Monday, May 27, 2013

Gates and freedom of expression

The iron gate inside Great Gate at Trinity
To Cambridge to have supper with daughter whose History Finals are soon. Great to see her. Rowan Williams came and did a poetry reading in Trinity Chapel some days previously and went down very well with the students. He is a great force for good.  I see that Trinity now has an iron gate integral to Great Gate so that people have to go in and out through the Porter's Lodge. Probably sensible but it seems a pity.

The murder in Woolwich is dreadful though it must be seen in proportion. So far this century there have been 54 people killed by terrorists in the UK (plus 4 suicide bombers) and although this is 54 too many it's still fewer than the number of people killed by insect stings.  There is certainly much that is disquieting about the way in which "Islamist" ideology is allowed to run riot in certain places.  But banning all forms of "fundamentalism" would be a grave infringement of civil liberties.  It could well become a criminal offence to argue against "gay marriage" and already we find strong pressure against Christian groups that uphold values which 20 years ago would have been near-universal. I worry that Twelfth Night will be banned from schools becauae it is "homophobic".

It may well be that new powers are needed but if so then perhaps some old powers should be given up. As a general principle 2 pages of legislation should be repealed for every one passed.  It was a step in the right direction when the House of Lords de-criminalised "insulting" language this year - which shamefully was criminalised under the Major government in 1994.

Meanwhile one salutes the admirable-sounding Ingrid Loyau-Kennett! Of course I don't agree with everything she says (why should I?) but she certainly deserves recognition and maybe some national role.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Denis Noble's paper is published - and Lee Smolin seems to be missing some points

Denis Noble is also a Trobador
Denis Noble's ground breaking paper "Physiology is rocking the foundations of evolutionary biology" is now formally published in Experimental Physiology.  The abstract reads as follows:

The ‘Modern Synthesis’ (Neo-Darwinism) is a mid-20th century gene-centric view of evolution, based on random mutations accumulating to produce gradual change through natural selection. Any role of physiological function in influencing genetic inheritance was excluded. The organism became a mere carrier of the real objects of selection, its genes. We now know that genetic change is far from random and often not gradual. Molecular genetics and genome sequencing have deconstructed this unnecessarily restrictive view of evolution in a way that reintroduces physiological function and interactions with the environment as factors influencing the speed and nature of inherited change. Acquired characteristics can be inherited, and in a few but growing number of cases that inheritance has now been shown to be robust for many generations. The 21st century can look forward to a new synthesis that will reintegrate physiology with evolutionary biology.

He shows that "all the central assumptions of the Modern Synthesis ...have been disproved...in ways that raise the tantalizing prospect of a totally new synthesis; one that would allow a reintegration of physiological science with evolutionary biology." and offers the following Comparison between the Modern Synthesis and the proposed Integrative Synthesis.

Before: Modern Synthesis Now: towards an Integrative Synthesis
Gene-centred view of natural selection Selection is multilevel
Impossibility of inheritance of acquired characteristics Acquired characters can be inherited
Distinction between replicator (genes) and vehicle (phenotype) The genome is an ‘organ of the cell’, not its dictator. Control is distributed
The central dogma of molecular biology Genomes are not isolated from organism and environment

This is incredibly exciting and it will be very interesting to see how it is taken up.

Meanwhile I see that Lee Smolin is carrying on with the idea that evolution through black holes can explain anthropic fine tuning. We dealt with this in Questions of Truth and since I actually discussed these issues face to face with Lee it's somewhat disappointing that we aren't cited. In brief the problems are:
  • You need a proper time into which you can embed all the (hypothetical) universes in the multiverse, otherwise it makes no sense to talk about the evolution of a population. This is deeply problematic, and in this proper time short-lived universes with a few "descendants" will  dominate longer-lived universes with many "descendants".  There is also the problem that some universes (esp with Lambda >0) have an infinite lifetime and generate infintely many black holes. These will "out-compete" any finite universes on a generation number basis.
  • Even if we grant the heroic assumptions needed, Smolin's evolutionary principle might explain why the present parameters were more likely than others, but not the apparent fine-tuning.
PS I've now looked at the paper "Cosmological natural selection and the purpose of the universe" by Andy Gardner and Joseph P. Conlon "which looks into the formalism of Lee's Cosmological Natural Selection. They assume that the relevant set is "generations" of universe although they do note the problem (without acknowledgement or citation).  They don't seem to have noticed the second problem - I'll email them.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Markets and Morality with Mice

Mouse image from Wikipedia - creative commons licence.
Fascinating paper in Science which tends to support the views of Michael Sandel and Alvin Roth that some things should not be marketized.

