O ye of little faith

Some of you Doubting Thomas types have suggested that the seagull in the photo in the previous post is standing on ice, not water. That may be correct; but, if it is, I wasn’t aware of it when I published the post.

Mary P. and I were out that afternoon, and the canal did not look frozen to us. It was Mary who first commented on the seagulls — these ones:

walking on water 2

You can’t see the feet of the three seagulls on the right, because they are under water. The three seagulls on the left seem to be standing in very shallow water … creating the illusion that they are standing on the water. Despite the white bubbles Bill called attention to, I don’t think this is ice.

laurel wreathAs for the seagull in the previous post, I assumed he had found a spot where there is a mere film of water over the bottom of the canal. (The canal is drained before winter arrives.)

The laurel wreath goes to Tabatha, who said, “Looks like a thin film of water over sand.”

Fish gotta swim, birds gotta … walk on water?

I took this photo on Sunday.


The seagull is standing on the Rideau Canal. Yes, that’s right … standing on water, as you can see for yourself.

I think it’s some kind of status thing. All the other birds can fly; so where’s the glory in that?! But a bird that can walk on water — now that‘s a rare talent!

I bet female seagulls really go for him.

Why I am an evolutionist, part 2

Mendel: how heredity works

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection in 1859. His theory of evolution generated enormous controversy, even within the scientific community.

The problem of dilution

One of Darwin’s critics, Fleeming Jenkin, threw down a challenge that Darwin could not answer. Jenkin argued that a single variation (i.e., a novel and potentially beneficial trait) would disappear in just a few generations.

If Jenkin was right, Darwin’s theory could not be true. The theory presupposes that variations persist generation after generation, providing the raw material upon which natural selection can work.

To illustrate the force of Jenkin’s argument, imagine yourself with a pitcher of red juice and a pitcher of water. Mix them together and what do you get? Pink juice. That was how Jenkin understood heritability. When a baby is made, it represents a blending of the traits it inherits from its two parents.

Now imagine one pitcher of red juice among 999 pitchers of water. The red juice represents a variation — a unique trait — in a given population of animals. But only one animal (or perhaps a few) possesses the innovation. In subsequent generations, the trait would be diluted to such an extent that it would disappear.

To return to our analogy, you wouldn’t be able to discern any red at all after mixing one pitcher of red juice with 999 pitchers of water.

Jenkins cited the hypothetical example of a white man cast away on a tropical island populated only by black people. No matter how industriously the castaway impregnated the native women, he pointed out, the population would never become white. Indeed, his presence there would, in a few generations, be obliterated.1

Darwin was stumped by Jenkin’s argument. The problem was, he didn’t know how variation worked (as I pointed out in my previous post on evolution).

During Darwin’s lifetime, cytology — the branch of biology that deals with the formation, structure, and function of cells — was barely in its infancy. Darwin knew nothing about DNA, chromosomes, or genes; neither did anyone else of his era.

Mendel’s discovery

Only six years after The Origin of Species was published, Gregor Mendel made a key discovery about how heredity works. But scientists didn’t “get it”; they completely overlooked Mendel’s research at the time. Darwin died without knowing what Mendel had discovered. It would have supplied him with a response to Jenkin’s challenge.

Mendel demonstrated that variations persist, just as Darwin’s theory presupposed; variations are not blended and diluted.

Let’s revisit our thought experiment. Imagine yourself with six pitchers of red juice and six pitchers of water. You mix them together and — much to your amazement — you end up with twelve pitchers of red juice. You don’t understand how it is possible, but the juice has not been diluted.

Now you pour the twelve pitchers of juice into a big bowl, before pouring it back into the pitchers. This time — unbelievably! — you end up with nine pitchers of red juice and three pitchers of water. This is the very thing that happened in Gregor Mendel’s experiment.

Mendel carefully bred yellow peas with green peas. Every one of the next generation of plants was yellow. The green was there (in the plants’ genes) but it could not be seen.

Then he bred those apparently yellow peas with one another. The result:  in the second generation, three quarters of the plants were yellow; the other quarter, green.

Genes do not blend; they are not diluted. Once a variation is introduced, it persists in the population — even if it is hidden.

further explanation to follow


1Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution, by Maitland Edey and Donald Johanson, p. 98.

Symmetrical symmetry

I attended a performance of the Cirque du Soleil (Delirium) on Saturday evening. I intend to post some photos on Thursday or Friday.

Today, a small teaser. When I looked at the following image, it reminded me of a famous photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Cirque de Soleil 13

(In case you can’t decipher it — it’s a woman performing acrobatics while suspended, from a ring, high above the stage.)

Here’s the Cartier-Bresson image that came to mind — “Derrière la gare Saint-Lazare (1932)”:

Derrière la gare Saint-Lazare (1932)

My image is more colourful — all credit to the Cirque de Soleil — but I’m no Cartier-Bresson.

