logically fallacious arguments, cherry-picking and misrepresentation of results. As one of my very good friends texted to me:

"While eloquence and clarity of expression are not the same as absolute coherence, and an ubercrank does not represent a whole community, it's notable that your ID posters adopt the same, shall we say, idiosyncratic rhetorical style as the pro-homeo crew"

Which I consider to be an astute observation. Homeopathy and Davison's Evolutionary Manifesto both rely heavily on references that are old and have been written without an insight into new methodological or conceptual developments in the fields that they oppose (for homeopaths there's Hahnemann, for Davison there's Leo S. Berg and Robert Broom). They rely on unsupported assumptions (homeopaths rely on the action of a 'vital force' - whereas Davison relies on theistic input). They rely on critique of other theories, rather than finding robust support for their own - and that critique is often based on logical fallacy. Their own research is also usually of low standard and is published in a low impact journal (CAM studies with positive outcomes are more likely to be published in low or no impact journals and Davison only seems to publish in Rivista di Biologica).

One of the most frustrating aspects of Davison and VMartin's comments is that they repeatedly assert in pejorative terms that there is no evidence for Natural Selection and there is no active research being conducted in the field of evolutionary biology, which is grossly misleading - some great examples of good studies (in a very good journal) can be found here (as a pdf).

I realise that this post is likely to be seen as an ad hominem attack by John A. Davison and VMartin and I'm sure that they will duly comment that I haven't addressed any of their questions. However, this post is not a response to their comments, it is an observation on the activities of trolls. After all, they came to my blog and started making off-topic comments. I think it is pointless to address the 'Gish Gallop' that John employs, since I am certain the outcome would be rather like the parody 'John A. Davison orders a pizza' from 2005. I find myself in total agreement with a post on The Bad Idea Blog, back in 2007:

"I’m generally not one for poisoning the well. I could try to go into some of Davison’s actual arguments against evolution (though that would be hampered by the fact that his writing style and lack of coherent organization is very very hard to make sense of what he’s even claiming). Normally I would. But if you spend any time reading through his “posts” (i.e. the comments), or catching sightings of his rambling comments at the Expelled! blog and elsewhere, I think you’ll come to the conclusion that going with the  “crackpot” label and leaving it at that is perfectly forgivable"

This sums up why I'm not going to get involved - it's a waste of time that could be spent with my wife and friends, or maybe writing something that will actually be appreciated. On that note, I hope you have enjoyed some of my ramblings here and I also hope you might visit Zygoma in the future. Thanks for having me!

132 responses so far

A bony puzzle

Feb 25 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the most enjoyable parts of my job comes from identifying specimens. It challenges both my knowledge and my ability to solve problems by asking the right questions and finding the right places to look for answers.

As an example, here's a specimen I found in our collections with a tentative identification that I was unconvinced by. I followed my curatorial instincts and they led me not only to a more accurate identification, but also to the rest of the specimen, from which it had been separated before they were donated to the Horniman Museum (where I work). This sort of puzzle-solving is very satisfying.

Why not have a go at working out what this is:

There are quite a few useful resources out there that can help with this sort of thing - not least the Google Image search, which provides a quick way of checking whether a particular species is of the right approximate shape to be worth looking at in more detail. Please feel free to ask questions and make observations or suggestions in the comments section below and I'll do my best to respond.

The answer to what this is will be posted on my personal blog Zygoma on Monday, since my stint as guest blogger for Scientopia will be drawing to a close on Saturday, with two new and exciting guest bloggers starting on Sunday. Enjoy!

9 responses so far

Anger & Engineering Outreach

Feb 24 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

This week is National Engineer's Week in the US. Universities across the country are engaging in activities, competitions, build challenges, and outreach activities. GeekDad over at Wired has a great list of engineering links so you can celebrate the week with the young people in your life. I love the outreach aspects of this because I think engineering, but science in general, is often done behind the curtains from the public. And while I wouldn't advocate every single kid grow up to be an engineer they shouldn't be afraid to be an engineer and those who are not should still have some idea of what the profession is.

