Thursday, December 3, 2009

A reader's writer

The Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde is not something I was expecting to like, seeing that it combines three genres I seldom have much interest in: detective mystery, science fiction and fantasy. However, Fforde writes with rare wit, and ingeniously uses some of the richest books and characters that fiction has to offer. If you are addicted to good literature, and like, or have strong opinions about some of the following books/people, you should try the Thursday Next series.

Jane Eyre
Wuthering Heights
Sense and Sensibility
Pride and Prejudice
Northanger Abbey
Watership Down
Miss Havisham (and Great Expectations in general)
Little Dorrit
The Red Queen (and both Alice Books)
Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado
The Scottish play
To Kill a Mockingbird
Brideshead Revisited
The Just So Stories
The Wind in the Willows
The Minotaur
Mrs Tiggy-winkle
Out of Africa
Waiting for Godot
Gilbert and Sullivan
Sherlock Holmes
Vanity Fair
P.G Wodehouse (especially the Blandings series)

In addition to having an endearing command of the best books in English, Fforde has a very winning style of his own, with good, funny prose, ingenious plots and delightful characters. The series apparently began with a couple of naming ideas. "Thursday Next", the protagonist, is a resourceful female detective with the ability to jump into fiction and a pet dodo named Pickwick (who says "plock"). Other funny puns that litter the series include those of Thursday's husband, Landen Park-Laine, his mother (Houson) and father (Billden).

These stories are set in an alternative world just similar enough to ours for Fforde to satirise all sorts of unsavoury things from slimy politicians to reality TV. That is the world Thursday helps to police as a literary detective. At the same time, Thursday has a second policing job within fiction itself, as part of "Jurisfiction", established to keep books true to the spirit their authors intended, despite the best efforts of rouge characters and the declining attention spans of readers.

Just to give you an idea of some of the things Fforde makes fun of, the Goliath corporation, used to parody multinationals, is the main source of evil in these books. Unscrupulously evil in the first few books, Goliath turns into a "faith-based corporation", and Fforde's ridicule of organised religion beats his scorn for material monopolies. In its earlier and more evil days, Goliath was keen on engineering extinct organisms, resulting in Neanderthals that want equal rights and are still being relegated to reserves called "Nations". In book five, Goliath invents an Austen Rover, and and a misguided Jurisfiction attempts to increase falling readership rates by making a reality book out of Pride and Prejudice (much to the collective consternation of the Bennet family).

In Thursday's world, lives are always in danger. Fictional characters can be reduced to text if they aren't careful, and real people (like Thursday's father) can be eradicated by the "Chronoguard" even before they were conceived, simply by fiddling about with time. There is a strong element of Wallace and Gromit ingenuity in this science fiction aspect of the series. Speaking of W & G, cheese smuggling is the substitute for drug smuggling, with some really ripe, volatile and deadly specimens involved.

Some of the main problems Thursday encounters involve difficult characters, like Heathcliff, a self-centred prima dona who invariably wins "The most Troubled Male Romantic Lead of the Year" in the fiction world's equivalent of the Oscars, and has to be protected from fanatical pro-Caths. Hamlet, who is upset by not wining the same prize, is allowed a rest outside the fiction world, and finds himself alpha Dodo material (although he can't even make up his mind enough to order a coffee at Goliath's equivalent of Starbucks). The fiction escapee from a privately published sappy romance, Yorrick Kaine is a classically slippery politician, who excels on the talk show "Evade the Question Time" for "an excellent non-specific condemnation, ...blaming the previous government and... successfully mutating the question to promote the party line."

Not all the fictional characters are bad though. Thursday's Jursfiction mentor, who teaches her how to police books, is a formidable Miss Havisham, who enjoys racing Toad of Toad Hall when she isn't protecting "Great Expectations" and fiction in general. Mrs John Dashwood from "Sense and Sensibility" is troubled by the thought that people in the "outerworld" don't think much of her, and allows all Jurisfiction meetings to take place at Norland. The Cheshire Cat is an impeccable and endearing librarian in charge of all the books and editions written and embryonic in English fiction.

The first book, "The Eyre Affair" takes a while to lay everything out, but once you become familiar with Thursday's world it is hard to put any of the books down. Bon appetite.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Human cooperation from violence?

If you think that we live in a more violent world than our predecessors, you would be agreeing with almost 300 people recently surveyed by the psychologist and writer, Steven Pinker. You would also be wrong. At a talk in the Harvard Law School, Pinker presented convincing evidence for a secular decline in violence across millennia, centuries, decades, and even years. He then attempted to answer two questions: why don't most people perceive that violence has declined, and why has it declined?

