Why You Need to Read The Voyage of the Beagle Before You Die

In honor of Darwin’s Birthday, I lay out the case for The Voyage of the Beagle as great literature:

Sitting on a rickety homemade bookshelf in my living room are the fifty volumes of my Great-Grandfather’s Harvard Classics. Once a teenaged political refugee from the Russian revolutionary turmoil of 1905 and later an accomplished bacteriologist with Merck, my Great-Grandfather exemplified Harvard President Charles Eliot’s American middle class, “twentieth century idea of a cultivated man,” the kind of person for whom Eliot’s “five foot shelf of books” was intended. A respected Mr. among professional scientific peers of Drs., my Great-Grandfather was fiercely committed to self-education. I never met him, but I imagine that my Great-Grandfather would have subscribed to Eliot’s notion of individual and civilizational progress, progress that is the result of “man observing, recording, inventing, and imagining.” The Harvard Classics were selected to be a survey of how this process has played out over the millennia.

Eliot’s words, “observing, recording, inventing, and imagining,” describe several thousand years of human intellectual activity by invoking the process of science. This is appropriate because Eliot, and my Great-Grandfather, were living when the modern scientific view of the world was well on its way to world domination, becoming a new belief system with as much cultural heft as the major religions, and one whose conquest occurred even more rapidly than the spectacular rise from obscurity of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam over the last two thousand years. Continue reading “Why You Need to Read The Voyage of the Beagle Before You Die”

The latest evolutionary developments have passed me by

“Geolocating Tweets”:

As the rising generation replaces us, with their seemingly inborn familiarity with all things IT, does this make them in effect a new species? A species possessing the solution to the riddle of existence, the answers to all the questions which have plagued us — the old Hominids — for the last two million years? Continue reading “The latest evolutionary developments have passed me by”

John Philip Sousa: recordings will kill music

From Ars Technica, here’s composer John Phillip Sousa coming out against the Gramophone in 1906:

“From the days when the mathematical and mechanical were paramount in music, the struggle has been bitter and incessant for the sway of the emotional and the soulful,” he wrote. “And now in this the twentieth century come these talking and playing machines and offer again to reduce the expression of music to a mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, disks, cylinders, and all manner of revolving things which are as like real art as the marble statue of Eve is like her beautiful living breathing daughters.”

His piece concluded, “Do they not realize that if the accredited composers who have come into vogue by reason of merit and labor are refused a just reward for their efforts a condition is almost sure to arise where all incentive to further creative work is lacking and compositions will no longer flow from their pens or where they will be compelled to refrain from publishing their compositions at all and control them in manuscript? What, then, of the playing and talking machines?”

Walking in the moonlight. . .with lions

A new paper in PLoS One suggests that we humans may be afraid of the dark and associate evil goings on with the full moon because that is when lions try to eat us. Continue reading “Walking in the moonlight. . .with lions”


I imagine that very few species would consider not having to worry about leopard attacks a bad thing. The enthusiasm for any story claiming that human beings continue to being driven upwards and onwards by natural selection suggests that we pine for those halcyon days of yore when being eaten alive by jungle cats was a major source of morbidity[1]. We worry about a lack of selection for things like good eye-sight and gobble up cheap, pop evolutionary psychology[2] stories of adaptive behavior.

We really want to know are human beings still evolving and how can reclaim the benefits of natural selection without feeding our offspring to leopards?

Continue reading “Decancelliation”

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