29 October 2009

The History Deniers

Sadly, there are those who deny the fact of evolution - 130 million of them in the US alone, according to a recent Gallup poll. These "history deniers" (an apt designation I'll borrow from Richard Dawkins) remain unconvinced by the veritable mountain of evidence for evolution, a mountain which grows day by day. Recent books, such as Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True or Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth - though triumphs of reason and lucidity - will hardly make a dent in the legions of the history deniers, the "unsinkable rubber ducks" (to borrow James Randi's delightful phrase). It will take a greater concerted effort than just a couple of bestsellers to turn the tide, and it's up to us laypeople to do our bit, too.

Hence this edition of Pernicious Fallacies. In it, I shall be addressing dyed-in-the-wool creationists - the persuasion that believe that the Earth was created in 6 days less than 10,000 years ago, and that all modern species of animal, including humans, were created in their present form before God took His well-deserved day off. I shall not be addressing the more "sophisticated" proponents of ID (Intelligent Design), who actually believe in evolution, albeit a gimped kind of evolution, helped along at crucial junctures by a God who was apparently too lame to get it right in the first place. Whatever percentage of you are already down with Darwin, feel free to stop reading now.

From Wolf to Poodle

Yes, I'm bringing up the tired old dog breeding argument. I'm fully aware of the creationist counterargument, but bear with me, because I have a twist on it.

Selective breeding of animals with the intent to exaggerate desired traits over successive generations, or "artificial selection", is well known and well documented. Even history deniers comfortable with dismissing the fossil, molecular, and distributional evidence for natural selection would think twice before denying the comparatively recent historical evidence for artificial selection. A good example of what artificial selection can achieve in a short span of time is the modern banana. Though there are those who believe the banana was designed by the Almighty Himself, I'd like to think these people are embarrassments even to creationists.

At the core of it, all Darwin and modern Darwinists are claiming is that Nature, as well as Man, can act as a selective breeder, through the non-random survival (and more specifically, reproductive success) of individuals, and that this "natural selection" is responsible for all the diverse life we see around us.

Where creationists have trouble is with that last bit. The difference between breeds of dog, or cabbage, while oftentimes spectacular, pales in comparison to the difference between a dog and giraffe, a cabbage and a tree, or even a human and an ape. Thus they find it hard to imagine these tiny gradations ever leading to all the diversity of life we see around us, from the tiniest microbe to the blue whale. Evolutionists, when trying to help them see how this could in fact be the case, often say something like, "if you can turn a wolf into a poodle in a few centuries, imagine what great change could be wrought in a billion years!" A billion years. It's no wonder the evolutionists find it so easy to accept a single-celled organism giving rise to all life on Earth, no matter how complex it appears - look at the time they have to work with! But creationists, sadly, haven't the luxury. They don't have more than a hundred centuries to work with - and it's a bit confining, but it's what they're stuck with.

Thus creationists accept (as they must) that artificial selection works, but only up to a point. "You can create variations of dogs and cabbages with the process," they'll concede, "but you'll never make a new species. Only God can do that." There's always the matter of the definition of "species", which began as scientific terminology and should remain thus, and should not be used to mean "groups of animals so obviously different I can tell them apart". But let's leave that to the side, as it really doesn't matter for our purposes here.

Creationist's Evolution

So let's, just for the sake of argument, concede the point. The Earth is only 10,000 years old (you could concievably buy that many candles for its birthday, whereas 4.6 billion would really put you out, so that's something at least), and you can't make a new species using evolution. So as a creationist, you accept artificial selection, and with a few logical leaps accept (let's say) natural selection as a comparable agency with comparable effects. It would then follow that all modern animals are at least as different from their ancestors in the days of Genesis as modern dogs are from the archetypal wolf. Or would it necessarily follow? To be sure, there are still wolves - certainly not the same wolves from the dawn of time (none live that long, of course), but a branch of descendants that differ very little from the archetypal wolf (God's wolf, if you like). So, would it follow then that at least most modern animals are as different from their original forms as a poodle is from a wolf, while some percentage have somehow managed to remain unchanged (conveniently for us, as we could use them as near examples of what the "Adam and Eve" of that animal species might have been like)?

This "creationist's evolution" I have led you to is not what I believe, of course, but it is reasonable within the framework of creationism. It would even help answer some prickly questions about God and creationism. For one, God would only have to have made a template for each animal species, an animal "Adam and Eve" as I put it. This template of His would then be subject to explosive variation at the hands of either Nature, or meddlesome Man, it matters little which. This would shed some light on God's apparent pre-occupation with beetles. Furthermore, it would make Noah's job a heck of a lot easier. A couple of spiders on the Ark might be bearable, but two of each of the 40,000 spider species?

