Monday, November 29, 2010

Hypatia of Alexandria

"Only once before in our history was there the promise of a brilliant scientific civilization. Beneficiary of the Ionian Awakening, it had its citadel at the Library of Alexandria, where 2,000 years ago the best minds of antiquity established the foundations for the systematic study of mathematics, physics, biology, astronomy, literature, geography and medicine. We build on those foundations still. The Library was constructed and supported by the Ptolemys, the Greek kings who inherited the Egyptian portion of the empire of Alexander the Great. From the time of its creation in the third century B.C. until its destruction seven centuries later, it was the brain and heart of the ancient world.

The last scientist who worked in the Library was a mathematician, astronomer, physicist and the head of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy -- an extraordinary range of accomplishments for any individual in any age. Her name was Hypatia. She was born in Alexandria in 370. At a time when women had few options and were treated as property, Hypatia moved freely and unselfconsciously through traditional male domains. By all accounts she was a great beauty. She had many suitors but rejected all offers of marriage. The Alexandria of Hypatia's time -- by then long under Roman rule -- was a city under grave strain. Slavery had sapped classical civilization of its vitality. The growing Christian Church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture. Hypatia stood at the epicenter of these mighty social forces. Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism In great personal danger, she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.

The glory of the Alexandrian Library is a dim memory. Its last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia's death. It was as if the entire civilization had undergone some self-inflicted brain surgery, and most of its memories, discoveries, ideas and passions were extinguished irrevocably. The loss was incalculable. In some cases, we know only the tantalizing titles of the works that were destroyed. In most cases, we know neither the titles nor the authors. We do know that of the 123 plays of Sophocles in the Library, only seven survived. One of those seven is Oedipus Rex. Similar numbers apply to the works of Aeschylus and Euripides. It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Coriolanus and A Winter's Tale, but we had heard that he had written certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in his time, works entitled Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet." (From Cosmos by Carl Sagan)

The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved

By Rob Dunn, November 19, 2010

From hiccups to wisdom teeth, the evolution of homo sapiens has left behind some glaring, yet innately human, imperfections

Natural selection acts by winnowing the individuals of each generation, sometimes clumsily, as old parts and genes are co-opted for new roles. As a result, all species inhabit bodies imperfect for the lives they live. Our own bodies are worse off than most simply because of the many differences between the wilderness in which we evolved and the modern world in which we live. We feel the consequences every day. Here are ten.

1. Our cells are weird chimeras
Perhaps a billion years ago, a single-celled organism arose that would ultimately give rise to all of the plants and animals on Earth, including us. This ancestor was the result of a merging: one cell swallowed, imperfectly, another cell. The predator provided the outsides, the nucleus and most of the rest of the chimera. The prey became the mitochondrion, the cellular organ that produces energy. Most of the time, this ancient symbiosis proceeds amicably. But every so often, our mitochondria and their surrounding cells fight. The result is diseases, such as mitochondrial myopathies (a range of muscle diseases) or Leigh’s disease (which affects the central nervous system).

2. Hiccups
The first air-breathing fish and amphibians extracted oxygen using gills when in the water and primitive lungs when on land—and to do so, they had to be able to close the glottis, or entryway to the lungs, when underwater. Importantly, the entryway (or glottis) to the lungs could be closed. When underwater, the animals pushed water past their gills while simultaneously pushing the glottis down. We descendants of these animals were left with vestiges of their history, including the hiccup. In hiccupping, we use ancient muscles to quickly close the glottis while sucking in (albeit air, not water). Hiccups no longer serve a function, but they persist without causing us harm—aside from frustration and occasional embarrassment. One of the reasons it is so difficult to stop hiccupping is that the entire process is controlled by a part of our brain that evolved long before consciousness, and so try as you might, you cannot think hiccups away.

3. Backaches
The backs of vertebrates evolved as a kind of horizontal pole under which guts were slung. It was arched in the way a bridge might be arched, to support weight. Then, for reasons anthropologists debate long into the night, our hominid ancestors stood upright, which was the bodily equivalent of tipping a bridge on end. Standing on hind legs offered advantages—seeing long distances, for one, or freeing the hands to do other things—but it also turned our backs from an arched bridge to an S shape. The letter S, for all its beauty, is not meant to support weight and so our backs fail, consistently and painfully.

4. Unsupported intestines
Once we stood upright, our intestines hung down instead of being cradled by our stomach muscles. In this new position, our innards were not as well supported as they had been in our quadrupedal ancestors. The guts sat atop a hodgepodge of internal parts, including, in men, the cavities in the body wall through which the scrotum and its nerves descend during the first year of life. Every so often, our intestines find their way through these holes—in the way that noodles sneak out of a sieve—forming an inguinal hernia.

