A Bobolink singing at Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto.
“Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.” -Vladimir Nabokov
Like me, my cat Shamrock is an avid birder. Here she is peering out the window excitedly following the flight paths of the gulls, robins, starlings, pigeons, crows, and the occasional cooper’s hawk as they zip between the trees and houses.
Living with a cat gives daily exposure to curiosity; the instinct to keenly observe, inspect, and understand everything new. Humans are inherently curious too, but, unfortunately, it is a trait that rapidly wanes with age in our modern societies. Educational, political, and religious authority figures do little to encourage curiosity, and even actively suppress it. Our structured education systems have us memorize facts while neglecting to teach all that we don’t know, all the areas where we need curiosity to make progress. Education that encourages and provokes curiosity is vastly more important and beneficial than education that feeds facts and punishes you for not memorizing them.
Curiosity is difficult to teach and also difficult to retain. True curiosity requires an acceptance of ignorance, a willingness to be wrong, and an unrelenting desire to find truth. In other words, to be: humble, vulnerable, and tenacious. The first two traits are not practically popular and often not even considered desirable. Humbleness is suppressed in modern societies that collectively feel separate and superior to surrounding natural environments and non-human life. Vulnerability is seen as a weakness in white-male-dominated-machismo-colonialist societies. These are legacies we must struggle against to retain our sense of curiosity.
We are curious animals, curious animals that have a strikingly unique ability to benefit from our sense of curiosity. We can build upon our previous knowledge, understand and imagine what we don’t know, and learn from our mistakes. Curiosity is the mechanism that allows us to continually stumble forward, to progress toward emergent futures that surpass our imaginations. In all strata of our societies we should treat curiosity as one of our greatest assets.
Strive to cultivate curiosity in your life and the lives of others. If you need some inspiration, watch a cat for a while.
Some inspirations for this post:
Ramsey Musallam: 3 rules to spark learning (TED talk)
Ken Robinson: Schools kill creativity (TED talk)
Daniel Dennett’s seven tools for thinking (Article in the Guardian)
These are some photos I took at Spencer Gorge Conservation Area in Hamilton ON, 12 March 2013.
White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda, Ranunculaceae). This plant gets crazy white fruits on red stalks that are poisonous. In the plant world “bane” means poisonous. Check out more pics here.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum, Araceae). These flowers are typically either male or female, the larger plants normally being female. Insects are attracted into the cozy nook at the bottom of the flower. Male flowers have a little hole that allows the insect to escape, covered in pollen of course. There is no hole in female flowers and the insects are typically trapped. Perhaps a trapped insect is more likely to fertilize the flower? Some more info here.
Hairy solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum pubescens, Asparagaceae). The genus name comes from the Greek word poly, meaning “many”, and gony, meaning “knee” which is reference to the jointed stem seen in the first photo; pubescens means hairy (this info from the ROM Field Guide to Wildflowers of Ontario). The second photo shows the flower buds hanging down from the stem.
This evening I saw the world premier of The Unbelievers, a documentary that follows a speaking tour of Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss. As a super added bonus, Dawkins and Krauss were there and spoke and answered questions after the screening. Wow, am I starry eyed over Richard Dawkins! He is perhaps the most well known evolutionary biologist alive. I’ve read three of his books (The Selfish Gene, Extended Phenotype, and The God Delusion) and they are of my favorite books ever. I find his clarity of thought and consistent brilliance inspiring and enlightening. Anyways, on to the film.
The director of the Unbelievers said before the showing that it was a “rock ‘n roll tour film”. This of course makes Krauss and Dawkins the rock stars–I think that designation is appropriate! The witty charisma of Dawkins and Krauss were the primary strength of the film, which essentially is a series of soundbites of them talking about religion, science, and atheism. (I would have preferred to see more deep conversations and debates because this approach was fairly superficial, but I suppose atheist evolutionary biologist (like myself) are not the target audience.) At one point Dawkins is shown debating an Australian priest on TV and the priest asked something like “if evolution is non-random can you explain how it results in life”. Dawkins immediately answers, with his British wit, “of course I can, it is my life’s work”. The audience cheered.
The films follow Krauss and Dawkins as they speak at halls, conventions, and other events. A common theme was the general distrust and disregard of atheist in societies. For example, they discuss a poll where atheist are as distrusted as rapist! Gesh, no wonder why only one member of congress has admitted to being atheist. The final speech by Krauss was at an atheist rally attended by 8,000-10,000 people in Washington DC. Never heard about it? Well, apparently not a single major news outlet covered it.
