Occasionally I get emails from students about how they should go about becoming a biologist who studies evolution. As if I would know. But sometimes the blind seek guidance from the blind! The number one thing I tell them though is that you need mathematical and computational skills today. This is true to some extent even if you are going to be mostly a bench biologist. You don’t want to be the person who’s always relying on someone else for basic analysis. With that, let me note that my friend Vince Buffalo’s book, Bioinformatics Data Skills: Reproducible and Robust Research with Open Source Tools, is finally out, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wishes to bone up in this area. I’ve read a draft, and it’s definitely useful for any undergraduate or aspiring graduate student in getting you ahead of the curve if you haven’t already done work in this area. It will probably save you some time on Stackoverflow once you get there.
Speaking of friends, it looks like N of Everyone Kick Starter is going to hit its minimum threshold, and will get funded in their campaign. They’ve also now put a demo up of the Reader on their website. Check it out. You can get a flavor of the direction the firm wants to push scientific publishing. This space will get shaken up at some point, so it’s always useful to keep an eye on it.
I’m still slowly making my way through A New History of Western Philosophy. I do most of my reading on the Kindle. When I bought the book, and frankly when I started reading it, I did not understand that it was over 1,000 pages. Additionally, the author does not scrimp on detail. He engages in laborious exposition on items such as how Aristotle’s philosophical thoughts on motion were affected by the constraints of expression in the Greek language of particular concepts.
So why do I read this stuff? I’m a scientist (sort of). I come from a scientific background. From the first I assumed that I would pursue science in some way as an adult. Later on I branched out and explored history and geography. In all of these subjects older works are generally superseded or integrated. You don’t need to read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall to know the general outline of Roman history. Michael Grant’s more recent The History of Rome will do. Similarly, you don’t need to read The Origin of Species to understand evolution (though to be fair, I think in hindsight that it is valuable, after reading it a second time as an adult with a better understanding of evolutionary biology). Just get the Doug Futuyma text, Evolutionary Biology, if you want to be technical. Or, What Evolution Is from Ernst Mayr if your taste is more toward something palatable for the generalist audience. That will spare you Charles’ Darwin’s groping attempts at concocting a theory of inheritance.
Philosophy is different. When I encountered philosophy, and I was 20 by the time I seriously engaged the topic, I was shocked by the fact that there was a whole field where the ideas of men who lived over two thousand years ago were still relevant. Let me quote Machiavelli:
“At the threshold, I take off my work-day clothes, filled with dust and mud, and don royal and curial garments. Worthily dressed, I enter into the ancient courts of the men of antiquity, where, warmly received, I feed on that which is my only food and which was meant for me. I am not ashamed to speak with them and ask them the reasons of their actions, and they, because of their humanity, answer me. Four hours can pass, and I feel no weariness; my troubles forgotten, I neither fear poverty nor dread death. I give myself over entirely to them. And since Dante says that there can be no science without retaining what has been understood, I have noted down the chief things in their conversation.”
Many, such as Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, have wondered about our reliance on dead philosophers as authorities on the human condition. In The Blank Slate Jean-Jacques Rousseau is something of a villain. In agreement with Pinker I believe that most of Rousseau’s conjectures about human nature* have been roundly refuted. Additionally, attempts to construct social arrangements based on Rousseau’s understanding of human nature have failed, sometimes horribly so. More broadly, Pinker has offered that one reason that why the ancients are relevant in philosophy is that the discipline is characterized by the problems which are intractable. They are those domains which remain to philosophy as a discipline after science has carved out huge swaths of its traditional territory. I don’t deny the truth of much of what Pinker says, but when you read Aristotle and Xunzi’s political philosophy, it is hard to deny that their insights are far more relevant and useful than those of Plato or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And, like good music and art sometimes distance allows us to perceive better the wheat from the chaff. The philosophers who remain relevant and prominent from antiquity were often those of particular genius and creativity. And that is only evident with the passage of historical time.
Obviously I wasn’t anticipating how many comments my post on country rap would generate. I do want to enter into the record that if you use an ethnic slur like “cracker” I’m not going to post the comment. You can just send me an email. I don’t think these slurs are elevating for the conversation.
Finally, on that post, some people seem to think I was casting aspersions on lower class people. That was not my intention at all. Additionally, though I don’t interact with that sort of person much today, I did grow up with a lot of lower and lower middle class rural whites. I even spent time working on a mule farm owned by a friend’s mother. As they say, class isn’t about money. And the poor and working classes have their own folkways in any case. My point is that just because there are particular folkways that are common among a certain class, they don’t have to “own” those tendencies, and can try and transcend them. But we as a culture don’t really engage in this sort of aspiration toward a higher and ennobling state. This actually has its flip case in the flaunted debauchery of the likes of Paris Hilton, who rub in Middle America’s face their exemption from bourgeois norms due to their class status.
* The representation of his conjectures about human nature, for those who note that there is some revisionist work which argues he’s been misrepresented.