An earlier version of Pinker's ideas on violence can be found in one of his articles. Most of the talk is in it: He is now planning a book on the subject, with the potential title "The Better Angels of Our Nature".

Pinker presented three broad explanations for the secular decline in violence. Firstly, that Hobbes was quite right about life being "nasty, brutish and short", and that modern centralised states with a monopoly on violence function as Leviathan. Secondly, that technological advances have increased the number of positive-sum games, also known as win-win situations. Trade, for instance. Thirdly, that increasing ways to spread empathy, via fiction or journalism, for example, have helped to create the philosopher Peter Singer's "expanding circle". Humans are less violent now because more and more people (and sometimes animals) are included in an "in group" they can identify with.

The next day, Sarah Blafer Hrdy, renowned feminist sociobiologist, gave an equally synthetic talk on her latest book, Mothers and Others, that elaborates on the latter two of Pinker's explanations for declining human violence. Unlike Pinker, who is focusing largely on modern humans, and asking why we are so much more peaceful than ever before, Hrdy is interested in the evolutionary origins of human cooperative tendencies that far exceed those in other living apes.

I won't go into all the evidence that Hrdy presented in her talk, and in her book, but will outline her main ideas. At the moment, and ever since Darwin's Descent of Man in 1971, the predominant explanation for human cooperation is between-group conflict. The notion that our ancestors evolved to work together so they could defeat neighbouring tribes or families is apparently almost dogma amongst anthropologists.

In contrast, Hrdy contends that inter-group competition is not a sufficient, and probably not even the predominant force selecting for cooperative tendencies. Instead, she proposes that humans, unlike other apes, became extra good at sharing and reading each others minds and emotions because of communal child care. This probably sounds rather unconvincing when stated like that, but there are good arguments for taking Hrdy seriously.

All living great apes have rudiments of empathy and what philosophers like to call "theory of mind"-- kinowing that others can have thoughts different from your own. Humans, by the age of two, far outstrip captive-reared great apes in these mental abilities necessary for cooperation. Since great apes have rudiments of these abilities, we can assume that early humans did too. The question is, what caused strong selection in favour of increasing these abilities?

Cooperative breeding, a situation where some individuals forgo reproduction to help others rear offspring, has evolved independently in several species of insects, birds and mammals, and many times within primates alone. In other words, it's not hard to evolve into a cooperative breeder. Cooperative breeding also tends to evolve when the environment is harsh or unpredictable. The Pleistocene environment our ancestors lived in certainly was unpredictable, and Hrdy proposes that the lineage leading to humans evolved cooperative breeding.

Now we have some neural and genetic hardware for cooperative traits, and a novel communal rearing environment. As a result of being reared by multiple individuals instead of just Mum, offspring would develop mental abilities that had only existed as genetic potentials in the past. Natural selection cannot favour traits that are coded in DNA but aren't expressed in an individual's behaviour. So by exposing variation in capacities for empathy, cooperative breeding made it possible to also select for expanding these capacities, because the youngsters best able to persuade others to care for them, would be most likely to survive and pass on their abilities to engage with others.

One of the lovely things about this model, is that it provides a clear example of how intertwined "nature" and "nurture" are in evolution. Without some genetic capacity for empathy and social engagement, there would be no way for a novel rearing environment to extend the expression of such traits, and no way for the information to be passed to subsequent generations. Without the novel rearing environment, there would be nothing to select on or for genetic variation in the capacity to feel empathy.

Although Singer, Pinker and Hrdy have argued strongly for empathy being crucial for being nice to others, one could also point out that it is jolly useful in competitive contexts too. What better way to manipulate and deceive others for your own ends than to be able to read their minds and feelings? While humans, honeybees and meerkats are superb examples of cooperative breeding, conflict does occur within groups. Like most new technologies, cognitive tools such as theory of mind or empathy arguably extend our abilities to be both more cooperative and more competitive.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Comfort on the Origin

Creationists have been handing out free and glossy new copies of the Origin of Species in universities all over North America. This is apparently a cunning scheme to entice students into reading a 50 page introduction linking Darwin and his evolutionary ideas to Hitler. For the really funny bits, jump to "Solving Life’s Most Important Question" on pg41 and continue reading from there.

