Monday, December 30, 2013

Dawkins dogmas are now known to be scientifically untenable

Noble, Tarnita and Nowak (But they haven't met yet alas)
From a scientific  PoV Dawkins offered a well-written popular exposition of evolutionary theory as it was understood in the late 1970s. This was based on the "Modern Synthesis" often described as "Neo-Darwinism" in which genes were the omnipotent driving forces of evolution. Mutation was random and information could only flow from the genome to the organism. Sexual selection was known about but very much downplayed (male biologists didn't much care to think about the fact that females choice of mates was a massive driver of evolutionary change). Bill Hamilton's idea of "inclusive fitness" seemed to offer a handy formula which would explain everything.

There were of course dissenting voices. The great Barbara McClintock discovered genetic transposition in the 1940s and 50s but it was so against the orthodoxy that she stopped publishing her work. Her Nobel Prize in 1983 was a final vindication of her work, and in 1984 she wrote that "the genome is an organ of the cell". However of course this was after The Selfish Gene was published - though even in the 30th Anniversary Edition she doesn't rate a mention.  However in the last few years two scientific hammer-blows have been delivered to Dawkins-ite othodoxy:
  1. Inclusive Fitness is at best an approximate rule of thumb. Martin Nowak and EO Wilson first showed in their famous Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson 2010 paper which made the front cover of Nature that "Inclusive Fitness" was at best a working approximation or a rule of thumb and neither necessary nor sufficient to explain the evolution of Eusociality. This provoked howls of outrage but no-one could fault their mathematics. The Allen, Nowak and Wilson  2013 PNAS paper "Limitations of Inclusive Fitness" puts a further nail in the coffin by showing that "to analyze whether mutations that modify social behavior are favored or opposed by natural selection, then no aspect of inclusive fitness theory is needed."
  2. Every dogma of the Modern Synthesis has been shown to be false. Denis Noble's Presidential Address to the International Union of Physiological Societies and his companion paper in Experimental Physiology conclusively show that "all the central assumptions of the Modern Synthesis (often also called Neo-Darwinism) have been disproved. Moreover, they have been disproved in ways that raise the tantalizing prospect of a totally new synthesis; one that would allow a reintegration of physiological science with evolutionary biology." It is worth quoting the abstract of this paper in full:
"The ‘Modern Synthesis’ (Neo-Darwinism) is a mid-20th century gene-centric view of evolution, based on random mutations accumulating to produce gradual change through natural selection. Any role of physiological function in influencing genetic inheritance was excluded. The organism became a mere carrier of the real objects of selection, its genes. We now know that genetic change is far from random and often not gradual. Molecular genetics and genome sequencing have deconstructed this unnecessarily restrictive view of evolution in a way that reintroduces physiological function and interactions with the environment as factors influencing the speed and nature of inherited change. Acquired characteristics can be inherited, and in a few but growing number of cases that inheritance has now been shown to be robust for many generations. The 21st century can look forward to a new synthesis that will reintegrate physiology with evolutionary biology."
This is NOT in any way to say that "evolution is not true" or that "Darwin was wrong". Of course Darwin was wrong about many of the details of evolution but in fact he was never anything like as rigid as the "neo-Darwinists" - he was a deeply subtle thinker and would have been contemptuous of the simplistic approach of Dawkins and co.  He reiterated that he didn't think Natural Selection was the only factor in evolution, and complained about the misrepresentation of his views in this respect.

Other aspects of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Dawkins worldview deserve a longer post than I have time to write. Beauty and Truth cannot be reduced to selfish genes, whatever "just so" stories may be told.  The link between "selfish genes" and Enron-style selfishness is well established culturally and even if Dawkins himself is against money-grubbing in theory (though remarkably willing to hang on to most of his royalties, his "Foundation" has only a paltry sum) it is clear that his ideas basically encourage an extreme "survival of the fittest" mentality and a contempt for other people who are, after all, nothing but "lumbering robots".

