Monday, January 18, 2021

The Scientific Method--In a Comic Book

As part of the process of learning French, I read a French comic book called La Page Blanche (the blank page). In this unlikely place, I found lots and lots of examples of hypothesis-testing. This comic, though not openly related to science in any way, was a celebration of the adventure of scientific discovery.


A young woman (Éloïse) has just experienced an emotional shock so great that she has lost her memory. Sitting on a bench, she realizes that she does not remember how she got there, where she lives, where she works, or even her own name. She partly reconstructs this information from documents in her purse and on her cell phone. She finds her address, then figures out train routes to take her back home. When she finally gets to her apartment, she has no idea what to expect when she enters.

At this point, her scientific reconstruction of her identity goes into full swing. She does not know how long she has been missing. A neighbor, whom she does not know, welcomes her back tells her that her cat has been mewing, unfed, for about a day. She imagines different possibilities for what she might find inside her apartment. A slob partner who drunkenly awaited her return from work so she could cook supper? A murder scene? A surprise birthday party? Her partner (if she had one) in flagrante delicto with another woman? Gangsters? A law enforcement team happy at the reappearance of the lost amnesiac? In each of these scenes, a cat mews. She opens the door to another mystery: an empty apartment with a cat.

Éloïse then uses the apartment to partly reconstruct her life. She does not remember whether or not she has a partner. She tests the hypothesis “I live alone” (J’habite tout seule) in two ways. First, if she had a partner, the cat would have been fed. Second, she finds just one toothbrush in the bathroom. She finds pictures of people she does not know and of trips she does not remember having taken on the wall. The photo of New York City showed the Twin Towers, so she concluded the trip was before September 11, 2001. (The book was published in 2013.) None of the pictures, receipts, etc., help her very much. She even wondered if the swollen red spot on her neck might be a clue, but after imagining dramatic scenarios, she concludes it must just be a mosquito bite (piqûre de moustique). In this cartoon book, as in science, many hypotheses lead nowhere.

Éloïse finds her computer but does not know the password. She has to come up with a creative way to find out. She finds out where she works (a bookstore) when she gets an angry phone call from her manager. She has a vague recollection that the password was an American male first name. It turns out an information technologist at work had reset her password recently and was astonished that she had already forgotten it. The information now available to her on her computer still left a lot of things unexplained. Her only hope was to confide in a co-worker who was a Facebook friend. The empathetic co-worker encouraged her to see a doctor and then a psychiatrist. It is not clear to me whether she did or whether she imagined that she did, because the panels depicting her medical visits had extreme cliches of doctors, medical visits, and psychiatrists. They all told her there was nothing wrong with her body or brain…

And so on. The scientific method can be the basis of an entire plot, and I don’t mean just science fiction or mysteries, into neither of which categories this book fits. Science is an adventure of discovery, and it can show up in places where you least expect it.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Face to Face with War: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, part 3

This is the third essay I have written about the novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Spanish novelist Vicente Blasco Ibañez. The world in 2021 is no less vulnerable to war than in any previous year, decade, century, or millennium.

I suppose it is about time to describe the novel itself. It is focused on Marcelo Desnoyers, a Frenchman who fled France to avoid being drafted into the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. He earned a fortune in Argentina and returned to France for what he considered to be the pinnacle of cultured life. He bought a big house, and then bought a castle in the country near the Marne River. He filled both places with incredible treasures. His two children were Argentinian citizens. One of them, his son Julio, became well-known in Paris for his dancing and his wasteful lifestyle. In particular, a married woman was his lover.

When the Great War started, Marcelo was too old to fight, and Julio was exempt because he was not a French citizen. The war changed everything for all of them. Marcelo went out to his castle, just in time, it turned out, for the Battle of the Marne. He saw it all from his castle, which the Germans attacked and plundered. The Germans not only slaughtered all of the people they could find in the village near the castle but were also full of arrogance. The German officers feasted on Marcelo’s food, and even dressed themselves in his daughter’s dresses and danced around. They shat upon the rugs. Ibañez vividly describes the scenes, using all of the senses. In the wounded villagers, brains were visible, throbbing behind faces without noses. A cannon ball tore off the head of one soldier, who for just a split second kept walking, with two jets of red blood shooting upward from his neck. Disemboweled horses trampled their own entrails. It was at the greenest time of year, when the wheat was in full grain, the most vivid contrast possible between life and death.