The august author of this thrilling introduction is none other than Ray Comfort, made famous by a short video in which he (in all seriousness) extols the domesticated Dole banana's divine design. This video has kept many undergraduate evolution classes entertained, particularly as Mr. Comfort's enthusiasm extends to descriptions and demonstrations of how "the banana" has been perfectly designed for "ease of entry into the human mouth", with a "non-slip surface". The fact that bananas in general, and Dole bananas in particular, have been bred and genetically modified by humans to acquire all these handy characteristics had escaped Mr. Comfort's notice (he has since apologised for the oversight). With such stunning credentials, Comfort is just the man to introduce Darwin's Origin. After all, he has all the necessary faith at his fingertips. If you aren't familiar with the Dole banana debut, here's a link:

The 50-page Comfort introduction is available online:
So is a rather feeble rebuttal by America's National Center for Science Education:

The Comfort introduction begins with a laughably banal section on Darwin's life, swiftly followed by an attempt to clarify Darwin's religious beliefs. No one, least of all Darwin himself (in his writings) is at all clear what Darwin's religious beliefs were, except that they changed rather often, and depended a lot on who he was writing to. A few quotes out of context doesn't shed much light on how Darwin defined a deity or his beliefs. Besides, what possible bearing does Darwin's religious beliefs at different points of his life have to do with evidence for evolution and natural selection?

After his little foray into Darwinian biography, Comfort attempts to explain how DNA constitutes evidence against evolution. The irony of this as a first salvo is almost painful, because the recent developments in genomics are arguably the best and most overwhelming evidence that all living things inherited their genetic code from a common ancestor. Living things simply have far more genes in common than anyone had imagined before they had genomes to compare. Every new genome adds hundreds and thousands of examples of the same genes, duplicated or tweaked slightly to serve new or modified functions, all coded in the same four DNA "letters".

Recognising this fact, Comfort suggests that an intelligent designer would know when something works, and use that design feature repeatedly, so of course lots of genes should be shared. There are two glaring counter-examples to this claim. Firstly, the genome (and natural diversity in general) abound with examples of convergence-- different solutions to the same functional problem. For instance, genetic changes conferring pesticide resistance have evolved independently in more than one species or population of pests. Secondly, there is plenty of evidence of unintelligent, suboptimal design in biology. For instance, genomes are full of DNA that seems to exist simply because it's good at persisting and replicating -- rather like computer viruses. Why would an intelligent designer add that?

Comfort trots out the beloved creationist argument that all this superb genomic complexity could never have come together by chance. Well who, other than creationists, tries to claim that? The whole point of evolution by natural selection, is cumulative change over time. Richard Dawkins is eloquent on this particular topic, so I won't belabour it.

Sadly, all the NCSE had to "rebutt" the notion that genomes arrived suddenly out of nothing, is that "This is not a scientific view of evolution", and "almost all scientists understand that complexity is not a problem for evolution". That's rather like saying the Pope understands that condoms are not a problem for Catholics. Rather than a claim that relies on faith, a sentence or reference with a decent counterargument would have sounded more scientific.

From DNA, Comfort moves to fossils. Why, he asks in separate sections, are there no good transitional forms, and why are there missing links? Those sound like the same question to me, and the answer is that there are plenty of transitional forms. Besides, the standard biologists' quip is that a new missing link only creates two more. And there is no good reason to expect transitional forms in the fossil record to look intermediate between the most closely related species still alive. You might expect the human ancestor to look half human half chimp -- Comfort seems to. But just look at birds. No one would have expected transitional forms in the ancestry of birds to lead to dinosaurs, but that is what the fossil record demonstrates, in abundance.

Admittedly, the fossil record isn't perfect, and events like the Cambrian Explosion are unusual. That doesn't mean that the Cambrian Explosion contradicts evolutionary theory. To quote an eminent evolutionary biologist, JBS Haldane, what the creationists really need is "fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian".

Finally, we get to "The Evolutionary Process" itself. Comfort trots out the usual creationist stand that microevolution (changes within species), is acceptable, and distinct from macroevolution (between species). As Darwin takes pains to emphasise in the Origin, there isn't really a point in time when you can stab a finger at a two varieties and say "look, separate species". Species are categories that we can define with hindsight, when populations have diverged enough to be reproductively isolated. Saying yes to evolution within but not between species is simply a retreat into a "God of the gaps" argument.

Mutations. Comfort seems to think that Darwin was au fait with the term, when the rudiments of genetics weren't incorporated into the evolutionary synthesis till the early 1900s. Yes, adaptation by natural selection does not require mutations to occur in the direction that favours the adaptation. That's the beauty of natural selection. It's a sieve, it keeps the variants (thanks to mutations and other processes like sex) that work, and the rest fail to replicate themselves. The variants don't have to be created in any directed way.

