English reading report: summaries of electronic texts

By Andreas van Cranenburgh


What follows are summaries of English texts, found on the Internet. I have written these summaries for school as part of the "extensive reading" which is one of the terms to be fulfilled for the subject English. For more frivolous texts more concise summaries would have been sufficient but I deliberately chose more informative texts, aside from one not so serious text.


  1. "Evolution and Philosophy"
  2. "Entropy is simple... if we avoid the briar patches!"
  3. "EMACS: The extensible, customizable display editor"
  4. "The American Spy Cow"

"Evolution and Philosophy"

by John Wilkens, 1997 - http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/evolphil.html - 25 pages

The argument goes as follows:

"Natural selection is the survival of the fittest. The fittest are those that survive. Therefore, evolution by natural selection is a tautology (a circular definition)."

What is curious about this argument is that it was even taken serious. This can probably be attributed to a more formal version by Karl Popper. To disprove this simple version one only has to note that the phrase "survival of the fittest" is inaccurate, and wasn't even Darwin's.

Popper's version seems different but in reality is not. He said that we define adaption by that which enables certain organisms to exists and others disappear. And according to him, because of this the theory of natural selection is applicable to any situation, because nothing is ruled out.

This is again not true. The theory of natural selection does rule out things that can be tested with conventional scientific methods. Changes that cannot take place in gradual steps do not occur, new species cannot emerge without ancestors, more efficient species cannot coexist with less efficient species, if they are competing for the same resources.

The current, scientific, understanding of "adaption" is that it is attributable to:

This means that it is not a property of a single organism. It is not a guarantee that an organism will survive less adapted organisms [for example note that identical twins will develop very differently]. It's merely a statistical property, a tendency for a set of properties to have more success at multiplying.

Is evolution science?

Often people argue that evolution is not a science, because it could not be falsified. The notion that that which is not falsifiable is not science may be prevalent, it is certainly not universally accepted.

When Darwin formed his model, he based it on the Newtonian program. According to Newton there are universal laws of science and the data from experiments will bring them out of the veil. Another view was Whewell's. He claimed that science must strive after a "consilience of inductions", even though he didn't deny that nothing is universally provable, no matter how much data gathered. Positivism was yet another prevalent view. Positivism says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge and thus the facts continually have to be distinguished from fiction. As a scientific school of thought it fell apart because it turned out that their "verification principle" was not verifiable.

Karl Popper was inspired by this and came up with his own theory of telling apart science from pseudo-science (examples of which were Marxism and Freudianism). He said that something is science when it is a) liable to be falsified by date, b) tested by observation and c) makes predictions. One minor flaw was that his own principle was not falsifiable. His own theory was mere metaphysics.

Another science philosopher was Kuhn. He had a totally different view on science. According to him what happens in science is that there are "paradigm shifts", or revolutions. To know what is scientific, one has to look at scientists. This is a blatant tautology, by the way.

Kuhn later dropped his statements because it turned out that the term "paradigm" was too vague and even the revolutions in science weren't really what they looked like.

A friend of Kuhn, Feyarebend, went even further. He said that there's no such thing as the scientific method. So according to him scientists could use theories like numerology and astrology, if it helped. He was opposed by Lakatos, who argued that science is a series of research programs, as long as they are yielding results and that scientific theories are those theories that are immune to revision.

Along came pragmatism, which claims that the truth of a theory lies in its practical outcomes. Realists hold on to the belief that the goal of science is to create effective models of reality.

What this all means for evolution is that it can't simply be discarded off by saying that it isn't falsifiable. Furthermore, the Darwinian theory of evolution is falsifiable, according to the basic understanding of "falsifiable". Modern theories of natural selection are very different from Darwin's and a lot of statements have been disproved.

It is likely for the theory of evolution to hold stand, scientifically, the competition certainly is no match, considering Creationism.

Predictions and explanations

Sometimes it is argued that evolution is not a science because it doesn't make predictions. This leaves the question whether scientific models should make predictions at all. Should every field base its theories on "natural laws"?

Natural laws and predictions often go hand in hand with physics but not so with biology. The systems observed in biology tend to show far too much complexity to simplify observations into "laws". That's what natural laws are, simplifications. Predictions can be made because other factors can be ruled out. With biology it's the exact opposite, there are so many conditions that take into account that even after the event it is hard to point out what really happened, according to "laws". This phenomenon can also be observed in some areas of physics, for example it is impossible to predict what exactly will happen when more than two billiard balls will hit each other.

