Evolution and behaviour

A computer program that simulates coding and inheritance on the one hand, and neural function on the other, permits the emulation of simple animal-like organisms

Today I want to share two striking YouTube videos that I found recently. Maybe you’d like to watch them yourself.

Part of a DNA molecule (from Wikipedia)

Introduction – The animation shows the molecular structure of DNA, rotating so you can visualise it more easily. Watson and Crick famously published this structure in April 1953.

DNA contains the genetic information that specifies the nature of plants, animals and other life forms. Each species has it’s own form of this DNA ‘instruction book’. Amongst other things, a species’ DNA controls the basic structure of the brain just as it does for other body parts. But here’s an interesting fact: The coding and behaviour of DNA can be simulated by strings of characters stored in a computer.

Brains involve cells called neurons with connections between them, and neural networks running on a computer can behave in a similar way to a very simple brain. Building a computer program that simulates coding and inheritance on the one hand, and neural function on the other, permits the emulation of simple animal-like organisms, and there are applications out there that do just this.

First example – One such program is Minute Labs’ Evolution Simulator (check out their YouTube to see it in action).

Second example – Another program, and I want to focus mainly on this one, is from David Randall Miller. He wrote a particularly fascinating simulator, see his YouTube demo and explanation below for some quite deep insights. It’s a long video, but breaks into logical chunks for easier viewing; I suggest viewing the first section and continuing if it seems interesting.

It’s a really helpful approach for anyone wanting to better understand evolution. It assumes only fundamental levels of the topics, but will enhance your appreciation of maths and computing while also demonstrating the basics of genetics, inheritance, simple neural networks, and animal behaviour. That’s quite a lot of benefit from just one video!

Some questions to ask yourself…

  • What new understandings did you gain?
  • Did you disagree with anything?
    • If so, why?
  • What conclusions did you draw about the nature of living things?
  • Was anything surprising to you?
  • What questions do the videos cause you to ask?

Another great song from Sarah

Sometimes we struggle because we know we’re at a place of final defeat. Yet beyond that defeat, hope can still spring up.

Sarah Reynolds is a talented singer and musician in the Cirencester area and has written, performed, mixed and produced several of her own songs. A little while ago her latest song, Wilderness, was released and I’d like to share it with you. Here’s the version with lyrics.

So – What is special about Wilderness and why do I love the song? For me, Sarah manages to capture both the anxiety and the struggle of seeming failure, but also the hope and expectation of redemption. Sometimes we struggle because we know we’re at a place of final defeat. Yet beyond that defeat, hope can still spring up – sometimes unexpectedly.

This is surely an experience we’ve all had – I’ve been at the end of my tether but finally realised the way forward depends, not on my ability and strength, but on an external source of help. So have you! We’ve all felt this way from time to time.

So this song’s emotional engagement comes from reminding us that there’s defeat within us, yet ‘hope springs eternal’ from elsewhere.

Follow Sarah online:

Time flies!

I plan to gird up my literary loins and begin to put things right

It’s been a long, long time since my last post. I sent a hasty ‘Happy Christmas’ post on 23rd December 2020 and since then – nothing. I really have been rather busy, but also have somehow lacked the energy to make the effort. I don’t know why – perhaps I just needed a break.

In the next few days I plan to gird up my literary loins and begin to put things right. There are a lot of unanswered comments that I need to deal with first, I want to say something about a song I especially like, and I’ve been asked to write a little about my personal history. So watch this space.

Meanwhile, just for fun, here’s my friend Kevin and his daughters at the Cotswold Wildlife Park in August. (It’s well worth a visit, by the way.)

Kevin is taking a photo of a waterlily. Don’t drop your phone, Kevin! Don’t fall in, Kevin! He didn’t – but it looked risky for a moment there.

