Sunday, November 30, 2008

Out and about

Beatrix Potter, of Peter Rabbit fame, was a fine naturalist. She was the first person in Britain, and one of the first in the world, to recognize that lichens were composed of two organisms, a fungus and an alga. These late November afternoons are excellent for lichenizing. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's weekly pic.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Born that way?

Before I leave behind the special issue of Science on the Genetics of Behavior (November 7), let me take note of one more article, "Biology, Politics, and the Emerging Science of Human Nature," by James H. Fowler and Darren Schreiber. Do genes affect the way we vote?

A twin-based study published in the American Political Science Review in 2005 suggested that liberal and conservative tendencies are heritable. Most evidence, however, shows that choice of a political party is primarily determined by parental socialization, that is, nurture. One might have guessed as much from a red-state-blue-state political map.

What does seem to be strongly heritable is political activism.

Here is a diagram from Fowler and Schreiber's article, showing the results of three twin studies on political participation (click to enlarge). The vertices of the diagrams represent respectively shared genes, shared environment, and unshared environment; that is, the studies considered identical and non-identical twins, and twins raised together and raised apart. The correlations suggest that genetics and environment both play a role in political activism, with genes being the dominant factor.

The next step is to find the genes that determine our level of political engagement. Genes that affect the regulation of neurotransmitters have been most closely scrutinized. Three genes mentioned by Fowler and Schreiber -- MAOA (monoamine oxidase A), 5HTT (serotonin transporter) and DRD2 (dopamine receptor) -- have been linked to political behavior.

Aristotle said that we are by nature political animals. We are surely animals. Some of us are apparently more political than others.

Friday, November 28, 2008


I am still engaged with the special issue of Science (November 7) on the Genetics of Behavior. Consider this abstract of an article called "Wired for Sex: The Neurobiology of Drosophila Mating Decisions" by Barry J. Dickson:
Decisions about whom to mate with can sometimes be difficult, but making the right choice is critical for an animal's reproductive success. The ubiquitous fruit fly, Drosophila, is clearly very good at making these decisions. Upon encountering another fly, a male may or may not choose to court. He estimates his chances of success primarily on the basis of pheromone signals and previous courtship experience. The female decides whether to accept or reject the male, depending on her perception of his pheromone and acoustic signals, as well as her own readiness to mate. This simple and genetically tractable system provides an excellent model to explore the neurobiology of decision making.
Ah, yes, mating decisions. We all know about that. We all have our pheromones, hormones, wiggle dances and courtship songs. Dickson gives us a sweet little diagram of Drosophila courtship (click to enlarge). The outcome? Yes or no? Home base or strike out? It's like the cover of Cosmo for fruit flies.

Except a Cosmo diagram would be rather more complicated. Fruit flies apparently only have one "sex position." Cosmo offers "a different sex position for each day of the month." Fruit flies need only sniff and listen. Cosmo offers "a dozen ways to drive him wild in bed."

Dickson, of course, is cautious about extrapolating decison-making in Drosophila to more complex organisms, such as ourselves. He does say, however: "There may be only a limited set of efficient neural solutions to complex behavioral problems, including difficult decisions such as choosing a mate." Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender is a more sophisticated invitation to romance than the simple hum on the diagram above, but -- who knows? -- maybe? -- yes? no? -- we may have more in common with fruit flies than we care to admit.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanks to all who visit here

Click to enlarge Anne's holiday embellishment.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The eternal silence of infinite spaces...

The little book from which I took the numerical example of two days ago, British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey's Leaps of Faith, published in 1995, may have been the first (and best?) shot in the current brouhaha of science and faith. I've been reading again my copy, and recognize my debt to his trenchant analysis. I seem to recall quoting him in my own Skeptics and True Believers (1998).

He poses his theme with this statement: "All great supernatural belief systems -- indeed, all philosophical systems, up till now -- have catered to two central [human needs]: the need for a rational understanding of the surrounding world, and the need for emotional security within it."

The first need has been answered by the various cosmologies that humans have used to explain the origin and working of the world. For most humans, in all places at all times, the second need has been met by the belief that a supernatural being attends lovingly (or at least justly) to our needs, and that the self will survive the death of the body.

The dual assumptions of godly attention and personal immortality have been discredited by science, Humphrey contends. Science has provided a dazzlingly successful rational understanding of the world, but it has not found the slightest evidence that a divine being intrudes into the workings of nature, or that a human self will survive the death of the body.

Psychologist that he is, Humphrey surveys the sources and symptoms of our existential angst, and prescribes a remedy: "Instead of pining for our lost souls and absent psychic powers [prayer, the paranormal, etc.], we shall have to begin to take pride and pleasure in the facts of our embodiedness, our mortality and individuality." Individuality and mortality are the driving forces of evolution, "the elements on which life has taken wing...on which all things bright and beautiful -- natural and cultural -- have relied for their creative energy." It is not just that we have no need for the hypotheses of a watchful divinity and personal immortality, says Humphrey; we would not be here if those hypotheses were true.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

There are more ways of being wrong...Part 2

The distances of the planets from the Sun has been a source of fascination since Copernicus. Johannes Kepler's was the first to look for a rule that explained the relative distances. In his first major astronomical work, The Cosmographic Mystery, he came up with a scheme of inscribing and circumscribing within spheres the five regular Platonic polyhedra to account for the distances of the six known planets -- Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. And, indeed, he found a nesting of the polyhedra that matched the known distances of the planets pretty well. Voila!

Had he stumbled upon the Creator's plan of creation, as he fervently believed? The disovery of Uranus in 1781 put paid to his scheme. By then astronomer's had come up with another mathematical rule for the distances of the six known planets, known as the Titus-Bode Law, which had the futher advantage of predicting a planet close to where Uranus was subsequently found. The Titus-Bode rule also precicted a planet between Mars and Jupiter where there apparently wasn't one, but when Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, was found in 1801 at approximately the right distance from the Sun the Titus-Bode Law began to look pretty good. Alas, the discovery of Neptune and then Pluto proved the rule inadequate.

