Richard gets “speculative”.
Richard gets “speculative”.
Richard gets “speculative”.
Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, talking about some of the things that fascinate me. (Lottie — this is especially for “John”. I think he might find it interesting 😉 )
As some of you may have noticed, I didn’t get round to writing a summary of the final episode of Richard Dawkins’s Channel 4 series “The Genius of Charles Darwin.” The truth is, I’ve only just got round to watching it myself — and forgot to make notes!
To make up for it, I’m going to suggest that you read the excellent summary provided by John over at Homo economicus’ Weblog. You could do a lot worse than add this blog to your feedreader. John has excellent credentials and his blog is always a good, well-informed read.
One thing I would like to talk about regarding this particular episode, however, is the attitude of teachers in British schools to the teaching of Darwin/evolutionary theory. In the course of this episode, we are introduced to a gentleman called Nick Cowan, who is a science teacher at Liverpool’s Blue Coat School (the school isn’t named in the documentary, but this gentleman didn’t take much finding!)
Mr Cowan can be seen in this segment, about seven and a half minutes in, and in the following segment — and if you haven’t already seen the documentary, or if you haven’t guessed, he is a creationist.
Watching, I was utterly dumbfounded. At one point, Dawkins asks the viewer if he/she would want someone like Mr Cowan teaching their children, and it was like being five and at a pantomime all over again! I actually shouted “no!” at the screen, that’s how strongly I felt about this issue.
Choosing my words carefully, I have to say that from where I’m sitting Mr Cowan’s credentials as a science teacher of any kind are completely undermined by the nonsense he spouts during this segment. If I had kids and this man was teaching them I would have been waiting at the school gates on Tuesday morning suggesting very strongly that he should be dismissed.
Now some might argue that because he isn’t teaching creationism as part of the science curriculum (he teaches it in a general studies class), I shouldn’t have an issue with this. But the man is a scientist, for God’s sake! (Yes, that was deliberate.) A scientist believing in God is bad enough, but I can just about accept that. But a scientist (okay, a science teacher — not always the same thing!) believing in creationism?… no, it’s too much of a dichotomy, and whilst he might be able to live with that and rationalise it using the unscientific intelligent design copout, I certainly can’t.
It is extremely depressing. People like Nick Cowan are potentially damaging our future understanding of science and quite possibly contributing to shortages of properly qualified scientists in science-related industries. Evolutionary theory is a fundamental part of biology. It’s vital that these kids have an accurate and truthful understanding of it, that they know just like I know, just like Dawkins knows, just like many, many of my regular readers know that it is a fact. The evidence is so overwhelming that it is now, in spite of what creationists and intelligent design proponents might claim, simply absurd to “believe” otherwise. It is a fact, as Dawkins points out, in the same way that gravity is a fact.
As my former headmaster, Phil Willis MP, says concerning the creationist packs that were sent to five thousand secondary schools in the UK back in 2006,
In April of 2006, the Royal Society summed it up quite perfectly, however. I leave you with their comment and the first segment of Episode Three of “The Genius of Charles Darwin”.
“Young people are poorly served by deliberate attempts to withhold, distort or misrepresent scientific knowledge and understanding in order to promote particular religious beliefs.”
As promised, this is my summary of the latest episode of Richard Dawkins’s new Channel 4 series on Charles Darwin, for the benefit of those overseas who do not have access to YouTube. These are in effect little more than notes I made whilst watching and whilst I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible, there may be a few errors — though I would hope not!
Feel free to ask any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.
The Genius of Charles Darwin Part Two Summary.
Humans don’t have Dominion over animals. We are animals. We are the fifth ape. This raises questions about our morals and manners. Are they just a veneer? If survival drives evolution, why don’t we live in a purely dog eat dog world?
Is genocide etc a survival method?
This episode deals with the questions that Darwin himself skirted around — questions concerning the evolution of human beings, what it means for us to be evolved. The question is more urgent than ever. Darwinism is increasingly being attacked by religious groups and others for excusing selfishness and barbarism.
Dawkins takes us into the Darwinian heart of darkness to look for answers and hope.
Natural selection is the driving force of our evolution but that doesn’t mean that society should be run on Darwinian lines. Dawkins abhors it as a principal for organising society.
A brief summary of evolution by natural selection then follows.
At London Zoo back in the 1830s the arrival of the first apes outraged polite society. The young Charles Darwin saw the truth staring back at him, however. All life related, Darwin realises.
East Africa — the birthplace of Dawkins and more importantly the birthplace of the human species. Between five and six million years ago there lived in Africa an ape that had two children. One of those children gave rise to us, the other was destined to give rise to the chimpanzees.
Richard Leakey and his family have uncovered the hard evidence in the Rift Valley. Charts the evolution of our human ancestors. A brief examination of fossilised human skull development. Leakey talks about the way we react to the fact that we are the fifth ape. He tells a story about watching people at a zoo who in turn were watching apes. He says that you can see that as an individual looks at an ape he/she will be unconvinced that the ape is like them but as they look around at the other people with them they think, Yeah, there is a similarity between those people and the ape… (I’ve paraphrased this to make it clearer.)
We are so closely related to chimps that it isn’t entirely ridiculous to ask if we might breed with them.
We are the human animal. Dawkins has often wondered what it tells us about human society now. Half the world is still horrified by the reality of our origins. As we go into the break, Dawkins asks a black guy, “I’m an ape — are you an ape?”
“No,” he answers. “I’m a human being.”
Why should the fifth ape “love thy neighbour”? Darwin shied away from the evolution of man.
In Kenya, religious groups are trying to ban the National Museum exhibit of human fossils.
Turkana Boy. Homo erectus. More precious than the Crown Jewels to Dawkins (and me!)
The Evangelical movement in Kenya is running a “hide the bones” campaign. A minister shows a complete unwillingness/inability to understand evolution. He asks, “What is evolution’s goal?” Dawkins explain that it has none. It has no purpose or morality.
What does that mean for us/society? Struggle. Each working for its own benefit. Explanation of strangler fig.
Next Dawkins addresses the claims that Darwinian ruthlessness/purposelessness damages society. Business likes the dog-eat-dog concept. Summary of robber-barons and social darwinism. Similarities between economic systems and biological systems. A businessman says that there’s a risk to the analogy. Not a straightforward law for financial success. Merely an analogy.
Eugenics overview. A slippery slope to horrific consequences. Eugenics is not Darwinism. Hitler was not a Darwinist.
Darwin argued that evolution was driven by brutal struggle for survival. So why altruistic behaviour — grooming, warning cries etc? Brings on Steven Pinker to explain the brain’s evolution. Guilt and trust operate in much the same we as lust. Moral emotions can be explained in evolutionary terms, just like fear.
Darwin on peacocks tail. Tail wins sexual partners. Peahens perform “selective breeding” much like pigeon fanciers. This Darwin defined as “sexual selection”. Survive and be attractive.
A segment on American single women selectively breeding. Sperm donors. Their criteria for donors include everything imaginable — from shoe-size to pets. Do they want altruism/niceness, though? Yes! Don’t want typical alpha males. Nice guys win!
How did animals evolve “nice”? How can genetics explain altruism? We are vehicles for the genes inside us. They are “immortal” because they are passed on. Summary of the concept of the selfish gene.
If they are selfish, why do they promote altruism in bearer? The first part of the answer is kinship selection. Altruism directed at “family”. Parents protecting their offspring. The other part of the answer is “reciprocal altruism”; you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
Humans are still “nicer” than this explanation seems to suggest, however. Dawkins explores this problem.
We are introduced to the primatologist Frans De Waal. He is critical of Dawkins’s selfish gene theory, of what he calls “veneer theory” — the idea that morals are a thin veneer on our underlying nastiness. De Waal then moves onto “social Darwinism” (yawn)… Dawkins also hates social Darwinism.
Dawkins believes the urge to help has ancestral roots. Hardwired into us. It benefited us once, we behave as if it still does. (And it does.)
