Tag Archives: old books

It’s a Wonderful Life

I’ve sometimes been asked whether the idea of the LTEE was inspired by Stephen Jay Gould’s book, Wonderful Life. In this bestseller, Gould put forward the idea of “replaying” evolution to explore the idea of whether evolution is repeatable. He wrote (page 48): “I call this experiment ‘replaying life’s tape.’ You press the rewind button and, making sure you thoroughly erase everything that actually happened, go back to any time and place in the past—say, to the seas of the Burgess Shale. Then let the tape run again and see if the repetition looks at all like the original.”  However, Gould then went on to say: “The bad news is we can’t possibly perform the experiment.”

Gould (1941-2002) was a paleontologist as well as an historian of science and prolific author, and he had in mind replaying life’s tape on a planetary scale over millions of years. The Burgess Shale is a geological formation in western Canada that contains fossils from about 500 million years ago. The fossils include exceptionally well-preserved early animals, many of which have body plans that are unlike any modern animals. Building on his thought experiment of replaying life’s tape, Gould pondered the potential outcomes: “If each replay strongly resembles life’s actual pathway, then we must conclude that what really happened pretty much had to occur. But suppose that the experimental versions all yield sensible results strikingly different from the actual history of life? What could we then say about the predictability of self-conscious intelligence? or of mammals?”

Of course, Gould’s experiment is impossible at a paleo-planetary scale. But at a more modest scale, one of the main goals of the LTEE is to study the repeatability of evolution. And so, I often quote from Wonderful Life when I’m giving talks about the experiment. Thus, it’s only natural that someone might wonder if Gould’s book had inspired me to start the LTEE.

In fact, though, Wonderful Life was published in 1989—a year after the LTEE began. I think I first heard about it when Mike Travisano shared some passages with me that were relevant to a paper we were writing on the roles of adaptation, chance, and history in evolution.

So, while Gould and I were thinking about similar issues, we were imagining them at vastly different scales. It’s one of the fascinating aspects of evolution that these broad categories of causality—adaptation by natural selection, chance events from mutations to asteroid impacts, and the effects of past history on future opportunities—play out at these different scales.

I was lucky to meet Gould and discuss these issues with him several years later, as I’ll describe in a future post.



Filed under Old Books, Science

Fun in Philadelphia

Madeleine and I just spent a few magical days in Philadelphia, where I was inducted into the American Philosophical Society. While I had heard of the APS, and knew it had a long history, I didn’t know very much about it until a few years ago, when I heard about some colleagues being elected.

The APS was founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin, making it the oldest learned society in the United States, and making this the 275th anniversary year. George Washington was a member. Thomas Jefferson was a member. In fact, Jefferson was President of the APS while he was also serving as Vice President and President of the United States. Barrack Obama is another member. In other words, there’s a bit of history associated with the APS.

Our hotel was almost next door to the APS, including the Benjamin Franklin Hall (with the auditorium where the meeting was held) as well as the museum and library. (More on those later.) Here’s the view from our hotel room the evening we arrived. Yes, that’s Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, 1776.

Independence Hall at night

The highlights of the meeting for me are almost beyond description, but here’s an attempt.

The people: From colleagues across all fields to the staff and officers of the APS, everyone was exceptionally welcoming to Madeleine and me. (Partners and spouses are as much a part of the meeting as the members.) I got to see some longtime friends from the field of evolutionary biology including David and Marvalee Wake; I got to chat with people from other fields who I’ve met before, but rarely get to see, including population biologist Joel Cohen and geneticist Michael Young; I got to meet people for the first time including APS President Linda Greenhouse, an expert on the Supreme Court, and her husband Eugene Fidell, who works in military law. And many other warm, welcoming, and interesting people.

The talks: There were several talks each day, across a wide range of fields, and they were uniformly lively and interesting. You can see the full program here, and I’ll just mention some of them that especially caught my fancy. Two talks on the history of the US census (Margo Anderson) and on political fights over its implementation (Kenneth Prewitt). Three talks on new technologies used to give voice to the voiceless (Rupal Patel), on interpreting interactions between police and motorists (Dan Jurafsky), and on future cameras that can reveal with extraordinary resolution a fingerprint on an object in a still life photo or capture the image reflected in a subject’s gaze (Shreer Nayar). Toni Morrison received the 2018 Thomas Jefferson Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences; while she could not attend, a moving letter of acceptance was read on her behalf. Bryan Stevenson received the 2018 Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Public Service and he gave an inspiring, hard-hitting, beautiful, and moving talk about his childhood and his life’s work for social justice, emphasizing the importance of proximity, memory, empathy, and persistence. You can—and really should—hear his talk on memory and justice. (The award starts at ~35 minutes, followed by a short acceptance speech, and then his hour-long talk at ~42 minutes. Set aside the time; you won’t be disappointed.)

