Archive for Richard Dawkins

Darwin’s radio [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2016 by xi'an

When in Sacramento two weeks ago I came across the Beers Books Center bookstore, with a large collection of used and (nearly) new cheap books and among other books I bought Greg Bear’s Darwin Radio. I had (rather) enjoyed another book of his’, Hull Zero Three, not to mention one of his first books, Blood Music, I read in the mid 1980’s, and the premises of this novel sounded promising, not mentioning the Nebula award. The theme is of a major biological threat, apparently due to a new virus, and of the scientific unraveling of what the threat really means. (Spoilers alert!) In that respect it sounds rather similar to the (great) Crichton‘s The Andromeda Strain, which is actually mentioned by some characters in this book. As is Ebola, as a sort of contrapoint (since Ebola is a deadly virus, although the epidemic in Western Africa now seems to have vanished). The biological concept exploited here is dormant DNA in non-coding parts of the genome that periodically get awaken and induce massive steps in the evolution. So massive that carriers of those mutations are killed by locals. Until the day it happens in an all-connected World and the mutation can no longer be stopped. The concept is compelling if not completely convincing of course, while the outcome of a new human race, which is to Homo Sapiens what Homo Sapiens was to Neanderthal, is rather disappointing. (How could it be otherwise?!) But I did appreciate the postulate of a massive and immediate change in the genome, even though the details were disputable and the dismissal of Dawkins‘ perspective poorly defended. From a stylistic perspective, the style is at time heavy, while there are too many chance occurrences, like the main character happening to be in Georgia for a business deal (spoilers, spoilers!) at the times of the opening of collective graves, or the second main character coming upon a couple of Neanderthal mummies with a Sapiens baby, or yet this pair of main characters falling in love and delivering a live mutant baby-girl. But I enjoyed reading it between San Francisco and Melbourne, with a few hours of lost sleep and work. It is a page turner, no doubt! I also like the political undercurrents, from riots to emergency measures, to an effective dictatorship controlling pregnancies and detaining newborns and their mothers.

One important thread in the book deals with anthropology digs getting against Native claims to corpses and general opposition to such digs. This reminded me of a very recent article in Nature where a local Indian tribe had claimed rights to several thousand year old skeletons, whose DNA was then showed to be more related with far away groups than the claimants. But where the tribe was still granted the last word, in a rather worrying jurisprudence.

Gray matters [not much, truly]

Posted in Books, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by xi'an

Through the blog of Andrew Jaffe, Leaves on the Lines, I became aware of John Gray‘s tribune in The Guardian, “What scares the new atheists“. Gray’s central points against “campaigning” or “evangelical” atheists are that their claim to scientific backup is baseless, that they mostly express a fear about the diminishing influence of the liberal West, and that they cannot produce an alternative form of morality. The title already put me off and the beginning of the tribune just got worse, as it goes on and on about the eugenics tendencies of some 1930’s atheists and on how they influenced Nazi ideology. It is never a good sign in a debate when the speaker strives to link the opposite side with National Socialist ideas and deeds. Even less so in a supposedly philosophical tribune! (To add injury to insult, Gray also brings Karl Marx in the picture with a similar blame for ethnocentrism…) Continue reading

prayers and chi-square

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on November 25, 2014 by xi'an

One study I spotted in Richard Dawkins’ The God delusion this summer by the lake is a study of the (im)possible impact of prayer over patient’s recovery. As a coincidence, my daughter got this problem in her statistics class of last week (my translation):

1802 patients in 6 US hospitals have been divided into three groups. Members in group A was told that unspecified religious communities would pray for them nominally, while patients in groups B and C did not know if anyone prayed for them. Those in group B had communities praying for them while those in group C did not. After 14 days of prayer, the conditions of the patients were as follows:

  • out of 604 patients in group A, the condition of 249 had significantly worsened;
  • out of 601 patients in group B, the condition of 289 had significantly worsened;
  • out of 597 patients in group C, the condition of 293 had significantly worsened.

 Use a chi-square procedure to test the homogeneity between the three groups, a significant impact of prayers, and a placebo effect of prayer.

This may sound a wee bit weird for a school test, but she is in medical school after all so it is a good way to enforce rational thinking while learning about the chi-square test! (Answers: [even though the data is too sparse to clearly support a decision, esp. when using the chi-square test!] homogeneity and placebo effect are acceptable assumptions at level 5%, while the prayer effect is not [if barely].)

latest interviews on the philosophy of religion(s)

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2014 by xi'an

“But is the existence of God just a philosophical question, like, say, the definition of knowledge or the existence of Plato’s forms?” Gary Gutting, NYT

Although I stopped following The Stone‘s interviews of philosophers about their views on religion, six more took place and Gary Gutting has now closed the series he started a while ago with a self-interview. On this occasion, I went quickly through the last interviews, which had the same variability in depth and appeal as the earlier ones. A lot of them were somewhat misplaced in trying to understand or justify the reasons for believing in a god (a.k.a., God), which sounds more appropriate for a psychology or sociology perspective. I presume that what I was expecting from the series was more a “science vs. religion” debate, rather than entries into the metaphysics of various religions… Continue reading

summer reads

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2014 by xi'an

wells3I had planned my summer read long in advance to have an Amazon shipment sent to my friend Natesh out of my Amazon associate slush funds. While in Boston and Maine, I read Richard Dawkins’ The God delusion, the fourth Kelly McCullough’s Fallen Blade novel, Blade reforged, the second Ancient Blades novel, unrelated to the above, A thief in the night, by David Chandler, and also the second Tad Williams’ Bobby Dollar novel, Happy Hour in HellThe God delusion is commented on another post.

Blade reforged is not a major novel, unsurprisingly for a fourth entry, but pleasant nonetheless, especially when reading in the shade of a pavilion on Revere Beach! The characters are mostly the same as previously and it could be that the story has (hopefully) come to an end, with (spoilers!) the evil ruler replaced by the hero’s significant other and his mystical weapons returned to him. A few loose ends and a central sword fight with a more than surprising victory, but a good summer read. Checking on Kelly McCullough’s website, I notice that two more novels are in the making….

Tad Williams’ second novel Happy Hour in Hell is much less enjoyable as the author was unable to keep up with the pace and tone of the highly imaginative first novel, full of witty and hard-boiled exchanges. The first novel introduced the (after-)life of a guardian angel in California, Doloriel (a.k.a. Bobby Dollar), with enough levels of political intrigue between Heaven and Hell and Earth and plots, pursuits, assassination attempts, etc., to make it a page-turner. This second novel sends Doloriel on a suicide mission to Hell… and the reader to a Hell of sorts where the damnation is one of eternal boredom! What made the first novel so original, namely the juxtaposition of the purpose of a guardian with his every-day terrestrial life, is lost. All we have there is a fantastic creature (from Heaven) transposed in another fantastic environment (Hell) and trying to survive without a proper guide book. The representation of Hell is not particularly enticing (!), even with acknowledged copies from Dante’s Inferno and Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings. There is a very low tolerance level to my reading of damned souls being tortured, dismembered, eaten or resuscitated, even when it gets to the hero’s turn. Add to that a continuation of the first book’s search for a particular feather. And an amazing amount of space dedicated to the characters’ meals. This makes for a very boring book. Even for a rainy day on a Maine lake! The depiction of the levels and inhabitants of Hell reminded me of another endless book by Tad Williams, Shadowmarch, where some characters end up in a subterranean semi-industrial structure, with a horde of demon-like creatures and no fun [for the reader!]. Ironically, the funniest part of reading Happy Hour in Hell was to do it after Dawkins’ as some reflections of the angel about the roles of Heaven and Hell (and religion) could have fitted well into The God delusion! (Too bad my Maine rental had Monty Python’s Holy Grail instead of The Life of Brian, as it would have made a perfect trilogy!)

Most sadly, David Chandler’s A thief in the night had exactly the same shortcomings as another book  I had previously read and maybe reviewed, even though I cannot trace the review or even remember the title of the book (!), and somewhat those of Tad Williams’ Happy Hour in Hell as well, that is, once again a subterranean adventure in a deserted mythical mega-structure that ends up being not deserted at all and even less plausible. I really had to be stuck on a beach or in an airport lounge to finish it! The points noted about Den of Thieves apply even more forcibly here, that is, very charicaturesque characters and a weak and predictable plot. With the addition of the unbearable underground hidden world… I think I should have re-read my own review before ordering this book.

the god delusion [statistically speaking]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , on August 22, 2014 by xi'an

While in Bangalore, I spotted Richard Dawkins’ The God delusion in the [fantastic if chaotic] campus bookstore and bought the Indian edition for a nominal amount.  I read most of it during my week in Boston. And finished by the lake in Maine. While I agree with most of the points made in Dawkins’ book about the irrationality of religions, and of their overall negative impact on human societies, I found the first part rather boring in that I see little appeal in dissecting so minutely the [infinitely many] incoherences of religious myths and beliefs, as this will likely miss the intended target [i.e., literal believers]. Similarly, the chapter on evolution versus intelligent design made valuable points, albeit I had already seen them before. Nothing wrong with repeating those, in particular that evolution has little to do with chance, but again unlikely to convince the [fundamentalist] masses. Overall, the book mostly focus on the Judeo-Christian-Muslim branch of religions, which may reflect on the author’s own culture and upbringing but also misses the recent attempts of Buddhism to incorporate science into their picture.

“A universe in which we are alone except for other slowly evolved intelligences is a very different universe from one with an original guiding agent whose intelligent design is responsible for its very existence.” (p.85)

What is most interesting in the book (for me) is when Dawkins tries to set the God hypothesis as a scientific hypothesis and to apply scientific methods to validate or invalidate this hypothesis. Even though there is no p-value or quantitative answer at the end. Despite the highly frequent use of “statistical” and “statistically improbable” in the corresponding chapter. What’s even more fascinating is Dawkins’ take at Bayesian arguments! Either because it is associated with a reverent or because it relies on subjective prior assessments, Bayesian statistics does not fit as a proper approach. Funny enough, Dawkins himself relies on subjective prior probabilities when discussing the likelihood of find a planet such as Earth. Now, into the details [with the Devil1] in a rather haphazard order or lack thereof: Continue reading