Bertrand Russell

To Edith

Through the long years

I sought peace,

I found ecstasy, I found anguish,

I found madness,

I found loneliness,

I found the solitary pain

that gnaws the heart,

But peace I did not find.

Now, old & near my end,

I have known you,

And, knowing you,

I have found both ecstasy & peace,

I know rest,

After so many lonely years.

I know what life & love may be.

Now, if I sleep,

I shall sleep fulfilled.

Ten books by Richard Dawkins

You don’t have to agree with everything professor Dawkins stands for to acknowledge that, since Carl Sagan, he has been one of the most prominent science popularizers lately. He has succeeded in putting his message across several times throughout his more-than-30-year-long career as a science writer. I decided to draw up a list of his books and give a short account of each, though I must admit I haven’t read them all myself.

The Selfish Gene (1976)
The one that made him famous and controversial overnight. In it he argues that natural selection acts on genes, not on the level of populations as previously held. This is where he invented the term meme as a unit of cultural transmission, analogous to the gene. This is still the book most people identify Dawkins with, although some of the ideas might seem outdated.

The Extended Phenotype (1982)
Here he elaborates on the ideas put forward in The Selfish Gene, but in a way that’s a tiny bit more technical, while retaining its readability. Dawkins regards this book as his most significant contribution to evolutionary biology. Subtitled The long reach of the gene, phenotypes are not necessarily limited to the organism itself, but can be manifestations extended beyond that. Think of the beaver’s dam.

The Blind Watchmaker (1986)
One of his most popular works, in it he takes on the task of explaining how evolution works, using the metaphor of a blind watchmaker, meaning that evolution has no purpose in creating endless forms. He wrote the book to, in his own words, “persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence.”

River Out of Eden (1995)
His shortest book, it basically contains summaries of topics mentioned in his previous books. He goes on to explain evolution through genes and human ancestry. He also contemplates how Darwinian evolution may take place outside our planet.  The title comes from Genesis. Illustrations by his wife, actress Lalla Ward, can also be found in here.

Climbing Mount Improbable (1996)
This work is a book-long rebuttal of the obnoxious creationist claim that the chances for complex organs, like the bacterial flagellum or the human eye, to evolve are so meagre that they surely must be the handiwork of an intelligent designer. At first glance it looks improbable, but evolution moves across the adaptive landscape gradually, and given enough time, it will certainly reach the peak of that metaphorical mountain.

Unweaving The Rainbow (1998)
The relationship of science and art is dissected here. John Keats once blamed Isaac Newton for destroying the rainbow by simply explaining it. He tries to persuade the reader that natural wonders like the rainbow do not necessarily lose aesthetic value once their mystery is solved. To the contrary, dissecting nature has the capacity of actually enhancing its beauty.

A Devil’s Chaplain (2003)
This is a collection of essays written over the years. The subtitle says it all: Reflections on hope, lies, science, and love. The topics are diverse, it contains a eulogy for his friend Douglas Adams, an essay that disrobes postmodernism, as well as an open letter to his then minor daughter, giving her advice on how to evaluate evidence and view things with a critical and open mind.

The Ancestor’s Tale (2004)
In the fashion of The Canterbury Tales, Dawkins takes a pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution starting from humans. Along the way he stops at every major cornerstone to relate the most interesting facts (tales), and what we need to know about that particular ancestor. Spanning billions of years he finally arrives at the origins of life. My personal favourite. It’s time for a re-read, I reckon.

The God Delusion (2006)
Sold over 2 million copies, this one virtually made him an international superstar and an iconic figure of atheism. It became one of the four great books of the so-called “new atheism”, the others being The End Of Faith by Sam Harris, God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, and Breaking The Spell by Daniel Dennett. Not the easiest read, but well worth the effort.

