23 April 2010


What Darwin didn't get wrong

Last October I reviewed three books about evolution: Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish, Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True, and Richard Dawkins's The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. It was a long review, but pretty good, I think.

There's another long multi-book review just published too. This one's written by the above-mentioned Jerry Coyne (who will be in Vancouver for a talk on fruit flies this weekend), and it covers both Dawkins's book and a newer one, What Darwin Got Wrong, by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, which has been getting some press.

Darwin got a lot of things wrong, of course. There were a lot of things he didn't know, and couldn't know, about Earth and life on it—how old the planet actually is (4.6 billion years), that the continents move, that genes exist and are made of DNA, the very existence of radioactivity or of the huge varieties of fossils discovered since the mid-19th century.

It took decades to confirm, but Darwin was fundamentally right about evolution by natural selection. Yet that's where Fodor and Piattellii-Palmarini think he was wrong. Dawkins (and Coyne) disagree, siding with Darwin—as well as almost all the biologists working today or over at least the past 80 years (though apparently not Piattellii-Palmarini).

I'd encourage you to read the whole review at The Nation, but to sum up Coyne's (and others') analysis of What Darwin Got Wrong, Fodor (a philosopher) and Piattelli-Palmarini (a molecular biologist and cognitive scientist) seem to base their argument on, of all things, word games. They don't offer religious or contrary scientific arguments, nor do they dispute that evolution happens, just that natural selection, as an idea, is somehow a logical fallacy.

Here's how Coyne tries to digest it:

If you translate [Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini's core argument] into layman's English, here's what it says: "Since it's impossible to figure out exactly which changes in organisms occur via direct selection and which are byproducts, natural selection can't operate." Clearly, [they] are confusing our ability to understand how a process operates with whether it operates. It's like saying that because we don't understand how gravity works, things don't fall.

I've read some excerpts of the the book, and it also appears to be laden with eumerdification: writing so dense and jargon-filled it seems to be that way to obscure rather than clarify. I suspect Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini might have been so clever and convoluted in their writing that they even fooled themselves. That's a pity, because on the face of it, their book might have been a valuable exercise, but instead it looks like a waste of time.

Coyne, by the way, really likes Dawkins's book, probably more than I did. I certainly think it's a more worthwhile and far more comprehensible read.

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08 April 2010


Another relative

Cráneo de Australopithecus sediba at Flickr.comIt's quite astonishing how many fossils of extinct human relatives that paleontologists have found in recent years. Just in the past year, I've mentioned Darwinius and Ardipithecus. And this week we hear about Australopithecus sediba, which sheds further light on how ancient apes transitioned to walking upright like we do.

It's a relief that in the latest coverage, the scientists involved have gone out of their way to say that A. sediba is not a "missing link":

"The 'missing link' made sense when we could take the earliest fossils and the latest ones and line them up in a row. It was easy back then," explained Smithsonian Institution paleontologist Richard Potts. But now researchers know there was great diversity of branches in the human family tree rather than a single smooth line.

All of evolution works that way: branching, somewhat messy relationships between organisms, with many extinct species and a few (or perhaps many) survivors. In the case of hominids, we humans are the only bipedal ones left, and we're also by far the most numerous of the surviving lineage, which includes chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans too. So our evolutionary past can look linear, at least during the past 5 to 7 million years since our ancestral line diverged from the chimp ancestral line, even though it wasn't.

While we have found quite a few fossils of human relatives, that's a very relative term. Until the past few thousand years, there weren't many of us around at all. All the Australopithecus fossils ever found can be outnumbered by the number of trilobite fossils (which are hundreds of millions of years older!) in a single chunk of stone at any rocks-and-gems store. Hominid fossils are still extremely rare things, so we can't reconstruct the branches of our family tree with perfect accuracy. That's because we can't be sure which (if any) of the species we've unearthed were our direct ancestors, and which were our "cousins"—branches of the tree that died out.

Still, we can make attempts with the data we have, some making more assumptions than others, and the options being quite complex. Yet as we find out more, and discover more, our family tree becomes clearer. That's pretty cool.

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06 March 2010


Ida: now just a nice fossil

Remember the crazy hype last year about "Ida," the beautifully preserved 47 million–year–old primate? The one I called a "cool fossil that got turned into a publicity stunt?"

It turns out that, yes, the original authors seem to have rushed their paper about Ida into publication, presumably in order to meet a deadline for a TV special. And even by the loosest definition of the term, Ida is no "missing link" whatsoever, and not closely related to humans. (Not that relatedness to humans is what should make a fossil important, mind you.)

So now, like Ardi, who's ten times younger, Ida is what it deserves to be: a fascinating set of remains from which we can learn many things, but not anything that fundamentally revolutionizes our understanding of primate evolution. And that's a good thing.

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24 November 2009


"The Origin" at 150

Charles Darwin for Time Magazine at Flickr.comI wrote about it in much more detail back in February, but today is the actual 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which was first published on November 24, 1859. That was more than two decades after Darwin first formulated his ideas about evolution by natural selection.

Some have called The Origin the most important book ever written, though of course many would dispute that. It's certainly up there on the list, and unequivocally on top for the field of biology. Darwin, along with others like Galileo, radically changed our perceptions about our place in the universe.

But Darwin was a scientist, not an inventor: he discovered natural selection, but did not create it. We honour him for being smart and tenacious, for being the first to figure out the basic mechanism that generated the history of life, and for writing eloquently and persuasively about it. His big idea was right (even if it took more than 70 years to confirm), but some of his conjectures and mechanisms turned out to be wrong.

He was also, from all accounts, an exceedingly nice man. Among towering intellects and important personalities, that's pretty unusual too.

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31 October 2009


Links of interest (2009-10-31):

