Edge —July 10, 2007
(7,000 words)


JULY 4TH


click to enlarge


THE THIRD CULTURE

REGARDING A NEW HUMANISM
By Salvador Pániker

THE REALITY CLUB

David Pesetsky
on "Recursion and Human Thought" by Daniel L. Everett

IN THE NEWS

THE OBSERVER REVIEW
COVER STORY
The new age of ignorance
By Tim Adams


THE NEW YORK TIMES
WEEK IN REVIEW
Genetic Engineers Who Don’t Just Tinker Mental Malpractice
Nicholas Wade

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
DEBATE
Should Science Speak to Faith?
By Lawrence M. Krauss and Richard Dwkins

THE NEW YORK TIMES
Mental Malpractice
By Jerome Groopman

FINANCIAL TIMES
From alienation to annihilation
By Stephen Fidler in London

BILL MOYERS JOURNAL
E.O. Wilson

KCRW
Is Today's Internet Killing Our Culture?
Warren Olney

NEW STATESMAN
Am I a dwarf or a horseman?
Christopher Hitchens

NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
Our Biotech Future
By Freeman Dyson

eSKEPTIC
Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion
By David Sloan Wilson

BOING BOING
Einstein in Marie Claire
David Pescovitz

BOING BOING

The Guardian on the "new age of ignorance"
David Pescovitz

THE NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW
Inferior Design
By Richard Dawkins


NATIONAL POST
A buffet sure to leave you hungry
By Robert Fulford

BLOGGINGHEADS.TV
SCIENCE SATURDAY
John Horgan & George Johnson

NEW SCIENTIST
COVER STORY
The flexi-laws of physics
By Paul Davies


SCIENCE FRIDAY
Synthetic Genome / New Stem Cell
Ira Flatow

NATURE
EDITORIAL
Meanings of 'life'

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Brian Eno's '77 Million Paintings' is an artwork that won't sit still
Sylvie Simmons


THE AGE — MELBOURNE
PHILOSOPHY - What is your dangerous idea?
By Thuy On




The true "sacred texts" of the western tradition have been for centuries, those of the great authors. Plato and Aristotle, Dante and Shakespeare. But also Victoria, Bach, Handel, Beethoven. And Giotto, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt. And Archimedes, Pascal, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg. And Paul Celan and Bela Bartok. Etcetera. All of them are "sacred authors." Canonical. Quantum physics is no less-inspired a monument than the Bible. Nor less ambiguous.

REGARDING A NEW HUMANISM
By Salvador Pániker

Translation by Karen Phillips

Salvador Pániker is a Spanish philosopher and writer.

Salvador Pániker's Edge Bio Page


REGARDING A NEW HUMANISM

In 1959, C. P. Snow gave a famous lecture at Cambridge entitled "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution", lamenting the academic and professional scission between the field of science and that of letters. In 1991, the literary agent John Brockman popularized the concept of the third culture, to refer to the dawning of the scientist-writer, and hence, the birth of a new humanism. A humanism no longer bound to the classical sense of the term, but instead a new hybridization between the sciences and the humanities.

As far as philosophy is concerned, this new humanism should be aware of not only the latest in sciences, but also to as many tendencies of contemporary thought as is possible. Meaning that philosophy should not remain shut up in a professional academic department, but instead participate in an interdisciplinary intersection, "in conversation"—as the recently disappeared Richard Rorty would say—with all the other sciences. Philosophy needs to trace the maps of reality. The philosopher is, in the words of Plato, "he who possesses a vision of the whole (synoptikos)," in such, he who organizes that which is most relevant of the "stored information" (culture) and sketches out the new world views (provisional, but coherent). Moreover, the initial intuition of the analytic philosophers—who were the first to point out the importance of avoiding the traps set by language—should not be thrown out altogether.

I believe, therefore, that a new humanism should adopt certain linguistic reforms.  Take, for example, the extent to which we are today still conditioned by the old Aristotelian construct of subject, verb and predicate, which also forms the Cartesian model of subject-object cognition. This convention is responsible—and has been denounced by Buddha and David Hume alike—for committing the fallacy of believing in the mind's existence when the only thing we can be certain of is the existence of mental acts.

