Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Early tool making and other evolutionary matters

Fig 1 from Wilkins et al. Spear tips c. 500k BC
Fascinating papers in Nature and Science about early tool-making.

  • The Nature paper (Brown et al - "An early and enduring advanced technology originating 71,000 years ago in South Africa") shows that arrows (and presumably bows) were probably being made over 70k years ago.  This, they argue, also shows that cultural transmission was taking place, probably by language. The stone mesoliths used to make the arrowheads need heat treatment and careful chipping.  
  • The Science paper (Wilkins et al .  "Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology")  suggests that stone points were being hafted onto spears 500k years ago. This shows that "early humans were manufacturing hafted multicomponent tools ~200,000 years earlier than previously thought."
Interesting piece by Herbert Gintis defending the EO Wilson view of evolution in Bioscience, Vol. 62, No. 11, November 2012 called Clash of the Titans. I'm seeing Martin Nowak in a few weeks - it will be interesting to see what he has to say about it.

Met a doctor at the weekend who said he was a "lapsed atheist" - promising!

PS: These two points also provide a very convincing example of group selection/cultural evolution. Not even the most deranged Dawkinsite would claim that there was "a gene for arrow-making."  Although clearly some complex genetic adaptations of early hominids might make it more likely that they would be able to think about such things effectively, the critical difference would be between groups which actually had this technology and were passing it on, culturall, to their "descendants" and those that did not.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lambeth Palace farewell to Archbishop Rowan

To Lambeth Palace on Weds for a lovely "farewell" Eucharist with Archbishop Rowan.  Despite the deplorable events of Synod he was in amazing form, and preached a wonderful sermon on Luke 19: 11-27, the Parable of the Ten Minas.

This is a variant on the "Parable of the Talents" in Matthew but instead of three servants each given a Talent (roughly a million dollars) there are ten servants each given a Mina (roughly ten thousand pounds - there were 60 Mina in a Talent, and 100 Denarii in a Mina, and a Denarius was a day's wage) although only three of them are referred to and the wording of that bit is the same as the Talents parable. But the additional detail is that the "master" is "A man of noble birth [who] went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return..But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, 'We don’t want this man to be our king.'"  Then after he has taken one mina away from a lazy servant and given it to the one who has ten minas he says "But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me."

Rowan said that Jesus loved shocking people. This master is clearly modelled on Archelaus the son of Herod whose cruelty was notorious. Jesus has already likened God to an unjust judge and an incompetent farmer, now he might as well be saying "God is a bit like Saddam Hussein" but the real point is that God's gifts are always gifts of generosity from His generous love, because ultimately all that God has is His own nature.  So we have to be generous with the gifts that God has given to us because if we try to imprison them and bury them in the ground we are denying their nature and his.

He added that one of the benefits of the somewhat odd practice in the Western Church of giving communion in the form of a round wafer (rather than broken bread) is that it looks a bit like a coin so it can remind us that we are receiving a gift from God.  But as so often happens in the spiritual realm, things are upside down, and when it seems to us that we are holding God, God is holding us.

Reception afterwards with a moving presentation to ABp Rowan and his wife Jane. I do hope we see them when they are in Cambridge. A pity of course he didn't become Master of Trinity - I have heard, whether this is true or not I don't know -  that the science Fellows voted for him but the Arts ones didn't.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Women Bishops - a way forward

Very disappointing vote on Women Bishops. Passed overwhelmingly by the clergy and Bishops and a big majority in the House of Laity, but due to the slightly bonkers constitution of the CofE this means the "Measure" fails.

There is nothing to stop the Bishops, or HMG, from introducing a bill in the House of Lords which would put this Measure into law - it would be overwhelmingly passed - and at the same time they should amend the C of E's legal rules so that a Measure passes if it gets a majority in all three Houses and 66% of the aggregate votes cast, rather than requiring 66% in each house.

Barcelona and L'elisier d'amore

Back from Barcelona where I went to see Nicole in L'elisier d'amore.

Flew in early enough to get to mass in La Segrada Familigia, which was held in the crypt so as not to interrupt the incessant flow of paying tourists in the basilica above. The service was completely packed must have been over 600 people many standing - I could kneel but not sit. From the outside and even in the crypt the building is completely extraordinary! What would Ruskin have made of it I wonder. One cleric called Gaudi "The Dante of stone" and you can see what he means. It is also a fascinating testament to human vision that people are coming to see the unfinished building and paying thereby for its completion.

Walked from there to the Picasso museum with some famous and many fascinating pieces. Having a room and a half devoted to some of his many reflections on Las Menenias was particularly gripping, having seen that great London exhibition a few years ago.

Then to the opera. The audience was great, about 15 years younger on average than the ROH ring I'd say.

The opera is a delightfully vapid concoction  but what really made it an outstanding show was having two really wonderful singer/actors in the principal roles: Nicole and Javier Camarena the outstanding Mexican tenor. I had been reading the chapter in Peter Hall's brilliant "Exposed by the Mask" about the need for opera singers to really act and the fact that the much smaller houses of Mozart's day meant a much more direct contact between the  audience and the singers. Well Nicole and Javier gave performances that Sir Peter would have approved of 100%. Their facial and body language alone would have been well worth the price of the ticket. And their singing was truly outstanding. Javier got the biggest ovation at the end, partly because he was something of a discovery and partly because his character is really nice whereas Nicole's is in many ways a really nasty - this really conditions audience reaction especially if you are acting the part well. The other principals (Simone Alberghini as a cracking Dulcamara, Àngel Òdena an avuncular Belcore - and do Sergeants really have so much gold braid? - and the delectable Eliana Bayón as Giannetta ) were also excellent and it was clearly a very happy and well matched company.

