Friday, May 27, 2016

Blog Post on Replaying the Tape of Life at BioLogos

I just wrote another blog post for BioLogos titled "Replaying the Tape of Life and Finding a Chemical Sequence." (Warning: mild spoilers if you haven't seen Forrest Gump yet. And if you haven't, what's stopping you? It's a great movie!)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A World from Dust (Plus): Neanderthal Chemists


In Chapter 11 of A World from Dust, I mention the evidence of chemistry at Pinnacle Point, where early humans used fire to cook food and make paint. Now there's evidence that Neanderthals were chemists, too. This recent study analyzes the black manganese oxide rocks found in France where Neanderthals once lived. Earlier scientists assumed these were used for their color as something like body paint. Heyes et al. point out that it's a lot easier to find other black rocks for this purpose, so the Neanderthals must have had another reason for collecting this special mineral.

Heyes et al. show that manganese oxide can spark flames (as mentioned in Chapter 7), and find evidence of combusted manganese in the Neanderthal fire pits. The Neanderthals collected this for its chemistry as a firestarter, not as a mere pigment. Personally, I didn't know that manganese had this use before researching A World from Dust, which means that I didn't know as much about this element as my Neanderthal ancestors. Guess there's always something to learn.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Book Review: The Shape of the New by Montgomery and Chirot

I can't help but compare this book to Minding the Modern by Thomas Pfau. Both take a wide-angle lens to history and trace the evolution of thinking -- The Shape of the New through four thinkers' works (Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and the Jefferson/Hamilton dialogue), but Minding the Modern through about as many words (person, will, purpose, etc.). Pfau goes back farther, is much more critical of the Enlightenment, and in the end focuses his narrative on a single thinker, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The conversation between The Shape of the New and Minding the Modern is valuable. The Shape of the New is much more conventional (and easier to read). Even so, it filled in a few gaps for me historically, especially with Marx. Montgomery and Chirot have found a useful "zoom level" for their approach. They lay out the horrors of Marx and Social Darwinism as succinctly as anymore. They also make a good effort to be fair to the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, incorporating some of Philip Jenkins' work on the church in the developing world, for example. Despite these efforts, they remain fully pro-Enlightenment, reminding me of a colleague's remark that academia is inherently conservative. Pfau comes off as relatively revolutionary in his emphasis on critique. Although they know all the reasons why so many people are against the Enlightenment (or more properly want to reform it in some way), Montgomery and Chirot never seem to quite understand at a gut level why someone would be against the obvious gains of the Enlightenment, and as such, the closest the book comes to being revolutionary at the end is a daring call for more humanities education. Pfau's analysis is more fruitful, because it works better to analyze words rather than nebulous ideas, and because he ends with a specific, underappreciated thinker in the person of Coleridge. Montgomery and Chirot talk about how important it is to read the original texts, but they do so in a book that doesn't actually quote the original texts much -- Pfau quotes original texts much more than they do! In the end, I'll take Pfau, but better yet, I'll read both books and realize that it's Pfau's analysis that sticks with me and gives me a direction. Still, Montgomery and Chirot have written a fine book because it allows for this kind of deep comparison to other thinkers' works, and I think if we continue to debate at this level, there's hope of true progress in this discussion.

Friday, April 29, 2016

A World from Dust Argues Against Gould's Book, Not Gould

Sometimes the most helpful comments are the asides. One of these happened a year ago with the second reader to finish the full draft of A World from Dust (to whom I am eminently grateful, by the way). He finished his email with "BTW, you really don't like Gould!" plus an emoticon. That took me back -- it prompted me to make it more clear in the draft that I was arguing against Gould's specific book and his "Tape of Life" theory, not the man himself. I'm not sure if I went far enough, because there seems to be a default assumption that debating a person's ideas involves debating the person himself.

Now that I've published an entire book structured around that argument, I suppose if I could go back and do it again (second edition?) I'd make a simple edit: search-and-replace all the references to "Gould" to make them say "Wonderful Life." I'm not arguing with the man so much as I'm arguing with his book. In terms of most of Gould's thinking, and most especially in his writing style, I came to praise Gould, not bury him. I only want to bury the "tape of life" (like the Atari ET game cartridges in the New Mexico desert?). Gould's innovative and, to use a word that's on its way out, disruptive thinking about evolutionary paths and mechanisms made the field what it is today.

