Genesis vs. The Origin — are you kidding me?

Check out this nonsense from an article in The Toronto Star, which for some reason decides to pit the Bible against The Origin of Species as works of literature.

You can spot the difference in the quality of the writing from the very first lines of the respective books. The first line of Genesis – “In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth” – is simply the best sentence ever composed: strong, active, concise, clear, complete and yet turgid with hidden depths. Though not a single word is out of the ordinary, each word radiates with startling power on examination. “In the beginning” is an everyday expression, but in everyday speech, it always describes the beginning of something, a book or a road or a life. When we hear the phrase “in the beginning,” we immediately ask “the beginning of what”? The beginning of Genesis is just The Beginning. The absence clarifies, more than words could, how high the stakes are.

“The heaven and the Earth” is also a powerfully succinct expression. Instead of God creating everything, God creates duality from the beginning: He created out there and in here, the universal and the particular, the cosmic and the terrestrial.

Compare that perfection of expression with the first sentence from the introduction to The Origin of Species: “When on board HMS Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent.” What the hell are you on about, Charles Darwin? We have to wait for the next sentence to understand his subject (in newspaper-speak, this bad writing habit is called “burying the lead.”): “These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species – that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.” It’s a perfect model for what not to do with a lead sentence. Not only does it contain a passive construction, it is also a tissue of conditionals, stuffed with “seemed to me,” “some light,” and “one of our greatest.” Its vagueness and weakness have real consequences, too. They lead Kansas school board trustees and ex-U.S. Presidents to believe that there’s reasonable doubt about the ideas in The Origin of Species, when there is not. Good writing matters.

Ok. Using the same method, let’s compare the final sentences rather than the first ones.


So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.

The Origin:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

I rest my case.

(See Adaptive Complexity for a more detailed smackdown of the Star’s argument).

A biblical experiment.

The Telegraph reports an interesting list of the most disturbing passages from the Bible, as compiled in a light-hearted project entitled “Chapter and Worse” at the Christian site Ship of Fools.

Here’s the list, in case you’re curious:

No. 1: St Paul’s advice about whether women are allowed to teach men in church:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

No. 2: In this verse, Samuel, one of the early leaders of Israel, orders genocide against a neighbouring people:

“This is what the Lord Almighty says… ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Samuel 15:3)

No. 3: A command of Moses:

“Do not allow a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18)

No. 4: The ending of Psalm 137, a psalm which was made into a disco calypso hit by Boney M, is often omitted from readings in church:

“Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” (Psalm 137:9)

No. 5: Another blood-curdling tale from the Book of Judges, where an Israelite man is trapped in a house by a hostile crowd, and sends out his concubine to placate them:

“So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight. When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, ‘Get up; let’s go.’ But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.” (Judges 19:25-28)

No. 6: St Paul condemns homosexuality in the opening chapter of the Book of Romans:

“In the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (Romans 1:27)

No. 7: In this story from the Book of Judges, an Israelite leader, Jephthah, makes a rash vow to God, which has to be carried out:

“And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.’ Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.’” (Judges 11:30-1, 34-5)

No. 8: The Lord is speaking to Abraham in this story where God commands him to sacrifice his son:

‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ (Genesis 22:2)

No. 9: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)

No. 10: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18)

There’s lots of stuff like this, of course, and often these are ignored in favour of passages more compatible with one’s existing views (or, more disturbingly, these may be invoked for the same reason). The point is that it is difficult to know which parts of the Bible to take as literal rules about how to live, which are metaphors, and which are, at best, outdated notions that society has rightly long rejected. But what would happen if you tried to actually live the Bible literally today?

As it happens, this little experiment has been tried by best-selling author and editor of Esquire magazine, A.J. Jacobs. He describes his trials and tribulations (and new insights) during a year of following every rule in the Bible that he can in his book The Year of Living Biblically. (Obviously some parts, like the stoning of adulterers, had to be handled in a diplomatic way).