  • The rotor on the new Grouse Mountain wind turbine is turning very slowly, first time I've seen it move. Must be testing.
  • Notice that when they have all those many layers on, supermodels almost look like normal people?
  • Sydney, Australia covered the road of the Harbour Bridge with grass and cows, and 6000 people had a picnic.
  • "No child has been poisoned by a stranger's goodies on Halloween, ever, as far as we can determine."
  • Brent Simmons on vaccines (via Daring Fireball). I had chicken pox almost as bad, but at 15. My wife Air got shingles in '04. I'm flad the kids will get neither.
  • If, like many Canadians, you have a huge voice crush on Nora Young, then this audio from CBC's Spark will slay you.
  • Awesome song flowcharts for "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and "Hey Jude."
  • Dan Savage is always so cheecky: "I don't believe that couples who make the choice to be monogamous should be discriminated against in any way."
  • Archaeology doc "The Link" a few months ago was full of needless hype. Discovery Channel's "Discovering Ardi" shows how it's done properly.
  • "I'm all for winging it, but saying 'I'm not really prepared' to an audience shows them the ultimate disrespect."
  • Some interesting iPhone photography apps.
  • Dark areas on this world map are the most remote from a city. No Antarctica, though.
  • A new deal today with the Cowichan band means you'll be able to buy real sweaters at HBC Olympic store.
  • Twelve images showing how vastly digital imaging has improved astrophotography on the ground and in space since 1974.
  • Seven questions that keep physicists awake at night (still lots to learn, which is great).
  • First-ever Lip Gloss and Laptops video podcast (for Halloween).
  • American Samoa could have had a tsunami warning system, but funds were frozen in 2007 because of waste and corruption.
  • Telus is selling iPhones in Canada Thursday of this week (Nov 5). Pricing is basically the same as Rogers/Fido (no surprise).
  • The opposing Canadian "No TV Tax" vs. "Local TV Matters" ads are indistinguishable, obnoxious, and make both sides look like shitheads. Makes me want to go out and get some man-on-the-street interviews. "Excuse me, ma'am, did you know that both the TV networks and the cable companies are wasting money on advertising instead of trying to make better programming, using fake man-on-the-street interviews to try to confuse you about their own pissing contest? What do you think of that?"
  • Here's a flu primer. The October 25 edition of CBC's "Cross Country Checkup" (MP3) is also good. Here's a slightly contrary position, and a more general one about the dangers of not vaccinating. Wired also has a cover story on the topic.
  • Weird Al's relentless perfectionism in the studio (love when he gets a headache trying to channel Zack de le Rocha).
  • As of today it's been 32 years since the last case of smallpox in the world was eliminated by vaccination.
  • The 27" iMac has a shockingly low price for what you get - even for the LCD panel alone (via Dave Winer).
  • Dave Winer also notes why death of a parent can make you grown up. My parents are alive, and doing great (better than me!).
  • I like Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, though I haven't read it yet.
  • Two people I know both had cancer surgery the same day, this past Monday.
  • Top 10 Internet rules (via Raincoaster).
  • $400 is expensive, but if you make serious video with a DSLR, I bet this LCD viewfinder is worth it (via Scott Bourne).
  • Having to medivac a sailor from a US Navy submarine to a helicopter offshore is hairy and dangerous business!
  • As Paul Thurrott said, people are going to be wandering into Microsoft's new store all the time and asking, "Excuse me, where are the iPods?"
  • "If what you're doing does make sense, then, for Christ's sake, talk like a human being."
  • From Psychology Today in 2008, ten ways we get the odds wrong on risk.
  • You can now buy the whole Abbey Road album for Beatles Rock Band.
  • Daughter M just described a fever-induced time dilation hallucination identical to mine from childhood. Never thought anyone would understand!
  • Red Javelin Communications is apparently working with my company Navarik, but I'm finding their website rather too buzzwordy for my taste.
  • Research in Motion. Oh, what will we do with you and your fine, fine, not-at-all-dirty URL http://rim.jobs?
  • A great (much improved) update by Billy Wilson to my very popular "All the Current DLSRs" camera collage.
  • Here's a sign of flu in our neighbourhood: our local Shoppers Drug Mart was entirely sold out of hand sanitizer. Both my kids were stricken, but I avoided it.
  • Noya sings with my band sometimes. Here's her solo video.
  • Another Ralph Lauren Photoshop disaster.
  • The Diamond Dave Soundboard is still genius.
  • As always, Saturn's rings and moons are some of the strangest and most beautiful things you can see.

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28 October 2009


Evolution book review: Dawkins's "Greatest Show on Earth," Coyne's "Why Evolution is True," and Shubin's "Your Inner Fish"

Three of this year's books on evolutionNext month, it will be exactly 150 years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. This year also marked what would have been his 200th birthday. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of new books and movies and TV shows and websites about Darwin and his most important book this year.

Of the books, I've bought and read the three of the highest-profile ones: Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish (actually published in 2008), Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True, and Richard Dawkins's The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. They're all written by working (or, in Dawkins's case, officially retired) evolutionary biologists, but are aimed at a general audience, and tell compelling stories of what we know about the history of life on Earth and our part in it. I also re-read my copy of the first edition of the Origin itself, as well as legendary biologist Ernst Mayr's 2002 What Evolution Is, a few months ago.

Why now?

Aside from the Darwin anniversaries, I wanted to read the three new books because a lot has changed in the study of evolution since I finished my own biology degree in 1990. Or, I should say, not much has changed, but we sure know a lot more than we did even 20 years ago. As with any strong scientific idea, evidence continues accumulating to reinforce and refine it. When I graduated, for instance:

  • DNA sequencing was rudimentary and horrifically expensive, and the idea of compiling data on an organism's entire genome was pretty much a fantasy. Now it's almost easy, and scientists are able to compare gene sequences to help determine (or confirm) how different groups of plants and animals are related to each other.
  • Our understanding of our relationship with chimpanzees and our extinct mutual relatives (including Australopithecus, Paranthropus, Sahelanthropus, Orrorin, Ardipithecus, Kenyanthropus, and other species of Homo in Africa) was far less developed. With more fossils and more analysis, we know that our ancestors walked upright long before their brains got big, and that raises a host of new and interesting questions.
  • The first satellite in the Global Positioning System had just been launched, so it was not yet easily possible to monitor continental drift and other evolution-influencing geological activities happening in real time (though of course it was well accepted from other evidence). Now, whether it's measuring how far the crust shifted during earthquakes or watching as San Francisco marches slowly northward, plate tectonics is as real as watching trees grow.
  • Dr. Richard Lenski and his team had just begun what would become a decades-long study of bacteria, which eventually (and beautifully) showed the microorganisms evolving new biochemical pathways in a lab over tens of thousands of generations. That's substantial evolution occurring by natural selection, incontrovertibly, before our eyes.
  • In Canada, the crash of Atlantic cod stocks and controversies over salmon farming in the Pacific hadn't yet happened, so the delicate balances of marine ecosystems weren't much in the public eye. Now we understand that human pressures can disrupt even apparently inexhaustible ocean resources, while impelling fish and their parasites to evolve new reproductive and growth strategies in response.
  • Antibiotic resistance (where bacteria in the wild evolve ways to prevent drugs from being as effective as they used to) was on few people's intellectual radar, since it didn't start to become a serious problem in hospitals and other healthcare environments until the 1990s. As with cod, we humans have unwittingly created selection pressures on other organisms that work to our own detriment.

...and so on. Perhaps most shocking in hindsight, back in 1990 religious fundamentalism of all stripes seemed to be on the wane in many places around the world. By association, creationism and similar world views that ignore or deny that biological evolution even happens seemed less and less important.

Or maybe it just looked that way to me as I stepped out of the halls of UBC's biology buildings. After all, whether studying behavioural ecology, human medicine, cell physiology, or agriculture, no one there could get anything substantial done without knowledge of evolution and natural selection as the foundations of everything else.

Why these books?

The books by Shubin, Coyne, and Dawkins are not only welcome and useful in 2009, they are necessary. Because unlike in other scientific fields—where even people who don't really understand the nature of electrons or fluid dynamics or organic chemistry still accept that electrical appliances work when you turn them on, still fly in planes and ride ferryboats, and still take synthesized medicines to treat diseases or relieve pain—there are many, many people who don't think evolution is true.

No physicians must write books reiterating that, yes, bacteria and viruses are what spread infectious diseases. No physicists have to re-establish to the public that, honestly, electromagnetism is real. No psychiatrists are compelled to prove that, indeed, chemicals interacting with our brain tissues can alter our senses and emotions. No meteorologists need argue that, really, weather patterns are driven by energy from the Sun. Those things seem obvious and established now. We can move on.

But biologists continue to encounter resistance to the idea that differences in how living organisms survive and reproduce are enough to build all of life's complexity—over hundreds of millions of years, without any pre-existing plan or coordinating intelligence. But that's what happened, and we know it as well as we know anything.

If the Bible or the Qu'ran is your only book, I doubt much will change your mind on that. But many of the rest of those who don't accept evolution by natural selection, or who are simply unsure of it, may have been taught poorly about it back in school—or if not, they might have forgotten the elegant simplicity of the concept. Not to mention the huge truckloads of evidence to support evolutionary theory, which is as overwhelming (if not more so) and more immediate than the also-substantial evidence for our theories about gravity, weather forecasting, germs and disease, quantum mechanics, cognitive psychology, or macroeconomics.

Enjoying the human story

So, if these three biologists have taken on the task of explaining why we know evolution happened, and why natural selection is the best mechanism to explain it, how well do they do the job? Very well, but also differently. The titles tell you.

