Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Final day the Oxford conference.

My final day the Oxford conference. We had a very fine presentation from Ross McKenzie talking about emergence and the nature of physical reality. He cites Robert Laughlin’s book A Different Universe and also drew attention to a book by Stephen Adler called “Quantum Theory as an Emergent Phenomenon” which derives quantum theory from underlying statistical mechanics of classical fields.

Somewhat less persuasive talks from the other 3 speakers, including David Wallace who offered a moderate but less than persuasive case for Everett interpretation. I drew his attention to the Midgley Aquarium: it must be a fundamental feature of the world that we have multiple theories and it would be good to develop the sharpest possible arguments for this. Jeremy thinks we could adopt a Gödel-ian approach.

I was able (with permission of the organisers) to invite Denis Noble to join us at the conference dinner: George Ellis was particularly keen to see him again. Denis’s PhD supervisor Otto Hotter is still alive and active which is rather encouraging. I also learned over dinner about the FQXI institute and had an interesting discussion about whether some language-learning capacity is innate with George Ellis.
  • After dinner we had a panel discussion moderated by Jeremy Butterfield:
    George Ellis gave a masterly canter of a presentation, emphasising that the mental world is real and causally effective: and so is the arrow of time. The universe grows in proper-time-like threads. Causality happens top-down as well as bottom-up and we need to incorporate these facts into our view of tyhe world. Fundamental improvements are needed to Quantum theory as a result.

  • Roger Penrose agreed with pretty much all of this. He thinks that the measurement problem may need to be resolved outside our current notions of space-time. He also outlined his views that gravity may cause the collapse of the wavefunction, and hopes that there will be able to be experiments to probe this. Some Japanese researchers (Saito & Fujita),have also apparently made some progress on the properties of biological microtubules.

  • John Polkinghorne said he was increasingly encouraged that there might be progress on understanding the collapse of the wavefunction. He doesn’t think it depends on observers but on new physical processes. He very much agrees with Ellis about top-down causality.

Much to my astonishment I was asked to be in a group of four people (led by Andrew Briggs and Jeremy Butterfield) to try to draw together the conclusions into a short set of questions. This was fun and demanding, and I think we have a reasonable set of questions, organised into 5 themes 4 of which have subthemes. It will be really interesting to see how this all develops.

Quantum Physics and Nature of Reality 2

The conference continues to be fascinating and productive. The presentations this morning were from:
  • Gerald Milburn who looked at quantum machines, explaining that to understand these we tend to quantise the classical equtions of motion, rather than caculate from the ground up. The interfaces between the Classical inputs and outputs and the Quantum apparatus shed new light on the notions of Observer and Measurement. (he discussed in ptic this nice paper)
  • Daniel Greenberger who argues that there should be an uncertainty principle between mass and proper time.
  • Simon Benjamin who presented fascinating evidence that pigeons manage to keep quantum states entangled for c100us in their magnetic field sensory systems, compared to the record of 80us in N@C60. He laments that they cannot see any evolutionary advantage in this, and accepts my point that to understand the selective advantage is pretty essential.
  • Bob Coecke who offered a visual "algebra" that allowed one to explore the logic of quantum theory without Hilbert Spaces, based on the idea of "dagger compact symmetrical monoidal categories". V interesting but all seemed a tiny bit too good to be true.
  • Chris Isham who argues for topos theory as a formalism for QM.
  • Klaas Landsman who found a quote from Russell praising the integration of Science and Religion, and who thinks that the concept of "explantation" is highly problematic in QM.

A small group is trying to boil down the initial 12 "Oxford Questions" into a more manageable and inetresting set, which is a very interesting excercise.

Fascinating lunch discussion with George Ellis and another attendee about multiple levels of eplanation. Attendee (who teaches at Cambridge) still thinks there should be a "fundamental theory" that would "explain everything". But George and I are clear that there need to be multiple levels of explanation, and we must deal with a world in which there are many theories which all interlink - reminiscent of the Midgley Aquarium.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Steane, Leggett, Penrose and Anders

Tremendous first day of the conference. Amongst many excellent presentations two stand out to my mind:

  • Andrew Steane gave a very interesting talk suggesting that we should focus on what he called "Quantum Events" by which he meant extended regions of space and time where we can treat a system of particles as interacting in a relatively contained manner. In particular he is interested in three-particle system where the 3rd particle then becomes spatially separated from the other 2 so that it cannot interact. he thinks that the boundaries of these events may be involved in state reduction with avalanche-type events which would help to resolve the measurement problem.