I have made these points in an attempt to outline a kind of evolution in which a creationist might be comfortable believing. I wanted to make "evolution" less of a dirty word - it just means change over time, people. Unlike "atheist" or even "humanist" it doesn't have an inbuilt denial of God, or even of a Young Earth. It might be unpalatable to true Darwinists like me, but it could be useful for opening a dialogue, finding some common ground. After all, a denial of "change over time" is harder for a creationist to muster, especially with domesticated animals staring them in the face. This merry chase of "creationist evolution" is meant to divest the mere word "evolution" from the uncomfortable, monkey-laden specifics of Darwin's theory that creationists so revile.

But is even this Godly evolution inoffensive to the creationist? Or is even this ecumenical fiction I have constructed - no worse than most theological musings - still going to ruffle some staunch feathers? It might at that, because of something called "Platonic Essentialism".

Master Tapes, Signal Noise, and Wikipedia

It was argued by Plato that, for everything that exists, there is an ideal example (perhaps existent somewhere, perhaps not), an "essence". Every triangle, it might be said, is but an imperfect approximation of the "perfect triangle", drawn by fallible human hands on stone, papyrus, or today made of tiny pixels on a screen. In the same way, might there be an "essence" of every animal species, and every member of the species is but an imperfect approximation, cast from the essential mould? In the terms of our "creationist's evolution", these "essences" would be the animal Adams and Eves, the original ancestral archetypes of all future animals. Every animal born in the species would, instead of copying their own parents, copy instead the archetype, cast by God and therefore perfect.

We can here use the analogy of "master tapes". When (back in the day of VHS and audio cassette) a company produced thousands of tapes for the public to buy, each tape was a copy of a master tape (or, I imagine more rarely, a set of master tapes). It wouldn't have been wise to copy a second copy of the master tape, and then make a third copy by copying the second copy, and so on down the line. By the time you reached the thousandth copy, the picture (or sound) would have deteriorated far too much to be useful.

I must digress here briefly for the benefit of evolutionists. This "copied tape" argument is sometimes leveled against evolution as evidence against it. A thousandth generation VHS is mush - so how can a thousandth generation rabbit be anything but mush, if evolution is true? The answer is that VHS technology is analog, and the signal noise introduced with every generation is faithfully reproduced in the next. But DNA, the replicator upon which life depends, is digital, and signal noise doesn't accumulate quickly enough to reduce the message to mush. Certainly errors occur, as they do with our manmade digital devices, but they occur much more seldomly. At this diminished rate (characteristic of a digital process) the errors - mutations - don't build up, at least not in the same way. What do I mean by this?

Think of it like Wikipedia. Imagine any Wikipedia article of your choice as a gene pool, and any edits that are made to it as mutations. Anytime a deleterious edit is made (vandalism, misinformation, etc), it is promptly removed, reverting the article to its pure state. In the same way, if an individual bears a mutant offspring whose mutation has a harmful effect on the offspring's survival or reproductive success, that mutation is in effect removed from the gene pool. Unlike the signal noise on a VHS, the mutation will never reach a successive generation because it isn't as good at getting there. If a Wikipedia edit is constructive, however, it will not be promptly removed. Instead, it will persist. In the same way, any mutation, no matter how rare, if it has a positive effect, will persist. (We can ignore the specifics of neutral mutations, which - while well understood - complicate the analogy.) Even if in any given generation the vast majority of mutations do not have any positive effect, over time, the only effects that remain will be the positive (or neutral) ones. Negative, harmful edits (or mutations) simply cannot persist for long at all.

Thus, in a digital process such as this, signal noise does accumulate, as in an analog process. The difference, however, is that instead of descending into formless mush, the "noise" that accumulates hardly deserves to be called "noise" at all. Mostly, they are improvements. Of course, this can only work if there is some outside force acting on the system. In the case of Wikipedia, it is a vast public, who only find constructive edits to be useful. In the case of DNA, it is the reproductive success of the bodies it builds. In any situation where there is no outside force, the "noise" really is noise, and not improvements at all, no matter how digital the process. One such example would be hereditary diseases in humans (and of course all animals). They all, without exception* (save those rare few that have newly mutated this generation, which cannot in good conscience be considered hereditary at all) present after the afflicted individual reaches reproductive age. Why is it that we are at such greater risk of so many health problems when we reach old age? Simply because we have already reproduced by then. Natural selection, like a finicky Wikipedia moderator, has swept up all the spills that kill us early. But those beyond its reach hang doggedly on, causing much misery.