Today's day in E-Week is Introduce a Girl to Engineering. It's not been too long since we've had our first engineer barbie so we're at that point where it's easy to feel like we're succeeding. Like Luke in fending off TIE fighters we have to be reminded, great kid, now don't get cocky! Over at Engineer Blogs my colleague Fluxor wrote a great post about women in engineering.  And this is where you see the total disconnect of those that get it and those that don't. The comments there were generally supportive but the comments on the article over at reddit are enough to make me sick. Bitter enough I ranted angrily on my own blog. The comments were of the flavor that women engineers are basically taking jobs away from qualified (white?) dudes (they took 'r jooobs!) and doing some piss poor justifications that women aren't as good as men.

But the post on my own blog shows that what they won't say to your face will still come all wrong. And it's frustrating to have to deal with that crap every day. I know so many women in academia, industry, science, engineering, technology- who all have to deal with that daily battle. And even at my youngish age, you just get tired. And thankfully I can come here and write about it and laugh about it and feel like I'm not alone and that not all men are total douchebags (just the ones I work with apparently). But I've also seen my industry serve as a training ground to indoctrinate once decent fellows into the ways of the sexist and racist dinosaurs that run the place. So I'm not convinced a sudden infusion of women or minorities is going to change anything.

Which brings me back to introducing a girl to engineering. Sometimes I feel like the young women I know and care about, there is no way I would want to convince them to go into this field. I would have a hard time being genuine in encouraging them. Or a hard time glossing over all of the tough parts. I mean, don't get me wrong. Most professions have their pitfalls and require a lot of hard work and dedication, at least at some point, that might or might not pay off later. But when a woman has to work 2.5 times as hard as a man to be considered equally capable it's difficult for me to sell the parts of the field that I love. This article from womens enews provides a great rebuttal of a lot of the articles lately that have chimed in with some false research conclusions about how it's all okay now and women having supposedly achieved parity.

But past all the difficulties and drudgeries and long, angry days, I do love engineering. It's going to be less than two hours now until the final Space Shuttle launch at NASA. I hope on this day that girls, and boys, and all of us supposed adults have a chance to watch this memorable day. It's hard for me to think that the space shuttle era is an era at all. That it has to end. That I won't be able to stream live launches anymore of the shuttle that means so much to me. I'm not sure why it's emotional to me, but maybe because the shuttle was to my youth what the Apollo program was to the generation before me. I'd go buy this shirt but I think wearing it will only make me sad.

When you hear the astronauts speak, many of whom are training on future missions that will be using the Russian's Soyuz rocket to get people to the space station, they don't sound sad at all. They know that closing of certain programs is just something that happens in technology and another era will eventually take its place. They know whatever the future of space flight is that there will be a future and that whatever that future is it's worth believing in and worth taking risks for.

And maybe that's how I should look at engineering. It hasn't been easy and sometimes it tries to break my heart but sometimes it gives me gifts and fulfillment I never would have suspected. I know that for me at least the risk is worth it that had I to do it all over again I would do everything exactly the same.

So how about you dear readers, do you ever have trouble trying to encourage young people into your discipline? Do you wonder whether the pitfalls of your particular field were worth it, or maybe worth it only for you? Do you think it'll be better some day, that telling our daughters to go into STEM isn't sending them into an ultimately frustrating place? Do you worry the general attitudes towards STEM fields in general will discourage people or do you think the future will be brighter? Are you as heart broken as I am about the final shuttle launch?

5 responses so far

The impossible and unholy love-child of Dave Gorman and Simon Pegg

Feb 22 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Have you ever been mistaken for someone else? I have. Many, many times. Usually it's Simon Pegg or Dave Gorman - I've even been asked to sign autographs. Last night at my Skeptics In The Pub talk I was billed as "...Dave Gorman look-alike, Paolo Viscardi...", which prompted a question from Matt Brown (of Londonist fame) about whether I was more Pegg-like or Gormanesque. Since we live in a democracy there was a vote on it and the audience was fairly evenly split in their opinion. When given a third option of me looking like the impossible and unholy love-child of Dave Gorman and Simon Pegg there was a more unanimous agreement. Thanks.

This idea of an impossible melding rather puts me in mind of the first episode of Spaced, where Tim and Daisy are getting to know each other and Tim finds out about Daisy's fear of mice and spiders...