In fact, what occurs in the philosophical genre is that words must transmit concepts, leaving little room for the flowers of rhetoric. In philosophy, it is very difficult to escape from a determined grammatical mode. Martin Heidegger has already explained that he had to give up writing the second part of Being and Time because of the inadequacy of the language of metaphysics which always identifies a being with the event of being, forgetting the ontological difference. Today, when philosophy tends to blend with literature, what other recourse to we have? Gregory Bateson used to say that we must adapt to a new form of thinking which substitutes objects with relationships. But substituting objects with relationships is telling stories. In such, Bateson is inviting us to tell stories.

Still, while a "linguistic turn" may have taken place, our syntactic habits have changed very little. And I'm only referring to that which can be understood. The previously-cited Heidegger, in his second period, claimed poetry—of whose supreme example would be Hölderlin—as a model for non-objectifying language, irreducible to a simple instrument of information. Unfortunately, Heidegger managed to so inebriate himself in the "poetic darkness" that he became hard to follow. With respect to the formal languages used for the hard sciences, these are ultimately only accessible to a small group of specialists. And so, to give an example, while in their day learned folk could still digest Newton's theory of gravity and even Einstein's theory of relativity (although with less ease—the constancy of the speed of light is strictly counterintuitive); who today would be able to follow the devilish mathematic complexity of superstring theory?

This said, we're headed down a path I believe to be inevitable. There, at the margins of the language one uses, we are called to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of intuition, common sense and other deceits of this nature.

On the other hand, why must reality be completely unintelligible? To start, Gödel's theorem impugns the very notion of a complete theory of nature: any system of axioms that are even somewhat complex raises questions that the axioms themselves cannot answer. On the other hand, the Theory of Evoltuion confirms our obscurity. Nothing obliges us to think that the world must be completely intelligible. At least for us thinking simians. At least in relation to that which we thinking simians understand by intelligibility.

To sum up. A new humanism should begin with a modesty cure, perhaps by abjuring the very arrogant concept of humanism, which places the human animal as the central reference point for all of existence. A new humanism, compatible with the sensitivity of metaphysics, cannot turn its back on science. Naturally, it's not a question of falling into the pseudoscientific obscurantism which Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont denounced in their well-known book, Intellectual Imposters. There's no need to use scientific jargon when it doesn't pertain. Nor is there cause to fall into radical epistemological relativism (which can result from a poor digestion of works by Kuhn and Feyerabend), nor to believe science to be mere narrative or nothing but social construct. Nor should we look for an absurd synthesis between Science and Mysticism. Humanism's received task is more deferential toward the autonomy of science: To truly understand our most fundamental conditionings; to ensure that scientific paradigms truly fertilize philosophical and even literary discourse.

The fact of the matter is that culture in its entirety exists in a permanent state of flux and renewal. Its renewal is born from the cross-fertilization of individual disciplines. Today one can even elaborate on a new idea taken from a "sacred text", avoiding a return to the old dried-out sources. For example, is it possible that one day His Holiness the Pope of the Catholic Church will write something truly inspired, something real, without the dreadful mannerisms of official documents? It doesn't seem likely, nor is it necessary. The true "sacred texts" of the western tradition have been for centuries, those of the great authors. Plato and Aristotle, Dante and Shakespeare. But also Victoria, Bach, Handel, Beethoven. And Giotto, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt. And Archimedes, Pascal, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg. And Paul Celan and Bela Bartok. Etcetera. All of them are "sacred authors." Canonical. Quantum physics is no less-inspired a monument than the Bible. Nor less ambiguous. The scientist Arthur I. Miller writes: "As a great work of literature, quantum theory is open to a multitude of interpretations."

Indeed, those who pit science against sacred texts or science against art do so in error. Respective boundaries of autonomy aside, everything forms a part of the same prodigious struggle. The pursuit of the real which, in a sense, is the also the pursuit of the absolute. The absolute that is intuited, though it remains inaccessible. A fusion of fields as was seen in the Renaissance is certainly no longer possible; the mountain of specialization has grown too high. However, one might demand that the different fields of knowledge communicate with one another and without undermining each other. This is, in essence, that which Edgar Morin has called "transdisciplinarity," that which, without attempting a unifying principal for all fields of knowledge (which would also be reductionism), aspires to a communication between the disciplines based on complex thought. It's not all physics, nor all biology, nor all sociology, nor all anthropology; but it is worth connecting such fields cybernetically.