But the fundamental point is that the dogmas Dawkins espouses are now known to be scientifically untenable. They may be useful approximations in many situations for working scientists but they certainly are not true. There is far more going on in biology, and in life, than the simplistic nostrums that Dawkins peddles.  These facts haven't yet reached popular culture - but they will.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Delights on Jane Austen from "A truth universally acknowledged"

Cassandra's sketch of Jane Austen
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)
Finished the Justin Welby book which offers some interesting insights on Justin's career up to his enthronement as Archbishop. Now back to A truth universally acknowledged and greatly enjoying it. Some gems include:
  • "Then [Prof Stephen Arkin of San Francisco State U] made a point that astonished us all: the disdained Mrs. Bennet is right. She seems ridiculous...but she nevertheless predicts the entire storyline of [P&P]...Although the first laugh is on Mrs Bennet...the last laugh is on us. We, too, are the targets of Austen's fierce, subtle irony." (Susannah Carson)
  • "What looks like a physical description in Austen often turns out to something else entirely: "...Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features; noble mein..." This is a curiously opaque set of adjectives. If the police tried to find Mr Darcy based on this they wouldn't get very far. The truth is that it is not really a description of Darcy at all; it is a description of the effect he had on other people." (Susanna Clarke)
  • [in the present day] "Does now and then a novel come along that's so long, arch, and laborious, so ponderous in its literary conceits and so terrifying in it symbols, that it might have been written (in his bachelor days) by Mr Elton as a conundrum, or, in some prolonged spell of elevation, by Mr Collins in a bid for self-advancement?" (Eudora Welty)
  • "When Marian Evans was readying herself mentally to try her hand for the first time at fiction...she undertook a trip to the Scilly Isles...with her common-law husband, George Lewis...What did the Lewises read aloud to each over every evening...? The novels of Jane Austen" (Rebecca Mead)
 BTW I can't find any website for the author Susannah Carson. Can anyone put me in touch? I'd certainly like to congratulate her on an excellent book.

I suppose Jane Austen is Mozart to Shakespeare's Bach and Dickens' Beethoven, although this is of course a highly imperfect analogy not least because I don't think Beethoven is remotely inferior to Mozart but I really don't think Dickens is quite at the level of Jane Austen.  And it's curious that Jane was born 5 years after Beethoven and died 10 years before him. I'm fond of the fact that two of her brothers were Admirals - although she didn't write directly about the Napoleonic Wars she was very aware of what was going on in the Navy. Francis missed Trafalgar but saw action in the Battle of San Domingo and rose to be an Admiral of the Fleet. Her other Naval brother Charles "only" became a Rear-Admiral. And yet, for all their distinction, they are remembered now almost exclusively because of their genius sister.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Justin, Miranda, Bach, Jane Austen and MERRY CHRISTMAS


Back from a few days in Cornwall with Daughter to be with my mother on the anniversary of my father's death. Weather was quite spectacular and I only managed one short run before it started hailing. On Christmas eve we took the train to Cambridge and after over 9 hours of travel joined Son for his birthday, then back to London and Midnight Mass at HTB. So roughly as much time as it takes to come back from Beijing!

On Sunday, Justin Welby did Private Passions and Miranda Hart did Desert Island Discs. I caught up with them on iPlayer. Miranda chose Dear Lord and Father of Mankind as one of hers, which is one of my favourite hymns. Justin's choices included "Music composed for the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury by a composer called Michael Berkeley" which was rather delicious (and surprisingly good) and the Christmas Oratorio recorded by the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge - his college and mine.  I don't think Justin and Miranda have met yet and I'm hoping to introduce them on May 2nd, although they may well meet before then in other contexts.

C gave me Justin's un-authorised biography Archbishop Justin Welby: The Road to Canterbury which I'm greatly enjoying. Daughter-in-Law gave me A Truth Universally Acknowledged which is also delicious.

