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I just started reading Johann Hari’s latest article about Noam Chomsky, and I was welcomed to this interesting fact:
Noam Chomsky is one of the most hysterically abused figures in the world today. Even his critics have to concede that his work inventing the field of linguistics — and so beginning to decode the structure of how language is formed in the human brain — makes him one of the most important intellectuals alive.
I agree that Chomsky is an important intellectual figure, and his massive contributions to linguistics are well-documented, but he did not invent the field. Some might say reinvented… Although, I’m not sure how favourably history will view Chomsky’s shadow having loomed over linguistics for such a long time. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that he’s largely been a positive influence, even if I find myself disagreeing with a lot of his major ideas.
The limitations of geological periods, imposed by physical science, cannot, of course, disprove the hypothesis of transmutation of species; but it does seem sufficient to disprove the doctrine that transmutation has taken place through ‘descent with modification by natural selection’. — Lord Kelvin (Of Geological Dynamics, 1869).
It might seem odd that I start a post about evolution with a quote claiming natural selection is inadequate to account for the transmutation of species. It is, though, highly relevant to what I’m going to discuss in the post, and strikes at the heart of why it’s fundamental for us to understand the theory of evolution by natural selection. See, in 1869, Lord Kelvin’s position was fairly reasonable, and, as you’d expect for a man of such high scientific standing, the available evidence in physics did seem to conflict with Darwin’s theory. The Sun was one particularly salient point of contention: to get the diversity of species we see on Earth, evolution needs a long time to work (on the order of hundreds of millions, if not billions of years), yet according to 19th-century physics the Sun could only have been burning for 40-million years.
Gillian McKeith: You are what you tweet. If you thought the subject of my title was some five-year who just discovered various nouns for his excrement, then you’re not far off: Gillian McKeith is back, and like any bad-sequel she’s saying the same shit, just repackaged into an eerily similar set of events. What I particularly loved about this article is McKeith’s denial that she’s actually the McKeith in question. Confused? Head over and read the article. It’s short and fun.
A strong dose of regulation will keep the health food industry regular. Interesting article by Martin Robbins (of Lay Scientist) over at the Guardian. I’m not normally one for regulation: I think it’s often a backwards way of looking at an issue. And I’m definitely against our ridiculous zeal for legislation-only solutions. But I do think in the case of the health food industry regulation and legislation are fantastically effective. To bring it back to the post above: McKeith has literally made millions through the exploitation of a weakly controlled industry. Ultimately, though, I do think we need to also consider the other effective weapon against these erroneous claims: education. After all, those who know, know not to buy.
I Write Like… H.P. Lovecraft, apparently. It probably explains the lack of comments on my posts: people are scared shitless. It’s okay, I’m not a venomous wordsmith, just a former linguistics student searching for a new university to call home. See, not so scary now… Click the link if you fancy wasting a minute or so of your time.
The Price of Altruism. I always remember first learning about the Price equation at university, and the sad story of its progenitor, George Price, who committed suicide in 1975. Over a Gene Expression, Razib Khan has written a fantastic, in-depth review of Oren Harman’s book, The Price of Altruism. There are too many snippets of information to pick out for a summary, but here’s an ironically amusing section:
The “hawk” and “dove” morphs made famous by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene go back to Maynard Smith’s work, but the terms themselves were of Price’s invention according to Harman. If I read Harman’s chronology correctly Price was already a fervent Christian by this time, having left atheism in the same period as he launched his career as an evolutionary biologist, and there is some hint that the term “dove” may have been influenced by his particular religious leanings. This possibility seems all the more amusing in light of Dawkins’ later career as an atheist polemicist.
Matt Ridley: When Ideas Have Sex. Love him for his biology, or loathe him for his economics, you can’t help but nod in agreement with Matt Ridley’s TED talk. I think he over emphasizes this apparent trend of good times to come. He clearly hasn’t read Taleb’s Black Swan (and probably isn’t all too interested given his risk-taking strategies at Northern Rock). But his stuff on trade and cultural evolution is fairly rock solid from my perspective.
For me, recent computational accounts of language evolution provide a compelling rationale that cultural, as opposed to biological, evolution is fundamental in understanding the design features of language. The basis for this rests on the simple notion of language being not only a conveyor of cultural information, but also a socially learned and culturally transmitted system: that is, an individual’s linguistic knowledge is the result of observing the linguistic behaviour of others. Here, this well-attested process of language acquisition, often termed Iterated Learning, emphasises the effects of differential learnability on competing linguistic variants. Sounds, words and grammatical structures are therefore seen to be the products of selection and directed mutation. As you can see from the use of terms such as selection and mutation it’s clear we can draw many parallels between the literature on language evolution and analogous processes in biology. Indeed, Darwin himself noted such similarities in the Descent of Man. However, one aspect evolutionary linguists don’t seem to borrow is that of a null model. Is it possible that the changes we see in languages over time are just the products of processes analogous to genetic drift?
This isn’t the first time Seed has sacrificed editorial independence. A worrying article about scienceblogs’ parent company, Seed, and how they restricted the publication of a column on the basis of it being critical of Dow Chemical — someone they were seeking an advertising contract with. As Gaia Vince points out in an email she received from Seed:
We’re not running the bhopal piece, and we’re passing on the Maldive shark ban (a bit late now… Too bad it got caught up in prod week… ). As for Bhopal, it’s a cautionary call on our part as we’re in the midst of advertising negotiations with Dow (who have been inspired by Seed’s photography in their own brand campaigns). RE: the payment, as you’re on a scheduled direct-payment, the bhopal fee covers the Kerry/Carbon trading news piece fee that was outstanding. Let me know if that’s clear.
It’s a great article that’s not only revealing about Seed, but the underlying motivations of the journalism industry in general. I never thought I’d find myself linking to Chomsky’s politics, yet, given the nature of this article, maybe it’s time I dug out my copy of Manufacturing Consent.
Scientific Certainty Argumentation Methods (SCAMs): Science and the politics of doubt. H/T: Ben Goldacre. A good paper looking at what happens when science and politics mix, and how the two have different expectations of what science is. Here’s the abstract:
At least since the time of Popper, scientists have understood that science provides falsification, but not “proof.” In the world of environmental and technological controversies, however, many observers continue to call precisely for “proof,” often under the guise of “scientific certainty.” Closer examination of real-world disputes suggests that such calls may reflect not just a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science, but a clever and surprisingly effective political-economic tactic—”Scientific Certainty” Argumentation Methods, or SCAMs. Given that most scientific findings are inherently probabilistic and ambiguous, if agencies can be prevented from imposing any regulations until they are unambiguously “justified,” most regulations can be defeated or postponed, often for decades, allowing profitable but potentially risky activities to continue unabated. An exploratory examination of previously documented controversies suggests that SCAMs are more widespread than has been recognized in the past, and that they deserve greater attention in the future.
The secret history of X and Z. An excellent article from Ed Yong on Chromosome evolution in humans and birds. Key paragraph:
Why the similarities? It’s possible that both X and Z evolved from autosomes with features that made them more likely to become sex chromosomes. Perhaps, for example, their genes were already sparsely distributed. But Bellott ruled out this idea. He compared X to its closest counterpart in chicken, and Z to its equivalents in humans – none of these relatives had any structural features that made them stand out among other autosomes. There’s nothing that singles them out as ideal candidates for the role of sex chromosome.
You are not authorized to see these pictures of the oil spill, citizen… Do not look. Washington’s Blog has some fairly harrowing photos of the recent gulf oil spill and the damage it’s doing to wildlife. Here’s one example: