Archive for the ‘Evolution’ Category
In the NY Times Mark Bittman provides an example:
That “good” news you may have read last week about the Food and Drug Administration’s curbing antibiotics in animal feed may not be so good after all. In fact, it appears that the F.D.A. has once again refused to do all it could to protect public health.
For those who missed it, the agency requested (and “requested” is the right word) that the pharmaceutical industry make a labeling change that, the F.D.A. says, will reduce the routine use of antibiotics in animal production. I’d happily be proven wrong, but I don’t think it will. Rather, I think we’re looking at an industry-friendly response to the public health emergency of diseases caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, resistance that is bred in industrially raised animals.
You may know that around 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States are given (fed, mostly) to animals. Why? Because the terrible conditions in which most of our animals are grown foster illness; give them antibiotics and illness is less likely. There is also a belief that “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics help animals grow faster. So most “farmers” who raise animals by the tens or hundreds of thousands find it easier to feed them antibiotics than to raise them in ways that allow antibiotics to be reserved for actual illness. (And yes, there are alternatives, even in industrial settings. Denmark raises as many hogs as Iowa and does it with far fewer antibiotics.)
You may also know that this overuse of antibiotics is leading to increasing bacterial resistance, that we’re breeding an army of supergerms. This isn’t theoretical: . . .
The government is again sticking its head in the sand, just as with climate change, only more so. We know the problem, we know the cause, we know how to fix it. But we do nothing.
The book is Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Yeah, yeah. I knew it had won a lot of accolades including National Book Award finalist, but still… somehow, as I was reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Wow! This is really good!” So I’m telling you: read just the first 60 pages and see if you don’t get a strong sense of cyberpunk science fiction. Let me know.
A clear example of how businesses in general simply do not care about you health, and how Congress really doesn’t either. Melinda Henneberger reports in the Washington Post:
The farm and pharmaceutical lobbies have blocked all meaningful efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics in raising livestock in American, a practice that poses major public health risks, a study released Tuesday found.The report says Congress has killed every effort to legislate a ban on feeding farm animals antibiotics that are important in human medicine. Not only that, but regulation of livestock feeding practices has grown weaker under the Obama administration, the study says. “Our worst fears were confirmed,’’ said Bob Martin, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which issued the report.The Food and Drug Administration’s own statistics, he said, show that fully 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in this country are fed to food animals.
The study comes five years after a troubling report on the way livestock is produced, written by a Pew Charitable Trusts commission of top scientists and ethicists working through the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. That landmark study warned that industrial farms that are feeding animals antibiotics for breakfast, lunch and dinner are plumping them up at a terrible cost, making antibiotics ever-less effective in treating human disease as microbes grew more resistant.
FDA guidelines in the pipeline now, Martin said, would require the industry to stop using antibiotics specifically to bulk up cows and other food animals, but would continue to allow their use for “disease-control.” What constitutes disease-control is so loosely defined, however, that there would be “no change” in the use of antibiotics as a result, Martin said.
“In a couple of areas the Obama administration started off with good intentions, but when industry pushed back, even weaker rules were issued,” he said. “We saw undue influence everywhere we turned.”
In a response via e-mail Monday evening, an FDA spokeswoman wrote that . . .
Interesting how they proved him to be the culprit, as reported in The Scientist by Chris Palmer:
Something was amiss in the Spanish coastal city of Valencia. A dozen cases of hepatitis C, a potentially fatal blood-borne viral infection that causes cirrhosis of the liver, had turned up within a short time span in early 1998. As more cases popped up over the ensuing weeks, one fact linked virtually all the cases: the patients had at one time or another been admitted to one of two local hospitals.
Valencian public health department officials set up a committee of local scientists and epidemiologists to get a handle on the outbreak. One tool the health department planned to use to identify the source of the infections was a genetic analysis that was just starting to be employed in court cases related to HIV transmission. The forensic tool, based on the principles of molecular phylogenetics, could help infer the most recent common ancestor of virus strains from any two people based on the estimated rate of accumulated viral mutations.
Because of his experience in molecular biology, Fernando González-Candelas, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Valencia, was tapped to head the health department’s phylogenetic testing. As the investigation expanded, the number of possible cases of infection soared into the hundreds. “We had no idea when we were contacted that it was going to be such a big and complicated problem that it turned out to be,” says González-Candelas. Ultimately, 275 people—almost all of them patients at one or both of two hospitals in Valencia—were determined to be victims of the outbreak, which stretched back to 1988.
When the Valencian provincial court learned of the health department’s scientific committee, it asked to use the findings of the phylogenetic analysis as evidence for a criminal case against Juan Maeso, an anesthetist who worked regularly at the two hospitals (and occasionally at others) and who had administered painkillers intravenously to all of the known hepatitis C patients following surgical procedures.
González-Candelas and his team spent the next 2 years comparing 4,000 sequences of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) genome from 322 patients who had contracted HCV during Maeso’s tenure to more than 100 genome sequences from 28 HCV haplotypes that Maeso carried.
But virus genomes evolve rapidly—about one million times faster than the human genome. “There is a race between the virus and the immune system, with one trying to control the other and the other trying to escape,” says González-Candelas.
This means that viral sequences from the source and even a recently infected individual are almost never identical, according to Anne-Mieke Vandamme, an epidemiological virologist at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium who was not involved in the research. However, the rate at which mutations accumulate is relatively constant, so recently infected individuals should have viruses with higher sequence similarity to the source than those infected in the distant past. . .
Very interesting article in Quanta by Peter Byrne:
The developmental biologist Cassandra Extavour sings classical and baroque music on stage with the Handel and Haydn Society at Symphony Hall in Boston. Blessed with a beautiful soprano voice, she could easily have chosen to pursue a career as a singer. But a summer working in a developmental genetics laboratory as an undergraduate tipped the scales in favor of science, and Extavour is now an associate professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University. By choosing biology, she says, she has been able to pursue her musical career part time; a full-time concert soprano, by contrast, would not have had the time to run a lab on the side.
Extavour directs a national research collaborative called EDEN, which stands for Evo-Devo-Eco (evolutionary-developmental-ecological) Network. The organization,funded by the National Science Foundation, encourages geneticists to dissect more exotic creatures than the ubiquitous fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. EDEN researchers model the various evolutionary paths of sea anemones, horseshoe crabs, mosses, crickets, spiders, milkweed bugs and the super-hardy tardigrade. Extavour’s own lab focuses on dissecting insect embryos and ovaries, searching for genetic clues to the origin of multicellularity and the complex organisms that multicellularity made possible, including Homo sapiens. Extavour’s special expertise is in tracking the development of germ cells, the cells created in an embryo that contain the genetic code for reproducing multicellular organisms.
Last winter, Extavour was one of the organizers of a ten-week program on a controversial topic, “Cooperation and the Evolution of Multicellularity,” at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The daily talk sessions were attended by scores of highly regarded scientists from all over the world, including developmental and evolutionary biologists, mathematical physicists, and zoologists — plus an embedded journalist reporting for Quanta Magazine. The event was unusual because of its prolonged and multidisciplinary nature. And many exchanges were heated because, despite 150 years of research on the biology of evolution, scientists still disagree about how and why multicellular creatures and plants emerged from ancient oceans that teemed with robust and self-reliant single-celled entities.
At the conference, biologists who work mostly in the field observing the behaviors of bees, ants, wolves, slime molds and other creatures tended to look for the mechanics of natural selection at the behavioral level by examining how individual organisms self-organize into hives, nests, packs, conglomerates or families. Physicists and molecular biologists focused more on the micromechanics of natural selection at the level of the genome, looking to mathematically measure the “fitness” of what they call competing and cooperating genes or cells.
But the scientists were not always on the same page even regarding the meaning of such key concepts as cooperation, competition and fitness. The physicists and molecular biologists employed statistical mechanics and game theory to help build explanatory mathematical models of DNA, proteins and entire genomes. That preoccupation with micro-quantification sometimes raised the hackles of field-oriented biologists who were more focused on analyzing social behaviors.
Through it all, week after week, the unflappable Extavour kept the conferees focused on the central issue: Precisely what physical mechanisms originally drove single cells to unite for mutual benefit? How can we quantify this benefit in evolutionary terms? A few months after the conference, Quanta Magazine interviewed Extavour about her own point of view. This is a condensed and edited version of that interview, incorporating a portion of her final talk at Kavli.QUANTA MAGAZINE: Are you evo, devo or eco?
CASSANDRA EXTAVOUR: As a developmental biologist — a devo, if you will — I am intrigued by how cells become eggs and sperm in multicellular creatures. During the development of an animal embryo from a fertilized egg cell, a process that’s called embryogenesis, only a tiny percentage of the millions of genetically identical cells that make up the embryo will become gametes capable of passing their genomes on to successive generations.
Most of an embryo’s cells become soma: cells capable of forming vital organs, muscle, skin and bones. Somatic cells reproduce by dividing — genetically mirroring themselves — but they cannot contribute their specific genomes to the formation of new creatures through sexual reproduction. That is solely the job of the succession of cells in what we call a germ line.
In a sense, the somatic cells sacrifice their genetic “immortality” to protect the germ-line cells. And this primal division of reproductive labor has evolutionary consequences: It allows sexual reproduction and fosters genetic diversity and the evolution of multicellularity.
Now the eco in evo-devo-eco comes into play. The core problem in the study of the development of multicellular organisms is: Why do cells that start out with identical genomes do different things in different environments?
How do you track the development of germ cells in the lab?
We dissect the ovaries and embryos of spiders, crickets and milkweed bugs, using molecular biology and microscopy tools to map the genetic mechanisms that guide the emergence of germ cells. In some organisms, the assignment of a cell to the germ line is caused by an inheritance-based mechanism: Before there is even an embryo, the molecular content of some cells predetermines them to develop as either germ or soma. In other organisms, there is instead a signaling mechanism: An embryonic cell receives chemical signals from neighboring cells that activate (or repress) the genes that allow for germ-line function.
Why bother to be multicellular?
The evolution of a distinct germ line that is protected by the diverse somatic functions of the organism is thought to confer an evolutionary advantage — what we call a fitness benefit — to multicellular organisms, whether plant or animal or slime mold.
How so? . . .
Another interesting article from Quanta magazine, this one by Wynne Parry:
Evolution is littered with examples of opportunism. Hosts infected by viruses found new uses for the genetic material the agents of disease left behind; metabolic enzymes somehow came to refract light rays through the eye’s lens; mammals took advantage of the sutures between the skull bones to help their young pass through the birth canal; and, in the signature example, feathers appeared in fossils before the ancestors of modern birds took to the skies.
In cases like these, evolution has made do by co-opting an existing trait for a new use when the right circumstances arose. These instances offer the lesson that a trait’s current use does not always explain its origin.
In 1982, Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba gave a name to this phenomenon: exaptation. As they described it, exaptation is a counterpart to the more familiar concept of adaptation. While exaptations are traits that have been enlisted for new uses, adaptations have been shaped by natural selection for their current function, they wrote.
The order and arrangement of the bones in the four limbs of land-dwelling animals are an exaptation for walking on land, since these limbs originally evolved for navigating water; by contrast, changes to the shape of the bones and to the musculature are adaptations, Gould and Vrba wrote.
The concept has been controversial since it first arose, largely because it has been so difficult to distinguish between the forces of exaptation and adaptation in the historical context of evolution. Until recently, evidence for the co-opting of traits has been limited to case studies, such as the evolution of the feather. But examples from the morphological, behavioral and, increasingly, molecular realms have led some biologists to suspect that this phenomenon may play a much more sizable role in evolution than is generally appreciated.
A new study in Nature offers what may be the first attempt to comprehensively identify potential exaptations. The results of the study, which focused on metabolism, complement anecdotal examples and take an initial step toward quantifying exaptation’s contribution, at least within this system, said researchers not involved in the work.
