Monday, December 6, 2010

Science versus the Humanities

A Faustian Bargain - An Open Letter to George M Philip, President of the State University of New York at Albany

I came across this really fascinating article today. It's about a university in New York that closed down a bunch of its humanities departments. The president of SUNY Albany, George M Philip, defended the decision to close down the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts, by saying that the sciences are more practical, and have more enrollment. He said that the sciences are self-sustaining, because they bring in revenue in the form of grants, whereas the humanities are just a financial drain on the institution. Philip all but said that the humanities were dead, useless subjects that not enough people are interested in to make them worth keeping around. 

A professor from a different university, Gregory Petsko from Brandeis University - who is actually a science professor - wrote an open letter to Philip, and essentially said that you can't really have a university if there aren't humanities subjects. His open letter made an excellent argument in favour of the importance and contemporary relevance of the humanities, so I encourage you all to take a look at if you have a minute. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Darwinism & Imperialism

Charles Darwin’s “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” led the British ruling class to believe that they were superior to the people of weaker countries, and they felt no guilt to exploit them. Because the nature selected them to be the strongest nation so the weak races deserved to be oppressed by them. As a result, they started to colonize weaker countries and made the colonial people their slaves. Therefore, Darwinism created a proper excuse for the British to implement their imperialism.

As time went by, nowadays many people believe that imperialism no longer exists in the world. However, imperialism may never disappear. Imperialism has become a cultural form that continues to exist in our world. For instance, people of developed countries use cultural products to influence the people of third world countries to believe that white people are superior to them. Actually, almost all third world countries are using developed countries as models to develop their politics and economy, and they believe that it is a way to modernize their countries.

Thus, Darwinism may still be an important ideology for governments of developed countries, such as Britain and the United States, and it may be one of the roots of the imperialism.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Charles was all about the cookies

In a surprising turn, Sir Charles Darwin is being hailed as a master-baker, a conniseur of cookies, and a fairly big supporter of rich foods high in chocolate. The news comes after the finding of a long lost recipe, found by Hum 321 student Nick Baron, in what appears to be a previously-unknown personal-edition of Charles 'the Origins of Species' in the 7th floor stacks of Burnaby's SFU Bennet Library.

The recipe calls for an interesting selection of various ingredients:

3 cups of oatmeal
1 cup of shredded coconut
2 cups of sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
6 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

And detailed directions for preparing the tasty treat, as hand-written on a piece of parchment from the author of 'the theory of evolution by natural selection':

1. pre-mix the oatmeal and coconut in a large bowl together.

2. on the stove: bring milk, sugar, butter, cocoa to a primordial boil, then add vanilla extract.

3. dump chocolately-goodness into the coconut-oatmeal bowl and mix vigorously.

4. on a wax-paper covered cookie sheet, dump spoon-sized offerings of the chocolately-mess.

5. place cookie-covered cookie sheet in fridge or freezer until cold.

6. eat cookies like they're not fit for survival.

A hand-writing analysis was ongoing at the time of print to verify authenticity, but unfortunately the results have not yet become available.

New Lengths for "Survival of the Fittest"?

As Katelyn has already pointed out, news has been released regarding the discovery of a life form found in a lake in California, with the phosphorus in its DNA having been replaced by arsenic. Arsenic is known for being poisonous to multicellular life, and it is not a member of the six element family - carbon, oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen, hydrogen, and sulphur - that forms the basis of all life on earth.

For these reasons, the existence of this organism, which is a bacterium called GFAJ-1, is being recognized as an astonishing discovery. For NASA, this information is relevant because it is allowing for the possibility of extraterrestrial life that is chemically built in a different way from life on Earth. In essence, it radically changes how we understand life to chemically be constructed, supporting the idea that extraterrestrial life does not have to resemble life on Earth.

However, this information is relevant to other areas of science as well. With respect to the idea of natural selection, the fact that GFAJ-1 is able to incorporate an otherwise dangerous element into its DNA - its most fundamental and basic component - means that it has found a way to survive when it is in an environment where phosphorus is not available.

The lack of phosphorus, as an environmental pressure, is one that otherwise would stifle all organic life as we know it. In other words, it is about as basic a requirement for life as there can be. At least this is what scientists thought until the discovery of GFAJ-1. The idea of natural selection says that environments decide which organisms are strong enough to survive, reproduce, and pass on their genetics, and which are not. If GFAJ-1 can survive by fundamentally altering its DNA so that it is unlike any other life on earth, it is filling an otherwise unoccupied niche, and therefore is securing its survival in a manner that undermines what were thought to be the limits of life.

So not only does the discovery of this bacterium greatly increase the possibility of finding life on other planets, but it demonstrates the lengths that the notion of 'survival of the fittest' can actually reach on our own planet.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


I have recently come across an article in the news entitled: “NASA announcement: Discovery changes search for extraterrestrial life”

To copy and paste the introduction from the article;

Scientists believe an arsenic-based bacterium discovered at the bottom of a lake in California could have big implications for ongoing searches for extraterrestrial life.
In an announcement Thursday, scientists explained how the discovery is redefining theories about how living organisms can sustain themselves -- mainly that phosphorus might not be an essential building block for life.
The bacterium found in California's salty Mono Lake was harvested from mud and grown in a lab mixture that contained arsenic. Scientists say the organism eventually traded atoms of phosphorus for arsenic, defying what conventional knowledge dictated was a basic principle of science.
The discovery is changing the way NASA is approaching space missions to Mars -- mostly because up until now, experiments have sought elements and reactions specific to life on Earth.

I find the second paragraph most intriguing where this discovery has since defied “what conventional knowledge dictated was a basic principle of science.”

This is exactly what we have been discussing; the difference between scientific fact and scientific theory and furthermore, the implications this has on our society. What is fact and how do we apply it to our lives? How much of the Scientific Community’s preaching do we just take in as dogma because it comes from the ‘educated elites’? And then when we find out that they have changed this dogma, how whole-heartedly do we accept that? As full-fledged members of “Darwin Scrutinized” it is imperative to be critical of what we learn from others, that we have not researched ourselves.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Renaissance Humanism and Darwin

Renaissance Humanism seeks to explore the limits of human potential, and celebrate exceeding such. This form of humanism emphasizes an interest in humanity over divinity throughout the Italian Renaissance Era. To look at the human condition and find a pride for being human is imperative in this intellectual/cultural movement that continues to this day. Within this introspection, it is clear that human culture has evolved. To continue with the model of the Renaissance, Georgia Vasari's "Lives of the Artists" pays special attention to the progress of artistic development from the start of the Renaissance through to his day in the 1550s. One of his passages bears striking resemblance to Darwinism in that "anyone who compares their works to those which came before them will observe that they were better in every respect and will see some things that do not cause any kind of displeasure in our own day, such as some of the little temples of brick covered with stucco at San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome" (Vasari 51). Here, he outlines the evolution of Renaissance artwork from a very primitive groundwork through to what he calls perfection.

However, contrary to Darwin, this evolution did not occur randomly and without any intentional selection. In each period of the Renaissance, Artists built on one another's work and deliberately sought to improve upon them. Renaissance Humanism refutes Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Likewise, our culture today refutes this as there is no random variation deciding upon which how to better construct a skyscraper, or how to build a faster racecar or how to more beautifully play an instrument. These actions take deliberate study and followthrough. So my thought in reading through Renaissance Humanism is that it was the first time a real introspection into the human condition occurred since the time of the Ancients. And it is during this time that human progress was emphasized - which is very reminiscent of Darwinism. However, the way in which this progress was attained, and the society that our culture has now become from it, refutes the very means through Which Darwin preached it had happened.