LIFE

WHAT EVOLUTION IS

[12.31.99]

Now a third one of Darwin's great contributions was that he replaced theological, or supernatural, science with secular science. Laplace, of course, had already done this some 50 years earlier when he explained the whole world to Napoleon. After his explanation, Napoleon replied, "where is God in your theory?" And Laplace answered, "I don't need that hypothesis." Darwin's explanation that all things have a natural cause made the belief in a creatively superior mind quite unnecessary. He created a secular world, more so than anyone before him. Certainly many forces were verging in that same direction, but Darwin's work was the crashing arrival of this idea and from that point on, the secular viewpoint of the world became virtually universal.

ERNST MAYR is Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, at Harvard University. He is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the National Medal of Science, the Balzan Prize, and the Japan Prize.

Mayr is one of the 20th century's leading evolutionary biologists. His work has contributed to the conceptual revolution that led to the synthesis of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution, and to the development of the biological species concept. His theory of peripatric speciation has become widely accepted as one of the standard modes of speciation, and is the basis of the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Furthermore, his writings reflect, not only a technical expertise in biological subjects, but also a broad and penetrating understanding of the deeper philosophical issues involved.

Among his many books are Animal Species and Evolution; Evolution and the Diversity of Life; Systematics and the Origin of Species; The Growth of Biological Thought; One Long Argument; Population, Species, and Evolution; This Is Biology; and Toward a New Philosophy of Biology.

Mayr, born Kempten, Germany in 1904, began his studies of ornithology at the University of Berlin where, in June, 1926, at the age of 21, he received his Ph.D. In June, 2001, to honor the 75th anniversary of this event, the Humboldt University of Berlin awarded him a second (and honorary) Ph.D. Ernst Mayr's Edge Bio Page


INTRODUCTION
by Jared Diamond

When the first bird survey of the Cyclops Mountains was carried out. I found it hard to imagine how anyone could have survived the difficulties of that first survey of 1928, considering the already-severe difficulties of my second survey in 1990.

That 1928 survey was carried out by the then-23-year-old Ernst Mayr, who had just pulled off the remarkable achievement of completing his Ph.D. thesis in zoology while simultaneously completing his pre-clinical studies at medical school. Like Darwin, Ernst had been passionately devoted to outdoor natural history as a boy, and he had thereby come to the attention of Erwin Stresemann, a famous ornithologist at Berlin's Zoological Museum. In 1928 Stresemann, together with ornithologists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and at Lord Rothschild's Museum near London, came up with a bold scheme to "clean up" the outstanding remaining ornithological mysteries of New Guinea, by tracking down all of the perplexing birds of paradise known only from specimens collected by natives and not yet traced to their home grounds by European collectors. Ernst, who had never been outside Europe, was the person selected for this daunting research program.

Ernst's "clean-up" consisted of thorough bird surveys of New Guinea's five most important north coastal mountains, a task whose difficulties are impossible to conceive today in these days when bird explorers and their field assistants are at least not at acute risk of being ambushed by the natives. Ernst managed to befriend the local tribes, was officially but incorrectly reported to have been killed by them, survived severe attacks of malaria and dengue and dysentery and other tropical diseases plus a forced descent down a waterfall and a near-drowning in an overturned canoe, succeeded in reaching the summits of all five mountains, and amassed large collections of birds with many new species and subspecies. Despite the thoroughness of his collections, they proved to contain not a single one of the mysterious "missing" birds of paradise. That astonishing negative discovery provided Stresemann with the decisive clue to the mystery's solution: all of those missing birds were hybrids between known species of birds of paradise, hence their rarity.

From New Guinea, Ernst went on to the Solomon Islands in the Southwest Pacific, where as a member of the Whitney South Sea Expedition he participated in bird surveys of several islands, including the notorious Malaita (even more dangerous in those days than was New Guinea). A telegram then invited him to come in 1930 to the American Museum of Natural History in New York to identify the tens of thousands of bird specimens collected by the Whitney Expedition on dozens of Pacific Islands. Just as Darwin's "explorations," sitting at home, of collections of barnacles were as important to Darwin in forming his insights as was his visit to the Galapagos Islands, so too Ernst Mayr's "explorations" of bird specimens in museums were as important as his fieldwork in New Guinea and the Solomons in forming his own insights into geographic variation and evolution. In 1953 Ernst moved from New York to Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology, where even today he continues to work at the age of 97, still writing a new book every year or two. For scholars studying evolution and the history and philosophy of biology, Ernst's hundreds of technical articles and dozens of technical books have been for a long time the standard reference works.

But in addition to gaining insights from his own fieldwork in the Pacific and from his own studies of museum bird specimens, Ernst has collaborated with many other scientists to extract insights from other species, ranging from flies and flowering plants to snails and people. One of those collaborations transformed my own life, just as the meeting with Erwin Stresemann transformed Ernst's life. While I was a teenaged schoolboy, my father, a physician studying human blood groups, collaborated with Ernst in the first study proving that human blood groups evolve subject to natural selection. I thereby met Ernst at dinner at my parents' house, was later instructed by him in the identification of Pacific island birds, began in 1964 the first of 19 ornithological expeditions of my own to New Guinea and the Solomons, and in 1971 began to collaborate with Ernst on a massive book about Solomon and Bismarck birds that we completed only this year, after 30 years of work. My career, like that of so many other scientists today, thus exemplifies how Ernst Mayr has shaped the lives of 20th-century scientists: through his ideas, his writings, his collaborations, his example, his lifelong warm friendships, and his encouragement.

— Jared Diamond

[Excerpted from Jared Diamond's Introduction to What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr — Science Masters Series /Basic Books; October 2001]

DENNETT'S DEAL

[6.6.99]

In my book, The Third Culture (1995), philosopher Daniel C. Dennett talks about his friend and colleague Nicholas Humphrey, a research psychologist.

"Nick Humphrey is a great romantic scientist," Dan noted, "which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it isn't....It's very clear that for Nick the Shakespeare style of creativity is more enticing than the Newton style, which is an unusual attitude in a scientist."

Recently, I suggested to Dan that "Would you rather be a Shakespeare or a Newton?" might be an interesting feature forEdge's "World Question Center".

"But it's not the right question," said the feisty philosopher. Let me tell you about 'Dennett's Deal.' " .....

John Brockman

DANIEL C. DENNETT is a Philosopher; University Professor, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Breaking the Spell. Daniel C. Dennett's Edge Bio Page.


Philosophy In The Flesh

[3.8.99]

"We are neural beings," states Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff. "Our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything - only what our embodied brains permit."

His new book Philosophy In The Flesh, coauthored by Mark Johnson, makes the following points: "The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical."

Lakoff believes that new empirical evidence concerning these finding of cognitive science have taken us over the epistemological divide: we are in a new place and our philosophical assumptions are all up for grabs.

He and Johnson write: "When taken together and considered in detail, these three findings from the science of the mind are inconsistent with central parts of Western philosophy, and require a thorough rethinking of the most popular current approaches, namely, Anglo-American analytic philosophy and postmodernist philosophy."

According to Lakoff, metaphor appears to be a neural mechanism that allows us to adapt the neural systems used in sensory-motor activity to create forms of abstract reason. "If this is correct, as it seems to be," he says, "our sensory-motor systems thus limit the abstract reasoning that we can perform. Anything we can think or understand is shaped by, made possible by, and limited by our bodies, brains, and our embodied interactions in the world. This is what we have to theorize with."

He then raises the interesting question: "Is it adequate to understand the world scientifically?

INTENTIONAL PROGRAMMING

[6.22.97]

 

Introduction
By John Brockman

During the 1970s at Xerox PARC, Charles Simonyi led a team of programmers in the development of Bravo, the first WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) word-processing editor. Bravo was a fundamental departure from the way information was previously displayed and organized and it was part of PARC's contribution that changed the face of computing and ultimately led to personal computing.

Simonyi, born in Budapest, Hungary, holds a bachelor of science degree in engineering mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley and a doctorate in computer science from Stanford University. He worked for the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center from 1972-80 and joined Microsoft in 1981 to start the development of microcomputer application programs. He hired and managed teams who developed Microsoft Multiplan, Word, Excel, and other applications. In 1991, he moved to Microsoft Research where he has been focusing on Intentional Programming. He is generally thought of as one of the most talented programmers at Microsoft.

Dr. Simonyi, whose long career has made him independently wealthy, has endowed two chairs: the Charles Simonyi Professorship For The Understanding Of Science at Oxford University which is held by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins; and the Charles Simonyi Professorship in Theoretical Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study.

John Markoff, writing in The New York Times (12 Nov 1990), relates the following anecdote: "He enjoys taking visitors to the machine shop in the basement of his new home, complete with lathe and drill press. 'In Hungary,' he said, 'they told us that the workers would never own the means of production.'"

Charles Simonyi is "The WYSIWYG."   

JB


Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?

[4.22.97]

 

Introduction 

The biggest question that Jared Diamond is asking himself is how to turn the study of history into a science. He notes the distinction between the "hard sciences" such as physics, biology, and astronomy — and what we sometimes call the "social sciences," which includes history, economics, government. The social sciences are often thought of as a pejorative. In particular many of the so-called hard scientists such as physicists or biologists, don't consider history to be a science. The situation is even more extreme because, he points out, even historians themselves don't consider history to be a science. Historians don't get training in the scientific methods; they don't get training in statistics; they don't get training in the experimental method or problems of doing experiments on historical subjects; and they'll often say that history is not a science, history is closer to an art.

Jared comes to this question as one who is accomplished in two scientific areas: physiology and evolutionary biology. The first is a laboratory science; the second, is never far from history. "Biology is the science," he says. "Evolution is the concept that makes biology unique."

In his new theories of human development, he brings together history and biology in presenting a global account of the rise of civilization. In so doing he takes on race-based theories of human development.

"Most people are explicitly racists," he says. "In parts of the world — so called educated, so-called western society — we've learned that it is not polite to be racist, and so often we don't express racist views, but nevertheless I've given lectures on this subject, and members of the National Academy of Sciences come up to me afterwards and say, but native Australians, they're so primitive. Racism is one of the big issues in the world today. Racism is the big social problem in the United States."

So why are people racists? According to Jared, racism involves the belief that other people are not capable of being educated. Or being human — that they're different from us, and they're less than human. It was through his work in New Guinea for the last 30 years that convinced him that it's not true. "'They' are smarter than we are," he says. But perhaps the main reason why people resort to racist explanations, he notes, is that they don't have another answer. Until there's a convincing answer why history really took the course that it did, people are going to fall back on the racist explanation. Jared believes that the big world impact of his ideas may being in demolishing the basis for racist theories of history and racist views.  

JB


The Unknown and The Unknowable

[3.10.97]

"Science is about understanding the universe and everything in it. Examples of scientific questions are: Will the universe expand forever, or will it collapse?; Will there be major global changes due to human activities, and what will be the effects on earth's ocean levels, and on agriculture and biodiversity? Note that there are, a priori, no mathematical models that accompany these questions. Science uses mathematics, but it is also very different from mathematics. Can we up the ante from mathematics and prove impossibility results in science?."

Introduction
By John Brockman

Starting in 1959, Joseph Traub pioneered research in what is now called "information-based complexity". Computational complexity theory studies the intrinsic difficulty of solving mathematically posed problems; it can be viewed as the thermodynamics of computation. "Information-based complexity" studies the computational complexity of problems with only partial or contaminated information. Such problems are common in the natural and social sciences and he is applying "information-based complexity" to a wide range of problems Other work ranges from new fast methods for pricing financial derivatives to investigating what is scientifically knowable.

—JB

Chapter 20 "ORDER FOR FREE"

[5.7.96]

Brian Goodwin: Stuart is primarily interested in the emergence of order in evolutionary systems. That's his fix. It's exactly the same as mine, in terms of the orientation towards biology, but he uses a very different approach. Our approaches are complementary with respect to the same problem: How do you understand emergent novelty in evolution? Emergent order? Stuart's great contributions are there.?

__________

STUART KAUFFMAN is a biologist; professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and a professor at the Santa Fe Institute; author of Origins of Order: Self Organization and Selection in Evolution (1993), and coauthor with George Johnson of At Home in the Universe (1995).

Stuart Kauffman's Edge Bio Page


Chapter 13 "LANGUAGE IS A HUMAN INSTINCT"

[5.7.96]

George C. Williams:I'm very favorably impressed with Steven Pinker. He's going to be a superstar well into the twenty-first century. What's particularly notable is his work on the evolution of our language capability, and being able to talk about this in specific terms. There are features there that have been evolving, and that we can interpret with respect to why they evolved. I remember speculating in my 1966 book about what it is that makes the human species special. There have been all sorts of suggestions: bipedalism, tool use, that sort of thing, but it struck me at the time that the one defining capability is language.

__________

STEVEN PINKER is an experimental psychologist; professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT; director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT; author of Language Learnability and Language Development (1984), Learnability and Cognition (1989), The Language Instinct (1994), and How the Mind Works, forthcoming,1997.

Steven Pinker's Edge Bio Page


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