Tag: Evolution

New edition of Darwin’s Origin with a Creationist Intro

September 17, 2009 | By | 9 Replies More
New edition of Darwin’s Origin with a Creationist Intro

While watching this video, try counting Kirk Cameron’s lies. Just incredible. What does it tell you when someone is so utterly insecure about his own arguments that he lies about his opponent’s positions?

Richard Dawkins has a post on this new wacko edition of Darwin’s Origin, and a suggestion that concerned citizens go pick one up and chop out and throw away the 50-page intro.

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That OTHER guy: Alfred Russel Wallace

September 16, 2009 | By | Reply More
That OTHER guy:  Alfred Russel Wallace

Darwin gets the lion’s share of the acclaim, even though both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace co-announced the discovery of natural selection to the Linnean Society in 1858.

Thing are changing, and it’s now time for Mr. Wallace to get a bit more of the stage. This, according to an in-depth article on Alfred Russel Wallace called “The Man Who Wasn’t Darwin,” in the December, 2008 edition of National Geographic. Reading the article I leaned that Wallace was by no means a one-trick pony. Rather:

[Wallace’s] writings, on subjects from evolutionary theory and social justice to life on Mars, are coming back into print or turning up on the Web. He is recognized among science historians as a founder of evolutionary biogeog­raphy (the study of which species live where, and why), as a pioneer of island biogeography in particular (from which the science of conserva­tion biology grew), as an early theorist on adaptive mimicry, and as a prescient voice on behalf of what we now call biodiversity. That is, he’s a towering figure in the transition from old-fashioned natural history to modern biology. During his years afield Wallace was also a prolific collector, a ruthless harvester of natural wonders; his insect and bird specimens added richly to museum holdings and the discipline of taxonomy. Still, most people who know of Alfred Russel Wallace know him only as Charles Darwin’s secret sharer, the man who co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection but failed to get an equal share of the credit. Wallace’s story is complicated, heroic, and perplexing.

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Fundamental error: talking evolution instead of speciation

September 15, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More
Fundamental error: talking evolution instead of speciation

Scientist/writer David Horton describes it as a mistake that we have talked about “species evolving” when discuss evolution. He considers this “an easy mistake to make, and you can see why we made it, but it has proved fatal.” He argues that biologists have unwittingly confused the creationists with talk of species evolving.

So if I was writing biology text books for use in Texas or Kentucky or Missouri schools I think I would join their education authorities in demanding that the word evolution not be mentioned. Instead I would put all of my effort into explaining speciation. Show how that original bacterium could become 2, 4, 8, 20, 30, 60 … species. Could become, even after losing tens of thousands of species along the way, the tens of thousands of species, including humans, chimps, and bacteria, we see today.

Instead of focusing on natural selection, which Horton considers “too obvious,” he would stress the importance of allopatric speciation:

Allopatric speciation is simply this – if one part of a species becomes separated by a geographic barrier (a mountain range forms, sea level rises, a desert comes into being, a river changes course, a landslide falls, a continent moves, a glacier extends), and stays separate long enough, then its members will no longer be able to breed with the other part of the population and it will therefore have become a different species. Doesn’t matter why it becomes different – just an accumulation of mutations might do the trick . . .

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Intelligence as a display of healthy sperm

September 6, 2009 | By | Reply More
Intelligence as a display of healthy sperm

Psychologists found a strong correlation between high IQ and healthy sperm, as reported by the U.K. Telegraph:

The research, by the evolutionary psychologist Professor Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico, centred around a study of 400 Vietnam War veterans who were put through extensive mental tests and were also asked to provide sperm samples. According to the test results, it was found that men who scored high on a battery of intelligence tests boasted high counts of healthy sperm. Whereas, low scorers tended to have fewer and more sickly sperm.

Miller points out that intelligence is sexually attractive to both sexes, and that intelligence co-evolved with sperm quality to advertise good genes.

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Creative denial of mortality as an evolutionary adaptation?

August 26, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More
Creative denial of mortality as an evolutionary adaptation?

The August 6, 2009 edition of Nature (available online only to subscribers) includes a fascinating letter by Ajit Varki, a Professor of Medicine and Cellular & Molecular Medicine at the University of California San Diego, La Jolla.

Varki begins his letter by recognizing some of the unique features of human animals, such as theory of mind, “which enables inter-subjectivity.” These impressive human cognitive abilities might have been positively selected by evolution “because of their benefits to interpersonal communication, cooperative reading, language and other critical human activities.”