Shubin's Your Inner Fish is the shortest, the most personal, and the most fun. Dawkins's The Greatest Show on Earth is, well, the showiest, the biggest, and the most wide-ranging. And Coyne's Why Evolution is True is the most straightforward and cohesive argument for evolutionary biology as a whole—if you're going to read just one, it's your best choice.

However, of the three, I think I enjoyed Your Inner Fish the most. Author Neil Shubin was one of the lead researchers in the discovery and analysis of Tiktaalik, a fossil "fishapod" found on Ellesmere Island here in Canada in 2004. It is yet another demonstration of the predictive power of evolutionary theory: knowing that there were lobe-finned fossil fish about 380 million years ago, and obviously four-legged land dwelling amphibian-like vertebrates 15 million years later, Shubin and his colleagues proposed that an intermediate form or forms might exist in rocks of intermediate age.

Ellesmere Island is a long way from most places, but it has surface rocks about 375 million years old, so Shubin and his crew spent a bunch of money to travel there. And sure enough, there they found the fossil of Tiktaalik, with its wrists, neck, and lungs like a land animal, and gills and scales like a fish. (Yes, it had both lungs and gills.) Shubin uses that discovery to take a voyage through the history of vertebrate anatomy, showing how gill slits from fish evolved over tens of millions of years into the tiny bones in our inner ear that let us hear and keep us balanced.

Since we're interested in ourselves, he maintains a focus on how our bodies relate to those of our ancestors, including tracing the evolution of our teeth and sense of smell, even the whole plan of our bodies. He discusses why the way sharks were built hundreds of millions of years ago led to human males getting certain types of hernias today. And he explains why, as a fish paleontologist, he was surprisingly qualified to teach an introductory human anatomy dissection course to a bunch of medical students—because knowing about our "inner fish" tells us a lot about why our bodies are this way.

Telling a bigger tale

Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne tell much bigger stories. Where Shubin's book is about how we people are related to other creatures past and present, the other two seek to explain how all living things on Earth relate to each other, to describe the mechanism of how they came to the relationships they have now, and, more pointedly, to refute the claims of people who don't think those first two points are true.

Dawkins best expresses the frustration of scientists with evolution-deniers and their inevitable religious motivations, as you would expect from the world's foremost atheist. He begins The Greatest Show on Earth with a comparison. Imagine, he writes, you were a professor of history specializing in the Roman Empire, but you had to spend a good chunk of your time battling the claims of people who said ancient Rome and the Romans didn't even exist. This despite those pesky giant ruins modern Romans have had to build their roads around, and languages such as Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, and English that are obviously derived from Latin, not to mention the libraries and museums and countrysides full of further evidence.

He also explains, better than anyone I've ever read, why various ways of determining the ages of very old things work. If you've ever wondered how we know when a fossil is 65 million years old, or 500 million years old, or how carbon dating works, or how amazingly well different dating methods (tree ring information, radioactive decay products, sedimentary rock layers) agree with one another, read his chapter 4 and you'll get it.

Alas, while there's a lot of wonderful information in The Greatest Show on Earth, and many fascinating photos and diagrams, Dawkins could have used some stronger editing. The overall volume comes across as scattershot, assembled more like a good essay collection than a well-planned argument. Dawkins often takes needlessly long asides into interesting but peripheral topics, and his tone wanders.

Sometimes his writing cuts precisely, like a scalpel; other times, his breezy footnotes suggest a doddering old Oxford prof (well, that is where he's been teaching for decades!) telling tales of the old days in black school robes. I often found myself thinking, Okay, okay, now let's get on with it.

Truth to be found

On the other hand, Jerry Coyne strikes the right balance and uses the right structure. On his blog and in public appearances, Coyne is (like Dawkins) a staunch opponent of religion's influence on public policy and education, and of those who treat religion as immune to strong criticism. But that position hardly appears in Why Evolution is True at all, because Coyne wisely thinks it has no reason to. The evidence for evolution by natural selection stands on its own.

I wish Dawkins had done what Coyne does—noting what the six basic claims of current evolutionary theory are, and describing why real-world evidence overwhelmingly shows them all to be true. Here they are:

  1. Evolution: species of organisms change, and have changed, over time.
  2. Gradualism: those changes generally happen slowly, taking at least tens of thousands of years.
  3. Speciation: populations of organisms not only change, but split into new species from time to time.
  4. Common ancestry: all living things have a single common ancestor—we are all related.
  5. Natural selection: evolution is driven by random variations in organisms that are then filtered non-randomly by how well they reproduce.
  6. Non-selective mechanisms: natural selection isn't the only way organisms evolve, but it is the most important.

The rest of Coyne's book, in essence, fleshes those claims and the evidence out. That's almost it, and that's all it needs to be. He recounts too why, while Charles Darwin got all six of them essentially right back in 1859, only the first three or four were generally accepted (even by scientists) right away. It took the better part of a century for it to be obvious that he was correct about natural selection too, and even more time to establish our shared common ancestry with all plants, animals, and microorganisms.

Better than other books about evolution I've read, Why Evolution is True reveals the relentless series of tests that Darwinism has been subjected to, and survived, as new discoveries were made in astronomy, geology, physics, physiology, chemistry, and other fields of science. Coyne keeps pointing out that it didn't have to be that way. Darwin was wrong about quite a few things, but he could have been wrong about many more, and many more important ones.

If inheritance didn't turn out to be genetic, or further fossil finds showed an uncoordinated mix of forms over time (modern mammals and trilobites together, for instance), or no mechanism like plate tectonics explained fossil distributions, or various methods of dating disagreed profoundly, or there were no imperfections in organisms to betray their history—well, evolutionary biology could have hit any number of crisis points. But it didn't.

Darwin knew nothing about some of these lines of evidence, but they support his ideas anyway. We have many more new questions now too, but they rest on the fact of evolution, largely the way Darwin figured out that it works.

The questions and the truth

Facts, like life, survive the onslaughts of time. Opponents of evolution by natural selection have always pointed to gaps in our understanding, to the new questions that keep arising, as "flaws." But they are no such thing: gaps in our knowledge tell us where to look next. Conversely, saying that a god or gods, some supernatural agent, must have made life—because we don't yet know exactly how it happened naturally in every detail—is a way of giving up. It says not only that there are things we don't know, but things we can never learn.

Some of us who see the facts of evolution and natural selection, much the way Darwin first described them, prefer not to believe things, but instead to accept them because of supporting scientific evidence. But I do believe something: that the universe is coherent and comprehensible, and that trying to learn more about it is worth doing for its own sake.

In the 150 years since the Origin, people who believed that—who did not want to give up—have been the ones who helped us learn who we, and the other organisms who share our planet, really are. Thousands of researchers across the globe help us learn that, including Dawkins exploring how genes, and ideas, propagate themselves; Coyne peering at Hawaiian fruit flies through microscopes to see how they differ over generations; and Shubin trekking to the Canadian Arctic on the educated guess that a fishapod fossil might lie there.

The writing of all three authors pulses with that kind of enthusiasm—the urge to learn the truth about life on Earth, over more than 3 billion years of its history. We can admit that we will always be somewhat ignorant, and will probably never know everything. Yet we can delight in knowing there will always be more to learn. Such delight, and the fruits of the search so far, are what make these books all good to read during this important anniversary year.

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02 October 2009


Ardi is another fascinating hominid fossil, but "missing link" no longer makes sense

Fosil_Rekaan_Ardi at Flickr.comFirst, let's get something out of the way: the term missing link has long been useless, especially in human palaeontology. That's reinforced by this week's publication of a special issue of the journal Science, focusing on the 4.4-million-year-old skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus, nicknamed "Ardi."

Chimpanzees are the closest living relative to human beings in the world, but our common ancestor lived a long time ago—at least 6 million years, likely more. When Charles Darwin proposed, some 150 years ago, that the fossil links between humans and chimps were likely to be found in Africa, he was right, but at the time those links really were missing.

