by Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, June 15, 2008, 978-0199216802
One of the most interesting collections I have read in a long time.
Richard Dawkins chose the pieces extremely well. There's a theme of
evolution, but also trying to understand evolution in the context of
the unverse. I can't think of a page in this book which I skipped
over or which bored me.
Technology Note: I read this book on the Amazon Kindle, an e-book
reader, my first experience with such a device. I don't intend to
review the Kindle. I like it. There are two things that are relevant
to Via Rob. The first is that my reviews can no longer include page
numbers, since the concept of a "page" does not exist on the Kindle.
Instead, I'm listing [kNNN] values in the text. The NNN is a Kindle
Location, which is impossible for non-Kindle readers to convert to
page numbers. I apologize, but frankly, the page numbers are not all
that useful to anybody but me anyway.
Second, I will be getting my reviews out more quickly. Indeed, this
review is coming out ahead of about 10 books I have read since my last
review. The Kindle allows me to highlight text and to write notes
digitally. I no longer have to scan my selections from the books I
read nor do I have to decipher my handwriting from sticky notes to my
only marginally improved writing for you to decipher.
Now back to the review which is already in progress... The selections
Dawkins picked are listed below separate from the quotes. This is a
"modal" review. If you read a quote from the book, it's author is
identified in the previous selection heading. If the quote is from
Dawkins himself, it begins with [Dawkins].
[k745] J. B. S. Haldane from 'ON BEING THE RIGHT SIZE'
[k788] Some of the methods of increasing the surface are useful up to a
point, but not capable of a very wide adaptation. For example, while
vertebrates carry the oxygen from the gills or lungs all over the
body in the blood, insects take air directly to every part of their
body by tiny blind tubes called tracheae which open to the surface at
many different points. Now, although by their breathing movements
they can renew the air in the outer part of the tracheal system, the
oxygen has to penetrate the finer branches by means of
diffusion. Gases can diffuse easily through very small distances, not
many times larger than the average length travelled by a gas molecule
between collisions with other molecules. But when such vast
journeys-from the point of view of a molecule-as a quarter of an inch
have to be made, the process becomes slow. So the portions of an
insect's body more than a quarter of an inch from the air would
always be short of oxygen. In consequence hardly any insects are much
more than half an inch thick. Land crabs are built on the same general
plan as insects, but are much clumsier. Yet like ourselves they carry
oxygen around in their blood, and are therefore able to grow far
larger than any insects. If the insects had hit on a plan for driving
air through their tissues instead of letting it soak in, they might
well have become as large as lobsters, though other considerations
would have prevented them from becoming as large as man.
[k1263] Nicholas Humphrey
ONE SELF: A MEDITATION ON THE UNITY OF CONSCIOUSNESS
[k1266] Science doesn't have all the answers, but it is good at
spotting the important questions when they are camouflaged against a
background of common sense.
[k2365] Peter Medawar from THE PHENOMENON OF MAN
[k2377] How have people come to be taken in by [the book] The
Phenomenon of Man? We must not underestimate the size of the market
for works of this kind, for philosophy-fiction. Just as compulsory
primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and
weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly of tertiary
education has created a large population of people, often with
well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated
far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.
[k2632] Darwin had chosen well to illustrate his generality. What
better than worms: the most ordinary, commonplace, and humble objects
of our daily observation and dismissal. If they, working constantly
beneath our notice, can form much of our soil and shape our landscape,
then what event of magnitude cannot arise from the summation of small
effects. Darwin had not abandoned evolution for earthworms; rather, he
was using worms to illustrate the general method that had validated
evolution as well. Nature's mills, like God's, grind both slowly and
Darwin made two major claims for worms. First, in shaping the land,
their effects are directional. They triturate particles of rock into
ever smaller fragments (in passing them through their gut while
churning the soil), and they denude the land by loosening and
disaggregating the soil as they churn it; gravity and erosive agents
then move the soil more easily from high to low ground, thus leveling
the landscape. The low, rolling character of topography in areas
inhabited by worms is, in large part, a testimony to their slow but
Second, in forming and churning the soil, they maintain a steady state
amidst constant change.
[k2893] There is another related but different creature, nothing like
so wonderful as a human child, nothing like so hopeful, something to
worry about all day and all night. It is us, aggregated together in
our collective, critical masses. So far, we have learned how to be
useful to each other only when we collect in small groups-families,
circles of friends, once in a while (although still rarely)
committees. The drive to be useful is encoded in our genes. But when
we gather in very large numbers, as in the modern nation-state, we
seem capable of levels of folly and self-destruction to be found
nowhere else in all of Nature.