Scientists used computational modeling to . . .
A good explanation of how the US has established an ad-hoc system to breed diseases that do not respond to antibiotics. Now I can see it’s part of the collective-action problem: taking a course that’s good for the country as a whole will hurt some (e.g., companies that use antibiotics to make animals gain weight faster). But, you know, perhaps we should go for the overall gain, which would require government action. Ezra Klein reports in the Washington Post Wonkblog:
Here’s something else to be scared of: drug-resistant superbugs.
According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “more than two million people are sickened every year with antibiotic-resistant infections, with at least 23,000 dying as a result.”
Oh, and those numbers are probably too low: “The estimates are based on conservative assumptions and are likely minimum estimates.”
The basic issue here is that we’re using too many antibiotics — both on ourselves and our animals. The CDC doesn’t mince words here:
The use of antibiotics is the single most important factor leading to antibiotic resistance around the world. Antibiotics are among the most commonly prescribed drugs used in human medicine. However, up to 50% of all the antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed or are not optimally effective as prescribed. Antibiotics are also commonly used in food animals to prevent, control, and treat disease, and to promote the growth of food-producing animals. The use of antibiotics for promoting growth is not necessary, and the practice should be phased out.
They’ve even got a helpful graphic showing how overuse of antibiotics leads to killer superbugs: . . .
K.M. Cholewa writes in Salon:
Drug warriors have long tried to smear marijuana as a dangerous scourge, seeking to criminalize possession of a leaf they clearly do not understand. The key to comprehending its effects is by better grasping our physiology.
Marijuana is not magic. Marijuana (botanical name, cannabis) affects the human body because the plant-based cannabinoids in marijuana, once ingested, can “plug into” the cannabinoid receptors that are used by the cannabinoids made by our own bodies.
It’s not just people that have cannabinoid systems. All mammals have them. All creatures do, except bugs. Although cannabinoid systems can utilize the plant-based cannabinoids in marijuana, the cultivation and preservation of cannabinoid systems by the evolutionary process has nothing to do with pot. The cannabinoid receptor appeared on the planet at least 550 million years before marijuana.
Evolution has selected for cannabinoid systems, meaning once they emerged, they were retained, and broadly adopted. A cannabinoid system must make living here on this planet easier, or even possible, for those who have them. That’s why life cultivates and retains certain mutations, such as fins, eyes or bigger brains. They’re useful, or at least once were. Why would the cannabinoid system be any different?
The cannabinoid receptor seems to have first appeared approximately 600 million years ago in sea squirts. Sea squirts also happen to be our closet relatives among the invertebrates. We share 80 percent of our genes with them.
A sea squirt is a tunicate, and tunicates contain a host of potentially useful chemical compounds that are effective against various types of cancer. In the May 2007 issue of The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Journal, researchers from Stanford University showed that “tunicates can correct [biological] abnormalities over a series of generations… the mechanisms underlying the phenomenon may lead to insights about the potential of cells and tissues to be reprogrammed.”
Could that underlying mechanism allowing for “reprogramming” involve the cannabinoid system?
Tunicates evolved in the early Cambrian period, a period that featured the Cambrian explosion that was characterized by increased diversity and diversification of organisms by an order of magnitude. The Cambrian explosion marked the sudden (in geological terms) emergence of almost every biological type known.
Prior to 580 million years ago, life forms were simple. Over the following 75 million years the rate of evolution accelerated. Charles Darwin considered the Cambrian explosion one of the best arguments against his theory of natural selection. Paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge’s theory of punctuated equalibriachallenged the idea that evolution took place exclusively gradually over the generations and asserted that instead there were eras where rapid change ensued. Gould pointed to stasis in most of the fossil record for evidence.
Could there be a connection between an accelerated rate of evolution 580 million years ago and the emergence of the cannabinoid system 600 million years ago? Is it possible that it is a system involved with evolution itself?
The capacity to change is essential to survival. Grow a fin. Resist bacteria. Accept a new idea. The ability to change can mean the difference between life and death, at the individual level or for a species. We know we can change biochemically. There has to be a biochemical reason for that. Such a biochemical system would be mandatory for most species when it comes to survival in a changing world.
The cannabinoid system seems at least in part to be associated with the capacity to “shift,” i.e., change, dislodge stagnancies and interrupt patterns (“forget”). Memory is not just an act of the mind. The body has memory, too. Marijuana affects “memory by way of the receptors in the limbic system’s hippocampus, which “gates” information during memory consolidation.”
According to Judith Horstman in “The Scientific American Brave New Brain,” learning is a product of memory formation. Memories are created “when messages are sent across the tiny gaps between neurons called synapses… A memory is held in the connections made by this network and firmly established when a network of synapses is strengthened… Over time, this net of memories can be strengthened further, weakened, or broken, depending on your brain chemistry, your genes, and your actions.”
So, these networks can be viewed as grooves that get dug and create underlying structure. Information gets trained to the tracks. So what if the well-dug groove becomes maladaptive, or even detrimental to survival? What if the dug groove was grounded in misinformation? What if the underlying structure distorts the information running through it? How do you realize it? (How does the body realize it?) How do you know to jump the tracks? And if you do jump them, jump them into what?
Unlearning, or pattern breaking, under certain circumstances is critical to the ability of life itself to persist. It may be equally important in organisms, organizations and even software to have a mechanism for pattern interruption when changes in the environment make a formerly useful pattern destructive. The interruption serves as a reset button and causes the system to reassess and aim for optimizing in current reality as opposed to maintaining historical patterns.
The researchers who work with cannabis, the cannabinoid system and cannabis science often refer to cannabinoids as working like “grease” and facilitating transitions from one state to another, and as allowing change. Certainly, more. . .
Continue reading. It’s a fascinating article. I wonder whether this is why some studies showed that smoking marijuana did not cause cancer (as smoking cigarettes does)—on the contrary, smoking marijuana seemed to inhibit cancer. It would make sense, in a general way: interrupting the pattern of the ceaselessly replicating cell: break its program, make it remember cell-death, whatever.
