Radiolab: Escape!

I can’t say enough about this episode of Radiolab:

We kick things off with a true escape artist — a man who’s broken out of jail more times than anyone alive. We try to figure out why he keeps running… and whether he will ever stop. Then, the ingeniously simple question that led Isaac Newton to an enormous intellectual breakthrough: why doesn’t the moon fall out of the sky? In the wake of Newton’s new idea, we find ourselves in a strange space at the edge of the solar system, about to cross a boundary beyond which we know nothing. Finally, we hear the story of a blind kid who freed himself from an unhappy childhood by climbing into the telephone system, and bending it to his will.

Memorable subjects, great narrative chronologies within segments, sharp and clever sound editing, and (as always) an infectious inquisitiveness from each of the Radiolabers we hear throughout. Listen online or download the mp3 and add it to your device.


I hadn’t planned it, but I finished my first complete read-through of a single Darwin book just as he’s back in the news. Last fall, I posted about Adam Gopnik’s terrific essay on the man and his writings, which was in part a response to the beautifully packaged, heavy-as-hell collection From So Simple a Beginning. This bad boy rests with great pressure on the abdomen, as it holds all of Darwin’s four major works: The Voyage of the Beagle (1845), On the Origin of Species (1859), The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). My goal this year is to read the second and third, and, as of earlier this week, I’m halfway there.

First, a word from E.O. Wilson (interviewed here, in a fascinating Charlie Rose interview), who edited the book and provides an introduction:

The revolution in astronomy begun by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 proved that Earth is not the center of the universe, nor even the center of the solar system. The revolution begun by Darwin was even more humbling: it showed that humanity is not the center of creation, and not its purpose either. But in freeing our minds from our imagined demigod bondage, even at the price of humility, Darwin turned our attention to the astounding power of the natural creative process and the magnificence of its products.

I’ve written before about those books you read and then can’t imagine not having read, and Origin belongs in this camp. It’s certainly a feat of a book, and – I’m here to say – very readable for the non-scientist. Lots of things go through one’s mind reading this text: what a massive amount of information he’s handling, and with such skill; how curious he is, and how patient; how unboastful he is, as he notes our profound ignorance of certain matters and what should be our shared awe at what is coming into focus (“What can be more extraordinary than these well-ascertained facts?” he asks at one point, suggesting that it’s the facts that are extraordinary, not him); how careful he is with language; how willing he is to acknowledge the reader’s position in all this (“This may not be a cheering prospect,” he writes in the final chapter, with one of my very favorite lines); and, lastly, how brave.

On to a few quotes. In his own introduction to the book, Darwin wants the reader to know “I have not been hasty in coming to a decision,” which is certainly an understatement. He closes chapter one this way:

Over all these causes of Change I am convinced that the accumulative action of Selection, whether applied methodically and more quickly, or unconsciously and more slowly, but more efficiently, is by far the predominant Power.

Later, closing chapter five:

Whatever the cause may be of each slight difference in the offspring from their parents – and a cause for each must exist – it is the steady accumulation, through natural selection, of such differences, when beneficial to the individual, that gives rise to all the more important modifications of structure, by which the innumerable beings on the face of this earth are enabled to struggle with each other, and the best adapted to survive.


Man does not actually produce variability; he only unintentionally exposes organic beings to new conditions of life, and then nature acts on the organisation, and causes variability.


How strange it is that a bird, under the form of woodpecker, should have been created to prey on insects on the ground; that upland geese, which never or rarely swim, should have been created with webbed feet; that a thrush should have been created with habits and structure fitting it for the life of an auk or grebe! and so on in endless other cases. But on the view of each species constantly trying to increase in number, with natural selection always ready to adapt the slowly varying descendants of each to any unoccupied or ill-occupied place in nature, these facts cease to be strange, or perhaps might even have been anticipated.

Lastly, I’ll close as he does, with this very special passage:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Carl Sagan, Classic Agnostic

From a terrific new Point of Inquiry podcast interview with Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan and editor of his posthumous collection The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God:

D.J. Grothe: Would you say that he – even if he was, in quotes, “spiritual” – was he in any way anti-religious?