[k3012] Julian Huxley from ESSAYS OF A BIOLOGIST
[k3067] On the other hand, I maintain that the cosmic religious
feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific
research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all,
the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot
be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which
alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life,
can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe
and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of
the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to
enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the
principles of celestial mechanics! Those whose acquaintance with
scientific research is derived chiefly from its practical results
easily develop a completely false notion of the mentality of the men
who, surrounded by a skeptical world, have shown the way to kindred
spirits scattered wide through the world and the centuries. Only one
who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization
of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain
true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic
religious feeling that gives a man such strength. A contemporary has
said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious
scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.
[k3075] Carl Sagan from THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD
The following is a very Popperian. I have been reading quite a
bit of late mid-20th century philosophy lately, and this book touches
on Kuhn, Feyerabend, and Popper quite nicely.
[k3109] One of the reasons for its success is that science has
built-in, error-correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may
consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we
exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the
outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and
uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into
pseudoscience and superstition. Every time a scientific paper
presents a bit
[k3113] [E]rror bars are small, the accuracy of our empirical
knowledge is high; if the error bars are large, then so is the
uncertainty in our knowledge. Except in pure mathematics nothing is
known for certain (although much is certainly false).
[k3296] Ernst Mayr from THE GROWTH OF BIOLOGICAL THOUGHT
The following interesting quote about understanding naturaal
selection. Individuals (and their offspring) survive, and natural
selection says nothing about species or other groupings abstracted by
[k3335] This fundamental difference between the classes of the
physical scientists and the populations of the biologist has various
consequences. For instance, he who does not understand the uniqueness
of individuals is unable to understand the working of natural
The following quote about Quetelet is like physicists trying to
treat each trade as the error off the mean (or the
high/low/close). The mean in economics is meaningless. Unless a
transaction takes place the stock/bond/entity has no value.
[k3339] Quetelet, a follower of Laplace, was interested in
deterministic laws. He hoped by his method to be able to calculate
the characteristics of the "average man"; that is, to discover the
"essence" of man. Variation was nothing but "errors" around the mean
[k3345] Garrett Hardin from THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS
I didn't know who Garrett Hardin is, but I enjoyed this article.
I think about the tragedy of the commons, quite often. It's good to
know who coined it.
In the following, Hardin explains how evolution favors denial.
The more aware (educated?) we are, the more we fight against
individual survival. The fact that society needs rules is nowhere to
be found in the theory of evolution.
[k3364] Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational
herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is
to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another.... But
this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman
sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a
system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world
that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush,
each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the
freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. Some
would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense,
it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors
the forces of psychological denial. The individual benefits as an
individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a
whole, of which he is a part, suffers.
[k3458] Per Bak from HOW NATURE WORKS
One of the many problems I struggle with is how to grow bivio.
While I'm learning to "let go" of control, that does not mean I want
to let go of our core values: testing (feedback, criticism) and code
(communication). As organizations grow, they often have to let go of
both of these ideals. They compartmentalize to avoid the N-squared
communication problem, and they cease to have the ability to accept
criticism (test new ideas). Some people say that bivio's systems are
complex, but I don't think of them that way. Rather, we are achieving
the ultimate software goal: reuse. And, reuse implies complication,
not complexity. It takes a great deal to understand our processes.
Large companies are basically self-organizating, and follow an
evolutationary path of growth. This is what I found interesting about
this little quote: evolution is the law of large numbers. Design is
about the law of more with less. Later you'll read about "more is
different", or evolution's law, from John Wheeler.
[k3467] The evolution to this very delicate state occurs without
design from any outside agent. The state is established solely because
of the dynamical interactions among individual elements of the system:
the critical state is self-organized. Self-organized criticality is
so far the only known general mechanism to generate complexity.
Another interesting insight: Quality in some way emerges from
quantity. Design is just the opposite: quanity is tamed by quality.
[k3488] If no new phenomena emerged in large systems out of the
dynamics of systems working at a lower level, then we would need no
scientists but particle physicists, since there would be no other
areas to cover. But then there would be no particle
physicists. Quality, in some way, emerges from quantity.
[k3843] Alan Turing from COMPUTING MACHINERY AND INTELLIGENCE
The Turing Test defined.
[k3851] The Imitation Game
This is a succinct description of evolution versus design without
big design up front (BDUF, in the XP parlance).
[k3894] One may hope, however, that this process will be more
expeditious than evolution. The survival of the fittest is a slow
method for measuring advantages. The experimenter, by the exercise of
intelligence, should be able to speed it up. Equally important is the
fact that he is not restricted to random mutations. If he can trace a
cause for some weakness he can probably think of the kind of mutation
which will improve it.
I've come to learn that The Constitution is not time invariant.
The words used hundreds of years ago are not the same words we use
today. Consider the word "man" then and now. What I think Turing got
wrong is that a human's brain constantly rewires itself. That code
and data are not independent in the brain is very important to the
reason our brains can solve problems very differently from the Von
[k3926] The idea of a learning machine may appear paradoxical to some
readers. How can the rules of operation of the machine change? They
should describe completely how the machine will react whatever its
history might be, whatever changes it might undergo. The rules are
thus quite time-invariant. This is quite true. The explanation of the
paradox is that the rules which get changed in the learning process
are of a rather less pretentious kind, claiming only an ephemeral
validity. The reader may draw a parallel with the Constitution of the
Interesting thought about injecting random behaviour into
computers. This is what genetic algorithms and some other search
techniques use to attempt to slay data complexity. I also find it
interesting that Turing thinks you hold the program in your head. Is
this is an intelligent way to design software, or not? For simple
programs, yes. For large scale, highly-refactored systems, no. It's
[k3929] An important feature of a learning machine is that its teacher
will often be very largely ignorant of quite what is going on inside,
although he may still be able to some extent to predict his pupil's
behaviour. This should apply most strongly to the later education of a
machine arising from a child-machine of well-tried design (or
programme). This is in clear contrast with normal procedure when using
a machine to do computations: one's object is then to have a clear
mental picture of the state of the machine at each moment in the
computation. This object can only be achieved with a struggle. The
view that `the machine can only do what we know how to order it to do'
appears strange in face of this. Most of the programmes which we can
put into the machine will result in its doing something that we cannot
make sense of at all, or which we regard as completely random
behaviour. Intelligent behaviour presumably consists in a departure
from the completely disciplined behaviour involved in computation, but
a rather slight one, which does not give rise to random behaviour, or
to pointless repetitive loops. Another important
Alas, this next paragraph defined the blueprint for AI that we
were to use over the next 50 years -- and still going imho. Sad that
we haven't progressed past this. What we see here is a strong
argument for Kuhn's paradigm-puzzle approach to scientific advance.
It takes an imaginative thinking individual like Turing to set the
course of "normal" science.
[k3945] We may hope that machines will eventually compete with men in
all purely intellectual fields. But which are the best ones to start
with? Even this is a difficult decision. Many people think that a very
abstract activity, like the playing of chess, would be best. It can
also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the
best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand
and speak English. This process could follow the normal teaching of a
child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. Again I do not
know what the right answer is, but I think both approaches should be
tried. We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty
there that needs to be done.
[k4274] Stephen Hawking from A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME
I like Hawking's egitarian approach. I do wonder about the use
of God here. For one, it presupposes monotheism. Two, it does not
solve the thoughts about sects, which are at the core of many
religious debates. Three, it supports a world view that is at once
confirming and disaffirming. Is that right or fair? I mean by this,
is it important to validate this historical concept? Should we think
of ghosts in the fourth dimension, too?
[k4330] However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in
time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few
scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just
ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the
question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the
answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for
then we would know the mind of God.
[k4504] Lee Smolin from THE LIFE OF THE COSMOS
[k4515] The Flower and the Dodecahedron
Is math like the concept of flat space? Does it happen because
we can't really understand it? You have to read the whole article to
really understand my statement.
[k4550] But in spite of the obvious effectiveness of mathematics in
physics, I have never heard a good a priori argument that the world
must be organized according to mathematical principles.
It does seem to be what he is saying, that is, math exists only
because we create it.
[k4551] No other conception of reality has led to so much success, in
practical mastery of the world.
A very succinct and different picture from what I have of
physicists or mathematicians.