Evolution's Difficult Questions. This should make evolutionists quake in their boots. The first salvo is a devastating return to the notion of "irreducible complexity", the notion that you can't get to something as complex as an eye through little steps, because every bit of the structure has to be there for it to be of any use. A similar argument inferring design is far more eloquently expressed by Paley, one of Darwin's favourite writers when Darwin was reading theology at Cambridge. What Darwin did was to find an unconscious designer in the repetitive sieving algorithm of natural selection. The fact is, both poster children of irreducible complexity, the eye and, more recently, the intricate molecular motor known as the flagellum, have been repeatedly squished by evidence of transitional forms that do benefit the organism that has them.

Vestigial Organs. According to Comfort, these constitute evidence against evolution because it is "devolution". If Comfort had actually read and understood the book he is attempting to introduce, he should have noticed that evolution is not a directed or progressive process with a goal. Devolution is evolution.

Another Thought. This paragraph arguing for an intelligent designer because humans, intelligent as we are, still can't create something from nothing, is somewhat sudden. It also follows ironically on the heels of one of the best arguments against an intelligent designer. Why would an intelligent designer leave bits and pieces of useless vestiges in his creations?

And now for something completely different. Really from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous. Darwin's "Unsavory" Views. One wonders why Comfort even bothered with the inverted commas, he means it so literally. Criticising Darwin for the more unfortunate outcomes of "Social Darwinism" is like saying Jesus was evil because of the crusades. Darwin was unfortunate enough to have the movement named after him, but that is hardly a personal connection. Comfort also accuses Darwin of racism. By today's standards, all Victorians were racist. Darwin was an abolitionist, vehemently opposed to slavery, and he also viewed humans as a single species, something that was under great debate at the time. Comfort talks about not finding evidence that Darwin thought blacks and whites should be treated differently. He cunningly avoids mentioning that during the Beagle voyage, Darwin was appalled by the ill-treatement of a slave, and argued with his captain about this.

Charges of sexism come next on the list. Victorians were, by and large, sexist by today's standards. The brevity of this paragraph suggests a distinct lack of evidence, but Comfort does dredge up one of my favourite Darwin quotes "better than a dog anyhow", which is in the "Marry" column of a list Darwin compiled while deciding whether or not to marry. But to get back to the point, racism and sexism don't follow from evolution or natural selection.

His Famous Student. A long paragraph devoted to Hitler. Hurrah. As with the accusation of Social Darwinism, we have a spectacular leap from the person who proposes an idea, to an example of something nasty that has picked up bits of that idea. Hitler doesn't quote or mention Darwin by name in Mein Kampf. We could just as easily accuse Plato of proposing the notion of "ideals", and inspiring Hitler to create an ideal race.

The Hit List. "Just as he did with evolution, hitler [sic] also used Christianity for his own evil political ends." That is actually what Comfort writes. Why, then, is he only lambasting Darwin, and not every person involved in creating and modifying the Bible?

Darwin and Atheism. In addition to repeating a variety of misunderstandings, Comfort appears to view science and religious belief as democratic processes. He cites the depressing figures from a 2007 Newsweek poll, where "48 percent said God created humans in the present form at one time in the last 10,000 years or so, and another 30 percent believe God guided the process—so 78 percent attribute creation to God. only 13 percent believe in naturalistic evolution." Therefore, concludes Comfort, evolution is not true, and the creator wins. ???????
Possibly aware that readers are flagging at this point, Comfort adds "... please stay with me. I deeply care about you and where you will spend eternity."

Solving Life’s Most Important Question, is how Comfort tries to help us spend eternity in the right place. Would you like "the original Mona Lisa" or a parachute if you had to jump out of a plane? Apparently the plane is life, death is hell, the Mona Lisa is atheism, and a parachute is Christianity. "does that help you connect the dots?", asks Comfort. No.

The Leap. Assuming that one believes in an Old Testament God, this attempt at cross-questioning your conscience a la Spanish inquisition is positively pant-wetting. Well, if you thought that was frightening, things get better. We are told of "Little Jessica", a brutally raped and murdered 9-year old girl. "How do you react?", asks Comfort. Apparently any outrage you feel is a result of God's outrage, which is "evidence of his goodness." (italics Comfort's). I am surprised that Comfort doesn't even try to use evolution, atheism and Darwin as punchbags for all this outrage he's generated.