This blog just passed a very round number of pageviews. Then next milestone like that may take some time :-). In the meantime I wish every visitor to these pages a very blessed and happy Christmas. May love grow deeper and deeper in your hearts and lives - for God is Love.
God's overwhelming love has burst the dam
And love incarnate unites God and man
In love the separation is transcended
The barriers, by leaping love, are ended.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

More on the Habitable Zone and on understanding complexity

Diagram from Kasting and Harman showing how close
Earth is to boundary of Habitable Zone.
Having been in China for so long has made it difficult to blog on some of the fascinating scientific papers. But here are a couple that have caught my eye.

"Increased insolation threshold for runaway greenhouse processes on Earth-like planets" by Jérémy Leconte et al. in Nature shows that if the earth were 5% closer to the Sun then we'd be subject to runaway greenhouse processes and all the water would evaporate. This isn't exactly a fine-tuning argument but what it does show is that "Habitable Earth-Like Planets" are appreciably rarer than conventionally thought.  I suspect that it will turn out that the tolerance between habitability and the Earth's present characteristics will be about +5% in each direction - and here we find a -5% constraint.  (Kasting and Harman is the News and Views paper in Nature that comments on Leconte at al.)

Fig 3 of Brockmann and Hebling shows how, by plotting the
arrival of an epidemic and looking at the Effective Distance
of these arrivals, the correct source can be identified.
On a completely different subject, but one also close to my heart, there is "The Hidden Geometry of Complex, Network-Driven Contagion Phenomena" by Dirk Brockmann and Dirk Helbing in Science. This develops an "effective distance" measure on complex networks such as the air passenger transport network and uses it to model the spread of epidemics.

This is a completely beautiful paper, which not only allows an approximate de-coupling of the geometry and the epidemic characteristics but enables the source of an epidemic to be identified. There is a very good "Perspective" on this by Angela MacLean.

There is also a review of a fascinating book called Complexity and the Arrow of Time with a chapter by Simon Conway Morris ("Once there were bacteria, now there is New York") and a moving obit of my son's PhD Supervisor Michael Neuberger in Science. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Parsifal with Simon O'Neill

Curtain call with Willard White, Rene Pape, Simon
Angela Denoke, Gerald Finley and Robert Lloyd
On Weds evening to the ROH Parsifal with my dear friend Susannah Feinnes in which, as an added bonus, Simon O'Neill was singing the title role.

I had never seen or heard Parsifal before - I don't believe in hearing to a musical masterpiece except live in a fine performance. Certainly the singing and playing was of exceptional quality.  In addition to Simon we had René Pape as Gurnemanz, Gerald Finley as Amfortas, Willard White as Klingsor, Robert Lloyd as Titurel and Angela Denoke as Kundry.  All of the stars were superb - if I had to pick out two in addition to Simon who was of course wonderful it would be Pape and Denoke - terrific roles sung superbly.  Antonio Pappano was conducting and the music was wonderful although the tempi were possibly a bit on the slow side(?)

However the production was somewhat depressingly drab - Susannah as an artist was particularly disconcerted - and the idea that the Grail was a child in a loincloth who had to be cut was singularly perverse.

The behaviour of some members of the audience was depressingly awful. Two men near us were coughing loudly with little or no effort to muffle themselves - though we were able to get them handed cough sweets. During the first interval there was something approaching a scrum to get the pre-ordered drinks, with a rather un-gentlemany man sweeping chairs away from Susannah on the grounds that they were his, and a complete lout (probably a 5th rate "investment banker") who coughed straight into my face and when I told him to cover his mouth merely told me to "b…… off".

However the sublime music and singing nullified all these annoyances. It was also great to see Simon backstage afterwards - esp since Susannah hadn't been backstage before at the new house - and to meet René Pape.  Simon's not singing in the UK until 30-31 May in Edinburgh (doing Mahler 8 which is how I first met him) and then the Galgolithic Mass on 30 Aug. But he's doing Wozzeck at the Met in March, Otello in Sidney and Houston and Florestan in Fidelo in Hamburg in November - catch him if you can!