Most astronomers now believe the early success of the Titus-Bode Law was a coincidence. There are currently theories that explain the origin of planetary systems -- gravitation, conservation of angular momentum, etc. -- and computer simulations generate systems similar to our own, but they also allow for a degree of apparent randomness. Other planetary systems will certainly contain planets of different sizes and spacings.

Kepler's nested polyhedra and the Titus-Bode Law were schemes to anticipate nature, and, as such, were prone to failure. Francis Bacon put it this way: truth "is extracted...not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature." We call it, loosely, the scientific method. It involves the "closets of the mind," certainly; no way to avoid that. But it also involves interrogating nature in a way that forces a maximally unambiguous response, which means mathematical reasoning, quantitative measurement, and reproducible experiment. As Hume told us, reason alone is a dead-end road on the journey to truth. The anticipation of nature is a fraud.

Monday, November 24, 2008

There are more ways of being wrong...

...than being right.

Here is a sequence of numbers: 2, 4, 6, 8. These might be, for example, the distances from the star (in some arbitrary units) of the four known planets in your planetary system. Predict what will be the next number in the sequence. Express mathematically the rule you use for your prediction. Go ahead. I'll wait.


Ah, surely you guessed that the next number was 10, and the rule was X+2, where X is the previous number. Are there other rules that work for the given sequence? Well, yes, there is at least one alternative: -(1/44) X3+(3/11)X2+(34/11) works equally well, although the rule is rather more obtuse.

If one were going to invest in research to look for a new planet further out in your solar system, where would you put your money? Of course, you'd spend your time looking at D=10. A simple application of Ockham's Razor: Don't assume a more complicated explanation when a simpler one will suffice. And if indeed you find a planet at D=10 you will feel happily justified and go looking for the next planet at D=12. You will be confident that you have discovered "the Law of Planetary Distances."

But what if after diligent searching you find no planet at D=10. So you say, "Just for the hell of it let's look at D=8.91, which is the next number predicted by the second rule." And what if you find a planet at that distance. Whoa! Clearly, the stunning agreement of observation with the more complicated prediction suggests that Ockham's Razor let you down. The simplest rule did not suffice. (How useful the formula will be for the next step in the series remains to be seen.)

At this point you would probably start looking for a simple set of fundamental laws of nature from which you might derive the complex formula. You will be especially gratified if your new fundamental laws explain something in addition to planetary distances. You are still guided by Ockham's Razor, but willing to let nature have the last word.

There are lots of ways to be wrong, and fewer ways of being right. There are dozens of mutually contradictory religions, for example, but only one science. There is no conceivable way to falsify a supernatural truth system -- such as a religion or Intelligent Design -- since whatever is observed or not observed can be ascribed to the will of an inscrutable supernatural being. A scientific hypothesis can be falsified by finding a single reproducible counterexample (a planet at D= 8.91 exposes the inadequacy of the original hypothesis). There is an irony here. Systems with no conceivable way of confirmation or falsification often claim immutable truth. The one system that holds its hypotheses to the fire of exact reproducible experience claims nothing more than reliability -- and looks forward to refinement.

(More tomorrow. I take the numerical example above from Nicholas Humphrey's Leaps of Faith, of which more later.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008


"The ant has made himself illustrious/ Through constant industry industrious," wrote Ogden Nash. For the rest of the verse, see this week's Musing.

Click, then again if you wish, to enlarge Anne's weekly illumination.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin -- Part 2

In the last two paragraphs of the novel Anna Karenina, Levin, happily married to Kitty, humbly embraces the ethical message of the Christian faith:
This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed, just like the feeling for my child. There was no surprise in this either. Faith -- or not faith -- I don't know what it is -- but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.

I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.
Let Levin learn, as we have learned, about our genetic predispositions to certain behaviors, fidelity, for example, or impetuosity. Let him catch a vision, as we have caught a vision, of the myriad biochemical nudgings and tuggings that cause us to act one way or another. Will this new knowledge of the genetics of behavior change the moral circumstances of his life?

Levin recognizes that Christian moral principles transcend any particular religion. They transcend too our new knowledge of behavioral genetics. The biochemistry of the human brain in interaction with the world is so overwhelmingly complex that the question of determinism vs. free will is rendered moot. Whatever are the forces that guide our behaviors -- genetic, neuronal, or cultural -- we are left with the practical assumption of responsibility for our actions, just as Levin knows that his embrace of the Christian faith has little practical consequence for how he treats his coachman.

I can read the issue of Science on The Genetics of Behavior from cover to cover, and say with Levin: There will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand the mystery of existence, and I shall still go on attending to the mystery; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more intrinsically meaningful or meaningless than it was before, but it still has the positive meaning of goodness which I have the power to put into it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin

I've been happily married for more than half-a-century. Is it because I happened to wed an irresistibly lovable partner? Or has my wandering eye been restrained by residual Catholic guilt? Or does the credit go to a variant of my AVPR1a gene?

Just one of the intriguing questions raised in a special section of last week's issue of Science: The Genetics of Behavior (November 7, 2008).

And indeed there does appear to be evidence (not yet reliably reproduced) that a tendency toward stable marital relationships is in the DNA.

