Monday, September 26, 2016

Anne Briggs (BBC Radio Doco, September 2016)

The Voices of Annie Briggs

Folk singer and legendary walked-away-from-famer Anne Briggs, here mysteriously called Annie Briggs, in her own words. 

You may know her from such songs as Led Zeppelin's Black Mountainside. (It's a long story.)

Like some other folk singers - Donovan and Vashti Bunyan spring to mind - she moved away to live on the land, as if her tie to the rocks and streams of the British Isles was stronger than her tie to people and society. This has always intrigued me, this nationalism, not the Eng-er-land, Eng-er-land chanting football hooliganism nationalism, but this sense of springing from the soil rather than descending from the family. 

Not that I've ever spoken to any of them, and they probably spend their time on Facebook or filling in hire-purchase forms or dealing with flat tires like normal human beings. But they *sound* otherworldly, and Anne Briggs certainly talks a lot about streams and plants and birds in this little piece.

It's on iPlayer but seems to play ok in the US. It'll be rebroadcast on October 6th, but I don't know how long after that it will be archived.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ten Year Anniversary

This post marks the ten year anniversary of this blog.

When I started, in 2006, blogging was already past its peak, and social media was beginning to make inroads into society. As you can tell from the drastic fall-off in posting on this blog, it began to make inroads into my life as well.

I spend far longer each day on Facebook than is strictly healthy, and it gains me very little. I assume its addictiveness is carefully engineered into it. In terms of personal writing, it's worse than useless as each post there appears (or may not appear) on a friend's wall for a few minutes or hours, and then pretty much disappears. You have to take special measures to find a post you once liked. If you forget about it for an hour, it's buried under an avalanche of newness, many of which are memes, shares, and photographs of text. (The latter is a way to get around the lack of fonts, colors, italics, bold and strikethrough on Facebook; simply write it in Word, take a screenshot and post it as a picture.)

Facebook postings benefit Mr. Zuckerberg (and the missus and Little Zuckerberg) by providing content that keeps people coming back and reading ads and sponsored posts between the updates. The benefit to the individual is small, but obviously must be of some net positivity or we wouldn't keep doing it.  Blogspot and Wordpress missed the boat on that one - here we write what we like and it doesn't make a cent for the website owner. The downside being that, unless you are one of the blogosphere's superstars, no-one reads it, either.  This blog has sixteen followers, most of whom probably haven't checked their RSS Feeds (their what?) in five years. Quite a few people get here through a Google search for an interesting topic, but, as I have done thousands of times in the past myself, they read that article and move on, and have no intention of following or checking back in later. (Nor should they.)

But this is plainly the place to continue to write long-form essays and articles that stay visible, and searchable on the internet. More to come in the next ten years.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Mike Pence, would-be Vice President, and Evolution

I keep seeing this Patheos article come up in my feed, so here’s my thoughts on Vice President nominee Mike Pence’s speech to Congress regarding the origins of man. A video of his speech is at that link.

First, it’s only fair to Mike Pence to drag you back to 2002 when the news of the Toumai skull hit.  Paleoanthropologists are a singularly noisy bunch and the newspapers act like sugar-overdosed toddlers when it comes to human origins. Discovery after discovery is routinely touted as THE MOST AMAZING THING THAT HAS EVER BEEN DISCOVERED EVER.  The Toumai skull (Sahelanthropus) was one of those finds.  It was dated by looking at the features of the abundance of fossils with which it was found and was pronounced the oldest find on the direct line between ancient apes and humans. The original paper is as dry as a bone (no pun intended) but Nature ran articles with it that described it in the usual excitable terms.

Photo: Oryctes

Part of the scientific paper reads as follows:

“Sahelanthropus is the oldest and most primitive known member of the hominid clade, close to the divergence of hominids and chimpanzees. Further analysis will be necessary to make reliable inferences about the phylogenetic position of Sahelanthropus relative to known hominids. One possibility is that Sahelanthropus is a sister group of more recent hominids, including Ardipithecus. […]The discoveries of Sahelanthropus along with Ardipithecus 6, 7 and Orrorin 8 indicate that early hominids in the late Miocene were geographically more widespread than previously thought.”