The researchers offered participants in their study (who seem to be students in Bonn) an opportunity to earn up to €20 by having a mouse killed - though as a minor detail the mouse was a surplus mouse and would be killed unless they chose to keep it alive. They found that only 46% of participants were willing to kill the mouse for €10 when it was entrusted to their care, but 72-76% were willing to kill the mouse for €10 when the transaction was subject to an auction market.

This is of course reminiscent of the famous dialogue between a Philosopher and a Socialite which I came across in Bob Townsend's classic book Up the Organisation (published in 1970 but now I'm pleased to see re-issued) As I recall it a Philosopher and Socialite meet at a party. He asks her if she'd sleep with him for $1M .  She's being honest and says yes.  "Now what about $10?" he asks. She's outraged: "What do you think I am, some kind of a ..." "We've already established that, now I'm trying to find out your price."  ($1M in 1970 is $6M in today's money).

It's also interesting to see a paper in Science referencing Karl Marx.

I took great exception to Prospect describing Sandel and Graying as "two of the world's greatest thinkers."  However Graying did a competent job of interviewing Sandel and the results are online here.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Global Investment Conference

Asking Christine Lagarde and the Finance Ministers - click for video
To fascinating conference on Global Investment. As the last session there was a very high level panel of the Finance Ministers of Germany, Canada and the UK and Christine Lagarde. My question to them got a pretty positive response.


The side discussions are of course un-bloggable but the comments in the plenary are all on the record and indeed on YouTube. One of the most striking remarks was made by the head of Munich Re who said that 80-100% of Germans would fully support the objectives that David Cameron is trying to achieve is changing the EU and the UK's relationship with it.  Even if he really only means 80-100% of the German business community that is still a very striking statement, and totally at odds with the impression given in the UK media.

Cameron's talk at the beginning went down very well with the audience and generally amongst this group of international business leaders and investors the esteem in which the UK Government is held is pretty high.  Much depends on whether the positive surprises on UK growth can be maintained.  The UK is currently the fastest growing major economy in Europe, and (according to the latest Economist poll of forecasters this is expected to be true for 2013 and 2014 - although by 2014 Germany and the UK are expected to be growing at the same rate.  If this situation continues then a great deal will change in UK politics.

PS It seems that my question made some waves, with the Daily Mail screaming "Chancellor accused of celebrating pension pain that will force millions to work until they drop" and it was also picked up in The Times, The Guardian.  I asked

"I think most of us from the business community greatly welcome the efforts to get deficits down on a 3-6 year timeframe. But it seems to me at any rate that for much of the G7, if you take a 10-30 year view, the rocketing entitlement spending is going to swamp anything that's done in the shorter term.  Now as a non-politician it seems fairly obvious that there needs to be a long term programme to raise the retirement age, and a long term programme to move to something like a Singaporean model which gets better health outcomes for about half the EU's health expenditure and about a quarter of the US's, though I can see that from a political point of view this is jolly difficult.

So addressing this to the former politician on the panel, who is now above politics, is this something you can encourage your colleagues at G7, because taking collective action to deal with this might be politically less difficult than one country sticking its neck out and saying: 'frankly we've got to raise the retirement age by six months a year for the next 20 years'."

Monday, May 06, 2013

Social learning and the complexity of evolution


from de Wall 2013: (A) A whale whacks the water surface with its tail... Allen et al. show that this behaviour was spread through social learning. (B) Van de Waal et al. report that vervet monkeys acquire food preferences from their mothers...The monkeys do not touch the previously distasteful blue corn, even though in this phase of testing, both colours are palatable.
CREDIT: (A) JENNIFER ALLEN AND THE OCEAN ALLIANCE; (B) ERICA VAN DE WAAL
Two rather stunning papers in Science emphasis and illustrate the importance of social learning - with a commentary article here. In our Evolution and the Complexity Principle Brian Josephson and I mentioned birdsong as an example of non-human non-genetic cultural evolution, but here they give examples from whales and monkeys.

