Thursday, January 15, 2009

Failure, success, sex and evolution

Many of life's failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.

Thomas Edison, source unknown, but quoted on page 216 0f The Drunkard's Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow.

The Drunkard's Walk
has the distinction of being the first book I read and actually finished in 2009. (Finished an Ian Rankin, but I think I started that in 2008.)

It's a fascinating book on stats, randomness, chance, the way in which ability doesn't necessarily equate to success (perseverance is more likely to, I think). The stats side of it fits in with what I've read on stats and what I do at work in relation to them - and is helpful in clarifying some of the issues with stats. Stats are useful, but they're never the last word.
The way in which randomness isn't quite as random as we like to think is another intriguing outcome of the book, and our willingness to turn a number of random acts into a pattern is another factor we need to take into account.

And in relation to this, here's another quote, this time from Will Catton, a PhD student from the University of Otago, (Dunedin, NZ) who won an essay prize for a piece called: Progress, Laughter, Sex - but not in that order. It was published in the latest NZ Listener magazine dated January 17, 2009

But the idea that sex is essentially a way of shuffling genes misses much of its real significance to biological progress. A spicy new source of amazingness was involved in the lives of your sexual ancestors: the amazingness of their each convincing some other ancestor of yours to fandango. The more finicky those other ancestors were, the more impressive this familial achievement becomes. Evolutionary success, for a sexual beast, is tested by the mating choices of the rest of the species as much as by survival. So sex is the species' biology grabbing the reins on its own evolution. Such control does create new dangers. Fashion is fickle: the peacock's tail, just like hammer pants and the 'hypothetical' speculative housing market, may well be in for a bumpy devaluation. But the immensely beneficial trade-off is this: a sexual species' evolution can be directed with all the subtlety of its members' ability to perceive one another. Sizzling health is nature's oldest aphrodisiac.

Catton is obviously in love with language, which might account for why some of this seems to make less sense than first appears. But the general idea is good.

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