Few questions in science have raised more hackles than nature vs. nurture. That is to say: How many of our behaviors are we born with, and how many are inculcated socially. Is there a math gene (or genes)? An aggression gene (or genes)? An anxiety gene (or genes)? A liberal or conservative gene (or genes)? A God gene (or genes)? There was a time not so long ago -- back in the 1970s --when scientists were scratching each other's eyes out over these issues, mainly in response to E. O. Wilson's book Sociobiology, which emphasized the genetic basis of behaviors. These days there is rather more of a consensus that behaviors are a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

As the authors of one review article in Science say:
Genes do not specify behavior directly but rather encode for molecular products that build and govern the functioning of the brain through which behavior is expressed. Brain development, brain activity, and behavior all depend on both inherited and environmental influences, and there is increasing appreciation that social information can alter brain gene expression and behavior. Furthermore, variation in behavior shapes the evolution of genomic elements that influence social behavior through the feedback of natural selection.
In other words, as a species we are what we are at least partly because of what we have been, and what we will become is a least partly determined by what we are.

We are surely less free of our genome and its expression than we might like to believe. Perhaps my fidelity genes and my hanky-panky genes battle it out with dueling hormones and neurotransmitters, with perhaps a bit of true love and Catholic guilt thrown in. But no scientist that I know of thinks we are prisoners of our genome. The authors of the previously mentioned article state:
There are many levels of neural and neuroendocrine regulation that lie between the genome and a social behavior, including transcription, translation, posttranslational modifications, epigenetic changes, brain metabolism, neural (electrochemical) activity, and neuromodulation. Moreover, this regulation occurs in complex and dispersed temporal and spatial patterns within the brain, over physiological time, developmental time, and throughout an individual's life. The study of social behavior adds an additional tier of complexity because it depends on interactions and communication among individuals. In most cases, social behavior must be studied in a natural context in which the full repertoire of environmental influences and behaviors are expressed.
Which is to say, we are wonderfully complex molecular machines in interaction with an almost infinitely variable environment. In the next few decades we'll be learning a lot more about the genetic and environmental roots of behavior. None of this will change the perennial dynamics of trying to live an ethical life. A complete transcription of Anna Karenina's genome would not change a whit the worth of her story.

(More on Anna tomorrow.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reinventing the sacred

What are we to make of Stuart Kauffman? Here he is again, in an interview with Salon, promoting his new book, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Those of us who call ourselves religious naturalists will applaud; Kauffman says what we have been saying all along, that there is ample reason within a completely naturalistic world view to regard the world as sacred. He says: "I think the creativity in nature is so stunning and so overwhelming that it's God enough for me, and I think it's God enough for many of us if we think about it."

Well, yes, but what is this "new view" of science, reason and religion? Kauffman wants to offer up a new kind of science, a non-reductionistic science based on laws of self-organization and emergence. And, who knows, maybe such a science is in the offing. The problem is, neither Kauffman nor anyone else has so far demonstrated what the laws of emergence might be or provided empirical evidence that they exist -- as I said in a previous post.

I read Kauffman's Salon interview looking for "new science," and find nothing but supposition:
"Can you get sustained quantum coherent behavior at body temperature in something like neurons? Nobody knows."

"The mathematics [of self-organization] has been proved, but it still needs to be shown experimentally."

"Yet a number of physicists, including Nobel laureates Philip Anderson and Robert Laughlin, feel that reductionism is not adequate to understand the real world. In its place, they talk about "emergence." I think they're right."

"Maybe the mind is acausal. Maybe the mind is non-algorithmic. I don't want you to take this very seriously. It's just Stu Kauffman getting old and thinking weird things. But it may be true."
Well, yes, it may be true. And the existence of a supernatural personal God may be true too. Whatever self-organization and emergence might be, for the time being they are not science. As I wrote in the earlier post: "Sometimes Kauffman's speculations sound like a kind of pervasive, built-in 'intelligent design' -- a stealth supernaturalism, or at best a resurgent vitalism."

Like Kauffman, I suspect that there is more going on in the world than our present science supposes, and wish him success in finding out what it might be. Certainly, he is one smart fellow. I also welcome him to the fold of religious naturalists. But we don't need laws of self-organization or emergence to think of the world as sacred. It is not a "new science" that makes a religious response to the world possible; it is an awareness that our present science -- or any future science -- illuminates but does not obviate mystery.

The basis for religious naturalism can be found in the Kauffman quotes above, but not -- as he would apparently wish -- in his references to a "new view" of science. Rather, it is in his willing admission of "I don't know." Religious naturalism is nothing more or nothing less than cosmic humility.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Every step a mile

I have been reading David Bain's Empire Express, an account of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Part of the fun was using Google Earth to trace the course of the tracks. I started at Donner Pass in the High Sierras (where a new and longer summit tunnel seems to have replaced the original) and spent several enjoyable hours tracing the railroad west to Sacramento and east to Council Bluffs. It gave me an appreciation of the scale of the achievement that the maps in the book could never do.

Meanwhile, I'm doing my one-mile walk to college every day, mostly through woods and meadows, up and down. And as I go, I imagine laying out the tracks of a railroad -- cuttings, embankments, trestles and tunnels.

At first, I had in mind an HO-scale (1:87) railroad, the most popular model railroad scale in the US and the one I could most easily visualize twisting and curving along the path. But then, after a few days, I began to wonder just what would be the scale if my approximately one-mile walk represented the nearly 2000 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Sacramento, California.

The distance ratio is 1:2000. The gauge of the transcontinental railroad was (and is) 4 feet 8.5 inches. Which means the distance between the rails of my imaginary railroad is less than a millimeter, and a locomotive would be less than a centimeter long.

So now, as I walk, I imagine that tiny little train puffing along that thread-thin track, following my half-hour walk to school -- and forge an even greater appreciation for the monumental achievement which was the first transcontinental railroad.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

To be alive

Sixty-five years ago, my religious education began with the first question of the Baltimore Catechism: "Why did God make me?" Answer: "He made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him." These days, I reverence a Mystery that is less purposeful, less personal, and less gendered than the fatherly "He" I studied in primary school. But the answer to that first catechism question seems as relevant as ever.

