Monday, 21 April 2008

Thank you, Sir David

I've just been watching episode 2 of "Life in Cold Blood", which is "Land Invaders". This is about the amphibians, and as usual, it was an hour in which I was transported in wonder to corners of our living world which I'd otherwise never see.

"Life in Cold Blood" is the final in his "Life" series. All told, the series has 79 episodes; beautifully filmed, fascinating and informative, and a window to evolutionary biology for countless of fans. For each series there is a book as well.

Thank you, Sir David Attenborough, and thank you also to the BBC and to all who have worked on these magnificent programs.

I was inspired to write this by the recent brouhaha over "Expelled". There is, at present, a massive debate going on through the blogsphere between fans and critics, and also within the reality-based community on how to respond. There's a lot of breast beating and angst on whether the IDists are better at PR than the evolutionists, and how we should frame the debate, and so on ad infinitum. For my part, I think we should engage Expelled loudly and often; and if it gives them more publicity then so be it. The nonsense is piled sufficiently high and deep that for those who care to look it's obvious, and we must not ignore that or fail to make it easy to find out. (Hat tip: Expelled exposed.)

True believers (on either side) will not be persuaded in the debate, but the middle ground who don't have a lot of exposure to ID will, to a large extent I hope, recognize the failings of Expelled -- even folks who have creationist sympathies. (This view is also expressed by Razib at Gene Expression.)

On the other hand, there's also a role for good old selling of evolutionary biology to the public. There have been questions about how to get the message across; how to sell it; how to frame the information.

All the while, Sir David is putting beauty and excitement and wonder into millions of households all over the world... and it is soaked in evolutionary biology. It's not there as some kind of artificial addition, nor does the series beat viewers over the head with the science. It's there, naturally and without artifice, as part of the whole framework that makes sense of the living world.

Here is one of the many highlights I enjoyed in this episode.

The film crew captured, for the first time, how the caecilian feeds her young. Caecilains are limbless amphibians, and there are are over 170 different species. Because most of these live underground, they are amongst the most poorly known or understood vertebrates. And during the filming of this episode, they discovered that the mother feeds her young by regularly shedding her fat enriched skin, which the babies rip from her body with their tiny especially adapted teeth. (See the footage here: 'Flesh-eating' amphibians filmed at the BBC.)

Thank you, Sir David!

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Davescot on Darwin and eugenics

In a post at the Uncommon Descent blog, Davescot has an excellent summary of the connection between Darwin and eugenics. The article is A complete Darwin quote with a brief translation (20 April, 2008). Davescot's article is simple, accurate, and straight to the point.

For those who follow these debates, this may come as a surprise. Normally I find little of value at Uncommon Descent, and I'm very surprised to see this one. But credit where it is due; Davescot's post is excellent, and needs no modication or qualification to get my full recommendation.

The article has a full quote from Descent of Man, including the second paragraph traditionally omitted by those who want to link Darwin to the holocaust. He follows this with a couple of very simple and straightforward observations.

Paraphrasing briefly, Darwin notes that we humans are animals in the body, and that the same selective breeding applied to farm animals for generations would work in the same way if it was applied to humans. Immediately after this, Darwin also notes that the attempt would degrade the noblest part of our nature, the very part which distinguishes humans from other animal species.

Quoting Davescot's concluding paragraph.

If there’s any real case to be made for Darwin and the holocaust it’s the opposite of what’s messaged in Expelled. The holocaust resulted from a failure to heed Darwin’s warning that eugenics could only be practiced by sacrificing the noblest part of our nature, the very part and only part that separates us from other animals. Those responsible for the holocaust, beginning with the eugenics movement in America, were the true animals. Those opposed were nobler than the animals.

Hat tip to Wes Elsberry at the Austringer for alerting me to Davescot's post. Flunked, Not Expelled: Not Even David Springer Buys the Darwin-Leads-to-Hitler Rhetoric.
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Monday, 14 April 2008

I've seen a scientist!

Here is a discussion with de niece, who is noted for her careful attention to detail.

De niece: I've seen a scientist!
De uncle: Where was this?
De niece: We saw a scientist at preschool.
De uncle: Oh... what did he look like?
De niece: Not "he". "She".

The visit evidently had a big impact. I gather that the scientist came to visit preschool, and showed everyone how to do some experiments. De niece was able to tell me how the various experiments worked, and we were able to reproduce them at home.

The first involved sticking a pin into a balloon without letting it burst. The trick is to find the dark spot on the balloon surface, where there is less tension and the pin can go in without a catastrophic rip of the skin. She was able to get the pin in, and then we went even further with a metal skewer. The end result was a neat little hole, that could be stopped with the finger, and which otherwise gently deflated the balloon.

We also tried a control. Here's a shot of the two of us discussing the end result of a balloon where the pin was inserted into the stretched out parts of the balloon.

De other niece also joined in. De scientist niece had two more experiments for us all to try. One involved sultanas in carbonated water. You should try this too. Drop a few sultanas into a glass of carbonated water or lemonade, and explain why they do what they do.

And here is de other niece with vinegar and bicarb of soda. The glass had about three centimeters of vinegar to start with.

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