Ann Druyan: He was certainly anti-fundamentalist. He was anti-superstition. He was anti-believing in things without the proper amount of evidence for their existence. He was against all those things, and he thought all of them were pernicious, [that they] exerted a really negative influence on human existence. And among those beliefs, I think he thought a belief in the afterlife was especially poisonous, because of how it robbed life and death of their natural significance. And how it prevented so many people from living in the present. So yes, he had all those beliefs, but he was a classic agnostic, in that he truly believed that we don’t know the answers to any of these questions. He saw no evidence for the traditional view of God. But he also believed it was too much to state flatly, based on our pathetically small knowledge of nature and the universe, how the universe came to be, and who was involved – if anyone – in making it come to be.

Strawberries & Peas: Evolution at Work

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which I’m reading now:

As an example of how would-be plant hitchhikers attract animals, consider wild strawberries. When strawberry seeds are still young and not yet ready to be planted, the surrounding fruit is green, sour, and hard. When the seeds finally mature, the berries turn red, sweet, and tender. The change in the berries’ color serves as a signal attracting birds like thrushes to pluck the berries and fly off,eventually to spit out or defecate the seeds.

Naturally, strawberry plants didn’t set out with a conscious intent of attracting birds when, and only when, their seeds were ready to be dispersed. Neither did thrushes set out with the intent of domesticating strawberries. Instead, strawberry plants evolved through natural selection. The greener and more sour the young strawberry, the fewer the birds that destroyed the seeds by eating berries before the seeds were ready; the sweeter and redder the final strawberry, the more numerous the birds that dispersed its ripe seed.

Later, in the same chapter:

Wild peas have to get out of the pod if they are to germinate. To achieve that result, pea plants evolved a gene that makes the pod explode, shooting out the peas onto the ground. Pods of occasional mutant peas don’t explode. In the wild the mutant peas would die entombed in their pod on their parent plants, and only the popping pods would pass on their genes. But, conversely, the only pods available to humans to harvest would be the nonpopping ones left on the plant. Thus, once humans began bringing wild peas home to eat, there was immediate selection for that single-gene mutant.

Gopnik on Darwin: He's Crafty

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik has a fabulous, illuminating essay called “Rewriting Nature: Charles Darwin, natural novelist,” in the October 23 issue. (Print only, as far as I can tell.) Gopnik explores Darwin’s writing style – his methods of shaping his material into sentences, into chapters, into books. “Darwin’s strategy was one of the greatest successes in the history of rhetoric, so much so that we are scarcely now aware that it was a strategy,” Gopnik writes. “His pose of open-mindedness and ostentatiously asserted country virtue made him, in his way, as unassailable as George Washington.” Gopnik examines this strategy by putting specific Darwin sentences under the microscope:

Darwin’s ability to look pious while demolishing every piety can be seen at its best in what may be the single most explosive sentence in English, which appears in the last chapter of “The Descent of Man”: “We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World.”

We can be startled by its boldness today; we know what its effect was in 1871. Yet how beautifully it is situated within the book, after hundreds of detailed pages on sexual selection, on peacocks’ tails and mammals’ tusks, by which point it is presented not as a thesis to be demonstrated (although that was exactly what it was) but as a conclusion forced inexorably on the unwilling author. And then the sly use of words – the “hairy” quadruped (unnecessary for the point but necessary to make the image maximally disturbing) and the dynamite of that tail and those pointed ears, with their specific invocation of the diabolical, and the use of the domestic verb “furnished.” There are a thousand ways the sentence could have been written in order to minimize its damage to belief; for example,“Those primates closest in organization and structure to man may have had their early origins among arboreal quadrupeds native to the old world.” But, a decade after “The Origin,” he writes, instead, the mortar sentence,the one that makes the minimal noise incoming and does the maximum damage on arrival. There’s your grandfather: in a tree on all fours, his ears sticking straight up and his tail swinging through the branches.

The books Gopnik writes about here include the recently published brick From So Simple a Beginning, which includes Darwin’s four essential volumes; Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin’s Lost Notebooks; Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction; Randal Keynes’s Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution; and George Levine’s Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World. I splurged on the first a few months ago but haven’t yet dug in.