Reading (Well, Listening)

I finished the audio book of Victor Hugo’s Les Miseriables recently. Finished being the operative word: at 3 volumes of 12-15 cassettes each, it took awhile to get through this one. On top of it’s intrinsic size, I also listened to some other pieces in between to space out my library visits (just under 20 tapes per batch can be done comfortably)

Beyond a storyline that spans nearly 20 years, Hugo makes frequent and extended use of historical vignettes. It would probably not be hard to accuse him of presenting all the background material that authors are supposed to have but not belabor their readers with. However, much of this material is actually welcome context for someone far removed from early 19th century France. The vignettes are also artfully integrated; most are presented just as the become relevant (that is, the history of a location just as the character enters it.) Other times he blurs the magic circle of the story by integrating the story time and reader’s time. For instance, an extended description of the battle of Waterloo relates only in one small detail to the story proper. Yet it is presented at a time when years in the story are elapsing unseen – by the time that the text returns to the main narrative, time has passed for the reader as well as the characters. Furthermore, the connection with Waterloo only become important later in the story – by which time the description of the battle is in the distant past, just as it was in history.

Meanwhile, amidst the extensive historical accounts and occasional preachy events, are some artfully constructed situations. One character is held paralyzed, witness to a crime that he could stop at any time, but is unable to as he is torn within between loyalty to the past and the terrible reality of the present situation. In another a character who embodies the relentless application of law is discontented – indeed, destroyed – by encountering a situation where the most just action ran counter to the law. Hugo, through his character, ponders whether right action is following the law of god.

In between volumes, I also read (or heard) Darwin on Trial. It proposes that the theories of natural selection and evolution are just that – theories. While they may be the best theories that we have, the available evidence does not support them as anything like the given facts they are usually presented as. For instance, the fossil record shows long periods of stable life forms, rather than the continuous stream of incremental change evolution predicts.

Most recently was Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. What I took away: Lincoln was a deeply religious man who struggled with the conflicts between his personal beliefs, his oath to the constitution, and the inevitable coming of civil war. In his view, the war was punishment from god visited upon both parts of the country for allowing slavery to exist, and a necessary stage in removing slavery.

Next up: Brave New World and Shindler’s List

3 Comments

  1. capnbuckle says:

    Re: Fossil record not supporting cycles of continuous changes

    [[Heh...forgot to check spelling...but I did suprisingly well in this long of a post!]]

    (I’m not the paleo nerd in the family, so take these musings with a grain of salt.)

    Something you have to remember about the fossil record:

    The fossil record is not a continuum. The fossil record, no matter how much we are able to correlate sites from around the globe, is still just still shots taken from an inconceivably long movie. Just as with making the perfect souffle, you must have a particular set of conditions for fossils to form.

    A mud pit that trapped and buried one or a hundred specimens with just the right conditions may not have existed for all of pre-history. Even if such conditions persisted for 100 years, that still would not be enough of a “film clip” to see noticeable changes in the anatomy of species long extinct.

    Even with instances of mass deaths, this supports gradual evolution if those animals all have similar anatomy. One change in the environment finally cause all of those that did not have a particular adaptation to die, presumably allowing their slightly adapted offspring to live, and thus not be “in the frame” that captured that event for us to see, today.

    Furthermore, even where conditions were right for bone to be replaced by minerals as it deteriorated, many of those fossils have been destroyed through natural metamorphic processes.

    If you want a modern example of long streams of incremental change predicted by evolution, you could easily look at dogs and horses. True, man has a hand in the breeding and diversification of these animals. But subtle changes have still occurred. Look at the cheetah, which due to the extreme specificity of the traits that affect the survival of this species, is going extinct with little or no influence from humans.

    (Because the selection of the traits of this species is so specific, if I have the terminology right, all cheetahs are practically genetic clones of each other. It would require a huge population to introduce enough genetic drift for this situation to naturally correct itself. Predators, even in “untouched” environments, simply can’t exist in huge populations. If they do, the large population is reduced due to starvation. In such a circumstance, natural selection in a large population again becomes fierce in it’s specificity.

    But then, I’m no expert…so at this point I am just speculating…and rambling.)

    Anyway, just food for thought. I might ask my wife about much of this and see what she has to say on the topic. Nicole Leahy or Jen Klein on the CnGAlums mail list might have more authoritative insight.

  2. admin says:

    Re: Fossil record not supporting cycles of continuous changes

    Yes, there is lots of speculation about possible courses of events that would harmonize the spotty fossil record with continuous evolution. The problem is that there are multiple possible courses of events with no clear evidence to support one over the other. And that’s only if you are tyring to make evidence compatible with evolution. Even more possibilites exist without that assumption. Evoluation may be the best theory we have, but it hasn’t been proven yet.

    Dogs etc and natural selection: The issue raised with this example is that we only have natural selection proved within a species. All dogs are capable of interbreeding (chemically, if not not practically due to size variation) What has not been proved is that natural processes can cause divergence in species – something yet to be demonstrated even with the aid of intelligent human agents (at least as of the book’s publication)

    To some exent I think we both like to play devil’s advocate. I appreciate that the book has awakened a heathly scepticism, but it would be interesting to hear an expert with different opinion respond to the arguments.

  3. capnbuckle says:

    Re: Fossil record not supporting cycles of continuous changes

    “devil’s advocate?” Hmmm…guilty, as charged, I think. :)

    Again, from the evolutionary biology angle, Nicole Leahy on the CnGAlums list would be an excellent expert. From the paleo angle, Jen Klein (O’Keefe? I forget if she took his name or not…I hope she forgives me…) would be an excellent expert opinion. Did I mention she’s written or is writing (Brenda keeps up with these things better than I) a chapter for a textbook?