The Greatest Show On Earth (2009)
He had written books on evolution for decades, before he realized he never actually laid out the evidence for it. With the upsurge of the intelligent design movement and its dumbed down version creationism, he felt the need, alongside other notables like Jerry Coyne or Neil Shubin, to lamentably write this book. The evidence is clearly demonstrated here, to deny it, like all creationists do, would be an act of lunacy.

As revealed in recent interviews, Dawkins is currently working on a children’s book, in which he intends to explain evolution in a way that’s understandable even to the youngest of the inquirers.

Last Chance To See

In 1990, a book appeared in the shops called Last Chance To See. It was the account of the journeys made by Douglas Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine in their pursue of some of the most endangered animals on the planet. Twenty years later, the same zoologist hooked up with Stephen Fry, a great friend of the late Douglas Adams, and together they revisited the same animals. This time not only a book was released, but a spectacular six-part BBC documentary series came along with it as well.

Dr. Carwardine is an extremely knowledgeable naturalist and conservationist, author of about 50 books. Stephen Fry, one of my favourite public figures, is an out of place man, he simply doesn’t know what he’s doing in the jungle. He’s a gadget freak, first thing he does in the middle of the Amazonian Basin is to check if there’s broadband available on one of his several iPhones. Awkward and unfit, he falls on his arm and breaks it in three in the very first episode. The comic value added by Stephen is a major factor in propelling the film and in setting the series apart from other nature programs.

At the outset, this unlikely duo tries to track down the Amazonian manatee, a peaceful aquatic mammal that looks like an oversized underwater bulldog, but can’t find any. What they find is the pink river dolphin or boto, which still thrives in reasonable numbers, as opposed to the Chinese river dolphin that has gone extinct since Douglas and Mark encountered it in the Yangtze. In the next episode they hop over to Africa to search out the Northern white rhino. Along the way, they meet chimps, wild elephants and gorillas, but eventually decide against entering the rhino’s territory stricken by civil war. In Madagascar, a pygmy chameleon, a mouse lemur and the indri are the main sensations, before finding the aye aye, one of the rarest primates, up in a coconut palm.

In Indonesia, they find themselves surrounded by Komodo dragons and releasing newly hatched sea turtles on the beach. In New Zealand, we learn that the black robin came back from the brink of extinction from as few as 5 individuals and only one breeding female. This success story inspired those responsible now for the rescue of the kakapo, which a couple of years ago dwindled to a mere 40 individuals. All were captured and translocated to a tiny island south of New Zealand, and due to an effective breeding program their numbers now climbed up to 123. One of the most memorable moments of the series was when a male kakapo tried to mate with Mark’s head, much to Stephen’s amusement:

The kakapo’s clumsiness was most endearingly described by Douglas Adams:

It is an exceptionally fat bird (a good-sized adult weighs roughly two or three kilograms) and its wings are just about good enough to waggle about a bit if it thinks it’s going to trip over. But flying is completely out of the question. Strangely, not only has it forgotten how to fly, it also seems to have forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. Legend has it that a seriously worried kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground.

The final episode is spent tracing the blue whale off Baja California in the Sea of Cortez, and while they’re at it, they collect and analyze sea lion poo, and measure a whale shark. The crew also observes the Humboldt squid, a fierce apex predator that’s gradually taking the place of sharks at the top of the food chain.

I haven’t read the book yet, but the series I thoroughly enjoyed. This is no ordinary entertainment, carried out by BBC’s decades-old professionalism conveying amazing wildlife shots and a profound message.

My Flesh and Blood

Susan Tom is no ordinary woman. Once upon a time she gives birth to two sons. Then she starts adopting some more. Her husband leaves at the fourth. She can’t seem to stop accumulating them. Only the capacity of the house sets a limit to the perpetual influx of children. Some of them have health problems. And that’s a gross understatement.

Joe has cystic fibrosis, a nasty disease in which the mucus in the body builds up, especially in the lungs, and leads to frequent inflammations and difficulty in breathing, and ultimately to an untimely death. He also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to top it with, involving sudden anger outbreaks directed towards his younger sisters.

