On the Composition of Charles

Swarmed, by LouFCD on Flickr

Swarmed, by LouFCD on Flickr

In my spare time (haha) I’m again reading Darwin’s Origin of Species. It’s an incredibly insightful work for its day or any other, and even modern biology writers, with all the updated information available at our fingertips, are hard pressed to match its beauty.

In reading it again with my own now more advanced understanding of biology, I’m struck by two things in particular within the first several chapters. The first that stands out to me is Darwin’s mastery of the turn-of-phrase. In World Lit II last semester, the pieces we read were exemplars of their time period. The early and mid-nineteenth century works were chosen specifically to highlight the Romantics’ “rejection” of Enlightenment ideals. The systematic logic and naturalistic view of the universe was traded in for adornment, symbolism, and emotion. Yet even then I noted in an essay on my midterm that Darwin was an outstanding exception to this rule.

Romantics viewed the world around them as a natural extension of their emotions. Emotion and Nature are inextricably intertwined, the one often used as a symbol for the other. This was a rejection of Enlightenment ideals of the logic and order of Nature. They valued this emotion and its connection to the natural world almost to the exclusion of reason. (Charles Darwin was a notable exception, whose seminal 1859 treatise on evolution, “On the Origin of Species &etc” being a work replete with both the reason valued by the Enlightenment and the powerful emotive awe treasured by the Romantics.)

(I may transcribe my entire response as a separate post, just for fun – I was pretty happy with the way it came out, under pressure and unedited, and in response to a perfect prompt for taking modern Creationists to the woodshed – you know I took that bait with reckless abandon.)

I stand by that comment, and this latest read reinforces my opinion that Darwin exemplifies the best of both Enlightenment and Romantic writing. His synthesis is unparalleled among the writers of his day.

An oft-quoted example of his beautiful mastery of emotive language is found in the final passage of Origin:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The other glaring feature of the first several chapters is my own recurring frustration. On nearly every single page I read, I want to just scream backwards through time words of encouragement to get this greatest of minds to take that one last little step that in retrospect is so very very tiny. Darwin was one thought away from picking up the revolutionary idea of Gregor Mendel. He dances all around it, a ballerina doing elegant pirouettes without ever quite stepping on that one spot in the center – particulate theory of inheritance. (Genes, we call them.)

Thus it is, as I believe, that when the males and females of any animal have the same general habits of life, but differ in structure, colour, or ornament, such differences have been mainly caused by sexual selection; that is, individual males have had, in successive generations, some slight advantage over other males, in their weapons, means of defense, or charms; and have transmitted these advantages to their male offspring.

I have to sigh, and be resigned to the facts of history, else I might scream. Particles, Charles, particles.

From whence came the art:

That image is titled Swarmed, by me, and is © 2009.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Nest Sitting

Turtle Nest, by LouFCD on Flickr

Turtle Nest, by LouFCD on Flickr

I’ve been in the field a few times in the last several weeks. Though my classwork has me about buried, I really enjoy these little stress relievers where I can just enjoy the surroundings and take a few pictures. It started around Labor Day weekend, when I spent several nights sitting a nest of Loggerhead Sea Turtles down on North Topsail Beach. The turtles were due to hatch about any day, so I was very excited. Alas, they never did hatch out while I was there, but it was a relaxing time for the most part anyway.

In fact the Sea Turtle Hospital has no record of a hatch to date (nest 55). There are several possible reasons for that. They may have hatched during a storm while no one was looking, with the storm erasing every trace of their leaving the nest. That happens sometimes. The turtles could have been drowned by a storm as they were hatching, too. Also, while the possibility exists that this was a false nest, the Sea Turtle Hospital folks were pretty sure this was a real nest.

So it was a bit frustrating, sad, and disappointing, but I got some photos of other things that I thought I’d share here anyway. They are below the fold.

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Blogging My Zoology Class 20090904

Our textbook, Animal Diversity, by Hickman, et al

Our textbook, Animal Diversity, by Hickman, et al

I’m going to get back to the Blogging My Biology Class series, finish out 111, do up 112, and tack on my Zoology class as well. It’s going to be a bit jumpy, though, but on the main series page they’ll all wind up in order by date of the class, rather than date of posting.