In his book The Diversity of Life, Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson quotes the Sengalese conservationist Baba Dioum: "In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught." It is the same lesson that I learned all those years ago in primary school.

Knowledge, love, service: These are at the core of the religious impulse, and they are what unites the religious naturalist and the traditional believer. We differ, however, in the object of our attention. The religious naturalist honors the world itself, rather than an elusive supernatural divinity. We differ too in what we take to be the most secure avenue to knowledge. I have been looking again at Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson's magisterial work on ants (for next Sunday's Musing), a massive tome that strikes me as more full of useful knowledge than any ancient scriptures or pronouncements by popes or prophets. Ants? Yes, why not. Reliable, consensus, scientific knowledge of the world -- all of the world! -- is our starting point for love and service.

We don't need a promise of everlasting bliss. We agree instead with the poet Mary Oliver:
Look, I want to love this world
as though it's the last chance I'm ever going to get
to be alive
and know it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

News and views

On Monday evening, January 13, 1840, the steamship Lexington went ablaze in Long Island Sound, on her usual run between New York and Stonington, Connecticut, where she connected with the Boston train. She carried 143 crew and passengers, and 150 bales of cotton. The fire soon raged out of control, the ship's three lifeboats foundered, and passengers and crew were forced to choose between fire and freezing water. One-hundred-and-thirty-nine people died. There were only four survivors.

A new lithographic firm in New York produced a wildly popular hand-colored print of the conflagration -- and so it was Currier and Ives became to 19th-century America what CNN, Fox News and MSNBC are to the country today.

In 1942 my mother acquired a newly published volume of Currier and Ives prints, presumably from the Book-of-the-Month Club, of which she was an avid member. I was six years old. No television in those days. That book of prints was almost as exciting to me as to 19th-century Americans.

Oh, sure, there was lots of boring stuff. Pictures of quaint New England villages. Scenes of hunting and fishing. Racehorses. A lot of sentimental claptrap. But exciting things too. Ship wrecks. Steamboat races. Whales smashing the boats of whalers. Pittsburgh and Chicago in flames. Gunships wreaking havoc on the Mississippi. The burning of New York's Crystal Palace. Brunel's Great Eastern. Roebling's Niagara Suspension Bridge. I must have spent a lot of time looking at these prints because they are still fresh in my memory.

The other day I went looking to see if that same volume is in the college library. Yes, two copies in fact. And the prints are just as I remembered them. What I hadn't remembered were the many prints of "niggas" and "Dark Town" meant to be humorous, even after a catastrophic war had been fought to end slavery. Early suffragettes garnered ridicule, as did "injuns" and drunken Irishmen.

The lithographic process pioneered in this country by Currier and Ives was cutting edge technology at the time. The prints the company produced helped several generations of Americans define themselves. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC surely play an equally significant role in defining the self-image of the current generation of Americans. I'm not sure that what we see and hear always appeals to "the better angels of our natures."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Humana ex machina

The artist Arthur Ganson says he wants to draw his audience "to that narrow place between two infinitely large fields of clarity and ambiguity." It is indeed a narrow place, but oh how much fun to wander there, confident one is in the presence of a clear idea, but not quite sure what it is. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


You may have seen the Cisco TV commercial of video screens in Xi'an, China, and Rome, Italy, that let people interact life-sized in real time. If not, go to, then click "Expand to learn more." I'm assuming these are real installations, although I can't find anything about them on the web. If they are not real, they should be. Wouldn't it be great if installations like this were set up in town squares around the world -- Tehran, Tokyo, Mogadishu, Calcutta, Denver, Sao Paulo, Baghdad, Dublin, Harare, and so on. On all the time. Once each 24 hours the screens would be randomly rerouted. What fun, for kids especially. What a gift for bringing us all together.

Expensive? A single minute of the war in Iraq ($240,000) would pay for an installation.

Friday, November 14, 2008


My Astronomical Calendar 2009 arrived the other day. I anticipate its arrival the way some folks wait for the Burpee seed catalog, as a delicious foretaste of things to come.

Guy Ottewell, the wizard behind the Calendar, has a gift for the graphical presentation of all things astronomical. I curl up in a comfy chair and make mental notes of things I don't want to miss.

I will be watching Venus and Mercury during January, February and March, when I am on our tropic island with generally clear horizons in the east and west. I'll be looking at Venus in late January as I go looking for the very young crescent Moon. The Moon and Venus on the 29th should be particularly beautiful. Will I be able to catch the dawn dance of Mercury, Jupiter and Mars during February, low on the horizon as I sip my coffee? Maybe binocs will help, for Mars especially.

With a telescope, it would have been fun to see Saturn's rings disappear in September when they go edge-on for the first time since 1995, but alas the planet is low in the dusk and I'll be in a place with a poor horizon. There will be a brief interval on the night of September 2-3 when Jupiter will have no visible moons; two of the Galilean satellites will be behind the planet, and two in front, a rare event. Why would one want to see Jupiter without a moon? The event itself is not important. It's the witnessing of the event that's neat.

On almost every month of the year the Moon will go crashing through the Pleiades. March 3 and March 30 should be especially favorable occasions to watch the occultations from Exuma.

Not a great year for lunar eclipses. The total solar eclipse of July 22 will be the longest between 1991 and 2132, six-and-a-half minutes of totality. Having much enjoyed recent solar eclipses from the Black Sea and the southern coast of Turkey, we pondered going to Shanghai, but the expense and the prospect of clouds -- not to mention pollution -- dissuaded us. Still, reading Ottewell's blow-by-blow description of what to expect all along the eclipse path is the next best thing to being there.