    I hope to persuade Andrew that he should rename these "Quantum Domains" (or something similar) and consider them as domains in which the time-reversable formulation of QM applies. The transition from Domain to Domain could then be part of how entropy increases which might potentially address both the Measurement Problem and the problems of Thermodynamics and the Arrow of Time. We had an interesting discussion after lunch and brought in Roger Penrose, who can think through and explain the new mathematics that would be needed if anyone can.
  • Tony Leggett gave a talk with a Q&A by video link, saying that we need to look at Quantum Interference of Macroscopically Distinct States. He thinks that decoherence is generally greatly over-estimated, and it should be possible to do experiments that will distinguish between UP or DOWN and UP + DOWN. He points out that experiments have shown that C60 can be diffracted in a Youngs Slits type experiment, and he is hopeful that more can be done to push the experimental physics of Cooper Pairs in RF SQUID with Phi = 1/2Phi 0. In this state all the Cooper Pairs should be either clockwise or anti-clockwise. He cited in particular this lovely paper by Chiorescu et al.

Lots of other very interesting discussion - including a 1-1 session with Denis Noble (not part of the conference) to advance the ideas of the Netome. I was also very interested to meet many people, including Janet Anders who with colleagues have shown "The relevance of continuous variable entanglement in DNA" I suspect that this will turn out to relate in some way to Erez's lovely paper about DNA folding into Fractal Globules.

Polkinghorne Conference in Oxford


At a fascinating conference in Oxford in honor of John's 80th Birthday, about Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality. The idea is to develop a set of questions - "The Oxford Questions" which will help drive the agenda forward. Really stimulating talks from theoreticians, experimentalists and philosophers.

We began last night with a dinner and then an after-dinner lecture by John, where jhe suggested that Quantum Physics is the biggest revolution in scientific thought for a very long time: even Relativity is essentially a "Classical" theory. He suggested 2 main lessons:
  1. Don't submit to the undue tyranny of "common sense"
  2. There is no universal epistomology.

He of course learned his QM from the horse's mouth, ie from Paul Dirac, whose lectures were masterpieces of lucidity: developing the subject like a Bach Fugue. But the plot has thickened since then in 3 ways:

  1. Causality turns out to be much more complex
  2. We need a better understanding of how the cloudy world leads to classical physics. Decoherence is just a half way house.
  3. Non-locality turns out to be so fundamental.

Masses more to relate, but I have to dash to the next session.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Subtlety from Simon, the reverse from Demagogue Dick

Very interesting discourse last night at the Royal Institution by my old friend Simon Baron-Cohen on Empathy and the Human Brain. He contrasted the 3 Personality Disorders which are characterised at least to some extent by a lack of empathy (Borderline, Psycopathic and Narcissistic) with Aspergers Syndrome & Autism. He has developed various tests of Empathy Quotient and cited interesting papers correlating such differences with various fMRI imaging differences. Though he makes the point strongly that at least 10 areas of the brain are involved in what he calls the Empapthy Circuit (I think it might be better referred to as an Empathy Network).

He also presented interesting evidence that people with Aspergers could be trained to read emotions better: they have produced interactive material with funding from the Shirley Foundation, which I think also endowed his chair.

Poor Dawkins, in a furious rage at being compared to Hitler (not, at any rate ostensibly, because of this YouTube parody though it is very funny), denounced the Pope as "Enemy of Humanity" before a rally of thousands of his chanting supporters. Doubtless unaware that demonising your opponents as "enemy of humanity" was a trope favoured by the late Adolf. Naturally the Dawkins Defenders are very keen to hide this fact (see "Enemy of Humanity" on Wikipedia and the deletion debate one of them launched within an hour of the article being created, if you can be bothered).

But not only is Dawkins' "science" being increasingly exposed as bogus and vastly over-simplistic, people are becoming more courageous is denouncing his idiocies and excesses in the atheist camp. Julian Baggini has been outspoken about this, and been flamed by the Dawkins Defenders: now Casper Melville has cautiously stuck his head above the parapet. If Dawkins were a real scientist he would listen and learn. Instead he shouts more loudly. Ah well, truth will prevail. To quote an email from great philosopher "It's a great comfort to see the views which I know in general to be nonsense comprehensively trashed from the scientific angle as well."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Is Dawkins a scientist?

Interesting article in PLOSOne showing that the parting of the Red Sea could indeed have occurred as the Bible describes. And according to the THES scientists at top US universities are quite likely to be believers and reject the "conflict thesis" on science and religion. There is a book, and more about this research here.

Spurred by a Wikipedia Editor who said that Dawkins was "arguably the world's top Scientist" I've had a look at his publication record. Although he has had a number of pieces in Nature and Science they are almost all book reviews or opinion pieces. The only actual research papers in Nature or Science are:
  • Dawkins, R. (1971). "Selective neurone death as a possible memory mechanism". Nature 229: 118–119. This is a mildly interesting but wrong speculation, cited once in PubMed though more in Google Scholar. Amusingly one of the main papers that cites it does so as an example of "a deeply held urban myth (e.g., Dawkins 1971)"
  • Dawkins, R.; Carlisle, T.R. (1976). "Parental investment, mate desertion and a fallacy". Nature 262: 131–133. doi:10.1038/262131a0. This offers a correction to a key paper by Trivers and is cited in a v good paper by John Maynard Smith which has been quite influential.
Basically, Dawkins was a quite promising young scientist who stopped making any contribution to science in the 1970s and has been a science writer ever since. The tragedy is that people in the outside world imagine that he is a scientist.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mary Midgley and The Solitary Self


To the RSA to hear the great Mary Midgley talk about her latest book The Solitary Self which looks brilliant. She was interviewed by Matthew Taylor with a capacity crowd and was brilliant.

She explained that she quarrelled with Dawkins because he was such a brilliant and influential writer. Though apparently on the 25th anniversary of The Selfish Gene Dawkins apparently said "I think it might have been better if I had called it 'The Cooperative Gene'" She thinks that the Selfish Gene metaphor distilled and bottled the move towards an excessive individualism that had started after WWII, but ignored all the philosophical subtleties of the various senses of "Self interest" that had been developed since Hobbes. (I'll try to blog a bit more about this tomorrow).

I noted that she cites Noble and asked her whether she knew of the work of Nowak and esp the NTW paper. She did not but I had a copy and was able to give it to her, together with a copy of the latest confidential draft of Denis' paper (by permission of course). She was glad to have them, and signed my copy of her book. In the Q&A she said that people worked far too long hours. Matthew Taylor chided her saying she was 91 and had just written a book and she was telling people not to work so hard. "I did not say don't work hard, I said don't work such long hours." A great lady and I would have loved to speak more with her. But I had to take Daughter to the theatre to see Yes Prime Minister. V good, though perhaps not quite as utterly brilliant as the original TV series. But that will need another blog post.

I also had the idea of the net-ome, which Denis and Hava quite like. We shall see what comes of it...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Selfish Genes" and 3D structure

Further very interesting correspondence with Denis Noble and others on the topic of "Selfish Genes". The great Mary Midgley is giving an anti-Selfish Gene talk tomorrow at 6pm at the RSA, promoting her new book The Solitary Self: it will be great to hear her and hopefully meet her.

One of the key points is that "genes" in the sense Dawkins uses them (hypothetical alleles responsible for particular phenotypes) don't really exist. I don't think a DNA sequence has ever been identified that could be a 'selfish gene' in the kin-selectionist's sense. It is clear that the relationship between DNA and physiology is much more complicated than Dawkins and his ilk supposes.

The 3D structure of the genome is increasingly relevant to this debate, and I have been able to draw Denis's attention to the brilliant work of Erez Liebermann-Aiden, and in particular this lovely paper which made the front cover of Science. It talks about the new method they have generated but I think has quite deep implications for understanding genes in the physical sense. This is one of the most elegant figures from Erez's paper (which shows their evidence that the genome folds into a fractal globule. The relevant point is that the behaviour of genes depends crucially on the actual chemistry and (3D) physiology of the cells in which they are expressed. The key point for this debate is that same DNA sequence can have completely different effects, or none at all, depending on the cell in which it is expressed, and the more we understand the physical structure the more we realise how misleading the "paper tape" metaphor that underlies the "selfish gene" thinking is.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The collapse of "Religion as a Virus"

Even the atheists are beginning to notice that their rather smug and shrill paradigms of religion as a "virus of the mind" are junk. Susan Blackmore has an article in the Guardian entitled "Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind" which references a talk at a conference in Bristol by someone called Michael Blume.

