Wednesday, 22 October 2008

No True Scotsman

The US presidential election has taken a really nasty turn in recent weeks, it has for a large part descended into gutter politics fuelling on an angry xenophobic mob. The nature of any election campaign is not to be the best candidate for the job, rather it's to be the best candidate for the election process. In this, it's hard to fault the negative campaign, if they believe they are the best people to do the job for the country then it's their duty to do all they can to get elected. The problem though with wedge politics is that election processes come to an end, yet society still remains.

Causing division in the community is suddenly not going to cease the moment the results are in; the further the wedge is pushed in, the further apart people are separated along those lines. Australia entered a very ugly societal position from just that sort of campaigning, the Tampa crisis combined with 9/11 which led to moral panic around Islam gave the perfect platform for John Howard's re-election. It also left the community bitterly divided, and 7 years on the jingoism is still causing problems. To question is to be unpatriotic, the flag was now a sacred symbol and anyone who disagreed was unaustralian. So many shirts at the Big Day Out with the slogan "Australia - love it or fuck off".

But this import from America of that extreme form of nationalistic patriotism is hardly a surprise in the post-9/11 world. And as much as I would love to blame the politicians for exploiting the deepest fears of an uncertain collective, the real blame does lie with the people. The only reason these political strategies work is because enough of the population buys into it. It's easy to dismiss these people as being sheep; easily led automatons who don't exercise any free will. That attitude isn't helpful, it's wrong and portrays them in a similar negative light to how they see us.

So back to the US where the American conservative base has done all it can to portray Obama as wrong for middle America. The Bill Ayers affair epitomises the gutter politics that is being seen nightly in the media. Why can they tie the actions of this 60s radical to a politician who was 8 years old at the time? For the same reason as those chain emails labelling Obama an unamerican Muslim spread quickly. There are those who are uncomfortable with him, and are looking for any justification to dismiss him as wrong for America.

The angry mob is now at a frenzy, mention of his name at republican rallies is receiving audience shouts of "TERRORIST!" and "KILL HIM!". One thing I have admired is McCain's attempt to diffuse the angry mob, but it may be too little too late. The lipstick-wearing pitbull that was chosen as a running mate has more than happily pushed Obama into the most unfavourable light possible, inciting the angry crowd with cutesy hate speech. McCain really needs to put his pitbull on a leash, it's his campaign and he's the one that is ultimately accountable for the actions of the joe-sixpack hockey-mum who speaks for small-town main street American values.

Now that is where the real venom has been in the last couple of weeks. There's more and more talk about the "real America", about "true Americans" who "love their country". It's nothing more than racism masquerading as patriotism. Some commentators like Rush Limbaugh at least don't have the pretence, his comments about former Secretary of State Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama dismissed it as entirely to do with race. Could it have been that Powell genuinely felt that Obama is the best candidate to take America forward? That Obama's cool head in the midst of this financial crisis and his crossing of the generational gap are assets that Powell wants in a leader? Could it be he's disgusted by the rabid anti-intellectualism and gutter politics that are part of the Republican platform? Not according to Limbaugh.

The "real American" rhetoric may win votes, it may convince the undecided voters who are concerned about Obama that he's not looking out for his best interests. Because apparently Obama is an elitist, working as a community organiser and serving on a charity board have been republican fodder. But the divisive politics is taking it's toll, both Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart have rightly stepped in to disassemble this dirty political rhetoric. Even if it doesn't work to win McCain the election, it will still be a sour taste in the mouths of every Obama-hating "true American". As Barack Obama said:
"There are no real or fake parts of this country. We are not separated by the pro-America and anti-America parts of this nation—we all love this country, no matter where we live or where we come from."
It will be a dark day for mankind if McCain is elected on a wave of glorified xenophobia, especially given his bipartisan mantra.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

There's a monkey sitting at a typewriter

Mathematics is the language of science, so having a grasp on the mathematical concepts used is vital in order to understand much of what is written. Understanding the difference between coincidental and causal events is vital in order to understand statistics. Our brains work on linking causal events, if I press the 'x' key on my keyboard I expect there to be an 'x' written in my text editor. Likewise, all the keys on the keyboard have function and using that same causal relationship I can write entire blog posts. I am conveying information in a causal manner. Now what if it were random? Could a random generator recreate a post of mine, or even a single sentence?

