Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review: Darwinian Fairytales

David Stove is an Australian philosopher who wrote a highly entertaining attack on Darwin, Malthus, Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, and company in Darwinian Fairytales. The fact that he is Australian may be somehow reflected in the delight he takes in contrarian positions. The fact that his is a philosopher is evident from the way he makes his arguments. About half of his arguments hinge on statements made by Darwin or Malthus that include the term "all species" and he finds it sufficient to show that man doesn't fit the proposed pattern and therefore all species do not. This works for philosophers but to a biologist it just seems pedantic. About half of his arguments are more substantive and interesting to think about. Some of them attack evolutionary topics like "kin selection" that are no longer held, precisely because of the problems he points out, but it's still kind of fun to watch him poke at the theories and point out the problems.

"[Selfish theorists] think of people as though they were molecules of a confined gas, which have no mutal sympathy, or any other influence, except by way of collisions with one another. This is the selfish theory to a T, as long as you impute to each molecule a ceaseless and exclusive regard to its own interests. The only thing wrong with this idea is that there is nothing whatever in reality which corresponds to it." -- p. 159

The fact that there is more to man is a constant element in the arguments of G.K. Chesterton against materialism as well, and they have the additional strength of being true. The best essays come from Stove's observation that the new sociobiologists like Dawkins and co. are polytheists of a new stripe, and that Dawkins, Darwin and Calvin have a similar streak of proposing that humans are just puppets of irresistable invisible forces.

"[P]uppetry theories ... always display a strong tendency to expand. The man who has dreamed up a set of demons or puppet masters behind one field of phenomena is quite the likeliest man to dream up, later on, another set of demons behind another field of phenomena; or to come up with a single, but far wider set of demons, comprehending the set which he had happened to stumble upon first. The people who suffer from delusions of being conspired against are always being obliged to conclude that this conspiracy is more widespread than they had previously realized." -- p.187

This answers a question I've always had about Gnosticism. Why does it start with a bad material/good spiritual creation dualism and end up with an extensive angelology? It's because Gnostics are puppetry theorists, and once they find one puppetmaster they are compelled to find another. Dawkins and the Gnostics ... who'd have thought?

"A person is certainly a believer in some religion if he thinks, for example, that there are on earth millions of invisible and immortal non-human beings which are far more intelligent and capable than we are. But that is exactly why sociobiologists do think, about genes. Sociobiology, then, is a religion: one which has genes as its gods." -- p.248

As a believer myself I interpret this in the light of the injuctions against idolatry. Stove is adept at puncturing idolatry. But there's the rub -- he is so good at it that he ends up puncturing himself.

"The trouble is, though, that every religion (or at any rate every one I know of) is incomprehensible when it is not obviously false. Of course, something which is incomprehensible to us might nevertheless be true, and religious people often remind the non-religious of this fact. But, though it is a fact, it is no help, because there are always many competing incomprehensibilities, from religious and other sources, vying for our acceptance. Tertullian said that he believed the Christian religion because of its absurdity. But alas, every other religion possesses the same claim on our belief (if absurdity really is a claim on our belief)." -- p. 254.

This is where Stove and Chesterton (and I) part company. Stove cannot accept anything he cannot fully comprehend, or that he believes he can fully comprehend. I see a reason to adopt the absurdities of Christianity, in which the great inversion of the weak and the strong is accomplished by the tragedy and blood of the cross. That's a good absurdity that one can sink one's teeth into (literally so in the case of the Eucharist). Commitment to some form of absurdity is a necessity, because even Stove's agnosticism is an absurdity -- why should a free-thinking man expect the universe to fit in his head, after all? -- and Christ is indeed the absurdity on which I stand.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book Review: Over Sea, Under Stone