I'm rather surprised that Comfort's Almighty God is such a frightful Old Testament bogeyman. The next sections are titled "Instant Death", "Let's See" (how hopeless other major religions will be at saving you from hell), and "Back to the Plane", in which Jesus is stuck in to rescue us sinners from a very nasty crash. "Do it Today", urges Comfort. "Do it right now". Hang your faith on "Lord Jesus Christ" has you would hang your body on a parachute. Good luck.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cowboy days

The Four Corners, where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona meet is the only spot where four US states meet. The meeting point itself is a rather dismal Navaho trading post covered in small stalls and parking spaces, but the region is simply stunning. Here are a smattering of photos-- gory details on Flickr.

Incidentally, if you are at all keen on American folk/country music, the album "Clean Shirt" by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson is superb.

Tent Rocks

Taos Pueblo

Forest fire on the way to Bryce CanyonBryce Canyon

Raven at the Painted Desert

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where ARE the Wild Things?

Where the Wild Things Are, the classic picture book by Maurice Sendak is now a full-length film, complete with a Max (Records) playing the rambunctious little boy Max, and glorious, enormous, costumed wild things.

If you haven't read this book, please do. It is a masterful example of how profound themes and strong emotions can be conveyed in a few pages of enthralling art and a very few poetic phrases. Seldom has so little conveyed so much, so beautifully.

As Sendak is one of the producers of this film, and the New York Times gave it a glowing review, we went to watch it with keen anticipation.

The costumes are indeed impressive. They are furry, massive, 3D reproductions of Sendak's wild things, complete with claws, toes or horns in all the right places. They waddle endearingly, and withstand being bounced down sand dunes or whacked with massive dirt clods. Each wild thing has a distinct personality, and an evocative voice from actors like Forest Whitaker.

Some of the cinematography is beautiful, and the trailer will lead you to think that the entire film is filled with similarly stunning shots of mildly melancholy scenery. Although mildly overdone, the soundtrack is quite pretty and haunting.

To our dismay, however, the film takes a long time to get to the wild things. It opens with promising scenes of Max, dressed in his wolf costume, creating a ruckus at home by chasing the family dog. But that was followed by a bewildering and unnecessarily long series of scenes depicting Max's plight in suburban America-- presumably in a misguided attempt to make the story more accessible to American audiences? We were forced to share his dislike of his pill of an adolescent sister, a struggling single mother, and, to add insult upon injury, his mother's attempt to have a peaceful family dinner with one of her suitors. A simple book scene in which Max is called a "wild thing" by his mother and sent upstairs sans supper, is transformed into a shouting match in which poor Mum tells Max he is "out of control", followed by a frantic chase through suburbia before Max finally sets sail for the wild things. Unlike the book, a forest doesn't grow magically in Max's room, instead, it materialises in the middle of his suburban neighbourhood. This struck us as an unnecessary and unfortunate departure from a magical scene brimming with movie promise.

When the movie Max eventually reaches the wild things, and becomes their king, the film improves, but is too full of complicated interpersonal relationships to evoke the gay abandon of letting the "wild rumpus start". Max is very melancholy, and so are most of the wild things. This isn't a film for young children.

Party time

The film left us both feeling as though we'd eaten something deeply unpleasant, so we had to repair to the bookshop for a good dose of children's books (starting with
Where the Wild Things Are) to remove the ghastly taste of a disappointing evening at the cinema. There's nothing returning to where the wild things really are.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

In which we discover different Pooh audiobooks

To my delight and surprise, an awful lot of talent has decided to render the classic tales of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (NOT Disney!) audible. I couldn't quite find all the audiobooks, but here is a list, in rough order of preference, with brief comments on those I managed to listen to. There are links to the ones with audio samples online.

The best:
Jim Broadbent, produced by HarperChildrensAudio, 2003
Broadbent has an especially lovely, plumy Pooh voice, and his narrator's voice is just what one would expect for bedtime stories. All the other animals have enjoyably suitable voices without being distractingly different. That said, owl is perfectly pompous, rabbit always sounds bossy, and piglet's voice has just the right combination of insecurity and high-pitched eagerness. This is also the only audiobook that doesn't attempt a silly soundtrack, and where Poohs hums aren't drowned in music.

Bernard Cribbins, Published by the BBC, Cover to Cover Cassettes Ltd
Cribbins is almost as good as Broadbent, but his voice a little too high to sound as cosy. Excellent
character voices.