5. Choking
In most animals, the trachea (the passage for air) and the esophagus (the passage for food) are oriented such that the esophagus is below the trachea. In a cat's throat, for example, the two tubes run roughly horizontal and parallel to each other before heading on to the stomach and lung, respectively. In this configuration, gravity tends to push food down toward the lower esophagus. Not so in humans. Modifications of the trachea to allow speech pushed the trachea and esophagus further down the throat to make way. Simultaneously, our upright posture put the trachea and esophagus in a near-vertical orientation. Together these changes leave falling food or water about a 50-50 chance of falling in the “wrong tube.” As a consequence, in those moments in which the epiglottis does not have time to cover the trachea, we choke. We might be said to choke on our success. Monkeys suffer the same fate only rarely, but then again they can’t sing or dance. Then again, neither can I.

6. We're awfully cold in winter
Fur is a warm hug on a cold day, useful and nearly ubiquitous among mammals. But we and a few other species, such as naked mole rats, lost it when we lived in tropical environments. Debate remains as to why this happened, but the most plausible explanation is that when modern humans began to live in larger groups, our hair filled with more and more ticks and lice. Individuals with less hair were perhaps less likely to get parasite-borne diseases. Being hairless in Africa was not so bad, but once we moved into Arctic lands, it had real drawbacks. Evolution has no foresight, no sense of where its work will go.

7. Goosebumps don't really help
When our ancestors were covered in fur, muscles in their skin called “arrector pili” contracted when they were upset or cold, making their fur stand on end. When an angry or frightened dog barks at you, these are the muscles that raise its bristling hair. The same muscles puff up the feathers of birds and the fur of mammals on cold days to help keep them warm. Although we no longer have fur, we still have fur muscles just beneath our skin. They flex each time we are scared by a bristling dog or chilled by a wind, and in doing so give us goose bumps that make our thin hair stand uselessly on end.

8. Our brains squeeze our teeth
A genetic mutation in our recent ancestors caused their descendants to have roomy skulls that accommodated larger brains. This may seem like pure success—brilliance, or its antecedent anyway. But the gene that made way for a larger brain did so by diverting bone away from our jaws, which caused them to become thinner and smaller. With smaller jaws, we could not eat tough food as easily as our thicker-jawed ancestors, but we could think our way out of that problem with the use of fire and stone tools. Yet because our teeth are roughly the same size as they have long been, our shrinking jaws don’t leave enough room for them in our mouths. Our wisdom teeth need to be pulled because our brains are too big.

9. Obesity
Many of the ways in which our bodies fail have to do with very recent changes, changes in how we use our bodies and structure our societies. Hunger evolved as a trigger to drive us to search out food. Our taste buds evolved to encourage us to choose foods that benefited our bodies (such as sugar, salt and fat) and avoid those that might be poisonous. In much of the modern world, we have more food than we require, but our hunger and cravings continue. They are a bodily GPS unit that insists on taking us where we no longer need to go. Our taste buds ask for more sugar, salt and fat, and we obey.

10 to 100. The list goes on.
I have not even mentioned male nipples. I have said nothing of the blind spot in our eyes. Nor of the muscles some of use to wiggle our ears. We are full of the accumulated baggage of our idiosyncratic histories. The body is built on an old form, out of parts that once did very different things. So take a moment to pause and sit on your coccyx, the bone that was once a tail. Roll your ankles, each of which once connected a front leg to a paw. Revel not in who you are but who you were. It is, after all, amazing what evolution has made out of bits and pieces. Nor are we in any way alone or unique. Each plant, animal and fungus carries its own consequences of life's improvisational genius. So, long live the chimeras. In the meantime, if you will excuse me, I am going to rest my back.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Life Evolves

Let me lay my cards on the table. If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of even Newton or Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection has always fascinated me, but over the years I have found a surprising variety of thinkers who cannot conceal their discomfort with his great idea, ranging from nagging skepticism to outright hostility. I have found not just lay people and religious thinkers, but secular philosophers, psychologists, physisists, and even biologists who would prefer, it seems, that Darwin were wrong. This book is about why Darwin's idea is so powerful, and why it promises -- not threatens -- to put our most cherished visions of life on a new foundation.

Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Our Place In The Universe

Religion Psychology

Religion was never about what is true. It was about what is useful to the human being in its quest for explanatory security and existential meaning. The God concept is man's servant, a concept useful to self justification.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How Snakes Can "Fly"

How Snakes Can "Fly"

It's been known for a while that certain snake species can "fly," gliding as far as 330 feet (100 meters) from branch to branch—but how?

A new study—using unprecedented filming, 3-D modeling, and snakes both real and plastic—has shown how flying snakes angle and arrange themselves to achieve optimal lift.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Death Among the Living-Thoughts on Mortality

ScienceShot: Meet the Squidworm - ScienceNOW

ScienceShot: Meet the Squidworm - ScienceNOW

The Problem of Evil and ID Creationism

A. A. Gill on Kentucky's Creation Museum Culture:

A. A. Gill on Kentucky's Creation Museum Culture:

I spent a lot of time in the Eden picnic area, trying to wrest some sort of spiritual buzz, a sense of the majesty and the mystery, but it’s conspicuously absent. Literally beaten to death. This is Ripley’s Believe-It. It is irredeemably kitsch. In fact, it may be the biggest collection of kitsch in God’s entire world. This is the profound represented by the banal, a divine irony.
This tacky, risible, and rational tableau defies belief, beggars faith. Compare it to the creation story in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Masaccio’s expulsion from Eden, or any of the thousands of flickering images, icons, and installations based on faith rather than literalist realism. It truly makes you wonder, Is all this righteous ire, all this money, all this Pentecostal flame-throwing the best they can come up with? This cheap county-fair sideshow—this is their best shot? It may be more replete with proof than a Soviet show trial, but this creation is bereft of any soul.

Symphony of Science - 'Our Place in the Cosmos' (ft. Sagan, Dawkins, Kak...

Richard Dawkins: The Strangeness of Science Cosmos Evolution

Debate: Does the Universe have a purpose?

Philosophizing symbology

ScienceShot: A Well-Preserved Meteor Impact - ScienceNOW

ScienceShot: A Well-Preserved Meteor Impact - ScienceNOW

Did Darwin Help Predict Chilean Quake? - ScienceNOW

Did Darwin Help Predict Chilean Quake? - ScienceNOW

Monday, November 22, 2010

Evolutionary Relationships Hold, Even in Our Guts - ScienceNOW

Evolutionary Relationships Hold, Even in Our Guts - ScienceNOW

The human body is coated with bacterial cells. They live on our skin and between our teeth. They particularly like our warm, nutrient-filled gut, where they help digest food, make vitamins, and produce some seriously smelly gas. But when it comes to these gut bacteria, we are not what we eat. A new analysis of feces from humans and several other primates finds that evolutionary history, not diet, determines the makeup of our intestinal bugs.

Babies are born sterile, then they start picking up bacteria from their mothers. These microbes multiply and fill the intestines; one adult's gut can hold a thousand species. But it's not clear what exactly influences the makeup of that community—that is, what particular species of bacteria, in what quantities, hang out in our guts. It could depend mainly on what we get from our mothers, on what we eat, or on some other factor. Scientists have started using new genetic techniques to work out whether different species of animals have different communities; some studies in recent years have concluded that animals with similar diets have similar microbial communities.

ScienceShot: Astronomers Spot Baby Black Hole in Our Galactic Neighborhood - ScienceNOW

ScienceShot: Astronomers Spot Baby Black Hole in Our Galactic Neighborhood - ScienceNOW

Hiding from the Mortal Animal: The Denial of the Body, Sex, & Death

Christopher Hitchens Closing Remarks (Dembski Debate)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Beauty & The Beast: Cosmic Complexity Beyond the Dogma

Neanderthals Lived Fast And Died Young, Unlike Man

Neanderthals Lived Fast And Died Young, Unlike Man

Famed atheist Christopher Hitchens to debate at Christian school in Plano | News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News | Latest News

Famed atheist Christopher Hitchens to debate at Christian school in Plano | News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News | Latest News

The Palin Situation

The Palin Situation

With the Palins, just when you think you've reached the total nadir of narcissism, hypocrisy, shamelessness and tackiness, a trap door opens beneath you and you fall down another storey.
Andrew Sullivan

Freedom of Religion

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Religious Test?

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Death Denial & The Will To Significance

Brain Neurons & Brain Evolution - The Storytelling Ape

Christianity, Paganism, & Nature

"The pagan religions had tended to sacralize nature,and so in its rivalry with them Christianity tended to view nature, including animals, as the domain of the devil. Christianity was also distinctly hostile to man's "animal" nature, to the sexual and other bodily functions that man shares with animals. Then too, any considerate regard for animals would raise acute issues of theodicy-of how a just and merciful God could have condemned the vast animal kingdom to a brutal, violent, predator-prey existence. The pagan gods had not been considered just and merciful; they reflected rather than surpassed nature, so the issue of theodicy did not arise in the worship of them."
Richard A. Posner

Monday, November 1, 2010

Expanding the Circle

"Man is always inclined to regard the small circle in which he lives as the center of the world and to make his particular, private life the standard of the universe. But he must give up this vain pretense, this petty provincial way of thinking and judging."
- Michel de Montaigne

"Diogenes the Cynic declared himself to be the citizen not of one country but of the whole world. Stoic philosophers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius also argued that our loyalty should be to the world community, not to the state in which we happen to be born. Voltaire, Goethe, and Schiller espoused similar ideals of world, rather than national, citizenship. Yet patriotism has proved difficult to dislodge from its high place among the conventionally accepted virtues. The explanation for this could be that patriotism rests, at least in part, on a biological basis; but the explanation could also be cultural. Culture can itself be a factor in the evolutionary process, those cultures prevailing which enhance the group's prospect of survival."
Philosopher Peter Singer

"A human being is a part of a whole, called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
- Albert Einstein

"To a person who thinks, all the civil distinctions disappear."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau