Seeing evolution in action

Peter and Rosemary GrantThe pop-science notion is that evolution takes a long time. Millennia, many millennia; even millions of years. But is that always true? Can one actually see and measure evolution in action? Can it happen in such a short time as to be recorded?

Peter and Rosemary Grant say they have. And it’s the subject of a new book they co-authored based on their research.

Their story was reported in the April 23 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s a terrific read if for nothing more than their 40-year tale of dedication, science and adventure on the isolated Daphne Major Island, one of the smaller islands of the Galapagos chain.

Forty years studying finches together, away from human company, away from the comforts of civilization. The small birds that first gave Charles Darwin insight into the mechanics of natural selection were their focus. And the Grants report they have seen that mechanism in action on the island.

Scientists previously had reported seeing the processes of natural selection among bacteria, honeycreepers, cichlid fish, and fruit flies. As Peter Grant puts it, “Until we began, it was well understood that agricultural pests and bacteria could evolve rapidly, but I doubt that many people thought that about big, vertebrate animals.”

The Grants believe that hybridization is an important force in the rise of new species, and think this applies, too, to human evolution. For a long time, for example, paleontologists believed that Neanderthals and “modern homo sapiens” did not interbreed when they came into contact in prehistoric times, but recent research indicates that about 20 percent of Neanderthal genes have been preserved in our species. “It’s almost been a hobbyhorse of ours,” Peter says. “We were saying, ‘I bet there has been gene exchange between the lineages of homo sapiens throughout their evolution.’”

The Grants’ new book is targeted at both lay readers and scientists familiar with their work, and broadly discusses their findings about natural selection, hybridization, population variation (why do some populations of birds vary more dramatically in beak size?), the potential vanishing of a species through interbreeding, and, of course, the potential origin of a new species — the Big Bird lineage. They also touch on global warming and its possible effect on Darwin’s finches. Most of all, the book is an affirmation of the importance of long-term fieldwork as a way of capturing the true dynamism of evolution.

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Just Six Songs?

The World in Six SongsAuthor, musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says all music can be classified into a mere six types of song. That’s part of the premise in his 2009 book, The World in Six Songs. I recently started reading it and it has opened some interesting areas of thought for me.*

A mere six fundamental themes in song, Levitin writes: friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love. And he provides a chapter for each in what is a literary combination of sciences, music, social commentary, cultural anthropology and personal reminiscence. And he offers a lot of conjecture that, while not necessarily provable, is always entertaining and thought-provoking.

That reductionism seems like a challenge to the reader. My first thought was, are these six discrete or can songs overlap and share categories? What about music without lyrics? Soundtracks? Where do they fit? What about non-western music? What about satire and comedy songs? Storytelling songs? Songs of mourning and lament? What about Gilbert and Sullivan?

What about Bob Dylan? I listen to and play a lot of Dylan’s music and there are some songs that I have never been able to classify or explain, even after decades of familiarity with them. Where do you put a song like Stuck Inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again? or All The Tired Horses? The Gates of Eden?

Or Bach’s Goldberg Variations? The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1? Leo Kottke doing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring on slide guitar? John Fahey’s The Yellow Princess?  Puccini’s Un bel di vedremo from Madame Butterfly? How can a song in a different language you don’t understand move a listener to weep openly? It’s not simply the lyrics. Music reaches inside us in ways we really don’t understand.

And, of course, I immediately came up with my own mental list of songs and tried to fit them into Levitin’s boxes, often without finding a comfortable fit. But that’s part of the fun. Willie the Pimp? the Velvet Underground’s The Gift? The WCPAEB’;s Watch Yourself? Too many to list that don’t fit (as I read it) into comfortable categories.

What about Honshirabe? It’s the classic Zen piece for solo shakuhachi; a stunningly beautiful, haunting piece that speaks volumes to the listener about Japanese culture without lyrics. It is powerful enough to stop me in my tracks and force me to sy stand still and listen, and can easily move me to tears. Where does that fit in the six songs?

