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”

Sometimes it is a good idea to browse through my TOC emails

… because I find stuff like this:

Hunter–gatherers and other primates as prey, predators, and competitors of snakes:

Relationships between primates and snakes are of widespread interest from anthropological, psychological, and evolutionary perspectives, but surprisingly, little is known about the dangers that serpents have posed to people with prehistoric lifestyles and nonhuman primates. Here, we report ethnographic observations of 120 Philippine Agta Negritos when they were still preliterate hunter–gatherers, among whom 26% of adult males had survived predation attempts by reticulated pythons. Six fatal attacks occurred between 1934 and 1973. Agta ate pythons as well as deer, wild pigs, and monkeys, which are also eaten by pythons, and therefore, the two species were reciprocally prey, predators, and potential competitors. Natural history data document snake predation on tree shrews and 26 species of nonhuman primates as well as many species of primates approaching, mobbing, killing, and sometimes eating snakes. These findings, interpreted within the context of snake and primate phylogenies, corroborate the hypothesis that complex ecological interactions have long characterized our shared evolutionary history.

Hating snakes is deeply ingrained in our evolutionary past. I feel validated.

Darwin on how to be a scientist

Great prostrate silicified trunks of trees, embedded in a conglomerate, were extraordinarily numerous. I measured one which was fifteen feet in circumference: how surprising it is that every atom of the woody matter in this great cylinder should have been removed and replaced by silex so perfectly that each vessel and pore is preserved! These trees flourished at about the period of our lower chalk; they all belonged to the fir-tribe. It was amusing to hear the inhabitants discussing the nature of the fossil shells which I collected, almost in the same terms as were used a century ago in Europe,–namely, whether or not they had been thus “born by nature.” My geological examination of the country generally created a good deal of surprise amongst the Chilenos: it was long before they could be convinced that I was not hunting for mines. This was sometimes troublesome: I found the most ready way of explaining my employment was to ask them how it was that they themselves were not curious concerning earthquakes and volcanos?–why some springs were hot and others cold?–why there were mountains in Chile, and not a hill in La Plata? These bare questions at once satisfied and silenced the greater number; some, however (like a few in England who are a century behindhand), thought that all such inquiries were useless and impious; and that it was quite sufficient that God had thus made the mountains.

Voyage of The Beagle, Chapter XVI

One of the remarkable features of this book is Darwin’s relentless commitment to a scientific point of view. He asks questions nobody around him thinks to ask, and he is unsatisfied with answers not based in observable evidence and reasoned thought.

Cell phones don’t cause blinding either

According to a preliminary study in the Journal of the American Medical Association –  “Effects of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Signal Exposure on Brain Glucose Metabolism” (Volkow et al. 2011) – the radio frequency emissions from cell phones can cause detectable changes in the metabolism of a specific brain region.

In healthy participants and compared with no exposure, 50-minute cell phone exposure was associated with increased brain glucose metabolism in the region closest to the antenna. This finding is of unknown clinical significance.

While there has been a great deal of speculation in the media regarding the mechanism of this effect, we need to dedicated some thought to whether there is actually an effect that requires explanation.

Continue reading “Cell phones don’t cause blinding either”

Genomycism: “Deflating the Genomic Bubble”

Genomycism – the unsubstantiated belief that the cataloging of the genomic sequence of an individual conveys useful understanding about their ancestry, current characteristics, and disease risk with high degrees of accuracy and predictive power.

An important policy forum article has appeared in the most recent issue of Science discussing the expectations for the benefits of genomics, the issues created when those expectations are unrealistic, overinflated, and over-hyped[1]. Continue reading “Genomycism: “Deflating the Genomic Bubble””