It took a few decades until the first Homo erectus fossils were found in Asia. Since then, palaeontologists have found many different skeletons and skeletal parts of Homo, Paranthropus, and Australopithecus, with the oldest, as predicted, all in Africa. We've been filling in our side of the chimp-human family tree for over a century. (The chimpanzee lineage has been more difficult, probably because their ancestors' forest habitats are less prone to preserving fossils—and we're less prone to paying as much attention to it too.)

So it's been a long time since the links were missing, and the term missing link is now more misleading than helpful. Like "Ida," the 47-million-year-old primate revealed with too much hype earlier this year, "Ardi" is no missing link, but she is another fascinating fossil showing interesting things about our ancestry. Most notably, she walked upright as we do, but had a much smaller brain, more like other apes—as well as feet that remained better for climbing trees than ours.

None of that should be shocking. We shouldn't expect any common ancestor of chimps and humans to be more like either one of us, since both lineages have kept evolving these past 6 million years. Ardi isn't a common ancestor—she's more closely related to humans than to chimps, and accordingly shows more human characteristics (or, perhaps better, we show characteristics more like hers), like bipedal walking and flexible wrists. That's extremely cool.

Also interestingly, "Ardi" is not new. It's taken researchers more than 15 years to analyze her, and similar fossils found nearby in Ethiopa's Afar desert. Simply teasing the extremely fragile, powdery fossil materials out of the soil without destroying them took years. Science can sometimes be a painstaking process, not for those who lack patience.

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26 September 2009


Links of interest (2009-09-26):

  • Photo sharing site Flickr has these new Gallery things.
  • Homemade stratosphere camera rig goes sub-orbital to 93,000 feet (18 miles). Total cost? $150.
  • Suw Charman's life is "infested with yetis."
  • AIS is the way that commercial ships and boats report their near-coastal positions for navigation. The Live Ships Map uses AIS data to show almost-real-time positions for vessels all around the world. Zoom in and be amazed.
  • Strong Bad Email #204 had be laughing uncontrollably. Make sure to click around on the end screen for the easter eggs.
  • Julia Child boils up some primordial soup. Really.
  • Funky bracelets made from old camera lens housings. Nerdy, yet cool.
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements 8: most of the cool features, about 85% cheaper than regular Photoshop.
  • Vancouver's awesome and inexpensive Argo Cafe finally gets coverage in the New York Times.
  • When people ask me to spell a word out loud, I notice that I scrunch up my face while I visualize the letters behind my eyelids.
  • Via Jeff Jarvis: in the future, if politicians have nothing embarrassing on the Net, we'll all wonder what it is they're hiding and why they've spent so much effort expunging it.

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03 August 2009


When we are one

While researchers continue to study it, no one is yet sure why music moves us—how we can be affected emotionally by timed sequences of sounds. But we are. And while I play rock drums and love me some guitar, in my life, the most affecting music has been live, vocal, and collective.

Here's what I mean. One of the most astonishing things I've ever heard was the student choir at Magee, the high school where my wife teaches. Years ago I attended one of their concerts. They are, and have long been, an excellent choir. You can get a tiny sense of it from this video, but the sound doesn't do it justice (plus, Christmas carols in August sound weird):

That's a pale simulation of the true experience, though. At that concert years ago, held in the school's old auditorium, the singing was enveloping, and overpowering, from a full-size choir onstage. I almost cried from the sound alone.

Here's another example that had me getting teary for no good reason:

Thanks to Darren for the link.

Those of us who were around in the '80s best remember Bobby McFerrin from his annoying novelty song "Don't Worry, Be Happy." But he is a powerful and innovative jazz singer, who is at his best when co-opting audiences. When he does that, when the audience sings along as a mass of voices, I lose it. I nearly cried right now as I listened to the audience come in on "Ave Maria" at the link I just posted—and again at the end:

So beautiful. There's no way I could have held it in if I had been there.

I can think of other instances: Celso Machado and the crowd I was in at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre more than 15 years ago, or a packed-full B.C. Place Stadium singing the end of U2's "40" ("How long/To sing this song...") long after the band had left the stage in 1987. You get the idea.

Whatever the reasons we evolved to love music, one of its benefits is how it joins us. When you sing with a group, or even if you're just there when one is singing well, you become part of that group in a way that's almost impossible by any other means. You could be singing "Ave Maria" with McFerrin, or chanting "Die! Die! Die!" with Metallica, but when it happens, you're all one. We're all one.

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11 June 2009


Going beyond common sense

A few months ago, I posted two quotes about how science works, and why it's effective:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. - Richard Feynman

If common sense were a reliable guide, we wouldn't need science in the first place. - Amanda Gefter

Feynman and Gefter sum up what makes science different from many other intellectual pursuits, and why it has so radically changed the human experience over the past few hundred years. Not fooling ourselves turns out to be surprisingly difficult. That's because (to dig up another thing I write about frequently here) our brains aren't built to find the truth. Often, we have to work against our own thinking to do that.

We evolved to get by and reproduce as hunter-gatherer primates on the savannah of Africa, not to follow two or more independent lines of evidence to confirm how fast the universe is expanding. Yet we have figured that out, because scientific thinking is designed to counteract our tendencies to fool ourselves. Sometimes we still do, for awhile, but science also tends to be self-correcting, because it tries to force reality to trump belief.

There's an excellent article in the current issue of the academic journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, titled "Understanding Natural Selection: Essential Concepts and Common Misconceptions" (via PZ Myers). Yes, it's academic and thus (for a web page) pretty long, but there's lots of meat there, and it's written for a general audience. It's worth reading through.

The first part summarizes how natural selection works. The second part asks "why is natural selection so difficult to understand?" After all, it is elegant and logical, and has mountains (literally, in some cases) of evidence behind it, collected and analyzed and correlated and compared and verified over 150 years. However:

Much of the human experience involves overcoming obstacles, achieving goals, and fulfilling needs. Not surprisingly, human psychology includes a powerful bias toward thoughts about the "purpose" or "function" of objects and behaviors [...] the "human function compunction." This bias is particularly strong in children, who are apt to see most of the world in terms of purpose; for example, even suggesting that "rocks are pointy to keep animals from sitting on them".

In other words, one reason it's hard to understand natural selection (or quantum mechanics, or the weather, or geological time) is that we're predisposed to believe that the whole universe is like us.

Indeed, that's often not a bad place to start. Seeing that populations of organisms change over time, early evolutionary theorists proposed that the organisms changed, in effect, because they wanted to, and passed those desired changes on to their offspring. But those ideas had to be discarded when the evidence didn't support them. Similarly, long tradition indicates that many alternative medical therapies might be worth examining, but research shows that most of them don't work.

Intuition and common sense are a good way to find your way through day-to-day life, but they're not especially reliable when trying to figure out how reality works, and thus how to do things that are genuinely new.

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23 May 2009


Ida the fossil primate isn't a missing link, but she's become a PR stunt

Google Logo Celebrating Discovery of Darwinius Masillae Fossil at Flickr.comIf you watched the news or read the paper last week, or surfed around the Web, you probably came across one or two or ten breathless news stories about Darwinius masillae (nicknamed "Ida"), a 47 million-year-old fossil primate that was described, over and over again, as a "missing link" in human evolution. It even showed up in the ever-changing Google home page graphic.