As we wrote in Questions of Truth: "in biological and evolutionary terms, religion (esp. Christianity) appears to be good for you. Compared with secularists, Christians are happier, healthier, and have more grandchildren. By contrast, all over the world, secular societies appear to be committing demographic suicide, with birth rates significantly below replacement. Ironically, therefore, people who espouse the primacy of evolution in everything are adopting strategies that in their own terms are un-successful." There is then a whole page in Appendix C which gives some of the evidence that we then had to hand, citing:
Meanwhile the FT has the following gem: "The UK's Chief Atheist, Richard Dawkins, has attacked the Pope's state visit to the UK. But if he wants to provide Britons with a viable alternative...he should tour the country in a glass topped DawkinsMobile... For devout unbelievers. Pole Benedict's visit stirs nagging doubts... For some of us the smug stridency of our nominal leader Prof Dawkins is becoming a severe test of our faithlessness."

BTW delighted to learn that John Tomlin has written a biography of my late father for this forthcoming book that will be published by Springer in November. He has kindly sent me a copy, and there are some things I didn't know.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

More on Inclusive Fitness

Some v good news in a call from Bob May. And I'm also delighted that Richard Sykes has been appointed Chairman of the Royal Institution. Under his leadership I'm sure it will go from strength to strength.

The Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson paper controversy continues, of course. A certain Bernard Crespi given an interview to say that he is denouncing the paper. Crespi seems to be a reasonably good scientist though not apparently of a very generous disposition. He co-authored an Opinion piece in Nature in Aug 2008 offering an interesting set of ideas about the origins of autism and other mental disorders, in which he attacks "Recent studies by Baron-Cohen" but does not cite them. Though his hypothesis has so far only been cited by 6 other papers, so it may not be getting much traction. He has had 2 sole-author and 1 joint-author paper published in Nature (between 1989 and 2002), and one "perspective" in Science. He worked with Hamilton in Oxford for a year so is understandably attached to his ideas.

I think the problem he, and others, have is that, possibly because they lack a mathematical background, they find it difficult to accept that just because a simple theory makes some correct predictions doesn't mean that it is correct. No-one is suggesting that, in situations simple enough for Hamilton's Rule to be applicable, it doesn't work. Nor that, even when it is not exactly applicable, it will not sometimes be a reasonable approximation.

They are saying "that standard natural selection theory in the context of precise models of population structure represents a simpler and superior approach, allows the evaluation of multiple competing hypotheses, and provides an exact framework for interpreting empirical observations." And also pointing out that "Inclusive fitness theory ...has many limitations... But one of the questions that can be addressed by inclusive fitness theory is the following: which of two strategies is more abundant on average in the stationary distribution of an evolutionary process? [however] even for studying this particular question, the use of inclusive fitness requires stringent assumptions, which are unlikely to be fulfilled by any given empirical system."

They also point out that anything which can be "explained" by inclusive fitness can be explained more precisely with evolutionary dynamics and standard natural selection. Now old-school biologists who are shaky on their maths and can only cope with rB>C can of course still use this as a rule of thumb. And it will sometimes give approximately correct answers. But they should not imagine that it is a Fundamental Principle. And indeed, when elevated into "Selfish Gene" nonsense, it causes confusion and stupidity almost everywhere it is applied.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Another nail in the coffin of Selfish Genes - and some deep physics