The German officers also pretended to be sincerely good people. They carried photos of their beloved families and proclaimed that only by destroying France would their families be able to live. This was an incredible lie but one that, Ibañez suggested, the Germans actually believed. They recognized Marcelo as the castle owner, and instead of just shooting him they tried to convince him of the righteousness of their cause.

But the Germans were beaten back. During their retreat, they transformed the ruined castle into a military hospital. Here Marcelo watched some of the very officers who had so recently boasted of their inevitable victory return, mangled almost beyond recognition, and die. When the French army returned, the Germans fled.

Northern France began to recover. But life for the Desnoyers family changed forever. Julio’s lover, feeling guilty at cuckolding her husband, found that the husband had become a military hero as he was wounded in battle. She sought him out, stayed by his side, and nursed him back to health. Julio, heartbroken, felt that he could do only one thing: join the French army as a foreign volunteer. He did so and became a hero himself. His motivation was not patriotism so much as it was forlorn love, and to just do something with his life rather than just to enjoy his wealth. His father Marcelo, who every day felt the guilt at having fled his patriotic duty in 1870, was now intensely proud of his son.

As you can certainly guess, Julio was killed in battle. The story ends, after almost 500 pages, with Marcelo and his family feeling almost infinite grief out in the middle of the burial fields, months after the battle was over. The bodies of slaughtered French soldiers had been piled up and their burial places marked only with little wooden crosses. The bodies of the German soldiers were piled in unmarked pits and covered with dirt.

The scale of the burial fields is nearly impossible to imagine apart from Ibañez’s description. I got only a tiny glimpse of what it must have been like when I hiked with my son-in-law’s family in the Vosges Mountains that divide Alsace and Lorraine in France in 2016. We went quickly past a World War One cemetery. The French family had seen it, and dozens of others, scattered throughout the mountains, but for me it was a powerful experience.




To a large extent, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was a story that wove together improbable circumstances in order to give the author, who was a journalist with first-hand experience, the excuse to write about the ideas that led to the war. How likely would it be that the sister of Marcelo’s wife would just happen to marry a German who became a top official in the evil German government, and explained his point of view to the rest of the family in great detail? How likely that Julio and later Marcelo should befriend a Russian socialist living in Paris, who explained his point of view in great detail? He said that the supposed Christianity of the Germans was actually the worship of Thor rather than of Jesus. It was the atheist socialist, not the German Christians, who believed that “blessed are the peacemakers.” But the characters were not simply excuses for ideas; they were, to me, vividly real.

And was it not all ultimately futile? Ibañez wrote, through the mind of Marcelo, “I wonder if any star knows that Bismarck ever existed! I wonder if the plants are aware of the divine mission of the German nation!” But I wonder if Ibañez would have been able to guess that, a hundred years later, the European Union, led by France and Germany, would get the Nobel Peace Prize?

But hope remains defiant. At the very end, Marcelo’s daughter hugged her fiancé, a wounded hero, right out in the middle of the burial fields—love may not triumph over, but it remains defiant against, death.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Just How Strong Is Altruism? The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, part 2

In my columns and books, I have written extensively about altruism. Altruism is doing well by doing good. It is what happens when one animal is good to another animal in the same species. Altruism has been studied extensively by evolutionary scientists, not only via mathematical theory, but with lots and lots of examples from the animal, including the human, world. Altruism occurs because, very often, the best way for an animal to pass its genes on to the next generation (which is what natural selection is all about) is to cooperate with other animals. It often pays to be good. Not only that, but natural selection has favored many positive emotions to encourage altruism: it feels good to be good.

