October 6, 2018

Maybe you can tell what these are, some of them anyway.  They were taken with my Celestron digital microscope.  Click on the thumbnails to see an enlarged image.


Jeepers, creepers, where’d you get those peepers?

December 13, 2004

Today I read in the newspaper that conservative groups throughout the nation, emboldened by their success in the presidential election, are pushing their initiatives at the state level. In Kansas, they have one the majority of the State Board of Education, and they will once again try to have the “Theory of Intelligent Design” inserted into school textbooks on biology. Let’s put this one to rest.

The so-called theory of Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory at all – it is a religious creed. And notice the subtle word-play…”Intelligent Design” as opposed to dumb-ass haphazard natural selection. Sort of like being pro-life instead of anti-abortion, despite a readiness to fry people in the electric chair. The notion, let’s call it that, is an old one, most memorably discussed by William Paley, a theologian, who asked, if we came upon a pocket watch in a meadow, would we not assume it was designed by an intelligent maker rather than having come about by chance and happenstance?

Well, if you are an educated urbanite with experience of machines, yes, I guess so, but so what. What if you are a 2oth century scientist and you come upon a glittering hard-edged thing that emits radio signals? Animal, vegetable, or mineral? Evolved organism, or designed machine? These Intelligent Design people love to try and prove everything in their religious system with a science they do not understand. They assume that the reasoning that they apply to things they see in our world apply to the natural world, but they have no reason to think that other than that this is how they are used to thinking. And when the 20th century scientist encounters the glittering thing, he cannot fall back on that happy way of viewing the world because he doesn’t even know if what he is looking at is alive! Our Mr. Paley in the meadow knows a machine when he sees one – why does he assume that nature is the same as a machine? Aha, he’s a closet Newtonian!! It’s easy to ennunciate a ‘theory’ built on an absurdly simple example chosen to appeal to unthinking ‘common sense.’

No, Intelligent Design explains nothing. Leaving aside the origin of the Intelligent Designer, it tells us nothing about how species change and arise. Most important, it is NOT a scientific theory. It cannot be tested, there are no experiments that verify it or refute it, and it cannot even be formulated except as a piece of wishful thinking built on predjudice, i.e., that our machine oriented view of things is the only way to think about them. The fact is, the natural world was NOT designed, and that is the wonder and beauty of it.

Of course, chance plays a big role here, and this is probably the most widely disseminated piece of mis-information about evolution that there is, i.e., that it is a random process. Nope – mutations are random, natural selection is not. If a mouse gives birth to a two-headed mouse, that mutation will fail, and die. If it gives birth to a mouse with super-eyesight, that mouse might survive, pass on the trait, and those mice might survive better, at a greater rate, and pass on the trait, and so on. It is not a chance process at all. In fact, computer simulations have re-enacted the evolution of the eye, and it doesn’t take as long as you might think – just a couple of tens of millions of years is all.

People seem to think, or want to believe, that a theory is the same as an opinion. It’s not. Darwin’s theory is an established fact. We only call it a theory to make clear that it is a proposition that was developed, tested, and proven by the scientific method. It is not a theory in the sense of speculative thinking. It is not a hypothesis – it has been proven too many times. Ordinary people use the word theory in a much looser way, but that is not what Darwin’s theory is. It’s rock solid – get over it, creationists! Yes, it is still tested, and sometimes challenged, but only regarding specific details of how it works out in the natural world.

If these people want the Theory of Intelligent Design included in the biology textbooks, then we must be more open minded. I want the theory of Satanic origins included, and the Native American creation theories there too. And what about the great Hindu theories of creation, eh? No end to it….

Into the Void…

November 24, 2004

The old mind-body problem, favorite of Trekkies and obsessive epistemologists. The question, “Can a machine be conscious?” is just a different way of attacking the problem of “what is the mind, and what is the body?” If we knew, we would know what will happen with machines. But, of course, machines can have mentality, though they do not yet, but they will. And then we will have movements for protection of vulnerable machines, machine welfare organizations, advocates for better protection of machines from abuse, jihads against machines in our midst, etc. When they start talking to us in a way that we worry about what they say, we will know we have arrived.