Denis Noble has sent me a draft of his forthcoming paper in The Journal of Physiology which demolishes the "Selfish Gene" nonsense from the physiological point of view. The draft is of course confidential so I can't quote from it, but there are some interesting citations:
  • Shapiro 2009 provides an excellent demolition of the "central dogma" which is a logical prerequisite of the selfish gene idea.
  • Yang & al 2007 refers inter alia to a fascinating experiment in which crossing a carp nucleus
    with a goldfish enucleated egg cell, produced an adult fish that has an intermediate
    shape and a number of vertebrae closer to that of the goldfish. In other words, the genes are not the blueprint.
I find that one of the critics of NTW quoted in the NY Times is an Oxford biologist called Andy Gardner. He and Stuart West did a review article in Science earlier this year ("Altruism, Spite, and Greenbeards") which purports to show how Inclusive Fitness has resolved a number of debates in biology. It is an excellent example of the sort of self-confirming faulty reasoning that gets Inclusive Fitness accepted. First of all you set out your General Principle. Then you find an example where it gives a prediction which is in accordance with experiment. Hey Presto, it must be true. But there are millions of species (no-one knows how many) and an unbounded number of potential experiments - there are bound to be one or two which agree with any theory. Look at panel B from Gardner & West. What they have done is fitted a cubic to 7 data points (the R2 is 0.78) and with only 3 Degrees of Freedom left this is not really statically significant at all: a quick calculation shows that there is a > 16% probability of this happening purely by chance (actually they would have been better to take the quadratic fit that their "theory" proposes, this has an R2 of 0.69 and has only a 10% probability of happening by chance. Were the referees asleep?). But because they already believe the dogma of Kin Selection it is taken as "proof".

I've also been sent the papers for the Polkinghorne 80 conference on "Quantum physics and the nature of reality". Having been grappling with biology so long this will really stretch me in terms of getting to grips with developments in quantum theory. The first one I'm trying to understand "Topos Theory and the Foundations of Physics" by Andreas Doering and Chris Isham. These will really keep me on my toes!

One of the contributors to this conference has pointed me to a lovely talk by Murray Gell-Mann on his 80th birthday. It is about the need take on received ideas (Martin Nowak, be encouraged!) It concludes: "I suffered for many decades from the belief that when hesitating between alternatives I had to choose the correct one. Lyova Okun once quoted to me advice he had received from an older colleague: Publish your idea along with the objections to it." I would now add Publish the two contradictory ideas along with their consequences and choose later." Apparently the messiness of the process is inevitable. Instead of suffering while trying to make it perfectly clean and neat, why not embrace the messiness and enjoy it?"

Friday, September 10, 2010

More on NTW (Nowak, Tarnita & Wilson)

Further fascinating developments on this topic. Apparently over 100 biologists have written a letter denouncing the paper. Very unclear, to say the least, how many of them understand the mathematics. Einstein apparently had 100 physicists do a similar thing against his ideas on relativity: his response was "if there was something wrong with my theory, one would be enough"

An article in Cosmos summarises the situation succinctly, both in the title Biologists Slam Kin Selection Heretics and in the text: "Most evolutionary biologists are unimpressed. In fact, some had trouble staying calm enough to explain their objections...Equally interesting was the number of key researchers in the field who heatedly declined to comment on the record. This reporter could not tell if whether they don't want to get caught in the crossfire, or are biding their time until they can retaliate in full."

It is important to emphasise that NTW is not saying that "kin selection and inclusive fitness are dumb ideas and everyone who embraced them is stupid". Hamilton's Rule is clearly a useful rule of thumb, and allows approximate calculations to be done (esp by biologists who often have a very limited mathematical background) that will give real insights. But a rule of thumb should not be elevated into a Metaphysical Principle. And it turns out that, when you do the mathematics more carefully, this rule of thumb is almost never entirely accurate and can sometimes give misleading conclusions, so needs to be applied with caution. In a mature scientific discipline this should be completely uncontroversial, but so many biologists have a religious, or quasi-religious, stake in their ideas and get upset with heresy.

It has also become so ideologically charged that people claim "kin selection" when it isn't really about kin selection at all. An interesting example is the lovely cover paper the following issue, Lee at al called "Bacterial charity work leads to population-wide resistance". This shows that in a population of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, "the vast majority of isolates are less resistant than the population as a whole. We find that the few highly resistant mutants improve the survival of the population’s less resistant constituents, in part by producing indole, a signalling molecule generated by actively growing, unstressed cells" But they go on to say "This work establishes a population-based resistance mechanism constituting a form of kin selection" (my italics) when it is perfectly clear that this isn't really about kin selection at all. Of course in their experiment all the bacteria in the population were a strain of E. Coli so would be "kin" but the function of indole is not specific to one strain of bacteria, and the few highly resistant mutants will improve the survival of all the bacteria that are sufficiently close spatially, whether they are "kin" or not. In vivo there are about 1014 bacteria in the gut alone, from at least 500 different species. So it is virtually certain that these mutants in vivo will be improving the survival of a vast number of wholly un-related bacteria. Perhaps the referees made them put in this not to the Dogma, but it really isn't there in the science as far as I can see.