Don't tell Tom, but I ordered him a copy of the Calendar for Christmas.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Living water

In last Sunday's comments, Ken posed a challenge which has been on my mind. He wrote:
When I read Eliade, the realization that struck me was his observation that in modernity we are no longer religious in the sense he used that word, that the world to us is homogenous, that we no longer divide the world, space or time, into sacred and profane. We have inherited ways and language from our religious ancestors, but they have lost their meanings. At most what we call religious today is nostalgia. It is sentiment. It is sorrow.

It seems like the greater challenge you face is not defending religious naturalism from claims that it is a supernatural belief. Instead, the challenge is to show that the word "religious" means something more than nostalgia. That is what any of us face who use the word "religious."
This strikes me as exactly right. My response has generally been that certain emotions we call religious are very likely part of our evolved biological nature. What emotions? Awe. A sense that there is something afoot in the world that we do not fully understand, something deep and mysterious that is worthy of attention, celebration. A cosmic humility.

Of course, there are other things that are part of our nature that are also sometimes associated with religion. Fear of the other. Aggression. Authoritarianism. Credulity. We choose to repress these emotions and behaviors as not part of "the better angels of our nature." We are not slaves to biology.

But do we need to repress those aspects of our nature that are generally benevolent, that bind us together in constructive communities, that lead us to treat non-human nature with a greater degree of respect? What is wrong with nostalgia when it is directed to things sweetly remembered, to the more benign landscapes of our evolutionary and cultural pasts? Nostalgia is a mostly innocent emotion, a form of love that anchors us in a tradition -- "the mystic chords of memory" (to quote Lincoln again). I make no apology for it.

Last evening I attended a concert of gospel music by a group who call themselves Living Water. I grew up in Tennessee in the 1950s listening to gospel on my little Silvertone radio. Loved it then, love it now. Love the sense of joyous celebration. Love the assurance of triumph over adversity ("I'm blessed and highly favored," Living Water sang). Love the confidence that there is a redemptive power (in the Creator? in the creation? in ourselves?) that can turn ugliness to beauty. Gospel music is "religious," but can you imagine anyone in a gospel choir doing violence to another human being or to any of "God's creatures"?

Nostalgia? Yes, I suppose so. Why not?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


On a shelf in the room where I keep my laptop at the college: The Horizon Book of Makers of Modern Thought, published in 1972 by American Heritage. Thirty-six short biographies. One woman. One non-European.
Leonardo da Vinci. Niccolo Machiavelli. Desiderius Erasmus. Nicolaus Copernicus. Martin Luther. John Calvin. Francis Bacon. Thomas Hobbes. Rene Descartes. Blaise Pascal. John Locke. Isaac Newton. Voltaire. Jean Jacques Rousseau. Adam Smith. Immanuel Kant. Jeremy Bentham. Mary Wollstonecraft. Thomas Robert Malthus. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Robert Owen. Karl Maria von Clausewitz. George Perkins Marsh. Charles Robert Darwin. Karl Marx. Michael Bakunin. William James. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. James George Frazer. Sigmund Freud. Mahandas Karamchand Gandhi. Albert Einstein. John Maynard Keynes. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch (who share an essay).
Obviously, any such list is idiosyncratic and to some extent arbitrary. Why Pavlov, for example, and not Pasteur? Why Pascal and not Spinoza? Why Descartes and not Galileo? Why Bakunin and not Jefferson? Why Hobbes and not Hume? Why Marsh and not Thoreau? Why Wiener/McCulloch and not Shannon/von Neumann? Of course, any list today would be more inclusive by ethnicity and gender.

Less arbitrary would be a list of Makers of Your Thought, or Makers of My Thought. Who among the list above were most influential in creating the intellectual world I personally inhabit?

Erasmus for humanism and tolerance.

Francis Bacon for empiricism.

John Locke for understanding the limits of knowing.

George Perkins Marsh for ecology.

Charles Darwin for naturalism -- and "grandeur in this view of life."

William James for natural religion.

Mahandas Gandhi for nonviolence.

Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch for the embodiment of mind.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Skin deep

Yesterday's post on anomalous developmental paths prompts me to share a remarkable story.

My wife has always given me a hard time for "judging people by their looks," and she is no doubt right. I have long admired her own ability to see past superficialities to the central core of a person.

I wanted to explore this theme in the novel that became The Dork of Cork. We were living in Cork, Ireland, at the time, and I was casting about for a central character, someone who was not beautiful by Hollywood standards but an exceptional human being. One day in the Irish Times I saw a photograph of a young Irish artist who had opened a show in a Dublin gallery. He was a dwarf. There was something about the artist's face that attracted me. A gentleness and strength. An unconventional beauty. Knowing nothing else about the man, I said to myself: "Here is my hero."

With the artist's face and physique in my mind's eye, I invented my story. Frank Bois is a stargazer and a writer, not an artist, but to me he looked exactly like the artist I had seen in the Irish Times. The first sentence of the book is "Begin with beauty." The last sentence is "Hold me." It is, of course, a love story.

The Irish producer Noel Pearson read the book and decided to make the movie. We knew that casting Frank Bois would not be easy. After some weeks of fruitless searching on the part of the casting director, Noel called me from Ireland. He said, "I think we have found the perfect person to play Frank. He is a young Dublin artist..."

So, yes, Corban Walker played the character his photograph had inspired. He has gone on to establish himself as a sculptor of considerable renown.

(The movie Frankie Starlight should be easy enough to find in VHS format, but not, apparently, on a Region 1 DVD. Tom tells me it can be downloaded to your TIVO from Amazon. The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack by the inimitable composer Elmer Bernstein -- fourteen Oscar nominations -- is available on CD.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Evolution and development

Mark Blumberg is a professor at the University of Iowa and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Behavioral Neuroscience. He has written a book published by Oxford University Press called Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution -- a gutsy topic.

