Monday, October 18, 2010

TAM London speaker 2: RICHARD DAWKINS, FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE

Next up, Richard Dawkins.  I’ve seen a lot of talks by Richard, some live, and I doubt I’ll get tired of listening to him.  He was measured, eloquent and poetic.  If it’s not already obvious, Richard has been a hero of mine since I first read The Selfish Gene when I was a young teenager.  I had been devouring pop science books for years, but in those days they were mostly about physics.  The Selfish Gene was probably the first biology-related book I’d read and although I knew a little about evolution from the distortions I’d been taught at school and from what my parents had told me, this book really did open a door to a wider world.  The physics books contained mysteries, which I was thirsty for, and answers, which astounded me, but it placed scientists – both individual and collective – as the heroes. 

The Selfish Gene did something different.  It cast ideas as the heroes. This struck me with something that felt almost like a physical force and that feeling changed my life.  I already loved the stories of science and the feeling of mysteries that could be solved, but I hadn’t imagined how profound could be the pleasure of finding things out and that’s a debt to Richard Dawkins that I’ll never be able to repay.  I should tell him this one day.

Anyway, it’s safe to say that my cards are on the table, so you can probably tell how my review of his talk is going to go.  And you’re right: I liked it.

Richard’s talk was about science education.  He began by saying that his subject of evolution was under threat and that he wanted to come out fighting.  What followed was a beautiful piece of scientific poetry. 

What, he asked, if we substitute evolution in the place classics used to occupy in education?

Classics used to be the cornerstone of a British education.  It was thought that a grounding in classics opened doors to every other subject and every type of occupation.  I didn’t receive a classical education so I don’t have an opinion on whether this is true, but the point is well made.  Evolution is at the heart of our understanding of so much of the world that if we think of it occupying the place classics formerly did in our culture and education, then perhaps it can open doors to a better understanding of every other subject.  He went on to talk about the disciplines that could be better informed by a better understanding of evolution.  This included the obvious ones like biology and geology, but also physics, engineering, politics and my own subject of computer science.  I won’t go into his arguments here.  Some were more compelling than others. 

I’ll make a brief comment on the computer science idea, however.  Richard said (rightly) that certain fields of biology are virtually indistinguishable from computer science.  He was speaking of bioinformatics, which is largely about the manipulation of digital information (genes) in much the same way as computer scientists have been doing for ages.  In fact, bioinformatics is an area where biology has been informed by computer science.  We know how to manipulate this stuff.  Of course, in the process, computer science has learned a lot from biology too.  Many computer science departments have a bioinformatics group. 

I might have been tempted to go a bit further though.  Computer science is primarily an engineering discipline. We deal in economy and trade-off.  We strive for solutions that are elegant and we revel in the beauty of those solutions, but we’re not usually able to achieve them because of real-world economic and time constraints.  So we find beauty in the compromise instead: in understanding what forces are at work, what will happen when (inevitably) someone modifies our work too far in the wrong direction.  There’s a lot to be learned from evolution here.

As we move further into the internet age, computer science is becoming less about integration and more about composition.  We’re creating ecosystems of services and I think the analogy holds up pretty well.  We’ve got resources that are limited in different ways and competition for those resources.  We have relationships such as dependency between services and in some cases the structure of relationships in an ecosystem of services could have dramatic implications on how damage might affect the stability and function of this ‘ecosystem’.

I wish I had time to tease out this analogy further to see how well it stands up, but an understanding of evolution is certain to help in this kind of world.  It would be cool to talk to Richard about this someday when I’ve had time to think it all through a bit more.

I don’t know whether Richard was serious in his proposal (although why not?) that evolution replace classics in education and culture.  I’m not sure it matters.  I don’t think that was really the purpose of the talk.  I think Richard was delivering a piece of scientific poetry: an example of the consciousness-raising he does so well. 

We shouldn’t forget Dawkins’ humour either, which was evident throughout.  It’s an aspect of Dawkins’ character everyone seems to forget.  For example, his obvious delight at Sewell Wright possibly having erased a blackboard with a guinea pig was infectious.

Another great TAM talk and if Richard’s analogy was perhaps a little bit strained at times, I’ll forgive him.  He can set it off against that debt…

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