This film is bookended with short statements supporting science, atheism, and critical thinking by a series of celebrities: Sara Silverman, Ricky Gervais, Tim Minchin (a bit of this song was in the film), Woody Allen, Cameron Diaz and others. There were definitely lots of good statements in there. One I remember was Ricky Gervaise saying something like “on twitter I often get people saying ‘everyone has the right to their opinion, but you should just keep it to yourself’”, this in reference to outspoken atheist. “That pretty much sums it up right there” he said.
There is one conversation in the film that stuck with me. Krauss and Dawkins were discussing a disagreement about their techniques to persuade people to think critically and dispose of their delusions. It seems Dawkins won Krauss over in being more confrontational. Krauss then said, in support of Dawkins’ approach, that pedagogically it is an effective technique to confront people’s misconceptions. This seems logical to me as long as the person you are trying to persuade has at least some capacity for open mindedness. For staunch believers this approach will likely to be contentious.
Dawkins has always been willing to anger some in order to be maximally factual and compelling. I think in a world where blind belief, misconceptions, cognitive dissonance, and a general disregard for evidence and pragmatism are rampant, we desperately need people who are willing to be contentions in order to promote truth. The problems human societies face are too grave to subtly and politely tiptoe around people’s delusions. For me, this was the take home of the film.
I use the language R for all of my statistical analyses and also for making figures. This is a little example of what goes into making a nice looking presentation of data in R. Making figures in R is a mostly fun, sometime frustrating, but ultimately rewarding. It is neat to code out a bonkers mass of characters and then out comes a beautiful figure. I just started using a fancy package, ggplot2. With ggplots you can create “themes” which change the look of the figures. So here is the code for a figure using the default themes and the resulting figure:
plot = ggplot(nn, aes(x=year, y=MPD, colour=fencing)) + geom_errorbar(aes(ymin= MPD-se, ymax=MPD+se), width=.1) + geom_line() + geom_point()
I didn’t much like the colors, the background with grid lines and the small axes labels. But everything can be changed, it just takes a lot of time to figure out the right code to make the changes you want. So here is the code for my improved figure:
plot= ggplot(nn90, aes(x=year, y=MPD)) + geom_errorbar(aes(ymin=MPD-se, ymax=MPD+se), width=.05) + geom_line(size=1,aes(linetype= fencing,color=fencing)) + geom_point(size=3,aes(shape=fencing))
ng1 = theme(panel.background = element_rect(fill = “white”,colour = “white”), panel.grid.major = element_line(colour = NA), axis.line = element_line(size = 1.2, colour=”black”), axis.ticks=element_line(color=”black”), axis.text=element_text(color=”black”,size=15), axis.title=element_text(color=”black”,size=20), panel.grid.minor = element_line(colour = NA), legend.position = “top”, legend.direction=”horizontal”, legend.text = element_text(size=20), legend.key = element_rect(fill = “white”), legend.title = element_blank(),legend.key.size = unit(1.5, “cm”))
plot + scale_x_continuous(breaks =(seq(min(nn90$year),max(nn90$year),by=2))) + scale_colour_manual(values= c(“black”,”black”))+ xlab(“Year”) +ylab(“Mean Parwise Distance ± SE”) + ng1
I think it looks a lot nicer. I won’t go into trying to explain what all the different bits of the code do, but the part that is “ng1=theme(…” is the theme. That is the main part that is responsible for the change in appearance. For any ggplot users feel free to use the theme.
So that is what a day of fiddling around in R will get you. Now I am one step closer to presenting these results at a conference next week. (I will explain what these results actually mean later :)
This is one of my favorite flower photos I’ve taken, I don’t know the species except that it’s in the sunflower family (Asteraceae). I found it in an opening on bare sandy soil in the long-leaf pine savannah at Carolina Beach State Park a few years back. I suspect this species is well adapted to dry sandy soil and frequent fire, but those are just guesses.
The Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department here at the University of Toronto had a nifty colloquium the last couple days with lots of great talks. It can be tiring engaging in many science talks back to back. Taking lots of notes and doodling the plants and animals mentioned or pictured in the slides helps me stay focused. There really was a talk about Dimetrodon (neat!).