Only a Theory

I just finished Ken Miller's Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. Miller is the author of one of the most widely used high school biology text book, and the lead expert witness for the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District case. The book, however, was not as much focused on the trial as on the ideas behind intelligence design (ID) and evolution, and some comments by Miller on the intelligent design movement.

Being rather familiar with the arguments of ID, I found the first half of the book a little dull. However, I do think Miller does a good job of taking ID arguments seriously, and analyze those ideas from the scientific perspective. Having heard him lecture at Northwestern's Darwin celebration last year, his examples are not new to me either. But in a book, where he can afford to give longer descriptions of the history of life on Earth, I found myself draw into the subject. For a short moment I wondered what it would be like to see Earth 1 million, 100 million years ago. And then I realized that, although there might not have been skyscrapers or monkeys or ants, there was still rain, and volcanoes, and oceans. And the idea that science can prove all these things did exist so long ago is rather amazing.

Personally, the more interesting part of the book was where Miller explained why he thought ID has become what it is, and what we (as scientists) can do about it. Miller suggests that the ultimate motivation is philosophical and psychological. Quoting Max Ehrmann's poem Desiderata, he wrote,
"No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should" assures us that, however chaotic and disorderly the events of our lives may seem at the moment, we should take heart, for we were meant to be. And, in the eyes of many, that's exactly the problem with evolution - it says that we weren't meant to be and that the way of things are unfolding isn't part of anybody's plan or purpose. [...] The worry is that the universe is not "unfolding as it should" but, rather, that it's just unfolding.
My instinctive response is that, is it such a horrible thing for the universe to exist without purpose? Must your sense of direction in life be derived from some external source, and couldn't you create a direction yourself? This philosophical (in fact, existentialist) argument also applies to the claim that evolution "doesn't put a moral demand" on us, as ex-senator Rick Santorum suggested. But this has nothing to do with evolution.

Miller's reply to the worry is different. He brought up the idea of convergence - that evolution will keep on returning to good ideas. In particular, even if humans as a species might not have evolved, it is almost certain that the niche of an intelligent species capable of changing their environment would be filled. That is, despite the process of evolution being probabilistic, we - as intelligent beings - are in fact guaranteed. This is, the certainty that evolution would have led to something like us, would help quell the worries.

I want to voice another idea though. This quote comes from the video game Max Payne 2, and is more about predestination. Applied to evolution though, it would mean that we are indeed very special:
There are no choices. Nothing but a straight line. The illusion comes afterwards, when you ask 'Why me?' and 'What if?' When you look back, see the branches, like a pruned bonsai tree, or a forked lightning. If you had done something differently, it wouldn't be you, it would be someone else looking back, asking a different set of questions.
The last idea I found intriguing in Miller's book was him mention Allan Bloom's book, The Closing of the American Mind (which I wrote about briefly). Miller quoted Bloom writing:
Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason's power. The unrestrained and thoughtless pursuit of openness [...] has rendered openness meaningless. [...] The danger [students] have been taught to fear is not error but intolerance. [...] The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right, rather it is not to think you are right at all.
Miller compares this to the calls for "balance" and "openness" to get ID in public school curriculum. Although that's not the declared goal of the ID movement, "once the supernatural becomes a valid element in scientific inquiry, science will cease to be an empirical search for the truth of the natural world. Like faith itself, "theistic science" will be a subjective window on the world that reflects the innermost convictions of its adherents and not of the outer reality of nature."

This whole affair of injecting supernatural causes into science reminds me of Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead: "Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection."

Without having clear boundaries of what science accepts, science itself suffers. People no longer need to discover the cause and cure of AIDS, when a simple "it's divine punishment" will suffice. Our understanding of the world grinds to a halt, as does our technological advancement - which depends on the rigorous quest for cause and effect. The "Designer" did not create the iPod, nor the internet, nor any of modern technology. All of it is done by men, relying and exploiting our scientific knowledge of the world. Without science, none of that would be possible.

And that is why I truly fear what the ID movement can do to the world.