From the Five Books series, an interview with Kenneth Miller, biology professor and Catholic:
Kenneth Miller is a biology professor at Brown University. He is particularly well known for his opposition to creationism, including the intelligent design movement. He has written two books on the subject: Finding Darwin’s God which argues that a belief in evolution is compatible with a belief in God, and Only a Theory, which explores intelligent design.
Here’s the interview:
Before we look at your five book choices, can you tell me a bit more about where you stand in the argument against creationism?
It is really very simple. Like most scientists, I understand the evidence that has been marshalled in support of the theory of evolution. I find the evidence convincing. I find it has predictive power, and also that evolution is the thread by which we tie everything together in life science. A famous biologist once wrote that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. And that is absolutely, positively true.
In the States, the word “creationism” is understood to mean the belief that the earth is 6,000 or 7,000 years old, that all living species were created at pretty much the same time, and that the geological formations of the planet do not reflect the world of the past but are simply artefacts of the worldwide flood. And there is this belief that the mechanism of evolution simply doesn’t work. That is what creationists believe, and on every single one of those central points the creationists are wrong. I think the creationists arguments against evolution are wrong scientifically.
Which is interesting because you are a Catholic, but you see your faith as being outside the scientific debate surrounding creationism.
I certainly do, and the important thing on the issue of creationism and faith is a very simple point – that the creationists, or for that matter advocates of intelligent design, would argue that natural processes alone are not sufficient to bring about the world of life as we know it. And I maintain, as I think nearly all scientists do, that natural processes alone are indeed sufficient to bring about the world as we know it. You couldn’t have a starker difference. So where does religion fit into that? Essentially, any person of faith believes that the very existence of those natural processes have to be explained one way or another. And their explanation is the hypothesis of God.
Your first book choice, The Blind Watchmaker, is by the leading British atheist Richard Dawkins. He argues that the only watchmaker in nature is the blind force of physics, rather than a creator who puts us together.
I think that is right. I was torn between two of Richard’s books to recommend. The first one is really a classic, and that is The Selfish Gene. The Selfish Gene is an extraordinary book and I always recommend it to people who want to understand the way in which evolution can grapple with the question of self-sacrificing, altruistic behaviour, because many people regard this as a fundamental problem for evolutionary theory. What Richard did brilliantly inThe Selfish Gene was to popularise the ideas of WD Hamilton and others, that explain altruistic social behaviours in terms of kin selection. I am not an evolutionary psychologist, but social behaviour is one of the most fascinating things in evolutionary theory, and Richard’s explanations in The Selfish Gene have stood up very well.
In the Dawkins book I chose, The Blind Watchmaker, he brilliantly explains how complex mechanisms and structures are put together by the process of evolution. It is true that he makes certain theological points that I don’t agree with. In particular, he equates virtually any belief in God with creationism.
Which is not the case, especially from your point of view.
Indeed. I certainly think that is an over-simplification and an invalid connection, but that doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the book. One of my favourite examples is a discussion he puts forward on the evolution of the bat’s auditory system. Bats, as I think most people know, are able to fly about in near total darkness because they use a kind of sonar. They have specialised hearing apparatus and use hearing rather than sight to help them navigate. Creationists might wonder, how could evolution ever produce the integrated system of sound production?
But as Dawkins explains, pretty much all living beings have some ability to do this, and evolution has built upon those basic capabilities. One of the ways in which I demonstrate this to my students is by having one of them come up on stage, I place a blindfold over their eyes and spin them around two, three times. Then I move the large blackboard very close to them and ask them where the blackboard is while they still have their blindfold on. They are not allowed to touch anything, but simply by using their voice and the reverberations it causes they are easily able to locate the blackboard. Richard’s point is that the rudimentary ability to carry out this function is something that many animals have. What natural selection can do is refine that ability – to make it better and better, and eventually evolve it to perfection.
I accidentally fell into a discussion on evolution with a young-earth creationist recently—I thought we were simply talking about evolution, but I started getting some strange responses, and then when he quote Holy Scripture to prove his positions, I understood better what was going on and ceded the field to him.
But I got to thinking about what he views as “knowledge” vis-à-vis my own use of the term in the discussion, and I realized something that’s doubtless obvious: knowledge can be faith-based or evidence-based, but not both. If you have evidence, you don’t need faith: it just is. Faith takes over when evidence is sparse.
Specifically, questions of fact seem to me to be best resolved through the use of evidence-based reasoning. Questions of morality and ethics tend to call for faith-based reasoning.
Some overlap and cross-over occurs: when Thomas indeed put his hands on the wounds of the risen Jesus to verify their reality, he was going for an evidence-based, but nowadays the entire incident lies in the realm of faith-based knowledge.
Evidence-based knowledge is extraordinarily useful. For one thing, it facilitates the acquisition of new knowledge: you apply the methods now worked out in the various sciences—what I would term, broadly, a scientific approach: collect observations, develop a theory that accounts for the observations as simply as possible, and test the theory by looking for disconfirming evidence. If the theory is true, you’ll never find disconfirming evidence, but if the theory’s false, perhaps you simply have not yet discovered the evidence that will disprove it. Thus scientific knowledge is in general provisional: as good as we have at the time.
Faith-based knowledge is more certain—it doesn’t change over time (except that it does, obvious: BC and AD hold different faith-based knowledge, and faith-based knowledge seems to evolve over time—cf. Robert Wright’s extremely interesting book The Evolution of God.
Still, I think the two spheres are generally identifiable, and one does not look to faith for answers to factual questions: if you want to know what time it is, you look at a clock rather than praying.
Thus the literal reading of Scripture to establish the facts of evolution is a fool’s errand, not to put too fine a point on it. Scripture and faith address moral, ethical, and religious issues in general, not the evidentiary facts of the world. For that, we use another tool in our intellectual toolbox.
Indeed, using faith-based to resolve questions about evolution makes no more sense than using musical knowledge in that context.