Generating improbability
Now there's a few ways of going about this, take the sentence "mathematics is the language of science", taking the lower-case alphabet and the space character, there are 38 spaces and 27 different characters to go in each. Note that Dawkins did a similar computational experiment in The Blind Watchmaker.
  • random chance - suppose you tried to generate every position and every character at once. To get the first character correctly would be a 1 in 27 chance. As would generating the second character. To generate both characters correctly would be (1/27)2 or 1 in 729. To generate three characters correctly would be (1/27)3 or 1 in 19,683. To generate all 38 characters correctly would be 1 in 2738 or 1 in 2.5*1054. So for this one off event to happen, it would take an extraordinary amount of time to generate it by chance with purely random input.

  • cumulative chance - instead of trying to generate it all in one go, generating each character individually could work better. Start with the first character, and there's a 1 in 27 chance of generating 'm'. So when 'm' is finally generated, move onto trying to generate the 'a'. Now each subsequent character generation is dependant on earlier chance encounters. To generate 'math' now becomes (1/27) + (1/27) + (1/27) + (1/27), or 1 in 108. For all 38 characters, it's (1/27) * 38 or 1 in 1026. So by progressively doing each step along the way, it takes away an extreme amount of improbability.

  • evolving chance - back to generating in one go. By starting at an arbitrary point and tweaking the string, eventually it will come up with the right answer. The mathematics for this is not easily expressed, though it can be expressed in code.

The results
I wrote a java program to simulate these different processes. The source code is available here for anyone wishing to run it themselves. Feel free to modify it, and push it to it's limits. It's very much a cobbled together hack-job, there wasn't much focus on having a clean interface. It's there to show I didn't make the results up, and while the randomness of the PC will mean that the numbers will not turn out the exactly same as mine, they are a good approximation of the procedure.
  • random chance will not generate a computational answer, computer randomness is based on seeds so it will run infinitely without ever finding the answer. If it were truly random, then it would still take an almost infinitely long time. I ran the program quite a few times and there wasn't even a fragment of any word that could be considered English.

  • cumulative chance has yielded similar results to the mathematical prediction of an average of 1026 iterations. Running it 10 times, I had the following results: 1058, 867, 1077, 1403, 776, 943, 1081, 893, 945, 880. This is an average of 992 iterations for the result. Doing it again for 10 iterations yielded the result 1028. A third time with 100 iterations yielded an average of 1008. A few more times and I did get 1026 as the average over 100 iterations. The practical application of statistics correlated with the theoretical application.

  • evolutionary chance brought an even quicker result. By adjusting the amount of mutation (a mutation rate of 1 would mean 'd' could only change to either 'e' or 'c', 2 would cover the spread from 'b' to 'f'), the length of time could decrease. The results for running it 100 times on different mutation rates were as follows:

A run through with a mutation variance of 5
Iteration: 1 tptvelwhiqt irsirfpokxpub skrjcgrhcslt
Iteration: 2 - qrtyekzgimy iunhtirkibrubetjuhelueerot
Iteration: 3 - nqt efxfiru irmkojmmkdquddqesjeoxieoov
Iteration: 4 - rmtzedthiov ivmoohqrkdsufencsfhquiesly
Iteration: 5 - whteedtiity iyktnkpulfnudjmcrfgnuiewpz
Iteration: 10 - tftjeclaiww ivdtocswahguajjo fodwieurb
Iteration: 20 - hvtheixaifs in tfwlladguarexffqjpievcr
Iteration: 30 - natheoetias is thyhlamguadeohfinsieucx
Iteration: 40 - mathematigs is th tlacguaoepcflnniescg
Iteration: 50 - mathematics is th uladguauewdformiemce
Iteration: 60 - mathematics is thdilajguabe lfdskiebce
Iteration: 70 - mathematics is thwtlacguaje ofksniefce
Iteration: 80 - mathematics is thkjlauguape of syievce
Iteration: 90 - mathematics is the language of snience
Found iteration 97 - mathematics is the language of science

And what of those monkeys?
The first two methods would be simulations of how a monkey would type: the first method would be the equivalent of letting a monkey type the entire post and have it start from scratch over and over if there would be any errors. The 2nd method is like the monkey using the backspace key each time it got something wrong. The evolving algorithm is unlike random chance, it's to illustrate that information of almost infinite improbability can emerge over a far shorter space of time.