Here's me, what do you think? I've not included photos of Simon Pegg or Dave Gorman, because it's the perception rather than the actual appearance that I think counts.

I certainly don't see much similarity myself, but then again I'm used to seeing my own face every day in a mirror and I notice every little difference each time I see it. Other people don't see me as often or as closely (except my lovely wife), so they probably don't have such an accurate idea of what my face is made up of. Obviously I have a nose, mouth, eyes and the usual bits, plus facial hair - but it's the shapes of these bits and their arrangement in respect to each other that makes me recognisable as an individual. Get enough bits of similar shape and arrangement in common and people start looking like each other.

The same is true of lots of things - we use a range of visual clues to identify what something is. Sometimes we get a bit carried away and we recognise things that aren't there at all - this is called pareidolia and it's a fascinating and common quirk. It may be that you see a bunny in a cloud (as in the charming film Amelie), or you may see Jesus resurrected in a dog's arse. Aren't our brains weird?

3 responses so far

Holy moley... is that supposed to be humer(o)us?

Feb 21 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I apologise for that title pun I couldn't help myself. I also apologise for going into less detail than I'd hoped in this post - I found myself a bit strapped for time between responding to Intelligent Design types trolling here and at Zygoma, writing a talk for Skeptics In the Pub tomorrow evening and trying to sort out my laptop power lead after it broke (now fixed thanks to the helpful staff at Maplins who gave me the parts I needed to make repairs).

On Friday I set you a challenge in my post titled The rest of the iceberg - I wanted you to identify what this bone is and what it came from:

As it turns out it seems to have been a real challenge, but back at Zygoma my regulars had it identified within 11 minutes. Their comments provide to be a useful resource for those less familiar with bones.

The first to correctly identify both the type of bone and the species it came from was Cromercrox (of Nature fame), who gave a great rationale for his suggestion: Continue Reading »

One response so far

Future of Flight Design

Feb 20 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I've spoken before about my own struggles of making engineering interesting to non-engineers and how life sciences can have more of an appeal to everyone in general. But in the reverse engineers often take inspiration from nature in creative ways.

In the past I talked on my own blog about this new aerospace design that seems to resemble a bird more than it resembles a plane.

With its body and wings it seems to resemble a seagull and the researchers who designed it are hoping the radical wing design will help reduce drag and therefore increase fuel efficiency. Long endurance is a big deal and the long wing design can be seen in other extremely long endurance planes. One example is NASA's somewhat well known Helios which uses a solar array to recharge its batteries. Unfortunately the aircraft was lost in its second endurance flight over Hawaii.

It had been working towards a 40 hour endurance flight in an innovative combination of solar panels and propellers. 40 hours is not a long time in long endurance UAVs but it is on the higher end. Perhaps more impressive the Helios set a world record for achieving an altitude of 93,000 ft+ in the highest flight of a non-rocket powered aircraft. Its more successful cousin, the Zephyr, achieved a record fourteen day flight in 2010.

The makers of Zephyr, QinetiQ, hope that its endurance will eventually be measured in months. I think it's interesting to consider the implications of an aircraft that could stay up for months perhaps monitoring weather patterns or traffic or possibly serving as a communication hub as an affordable alternative to a satellite or being a part of a military communications array.

Advances in using lifeforms for creative propulsion ideas is by no means limited to flight. Two of my favorites to come up lately have been very small creatures indeed. First, a researcher in California looked at water snails who use a path of slime to propel themselves over the surface of the water.

Rather than using a friction force to grab the water, or like small bugs simply being light weight enough to perch on top, the snail uses a mucus film that acts as a force being applied to the water. When this mucus is stretched or pressed it can propel the snail in a direction over the water. The snail still benefits from being a very low mass object that will naturally float to the top of the water so for now the applications, while interesting, would be small robotic biomimetic devices.

And for another incredibly small but flyable design, a DARPA initiative resulted in a pretty fascinating UAV. I love writing about DARPA's engineering innovations which are always out of this world. This one is something along those lines. DARPA funding allowed AeroVironment to expand its unmanned offerings with the hummingbird UAV.