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper is the first book in a five-book series that should by no means be read first. As a quest story involving three children searching for the holy grail (yes, THAT holy grail), it's diverting enough on its own in a mid-20th-century adventures in caves for youth sort of way, but nowhere near as powerful as the second book, The Dark is Rising. Almost all of the magic is kept offstage and some major plot points such as disappearances of important characters are never explained. The pace is slow and there is little tension. There's certainly cleverness in the "treasure map" area and the sense of place is vivid, with Cornwall as a backdrop, but there's too much that Cooper was obviously learning as she went. One of the surprising revelations at the end about a character that was also in the second book is actually unmentioned in the second book, so you still get the reward of that if you read this second. So although I'm usually an adherent of the "published order" philosophy, I say it's better to read this second and to sort of steel yourself to slog through it with the reward of the third through fifth books in the series. Sam liked it fine, and I'm not going to let onto him that it's in my opinion surprisingly weak -- I'll let him figure that out for himself.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Animated Baseball Standings as 2010 Played Itself Out

In the series of "useless but interesting baseball graphs," check out this large picture file, which animates each AL division race from last year from April through October, which each division side by side with the others. When the ball gets a little trail to it there's a trend up or down in the winning or losing (in the case of the Mariners last year, mostly losing). Also, when two teams switch places in the standings a little line forms between the symbols. Sitting through the losing was painful, but now that it's over watching that little Mariners ball plummet throughout the season is kind of soothing in a fishtank at-least-2010-is-over kind of way.

In Defense of Fishing Expeditions

I agree with the end of this interview with Janet Rowley, an eminent cancer geneticist who discovered that some forms of leukemia come from broken chromosomes; not in the sense of "every bit of research needs to be like this" but "there is a place for this kind of research in the academy":

Q. Do you think that the type of career you’ve had would be possible today?

A. No. I was doing observationally driven research. That’s the kiss of death if you’re looking for funding today. We’re so fixated now on hypothesis-driven research that if you do what I did, it would be called a “fishing expedition,” a bad thing.

O.K., we knew about the Philadelphia chromosome, and after banding we had the technology to discover gains and losses among the different chromosomes. But once you knew that, what were the implications of the gains and losses? That’s the “fishing,” because there wasn’t a hypothesis.

Well, if you don’t know anything, you can’t have a sensible hypothesis.

I keep saying that fishing is good. You’re fishing because you want to know what’s there.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Value of an Elite School: Not That Much

A recent study of an elite school vs. a non-elite school's graduates finds that the elite diploma can get you a job in the first place but staying there and prospering there is not really affected by the name on the diploma. The thing that promotes you is the skill and learning on the job that you bring to it, not some elite intangible aura. Of course, I find this fact very encouraging for several reasons!

Book Review: The Thousand

This book is sold as a replacement for Michael Crichton, or maybe Dan Brown, although I've read everything by the former and nothing by the latter so I'll stick with Crichton. It has a promising premise: on the one hand, a brain-box implant that lets a person notice and remember everything in detail (very handy in Vegas, of course), and on the other hand, a secret society of Pythagoreans who have the ability to basically make computers do anything they want because of their deep understanding of math and the theory of unification. Although how the quantum behavior of black holes could be used to make airplanes crash (much less how Pythagoras could've figured it out), I'm not so sure, but I like thrillers enough to go along for the ride.

Unfortunately, after a promising start and some fun stuff in the middle this novel peters out into a confusing climax that is almost literally a barn-burner. The musical connection should be stronger -- as it is, there's a finished copy of an unfinished Bach Requiem floating around which I find fascinating -- but whereas Crichton would find or make up some interesting connections between math and music, Guilfoile just lets the secret be the secret and treats it as a given that such a requiem could be completed. It needs another step, what does it mean, what other cases are like it, and you don't have to spell everything out but you have to give us a reason to think it's not just deus ex machina superpowers that these Pythagereans have. Crichton would come up with something involving Pythagoreans' obsession with waves and numbers, but nothing along those lines is mentioned. My verdict is that Guilfoile simply isn't curious enough to make up intellectual connections (however spurious), and it's those connections that I found truly thrilling about Crichton.

It's a shame, too, because it's a decent premise and Guilfoile's characters are far better drawn and in general more interesting than Crichton (of course, the stock character of the Crichton know-it-all played by Jeff Goldblum is not present, because Guilfoile doesn't have enough for that know-it-all to say). Maybe there's a sequel that will be more fully realized, but much of this novel is really an extended meditation on how to get from Vegas to Chicago when the government is alerted against you, and again, that's just too typical of a subject for a thriller that purports to be an intellectual thriller.