Christmas and New Year

Surely love and goodwill are appropriate not only at Christmas, but all year round

I’d like to wish all my readers a very happy and blessed Christmas holiday and all the best for 2021. The last year has not been great, one way and another, has it? Covid is likely to get the biggest mention when the history books are written. But Brexit has also loomed large for those of us in the UK and also for all our friends in Europe too. Whichever side of the debate you were on – leave or remain – the deed is done now and we will have to deal with the expected and unexpected impacts that it will bring.

For those of us who follow Jesus, our calling is to love him, one another, the people we live amongst, and even those who might wish us harm. And surely love and goodwill are appropriate not only at Christmas, but all year round.

The picture was taken earlier this month and may not seem very ‘Christmasy’. We have had no snow and very little frost (though more than enough rain). But the sunshine, blue sky, and light mist in the photo remind us that spring will soon be on the way. I’m hoping for a very much better year in 2021, and I hope exactly the same for you. Happy Christmas!

If you like the picture, you can download a larger version of the ‘card’, or a version without the words.

Ingredients of kindness

It’s so important to wait for the right moment, to be sensitive to the feelings of other people.

Let’s analyse the idea of kindness – being kind to people.

Sharing a drink – Wikimedia image

First, it’s worth noting that the spring that feeds a flow of kindness is love. The reason a person acts in a kind way towards others is that there is love in that person’s heart. A loving attitude impels us towards kind thoughts, words and actions. Where there is a loving heart, kind things will pour out – always fresh, never running low. The stream of kindness flows because of the rising spring of love. But there also needs to be a measure of self control. Sometimes the instinct to be kind can result in thoughtless acts that embarrass or distress; kindness must be appropriate and considered.

Kindness is fundamentally a thing of great joy. If we are kind out of a sense of duty or if we have a grudging attitude, there will an absence of that wonderful enabler – a joyful heart. A kind act without joy may be useful and of great benefit, but it will never be a pretty thing. Even worse is kindness with a hidden motive. If I want something in return, my kind behaviour is no more than a calculated trade; there’s an expectation. This is kindness used as a wrapper to hide something else. The missing ingredient here is gentleness. Kindness must be a gentle thing, demanding nothing in return, offering benefit at no cost.

And kindness is always a thing of peace, without this essential element it may involve serious danger. Maybe you find it hard to imagine kindness without peace; but what happens when we want to be kind to an enemy? There are plenty of stories of wartime situations where a noble act of kindness has bridged the gulf between those on opposite sides of the battle. The counterfoil here is faithfulness. If we are to be kind in the middle of an argument, or much more a war, we will need to be faithful. But faithful to what? Faithful at the very least to strength of character and to courage and to the deep wisdom that even my enemy is a fellow human being, that there is a bond deeper even than existential danger.

Finally, kindness requires patience. It’s so important to wait for the right moment, to be sensitive to the feelings of other people. Nothing is more damaging to an attempt to be kind than the haste that overlooks the nuances of the situation. And what does patience need as a companion? Goodness. So how do we define that? It’s the thing that distinguishes what is right and what is not, a bit like conscience I suppose. Goodness is hard to define because it’s internal and may not be detectable from the outside. Goodness is about motivation, it’s allied to gentleness.

Let’s lay these concepts out, with kindness at the centre. We have:

Love, joy, peace, patience


Goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control

When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, one of the things he told them was this.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control

Galatians 5:22

So be kind whenever and wherever you can. There are plenty of opportunities in the world. Be kind to friends and family, be kind to the people you work with, be kind to your neighbours, to strangers, and yes – be kind to those people who are not kind to you, those who behave like enemies. Kindness never does any harm, and sometimes it can be quite disarming.

Truth matters

If I’m given misinformation and base my thoughts, words and actions on that, sooner or later I’ll run into a problem

In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act

George Orwell

Truth matters. It matters because basing our thoughts, words and actions on falsehood is asking for trouble. Truth is like light: it enables us to see clearly, it banishes darkness, but it can be snuffed out and then we’re left in the dark.