The fact of the matter is that Gould wrote a lot about evolution and contingency, and it's clear that his views were much more nuanced than were contained in Wonderful Life. For example, his masterwork The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is much more detailed and less polemic than Wonderful Life. In Chapter 5 of A World from Dust, I wrote that finding a chemical origin of life reaction would show that the tape of life could be replayed. There's evidence Gould thought so too, and that he thought the tape of life could be replayed to that point.

But, and here's the rub, whatever Gould's views in the rest of his writing, it's Wonderful Life that everyone remembers. He was too good of a writer in that book. His sweeping, magisterial conclusions and quotes were so effective and unnerving that they drown out the nuance of his other works. It's Wonderful Life that people go out of their way to refer to when they talk about this, it's Wonderful Life that the papers in the beginning of my Chapter 12 cite, and it's Wonderful Life that has so undergirded the discourse that its "tape of life" quotes have become an unspoken default.

That's what A World from Dust argues against. Chapter 12 is all about how there should be an open conversation on this topic rather than a conversation-ending default. As that chapter discusses, genetic drift and random flow have their place on the local, species level, but on the planetary level, things become a lot more predictable. I'm not seeking a Kuhnian paradigm shift so much as a Hegelian dialectic -- not a revolution but a conversation.

So I hope it's clear, I do really "like" Gould. But he was just a man, and in his own way a product of his time. He was right on a lot of things and wrong on some other things. And, by writing Wonderful Life, he moved this important conversation forward. That's why it's worth talking about.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Book Review: The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

This book is itself shaped like a river delta. Alexander von Humboldt is its source, and his voyage to South America the catalyst that led to a life of pouring out words. Three-quarters of the book describes his life and explains why he is a lost hero of science. Then the book introduces major thinkers who were influenced by Humboldt: Darwin, Thoreau, Haeckel, Marsh, and Muir. Each of these stories involves travel (if you only consider Thoreau's Walden Pond experience to be a sort of inward parallel to the outward voyages of the other four). Wulf especially excels at summing up the impact of Humboldt on these five thinkers with economy and vivid description.

I wish there had been more about where Humboldt's ideas came from. The book focuses on the generation before Humboldt, and it's implied that the advances in travel technology led to the advances in thought (though it would have been interesting to explore this angle a little more, come to think of it). I want to go farther back, to the Greeks, because Humboldt's conception of nature seems awfully Stoic in its composition, and I wonder how much of his ideas had been around since the ancients and how they were carried through to him. Where did Humboldt get his style, and especially this vision of interconnectedness? I want to go deeper, and I could have traded some of the early detail about Humboldt's outer life for more on his inner life.

Also, now that I'm finished with the book I'm left with an interest in reading more of Humboldt, but I don't have a specific "in" to his writing. Part of his forgottenness is that he doesn't have the singular masterpiece that is Origin of Species or the vivid, short articles like Muir wrote. And why is that? Are we just too far removed from Humboldt's time, or is it because he wrote in German? Well, we still remember Goethe more than him. I'd like to think about why.

But these questions arise precisely because this is a good story about a little-appreciated chapter of history. Like the river delta, it opens up into an ocean.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Review: The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

This graphic novel would make a great opera. The characters include The Lost Artist Boy, The Carefree but Struggling Girl, and, of course, Death Himself. The plot involves a deal the Boy makes with Death so that he gets the power to reshape matter with his bare hands, in exchange for knowing he will die in exactly 200 days. Even that great power isn't enough to result in good art, not without further struggle, and then there's the issue of falling in love with someone when you know you're going to die before the year does. McCloud's characters are excellent and multifaceted. Even Death has his internal motivations. My only quibble is with the setting, or more precisely, the author's exploration of the setting. In other stories like this, NYC becomes a character in itself, but I felt all along like it was just background. (Possibly the author spent less time in NYC than Helprin or Gilliam?) This isn't really about the setting, but it's about the triad of main characters and the power of art and death. In those areas it makes for a unique, affecting story, perfectly paced in the graphic medium.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Book Review: Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart

A graphic novel that's a searing, detailed account of what it was like for the author to lose his daughter suddenly, before her second birthday. Hart wends his way through the sorrows of loss, the joys of childhood, and the legalistic frustrations of adulthood as he finds a journey through his grief. As I read (through tears) I realized that I had no idea how you should end a book like this, a book that begins with Rosalie dying. But Hart ends it on the perfect note, an open chord in ink and an image of growth and hope. This story is every parent's worst fear, but also a meditation on meaning and symbolism. There's so much familiar in the story that it feels like I've lived through it with Hart for an hour. This book has the same effect as a sad movie or a storm -- it blows through, upends everything, and cleans you out.