I happened to grab the book at an airport bookstore as I thought it might be interesting — and indeed it was. It’s not nearly as irreverent as one might expect — in fact, he makes a significant effort to understand those who live by (some) Biblical rules all the time, and to derive what lessons he can from his experience.

Recommended, regardless of where you stand on religion.

On the Origin of Species – Chapter 3.

Chapter 3 – Struggle for Existence

This is the chapter in which Darwin really picks things up. Whereas the first two may have been more like, in Darwin’s own words, “a dry list of facts”, this one is written in a very passionate tone. Having established that individuals vary both in domesticated breeds and in nature, he now moves into the second major ingredient of natural selection: overproduction.

Some important things in this chapter:

1) Darwin strongly emphasizes adaptation. This is not very surprising, given that he considered natural selection as the main (but not only) mechanism of evolution.

“But the mere existence of individual variability and of some few well-marked varieties, though necessary as the foundation for the work, helps us but little in understanding how species arise in nature. How have all those exquisite adaptations of one part of the organisation to another part, and to the conditions of life, and of one distinct organic being to another being, been perfected? We see these beautiful co-adaptations most plainly in the woodpecker and missletoe; and only a little less plainly in the humblest parasite which clings to the hairs of a quadruped or feathers of a bird; in the structure of the beetle which dives through the water; in the plumed seed which is wafted by the gentlest breeze; in short, we see beautiful adaptations everywhere and in every part of the organic world.”

2) We may think life is well balanced and peaceful, but there is carnage going on all around, if not right this moment then at the very least during difficult seasons.

“We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.”

“Although some species may be now increasing, more or less rapidly, in numbers, all cannot do so, for the world would not hold them.”

3) The struggle for life can be against the environment (e.g., surviving in cold or dry habitats), but the major factor is the biotic environment. He also points out that what matters more than survival is reproduction.

“I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it should be said to be dependent on the moisture. A plant which annually produces a thousand seeds, of which on an average only one comes to maturity, may be more truly said to struggle with the plants of the same and other kinds which already clothe the ground. The missletoe is dependent on the apple and a few other trees, but can only in a far-fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees, for if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it will languish and die. But several seedling missletoes, growing close together on the same branch, may more truly be said to struggle with each other. As the missletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of other plants. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence.”

4) Darwin considers extinction to be gradual, not catastrophic (he acknowledges what we now call background extinction but not mass extinctions).

“Battle within battle must ever be recurring with varying success; and yet in the long-run the forces are so nicely balanced, that the face of nature remains uniform for long periods of time, though assuredly the merest trifle would often give the victory to one organic being over another. Nevertheless so profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms to desolate the world, or invent laws on the duration of the forms of life!”

5) Darwin recognizes different strategies of reproduction (what we now call r-selection and K-selection).

“A large number of eggs is of some importance to those species, which depend on a rapidly fluctuating amount of food, for it allows them rapidly to increase in number. But the real importance of a large number of eggs or seeds is to make up for much destruction at some period of life; and this period in the great majority of cases is an early one. If an animal can in any way protect its own eggs or young, a small number may be produced, and yet the average stock be fully kept up; but if many eggs or young are destroyed, many must be produced, or the species will become extinct.”

6) Competition is most intense between members of the same species because their requirements are so similar.

“But the struggle almost invariably will be most severe between the individuals of the same species, for they frequent the same districts, require the same food, and are exposed to the same dangers.”

7) At higher levels, closely related species experience more intense competition than distantly related species, again because their requirements are similar.

“As species of the same genus have usually, though by no means invariably, some similarity in habits and constitution, and always in structure, the struggle will generally be more severe between species of the same genus, when they come into competition with each other, than between species of distinct genera.

Some famous quotes:

“Again, it may be asked, how is it that varieties, which I have called incipient species, become ultimately converted into good and distinct species, which in most cases obviously differ from each other far more than do the varieties of the same species? How do those groups of species, which constitute what are called distinct genera, and which differ from each other more than do the species of the same genus, arise? All these results, as we shall more fully see in the next chapter, follow inevitably from the struggle for life. Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. We have seen that man by selection can certainly produce great results, and can adapt organic beings to his own uses, through the accumulation of slight but useful variations, given to him by the hand of Nature. But Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.”