Nature’s introductory blurb on the issue that contains the paper was not quite as reserved:

“… the new find will galvanize the field of human origins like no other in living memory — perhaps not since 1925, when Raymond Dart described the first 'ape-man',Australopithecus africanus, transforming our ideas about human origins forever. A lifetime later, Toumaï raises the stakes once again and the consequences cannot yet be guessed.”

Nature’s concurrent article on the find manages to introduce some confusing imagery that suggests Evolutionary Theory used to be ‘linear’ and ups the ante on the hyperbole:

“Toumaï is thought to be the oldest fossil from a member of the human family. It's a dispatch from the time when humans and chimpanzee were going their separate evolutionary ways. A thrilling, but confusing dispatch.
Sahelanthropus tchadensis - Toumaï's scientific name - was probably one of many similar species living in Africa at that time. "There must have been a group of apes knocking around between 5 and 8 million years ago for which there's a very poor fossil record," says anthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington DC.
Toumaï is the tip of that iceberg - one that could sink our current ideas about human evolution. "Anybody who thinks this isn't going to get more complex isn't learning from history," says Wood [an anthropologist Nature interviewed, not the finder of the fossil].
"When I went to medical school in 1963, human evolution looked like a ladder," he says. The ladder stepped from monkey to man through a progression of intermediates, each slightly less ape-like than the last.
Now human evolution looks like a bush. We have a menagerie of fossil hominids - the group containing everything thought more closely related to humans than chimps. How they are related to each other and which, if any of them, are human forebears is still debated.””

By the time all of this wawarara got to the newspapers, it was once again bigger than the biggest thing ever. So when Mike Pence, as a newish member of the House of Representatives, picks Toumai up as something worth proselytizing about to his insufficiently Creationist colleagues, it’s not as random an act as it might seem at first.

The rest of the story is less flattering to Mike Pence. First, he’s a Creationist, specifically of the Intelligent Design brand. That in itself is sufficient to make me hope he stays well away from the Executive Branch. I don’t mind creationists in their own houses, or their own churches, but when they get into government and start legislating what my body is and isn’t allowed to do (as Mike Pence already has), they can go pound sand. The Intelligent Design brand is the worst kind, as they have no intention of limiting their belief to the realm of faith, where it belongs, and insist it is a kind of science. It isn’t, unless ‘science’ means believing what you want and trying to find bits of evidence to support it, while discarding the mountains of evidence that refute it. (Hint: it doesn’t.)

Secondly, he’s not a very good creationist. His arguments are weak, misleading and incorrect in the details. Even if I shared his worldview, which I don’t, it would be wrong to support a half-baked thinker as the de facto president. (You know he would be; Trump would get bored with presidenting within a couple of months and leave it to him. He’s already said as much.)

Here’s a few of the problems with his impromptu Sermon on the Hill.

In 1859, a sincere biologist returned from the Galapagos
Islands and wrote a book entitled ``The Origins of Species,'' in which
Charles Darwin offered a theory of the origin of species which we have
come to know as evolution. 

No, Charles Darwin returned from the Galapagos in 1836 and wrote about the voyage shortly afterwards. He did not publish anything on evolution, or origin of species, until Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the same theory independently of Darwin, prompting the latter to publish The Origin (singular) Of Species in 1859. Pence is a lawyer and says he studies this sort of thing as his “avocation”. Eliding the facts makes him look sleazy and partisan.

Charles Darwin never thought of evolution as
anything other than a theory. He hoped that someday it would be proven
by the fossil record but did not live to see that, nor have we.

The last clause is just not true; there are mountains of fossils in the record and all of them support evolution. I think he’s confused the fossil record of the human line with the whole fossil record and thinks it’s fairly sparse - I'll touch on that later on. It’s not sparse, but abundant. Or maybe he just wanted to slip a lie into the speech and hope it went down unremarked upon.

In addition to the fossils, since Darwin’s time, thousands of researchers have studied the developmental and molecular biology of tens of thousands of organisms and everything so far supports the theory of evolution and nothing disproves it. There are, of course, always arguments about what something means and whether it’s been correctly characterized, but there is literally nothing where knowledgeable scientists have shaken their heads and thought, “That shouldn’t be here. It can’t be fitted in to Evolutionary Theory.”