Light banishes darkness as truth banishes deceit

Let’s explore the background, why am I writing about truth at this particular time? And why am I writing about it at all? I’m writing about it at this particular time because truth seems to be valued by fewer people than ever before. There have always been those who trample on truth, but we do seem to be living at a time when peddling falsehoods has become pandemic. Perhaps the most obvious examples are in the political sphere, where governments and their opponents have sometimes made claims based on almost anything other than the simple facts. Policies and decisions are being made on the basis of opinion, personal ambition, whim, wishful thinking, and even denial of clear evidence. I’m writing about it because it matters. It really does. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Is this a new phenomenon? No, people have always made things up, sometimes to fill gaps in what is known, sometimes to deny what is known because it’s distasteful or hard to deal with, or for the base motives that are common, if we’re honest, to all of us – greed, self preservation, shame, fear and the rest. Survival, self-respect, money and power are important to us – sometimes important enough that we will cheat, lie, and ignore inconvenient truths that are staring us in the face.

So why does it matter?

(I said we’d get to that.)

The answer is really quite simple. If I’m given misinformation and base my thoughts, words and actions on that, sooner or later I’ll run into a problem. You can’t avoid the truth indefinitely, it will come back and bite you. Misinformation leads inevitably to error and confusion.

Truth matters, and it can be critically important, even to the point of life or death.

Imagine a map that shows a bridge across a river. An ambulance crew see that the bridge provides a valuable short cut to reach a seriously ill patient in half the time. But when they arrive at the river – there is no bridge. They have to retrace their journey and try a different way, but they are too late and the patient dies. Truth matters, and it can be critically important, even to the point of life or death.

Or imagine a general fighting a battle. He is told by his spies that the enemy is almost out of ammunition; he decides to mount an immediate attack, before new supplies can reach his opponents. If the spies’ report is true, he will win the battle easily. If they made it all up and it’s false, he might be heavily defeated. Does truth make a difference? Yes – because it leads to right action. This is why intelligence and counter intelligence matter; if you can feed falsehoods to your enemy and they believe them, they may well make a serious blunder.

Unfortunately, this strategy to deceive and confuse is now being applied, not to the enemy, but within our society. We should be friends speaking the truth to one another, but much of the untruth flying around these days seems deliberate and causes serious difficulty for all of us. It’s become a bad habit. Who should I believe? Which ‘facts’ can I depend upon? How can I check? How should we deal with this difficulty? Here are some suggestions.

Dealing with it

  • Be sceptical of assertions – in other words, ask people for evidence
  • Don’t accept claims without supporting evidence
  • Remember that lots of people saying something doesn’t make it more true
  • Use fact checking websites
  • Beware of false claims presented as evidence
  • Treat people with respect and kindness even if they are making false claims
  • Avoid shouting matches, loudness doesn’t prove anything.

So what is the take away message here? We can all make a difference for better or worse. Search for the truth in every situation, look for evidence, listen to what people say but don’t accept anything without evidence of some kind (this might be evidence about the claims being made or it might be evidence that the person making the claims is reliable and usually speaks the truth). Then base any decisions or choices on the truth, never on claims you know to be false. Never deliberately mislead others (unless you are a general fighting a war). And always bear in mind that people with an agenda may sometimes behave like an enemy general. They may see you as the enemy and will misinform you if they think it will help them in some way. The world is a wonderful place, but it can also be a deceptive and dangerous place. Go in peace, but go very carefully!

Let’s base our lives on what is true, and not on what is false. Even though it’s sometimes hard to tell what is, or is not, true – it’s always worth making the attempt. And let’s remember that truth will never let us down. Untruth is just as reliable – it will always let us down in the end. No wonder Jesus said. ‘The truth will set you free’ (John 8:32). He was talking particularly about spiritual truth, but it’s a valid statement for truth in general. And let’s also bear in mind that science is a search for truth, and all the technology we depend on every day works only because it stands on that foundation of truth.

Whether we turn to the spiritual or the physical realm, we can only rely upon what is true. Truth is a thing of beauty, but deceit is ugly beyond measure. Choose beauty. Choose the light. Choose truth!

