By Michael McGehee at Mar 06, 2009
I am really interested in the sciences though admittedly I am not that advanced at all in mathematics, which really hurts the depth of science I can swim in because math is the language of nature - I am slowly realizing what Bertrand Russell meant when he wrote, "I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux." In other words, I can play in the shallow end, witness and comprehend the basics but I cannot (yet!) get into that deep of a conversation with Mother Nature.
Some of the things that interest me are the life and death of cells (in particular, apoptosis). We are made up of trillions of living cells and living organisms that go through some incredibly fascinating journeys and for the most part we are oblivious to this. Some of the cells in our body sacrifice themselves for the development process of the body or the plant. These cells kill themselves, get surrounded by other living cells who basically feed on them and this provides nourishment for the cells which lead to the development of tissue. I found this picture on the wikipedia entry of apoptosis which illustrates what can happen if the process does not occur properly:
I am also interested in evolution and the factors that drive it. While the most popular factor is natural selection we are starting to learn that there is more to evolution than natural selection. Darwin was wrong when he wrote, "from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." Other factors like physics and chemistry are proving to be factors as well. In a June 2008 speech on the topic of evolution and linguistics, Noam Chomsky said:
According to what seems to be a fairly general scientific consensus, the questions are very recent ones in evolutionary time. Roughly 100,000+ years ago, the first question [why are there languages?] did not arise, because there were no languages. By about 50,000 years ago, the answers to both questions had been settled [second question: why so many languages?]. By then our ancestors began to leave Africa, soon spreading over the entire world. The evidence is compelling that since then the language faculty has remained essentially unchanged - which is not surprising in such a brief period. An infant from a stone age tribe in the South Pacific, if brought to Boston, will be indistinguishable in linguistic and other cognitive functions from children born in Boston who trace their ancestry to the first English colonists; and conversely. The actual dates are uncertain, and do not matter much for our purposes. The general picture appears to be roughly accurate... Presumably some genetic event rewired the brain, providing the mechanisms for language, with the rich syntax that yields the modes of expression of thought that are a prerequisite for social development and the sharp changes of behavior that are revealed in the archaeological record and presumably occasioned the trek from Africa, where anatomically modern humans had apparently been present for hundreds of thousands of years. It appears that human brain size may have reached its current level recently, perhaps about 100,000 years ago, which suggests to some specialists that "human language probably evolved, at least in part, as an automatic but adaptive consequence of increased absolute brain size" (neuroscientist George Striedter).
With regard to language, Tattersall concludes that "after a long -- and poorly understood - period of erratic brain expansion and reorganization in the human lineage, something occurred that set the stage for language acquisition. This innovation would have depended on the phenomenon of emergence, whereby a chance combination of preexisting elements results in something totally unexpected," presumably "a neural change...in some population of the human lineage,...rather minor in genetic terms, [which] probably had nothing whatever to do with adaptation" though it conferred advantages, then proliferated. "We have to conclude that the appearance of language and its anatomical correlates was not driven by natural selection, however beneficial these innovations may appear in hindsight." Perhaps it was a side effect of increased brain size, as Striedter suggests, or perhaps some chance mutation... Within some small group from which we are all descended, a rewiring of the brain took place in some individual, call him Prometheus, yielding the operation of unbounded Merge, applying to concepts with intricate (and little understood) properties. Guided very likely by third factor principles, Prometheus's language provides him with an infinite array of structured expressions with interpretations of the kind illustrated: duality of semantics, operator-variable constructions, unpronounced elements with substantial consequences for interpretation and thought, etc. Prometheus had many advantages: capacities for complex thought, planning, interpretation, and so on. The capacity would then be transmitted to offspring, coming to predominate (no trivial matter, it appears, but let us put that aside). At that stage, there would be an advantage to externalization, so the capacity might come to be linked as a secondary process to the SM system for externalization and interaction, including communication - a special case, at least if we invest the term "communication" with some substantive meaning. It is not easy to imagine an account of human evolution that does not assume at least this much, in one or another form. Any additional assumptions carry an empirical burden of proof (ignorance, which abounds, leaves the questions open).
We have all probably seen the movie Men in Black. Remember that scene where Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are fighting the giant cockroach? Could such a creature evolve? Most likely no and not because natural selection couldn't do it but because physical constraints like gravity would never permit it. Insects have exoskeletons and to be that big would create too huge of a burden. Gravity would literally crush a bug that weighed tons. Or another living example is the antlers on some Moose. There is a good argument that sexual selection is favoring males with the biggest antlers. The problem is some are producing antlers that are physically too large to survive. The example of physical constraints on evolution is disproving Darwin's idea of "endless" possibilities and right in front of our eyes.
And this brings me to another interest of the sciences: the laws of the universe. How is it that these laws came into existence and were defined the way they are? What exactly is the Big Bang? What would have happened if gravity or the speed of light were tuned differently? Some used to - and maybe some still do - think that the Universe went through a series of expansions and contractions that lead to an infinite loop of big bangs and these could possibly redefine the laws each time and that we just happen to be going through one where life as we know it is permissible. But now we know the Universe is expanding at an even faster rate than we expected, thus challenging the previous theory. Then of course there is the questions surrounding dark matter, dark energy, black holes, grand unified theories and so on. Should string theory be dumped since it has had too long to provide something falsifiable; how else shall we think outside the box?
Another interest is that we see resurrections as being physically impossible but what about certain frogs that can be frozen to death during winter and then revived with the coming of spring? By all accounts these creatures are dead but just when you think they are caput they are hopping on ponds again. What about limb regeneration? Some soldier gets an appendage blown off while being imperial cannon fodder in places like Iraq or Afghanistan and for us there is no ability to re-grow that lost limb, but we can look in other places of nature and see animals do just that. What about shape-shifting? Seems impossible but the octopus does it all the time. Watch some nature video of an octopus changing its body not only in physical form but in coloration to blend into some coral rock at the bottom of the ocean and be amazed at how well it blends. And what is the chemical process of honey that makes it seem to be virtually immortal? Is there a natural answer to providing humans the ability to resurrect, regrow limbs, shapeshift and live forever? Maybe, maybe not but the topics are pretty interesting.
Anyway, between these fascinating topics and my social (complimentary holism), political (anarchism) and economic (participatory economics) views it is no wonder I find God and religion so boring, unconvincing, often times counter-productive and absolutely asinine - though occasionally I like to point out the absurdity and silliness of it all so that maybe, just maybe a heretical spark lights up the whole prairie. Richard Feynman, the infamous physicist, once said that, “Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.” He also said that, "I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong." That to me is the significant difference between faith and doubt. Doubt leaves so much more room to inquire, explore and learn, whereas faith is just stale, dogmatic and boring.
With so much real marvel in the natural world and so many possibilities in how to organize society for egalitarian purposes it just seems a huge waste to entertain ourselves with dogmatic beliefs of invisible men in the sky and childish, sectarian and bloodthirsty explanations of our world. Reading an E.O. Wilson book about the journey of ants; or any Robin Hahnel, Michael Albert or Noam Chomsky book; or organizing a project for a participatory society (which is under way); or listening to Neil deGrasee Tyson speak about what science is and its social significance at packed university theaters and so on just excite me.