The crazy thing is in flight it really looks like a hummingbird. Go watch the intriguing video here. The bird's eye view (or camera on the robot) is a little unclear and hard to get used to. This is not going to be the same kind of thing you would expect from a high definition heat sensing camera looking down at terrorist cells abroad. But it is a perhaps ingenious way to sneak cameras into places inconspicuously. Before everyone get concerned with Big Brother it's important to note it's likely illegal to send these flying around to spy on you (unless the government's using it, that made you feel better, right?)

But I can think of plenty of non-insidious reasons one might want one of these. If you're trying to watch a highly mobile species in the wild without being intrusive but need something that can follow the group inconspicuously this would certainly have a place there. Plus I just think the scientific insight of designing something that could mimic a hummingbird that closely will likely have greater implications for what we can do with rotorcraft. However I'm certainly going to think twice next time I see a hummingbird flying past me.

3 responses so far

Evolving Ideas and Intelligent Design

Feb 19 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Well, it seems that my earlier post on Darwin has ruffled some feathers in the Intelligent Design (ID) camp, so they've been trolling the comments section on my personal blog. This post started out as a response, but I decided to expand it to include some of the context surrounding Darwin's work.

A comment by VMartin

...One wonders why no one noticed “natural selection” before. And there were ingenous minds in the history! One answer might be this – it was never observed because it doesn’t exist. Darwin implanted this speculation there. And “On the origin of species” reads sometimes like comedy. One should try to count how many times Darwin used words like “which seems to me extremely perplexing” etc....

It's interesting how 'simple' natural mechanisms and systems can take longer to be acknowledged than one might have thought. Heliocentrism is another example of something that now seems very obvious, but was historically slow to be recognised (and is still not recognised or not known about by some). It's easy to blame organised religion for the suppression of such observational truths about the universe, since challenges to traditional belief were seen as heresy and dealt with accordingly, but there's far more to it than that.

One reason why some scientific theories have been slow to come to light

One reason why some scientific theories may have been slow to come to light

Let's set the scene - Darwin's formative years were tumultuous with regard to sociopolitical events. The Napoleonic wars drew to an end with the Battle of Waterloo when Darwin was six years old, the Peterloo Massacre occurred and the Six Acts were drawn up by the Tories to suppress radical reformers when he was ten - reflecting the ongoing social division between the establishment and the public.

Peterloo Massacre

When Darwin was in his twenties the power of the strongly traditional British establishment finally began to wane, when the Whigs came to government allowing the 1832 Reform Act and the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act to be passed. There was also the devastating Great Famine in Ireland when Darwin was in his thirties and all of this was set against a background of the Industrial Revolution, which was providing the impetus for science to play an increasingly important role in society.

This meant that Darwin's work was by no means formulated in intellectual isolation. Theories of evolution had been proposed 2,400 years previously, but they were poorly developed. Natural philosophers like Darwin's own grandfather Erasmus and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck raised the issue of evolution at around the time of Darwin's birth, but the mechanisms for evolution were either ignored or flawed. Evolution was an established topic of discussion and publication by the time Charles Darwin came onto the scene, with people like Robert Grant being more radical on the subject than Darwin found palatable in his early manhood. Despite this interest, the mechanism of evolution remained elusive - perhaps unsurprisingly, since the academic community addressing natural sciences was largely composed of members of the clergy and the natural theology of the time was seen as being mechanism enough.

But a literature base that was to inspire non-traditional hypotheses was also developing at the time - Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in particular offered an alternative view that was seen as too radical by many - clearing a path for subsequent works that challenged orthodox views.  Given this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace converged on the same premise at the same time. In short, the ideas evolved to fit the intellectual and social environment. The same has been true of other discoveries and inventions where there was a requirement for the right intellectual groundwork to be laid in advance. This groundwork is required before a robust theory can take root - and Natural Selection is a component of the robust theory of Descent with Modification, or evolution.

The critiques I have seen of evolutionary theory  have come from people who quite clearly don't understand it - and such critiques tend to rely on statements of incredulity rather than a strong factual base. No well-supported alternative hypotheses have been constructed or presented and a lack of understanding hardly counts as a robust refutation of a well supported theory.

