Saturday, September 24, 2016

Book Review: The Spirit of Creation by Amos Yong

I wish there was a shelf in the bookstore called "Interdisciplinary." It would have to be a curated shelf, because there's lots of books that claim to be interdisciplinary, but only a few that truly are -- in which it could stand on its own in more than one discipline, and which is accessible to practitioners of all. Come to think of it, such a shelf might not exist because there might not be enough good books to stock on it. At any rate, The Spirit of Creation would fit on that shelf, combining theology (and a specifically Pentecostal angle on that theology) with philosophy of science and becoming more than the sum of its parts. Since one of the themes of the book is emergence, that result is entirely appropriate.

Yong has a knack for describing historical developments in both science and theology with a few sentences more effectively than others in many paragraphs. His description of the historical development of the concept of "laws of nature" accomplishes in a few pages what takes whole chapters in other places. This means that I can put his ideas together with scientists' ideas (like those of Terrence Deacon, in particular) and I suspect that something genuinely novel will emerge.

[My only hesitation comes in a late section on parapsychology, which I found unconvincing and unnecessary at the first reading (to be clear, I'm still going back and forth with myself on the necessity of it to the overall argument), although Yong's disclaimers at the beginning do a good job of insulating it from the rest of the argument. My biggest concern comes with how antagonists could take that section out of context and try to discredit the rest of the very good arguments as a result.]

Most importantly, Yong's pentecostal faith provides a necessary and helpful perspective that informs and enhances my own faith perspective -- and my science perspective. The specific thoughts on emergence seem to point a way forward that I've been thinking about for the whole week since I finished this book, and so it has already stuck with me and will continue to do so. File this on the top shelf.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Review: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt


This book is the closest thing we’ll get to the Gospel of Lucretius. It makes for an invigorating internal discussion in the vein of C.S. Lewis’s “second friend" (i.e., that friend who has read all the right things but gotten all the wrong ideas out from them). In Lewis’s case, he was referring to Owen Barfield’s fascinatingly flawed obsession with Rudolph Steiner and Theosophy, but the same sentiment applies to this book’s fascinatingly flawed obsession with Lucretius’s Epicurean philosophy.

It’s not that Greenblatt sees Lucretius’s influence in too many places – it’s that he sees them in too few. In this telling, Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things, it had some influence but was all too soon eclipsed by Christianity, with the typical secular narrative example of "St. Hypatia" as told in the movie Agora.  Then, in this telling, Lucretius disappears until a chance discovery resurrects his ideas into glorious, enlightening victory.

But this ignores the central fact that Lucretius has always been around. Even in the "darkest" of Dark Ages, every Christian has an internal debate with doubt. It also ignores Stoicism’s constant presence in different guises throughout history. In my view, the writings of Augustine and Aquinas show the marks of struggle with Lucretian/Epicurean ideas and Stoic ideas. All writing that goes deep enough shows that each mind has a debate to settle between Lucretius and Christ, even if the ideas don't go by those names.

Exactly why Lucretius was eclipsed by Christianity in the first half of the first millennium is not convincingly explained; Greenblatt thinks the right ideas “lost” the intellectual battle but, to me, never explained why they lost (not convincingly at least). Greenblatt leans on explanations of a Christian emphasis on pain over pleasure, but if so I have no idea why anyone would take the Christian option ... yet that’s what happened historically. Something’s missing.

Then Greenblatt goes into great detail as to how a particular Italian rose to a certain clerical power and eventually found Lucretius through a string of luck. (Never mind that if I heard correctly, 50 copies of On the Nature of Things existed, and it seems that one would see the light of day eventually.) This story is told in so much detail that it takes up too much of the book. Rather than telling us exactly how convoluted (socially and morally) 15th-century Italy was, the story should have focused on why that situation existed and how the people thought. Instead of ideas we get a string of names.

But then, it does get interesting. The final chapters are the best, because once The Nature of Things emerges through the Renaissance, the influence of Lucretius can be traced all the way to Darwin (Erasmus, that is) and Jefferson. I'm not convinced that Lucretius is as central to these thinkers as Greenblatt seems to think he is, but at least we're talking about ideas here as ideas. This is where the history of ideas happens, and there should be more of it. (The chapter explaining the context of Lucretius and his early readers is also good and idea-rich.)

What stood out to me is how Lucretius’s ideas may have held back science in some cases. Atomism is right, but the Big Bang scenario is objectively closer to creation ex nihilo (at least on the surface) than it is to Lucretius’s endlessly cycling universe. Einstein resisted the Big Bang because he was too Lucretian, and reality turned out to look awfully medieval in this respect.

 I understand that you have to leave something out to write a book this short, but in that case, leave out the 15th-century Italian intrigue and talk about the ideas and the science more. I’d like something that could stand up to Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, but instead, The Swerve is more on the level of The Purpose-Driven Life for people who don’t believe in purpose. Don't get me wrong -- it’s very worthwhile on that level, but it’s more about reaffirming the “faithful” than changing any minds. Obviously it didn't change mine!

Friday, September 16, 2016

A World from Dust (Plus): The Rapid Emergence of Life

For a scientist, opening up a new scientific journal is a bit like opening up a present on Christmas Day. I always get a slight thrill when I look through new journal articles and find one that further confirms something I'd suspected previously. I had that sensation a few weeks ago when I read "Rapid emergence of life shown by discovery of 3,700-million-year-old microbial structures" in Nature.

I admit that most people don't have their heart leap when reading those words, but compare that title to this quote that I wrote a year or two ago, now printed on p. 87 of A World from Dust:

"Before the clues, there is the question of timeline: When did life begin? This is a bit of a surprise in its own right. I would have thought that, given all the different molecules that have come together in any living thing, this assembly should have taken a long time. Instead, most evidence implies that life formed on this planet as quickly as possible, if not sooner."

"Living processes are even harder to pin down in rocks, but various lines of evidence (including unnatural imbalances of neutrons) can only be explained by life 3.5, 3.6, or even 3.8 billion years ago. A study of phosphorus in rocks 3.5 to 3.2 billion years old finds that life was mature enough to use phosphorus in a widespread, well- defined phosphorus cycle. Evidence for life immediately follows the evidence for oceans. An energy- diverting, growing, replicating chemistry followed the presence of liquid water in a geological blink of an eye."

This is why Chapter 5 (Clues to the Origins of Life) immediately follows Chapter 4 (the formation of the oceans). Many pieces of evidence point to the quick succession of these two chapters, including the "deep genealogy" studies that project what the oldest DNA sequences were like, resulting in an age of 3.8 billion years for the first proteins, as described on pages 87 and 88. Life springs up as soon as -- or even before -- the planet cools down enough to host it. This new Nature article is one more piece of evidence that fits into the quote above with an almost-audible snap.

Some have read the Nature article as a strike against "Darwinism" in some way, because this rapid emergence of complexity is inconsistent with slow, gradual change. But one of the main points of A World from Dust is that Darwinism isn't all about slow, gradual change. It's more like a symphony, a long, moving piece of music with different parts at different tempos, all reflecting the same theme of emerging life.

If the Nature article is a strike against Darwinism, then why was I, a scientist who admires Darwin and his ideas, so excited to read that sentence? Why did I write those two paragraphs as part of a whole book about evolution before this new finding was revealed? Yes, life emerged quickly, I've been saying that for a long time. I wrote those two paragraphs a year or two ago, and they are reinforced now. (Another point of my book is that it's possible to have disagreements about the nature and meaning of evolution without throwing out the idea of evolution, as shown by how often I contest Gould's "Tape of Life" metaphor yet remain convinced that evolution was the mechanism for generating life's diversity. For one thing, I think Gould's picture of evolution is at times too slow, and that it moved faster than he gave it credit.)

In the rest of my Chapter 5 I present seven chemical ideas, each one rooted in replicable laboratory experiments, for how the origin of life could have happened so quickly. I think that we might be able to understand how it happened by investigating chemistry -- in particular, the chemistry of oceans reacting with earth in oxygen-free water.

We live in a universe where we can see back 13 billion years with physics, all the way to the Big Bang, and we can understand how that worked. It stands to reason that we may be able to see back 4 billion years with biochemistry, all the way to this "Big Bang" of life, and to also understand how that worked.

I celebrate the fact that we have been given a universe we can understand, in which, periodically, life explodes with seeming joy. Understanding the chemical reasons that explain why the explosions happened doesn't take away that joy, but rather magnifies it. As I understand just how quickly life emerged, my heart leaps a little and I participate in that same old joy, as I receive that gift.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A World from Dust (Plus): Yes, Air-Breathing Fishes Evolved Dozens of Times

I couldn't help myself. I was sitting there, with the proof of A World from Dust in hand, facing a deadline, and unable to change anything beyond the occasional sentence. Yet I had just read The Runes of Evolution and just had to cram in one more datum. Here's the paragraph, with the addition in the middle:
Whichever road it [evolution] used, it appears to have happened repeatedly, because swim bladder genes evolved and converged four times in teleost fish, providing many structures from which a lung could develop. Some estimate that fish overall evolved air breathing 68 independent times. These fish took evolutionary paths that differed in the details, but they reached the same destination dozens of times, predictably.
If I had space ... well, if I had space I would have put a lot more in, but if I had a few more characters I could have put in a big "NOTE ADDED IN PROOF" in from of the "Some estimate that fish overall evolved air breathing 68 independent times." And, perhaps due to my own haste and newness to this whole writing thing, the citation to that 68 times reference was dropped! So let me provide it here. In The Runes of Evolution, Simon Conway Morris writes on page xxiv:
Graham concludes, “air breathing has independently evolved among the fishes at least 38 times and perhaps as many as 67 times,” a point that Karel Liem echoes in his analysis of ABOs [Air-Breathing Organs].


"Graham" is Jeffrey B. Graham, author of the aptly titled book Air-Breathing Fishes: Evolution, Diversity, and Adaptation. The book was published before high-throughput genomics techniques, such as the analysis that gives evidence for four convergences in teleost fish mentioned in the previous sentence. As such, it's based on classic biology: comparing lots of fish and noting just how many fish breathe air, using organs that have many, many different shapes with one oxygen-gathering function. You could rewrite Red Fish Blue Fish with all the different fish that breathe air in Graham's book (an idea I'm just going to leave out there for free considering the burgeoning children's convergent evolution market).

Notice also that I was content to use the hedge words, "Some estimate," and that's good because I made another slip of the keyboard, putting 68 instead of 67. (I try to type independently to avoid plagiarism and I must have fused the two numbers from the quote maybe? Sigh.)  But the important word is in the final sentence of my paragraph above: whether 38, 67, 68, or something else, these are big numbers and are all in the range of "dozens" (as in greater than 24).

That in itself was a dramatic surprise to me, and should be a dramatic surprise to most people. The very fact that we are so surprised shows us that our mental image of evolution should be changed. Evolution is not always an inefficient and undirected process that depends on lucky chances. Or, if it is, there are so many lucky chances that it can be counted on to increase resource efficiency and even complexity. Conway Morris refers to evolution as a "search engine" working on a planetary level, returning complexity and intelligence. That's not what most people think of when they hear "evolution" -- and yet that's what Conway Morris and Graham see, and it's one of the points of my book. Here's one more bit of evidence to back it up.

Book Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Another Gaiman book read aloud, this one meant for young readers. I liked revisiting it and thought it was well paced, but it was a bit dark and "stuck in place" for the younger readers. I also like how Coraline struggles with fear, yet how she's not deceived by the beldam for more than an instant. She has the right kind of strength -- she chooses it. It's instructive to compare the villain in Stardust to the beldam here. Both have a similar modus operandi, but in Stardust she preys on general hospitality, when in Coraline she instead usurps family. This is a great read because it's so focused, but at the end my favorite Gaiman works have more atmosphere and explore more. A hero like Coraline who likes to explore should be given more to explore.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Book Review: End of Watch by Stephen King

This book is the third in a trilogy following the exploits of retired detective Bill Hodges. The upshot is that this is a well-plotted, functional little detective story. More than the previous two books, this one verges into more typical Stephen King territory what with telekinesis, hypnosis, and even possession. The plot also involves suicide, and it all comes together with an almost audible snap. Yet, in other Stephen King books, there's something more going on. This could've had genuine insights into suicide or old age, but I feel like it's less than the sum of its parts relative to other insightful works like King's Joyland or 11-22-63. The first book in the trilogy, Mr. Mercedes, had some of these insights about the nature of evil, but nothing new on that really comes out here, possibly because the plot gives the villain too much power over his victims. I'd prefer if the victims actually had to be convinced but they are more controlled here. Regardless, King moves the plot along, has enough character moments to keep you invested, and surprises you just enough in the right ways at the right time. If you're pressed for time, I recommend just the first of the three novels here rather than sticking it through to the end, but it's still hard for me to find fault with something so cunningly crafted that it's difficult to find the seams in the story.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Audio: ASA 2016 talk on How the Periodic Table Shaped Life (and the Brain)

Two weeks ago I gave a talk on my book at the American Scientific Affiliation meeting at Azusa Pacific. Since the theme of the meeting was the mind and brain sciences, I focused on the chemistry of the brain and why I think that chemistry would be similar on different planets. This is an extension of Chapters 9 and 10 of my book with some new research findings.

Here's the audio for the talk*, and here's a PDF of the slides (fair use pics only).

(* Sorry I walked around so much, the mike picked up everything but volume goes up and down as I pace!)