Thursday, June 26, 2008

A letter that changed the world...

3CEE119B-B963-405D-B8AE-4E243C79524B.jpeg...arrived in Darwin's post 150 years ago last week. It is remarkable to think about this kind of potent correspondence in this age of instant messaging, isn't it? Here's how the story begins:

In early 1858, on Ternate in Malaysia, a young specimen collector was tracking the island's elusive birds of paradise when he was struck by malaria. 'Every day, during the cold and succeeding hot fits, I had to lie down during which time I had nothing to do but to think over any subjects then particularly interesting me,' he later recalled.

Thoughts of money or women might have filled lesser heads. Alfred Russel Wallace was made of different stuff, however. He began thinking about disease and famine; about how they kept human populations in check; and about recent discoveries indicating that the earth's age was vast. How might these waves of death, repeated over aeons, influence the make-up of different species, he wondered?

Then the fever subsided - and inspiration struck. Fittest variations will survive longest and will eventually evolve into new species, he realised. Thus the theory of natural selection appeared, fever-like, in the mind of one of our greatest naturalists. Wallace wrote up his ideas and sent them to Charles Darwin, already a naturalist of some reputation. His paper arrived on 18 June, 1858 - 150 years ago last week - at Darwin's estate in Downe, in Kent.

Darwin, in his own words, was 'smashed'. For two decades he had been working on the same idea and now someone else might get the credit for what was later to be described, by palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, as 'the greatest ideological revolution in the history of science' or in the words of Richard Dawkins, 'the most important idea to occur to a human mind.' In anguish Darwin wrote to his friends, the botanist Joseph Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell. What followed has become the stuff of scientific legend.

[From How Darwin won the evolution race | Science | The Observer]

Go read the rest to kick off the celebrations for the sesquicentennial anniversary of this momentous event in human history. And while online, check out the original essay in the letter from Wallace which set things in motion, available via the Alfred Russel Wallace Page. You can also download a pdf version of the essay as part of a volume of Wallace's writings courtesy Google. The joint paper from Darwin and Wallace presented to the Royal Society is, of course, available in its entirety, with some added commentary, via Darwin Online.


Tangled Bank #108 and other summer carnivals

Over at Wheat-dogg’s world, John Wheaton has the latest edition of the The Tangled Bank #108 for your web browsing pleasure.

Great Auk - or Greatest Auk has the 77th edtion of I and the Bird.

Meanwhile, Bora has issued call for submissions to a new monthly blog carnival The Giant's Shoulders focusing on classic papers. The first edition is scheduled for July 16, a day after my own debut as blog carnival host for Oekologie, the current edition of which is still delayed - so if you have anything to contribute there, please send them to me!


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ken Miller and the missing links between radio and TV

So Miller's book tour brought him to the Colbert Report last night, following the more substantial Science Friday appearance last week:

I was underwhelmed by the Colbert interview, and that is mostly to do with the format of that particular show, and its the very short duration. Miller was good but seemed to rush through a number of things, so I don't know how regular viewers kept up. I recommend listening to the radio interview for a much better discussion. I'm not sure what to make of his comparing the ID/creationists to welfare moms - although it did allow Colbert the opportunity to claim victory! But why bring in the whole economic-conservative image of moms (driving cadillacs) living the high life on govt. handouts? Is this a way to "frame" the issue so that it resonates with conservatives? He made a similar comparison on the radio as well, but the argument seemed more fleshed out there (or at least less abrasive to a liberal like me). Likewise, comparing science to a free-market of ideas where ID has failed to compete, and directly appealing to Colbert's anti-government persona. I wonder if that actually works in convincing anyone on the right... but who better than Ken Miller to "frame" evolution to make it palatable to religious people?

Comparing the two interviews is a good illustration also of how much can go missing when one is forced to condense things for the typical sound-bite demands of TV, especially when faced with a loud talking-head host! And this wasn't even one of those right-wing blowhards on Fox News! If the medium is challenging even for someone as articulate and media-savvy as Ken Miller (winner of the Peabody), what hope do the rest of us scientists have of getting the word out in the mainstream media?

And one more annoyance last night was that the interview seemed unnecessarily short, for Colbert evidently had another 3 minutes available (following Miller), which he padded with REM performing "Hollow Man" - not live, but from their appearance on the show some months ago!! I'm mystified as to why they would do that, when other guests have been on (I think) for longer chats!