There is no clear line between mind and body, and we put far too much emphasis on mind as we like to think of it – the intellectual philosopher/inquirer introspecting in his study. Most of what we do requires no consciousness of this sort, and even very little thinking! Ask yourself this: If Bob loves Mary, and Mary loves Joe, does Bob love Joe? I bet you come up with the answer in a flash: are you conscious of how you did it? Can you discover through introspection how you “figured” it out. Our language convinces us we have consciousness that saturates our being, but it’s a very little piece of what we are. That “mental space” we conjure up in our skulls is just as it appears in the image of Dave and Hal, a void. And hundreds of years ago, people thought the intellect was in the liver, or someplace down there!

In our image above, we see Dave, Mr. Everyman, venturing into the nexus between mind and body in HAL. But as Leibnitz observed hundreds of years ago:

Supposing that there were a machine whose
structure produced thought, sensation, and
perception, we could conceive of it as
increased in size with the same proportions
until one was able to enter into its interior,
as he would into a mill. Now, on going into
it he would find only pieces working upon one
one another, but never would he find anything;
to explain Perception.

Now we can get to the body, the mysteries of the organism. Here we have an electron micrograph of a walking microphage,” a white blood cell probing an air sac while cleaning a human lung with pneumonia – magnified 5000 times. So, this little…thing…is moving around inside a lung, phaging away, i.e. eating. Our bodies seem to be collections pulsing systems and quite a few fellow travelers, that is, organisms or living things on a very small scale. Our bodies are NOT our own. They are as illusory as “the self.” Just a collection of “cooperating” parts, as the “self” is simply a sort-of coherent collection of ideas that has a lot of continuity from day to day. Everything dissolves into a grand ecology of togetherness, and “we” have “thoughts” about it that we say are from our “minds” that are housed in our bodies. But remove these prejudicial notions from your thinking, and you see something very different.And while we are on the topic of the mysteries…

Here is an image from the film, “WR: Mysteries of the Organism“, c. 1971. This bizarre film, partly a biography of the sainted-damned figure of Wilhem Reich, keeps popping up in my mind. Here is the heroine, who is later killed by a Soviet Olympic skating star (with his skate’s blade, of course.) Notice the frame in the image – get it, movie frame, frame? One of the strangest film experiences you can have, a weird, hilarious satire, and a biting critique of (Stalinist) government oppression.

Into the Real World

November 22, 2004

Day by day we become more familiar with our view of things, but microscopes are a good antidote to that. I had one as a kid, but it wasn’t very good, so now that I’m a grownup with my own cash, I bought an educational model on eBay – a really good deal! The optics are excellent, and I can clearly veiw all the little critters that I wanted to see when I was young.

This specimen here (photo by others) is a rotifer. It’s a multicellular organism, and I happen to have a thriving colony of them in the tank that houses my son’s African Clawed Frog, aka “Killer.” Note the fuzzy things on the top of the main stalk – those are twin ‘propellers’ that are always whirring and sucking food into the thing’s mouth. It can also lurch, leach-like, about in its micro-world.

This is the real world, where most of the biosphere’s mass exists – in the micro-realm, out of our notice. Actually, this rotifer is already pretty darn high up the evolutionary scale since it is multi-cellular. Looking at the thriving protist-eat-protist world that exists in every drop of water can give you a different perspective on life on earth. As conservationists, we tend to focus on the big, spectacular animals such as lions, tigers, and whales. But they, beautiful and deserving of our support as they are, aren’t what make the world go ’round. As philosophers plumbing the meaning of life, we should think more about bacterial and protozoa, and less about homosapiens. We might get our ideas out of their current rut.