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There is grandeur in this view of life - Comments

D_mendes's Avatar Comment 1 by D_mendes

at work right now... can't wait to watch this when i get home

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 20:16:00 UTC | #414587

Kmita's Avatar Comment 2 by Kmita

I'm also unable to watch it atm. On campus without headphones... Nice to see another video of substantial length pop up.

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 20:28:00 UTC | #414590

NewEnglandBob's Avatar Comment 3 by NewEnglandBob

It was wonderful to listen to this and follow along in chapter 13 of TGSOE and notice the additions and subtractions, both significant and trivial.

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 20:57:00 UTC | #414601

InYourFaceNewYorker's Avatar Comment 4 by InYourFaceNewYorker

Awww! I have to go to class now so I'll have to wait a few hours to watch it! :(

Julie

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 20:59:00 UTC | #414603

Sally Luxmoore's Avatar Comment 5 by Sally Luxmoore

Wonderful!

I am very lucky - this is the second time I have heard this lecture, the first being in Oxford, earlier this year.

It is just as good as I remembered and I love the powerpoint images.

Fascinating to see the 'sagittal section' through Richard's head. What an extraordinary thing to see your own living brain like that!

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 21:05:00 UTC | #414606

Twatsworth's Avatar Comment 6 by Twatsworth

Does anyone know why Richard thinks Sherlock Holmes is "preposterous"? I was rather upset to hear that, since I grew up with the Sherlock Holmes stories, and they are to me like a long deceased, beloved pet dog.

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 21:06:00 UTC | #414608

whatwoulddawkinsdo's Avatar Comment 7 by whatwoulddawkinsdo

Damn when is Dawkins gonna come to south Florida?!?!?

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 21:12:00 UTC | #414609

InYourFaceNewYorker's Avatar Comment 8 by InYourFaceNewYorker

Twatsworth, it's just a difference of opinion. I have a Mac, and I think it's the superior computer. Lots of people will tell me that Macs suck. "Back to the Future" is one of my all time favorite movies, and I've been a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth fan for twenty years now. I know people who tell me that BTTF sucks. So what? Why is it so upsetting to hear when somebody doesn't like something that you think is great?

Julie

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 21:21:00 UTC | #414613

Twatsworth's Avatar Comment 9 by Twatsworth

Don't be silly. If somebody thinks something is "preposterous", it's quite natural to assume there's a reason. There must be a reason why Richard thinks Sherlock Holmes is preposterous, and I'd be intrigued to hear it.

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 21:24:00 UTC | #414614

Sciros's Avatar Comment 10 by Sciros

I thought it was that Richard found the character Sherlock Holmes preposterous. The reason being that Holmes was, for instance, perfectly content not knowing (he didn't care) whether the earth is round or flat. It was probably just a bit of humor from Arthur Conan Doyle, but I also remember reading bits like that and thinking "wow, that's silly."

I have a Mac, and I think it's the superior computer.
Macs, windows boxes, linux boxes -- it all depends on what you want from your computer. Macs and Linux machines are great for lots of things like software development, macs and windows are about even for graphics/music creation (used to be that macs had the better software), windows has much more support for gaming, etc. Only way you can really go wrong is if you buy something that doesn't work best for you.

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 21:42:00 UTC | #414618

MCrnigoj's Avatar Comment 11 by MCrnigoj

SLOVENIJA GRE NAPREJ !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 21:51:00 UTC | #414620

Twatsworth's Avatar Comment 12 by Twatsworth

avatarI thought it was that Richard found the character Sherlock Holmes preposterous. The reason being that Holmes was, for instance, perfectly content not knowing (he didn't care) whether the earth is round or flat. It was probably just a bit of humor from Arthur Conan Doyle, but I also remember reading bits like that and thinking "wow, that's silly."
I don't know what you mean by "bits like that". As far as I can remember there is only one time in the whole collection in which Holmes' lack of general knowledge is emphasized. That's in A Study in Scarlet, the very first story, in which Watson is as outraged as you by Holmes' indifference to astronomy. Conan Doyle essentially contradicts himself, because in later stories Holmes is portrayed as having extensive general knowledge.

Anyway, how do you know why Richard finds Sherlock Holmes preposterous? I get the feeling Richard is unfairly biased against Conan Doyle simply because Conan Doyle became a bit of a crackpot later in life (after essentially his whole family had died, many of them being slaughtered in WW1).