The Treasures: Wow. The APS library includes over 13 million manuscripts, many of extraordinary historical and scientific importance. The amazing staff of the APS, including Library Director Patrick Spero and Museum Director Merrill Mason, pulled out some of the original treasures for us to see. Among them: Thomas Jefferson’s final draft of the Declaration of Independence, with his marginal comments showing the changes that were made (to Jefferson’s consternation) in order to secure approval from Congress. The only document signed by the first four US Presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. All four were members of the APS, and they signed pledges to contribute financially to a cross-continental scientific survey of the flora by André Michaux, a French botanist. Although this expedition was eventually stymied by politics, it was a precursor to Lewis and Clark. Speaking of which, another treasure we got to see was one of the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, with a beautiful, tiny, hand-drawn map of Cape Disappointment. On the science side, we saw Charles Darwin’s draft of the title page of The Origin of Species, which he had originally titled “An abstract of an Essay on the Origin of Species and Varieties Through Natural Selection.” We also got to see a notebook of the physicist John Wheeler, with his illustration of gravitational collapse producing a “black hole”—this was especially exciting because Wheeler was a mentor of Madeleine’s stepfather, also a theoretical physicist. As I said, wow! The APS has some of these items on display at their Museum, and you can see some of these treasures online as well.

Another treasure: Another great pleasure was spending time with my wonderful friend and MSU colleague Jack Liu. Jack holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, and his work focuses on the complex interactions between people and the environment—from protecting pandas and their special habitat in China, to the effects of divorce on energy consumption in American households. As we rode together to and from airports, I learned Jack’s own inspirational story: from a tiny village in China to becoming the first member of his family to attend college; his experience learning English almost from scratch while a doctoral student at the University of Georgia; and becoming the first person from MSU ever elected to the American Philosophical Society.

Jack and me at APS Nov 2018

[Here’s a picture of Jack Liu and me standing below portraits of Franklin and Washington in the APS Auditorium.]

Signing the book at APS

[Here’s a picture that Jack took of me “signing the book” during my induction into the APS.]

Greeting from Linda Greenhouse

[This one, which Jack also took, shows me being officially welcomed by Linda Greenhouse, the APS President, after Robert Hauser (at left), the Executive Officer, has read a statement about my work.]


Filed under Education, Old Books, Science

Infectiously Fun Science

Science is sometimes frustrating. The work is often repetitive and even tedious. It can be hard to explain to our friends and families—and sometimes even to peers—what we’re doing and why we think it’s important and interesting. The current state of the academic job market is terrible.

But science is also often fun. There’s the joy of discovery, which grows out of the quieter excitement of seeing data come together to support or refute an existing idea and, perhaps, to generate a brand-new idea. If we’re lucky, we enjoy the recognition of our peers that comes when a paper is accepted, a grant funded, or a talk well received.

For those of us who study evolution, the frustrations can be magnified by critics and trolls who aren’t interested in evidence or reason, having already closed their minds to even the idea of evolution based on their narrow, literal reading—or, more often, someone else’s reading—of texts written in other languages long before science provided an evidence-based way to understand the world in which we live.

At the same time—and perhaps driven in part by the controversy surrounding evolution and religion—the field of evolution has long been blessed with great writers and speakers who are willing and able to engage the public. Twenty years before he published On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin had already cemented his place in the public eye with his travelogue The Voyage of the Beagle. As a result, the Origin was an instant best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. And while Darwin shied away from speaking in public about his discoveries, Thomas Henry Huxley was a gifted orator who became “Darwin’s Bulldog” in public lectures and debates.

That tradition continues to this day. Some of my favorites include The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, Wonderful Life by the late Stephen Jay Gould, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett, and Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. Experts argue about scientific issues, minor and even major, contained in these books. But it’s hard for me to imagine an open-minded reader, someone interested in science and evolution, who would not find these books highly stimulating—even infectious in the sense of wanting to share them and the ideas they contain with others.

And speaking of infectious, new ways of communicating science have burst onto the scene since the printing press. For example …

Baba Brinkman is a rapper who raps about science, literature, public policy, and more. For your scientific enjoyment, here are three of my favorites from The Rap Guide to Evolution:

Performance, Feedback, Revision

Creationist Cousins

I’m A African

Here’s another from The Rap Guide to Human Nature:

Short Term Mating Dance

And here’s a brand-new one—on microbiology and disease—with a cameo appearance by yours truly and three students who work in my lab:

So Infectious

Whether you’re a scientist or not, I hope you’ll agree that these are worth sharing with your students, friends, and families!

[Image source: music.bababrinkman.com/album/the-rap-guide-to-evolution]

Comments Off on Infectiously Fun Science

Filed under Education, Humor, Old Books, Science

The Dechronization of Sam Magruder

Dechronization means time travel.  Think of synchronization as joining two things in time.  Now decouple them, and you have the idea of time travel.

The word dechronization is a neologism coined by the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson (1902-1984).  But he did not use the word in the context of his research.  Instead, he coined the word for a short science fiction novel that he wrote, which was only published posthumously, in 1996, after his daughter discovered it years later.

The novel is called The Dechronization of Sam Magruder.  It’s about a “research chronologist” working on quantum theory.  In the year 2162, an experiment goes awry and Magruder finds himself back in the age of dinosaurs.  While struggling to survive, he keeps a diary (stone tablets, of course) and wonders whether he should interfere with future history by helping the scurrying little mammals – perhaps his own ancestors! – avoid being devoured by the dinosaurs.  Being a smart guy, Magruder leaves his tablets in fossil-prone sites where future scientists will be more likely to find them … which they do.

It’s a fun read, especially if you’re interested in quirky old books that have something to do with how scientists and philosophers think about the world.

If you find yourself in the possession of an autographed copy of The Dechronization of Sam Magruder, there are three possibilities.  Simpson really did figure out time travel … or it’s a forgery … or else I signed it*.

The book is readily available from on-line used-book sellers, and for only a few bucks in pristine condition.  The book has an introduction penned by Arthur C. Clarke and an afterword by Steven Jay Gould.  But perhaps the hideous dust jacket scared people away?

*I gave the presidential address at this summer’s meeting of the Society for the Society of Evolution, and I titled my talk “The Dechronization of E. coli: A 25-Year Love Story.”  I began with a quiz about what founding member of the society had written a science fiction novel.  Before I could even offer the first of several hints I had prepared, two graduate students simultaneously called out the answer.  The prize was Simpson’s book (luckily I had brought two copies), and I autographed one student’s copy.


Filed under Old Books

Discourses, Old and New

Here are the full titles for my blog and the 1750 edition of Telliamed.                      

Full Title of This SiteTelliamed-Title


Filed under Old Books, Science

Telliamed: Indian Philosopher or French Missionary?

Telliamed was written by a French diplomat, Benoît de Maillet (1656-1738).  It circulated as an unpublished manuscript in the 1720s but was not published until 1748, ten years after de Maillet’s death.  (During those years, his text was edited by others, apparently to bring it into conformity with church dogma.  According to the Wikipedia article about de Maillet, the translation of Telliamed published in 1968 by the University of Illinois Press provides the best reconstruction of the text as de Maillet wrote it.)

The book attracted sufficient attention that it was soon translated and published in English in 1750 as Telliamed: Or, Discourses Between an Indian Philosopher and a French Missionary, on the Diminution of the Sea, the Formation of the Earth, the Origin of Men and Animals, And other Curious Subjects, relating to Natural History and Philosophy.

De Maillet used Telliamed to present provocative ideas about the history of our planet and its inhabitants – long before James Hutton (1726-1797), Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), Charles Lyell (1797-1875), Robert Chambers (1802-1871), Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) wrote on these subjects.

The basic thesis of Telliamed is that our planet was once entirely covered with water, but the seas have been slowly receding into a void.  This physical explanation makes no sense today.  Nonetheless, Telliamed was an attempt to understand the natural world based on observations and questions – not based on religious texts and dogma.  In other words, we should try to read from the book of nature itself.

