A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Pupfish of Nevada

"The pupfish of Nevada" sounds like a great title for a folk song, like the Hunters of Kentucky or Moon of Alabama.(*)

Devils Hole pupfish is pair at far right at 2:00. Amagosa pupfish is pair at 5:00
(*) Yeah, TOF knows: Berthold Brecht and all that; but Dave van Ronk done sung it and that makes it a folk song. So there.

Getting Specious

This ain't nothing but a hound dog.
The notion of species is somewhat elastic in biology, expanding and contracting with the desire to uncover new ones. The usual definition, due to Mayr, is that a species is a population that can interbreed to produce fertile offspring. But this is problematic. The Northern Spotted Owl, so recently famous enough to drive loggers out of work, is interfertile with the California Spotted Owl (and the Mexican Spotted Owl), about which few bothered their pretty little heads because they were as common as ticks on a hound dog. So the definition was extended slightly to include populations that could interbreed, but in fact do not for behavioral or geographical reasons. Recently, the African elephant was discovered to be two different species. Who knew. The sundry snail darters of Tennessee were deemed separate species because, while interfertile, they dwelt in separate branches of the Tennessee River system and did not dart into the same singles bars. The two gyres of Atlantic tuna do not arrive at mid-ocean at the same time of the year, presumably due to the Atlantic slowly widening over time, and thus do not have the opportunity to embrace the elusive Other. But if we accept this, what are we to make of the Eskimo and the Hottentot, who likewise in the common course of nature do not date very often.

In sum, dogs/wolves (and polar bears/grizz) are separate species despite being interfertile while otherwise identical populations are accounted as separate species on other grounds entirely, such as to block a damn or logging. This sort of thing tends to bug mathematicians, who prefer their terms well-defined.

Meanwhile, the idea of species per se sits poorly on plants and not at all on asexual critters, not to mention some fungi of weirdness that alternate between asexual and bisexual generations.


It has become a truism today that species evolve by
  • mutations of randomness
  • filtered by natural selection
 As Darwin noted, this is a negative filter and neatly explains why species are not unfit. It does not readilyexplain where species come from, however. That requires the elusive Favorable Mutation, although "favorable" is one of those teleological terms, implying a preferred direction, and Moderns like to think they have done away with telos. However, the assumption is that enough of this sort of thing will cumulatively account for evolution over the very long term and not simply greater fitness of the species.

This led to the Darwinian Just-So Story. These stories take some trait: the peacock's tail, the Purple Emperor butterfly's diet, human speech, and so on, and spins an "adaptation tale" that shows how it is an evolutionary advantage to have it. (Of course, there are other species who do not have the trait, so the task is also to show how not having it is also advantageous.) There is no requirement to show that this story is in fact what did take place. It must merely sound plausible.

An example is the preference of the Purple Emperor butterfly to dine on carrion and fecal matter. Euuw! Adaptationists love to explain outre and transgressive behaviors, the more outre the better. In this case, the "reason" is that "the males replenish themselves after mating with sodium and other chemicals from the rotting matter." Thus we see, says philosopher Mary Midgley, the conscientious butterfly holding its proboscis and resolutely taking its medicine so as to be sure of keeping its love-life in order. 

 Presumably, Purple Emperors too fastidious to dine in this manner proved unfit and dropped out of the gene pool.The problem is that there is seldom any evidence for these evolutionary losers.

 But as Midgley goes on to say:
A recent controversy about the origins of nose-picking in humans showed the oddity of this. Since this habit is common, scientists suggested an amazing number of arcane physical mechanisms by which it might have directly improved people’s survival-prospects. What nobody did was to ask about this habit’s relation to motives – for instance to curiosity, to our tendency to explore and investigate things. Like other primates we like to pry into mysterious places such as holes and this interest surely has affected our species-survival in many ways, both helpful and otherwise. The details of the endless acts that it produces don’t matter; what affects survival is the general interest. Thus, human behaviour is not a ragbag of disconnected behaviour patterns with separate evolutionary histories. What evolves is an emotional constitution which shapes our lives as a whole. We have to explain particular actions by finding their place in it. [emph. added]
IOW, there is nothing particularly advantageous about nose-picking -- unless explaining it enables one to obtain grant money. That can be advantageous, we suppose. The advantage of the holistic approach is that it not only accounts for nose-picking, but also grant-seeking.

