(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘evolution

“Nothing so much assists learning as writing down what we wish to remember”*…

Lewis Carroll’s commonplace shows his musings on ciphers and detailed handwritten charts exploring labryinths. [source]

Your correspondent is away for the rest of this month; regular service will resume on or around September 1st. For the hiatus, a little something to occupy you…

As readers of this blog will have deduced, (Roughly) Daily is a kind of commonplace book…

Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They have been kept from antiquity, and were kept particularly during the Renaissance and in the nineteenth century. Such books are similar to scrapbooks filled with items of many kinds: sententiae, notes, proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, prayers, legal formulas, and recipes… Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts. Each one is unique to its creator’s particular interests but they almost always include passages found in other texts, sometimes accompanied by the compiler’s responses.

Commonplace book

As Steven Johnson points out, commonplace books have a storied history…

Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters — just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing. The great minds of the period — Milton, Bacon, Locke — were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: in the words of one advocate, maintaining the books enabled one to “lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.”

The philosopher John Locke first began maintaining a commonplace book in 1652, during his first year at Oxford. Over the next decade he developed and refined an elaborate system for indexing the book’s content. Locke thought his method important enough that he appended it to a printing of his canonical work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book

Perhaps because in these interconnected days almost anything seems re-retrievable at a click, not too many bother keeping commonplaces. That’s a shame. Your correspondent can testify that the habit– whether practiced in a book or digitally– is a powerful aid both to learning and to writing.

Happily, there are lots of sources of good advice for getting started, e.g., here, here (source of the image above), and here. There’s even a Masterclass.

* Marcus Tullius Cicero


As we live and learn, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that (prodigious journaler and commonplace keeper) Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace published “On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural selection” in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. This was the first printed formal exposition of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Darwin had developed the essential elements of his theory by 1838 and set them on paper in 1844; however, he chose to keep his work on evolution unpublished for the time, instead concentrating his energies first on the preparation for publication of his geological work on the Beagle voyage , and then on an exhaustive eight-year study of the barnacle genus Cirripedia.

In 1856, at the urging of Charles Lyell, Darwin began writing a vast encyclopedic work on natural selection; however, it is possible that the extremely cautious Darwin might never have published his evolutionary theories during his lifetime had not Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist born in New Zealand, independently discovered the theory of natural selection. Wallace conceived the theory of natural selection during an attack of malarial fever in Ternate in the Mollucas, Indonesia (Febuary, 1858) and sent a manuscript summary to Darwin, who feared that his discovery would be pre-empted.

In the interest of justice Joseph Dalton Hooker and Charles Lyell suggested joint publication of Wallace’s paper prefaced by a section of a manuscript of a work on species written by Darwin in 1844, when it was read by Hooker, plus an abstract of a letter by Darwin to Asa Gray, dated 1857, to show that Darwin’s views on the subject had not changed between 1844 and 1857. The papers by Darwin and Wallace were read by Lyell before the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858 and published on August 20.

Darwin & Wallace Issue the First Printed Exposition of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection


“English is flexible: you can jam it into a Cuisinart for an hour, remove it, and meaning will still emerge”*…

Plus ça change. The opening pages of The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke, an instructional book of table manners dating from around 1480 and written in Middle English. Amongst other directives, children are told Bulle not as a bene were in thi throote (Don’t burp as if you had a bean in your throat) and Pyke notte thyne errys nothyr thy nostrellys’(Don’t pick your ears or nose).

To be honest, it is a mess…

English spelling is ridiculous. Sew and new don’t rhyme. Kernel and colonel do. When you see an ough, you might need to read it out as ‘aw’ (thought), ‘ow’ (drought), ‘uff’ (tough), ‘off’ (cough), ‘oo’ (through), or ‘oh’ (though). The ea vowel is usually pronounced ‘ee’ (weak, please, seal, beam) but can also be ‘eh’ (bread, head, wealth, feather). Those two options cover most of it – except for a handful of cases, where it’s ‘ay’ (break, steak, great). Oh wait, one more… there’s earth. No wait, there’s also heart.

The English spelling system, if you can even call it a system, is full of this kind of thing. Yet not only do most people raised with English learn to read and write it; millions of people who weren’t raised with English learn to use it too, to a very high level of accuracy.