Consider, for example, that Telliamed (1750 edition, pp. 106-107) has seen and wondered about fossil seashells on high mountains far from the sea:

“In a Word, if it was not so ; if the Waves in every Part of our Globe had not been, at least, equal to the Tops of our highest Mountains, how could we in the Composition of the most elevated Places find the same Substances, which at present she produces on her Shores ? … How could they be inserted in the Stones of the Mountains in these Places ?”

Many of the observations and interpretations in Telliamed are wrong, and some seem a bit crazy today.  For example, Telliamed (pp. 220-221) proposes that birds came from flying fish:

“Who can doubt that from the volatile Fish sprung our Birds, which raise themselves in the Air ;”

– although the rest of this sentence brings to mind Neil Shubin, Tiktaalik, and Your Inner Fish –

“… and from those which creep in the Sea, arose our terrestrial Animals, which have neither a Disposition to fly, nor the Art of raising themselves above the Earth ?”

But these insights and errors about nature, while fascinating, are not the reason that this book is one of my all-time favorites.  Rather, I admire the author’s voice, calling out across nearly three centuries, that we should keep religious prejudices and dogma out of science.  This appeal comes at the start of the book (p. 2), when the “Indian Philosopher” responds to the queries of the “French Missionary”:

 “I asked him concerning his Country, his Name, his Family, his Religion, and the Motives of his Travelling ; he accordingly spoke to me nearly in the following Manner :”

Link to the Indian Philosopher’s Reply

Understanding the history of the world based on evidence, rather than religious dogma, was a radical idea in its day.  De Maillet probably feared ridicule and persecution. The printers of dangerous books also wanted protections, lest they be charged with blasphemy.  And so de Maillet took precautions.  He dedicated the book (image below)

“To the illustrious Cyrano de Bergerac, Author of the imaginary Travels thro’ the Sun and Moon.”

De Bergerac had written L’Autre Monde ou les États et Empires de la Lune – an early work of science fiction, and so this dedication might have allowed the defense that de Maillet’s work, too, was intended as fiction.  Also, the French Missionary always speaks of nature through his conversations with the Indian Philosopher, thus merely repeating the speculations of another person rather than offering the ideas as his own.

At the same time, de Maillet managed to be provocative.  Giving the Indian Philosopher his own name spelled backwards hardly hid his identity.  And the book is written as a six-day conversation that seems intended to mirror the six days of creation in Genesis.

Most importantly, Benoît de Maillet was eager to convince his audience that an understanding of nature should be based on observations and questioning rather than religious authority.



Filed under Old Books

Telliamed Speaks

“Sir, I have always declined speaking to you of my Religion, because it can be of no use to you, and because all Men being naturally prepossessed in favour of that in which they are born, it offends them to contradict the Articles of it. For this Reason, and by the Advice of my desceas’d Father, I have all my Life avoided entering into this Matter, that I might not give rise to Disputes in which every Man thinks it a Point of Honour and Conscience to support his own Opinion, and which never terminate but in mutual Animosities. For this Reason, Sir, I hope you will pardon me for not satisfying your Curiosity in this Particular. I would not have even spoke my Sentiments to you, on the Composition of the Globe, the Study of which is the Cause of my Travels, if I had not discerned in you, a Soul capable of triumphing over the Prejudices of Birth and Education, and above being provoked at the Things I intend to communicate to you ; perhaps they will at first appear to you opposite to what is contained in your sacred Books, yet I hope in the End to convince you that they are not really so. Philosophers (permit me to class myself among that Number, however unworthy of the Name) rarely find these happy Dispositions ; they have not even met with them in the Ages and in the Countries of Liberty, where it has been often dangerous for some of them who have dared to speak against the Opinions of the Vulgar. Besides, continued our Indian, you have traveled a great deal, you have travelled thro’ many Maritime Countries, you seem to think that the Secrets of Nature are not unworthy of your Curiosity. You have learned to doubt, and every Man who can do so, has a great Advantage over him who believes implicitly, and without taking the Trouble to examine. You therefore possess, Sir, the principal Dispositions necessary for relishing the Observations I am about to make. This gives me Reason to hope that you will yield to the Evidence of the Proofs I shall bring, for the Support of my System.”

Note: The punctuation and spelling above are preserved from the first English edition published in 1750.  The title page below is from the first French edition published two years earlier.



Filed under Old Books