Hawking, Spitzer and Inflationary Spacetimes

There is to be a discussion on Larry King Live between Stephen Hawking and a Catholic philosopher called Robert J. Spitzer, author of a book called New Proofs for the Existence of God. It seems that an important plank of Spitzer's argument is the Borde, Guth, Vilenkin theorem which shows that, under very weak assumptions, Inflationary spacetimes are not past-complete. The key conclusion is that "it is clear that unless the averaged expansion condition can somehow be avoided for all past-directed geodesics, inflation alone is not sufficient to provide a complete description of the Universe, and some new physics is necessary in order to determine the correct conditions at the boundary"

This is in some sense a generalisation of the Hawking/Penrose singularity theorem. In some respects though I think this is missing the point. As St Augustine knew, and Fr Spitzer will certainly know, even a universe that did not have a beginning in time would need a creator.

However there are also some interesting papers that cite BGV, including this overview of Quantum Gravity and this paper with the intriguing title "Odds of observing the Multiverse" which points out that if "eternal inflation" is correct there should be lots of collision between iflationary bubbles which would have detectable results: none of which have been seen so far.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Scientific Fraud

Very interesting discussion yesterday with one of the leaders of the scientific community.

There is deep and widespread anger at Marc Hauser, whose repeated scientific fraud has shocked the whole community (see eg here for an inevitably somewhat restrained discussion in Science, and also here for some more background). It is difficult to convey to a non-scientist how bad this is. Scientists are concerned that Harvard hasn't taken a harder line publicly, but there are of course lawyers all around. Not only has his fraud set back the field, because basically all of his papers must be considered suspect and worthless unless and until they are repeated by others, it is deeply unfair on his students who will now all struggle.

Hauser's most recent foarys include a collaboration with Ilkka Pyysiäinen which has resulted in a piece with him in Trends in Cognitive Sciences called "The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product?" (doi:10.1016/j.tics.2009.12.007) This was given somewhat breathless coverage as "Morals don't come from God" in places that should have known better (like Nature). Interestingly Pyysiäinen does not show this on his list of publications.

PS: although I do not consider "The Grand Design" to be scientific fraud, it is worth making it clear that, in the words of Roger Penrose (reviewing it in the FT) "M-theory enjoys no observational support whatsoever". A point which journalists seem to forget.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

More on Kin Selection

I got a detailed comment (here) from Tom Rees about Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson which is worth a proper post.

First of all Tom thinks that I don't know what Eusocial means because "Eusociality is what bees do" But this is taking “eusociality” in a much more restrictive sense than NTW do – and to understand their paper you need to use their definition, under which “humans can be loosely characterized as eusocial”. In fact all the mathematics simply relates to any “altruistic” action which does not promote the fitness of the individual.

He also points me to this post by Coyne. The basic problem that people like Coyne, and even more Dawkins, have is that they don't understand the maths, which is essential to understand what they are saying properly. Coyne's argument seems to be: "Kin selection theory has successfully predicted new findings" therefore it must be true. But the whole point of the paper is that Kin selection is only an approximation which is only accurate under a set of highly restrictive conditions, and in general it is almost never correct. Of course the approximation can sometimes offer useful insights. But idiots like Dawkins have tried to erect a massive metaphysical structure on it, and this is now crashing down.

Kin Selection and Inclusive Fitness are like The Ether or Epicycles, except with less mathematical and empirical basis. Crucially, you can have situations where cooperation does not evolve even though relatedness is 100%, and situations in which cooperation does evolve and the level of relatedness is very low. I think with a little ingenuity we could devise a situation in which cooperative behaviour would evolve where the population was maximally un-related (I’ll see what Martin thinks). In simple terms, “selfish genes” have essentially nothing to do with the evolution of cooperative behaviour. Or indeed of non-cooperative behaviour come to that.

Coyne also points to Dawkins' remarks on the paper. They are hilarious: the poor chap clearly has no idea about the mathematics. He repeats Hamilton's rule as if it were Holy Writ, intoning: "a gene for altruism will spread if the cost to the actor, C is exceeded by the Benefit to the recipient, B, devalued by the coefficient of Relatedness, r."