Humans have always had an appetite for anomalies, and not so long ago "freak shows" were popular features at circuses and county fairs. Maybe they still are for all I know, but many of us today feel uncomfortable using the word "freak," especially as applied to human beings. I remember some years ago Life magazine did a photo essay on the Hensel twins, Abigail and Brittany, two lovely little girls who share one body -- in Barnum's language, a two-headed "freak." I looked at the photos with a mixture of primal fascination and embarrassment -- a complex and unworthy mix of emotions.

Blumberg begins and ends his book with Abigail and Brittany, unembarrassed. One can go to YouTube and watch a Discovery Channel show about the girls, who seem to be living remarkably ordinary and inspiring lives within a loving and supportive family. Their classmates appear to accept them as a matter of course. And that's what Blumberg is up to. Anomalies like the Hensel twins are alternate developmental paths that tell us much about the miracle and mystery of development -- how a fertilized egg turns into a human being -- and about the course of evolution that led to the present rich diversity of life on Earth. A human born without legs is a "freak." A reptile born without legs is a snake perfected by adaption. Writes Blumberg: "For in the larger, unfolding scheme of things, we are all extraordinary, all strange -- freaks every last one of us."

Maybe someday we will be able to pass Abigail and Brittany in the street without batting an eye, and maybe books like Blumberg's that normalize the "abnormal" will help. Still, the word "freaks" in the title seems to play into the very emotions the author would like to allay. P. T. Barnum got rich exhibiting anomalies -- what he might have called unfortunate rolls of the dice. Blumberg would have us understand that Abigail's and Brittany's anomalous anatomy is not the deliberate design of an inscrutable God, nor the result of blind chance ("There but for the grace of God..."), but rather the uncommon working out of the same biochemistry that has given us in the course of 4 billion years penguins, giraffes, duck-billed platypuses, snowy egrets, and all the other wonders of life on Earth.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Religion wihout God?

I suppose it depends on what you mean by "religion" and what you mean by "God"? See this week's Musing.

Meanwhile, Anne explores her own interface between knowledge and mystery. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The arc of knowing

A new collection of scholarly essays from the journal Past and Present (published by Oxford University Press) considers the notion of superstition across the ages and in contemporary cultures around the globe. If there is a lesson to be drawn from the book it is this: Everyone knows what superstition is, and it's always what someone else believes.

Voltaire, wrote this about superstition: "A Frenchman traveling in Italy finds almost everything superstitious, and is hardly wrong. The archbishop of Canterbury claims that the archbishop of Paris is superstitious; the Presbyterians levy the same reproach against his Grace of Canterbury, and are in their turn called superstitious by the Quakers, who are the most superstitious of men in the eyes of other Christians."

I have written as much here and here and here.

The word "superstition" comes from the Latin verb superstare, "to stand upon or over." It is is about the best word we have for looking down our noses on those who believe something other than what we believe ourselves. The Romans, who gave us the word, knew exactly what they meant by it; a superstition was anything strange and foreign to the Romans.

Post-Enlightenment rationalists commonly use the word to mean "any irrational, groundless practice or belief founded on fear or ignorance." What is clear is that by any definition superstition is as rampant in the world today as at any time and place in history.

There is a diagram in the Oxford book, in an essay by Alan Knight on superstition in Mexico from colonial times to the present, that I reproduce here. The author is concerned with categories of knowledge in a culture dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. As you can see from the diagram, categories of belief run from infallibly true dogma, through officially sanctioned popular magic (cult of the saints), to harmless folk customs, to black magic and pagan religious practices, to rank religious heresies that must be vigorously suppressed.

It strikes me that the same sort of Venn diagram could be usefully applied to a discussion of superstition at any time and place.

For example, for our own time, in place of "Catholicism," put "orthodox science." For "cult of the saints" substitute, say, "alternative or complementary medicine." For harmless "superstition," "astrology" will serve nicely. For "diabolism" we require something that threatens the practice and promulgation of orthodoxy; how about "intelligent design"? For a heresy that undermines the entire fabric of science and raises the hackles of scientific dogmatists, insert "young Earth creationism."

One might sketch a similar arc of deviation from any reigning orthodoxy. Can science claim to be different -- more reliable -- than other orthodoxies? I think so, as I have indicated in the posts referenced above. But then -- as per Voltaire -- I would, wouldn't I?

Friday, November 07, 2008


A recent issue of Science included a foldout poster titled A Sequence-specificity Atlas of the Kinase World, compiled and published by Cell Signaling Technology, of which I reproduce here the central diagram. Part of the description:
Protein kinases are enzymes that mediate cellular decision processes by catalyzing the addition of a negatively charged phosphate group to protein substrates, which can subsequently be recognized by phosphorylation-dependent binding domains in other proteins. The human genome encodes 518 protein kinases, which have been organized into a tree that represents evolutionary relationships. The substrate specificities of kinases are in part determined by the amino acid sequence of the phosphorylation sites, and comprehensively mapping the consensus sequence motif recognized by each kinase catalytic domain is thus crucial for understanding phosphorylation mediated signaling networks.
I wish I knew enough biology to fully understand what's going on here, but one cannot look at the poster without grasping something of our evolutionary history, and indeed the marvelous complexity of what is going on in every cell of our bodies. The unraveling of the story of DNA to RNA to proteins to cellular chemistry is certainly the epic scientific story of my lifetime -- and there is more, much more, to come.

This morning on the way to college I picked up a bird nest that had fallen onto the ground, a small nest, beautifully constructed. Whatever bird made the nest was born knowing how to do it. It was there in the bird's DNA, that four-letter chemical code that not only directed the building of the bird's body, but also determined its songs, behaviors, and -- yes -- architecture. This is a story of such staggering wonderfulness that it is hard to get one's mind around it. There is no ghost in the machine, but the machine itself is vastly more spectacular than any ghost.

