Happy birthday, Kurt Cobain

I’ve been wanting an excuse to put some music up here lately. Kurt Cobain, were he not long dead, would be 44 today.

“Is natural selection random?”

One of the most common series of search terms that gets people to FTSOS is the title of this post. Most people end up clicking my article on why natural selection is not random; I’m not a huge fan of that piece. It was originally written for a local weekly paper (which changed ownership as I finished), not a blog. What’s more, it is very far from being succinct. I want to rectify that issue in this post.

So is natural selection random? No. Why not? The answer is simple: Natural selection is the pressure placed on a population and the change that happens in response to that pressure. Whereas the exact pressure is in part random in regards to any given population, exactly how a population responds follows some basic rules. Now, the reason I say the pressure is only random “in part” is because first and foremost I’m referring to changes in the environment that happen without regard to life. The rising of a mountain range is one example. But at the same time, other changes that might occur are in response to the direction of a population. For instance, it often pays to be the biggest and baddest member of a species for males, but instead of responding by becoming all the bigger and badder, some members might just become tricky. Some octopi, for example, will trick guardian males into believing they are just another female, gaining them access to the real female. This pressure isn’t entirely random since it is a response to the evolutionary state of a population. That is, becoming tricky is a response to being big and bad, and becoming big and bad was not itself random. But why? Well, I’m glad you asked:

Selection is a biased reaction to a given environment. This is specifically with regard to life: those that are able to exploit their environment best (and I really just mean ‘well enough’) are the ones that are going to survive. If it was all just random, then we would see no bias: We wouldn’t see a species trend in one way or another, beneficial genes would hardly ever become common, and we would never be able to make predictions. But what we see are trends and an increase in beneficial genes (and the elimination of deleterious genes) and we make predictions all the time. It is because of biased genetic reactions in populations that we call natural selection non-random.

I wouldn’t mind going on and on, but I said I want to make this succinct, so I will end with just one final but important point: The non-biased genetic reactions that happen because of natural selection must be measured across a population and through generations. If a creationist someone starts talking about natural selection being random and pointing out individual responses to the environment, then we might not be talking about the same evolutionary mechanism anymore. Everything that happens within evolution is happening to populations. Individuals do not evolve. So natural selection is the differential survival of individuals (or genes, depending on your perspective), but it is measured through time and within the context of a population.

Christopher Maloney wants to appear on FTSOS

That’s the only reasonable conclusion. After all, I have explicitly told him if shuts up, slinks away, only hurts people in silence, then I won’t be forced to post about him. But not only can he not do any of these things, he has to even make sure he directly references me.

Christopher Maloney, Naturopathic Doctor said…
Dear Wendy Pollack,

Terribly sorry to see that you’ve been Pharyngulaed by the esteemed PZ Myers (made himself famous by destroying the Catholic host) and his zombie horde.

Having had them attack me, I can say with complete sincerity that they haven’t an open mind among them.

One local follower had the gall to compare his own sightseeing tour of Tanzania with your humanitarian work, as if he contributed anything to anyone while he was there.

Keep up the great work!

At least he used the qualifier “naturopathic” so as not to fool anyone into thinking he was actually useful for doing anything medically meaningful.

But let’s get to the bulk of the post. Maloney is writing to Wendy Pollack, a quack who is bringing woo to Tanzania. As with most woo artists, she wants to hide from criticism. Maloney did the same thing by sending PZ a cease and desist notice. (That notice becomes all the more hilarious given that Maloney is the one that keeps talking about PZ; the quack brings it on himself.) It isn’t surprising that one outed quack would feel bad for a fellow outed quack. And at this point, I can’t say the continued lying is surprising either. Notice where Maloney says the local follower (that’s me!) compared Pollack’s “humanitarian” efforts to sightseeing. Here is what I actually said:

The area [Pollack] will specifically be visiting is the Kilimanjaro region. I’ve been all through it. It’s composed of rampant poverty. The medical “facilities” consist of small shacks of basic medicine, most of which can be found in the first half of aisle 14 at your local Rite-Aid. I made sure to purchase evacuation insurance before departing because I wasn’t about to find my way into a Tanzanian hospital if anything happened; I never needed it, but seeing that part of the country only confirmed that I had made a good purchase.

I didn’t compare Pollack’s “humanitarian” efforts to the sightseeing I did. The amazing group and amazing guides and amazing porters I had were far too good for me to compare to trash like her.

No, the point is obvious: Tanzania is desperately poor and desperately needs medical help. Real medical help. I doubt Pollack has any idea just how bad it is there. Hell, until I live in squalor and abject poverty and see members of my family die at age 50, there is no way I can really grasp the situation. But to tease the Tanzanian people with woo? To taunt them with pure fucking quackery? I fully grasp what an awful, awful person it takes to do something like that.

Anyway. Let me say it again because honestly – honestly, honestly – I hate making these posts: If Maloney ever wants to regain his web presence so that he may once again better give people fake medicine, he has to stop practically contacting me. Don’t give me a reason to post.

Update: I almost forgot. PZ’s fame comes from his flowing beard, not the cracker incident.

How many planets are in our galaxy?

The answer is 50 billion. But I find the number in the Goldilocks zone far more interesting.

At least 500 million of those planets are in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold zone where life could exist. The numbers were extrapolated from the early results of NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler telescope.

Hey look, every Facebook user could have one Goldilocks planet all his or her own.

These numbers could change drastically, but don’t expect to ever see any minuscule estimate by any measure. We have billions of stars in the Milky Way alone; we can predict the number of planets should reasonably be in the billions just by that fact. And if we venture our minds outside our little corner of the Universe, we realize there are more stars than grains of sand on Earth. The total number of planets in the Universe is undoubtedly in the trillions. And I’m probably being conservative. Earth is likely to be mind-blowingly mundane.