But something in the coverage—many things, really—set off my bullshit detectors. That's because, in years of watching science news, and getting a biology degree, I've learned that the sudden appearance of a story like this (whether a medical miracle cure, a high-energy physics experiment, or a paleontological discovery) indicates that something else is pushing the hype. Most often, there's solid science in there, but the meaning of the study is probably being overplayed, obscured, or misrepresented. And sure enough, that's the case here:

  • First of all, it is a wonderful fossil. A very old, essentially complete preserved skeleton and body impression of a juvenile lemur-like primate, which may or may not actually belong to the group of primates that later would include hominids, like us humans. That is super-cool. The fossil also apparently has an interesting history: it was first found over 25 years ago, and kicked around various private collections and museums in more than one piece until quite recently. Only in the past year has it been fully reassembled and analyzed, with the results published this week. That's news.

But, but, but, BUT...

  • Darwinius obviously name-checks Charles Darwin. That's grandiose to start with: scientists naming a fossil after Darwin obviously think it's pretty important, and are hyping it up even before anyone else has a chance to evaluate that claim. Yet for precisely that reason, the name feels like a PR stunt to me. Actually, it makes me think of the Disney division that calls its toys Baby Einstein.

  • The whole "missing link" business is a crock, whether the publishing scientists actually claim it or not. Evolutionary biology is 150 years old this year—old enough that there aren't any missing links. What I mean is, sure, scientists find new links in the relationships between living organisms all the time. They've been doing that since before Darwin and Wallace first figured out the mechanisms of natural selection.

    But the term missing implies that we're still waiting for evidence that organisms evolve, that science still needs something convincing—when we've had overwhelming evidence since Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 (and before!), while more keeps accumulating all the time. Even aside from all that, there's no indication that Darwinius is a human ancestor. It may be a link to something, and from something, but it's probably not a link from even older primates to us, which is what the news reports are saying.

  • The first paper about a fossil touted as such a very important, even revolutionary discovery should appear in one of the major global journals, such as Science or Nature, or maybe the Journal of Paleontology or another high-profile publication in the field. Instead, Darwinius is first appearing in PLoS ONE, an interesting but somewhat experimental online journal from the excellent Public Library of Science.

    I'm not knocking it, because PLoS ONE is legitimate, and peer-reviewed—indeed, it's doing what many scientists have argued for since the dawn of the Web in the '90s, which is make quality original scientific research available online without the insane subscription fees of traditional journals. But it's also less than three years old. If the Darwinius paper were otherwise unimpeachable, publishing it in PLoS ONE would be a great example of bringing important, leading-edge science into the 21st century of publishing. However, it felt to me instead that it appeared there because it was a fast way to get the paper out for a looming deadline.

  • Ah, the press conference. It's always suspicious when a scientific discovery is announced at a press conference. When the media event happens simultaneously with, or even before, publication of the formal paper. When experienced science journalists and fellow researchers get no chance to dig into the details before the story goes live to the wires. When there's obviously some other motive keeping the research secret until the Big Reveal.

And that's what it comes down to. It turns out that the U.S. History Channel paid what is surely a lot of money for exclusive access to the research team for a couple of years now, and that the TV special about Darwinius premieres this coming week. What's it called?

Yup, it's called The Link:

Missing link found! An incredible 95 percent complete fossil of a 47-million-year-old human ancestor has been discovered and, after two years of secret study, an international team of scientists has revealed it to the world. The fossil’s remarkable state of preservation allows an unprecedented glimpse into early human evolution.

That entire summary paragraph is crazy hyperbole, or, to put it bluntly, mostly wrong. By contrast, here's what the authors say in their conclusion to the paper itself:

We do not interpret Darwinius as anthropoid, but the adapoid primates it represents deserve more careful comparison with higher primates than they have received in the past.

Translated, that sentence means "we're not saying this fossil belongs to the big group of Old World primates that includes humans, but it's worth looking to see if the group it does belong to might be more closely related to other such primates than everyone previously thought." It's a good, and typically highly qualified, scientific statement. Yet the History Channel page takes the researchers' conclusion (not a human ancestor) and completely mangles it to claim the very opposite (yes a human ancestor)!

It seems that what happened here is that the research team, while (initially at least) working hard to produce a decent paper about an amazing and justifiably important fossil, got sucked into a TV production, rushed their publication to meet a deadline a week before the show is to air, and then let themselves get swept into a media frenzy that has seriously distorted, misrepresented, and even lied about what the fossil really means.

In short, a cool fossil find has turned into a PR stunt for an educationally questionable cable TV special.

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15 April 2009


Links of interest (2009-04-15):

Most of these come via Jason Kottke or John Gruber:

  • Nine science words that came from science fiction. See the (inevitably snipey) comments for some others, like robot, cyberspace, waldo, grok, avatar, and the delightful thagomizer.
  • "I can’t think of a way that the entire [computer] desktop metaphor can be overhauled without either everyone in the world switching over at once (which won’t happen), or becoming a 'data island' like the Newton or Classic Mac OS."
  • The MythBusters have a regular column in Popular Mechanics.
  • "If you're married to page views, never assume that I am. If you're angling for 1,000,000 Twitter followers whom you pretend to read, never assume that I am. And, if your project is based on generating compulsory year-over-year growth vis-a-vis market domination and fiduciary responsibility, never assume that I am."
  • Rush Limbaugh's 10 dumbest remarks.
  • Stephen Colbert won't get a space station module named after himself, but he will get a space treadmill instead.
  • Our pal Kris Krug takes great photographs of people, and is enormously prolific in publishing them online, and Miranda and Reilly Lievers make amazing wedding pictures. But when my other friend Alastair Bird, who's made his living as a photographer for many years, publishes the occasional portrait online, there's something about his shallow-focus work with a medium-format camera that I find just astounding.
  • A nice summary by "Bad Astronomer" Phil Plait of Jerry Coyne's book Why Evolution is True.
  • I am a photic sneezer, and it runs in my family (my grandmother did it, I think my dad does it, and one of my daughters does too). I'm glad to read an explanation.

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12 February 2009


Darwin day

Charles Darwin at Flickr.comCharles Darwin was born 200 years ago today, and has been dead for almost 127 years. That's a long time in human terms, but no time at all in the history of life on earth. Though the true age of our planet (about 4.6 billion years) wasn't yet clear in his time, Darwin knew that it was very old—old enough to have changed a whole lot, and for life to have evolved along with it.

If he hadn't, someone else would have figured out around Darwin's time that evolution happens by natural selection. The evidence, from geology, paleontology, island ecology, animal breeding, and other fields was there. Indeed, someone else did figure it out, and when Alfred Wallace wrote to Darwin about "the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type" in 1857, he spurred Darwin to spend two years compiling his own ideas on the subject (by then 20 years old), in On the Origin of Species, 150 years ago this year.

The discovery

But while the idea of natural selection was ripe for discovery in the mid-1850s, Charles Darwin was uniquely suited to refine and present it. He was a polymath, interested in a huge variety of subjects. He was a well-respected member of the British social and scientific establishment, so his ideas would be heard. He had traveled the world, observing and collecting different species of animals and plants, before returning to England to become a settled homebody, set on performing exacting experiments to tease out the subtleties of biological phenomena.

Long before he wrote the Origin, he understood the implications of his discovery, especially to Biblical interpretations of creation—he had trained for the ministry in his youth, and his wife Emma was very religious—so he knew that he would have to assemble all the overwhelming evidence he had, and argue it well, to make his case. That's one reason he waited 20 years.

Despite knowing nothing of genetics, plate tectonics, or modern developmental biology, and having few transitional fossil finds to refer to, Darwin and Wallace were fundamentally correct in their discovery:

  1. Individual animals, plants, fungi, and unicellular organisms produce more offspring than can survive and successfully reproduce themselves.
  2. Those offspring vary in numerous characteristics, some of which offer survival and reproductive advantages in their current environment.
  3. Offspring with variations that offer advantages produce more offspring than their siblings with variations that don't.
  4. Over time, those individuals with the advantageous variations come to dominate populations.
  5. Different populations of a single species exist in different environments, and environments also change, so the variations that work best will probably differ between populations and over time. Eventually, those variations compound, and the populations may diverge or evolve into new species.