What this means for evolutionary science is that even though it doesn't make predictions like physics can sometimes, it can make so called "retrodictions", only the tense is different. Predictions and natural laws aren't necessary for science in the first place, it depends on the nature of the field that is researched.

Still, the theory of evolution can make certain predictions. For example when a careful, isolated experiment is carried out. If all factors are taken into account, evolution can provide answers. This has been done in practice.

Why are natural kinds supposed to stay fixed?

Ever since Plato's concept of the "ideal types" has been conceived people have tended to think that species do not change and are clearly distinguishable from each other. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth.

It has been observed that species can sometimes "inter-breed" and form new species, or a species falls apart into two different species because of some barrier, like geographical or psychological barrier.

There is no real consensus concerning species. What is universally agreed on is that species are not eternal types.

Reductionism and evolution

The view that all science should be like physics or mathematics is widespread. In the 1960s the prevalent science philosophy was reductionism. There's ontological reductionism, which states that a level of science is made out of objects and processes of another level, for example biology would be made of chemistry. Another form of reductionism is epistemic reduction. This states that one level of science is not only made of objects and processes of a lower level of science but also that the lower level of science, ideally, explains the processes in higher levels of science.

With the theory of evolution reductionism entered the debate because of the idea of "group-selection". Meaning that selection not only occurs at the level of genes but also at higher levels. It is now more widely accepted that group "sorting" may occur, but not selection.

It is clear that biology cannot simply be reduced to physics, there are many higher level factors and the processes are too complex to label as mere physics.

Is there progress and direction in evolution?

The view that there must be some sort of progress in evolution is common. People tend to think that organisms get more complex as they evolve, some even talk about "perfection". This is a common misconception that even Darwin seemed to make at times. The very notion of "progress" is highly artificial. Even though the complexity is measurable to some degree, it has not been observed to increase.

The idea of progress came from the "discovery" of history, in the late medieval times. If history should be progressing, so would the history of life be. When the first World Ware arrived most people tended to silently discard of the "progressionism".

Teleology is the doctrine that phenomena are there with a purpose, so for evolution this would mean that all properties of organisms are there with a function. Scientists soon dropped this theory by stating that natural selection alone is enough to explain every phenomenon. But it is making a minor comeback. At least for some properties there is a teleological explanation, others are still historical. As an analogy, compare it with a stock broker, his behavior is explainable because he seeks as much profit as possible. The behavior of the stock market as whole is not explainable by teleology, this is obvious.

There are four kinds of goal-resulting systems to distinguish:

It is important to keep in mind that a system that is end-seeking is not necessarily end-directed. And even then teleology is only useful as far as it goes, for example which stockbroker wanted the economy to crash in 1929?

Naturalism: is it necessary?

Naturalism means, in philosophy, that a proof is justified so long as it is based on empirical evidence. It has been used to justify the western world-view [dualistic], it can also be used to rule out every supernatural or spiritual influence [evolution/creationism debate]. These two points may seem similar but are different. The first is about what science can tell us, the second is about what exists.

The first point is very plausible and is called "methodological naturalism". If it is not something that can be observed then it cannot be part of science. These "non-natural" explanations, for example Creationism, rely on unscientific explanations and cannot be tested.

The second point is also widespread among scientists but is not as plausible, it is called "ontological naturalism". Followers of this theory are of the opinion that that which science cannot observe does not exist. Even though science tells us a body falls because of gravity, this does not rule out other possibilities, for example both gravity and God being the cause of the body's acceleration.

A last form of naturalism is "moral naturalism", where moral systems are explained by social and biological properties of humans. In this regard, it is very important to note that explaining and justifying are two very different activities.

Does evolution make might right?

Claims have been made that the theory of natural selection leads to eugenics, racism or the justification of egotism. "Social Darwinism" is in the same vein, which says that it is morally right not to help the weak or the unfit.

Not only should it be mentioned that these claims have nothing to do with biological evolution, it should also be said that they suffer from the "naturalistic fallacy". When put simply, this means that the meaning of "is" and "ought" is confused. Just because something happens doesn't mean it ought to happen.

Sometimes even the opposite can be concluded from the theory of natural selection. For example by showing that if everyone helps each other it is beneficial for everyone.

Another point to make is that evolution does not remove purpose from life. Surviving and multiplication are not goals of the individual. What evolution does tell us is that there is no design evident in living things, although they can be marvelously complex.

Is evolution just another religion?

In order for creationists to make it easier to attack the theory of evolution the frequently try to convince their audience that the theory of evolution is not actually science, that it is a "metaphysical system".

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with things that are outside objective experience. There are three flavors of metaphysics: philosophical, ideological and religious.

When metaphysics and physics come into conflict there are four solutions:

Usually, metaphysical systems are based on a set of principles. Hence metaphysics is often deductional, whereas physics is often inductional, or empirical. Roughly there are two categories of metaphysics: idealism and naturalism. Idealism argues that everything is the result of the mind and naturalism argues that the mind is the result of everything, simply put.

Creationists, incorrectly, argue that the theory of evolution says that there is no purpose to life. Because of this, they say that it must also be a metaphysical theory, but a theory opposed to their theory, creationism. They usually cannot accept that reality is not necessarily about the "soul", "higher goals" etc.

Science is mostly neutral towards metaphysics. Except in some cases, for example about etiological aspects - the origins of things. But this is were metaphysics are making statements that aren't really metaphysical, for example saying the world is flat is not a metaphysical belief because it can be tested with conventional scientific methods [ie. taking a picture from a space shuttle...].

Even more rabid creationists go as far as saying that all of science is just a religion. They consider science a self-contained belief system that is immune to criticism of other systems, because it denies those other systems. Of course, this is not true. Science and religion can go together, as long as you're willing to take "Genesis" as symbolic, for example. Furthermore, science is not based on a set of principles, like religions are. Everything that is considered science can be observed, in contrast with a principle from for example Christianity, "there is a God".

"Entropy is simple... if we avoid the briar patches!"

by Frank L. Lambert, 2002 - http://www.entropysimple.com/content.htm - 17 pages

The second law of thermodynamics is a very important and often misunderstood law of physics. Simply put, it states that all kinds of energy tend to dissipate or disperse, when not hindered from doing so. Entropy is the quantitive measure for this.

There are a number of reasons why there are misconceptions about entropy. The first reason is that unscientific people tend to write about it. Another is that mathematicians have come up with their own kind of "entropy". They said something like "well no one seems to understand entropy so if we call this entropy no one will notice". What the mathematicians were talking about is "information entropy" and is quite different from thermo-dynamical entropy, if only because thermo-dynamical entropy always deals with heat change, as the name clearly implies.

Another very common misconception is: "entropy is disorder". This stems from the nineteenth century when a lot of prominent scientists didn't believe in molecules. At that time the term "disorder" was used as a way of explaining things that had yet to be described in detail. Unfortunately this analogy has persisted and is sometimes still being mentioned in chemistry textbooks, along with pages of incorrect analogies with disordered rooms and dysfunctional lives.

The second law can be observed all throughout our lives: hot pans cool down, water falls down a waterfall and my collar bone breaks when it crashes on the pavement. In the case of the hot pan it is because the rapid moving molecules tend to disperse their energy to less rapid moving molecules - for example the cool air that probably surrounds the hot pan. In the case of the waterfall the water molecules have a lot of potential energy because of the height and they will disperse this when gravity does its thing. And last but not least, my collar bone broke because of the kinetic energy that was in me, when my collar bone was the first to hit the ground it had to disperse all that kinetic energy and well my collar bone was no match for the concrete, so to speak.

It can also explain why gasoline will explode when introduced to the beauty of a burning match. A lot of energy is concentrated inside the molecules of gasoline, that is the bonds between the atoms, because of the sun and the pressure of the earth that it has endured. However, this energy is only dispersed when both oxygen and an activation energy are present, in this case the [beauty of the] burning match is the activation energy.

When generalized [formulated into a law] this means that all spontaneous happenings in the world are the work of the second law because they involve energy dispersal. In this case meeting an activation energy doesn't stop something from being spontaneous.

The activation energy is needed to start a chain reaction [...of reactions, to make a tautology]. When the first few bonds of gasoline are broken the energy that they disperse is the activation energy for the next gasoline molecules, and so fort. The molecules that have dispersed their energy are moving faster, meaning that they are hotter, and take up more space, hence the effect that can sometimes be described as an "explosion".

