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Fuzzy Logic & Fuzzy Life

The following essay on the politically-charged issue of abortion was originally written for my regular Scientific American monthly column, Skeptic, but we decided that it was too political and not grounded enough in science for Scientific American, so we shelved it. I ended up expanding that column into a chapter section in my book The Science of Good and Evil.

In 1959 astronomers were polled for their opinion on the then undecided debate between two competing cosmological theories. “Did the universe begin with a Big Bang several thousand million years ago?” A third answered yes. “Is matter continuously created in space?” Almost half answered yes. Most telling, to the question “Is a poll of this kind helpful to scientific progress?” all answered no.

The reason for this unanimity is that scientific questions are not settled by consensus opinion. Unfortunately, in complex human and social issues, separating fact from opinion is not so easy, and for no issue is this more apparent than abortion. Setting aside the emotionally charged moral and political aspects of abortion for a moment, how can science inform this debate? (continue reading…)

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Darwin’s Duomo and Gould’s Pinnacle

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A review of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

We live in the Age of Science. Scientism is our worldview, our mythic story about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. As such, scientists are our preeminent storytellers, the mythmakers of our epoch. (continue reading…)

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The Metagene Gene

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A review of Matt Ridley’s Genome: the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters.

We are at a unique confluence of science and publishing where the results of the former are being dispersed by the latter at such a rate that even the most ardent reader of popular science books can hardly keep up. This is good news for science, of course, since its products are outstripping even Moore’s law of doubling every eighteen months, so updates and revisions are called for just as frequently. Lucky for publishers that readers are willing and able to plunk down a quarter of a hundred bucks to discover the secrets of the cosmos and life, and literary agents specializing in science tomes are demanding — and getting — five- and six-figure advances for their clients. And by most counts publishers are earning out those advances in a matter of months, thereby closing indefinitely the gap between C.P. Snow’s two cultures. (continue reading…)

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Bicycles, Baseball, Bacteria & Bach

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A review of Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin.

For the past 15 summers I have either competed in or directed the 3,000-mile, nonstop, transcontinental bicycle Race Across America; for the first decade the transcontinental record plummeted from 12 days 3 hours to 7 days 23 hours, but for the past five years it hasn’t budged even though half the field now routinely breaks earlier records. Why? Some of the pioneers, not surprisingly, believe that they were simply better; current riders claim weather conditions and other variables. I now know that both sides are wrong, thanks to the work of paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and trend setter (and observer) Stephen Jay Gould, whose new book, Full House, explains how systems change over time — from the history of life to the history of sports. (continue reading…)

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