Encycopedism? In modern terms, a physical/ biological/ social/ anthropological feedback loop charged with bringing the big questions on the human condition up to speed while insisting that permeability between sciences, arts and letters becomes a hallmark of our times.

[First published in the Opinion page of El Pais, February 18, 2007.]

Related EdgeLinks:
"The Expanding Third Culture" By John Brockman (2006)
"Who's Afraid of The Third Culture" by Gloria Origgi (2006)
"The New Humanists" By John Brockman (2002)



"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)


Paperback—UK
£8.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK


Paperback — US
$13.95, 336 pp
Harper Perennial

WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian "Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover


"...This collection, mostly written by working scientists, does not represent the antithesis of science. These are not simply the unbuttoned musings of professionals on their day off. The contributions, ranging across many disparate fields, express the spirit of a scientific consciousness at its best — informed guesswork "Ian McEwan, from the Introduction, in The Telegraph


Paperback — US
$13.95, 272 pp
Harper Perennial



Paperback — UK
£7.99 288 pp
Pocket Books

WHAT WE BELIEVE BUT CANNOT PROVE Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty With an Introduction by IAN MCEWAN Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed "Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian "Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4 "Intellectual and creative magnificance...an impressive array of insights and challenges that will surely delight curious readers, generalists and specialists alike. " The Skeptical Inquirer


Re: "RECURSION AND HUMAN THOUGHT: WHY THE PIRAHÃ DON'T HAVE NUMBERS" A Talk With Daniel L. Everett

David Pesetsky

DAVID PESETSKY [7.9.07]

When I expressed my hopes for a "calmer, more reasonable discussion of Pirahã grammar and culture", discussions like Van Valin's talk of disciples, apostates and gurus were definitely not what I had in mind. On the other hand, several of Van Valin's other remarks are important and productive. In these remarks, I would like to highlight and develop just one of them as an example of what calm, reasonable discussion of Pirahã might look like. I will not attempt to address everything.

At several points in our response to Everett's Current Anthropology paper, we suggested that various allegedly unusual properties of Pirahã grammar are actually found in other languages as well -- languages spoken in a variety of cultures. This was important to the argument because if we are in fact dealing with the same grammatical phenomenon in each language, the phenomenon is unlikely to have anything to do with culture. Nonetheless, we took pains to express ourselves cautiously, repeatedly stressing the "if" that I italicized above. It is always possible that two phenomena that look the same on the surface — for example, the position of (alleged) subordinate clauses in German and Pirahã — will turn out to be distinct "under the hood".

This is in effect what Van Valin suggests in the second of the "significant issues" that he raises. He calls attention to the possibility that languages like German differ from Pirahã in that German does not require its (alleged) subordinate clauses to follow the verb, but Pirahã does. If this is true, it might mean that the relevant word order laws of German are not the same as those of Pirahã (i.e. that our claim was wrong) -- or it could merely show that some independent factor intervenes in Pirahã to block the placement of a subordinate clause in one of the positions where German allows it. The second of these possibilities, of course, would require us to identify and understand the independent factor. That would be an important secondary task.

Before we get this far, however, we might start by trying to pin down the facts a bit better. For example, the tendency in German to put a that-clause after the verb is extremely strong -- though indeed not absolute. Is the situation really so different in Pirahã? At present, I think, we do not know. In our paper, we cited a Pirahã example of the form "He [me to-go] doesn't-want". This looks on the face of it like a counterexample to Van Valin's claim, since it appears to show an embedded clause ("me to-go") preceding the main verb. This example might suggest that the two languages are not so different after all. On the other hand, single examples do not decide arguments. One needs to develop carefully investigated paradigms of data (and, ideally, careful examination of texts as well). So there are plenty of investigations to carry out and much thinking to be done before we can settle the matter.