I first discovered Elaine Morgan when I read Scars of Evolution (link there is to Amazon, in case you want a Kindle version; you can also find inexpensive secondhand editions that cost $1 plus shipping). She makes a very intriguing case for our descent from an aquatic ape. I asked her about the diving reflex in humans as a possible indication of an aquatic ancestry. She had not mentioned that, and she sent a very nice reply explaining that the connection was too tenuous for her to include. She did mount some very nice arguments, and I recommend the book to my readers inclined to science or science speculation.
The Younger Daughter pointed out this notice of her passing, which talks more about some of her other works.
Last night I thought of the human resemblance to bowerbirds, the males of which build beautiful and intricate displays to attract a mate. I’ve several times mentioned that humans are a hybrid of animal and culture, and both are essential, and I’ve pointed out how culture shaped the animal by making certain traits more valuable—e.g., the ability to vocalize become ever more important to survival (and reproduction) after the invention of language. Indeed, much of what we think of as our identity, our selves, our essence is made up of language, along with a raft of non-language components: dress, stance, gestures and grimaces, social norms such as personal distance, and other things that we believe make us who we are: unique individuals, but individuals that have their origins in—read: are made from—cultural fragments. We may be unique, but it’s all sampling.
I was thinking about this last night and finally got up at 4:00 s.m. to jot down some notes—and yes, I did get back to sleep once it was written down and off my mind: culture is always evident, “intruding” because it is the very ocean in which we swim—we are unconscious of how omnipresent it is just as fish probably don’t notice the water unless it gets suddenly colder, or they hit a current, or something. We do notice when, e.g., a new show hits town or a new saying sweeps the country or an issue grips the nation. Culture then stands out loud and clear. But day-to-day, it’s hard to imagine anything we think or say or do that is a complete creation from cultural bits and pieces: memes, in the technical sense.
But how is that construction done? How does the human build his/her cultural bowernest? That’s what I was pondering. I was reflecting on this article on how we (along with songbirds) “babble” as practice needed to learn how to change syllables. So babbling is serious work: necessary practice to learn the key cultural meme of language. (Ability to make sounds we have as animals, an ability that other animals (e.g., songbirds) also have; language, in contrast, is a cultural invention, not something we gained from being animals—as evidence, observe the different languages spoken in different places: were language a part of our DNA, we would all speak the same language. (Recall the belief that babies raised hearing no speech would automatically default to speaking Hebrew. Turns out that’s untrue.) But since we speak different language, it’s clear that language does not come to us by nature, but is learned. Thus language definitely is something created by the animal, and a big step toward the animal being able to become a human. Indeed, there are some interesting theories that trace all languages on earth back to a remote common origin in southern Africa: it was so powerful and so basic that it was invented once only, and grew from there. Agriculture, in contrast, was invented independently at least three times and probably seven.)
So that’s how we work to acquire language, but how, in practice, does an individual human form an identity by putting together a collection of memes: cultural fragments and pieces—the sampling I referred to above.
I had been watching The IT Crowd, the source of many ideas, both good and bad. Moss had been teaching visiting businessmen how to play Dungeons & Dragons, which turned out to be a big hit. I was thinking that for adolescents, who are working hard to assemble/find/create their adult selves, role-playing games provide a kind of “babbling” step: an ability to practice various personality constellations, see how they work both for oneself and as a way of interacting with others.
Then I realized that all the early games—Chutes & Ladders, checkers, chess, go, cribbage, rummy, bridge, whatever—are practice in learning how to obey rules and take turns (an important cultural lesson that must be taught), and later has to build upon the rules: use them as well as obey them. This is what chess and go are all about: sure, you follow the rules, but what can you do above and beyond that—using the rules, how far can you take it?
And thus adolescents try this look and that, different attitudes, modes of dress, and so on. It makes sense that creating a self would be difficult, but it is driven by a strong (animal) drive: to attract a mate. So the experiments continue, with the outcomes are analyzed (even if not consciously: it’s the adaptive unconscious in charge of this anyway: cf. Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious) and strategies and tactics improved.
I find the strong resemblances between a human’s sense of self and a bowerbird’s display to be remarkable.
UPDATE: To explore a different biological parallel: we have learned that our actual bodies encompass a variety of microbe populations: in our gut, on our skin (especially the feet), in our eyes, ears, throats, and so on, and to talk about the body without including these is like talking about the body without including, say, blood. That microbe population is now called the microbiome, and it totally affects our lives and our health.
The parallel, I’m thinking, is that while we are collecting and using cultural memes to construct a self, others are using us as cultural memes, and these little spin-off memes, that no longer are in your possession, constitute your cultural microbiome—and it is equally important. Many consider reputation (that is, the memes of oneself as held by others) to be extremely important and central to their identity. So we throw off all these little cultural memes, which others can then use—I suppose the Guide to Gourmet Shaving falls into that category: a collection of memes I assembled and am identified with (to some extent).
UPDATE again: It occurs to me that this, of course, is the idea of a good education: provide the most nutritious cultural memes available for use as the identity is developed: just like serving to a growing child the most nutritious and balanced diet that’s available, and for the same reason: maximum soundness and fitness. The “great books” program at St. John’s College is quite overtly one effort at a nutritious cultural smörgåsbord arranged for a balanced diet of those cultural memes needed by citizens of a free society. Interesting, to look at one’s education as having the goal of providing the best possible raw materials and environment for creation of a sound and wholesome identity.
UPDATE: In considering the picture that emerges, of a whirling vortex of memes that constitutes our “selves”—our identity—and seeing that those memes that make us who we are (in our unique combination and use of them—and in how those memes related to use affect not only our behavior, but also the behavior of others and in particular their behavior toward us, which naturally influences our perception of ourselves and thus our identity), I began to think that Nature really loves fractals and uses them constantly. And the fractalization can go in unexpected directions. Our identity does not have sharp boundaries, but is fractal to an amazing degree, with memes moving in, out, and through us. It’s almost as if the living entity consists of memes, with an animal foundation to power the mind that makes the memes.