For now, my classmate Kristy needs notes from a particular day, so that’s up first.

We started out with a few announcements, a reminder that anyone wanting to do 20 hours of service learning would receive 4 points on their final grade, but that forms were due in to the Student Services office by Friday, 11 September. It’s more than half a letter grade in our 7 point grading system, so it’s worth the price of admission.

Next up was Loggerhead Sea Turtle Nest Sitting down on Topsail Island. There are several nests ready to hatch out any day, and anyone wanting to see this was welcome to head down and hang out. I wound up sitting at a nest on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, several hours each night, but no turtles thus far. I may or may not be able to make it tonight. It’s pouring down the rain, I’ve developed a head cold, and I have an 8 AM English class tomorrow. Of course, if I don’t make it, they’ll hatch tonight just to spite me. Little bastards.

Wary Gull, by LouFCD @ Flickr

Wary Gull, by LouFCD @ Flickr

I took a bunch of pictures of other stuff while waiting, and I’ll be posting them here on the blog for your viewing pleasure.

With that, we got back to where we had left off on Wednesday, with the Tissue Level of Organization.

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There Is No Such Thing As Alternative Medicine

Witch Doctor by Felix42 contra la censura @ Flickr

Witch Doctor by Felix42 contra la censura @ Flickr

There is no such thing as alternative medicine. Test it against a placebo. If it works better than the placebo, it’s not alternative – if it doesn’t, it’s not medicine.

At its most basic, the heart of the matter really is that simple.

Think your herb tea cures your cold?

Test it against a placebo. If it works better than the placebo, it’s not alternative – if it doesn’t, it’s not medicine.

The United States federal government has spent $2.5 billion testing alternative medicines.

Ginko biloba helps your memory?

There is no such thing as alternative medicine. Test it against a placebo. If it works better than the placebo, it’s not alternative – if it doesn’t, it’s not medicine.

“Echinacea for colds. Ginkgo biloba for memory. Glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Black cohosh for menopausal hot flashes. Saw palmetto for prostate problems. Shark cartilage for cancer. All proved no better than dummy pills in big studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The lone exception: ginger capsules may help chemotherapy nausea.”

Shark cartilage cures cancer?

There is no such thing as alternative medicine. Test it against a placebo. If it works better than the placebo, it’s not alternative – if it doesn’t, it’s not medicine.

The board in charge of the testing was artificially loaded with proponents of “alternative medicine”, and still FAILed to find any evidence that these treatments worked any better than placebo.

“The bottom line is that NCCAM is an ideological, not a scientific organization. It exists to validate CAM, not to test whether it works or not. And when it doesn’t produce the results its boosters in the legislature, like Tom Harkin, want to see, there’s serious trouble.”

Guess what? There is no such thing as alternative medicine. Test it against a placebo. If it works better than the placebo, it’s not alternative – if it doesn’t, it’s not medicine.

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Summer Update

Turkey Vulture in the Clouds

Turkey Vulture in the Clouds

So the semester is over and summer is officially here for me, solstice be damned. I’ll probably be able to blog a bit more, and vent some of the accumulated thoughts jumbled up in my brain.

For now, a few bits of updates.

I’ll be reading and reviewing The Unlikely Disciple, by Kevin Roose, for Carnal Nation. I’ll post a link for you when it’s up.

I’ll be hosting the next Carnival of the Liberals here on May 20th. I’ve been receiving submissions and should be getting to those by tomorrow. To this point, they’ve been shunted into a folder in my mailbox just because they started coming in during the lead up to finals week.

Speaking of finals, I think our team project for English 113 (our final was a presentation on one of Hamlet’s soliloquys) went OK, and I expect an A on that and in the class.

I bumped into my Bio 112 prof in a store here in town a few hours after the Bio final. He stopped to say hello and told me I got an A on the final, and complimented my answer regarding The Tragedy of the Commons. I don’t think I did well on the previous exam, so I’m thinking I’m in A/B borderland. Hopefully the final will pull me above the line.

