11 March 2007

Humans live in cooperative communities, like many other social animals from honeybees to naked mole rats to dolphins. Evolution has endowed us as individuals with two primary modes of relationship that can form a basis for communal organization: dominance and empathy. All of human history and much of my personal growth is comprehended in the tension between these two poles.

– Josh Mitteldorf

10 March 2007

Scraps of moon
bobbing discarded on broken water
but sky-moon
complete, transcending
all violation
Here she seems to be talking to herself about
the shape of a life:
Only Once

 All which, because it was
flame and song and granted us
joy, we thought we'd do, be, revisit,
turns out to have been what it was
that once, only; every invitation
did not begin
a series, a build-up: the marvelous
did not happen in our lives, our stories
are not drab with its absence: but don't
expect to return for more. Whatever more
there will be will be
unique as those were unique. Try
to acknowledge the next
song in its body-halo of flames as utterly
present, as now or never.

 ~ Denise Levertov ~

9 March 2007

“Soul is closer to movement than it is to fixity, said Socrates, and the loss of soul is the condition of being stuck – fixated on something, as the psychologists would say – and overcome by the downward-pushing forces that govern all moving bodies: gravity and inertia.  The arts, being about creativity and therefore about change, are ideal for leading us toward movement, whether we do a  dance with life on the line or oscillate between stepping up to a canvas and stepping back or go in hot pursuit of a calling.”

– from Callings by Gregg Levoy

8 March 2007

Isn't it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.

~ Vaclav Havel

7 March 2007

My candidate for the greatest unsung biological mystery of all time has just started to attract academic attention in the last decade: Where does evolvability come from?

Darwinian selection explains how a random mutation that improves survival or reproduction can rise to prominence.  But doesn’t it strike you as fantastically improbable that there should be such mutations?   

Lo and behold, it turns out that the very structure of genetic inheritance looks as though it has been designed to make evolution possible, by making beneficial changes enormously more likely.  Some genes almost never mutate, and it turns out that these are very old, and responsible for the cell’s core chemistry.  Others vary quite easily.  Genes are grouped on the chromosome so that combinations that work together tend to stay together during recombination.

‘Hox genes’ are master controls that can create an entire appendage or a complete eye or a kidney by turning on a program consisting of many, many genes.  This is an innovation that makes it possible for a species to try out six legs or eight legs or twelve without re-designing the leg each time; or to try eyes that are a little further apart or closer together, optimizing vision without re-inventing the eye.  But hox genes offer no advantage to the particular individual who carries them – so how did hox genes come to be? 

Sexual reproduction is much more awkward and hazardous than asexual cloning (have you noticed?).  It’s half as efficient, because half the population doesn’t bear children.  The only advantage of sex (from evolution’s perspective) is that it facilitates the trial of different gene combinations.  So how has an important evolvability function come to be so prevalent, when it takes such a toll on the fitness of individuals?

Clearly there has been some kind of bootstrapping, whereby evolution has promoted evolvability, which promotes evolution.  But this whole process has not yet been addressed, let alone explained, in the scientific literature of evolution.

New York Times article
Book by Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart
American Scientist interview

6 March 2007

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, born this day in 1844, went to sea when he was supposed to go to conservatory.  He became a self-taught musician, and later spent much of his life energy compensating for his lack of formal training.  He became the world’s most illustrious music professor, with a career at the St Petersburg Conservatory.  He mentored Prokofiev and Stravinsky when they were young students.  His own music was fresh and immediate, but there was always something of the pedant about him.  He promoted and edited Modeste Mussorgsky’s music – and some say that his ‘corrections’ to Mussorgsky’s harmonic crudities just detracted from the visceral appeal of Mussorgsky’s composition.

listen to Capriccio Espagnol

5 March 2007

Born in Bengal, 5 March 1879, William Beveridge emigrated to England as a young man and became a powerful advocate for the economic interests of ordinary working people.  After World War II, he managed to convince British leaders that socialized medicine and social security were worthy roles for the government, even as cash was stretched thin for rebuilding the damage from German rocket bombs, and thousands of returning soldiers were out of work.

The object of government in peace and in war is not the glory of rulers or of races, but the happiness of common man.