UPDATE: Of course, meme development and selection is heavily influenced by aspects of our nature: for example, humans are social animals, so that aspect drives the dispersal and adoption of certain memes. We can throw well, a capability well exploited by memes (baseball, for example).
UPDATE: Certainly meme selection and evolution is shaped to some degree by our animal natures—memes that support our social nature, memes that play into our physical capabilities (agile hands, less agile feet, etc.), and so on—will be favored because of who/what we are. And clearly memes that provide a survival advantage for our animal selves will fare well: the first deliberately shaped sharp rock gave a small but important advantage to its wielder and to those who mimicked the invention, and so we evolved in the direction of more tool capability. And a meme that helps you get laid will not only be popular and widely mimicked, it quite naturally favors the selection of those who have/know it.
UPDATE: It struck me that memes are very much like viruses: like viruses, they cannot live on their own—a virus requires a plant or an animal to use for reproduction, and the virus exploits capabilities of the host for the virus’s own benefit (though viruses in some cases also convey a benefit to the host). And viruses evolve and change—and change their hosts (by, for example, killing off those with certain characteristics and thus skewing the population in a different direction). So memes can be viewed as viruses of the mind. And just as viruses that immediately kill their host do not themselves survive well, so also memes that destroy their hosts gradually alter the culture.
Fascinating note in Science News by Rachel Ehrenberg:
The notion that cities are all alike borders on blasphemy. Residents of the world’s great metropolises, from New York to London to Tokyo, speak of their homes as of a first love or old friend. But decades of analyses hint that cities, mathematically speaking, might actually all be the same. Now for the first time, those observations have been tidily and elegantly drawn together into a formula that describes what a city is.
That new work is part of a growing field dedicated to the science of cities. The effort is a timely one: Roughly 75 percent of people in the developed world now live in urban environments. While much of the research is in its early days, eventually it may serve as a powerful, widely used tool for urban planners and policymakers.
The mathematical work is rooted in and reinforces the view “that cities grow from the bottom up,” says Michael Batty, who trained as an architect, planner and geographer and went on to found the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London. “The diversity of life [in cities] offers greater opportunities for mixing ideas.”
That diversity, which includes dismal poverty, squalid slums and crime juxtaposed with prosperous businesses, majestic parks and great art institutions, was much decried in the 19th century. In 1883, for example, textile designer and artist William Morris lamented England’s cities as “mere masses of sordidness, filth, and squalor, embroidered with patches of pompous and vulgar hideousness, no less revolting to the eye and the mind….”
Discomfort with the notion that cities grew from the bottom up went along with disdain for disorder and chaos, framing cities as a problem to be solved. This view prevailed into the 20th century and influenced postwar urban renewal projects across the United States. The resulting redevelopment forever changed parts of cities such as Pittsburgh and Boston, with mixed results.
In the last several decades, however, the view of cities as disordered systems has begun to change, Batty says. Patterns have emerged within the chaos. Researchers in economics, physics, complexity theory and statistical mechanics have observed that certain features of cities consistently vary with population size.
But the relationships aren’t direct and linear. As a city grows, some features, . . .
It seems natural for humans to congregate in cities: we are a social animal, and the instant we had the resources to do it, we made cities and moved there: lots more happening than back in the pig sty.
So cities are truly natural developments, although we build them (they’re thus artificial as well): given the culture-creating/created animal that we turned out to be, we have no choice in the matter: that’s where evolution takes us.
But—and this is the point I am trying to make—because cities are natural, they are also highly complex—fractal, in a sense—and have critical internal systems and relationships that are subtle.
Very intriguing article at Wired Science by Brandon Keim:
What explains the incredible variety of life on Earth? It seems obvious. Evolution, of course! But perhaps not the evolution most people grew up with.
Some ecologists say the theory needs an update. They’ve proposed a new dynamic driving the emergence of new species, one that doesn’t involve adaptations or survival of the fittest.
Give evolution enough time and space, they say, and new species can just happen. Speciation might not only be an evolutionary consequence of fitness differences and natural selection, but a property intrinsic to evolution, just as all matter has gravity.
“Our work shows that evolution wants to be diverse,” said Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute. “It’s enough for organisms to be spread out in space and time.”
In a March 13 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper, Bar-Yam and his co-authors, Brazilian ecologists Ayana Martins at the University of Sao Paulo and Marcus Aguiar at the University of Campinas, modeled the evolution of greenish warblers living around the Tibetan plateau.
The warblers are what’s known as a ring species, a rare phenomenon that occurs when species inhabit a horseshoe-shaped range. Genes flow around the ring, passing between neighboring populations — yet at the ring’s tips, the animals no longer interbreed with one another.
By the usual standards, these end populations have become new species. According to the researchers’ model of the process, no special adaptations or differences in reproductive fitness are needed to explain — or at least to computationally replicate — the greenish warblers’ divergence.
“This sounds kind of crazy, right? We normally think of species as being adapted for particular functions. They have their own role to play in a community. That’s the standard wisdom,” said theoretical ecologist James O’Dwyer of the Santa Fe Institute, who was not involved in the study.Instead, over 2,000 modeled generations, a time frame that fits with the 10,000 years that greenish warblers have ringed the Tibetan plateau’s slopes since their exposure by retreating glaciers, random genetic mutations drifted through the birds’ populations, ultimately clustering in diversity patterns resembling what’s seen in reality.
Adaptation and natural selection certainly played a part in the warblers’ evolution, said Bar-Yam, but they weren’t necessarily the driving forces. And though geography is involved, it’s very different from the population-isolating physical separation created by mountain ranges or islands. . .
Barbara King reviews The Bonobo and the Atheist, by Frans de Waal:
In a book coming out next week called The Bonobo and the Atheist, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that morality is built into our species. Rather than coming to us top-down from God, or any other external source, morality for de Waal springs bottom-up from our emotions and our day-to-day social interactions, which themselves evolved from foundations in animal societies.