Admittedly, for a non-native speaker, such mastery usually involves a great deal of confusion and frustration. Part of the problem is that English spelling looks deceptively similar to other languages that use the same alphabet but in a much more consistent way. You can spend an afternoon familiarising yourself with the pronunciation rules of Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish and many others, and credibly read out a text in that language, even if you don’t understand it. Your pronunciation might be terrible, and the pace, stress and rhythm would be completely off, and no one would mistake you for a native speaker – but you could do it. Even French, notorious for the spelling challenges it presents learners, is consistent enough to meet the bar. There are lots of silent letters, but they’re in predictable places. French has plenty of rules, and exceptions to those rules, but they can all be listed on a reasonable number of pages.

English is in a different league of complexity. The most comprehensive description of its spelling – the Dictionary of the British English Spelling System by Greg Brooks (2015) – runs to more than 450 pages as it enumerates all the ways particular sounds can be represented by letters or combinations of letters, and all the ways particular letters or letter combinations can be read out as sounds.

From the early Middle Ages, various European languages adopted and adapted the Latin alphabet. So why did English end up with a far more inconsistent orthography than any other? The basic outline of the messy history of English is widely known: the Anglo-Saxon tribes bringing Old English in the 5th century, the Viking invasions beginning in the 8th century adding Old Norse to the mix, followed by the Norman Conquest of the 11th century and the French linguistic takeover. The moving and mixing of populations, the growth of London and the merchant class in the 13th and 14th centuries. The contact with the Continent and the balance among Germanic, Romance and Celtic cultural forces. No language Academy was established, no authority for oversight or intervention in the direction of the written form. English travelled and wandered and haphazardly tied pieces together. As the blogger James Nicoll put it in 1990, English ‘pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary’.

But just how does spelling factor into all this? It wasn’t as if the rest of Europe didn’t also contend with a mix of tribes and languages. The remnants of the Roman Empire comprised Germanic, Celtic and Slavic communities spread over a huge area. Various conquests installed a ruling-class language in control of a population that spoke a different language: there was the Nordic conquest of Normandy in the 10th century (where they now write French with a pretty regular system); the Ottoman Turkish rule over Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries (which now has very consistent spelling rules for Hungarian); Moorish rule in Spain in the 8th to 15th centuries (which also has very consistent spelling). True, other languages did have official academies and other government attempts at standardisation – but those interventions have largely only ever succeeded at implementing minor changes to existing systems in very specific areas. English wasn’t the only language to pick the pockets of others for useful words.

The answer to the weirdness of English has to do with the timing of technology. The rise of printing caught English at a moment when the norms linking spoken and written language were up for grabs, and so could be hijacked by diverse forces and imperatives that didn’t coordinate with each other, or cohere, or even have any distinct goals at all. If the printing press has arrived earlier in the life of English, or later, after some of the upheaval had settled, things might have ended up differently…

Why is English spelling so weird and unpredictable? Don’t blame the mix of languages; look to quirks of timing and technology: “Typos, tricks, and misprints,” from Arika Okrent (@arikaokrent).

* Douglas Coupland


As we muse on the mother tongue, we might spare a thought for a man who used it to wonderful effect: Seymour Wilson “Budd” Schulberg. The son of B. P. Schulberg (head production at Paramount Pictures in it’s 1930s-30s heyday) and Adeline Jaffe Schulberg (who founded one of Hollywood’s most successful talent/literary agencies), Budd went into the family business, finding success as a screenwriter, television producer, novelist, and sports writer. He is probably best remembered for his novels What Makes Sammy Run? and The Harder They Fall, his Academy Award-winning screenplay for On the Waterfront, and his (painfully prescient) screenplay for A Face in the Crowd.


“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so f#@kin’ heroic.”*…

From dilapidated power plants, abandoned medical facilities, and amusement parks left in rusted ruin, the compelling scenes that French photographer Jonathan Jimenez, aka Jonk (previously), captures are evidence of nature’s endurance and power to reclaim spaces transformed by people. Now compiled in a new book titled Naturalia II, 221 images shot across 17 countries frame the thriving vegetation that crawls across chipped concrete and architecture in unruly masses.

This succeeding volume is a follow-up to Jonk’s first book by the same name and focuses on the ways the ecological crisis has evolved during the last three years. He explains the impetus for the book in a statement:

On the one hand, the situation has deteriorated even further with yet another species becoming extinct every single day. Global warming continues and has caused repeated natural catastrophes: floods, fires, droughts, etc. On the other hand, our collective awareness has widely increased. We are still a long way from the commitment needed to really change things, but we are heading in the right direction. Millions of initiatives have already emerged, and I hope that my photos and the message contained within them can play a small part in the collective challenge facing us all…

More at “Nature Resurges to Overtake Abandoned Architecture in a New Book of Photos by Jonk” and at his site.

On an apposite note: “Forest the size of France regrown worldwide over 20 years, study finds.”

