I may be getting too old for this.
Yesterday, I finished up teaching at 1 in the afternoon, then had to leap into the Pharyngulamobile and drive, drive, drive to Minneapolis. I got together with Lynn Fellman and Greg Laden for a hasty dinner before I had to go move my car and park prior to Richard Dawkins’ talk. This was almost a disaster; it turns out that last night, at the same time as the talk, there was a basketball game scheduled. The streets were packed, parking was a nightmare, and I only got to Northrop Auditorium with a whisker of time to spare. Many of the attendees seem to have run into the same problem, as I noticed that people were dribbling in well into the middle of the talk. (No, not dribbling large orange balls…dribbling as in trickling, and looking a little stressed from the struggle to get into the parking garages.)
I introduced Dawkins almost on time, though. I got applauded, even though I only spent less than a minute talking — or maybe because I spent less than a minute talking.
Dawkins’ talk was good. He’s trying to make a strong distinction with a word that’s already greatly overloaded in the English language: “purpose”. His point was clear, that we really can mean a lot of very different things when we describe the purpose of something, and that especially when we’re talking about biology, “purpose” does not imply “designed with intent”. One excellent example of the way “purpose” is abused was shown: Ray Comfort’s infamous banana rationalization. It made the bit even more hilarious to see after Dawkins had warned us of the habit of too many people to use “purpose” too freely to imply intent — Comfort was the perfect bad example. I’m a bit dubious that Dawkins’ word coinages — “archi-purpose” for describing the function of an evolved structure, like a bird’s wings, and “neo-purpose” for novelties produced as a consequence of prior innovations, and which are often subverted to undermine a Darwinian function — but that’s always the problem with attempts to introduce new terms. Language is a slippery beast that will twist beneath your efforts to tame it.
Dawkins did do a book-signing afterwards, at which a huge crowd appeared. I was very impressed at the man’s well-practiced signing technique — he got through everyone quickly, and he didn’t seem to suffer the slightest crippling of the wrist for his trouble.
We then had a pub night, at the Campus Club in Coffman Memorial Union. As you know, we’d kept it a bit mum so we wouldn’t be overwhelmed by a swarm descending on the place, but just by word of mouth we had well over a hundred people in attendance. Richard got his beer, I had non-alcoholic stuff (no fun, but I had a long drive ahead of me), and there was a buffet of good food that vanished amazingly fast. All thanks to Rick Schauer who set up and hosted the event! We had more mobs of people swarming Richard and getting photos taken with him; look for them to bloom all over Facebook today. It was a good opportunity to make a more informal acquaintance with the famous Dr Dawkins than the usual lecture followed by departure, so if you didn’t get the super-semi-secret directions to the party, you missed out on a splendid evening.
We wrapped up and left about 11pm. I know, the night was still young! Alas, I had a three hour drive home ahead of me. I survived it, got home, passed out…briefly. Now I’m up getting ready for my 8am class. Fortunately, it’s student presentations today, so I just have to be awake enough to listen attentively. Have pity on one of my students in that class (Hi, Levi!) who was also in attendance last night, and has to describe frequency shifting in bat calls this morning. It’s good practice for the madcap life of the scientist!
Of course, I’m older than my students. I may just have to drag myself into a dark corner after class and fall into a coma for a few hours in order to recover. I hope you aren’t expecting voluminous posting today…my exhausted brain needs to reboot, I think.
I don’t know how Dawkins does it. He’s just come off of a trip to Michigan, and will be in Oklahoma tomorrow. He is clearly made of tougher stuff than I am.