* Actually, there can be some exceptions. For instance Haemophilia can be carried into future generations through the female line, only causing harm when it arrives in male bodies. But my general point - that a fatal gene that switches on at age 7 will be swept away by natural selection, whereas one that switches on at age 70 has a much higher chance of becoming frequent in the gene pool - stands.

So, now back to the "master tapes" and the archetypal animals. The Essentialist viewpoint would be that every mutation is necessarily deleterious, and that none should ever persist. Any deviation from "God's rabbit" would be an imperfect rabbit, and God would presumably not want his divine rabbity plan to be eventually lost in signal noise, even digital, naturally selected "noise" that resulted in a fully functioning animal thousands of years hence. It might be a great animal, fantastic at survival (it couldn't be around if it wasn't), but it wouldn't be rabbity enough for Him.

But we know from incontrovertible evidence, from centuries of artificial selection, oftentimes performed as direct experimentation, that animals don't copy some ideal "essence". They (and we, for we are animals) copy our parents. Anybody denying evolution, not just Darwinian evolution with all the trappings, but evolution of any kind, even the "what happens within a species stays within a species" kind of variation I suggested earlier, has to be able to show (or at least formulate some sort of reasonable argument for) why it has not happened. After all, if we can change a species by our own hand using artificial selection, how can we expect natural selection to have done absolutely nothing, even in 10,000 years?

Natural Selection - Friend or Foe?

Perhaps natural selection is not a creationist's enemy, but their friend. Perhaps natural selection can be invoked to explain how animals (and humans) remain the same today as they ever were (if we grant the creationists this viewpoint temporarily for the sake of argument), even in the face of all the mutation that must occur.

In fact, one of Darwin's contemporaries, Edward Blyth, suggested just such a thing. He suggested that natural selection, far from guiding the cumulative mutations toward evolutionary ends, instead strictly penalised any variation at all. So natural selection didn't work to improve, but merely to maintain the status quo.

I find it ironic - given that evolution (in the sense of "change over time") is undeniable, and practically a tautology - that the onus is on creationists to explain how in their view it in fact did not happen to any animal at all, until meddlesome humans began their breeding experiments. And that perhaps the only way to do so is to embrace the theory of natural selection itself, as a kind of universal janitor, mopping up any rabbits that aren't quite up to spec.

As it happens, though, this view of natural selection turns out to be false, and isn't worth clinging to. Why? Because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which basically states that, in any closed system, entropy will always increase. Creationists should be familiar with the Second Law, since many of them love to claim that Darwin's theory violates it.

The Second Law

Of course, they are infantile to even suggest it. They should pause a moment before leveling such an accusation at evolutionists. Think what you are accusing us of! There is a famous quote by Arthur Eddington:

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.
By this, Eddington is stressing just how important the Second Law is to scientists. Do creationists really believe that the entire scientific community believes in a theory that violates such a fundamental principle? Ask any scientist if a perpetual motion machine is possible, and they will tell you "No" without any hesitation. There is no way that evolution even comes close to violating the Second Law. How can we be sure? Because every reputable scientist alive supports it. It's iron clad. It would have been rejected with due scorn otherwise, and evolutionists would today be loonies in their garages with deely-bobber hats investigating crop circles and drawing pentagrams.

Blyth's theory, however, would violate it. Short of God's continual intervention, no force can stop the accumulation of mutations in DNA. Bad mutations die, good mutations survive. Eventually, the gene pool is full of nothing but the creme de la creme, a book of happy accidents. By chance, some mutations, no matter how few, are going to be better at surviving. Nothing will stop them from taking over. There is no grand industrial machinery checking rabbits against some ideal template. If DNA can change for the better, to take better advantage of its environment, it's going to. Like a ball rolling down hill, it has to happen. The energy and information necessary to keep everything adhering to some essence, eternally immutable like the Heavens of the ancients - where does it come from? The energy necessary for Darwinian evolution comes from the sun - the math can be done, nothing else is needed. But to be truly unchangeable - to not evolve - that would violate the Second Law.

So, is that what God does? Does he sit up there all day, making sure that everything matches His divine specifications? Even the theists can but guess.

