15 Miss USA contestants demonstrate that they don’t know enough to know that they don’t know enough. In other words, these beautiful contestants are beautifully demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger cognitive effect:
The proper answer from each of these contestants should have been “I can’t answer that question, because I don’t understand the scientific theory of evolution. Maybe I should go read a few good books, on evolution. Then I’ll let you know whether I am competent to answer that question.” To answer like this, though, is not the American way. When you are prepared with make-up and the cameras come on, you tend to wing it in such a way to please the majority of your audience. This is what beauty contestants and politicians have in common.
Do human animals continue to evolve? The evidence is clear that we do, for instance in the case of that small subset of human adults who drink milk, according to this article in Discover Magazine:
Assertion: Because modern humans are a young species, there has not been enough time for major differences to emerge between populations.
This is false. 5 to 10 thousand years ago a set of strangely mutated humans arose. They continued to be able to digest lactose sugar as adults, in contravention of the mammalian norm. In fact, humans are the only mammals where many adults continue to be able to consume milk sugar as adults. The rapidity of this shift has been incredible. 5,000 years ago almost everyone in Scandinavia was lactose intolerant. Today, very few are. The area of the European genome responsible for this shift is strikingly homogeneous, as a giant DNA fragment “swept” through populations in a few dozen generations.
The literature on recent human evolution is still evolving, so to speak. But it is clear that during the Holocene, the last 10,000 years, our species has been subject to a wide array of selective forces. Lactose tolerance, malaria tolerance, differences in color, hair form, and size, seem to be due to recent adaptations. And because of different selection pressures human populations will evolve, change, and diversify. Our African ancestors left 50 to 100 thousand years ago. If 10,000 years was enough time for a great deal of evolution, then the “Out of Africa” event was long enough ago to result in genetic diversification, which we see around us.
Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss recently sat on the stage at the Australian National University to discuss “something from nothing.” What follows are my notes from that conversation.
(9) Dawkins offers two methods for illustrating the long periods of time that are critical to understanding natural selection.
(13:30) The key idea is that we might be getting something from nothing. Life comes from non-life. Matter appears to come from the lack of matter.
(14:47) We are dealing with the new version of “nothing.”
(16:00) It is plausible that everything started with no matter,and maybe no loss. It might not violate any laws for matter to come from the lack of matter. Especially in physics, scientists have learned to ignore the common sense. The total energy of the universe might be “zero.” It might nonetheless be a bubbling brew of virtual particles, and this offends some people.
(20) Krauss: The universe doesn’t care what we like or what we understand. We need to deal with this.
(21) Dawkins: Natural selection has equipped us to be bad physicists and we have to work to overcome this.
(22) Space is curved, but we cannot visualize this. Our picture of natural/normal reality is myopic.
[More . . . ]
What gives human animals such an advantage over so many other animals? Culture is the answer according to Susan Okie at TruthDig, commenting on a new book by Mark Pagel:
About 45,000 years ago, members of our species, Homo sapiens, reached Europe after earlier migrations out of Africa via the Middle East. The newcomers’ arrival must have come as a shock to the Neanderthals, a separate human species who had inhabited Europe for some 300,000 years. As Pagel notes, the new arrivals “would have carried a baffling and frightening array of technologies”—not only new kinds of weapons and tools, but also perhaps sewn clothes, musical instruments and carved figures. “It would have been like a scene from a science fiction story of a people confronted by a superior alien race.” The aliens likely didn’t owe their advantages to dramatically superior genes, but to a development, some 40,000 years prior to their arrival in Europe. Something happened that had immensely speeded up their ability to learn, adapt and acquire new strategies for taking over the planet: Homo sapiens had acquired culture.
Have you ever seen this collection of record album covers that are no longer cool … No longer hip … Or are they no longer funky, rakish, chic, ultracool or spiffy? You see, even the words for fashionable go out of fashion.
And as we chuckle at these album covers, there is something a bit uneasy about what we’re doing. Yes, some of these covers were failures from Day One, but others have that high school yearbook thing going on–they look silly to us because they have elements of oldness to them that should remind us that no matter how fashion-tuned we are, some of the photos of us will someday be snidely chuckled at. If not our clothes, it will be our phone or our food or our method of transportation or the type of gadget we use for playing our music.
The only constant is that everything is social.
This afternoon I decided to gather uses of evolutionary explanations in fields other than biology. This post features Daniel Dennett discussing evolution in fields other than biology, including languages and music. This discussion is in the video between 15 min and 21 min.
Here is a wealth of other applications of natural selection including mention of Gerald Edelman’s work (it is often called “neural darwinism,” though I didn’t use that term in this article). This same post also discusses Randolf Nesse’s work on “Darwinian Medicine.” Here’s a video featuring Nesse. This same article also mentions Geoffrey Miller, who has relied on Darwin’s work to explain the evolution of art and consumer behavior.
An article in Discover Magazine, “We All Live in Darwin’s World,” discusses yet other applications of natural selection outside of biology. This article includes the following quote:
“Natural selection is a source of insight that is unbelievably powerful,” [David Sloan] Wilson says. And its power is not limited to the life sciences. The same selective paradigm can describe the rise of complexity in inanimate systems: stock markets, transit schedules. Though other mathematical models are capable of simulating complex phenomena, only Darwin’s approach shows how certain complex systems not only arise but also adapt over time to the constraints imposed by their environment, as living systems do.