Charles Darwin wasn't always
old and bearded
Interestingly enough, Darwin himself did not engage in adaptationist Just-So stories. In fact, he insisted that while natural selection was the primary source of speciation, it could not possibly be the only source. He devoted an entire section of The Descent of Man to what he called "sexual selection." He considered this to be quite distinct from natural selection, although Late Moderns tend to lump the two together. They think "natural" is an adjective modifying the term "selection." But what Darwin meant was that Nature played the role of the metaphorical selector.

In sexual selection, what matters is the aesthetic preference of the females, and it is a genuine, no-fooling actual selection taking place.

His Victorian compadres didn't catch on. They had convinced themselves that beauty was subjective and subjective things did not really exist. But ol' Chuck doubled down.
Hey, babe! Come here often? How ya like these feathers?
"The case of the male Argus pheasant is eminently interesting, because it affords good evidence that the most refined beauty may serve as a charm for the female, and for no other purpose. We must conclude that this is the case, as the primary wing-feathers are never displayed, and the ball-and-socket ornaments are not seen in their full perfection, except when the male assumes the attitude of courtship.... Many will declare that it is utterly incredible that a female bird should be able to appreciate fine shading and exquisite patterns. It is undoubtedly a marvellous fact that she should possess this almost human degree of taste, though perhaps she admires the general effect rather than each separate detail. He who thinks that he can safely gauge the discrimination and taste of the lower animals, may deny that the female Argus pheasant can appreciate such refined beauty; but he will then be compelled to admit that the extraordinary attitudes assumed by the male during the act of courtship, by which the wonderful beauty of his feathers is fully displayed, are purposeless; and this is a conclusion which I for one will never admit.” [emphases Midgley's]
Mwahahah! You can run
but not hide!
Charm, taste, beauty... Darwin placed a clear emphasis on the subjective preferences of the female birds. Adaptive natural selection may play a role, perhaps not quite so important as Darwin thought. Right to the end, he kept looking over his shoulder at Lamarck. Natural selection is an entirely negative filter. It could account for maintenance of type, since it winnowed out the less fit gray squirrels; but it could not account for the fact of the gray squirrels themselves.

There is a sense in which Lamarck was on to something, but it turns selection inside out. What makes a trait "favorable" or not depends in large measure on what an organism is trying to do. Thus, a trait may become favorable because the members of a species have sufficient plasticity that they can adapt their behavior to the trait, not because the trait adapts them to the behavior.

This cuts against the grain of the Early Moderns, who regarded the lower animals as meat puppets enslaved to a instinct. But Aristotelian instinct was more supple than machine-agers assumed, and Darwin's sexual selection points toward it. It matters what the organism is trying to do.

Which brings us back to the pupfish.

It seems that natural selection is more actively selective than previously believed. 
Devil's Hole pupfish
The entire species of the Devils Hole pupfish lives in a rocky pool, 20 meters long and three meters wide, in a cave entrance in Death Valley, California. In 1976, conservationists established the fish in other pools elsewhere just in case Devil's Hole dried up. "But the refuge-bred fish began to look different, with deeper bodies and smaller heads, although all the fish [were] pretty much the same genetically."

Sean Lema, a graduate student at UC Davis, and Gabrielle Nevitt, professor of neurobiology, physiology and behavior, ... reared a related but unthreatened species, the Amargosa pupfish, in the lab on a restricted diet and with slight changes in water temperature. The Amargosa pupfish began to look more like the wild Devils Hole pupfish."

In other words, one kind of pupfish changed into another kind of pupfish when placed in the particular environment of the other. Significant adaptive variations appeared within two years. Since pupfish reach full maturity within 2 to 3 months and spawn from late February through the summer, that's about four or five pupfish generations. "No new information had appeared in the guppies’ DNA; instead, the expression of the existing information had altered."

This is called phenotype plasticity. The selfsame set of genes can express itself very differently, turning as it were on a genetic dime. Think of the range of variations of the domestic dog, from Chihuahua to St. Bernard, not just in size but in temperament. They range from sharp as a Border Collie to dumb as an Irish Setter, all on the same gene set. (There has been no cross-breeding with other species.) They are all variations on the theme of gray wolf. All this was accomplished within the blink of an evolutionary eye, essentially the span of human history.