I hope I've shown, in some small way, that evolution, whether complete with all the Neo-Darwinian trappings that I believe in or not, is ineluctable. The history deniers must answer to their own satisfaction how it can not be. You have built your own Ark, and you must deal with the consequences. This is evolution's foot in your door - can you really ignore it, no matter how dilute the form, any longer?

14 October 2009

The Meme Cloud, Part 2

Software/Hardware: Commodore 128

Back when I was about 10 or 11 years old, the only computer I had that was user programmable was the Commodore 128 (I went through several models, but the 128D was my favourite, and the longest lasting).

At the time I was addicted to Genesis and Super Nintendo games such as Phantasy Star II, Starfox, and Super Mario Kart. I wanted nothing more than to be able to make my own 16-bit video games.

The Commodore, while woefully underpowered for anyone with 16-bit ambitions, was the closest thing I had. Far from sneering at the primitive machine, I threw myself into learning how to coax anything video-gamey out of it. I tricked it out with a RAM expansion cartridge and set to work.

For the most part I was interested in making graphics, and ended up making more intro and cinema sequences for games than games themselves. I never moved beyond Basic 7.0, squeezing every last drop out of it instead of attempting the seemingly insuperable task of learning the arcane Machine Language.

I have many fond memories of the era, and even if I never accomplished much of note with the Commodore, it helped to shape me into a programmer and video game designer. The abstract lessons I learnt in those early years are still with me, even in the age of Game Maker, when there are almost no graphic, memory, or processor limitations.

TV Series: Mr Bean

I watched Mr Bean because I loved Rowan Atkinson's performance as Blackadder.

Mr Bean is almost the exact antithesis of Blackadder, but equally well-performed and hilarious. While Blackadder is the epitome of sophisticated verbal wit, Mr Bean is the epitome of simple physical comedy.

But it's not your average tired slapstick routine. It's exceptionally clever, like when Bean is brushing his teeth and changing into his suit while driving his mini - with his feet. Even watching the man prepare a sandwich is funny.

Music (Band): They Might Be Giants

I have Sega to thank for turning me on to TMBG, as their song "Mammal" was on a Sampler CD that shipped with the Sega CD to show off its CDA playing capabilities. The song was a true novelty, a dollop of weird in my otherwise Beatles soaked music world. To this day it remains a favourite of mine, and the only song on the sampler that I remember at all.

It wasn't until I began to listen to the Dr Demento show regularly that I encountered TMBG again. That's where I heard most of their hits, like "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", "Why the Sun Shines", "Birdhouse in Your Soul", and "Particle Man". It was great to discover that that little band I had a soft spot for because I associated them with the day I got Sonic CD actually had more to offer.

The first time I ever saw them performing was on "The Screensavers" (which I watched religiously at the time). John & John's charming and quirky personalities (as well as the sheer fact that they were willing to be on a geeky show like The Screensavers) won me over, and I had to become an active fan and follower.

The thing I like the most about TMBG is their ability to make a song out of anything. "Hovering Sombrero", "I've Got a Fang", "Unrelated Thing", "Mink Car", "Edison Museum"... the list goes on and on. No other band expresses that prodigious overbubbling zest for clattering around and having fun making music for music's sake as well or as much.

Music (Artist): Roger Miller

Because Roger Miller seems like something only boring old people would listen to, it may come as some surprise that someone who just cited TMBG can squeeze him in their Meme Cloud. It becomes less surprising, however, when one realises that Disney's animated Robin Hood was how I was first introduced to his music. And less surprising still, because it was also the Dr Demento show that offered further exposure - significantly, "I'm A Nut", one of the best novelty songs ever written. In fact, Roger Miller's song "Whistlestop" was sped up and remixed to create the infamous Hampster Dance, and you can't get much more relevant than that, can you?

In all seriousness, though, his songs can range from wry to bittersweet to uproarious, but they're all sung with such an honest, soul-baring frankness that it plays havoc with your natural laugh / cry instincts.

Not only is this the only country-and-western music I will tolerate, but I actively adore it.

TV Series (Animated): The Adventures of Tintin

Here I'm specifically referring to the Ellipse / Nelvana cartoon. Though I'm sure the original books by Herge are fabulous as well, I can't speak for them because I haven't bothered to read them yet (I have a general dislike for the comic book format that I'll have to overcome first).