For 30 years, de Waal has authored books about apes and monkey that open our eyes to the bottom-up origins of our human behaviors, ranging from politics to empathy. In this, his 10th volume, he extends that perspective by writing, “It wasn’t God who introduced us to morality; rather, it was the other way around. God was put into place to help us live the way we felt we ought to.”
“The way we felt we ought to” has a long evolutionary history, so that de Waal’s thesis depends crucially on numerous and convincing examples from our closest living relatives.
Azalea, a trisomic rhesus macaque (trisomic = born with three copies of a certain chromosome), had abnormal motor and social skills, in ways somewhat akin to humans with Down syndrome. Instead of punishing her “incomprehensible blunders,” such as threatening the alpha male, the other macaques were accepting and forgiving of her until Azalea’s death at age three. Female chimpanzees may confront and shut down an overly aggressive male, sometimes even pulling two adversaries close together for reconciliation, or prying rocks from an aroused males’ hands.
In cases like these, animals are feeling empathy, then acting on that feeling with displays of kindness or help, behavior that de Waal callssympathy. The empathy is purely embodied — literally felt in the body — and part of our evolved biology. “Our brains have been designed to blur the line between self and other,” he writes. “It is an ancient neural circuitry that marks every mammal, from mouse to elephant.”
Despite the sweeping nature of this last statement, what’s great about the book are de Waal’s careful distinctions. He’s never naïve about animal goodness, as if it were hard-wired: how could he be when he has worked so closely for decades with chimpanzees, a species known for outbursts of brutal violence? De Waal sees the bonobo (of the book’s title) as more empathetic than the chimpanzee. Bonobos share food, and even across different groups, enjoy sexy, peaceful and playful relationships. But nowhere is it a gentle natural world that he describes. His focus instead is the utter wrongness of Veneer Theory, the historically popular idea that our morality is “a thin veneer over a cauldron of nasty tendencies.”
Further, de Waal doesn’t go so far as to equate animal goodness with morality. “I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a ‘moral being’,” he writes. “There is little evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not directly affect themselves.”
What sets human morality apart, he believes, depends on . . .
Because evolution always has to work with what it has at hand, as it were, new capabilities arise through ad hoc extensions/distortions of the mechanisms used by existing capabilities. This gives rise to many false starts and failures and takes hundreds of millions of years to accumulate a good set of mechanisms that work well in whatever ecological niche the lifeform is filling. But if you step back and look, the impression is one of almost incomprehensible complexity because everything is, in effect, jury-rigged. Here, for example, is a molecular model of the inside of an Escherichia coli cell, which is tightly packed with proteins and other macromolecules. This is a single cell. Ponder how complex is (say) a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the appreciation the audience feels if you examine the evening at this scale. Looking at what is going on inside the cells probably would not even enable you to identify the composer, much less the particular piece, and yet it happens. Good example of emergence at work.
Just as you suspected. Laura Miller reviews Marlene Zuk’s Paleolithic Fantasy in Salon:
Four years ago, biology professor Marlene Zuk was attending a conference on evolution and diseases of modern environments. She sat in on a presentation by Loren Cordain, author of “The Paleo Diet” and a leading guru of the current craze for emulating the lifestyles of our Stone-Age ancestors. Cordain pronounced several foods (bread, rice, potatoes) to be the cause of a fatal condition in people carrying certain genes. Intrigued, Zuk stood up and asked Cordain why this genetic inability to digest so many common foods had persisted. “Surely it would have been selected out of the population,” she suggested.
Cordain, who has a Ph.D in exercise physiology, assured Zuk that human beings had not had time to adapt to foods that only became staples with the advent of agriculture. “It’s only been ten thousand years,” he explained. Zuk’s response: “Plenty of time.” He looked at her blankly, and she repeated: “Plenty of time.” Zuk goes on to write, “we never resolved our disagreement.”
That’s not, strictly speaking, true. Consider Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live, a conclusive refutation of Cordain’s quixotic, if widespread, view of human evolution, along with many other misconceptions. Zuk — who has a puckish humor (she describes one puffy-lipped Nicaraguan fish as “the Angelina Jolie of cichlids”) and a history of studying evolution, ecology and behavior — found herself bemused by how the object of her research has been portrayed in various media and subcultures. She cruised the New York Times’ health blog and sites like cavemanforum.com, collecting half-baked interpretations of evolutionary “facts” and eccentric theories ranging from the repudiation of eyeglasses to the belief that carbs can make one’s nose “more round.”
Although she writes, “I would not dream of denying the evolutionary heritage present in our bodies,” Zuk briskly dismisses as simply “wrong” many common notions about that heritage. These errors fall into two large categories: misunderstandings about how evolution works and unfounded assumptions about how paleolithic humans lived. The first area is her speciality, and “Paleofantasy” offers a lively, lucid illustration of the intricacies of this all-important natural process. When it comes to the latter category, the anthropological aspect of the problem, Zuk treads more gingerly. Not only is this not her own field, but, as she observes, it is “ground often marked by acrimony and rancor” among the specialists themselves.
It is striking how fixated on the alleged behavior of our hunting-and-foraging forbearers some educated inhabitants of the developed world have become. Among the most obsessed are those who insist, as Zuk summarizes, that “our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, and in changing those circumstances without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response, we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.” Not only would we be happier and healthier if we lived like “cavemen,” this philosophy dictates, but “we are good at things we had to do back in the Pleistocene … and bad at things we didn’t.”
The most persuasive argument Zuk marshals against such views has to do with the potential for relatively rapid evolution, major changes that can appear over a time as short as, or even shorter than, the 10,000 years Cordain scoffed at. There are plenty of examples of this in humans and other species. In one astonishing case, a type of cricket Zuk studied, when transplanted from its original habitat to Hawaii, became almost entirely silent in the course of a mere five years. (A parasitical fly used the insects’ sounds to locate hosts.) This was all the more remarkable because audible leg-rubbing was the crickets’ main way of attracting mates, literally the raison d’etre of male crickets. The Hawaiian crickets constitute “one of the fastest cases of evolution in the wild, taking not hundreds or thousands of generations, but a mere handful,” Zuk writes. Adjusted to human years, that amounts to “only a few centuries.”