First of all, the concept of "a gene for altruism" is laughable. There is no such thing and even Dawkins knows this. Secondly, even if you can measure B, C and r the fact is, as NTW have shown, that this statement just isn't true. Depending on how the replacements are done you can have rB>C and the altruistic behaviour will either always or never spread.

People who just don't understand the mathematics should be cautious about pontificating on this paper Dawkins is retired, was never much of a scientist anyway, and is simply out of date.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The rise of Chinese Christianity, and the Selfish Gene as mythology

Fascinating programme on the BBC about the rise of Christianity in China. They seem bemused, but the Chinese explain that:
  1. Love of Jesus is vital - one newly baptised 22-year-old said she would not renounce her faith even at gunpoint.
  2. Their scholars think that Christianity, and esp Protestantism, is fundamental to wealth creation.
  3. The traditions of social care from Christianity are really important as they develop.
There is a massive new Catholic Seminary funded by the Government. The BBC also had an interview with the minister responsible for religions. "The Government hopes all religions will enjoy sound development in China, and we will continue to provide substantial assistance ...To better address these social problems we have proposed to build a harmonious society, and the Chinese government hopes that religious groups will help to promote a harmonious society...China practices separation of state and church. They should not interfere in state functions such as administration, justice and education."

One of the young Chinese Christians said "We are the chosen generation - rise up for this nation"!

BBC finishes "no guarantee how long that freedom will last." But it is indeed in the Chinese Constitution.

Meanwhile the Folio Society is publishing a special Folio edition of The Selfish Gene next year, with massive hype about how it is the most important contribution since The Origin. Ironically, just as the final debunking has begun with Nowak, Tarnita & Wilson. Not by accident is the next item in their catalogue of forthcoming books one of Irish Mythology.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Mahler 8 in Edinburgh

To Edinburgh on Friday night after a delightful party at the Reform Club. I travelled up by “sleeper” but this was a misnomer - the man in the next compartment snored so enormously that I got very little sleep. The first thing I did on arrival at Edinburgh was to change my reservation to travel back during the day on Sunday rather than overnight. Then to my hotel to get some sleep. I had some tricky final calculations to do for my paper with Nowak so couldn’t go out much before 6pm.

The concert I had come to Edinburgh to attend was Mahler 8 where both Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Nicole Cabell were soloists. I had only visited Edinburgh once before (a business trip for a couple of hours when I was 18) and I was very struck by the city. I walked from the Usher Hall to the Castle and down, buying two sets of a “Whisky Tour” for Catherine and Nicole. Then to the concert itself.

MINDBLOWING! Of course Mahler 8 is wonderful – certainly the greatest 19th Century work composed in the 20th Century – in fact the premiere was on the 18th Sept 1910 so almost exactly 100 years ago. And Catherine and Nicole guaranteed that at least two of the soloists would be of the highest quality. But everyone was truly superb. The conductor, Donald Runnicles, really got the best out of the forces and the chorus was especially wonderful.
Part one is a tremendous setting of Veni Creator Spiritus – emphasising and re-emphasising the link between God’s creativity and that of the artist. All the soloists except Nicole are also engaged in a masterly display and invocation – the breath of inspiration and the breath of the singers resonating in time and eternity. At the reprise of Veni Runnicles was so engaged that he stamped his foot! And then brought the “trumpets afar” in who has entered un-noticed in the grand circle. Overwhelming.

The connection with the final part of Faust is perfect. Divine grace and inspiration trumps all earthly and diabolic calculation. The orchestral introduction, beautifully written by Mahler as a complete contrast in mood to Veni yet with clear points of thematic contact, was superb, as were the chorus in the deliberately rather confusing and dark opening lines. Until you know that the Lions are friendly you could be in a very dark place, and not Love’s holy sanctuary.
Anthony Michaels-Moore then came in a Pater Ecstaticus – an remarkable voice and an remarkable part. The “stage directions” say that he is “hovering high and low” and it would be interesting, though hazardous, to try this is a concert. The ending of Faust, when he is snatched from the Devil by a bombardment of young cherubs throwing roses, is sometimes seen as arbitrary, but of course it makes perfect sense. (As an aside, I do wish that the programme notes did a better job of explaining the background. We cannot these days assume people have read Faust and the remarks about “pelting roses” would have left an un-noted audience non-plussed. But then the author of the note, a professor at Royal Holloway forsooth, describes St Mary of Egypt (the 5th Century Patron Saint of Penitents) as “from the Bible”)

Simon O’Neill (who is singing Parsifal at Bayreuth next year) did a wonderful job of singing Faust, or Doctor Marianus as he has now become. And the musical interlude where “Mater Gloriosa hovers in to view” was just superb at all levels. So then the three great penitent women and Gretchen take up Faust’s cause. Catherine solo as Mary of Egypt was, as always, done with incredible musicality, real emotional and spiritual depth, and rent the heart (Though again the references should be explained in the programme note, I had to go to Wikipedia with my smatphone)

So the petitions to the Virgin increase, as the music reaches the spiritual, emotional, intellectual climax of climaxes. Just two lines have to be sung, 12 words. Could even Nicole really deliver something that was commensurate with such a build up? UNBELIEVABLE! She surpassed even the highest possible expectations. Tears overwhelmed me, and I think many others. Even now, as I write this the following day, my eyes well up. And so to the final chorus: Alles Vergängliche//Ist nur ein Gleichnis. And WOW. A truly extraordinary, transcendent performance. There must have six curtain calls, and I gave it a standing ovation.

Afterwards saw Catherine and Nicole backstage and met the others and the conductor at the reception afterwards. Catherine and Nicole had to leave early (catch Catherine with the RoH in Japan, and Nicole is doing the RoH in London in October and the Michaela in Carmen at the Met) but Simon took me on to meet up with the cast of Bliss which was the featured opera in the festival. The lead Sop Taryn Feibig may be coming to Glyndebourne next year, I would certainly like to hear her.

Intriguing resonances with the latest round of the God and Science debate, but this post is already too long. As I said to Erin Wall, one of the soloists, sometimes you just want to say “listen to Mahler 8, or the Mass in B Minor” and if people still don’t get it it is tempting to shake them! They are missing so much, leading shrunken, diminished and disconnected lives. It is an irony that those who believe, or say they believe, that evolution is the only basis of life are much less successful in evolutionary terms than those of us who believe that love and forgiveness are central.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Liz Watts Late Night Prom

To excellent late night Prom on Thursday to hear Liz Watts. They were performing works by 3 composers who were born 300 years ago: WF Bach, Thomas Arne and Pergolesi.

As the program note remarked, WF Bach had a musical education second to none. But the music, whilst OK, was pretty disappointing. The Arne was also a curio - oddly the first time anything by Arne other than Rule, Britannia (NB Britannia, rule the waves -not rules. This was an exhortation not a statement of fact) had been performed at the Proms.

The Pergolesi Stabat Mater is by contrast a masterpiece, wondefully sung by Liz and Anna Stephany. I see that it was commissioned to replace a piece by Allesandro Scarlatti, whose son Domenico was born in the annus mirabilis for composers, 1685 (along with JS Bach and Handel).

Ruth Palmer was also there and we went backstage to see Liz briefly - but it was a late night Prom. Ruth's new CD will be out next month and she is starting her Hidden Acoustics tour with a concert in Temple Church on Oct 7th.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Hawking's misconceptions

Lots of publicity for Hawking's latest book, with journalists (and possible Hawking and his co-author) making the elementary fallacies of:
  1. If it is not logically necessary for God to exist then God does not exit.
  2. If something is an inevitable consequence of the laws of Nature then it does not have a cause.
Clearly you can always transform a pair [L,C] of Laws and Initial Conditions into a set of laws L1 where the initial conditions are built in. But this always leaves open the question, why are these laws the way they are (see eg my paper in Journal of Cosmology)? The theist will answer that God made them this way, the atheist that they are "brute fact".

The Chief Rabbi is very good on this in today's Times. He points out that "Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean." and that "Hawking II, the good scientist, has brilliantly refuted Hawking I, the poor theologian" concluding "Given a choice between a single intelligent creator and an infinity of self-creating universes, the former wins hands down...But there is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live. Science masquerading as religion is as unseemly as religion masquerading as science. I will continue to believe that God who created one or an infinity of universes in love and forgiveness continues to ask us to create, to love and to forgive."