Thursday, October 4, 2012

Lineages and Stuff!

I started writing another chapter in Tooth and Claw, after tacking on another half-page to the last chapter which didn't quite feel finished, but I got distracted.  Distracted by what?  Well, a few things.  There was this comment thread over on Daylight Atheism, and there was a Facebook conversation that I got tied up in, and another Facebook conversation that resulted in an email.

For those who might be wondering, I follow the "Can I Punch You in the Face?" rule for Facebook.  This rule follows the question, "Have I ever had the opportunity to punch you in the face?"  If so, we can be friends on Facebook.  If not, we cannot be friends on Facebook.  If I've been able to punch you in the face, and wanted to friend you on Facebook, I would have done so by now.  Double-promise.  :)


The tying-up-Facebook conversation was with a Libertarian friend of mine, and he's kind of an asshole, so I'm not gonna bother with that.  But I have hope for him, because he is ruthlessly logical!  (And yet I despair, because his fundamental premises are so flawed!)

The e-mail conversation ended up being to one Doctor Dick Dawkins (the triple D sounds so much better, doesn't it?), and I'll just post it here in its entirety, because I should be getting to bed soon and... well, really, I've grown into a responsible adult and so that's reason enough.  Right?

Dear Dr. Dawkins,
I suppose I should explain why this an interview first (I sent this to his "media request" e-mail, regarding "interviews and media appearances," thinking that I might be able to file this under an "interview." - D).  I have a blog, She Who Chatters, where I talk about all sorts of interesting things.  I'd like to talk to you about biology for a little bit, if that's OK.  I don't really have "credentials" aside from my own writing, so you could check out the "First time here?" posts in my sidebar to get a feel for my blog.  Or, if you only have time to read one post, I blogged my Cognitive Science final (on the nature of consciousness), which ends with an allusion to your own theory of self-awareness as laid out in The Extended Phenotype.  And if a six-page final is still too much, then here is a short excerpt that I think ought to sell you:

The reflexive mind arises from the body’s construction, but there is a feedback loop at work and so we may deliberate – and while the neural processes behind such deliberation may be hidden and weird and antecedent to our conscious afterthoughts, this does not change the fact that deliberation occurs in the first place.  And what is deliberation, if not the mind deciding how to control the body?  The question now is not whether we are top-down or bottom-up, but to what extent we are each. 
The ad hoc and convoluted construction of the mind can reveal its seams to the right probes, and thereby assist us in our analysis of it; but the story we find here is far from complete, and far from simple.  Indeed, to quibble over which is the “essential” feature of consciousness, or the “best” way of conceiving of the mind, is tantamount to arguing over what is the “true” length of a coastline.  The problem is that coastlines have interesting features at all levels of detail, and these change across all timescales.  There definitely is a coastline, there’s just no One True Privileged Way of measuring it.  Coastlines, like minds, are complicated – and to understand this complexity, it is necessary to be able to view it from many angles.  This robust understanding brings with it a multiplicity of perspectives, however, and which perspective is “best” in a given way will shift with context. 

I list these excerpts and other links because I'm currently in the process of writing a novel that deals quite heavily with vampires and werewolves and such, in a blatant attempt to do Stephenie Meyer one better, and the best way to combat ideas is with better ideas.  Even if I hate her.  So my latest few posts aren't exactly the kind of thing by which you should judge my blog as a whole.

Anyway.  :)

A Facebook friend of mine recently shared a quote from David Mills' Atheist Universe, to wit:  .
‎"Looking back over Earth's geological history, over 99 percent of all animal species have failed to adapt successfully to their environments and have therefore fallen victim to extinction. If creationists want to believe that all lifeforms were carefully and purposefully designed by a Creator, then they must accept the Creator's abysmal 99 percent failure rate."
I've read this book.  I own this book.  In fact, I lent this book to my friend.  Nevertheless, it got me to thinking, "Maybe species extinction isn't the best gauge of failure?"  So I responded:
On reflection, I think there ought to be new numbers crunched on this. Think about it: sure, 99% of SPECIES have gone extinct - but how many LINEAGES have actually dead-ended? If you start from "the first replicator," the answer is plainly zero, since the first replicator survives in all its offspring (i.e. "every living thing today"). If you zoom in too far, every individual who fails to reproduce could be considered a "failed lineage." But chickens, for example, aren't a "new" species so much as they're a (so far) highly-successful adaptation of an old species (some manner of dinosaur [which are all some manner of antecedent reptile, which are all some manner of antecedent amphibian/fish/and so on]). I wonder how many species (which is an admittedly fuzzy term) have dead-ended?
I don't think any of my personal friends would have an answer to this question.  I thought about who would be the best person to ask, and your name jumped up in my mind.  I'm honestly interested in an in-depth answer to this question:  how could we go about measuring "lineage extinction," since the tree of life is fundamentally one tree, after all, and the extant branches have only failed to end so far; and what would it look like if we could do so?  I mean, sure, many extinct species "only" survive through a bottleneck; but those species are responsible for producing the bottleneck that survived to the next one, and on and on to the present day.  I don't expect a concrete answer, but I would really like it if you could riff on the topic for a little bit.  Like The Ancestor's Tale, except forward-looking, so maybe "The Descendant's Tale".

And blah blah blah.  I wrote a little bit more, two paragraphs mainly hedging my request and offering halfway points between e-mail one-shot response and full-on meat-space interview.  Also, can't do it on Halloween on account of I'm taking my sister CJ trick-or-treating.  But yeah.  That's that.  Wish me luck!


Zach L said...

Good luck! I feel this is a well-worded request, which can't hurt! It all relies on his magnanimity and free time.

D said...

Well, thanks! :) We'll see how it goes, though.

D said...

(Captcha was "Yectice 25". I have NO IDEA what that means.)