Varki then describes his conversations with a geneticist named Danny Brower (now deceased), who was fascinated with the question of why theory of mind emerged only recently, despite millions of years of apparent opportunity. Brower offered Varki a tantalizing explanation for this delay:

[Brower] explained that with the full self-awareness and inter-subjectivity would also come awareness of death and mortality. Thus, far from being useful, the resulting overwhelming fear would be a dead end evolutionary barrier, curbing activities and cognitive functions necessary for survival and reproductive fitness. . . . in his view, the only way these properties could become positively selected was if they emerged simultaneously with neural mechanisms for denying mortality.

In other words, self-awareness is a double-edged sword that tends to kill off (through terror-induced paralysis) those who become too readily self-aware. Therefore, self-awareness evolved together with denial of death–Brower was suggesting that those who became too clearly self-aware would become incapacitated by something of which chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants remain blissfully ignorant: the fact that they will inevitably die.

Image by Puroticorico at Flickr

Varki suggests that Brower’s idea would not only add to ongoing discussions of the origins of human uniqueness, but it could shed light on many puzzling aspects of human psychology and culture:

[I]t could also steer discussions of other uniquely human “universals,” such as the ability to hold false beliefs, existential context, theories of afterlife, religiosity, severity of grieving, importance of death rituals, risk-taking behavior, panic attacks, suicide and martyrdom.

Perhaps we are simply incapable of viewing life “objectively,” in that evolution has rigged us up with equipment that protects us by deluding us. It seems, then, that the co-evolution of delusion and awareness (if this is the case) dovetails quite well with Terror Management Theory (TMT), which I summarized in a post entitled “We are gods with anuses: another look at “terror management theory”:

The problem is that the evolution of our powerful ability to be conscious made us aware that we are mortal beings and that all of us are heading toward inevitable death. The “solution” is also offered by our highly developed cognitive abilities: we have developed the ability to wall off our cognitively toxic fear of death by “objectifying” our existences and living idealized lives free from fear of death.

Brower and Varki thus suggest that the ability of humans to be extraordinarily aware and curious is too dangerous to be dispensed by evolution in its pure form. Too much knowledge can might be too dangerous. To safely allow the continuation of the species, human awareness might need to be deluded and distorted in ways that account for some of the most baffling “cultural” aspects of what it means to be human.

Image by Latvian at Flickr (creative commons)

This approach sounds promising to me, though it also raises many other questions, such as this one: Why are some of us apparently immune from these delusions? Why are some of us much more able to disbelieve claims of gods and afterlives?

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What we buy versus what makes us happy

July 2, 2009 | By | Reply More
What we buy versus what makes us happy

Geoffrey Miller has just published a new book, Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior. I haven’t read it yet, but I am now ordering it, based on Miller’s terrific prior work (see here, for example).

In the meantime, I did enjoy this NYT blog review of Spent, which includes this provocative question:

List the ten most expensive things (products, services or experiences) that you have ever paid for (including houses, cars, university degrees, marriage ceremonies, divorce settlements and taxes). Then, list the ten items that you have ever bought that gave you the most happiness. Count how many items appear on both lists.

If you’re looking for simplistic answers, you won’t get them from Miller. I won’t spoil the answers he obtained or his analysis of those answers, but you’ll find them here.

[addendum]

I found this one item refreshingly honest. Refreshingly, because I know a lot of parents, I see their faces, I hear their complaints (and their exhultations). I know that it’s PC to say that having children is a continuous wonderful joy and that all parents are glad they did had children. Miller’s research suggests that the answer is not this simple:

[Here’s an answer that appears [much more on the ‘expensive’ than on the ‘happy’ lists [includes] Children, including child care, school fees, child support, fertility treatments. Costly, often disappointing, usually ungrateful. Yet, the whole point of life, from a Darwinian perspective. Parental instincts trump consumer pleasure-seeking.

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Economics evolves into evolutionary economics

June 28, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More
Economics evolves into evolutionary economics

The July 2009 edition of Scientific American explores new ways of looking at economics in an article by Gary Stix entitled “The Science of Bubbles and Busts.”

The article explores the growing acceptance by professionals that people quite often are not rational when it comes to dealing with their finances. We are not homo economicus, as touted by many economists, including Milton Friedman.

Our imperfections are many. For instance, we are supremely overconfident. We overrate our ability to make decisions in the market. We are also prone to “herding,” following the crowd. We are also overwhelmed by our recall of recent events due to the availability bias. We are creatures who are strictly geared to the short-term.