Yet biologists find the speech of humans lurking in a gene (FOXP2, located on the long arm of chromosome 7 at position 31) and then say that since Neanderthals had the same gene, they must have had speech, too. They have also identified a "warrior" gene that is supposed to account for violent behavior. Koch's postulates have been forgotten, it seems.

The more we learn about genetics, it seems, the less certain we become of the origin of species -- or of the adequacy of natural selection to explain it. The lack of fit between natural selection and the fossil record is notorious. If natural selection theory were true, the evolutionary record would be a smear of continual incremental changes. Instead we see species appear almost fully formed in a geological instant and then persist until they clear out. It's not that the links are missing. It's that they should be the rule and not the exceptions. But the more we learn about epigenetics, genome plasticity, molecular edit/repair, and the like, the more it appears that evolution can be swift and specific and not a slow, gradual editing of a range of "random" mutations.

Mutations are not -- or at least, need not be -- "random." They can be focused and massive. There need not even be a mutation; simply a different expression of the same genes.

Well, what other mid-Victorian theory has survived unscathed?


  1. Sharon Begley, "Water-Flea Case Shows That Ability To Adapt Is What's Really Innate," The Wall Street Journal (April 22, 2005)
  2. Kimberly Johnson, "Lizards Rapidly Evolve After Introduction to Island," National Geographic News (April 21, 2008)
  3. Mary Midgley, "The Mythology of Selfishness," The Philosophers' Magazine online (05 January 2016)
  4. James A. Shapiro, "Rethinking the (Im)Possible in Evolution," Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology (2013) 
  5. David Warren, "Phenotype plasticity." Essays in Idleness (28 Aug 2015)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The TOFian Grandson is a Genius

TOF and the Snow

When TOF was a mere TOFling, his father took him one day to visit the GrandTOF. An elderly man of perhaps more than 50 years. When he was a child, the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. Before he died, he would watch on his TV while men walked on the Moon. His first job as a kid involved taking care of rented horses. Two years later, it was rented automobiles.

TOF was complaining, as TOFlings were wont to do, regarding his interminable walk to school -- in the Snow. Now this walk was six blocks, but that is a much longer distance when the legs are shorter. It must have been a mile, at least. TOF especially bemoaned the last four blocks coming home, which were up a hill steeper than El Capitan, or so it seemed, and the snow piled higher than the Matterhorn.

Mon Pere listened to this and shook his head. "That's nothing," he instructed TOF. "When I was your age, I had to walk in snow up to here, indicating with his hand how high it had been piled, or was being piled. School was at least two miles away and the hill down Stockton St. apparently needed ropes and pitons.

The GrandTOF listened to all this and then commented in his basso profundo, chopping his right hand tomahawk-fashion, as was his wont, to time his words. He looked at Pere and said, "Are you crazy? You kids had it so soft! Why, when I was a kid..." And so the school receded farther away and the snow (or something) grew ever deeper. What his father would have said, we shall never know.

As near as TOF can reckon from these data, the previous Ice Age ended about a hundred years ago, just as the world began shrinking. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The view from TOF's front door

Snow Job
by TOF

Snow so white,  snow so white
All this morning you greet me
Heaps of white deep and bright
I am not happy to meet thee
Vista of snow may you loom and grow
Loom and grow away from here
Soft and white, quite a sight
Better on postcard than near, t'me. 
h/t Rogers and Hammerstein

The bishop has released everyone from tomorrow's Sunday obligation.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


Another example of scientism, from the comix "Non Sequitur." This illustrates why the translation of the term "Science," in the lexicon of some folks, is "Look how much smarter I am than you peasants."

Several points want making:

"vs. Everything else." Does that include haute cuisine, English lit, the Parthenon, history, mathematics, etc.? Everything?

"Answers." Is it really and truly only "answers" that are sought? Might not some folks be seeking insight? Understanding? Wisdom? Or does the whole world want only to be told answers.