The mystery

So while many people assume that On the Origin of Species addresses how life originated on earth to start with, it doesn't—that remains a mystery biologists are still trying to solve 150 years later. Darwin himself suggested that life was "originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one."

His book solved another mystery altogether: how new species originate from existing ones. In doing so, Charles Darwin effectively created the science of biology, drawing the study of living things into a cohesive subject, where insights in one field (such as the chemical structure of deoxyribonucleic acid inside cells) could relate to others (like the geographic distribution of animals, or even human medicine).

The argument

Darwin was a shy, sensitive family man averse to controversy, but he was also stubborn, logical, meticulous, and a completist. The Origin is over 300 pages, but he wrote it as a mere abstract of the comprehensive book he really wanted to write (and never did). Even in its "abbreviated" form, it is a progressing, relentless treatise, building fact upon fact.

He doesn't introduce the concept of natural selection until the fourth chapter (of 15 total). He builds a foundation, introduces his discovery, marshals evidence, raises objections, and addresses them. He talks about instinct, breeding, geology, geography, morphology, and embryology. Then, just to be sure you've got it, he writes a final chapter summarizing everything—all in long Victorian paragraphs.

Honestly, On the Origin of Species is a pretty dull read. But it is a stupendous argument.

The evidence

The test of a scientific theory is not only what it explains, but what it predicts—even beyond what its formulators might have imagined. We know Newton's laws of motion are right because we use them to send men to the moon and probes to planets, and to predict eclipses. We know Einstein was right because lasers actually work, and because gravity really does bend light, whether as close by as the sun or as far away as the most distant galaxies. We know continental drift is real for a bunch of reasons, but today we can even use precise satellite measurements to watch it happening in real time.

Countless theories are obsolete because their predictions don't pan out: a young and earth-centred universe under an unchanging dome of stars, four elements (earth, air, fire, water), aether and phlogiston, Lamarckian inheritance, magical alchemy (Isaac Newton was convinced about that one), spontaneous generation, health as a balance of humours, absolute time, the indivisible atom, Darwin's own ideas about the mechanisms of inheritance, and on and on.

We refine other theories based on new evidence, because their predictions are close, but not quite right. Today, for newer theories, we build huge machines just to find out whose predictions match with reality.

What amazes us about Darwin, and Newton, and Einstein (and others)—what shows us that they were right—is that new evidence keeps turning up, and either refines or confirms what their most important theories predict, but doesn't refute it. Newton's theories work so well we hardly think about them: we just buy cameras with refracting lenses, fly in planes with jet engines, drive cars with airbags, or turn on our GPS units, and we expect them to work. Einstein showed some extreme situations where Newton's laws don't properly apply, and we learned from that how to make laser pointers, take radiation therapy, and fear nuclear weapons.

The predictions

Evolution by natural selection, as Darwin and Wallace figured it out, suggested that we would find many other things, such as:

  • Many more transitional fossil forms—yes, and more all the time.
  • Mechanisms for inheritance of variation—those are genes and DNA.
  • Ways for geographically distant but related organisms to have once shared ancestors—continental drift and deep time are two big ones there.

We have found those things, in spades. But the evidence goes far further, including:

  • Animals and plants that Darwin surmised must be related because of their appearance and habits also share more DNA than those less closely related—something he could never have known, but that provides two independent lines of evidence to the same conclusion.
  • Evolution is usually slow, but in organisms that live and reproduce fast, like the AIDS virus adapting against our drugs, E. coli tolerating poisons in the lab, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria spreading in hospitals, we can see it happen over mere decades.
  • Using biotechnology, we can synthesize new species ourselves—such as by corralling bacteria to make human insulin or to devour oil spills—but only when we apply the genetic mechanisms that we have discovered allow natural selection and drive evolution.

From biochemistry and molecular biology to evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), gene therapy, and evolutionary psychology, whole fields of study depend on the principles of natural selection. Without them, those fields could not make their own predictions or solve problems in the real world.

Yet here's the thing: they do.

The day

That's why today, Darwin day, is worth commemorating. Charles Darwin figured out the basis for how life works 150 years ago. He explained it, and no matter how controversial it remains, natural selection is the basis for how we understand the family of all organisms, extinct or living, which includes ourselves, over several billion years.

He was a proper Victorian country gentleman, so I doubt anyone ever called him "Chuck." But he's 127 years dead now, so he has no reason to mind my saying this: Happy birthday, Chuck. And thanks.

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19 December 2008


Violence and sex

When you think about it a little, the two major things we prevent our children from seeing, sex and violence, are pretty weird. Not in themselves individually, but on how we fixate on them as a yin-yang pair. What's even weirder is that we treat sex (which, of the two, is certainly the good one) as the worst—even for adults.

Consider: When the great photographic website The Big Picture has a year-end picture retrospective, it warns us about violent images but still lets us see them, but doesn't include any sexual pictures at all, even though I'm sure 2008 included some amazing ones. And your local video rental store puts the porn in a hidden back room, but leaves the horror movies out on the public shelves.

I think I know why.

What I mean is, while we generally protect our kids from seeing extreme violence and gore, whether real or simulated, they still get exposed to a lot of lower-level stuff. Even for rather young children, everything from Mario pounding enemy characters with a hammer in videogames, to Bugs Bunny and Batman cartoons, to TV shows like Destroyed in Seconds (a guilty pleasure both for me and for my ten-year-old daughter) is fair game. As they get older, we're pretty much fine with letting them play more graphic games, watch CSI and Indiana Jones, and see shows where stuff (and people) get blowed up real good.

But apparently we're not going to let them see any sex. Nudity and sexuality are going to get a PG-13 or R or NC-17 from the ratings board a lot more easily than violence. And when was the last time a violent movie received an X rating? Surely any suggestion of sexuality between kids' videogame or TV characters would probably lead to a recall or cancellation—yet it's fine if they punch each other. The key example here? The infamous "hot coffee mod."

Here's my theory. For most people in developed western societies, any violence beyond accidents or schoolyard fisticuffs is pure fantasy. Unless you're a solider or maybe a gang member, or just perhaps a police officer in an extreme and unusual situation, chances are you will never kill or maim anyone on purpose in your entire life. You will never break someone's neck in hand-to-hand combat. You will never blow up a building or shoot down a plane. You will never aim a machine gun or a rocket launcher, or wield a sword in anger. You absolutely will not ever vaporize a planet.

And that's a good thing.

But nearly everyone, once they become adults, eventually has sex. Maybe a lot of it.

And that's also a good thing, or should be.

Children who see violence, especially exaggerated violence of the Donkey Kong or blowed-up-real-good variety, are seeing something they can fantasize about, but which they will never do. Children who see sex are seeing something they will almost certainly do eventually.

And that's why we adults think of sex as more dangerous for our kids. It's why we shield them from it for longer. It's why when we do discuss it at first, we have Serious Talks about the Human Reproductive System. And why we don't have Serious Talks about High Explosives.

Because sex is real, and important, and as we become adolescents we're wired by evolution to want it way more than we want to blow stuff up. So children need to learn about sex as a real thing, so they can make wise decisions when they get there. (How many of us, conversely, ever need to make any sort of decision about, say, wearing ear protection when firing a mortar in battle?)

I'm sure some sociologist has considered this already. However much the dichotomy between sex and violence makes sense, however, it's still pretty weird.

Don't even get me started on swearing.

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02 April 2008


Did humans kill off the woolly mammoth?

Mammoth at Flickr.comThere's long been speculation that as humans moved into Arctic territories (as well as into North America), we were primarily responsible for the extinction of the woolly mammoth about 12,000 years ago. Other researchers have favoured climate change at the end of the Pleistocene era as the main reason they disappeared.