There are human examples, as well, such as . . .
This has been in the news, but still it’s interesting, especially the item I boldfaced below. Edyta Zielinska’s notes in The Scientist:
A small land creature that lived after the supercontinent of Gondwana split is the common ancestor of all placental mammals, offering new insights on the branches of the evolutionary tree. The study was published last week (February 8) inScience.
“The data matrix that they’ve assembled is jaw-dropping,” Olaf Bininda-Emonds, an evolutionary biologist at Oldenburg University who was not involved in the study, told Nature.
The researchers took 6 years to look at more than 4,500 anatomical traits of 86 extinct and living mammals from museums and research institutions in the United States and Canada. The trait analysis was combined with genetic and molecular data from living species to redraw parts of the evolutionary tree.
They found that a small, furry, insectivorous mammal was the common ancestor of all placental mammals, including humans. Fossil evidence suggested that the group to which this animal belonged was the first of an explosion of placental species more than 65 million years ago.
The study also found that elephants are more closely linked to sea cows than previously thought, and that flying lemurs are not more closely related to primates than treeshrews. Furthermore, the study settles a debate about whether placental animals cohabitated the planet with dinosaurs. The new analysis places placental mammals several thousand years after non-avian dinosaurs went extinct.
However, not everyone agrees that the data are definitive. “They haven’t really done anything to resolve this ongoing dispute,” Bininda-Emonds told Nature. The group’s use of fossil evidence in conjunction with molecular data, he noted, is like comparing “apples to oranges.”
It’s 150, of all things. Read this (fascinating) article in Bloomberg Businessweek by Drake Bennet for an explanation. The article begins:
A little more than 10 years ago, the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar began a study of the Christmas-card-sending habits of the English. This was in the days before online social networks made friends and “likes” as countable as miles on an odometer, and Dunbar wanted a proxy for meaningful social connection. He was curious to see not only how many people a person knew, but also how many people he or she cared about. The best way to find those connections, he decided, was to follow holiday cards. After all, sending them is an investment: You either have to know the address or get it; you have to buy the card or have it made from exactly the right collage of adorable family photos; you have to write something, buy a stamp, and put the envelope in the mail. These are not huge costs, but most people won’t incur them for just anybody.
Working with the anthropologist Russell Hill, Dunbar pieced together the average English household’s network of yuletide cheer. The researchers were able to report, for example, that about a quarter of cards went to relatives, nearly two-thirds to friends, and 8 percent to colleagues. The primary finding of the study, however, was a single number: the total population of the households each set of cards went out to. That number was 153.5, or roughly 150.
This was exactly the number that Dunbar expected. Over the past two decades, he and other like-minded researchers have discovered groupings of 150 nearly everywhere they looked. Anthropologists studying the world’s remaining hunter-gatherer societies have found that clans tend to have 150 members. Throughout Western military history, the size of the company—the smallest autonomous military unit—has hovered around 150. The self-governing communes of the Hutterites, an Anabaptist sect similar to the Amish and the Mennonites, always split when they grow larger than 150. So do the offices of W.L. Gore & Associates, the materials firm famous for innovative products such as Gore-Tex and for its radically nonhierarchical management structure. When a branch exceeds 150 employees, the company breaks it in two and builds a new office.
For Dunbar, there’s a simple explanation for this: . . .
Dan Slater has an interesting op-ed in today’s NY Times about the evolutionary origins of human sexual behavior, but I think his approach is somewhat too simple. As Einstein reputedly said, one should make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.
For example, for a long time the notion that the microbial population on and inside the human body was somehow not relevant, really, to the human animal—they were extraneous and could be ignored or killed as needed—is now rapidly being rejected. The microbes that inhabit us are now seen to be essential to us and to our health: they are in fact part of us, just detachable, as it were: you can remove some to study, but if you take them away, we sicken and die. We ourselves consist of our body and our microbial population: the human-microbiome complex, one might call it: our bodies and about 100 trillion (100,000,000,000,000) bacteria contsitute ourselves. (More info.)
So looking at a human just as the physical body (ignoring the microbiome) is making things too simple. It’s not even good as a first approximation since without the microbiome the body dies.
In the op-ed, the author does point to studies that do make things simpler without making them too simple—for example, the “bogus pipeline” mechanism does seem to show actual behavior vs. the cover story people generally use. But to ignore cultural influence and internalized cultural values is very like ignoring the microbiome, it seems to me. Humans are in fact a combination of animal and culture: if all cultural trappings are removed, you have an animal but not a human: no language, no values, no humanity. Still a living animal, but not a human. Perhaps a potential human, but I suspect the window for acquiring many essential human attributes will have closed by the time the individual has moved past puberty. Indeed, cultural influence starts to shape the individual even in the womb, as sounds come through and the developing infant’s brain is shaped to grasp the particular sounds of language and the timbre and tone of the mother’s voice. Once emerged, the infant is constantly subject to—and receptive of—cultural influences of every sort, which affect the development of neural pathways in the brain. And then learning the various skills required in the culture further shape body and brain.
Just as the microbiome is essential to the human, so is the cultural biome, which affects everything about the developing person in a give and take with his or her intrinsic abilities and limitations.
This is not to say that Darwinian principles are wrong: as Richard Dawkins pointed out, with others furthering the investigation, cultural memes also are subject to the Darwinian process of inheriting characteristics with random variations subject to natural selection by a competition for limited resources: cultures thus change, evolve, become extinct in some cases, and so on. To trace one example, consider the descent of men’s neckwear in the Western world: the evolution and mutations, splitting into different species, cross-breeding with external examples, and so on to arrive at all the variety we have today (much like the variety of, say, ferns), with the evolution continuing nonstop, as evolution does.
So human sexual behavior, considered in evolutionary terms, will include the (evolutionary) influence of human culture as something inextricably interwoven into the mix. To talk about human behavior, sexual or otherwise, separately from culture is making things too simple. Or so it seems to me.