Including white space, my posts average around 7,000 characters. By the time a post is finished, the amount of characters I press is probably a lot higher when taking into account typos, spelling and grammatical errors, deletion of poor sentences, and proof reading. All up, it wouldn't be entirely unfair to say I do about 10,000 key strokes per post. Now if I do 200 keystrokes a minute, then it would still take me 50 minutes or so to get the post to where it is now. To evolve or generate something like this by chance is theoretically possible, but practically impossible.

This is why when we see a code or information we know there's intelligence behind it. To look on the great pyramids, the symbols contained therein are the product of intelligence and intent. Anyone who has had previous dealings with the written word would be able to understand the symbols are the same construct. To go back further into human history, the same could be said of cave paintings. It is not the refined symbolism of the written word, but it's evidently communication. Other forms of communication do exist that are not so obvious, smoke signals for example. There are times too when we can mistake natural order and randomness as communication, the stars say astrology is a joke and our futures are not etched into the palms of our hands.

We can infer meaning from non-meaningful processes, this is the problem with the statement "all codes are a product of intelligence". We see patterns all through nature, improbable shapes, repetition, improbable assortment, all of which come from natural processes. One of these patterns is the pattern of DNA, the double-helix structure that has the instructions on the building blocks of life. How could this occur naturally? Well, that's for another entry. The importance of the tests above what to highlight the difference between random chance and a cumulative or an evolutionary process. It was to show that improbable events can be created quite quickly using select processes.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Welcome To The Universe

I'm really looking forward to this series, AndromedasWake has made several high-quality videos so far. It's always good to see the time and dedication people are putting into furthering the cause on knowledge on a place like YouTube, goodness knows public understanding of science is severely lacking.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Fanning the flames of hatred

Will we ever progress in society when there's pride in being an ignorant racist?

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Atheist Blogroll

Kelosophy has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. You can see the blogroll in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Dumbing Down The Media

Yesterday I came across a great article on Crikey written by Paul Collins on the decline of journalistic standards on our national broadcaster.

Words tell you everything. When you hear "interdisciplinary" you know it means "dumbing down" and "consumer focused" always refers to the lowest common denominator. This is precisely the rhetoric used yesterday by ABC Radio National management to describe their intentions for RN programming next year.

Several specialist programs are being taken off-air including the Religion Report, the Media Report and Radio Eye. The Reports are flagship programs that deal with issues central to current culture. Apparently they are being replaced by a movie show and something about the future. Specialist broadcasters will spend more time responding to opinionated bloggers rather than making programs. God help us!

Let's be clear what ABC Radio management is up to: it is a case of the bland leading the bland. Specialisation is out. Nowadays the belief is that any old (or, more likely, young) "interdisciplinary" journalist can deal with any topic. Well, I've been interviewed literally hundreds of times on ABC radio and TV. My experience is that while most journalists make a reasonable go of it, they just don't know the detail and often have to be led to the key questions.

Take religion for example. There are no more than half a dozen specialist religious journalists in Australia. Two work for Fairfax (Linda Morris and Barney Zwartz) and the rest for the ABC which has had a religion department since the beginning of the Corporation. Stephen Crittenden, John Cleary and Rachael Kohn are able to cover a complex spectrum of beliefs, practices and theologies from a wide cross-section of traditions precisely because they are specialists.

Nowadays religion is a mainstream political, cultural and socio-economic issue with enormous impact on world affairs. To cover it adequately you need specialists. That is precisely what Stephen Crittenden has done on the Religion Report. He knows what the issues are and where the bodies are buried. Sure, he's upset some powerful people, but that's the nature of a free media.

I'm not paranoid. I don’t see this as an attack on religion. It's more a lack of appreciation of specialization, derived from the half-witted, post-modern conviction that everyone can do anything. Sure, they can ask a few prosaic, "man-in-the-street" questions. But that's not the task of Radio National. If you think it is, get a job with the commercials.

We need to be clear where this is leading. It effectively spells the end of religion as a specialization in the ABC. If you only have a couple of minor, essentially life-style programs on air you don't need people who know their stuff. All you need is an 'interdisciplinary, consumer-focused' approach, produced by the type of journalist who doesn’t know the difference between an Anglo-Catholic and an Evangelical!
He said so eloquently what I clumsily tried to say. The need for experts cannot be overstated, especially in areas that matter. The journalists who give the news are the teachers of the general population. They need to be trained in the areas they cover as their voice has influence on the general population. The domain expert has been lost in mainstream media, and if what Collins is saying is true, then it's sad that our national broadcaster is sacrificing quality for ratings. This opinionated blogger has nothing but respect for Paul Collins.

The Meme of Religion

Atheists, as well as secularists, receive a lot of criticism for speaking out on religion. The sacredness of belief is such that blasphemy is one thing that isn't tolerated. When Bill Maher went on The Daily Show to promote his new movie Religulous, Jon Stewart asked "doesn't [religion] fill that purpose of comfort and aid?" [for the full interview, part 1 part 2] It's a question that seems to come up again and again, and it really seems to be a sticking point. From an evolutionary perspective there must be some benefit to having religion, either on an individual or a group level. What purpose does the meme serve, how did it come to be this way, and what is it's future?

Constructing the construct
Like in biology, to look at religion now we look at the end product of thousands of years of memetic evolution. Ideas on the nature of reality have come and gone, always adapting and evolving where it's needed. As a result, religion is very much like a biological organism; it can become irreducibly complex over time. It's absurd to think that religion is now as it always was, and what is needed is to understand how a religion can be built from the ground up and come to the form it takes now. Of course there is more than one way religion works, there's plenty of different memes out there that are religion. Now it would be logical to assume that all these concepts would stem from a common ancestor, a precursor to religious belief.

In the beginning there were homo sapiens, upright apes who had little idea about the reality they lived in. The hunter gatherers spent much of their time looking for food and shelter, the basic necessities for survival. They migrated from area to area in search of food. They were also social creatures where children needed constant support in order to survive. These creatures also had big brains, imaginative brains that worked at a higher level. The perception of perception, that understanding of self, they had the capacity to think about the world. Herein lies the parameters in which the meme was born.

It could be inferred that the basics of religion was born out of human uncertainty: uncertainty about safety, uncertainty about food, uncertainty about nature itself. The beliefs were order in a chaotic world. As society progressed the meme changed, organised religion came not long after the birth of civilisation. The larger the group, the more necessity for control. Now food was secure, group safety and social cohesion were more important facets of the meme. Now either a new meme can come in and fill the void or the old meme can evolve. The new memes build on what's already there, just as our eye evolved from what is already there. Redundant parts can be lost and the meme becomes irreducibly complex. For many there can be no Christianity without the literal Genesis account, the idea of God is irreducibly linked to the Garden of Eden.

In the modern day we are left with a construct that can not easily be disassembled, the meme itself has evolved to be an integral part of the human condition so just removing it will not work. It has benefits to the individual and that individuals interaction in society. The church is still a place for social cohesion, the words of the priest are still a guide for better living, there's still great uncertainty of the great unknown (death) and ignorance of how reality works in the first place. All these factors need to be replaced before the idea will be given up. In effect the meme has evolved a defence mechanism: it's perceived necessity.

Deconstructing the construct
As I wrote earlier, although difficult the meme can be broken up into a series of components that work together to make the whole. In the last 200 years the rise of the scientific method has etched away at the historical merit of the memes, there's more and more who now see their holy texts are spiritual guides as opposed to a guide for history and science. Secularism is another idea that has challenged religion, morality is not the absolute it once was and liberal democracy has laid the foundation for a more progressive society where there is freedom of choice. The exchange of ideas alongside prosperity has vastly reduced the amount of conflict between rival groups, violent crime is at record lows.

In a lot of ways many components of religion are redundant, they have been replaced by more specific and better memes. But there are still some areas where the components of religion are not adequately replaced. The meaning of life is one. It's often asked that without religion how can there be meaning? Of course, this is confusing the necessity of meaning in us for there to actually be meaning to be given. Like morality, meaning isn't something objective to find. It's derived from our thoughts and character, built up based on our understanding of the world and limited by the genes and environment we live in. The need for God is not proof of God, just as the need for meaning is not proof of universal meaning.

In all of us there is a sense of fairness, of right and wrong. This is again a basis of social interaction and a necessity for law. Many do wrong and get away with it, our sense of fairness wants them to be punished for their misgivings. By taking away this element of religion, be it the eternal judge guarding the pearly gates or reincarnation as an earthworm (personally I'm hoping for gibbon), universal justice is lost. This also has the unfortunate side effect of people having to take personal responsibility for their actions with no God to absolve them of their sins. Bush praying to God before invading Iraq is a supreme act of moral cowardice, but it's one of comfort - for his act was God's plan.