See also

Does the Truth Matter – Psychology Today
Fact checking websites – Wikipedia
Truth – Bible Gateway
Truth – Wikipedia

A political post?

What are your hopes, what are your needs, and what can you contribute?

You won’t often see me post on political topics. This is not the first time I’ve done so, but it’s been something of a rarity.

Today I feel compelled to share a Liberal Democrat story, a short video presented by their new party leader, Ed Davey. Take a look and think about the people he talks to and the reasons he visited them.

You can read the article, or you can just watch the video below.

So – what are your hopes, what are your needs, and what can you contribute? How can you co-operate with friends and neighbours, meet needs, calm nerves, comfort hurting people? And, whatever your politics, how can you influence your chosen party to listen, hear, understand, and promote fairness, kindness, and the common good?

Covid-19 risk assessment

It is humorous enough that you want to read it, yet it still helps to remind you of the real dangers

I love this, popularised on Twitter by Alice Roberts. It is humorous enough that you want to read it, yet it still helps to remind you of the real dangers, and makes you think about the fact that some risks are greater than others.

Covid-19 risk assessment chart

Brilliant! Stay in the green where possible, everyone.

Elephant hawk moth

The caterpillar did something extraordinary – it mimicked a small snake

Have you ever seen an elephant hawk moth? If you live in Europe or Asia you might have spotted one of these amazing insects. In the United Kingdom they are fairly common, but perhaps not often seen. It’s a real treat to spot an adult or a caterpillar, both are amazing sights.

An elephant hawk moth male (credit: Wikipedia)
The circle marks the spot (credit OpenStreetmap)

Walking in the Cotswold Water Park recently, near the Gateway Centre on Lake 6, we spotted an elephant hawk moth caterpiller crossing the footpath (close to the grey circle in the map.

For a short time we just watched as it made its way across the path. But before it made it to the vegetation on the far side, some people appeared with a dog. The dog ran up enthusiastically to greet us and accidentally kicked the caterpiller before running off again. The caterpillar did something extraordinary – it mimicked a small snake.

Am I a caterpillar, or am I a snake?

The caterpillar crossing a stony path

For perhaps 20 seconds or so it writhed its body in a convincingly snakelike movement, and it pumped up several body segments behind the head, tucking its head down at the same time. With eye spot markings on its flanks, a scaly pattern on the entire body, and by raising up the front part of the body, it really did look the part. I wasn’t fast enough to get a photo, but I did get some video of the recovered caterpillar continuing on its way afterwards.

Searching the internet later, I found several good images of the caterpillar mimicking a small snake. Perhaps the best of these is show below.

The caterpillar looking very much like a snake (credit iSpot)

The natural world is so amazing, and so full of surprises, but mimicry is quite a common feature in both plants and animals. The European white dead-nettle has leaves that cannot sting but match the appearance of the unrelated stinging nettle very closely. Some insects look like pieces of wood, or a leaf, or a patch of white lichen, or a bird dropping. Many slugs look very much like animal droppings of various kinds, and as they move so slowly only an alert predator is likely to notice them. Predators, too, use camouflage which is not truly mimicry, but helps them merge into dappled sunshine and shade. Fish are often dark on top and silvery underneath. Sometimes they are patterned and look like the gravel bed of a stream or river.


See also:

Rethinking witness

Do we need to talk about Jesus or should we demonstrate his character?

Michael Frost

Michael Frost is a great communicator with excellent presentational skills. He expands our horizons by opening up the truth about church, evangelism, and living as followers of the one who is the way, the truth, and the life.

Michael speaks very clearly about whether we need evangelism or whether it’s better to focus on loving those around us. Should we tell people about Jesus or should we demonstrate his character by touching lives in practical ways? It’s a false dichotomy – we need both. But how does this work in practice? Few have explored this fully, so most of us need to hear it.

Michael’s message is as fresh and as necessary now as it was in 2015 when this video was made. Please don’t miss it!