New research indicates that, in Eurasia at least, the answer is probably both. Mammoth populations fluctuated hugely throughout the Pleistocene, dropping to levels even lower than their pre–human contact point as much as 125,000 years ago, during a warming period.

But when humans entered the picture millennia after that, as the Ice Age glaciers were melting, mammoth populations were again low, and our hunting activity likely slowly picked the big pachyderms off.

The last woolly mammoths to die off were amazingly recent: a dwarf variety survived until less than 4,000 years ago on Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean off the desolate far northeast coast of Siberia. That human hunting had a role in their demise is no surprise: quite often, when our species has moved into new areas (especially isolated ones), we exterminate species that live there, especially large yummy ones.

Maoris eliminated moas from New Zealand not long after arriving between 800 and 1300 A.D. (moas were gone by 1500, a couple of hundred years before Europeans started showing up). Similarly, dodos disappeared in the late 1600s after humans arrived on their home island of Mauritus. And we're doing an effective job of bringing a variety of big species, from blue whales to Siberian tigers—and many other organisms too—close to the vanishing point today. Only rarely, as in the case of the smallpox virus, do we do it on purpose.

It's possible that woolly mammoths might have disappeared even without us as the Ice Age ended. But we very likely speeded their extinction along.

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20 March 2008


A billion years, or 600 million, give or take

Woven DNA (#1) at Flickr.comA friend of asked me today:

How does evolution explain something like DNA and how it's decoded? Natural selection/chance-change over billions of years doesnt seem adequate to explain it. Are there other evolutionary mechanisms that might explain it?

Also, DNA seems very clearly to be instructions/information. From an evolutionary standpoint, would that be an illusion because [we humans interpret] what turns out to be chance results as something more meaningful and organized because the result kind of works?

Now, beware, since IANAEBOP (I Am Not An Evolutionary Biologist Or Philosopher). I do have pretty decent background in biology generally, it being my degree and all, and that means I need to understand natural selection well. So here goes my take.

What's chance, what isn't?

One of the issues here is that too often people talk about natural selection, including the initial appearance of DNA, as a random process. It's actually much the opposite: yes, mutations (i.e. the source material or "seeds" for evolutionary change) occur randomly, but the ones that persist because they lead to greater reproductive success are completely non-random. Non-random rules arising from natural processes filter out almost all the random stuff, leading to evolutionary processes that build upon themselves to generate new things.

But non-randomness doesn't have to imply conscious agency (at least I don't think so). Nor does it imply inevitability, or even directionality, really. If you rolled back the clock and started things over again with the first simple microorganisms, or at any later stage, even with essentially the same conditions, the result might very well have turned out very differently.

Evolution is a historical process, and like human history, there are so many inter-related, contingent influences going on that if we, say, started over again 75 million years ago with dinosaurs, even if an asteroid still wiped them out, there's no guarantee a human-like intelligence would arise later. Or if it did, that primates would necessarily be what did it.

Similarly, roll back farther, and would insects end up as the dominant multicellular animals again? Might woody flowering plants once more come to dominate over ferns and other now less common forms? Maybe not.

You can think of an analogy in something like the pattern of a streambed. Yes, the movement of individual water molecules or sand grains may be essentially random, but gravity and friction and a variety of other simple laws of nature, interacting in a very complex way, make it so that the result—the tree-like form of a drainage basin—has a very non-random structure. (If you drop something on earth, it falls down. If things were random, you'd have no way to predict which direction it would go.)

But, yet again, if you rolled back the clock and started the erosion process all over again, the stream's course might run in a very different direction. There would still be a tree-like structure constrained by natural laws, but the details of it would be totally different, so you couldn't plan to build a house or waterwheel or hydro dam in a particular location in advance.

The vastness of time

Another issue is time. Our brains really aren't well equipped to handle the kinds of time scales this stuff happens on. Something like DNA seems irredeemably complicated to have arisen by the hit-and-miss processes we're talking about. It's too well built. (Of course, the process also has its flaws, which is why people like me get cancer.) But we're used to watching stuff happen over the course of minutes or hours or days or weeks or months or years or maybe decades. The rise and fall of civilizations may take centuries. To us that seems like a long time.

Evidence seems to indicate that DNA first appeared pretty early on in earth's history. But it still took something like 600 million years, or maybe closer to a billion. Even if it were completely random (rather than a rule-driven process with random "seeds"), a lot of amazing things could happen totally by chance in 600 million years. And a lot of amazing things have happened in the 4 billion years since, some random, some not.

Humans have never witnessed a large asteroid impact on earth. As far as our actual experience (even on an evolutionary time scale) is concerned, it has never happened. But given enough time, tens or hundreds of millions of years, it pretty much must happen again, and it has happened several times before. So we can consider things impossible when, in the long run, they are inevitable, or at least probable.

Would DNA, or something like it, inevitably have arisen on earth, given enough time? We don't know, and can't know yet. That's why looking for unrelated life elsewhere is important: even if it's non-intelligent life, finding something that arose separately from life on earth would tell us that life-driving processes are at least reasonably likely in this universe.

Or maybe it really is nearly (but not quite) impossible, and it only happened here, once in all these billions of years there have been stars and planets. I hope not, but it could be.

Saving a step

Now, if you step back and ask why natural laws are structured in such a way that contingent, historical evolution can happen even once (or even why atoms and molecules can form at all in the first place, rather than just creating a universe that's nothing but a soup of plasma), that enters into realms of philosophy that I don't think we may ever be able to answer.

Many will answer that God must have made those rules. But if I think like that, I always have to ask: then what made the God (or gods) that could make those rules, and by what meta-rules? In my mind, it's the same problem, just one step further, so it isn't really an answer at all.

I'm comfortable enough thinking that life and the DNA that lets it propagate "just happened" (perhaps the greatest oversimplification it would ever be possible to make in any circumstance). And with observation and intelligence, we're able to understand very much about how things have happened since, without having to resort to supernatural explanations that, by definition, we cannot analyze because their rules must be inscrutable to us.

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09 March 2008


Links of interest (2008-03-09):

  • "You call this traveling? Twenty-one days, 15 countries, 45,000 miles—without setting foot outdoors."

  • "The more affluent a country gets, the more things parents come to see as essential for raising children [so] as long as the world keeps creeping out of poverty, families will continue to shrink."

  • jamNOW lets you jam online with other musicians, interact with fans, and listen to live streams from nightclubs all over the place. Haven't tried it, so I'm not sure how well it works.

  • Looks like the iMac DV in our kitchen is finally officially obsolete. It's slow, but it still works pretty well.

  • Are things really this bad for biology teachers in significant portions of the U.S.A.?

  • "If all you do is work, your value judgements are unlikely to be sound."

  • "I rejoice in this life that I have, and in the grandeur of a world that preceded me, and an earth that will abide without me."

  • "Studies have shown that abstinence-only education does virtually nothing to prevent kids from having sex [and that] abstinence-only group[s] used birth control less frequently."

  • "When I get a resume, the first thing I do is type the person's name into Google.  If nothing comes up, I trash the resume without reading it."

  • "I don't want my ISP looking at how I use the Internet to target ads to me, period, any more than I want the phone company listening in on my conversations in order to sell me stuff."

  • TripIt looks like one of the best online travel resources out there, though I haven't tried it.

  • How to make your website or blog faster.

  • The Universe is 13.73 billion years old, give or take only about 120 million years. Now that is a cool finding.

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24 February 2008


Ignorance and bliss

17 February 2008


Blogging about research, and a new way to buy my album

PisasterThere's a ton of neat stuff over at ResearchBlogging.org, a site that aggregates blog posts about peer-reviewed research in the social and natural sciences. You can subscribe to an RSS feed for new posts, including citations. The blog from ResearchBlogging is also interesting, especially when it talks about controversies concerning what counts as legitimate research.