It is important to note the use of the word "tend" when talking about the second law. The second law can tell us what the probability is that energy concentrated in a group of molecules will be dispersed, but this does not necessarily mean that nature will obey these predictions. The second law doesn't tell us anything about A) obstructions and B) how fast the energy will be dispersed.

When oxygen plus another compound has a higher energy amount than that which can be formed when they react, they will react, according to the second law, to form lower energy bonds. If it wasn't for activation energies humans would spontaneously combust upon breathing, because a lot of essential organic compounds can form lower level energy bonds with oxygen (the large amount of water is another reason, but not as essential).

The greater threat to us posed by the second law is that as humans, we have to disperse energy, continually. We cannot spend minutes without oxygen. The heart would fail and the brain would sustain severe damage, after that death would be the result. Not much is known about the workings of the brain but it is for certain that a steady supply of oxygen is present, to disperse energy in the form of slow combustion.

But the second law is, apart from being a constant threat, also very beneficial. What if the the direction of energy flow, from concentrated to dispersed, would not be fixed? What if sometimes energy would just spontaneously concentrate or if it would be 50-50? Life depends on this fixed direction.

Energy in the muscles is stored in, among others, ATP molecules. This storage obstructs the spontaneous dispersal of its energy but makes possible a sudden move, for example lifting one's arm or looking at a certain direction.

It is obvious that the second law is very important to all life, as important as the sun. Note, by the way, that only 0.02% of the one billionth of the energy of the sun that reaches the earth is captured for photo-synthesis, this gives an idea of how long it should have taken for fossil fuels to form. The sun will take about 12 billion years to release all its energy, some people think this is sad but when seen in perspective, for example by taking into to account that our "civilization" is just 12,000 years old, it means next to nothing.

The second law makes it possible for water to evaporate and form clouds, upon rising they will cool down and strike the earth in the form of rain or something else [like frogs, as in the bible...]. In a way, the second law and the sun make possible every use of energy known to man, although I'm not sure about atomic energy.

Photo-synthesis is the process where light of the sun, water and carbon-dioxide are used to form more complex chemical compounds, these compounds have, consequently, also more energy in their bonds.

However complex these processes are, more energy is lost than is gained (30% gained, 70% diverted as heat). This is comparable with a car going uphill, even though some potential energy is gained by getting to a higher position, a lot more energy has to be spent than is gained, in the form of gasoline.

Even though some natural processes can be marvelously complex and our technology can do amazing things, the second law cannot be defeated. The dispersal of energy can be obstructed or diverted. Energy can be concentrated in spite of its tendency to disperse, but that will require more energy than is concentrated. For example charging a battery will cost more electricity than will be available in the battery, there's always a loss. In this sense the energy flow that the second law predicts can be postponed or turned around for some purpose, at the expense of a lot of energy. This means that energy is never gained.

To come back to entropy, the quantitative measure of the second law, there's a common misunderstanding to take into account. In the example of photo-synthesis, it is often, incorrectly, stated that there is a entropy decrease, because complex, high energy compounds are formed in the process. This is not the whole picture. The environment of the plant cannot be disregarded, the heat of the sun rays is for the larger part dispersed, and not concentrated in the compounds being formed. So there is a net increase of entropy.

The same goes for a melting ice cube in a warm room. Although the warmer air molecules have to hand in a little entropy to warm the ice cube, there is a net increase in entropy because of the warmed and melted ice.

More complicated matters can also be explained with this law. The spontaneous mixing of cream and coffee or the spread of a perfume in a perfectly still room. These things have to do with energy levels. Heat is not the only mechanism by which the second law can be observed. When a perfume is released it spreads because its energy is distributed among other energy levels, from the molecules in the room. Because of this one can smell the perfume from the other end of the room, even though the air was not moving.

"EMACS: The Extensible, Customizable display editor"

by Richard Stallman, (?) - http://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/emacs-paper.html - 23 pages

Emacs is an extensible editor (computer program to edit files). This means that the user can add or remove functionality to the program while it is running. Everyone can add functionality to the program, without interfering with each other. The development is completely open, there is no schism between developers and users.

Examples of customization are redefining what keys do and special modes for each major programming language. Commands to quickly jump between words, sentences and paragraphs are also available. The user can even modify the table containing delimiters for these, like "redefining sentences". Yet another of redefining concerns space characters. These can be redefined to automaticly watch if the right margin is reached, and insert a carriage return if so. The space character can also be defined to look for abbreviations to expand, for example writing "cd" and pressing space could expand to "command".

Indentation is another useful function, mostly used by programmers. To make the structure of nested loops and if-then blocks visible, tabs can be inserted, just as is sometimes done with citations. In EMACS, each programming language can have its own indentation function. Although stand-alone indentation programs exist, they have the disadvantage of forcing their own style, while in EMACS the user can override the indentation style while typing.

EMACS can use "tag tables" which contain the locations of procedures, handy for large programs. Mail programs written for EMACS exist, with the philosophy that the editor is the most important part of an e-mail program so it should not be rewritten, first of all because that would take more time than writing a mail program that uses an existing editor. File managers for EMACS are also available, as well as an interactive, hierarchical documentation system, INFO.

The EMACS system implements two different "languages", the editing language and the programming language. The first is designed to be easy and customizable, the second is more powerful and is actually used to implement the editing language. Previous "programmable editors" did not make the distinction between the editing and programming language, which either made them cumbersome to work with or less customizable. This is because an editor language should primarily consist of easy to remember, single character commands, while a programming language should be more efficient and elegant.

It is important for any extensible system to be able to use more than one extension at once and extensions must be able to override or replace parts of the original system. This is made possible by the library system and the command dispatcher. The library system keeps track of all loaded functions and procedures, it always uses the most recently loaded library when more than one function with the same name is loaded. The command dispatcher looks up commands in a table so that easy shortcuts can be used instead of longer function names.

Another important part of EMACS is the display processor, which makes sure the display is always up to date. An unusual principle of this display processor is that it has a lower principle than the edition process. This means that when, for example, the user is on a slow connection and presses "return" twice, the display is updated only once, there's no use in moving all the lines down when the user has just pressed "return" another time.

EMACS is written in LISP, and so are all its extensions. The reason for this is that it is an interpreted language, in contrast with an compiled language such as C, Pascal or Java. Interpreted programs can be changed while running [as longs as the interpreter allows this].

There is also an even more technical reason LISP has an advantage of other language. Its variables can have a dynamic scope. This means that each variable is available to all procedures, unless overridden. This means that there is no need to explicitly define arguments, another property that is important for making the extensibility possible.

When a function is to be called at certain well defined events this is called a "hook". An example of a hook is when an error occurs, or when a variable has to be monitored for changes, such as the current position of the cursor.

With all these possibilities of dynamic extension and customization an important part not to forget is the documentation. EMACS is self-documenting in the sense that when a library is loaded its documentation is also loaded. Help can even be called on in the middle of typing a command.

EMACS started of as a series of improvements to TECO, another programmable editor, in 1974. Imitations and mutated versions have spawned since. A very important feature sometimes missing from different versions is the extensibility, a real EMACS does not trade off extensibility for anything.

Some people believe that when a new program is to be designed its specifications have to be made in advance. New features have to be tested for they are released to the general public. EMACS has followed a totally different route. According to most authorities it has followed a path straight to disaster. A gradual deformation of the TECO editor into something totally unlike TECO. Because changes could be tested by the users immediately the users could give comments and report bugs, this more open development scheme allows for faster feedback.

"The American Spy Cow"

by Jacob Haisley, 2003 - http://www.fmp.com/rodent/spycow/ - 4 pages

The US government have been using artificially recreated farm animals for some time. The project's called "Military Farm Animal Operations Program" or MFAOP. Chickens, race horses, ducks and now also a cow, the latest addition, have all been successfully deployed. The company that makes these half robots, half animals, is "Armorobotech".

The animals have to be indiscernible from their living counterparts. The engineers have gone through great lengths to make them feel, sound and move like real animals. They are usually controlled by a panel with at least 120 buttons, a joystick and video displays. The personnel has to know every single button by heart, so as not to make a cow quack...

Among the special features of the new cow breed are three (!) modes of self-destruction: large explosion, natural death and mad-cow disease simulation. Furthermore there are 30 (!) different "moos" or "grunts".

These are the different breeds of cows: