Thursday, August 01, 2002

Seth Stevenson does this week's Slate diary from Thailand.
STUART BUCK MIGHT CONSIDER this entry to be worthless drivel, and he might be right. But I had a marvelous meal with a bigwig the other night: fresh Alaskan ivory salmon and a superb pinot grigio from Oregon. As the wine was being uncorked, I asked the sommelier what he thought of the artificial "cork" used to cap the bottle. He acknowledged that they were better for the wine (real cork can have terrible chemical reactions if it's tainted, a growing problem), but hated opening them. He mentioned that there were some California wineries selling $140 wine with screwcaps, and predicted that that was the wave of the future.
I'VE BEEN TREMENDOUSLY BUSY over the last five weeks. It makes blogging difficult.

It occurs to me that there's only two blogs I still read daily no matter what. One is Lileks. The other might surprise you: Captain Spaulding. Okay, I know him, but I know lots of bloggers that drop by the wayside when I get busy.

Spaulding can be frustrating sometimes with amateurish errors like spelling "replies" wrong, but it's all worth it when he's on, and he had me laughing out loud this morning with his entry yesterday with a Robert Evans imitation. There's a novel to be written there somewhere about a comedian who does brilliant riffs on obscure icons from the days of his infancy, only to be befuddled by the preference of the masses for cheap jokes about Barney. I fear it wouldn't sell very well, though.

Worse, Spaulding beat me to the punch with his post on crop circles.

Monday, July 29, 2002

SASHA VOLOKH calls this article on Stephen Gould's last 1432-page tome a "debunking," but it's really more like a pan. Of note is this recounting from Dawkins, which nicely puts the lie to the idea that "punctuated equilibrium" theory is a refutation of Darwinism:
In my judgment, punctuated equilibrium isn't nearly the revolutionary approach that Gould claims. Even those biologists most committed to a "gradualist" perspective never seriously considered that evolutionary change occurs at an unvarying rate, reflecting the slow, steady grinding of some great cosmic mill. Of course there have been periods of relative "stasis," punctuated by comparatively rapid changes. Environments change irregularly and unevenly; hence, evolution, too, is bound to be irregular and uneven. The point is that even times of galloping evolutionary change involved tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years, and when they occurred, perfectly normal Darwinian processes - notably natural selection - were responsible.

In his book, The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins provided a devastatingly critical analogy for the gradualist-punctuationalist debate, and one that - not surprisingly - goes unmentioned in TSET. Dawkins noted that according to Exodus, the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before they came to their promised land, traversing in the process approximately 200 miles. This means that their average speed was about 5 miles per year, or 24 yards per day, or one yard per hour. This is much slower than the average snail, and is in fact, a pace that is nearly impossible for any human being to maintain.

Let us now imagine that two Biblical revisionist-minded scholars, troubled with the one-yard-per-hour dogma, come up with a different interpretation, claiming a crashing new insight: the prevailing "gradualist" analysis is wrong! The Israelites didn't really move this way at all! Instead - wonder of wonders - they traveled in fits and starts, likely camping in the same location for days, weeks, perhaps months, with such "equilibria" punctuated by sudden spurts of several miles in just a day or so. Next step: legions of atheists, eager to highlight dissension in the ranks of Old Testament historians, publicize the new view as proof that the legitimacy of Biblical scholarship, and thus, somehow, the Bible itself, is in doubt. (Actually, I can empathize with Steve Gould: if I had come up with something that might appear to be a dramatic reworking of the most important theory in science, evolution by natural selection, I too would probably have been tempted to trumpet it as a major modification, even if - or rather, especially if - it seemed to give Darwin a black eye and thereby elevated my own contribution.)

But, contra Gould, gradualism (รก la Lyell, Darwin, and the Modern Synthesis), does not deny that catastrophes sometimes happen. The crucial point is simply that after catastrophes, plain old natural selection takes up where it left off. Selection continues to operate among the survivors, just as it does after a population passes through a genetic bottleneck, or after a major episode of random, nonselective mortality such as a tornado, or a blue whale passing through a cloud of plankton. The “theory of punctuated equilibria” simply does not qualify as a Kuhnian scientific revolution; it is barely a skirmish. Or, to change the metaphor, Gould and his acolytes have been pushing against an open door.
HERE'S WHAT I LEARNED so far today: "Frick and Frack" did not originate with Car Talk. Rather, as Lileks points out, the original Frick and Frack were an ice skating duo. Who knew?

I was perturbed to hear Jerome Groopman being interviewed on NPR the other morning, because the announcer referred to Mrs. Edwards. It took me a second to remember that the announcer's name wasn't Ba Bedwards.