Return to "RECURSION AND HUMAN THOUGHT: WHY THE PIRAHÃ DON'T HAVE NUMBERS" A Talk With Daniel L. Everett





THE OBSERVER REVIEW
Sunday, July 1, 2007

COVER STORY

The new age of ignorance

We take our young children to science museums, then as they get older we stop. In spite of threats like global warming and avian flu, most adults have very little understanding of how the world works. So, 50 years on from CP Snow's famous 'Two Cultures' essay, is the old divide between arts and sciences deeper than ever?

Here we ask a celebrity panel to answer some basic scientific questions

By Tim Adams

...Brockman's cross-fertilising club, the most rarefied of chatrooms, has its premises on his website www.edge.org. Eavesdropping is fun. Ian McEwan, one of the few novelists who has contributed to Edge's ongoing debates, suggests that the project is not so far removed from the 'old Enlightenment dream of a unified body of knowledge, when biologists and economists draw on each other's concepts and molecular biologists stray into the poorly defended territory of chemists and physicists'.

Brockman is at the hub of this conversation. When I phone him, he is waiting for a call from maverick geneticist Craig Venter about an invention that will put new operating mechanisms into genes' and radically change our idea of life; earlier, he has been speaking to George Smoot, the Nobel-winning astrophysicist who first identified the background radiation of the Big Bang and thereby invented cosmology.

From where he is sitting, the Two Cultures no longer applies, the Third Culture has long-since prevailed.

'Basically, in terms of whatever war has been going on, I think it has finished,' he says. 'I don't characterise it by saying we've won. I think everybody has won. We are living in a profound science culture and the big events that are affecting people's lives are scientific ones.'

What about Natalie Angier's anxiety that these ideas have not trickled down, that, if anything, scientific thought seems to be on the retreat?

'Since when have the masses of people had any ideas anyway?' Brockman asks. 'It is always a certain percentage of people who do the thinking for everybody else. What is changing,' he argues, contrary to Angier's perception, 'is that the media people, who used to have no thoughts of science, now sit up. Science makes the news.' ...

...




THE NEW YORK TIMES
July 8, 2007

THE WEEK IN REVIEW


IDEAS AND TRENDS
Genetic Engineers Who Don’t Just Tinker
By Nicholas Wade

FORGET genetic engineering. The new idea is synthetic biology, an effort by engineers to rewire the genetic circuitry of living organisms.

The ambitious undertaking includes genetic engineering, the now routine insertion of one or two genes into a bacterium or crop plant. But synthetic biologists aim to rearrange genes on a much wider scale, that of a genome, or an organism’s entire genetic code. Their plans include microbes modified to generate cheap petroleum out of plant waste, and, further down the line, designing whole organisms from scratch.

Synthetic biologists can identify a network of useful genes on their computer screens by downloading the gene sequences filed in DNA data banks. But a DNA molecule containing these various genes and their control elements would be a chain of hundreds of thousands of DNA units in length. Though human cells effortlessly duplicate a genome of three billion units, the longest piece of DNA synthesized so far is just 35,000 units long.

Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., hope to take a giant stride in synthetic biology by creating a piece of DNA 580,076 units in length from simple chemicals, chiefly the material that constitutes DNA’s four-letter chemical alphabet. This molecule would be an exact copy of the genome of a small bacterium. Dr. Venter says he then plans to insert it into a bacterial cell. If this man-made genome can take over the cell’s functions, Dr. Venter should be able to claim he has made the first synthetic cell.

Such an achievement could suggest some new plateau has been reached in human control of life and evolution. But Dr. Venter’s synthetic genome will probably be seen to represent a feat of copying evolution’s genetic programming, not of creating new life itself.

Synthetic biologists, as they survey all the new genes and control elements whose DNA sequences are now accumulating in data bases, seem to feel extraordinary power is almost within their grasp.

“Biology will never be the same,” Thomas F. Knight of M.I.T.’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory wrote recently in describing the new engineering discipline he sees as emerging from it. ...




SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
July 2007

DEBATE

Should Science Speak to Faith?

Two prominent defenders of science exchange their views on how scientists ought to approach religion and its followers
By Lawrence M. Krauss and Richard Dawkins


For an extended version of this article, click here.

Editors’ Introduction

Although the authors are both on the side of science, they have not always agreed about the best ways to oppose religiously motivated threats to scientific practice or instruction. Krauss, a leading physicist, frequently steps into the public spotlight to argue in favor of retaining evolutionary theory in school science curricula and keeping pseudoscientific variants of creationism out of them. An open letter he sent to Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, urging the pontiff not to build new walls between science and faith, led the Vatican to reaffirm the Catholic Church’s acceptance of natural selection as a valid scientific theory.

Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, prolific author and lecturer, is also an eloquent critic of any attempt to undermine scientific reasoning. He has generally shown less interest than Krauss, however, in achieving a peaceful coexistence between science and faith. The title of Dawkins’s best-selling book The God Delusion perhaps best summarizes his opinion of religious belief.

These two allies compared notes from the front lines during breaks at a conference devoted to discussing clashes between science and religion held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego late last year. In a dialogue they re-create here, the authors explained their respective tactics for engaging the enemy and tackled some of the questions that face all scientists when deciding whether and how to talk to the faithful about science: Is the goal to teach science or to discredit religion? Can the two worldviews ever enrich one another? Is religion inherently bad? In an extended version of their conversation available here, the authors also delve into whether science can ever test the "God Hypothesis." ...



THE NEW YORK TIMES
July 7, 2007

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Mental Malpractice
By Jerome Groopman

In some hospitals, mistakes are categorized as "E.T." for errors in technique and "E.J." for errors in judgment. Errors in technique might involve placing a needle too far into the chest and puncturing a lung or inserting a breathing tube into the esophagus instead of the trachea — mistakes that, with practice, doctors can learn to stop making.

Errors in judgment are not so easily avoided, because we have largely failed to learn anything about how we think. Modern clinical practice has incorporated DNA analysis to illuminate the causes of disease, robotics to facilitate operations in the brain and computers to refine M.R.I. images, but we have paid scant attention to the emerging science of cognitive psychology, which could help us explore how we make decisions.

This science has grown from the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who some three decades ago began a series of experiments to examine how people make choices when they are uncertain. Economists have used their work to understand why people in the marketplace often make irrational decisions. People invest in a company because their relatives did in the past, for example, or they choose a fund manager simply because he outperformed the market two years in a row.

This growing body of research can illuminate many irrational aspects of medical decision-making, too. The snap judgments that doctors make, for example, can be understood as "anchoring errors"; the first symptoms anchor the doctor’s mind on an incorrect diagnosis. Doctors also fall into a cognitive trap known as “availability,” meaning that we too readily recall our most recent or dramatic clinical experiences and assume they correspond to a new patient’s problem.



FINANCIAL TIMES
July 6, 2007

AL-QAEDA

From alienation to annihilation
By Stephen Fidler in London


Why do they do it? What is it that turns young men, some with good life prospects, into suicide bombers?

Scott Atran, a US academic who has conducted scores of interviews with families, friends and neighbours of suicide bombers, points to one common factor: publicity. "The difference between terror and other forms of violence . . . is publicity," he says.

Publicity helps to provoke governments into overreaction and turns terrorists into media stars, and heroes in their own milieux, he says. Mr Atran’s conversations with children in the poor neighbourhood of Mezuak in the Moroccan city of Tetuan, show they dream of becoming either Ronaldinho, the Brazilian footballer, or Osama bin Laden. ...



BILL MOYERS JOURNAL
July 6, 2007




E.O. Wilson

Bill Moyers talks about the future of our planet with noted entomologist and father of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson

E.O. WILSON Consider how ignorant we are and what difference it makes. We don't know the great majority of the kinds of creatures living in most ponds or patches of woods that you would pick even around here. This means that when we're trying to stabilize the environment, we're trying to get sustainable development-- we're trying to stop the ecosystem from collapsing in the face of global warming or whatever. We really need to know what's in each one of those habitats. It's like undertaking a medical examination by your doctor-- maybe not feeling too well, you know? Something's happening but your doctor examines you and he only knows ten percent of what's inside you, in all of the organs. We need then to move ecology way ahead of where it is today, really change things…



KCRW
July 6, 2007

Is Today's Internet Killing Our Culture?
Host
Warren Olney

Experts, Amateurs and the Backlash against Internet 2.0

Internet 2.0 is defined by a new generation of participatory websites, which depend on content generated by users. It's been hailed for its democratization of culture by providing more information from more sources without either filters or fees. But it's been around long enough to have generated an intellectual backlash, best represented by a new book called The Cult of the Amateur. The contention is that web-blogs, Google and Wikipedia are replacing expert gatekeepers with the "wisdom of the crowd," and are often ignorant and wrong. Will the demise of traditional standards lead to cultural anarchy where nobody knows what's true or false, or will history's biggest communications explosion liberate culture from the heavy hand of a narrow-minded elite?