An accusation by IDers is that 'Darwinists' (N.B. I don't know anyone who would call themselves a Darwinists following the New Synthesis) stick with Natural Selection because they are atheist. I think I see the real agenda emerging here, particularly when you see evolution as a theory being conflated with just one of the mechanisms involved. After all, Natural Selection is not the only mechanism involved in evolutionary adaptation and speciation - there are also other factors like hybridisationhorizontal gene transfergenetic drift, perhaps some epigenetic influences and artefacts of EvoDevo processes. But these factors are still constrained by the simple fact that if they are selected against, they will not be perpetuated.

Intelligent Design

The Intelligent Design agenda

John A. Davison left this comment on a previous post:

Natural selection is a powerful force in nature. It has but one function which is to prevent change. That is why every chickadee looks like every other chickadee and sounds like every other chickadee – chickadee-dee- dee, chickadee-dee-dee. Sooner or later natural selection has always failed leading to the extinction of nearly all early forms of life. They were replaced by other more prefected forms over the millions of years that creative evolution ws in progress...

First and foremost, the suggestion that Natural Selection prevents change is erroneous - change will occur if there is a change in the environment and/or if beneficial mutations arise in a population (tell me that mutations don't happen - I dare you...). The obvious response to the next statement is that I can think of six different 'chickadee' species, with an additional three subspecies (and this is ignoring numerous other very similar members of the Paridae), all are similar, but all are different - so the statement makes no sense as it stands. Getting to the meat of what is being implied about the Creationist interpretation of species, another bird provides a good example to the contrary. The Greenish Warbler shows a distinct pattern of hybridising subspecies across their vast range, until they form reproductively isolated species at the extreme ends of their range, where they happen to overlap yet not hybridise (a classic ring species [pdf of Greenish Warbler paper]). This is a well-known example of how genetic variation can accrue and give rise to new species without any supernatural intercession.

Salamander ring species (picture from Thelander, 1994)

Salamander ring species

Another comment by VMartin

...But no wonder that Darwin considered “natural selection” for such a complicated force. Even nowadays Dawkins speculates that NS operates on genes, whereas E.O.Wilson has brushed up “group selection” recently (citing of course Darwin as debeatur est .

So may we “uncredulous” ask on which level “natural selection” operates?

As to this question about the level on which Natural Selection operates, I thought the answer was pretty obvious - it operates at every level. Change the focus of Natural Selection from passing on genes to the only alternative outcome - the inability to pass on genes. It doesn't really matter which level this occurs at or why - be it a reduction in reproductive success when not in a group, or a deleterious single point mutation - if it happens then Natural Selection can be said to have occurred. Being 'fit' simply means that an organism has not been selected against.

There's a lot more to modern evolutionary thought than Darwin's key early contribution, but Darwin is still respected because he was the first to provide a viable mechanism by which evolution is driven. This mechanism has helped make sense of an awful lot of observations that were previously unaccounted for and, moreover, evolution has been observed and documented on numerous occasions [here's a pdf summary of some good examples].

I fail to see why Intelligent Design has been taken seriously by some people - it relies on huge assumptions about supernatural interference (so it fails to be a science) and I have as yet never seen a single piece of evidence that actually supports ID claims. The only research I have seen mentioned by proponents of ID are old, cherry-picked studies that report a null result from an evolutionary study - this is not the same thing as support for ID, as anyone who can spot the logical fallacies of false dichotomy and Non sequitur (in particular the fallacy of denying a conjunct) will tell you.

I like to keep an open mind, but as soon as I see logical fallacies being wheeled out I lose interest in getting involved in the discussion. This may be a failing on my part, because I should probably challenge misinformation, but quite frankly I don't have the time or the patience - much as I hate to stoop to an ad hominem, my feelings on this are best summed up by the paraphrase:

when you argue with the ID lot, the best outcome you can hope for is to win an argument with the ID lot

and my time is far too precious to waste arguing with people who ignore the arguments of others and construct Straw man arguments based on cherry-picked and deliberately misrepresented information. I have no problem with other people believing in any of the numerous gods that are available, but please don't try to bring any god into science (and heaven-forbid the classroom) - since it is neither necessary nor appropriate.

Intelligent design as a scientific idea

Intelligent design as a scientific idea

54 responses so far

Older posts »