Random House
Read by Stephen Fry, Judi Dench, Michael Williams and Various
The best thing in this version is Geoffrey Palmer, who is perfectly, gloomily Eeyorish, dripping with sarcasm and self-pity. Judi Dench's cosy voice enunciating "stoutness exercises" is charming, but as all the readers take turns narrating every few sentences, in addition to each having their own characters, this audiobook can get quite distracting. Stephen Fry has a very enjoyable reading-aloud voice, but he sounds more like Fry than Pooh. Tigger, Piglet and Roo have ghastly voices. Bad enough to make one avoid all the stories they appear in. This audiobook is also riddled with silly, tinkly music, sound effects and full-blown musical accompaniments and introductions to everything Pooh composes.

Peter Dennis, Pooh Audio Books & Radio Production
This is apparently the version that the Pooh Properties Trustees approved, which worries me, as they also approved a sequel to the two A.A. Milne books. Dennis has a good, ringing narrator's voice, but his Eeyore is irritatingly feeble and querulous, Rabbit far too grating, and piglet punctuates every sentence with distracting grunts.

This isn't the worst, I just wish I could get my hands on it:
Alan Bennett, BBC Radio Collection 1998

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Brick Ark?

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes starts with a side-splittingly funny, clever retelling of the Noah's Ark story (by one of the stowaway species) that is well worth reading if you have any sense of humour at all. The remainder of this book comprises a series of much darker, rather depressing Ark-themed short stories, such as the tale of a hijacked cruise ship. However, I highly recommend this book, simply for its first short story, which is a gem.

"This Brick Ark: Celebrating the Museum of Comparative Zoology's First 150 Years and the Beginning of the Next 150", is a lecture I attended, by Dr. James Hanken, Director of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. His talk title made me wonder what the "Ark" can mean to different people. Harvard's massive collection of valuable zoological specimens is obviously worth saving, and arguably, it has always been under threat because of financial and spatial constraints. The museum is also a brick building. Ironically, a quick Google search revealed that "The Brick Ark" is also a Bed and Breakfast run by earnest Christians in Indiana. I suppose what these two uses of "Brick Ark" have in common, is the notion of providing a "safe haven".

Most of this post will be about the talk, which I found enjoyably, and somewhat surprisingly historical. Hanken is a biologist by profession, and it was heartening to see how much time he devoted to the fascinating people responsible for establishing the MCZ. In particular, the talk focused on Louis and Alexander Agassiz, father and son, and the first two directors of the MCZ. Some of the more interesting titbits included Louis Agassiz's insatiable ambition to make the MCZ an unbeatable institution. This was illustrated by some amusing quotes, including the dilemma over what to name the museum. The Museum of "Natural History" seemed too fuddy- duddy. Agassiz's personal favourite (because it encapsulated all his interests), "Comparative Zoology, Embryology and Palaeontology" was, he admitted, "too long". So the museum was, and still is, of "Comparative Zoology", a name that emphasises Agassiz's vision of the broad, synthetic research in the institution he founded.

Agassiz founded the MCZ in 1859, the very year that Darwin's Origin was published. Ironically, Agassiz also believed staunchly in the fact that every species was "a though of God", and vehemently opposed any notions of transmutation (now known as evolution). He stuck to these views till the end of his life, and expressed his ideas most vehemently in his 1851 Essay on Classification. Although these two eminent scientists maintained a gentlemanly correspondence, Darwin did privately confide in his bulldog, Thomas H. Huxley, "I entirely agree with your remarks on Agassiz's Essay on Classification: it is all utterly impracticable rubbish". And when the Origin was published, Darwin politely sent Agassiz a first edition, which Agassiz didn't think much of.

In a somewhat uphill and ultimately doomed attempt to persuade his fellow biologists, and researches in his own MCZ of the impossibility of transmutation, Louis Agassiz launched many expeditions to collect specimens that would disprove Darwin. His last, the Thayer Expedition to Brazil, 1865- 1866, brought back heaps of new species, which, ironically, provided evidence supporting the notion of descent with modification from a common ancestor. Incidentally, the Thayer Expedition also included the young William James, arguably the founder of modern psychology, who appears to be the only person who didn't have a ball in Brazil.

Louis Agassiz's great contribution, in addition to founding the MCZ and finding funding for it, was to organise the public displays of stuffed animals by their geographic distribution -- something which no other museum had done. To Agassiz, the fact that one found sloths in South America and not elsewhere, was evidence that each species had been created separately according to a divine plan. Darwin and his followers also shared this interest in where different forms are found, because to proponents of transmutation, it was striking that species classified in the same group tended to be found in the same place -- as though they had all been modified from a shared ancestor. As Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection enthused upon visiting the MCZ, "It is surely an anomaly that the naturalist who was most opposed to the theory of evolution should be the first to arrange his museum in such a way as best to illustrate that theory, while in the land of Darwin no step has been taken to escape from the monotonous routine of one great systematic series of crowded specimens arranged in lofty halls and palatial galleries, which may excite wonder but which are calculated to teach no definite lesson."