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 21:55:00 UTC | #414622

Sciros's Avatar Comment 13 by Sciros

I don't know what you mean by "bits like that".
What I mean is I don't remember all of the Holmes stories that well so I figured I'd throw in "bits like that" in case I missed any other examples of Holmes being silly.

Anyway, how do you know why Richard finds Sherlock Holmes preposterous?
I seem to recall him saying something like that. But I may be remembering things wrong altogether.

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 22:00:00 UTC | #414624

Twatsworth's Avatar Comment 14 by Twatsworth

What I mean is I don't remember all of the Holmes stories that well so I figured I'd throw in "bits like that" in case I missed any other examples of Holmes being silly.
I seem to recall him saying something like that. But I may be remembering things wrong altogether.
Fair enough.

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 22:05:00 UTC | #414626

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 15 by Steve Zara

This was an inspiring and magnificent talk. There are others who promote science and evolution, such as Myers and Coyne, and they do a great job, but they come nowhere near Richard's depth of explanation, his skill with metaphor, his poetry.

However, I would like to add a few comments. Not to sound critical of this talk, but because I think they may be of interest.

Life is quite possible on a planet not in orbit around a star. This is discussed by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart in Evolving the Alien (2002). A proto-planet the size of Earth if ejected from a solar system early enough would have a deep atmosphere of hydrogen. That would provide insulation. The heat of formation of the planet along with the energy from radioactive decay could keep the surface of such a planet above the melting point of water for billions of years. There are many more places where life could arise and evolve than used to be thought. Many more places where Darwinian evolution can give rise to complexity.

And, I am afraid, I still remain unconvinced about Natural Selection being an improbability pump, because I think the supposed statistical improbability of the results of evolution is an illusion, as (I think) evolution is a statistical inevitability in a universe like ours. To me, this is like saying that chemistry is an improbability pump because ordered crystals form as a result of thermodynamics.

I would prefer to describe Natural Selection as a remover of the mountain of perceived improbability. It shatters our illusions about what is improbable, because we see that Mount Improbable was never a mountain at all.

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 22:18:00 UTC | #414630

blitz442's Avatar Comment 16 by blitz442

Steve

And, I am afraid, I still remain unconvinced about Natural Selection being an improbability pump, because I think the supposed statistical improbability of the results of evolution is an illusion, as (I think) evolution is a statistical inevitability in a universe like ours. To me, this is like saying that chemistry is an improbability pump because ordered crystals form as a result of thermodynamics


Steve, are you sure that you are using the correct definition of improbability here?

Lifeforms are complex things. A complex thing in this sense is defined as something that has some quality, specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone. It is statistically improbable (throw molecules together randomly, over and over again, for a trillion years, and you'd still probably never get anything as complex as a mitochondria).

If then see a planet teeming with lifeforms, we have to posit some mechanism that produces these lifeforms in spite of their extreme improbability.

Improbability here means "unlikely to have occurred by chance alone", not "unlikely to have occurred at all".

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 22:43:00 UTC | #414637

Jiten's Avatar Comment 17 by Jiten

A proto-planet the size of Earth if ejected from a solar system early enough would have a deep atmosphere of hydrogen
Surely the Hydrogen would escape from an Earth-sized planet, because its molecules go faster than the escape velocity of an Earth-sized planet?

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 23:34:00 UTC | #414647

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 18 by Steve Zara

Comment #433025 by blitz442

If then see a planet teeming with lifeforms, we have to posit some mechanism that produces these lifeforms in spite of their extreme improbability.?


There is only apparent improbability when you look at the lifeforms in isolation. When you look at the lifeforms together with their environment and the entropy produced by the lifeforms, the improbability vanishes. Natural Selection can produce seeming improbability because life increases the entropy of its environment.

It's related to the formation of ordered structures like crystals. They seem improbable, but crystallisation produces heat. The overall situation after the crystals have formed is decreased local entropy within the crystals, but significantly increased entropy generally as a result of the heat.

My view is this: life and evolution aren't improbable, because they can be considered as a sort of super-crystallisation: an increase of order (improbability) more than countered by a decrease of order as a result of life's activity. So, the overall situation is more probable than not.

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 23:42:00 UTC | #414650

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 19 by Steve Zara

Comment #433035 by Jiten

Surely the Hydrogen would escape from an Earth-sized planet, because its molecules go faster than the escape velocity of an Earth-sized planet?


No, not at the low temperatures of interstellar space. What you say is only true for a planet in Earth-equivalent orbit around a sun like ours, where the upper atmosphere would be relatively warm.

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 23:47:00 UTC | #414651

blitz442's Avatar Comment 20 by blitz442

Steve

My view is this: life and evolution aren't improbable because they can be considered as a sort of super-crystallisation: an increase of order (improbability) more than countered by a decrease of order as a result of life's activity. So, the overall situation is more probable than not.



Remember Paley’s comparison of the watch on the beach and rocks? He was ok with the possibility of the rock always existing, or perhaps coming together through a random concoction of motion and material, but was certainly not ok with these explanations for the watch. It was a valuable insight and distinction. There are so many ways for a rock to be, because it has no specific function. Same with your snowflake. The mundane laws of chemistry and physics and properties of matter and energy can account for them (rock and snowflake). The mundane laws of chemistry and physics could never account for a watch or a snail. Only a designer or some non-random process could do it.


Some degree of order does not = complexity if we include in our definition of complexity the requirement that it must have some function (specifiable in advance). A snail is improbable compared to your snowflake because the process that produced a particular snowflake (chance) could never in a trillion years produce a snail.

I think it’s a mistake to blur the distinction between natural processes that produce complex things and processes or properties of matter and energy that could never, by themselves, produce complex things by saying that natural selection will inevitably result in complex life.

Wed, 18 Nov 2009 23:50:00 UTC | #414652

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 21 by Steve Zara

Comment #433040 by blitz442

There are so many ways for a rock to be


There is such variety of life.

The mundane laws of chemistry and physics and properties of matter and energy can account for them (rock and snowflake). The mundane laws of chemistry and physics could never account for a watch or a snail. Only a designer or some non-random process could do it.


The mundane laws of chemistry and physics aren't random. They certainly do produce a snail, as biology adds no "magic".

I think it’s a mistake to blur the distinction between natural processes that produce complex things and processes or properties of matter and energy that could never, by themselves, produce complex things by saying that natural selection will inevitably result in complex life.


I think that blurring is essential to the understanding of what is going on.

Thu, 19 Nov 2009 00:05:00 UTC | #414655

ev-love's Avatar Comment 22 by ev-love

Splendid!

But did I really hear Richard say "rising to a crescendo"?

ev-love

Thu, 19 Nov 2009 00:06:00 UTC | #414656

Daisy Skipper's Avatar Comment 23 by Daisy Skipper

Steve,
Post #15 is excellent! I've felt the same way for years but have never been able to articulate it so well.

Thu, 19 Nov 2009 00:53:00 UTC | #414667

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 24 by Steve Zara

Comment #433055 by debridement

I have been fortunate enough to have had a discussion with Richard about this on this site. I still think his metaphor of Mount Improbable is important, but I don't think it tells the whole story.

My view is this: we live in a universe of physics and chemistry, governed by thermodynamics. Biology adds no new laws. If the appearance of life and the evolution of ever more complex forms is compatible with the second law of thermodynamics (that entropy increases), then, unless we want to add some special extra laws, it must be driven by thermodynamics. There is a lot more I could say about this, but thread is not the place. I don't want to distract from comments on this wonderful talk.

Thu, 19 Nov 2009 01:11:00 UTC | #414669

Kiwi's Avatar Comment 25 by Kiwi

Comment #433057 by Steve Zara
Quick question Steve, are there any implications for thermodynamics and entropy when a system is travelling at relativistic speeds ?

Thu, 19 Nov 2009 01:38:00 UTC | #414677

quarecuss's Avatar Comment 26 by quarecuss

Even though he was reading from a screen you could feel the emotion behind what he was saying.
Grandeur!

Thu, 19 Nov 2009 02:19:00 UTC | #414688

blitz442's Avatar Comment 27 by blitz442

Steve

There is such variety of life.


Yes, but each life form is highly specialized to a particular way of making a living.

The mundane laws of chemistry and physics aren't random. They certainly do produce a snail, as biology adds no "magic".