And those 518 kinases that catalyze my own machine? They are twigs on a beautiful evolutionary tree, strings of animo acids whose sequences reach far back in time, ultimately connecting me the the vast web of life on Earth. There's a grandeur in this view of life, said Darwin -- and he didn't know the half of it.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

November 4, 2008

I have assiduously avoided politics in this blog, except when political philosophy touches upon science, and those who comment here have shown similar restraint. But allow me -- with you -- a few thoughts on the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States.

I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the 1940s and 1950s. I remember the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross on a neighbor's lawn one dark night (I don't know the reason; I have a vague memory it was the home of a judge who made a decision favorable to a black). No black person was allowed to enter a white theater, restaurant, swimming pool, public park, or place of worship, and all schools were segregated (and unequal). It was simply unthinkable that a black might hold political office. A black man of any age was called "boy."

There was no overt racism in my family, although for a while we did have a black maid who came to the house a few times a week and worked for a pittance and bus money. I don't recall racist talk in my white-only parochial schools. It was simply assumed that blacks and whites lived in separate worlds.

As a teen I worked as a stack boy in the Chattanooga Public Library. The white staff ate lunch in a nice lunch room. The black janitorial staff -- men and women -- ate their brown bag lunches on the back steps of the library. Somehow I came to realize that the conversation was more interesting and friendlier on the back steps, and took to eating with the blacks -- possibly a presumptuous intrusion on my part, but those good people accepted me with grace. Their company was an awakening.

Americans of every political persuasion can be enormously proud. There were a lot of tears shed Tuesday night, here and around the world, some of them mine. They were overwhelmingly tears of joy.

Fides quaerens intellectum

My favorite place to work in the college library is a comfy chair by a window looking out over the quad -- smack in the middle of the theology section of the stacks. It occurred to me the other day that theology occupys as many shelves as science. That in itself is not surprising given the history of the college and its early gathering of books from various religious sources. Bear in mind, too, as I have noted here before, that the college has first-rate science departments, equal to the best of secular institutions of similar size, and is currently building a $34 million science building that will be the centerpiece of the campus. The science to be taught there will be international consensus science, unaffected by any religious test or filter.

So what's the difference between the two disciplines, theology and science?

A common definition of theology was supplied in the 11th-century by Saint Anselm of Canterbury: fides quaerens intellectum "faith seeking understanding." And there you have it. Start with a body of inherited beliefs, almost invariably determined by circumstances of birth. Theology then becomes the task of giving those "true" ideas some semblance of intellectual respectability. This mostly involves shuffling and reshuffling what one started with, like quoting holy scriptures to prove that the scriptures are a reliable source of truth.

Meanwhile, on the floor above is stack after stack of science books, reliable consensus knowledge based on a way of knowing that does not begin (or end) with inviolable conclusions. It was born in the classical Greek world, especially at Alexandria, resuscitated in the late-Middle Ages and Renaissance, refined in the 17th century, and affirmed in the Enlightenment. Begin with universally available empirical evidence, formulate hypotheses, hold the hypotheses to the refining fire of experiment, build consensus. Understanding seeking faith.

The books in the science stacks have given us the modern world: medicine, technology, voyages to other planets. Every new science book advances the sum of reliable human knowing. By contrast, most of the books in the theology stacks could have been written a thousand years ago.

So theology as an -ology is a nonstarter: it has no subject that can be known except by faith, zero reliable evidence, no conceivable test this side of the grave. The discipline that does have a place in academia is religious studies. Like all human behaviors, religion is a subject that lends itself -- indeed demands -- study by careful scholars. We have much to learn about the origins and evolution of religion. This was tacitly recognized by many colleges and universities some decades ago when they changed the name of the relevant departments from Theology to Religious Studies. A friend and colleague here at Stonehill has initiated a concentration in Catholic Studies. I applaud the idea and wish him well.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A rose is a rose is a rose

At left above is a computer-generated, artificially-colored cross-sectional view of a strand of DNA. On the right is the rose window at Chartres Cathedral. The likeness is coincidental, but there is a sub-story that links the two images in a meaningful way.

The Gothic builders sought to reflect in the visible structures of their cathedrals the unseen world of spirit. When we enter a Gothic cathedral, we sense that every visible component has a job to do; the architects achieved a unity of form and function that has seldom, if ever, been surpassed. Something similar is afoot in the computer images of DNA. Here too we have visible expression to invisible realities. Here too is an almost mystical vision of a hidden harmony established throughout the cosmos -- the unsuppressible capacity of substance to generate self.

Gothic style was constrained by medieval materials -- stone and mortar, which bear compressional loads only -- and (as Otto von Simson has taught us) by the twin theological objectives of height and light. Although alike in style, each cathedral is unique. Within the spiraling helix of the DNA we have something of the same capacity for variation within unity.

Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, one of the greatest of the Gothic builders, hoped that his cathedral would reveal the divine harmony that reconciles all discord, and inspire in the faithful a desire to establish that same harmony within the moral order. Perhaps the electronic images of the molecules of life might achieve the same effect. They give expression to invisible harmonies of form and function, complexity and simplicity, sameness and variation that bind all life together in a common chemistry -- yet allow the uniqueness of every self.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Weld, madder and woad

During the academic year 1968-69, I lived with my young family in London as I studied history of science with A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall at the Imperial College. Our apartment was snuggled in the midst of the South Kensington museums: the Museum of Natural History, the Science Museum, the Geology Museum, and the Victoria and Albert. What a place to live! I dare say I learned more during nine months by browsing those wonderful institutions than during any ten years of my life.