Louis Agassiz's tremendous contributions in founding the MCZ have earned him a place along former Harvard presidents in the room where Harvard's faculty meetings are held. In fact, he is one of a handful honoured with two likenesses in that room -- a portrait and a bust. Also a great geologist, Agassiz is known for being the first to present a scientific case for an ice age. This reputation for geology and anti-Darwinian notions led to quite a few jokes about Agassiz sticking his head into the ground when the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 came along, and Agassiz was the only one of four great biologists to topple from his pedestal on the Stanford Zoology building.

Agassiz statue, Stanford campus, 1906 by trialsanderrors.
Picture by W.C. Mendenhall. Taken from the U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library.

In keeping with his father's rather unfortunate attempts to disprove Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, the second director of the MCZ, also spent much of his life attacking a Darwinian theory-- that of how coral atolls are formed. To this end, Alexander also launched a great many expensive expeditions, and he even had massive metal replicas of coral reefs on display in the MCZ. Although Alexander died believing that he had succeeded, Darwin's atoll formation scenario still stands today.

The MCZ's subsequent directors were also colourful men. All of them struggled to fit an ever-increasing collection into limited space, with limited funds. One of the most influential, Thomas Barbour, was disturbingly fond of discarding bits of the collection in order to make space. Hanken's main message, was that in spite of changing political, economic and intellectual times, the MCZ has remained true to its founder's vision in persisting as a relatively small institution with a disproportionately large impact on the synthetic study of zoology.

Looking at the newly refurbished hall of mammals, I felt unusually grateful for the current financial crisis, which scuppered plans to move the MCZ's public displays across the river to a fancy new museum in a fancy new science park. There is something delightfully evocative about seeing musty old stuffed animals in the very brick building where they were first displayed. One can almost smell and see Agassiz's vision of a museum that would show people just how marvellous the earth's collection of living things is. Unlike previous museum events, this evening's reception was restrained and vegetarian-- a very small, and rather fitting price to pay for keeping the animals of the MCZ in this Brick Ark.

Links of possible interest:
Future Harvard Natural History Museum events:

Wallace's exquisitely expressed essay on the MCZ:

Darwin Correspondence Project:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Imelda is a poodle. Here she is, admiring her beautiful long legs.

Imelda gets rather self-conscious sometimes. Here she is feeling contrite, because she is so vain.

But in spite of herself, Imelda is terribly glad when she has a chance to pose for portraits. That's why she's licking my fingers in gratitude.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head

Wish I'd thought up a title as whimsical as this one, but it's actually a lovely children's book that my friend and I discovered in one of our favourite neighbourhood restaurants. Who wouldn't be charmed by the notion of a vegetarian dragon?

Bill Peet's animals are endearingly expressive, and judging from Droofus, his stories are charming. I was surprised to discover that Peet also illustrated many Disney films, such as 101 Dalmatians, because his books are miles better, and not in the least twee.

I can't wait to read about "Chester the Worldly Pig",
or the whimsical Whingdingdilly,

and Scamp, a dog inspired by Peet's own dog.


Here are sketches for a story about an abandoned ostrich chick.
Every chick radiates personality.


It's a good thing Peet is prolific.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Darwinian drama

This year, Darwin would have been 200, and his "Origin of Species", a 150 years old. Hurrah. There have been a plethora or conferences, books, paraphernalia and, most recently, films celebrating (and cashing in) on these glorious anniversaries.

With the mountains of scholarship devoted to documenting Darwin's eventful life, and his own copious written records, from meticulously catalogued notes on earthworms to moving letters about his favourite child's last days alive, one would think that it would be easy to find something both accurate and engaging to dramatise. What one does not expect, is an unfortunate hybrid of Hollywood and hallucination-- both on the parts of Darwin and the creators of "Creation", one of the most recent Darwin films.

"The Creation" opens with a sentence claiming to present how the Origin came to be written. However, it barely mentions the dramatic events surrounding the arrival of Wallace's letter, which, by independently presenting Darwin's theory of natural selection, precipitated a joint reading of their ideas at the Linnean Society, and, soon afterwards, the Origin. Nor does it even mention Charles Lyell, author of books that contributed greatly to Darwin's formulating natural selection, and one of Darwin's closest friends, who advises him to publish before he is scooped.