* George Carlin


As we inspect the inexorable, we might spare a thought for Hugo Marie de Vries; he died on this date in 1935. A botanist, he introduced the experimental study of organic evolution– and was, thus, was one of the first geneticists. His rediscovery in 1900 (simultaneously with the botanists Carl Correns and Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg) of Gregor Mendel’s principles of heredity and his theory of biological mutation, though considerably different from a modern understanding of the phenomenon, resolved ambiguous concepts concerning the nature of variation of species that, until then, had precluded the universal acceptance and active investigation of Charles Darwin’s system of organic evolution.

He suggested the concept of genes and introduced the term “mutation”, and developed a mutation theory of evolution.


“I have no trouble with the twelve inches between my elbow and my palm. It’s the seven inches between my ears that’s bent.”*…

Humans are the only species that can throw well enough to kill rivals and prey. Because throwing requires the highly coordinated and extraordinarily rapid movements of multiple body parts, there was likely a long history of selection favoring the evolution of expert throwing in our ancestors.

Most people probably don’t think throwing is important outside of sports because they’ve forgotten its usefulness. Part of that has to do with the fact that people have been using weapons like bows and firearms for centuries.

But before the invention of these weapons, our hunter-gatherer ancestors threw darts, knives, spears, sticks and stones at rivals and prey. Even today, stones remain effective weapons; you’ll see protesters heave stones at police and stoning used as a form of punishment in some places.

Darwin considered the evolution of throwing to be critical to the success of our ancestors. As he wrote in “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex,” it allowed “the progenitors of man” to better “defend themselves with stones or clubs, to attack their prey, or otherwise to obtain food.”

The development of the skill begins with the evolution of bipedal locomotion, or walking on two feet. This happened about 4 million years ago, and it freed the arms and hands to learn new abilities like making tools, carrying goods and throwing…

Why humans are the only species that can throw fast enough to kill: “How humans became the best throwers on the planet.”

Read the underlying research in The Quarterly Review of Biology here and here.

See also: “The Long, Sweaty History of Working Out.”

* Tug McGraw (pictured above; source)


As we wind up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1931 that then-17 year old Jackie Mitchell, of the Chattanooga Lookouts (AA), pitched in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. One of the first female pitchers in professional baseball history, she became legendary when she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in succession.

Jackie Mitchell with Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, and (in the suit) Joe Engel


Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 2, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”*…

This is probably the most exciting and fruitful time ever to become an aspiring economist. Why? Because economics is reaching its Copernican Moment – the moment when it is finally becoming clear that the current ways of thinking about economic behavior are inadequate and a new way of thinking enables us to make much better sense of our world. It is a moment fraught with danger, because those in power still adhere to the traditional conventional wisdom and heresy is suppressed…

We are gradually reaching the same sort of stunning realization that Copernicus must have reached before writing his revolutionary book “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”: What if we can’t get there from here? What if incremental fixes don’t permit a major new leap in our understanding? What if we need to encounter the world afresh?

Fortunately, we now have access to a powerful body of thought that can guide this new encounter. The evolution of our natural world can be understood in terms of variation, replication and selection. The evolution of ideas can be understood in such terms as well: new ideas keep cropping up; they are transmitted from person to person; and the ideas that get selected to survive are often to be ones that enable us to navigate our environment most effectively. Selection can act not only on individuals, but also on groups. “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”(E.O. Wilson and D.S. Wilson (2007), “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundations of Sociobiology,” Quarterly Review of Biology, 82(4), 327-348) The level of functional organization thus depends on the relative strength of within- and between-group selection.

This is a different starting point from the one underlying mainstream economics. The discipline of economics is based on classical physics, i.e. the inanimate world. Evolution, by contrast, is appropriate to the animate world. Not a bad point of departure for economics. After all, humans are living creatures. If we choose this path, economics will be reaching its Darwinian – not Copernican – Moment…

There is change in the air. Dennis Snower (@DJSnower) explains why “Economics Nears a New Paradigm.”

For a cautionary reminder that while this time might be different, we’ve started down this road before, see Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s piece on Thorstein Veblen, “The Prophet of Maximum Productivity.”

And for an oddly resonant, but different challenge to economic orthodoxy, see Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin‘s recent “Endnotes on 2020: Crypto and Beyond.”

* economist and co-founder of General Systems Theory Kenneth Boulding


As we recalibrate, we might recall that it was on this date in 1941, in his State of the Union Address, the president Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined the Four Freedoms— the fundamental values of democracy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. These precepts were furthered by Eleanor Roosevelt, who incorporated them into the Preamble to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Engraving of the Four Freedoms at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.


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