The Garden of Cosmic Speculation

This wonderful garden in Dumfries, Scotlandd is open to the public only one day a year. I’d love to visit it; but until I do there’s an online gallery of images: The Garden of Cosmic Speculation by Charles Jencks.

Where to find Britain’s nesting seabirds

The BBC has a quick overview of some of Britain’s largest and best nesting colonies of seabirds: Seabird spectacular.

Nesting seabirds

A nesting colony of northern gannets

Was Stonehenge the United Nations building of its day?

The UN building in New York was made with the finest materials contributed by countries around the world to celebrate their cooperation. Researchers now think that Stonehenge was a symbol of the united tribes of Britain.

Stonehenge Was A Monument To Tribal Unification, Say Researchers (via Planetsave)

  Researchers working at Stonehenge have concluded, after ten years of archaeological investigation at the site, that it was built as a monument to unify the peoples of Britain after a long period of conflict and regional differences.     The researchers theorize that the stones symbolize the ancestors…

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Ernst Haeckel and radiolarians

I’m going through old books at home, currently a stack of “Horizon,” a hard-backed quarterly from the American Heritage Publishing Company. (The contributors range from Arnold Toynbee to T.S. Eliot. I’m reluctant to send them to the Goodwill.) The Spring 1976 issue contains “The Stately Mansions of the Radiolaria,” by Stephen Jay Gould.

Here’s what he says about the much-maligned Ernst Haeckel:

Ernst Haeckel was the Thomas Huxley of Germany. A brilliant and indefatigable writer and lecturer, he became the continent’s chief publicist for evolution. His books certainly had a greater impact on the general public than those of Darwin. He is best remembered today for his intriguing, but basically incorrect theory that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”—that is, that individuals repeat the stages of their evolutionary ancestry during embryonic growth….

Haeckel also introduced a multitude of terms into our biological language—”plankton” among them. in his own day, he was a force to reckon with. He railed against the established church and the privileges of aristocracy, and hoped to establish an evolutionary humanism as the basis of ethical judgment. But when he was not fighting his cosmic and romantic battles, he liked to work on the taxonomy of radiolarians, for he was overwhelmed by the beauty and variety of their shells. He wrote an illustrated an enormous monograph to describe the radiolarians collected by a famous scientific expedition, the voyage of H.M.S. Challenger in 1872–1876.

In his monograph of 1877, Haeckel could do little more than catalogue in wonder. He estimated the number of known radiolarian species at 4,314, of which he described 3,508 for the first time [my emphasis] in that single work. Haeckel’s plates are a marvel of natural illustration, though in retrospect they contain as much imagination as observation. Haeckel was so convinced of the unerring geometric regularity of radiolarian parts that he drew many perfect symmetries not quite obtained by the real beasts.

This is a man who should not be dismissed in a single sentence about embryos if there’s space for more.

P.S. I made this comment over on the Pharyngula Endless Thread and decided to preserve it here.

P.P.S. Radiolarian plates.

Part of Plate 15 in Radiolarians

Are secular people more ethical?

Spiegel Online asks, Does secularism make people more ethical?. Then it veers off into talking about numbers. Hilmar Schmundt notes: “Non-believers are often more educated, more tolerant and know more about God than the pious.” A study at Boston University finds

  • They are more commonly opposed to the death penalty, war and discrimination.
  • They also have fewer objections to foreigners, homosexuals, oral sex, or hashish.
  • They are better educated.
  • Even when their higher education levels are factored out, they are better informed in matters of faith.
  • They tend not to humanize non-human factors.

Secularists make up some 15 percent of the global population, or about 1 billion people. As a group, this puts them third in size behind Christians (2.3 billion) and Muslims (1.5 – 1.6 billion).

Pie chart showing No Religion as the third-largest group

No Religion is the third-largest group

(Figures from

Barry Kosmin is the director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Connecticut, U.S.. He says

many believe that the US population is steadily becoming more religious — but this is an optical illusion. Many evangelicals have simply become more aggressive and more political.”

The article continues, “This heightened public profile may be contributing to the shrinking numbers of religious believers. Churches in the US are losing up to 1 million members every year.” Secularism is spreading from the more to the less educated, just as quitting smoking did.

In the former East Germany,

Nearly 67 percent of eastern Germans have no religious affiliation, compared to just 18 percent in the West. This trend isn’t likely to change in the foreseeable future, since children who grew up with non-religious parents are almost certain to remain secular. The mother’s beliefs have an especially significant impact on the children’s belief systems.

When the GDR ended its period of religious repression, no process of re-Christianization occurred. “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the withdrawal of a church presence in the east actually sped up,” says Detlef Pollack, a professor in the sociology of religion at the University of Münster.

But the secular are not organized. Barry Kosmin tells of a meeting of secular groups last year in Washington. They were planning a big demonstration:

“But they couldn’t even agree on a motto,” he says. “It was like herding cats, straight out of a Monty Python sketch.” In the end, the march was called off.

“The Crusades through Arab Eyes”

Steve Smith says:
[I recommend] “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” by Amin Maalouf. This is religious, political, and strategic history as it should be written. It’s a pithy and honest history of a subject that continues to highly relevant. And it can be read in its original French or the very good English translation. It also quotes this gem from 10th c. “Muslim” poet al-Ma’arri:

The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: Those with brains, but no religion, And those with religion but no brains.

Little has changed over a thousand years.

Evolution caught in the act—again!

sparrow flying

A sparrow from Pompeii

Scientists have shown that the Italian sparrow is a newly evolved species of the sparrow family. DNA analysis shows that it originated as a hybrid of the house sparrow and the Spanish sparrow. However, it is now breeding true and is not interbreeding with the Spanish sparrow in areas where they occupy the same range. That is one of the more practical definitions of species.

this study, led by evolutionary biologist Glenn-Peter Saetre from the University of Oslo, is a genetic snapshot that appears to settle the debate.

Reference: Hybrid speciation in sparrows I: phenotypic intermediacy, genetic admixture and barriers to gene flow. Jo S. Hermansen, Stein A. Sæther, Tore O. Elgvin, Thomas Borge, Elin Hjelle, Glenn-Peter Sætre. Article first published online: 19 JUL 2011. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2011.05183.x

Sophie in ‘t Veld wins International Humanist Award

Sophie in 't Veld, MEP

Sophie in ‘t Veld was named an International Humanist of 2011 at the 18th World Humanist Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in Oslo, Norway. Ms. In ‘t Veld is a member of the European Parliament for the Dutch democratic party D66. She is the chair of European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics. According to Google Translate:

Chairman of the IHEU Sonja Eggerickx praises in ‘t Veld’s commitment to privacy, women’s and gay rights, and its initiative for the establishment of the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics (EPPSP).

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