Thursday, May 31, 2012

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species- Part 2

The second part of my reading began with the Laws of Variation.  Mr. Darwin writes at some length about the reproductive system being subject to changes from the conditions of life, how deviation must have causes, and how elements of an organism can be lost through disuse.  He cites many examples.  He talks about plants in different climates.  I am not entirely sure how to convey how interesting I find these sections, simply as a student of the world, but I kept feeling as if this book might do well to have illustrations.  Lo and behold, such an edition exists and now my heart is full of discontent over my measly Bantam Classics mass market paperback.  It would benefit from illustrations for those times when one is reading away from Google and Wikipedia and cannot look up the 550 species of beetles in Madeira or the opercular valves of sissile cirripedes.

While he readily admits our profound ignorance of the laws of variation, he, nonetheless, does illustrate to satisfaction that it is observable in nature that habit, use, and disuse have and do play an important role in the modification of organisms.  He also, as seems to be his custom, then examines the issue through the lens of what humans are capable of with breeding and domestication.  He points out that the tendency towards variation and the tendency to return to the original states both serve to make sustained traits difficult in breeding.

Returning once again to matters ecclesiastical, I was surprised to find this line at the end of a chapter, specifically referring to those who might argue for the independent creation of each individual species.  He says that this argument "makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception; I would almost as soon believe with the old and ignorant cosmogonists, that fossil shells had never lived, but had been created in stone so as to mock the shells now living on the sea-shore."  I was astonished at how similar this was to my own reasoning.  I have had discussions before over stars and our knowledge of the Speed of Light alone suggesting that either 1) the Universe is ancient beyond our imagination or 2) God made the stars look old to trick us.

It might also be prudent to note at this point another common misunderstanding.  Mr. Darwin is not writing about the Origin of Life.  He is writing about the Origin of Species.  As of writing this I am about 2/3rds of the way through the text and so far that is his entire focus in this book.  It is a book suggesting that species evolve(d) from other species.  It does not mention the point of singularity.  

Another section which surprised me was his addressing of Difficulties on Theory.  Have you ever heard any of these arguments against Darwinian Evolution?:

-If species evolved from other species, where are the transitional forms?
-Why are there seemingly trifling organs?
-How could an organ as complex as an eye evolve?
-What about the seeming intelligence of, for example, the bee and the cells which they create?
-What about sterility in crossed species?

I have heard all of these arguments from those who oppose the concept of Darwinian Evolution.  I have heard those questions from pulpits and in Christian books.  What I had not heard from those sources is that all of those questions are addressed and answered by Darwin in this book.  This alone would, in my opinion, be sufficient reason to recommend reading this book to anyone.  I do wonder if the reason these arguments are used by the opposition is from a lazy cursory reading of Darwin or simply feeling safe in the assumption that none of their readers will actually go and read Darwin for themselves.  However, again, I feel I should state that belief or disbelief are moot.  You can disbelieve gravitation all you want, but you're still not going to float off into space.

Also, I am not going to go over his responses here because you should read the book (and write your own paper.)

Darwin likens how certain variations emerge at certain times to how at certain points in time you will find two men coming up with the same invention completely independently of one another.  Which is funny because that is precisely the case in the book that I am reading.  Darwin hastened publication of this book because Alfred Russel Wallace had come up with the same idea on his own.  Darwin wanted to beat him to the punch and so rushed to press.

Darwin begins employing a Latin phrase in this section as well which seems like it is to recur throughout the rest of my reading: Natura non facit saltum.  It is the natural selection mantra.  It means "Nature does not make jumps."  We will return to this concept many times I'm sure.

I also read the section on Instinct.  We spend a lot of time watching insects in this chapter.  I was surprised by the existence of philanthropy in nature (as illustrated by the behavior of aphides towards ants.)  Also about the existence of slaves in certain insect communities.  He rounds out the chapter with a fascinating look at the structure of honeycombs. 