Afterwards Nicole and I went out to dinner with Javier and Elena and a friend of Javier's from Zurich who has many singers and dancers as house guests. A really lovely and enjoyable evening.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Polkinghorne and Nowak on Science and Religion

Stumbled upon some fascinating lectures on science and religion:

  • Martin Nowak speaking about Evolution, making many fascinating points, including:
    • Almost all the cells on earth are bacteria - about 10^60. Not much change since 3.5bn years ago!
    • After the evolution of Bacteria and of eukaryotic cells the next major event of evolitionary significance was the development of human language, which enabled cultural evolution (although this takes place to some extent in other species like birds) 
    • There are basically 5 ways in which cooperation can evolve, and it's rather nice that for indirect reciprocity to evolve it has to be generous, hopeful and forgiving.
    •  "Scientific Atheism" is a metaphyisical position - fundamentalist atheism. It is not an honest interpretation of scientific results. And the God concept in Christianity is much more sophisticated than "scientific atheists" suppose. Any serious scientist must realise that God as Creator and Sustainer, beyond the created universe, cannot be disproven by science.
    • Evolution poses as little a problem for Christianity as gravity does.
  • John Polkinghorne also speaking at the same event.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Time and Rememberance

Back from a weekend in Cambridge celebrating Son and Daughter-in-law's joint birthday and then seeing younger Daughter at lunch.  We went to the Trinity Remembrance Day service which had a fair number of decorated Trinity alumni - one of whom carried the wreath and another read some prayers (one was reputedly a Field Marshall but names were not provided). Of the 800 or so names of those who died in the wars, one stood out to us: EA Beale.

It turns out that Edmund Arthur Beale was born in 14 June 1911, the son of Edmund Phipps Beale. He read History at Trinity and joined the RAF Reserve, being made Pilot Officer on Probation in 1930 and promoted to Flying Officer in 1932. He was transferred from Class C to Class AA in April 1939 (which seems to have meant that he was pretty much first in line to fly in the event of war).  He relinquished his commission on grounds of ill health on 2 May 1940 and died on 5 Sept 1940 and is buried at St Mary's Whitegate in Cheshire. He left a widow, Margaret Joan. His service number was 70050.  No-one seems to know the circumstances of his death.  He was a 3rd cousin twice removed though he would probably have known my great aunt Eleanor Isabella Slade (known as Susan) who was one of the first female pilots and was killed on active service in 1944.

There is something very powerful about the institutional memory of a College as old as Trinity. The sermon preached contrasted the very pessimistic secular view of time epitomised by the chronophage locust on the Corpus Clock, with an optimistic view of time as kairos epitomised by the Trinity Clock (telling the time, as Wordsworth records, "twice over with a male and female voice").


Friday, November 09, 2012

Well it will be Welby

Well it will be Welby. From everything I hear about him, and have read, I'm delighted.

It's also interesting that it makes the front page and lead editorial in the FT, as well as a big profile, and also similar treatment in The Times and other national media.

It's also very encouraging to me to find out about people like Reverend Sally Hitchiner. Have a look at her comments here.

PS I also find that he's a Benedictine Oblate (of St Benedict's Priory Salisbury, which was formerly Elmore Abbey but the 4 remaining monks sold the Abbey and have moved into the close at Salisbury) and has a Spiritual Director who's a Roman Catholic Priest (maybe formerly of Elmore but gone over??). I have always felt that when the Evangelical and Catholic streams of Christian Spirituality finally begin to merge in the CofE there will be a major revival*. So I'm enormously encouraged by this.

* Though I don't think I've properly blogged about this - I mentioned it here en passant in 2007 and here in 2006 - referring to a book Streams of Living Water written by Richard Foster in 1999.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Knots and do nots



To The Forge in Camden last night to hear our friend Sasha Seim's performance of her songs with a string quartet. This is a fascinating step in the tradition of great composers like Schubert and Mahler with the additional twist that Sasha sings them rather than playing the piano.


The venue was completely full and just the right size for Sasha's thought-provoking, playful, intimate and really compelling songs.  There are also echoes of the great 20th C songwriters like Cole Porter. The concert was called "Knots and do nots" after a song of that name ("you are a master at untying knots, and do nots"). For me the finest song of all was one advising a friend that "you're worthy of more" which is about someone who is dumbing herself down in a rather abusive relationship, and the one that got called for an encore "How do you kiss a kind man?"  which is about the predicament of a girl who wants to fall in love with man who is very kind to her (and is already her boyfriend) but just can't.  She also dedicated her final song ("See Through") to her art teacher at St Paul's Miss Evans who was in the audience.

Sasha really really should write opera - her idiom is fantastic: contemporary, accessible and profound at the same time. Each song tells, or rather hints at, a story and a sequence of them from different viewpoints would be amazing.  The quartet-writing was also superb: never over-obtrusive but really interesting.

I was delighted that Ruth Palmer was also there (I introduced Ruth and Sasha some years ago) and it was great to hang out with Ruth and some of Sasha's friends afterwards - and Sasha a bit but she was mobbed with so many of her friends having come to see and hear her.  Ruth has a whole series of really exciting concerts coming up including the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in Aberdeen in a concert which also sees the world première of her father's "A Cædmon Symphony" and a concert in Rockefeller University in NYC on Dec 7th at lunchtime.  There are several more bookings in the US stretching I believe to 2014.  Go go to hear her (and buy her CDs) she is amazing.