Anthony’s got what experts call recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, a hideous terminal illness. It simply manifests in a gradual loss of the skin by peeling off. Anthony has no hands and feet to speak of. Oh, and he’s got cancer, too. Squamous cell carcinoma, to be exact.

Susie had the same until she dies.

Xenia was born without legs. She figure skates using her hands. Hannah – no legs whatsoever. Faith’s face and right arm burned down completely when she was an infant. She likes math though. Cloe is not able to bend her elbows and knees due to another rare congenital disorder (arthrogryposis). Katie was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and is not quite alright in the head. Libby’s spine is not closed properly (spina bifida). A medical dictionary could be filled with these kids.

The Tom family was the subject matter of the documentary My Flesh and Blood (2003) that chronicled a whole year in their lives. Out of thirteen children altogether, eleven are adopted, three have/had terminal disorders, and six have severe disabilities (five of which could not live without a wheelchair). There’s one apparently healthy, teenage daughter, Margaret (she had brain surgery in her infancy), around the house who helps Susan with the everyday chores and the kids. She suffers a nervous breakdown in the film.

What special ingredient does one have to possess in order to knowingly adopt a child whose imminent demise is inevitable? Even one such kid is plenty to tackle psychologically, for an everyday parent that is. But this woman is so genuinely and inherently good-hearted that she’s virtually unable to leave a disabled child upon sight. Mind you, it’s not an obsession with her, she’s a perfectly normal single mother. Still, ordinary parents may think she goes way over the top in her charity, but some sort of inner force must reside within her that makes her gather all these children with special needs. I don’t claim to know whatever that force may be, but one certainly needs to be in possession of tremendous mental and physical strength to be able to go through all this. I mean, she’s willing to lose children provided she’s managed to make them feel belong to a family, make them feel whole, make them feel loved. Such altruistic behaviour is inconcievable to most of us. Well, let’s just put it thus: she loves kids to a fault.

Susie dies prior to filming. Joe breaks his own ribs during a coughing fit and suffocates in the course of shooting. Anthony succumbs to skin cancer shortly after filming finished. Kids come and go, but one thing remains: Susan Tom is an extraordinary woman.

(You can donate to The Tom Family Education Trust; a 3-page interview with director Jonathan Karsh)

Don Quixote

Don_Quixote_5 People in general don’t read classic literature. If you ever pick up a book it will most likely be a pulp fiction. After a long day’s work who has the energy to read anything substantial? You’re not going to tire yourself even more by reading long, tedious, nonsensical passages by obscure writers from the 19th century. So you think. How wrong can one be? Long, granted. Tedious, occasionally. Nonsensical, not a single one of them. In no way were authors of former times stupid. In actual fact, reading classic literature can be life changing. How come? Why bother to read something that was written hundreds of years ago?  What relevance can it bear on my everyday struggle, also known as life? The reason is that these books teach you the meaning of being human. They teach you the way to interact with fellow humans. The epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, contained everything there is to know about the human nature and heart  as early as 2,800 years ago.

Enter Don Quixote.

Here’s a book that is more talked about than read nowadays. It’s really unfair, to say the least. Written by Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra exactly 400 years ago in two parts, it is not uncommonly ranked among the greatest novels of all time. That sounds strong, eh? There must be good reason for such a strong claim, right? There is.

I’m not trying to write another review here. Literature scholars have done that countless times and will be doing so in the future. Having said that, allow me a couple of remarks that have been concocted by the neurons in my cerebral cortex about this timeless classic.

Don Quixote is not just one of the greatest novels, it is also considered one of the earliest in the western world. This is the greatest adventure story I’ve ever read, which is supremely humorous at the same time. No doubt a bit long-winded (the version I read is 760 pages long), but well worth the effort. The Don, having read all the available books of chivalry, proclaims himself a knight-errant, whose only purpose in life is to serve those who he deems to be in need of his knightly service. He is an extremely likeable figure. Wise and knowledgeable in matters of worldly affairs and human nature, but very naïve and credulous at the same time.  In effect, he requires to be offset, or buffered, if you will, by his loyal squire, Sancho Pança, who is an ignorant countryman, but very down-to-earth. Together they get into countless comic situations, often ending up severely battered, but somehow they invariably manage to keep their good cheer. Proper English translations do not diminish the eloquence of the protagonist, which is unparalleled in all literature. Take a look at the famous windmill scene, for instance:

‘Fortune,’ cried he, ‘directs our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished: look yonder, friend Sancho, there are at least thirty outrageous giants, whom I intend to encounter; and, having deprived them of life, we will begin to enrich ourselves with their spoils: for they are lawful prize; and the extirpation of that cursed brood will be an acceptable service to Heaven.’ ‘What giants?’ quoth Sancho Pança. ‘Those whom thou seest yonder,’ answered Don Quixote, ‘with their long extended arms; some of that detested race have arms of so immense a size, that sometimes they reach two leagues in length.’ ‘Pray, look better, sir,’ quoth Sancho; ‘those things yonder are no giants, but windmills, and the arms you fancy, are their sails, which, being whirled about by the wind, make the mill go.’ ‘It is a sign,’ cried Don Quixote, ‘thou art but little acquainted with adventures. I tell thee they are giants; and therefore, if thou art afraid, go aside and say thy prayers, for I am resolved to engage in a dreadful, unequal combat against them all.’

Not many works of literature can boast phrases that most people recognize immediately. The adjective quixotic, for example, bears the following definition in the dictionary on my laptop: “exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical”. Also, it’s not too hard to deduce from the above passage the origin of the phrase tilting at windmills.

This tome was my everyday companion for more than two months (I’m a slow reader). I felt a slight sadness upon turning the last page, but also a good deal of contentment at the same time. People are afraid of touching serious, thick books such as this one, but once you manage to surmount your (unwarranted) prejudice, you’d be surprised how quickly and completely it absorbs you.

I reckon I’d best stop besmirching this great work by my rather sloppy and incoherent writing and better wind up with what Clifton Fadiman (a more competent critic than I am) has to say about Don Quixote:

Is this book a burlesque of chivalry? Or is it the most persuasive of pleas for the chivalric attitude, apart from any specific time or institution? Is it a satire on dreamers? Or is it a defense of dreaming? Is it a symbol of the tragic soul and history of Spain? If so, why does it speak so clearly to men of all nations and races? Is it the author’s spiritual autobiography? A study of insanity? Or of a higher sanity? Or is it a dramatized treatise on illusion and reality? Finally, is Don Quixote a kind of actor, who chooses his role because by so doing he can absorb life and reflect on it in a way denied to the single, unvarying personality?

I leave you to the golden book that Macauley thought “the best novel in the world, beyond comparison.”

It is easily one of my all-time favourite books.

Child murders at Robin Hood Hills

NVG9744-03 I saw a documentary the other day. It’s called Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. It’s been lingering about in my head for two weeks now. Not many movies do that to me. The premise: three children are tortured, raped and murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. Three teenage boys (the West Memphis 3) are accused based on the confession made by one of them. The other two deny any involvement. All three are duly prosecuted and facing trial.

There is no evidence.

Or, to put it mildly, the evidence is circumstantial. They wear black. They listen to heavy metal music. They read about the Wicca religion. These things might be considered outlandish in certain communities, but do they actually predispose someone to brutal murder?

The crime scene is a woody area with a small creek running through it. Although the children were mutilated there is no blood. No fingerprints. Not any weapons or tools. DNA analysis is inconclusive. It’s as if the whole affair had been carried out by professional killers. Contrast this with three ignorant and obtuse boys who never saw a book other than the bible (actually, that’s not entirely true, one of them adopted Wicca). Never been out of town. They have been subject to religious indoctrination all their lives. They seek attention. During the trials it seemed to me as though they were enjoying the whole shebang, as well as, at the same time, being completely oblivious to what was going on around them or what was at stake. It’s evident, at least for me, that these guys were not able to perform the abomination of what they were accused. boys

The parents of the murdered, in a good Christian-like manner, are bloodthirsty. They want to see the alleged perpetrators go down in flames. The genuine hatred radiating off their faces is terrifying. The level of stupidity exhibited by these people is appalling to the average European viewer. You really need to watch it yourself to get a grasp of what I mean.

Two of them are sentenced to life without parole, one of them to death by lethal injection. They accept the sentence with utter indifference. No emotional breakdowns, nothing. They’re not aware of what just happened. They’re led away in bulletproof vests.

You can watch the trailer here. I sat through the whole two and a half hours of the film without stirring once.

Metallica_-_Master_of_Puppets Another aspect of the film that drew me in is the extensive use of Metallica’s music. I’ve never listened to Metallica before. I still can’t appreciate the thrashing parts, but when they slow it down, they sound great. Director Joe Berlinger made me want to listen to this album to the left. I later learned that it’s considered one of the greatest heavy metal albums ever. Well, I don’t know about that, but I really enjoyed Welcome Home (Sanitarium) and Orion.

Obama’s prize

Many people are taken aback. Justifiably or not is a matter of dispute. He’s only been in office for nine months for goodness’ sake! Granted, however, how many of his predecessors has taken the issues of nuclear disarmament and climate change seriously? Let alone act upon them? As the head of the most powerful country on Earth? I’m no political analyst, but even I know that substantial measures have been taken by President Obama in order to further the above issues. This award makes George W. Bush look even more like a donkey.

On the other side of the coin, the president himself is obviously not happy about the decoration. It is apparent when you take a look at his press conference. Just look at his facial expression. It is a huge and unexpected burden. As he articulated it in his speech, the award is not intended to honour his past achievements, but more of an incentive for future actions to be performed. I think it is an extremely clever decision on the part of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. This award will be hovering over his head like a halo every time he makes a decision regarding Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, or North Korea. I guess we shall see how he lives up to the expectations by the end of his term. I certainly wouldn’t want to walk in Barack Obama’s shoes.

I may be in the minority with my opinion, yet I do believe the appropriate stance is a supportive one.

(On a side note: Is anybody remotely familiar with Herta Müller’s body of work?)

Inside Nature’s Giants

A great new series was broadcast in the UK this summer: Inside Nature’s Giants. In each programme, veterinarians and biologists dissect a big animal to trace its evolutionary past. It contains numerous explicit scenes showing the giants’ internal anatomy. It is as enjoyable as any of BBC’s nature series, including those narrated by Attenborough.

The first series can now be viewed on YouTube. Here I embed the first 10 minutes of each four episode.

Tongue-eating isopod: an amazing parasite

FishParasite My favourite parasite is back in the news. This is an isopod (a crustacean, closely related to woodlice) named Cymothoa exigua, and here’s what it does: it slips into a miserable fish’s oral cavity and clamps itself on the base of the tongue and commences to drain blood. As it grows on the fish’s expense, the tongue will atrophy and waste away completely leaving but a stub. Then it assumes the role of the tongue and starts acting like a normal tongue! It is no doubt hideous to look at, but it just as much amazes me how this sort of adaptation can come about. It apparently does no other harm to the host, but I still definitely don’t want one in my mouth.

Great tits took to bat-eating

An incredible behaviour has been observed in the Bükk Mountains of Hungary. Great tits (Parus major) developed the habit of hunting down and killing bats for food. Scientists are quite taken aback, for these nice little passerines were not expected to be able to predate on prey as large as pipistrelle bats. The behaviour is most likely a ‘cultural phenomenon’, that is one of them made a hit by trial and error and, being quick-learners, the new type of food acquisition quickly spread through the population.

See more on this in BBC News (with a grisly photo of a half-eaten bat) and Times Online. The original results appear today in the journal Biology Letters.

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