But in order for altruism to work, there has to be a dividing line between the inside and the outside of the group in which altruism occurs. Natural selection may favor altruism inside the group, but favors behavior that is merciless, and feelings of hatred, outside of the group. An undeniable trend of human history has been the uneven and gradual extension of the dividing line, so that we incorporate more and more people as insiders. A lot of us include the whole world, even the non-human world, in our inside group, or at least we think we do. The question, therefore, is not whether altruism is beneficial or even possible, but how common is it? That is, altruism is part of human nature, but so is brutality. Is human nature good, or bad? I believed that it is both. One of my students, however, drew upon his military experience, in which he was traumatized by what he saw in Bosnia and Afghanistan, to say that human nature is evil. I thought he was wrong. Now I’m not so sure. After reading The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (see previous essay), I wonder whether altruism might be fragile and might even go extinct in our world of the immediate future. Are, as the author Ibañez said, the Four Horsemen the reality of the world?


For those of you who may not know, The Apocalypse is the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible, in which a man named John described a vision. In just part of this vision, he saw four supernatural horsemen. One was war, another was disease, another was famine, another was death. Can altruism really keep these metaphorical horsemen from galloping around the world? Or is the world actually theirs? I’m no longer sure.

Ibañez envisioned the Four Horseman galloping freely over the Earth. In one scene, Ibañez described an apartment in Paris in which a Frenchman was married to a German woman. As soon as the war began, the Frenchman went off to kill Germans. He did not consider his wife to be part of the hated outside group, despite her nationality. But she felt the guilt of knowing that she was a German surrounded by the French who did not deserve to be attacked by her people. She jumped off her porch and died in the plaza. It was the Four Horsemen, said Ibañez, who pushed her.

A French servant woman, having seen the devastation of war, said something that might summarize the thoughts above: “God has forgotten the world.”

Monday, December 21, 2020

Who Is to Blame for War? The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (novel) Part 1

As humans culturally evolve to a point of greater knowledge and understanding, one would expect war to become obsolete. There is probably nothing that war can accomplish that cannot be accomplished better through less violent means. But nations, unlike some individuals, have almost never been known to resolve conflicts peacefully. When they do, it is a cause for celebration; the European Union got the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for simply not having war for six decades.

But wars are not just things that happen. Somebody has to start them. I thought about this as I read, in English translation, the classic novel about World War One: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Vicente Blasco Ibañez, written in 1916 even before the war was over. I will tell a little about this novel in a later essay.

Seldom are wars started solely by ordinary people who may want to take resources from, or who feel animosity toward, people of other countries. War is started by governments, who then stir up masses of ordinary people into a frenzy of patriotism, fueled by religion. And, sometimes, fueled by something else as well: scientists and other intellectuals. As a scientist, I hate to admit this, but…well, let me give you an example.

The war that is now called World War One (The Great War, prior to the second) was a war that, as it happened, and even a century after it ended, has been hard to explain. Ask anybody what caused World War Two, and they will say Hitler and Mussolini and the imperialists of Japan. But World War One? Most people would guess Germany—and that is the correct answer—but that is about as far as they could go. I didn’t know much more about it than this before I began reading the novel.

Germany started World War One. It arose from the unresolved animosity from the Franco-Prussian War. In 1870, Prussia insisted that it had the right to rule France. The German Prussians had to retreat from France, except for Alsace. Then, in the Great War, the Germans attacked France again. This time the Allies beat them back past Alsace, to the east of the Rhine River. Then they did it again. Full resolution did not happen until Germany’s unconditional surrender after World War Two. Since that time, peace has been maintained in most of Europe.

German aggression did not result simply from economic and military leaders ordering German troops to attack France (as well as Belgium and other countries). The German people (not all of them, but millions of them) believed with all their souls that Germans were the master race and deserved to rule as much territory as they could get, by whatever means they could get it. They believed whole-heartedly in the war, and the German soldiers fought ferociously. According to Ibañez, German soldiers killed anyone they could find in Belgium, even cutting off women’s breasts and nailing them to doors, or spiking babies on bayonets and parading them around town. Only religion—in this case, a religion of German superiority—can so strongly parasitize the human mind as to make people believe and do things like this.

The Germans began World War One with the claim that the war would be brief and intense. They claimed that by beating down the other countries, particularly France, with utter ferocity, they would make it impossible for any European war to ever occur again. They thought of it as the war that would rid the world of future wars. This was their justification for utter, and often insane, brutality. According to Ibañez, the Germans said that cruelty was actually kindness. Cruelty would force an earlier surrender and an earlier end to the sufferings. It was necessary to kill even the children because, if left behind, the children would grow up as Frenchmen who did not worship the power and glory of Germany.

Who stirred up the Germans to such an intensity of evil? The government and military leaders deserved most of the blame. Religion, far from engendering careful humanitarian thought, became just a rallying point for bloodthirstiness. Ibañez said that, to the Germans, “outside of Germany everything was despicable, even their own religion.” That is, the Germans were proud of their Christianity but hated that of the French. He also said that one of the kinds of people who vanished during the war was the man “of complex spirituality,” whose beliefs could not be summarized by a flag.

I now explain why I include this essay in a science blog. At this point in history, Germans considered themselves the most civilized people on Earth. Theirs was, they believed, the greatest music and the greatest art. And they fancied themselves to be the leaders of the intellectual world. Ibañez makes it perfectly clear that German scholars created a framework of intellectual justification for the brutality. Ernst Haeckel, the biologist, claimed to be inspired by Darwin. Actually, Haeckel took most of his inspiration from the Englishman Herbert Spencer, who believed that Darwinism proved the superiority of the white race. Haeckel substituted German for white. The German intellectuals had prepared the way for the war, giving it a “varnish of scientific justification,” in the words of Ibañez.

As I am an intellectual, this sent a chill down my spine. The words that I write in my books and blogs, and the things that I teach in my classes, might be ignored by most people. But, even if I do not intend it, some of my words might take on a life of their own and become a scourge to history. Those of us who have the holy duty of seeking and telling the scientific truth about the world need to be proactive, and always frame our statements in a context of humanitarianism, even of love.

I will next post an essay about The Four Horsemen and altruism.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Some Thoughts from Darwin's Dangerous Idea, part 2. Breaking the Spell

In the previous essay, I shared some ideas from my quick read of Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. A discussion of mimetic evolution was one of the main objectives of Dennett’s book. But an even more important objective, found also in his book Freedom Evolves, is that you do not have to have a spirit in order to have free will.

If we do not have free will, does this mean we will go wild? If we do not have a spirit, does this mean that everybody wants to get away with everything? Only God can keep us from going freaking crazy? Dennett says no. Most humans want to be morally responsible; benefits accrue from it. We choose to be good because when our evolutionary ancestors chose to be good, they reaped evolutionary benefits.

Another important Dennett book is Breaking the Spell. The meme that has grasped the minds of billions of people is that religion cannot be questioned. But Dennett says that if we don’t question religion, it might come to exist only in toxic forms. Many people consider religion to be good, a mimetic mutualist. If religion is a cultural parasite, it will conceal its true nature from its host. Only by examining religion can we consciously kill the toxic ideas and let the good ones reproduce.

Religion, Dennett suggests, is a placebo effect. We like it because it makes us feel better. But is this such a bad thing? Isn’t religion okay even if it is a placebo effect? In medicine, the placebo effect causes the body to unleash all of its healing capacities. Dennett discussed belief in believing in God, that is, the belief that believing in God is a good thing for an individual and society.

In his book Homo Mysterious, David Barash says that a sweet tooth was adaptive in prehistoric days, but now it is dangerous because it leads to obesity and diabetes; maybe religion is the same. The same idea was suggested centuries earlier by historian Edward Gibbon: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.” If religion is a placebo, then has it outlived its usefulness? Or is it still a good placebo?

Sometimes. But perhaps more often religion inspires people to do heinous things, as with the Puritans and the Taliban. It depends on the side-effects. “The more you have invested in your religion, the more you will be motivated to protect that investment” (Breaking the Spell, 195). To assure faithfulness, and to keep out the pretenders, religions have high entry and exit costs. Like a virus, a religion can shed the antibodies of skepticism. Dennett says the moderates of any religion are being used by the extremists as a cloak of respectability (page 300). When Christians are quietly shocked by the deeds of Christian extremists, “expressions of dismay to close friends are not enough” (page 301).

