[21 Nov 02] American scientists are preparing to create a new form of life, but first have to hit the delete key:

Many of the 200 genes to be deleted will be ones that confer the ability to survive in a hostile environment, so that the end result will be a delicate creature, at home only in the warm nutrient bath of a laboratory dish.

Sounds just like certain old forms of life. Mmmm... warm nutrient bath.


The Postmodern Condition

[ 5 Nov 02] Postmodernism: a field noted for impenetrable prose marked by a sense of irony, uncertainty and play, popular among French social theorists and hoaxed by a physicist.

Physics: a field noted for impenetrable prose and rigorous scientific method, popular among scientific theorists and hoaxed by two Frenchmen.

I was never the biggest fan of pomo jargon, but this one is going to run and run. The ironies are just too irresistible. [Via MeFi.]


Ignorance and Darwinism

[ 2 Oct 02] The hard ones first, eh? This Almanack request was subsequently narrowed to 'a social Darwinistic take upon ignorance', not just 'Darwinism is scientific, creationism is ignorant'—which makes me happy enough, because life is too short to spend arguing against the elaborate edifice of nonsense that is modern creationism (although I'm glad that others are doing so).

The trouble is, I'm not the best person to give 'a social Darwinistic take upon ignorance', because I'm not a social Darwinist—even though someone once insisted that I was, after hearing me deliver a paper on evolutionary themes (and even though I explained why I wasn't in that same paper). I suppose evolutionary psychologists would have something to say about ignorance and its persistence in the human spectrum; it might not even be hard to explain, given the relationship between level of education and number of offspring. More education means less kids, so less education means more kids, so the ignorant will inherit the Earth, or something like that. Even in writing that down I can see problems with it, but I imagine someone out there is already writing The Bell Curve Mk II on that basis.

More interesting to me is our relative state of ignorance about how Darwinian mechanisms apply to society and particularly culture. After Social Darwinism was discredited by its eugenic excesses, the whole project of studying nurture as well as nature through Darwin's lense fell into disrepute. It's only in the past couple of decades that it's re-emerged. (I like to think that some of my work is part of that re-emergence, but, to be honest, a study of Pacific politics isn't likely to be noticed by mainstream evolutionary and social theorists.)

Nowadays, everyone talks about media viruses, memes, and the parallels between genetics and memetics. Even though many intriguing words have been written about it, the 'meme' meme has been overdone to the point of pointlessness—or to the point of missing the point. Culture doesn't just develop through the transmission of attractive ideas; it develops through the transmission of practice. It's not enough to know things: we must also make things and do things. To restate my Ph.D. mantra: tradition is a system of group knowledge about how to live and behave in a certain social and physical environment, which evolves in response to individuals' decisions about how to act; and tradition and traditions are, if not the whole of any culture, then a great part of it. I'll bet my long-standing tradition against your media-virus-of-the-month any day.

The meme meme obviously strikes a chord with inquisitive minds; after all, who can resist spreading an idea about the spread of ideas? But it can mislead us into believing that culture can change just by thinking about it. Strangely, the most memorable statement of such a belief that I've heard came not from the popularizer of the 'meme', Richard Dawkins, but from his occasional sparring partner Stephen Jay Gould.

At a 1995 appearance in Canberra, Gould was answering a question from the audience about Lamarckism, the pre-Darwinian theory that parents pass on acquired characteristics to their offspring, and can also 'see' the direction they must evolve in, and strive towards it. At one point he said that cultural evolution is Lamarckian, which is why cultures change so quickly. But I believe he was wrong: cultural evolution is a selectionary process, just like biological evolution. We might have ideas about some point we want to reach, some goal we want to realise, or some hypothetical object we want to invent, but we get there by trial and error. Otherwise, we'd all be flying around in jet cars with robot chauffeurs; and every child's beliefs would be a perfect mirror of their parents'. To return to the subject at hand: ignorance is possible in any generation, no matter how educated their ancestors—which shows that, at least on this point, one of the great modern Darwinists was wrong about how cultures and societies evolve.


Thoroughly Foxed

[ 2 Aug 02] A thread at MetaFilter on the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, triggered a bout of homesickness in yours truly. I used to have a Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery poster of the Weaver photograph on my bedroom door, and not because I admired Mr Weaver. The beauty of the animal, the folly of its extermination, the dubious motives of its hunters, the tragedy of extinction, the grim past of Van Diemen's Land: all evoked by that one image.

There have been many unconfirmed sightings over the years; even my Dad still wonders about the stripy dog he saw in the rear-view mirror of his Land-Rover up in the northwest in the early 1970s. But the sightings have grown fewer in recent decades, and if the thylacine isn't actually extinct, it might as well be. Staggeringly, it now looks set to be joined by more unique Tasmanian mammals: because, in an act of unbelievable stupidity, someone introduced foxes into Tasmania sometime in the past year or two.

Reading this news depresses the hell out of me. The absence of foxes is about the only reason why the thylacine is the only mammal species that Tasmania has lost since white settlement. Goodbye pademelons, potoroos, bettongs and bandicoots: all those marvellously-named, gentle and endearing animals that make the place unique. All set to become dog-food, unless the Parks and Wildlife service has some bloody good shots on its staff.

What's the point of cloning the thylacine when feral animals are about to devour everything that used to live alongside it?


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