Our back wall abutted the rear of the V&A, only feet away from the gallery where hung the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, four huge Flemish tapestries from the mid-15th century -- from about the time Gutenberg started printing with movable type. To reach the gallery, one had to walk a block or so from Prince's Gate Mews to the side entrance of the V&A on Exhibition Road, then wend through various rooms. I loved the tapestries, as did my daughter Margaret. Sometimes we'd stop by on the way home from her preschool and sit alone in that lovely room with those stunning depictions of life in the late-Middle Ages. The details of plants, animals and costume were endlessly engaging. It has been suggested that the tapestries were originally designed for the marriage in 1444-5 of Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI of England, and although this is disputed by some experts, I played it up for my own Margaret.

The colors, of course, are faded from their original brilliance, but still rich and inviting. The threads are presumably wool and silk. I haven't been able to track down confirmation on the web, but I assume the dyes were weld (Reseda luteola, yellow), madder (Rubia tinctorum, red), and woad (Isatis tinctoria, blue), three plants whose cultivation and commerce were important in the Middle Ages. You want green? First dye with woad, then weld. And so on. Rather like the three artificial dyes that color the inks of your printer: yellow, magenta and cyan.

On Saturday mornings all three kids would go to the Museum of Natural History, where for the deposit of one big old-style English penny (now long out of circulation) they got a folding stool, a clipboard with sheets of paper, and a fistful of colored pencils, which they took off into the bowels of that voluminous building to sketch whatever took their fancy. I wonder if the same service is available to children today?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The path

Whew! Well, that was a strange little jog -- the Mortal Soul posts. Thanks for bearing with me. Here I am in late life trying to tie up the threads -- my present scientific naturalism and the Catholic spirituality of my youth. It turns out that there may be more of the latter still floating around in my head than I had supposed. Not in opposition to naturalism, but as a naturalistic complement. While the posts have been personal, I suspect that some who visit here are inclined in the same direction -- uncompromising empirical science softened by the grace of mystery. In any case, on to other things in today's Musing.

And, dear sister, thank you for the soft delights of your visual musings. Click to enlarge, then click again if you wish.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Mortal soul 11 -- The loving gaze

The Victorian critic John Ruskin wrote: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way." Our first instinct is to value thinkers above those who simply see and describe. Certainly, in science, it is the great theoreticians -- the Keplers, Maxwells and Darwins -- rather than the plodding observers, who garner most of the glory. But I think I agree with Ruskin. Thinking is idle unless it is based on careful observation of what is. That's why science is a source of reliable knowledge. Behind every Kepler there's a Tycho Brahe. Behind every Maxwell there's a Faraday. Behind every Darwin there's a -- a Darwin. Masters of the loving gaze. Seeing clearly, said Ruskin, is poetry, prophecy and religion rolled into one.

Among the mystical influences of my youth was the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a man who looked at the world with a scientist's eye and the poet's loving gaze. In The Mass on the World he wrote: "In the beginning, there was not coldness and darkness: There was the fire...The flame has lit up the whole world from within...from the inmost core of the tiniest atom to the mighty sweep of the most universal laws of being." It has been almost half a century since I first read those words in the early 1960s as a young graduate student in physics, but I remember the tingle they sent up my spine, the exhilaration. A world lit up from within! Oh, yes, I knew "fire" was a metaphor, but here was a metaphor that fed my sense of mystery, a flickering effervescence, permanent and ephemeral all at once, so different from the dry and static world of the physics texts. "Mass on the world." Mass on the world! Teilhard offered a cosmic vision that resonated with the sensual Catholicism of my youth -- bread, wine, wax, flame, chrism, water, and incense, wedded to the adamantine laws of nature I was learning in the science classroom. This was the theology I had been waiting for, a God that was indistinguishable from the creation, a God that invited oneinto the creation, a God that could be approached through the senses -- sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Not a God out there who intrudes willfully in the world, sends blessings and catastrophes, and hears and answers prayers. Rather a wholly hidden God who lit up my physics texts from within and set my soul afire.

Then, just a few years later, in 1965, physicists discovered the cosmic background radiation, the whisper of the big bang, the electromagnetic signature of the primeval fire. And Teilhard seemed to have anticipated it. That gentle Jesuit mystic, he of the loving gaze, offered his Church a vision of divinity that rested well with the unfolding cosmology of the physicists. He died in 1955, in exile, with much of his life's work officially censored by the Church he had served. Near the end of his life, he wrote: "How is it possible that I am so incapable of passing on to others...the vision of the marvelous unity in which I find myself immersed?"

The ancient Celts of Ireland believed there is a mysterious power afoot in the landscape, sometimes called neart. Neart is everywhere -- in sky, Sun, Moon, earth, sea, animal, plant, stone. Even the gods, it seems, were caught up in the web. Neart was not so much something one thought about as felt -- sensed as one sometimes senses a presence in a dark room at night. In certain places and at certain times the felt presence is especially strong -- in forest glades, perhaps, or by a deep, clear pool. I don't want to romanticize, as many do, the notion of Celtic spirituality. But the idea of neart has a resonance for me, and is not so far removed from the faith of a religious naturalist. Neart is imminent, yet mysterious, broadened, not diminished, by knowledge. Addressed, if at all, by a kind of inarticulate awe, attended by the loving gaze. It is not enlightenment one feels in the presence of neart; rather, one is reminded of one's ignorance. Most of all, one feels caught up in something that reaches into (or out of) every part of one's being, not just the reason, or the will, or self-awareness, but the senses, the viscera, the lusts and longings, the stirrings and windings in every cell of one's body. There are no dogmas in the faith of a religious naturalist. No public liturgies. We have no bishops, rabbis or imams. We walk wary, as likely as not in solitude and silence, attentive to the world, conscious of its unplumbed depths. Neart is not something we read about in holy books, or hear about in sermons. In it, we live, and move, and have our being.