But we also rise above natural selection. Altruism is the pinnacle of human civilization. Dawkins asks a charity worker why she feels the need to help/be good. She was a war child. She knows what it was like to be hungry…
Natural selection gave us big brains. We can empathise, plan and build a society we want to live in. Our evolved brains empower us to rebel against our selfish genes.
[Episode two can be seen here.]
Last night, the first episode of The Genius of Charles Darwin was aired on Channel 4 here in the UK. The reviews I read this morning were, perhaps predictably, of the usual sneering variety — full of ridiculous statements such as “Dawkins, for such an enthusiastic Darwinist, seems to have no faith at all in social Darwinism” (of course he doesn’t; he is not nor ever will be a social Darwinist — episode two should clarify why, judging by the trailer) and, “He then proceeded to shout out the order of the evolution of species at them. “Fish! Amphibians! Reptiles! Birds! Mammals!” he yelled, as if the message would become plainer if it were delivered at elevated volume” (funnily enough, it didn’t sound at all like yelling to me!) As I read these reviews, from so-called professional journalists, I wondered firstly if they’d been watching the same documentary that I had and, secondly, how much these poorly informed imbeciles were being paid.
With this in mind, I’d like to offer my summary, as promised to Baba, of episode one. My main concern is to share the points Dawkins made during the show, for the benefit of those not living in the UK and with problems accessing YouTube. Where necessary, I will share my impressions.
At the very outset of the show, Dawkins once again stipulates that Darwin’s work is one of the reasons why he doesn’t believe in God. This has already been sneered at in the press (“as if we didn’t know already”), but it was a relevant and important statement. No duality can exist. It is one thing or the other.
The first programme essentially deals with who Darwin was and how he discovered his theory, what it is and why it matters. Dawkins wants to convince the viewer that evolution is a fact with undeniable evidence.
He begins at the time of Darwin’s birth two hundred years ago, explaining that sailors and explorers were sending home a dizzying array of animal specimens from all parts of Britain’s growing empire. Every animal was believed to have a unique place in God’s creation. At school in Shrewsbury, Darwin was taught that God had created the earth and all its rich variety of life just six thousand years ago. Today, thanks to Darwin we [some of us, at least] know, differently.
In the UK today, four out of ten people still cling to the old ideas. In order to attempt to show how little evolutionary theory is taught in our schools, Dawkins visits a class of 15- to 16-year-olds. He was immediately faced with religion-based opposition. One young man politely points out that he prefers the evidence of “the holy book”. There seems to be a complete lack of understanding of the difference between believing in something and having enough evidence to know that something is a fact. One pupil asserts that people can believe whatever they want.
Dawkins takes the class to the coast to show them fossil evidence.
Before seeing the results of this visit, however, we are told that Darwin as a child was probably as much of Creationist as some of these children. This leads into a biographical section. Those familiar with Darwin will already know much of this, those who aren’t should follow this link.
In 1831 at the age of twenty-two Darwin’s family connections secured him a round the world trip on the survey ship HMS Beagle. Over a period of five years he collected samples but wasn’t satisfied. He had doubts about the biblical story of creation. He questioned why God had made two very similar but slightly different types of Rhea birds. Dawkins retraces his steps on the Galapagos Islands. Darwin wonders why God would create different types of iguanas etc on more or less identical small islands? Were they related rather than separately created? The picture becomes all the more intriguing when Darwin discovers fossils.
We are then told that Darwin was struck by the difference in size between large ground sloth fossils and the smaller modern sloth. Darwin also immersed himself in the work of Charles Lyell, applying geological principles to the problem of life.
Back on the beach with the schoolchildren, Dawkins teaches them about fossils, layering etc. There is muted enthusiasm… an unwillingness to commit, accept. They seem to be learning, or paying attention, at least, but there is a definite barrier there. Very real and, for me, alarming. I can’t help but compare it to what it would have been like in my day. In my fairly run-of-the-mill comprehensive school in the late 1970s/early 1980s it would have been quite different. We’d have given Dawkins a hard time, but religion would not have been an issue — or at least not the issue it seems to be today. There certainly would have been at least one (me!) who would have been quick to share his atheistic tendencies.