"Simple but wrong." Are the two arrows the only options? Might not some answers be simple by right? Others, complex but wrong? How do we classify eugenics or phlogiston or natural selection? The last is eminently simple -- an interesting side-effect of death. Does that mean it's wrong? What about simple but wrong answers in history regarding Galileo, Bruno, Hypatia, or the Library of Alexandria? How does "simple but wrong" square with Ockham's Razor, which urges simplification upon us, or the development of scientific theories based on perfect elastic collisions, point-source gravitation, ideal gasses, etc.?

"Complex but right." Is science about being right or are its theories paradigmatically falsifiable and therefore mooted with the expectation that they will one day be superceded? What about complex conspiracy theories?

Winding road. Is it TOF's aging eyesight, or does that road less traveled still wind up going over the cliff in the distant background?

Monday, January 18, 2016

E Pluribus

The first proposal submitted to the Congress for the Great Seal of the United States:

It was described thusly:
Shield: "The shield has six Quarters... pointing out the Countries from which these States have been peopled."
Three British:
    Rose for England, Thistle for Scotland, Harp for Ireland

Three European:
    Fleur-de-lis for France, Belgic Lion for Holland, Imperial Eagle for Germany

The shield is bordered with the initials for "each of the thirteen independent States of America."
Crest: "The Eye of Providence in a radiant Triangle whose Glory extends over the Shield and beyond the Figures."


Evidently the pluribus from which it was considered an unum to come were six countries, which then accounted for most of the inhabitants of the thirteen "independent states." Imagine what it would have to look like now. There had been a brief Swedish colony as well, but they seem to have all gone home after handing the keys over to the Dutch. The Spanish were down in Florida, but Florida wasn't part of the United States yet. No one apparently considered the Indians as being a pluribus contributing to the unum. The Irish at the time were primarily Irish Protestants, a/k/a "Scots-Irish," who were the descendants of the Scotsmen who had been imported to colonize Ulster. That there were Africans as well seems to have escaped their notice. 

TOF once described an unpainted painting in his Firestar series, titled E Pluribus. The painting, by one of Belinda's Kids -- "Karen Chong," I think -- replaced each star in the flag with a symbol of a people who had been among the pluribus, pretty much in order of arrival. Each was arranged as nearly star-like as feasible. The Oklahoma flag device for the Indians, an Igbo mask with crosses spears for the Africans, then (in eerie coincidence) the rose, thistle, shamrock, fleur de lie, doppeladler, and so on. The Tao for the Chinese, the Rising Sun for the Japanese, the spinning wheel for the Hindustanis, and so on. One of these days, TOF hopes someone will paint it.

The Reverse of the Seal, suggested by Franklin, was a depiction of Moses on the far bank of the Sea closing the waters upon Pharaoh and his army:

"Pharaoh sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his head and a Sword in his hand, passing through the divided Waters of the Red Sea in Pursuit of the Israelites: Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Cloud, expressive of the divine Presence and Command, beaming on Moses who stands on the shore and extending his hand over the Sea causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh. Motto: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."

That motto was a special favorite of Jefferson. Jefferson's suggestion for the seal was:
The children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. For the reverse side of the seal: Hengist and Horsa, the two brothers who were the legendary leaders of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain.
which seems a bit more Anglo-oriented than the first. John Adams suggested the following:
The painting known as the "Judgment of Hercules," where the young Hercules must choose to travel either on the flowery path of self-indulgence or ascend the rugged, uphill way of duty to others and honor to himself.  
But the Committee of Three turned the job over to an heraldic expert, who produced the design described above. 
The design was tabled. 

Two more committees labored to create a design, neither of which was approved. Then finally, the redoubtable Charles Thomson took things in hand and added elements from the previous three attempts and produced the seal we have today. 

Oh the Humanity!

The forces of demography, we find, preponderantly favor the devout: rather than a bright idyll of rational humanism, secularism creates a culture of almost mystical triviality, and Homo secularis turns out to be a creature so devoid of any sense of purpose that he can scarcely be stirred to reproduce.
-- David B. Hart

It's old news now, or maybe it was always old news, but Playboy claims it will not run nudie pix any more. It was done in by its own success. The Revolution had so commodified women's bodies that what the skin mag sold can now be gotten for free in every corner of the Internet. Why pay for the cow when the milk is free? as guys used to ask in a different context.

Oh, of course, there were the articles and the short stories and the interviews and profiles, but no matter how many claimed that they bought the magazine for those reasons, that was not the cause of its circulation figures; for why should the circulation have plummeted so drastically, given that the articles, short stories, interviews and profiles were still available.

Hefner described the "Playboy Man" in his first issue:
‘If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex …’
Oh, yeah. The guys who read playboy asked the girls up to their rooms to talk about Nietzsche and Picasso. But these, like jazz, are now as passe as that phonograph. Or maybe that really was the demographic: those '50s swingers who paved the way for the '60s with their perpetual adolescence, their faux sophistication, and their mid-life crises. Once that generation was off the stage, the whole scene became old-fashioned overnight. Mood music? Really? 

Hefner was selling a product and women, along with the cars and electronics whose ads filled his pages, were simply another commodity.  

Now, the interviews and stories and such that it ran really were quite good; better than the sniggering cartoons and photo-arrays that carried them. And even the girlie pix were a cut above the norm for that sort of thing. There was some attempt at composition, and the women were shown as clean-cut all-American girls-next-door, assuming the girl next door was a bit slutty. This was the era of Gigi, Lili, Lolita, and Daddy Long Legs. Not to mention Heinlein's Door into Summer. So it was clearly an epoch of older men in love with girls and so the initial audience.

(TOF was misfortunate, girl-next-door-wise: next door to him was a field overgrown with weeds and an elderly couple of Protestant missionaries who seized and kept whatever baseballs were hit into their yard. The nearest girl to TOF's age in the neighborhood was on the next block, and she was his first cousin.)

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, writes in valediction:
On some level, the image of manhood and sexuality that Hefner was selling was always contradictory. You don’t get to be a cultured and refined modern man without exercising judgment and self restraint, but the sexual revolution that Hefner helped kickstart encouraged men and women to abandon the very inhibitions that helped make sex so alluring in the first place.
And so no wonder that the libertine ultimately ends with a magazine without nekkid wimmin in it. 

Much is Hereby Explained

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Coincidence? We Think Not

Visitors from the stars???  Lots of aliens visiting New Hampshire these days.
h/t Gary Armitage

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Gnu Year

TOF has purchased a new computer, one that actually boots up without any back-talk or hesitation, one whose keyboard evinces no reluctance to express the space bar, one which does not freeze over the display of moving images.

Unfortunately, it does exhibit an inordinately large number of warnings regarding threats to its integrity, and when these warnings are dealt with, they reappear on the instant. TOF tries to SKIP and to DEBUG AND RESTART, all to no apparent effect. Is this due to Kaspersky replacing Norton? Was TOF sold an inferior warden by agents of the KGB? And what is with all these REGISTER NOW invitations. TOF was never before so popular. As Homer once wrote:

As Herakles did the many-headed hydra fight
And the son of Acoetes among the serpents writhe

So too does TOF war upon dread adware wage

 Also the keyboard spacing differs from that to which the TOFian fingers are accustomed, resulting in sundry misspellings of a manic nature as the muscles must now learn new memories.

Also, TOF must fall to considering as he contemplates how to get all his browsing bookmarks -- and there are more than a few -- from the old machine, which we will call Grumpy after its disposition -- to the new one, which is called Asus by its maker. Pronounced ay-SOOS, somewhat as the Spanish pronounce the name of Jesus.

His musical files and photographs also languish behind. Mr. Backup Drive did not evidently back everything up.

In any case all of TOF's skiffian works are now in their new home and yesterday marked the first new fintertaps on those paragons of Western literature since the onset of Christmastide.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year

It seems like only yesterday it was AD 2015.

Hey, wait a minute! It was only yesterday!

Ah, time flies when you're having fun.

Of course, it also flies when you're miserable, so you may as well have fun and count your blessings.

But have you ever noticed that time flies faster as you get older?

A change of velocity, an acceleration, requires a force like gravity. Falling bodies plummet faster as they travel farther. This is due to the gravity induced by mass. So perhaps we do not travel forward in time; we plummet downward. This suggests that there is something massive and attractive at the end of time.

And a happy birthday to JJ!