Some posts I've really enjoyed based on my biology degree background have been those at Pharyngula about how vertebrate eyes evolved (which, incidentally, firmly debunks the claim creationists frequently make that eyes are too complex to have evolved biologically) and how plant and animal development differ (and why the differences support the indications that our last common ancestor with plants was most likely a single-celled organism living more than 1.6 billion years ago).

And check out this lovely map of the human impact on marine ecosystems, which includes these nasty new marine dead zones off the west coast of North America, not far from where I live.

On a totally unrelated topic, my album Penmachine Sessions, which has been sold out in physical CD form since the middle of last year, is available in a whole bunch of digital forms, with the latest being the Amazon MP3 Store. It might be the best place to buy the album of all, since you get unrestricted, high-quality (256 kbps) MP3 files (that's better than the MP3 files I made for myself!) for only 99 cents each, or $8.99 for the whole album. I think it may only be available to U.S. customers for now, unfortunately.

No, I have no idea at all why Amazon labels my album as "explicit"—particularly because it is almost entirely instrumental music with no words!

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12 December 2007


Book Review: Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters

49ERS cHEER at Flickr.comWhen I read Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters (buy at Amazon Canada or Amazon U.S.), I wasn't angry, but I was uncomfortable—and not because one of the authors of this brand-new volume has been dead for almost five years. The book is a summary of the new field of evolutionary psychology, which shows that our evolutionary past strongly influences how humans think and behave today.

UPDATE March 2008: It looks like the main author if this book, Satoshi Kanazawa, is a bit of a wingnut, and also may not be analyzing many of his statistics correctly. I stand by my review of the book here, but my reservations listed in it (especially that there is very little information about what many of the mechanisms of evolutionary psychology are) have become stronger with new evidence. Overall, I'm likely to look at his work more skeptically from now on.

You can see why that might be discomfiting: most of us like to think that we're independent actors, making decisions based on thought, and maybe influenced by our upbringing and our environment. Sometimes we are. But Alan S. Miller (the dead one, who got the project started) and Satoshi Kanazawa (the living one, who finished it) show how often we're not. If you're a creationist or think that all evil derives from patriarchal traditions and corporate media, this book will bug the hell out of you.

Publisher Peguin sent me the book to review at the suggestion of Darren Barefoot. Although my biology degree is a couple of decades old now, I find nothing in the fundamental premises of evolutionary psychology shocking. It only makes sense that, like those of all other animals (more so, since we depend so much on it), our human brain has evolved along with the rest of our body, adapting through natural selection to our environment.

Or, as Miller and Kanazawa point out, to what used to be our environment. We behave, make decisions, and organize ourselves the way we do today largely because it helped our ancestors survive and reproduce in Africa tens of thousands of years ago.

That's where things get interesting, and where the discomfort and controversy arise. Take this, from page 95:

Of course, diamonds and flowers are beautiful, but they are beautiful precisely because they are expensive and lack intrinsic value, which is why it is mostly women who think that diamonds and flowers are beautiful. Their beauty lies in their inherent uselessness; this is why Volvos and potatoes are not beautiful.

A major foundation of evolutionary psychology is that sex drives everything. Or, more accurately, that the differences between how men's and women's genes propagate to our descendants drives much of our behaviour, from the obvious (mating rituals) to the puzzling (wars, jobs, when we choose to travel, what we like to buy). We're just like dogs bred to be aggressive or good at herding sheep, or like birds and fish adapted to flocking and schooling, or predators that survive because natural selection molded their brains to know how to stalk and pounce and kill.

The result is many provocative statements about human beings:

  • Divorced parents with children are playing a game of chicken, and it is usually the mother who swerves.
  • Men do everything they do in order to get laid.
  • Any reasonably attractive young woman exercises as much power as does the (male) ruler of the world.
  • Clear evidence of women's promiscuity [...] is the size and shape of men's genitals and what men do with them.
  • We believe in God for the same reason that men constantly think that women are coming on to them.
  • It is the wife's age, not the husband's, that prompts [a man's] "midlife crisis."
  • Religion is not an adaptation in itself but a byproduct of other adaptations. [...] The human brain [...] is biased to perceive intentional forces behind a wide range of natural physical phenomena [and thus] to see the hand of God at work.
  • Humans are [...] born racist and ethnocentric, and learn through socialization and education not to act on such innate tendencies.
  • Sometimes [a woman saying] "no" [to sex] really does mean "try a little harder."

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters makes a reasonable case, with lots of reputable research backing it up, that much of the conventional wisdom of psychology and sociology is wrong. The authors and their evolutionary psychologist colleagues argue that many of the improper, cruel, unfair, and evil things (or, for that matter, altruistic, pleasant, equitable, and good things) that people do are not the result of childhood environments, cultural traditions, or power structures.

Rather, our behaviours today—whether our current ethics and morals judge them good or bad—are the same behaviours that helped our ancestors' genes propagate, and thus are the reason we're here now.

Men killing their wives, other men, and their stepchildren. Women wanting, and men liking, long lustrous blonde hair. Religiously motivated suicide bombers being almost exclusively young male Muslims. People of both sexes preferring blue eyes to brown. Women choosing older and more powerful men as mates, but more attractive men as lovers. Essentially all human societies permitting either polygyny (men with multiple wives or mistresses) or serial polygyny (men who marry, divorce, and remarry, usually to younger women). Young single women often traveling abroad to experience the world while their male cohorts tend to stay home and hate foreigners. All have explanations in evolutionary psychology, some more solid than others.

The writing in the book is sometimes a bit manic, as if the authors were yanking me as a reader from example to example, saying, "Look! Look! We're right again!" Some of their conclusions come with lots of convincing scientific evidence, not to mention theoretical predictions about human behaviour that turn out to be true. But others are apparently pure speculation. I also think many of their explanations would have been clearer using the past tense, rather than the present, to keep the role of our ancestral environment clear.

They do show that beautiful people tend to have more daughters, and why that makes sense, but the physiological mechanism of how it happens wasn't clear to me. And neither the authors nor their editors seem to know what "begs the question" is actually supposed to mean.

To be fair, Miller and Kanazawa take pains to note that many of the things we do make little sense in the modern world (meaning the fast-changing one we've been in for the past 10,000 years or so, since the invention of agriculture). But because those behaviours evolved over hundreds of thousands or millions of years before that, we can't help ourselves. And the authors also highlight some areas—homosexuality, declining birthrates in industrialized countries, the willingness to become a soldier—that their field can't explain very well.

We still love sweet and fatty foods, which were once rare and precious but are now overabundant and giving us health problems. Similarly, we behave in ways that begat us more children when living in small groups of hunter-gatherers in a sub-tropical savannah, but which may not be of similar benefit in a world of fast cars, 80-year lifespans, high explosives, supermarkets, birth control, jet travel, antibiotics, and Internet dating.

What made me uncomfortable about the book is that, as a bleeding-heart leftie, of course I want to believe that we are not so driven and constrained by our evolutionary history. But I'm also trained in biology and—even more after reading Miller and Kanazawa—it's clear to me that, like other animals, we must be.

But what we do is not always what we ought to do: Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters reinforces repeatedly that facts (what is) do not determine morals (what should be). As a parallel, knowing that fleas spread bubonic plague doesn't make the plague desirable, and knowing that is key to combating the disease. But, conversely, the way we think things should be isn't necessarily the way they are either. Wanting human nature to compel us to treat each other fairly and well doesn't make that true. We have to find different reasons to make it happen, to overcome much of what is innate in us.

That is yet another lesson of the modern world that my brain, prehistoric as it is, has trouble handling.

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