Instead, "Creation" explores Darwin's reaction to the death of his favourite daughter, and his crisis of faith, which threatens a happy marriage with his first cousin, Emma. These are interesting themes to explore, especially as the current polarised debates pitting religion against evolution tend to obscure the fact that many people find different and nuanced ways to reconcile the two, and that Darwin was by no means an evil and evangelical atheist. Unfortunately, one is plunged into a one-sided and melodramatic demonstration of Darwin's mental agonies over the cruelty of nature, his loss of faith and the death of his favourite child, Annie, at the age of 10. By sheer force of repetition, these horrors become surprisingly saccharine and soporific. I rapidly found myself drowned in such a torrent of flashbacks and flash-forwards that it was tricky to know when and where anything was happening -- in Darwin's mind or in his life? Before Annie's death or after? Staged scenes of "nature red in tooth and claw", such as a fox killing a rabbit about 3 feet from Darwin and his whispering brood were so improbable they were funny rather than moving, while shots of Emma staring, pained, at her raving husband for the umpteenth time got positively tiresome. It would help if some of the acting was, at least, convincing, but it isn't. As a result of all this agonising improbability and confusion, "Creation" isn't just historically inaccurate, it is dramatically hopeless.

My friends and I emerged from "Creation" stunned and wondering if it were, perhaps, a creationist spoof. To our surprise, there are actually reports that American creationists fought to repress its release in their country. They don't know what they are missing. To paraphrase Darwin badly, there is an irony in this view of (Darwin's) life, with its several creations, having been originally breathed into a few fancies or into one; and that, whilst society has gone cycling on according to the fluid laws of humankind, from so interesting a beginning endless forms most silly and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

In contrast, "Darwin's Darkest Hour" by NOVA is less original, but makes good use of some of the more dramatic moments in the history of how the Origin came to be written, and presents quite a few important historical and scientific points clearly and accurately. For instance, we learn that Darwin did not have a eureka moment when he set foot on the Galapagos, but that back in London, an ornithologist named John Gould presented Darwin with his own specimens reclassified, so that birds Darwin had labelled warblers and blackbirds were actually 13 closely related species of what we now know of as Darwin's finches. This information, combined with Gould's news that Darwin's three mockingbird varieties, each collected from a separate island, were distinct species, made Darwin question the immutability and separate creation of species. If all the finches were formed via special creation, why would such closely related forms so close together in space look so different? And why would a Creator bother to make slightly different mockingbirds for three similar little islands in the same archipelago?

"Darwin's Darkest Hour" also shows evidence of careful research and an attempt to be accurate and balanced. A lot of the props are clearly designed to reflect the Darwin home, from Darwin's copious letter-writing, to his frequent games of backgammon with his wife, and his plant experiments in both greenhouse and drawing room. Both films present Darwin the experimenter, but whereas Darwin in "Creation" is generally retching over dead pigeons, the NOVA Darwin also has blessed (and historically documented) moments of good health, during which he conducts experiments on seed dispersal or bee instinct with his children. One gets a real sense that Darwin was a rather fun father to have, who inspired and deserved the devotion and admiration of all his children. "The Creation" attempts to portray Darwin as Dad, but gets so caught up trying to emphasise his love for the dead Annie, one gets the false impression that he barely noticed his other children.

The only real truck I have with NOVA's dramatisation is the relationship between Emma and Charles. It might as well be taking place in New York today. The couple were close, true, but Emma is unlikely to have masterminded the entire scheme to rescue Darwin's scientific priority after Wallace's letter appears in 1858. Anyone watching "Darwin's Darkest Hour" would be left imagining that Emma was so dynamic, supportive and positively bossy, that she reminded Darwin of his 1844 essay on natural selection and urges him to write to his good friends Lyell and Hooker, asking them to publish this together with Wallace's letter. Although Darwin did indeed write to these friends, and they did indeed excerpt his essay to be read to the Linnean Society together with Wallace's letter, it is unlikely that Emma would have orchestrated the entire effort. That said, perhaps one could allow for a little dramatic licence if an unrealistically young, svelte, feminist Emma makes the whole film more palatable to modern audiences. Charles is also surprisingly glamorous, but
Henry Ian Cusick does an excellent job of conveying Darwin's many conflicting emotions without making him a complete nut.

In short, I would recommend that anyone who isn't familiar with the Darwin story watch the NOVA film, and that anyone who is not a creationist trying to poke fun at Darwin or the possessor of a very strong stomach should avoid "Creation".

Darwin's Darkest Hour: