June 29, 2008


The theory of evolution is the hypothesis that all life on earth originated from a single source via genetic mutation and natural selection of beneficial mutations. Ever since Charles Darwin first proposed the idea of evolution in mid-19th century, a growing body of evidence is emerging to support it. One of the reasons evolution is difficult to study in laboratory is the large time frames that are involved. Modern human beings first appeared around 200,000 years ago, while the family containing humans and great apes has been evolving over millions of years.

This difficulty, however, can be overcome by studying the evolution of micro-level organisms under specifically designed conditions in a laboratory. The tiny size of these organisms and the quickness with which they reproduce make the study of evolution accessible. Also, the development of DNA sequencing techniques allows the scientists to study the genetic modifications behind the evolutionary changes they observe. A new class of evidence for the theory of evolution is being established using these methods.

One of the pioneers has been Dr Richard Lenski. He, along with his associates, is conducting a 20 year experiment using the E.coli bacteria. He started with a single E.coli and began to observe its behavior under adverse conditions. After hundreds of generations, he saw that they began to reproduce more efficiently, meaning that they adopted to the new conditions. He also observed that, after about 33,000 generations, the bacteria exhibited a behavior trait (feeding on citrate) that is absent among E.coli in natural conditions. This trait developed solely due to its advantage in the circumstances created by Dr Lenski. A very accessible summary of Dr Lenski's research is here.

Finally, here is an interesting exchange between Dr Lenski and Andrew Schlafly. It tells you a little about the ridiculousness of the quack intelligent design movement which is just creationism, in a harmful disguise.

June 27, 2008

Religion in America.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This was the text of the first amendment to the constitution of the United States, enacted in 1791. This was one of the most remarkable events in history. All over the world at that time, religion served as the sole source of morality and was taken to be the only legitimate foundation for a civilized society. In such circumstances, for a country to codify the above principle as a constitutional backbone was unbelievable, to say the least.

The founding fathers came from different shades of the religious spectrum. There were non-religious people (Jefferson) as well as moderately pious (Washington, Adams, Hamilton and Madison). But one thing they all agreed on was the essential requirement of a republic: irreligiosity of the state.

This wisdom of two centuries ago is now in short supply. At least, that is the impression one gets from the current politics of the US. There was always a thought, usually on the fringes, in the American society which did not accept that a rigorous foundation of a civilized society can be nonreligious. This thought appears to be becoming mainstream. It reached a high in the current administration.

These trends are analyzed in this article of Steven Pinker. The specific subject of the article is a report released by the President's Council on Bioethics. This council was "charged with advising the president and exploring policy issues related to the ethics of biomedical innovation, including drugs that would enhance cognition, genetic manipulation of animals or humans, therapies that could extend the lifespan, and embryonic stem cells and so-called 'therapeutic cloning' that could furnish replacements for diseased tissue and organs". The council's 555-page report introduced a narrow religious angle into these issues and elevated a vaguely defined concept of "human dignity" as a litmus test for deciding on them. Needless to say, many of the conclusions fit the agenda of the religious wing of the Republican party. The article reveals the close ties between Bush administration and the intellectuals behind the report.

This is, of course, one of many disquieting aspects of George Bush's presidency. There are some welcome indications that the sway of the religious right on GOP is on the decline. However, the question remains:

How did the United States, the world's scientific powerhouse, reach a point at which it grapples with the ethical challenges of twenty-first-century biomedicine using Bible stories, Catholic doctrine, and woolly rabbinical allegory?

June 24, 2008

Words are also deeds.

One of the key aspects of Obama which draw me toward to him is his ability to give inspiring speeches. It is not only the way he talks - it is also what he says. I find again and again that his speeches are intelligent and beautiful. His various primary victory speeches and especially his speech in Pennsylvania on race are absolute gems. I rooted for him in the primaries partly because I am excited to hear him speak at the convention in August. I am rooting for him in the general election partly because I would like to hear him giving important speeches in the next few years.

It is easy to dismiss his speeches as mere words and skillful rhetoric that have nothing to do with substantive issues. But as with many easy conclusions, it is incorrect. The style of his speaking does convey something about his substance.

This is precisely the gist of this wonderful article in New York magazine by Sam Anderson. He looks forward to the coming speech of Obama in Denver and analyzes what Obama's speeches tell about him.

June 18, 2008

Supreme Court.

Men of judiciary, John Adams once wrote, should be "men of experience on the laws, of exemplary morals, invincible patience, unruffled calmness, and indefatigable application". His opinion counts because, as the author of the constitution of Massachusetts, oldest functioning in the world, he initiated many of the codes regarding judiciary that were later incorporated into the United States constitution. Prominent among these were appointment of judges by the executive (as opposed to election) and life-term appointments.

There is no reason to suppose that the present judges on the high court fall short of the demands of Adams. Their ideological differences and narrow decisions on crucial issues notwithstanding. This is really the riddle of Supreme Court.

In a significant decision last week, in Boumedience V Bush (pdf), the Supreme Court opined that foreign nationals held on terrorism charges have constitutional right to challenge their detention in US courts. This is a rebuke to the philosophy of the Bush administration and some recent decisions of the Congress granting the administration rights to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely with minimal scope for any legal recourse.

The 5-4 decision neatly broke along the ideological lines, with Justice Anthony Kennedy casting the decisive vote for the majority. The reaction too was largely on the ideological lines with the Bush administration and the Republican party disapproving and the Democrats praising it.

Barack Obama welcomed the decision. John McCain criticized the decision, ridiculously calling it one of the worst decision ever by the Supreme Court. He also made the dubious assertion that the constitutional rights do not apply to foreigners held by US.

It seems unlikely that there will be a resolution of these weighty matters anytime soon. The law of the land, as set forth by the interpretation of constitution by the Supreme Court, will swing one way or the other as the political power in this country changes hands. Issues will continue to be determined essentially through the rough and tumble of the democratic process.

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