The November 2011 edition of The Atlantic presents E. O. Wilson’s “Theory of Everything.” Wilson’s theory takes into account the “eusocial” status of human animals, something that we share with ants and bees, but very few other species. Eusocial animals build complex societies wherein “individuals specialize in various activities and sometimes act altruistically.” Wilson has taken the position that eusociality is not the result of close genetic similarity (the explanation offered by “kin selection”). Rather, he is a strong advocate of “group selection.” By the way, E. O. Wilson is no relation to another Wilson who has strongly advocated group selection, David Sloan Wilson (and see here). Here’s how E. O. Wilson presents group selection, according to a passage from The Atlantic:
In his new book, Wilson posits that two rival forces drive human behavior: group selection and what he calls “individual selection”—competition at the level of the individual to pass along one’s genes—with both operating simultaneously. “Group selection,” he said, “brings about virtue, and—this is an oversimplification, but—individual selection, which is competing with it, creates sin. That, in a nutshell, is an explanation of the human condition.
“Our quarrelsomeness, our intense concentration on groups and on rivalries, down to the last junior-soccer-league game, the whole thing falls into place, in my opinion. Theories of kin selection didn’t do the job at all, but now I think we are close to making sense out of what human beings do and why they can’t settle down.”
By settling down, Wilson said, he meant establishing a lasting peace with each other and learning to live in a sustainable balance with the environment. If Wilson’s new paradigm holds up—“and it will,” he insisted in an e-mail exchange several weeks after visiting Gorongosa—its impact on the social sciences could be as great as its importance for biology, advancing human self-understanding in ways typically associated with the great philosophers he criticized.
“Within groups, the selfish are more likely to succeed,” Wilson told me in a telephone conversation. “But in competition between groups, groups of altruists are more likely to succeed. In addition, it is clear that groups of humans proselytize other groups and accept them as allies, and that that tendency is much favored by group selection.” Taking in newcomers and forming alliances had become a fundamental human trait, he added, because “it is a good way to win.”
This article is a wide ranging work that offers much insight into Wilson’s history and accomplishments, and more. For instance, Wilson, an early outspoken advocate of sociobiology, takes some shots at Stephen J. Gould, who he calls a “charlatan.” Several decades ago, it was the now-deceased Gould who led the attack against Wilson regarding sociobiology.
This is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson points out that the human genome overlaps 99% with the genome of chimpanzees. We’re only 1% different, but consider how much we can do that chimps cannot do. Consider de Grasse Tyson’s suggestion:
Cognitive Scientist Andy Clark has also recognized the biological similarity between chimpanzees and humans, and asked how we accomplish so much more with such a meager difference. He suggests that our trick is that we have become proficient at off-loading and making use of information out into the environment. He argues that “self” extends beyond skin and skull.
[W]e create and maintain a variety of special external structures (symbolic and social-institutional). These external structures function so as to complement our individual cognitive profiles and to diffuse human reason across wider and wider social and physical networks whose collective computations exhibit their own special dynamics and properties.
For me to exist, my mother and father had to meet each other, which is a rather unlikely thing to have occurred in the scheme of things. Even assuming that they met, they would also need to mate at just the right time, and then the right sperm (out of hundreds of millions in each ejaculation) had to fertilize the right egg (or which there were many thousands of candidate eggs). But the same thing had to happen to each of their parents, and their parents, and so on. How many sets of parents did this need to happen to? Quite a few–consider my earlier post, “Ancestors Along the highway.” Before all of those parents came onto the scene, the right non-human ancestors had to meet and mate, and before them . . . [skipping way back] the right sponges had to have offspring, and the fungi before them. Had any of these organisms been eaten as prey prior to having offspring, I wouldn’t be here. If any of them had succumbed to disease prior to having offspring, I wouldn’t be here. If any of them had broken a leg or gotten lost in the forest, they might not have gotten around to mating on that critically important date and time (from my perspective). The adventures of Marty McFly (“Back to the Future”) barely scrape the surface.
The seemingly impossible hurdles faced by each of us are addressed by a well-constructed website, “What are the Odds,” which stirs quite a bit of eye-popping mathematics into the description. Wait until you get to the bottom of the page to read about the trillion-sided dice.
Actually, “What are the Odds” overstates the odds that you or I would exist, because there’s far more to being “you” than your biological substrate. If you were raised in a war-torn region rather than a suburban American school, you would be a very different version of you. And ask yourself whether you would be you even if a few of your closest, most influential friends or acquaintances weren’t around to influence you. Or what if you hadn’t happened to read some of the ideas that most influenced you, or if even one or two of those important character-building events that defined you (joyous or tragic or in between) hadn’t occurred?
Thus, it’s almost impossible that you should be here reading this post. Then again, you are here, because all of the antecedent events necessary to make you actually did occur.
I don’t know what lesson one is supposed to draw from this idea that it is essentially impossible that you should be here. Perhaps it’s merely an excuse for a healthy dose of humility. It also seems to me that working through this thought experiment is good for one’s mental health, at least once in a while. I consider it an existential vitamin that I should take periodically.