The statement that “God exists,” says Dennett, is not even a theory, since God cannot be defined.

What should we teach about religion? Should we teach atheism? Dennett is one of the most famous atheists in the world, so you probably think you know the answer. You probably think he believes we should teach atheism. But his answer is that we should not teach atheism as truth. He says, Let’s have more religion rather than less religion taught in classes, and cover all religions, the positives and negatives of each. Let us reasonably choose our religion, or our lack of it, and give our students and readers the information they need to make a reasonable choice.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Thoughts on Darwin's Dangerous Idea and other books by Daniel Dennett, part 1

I recently skimmed through Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. It is a huge book and I would have had to devote a significant chunk of my life to read and understand it. But I did get a few ideas from it that I will pass on to you now.


One of the really significant things about evolutionary science—indeed, about any science—is that it does not matter who makes the discoveries. Dennett said that Darwin was the midwife of an idea. Without Darwin, somebody else would have discovered evolution (actually, somebody else did right about the same time: Alfred Russel Wallace.) Without Newton, somebody else would have discovered the laws of motion, optics, etc. Without Einstein, somebody else would have discovered relativity. This is the reason that we scientists are so forthright in proclaiming our messages as truth: If we are wrong, our error will be revealed. History is full of scientific blunders, but scientists don’t care. We sort of expect them.

In contrast, artistic creations would never have happened without their creators. There would have been no Gran Partita without Mozart. The same is true of religion: There would have been no Islam without Mohammed, for example. The credibility of a piece of art or of religion depends on its creator. That is why if somebody finds an error in evolution, we’ll just fix it, but if someone claims to find an error in the Bible or the Koran, watch out!

Also, Dennett wrote extensively of the evolution of memes. Memes are concepts that can replicate, for example ideas in the minds of people. They spread by a process very similar to natural selection in organisms. There are some differences, however. The evolution of memes does not depend on random mutation, as does the evolution of genes. Humans invent new memes. However, both genetic and memetic evolution involve transmission of information with modification.

Another interesting similarity between genes and memes: Memes disable anything that hinders their spread. The ultimate example is conspiracy theory memes, which claim, well, you wouldn’t expect to find any evidence for the conspiracy, because that’s what makes it an effective conspiracy. In this way, the conspiracy-theory meme disables any conceivable evidence against it. A current example is that Donald Trump claims massive voter fraud; there is no evidence for it, but that just shows what a massive fraud it was.

In addition, there is frequency-dependent selection on memes. In a population of genes, a rare gene might be favored by selection. The same thing happens with memes: the faith meme stands out in a society without faith, but in an environment of faith, it blends in.

And there’s more. A meme or idea can evolve as it does because it is advantageous to itself. An example is the meme that smoking cigarettes is cool. How could such a meme become popular? Who benefits? The tobacco corporations, of course. If an idea spreads, Dennett says, instead of an epidemic it can become an epimemic. Sometimes things can go far enough that people lose their biological fitness for a belief. In such a case, the memes are reproducing.

One of Dennett’s main objectives was to show that memes can evolve just like genes. He said we (humans) are the planet’s nervous system, and science is the new sense organs of the planet.

The foregoing makes it very clear that science is not just another way of thinking, equally admissible among all other ways of thinking.

I will leave you with a jolting thought from Dennett. “In the next century it will be our memes, both toxic and tonic, that will wreak havoc on the unprepared world.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Human Side of Science: Watson's The Double Helix

When first published in 1968, James Watson’s The Double Helix received extensive praise and comments. The only contribution that this current essay has to add to the discussion is what a biologist, me, thinks about it 52 years later. It is the autobiographical story of how Watson and his friend Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA. Before this discovery, it was possible for biologists to think that DNA was not what genes are made of. After the discovery, it became obvious how DNA could contain, and transmit, genetic information. Francis Crick was not exaggerating very far when he said that they had discovered the secret of life.


When it was published, this book was a best-seller. Today, no editor or agent would touch a book for the popular market that contained the word pyrimidine. At the time, Watson was hailed as a hero, and he, along with Francis Crick and others, received the Nobel Prize for this discovery. He was a young American scientist working in England. Today, the general public has largely forgotten Watson, in retirement at age 92, especially after he made comments that were interpreted to mean that some ethnic groups were genetically superior to others. The truth, not surprisingly, is in between these extremes. He deserved his acclaim, although he was and is a flawed hero.

The main cause of his book’s success was that readers in general were surprised that scientists are regular people who have motivations in their day-to-day lives that are like anyone else’s. They get up and go to work, and some days are better than others. Some days are filled with elation, others gloom, most in between. The way scientists evaluate their colleagues is, as for everyone else, based partly on merit and partly on personal likes and dislikes. For example, Watson said that British scientists looked down on him as an uncultured American with unkempt hair.

Watson also felt antagonism toward one of the few women scientists, Rosalind Franklin (“Rosy”), because she seemed to him temperamental. He and other scientists built their schedules around not having to share a cab ride with Rosy, which took some effort since younger scientists at the time earned so little money they could not afford a car or even a single-person cab fare across town. At one point, in Watson’s recounting of events, a fistfight nearly broke out with Rosy. Shocked by Rosy’s untimely death, Watson re-evaluated his view of her, and concluded in the epilogue that Rosy was honest and generous, and before her death all hostility and bickering between them had been forgotten. I wonder if Rosy thought so. Watson was dismissive of women in general; he thought many of them were pretty (especially French exchange students) but, speaking of Crick’s wife Odile, he said that any idea of putting science into Odile’s head went against her convent upbringing. Even today, women scientists encounter a little bit of perhaps subconscious “Don’t bother your pretty head with this stuff” from male colleagues. Watson had a little, maybe more than a little, of this prejudice, which was common at the time the book was written.

The general public thought, and perhaps still thinks, that we scientists advance our understanding of the world in a step by step and entirely logical fashion. This is partly the fault of us scientists: we present “the scientific method” as something that an unemotional computer could do. This myth of science has been recently exploded by two books: my Scientifically Thinking [https://www.amazon.com/Scientifically-Thinking-Liberate-Problems-Embrace/dp/1633884708] and James Zimring’s What Science Is and How It Really Works. But in reality scientists have lurches forward and backward in our understanding, and a seemingly trivial event can open the door to understanding.

Watson struggled mightily to force the data to fit ideas that turned out to be totally wrong. The first was that DNA was a triple helix, not a double helix. The next was that the strands were held together by magnesium ions. It was Rosy who pointed out his error to him: water would just wash away the magnesium. The next was that the bases met in the middle of a double helix, but they were the same bases: A opposite A, T opposite T, etc. He got very enthusiastic about his ideas which quickly crashed. He told his colleagues all about the triple helix, but was quickly proved to be wrong, a very public humiliation; and as for his same-base pairing, he wrote a letter to the most famous chemist in the world, Linus Pauling, twelve hours after thinking of it, and within 24 more hours he knew it was wrong. The idea for complementary base pairing, rather than same-base pairing (the now famous A opposite T and C opposite G), came to him when he was fiddling around with cardboard models of the bases on what had promised to be yet another ordinary day.

Scientists also confront prevailing political prejudices. Today, climate scientists face the unbridled hostility of political conservatives about global warming, and even medical scientists are told to shut up about insisting on Covid masks. Back in the 1950s, the most famous chemist in the world, Linus Pauling, could not get a passport to England because Sen. Joseph McCarthy considered Pauling a communist, because Pauling called for world peace rather than a nuclear arms race.

Science also has its own internal esthetics. Once Watson and Crick figured out the double helix structure with complementary bases in the middle, it not only explained all the known facts (such as Chargaff’s rule and X-ray diffractions) but he felt that “…a structure this pretty just had to exist.” Apparently even Rosy agreed, which, he implied, she seldom did. As shown in this image, Rosy’s careful work with X-ray diffractions was a major step in understanding the structure of DNA.


Most younger people today, even science majors, may never have heard of Watson. They may not know that there was ever a time when the structure of DNA was not known. The Double Helix gives us a glimpse back into a world that was eager to know the secret of life, and into a life that exemplified the episodic nature of science.