Back to Darwin. He returned from his round the world trip changed. He is a celebrity. He sees that the various forms of life aren’t fixed. They must have evolved.
Without the benefit of modern tools such as the Internet, Darwin sent out thousands of letters to the experts of the day in order that he might accurately develop his theory. He saw cross-species similarities in skeletons and embryos etc.
Dawkins uses Emma Darwin’s piano to explain the scale of geologic time, an understanding of which is vital to Darwin’s theory.
Darwin still needed to understand how life had evolved. The process. He became fascinated by pigeons and realised that breeders had used “artificial selection”. Species can change. Nature works in a similar way. Natural selection favours those better equipped to deal with certain tasks etc.
We next visit Kenya, where Dawkins himself was born. It is a harsh environment — with the “kill or be killed” way of life more than obvious. For the animals in the wild there is no central authority, no safety net. Darwin connects nature’s brutal reality with ideas from economic theory on population growth etc. Variation in individuals provides a crucial difference in chances of survival. Those better equipped to survive live on to reproduce. A fairly standard introduction to these ideas. Dawkins also adds that one species hones his skills on another. The predictable reference to an “arms race”.
In an attempt to highlight our personal war with viruses, Dawkins then visits Nairobi. We meet a prostitute with HIV resistance. We Europeans, we are told, are descendants of those who were able to withstand the plague. The unstoppable force of natural selection.
Back to Darwin. The point is made of just how aware Darwin was of the implications of his work — how upsetting it would be from the religious perspective. He was nevertheless persuaded to publish.
Next we are introduced to Randal Keynes, the great-great-grandson of Darwin. He describes Darwin as modest. He was confident of his theory but nevertheless doubted at times. On the Origin of Species sold out in two days and has never been out of print since (one hundred and fifty years.)
One gap remained. How were improvements preserved from generation to generation? This gap is addressed by genetics. Mapping of the genome is proof of Darwin’s “Tree of Life”. It is not a theory in the common sense anymore. Evolution is fact. Genetic code is proof.
Modern science answered Darwin’s problem. Fact.
Returning to the schoolchildren. They are still predominantly unpersuaded. Still no understanding of the difference between belief and knowledge.
To finish, I would just like to stress that this is just a very brief summary. Any mistakes are mine. (Incidentally, it appears that the show is in the process of being uploaded to YouTube. Watch this space.)
[EDIT: episode one in full can now be seen here.]
[EDIT: episode two summary can be seen here.]
One for the diary, if you live in the UK, I think. I’m certainly looking forward to it.
(If you’re not in the UK and want to watch this series, keep checking YouTube. I’m sure it will be up there or on Dawkins’s site sometime soon.)
[EDIT: see also Episode One Summary.]
I am currently in summer mode — so while this warm UK weather persists (probably no more than a day or two!), my posts may not be quite up to their usual standard.
Today, however, I do have something especially interesting I’d like to share with you. In this piece, Daniel Dennett is effectively discussing “the magic of consciousness” — how we think of consciousness as a single “thing” in need of explaining rather than a collection of mental components. His point is that our naming it as a single “thing” is at the root of the problem.
There are other lessons to be learned from this excerpt, however, but I’ll let you work them out for yourselves — more fun that way 😉
The tempting idea that there is a Hard Problem is simply a mistake. I cannot prove this. Or, better, even if I can prove this, my proof will surely fall on deaf ears, since CHALMERS, for instance, has already acknowledged that arguments against his convictions on this score are powerless to dislodge his intuition, which is beyond rational support. So I will not make the tactical error of trying to dislodge with rational argument a conviction that is beyond reason. That would be wasting everybody’s time, apparently. Instead, I will offer up what I hope is a disturbing parallel from the world of card magic: The Tuned Deck.