In fact the idea that cultural learning within animals was important can be traced back in the scientific literature to Kinji Imanishi (the ref given is 1973 but he began studying Japanese macaques in 1948), but this suggestion was "but so far ahead of its time that few Western scientists paid attention"

The whales paper shows how using "lobtail feeding" (an additional refinement to bubble feeding) spread through a population of humpback whales over a period of 27 years. By applying Network Based Diffusion Analysis to nearly 74,000 observations they find that social learning is almost certainly the key factor - the techniques used are quite elegant and you can also see a representation of the social network of the 653 individual whales that were sighted over 20 times (although of course this only shows the times when they were seen together so it is an under-representation of total interactions).

I find the monkeys paper a bit less interesting if only becasue you can do experiements on monkeys so the approach is less elegant and more direct.  Basically they show that once monkeys had learned that one colored food tasted bitter their descendants and other group members also avoided these foods. In the words of the summary:
Groups first learned to avoid the bitter-tasting alternative of two foods. Presentations of these options untreated months later revealed that all new infants naïve to the foods adopted maternal preferences. Males who migrated between groups where the alternative food was eaten switched to the new local norm. Such powerful effects of social learning represent a more potent force than hitherto recognized in shaping group differences among wild animals
Taken together though these papers underline the basic message that the simplistic nostrums of Dawkins on evolution are untenable.  (His "memes" nonsense doesn't explain this either, as Simon Conway Morris famously observed the idea of memes is hilariously simplistic. Talk about a "Lobtail Feeding Meme" or a "Colored Food Avoidance Meme" misses the point).

Another aspect of the greater and more interesting complexity of real evolutionary mechnanisms is shown in a Nature paper called Extensive transcriptional heterogeneity revealed by isoform profiling
This shows that the transcription of DNA by RNA is by no means as simple as has been supposed.  Indeed there is 
"[an] extensive layer of isoform diversity previously hidden among overlapping RNA molecules. Variation in transcript boundaries seems to be the rule rather than the exception, even within a single population of yeast cells. Over 26 major transcript isoforms per protein-coding gene were expressed in yeast. Hundreds of short coding RNAs and truncated versions of proteins are concomitantly encoded by alternative transcript isoforms, increasing protein diversity. In addition, approximately 70% of genes express alternative isoforms that vary in post-transcriptional regulatory elements, and tandem genes frequently produce overlapping or even bicistronic transcripts."
All much more interesting, and much more complex, than people think. Fascinating!


Sunday, May 05, 2013

Engaging with deepest beliefs

South Cathedral Precinct, Beijing
A very encouraging email from a fairly frequent e-correspondent:
This is just to thank you for all those answers you gave to my questions over a space of months (and months). They were very helpful. I used to be an atheist but by asking around both the Church, friends, family, the web etc.) I am now a Christian. So many thanks to you and others!
The whole question of engaging with people's faith and encouraging them to change their positions is of course quite delicate. One of the important ideas/debates that the excellent Veritas Forum has been promoting is that "tolerance" must include the willingness to engage seriously with people's deep beliefs and have where appropriate a significant debate. Respect for the individual implies, and in a sense demands, a willingness to believe that they are capable to changing their opinions in response to appropriate arguments.

I was recently "evangelised" by a Muslim in the precincts of the South Cathedral in Beijing, which was an interesting experience. He began with "Excuse me, I am not a Christian but I have some questions" and then proceeded to quite scripture at me to "show" that Jesus was not God.  He was of course somewhat unfortunate in picking his "victim" but my reaction was interesting (to me). I got quite angry and dismissive. Clearly he didn't really know what he was talking about and hadn't read the Bible in the original Greek. But I should have been more gracious and tried to get him to see that Jesus "submitting" to the Father is about love and not about power (his points were that "submission" shows that you are not equal and that "submission"  = Islam). 

Of course the doctrine of the Trinity is not obvious - nor for that matter is any other deep truth about the fundamental nature of the universe, why should it be?  But I could have done a much better job of engaging with him - and perhaps would have done if I had been less tired and under time pressure and in a somewhat foreign milieu. And the insights of how it feels to have your fundamental beliefs attacked by someone who thinks they know better than you should stay with me as cautionary tale!