The wonderful thing about the cartoon is that it is refreshingly adventurous. Almost all children's adventure cartoons these days are terrible. Not least because of the stringent rules about depictions of violence. With the inability to depict realistic guns, or show any blood whatsoever, all action sequences devolve into mindless bonecracking fistfights, numbing explosions of ever increasing magnitude, and laser weapons that seem programmed to miss. The Japanese are able to make more entertaining adventure cartoons for the same age group, but by the time they reach our shores they more often than not are bowdlerised, impotent (sometimes to the point of being unintelligible, as is the case with some Yu-Gi-Oh! storylines), and poisoned by cringe-inducing dubbing.

But Tintin avoids all of those pitfalls. It harks back to the same era as does Indiana Jones, when men were men (and dogs, aparently, were superhumanly adorable). It's just adventure, plain and simple - with exploration, intrigue, danger, and yes, real guns. There's no cynicism, no "look at how awesome we are", and no gaggle of identical superfriends with 5-foot wide shoulders and the same brand of humour as the House scriptwriter who "wrote" all their lines (you can't tell I hate Justice League Unlimited, right?).

And it also has the best orchestral theme song this side of a John Williams score.

I'm hoping that the new CG movie does at least as well, but I'm not terribly optimistic about it.

06 October 2009

Developer Spotlight - Yasushi Yamaguchi

Yasushi Yamaguchi (also known as Judy Totoya, the nickname he was known by during the early days at Sega when their developer's identities were kept secret) is probably best known in Sonic circles for having been the character artist for Sonic 2 and the creator of Miles "Tails" Prower. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Not only did he create and design Tails, he re-designed Sonic for Sonic 2. Sonic's a lot more hip and cool looking in the Sonic 2 character art than in Sonic 1, where he's a lot more like a character from the classic animation era.

He also was responsible for most of the mechanical enemy designs, and Robotnik's new improved Egg Mobile.

And the Tornado, Sonic and Tails' indispensible bi-plane, which has practically become a character in the Sonic series in its own right.

Of course the Tornado is cool - Yamaguchi has always had a strength for mechanical design, as evidenced by the awesome robotic monsters he designed for Phantasy Star II.

His designs are also showcased in the geek-cool Master System game, Cyborg Hunter (Choonsenshi Borgman in Japan).

As well as working on Sonic 2, Yamaguchi was involved to a lesser extent in the creation of Sonic CD. He was a Special Stage designer, and what Special Stages they are!

The expanded data storage capacities of the CD-ROM format allowed Sega to include bonus art in Sonic CD by the designers. Yamaguchi took the opportunity to advertise his new character Tails.

(I love the fact that the licence plate says "Miles"!)

The "See You Next Game!" line probably refers to Sonic 2 - Yamaguchi most likely made the picture before leaving the Sonic CD team to begin work on Sonic 2 in the USA. Sonic CD, however, ended up being released later than Sonic 2, so it seems a little confusing - leading some to speculate that it really refers to Sonic Drift. The car beside Tails helps lend this a little credence, but I don't think there's any proof. It's not the same car design from Drift. Why the car in the first place then? Yamaguchi might have just been expressing his penchant for vehicle design.

If it does in fact refer to Sonic Drift, that might mean Yamaguchi was responsible for the vehicle designs from that game, which would make sense, judging from the style.

Back in the really early days of the Genesis, Sega had a newsletter called SPEC (Sega Players Enjoy Club), drawn by the actual game designers, such as Naoto Ohshima, Rieko Kodama, Tohru Yoshida, and of course, Yamaguchi. They all went under nicknames when drawing the issues, and Yamaguchi went by Judy Totoya (for reasons opaque to me).

Yamaguchi sometimes got cover duty, and he really did a good job, as with this Shinobi cover.

Why wasn't Sega Visions this awesome?

But Yamaguchi's coolest contributions to the SPEC magazine were his Phantasy Star manga. They were serialised, and sadly didn't get to conclude, because SPEC was discontinued. The "Basic Saga" was a humourous retelling of the story of the Master System Phantasy Star. The characters are drawn in a hilarious chibi style, and Myau looks a little like Tails...

The "Outside Saga" told of further adventures of Alis and Lutz outside the Algol system. It was drawn with a more serious tone. Seeing it makes me ache for a full-blown Phantasy Star anime series from the early 90's, but no such thing exists. Now I'm really despressed.

Yamaguchi was reunited with Rieko Kodama on Magic Knight Rayearth, but hasn't been credited since the Sega Saturn era. Where has he been? Today's games sorely miss the coolness that his personality and pen could offer, Sonic games in particular.

Yasushi Yamaguchi article at Sonic Retro

Yasushi Yamaguchi article at Wikipedia

SPEC scans were gotten from Gazeta De Algol