Into the Wild and The Game

I finished two books recently, Into the Wild and The Game. I haven't read much since grad school started, so it's nice to pick up that habit again. I just want to say a few words about each book.

Into the Wild was an interesting read. The book was a little long for the story - I'm not sure the parts about the author climbing the Devil's Thumb was necessary - but it did bring out the interesting parts about Chris. My overall reaction is that I can understand why Chris left on this journey, although I wouldn't do it. I am persuaded by the author that he knew what he was doing, and had only died because of bad luck. I therefore have tremendous respect for the guy, for being able to survive by himself, both in the fringes of civilization and in the "wilderness", for so long.

The Game was also an interesting read. A lot of it was unnecessary drama, but perhaps that was not surprising. I have seen parts of The Pickup Artist (it wasn't my idea), and it was interesting to know more background about Mystery. As someone who doesn't believe in picking girls up, my eye was more guided to what eventually happened to Neil Strauss. The last paragraph of his acknowledges for Lisa was the most meaningful paragraph to me.

My library copy only had one sentence underlined in the entire book: "The secret to making someone think they're in love with you is to occupy their thoughts, and that's what Lisa had done with me." It wasn't even about picking people up.

My favorite quote from the book is "Never underestimate your capacity to care", which I think says a lot about humans.

I hadn't intended it, but after finishing both books I find their message is actually similar. Both Chris and Neil were unsatisfied with their life somehow, and made moves to change it. At the end though, after following other people's writings (whether they be Henry David Thoreau or Mystery), what they find is not that their old life was wrong, but that they never appreciated what they already had. Chris wanted to go back to civilization and find comfort in people, while Neil was in love with someone who likes his baldness and glasses.

I guess what I'm saying is being happy is both easier and harder than you think.
No comments

Google as a Social Force

Google has increasingly been involved in social and political issues, not just in the US but around the world. Most of you are familiar with the criticism of Google on their privacy policy, with their ability to identify so many people (Google has over 844 million unique visitors per month). A less familiar issue is the problem of network neutrality, or whether internet providers can charge more for people accessing certain sites. Google is part of the Open Internet Coalition which is against ISP filtering. However, questions have been raised as to whether laws should be enacted to make Google content neutral as well.

The latest in Google's involvement in politics is in China. When Google first went into the Chinese market, it complied with government laws about censoring, so that websites about Falun Gong, about criticism of the communist government, etc. would not be listed on Google's search results. Google recently published a blog post talking about a recent attack on Google's services, specifically to get information from accounts of known activists. The post itself does not name the hackers, but as the later part of the post mentions its China policy, it is implied that the hackers work for the Chinese government.

What is particularly interesting about this latest development is that Google, as a business, could have done nothing. Certainly, the attacks should result in increased security measures, but there is no reason for Google to change its China policy. Google earns money mostly from ad revenue, and the more eyeballs an ad gets, the more money Google makes. Google's Chinese site directs a nation of 1.3 billion people to its ads, so if the purpose of a business is to increase profits, Google should keep their Chinese portal open.

That Google is reviewing its China policy, to the extent of considering closing down Google China, is good news. The company with the motto of "Don't be Evil" is touching a lot of legal spheres: freedom of access to information, freedom of speech, copyright... What Google, and increasingly other international companies, decide to do in the face of local government pressure may send a strong signal to the global community.

It is not just that these companies have global reach, but that increasingly the problems one country faces cannot be solved without the participation of other countries. China, without the international scrutiny, would likely increase their censorship. With the recent disastrous Copenhagen talks on climate change, we need companies to put aside short term interests, and consider the effects of their actions on the world as a whole.

In an age where companies have more income than entire developed nations, we need to question what obligations they should have.

EDIT: Ars Technica article about Google's blog post.
No comments

My Digital Life

I took some time over the weekend to collect the pieces of my digital life. I present the results below, a digital scrapbook, if you will. I tried to list all services that I use. For the sites which are not social in nature, and therefore don't have a "profile" to present, I simply linked to the site homepage. Anything that is updated (and viewable publicly) at least once a year is in bold.

In no particular order of categories:













No comments