In China with Cameron and Blair

Back from a fascinating trip to China (Beijing, HK, Shanghai, Beijing and Sanya) seeing many old friends and making new ones, and learning a lot. Much of it is un-bloggable.

I began by giving the final talk at a Symposium organized by HMG and the PBOC which was opened by Andrew Bailey and Pan Gongsheng. This was organised as part of the PM's visit although because I was speaking at the Symposium I didn't get to see Cameron who was in many meetings elsewhere, but my colleague Lena did and he was in good form.

At the weekend went to HK at the invitation of my friend Andrew Sheng for his Asia Global Dialogue organized by the Fung Foundation. It was great to see Andrew again and Mike Spence, to make many new friends and to gain some fascinating insights. 

Breakfast in Shanghai on Monday and then took the fast train to Beijing via Nanjing and Jinan. It was fascinating to see some of the Chinese countryside. Shanghai was having particularly bad smog – they all realize the have to do something about this but it’s a hard problem.

Then to the Sanya Forum which is the most southerly point I have travelled. About 2000 people mostly Chinese and I was one of the very few English people present (maybe 10?) Again very good to see some friends like Liu Chuanzhi, Jesse Wang and Andrew Sheng, to meet many new people and to renew some key acquaintances.

Quite by chance I bumped into a dear friend of my dear friend Susannah Feinnes – she had been trying to connect me and Angela for a couple of years but our paths hadn’t crossed and it was great to meet her. The Forum had no Nobel Laureates but two former PMs: Dominique de Villepin and Tony Blair. Both gave impressive speeches but TB’s was exceptional. He was the undoubted star of the show, quoted with approval by every major session afterwards. I hadn’t met him before but we had a brief chat and he’d get my vote for President of Europe should he run, even though I never voted for him as PM.

There was aslo an evening concert with the China Philharmonic and Sumi Jo who was impressive. She and Nicole (Cabell) may well know each other (Nicole is part-Korean) but although we smiled and waved at each other as we passed in the corridor I didn't have a chance to speak as I had to rush to meet  TB.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Oxford Questions paper

Delighted to hear from Andrew Briggs that he, Jeremy Butterfield and Anton Zeilinger finally did write up the Oxford Questions on the foundations of quantum physics and that it was published in Proc Roy Soc A, based on the conference in honour of John Polkinghorne's 80th birthday which I attended in 2010 and blogged at the time

The questions have hardly changed since our small group (Briggs, Butterfield, Beale and Hyung Choi from the Templeton Foundation) wrote them up and I originally posted them - the wording of the 3rd set of questions is tightened up but the substance remains unchanged. I suggested in Sept 2010 that they should be published in a scientific paper - it's an interesting commentary on the speed of publication that it's taken almost 3 years but of course the hard work is in bringing the questions into contact with the latest research which is a moving target.

They conclude with these wise words:

To complete this ‘snapshot’ of the present state of physics, we would like to endorse an analogy of Rovelli's. He suggests that our present situation is like that of the mechanical philosophers, such as Galileo and Kepler of the early seventeenth century. Just as they struggled with the clues given by Copernicus and Brahe, en route to the synthesis given by Newton, so also we are ‘halfway through the woods’. Of course, we should be wary of too grossly simplifying and periodizing the scientific revolution, and a fortiori of facile analogies between different historical situations. Nevertheless, it is striking what a ‘mixed bag’ the doctrines of figures such as Galileo and Kepler turn out to have been, from the perspective of the later synthesis. For all their genius, they appear to us (endowed with the anachronistic benefits of hindsight) to have been ‘transitional figures’. One cannot help speculating that to some future reader of twentieth century physics, enlightened by some future synthesis of general relativity and quantum theory, the efforts of the last few decades in quantum gravity will seem strange: worthy and sensible from the authors' perspective (one hopes), but a hodge-podge of insight and error from the reader's!