Death is another factor. The materialist answer to the problem of death is incredibly unsatisfying. That's it, that's the end, hope you enjoyed the ride. In the words of the band Regurgitator:
All that I am and all I'll ever be is a brain in a body
Live 'till I die and then rot away, it's a beautiful story
Ideas like Pascal's Wager use this as the cornerstone of persuasion. Why choose mortality when there is a chance at immortality? Surely this line of thinking can at best be a rationalisation for those who already belief rather than a reason to in the first place. Indeed a lot of the justifications for belief like morality, justice, eternal life, love, etc. are all rationalisations not reasons.

Ignorance is bliss
To most people, there's no need at all for understanding the precise nature of reality in order to operate. One doesn't need meticulous knowledge of how a car works in order to drive it, the operation is abstracted enough that a few simple commands successfully operate a complex machine. Same goes for a computer, most people wouldn't have a clue how a computer works on any layer other than the most basic I/O yet they can operate it. People don't need to understand that the world is 4.5 billion years old to live on it, nor do they need to understand that they are the end product of 4 billion years of adaptation and change in order to survive.

The explanation may even be detrimental, explaining seemingly miraculous processes with material explanations. Love, consciousness, happiness, life, the universe, everything, all of which had mystique and meaning. It is perplexing to me that people need intent on a phenomenon in order to find meaning in it. That feeling is extraordinary so it needs a extraordinary explanation. There are explanations out there now, yet require a sophisticated understanding of the nature of reality in order to appreciate. Saying "Goddidit" is far easier to do, and that is why the meme of religion will carry on regardless of how far materialism takes us.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Transitional fossils

It's thought that 99.9% of species that ever lived on this planet are no more. Extinct, dead, never to be seen again. But their existence is not without recognition. A few of the species are ancestors of creatures that are alive today. And a few other species are still to be found, preserved in the earth itself, buried by time only now for a species to examine and understand their significance. Fossils are but a brief glimpse of the past, yet they tell us so much about what life was like at certain periods in earth's history. Just think that 65 million years ago, the last of the dinosaurs were still hunting the plains of North America. Marsupials were already running rampant in Australia and South America. Birds were flourishing in the sky, cousins of the mighty land reptiles that were soon to be lost to time.

The missing links
Evolutionary theory predicts that not only would there be a fossil record, but the fossil record would contain ancestors of creatures that are alive today. The problem is that there is no way to tell if a species was a direct ancestor of the modern species. Take archaeopteryx, possibly the most famous transitional form. It provides a missing link between dinosaurs and birds. It has a reptilian tail, it has a reptilian beak. Yet it not only has wings but feathers too. Now this isn't the only dinosaur discovered with feathers. The velociraptor (as made famous in that brilliant Michael Crichton book and not-quite-so brilliant film) also had feathers, as did many of the Cretaceous predator dinosaurs. But despite archaeopteryx being a perfect candidate as a transitional form between dinosaurs and birds, there is absolutely no way of telling if it's a direct ancestor or a cousin of a ancestor.

So what can a scientist do? There's no way to satisfy the "show me just one transitional fossil" challenge as all fossils that are transitional might not be direct. This way a creationist can dismiss all claims of transitional forms. What Archaeopteryx shows is how evolution took place, it shows the gradual transition between reptilian and bird features. Likewise, while the fossils found that chronicle the evolution of the horse may not be the direct ancestors of the horse, they show just how the modern horse would have evolved from it's fox-like ancestors. The uncertainty over direct ancestry misses the entire point over what transitional fossils tell us.

A good example of the predictive nature of evolution is tiktaalik. Based on what we know about the emergence of vertebrates from water onto land, scientists are able to make predictions about when certain transitional species would be present. And thanks to the work of geologists, the age of rock formations is known. So when a group of palaeontologists went looking for a fossil that would show the transition between a certain type of fish with some amphibian-like features (Panderichthys) that lived 380MYA and early tetrapods that lived 365MYA, the place to look would be in rock around 375 million years old. Tiktaalik was found only a few years ago, and it's features are both of that of a fish and a tetrapod. It's the archaeopteryx of amphibians. Even if it's not a direct ancestor of all tetrapedal life, it would be a close ancestor. It's significance is again it can show how a transitional species would have evolved.

The other type of transitional forms are intermediary species. These are species that would have descended from transitional forms, retaining features common to both forms yet having other adaptive traits that neither form had before. The monotremes of Australia are great examples of this. Platypus still lay eggs, yet have mammary glands to feed their young. Yet the platypus is a highly specialised aquatic creature with adaptive traits common to neither reptiles or mammals. Study of the platypus can provide much information on the evolution of mammals. Likewise reptiles can provide a link between mammals and amphibians, amphibians between reptiles and fish. There are descendants of species now that provide much information on the way certain species evolved. It's a creationist lie that no transitional forms have been found, and it's an even bigger lie to assume that even in the absence of transitional fossils that creationism provides a coherent alternative.

Punctuated equilibrium
There is a story of life that studying the fossil record tells. Life came on gradually, it's about a 3.8 billion year process. At the beginning life was simple, single-celled organisms and simple forms. Then there is the Cambrian explosion around 550 million, where multicellular life and diversity start to appear. First there are invertebrates, then jawless vertebrates, then jawed vertebrates. The gradual emergent complexity of life is shown through the different strata. That change in life over time is indicative of the process that bore us. There are gaps though, so many gaps, fossilisation is a rare occurrence and only happens under the right conditions. Darwin concluded that the fossil record was incomplete and that over time gradual changes would be found. It seems on that account, Darwin was off the mark.

Of course evolution doesn't live or die on the accuracy of The Origin Of Species. Like all scientific concepts it changes over time as more evidence comes to light, and evolution has undergone many changes to the initial concepts that Darwin came up with. One of those is the idea of the stability of species. As Gould notes, the fossils of populations are stable entities for millions of years, the variation does not point to gradualism in the pure sense. His view is in essence a different from of gradualism, though one that fits the fossil record.

Evolution does seem a highly conservative process, the amount of data that is replicated each generation is staggering in accuracy. Natural selection does play a role in this, it may be that it's favoured for populations to stay in stable forms. It may be also that if a population is big enough, the gene-pool will prohibit change as mutations do not spread through the population. Mutations might not be practically useful, as many niches in nature are already filled. For whatever reason this occurs, the stability of populations in the fossil record is there for all to see.

The debate concerning punctuated equilibrium is indicative of the ever changing nature of science. The theory of evolution is not gospel, it changes as new information comes to light. There is still much to learn in biology, we have but scratched the surface of scientific understanding. The story of the fossil record shows that life on earth has changed over time, that it had a very simple beginning and it's only in the last 550 million years that life as we know it today even started to take place. Fossils are a glimpse at the past, they are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final product is meant to look like. Life has evolved, just what processes cause that evolution are the question. The fossil record shows that life evolved, it just has input into how we figure out it all happened.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Cute Animal News Story

Now I normally rip into the media for it's ability to report irrelevance, but this highly irrelevant story I thought was kind of cool.

A Japanese tavern has turned to two monkeys for help with its table service.

The Kayabukiya sake house, in the city of Utsunomiya north of Tokyo, is using a pair of uniformed Japanese macaques called Yat-chan and Fuku-chan to serve its customers. The younger of the two, Fuku-chan, usually begins the first shift and is quick to give customers a hot towel to help them clean their hands before they order their drinks, as is the custom in Japan. Twelve-year-old Yat-chan is the crowd pleaser at the tavern, moving agilely around the restaurant as he responds to customers' requests.

With only two years of experience, the younger monkey's workload is limited to delivering hot towels, but both are well appreciated by customers, who tip them with boiled soya beans. "The monkeys are actually better waiters than some really bad human ones," one customer, 34-year-old Takayoshi Soeno, said. The 63-year-old tavern owner, Kaoru Otsuka, originally kept the animals as household pets. Mr Otsuka says it was only when the older one began aping him that he realised he could use them as waiters. "Yat-chan first learned by just watching me working in the restaurant," he said. "It all started when one day I gave him a hot towel out of curiosity and he brought the towel to the customer."

Once the restaurant's employees were properly certified by local authorities to work with animals, both Fuku-chan and Yat-chan clocked in for work. A regular of the tavern, 58-year-old Shoichi Yano, says the animals are like her children. "Actually, [they're] better," she said. "My son doesn't listen to me but Yat-chan will." Some clients, like retiree Miho Takikkawa, say Yat-chan appears to understand their exact orders. "We called out for more beer just then and it brought us some beer," she said. "It's amazing how it seems to understand human words."

The monkeys work in shifts of up to two hours a day due to Japanese animal rights regulations. But the owner is hoping to bring up a whole new generation of furry waiters and waitresses after receiving three new baby monkeys this year.