Guests:

Andrew Keen: Author of 'The Cult of the Amateur'; Xeni Jardin: Technology-culture journalist; Larry Sanger: Co-Founder of Wikipedia; Clay Shirky: Teacher at NYU's School of Interactive Telecommunications





NEW STATESMAN
June 28, 2007


Am I a dwarf or a horseman?
Christopher Hitchens

It's an honour to be mentioned in the same breath as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. We could become known as the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse. ...

... God Is Not Great has proved to me that a rising tide can lift all boats: the ground for it was seeded by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, whose superior work has put the godly on the defensive and cheered up secular America. (Polls show that unbelievers are now the country's fastest-growing minority.) It's an honour to be mentioned in the same breath as these men. If there were seven of us, the clever press would call us dwarves. As we are a quartet, we are doomed to be called the Gang of Four or the Four Musketeers. My own nomination — the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse — is a bit cumbersome and I'd welcome suggestions.




NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOK
July 19, 2007

Our Biotech Future
By Freeman Dyson

It has become part of the accepted wisdom to say that the twentieth century was the century of physics and the twenty-first century will be the century of biology. Two facts about the coming century are agreed on by almost everyone. Biology is now bigger than physics, as measured by the size of budgets, by the size of the workforce, or by the output of major discoveries; and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science through the twenty-first century. Biology is also more important than physics, as measured by its economic consequences, by its ethical implications, or by its effects on human welfare.

These facts raise an interesting question. Will the domestication of high technology, which we have seen marching from triumph to triumph with the advent of personal computers and GPS receivers and digital cameras, soon be extended from physical technology to biotechnology? I believe that the answer to this question is yes. Here I am bold enough to make a definite prediction. I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years. ...




eSKEPTIC
July 4, 2007

Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion
By David Sloan Wilson

...These results raise as many questions as they answer. We did not evolve to feel good but rather to survive and reproduce. Perhaps religious believers are happily unaware of the problems that nonbelievers are anxiously trying to solve. As a more subtle point, people pass back and forth between the categories of “nonbeliever” and “believer” as they lose and regain faith. Perhaps some nonbelievers are psychologically impaired because they are the recent casualties of religious belief. Only more scientific legwork can resolve these issues, but one thing is sure: Dawkins’ armchair speculation about the guilt-inducing effects of religion doesn’t even get him to first base. ...




BOING BOING
July 3, 2007

Einstein in Marie Claire
Posted By
David Pescovitz

Yesterday, I posted about the idea of a "third culture" bridging the gap between the sciences and the humanities. BB reader Carl Pappenheim sends along this delightful example of the third culture, from the celebrity pages of the June 1939 issue of Marie Claire, a still-popular women's magazine first launched in France.




BOING BOING
July 2, 2007

The Guardian on the "new age of ignorance"
Posted By David Pescovitz

Fifty years ago, CP Snow posited that there are two cultures in modern society, the sciences and the humanities, and that the difference between the two worldviews acted like a wall blocking not only collaboration, but even conversation. Eventually, Snow talked about a "third culture" that bridged the two. Literary agent provocateur John Brockman drew out this idea in his groundbreaking 1995 book The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution. Yesterday's issue of the Guardian has a long article and panel discussion asking "is the old divide between arts and sciences deeper than ever?" The article profiles Brockman, whose online publication and community Edge embodies this third culture through essays, interviews, and books by some of the world's greatest thinkers living at the intersection of science, art, and philosophy.



