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Posts Tagged ‘darwin’

Maria Popova at the blog Brain Pickings is an endless source of inspiration. Whether she is posting about art, nature, philosophy, or children’s books, she’s a treasure. 

Today I want to dip into her report on an out-of-print book featuring an artistic rendering of the wonders of the Great Barrier reef. Considering how fast the optimal conditions for the reef are being lost to global warming and the ocean’s higher carbon levels, it might be a good idea to think about how it looked in 1893.

Popova begins, “While the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel was salving his fathomless personal tragedy with the transcendent beauty of jellyfish, having enraptured Darwin with his drawings, his English colleague William Saville-Kent (July 10, 1845–October 11, 1908) was transcending his own darkness on the other side of the globe with the vibrant, irrepressible aliveness of the Great Barrier Reef and its astonishing creatures. 

“By the end of his adolescence, William had survived the unsurvivable. The youngest of ten children, he lost his mother when he was seven.”

Suzanne’s Mom pauses here to let you read what else was “unsurvivable,” including murder most foul.

“William was shaken by the inordinate share of loss, violence, and public shame he had accrued in so young a life. Taking refuge in the impartial world of science, he came to study under the great biologist and comparative anatomist T.H. Huxley, who had coined the term agnosticism and who had so boldly defended Darwin’s evolutionary ideas against the reactionary tide of opposition a decade earlier.

“Upon completing his studies, Saville-Kent received an appointment in the Natural History department of the British Museum as curator of coral. He grew enchanted with these beguiling, poorly understood creatures; he also grew bored with the museum position — he longed to do research, to contribute to the evolving understanding of these living marvels. …

“As Saville-Kent approached forty, his old mentor T.H. Huxley — by then the most prominent British life-scientist after Darwin’s death a year earlier — recommended him as inspector of fisheries in Tasmania. Saville-Kent left England and the dark specter of his youth for the bright open seas of the South Pacific, where he grew newly enchanted with the lush underwater wonderland of strange-shaped corals and echinoderms, frilly anemones and tentacled mollusks, fishes in colors that belong in a Kandinsky painting, creatures he had marveled at only as dead and disjointed museum specimens or segregated aquarium captives, creatures he had never imagined. 

“Determined to bring public awareness and awe to this otherworldly ecosystem — an ecosystem that in the century since his time has grown so gravely endangered by human activity that it might not survive another century — he authored the first popular science book on that irreplaceable underwater world. In 1893, several years before the German oceanographer published the gorgeously illustrated first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, Saville-Kent published The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: Its Products and Potentialities — a pioneering encyclopedia of one of Earth’s most luscious and delicate ecosystems, illustrated with a number of Saville-Kent’s black-and-white photographs and several stunning color lithographs by two artists, a Mr. Couchman and a Mr. Riddle, based on Saville-Kent’s original watercolors.” More at Brain Pickings, here.

One thing I love about Brain Pickings is the way Maria Popova’s own brain makes such interesting connections. At the end of almost every post she links to other posts on topics that may seem unrelated on the surface but play off each other in an interesting way. Her approach is a bit like suggesting an unusual cheese to go with your wine.

Illustration from William Saville-Kent’s book Fishes from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Maria Popova at Brain Pickings makes it available as a print and as a face mask!)

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Here’s something fun from the bird kingdom: a mating dance that looks like Michael Jackson’s moonwalk and a researcher who posits an aesthetic sensibility in animals.

WNYC radio in New York has the story.

Richard Prum is an ornithologist at Yale University … Some of Prum’s latest work is on the philosophy of aesthetics. It stems from his earliest research, as a young scientist, studying small South American birds called manakins. Manakins are known for outlandish mating displays. The males perform an elaborate dance, including moves that look a lot like moonwalking.

“To Prum’s eye, the diversity and complexity of these dances could only be explained as an appeal to the birds’ aesthetic preferences — in other words, it’s art. ‘My hypothesis is that ornament in manakins evolves merely because it’s beautiful,’ Prum says.

“This idea clashes with the view of most evolutionary biologists, who see displays like these as signs of evolutionary fitness. They think the male manakin’s dance signals to females that he is healthy and will sire strong offspring. …

“Prum says that Charles Darwin was on his side. ‘That was Darwin’s original idea about mate choice — it’s about the aesthetic faculty’ …

“Doesn’t this idea about animals having aesthetic preferences anthropomorphize them? ‘I think that we don’t anthropomorphize birds enough!’ Prum says. ‘We’re afraid of talking about their subjective experiences, because we can’t measure it. But in fact, what they experience is desire, the subjective experience of beauty, of being attracted to something.’ ” More here.

Video: NatGeoWild

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Our 5-year-old grandson’s friend had been planning to attend an American Repertory Theater musical with her grandmother today at 10 a.m. We decided to go, too.

The show was The Pirate Princess and was loosely (very loosely) based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It was a hoot for me, and the young man in the photo seemed riveted. But whether he could make head or tail of the  convoluted plot, I have my doubts. It will be interesting to see down the road what he remembers — and whether he wants to see more plays.

The plot involves a brother and sister who get separated in a shipwreck (in this case, it’s thanks to a monster called the Kraken) and have separate adventures with characters who later mistake the sister dressed as a boy for the boy and vice versa. (I kept whispering in my grandson’s ear, “The pirate thinks he’s the girl that he thinks is a boy”; “The Queen thinks he’s his sister but doesn’t know his sister is a girl.” My grandson didn’t respond.)

There were songs, musical instruments, fancy costumes, pirates storming up lighted platforms in the middle of the audience, sword fights, and imaginative special effects. I especially like the jellyfish created by glowing umbrellas with streamers, carried along the aisles in the dark. The Kraken with his many legs was pretty great, too.

After the show, we had hot chocolate and cookies at the Darwin on Mt. Auburn Street. I’m not sure what our grandson will be able to tell his parents about the madcap entertainment he witnessed, but bits and pieces will likely emerge over time. I myself saw Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland when I was four, but I didn’t become a theater nut until I was 10.

010216-hot-chocolater-after-theater

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Don’t you love that term? I needed to know more and found it at the Governing blog.

“Darwin’s theory of natural selection was simple but significant,” write Emily Malina and Kara Shuler at the blog. “Variation occurs naturally within any population, and nature will favor and spread characteristics that are advantageous for survival. Like a species, a workforce can go through a similar evolutionary process driven by individuals with unusual but favorable behaviors.

“These outliers, or ‘positive deviants,’ sometimes bend the rules, but their practices enable their success and survival in the workplace. …

“This positive deviance approach is grounded in a systematic process that includes identifying outliers and the specific behaviors that contribute to their success, and then scaling those behaviors across the workforce. It can be especially useful when other efforts have failed to bring about the desired results, and it is more effective when the issue requires behavioral change instead of technical solutions.”

Asakiyume, I think you will like the example the authors give. It’s about some outlier prison-guard behavior in Denmark.

“Burned-out prison guards: The prison environment, with its stressful conditions and psychological burdens, has historically resulted in high absenteeism and early retirement among guards.

“Danish prison-system officials looking to address this problem began by observing the behaviors of resilient guards, those with five or fewer days of missed work. They found that ambiguity in inmate-intake protocols allowed for positive deviants to emerge. The rule called for guards to gather background information from new inmates, and the common approach was an interrogation-style interview.

“Instead, the deviant guards offered inmates a tour of the prison facility and engaged them in a conversation. This small but powerful difference not only better equipped the guards to deal with the stresses and mental challenges of their jobs but also improved behavior of the inmates under their supervision, as evidenced by fewer violent threats and greater enrollment in treatment programs.” More.

Gate_sea_Aug08

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