I’ve been doing a lot of photography, uploading pics to my Facebook albums and to Twitpic. Kay is prepping to graduate high school next month, and since the ceremony will be in the football stadium, we needed a decent camera. I had been scrounging to find some cash for summer tuition, but we diverted those funds (and then a little) into getting a Canon EOS Rebel xs a few days ago since I won’t be going to school this summer anyway, and I’ve been using the heck out of it and trying to figure out all those knobs and buttons.

And that’s a bit of a story, too. UNCW Center for Marine Science gives two paid internships per year to Coastal Biology students, and I was nominated by the department for one of them. That was awesome and I was very excited. But then Dub emailed The Chair to tell her that the economy tanked those two internships. That was not awesome and I was bummed. Then Dub emailed The Chair again, and offered one internship on a volunteer basis, and I was offered that. So I guess now I’m quasi-excited. I said from the beginning that I would have done it for free, and in fact assumed it was volunteer at first and was happy to do it, but then I found out I was going to be paid, and now that I’m not going to be paid… well, y’know. I’m excited, but feel a bit like a kid teased with a lolipop. Oh well, I’m looking forward to it. Dub is where I intend to finish my bachelors degree and they have a ton of interesting research projects going, so it’s still a great opportunity. I’m really proud of being nominated for that one slot.

Easy Cool

Easy Cool

And JP. James tried pole vaulting this year for the first time. It’s interesting in that he had no idea that my Pop was a pole vaulter in high school. He seems to love it, finished fifth in the conference, and even went to Regionals. He lettered, and he’s got three more years of vaulting ahead of him. How freaking cool is that?

Oh, and he’s fifteen today. Happy Birthday, son.

From whence came the art:

I took both of those images with my new Canon EOS Rebel xs, and they are each licensed by me under the Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- Share Alike 3.0 License.

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A Brief History of Moonbats

Lou FCD

Lou FCD headshot by Ben Zvan

Last Thursday evening was a pleasant one. It was mild and welcoming, a good night for a drive to Wilmington. I had been by the University of North Carolina campus there, but hadn’t yet been to visit. I’ve been meaning to head down there to look around for a while now, as that’s where I intend to finish my Bachelor’s degree in Biology. The reason for this trip was mildly ironic given my intentions, as my son James and I were headed there to hear an anti-science advocate speak.

Dr. Michael Behe is a biochemist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He’s also a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a well known creationist think tank whose purpose is to disguise religious doctrine as science in order to avoid the Constitutional ban on promoting religion in public schools. It was Behe that we were heading down to see.

Along the hour and a half drive, I gave my son the highlights of the full history of the Intelligent Design Creationism Hoax, parts of which he’s heard before. (Bear in mind here that I was driving, and not working from notes. I’ll be filling in details as I go that he didn’t get during our conversation.) I began with some background on the history of scientific discoveries in biology since Linnaeus. Carolus Linnaeus was Swedish doctor, a botanist, and a zoologist, who set about categorizing life’s varied forms in his long-evolving work, “Systema Naturae”, first published in 1735.

I touched on William Paley’s rehashing of Cicero’s water clock, and the the obvious logical flaw contained therein. In On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero’s character Balbus, a fictional follower of Plato, posited that because a sundial or a water clock has an obvious purpose, we can then infer that it was designed by some intelligence. Balbus went on to argue that because of the complexity of nature, we can therefore infer that the universe is also designed by some intelligence. Balbus concluded that the universe itself was divine, or possibly that the universe had a divine spirit, a sort of mono/pantheism (Collins 187 – 193). Paley bastardized the assertion in 1802, altering the water clock to a watch, and the deity in question to the Christian god (Paley 5 – 13). He failed however to remove the glaring logical flaw that we only perceive complexity in contrast to simplicity, the watch on the background of the heath. One cannot then use the complexity of the watch to argue for the complexity of the heath without undermining the original argument that the watch is itself complex and inherently different from the heath. This was important for what was to come, and I was later quite glad I had taken the time (we had plenty on the ride) to discuss it with James.

(continue reading below the fold)

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