At the same time, we have Pence misusing the word ‘theory’. As many other people have noted, ‘theory’ does not mean ‘a just-so story I thought up that seems about right’. Relativity isn’t anything other than a theory either. A theory, as used by scientists, is a statement, or a model, that explains the evidence gathered so far, makes predictions about what may be discovered in future, and has been tested and confirmed.

In 1925 in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, this theory made its way
through litigation into the classrooms of America, and we have all seen
the consequences over the last 77 years: evolution not taught as a
sincere theory of a biologist, but rather, Mr. Speaker, taught as fact.

This is not true. Or rather, it's a classic piece of obfuscation. Teaching evolution was against the law. Scopes taught the theory of evolution in a school. He was prosecuted and LOST. Teaching evolution remained illegal and it was not introduced until the 1960s. (The verdict against Scopes was later overturned on a technicality but the law stayed on the books.)

Also, something can be both a theory and a fact. Do teachers tell kids that Malaria is caused by bad air? Why not? The Germ Theory of Disease is just a sincere theory!

Note how the official record phrases it as, “the sincere theory of a biologist”. Pence actually appears to say “sincere theory of biologists” on the video, but officially it’s been recorded as a little dig at evolution, since it was apparently only sincerely believed by one man.

I’m not sure what the ominous “we have all seen the consequences” means. I assume it’s the noisy kids with the saggy pants and the hippy-hoppity music who should get off our lawns.

Unless anyone listening in would doubt that, we can all see in our
mind's eye that grade school classroom that we all grew up in with the
linear depiction of evolution just above the chalkboard. There is the
monkey crawling on the grass. There is the Neanderthal dragging his
knuckles and then there is Mel Gibson standing in all of his glory.
It is what we have been taught, that man proceeded and evolved along
linear lines. 

This is a clever move, drawing such a vivid picture of simplicity that we all begin to see it in our mind’s eye, and then – bait and switch – tell us that this is what we’ve been taught. For a second we believe it. Then I recall I’ve only ever seen that ape-to-caveman-to-nice-modern-white-man picture in cartoons that lampoon it. And I’m old.

But…it’s the sensationalist write-up in Nature that gave him the ammo to say this. Nature said, 
"When I went to medical school in 1963, human evolution looked like a ladder," [Wood, an anthropologist Nature talked to] says. “The ladder stepped from monkey to man through a progression of intermediates, each slightly less ape-like than the last.” 
Wood doesn’t actually mean the cartoon version, but you can step, uh, through a progression of intermediate simplifications and come up with the drivel Pence does without significantly twisting Wood’s words.

Wood’s next words are, remarkably, “Now human evolution looks like a bush”.

It’s looked like a bush for as long as I’ve been around, and that’s a fair amount of time. How often do you hear “the tree of life has many branches” or similar? Who knows why Wood (or the journalist) stressed this as a change in thinking. It doesn’t help.

Writers have often taken a leaf at the tip of the twig – let’s say a race horse - and traced it backwards down to the main branch - let’s say to Eohippus, the Dawn Horse - and written, ‘Little Eohippus is the ancestor of Seabiscuit’. It makes a good cartoon, and it’s a tidy story. There are plenty of other leaves and twigs, and this isn’t their story. Seabiscuit’s story doesn’t violate the principles of evolution but it does simplify it as linear. That’s because, if you first select the end point of your discussion, that makes each subsequent step after the origin look inevitable and pre-ordained. But Seabiscuit was not the only pinnacle of Eohippus’s journey. You could select a zebra’s twig as the end point and go back down to the Dawn Horse; you could select a quagga; you could select a Przewalski's horse. Eohippus would apparently lead inevitably to each of them. In other words, it looks like a bush, like the hominids.

But now comes a new find by paleontologists. In the
newspapers all across America, a new study in ``Nature'' magazine, 6-
to 7-million-year-old skull has been unearthed, the Toumai skull and it suggests that human evolution was actually, according to a new theory,
human evolution was taking place, and I am quoting now, ``all across
Africa and [on] the Earth,'' and the Earth was once truly, and I quote, ``a
planet of the apes on which nature was experimenting with many human-
like creatures.''

Pence isn't lying. He actually is quoting. But what is Pence quoting? The paleoanthropologist who found the skull? Nope. A prominent scientist? Nope. Well, then, that PR puff article in Nature quoting that guy Wood, surely? Nope. The quote is from the newspaper USA Today, which had pounced on the story in delight and introduced its own set of simplifications. Pence then deleted a word to make it appear that whoever he was quoting had said human evolution was taking place all across the Earth.

USA Today: “Paleontologists are hailing the discovery, reported in today's Nature, as the most significant in 75 years. The "Toumai" skull, found by a team led by Michel Brunet of the University of Poitiers in France is the oldest ever found and the first found outside of eastern or southern Africa. It suggests that human evolution was taking place all across Africa and that Earth once truly was a planet of the apes on which nature was experimenting with many humanlike creatures.”

“[A]ll across Africa” ends one thought. “[A]nd that Earth” begins another. It’s not same as the phrase “all across Africa and the Earth” describing a location.

USA Today’s wording was already simplified from what was said in Nature:
“On the bright side, Toumaï's discovery suggests that, even if they were rarely fossilized, ancient apes and hominids roamed right across Africa. "Finding hominids in the Sahara was a bit of a long shot," says Wood. “So far, most fossil hominids have turned up in the east, with a few further south.”
Back to Pence:
Paleontologists are excited about this, Mr. Speaker. But no one is
pointing out that the textbooks will need to be changed because the old
theory of evolution taught for 77 years in the classrooms of America as
fact is suddenly replaced by a new theory, or I hasten to add, I am
sure we will be told a new fact.

Here’s where we start to get into either massive confusion or perhaps just an attempt to massively confuse. He’s still insisting on this 77 years (1925, Scopes, to 2002, the date of the speech) even though we’ve seen that is not the correct start date. He’s missed out the part of the article that might have helped him suggest that the text books be changed. After his “linear lines” remark, he could have reinforced that he believed it to be “a new theory” with a mention of the bush-shaped thing replacing the Mel Gibson-topped evolutionary line-shaped thing. I don’t know why he didn’t, but it strikes me as poor debating technique.

The Theory of Evolution and the family tree of humanity are related, but not the same thing. One is a tiny story taking place in a giant, ancient world.  A young fossil of 7 million years or so is not going to make much difference to the theory of evolution, and the change in textbooks, if it was ever made, would be the addition of one line to note the older fossil in the record, of unknown significance. Pence’s confusion seems to go back to the introductory remark where he mentions The Origin of Species, which does not discuss mankind. The origins of man are discussed in a later book, The Descent of Man, 1871. It might explain why Pence thinks the fossil record can’t be used to prove evolution; he conflates the descent of man with the whole edifice of evolution. He may even have read this in yet another article in Nature at the same time:
“Ten million years ago, the world was full of apes; five million years ago, the first good records of hominids appear. Between these two benchmarks, the human lineage diverged from that leading to chimpanzees. And yet the entire record of human evolution in this interval is frustratingly sparse - a few fragments remain, all of which can be fitted into a shoebox.”
Fit in a shoebox. The fragments on the human line between ten million years ago and five million years ago. Not the whole human line; and certainly not the whole fossil record.

Adding another bone – which is of course a fact, not a theory; there isn’t much that’s more factual than a skull – to the shoebox doesn’t change the theory. It’s the same theory, with another fact added.

The truth is it always was a theory, Mr. Speaker. And now that we
have recognized evolution as a theory, 

No, Pence has declared it to be a theory, a word he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t get to declare something is something else by fiat and then a sentence later say, “now that we have recognized it as such….” That’s cheating.  It's the definition of the logical fallacy called "begging the question".

I would simply and humbly ask,
can we teach it as such and can we also consider teaching other
theories of the origin of species? Like the theory that was believed in
by every signer of the Declaration of Independence. 

This is the “two sides to every story” gambit. If the “theory” of evolution is taught, then the “theory” the Founding Fathers espoused must be taught. They deserve equal time. But do they? If we teach these two theories, then we should also teach the theory that man was licked out of the ice of nonexistence by the cow, Audhumla, or the theory that the white race was created by an evil scientist called Yakub, or the theory that Lord Vishnu told Brahma to create the world out of a Lotus flower, or….

This has all been through the courts, too. As a lawyer, Pence must know that. You can’t refight this one.