As a result of this mounting evidence establishing that we are not able to rationally deal with the market, new approaches are inexorably working there way into economics. These new approaches include evolutionary economics:

“Economists suffer from a deep psychological disorder that I call ‘physics envy,’ ” [MIT professor of finance Andrew] Lo says. “We wish that 99 percent of economic behavior could be captured by three simple laws of nature. In fact, economists have 99 laws that capture 3 percent of behavior. Economics is a uniquely human endeavor and, as such, should be understood in the broader context of competition, mutation and natural selection—in other words, evolution.

Having an evolutionary model to consult may let investors adapt as the risk profiles of different investment strategies shift. But the most important benefit of Lo’s simulations may be an ability to detect when the economy is not in a stable equilibrium, a finding that would warn regulators and investors that a bubble is inflating or else about to explode.

An adaptive-market model can incorporate information about how prices in the market are changing—analogous to how people are adapting to a particular ecological niche. It can go on to deduce whether prices on one day are influencing prices on the next, an indication that investors are engaged in “herding,” as described by behavioral economists, a sign that a bubble may be imminent. As a result of this type of modeling, regulations could also “adapt” as markets shift and thus counter the type of “systemic” risks for which conventional risk models leave the markets unprotected.

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Does evolution explain human nature?

May 26, 2009 | By | Reply More
Does evolution explain human nature?

“Does evolution explain human nature?” This is a typical Templeton Foundation question, in that it is laden with ambiguities. Only when one figures out the meaning of “evolution,” “explain,” and “human nature” can one really get to work.

I suspect that the Templeton questions are drafted vaguely in order to invite a wide range of participants, who must often roll up their sleeves to define the component elements of the question as part of their answer.

I don’t mean to sound like a pedant here. The reason I am posting on this question is that despite the wobbly question, Templeton has once again done a good job of assembling a wide range of opinion on an important set of issues. You can read the many responses here. My favorites are

Frans de Waal,

If we look at our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technological advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than that of a chimpanzee, does not contain any new parts. Our intellect may be superior, but we have no basic wants or needs that cannot also be observed in our close relatives . . .

Lynn Margulis

[R]eligion serves an obvious evolutionary function: it identifies, unifies, and preserves adherents. Admonitions to desist from the seven deadly sins inhibit behaviors that threaten group solidarity and survival. Greed, for example, privileges the individual in seasons of limited resources. Lust – the biblical coveting of the neighbor’s wife (in its male-centered perspective) – interferes with ideals for the nurture of healthy children and effective warriors. Prohibiting sloth enhances productive work intrinsic to survival and reproduction of the social unit. Anger, perhaps useful in battle, destroys family and other social relationships. Envy and pride promote individual interests above those of the larger social unit. The survival value of prohibiting sin seems obvious . . .

I disagree with neo-Darwinist zoologists who assert that the accumulation of random genetic mutations is the major source of evolutionary novelty. More important is symbiogenesis, the evolution of new species from the coming together of members of different species. Symbiogenesis is the behavioral, physiological, and genetic fusion of different kinds of being; it leads to the evolution of chimeric new ones.

Geoffrey Miller

My own research has been inspired mostly by good-genes sexual selection theory (the idea that animals choose their partners based on cues about genetic quality) and costly-signalling theory (the idea that only animals in good condition can afford seemingly pointless displays like extravagant plumage). These theories have proved enormously useful in understanding a range of human behaviors that have seemed to have no clear survival payoffs, like music, dance, art, humor, verbal creativity, conspicuous consumption, and altruism.

Robert Wright

What Darwinism tells us is how natural selection gave human life its distinctively rich texture of meaning. Darwinism can also give us guidance as we try to better ourselves and make that meaning richer still. What Darwinism does not tell us is why there is meaning at all.

David Sloan Wilson

Genes are only one mechanism of inheritance. Some immunological, psychological, and cultural processes also count as evolutionary. They too rely on the open-ended variation and selective retention of traits, but they are based on non-genetic inheritance mechanisms. People and cultures shaped by these fast-paced evolutionary processes no longer have the same “nature,” any more than two bacterial strains that have diverged by genetic evolution. In this fashion, my simple and seemingly boring formula can be understood to say that humanity as a whole does not have a single “nature.” Instead, each and every person and culture has its own “nature.”

There’s lots more to read (by these authors and others) at the above link

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NCSE has now signed up more than 1,000 Scientists named Steve.

April 19, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More
NCSE has now signed up more than 1,000 Scientists named Steve.

The National Center for Science Education has now signed up more than 1,000 scientists named “Steve.” Here’s the petition that all 1082 Scientist Steves have signed:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.

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