THE NEW YORK TIMES
July 1, 2007
SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW

Inferior Design
By Richard Dawkins

I had expected to be as irritated by Michael Behe’s second book as by his first. I had not expected to feel sorry for him. The first — "Darwin’s Black Box" (1996), which purported to make the scientific case for "intelligent design" — was enlivened by a spark of conviction, however misguided. The second is the book of a man who has given up. Trapped along a false path of his own rather unintelligent design, Behe has left himself no escape. Poster boy of creationists everywhere, he has cut himself adrift from the world of real science. And real science, in the shape of his own department of biological sciences at Lehigh University, has publicly disowned him, via a remarkable disclaimer on its Web site: "While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally and should not be regarded as scientific." As the Chicago geneticist Jerry Coyne wrote recently, in a devastating review of Behe’s work in The New Republic, it would be hard to find a precedent. ...

For a while, Behe built a nice little career on being a maverick. His colleagues might have disowned him, but they didn’t receive flattering invitations to speak all over the country and to write for The New York Times. Behe’s name, and not theirs, crackled triumphantly around the memosphere. But things went wrong, especially at the famous 2005 trial where Judge John E. Jones III immortally summed up as “breathtaking inanity” the effort to introduce intelligent design into the school curriculum in Dover, Pa. After his humiliation in court, Behe — the star witness for the creationist side — might have wished to re-establish his scientific credentials and start over. Unfortunately, he had dug himself in too deep. He had to soldier on. "The Edge of Evolution" is the messy result, and it doesn’t make for attractive reading.

...Single-handedly, Behe is taking on Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Lewontin, John Maynard Smith and hundreds of their talented co-workers and intellectual descendants. Notwithstanding the inconvenient existence of dogs, cabbages and pouter pigeons, the entire corpus of mathematical genetics, from 1930 to today, is flat wrong. Michael Behe, the disowned biochemist of Lehigh University, is the only one who has done his sums right. You think?

The best way to find out is for Behe to submit a mathematical paper to The Journal of Theoretical Biology, say, or The American Naturalist, whose editors would send it to qualified referees. They might liken Behe’s error to the belief that you can’t win a game of cards unless you have a perfect hand. But, not to second-guess the referees, my point is that Behe, as is normal at the grotesquely ill-named Discovery Institute (a tax-free charity, would you believe?), where he is a senior fellow, has bypassed the peer-review procedure altogether, gone over the heads of the scientists he once aspired to number among his peers, and appealed directly to a public that — as he and his publisher know — is not qualified to rumble him.

...




NATIONAL POST
June 30, 2007

Arts & Letters Daily delivers best ideas at high speeds
Robert Fulford, National Post

Among the most unlikely residents of Christchurch, a New Zealand city of 414,000, is a philosophy professor whose work reaches every corner of the planet, a man Time magazine described as one of the most influential media personalities anywhere. Denis Dutton, born in Los Angeles 63 years ago, sits down at his computer every day and carefully begins explaining the world to itself through Arts & Letters Daily, a great intellectual magazine that could have existed at no previous moment in history.

In online jargon, Arts & Letters Daily is an aggregator, meaning it pulls together material from many sources. But its fans know it's much more than that. It's both a daily reminder of the riches available in the publications of the world and a map to finding those riches.

Since 1998, A & LD has been searching tirelessly for online articles that should be known everywhere, providing the links that make it possible for us to put them on our screens with a single mouse-click. The editors show a god-like way to find, in the most obscure places, material that pleases, surprises and stimulates their readers. Apparently not a sparrow falls, intellectually speaking, without their knowledge. ...

... A & LD does for ideas what the Bloomberg service does for commerce. It watches developments, sorts things out, tells you what you need to know. It doesn't produce the profits Bloomberg brings in, but over time its ability to make connections may turn out to be even more important than the stock market.

...




BLOGGING HEADS TV
June 30, 2007

Science Saturday
John Horgan & George Johnson

Fear, loathing, and consciousness in Las Vegas; Are females (including human ones) unforgiving?; The bizarre rise in average IQ; What does your birth order say about you?; The trouble with psychiatric drugs; The real engine of evolutionary change; Is natural selection a tautology?...




NEW SCIENTIST
June 30, 2007

COVER STORY

The flexi-laws of physics
By Paul Davies

SCIENCE WORKS because the universe is ordered in an intelligible way. The most refined manifestation of this order is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental mathematical rules that govern all natural phenomena. One of the biggest questions of existence is the origin of those laws: where do they come from, and why do they have the form that they do?

Until recently this problem was considered off-limits to scientists. Their job was to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their form or origin. Now the mood has changed. One reason for this stems from the growing realisation that the laws of physics possess a weird and surprising property: collectively they give the universe the ability to generate life and conscious beings, such as ourselves, who can ponder the big questions. ...




SCIENCE FRIDAY
June 29, 2007

Synthetic Genome / New Stem Cell
Ira Flatow

Join Ira Flatow in his hour of Science Friday for a conversation with genome pioneer Craig Venter about how his team has transplanted a bacterial genome from one cell into another. The work, reported this week in the journal Science, could mark the first steps towards being able to create artificial life by inserting an entirely synthetic genome into a bacterial cell. Is it possible to create life from scratch? And is it right?




NATURE
June 28, 2007


EDITORIAL

Meanings of 'life'
Synthetic biology provides a welcome antidote to chronic vitalism.

Many a technology has at some time or another been deemed an affront to God, but perhaps none invites the accusation as directly as synthetic biology. Only a deity predisposed to cut-and-paste would suffer any serious challenge from genetic engineering as it has been practised in the past. But the efforts to design living organisms from scratch — either with a wholly artificial genome made by DNA synthesis technology or, more ambitiously, by using non-natural, bespoke molecular machinery — really might seem to justify the suggestion, made recently by the ETC Group, an environmental pressure group based in Ottawa, Canada, that "for the first time, God has competition".

That accusation was levelled at scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, based on the suspicion that they had synthesized an organism with an artificial genome in the laboratory. The suspicion was unfounded, but this feat will surely be achieved in the next few years, judging from the advances reported earlier this month at the Kavli Futures Symposium in Ilulissat, Greenland, on the convergence of synthetic biology and nanotechnology, and the progress towards artificial cells.

But should such efforts be regarded as 'creating life'? The idea that such creation is a momentous step has deep roots running from the medieval homunculus portrayed by Paracelsus and the golem of Jewish legend to the modern faustian myth of Frankenstein. It will surely be hard to uproot. This is unfortunate, as the idea is close to meaningless. ....




SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
June 27, 2007

Brian Eno's '77 Million Paintings' is an artwork that won't sit still
Sylvie Simmons

"Ah, synesthesia," Brian Eno says by telephone from England. "Vladimir Nabokov had a very severe and interesting form of that -- between characters of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet and color and taste sensations. One particular letter he described as being unquestionably a deep ginger in color with a dark, oily taste. I don't have anything like that."

Perhaps not. But Eno admits there are times when he'll listen to one of his self-generating musical compositions and think, "It needs something cold blue over there or it needs something big, soft and brown." His instrumental music -- as fans of his "Ambient" and "Soundtrack" albums will attest -- paints pictures, and his visual art is musical: slow, rhythmic, ambient.

When Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno left Roxy Music in 1973, he re-emerged as the founding father of ambient music, embarking on a career in which mainstream projects -- like producing U2 -- were outnumbered by experimental, often computer-based ones as likely to reflect his art school training as his time as a rock keyboard player.

This week Eno, 59, presents the U.S. premiere of his "77 Million Paintings," a three-night stand at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum. Eno says he originally created the computer program on which "77 Million Paintings" is based to be used in home computers. ...

[Click here for Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings Website]



THE AGE — MELBOURNE
January 20, 2007

OFF THE SHELF

PHILOSOPHY - What is your dangerous idea?
By Thuy On

THE WORD WENT OUT TO some of the world's leading scientists and thinkers: just what is your dangerous idea? Ideas defined as dangerous not because they're assumed to be false but because they might be true. Spanning multi-disciplinary topics including biology, genetics, neuroscience, psychology and physics, this volume is full of provocative, speculative and plain mischievous arguments. Ask people to play devil's advocate and the results are fascinating. Maybe we're all marionettes dancing on genetic strings; maybe we have no souls or perhaps we may all even "house homicidal circuits within our brains". One bright spark even posits that the very notion of disseminating dangerous ideas (even in a safe, playful medium such as this one) is itself dangerous because ideas can be powerful forces. ...


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