Yes, it's a puff piece, even quality news services like BBC and the ABC put these kinds of stories out there. So what's my interest? It's a pseudo-experiment in animal behaviour. Maybe stories like this are the bridge we need to show our connection to the animal kingdom. Sure a cat dialling emergency is cute and makes for a nice story, but this shows an animal that is capable of doing a job that requires higher brain function.

Anyone who has seen the sublime documentary series Life on Earth should remember what the macaque is capable of. In the 1950s, researchers left sweet potatoes on the beach for the monkeys to eat. One clever girl decided to wash hers in the water to get off the sand. Soon, other monkeys started to do the same. Then the researchers tried the same with rice, that same clever girl threw handfuls of the rice and sand into the water - the rice would float while the sand would sink and she was able to eat the rice in handfuls without digesting large clumps of sand. These experiments have resulted in the pseudoscientific claim of the 100th monkey effect, a phenomenon that doesn't even have a factual basis on which it's conclusions are drawn. The point is that these small-brained simians are smarter than we give them credit for.

Now of course there are plenty of scientific experiments involving the intelligence of many different animals, and we have seen many times where animals are not only able to perform complex problems but are able to do some quicker than humans. It's becoming harder and harder to keep our species as something unique, every time a unique trait is defined we find an animal capable of doing the equivalent. For all the progress and accumulation of knowledge, we have indeed separated ourselves from nature. But in each of us lies genes that came about over hundreds of millions of years, that were able to provide the organism with some survival advantage throughout it's various forms. Most of these genes and the variation we have is shared by both us and the macaque, our last common ancestor was about 25 million years ago - not long on the geological time scale.

Maybe there is more than simply anthropomorphising the animal kingdom in these stories, certainly that element is there but it might not be the whole picture. Maybe we see us in them because 90something percent of us is in them. It's not that they are exhibiting human behaviour, it's that they are exhibiting behaviour that shows us we are animals. Of course this is nothing revolutionary to say; scientists have understood this for around a century now. But it's something neglected by a society where we are taught that we are unique, that we are above behaving like animals. But nature keeps reminding us, it keeps sending us subtle hints that we are a part of the same process as the rest of life on earth. Having a man in a labcoat announcing it won't convince many people, but having a monkey that can work customer service just might.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Book review: The Blind Watchmaker

I saw the documentary Dawkins made to accompany the book a couple of months ago and given his persistent works in the field of promotion of evolutionary thought, I had a good idea of what to expect from this book - it was how we could account for design as seen in all life as we know it today. Richard Dawkins is a great writer of popular science, his style is engaging, informative and persuasive. Rather than just presenting a body of text, he uses a narrative to keep the reader engaged. He does, however, often go on tangents leaving me to wonder at times exactly what the original point he was trying to make was. But even in those long tangents he manages to bring it back on point so eloquently, now with a platform on which to ram that point home.

Content-wise, the book seemed to cover the processes behind natural selection quite well. It was able to answer many objectionable points that are made against the theory. He gave examples of good and bad design in nature, being very illustrative of the constraints and functionality that exists in neo-Darwinian theory. His use of biomorphs was a very novel way of drawing an analogy between emergent complexity and information systems; for me personally to have a comparison between biology and computer science made it a lot easier for me to understand the function. It also gave me a lot of programming ideas, but that's besides the point.

One criticism to make would be on his treatment of abiogenesis. While he was able to address and pinpoint the intersection of the known and unknown, his way of selling the concept could be misleading. Without proper understanding of the concept, one might have thought Dawkins was selling the idea that the origin of life was simply a chance event. Indeed, former atheist-turned-deist Antony Flew has complained that his understanding of abiogenesis as instructed by Dawkins amounted to a chance event. This is not the case, and while we don't know the exact origin of life, there's no reason to assume it was just a stroke of luck; rather it was a chain of events. That chain is currently unknown, but as Dawkins quite rightly points out, not knowing the origin of life doesn't diminish evolutionary theory as it's a matter for biochemistry.

Obviously with me the book was preaching to the converted, I'm already a staunch supporter of evolution and a materialist worldview. His emphasis on the constraints was good to see, so many seem to misunderstand evolutionary theory because they don't recognise that mutation can only build on what's already there. The book is now 20 years old, yet as a basic guide to evolution it still stands the test of time. While his atheism may get in the way for some, the narrative alone makes this book a convincing prose for Darwinian selection.

next book: Bill Bryson - A Short History of Nearly Everything