Another surprise to me has been how readable I've found this book.  I have not found it difficult in the least.  So far St. Augustine has been the biggest slog in this series.  I am finding Darwin if not overly charming at the very least quite interesting.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Ask Paul Mathers- Vegan Gifts

Here's another installment of Ask Paul Mathers. If you have a question you would like Paul Mathers to answer in video form, send your question to:

Here is a link to the book mentioned in the video.

Enjoy!  And good luck!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species- Part 1

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."
- Galileo Galilei
I have decided to cut my reactions to The Origin of Species into four sections as I am reading it.  In hindsight, I ought to have done this with Wealth of Nations as well.  I feel like 1/4th of this book will provide ample material to fill a blog post.

When I came to read this book, I half expected the central theme and thesis to be something along the lines of this:
"Peoples is monkeys and there ain't no God."
That is because, since early in the history of this book, that is how a good portion of Western organized religion has characterized Mr. Darwin's work.  I am given to understand that this included the former captain of HMS Beagle.  Darwin, along with Copernicus and Freud, deals one of the Three Major Blows to the Human Ego.  Its reception by certain types within religious circles has become a self-parody of the ostrich-like effects of insecure faith.  And, there I go, tipping my hand as to what I think.

I have been more than a little astonished to find, in recent years, certain members of the scientainment community arguing Darwin as if the Christian mischaracterization were accurate.  So, let me preface by saying that I am about to say some things that I know will make some group of people out there angry and/or feel the need to correct me.

I don't "believe" in Darwinian Evolution any more than I "believe" in plate tectonics.  It simply is.  I object to being called a "guided" evolutionist on the grounds that we don't feel the need to apply "guided" before "physics" or "gravitation."  I am a Protestant Christian with deep and heavy roots in Quakerism.  Therefore, I hold that there is a God, and that we humans, in our natural state, have a sin nature which separates us from Him.  He, in His infinite goodness, became human, was willingly sacrificed to atone for our sins, rose from the dead, and will return, and that all who believe in Him will have eternal life with Him.  This, to me, has nothing to do with what Mr. Darwin is writing about, save that we are able to better understand the workings and processes of the universe around us through the scientific method.  What Mr. Darwin had to say seems to be an entirely reasonable presentation of the observable facts available at the time, and the information available after him seems to only further back up the concepts.  I feel that people within my religion who fight so hard against this reveal some pretty hefty latent doubts.  I feel that a hoard of charlatans and carpetbaggers have exploited this false dichotomy.  There is an industry and people profit from it.  I can't say whether or not profit is their primary motivation.  Be that as it may, you can go into stores and spend money on things exploiting this false dichotomy.  This occurs on both sides of the argument.

I have no desire to discuss why people think I am wrong about what I've just written.  I am a little sad that I had to write all of that just to be able to talk about the ideas in the book that I'm reading.  I should have liked to have interacted with the ideas presented here without the loads of baggage.  But, don't let's set up camp there.

So far, this is largely a book about animal husbandry and gardening techniques.  It mainly reads more like this:
The emminent naturalist, to whom I am indebted for having shown me countless sketches of various beak types, Dr. Geisel states that a certain variety of Sneetches in generally clement and fair littoral climate have manifested a pattern surrounding their navel in a distinct pentagram while others in the same locale have no such marking.
(not an actual quote)

He will then explain why diet, climate, or some advantage has caused this change.  He will also talk about similarities or differences in producing these effects in domestic varieties.  This will go on for a page or two and then he will move on to some other bit of flora or fauna.

I wrote in the margins around the third chapter that, were this just slightly more pastoral, it would be exactly what I wished Thoreau was like when I was reading Walden.  It's like talking to someone who has an encyclopedic knowledge of varieties of plants and animals.  He lists why certain birds have certain kinds of beaks, certain plants have certain flowers, certain shells in certain places are brighter than others in other places.  Let me put a fine point on this: This sort of thing is the bulk of what I've read in this book so far.

