Thought of the day

Anyone who tries to link Darwin and Hitler is being a dishonest hack.

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Happy Darwin Day

It’s also Lincoln’s birthday. Can you guess who was more important?

(Hint: It’s not the guy on the right.)

Oh, Jesus

There’s a story floating around the interwebbings that says “Study shows evolution guided by ‘invisible hand'” or some variation of that. Most of the actual articles take this idea too far.

A study in the University’s School of Psychology sought to explain how turn-taking has evolved across a range of species. The conclusion is that there is an “invisible hand” that guides our actions in this respect.

That isn’t really the conclusion. The researchers did use the phrase “invisible hand”, but they didn’t come to a scientific understanding that, “OO! Magic!” is what’s going on here. Here’s some actual meat.

The researchers state: “Turn-taking is initiated only after a species has evolved at least two genetically different types that behave differently in initial, uncoordinated interactions with others. Then as soon as a pair coordinates by chance, they instinctively begin to play ‘tit for tat’. This locks them into mutually beneficial coordinated turn-taking indefinitely. Without genetic diversity, turn-taking cannot evolve in this simple way.”

Tit-for-tat is a model of behavior that results in a form of altruism. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. A lot of organisms have it, and it’s especially strong among kin or even likely kin. The basis is that closely related organisms tend to have highly similar genes. While helping out (in one form or another) one’s brother may seem detrimental, it actually isn’t. That brother has 50% of the genes, on average, that the helper has. He’s really helping a lot of his own genes. On top of that, the brother is likely to help back at some point in the future (afterall, genes for altruism, if in one brother, are likely to be in the other brother).

What happened in the aforementioned study is that tit-for-tat is already assumed in the model. That is, it has already evolved within groups. What needs to be explained is specific turn-taking. And that’s exactly what the researchers did. They showed that it takes a random throw of the dice to find the right gene combination, so to speak. Once that point is reached, the non-randomness of natural selection can subject those genes to adaptations.

Professor Colman added: “In our simulations, the individuals were computer programs that were not only dumb and robotic but also purely selfish. Nevertheless, they ended up taking turns in perfect coordination. We published indirect evidence for this in 2004; we have now shown it directly and found a simple explanation for it. Our findings confirm that cooperation does not always require benevolence or deliberate planning. This form of cooperation, at least, is guided by an ‘invisible hand’, as happens so often in Darwin’s theory of natural selection.”

Let’s be fair to Professor Colman. There’s no way of telling from this if he too is trying to sneak a vague concept of a god into all this. I doubt he is. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter because he’s a scientist and his languages suggests religious connotations. That is why the media especially latched onto this story. It isn’t like turn-taking grabs the attention of the average layman.

Why it's so easy

The more and more I think about it, the more and more I recognize just how easy it is to understand evolution.

Evolution is the change within populations over time. This change is continuous. Take birds, for instance. They are descended from dinosaurs. Depending on who you ask, you might even hear them referred to as dinosaurs. However, for the sake of argument, let’s draw a line in the sand. Let’s say birds are birds and dinosaurs are dinosaurs. There is no single point to which we can point that says “Ah-ha! This is the generation in which birds originated!” Evolution doesn’t work that way.

Life is gradual in the big picture. The lines are blurry as to where one species begins and where another ends. It is simply a matter of convenience that we are able to make the distinctions we make. Ancient birds weren’t great at flying. Less ancient birds were better. Even less ancient birds were even better. And then, sometimes, extant birds are back to being terrible at flying. It just so happens that we’ll never know what every year of every species was like. If we ever do, we won’t be able to say “Such-and-such is Species X and this other example is Species Y”. We’ll be looking at Species X.1, X.11, X.111, X.112, etc.

To be this all another way, mother birds (or bats or monkeys or humans or bears or prarie dogs) only give birth to daughter birds (or bats or monkeys or…etc). But over time, small changes accumulate. Think of how much you probably resemble your father in some way. Now think of how much you resemble your grandfather. Odds are, you resemble him less than you resemble your father. Go back further and you’ll see more changes. And that’s just on a phenotypic (for purposes here, “physical”) level. Go to a genotypic (genetic) level and there’s no questioning the facts. You are more similar to your close relatives than to your distant ones.

Now we have to extend this concept over time. We have plenty of it. Evolution has been playing out for nearly 4 billion years. Think about that for a moment. You’ll live around 80 years. If you’re lucky, you might hit 100. A tremendously long human lifespan would be another 20 years on top of that. It’s all a blip on the timescale of Life on Earth.

So here’s what you should be thinking. Every generation is similar to the previous generation. It doesn’t matter what species we want to specify. It’s always true. But the further back we go, the fewer similarities we see. But importantly, we still see similarities.

Take the bones in the wing of a bat. They are easily matched with the bones in the hand of a human or the paw of a cat. They are the same bones but shaped vastly differently. It isn’t simply a huge (convenient) coincidence that this is so. Bats share a common ancestor with other mammals. This common ancestor, being that it is found deeply in time, would hold notable similarities with all extant mammals, but it obviously wouldn’t visually match with every single organism (or even a majority).