“We can dimly see why the competition should be most severe between allied forms, which fill nearly the same place in the economy of nature; but probably in no one case could we precisely say why one species has been victorious over another in the great battle of life.”

The great Canadian book rip-off.

It annoyed me that books remained more expensive in Canada even as our currency moved closer to parity with the American dollar. As I write this, the Canadian dollar is worth roughly $1.07 US. But looking at vs., I see that many popular science books are still more expensive in Canada than in the US.
Some examples:

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley $10.17 US $13.83 CDN

A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life by J. Craig Venter $17.13 US $19.53 CDN

The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World by James Shreeve $11.16 US $13.86 CDN

Maybe it’s shipping costs, you say? Then how come more technical books are the other way around? I’ll tell you why — because they raised the price for US customers.

A Primer of Genome Science, 2nd Edition by Greg Gibson $64.95 US $61.23 CDN

The Evolution of the Genome by T. Ryan Gregory $72.95 $68.78 CDN

What’s the excuse?

The Evolution of the Genome in China

Last week I was at Iowa State University as the grad students’ choice of seminar speaker for the fall semester. It seems a good number of the people there have found The Evolution of the Genome useful, which is very rewarding since it was written with graduate students prominently in mind. Anyway, I returned to my office in Guelph this morning only to be presented with two copies of The Evolution of the Genome — with a Chinese cover. The cover, preface, and table of contents are in Chinese, but the rest of the book is in English. It probably would have been more useful (and more expensive) to translate the entire thing, but hopefully this will make it more accessible in some way. The funny thing is that I had no idea any other editions were in the works until today.

On framing.

I finally checked out the “framing” presentation by Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet which is available with PowerPoint slides here. I am not particularly interested in the debate over this issue, but I thought I would give it a try in light of my hope of improving media coverage and public comprehension of science. This is not my entry into the debate as I think it has garnered more attention that it warrants already; this is simply a set of thoughts on the issue after having spent the time watching the talk.

I will say that I found much to agree with as far as the descriptive components were concerned. That is, I think Mooney and Nisbet make some good arguments with regard to what is and is not working in scientific communication. This is Nisbet’s subject of research, and it was useful to see actual data applied to the question. My sense was that “framing” likely is something that nonspecialists do use when evaluating complex issues, and that this is a problem for scientists who want to convey complicated ideas with societal ramifications to them. However, I think the discussion runs aground in three major areas: 1) How it is presented to scientists, 2) In the failure to distinguish it from “spin” or “marketing”, and 3) When it shifts from description to prescription.

As to the first, Mooney and Nisbet seem to use an only partially appropriate “framing” when speaking to scientists who, both as individual people and as part of a collective, exhibit inherent preferences, biases, and other filters. To wit, scientists in general will be unwilling to compromise certain principles, and there appears to be insufficient appreciation of this fact by framing advocates. For example, scientists will not simplify to the point of eroding accuracy, they will not do anything that could be perceived as lying to the public, and they will never give up on the notion that getting the public to understand science is the primary long-term goal. From what I can gather, Mooney and Nisbet are not asking scientists to compromise on these principles, but this is not stated clearly — following their own advice, this should be presented clearly and repeatedly so as to reassure scientists that they are not being told to betray their scientific ideals. (And if they are asking scientists to do so, then this should be made clear also so that the debate can be put to a swift end).

The question of motives also comes into play as part of the mis-framing of framing. No one can be totally objective, so what scientists are trained to do is to look for biases and associated violations of objectivity so that these can be factored into the evaluation of scientific arguments. Personally, I found myself asking “why do they care what scientists do?”. One obvious explanation is that they are concerned citizens with a particular interest in science and its impacts on society. This is not stated upfront, however, and so questions come up about whether this isn’t an exercise in attention getting (and possibly book promoting) as much as a sincere call to action.