Of course, there are parts of this which argue against special creation, which is to say the idea that God created every variety of every plant and animal.  At this point in history, it would take a very special kind of person to actually make that argument.  We know that we made mules.  We are so far beyond this concept now that we are actually creating new forms of life.

Some of the language is a bit archaic, although I feel that anyone with a successful high school level education would find the book within the grasp of their comprehension.  There are portions where he talks about what he refers to as "monstrosities."  Yes, he is talking about cleft palets and microcephaly and those sort of things.  To my modern eyes, I found his liberal designation of disabilities as "monstrous" as, well, a bit monstrous.  Like a good scientist, he defines his terms:
 "By a monstrosity I presume is meant some considerable deviation of structure in one part, either injurious to or not useful to the species, and generally not propagated."
I know that this is where some make the link to some of the more unfortunate ideologies of the early 20th century.  I would hasten to point out that Mr. Darwin is not putting a philosophy forward.  He is simply attempting to make objective observations about the available data.

Another area which pushes the envelope of my comfort zone is when he unabashedly admits to vivisection.  In fact, so far, for me that's been the most morally problematic section of Darwin.

The main point so far seems to be inherited traits, peculiarities appearing in similar times and circumstances, our known, observable, and re-creatable capacity as humans to employ selection in agriculture (think dogs and splicing produce plants.  Now think of dozens of pages of examples), observable instances of selection in nature without the guiding hand of man, examples from history (our hero Pliny once again makes an appearance to show that pears of antiquity were an inferior fruit, but have since been cultivated to one of the finer fruits), how diversity equals success (a concept which I am tempted to conflate into philosophy, but shall restrain myself in deference to our esteemed host), how the record of animals seems to focus almost exclusively on those animals which humans find useful in some way, how the struggle for life births variations which will tend towards survival (careful to note that this is not to be confused with willful selection, but rather an emergent outcome from conditions), and entropy as an essential.  At the end of one chapter, he gets as close to optimism as we're going to get in this work when he writes:
"When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply."
From what I know of Mr. Darwin's life, he was not a man I would describe as vigorous, healthy, or particularly noted for his happiness.

I wonder if Dr. Eliot might have placed this work at this point in our series, just after Adam Smith, to further explore the concept of an "Invisible Hand" which guides certain observable processes.  Our time is brief and nature's work is staggeringly long.  However, the minutiae counts in ways we couldn't have imagined.

We are that minutiae.

More soon.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

New Clairvaux

Today we went to visit the Abbey of New Clairveaux in the town of Vina which is also the home of the New Clairvaux Vineyard.  We had spoken to our friends Troy and Molly recently over how we've meant to visit the place for years, but had never gotten around to doing it.  It is only around a half an hour's drive from our home.  Last night, Troy called to invite us to join them as they visit the vineyard. 

The Abbey of New Clairvaux is a Trappist or "Cistercian" monastery.  Trappists, as you may know, are one of the monastic paths that focus on labor and efficiency.  If you're like me, you have a smattering of knowledge on the subject from that time in your 20s when you read Thomas Merton and thought you might like to become a monk (but not seriously.)  One of the most influential early Cistercians was Bernard of Clairvaux (for fellow church history buffs, you will remember his famous debate with Abelard.)

New Clairvaux was, in fact, established in the 1950s when the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky grew too large.  They sent a group out to California to start a spin-off.  Yes, not spoken in any of the history material I found at New Clairvaux, but easy to piece together, the Abbey of Gethsemani was the very monastery where Thomas Merton abode.  And, yes, he was there and world-famous in the 1950s.  So, this monastery could well exist because of that very impulse I cited earlier, but rather for those who did take that thought seriously when they read Thomas Merton in their 20s.

First, we got right down to business and visited the tasting room.  We tried the St. James Albariño from 2011 (a lovely white wine which we very nearly bought), the 2010 Poor Souls Barbera (which we did buy), the 2009 St. James Syrah (not our favorite), and the 2007 Abbot's Reserve (quite possibly the best wine I have ever tasted.) 