Every signer of the Declaration of Independence believed that men and women were created and were endowed by that same Creator with certain unalienable rights.
The Bible tells us that God created man in his own imagine, male and female. He created them. And I believe that, Mr. Speaker. I believe that God created the known universe, the Earth and everything in it, including man.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Scientologists believe that Xenu brought millions of cold-storage humans to Earth 75 million years ago and stacked them around volcanoes, which were then blown up, releasing Thetans. Does that make it a good “theory”?

And I also believe that someday scientists will come to see

i.e. One day you’ll all find out I was right!

that only the theory of intelligent design provides even a remotely rationale explanation for the known universe. 

Scientists aren’t going to suddenly decide Intelligent Design is a scientific theory, either. It doesn’t explain the known facts and doesn’t predict any new ones. It certainly isn’t falsifiable. All its meager arguments have other possible explanations that fit in with Evolutionary Theory.

All the facts are already on the ground. All Intelligent Design would do is postulate an intelligent designer who made every living thing in the whole world look as though it had been bred through descent with modification, i.e. evolution.

Then you’d have to explain both how the Intelligent Designer got here and why he designed everything to look as though it hadn’t been designed. 

Researching this affair taught me two things:
1. Someone who spends his time trying to prove God Did It instead of studying the world as it exists might be a fine monk, but is less likely to be a good lawmaker
2. Anthropologists (and scientists in general) should recognize that every time they pop up with a quote along the lines of “My paper changes everything and everybody who came before me was wrong!”, there are people listening who will use that phrasing as ammunition to bring down both the abject rivals AND the boasting scientists. Stick to the science and we’ll all be better off.


Yer Blues

The Smithsonian magazine has an article on The Blues.

“Some of these fans were musicians themselves, and they turned the stripped-down music into arena rock, complete with extended guitar solos. This raised new questions: When Led Zeppelin sings “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” or Jack White plays a resonator guitar, can it be called the blues?


As a Jack White superfan pointed out to me this morning, Jack White has only once been seen playing a resonator, and that was on a fan-only paid website. And Babe I’m Gonna Leave You isn’t a blues song. It doesn’t pretend to be a blues song, doesn’t sound like a blues song, and wasn’t written as a blues song. 

Hard to believe, but Led Zeppelin recorded it 48 years ago. If you take ‘pre-war’ as a blues landmark, it’s from much closer to 1940 than it is to the present day. Similarly, “When Led Zeppelin sings” is a daft statement, since they haven’t sung it since the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig in June 1969. And given all that, it’s a much older song still, first known to be performed by the folk singer Anne Bredon in the 1950s. She taught it to her friend Janet Smith, who continued to perform it at Hootenannies, until it was picked up by folkie Joan Baez and recorded in 1962. When introducing the song to singer Robert Plant, Jimmy Page only knew of Joan Baez's version, which at that time was credited to Trad. Arr. (traditional-arranged-by). He assumed it was traditional folk music and took credit for it. Bredon's writing credit was added to the Led Zeppelin track in the 80's. Since then, she’s received half the royalties for the song. 

There's no available recording of Anne Bredon, but Joan Baez’s version from 1964 is widely available. It’s folk music. Greenwich Village, Great Folk Scare folk music, as is Barbara Muller’s 1964 version from her album Double Premiere. There’s no it-sounds-Appalachian-we-could-assume-slaves-incorporated-it-into-their-field-hollers ambiguity about it; it’s an ordinary folk song that otherwise-normal New Yorkers sang. Led Zeppelin’s version is folk music, with added Spanish flamenco-style guitar and rasgueado-like flourishes. The odd version out is the you-could-call-it-R&B version by The Plebs from 1964, who also credited it as Trad. Arr. 

If you were going to pick an early Led Zeppelin song to point at and say “Is this really authentic blues music?” wouldn’t you pick Since I’ve Been Loving You? Or the us-versus-them (grinning)-in-your-face dirt of Bring It On Home? Or any of half a dozen other tracks? Personally, I wouldn't have picked Led Zeppelin at all. I would have picked a band that’s actually performed some music in the last thirty years. (O2 doesn’t count – not the original members.) 

The article reminds me of the one everyone was up in arms about yesterday. An Omni article promising ten under-rated Science Fiction authors we should look out for, it comprised ten of the most lauded, most well-known, most awarded and long-time-ago science fiction authors around. Journalists these days!
Led Zeppelin official video:


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