Finally, while I do not read their blogs, I have seen a few links to statements that I have found offensive to my scientific sensibilities. As a case in point, Mooney argues on his blog that science journalists are not the problem (this is also stated in the presentation). It would seem to follow, therefore, that if science is reported inaccurately, sensationalized, overstated in its implications, or otherwise distorted, that is the fault of scientists. Worse, Mooney goes so far as to argue that scientists should just shrug it off and move on if they are misquoted in the media. Again, this ignores the frame that scientists use, in which accuracy is of paramount significance. He also seems to think that simply telling scientists about the difference between a science journalist (well-trained and comprehensive) and a non-science journalist reporting on science (no expertise or experience in dealing with such issues) will make the resentment of the media’s handling of research disappear. It will not.

The second point is the one that has been the primary subject of discussion by some prominent scientist-bloggers, namely that “framing” bears a striking resemblance to “spin”. We all know that “spin” plays a substantial role in politics. To scientists, this is not something to be emulated. I won’t go so far as to say that framing is mere spin, but throughout the presentation I had the strong notion that it was largely indistinguishable from “marketing”. Scientists should care about how their work is presented to and received by the public, and therefore marketing is a legitimate consideration. Indeed, scientists market their work often — to granting agencies, students, journals, and colleagues. Adding some audience-specific adjustments when dealing with the public is perfectly reasonable, but if that’s all “framing” is, then it’s really just repackaged marketing truisms.

The third point, in which Mooney and Nisbet transition from describing the issue to prescribing what scientists should do, was by far the weakest part of the talk. In fact, I found almost nothing in their presentation that actually applied to me as an individual researcher. Almost everything they suggested actually fell under the purview of science writers, press offices, lobby groups, professional societies, or educational organizations. I still do not know what they expect me to do even with information in mind about how the public frames important topics. As a result, much of the talk seems to be about telling scientists what they are doing wrong with no real solutions that individual scientists can or will implement.

If I may, I would also add that Mooney and Nisbet’s discussion is, at heart, not about science or communication, but about American politics. In many other countries, scientific literacy is much higher, issues do occupy the primary stage in election campaigns, and religion and partisanship play a much smaller role in influencing decisions about science. Once again, this suggests that education about science early on is an effective strategy and a viable objective. The question of framing is more geographically and temporally localized than this, and so it is difficult for some scientists who are trained to look beyond such limitations to the larger picture to make framing a primary tool.

In stark contrast to all of this ambiguity and apparent misreading of scientific audiences, I point to the recent book A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media by journalists Richard Hayes and Daniel Grossman, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists. I am only part way through the book, but already I can note that it does a fine job of framing the topic in a manner acceptable to scientists. Hayes and Grossman are very clear that they have the utmost respect for science and scientists, and that they absolutely do not wish to see spin implemented at the expense of accuracy. Theirs is a well articulated set of practical suggestions for dealing with the media. They do not appear to blame scientists but instead point to examples where different strategies could have forestalled problems. They do not let science reporters off the hook, but do try to promote a better understanding among scientists of the challenges of writing for a nonspecialist audience. They do not point out the challenge and leave the solutions unclear, but give point by point suggestions on how to improve the important relationship between scientists and those who report science. As a scientist with some experience with the media, I find a great deal of use in this volume. And I do not hesitate to recommend it as an alternative to the far less helpful argument about framing.

Evolution for Everyone — David Sloan Wilson on CBC.

David Sloan Wilson is Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in New York and author of Unto Others, Darwin’s Cathedral, and most recently Evolution for Everyone. I confess that I have not yet read the book, though it is near the top of my pile. (Dr. Wilson and I are on the editorial board of Evolution: Education and Outreach, and he was kind enough to have copies sent to all of us).

On Saturday I happened to be listening to the radio and caught an interview with Dr. Wilson on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks program. You can listen here to a discussion of the book and his ideas about evolution, morality, religion, and other subjects. (Another connection: the host, Bob McDonald, received an honourary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Guelph at the same convocation at which I received my degree).