My view is this: we live in a universe of physics and chemistry, governed by thermodynamics. Biology adds no new laws. If the appearance of life and the evolution of ever more complex forms is compatible with the second law of thermodynamics (that entropy increases), then, unless we want to add some special extra laws, it must be driven by thermodynamics



Of course biology must adhere to thermodynamics (how could it not?). But that is different than saying "it's all just thermodynamics then, biology adds nothing".


Surely you recognize that trying to explain biology solely in terms of the fundamental principles of physics and chemistry is inadequate; it would be like trying to explain the workings of a subway train in terms of quantum mechanics.

I think that Dennett might call you a greedy reductionist, in that you seem to reject or diminish the importance of mechanisms that operate at levels above the fundamental laws of physics, particularly mechanisms that speed up the process of natural selection. As I'm sure your aware, he calls these mechanisms cranes; sex is a good crane, so is the Baldwin effect.


I have been fortunate enough to have had a discussion with Richard about this on this site. I still think his metaphor of Mount Improbable is important, but I don't think it tells the whole story.


Where is this thread? I am very curious to see what he said about your use of the term improbability. I suspect that your (probably correct) observation that the formation of life is likely in the Universe does not defeat the notion that it is (statistically) improbable.

Thu, 19 Nov 2009 03:14:00 UTC | #414693

outwitted by fish's Avatar Comment 28 by outwitted by fish

Steve Zara:

A proto-planet the size of Earth if ejected from a solar system early enough would have a deep atmosphere of hydrogen. That would provide insulation. The heat of formation of the planet along with the energy from radioactive decay could keep the surface of such a planet above the melting point of water for billions of years.


I'm intrigued by the suggestion (although not at all sure that the surface of the planet is the place for life to begin.) Why, though, would hydrogen be insulation? The energy loss to space would necessarily be radiant, and even a dense layer of H2 would be fairly transparent in almost all of the infrared spectrum. (H2 is not particularly associative, and there's only one stretching mode and one rotational mode for IR absorbtion.)

Anyway, assuming this putative planet had reasonable quantities of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur, I'd expect the atmosphere to be pretty heavily laden in hydrocarbons, ammonia, CO2, H2S...

Thu, 19 Nov 2009 03:22:00 UTC | #414694

yyy's Avatar Comment 29 by yyy

Awesome talk as usual.

'is it possible that two independent origins of life could both have hit upon the same 64 word code?'

One thing I've thought about (could be wrong): Replicating ice crystals from Alaska are simple enough to be equally compatible with ice crystals from Greenland, despite their separate origins. So perhaps the very first (absolute lowest level) life replicators could have had multiple origins, yet each origin might have been simple enough to have the same equivalent pattern, like ice crystals, and thus be able to intermingle. Maybe the 64 word code could have been a higher level construction that arose from multiple replicator origins in such a way?

'evolution by natural selection is the only process we know whereby simple beginnings can give rise to complex results'

One other process that has intrigued me about as much as evolution is the behavior of simple programs (cellular automata etc). Only 8 simple rules counter-intuitively create a complex pattern here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_110
And perhaps this shell's pattern might be predominantly fueled by such a 'simple program' rather than evolution?:
http://moodle.epfl.ch/file.php/216/WebsitePics/Textile_cone.JPG
(The cellular automata framework seems to match a shell that is created 'line by line' by the animal (if I'm even correct that that's indeed how the animals make the shells)).

I wonder if earth's evolutionary history ever featured a creature that used wasp tactics, only victimized more sophisticated/intelligent (non-insect) organisms (like the movie alien, heh). The immune system as an analogy for the mind might spark some insight, but I don't know much about either. Also I have a naive understanding of thermodynamics/heat death/the universe in general, but it seems like gravity constantly sucks energy back together (it attracts light, and mass, and the latter gets crushed which creates energy?). Seems like gravity would continue to function and make energy in heat death, or I could be wrong.

Thu, 19 Nov 2009 03:36:00 UTC | #414695

Enlightenme..'s Avatar Comment 30 by Enlightenme..

I think Darwin's "Endless forms" was 'merely' his way of marvelling at the vastness of Mendel space.

If only he could have known of his contemporary's work.

The big wonder for me is the unbroken circa 4 billion year chain - no comets big or direct enough to extinguish all life.

Thu, 19 Nov 2009 07:02:00 UTC | #414718