[k4557] Perhaps the greatest nightmare of the Platonist is that, in
the end, all of our laws will be like this, so that the root of all
the beautiful regularities we have discovered will turn out to be more
statistics, beyond which is only randomness or irrationality. This is
perhaps one reason why biology seems puzzling to some physicists. The
possibility that the tremendous beauty of the living world might be,
in the end, just a matter of randomness, statistics, and frozen
accident stands as a genuine threat to the mystical conceit that
reality can be captured in a single, beautiful equation. This is why
it took me years to become comfortable with the possibility that the
explanation for at least part of the laws of physics might be found in
this same logic of randomness and frozen accident.
[k4710] John Archibald Wheeler with Kenneth Ford from GEONS, BLACK
HOLES, AND QUANTUM FOAM
Wheeler is assuming that computer programs are well understood by
their creators. Unfortunately, that's not the case, unless one
applies testing, like evolution applies to individuals.
[k4729] Yet one enormous difference separates the computer and the
universe -- chance. In principle, the output of a computer is
precisely determined by the input (remember the programmer's famous
admonition: garbage in, garbage out). Chance plays no role.
I like the idea "it from bit". The universe is information.
The popperian universe assumes everything is measurable, which the
real universe isn't, of course. The Popperian approach does apply to
computers, where all possible information is predetermined. One of the
reasons the universe is not computable -- or even a small part of it
-- is that it all happens in parallel. This is much like a distibuted
computer system which is not computable either -- it is
non-deterministic and behaves like the n-body problem.
[k4732] Trying to wrap my brain around this idea of information theory
as the basis of existence, I came up with the phrase `it from
bit'. The universe and all that it contains ('it') may arise from the
myriad yes-no choices of measurement (the `bits'). Niels Bohr wrestled
for most of his life with the question of how acts of measurement (or
`registration') may affect reality. It is registration-whether by a
person or a device or a piece of mica (anything that can preserve a
record)-that changes potentiality into actuality. I build only a
little on the structure of Bohr's thinking when I suggest that we may
never understand this strange thing, the quantum, until we understand
how information may underlie reality. Information may not be just
what we learn about the world. It may be what makes the world.
Wheeler introduces more is different, which explains why I do
bOP. I do not know what we are creating by adding and augmenting bOP,
but I do know that bOP will be and is different than all those systems
which are considered "finished". I contrast this to "less is more"
used often by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Gustave Flaubert's "God is
in the details". Less is more is a great design principle, but the
universe or the earth or anything in nature is not designed; it's
qualities are created from quantity (see above). "More is different"
is an evolutionary and life choice principle. Travel to new places,
read books like this one, and create lots of "its" to get "more",
which will be useful to you.
[k4746] `More is different' may have something to do with `it from
bit'. The rich complexity of the universe as a whole does not in any
way preclude an extremely simple element such as a bit of information
from being what the universe is made of. When enough simple elements
are stirred together, there is no limit to what can result.
[k4747] David Deutsch from THE FABRIC OF REALITY
This describes the Popperian software world I have been
struggling to describe (and will succeed!).
[k4762] Every last scrap of our external experience is of virtual
reality. And every last scrap of our knowledge-including our knowledge
of the non-physical worlds of logic, mathematics and philosophy, and
of imagination, fiction, art and fantasy-is encoded in the form of
programs for the rendering of those worlds on our brain's own
[k4768] Primo Levi from THE PERIODIC TABLE
Truly fascinating. I didn't know this about photosynthesis.
When we speak about the carbon footprint, we are talking about the
footprint of food for plants.
[k4851] Besides the vegetable and animal worlds, these reserves are
constituted by deposits of coal and petroleum: but these too are the
inheritance of photosynthetic activity carried out in distant epochs,
so that one can well affirm that photosynthesis is not only the sole
path by which carbon becomes living matter, but also the sole path by
which the sun's energy becomes chemically usable.
[k4904] Loren Eiseley from LITTLE MEN AND FLYING SAUCERS
The last sentence in this paragraph is incredibly terrifying if
you feel abandonded in general. It's a tough line for those who
cannot face mortality--afraid of physical death or spiritual death or
expecting an after-life, in some way.
[k4913] Lights come and go in the night sky. Men, troubled at last by
the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams,
or lie awake while the meteors whisper greenly overhead. But nowhere
in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our
loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across
space great instruments, handled by strange, manipulative organs, may
stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we
yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of
evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there
will be none forever.
[k4917] Carl Sagan from PALE BLUE DOT
[k4919] [Dawkins] Read Sagan's words. Read them again. Read them for
that special Kind of humility which only science can give, the special
Kind of humility with which this book began, and which we cannot
afford to forget.
[k4924] The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think
of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so
that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of
a fraction of a dot.