Monday, September 27, 2010

Evolution in Science Fiction

I agree with PZ Myers:
I'm very pleased to see that Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio gets mentioned for its bad biology. That one has annoyed me for years: Bear does a very good job of throwing around the jargon of molecular genetics and gives the impression of being sciencey and modern, but it's terrible, a completely nonsensical vision of hopeful monsters directed by viruses and junk DNA. It's also the SF book most often cited to me as an example of good biology-based science fiction, when it's nothing of the kind.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Darwin as All-Purpose Boogey Man?

My first post at Huffington. Going to try and get something up regularly if possible.

Apropos of 'The Implosion...'

Jay Fitzgerald picks up my point and ups the ante: "Radical conservatives haven't become mirror-image opponents of lefties through simple osmossis. They're actively striving to become like them."

I ain't going to disagree with him.

Mead's Advice? Read More SF.

Wear cheap ties, shop Walmart, and read lots of science fiction.  Follow this advice, friends, and you are sure to go far.
I like it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Implosion of Intellectual Conservatism

Scott Carson pretty much nails it:
Today, as I look through the sources of "conservative thought" available on the Internet, TV, and radio, I find that the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Andrew Breitbard make the John Birch Society look like Plato's Academy by comparison. The capacity to communicate the conservative stance by means of intellectual disquisition and rational argumentation has vanished, only to be replaced by the same sort of shrill, knee-jerk bigotry that characterizes so much of the left. While it is true that even Glenn Beck will, on occasion, say something that I find congenial, one must sadly note that even a broken clock is right twice a day, and as any reader of Plato's Theaetetus will know (hence, none of the current "conservative" pundits), getting something right once in a while is not a sufficient condition for knowledge or even intelligence.

Read the entire thing.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Restoration Project

Ever since Final Cut Pro 7 came out (with Final Cut Studio) and more tools like BorisFX have made the whole workflow more manageable, I've been meaning to set aside some time to fully restore my  adaptation of Richard the Second. While I was happy with the DVD that Sub Rosa brought out in 2004, and Ron Bonk at SRS has been a great guy to work with throughout, a technical snag during the DVD authoring process forced the manufacturer to master the DVD from an S-VHS dub, rather than the DV-master tapes. Not exactly the optimum resolution and quality I had wanted, though it was a step up from its previous web-sized resolution, which first got the attention of film journals and DV magazines.

But having the tools now, especially in Final Cut and BorisFX, to make this look and sound the way we intended it to, back in the quixotic days when we thought we could raise the money to complete the 35mm film transfer, I'm going to roll up my sleeves and dive in again. I'm not going to rush it, but hope to complete a final director's cut for DVD on Amazon by the end of the year.

Monday, September 13, 2010

I. Kid. You. Not.

Yep. And what better way to get attention than hold your "conference" nearby a university, to give it more respectability.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Reviews

The Wall Street Journal has hired a former Atlantic editor to broaden it's book review coverage. I wouldn't mind getting in on this.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Quote for the Day...

Larry Moran at Sandwalk:

 "The writings of people like Michael Ruse and Dan Dennett should convince most other philosophers to back off before they discredit the entire discipline of philosophy."

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

"So, there were these two Irish biologists..."

Larry Moran had a chance to meet Michael Lynch at the recent 18th Annual Meeting of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution in Lyons, France.
He gave a talk on Evolution of Mutation Rates, a topic many of us treat with a large degree of skepticism—until we're confronted by Michael Lynch. He makes a convincing case for variable rates of mutation in different species and he challenged us (me) to defend the idea that there was a linkage between DNA replication rates and mutation rates. That's a linkage I've always assumed would constrain mutation rates to a narrow range. Now I'm not so sure.

Lynch's paper is here.

Buck Up, America

Great post by Walter Russell Mead:

The problems we face today are urgent and complex, but they are not the problems of failure.  We are suffering the consequences of success. 
We are not like Pakistan, Egypt, Russia, or dozens of other countries who are struggling with the consequences of decades and even centuries of failures to keep up with a changing world.  America’s failures are the failures of a country on the cutting edge. 
Countries like China and India are doing some amazing things, but they are playing catch-up.  They are trying to get where we are, while the United States is moving forward into unexplored terrain.  They are building industrial societies; we are seeing what comes next.  They have a clear idea of the target in mind: a country where people are as rich as Americans.  Our quest is different — harder, but perhaps also more rewarding. 
We aren’t trying to recreate somebody else’s achievement or to replicate an already existing model.  We are trying to do something new and different — we are making up a new kind of society as we go along.  The challenges of America’s today are the challenges of everyone else’s tomorrow. We were the first “Fordist” society, where mass affluence was built on mass production in the factories of the twentieth century.  We are now trying to be the first successful post-Fordist society, trying to work out a way to have a prosperous country that depends on something other than mass employment in manufacturing.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Prescient Pope

I saw Sunday that Zoe Pollock at Daily Dish had kindly picked up on my Friday piece for the Journal, but Mark Shea alerted me to a follow up today.
A reader writes:
I think you misread Farrell's piece. While giving Pius some credit for dealing with the issue of evolution, Farrell's main point was the caveat you mention second: modern biology shows man descends (as do virtually all species) from a population, not a single individual (or couple), and this contradicts Pius's assertion that the doctrine of original sin requires "a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own" (full text of Pius's Humani Generis here). Far from being prescient, Pius, as interpreted by Farrell, was thus wrong about what would be learned subsequently. Farrell is a bit off in not realizing that Pius was mostly concerned with addressing a 19th century idea (polygenism; not held by Darwin) that held that modern Homo sapiens has several independent origins (we didn't), and not with addressing modern evolutionary theory. I'm also not sure that Farrell's theologically correct: it's not self evident to me that common ancestry through populations violates the doctrine of original sin, although it might-- I'll leave that for Catholic theologians to decide.

I'm glad this elicited some feedback. [Only other gripe I came across was this predictable disagreement from a Baptist theologian.] Now, there are a couple of points to make. The first is, I am indeed aware that Pius did not define polygenism in the same way most biologists do now. He was quite right to reject the notion (which was popular in the 19th century) that the separate races had different origins. Still, his issue with the notion of a founding population of humans, rather than a single couple, is broached in the same paragraph of the encyclical, which makes it easier to confuse the two (also the Journal did not give me space to go into this detail).

The second is, I think Pius was wise enough not to be absolute about the issue. He wrote, "Now it is no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own."

At the time he was, I think, on safe ground to say this. Science since then has raised this opinion to a fact, however. And this now requires invoking Galileo's approach to scripture, which he adopted from Augustine: when scripture is at odds with what can be factually determined, then scripture must be re-interpreted. So, I doubt any claim to making dogma out of Pius' statement on Adam will stand. [Even though some Catholics do treat it that way. See for example Mark's post and the comments here.]

Was the Pope mistaken about a founding population? Yes. Does it spell doom for original sin? Hardly. Even Chesterton dealt with this long before Pius. My own opinion is that what we've learned about human origins from evolution solidifies the doctrine more than any other religious notion. But there are entire books on the subject now.

What tends to get overlooked about Pope John Paul's thoughts on the subject are two things: one, that whatever separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is something only theology can be attuned to. What actually happened, the moment humanity made what he termed the ontological leap to something more than all the other species, is lost to history. But John Paul still urged theologians to think about this more.

UPDATE: 9.3.10: Some discussion now going on over at dotCommonweal.