Friday, June 13, 2008

Only a Theory: Ken Miller on Science Friday today


Here's something to look forward to on the radio today: evolutionary biologist (and devout Christian) Ken Miller will be interviewed on Science Friday, where we may also hear about his new book: Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. If you manage to catch the live broadcast on your local NPR affiliate station or on the intertubes, you might even be able to ask him question! In any case, this should be an interesting conversation, which I hope to catch on my drive back from a field trip tomorrow morning:

Only a Theory (broadcast Friday, June 13th, 2008)

Once, there was the battle over whether the concept of evolution should be taught in public schools at all -- a fight remembered for the trial of high school teacher John Scopes in 1925. More recently, the terms of the debate shifted to whether the idea of 'intelligent design' needed to be taught alongside the scientific theory of evolution in the classroom. Now, the terms are shifting again. This summer, the Texas Board of Education is expected to consider whether biology classes should be required to include a discussion of the "strengths and weaknesses" evolutionary theory -- wording that proponents of teaching evolution say is code for creationist ideas. It's a significant question, as the curriculum and textbook-buying decisions of the state of Texas often end up affecting the books offered by publishers. In this segment, guest host Joe Palca talks with biology professor and textbook author Kenneth Miller about the fight to keep creationism out of public school science class. Teachers, find more information about using Science Friday as a classroom resource in the Kids' Connection.

And of course, if you miss the live broadcast, you can always catch the podcast (which is how I normally listen to Science Friday) or listen online.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

On the haphazard construction of the human mind

Perhaps this is a day to continue procrastinating and thinking haphazardly about the human mind! Right after I had whiled away the past several hours reading some brilliant essays from the two procrastination experts on the NPR show todayJohn Perry and Tim Pychyl — I happened across the following fascinating interview on Onegoodmove (thanks Norm):

Needless to say, Gary Marcus' book Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind is on my wish list now. I guess I should get it when I have something more pressing to deal with... like, say, preparing for the upcoming faculty senate discussions on peer evaluation that are going to scintillate my Monday afternoons this fall!


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A tangled bank on a South Pacific atoll...

... with a nice map and trail guide put together by Syffolee - yes, its the 107th edition of Tangled Bank, up for your reading pleasure!

And while on the subject, I might as well mention (although it is way to early) that my other blog Reconciliation Ecology is now on the list of future hosts for the Tangled Bank - we'll be kicking off the new year 2009 there!


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Is the Central Valley of California worse than Alabama?

I go away for a conference and stay off the blog for a couple of weeks, and so much happens! I'll be catching up with some of the events over the next few posts, and also posting a number of last-minute submissions from students during the dying days of the semester, so I hope the students are still visiting this blog even though the class is over!

But let me start by noting a rather unpleasant incident that occurred on campus on the last day of the finals week: Ryan Earley, my faculty colleague who regaled us with tales of Machiavellian fish a couple of days ago, had his tires punctured for having one of those Darwin Fish stickers on the back of his car. With a crude note stuck to his windshield telling him “Fuck you Darwinist. Take your car to heaven.” Subtle response that, to a mere bumper sticker, don't you think? Not a model of behavior I should emulate or I'll be really busy with all the other stickers that abound in this town...

I'd learnt of this incident just a couple of days before I left for Germany, and so didn't get around to sharing it here. I did happen to mention it to Diwata Fonte of the Valley Notebook blog, who followed up with a blog post of her own, generating quite a few heated comments. The story got bigger (well... within the blogosphere) when PZ Myers picked up on it, and another longer discussion ensued there (as is wont to happen with the Pharyngula crowd).

Let me say that this is the first such incident I've come to know personally, although I have read of such things happening elsewhere. I have a Darwin fish on the back of my car as well, but it hasn't attracted any such ire so far. I'd also like to clear the air on one point that has come up in some of the comments on the other blogs: the absurd suggestion that Ryan may have done this to his own car to attract attention to himself or some Darwinist cause!! This is really absurd, if for no other reason than the fact that Ryan did absolutely nothing to seek attention to this incident. He simply took his car to the dealer to get fixed under warranty, told a few of us here, and shrugged it off. That the story even got into the blogosphere is actually my fault!

That said, I am still puzzled that someone would feel so aggrieved by a mere bumper sticker as to act in this way. Was it just the stress of finals week getting to some student? Or the heat wave we had seeping through here that week? Or maybe it was a valediction for Dr. Earley since he is leaving this great Central Valley of California for a faculty position in the University of Alabama this fall!

In the end, what does it say of the valley, and of our campus, if we lose promising dynamic young biologists like Ryan - to Alabama??!!


Monday, June 2, 2008

Find your inner fish @ valley café scientifique tonight

We bring the first "season" of the Central Valley Café Scientifique to a close tonight with what promises to be an exciting presentation by my friend and colleague Ryan Earley on Finding your inner fish: what can aquatic worlds tell us about sex, aggression, and social behavior? We meet at Lucy's Lair once again, at 6:30PM.

The café will be on hiatus for the next couple of months, but we will be back in September, hopefully at the same location, but perhaps elsewhere (let me know if you know of better potential locations).

Thank you to all of you who've made the little cafe such a success - and I hope we can continue to sustain the science conversation in this valley.

I hope to see you there tonight, and look forward to the next season!



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