But the visual match isn’t all with which we need to concern ourselves. That common ancestor wouldn’t be able to breed with anything alive today. The changes have been far, far too considerable since its time.

I’m breaking stride for a moment because I want to note something. The changes which occur over time in a species are what cause it to be considered a new species. In other words, when two populations cease to be able to breed and produce fertile offspring, we have a two separate species (which one we want to call the “new” one is somewhat subjective, but usually it’s the one least resembling the common ancestor). As I said, there is no single point where speciation happens, but imagine for a moment approximately the time where two populations cease to be able to breed. It won’t be one defined generation where it occurs, but there will be some generation somewhere where some members of a population cannot successfully produce fertile offspring with members of another population.

On the face of it, this sounds like I’m contradicting what I’ve been saying all along about not being able to pinpoint one generation. I’m not.

Remember I talked about the lines being blurry. While some members of one population probably won’t be able to breed with some members of another population, that won’t be true for all members of both groups. Much breeding will still be possible. With time, those possibilities dwindle. Eventually, the line begins to come into focus. That is how evolution works: It’s gradual.

So again, the more and more I contemplate evolution, the more and more it makes so much sense. Of course, the evidence is crystal clear and I don’t need this contemplation to confirm the theory. However, it is through this focus that I’m forced to wonder why we had to wait until Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace to really recognize how new species come into existence. The truth is that changes occur in populations over vast expanses of time. Then most of the world’s populations either continue to evolve or, more likely, go extinct. In hindsight, we observe definitive periods of stasis, almost leading one to believe in static, unchanging species. Almost.

Forelimb morphology

Why it’s so easy

The more and more I think about it, the more and more I recognize just how easy it is to understand evolution.

Evolution is the change within populations over time. This change is continuous. Take birds, for instance. They are descended from dinosaurs. Depending on who you ask, you might even hear them referred to as dinosaurs. However, for the sake of argument, let’s draw a line in the sand. Let’s say birds are birds and dinosaurs are dinosaurs. There is no single point to which we can point that says “Ah-ha! This is the generation in which birds originated!” Evolution doesn’t work that way.

Life is gradual in the big picture. The lines are blurry as to where one species begins and where another ends. It is simply a matter of convenience that we are able to make the distinctions we make. Ancient birds weren’t great at flying. Less ancient birds were better. Even less ancient birds were even better. And then, sometimes, extant birds are back to being terrible at flying. It just so happens that we’ll never know what every year of every species was like. If we ever do, we won’t be able to say “Such-and-such is Species X and this other example is Species Y”. We’ll be looking at Species X.1, X.11, X.111, X.112, etc.

To be this all another way, mother birds (or bats or monkeys or humans or bears or prarie dogs) only give birth to daughter birds (or bats or monkeys or…etc). But over time, small changes accumulate. Think of how much you probably resemble your father in some way. Now think of how much you resemble your grandfather. Odds are, you resemble him less than you resemble your father. Go back further and you’ll see more changes. And that’s just on a phenotypic (for purposes here, “physical”) level. Go to a genotypic (genetic) level and there’s no questioning the facts. You are more similar to your close relatives than to your distant ones.

Now we have to extend this concept over time. We have plenty of it. Evolution has been playing out for nearly 4 billion years. Think about that for a moment. You’ll live around 80 years. If you’re lucky, you might hit 100. A tremendously long human lifespan would be another 20 years on top of that. It’s all a blip on the timescale of Life on Earth.

So here’s what you should be thinking. Every generation is similar to the previous generation. It doesn’t matter what species we want to specify. It’s always true. But the further back we go, the fewer similarities we see. But importantly, we still see similarities.

Take the bones in the wing of a bat. They are easily matched with the bones in the hand of a human or the paw of a cat. They are the same bones but shaped vastly differently. It isn’t simply a huge (convenient) coincidence that this is so. Bats share a common ancestor with other mammals. This common ancestor, being that it is found deeply in time, would hold notable similarities with all extant mammals, but it obviously wouldn’t visually match with every single organism (or even a majority).

But the visual match isn’t all with which we need to concern ourselves. That common ancestor wouldn’t be able to breed with anything alive today. The changes have been far, far too considerable since its time.

I’m breaking stride for a moment because I want to note something. The changes which occur over time in a species are what cause it to be considered a new species. In other words, when two populations cease to be able to breed and produce fertile offspring, we have a two separate species (which one we want to call the “new” one is somewhat subjective, but usually it’s the one least resembling the common ancestor). As I said, there is no single point where speciation happens, but imagine for a moment approximately the time where two populations cease to be able to breed. It won’t be one defined generation where it occurs, but there will be some generation somewhere where some members of a population cannot successfully produce fertile offspring with members of another population.

On the face of it, this sounds like I’m contradicting what I’ve been saying all along about not being able to pinpoint one generation. I’m not.

Remember I talked about the lines being blurry. While some members of one population probably won’t be able to breed with some members of another population, that won’t be true for all members of both groups. Much breeding will still be possible. With time, those possibilities dwindle. Eventually, the line begins to come into focus. That is how evolution works: It’s gradual.

So again, the more and more I contemplate evolution, the more and more it makes so much sense. Of course, the evidence is crystal clear and I don’t need this contemplation to confirm the theory. However, it is through this focus that I’m forced to wonder why we had to wait until Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace to really recognize how new species come into existence. The truth is that changes occur in populations over vast expanses of time. Then most of the world’s populations either continue to evolve or, more likely, go extinct. In hindsight, we observe definitive periods of stasis, almost leading one to believe in static, unchanging species. Almost.

Forelimb morphology

More interesting fossils than Ida

Ida is a new fossil discovery that has been horribly over-hyped. It is being called “the missing link”. Following sentences usually mention humans. In other words, some articles are crafty and don’t directly say this fossil is important to Homo sapiens. Others are less crafty. All of this non-sense plays right into the hands of the lying creationists (sorry to be redundant).

Darwinius masillae, otherwise known as Ida, is a tremendously well-preserved fossil that is a primate ancestor. As with most fossils, it was probably a relatively close cousin of one of our direct ancestors. (Note, “relatively close”. Of course, all fossils we find are eventually cousins of our ancestors, if they aren’t directly our ancestors.) How close is difficult to tell – forget saying it’s a direct ancestor. It is a member of the same suborder as humans (and apes and monkeys), haplorhine, but that doesn’t mean Ida wasn’t the last member of her particular population. It can tell us some interesting things, but it in no way independently confirms evolution. Science doesn’t work that way; theories are supported by a wide body of evidence. A single find can add a little weight to a theory, but doesn’t usually completely make a theory. (Notable, if this were found in the, say, Jurassic period, it would have been a find that actually spun evolution on its head – find me a part of creationism [or its coy, dishonest, lying cousin intelligent design] that can be falsified.)

So while interesting and not simply trivial, there are more important fossils out there than Ida. What’s more, there are more interesting fossils. (Guess which claim is the author’s opinion.) Here are some.

Lucy

Lucy

Maiacetus inuus

Maiacetus inuus

Schinderhannes bartelsi

Schinderhannes bartelsi

Tiktaalik

Tiktaalik

Words from a ‘respected’ theologian

Why we still respect theologians is beyond me. These people are nothing more than literay critics with a very narrow focus. At least this one only seems to have made headlines at a Christian site. On top of that, he actually said some things which aren’t batshit crazy.

“If you understand Christianity or even Theism – the belief of a sovereign creator God – and evolutionary theory in its dominant form , I find it impossible to reconcile the two,” Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said on his radio program Thursday, the 200th birthday anniversary of Charles Darwin.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say impossible, but it is tremendously difficult.

The seminary head went on to explain how the “originating mechanism of creation” is where theism runs right into collision with where modern evolutionary theory is.

Whereas the Biblical account of creation accepts the role of a Creator, the theory of evolution “suggests that natural selection is indeed the mechanism and that it is entirely natural and in no case supernatural,” said the theologian.

“There is no way for God to intervene in the process and for it to remain natural,” he asserted.

He’s sort of right. Theism and evolution can intersect. It’s just that the theism has to be precisely superfluous with evolution. That, of course, makes the theism rather useless, but it does solve the issue of being irreconcilable: a god just needs to match the established scientific fact. A religion like that would be a very powerful force, indeed. Aside from having the noteworthy property of being true, it would also have the worthwhile attribute of being beautiful.

Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said last week that the idea of evolution could be traced to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, according to the Telegraph in London. Both theologians had observed that big fish eat smaller fish and that forms of life had been transformed slowly over time.

This is a bug creationists love. Attempting to discredit Darwin seems to give them a tingle up their legs. I don’t quite understand why this is so popular but let’s just state a fact: Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace discovered evolution independently around the same time. No one else gets credit for this big discovery. That’s because no one else described what they observed (nor even observed the same things) like Darwin and Wallace. These two men get the credit. End of story, you filthy, lying creationists.

Although Mohler said he rejected evolution as a way to explain the origin of all things, he acknowledged that there are changes in animals that take place over time.

“No Conservative Christian should deny there is a process of change that is evident within the animal kingdom. And there is even a process of natural selection that appears at least to be natural,” he said, adding all one has to do is look at a herd of cattle to find evidence of adaptation and a competition of genes.

Apparently in la-la land principles of change stop applying once they become inconvenient. “Oh, sure, gravity applies to apples and such, but certainly not galaxies. I mean, that’s too much to fathom!”

A Gallup poll released on Feb. 11 found that 200 years after Darwin most Americans still don’t believe in evolution, with only 4 out of 10 Americans saying they accepted the theory.

“I believe the reason why they cannot believe in evolution is because when they look in the mirror they cannot see an accident,” remarked Mohler.

It is true many humans have quite the ego, but I’d also propose that the campaign of ignorance as waged by the Discovery Institute, Ben Stein, and other dishonest creationist organizations/creationists is a much larger factor.

Perhaps if this literary critic went to school for a real education, he’d have far less ignorance on which to rely. But whom am I to talk? Mohler has a Master of Divinity and Ph.D. in “Systematic and Historical Theology”.