His image contains a double symmetry. The focal point is the man, jumping over a puddle. The man is mirrored in the surface of the water. Voila! Symmetry — a basic aesthetic element.

OK, big deal, you say — I’ve seen stuff like that, and better, a hundred times.

Derrière editBut don’t overlook the poster in the background. The poster mirrors the man jumping, and it also contains its own partial mirror image, to the right of it.

It’s another layer of symmetry — resulting in a kind of symmetrical symmetry, if you will. Utterly brilliant!

Cartier-Bresson didn’t compose his photographs; he used a documentary approach. He had the eye to appreciate the scene laid out in front of him — and the photographic skills to capture the image at just the decisive moment.

Graffiti tag

I’ve come up with an original idea for a meme. It was inspired by this photo on Cold Feet – Longing Heart:

Garage Peter Pan, Toronto

Grant calls it, “Garage Peter Pan”. He comments:

Since coming to Toronto, I have found amazing works of graffiti art. … Some beautify abandoned buildings; others beautify garage doors.

The picture accompanying this blog was taken by me in our neighbourhood and it is just one of several pieces that I have photographed and put on my flickr site. … Some of these pieces of street art, as I call it, make our alleyways art exhibits and they deserve to be appreciated and seen.

I agree! In that spirit, I’d like to celebrate the graffiti art found in my city — and yours! Here are some samples I photographed in Ottawa, in the vicinity of Lebreton Flats.

Better a living draft dodger than a dead soldier:

give me your draft dodgers
This painting is located within spitting distance of the new War Museum. A coincidence? — I doubt it!

More … I need more!

Actually three pictures that I mashed together using the Paint.net program. All three are painted on the same wall.

More - I need more!
So much for the social safety net!

Whence / whither / why?

whence whither why
In the words of another great artist, John Lennon, How can I go forward when I don’t know which way I’m facing?

Now appearing:

Another mash.

now appearing
You have a walk-on part in this Japanese woman’s dream.

Compressed work week

compressed work week
Five days of commuting packed into one panel.

There’s graffiti in every city on the planet; so far we’ve only touched on Toronto and Ottawa. I’m inviting you to post photos of the graffiti in your city, so we can turn this into an international celebration of urban street art.

I tag Carolyn, Jamie, Juggling Mother, and Oxymandias. (Though I don’t know whether some of you ever post photos.) But if anyone else wants to join in, please do! Let me know if you post photos and I’ll link to you.

Criticism as an end in itself

A colleague once said to me, “The phrase constructive criticism is an oxymoron. Criticism is inescapably destructive:  it involves tearing something down. We tell ourselves, ‘My criticisms are constructive’ to make ourselves feel better — but it’s bullshit.”

Judging from what goes on in the blogosphere, he had a point. Too many bloggers are devoted exclusively to destruction; to attacking other people’s opinions.

But I continue to believe there is such a thing as constructive criticism. This is a case where the end sometimes justifies the means.

Chris Tilling, whose biblioblog I much admire, has picked up a critic whose raison d’être is to relentlessly attack the Christian faith. Chris is presenting an original and informative series (now up to part 4) on Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, plus an interview with the author.

Original content! — good stuff! But he has a critic who chimes in with a half dozen comments on each post, refusing to acknowledge any validity to anyone else’s point of view, or any weakness in his own position. He serves up a constant diet of attack, attack, attack!

I came across this advice back in May of 2005, and I’ve never forgotten it:

Wear this dickhead with pride, you’re no-one until you’ve got a single-issue lunatic on your back.

There you are, Chris:  such a critic is a perverse status symbol among bloggers.

Another example is a blog called Debunking Christianity. It’s a team blog, and many of the bloggers are former pastors who have lost their faith.

I was immediately interested because my experience is similar. I used to be a pastor; I suffered a crisis of faith; and although I continue to affirm Christian faith, there’s a lot of doubt and even scepticism mixed in with my beliefs. I know how painful it is to lose one’s faith:  maybe these guys had something compassionate and edifying to offer.

Hah! As if! The blog is just what the title advertises:  it’s devoted to attacking the Christian faith. It’s a hatchet job, purely destructive, a constant tearing down.

I wonder, Why do they bother? If I had nothing constructive to say, I would give up blogging immediately. As the Preacher puts it, there is “a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build up” (Ecclesiastes 3:3).

Folk wisdom says something similar:  it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

There is such a thing as constructive criticism. Criticism can be like pruning:  clearing away the deadwood to establish the conditions for new growth. With that sort of criticism, the end (new growth) justifies the means (tearing down errors).

That’s the only kind of criticism worth pursuing. If it’s all killing and tearing down, why bother? Come up with something constructive to say, or shut the f*ck up!


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