May 2005

Dembski, William A. No Free Lunch. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2002. ISBN 0-7425-1297-5.
It seems to be the rule that the softer the science, the more rigid and vociferously enforced the dogma. Physicists, confident of what they do know and cognisant of how much they still don't, have no problems with speculative theories of parallel universes, wormholes and time machines, and inconstant physical constants. But express the slightest scepticism about Darwinian evolution being the one, completely correct, absolutely established beyond a shadow of a doubt, comprehensive and exclusive explanation for the emergence of complexity and diversity in life on Earth, and outraged biologists run to the courts, the legislature, and the media to suppress the heresy, accusing those who dare to doubt their dogma as being benighted opponents of science seeking to impose a “theocracy”. Funny, I thought science progressed by putting theories to the test, and that all theories were provisional, subject to falsification by experimental evidence or replacement by a more comprehensive theory which explains additional phenomena and/or requires fewer arbitrary assumptions.

In this book, mathematician and philosopher William A. Dembski attempts to lay the mathematical and logical foundation for inferring the presence of intelligent design in biology. Note that “intelligent design” needn't imply divine or supernatural intervention—the “directed panspermia” theory of the origin of life proposed by co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick is a theory of intelligent design which invokes no deity, and my perpetually unfinished work The Rube Goldberg Variations and the science fiction story upon which it is based involve searches for evidence of design in scientific data, not in scripture.

You certainly won't find any theology here. What you will find is logical and mathematical arguments which sometimes ascend (or descend, if you wish) into prose like (p. 153), “Thus, if P characterizes the probability of E0 occurring and f characterizes the physical process that led from E0 to E1, then Pf −1 characterizes the probability of E1 occurring and P(E0) ≤ Pf −1(E1) since f(E0) = E1 and thus E0 ⊂ f −1(E1).” OK, I did cherry-pick that sentence from a particularly technical section which the author advises readers to skip if they're willing to accept the less formal argument already presented. Technical arguments are well-supplemented by analogies and examples throughout the text.

Dembski argues that what he terms “complex specified information” is conclusive evidence for the presence of design. Complexity (the Shannon information measure) is insufficient—all possible outcomes of flipping a coin 100 times in a row are equally probable—but presented with a sequence of all heads, all tails, alternating heads and tails, or a pattern in which heads occurred only for prime numbered flips, the evidence for design (in this case, cheating or an unfair coin) would be considered overwhelming. Complex information is considered specified if it is compressible in the sense of Chaitin-Kolmogorov-Solomonoff algorithmic information theory, which measures the randomness of a bit string by the length of the shortest computer program which could produce it. The overwhelming majority of 100 bit strings cannot be expressed more compactly than simply by listing the bits; the examples given above, however, are all highly compressible. This is the kind of measure, albeit not rigorously computed, which SETI researchers would use to identify a signal as of intelligent origin, which courts apply in intellectual property cases to decide whether similarity is accidental or deliberate copying, and archaeologists use to determine whether an artefact is of natural or human origin. Only when one starts asking these kinds of questions about biology and the origin of life does controversy erupt!

Chapter 3 proposes a “Law of Conservation of Information” which, if you accept it, would appear to rule out the generation of additional complex specified information by the process of Darwinian evolution. This would mean that while evolution can and does account for the development of resistance to antibiotics in bacteria and pesticides in insects, modification of colouration and pattern due to changes in environment, and all the other well-confirmed cases of the Darwinian mechanism, that innovation of entirely novel and irreducibly complex (see chapter 5) mechanisms such as the bacterial flagellum require some external input of the complex specified information they embody. Well, maybe…but one should remember that conservation laws in science, unlike invariants in mathematics, are empirical observations which can be falsified by a single counter-example. Niels Bohr, for example, prior to its explanation due to the neutrino, theorised that the energy spectrum of nuclear beta decay could be due to a violation of conservation of energy, and his theory was taken seriously until ruled out by experiment.

Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that Darwinian evolution does explain the emergence of all the complexity of the Earth's biosphere, starting with a single primordial replicating lifeform. Then one still must explain how that replicator came to be in the first place (since Darwinian evolution cannot work on non-replicating organisms), and where the information embodied in its molecular structure came from. The smallest present-day bacterial genomes belong to symbiotic or parasitic species, and are in the neighbourhood of 500,000 base pairs, or roughly 1 megabit of information. Even granting that the ancestral organism might have been much smaller and simpler, it is difficult to imagine a replicator capable of Darwinian evolution with an information content 1000 times smaller than these bacteria, Yet randomly assembling even 500 bits of precisely specified information seems to be beyond the capacity of the universe we inhabit. If you imagine every one of the approximately 1080 elementary particles in the universe trying combinations every Planck interval, 1045 times every second, it would still take about a billion times the present age of the universe to randomly discover a 500 bit pattern. Of course, there are doubtless many patterns which would work, but when you consider how conservative all the assumptions are which go into this estimate, and reflect upon the evidence that life seemed to appear on Earth just about as early as environmental conditions permitted it to exist, it's pretty clear that glib claims that evolution explains everything and there are just a few details to be sorted out are arm-waving at best and propaganda at worst, and that it's far too early to exclude any plausible theory which could explain the mystery of the origin of life. Although there are many points in this book with which you may take issue, and it does not claim in any way to provide answers, it is valuable in understanding just how difficult the problem is and how many holes exist in other, more accepted, explanations. A clear challenge posed to purely naturalistic explanations of the origin of terrestrial life is to suggest a prebiotic mechanism which can assemble adequate specified information (say, 500 bits as the absolute minimum) to serve as a primordial replicator from the materials available on the early Earth in the time between the final catastrophic bombardment and the first evidence for early life.

 Permalink

Suprynowicz, Vin. The Black Arrow. Las Vegas: Mountain Media, 2005. ISBN 0-9762516-0-4.
For more than a decade, Vin Suprynowicz's columns in the Las Vegas Review-Journal (collected in Send In The Waco Killers and The Ballad of Carl Drega) have chronicled the closing circle of individual freedom in the United States. You may find these books difficult to finish, not due to any fault in the writing, which is superb, but because reading of the treatment of citizens at the hands of a government as ignorant as it is imperious makes your blood boil. Here, however, in his first venture into fiction, the author has written a book which is difficult to put down.

The year is 2030, and every complacent person who asked rhetorically, “How much worse can it get?” has seen the question answered beyond their worst nightmares. What's left of the United States is fighting to put down the secessionist mountain states of New Columbia, and in the cities of the East, people are subject to random searches by jackbooted Lightning Squads, when they aren't shooting up clandestine nursery schools operated by anarchist parents who refuse to deliver their children into government indoctrination. This is the kind of situation which cries out for a superhero and, lo and behold, onto the stage steps The Black Arrow and his deadly serious but fun-loving band to set things right through the time-tested strategy of killing the bastards. The Black Arrow has a lot in common with Batman—actually maybe a tad too much. Like Batman, he's a rich and resourceful man with a mission (but no super powers), he operates in New York City, which is called “Gotham” in the novel, and he has a secret lair in a cavern deep beneath the city.

There is a modicum of libertarian background and philosophy, but it never gets in the way of the story. There is enough explicit violence and copulation for an R rated movie—kids and those with fragile sensibilities should give this one a miss. Some of the verbal imagery in the story is so vivid you can almost see it erupting from the page—this would make a tremendous comic book adaptation or screenplay for an alternative universe Hollywood where stories of liberty were welcome.

 Permalink

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Motor-Boat. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1910] 2005. ISBN 1-414-24253-0.
This is the second installment in the Tom Swift saga. These early volumes are more in the genre of juvenile adventure than the science fiction which emerges later in the series. I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical and formatting errors I noted in reading the novel.

 Permalink

Herken. Gregg. Brotherhood of the Bomb. New York: Henry Holt, 2002. ISBN 0-8050-6589-X.
What more's to be said about the tangled threads of science, politics, ego, power, and history that bound together the lives of Ernest O. Lawrence, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller from the origin of the Manhattan Project through the postwar controversies over nuclear policy and the development of thermonuclear weapons? In fact, a great deal, as declassification of FBI files, including wiretap transcripts, release of decrypted Venona intercepts of Soviet espionage cable traffic, and documents from Moscow archives opened to researchers since the collapse of the Soviet Union have provide a wealth of original source material illuminating previously dark corners of the epoch.

Gregg Herken, a senior historian and curator at the National Air and Space Museum, draws upon these resources to explore the accomplishments, conflicts, and controversies surrounding Lawrence, Oppenheimer, and Teller, and the cold war era they played such a large part in defining. The focus is almost entirely on the period in which the three were active in weapons development and policy—there is little discussion of their prior scientific work, nor of Teller's subsequent decades on the public stage. This is a serious academic history, with almost 100 pages of source citations and bibliography, but the story is presented in an engaging manner which leaves the reader with a sense of the personalities involved, not just their views and actions. The author writes with no discernible ideological bias, and I noted only one insignificant technical goof.

 Permalink

Entine, Jon. Taboo. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000. ISBN 1-58648-026-X.

A certain segment of the dogma-based community of postmodern academics and their hangers-on seems to have no difficulty whatsoever believing that Darwinian evolution explains every aspect of the origin and diversification of life on Earth while, at the same time, denying that genetics—the mechanism which underlies evolution—plays any part in differentiating groups of humans. Doublethink is easy if you never think at all. Among those to whom evidence matters, here's a pretty astonishing fact to ponder. In the last four Olympic games prior to the publication of this book in the year 2000, there were thirty-two finalists in the men's 100-metre sprint. All thirty-two were of West African descent—a region which accounts for just 8% of the world's population. If finalists in this event were randomly chosen from the entire global population, the probability of this concentration occurring by chance is 0.0832 or about 810−36, which is significant at the level of more than twelve standard deviations. The hardest of results in the flintiest of sciences—null tests of conservation laws and the like—are rarely significant above 7 to 8 standard deviations.

Now one can certainly imagine any number of cultural and other non-genetic factors which predispose those with West African ancestry toward world-class performance in sprinting, but twelve standard deviations? The fact that running is something all humans do without being taught, and that training for running doesn't require any complicated or expensive equipment (as opposed to sports such as swimming, high-diving, rowing, or equestrian events), and that champions of West African ancestry hail from countries around the world, should suggest a genetic component to all but the most blinkered of blank slaters.

Taboo explores the reality of racial differences in performance in various sports, and the long and often sordid entangled histories of race and sports, including the tawdry story of race science and eugenics, over-reaction to which has made most discussion of human biodiversity, as the title of book says, taboo. The equally forbidden subject of inherent differences in male and female athletic performance is delved into as well, with a look at the hormone dripping “babes from Berlin” manufactured by the cruel and exploitive East German sports machine before the collapse of that dismal and unlamented tyranny.

Those who know some statistics will have no difficulty understanding what's going on here—the graph on page 255 tells the whole story. I wish the book had gone into a little more depth about the phenomenon of a slight shift in the mean performance of a group—much smaller than individual variation—causing a huge difference in the number of group members found in the extreme tail of a normal distribution. Another valuable, albeit speculative, insight is that if one supposes that there are genes which confer advantage to competitors in certain athletic events, then given the intense winnowing process world-class athletes pass through before they reach the starting line at the Olympics, it is plausible all of them at that level possess every favourable gene, and that the winner is determined by training, will to win, strategy, individual differences, and luck, just as one assumed before genetics got mixed up in the matter. It's just that if you don't have the genes (just as if your legs aren't long enough to be a runner), you don't get anywhere near that level of competition.

Unless research in these areas is suppressed due to an ill-considered political agenda, it is likely that the key genetic components of athletic performance will be identified in the next couple of decades. Will this mean that world-class athletic competition can be replaced by DNA tests? Of course not—it's just that one factor in the feedback loop of genetic endowment, cultural reinforcement of activities in which group members excel, and the individual striving for excellence which makes competitors into champions will be better understood.

 Permalink

Sharansky, Natan with Ron Dermer. The Case for Democracy. New York: PublicAffairs, 2004. ISBN 1-58648-261-0.
Every now and then you come across a book which cuts through the fog of contemporary political discourse with pure clarity of thought. Well of course, the programmer peanut gallery shouts in unison, Sharansky was a computer scientist before becoming a Soviet dissident and political prisoner, then Israeli politician! In this book Sharansky draws a line of unambiguous binary distinction between “free societies” and “fear societies”. In a free society, you can walk into the town square and express your views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm (p. 41); in a “fear society”, you can't—it's that simple. Note that, as Sharansky is quick to observe, this counts as free societies without a trace of democracy, with dirigiste economies, and which discriminate against minorities and women—yet permit those who live there to protest these and other shortcomings without fear of recrimination. A society which he deems “free” may not be just, but a society which doesn't pass this most basic test of freedom is always unjust.

From this viewpoint, every compromise with fear societies and their tyrants in the interest of “stability” and “geopolitics” is always ill-considered, not just in terms of the human rights of those who live there, but in the self-interest of all free people. Fear societies require an enemy, internal or external, to unite their victims behind the tyrant, and history shows how fickle the affections of dictators can be when self-interest is at stake.

The disastrous example of funding Arafat's ugly dictatorship over the Palestinian people is dissected in detail, but the message is applicable everywhere diplomats argue for a “stable partner” over the inherent human right of people to own their own lives and govern themselves. Sharansky is forthright in saying it's better to face a democratically elected fanatic opponent than a dictator “we can do business with”, because ultimately the democratic regime will converge on meeting the needs of its citizens, while the dictator will focus on feathering his own nest at the expense of those he exploits.

If you're puzzled about which side to back in all the myriad conflicts around the globe, you could do a lot worse that simply picking the side which comes out best in Sharansky's “town square test”. Certainly, the world would be a better place if the diplomats who prattle on about “complexity” and realpolitik were hit over the head with the wisdom of an author who spent 13 years in Siberian labour camps rather than compromise his liberty.

 Permalink

Brookhiser, Richard. Founding Father. New York: Free Press, 1996. ISBN 0-684-83142-2.
This thin (less than 200 pages of main text) volume is an enlightening biography of George Washington. It is very much a moral biography in the tradition of Plutarch's Lives; the focus is on Washington's life in the public arena and the events in his life which formed his extraordinary character. Reading Washington's prose, one might assume that he, like many other framers of the U.S. Constitution, had an extensive education in the classics, but in fact his formal education ended at age 15, when he became an apprentice surveyor—among U.S. presidents, only Andrew Johnson had less formal schooling. Washington's intelligence and voracious reading—his library numbered more than 900 books at his death—made him the intellectual peer of his just sprouting Ivy League contemporaries. One historical footnote I'd never before encountered is the tremendous luck the young U.S. republic had in escaping the risk of dynasty—among the first five U.S. presidents, only John Adams had a son who survived to adulthood (and his eldest son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president).

 Permalink

Levin, Mark R. Men in Black. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-050-6.
Let's see—suppose we wanted to set up a system of self-government—a novus ordo seclorum as it were—which would be immune to the assorted slippery slopes which delivered so many other such noble experiments into the jaws of tyranny, and some dude shows up and suggests, “Hey, what you really need is a branch of government composed of non-elected people with lifetime tenure, unable to be removed from office except for the most egregious criminal conduct, granted powers supreme above the legislative and executive branches, and able to define and expand the scope of their own powers without constraint.”

What's wrong with this picture? Well, it's pretty obvious that it's a recipe for an imperial judiciary, as one currently finds ascendant in the United States. Men in Black, while focusing on recent abuses of judicial power, demonstrates that there's nothing new about judges usurping the prerogatives of democratically elected branches of government—in fact, the pernicious consequences of “judicial activism” are as old as America, winked at by each generation of politicians as long as it advanced their own agenda more rapidly than the ballot box permitted, ignoring (as politicians are inclined to do, never looking beyond the next election), that when the ideological pendulum inevitably swings back the other way, judges may thwart the will of elected representatives in the other direction for a generation or more.

But none of this is remotely new. Robert Yates, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention who came to oppose the ratification of that regrettable document, wrote in 1788:

They will give the sense of every article of the constitution, that may from time to time come before them. And in their decisions they will not confine themselves to any fixed or established rules, but will determine, according to what appears to them, the reason and spirit of the constitution. The opinions of the supreme court, whatever they may be, will have the force of law; because there is no power provided in the constitution, that can correct their errors, or controul [sic] their adjudications. From this court there is no appeal.
The fact that politicians are at loggerheads over the selection of judges has little or nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with judges having usurped powers explicitly reserved for representatives accountable to their constituents in regular elections.

How to fix it? Well, I proposed my own humble solution here not so long ago, and the author of this book suggests 12 year terms for Supreme Court judges staggered with three year expiry. Given how far the unchallenged assertion of judicial supremacy has gone, a constitutional remedy in the form of a legislative override of judicial decisions (with the same super-majority as required to override an executive veto) might also be in order.

 Permalink