Had I a psychic connection with Laurie and known that she would have agreed that we should flagrantly flaunt our budget restrictions and buy it at any price, we would have a bottle of the Abbot's Reserve in our wine rack right now.  We console ourselves with the knowledge that this was not "our trip to the New Clairvaux Vineyard" but rather "our first trip to the New Clairvaux Vineyard."

All around the campus there were these gorgeous spots that seemed like time had come unhinged.  One kept glimpsing the modern right next to the antique right next to the ancient.

Which brings us to the rebuilding of the Santa María de Óvila Chapter House.

The building was originally a building in Guadalajara circa somewhere around 1190.  In the mid-1800s the Spanish government confiscated the property and disassembled it.  Almost 100 years later, William Randolph Hearst bought the stones, intending to use it to build some castle for himself somewhere that he never got around to.  They sat in a warehouse in San Francisco until the monks of New Clairvaux purchased them to rebuild the Chapter House on their Vina property.

Standing in the building, in the midst of construction, I felt both the weight and insignificance of eternity, as if I were enveloped in something at once much older than I and, in spite of appearances, fragile.

Their website shows what they are planning for the completion of the project.

After the vineyard, we had a picnic at the Woodson Bridge park and played Kubb in the grass by the banks of the Sacramento River.  It was one of the more splendid Saturdays we've had in recent memory. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

My Laocoön: Alternative Claims in the Interpretation of Artworks by Richard Brilliant

"[A] well known piece of baseball philosophy.  Three umpires are discussing how they do their jobs.  The first, who is also the least experienced, says, "I call 'em as they are."  The second, who has been in the game a little longer, says, "I call 'em as I see 'em."  The third says, "They're nothing till I call 'em."  These three could be characterized as objectivism, relativism, and postmodernism respectively." -Andrew Rawlinson

The above quote is simultaneously the epigraph placed at the beginning of the final section of  My Laocoön: Alternative Claims in the Interpretation of Artworks by Richard Brilliant, as well as the first and last time you will see a sports metaphor on my blog.  Be that as it may, it sums up Professor Brilliant's thesis nicely.  My Laocoön is, in one sense, a book about the famous masterpiece known as Laocoön and His Sons or the Laocoön Group which resides in the Vatican.  Pliny the Elder attributes the piece to three sculptors from Rhodes.  You are most likely familiar with some variation of the image.  It looks like this:

  But it also looks like this:
There is a rich and complex history of the images which, if memory serves, Professor Brilliant finally totals about 4 different versions.  The first is the Book of Q version which is the original which we shall never see.  The second is the image immediately above, if I've followed the labyrinthine narrative properly, discovered in 1506 and highly influential on Renaissance artists.  The last is the restoration of the 1950s (the first of the two I've posted above) which is considered more "correct."

Professor Brilliant also speaks of a third image which is extracted from the 1506 version, but achieves an "otherness" even to the point of requiring another category as the image becomes "a vehicle for critical discourse on the nature of art and its powers."  A portion of the text deals with specific critical responses.  There is also a moment, early in the work, where Professor Brilliant tells about a time when he sat by the two sculptures in the Cortile del Belvedere (which people pass through on their way to the Sistine Chapel) and watched the tourists pass by, observing their responses.  A good deal of them were confused by two similar statues placed side by side. Some knew the history of sculpture and knew to some extent that the less authentic is still largely the authoritative version in our culture which has weaved so much time, thought, and history into the 1506 version.

Professor Brilliant writes, "Yet, rarely did they appear to engage the sculpture as a work of art having meaning for them as an aesthetic object of value."

I felt that, at this moment, he reveals a sort of superobjective, an unspoken thesis.  By no means is this an anti-intellectualism argument.  I do know art, and I like what I know.  Notwithstanding, there is a danger of opacity on either end of the spectrum: be it through ignorance and apathy, or be it through seeing the image so much through the filter of what others have written/thought about it that one cannot see the image for itself.  Indeed, the book is also, in fact I would dare suggest primarily, about ways of seeing art, using a piece with a history of interpretation and reproduction variants wrapping around the piece like so many snakes.