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Pseudo-patriotic madness

FluffernutterThis is news, right from the CBC, not April Fool or The Onion:

The Massachusetts House of Representatives has finally granted initial approval to a Bill naming the Fluffernutter the official state sandwich. The bill was filed in 2006 by then Representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein, in response to a motion by State Senator Jarrett Barrios limiting school Fluff servings to once a week. She thought that motion was, ‘nuts’.
The Fluffernutter is a peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff combination and has been a staple in Massachusetts diets for generations.

Okay, for anyone with any shred of common sense left, that isn’t news. It’s insanity. Sheer, unbridled, unrepentant nuttiness. It’s crazier than a bagful of bloggers. And why is the media even giving this “serious” coverage instead of railing on about the uselessness of these addle-brained state politicians?

An official “state sandwich?” One that, by the way, has its own song

Oh you need fluff, fluff, fluff
To make a fluffernutter
Marshmallow fluff
And lots of peanut butter…

What next? An official state salad dressing? State muffin? State flatbread? State sushi roll? Does a state need an official everything? Apparently so. That simply takes patriotism into the realm of insanity. I can hardly wait for the debate of the official state vacuum cleaner bag…

Not to mention the incredibly stupid mixture of junk food a fluffernutter represents – plus a name that just begs to be lampooned.

Fluffernutter? Sounds like a porn-movie extra. You can expect the jokes to make the social media rounds any time now. And the angry rants about politicians blind to issues of obesity and health.

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Me, Myself and I

T-shirtAt council meetings across the province, you will hear someone say “Moved by myself…” when presenting a motion at the table.

To me it’s like nails on a blackboard. The grammatically correct way to present a motion is, of course, to say, “Moved by me…” So why the mistake?

Common misunderstanding and discomfort, it appears, according to the grammar sites I read today.

People often (and incorrectly) think “me” is incorrect or even coarse (well, it is when you say something like “Me and my friends are going dancing” of “I got me a pickup truck…”).

That unnecessary caution is why some people will say things like “It is I” or “It’s for my wife and I” when they really should say “It is me” and “It’s for my wife and me.” And say “between you and I…” when they mean “between you and me…”

“I” is the subjective pronoun, not the objective one. That’s “me.”

So what about myself? That’s called a reflexive pronoun and to be used properly, it needs a reference back to the speaker (reflect = reflexive) – i.e. a use of the subjective pronoun.

For example, when someone says “I made it myself”  they are being grammatically correct. “Myself” reflects back to the subject, “I.” When they say “It was made by myself” they are incorrect and should say “It was made by me.” Same with “Please contact me” – correct. “Please contact myself” – incorrect. Why? because in these two sentences, “myself” has nothing to reflect.

Reflexive pronouns are always the object of a sentence, never the subject. So “Bill and I played ukulele last night” is correct. “Bill and myself played ukulele…” isn’t because “myself” cannot act as a subject. Just like you would never say “Bill and me played ukulele…” or use the pronoun by itself: “Myself played the ukulele…”

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Manners, bloody manners

Calvin & HobbesI was in a local grocery store not long ago, standing mid-aisle and peering at shelves of canned products, trying to find the ones I wanted for my cart. As I reached out to snag a can in front of me, a cart appeared between me and the display. To my right, a woman – talking on a cell phone – had pushed the cart in front of me and turned away. She was now busily chattering rather loudly to someone while she absently looked over a shelf in another area.

She was completely oblivious of other shoppers. Never looked over to see where her cart had landed.

No concern, no social awareness. No manners.

Manners are an expression of social awareness, of your role in the community, in the social whole. They are not some outdated, outmoded or arcane form of behaviour. No more than being aware of – and responding or reacting to – other drivers on a highway is outmoded. Manners are a form of social consciousness, of awareness that we live in a shared space. Awareness that others matter.

Manners are also a choice. We hope the behaviour that they manifest will become automatic, like saying please and thank you, or excuse me when interrupting. But manners are foremost a choice we make on how to behave: socially or anti-socially.

Etiquette is the various forms and actions we use to express manners. Etiquette is opening the door for someone; letting someone back out of a parking space in front of you. Etiquette changes with technology, age, class, culture and context. Doffing one’s cap or tugging the forelock have gone out of style, because etiquette is fluid. But making a gesture of respect or support for another has not gone out of style, nor ever will.

Etiquette is saying thank you when handed your order in the coffee shop. Manners is knowing that social interaction depends on recognizing that such interactions deserve recognition. And knowing such recognition is the glue for societies.

Manners is knowing we need to interact on a positive level; we need to recognize one another, to survive and grow together.

How you do so is less important than actually knowing that you should do so, and following through.

As Wisegeek defines them:

Manners involve general behavioral guidelines, such as treating the elderly with respect and courtesy. Etiquette is a specific code of behavior, with an example of etiquette being knowledge of the proper mode of address for a queen, which is, incidentally “Your Majesty.” In some societies, people regard etiquette as elitist and unnecessarily refined, but this is actually not the case. Many of the rules of etiquette are already practiced by people with good manners, and a demonstration of familiarity with good manners will mark someone as cultured, polite company.

Lynne Truss, author of Talk to the Hand, wrote on her blog,

I’d also written talks about the burden of choice and the pernicious effect of the internet on the way people think of themselves in relation to “society”… Talk to the Hand is emphatically not about an us-and-them situation, or not straightforwardly. It’s about us all not knowing any more how to share space with each other, or treat each other respectfully.

The full title of Truss’ book is, Talk to the Hand – The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life (or six good reasons to stay at home and bolt the door.)* A reviewer in The Independent wrote,

Truss’s conclusion – and she apologises for the lack of surprises – is that good, imaginative, well-mannered behaviour makes the world a better place.

In which I also firmly believe. By better I don’t mean some utopian ideal; just that manners lubricate the social interactions in a way that makes them smoother, generate less friction. Manners are essential for civilized society.

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The difficult art of reading poetry

Metonymy cartonSynecdoche. Metonymy. Not exactly words that trip lightly off the tongue. Unless, I suppose, you’re Harold Bloom. Those are two of the four fundamental tropes in literature, Bloom tells us. Identified originally by Kenneth Burke, who, as Bloom calls him, was a “profound student of rhetoric.”

Bloom references Burke in his introduction to The Best Poems of the English Language (Harper Collins, 2004), which he both edited and selected. I’ll get back to that book, in a separate post, and discuss whether they are actually the “best” or in fact whether anyone can make such a claim for another reader.

What I was looking for was how others – scholars and writers in particular – define what is good, moving or important in poetry. Like most art, we believe know what’s good when we see/hear/experience it. But that’s just a personal, subjective and very ambiguous definition. What are the underlying structures, the rules, the guides to look for?

Think about pop music and the cycle of popularity: you first hear a song and love it. Just fall all over it. Can’t get enough. Have to listen to it over and over. And then one day you can’t stand it. You are weary of turning on the radio and hearing it played over and over and over. What changed? Not the music, not the lyrics. What changed is your perception of it.

Of course, pop music, with its predictable cycle from introduction to over-play and its commercial exploitation driven by corporate financial goals well outside aesthetic ones, may not be the best model in which to frame an artistic discussion.

What are the standards for art, for music and – what I was particularly looking into: poetry – that stand above and outside personal perspective? Finding those requires me to look more deeply into the nature and structure of poetry; the vertebrae that give a poem its posture. So I started with Bloom. Who in turn starts with Burke.

Burke’s essay on tropes was published in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, Autumn, 1941 (available to read on Jstor) and in his book, A Grammar of Motives (1945). It’s a might dry.

The other two tropes he says are irony and metaphor. Burke himself wrote,

For metaphor, we could substitute perspective;
For metonymy we could substitute reduction;
For synechdoche we could substitute representation;
For irony we could substitute dialectic.

See? Doesn’t that make it clearer?*

Burke wrote that his primary concern with these master tropes is “not with their purely figurative usage, but with their role in the discovery and description of ‘the truth.'” By which I gather he’s also trying to define those same, steadfast rules and standards. Burke’s tropes seem the cornerstone for an entire literary debate, so I will have to keep them in mind as I progress. But Bloom is all over the figurative aspect of poetry.

Apparently I have also to learn a new glossary like this one, before I progress into the next Circle of this Dantean labyrinth. And here’s another. Personally I look forward to the day when I can confidently use words like zeugma, erotema, meiosis and prosopopoeia in everyday conversation.**

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