For many years, Mr. Ralph Hull, the famous card wizard from Crooksville, Ohio, has completely bewildered not only the general public, but also amateur conjurors, card connoisseurs and professional magicians with the series of card tricks which he is pleased to call “The Tuned Deck”…
Ralph Hull’s trick looks and sounds roughly like this:
Boys, I have a new trick to show you. It’s called ‘The Tuned Deck’. This deck of cards is magically tuned [Hull holds the deck to his ear and riffles the cards, listening carefully to the buzz of the cards]. By their finely tuned vibrations, I can hear and feel the location of any card. Pick a card, any card… [The deck is then fanned or otherwise offered for the audience, and a card is taken by a spectator, noted, and returned to the deck by one route or another.] Now I listen to the Tuned Deck, and what does it tell me? I hear the telltale vibrations, … [buzz, buzz, the cards are riffled by Hull’s ear and various manipulations and rituals are enacted, after which, with a flourish, the spectator’s card is presented].
Hull would perform the trick over and over for the benefit of his select audience of fellow magicians, challenging them to figure it out. Nobody ever did. Magicians offered to buy the trick from him but he would not sell it. Late in his life he gave his account to his friend, HILLIARD, who published the account in his privately printed book. Here is what Hull had to say about his trick:
For years I have performed this effect and have shown it to magicians and amateurs by the hundred and, to the very best of my knowledge, not one of them ever figured out the secret. …the boys have all looked for something too hard [my italics, DCD].
Like much great magic, the trick is over before you even realize the trick has begun. The trick, in its entirety, is in the name of the trick, “The Tuned Deck”, and more specifically, in one word “The”! As soon as Hull had announced his new trick and given its name to his eager audience, the trick was over. Having set up his audience in this simple way, and having passed the time with some obviously phony and misdirecting chatter about vibrations and buzz-buzz-buzz, Hull would do a relatively simple and familiar card presentation trick of type A (at this point I will draw the traditional curtain of secrecy; the further mechanical details of legerdemain, as you will see, do not matter).
His audience, savvy magicians, would see that he might possibly be performing a type A trick, a hypothesis they could test by being stubborn and uncooperative spectators in a way that would thwart any attempt at a type A trick. When they then adopted the appropriate recalcitrance to test the hypothesis, Hull would ‘repeat’ the trick, this time executing a type B card presentation trick. The spectators would then huddle and compare notes: might he be doing a type B trick? They test that hypothesis by adopting the recalcitrance appropriate to preventing a type B trick and still he does “the” trick – using method C, of course. When they test the hypothesis that he’s pulling a type C trick on them, he switches to method D – or perhaps he goes back to method A or B, since his audience has ‘refuted’ the hypothesis that he’s using method A or B.
And so it would go, for dozens of repetitions, with Hull staying one step ahead of his hypothesis-testers, exploiting his realization that he could always do some trick or other from the pool of tricks they all knew, and concealing the fact that he was doing a grab bag of different tricks by the simple expedient of the definite article: The Tuned Deck.
I haven’t done a science related post in a while, if memory serves me well, so today I thought I’d share this great YouTube series on the history of the universe with you. There is much in it that many of you will already be familiar with, but it is nonetheless an excellent, simple explanation of many complex ideas. A valuable refresher and an excellent introduction for the beginner.
WE NEED YOU! — I am looking for people who can “seed” the Made Easy series, either hosting it on their websites, mailing DVDs to schools or to other ‘seeds’, or spreading through BitTorrents. If you can help spread a bit of science and counter the rolling tide of creationist ignorance, please get in touch. Message me with a description of what you can do. Thanks!
The ‘Made Easy’ series is designed to explain the evidence that shows how we got here, from the Big bang to human migration out of Africa. A better quality version will soon be available for free download from a website — details to be announced. I will be happy to send DVDs free of charge to schools after the series is finished.
The ‘Made Easy’ series of videos can be freely copied and distributed for educational purposes, but cannot be used for commercial gain in whole or in part. They cannot be altered, transformed or added to. If you use repost these videos you must attribute them to ‘Potholer54 on YouTube.”
I’ve been a journalist for 20 years, 14 years as a science correspondent. My degree is in geology, but while working for a science magazine and several science programs I had to tackle a number of different fields, from quantum physics to microbiology. My particular talent was my ignorance. By not understanding half of what I was assigned to cover, I had to reduce scientific discoveries from the complex to the simple. If I wrote it in a way that I could understand it, then my readers could understand it.