He also compares the ways of seeing the Laocoön with other masterpieces that have suffered similar contortionistic manipulations.  He mentions Titian's Sacred and Profane Love:
Which is likely not even the original title or subject matter.  He spends a portion of the book talking about titles, both important as reference points and misleading.  For example, he also talks of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  Picasso himself was reluctant (petulant even) to name his paintings.
He also brings up Velasquez's Las Meninas (I have a reproduction of it in my living room.)  The enigmatic presentation of the image has inspired volume upon speculative volume on the piece:

I cannot speak for Professor Brilliant, although I thoroughly enjoyed the ameliorating experience provided by way of his work.  I have my suspicions that he would agree with a metaphor of my own devising on the matter.  There is little in this life so enriching as to be excited about art.  The arts reflect the highest aspirations of humankind.  To seek to know more is a natural outworking of said excitement.  Looking to what's been observed about a work is a bit like spicing a dish.  Properly measured, it can make the entire experience much richer than it ever could be on its own.  Poorly measured, it can drown all of the inherent flavor of the dish.  I'm not sure if it was his intention to put so fine a point of this danger, however I find it was my primary takeaway from the book. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Infinite Riches in a Little Room

Every year, I have 12 inter-library loans allotted to me by the Butte County Library.  I do my best not to waste a single one.  The inter-library loan system is as follows: if you go to your library and ask for a book and they do not have it in the building, there are people whose job is to track down a copy at another library and then convince that library to loan it to you through their library.  You, the patron, have only to fill out a chit of paper with the book title and your name and contact information.  Then you go home and, usually, in my experience, after you've forgotten that any of this went on, you get a call saying your book is there.

The time limit is up to the discretion of the lending library.  I was told this time that my book came all the way from Humboldt and that they were one of the stricter libraries in regards to the amount of time they allowed their books to disperse into the hands of the public.  In this case, I think I have about a week with the book.

On the few occasions where necessity has lead me to thin my personal library either for moving purposes or lack of space (a process which is like deciding which of your fingers to cut off) I tend to look first to the books that would be easily accessible in any library.  Looking directly over the top of my laptop as I write this, I can see two copies of Jane Eyre on my shelf.  In the circumstance of a book thinning, at least one of those would probably go.  I also should state that I have no intention of thinning out my personal library again so long as I live if I can help it.  Be that as it may, there are other types of books which are not readily available at any library.

I love the Chico Library, but... Well, to put it nicely, if I had a disposable income, I would donate liberally to the Chico Library in hopes that they could improve the sphere of their offerings.  Nonetheless, if I suspend my demand for instant gratification and put in an inter-library loan request when (inevitably) I want to read a book that they don't have on-hand, they can get me that book!

In this case it was My Laocoön: Alternative Claims in the Interpretation of Artworks by Richard Brilliant.  Cost prohibitive left to my own means and not a title one finds in every library, but something I desperately wanted to read as soon as I heard of it.  More on it in a few days when I've finished it.

The clock is ticking.  The beautiful thing about your local lending library is that they are strengthened by use.  We've recently had a little struggle in Chico where the city severely cut the hours of the library, but were forced to reconsider when reports confirmed how important and valuable the library is to the community.  Also, it confirmed what a great job they do.  I encourage everyone to exercise all of the uses of their local library.  It is a place where heaps of information are there for the taking, totally at your disposal.  It frightens and disturbs me that they are not more widely used.  As the line from Auntie Mame so famously puts it, "Life's a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!"  Libraries are, in my opinion, one of the greatest concepts humankind as come up with.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Paul Mathers on Earth

First, let me state I am not just woefully late to the party.  I downloaded the Google Earth program a long time ago on one of my earlier computers (one in which I would have to work the clutch and throttle after Laurie wound up the crank to get it going), but it made my computer slower than the Second Coming.  Nonetheless, I loved the idea of the program and so, soon after getting my new laptop, I downloaded Google Earth again.

The reason I was so fascinated by the program is that one can look at any place in the world and oftentimes find photographs that individual users have taken of that place.  For example, I have a friend I met online several years ago who lives in India, and I have found that I can see the town where my friend lives through this service.  It is a place I earnestly desire to visit one day, but now, while means forbid, I am able to view the place in my own home.

In 2012, this should not be news or any great revelation to anyone out there.  What was a shock, to me, was when I then turned my Google Earth eye upon myself and found sparsity in the photographs representative of the town in which I live.  Some major local landmarks had no photographic representation while (sigh) some pictures of shoes on telephone wires and people's backyards were, in fact, represented.  Well aware of the crowd source model and one's personal responsibility when discouraged by what others have elected to represent, I have become a contributor.

I am under no illusions of the permanence of this particular contribution to the furtherance of human understanding, I would add that I am also under no illusion of the permanence of even the Aztec Pyramids in the face of eternity.  However, seemingly fixed as we are in the temporal, I see it is an act of good to establish a sense of place for the global community to share.

I have been fascinated with senses of place my entire life.  I fall deeply in love with some places and am haunted by the memory of others.  I seek to describe place in painstaking detail (something that as a writer I have had to force myself to reign in.)  Many of my dreams revolve around architecture.  A right angle can send me into ecstasies.  First there is the desire to "stuff my eyes with wonder" and see all of the blessed miracles this world has in store.  When I was a child, we had a computer game, an adventure game in a sort of Dungeons & Dragons-knock-off universe, in which you could access a map that showed all of the places where you had traveled thus far.  The areas of play where you had not yet trod were black on the map until you you went there.  This left a powerful impression on me and I still think of my life in terms of that map at times.  There is also the wonder of space-time and the horror of the great unknowable, sort of a panicked desire to preserve everything you possibly can if even for one moment beyond your own death in hopes that it will help humankind in some way.

In establishing a sense of place, one can choose the beautiful and iconic:
Here is one I took of Bidwell Presbyterian Church.  I was amazed that such a noted part of Chico was not represented on Google Earth.  It towers over downtown, sort of like a spiritual pillar jutting out of the lugubrious, sulfurous fissure of Downtown Chico.  A reminder of the higher aspirations of humankind in full view of anyone who stumbles out of the myriad of bars otherwise comprising the area.

Or the oddities one might observe on a walking tour:
Across the street and around a corner from the church is Celestino's pizzeria.  I've known a remarkable number of people who walk past it, even dine there, daily who have never noticed the stools in front of the establishment which I believe are a collage of heads of Michelangelo's David.

Or the mundane:
If I were to stand up, walk out of my front door, and walk about 20 paces up the street, I could see this bar by inclining my head slightly to the right.  Every weekend (I anticipate tonight, in fact) we can hear whatever band is playing at The Maltese in the distance if we keep our front door open (sometimes even if we don't.)  It appears to be a decidedly proletariat bar, catering to the bluer of collar.  One notes the iron cross in the logo which is often associated with fire fighters although I am given to understand that those of less noble life-choices are also known to frequent the place.  If you came to visit, we could walk to the Maltese, enjoy some drinks, and walk home. We would not.

I bring it up because it is something I pass every day, as are so many of the places I find myself painting a portrait of Chico with in this venue.

I think everyone should take a camera around with them for a while and snap photos of the places surrounding them.  It is a way of waking up one's eyes to one's daily environment in an entirely new way.  If you were to come visit me, I would take you around this charming and flawed little town that I love and show you many of the places that I've photographed, giving stories and facts of interest as we toured.  In doing so, your sense of newness would rub off on me vicariously.  That is the sensation I've felt from this hobby, except that the invisible tourist walking beside me is, at least potentially, the entire world.