Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin.

Why Darwin?

Pterocnemia pennata (Original description: Rhe...
Pterocnemia pennata (Original description: Rhea darwinii) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stephen Jay Gould

April 4, 1996 Issue

Charles Darwin: Voyaging

by Janet Browne

Knopf, 605 pp., $35.00


Most young men of the time could only fantasize, but Charles Darwin experienced the overt drama of his century’s archetypal episode in the personal story we now call “coming of age”: a five-year voyage of pure adventure (and much science) circumnavigating the globe on H.M.S. Beagle. Returning to England at age twenty-seven, Darwin became a homebody and never again left his native land, not even to cross the English Channel. Nonetheless, his subsequent life included two internal dramas for more intense, far more portentous, and (for anyone who can move beyond the equation of swashbuckling with excitement) far more interesting than anything he had experienced as a world traveler: first, the intellectual drama of discovering both the factuality and mechanism of evolution; and second, the emotional drama of recognizing (and relishing) the revolutionary implications of evolution, while fearing the pain that revelation would impose upon both his immediate family and the surrounding society.

Read the review

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) at age 7. The paint...
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) at age 7. The painting is the earliest picture known, of Charles Darwin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


SS: “Letter from South America”

Dear Bob,
I recently had a short vacation by the ocean. We stayed in a gorgeous resort (see above); totally unaffordable for me;  except that my aunt lives there, and let us stay for tenth the price they actually charge guests. So nice!
But it was just a one-week long holiday. After the fourth day I started feeling some anxiety, even depression. Soon we were going to have to leave and go back to our routine; which I have to say is not bad at all, it is simply the routine.  I would think of some things we could do, like perhaps go walking the hills or visit a natural reserve. But there was noise in my head… it is almost over, you have just little time. The feeling of an imminent end seemed to paralyze me. I remember having a similar feeling on Sunday evenings when I was in college. At that time I would experience a feeling of void, forlornness. But why is it so? The time is there; the opportunity to do something is there. You would think that you must take advantage of every minute left. One could say that in the last hours one should be brave and formidable. And yet, sadness fills the heart. A former boss used to say one should live life like a soldier: just as if today was the last day of life. But if the soldier knew today was the day of his death, he might spend his day crying. He just does not know and expects many new days to come. He fights for his life!
I guess my ex-boss meant that knowing that your end is coming requires you to be the best you can. And yet, how can you be brave and outstanding when you are overcome by a feeling of emptiness? The end is a boundary. It is about leaving a familiar space. It is a flame dying away. I can’t think of action and progress but withering and falling. And what about using time wisely? A mother looks at her daughter sleeping eleven hours and spending a long time texting everyday and desperately begs her not to waste her time: this could be the last day of your life! The girl does not have forever. But even using time wisely requires the hope that we have forever. Without the motivation of a future to be lived how can one be active and productive? We always have this motivation because we have the belief (or the hope?) that we have forever. But we know we don’t have forever. The time to create a story is limited.
Everyday we lay a brick and everyday we expect to have one more chance at building. We might be able to finish or we might not, but we wish time be on our side. It is not that we should live like a soldier but that we live like a soldier: always hoping that today is not the last one. There is no way around it: the end is sad and the feeling can make us freeze. But is that really important? In the end, it is the end. It is short. It is a moment. There are many moments before that one; the moments of my life. They should matter more. I do not want to come to the end and regret, like in Jorge Luis Borges poem, not climbing more mountains, not being more relaxed, not traveling lightly, not changing routines. Fortunately I don’t have to regret not having been able to overcome the near-the-end anxiety feeling I told you about. I managed to go out and enjoy the last days of my vacation.
I got sick though. I got upset stomach from eating at a food place at some beach where there is no potable water or electricity. Food was delicious but boy was I sick!
Oh well, think of the poem…all is well.

Philosophy for teens


Here’s some good material online for high school age students who’d like to get more exposure to philosophy.

A few suggestions:

  • Wi-Phi: short, animated videos on a variety of philosophical topics.
  • Philosophy Talk: the radio program, listenable online, featuring Ken Taylor and John Perry with various guests
  • Puzzle Baron’s Logic Puzzles: “the world’s largest website dedicated to logic puzzles”
  • Hi-Phi Nation: the new podcast about philosophy that “turns stories into ideas”
  • A list of philosophy books that Daily Nous readers suggested for a high school library.


einstein-speaks-e1470989467186-150x101There have been many times in American history when celebrations of the country’s multi-ethnic, ever-changing demography served as powerful counterweights to narrow, exclusionary, nationalisms. In 1855, for example, the publication of Brooklyn native Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself offered a “passionate embrace of equality,” writes Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, “the soul of democracy.” We can contrast the vibrancy and dynamism of Whitman’s vision with the violent nativism of the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, who reached their peak in 1850. The movement was founded by two other New Yorkers, gang leader William “Bill the Butcher” Poole and writer Thomas R. Whitney, who asked in one of his political tracts, “What is equality but stagnation?” [Source: OPEN CULTURE]


Remember Alan Sokal?


Over twenty years ago postmodern academia was rocked by a hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal. On this Blog we have written about the hoax on several occasions. First, let me give you a flavour of the article that comprises the hoax:

Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity

There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in “eternal” physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the “objective” procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

In 1996, Alan Sokal, Professor of Physics at New York University, published, after being reviewed and accepted, a paper in the cultural-studies journal Social Text entitled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Sokal immediately confessed that the whole article was a hoax designed to expose and parody the style of extreme postmodernist criticism of science, and became front page news around the world, triggering a fierce and wide-ranging controversy.

It has been some years now since the amazing case of Alan Sokal and the pomo journal Social Text that published his “attack” on science and realism. Here is his description of the event: A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies … Continue reading →

In a three part essay Sokal asks “What is science and why should we care?”

Part I

Part II

Part III


And more.

And even more.

Steven Weinberg on Sokal’s Hoax.

A report from the New York Times in 1996.