Evolution

News from the front (and back) of evolutionary theory. Lots of bitching about Darwin.

Arguments against Darwin generally come with theology as the endgame. It reminds me of the artificially intelligent toaster on Red Dwarf; it would engage the crew in deep philosophical chats which all came down to asking if they’d like some toast. My argument against Darwin is his insufficiency. Charles Darwin is the Sigmund Freud of evolutionary theory. His role was groundbreaking and important but his theory is primitive and wrong seen from today. My last article described the cronyism that rewarded him with this iconic status. I don’t know that his name would even be included in our current view of evolutionary theory were it not a battlement that must not be surrendered. Neo Darwinism is essentially Fort Darwin in the middle of extreme Born-again territory. This understandably makes us close ranks despite our differences, but when our wagons are in a circle it’s a sure thing they aren’t going anywhere.

Adding to the situation are the whole constellation of behaviors Thomas Kuhn outlined in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There is a naturally conservative and reticent approach among scientific professionals. First, there is the paradigm of our moment which is built on all the earlier work in our field. There MUST be a foundation and things that call that foundation into question are not likely to be welcomed with open arms. If something truly and suddenly proved the state of a discipline wrong, at one level it would be a triumph and at another, a tragedy. It would crash and trash much current research and practice. Jobs would be lost and it would be necessary to fall back to the last critical turning point before starting again from more basic principles. Finally, there tends to be a generational transition; the hard heads often have to age out of the system before a new theory is truly accepted.

Fortunately due to the power of the scientific method it’s extremely rare for a large theoretical collapse. However, it IS in the nature of research moving forward that new principles will be uncovered which are so RIGHT that earlier paradigms are wrong in comparison. It can be sudden or through long diligent efforts but all research will look like alchemy from a distant enough point. Still, it seems unfair to earlier scientific explorers who may be wrong by the light of today, but were as right as possible in their own time. A little generosity hurts no one. Lamarck was about the most correct person on earth about his subject at the time of his writing. Darwin and Wallace likewise, let’s grant them all winner status without faulting them for not being perfect and not staying current long after their time.

Some basic problems with Darwinism

  1. It’s a tautology (circular logic): Survival of the fittest means the fittest are the ones who survive. What exactly is fitness? Something that apparently is present in survivors.
  2. It describes a negative feedback (we could call it “natural elimination”) but not a positive feedback.  Or perhaps only a negative-positive feedback which is really just a distinction without a difference. We see why some die, but why do others change and continue to change? 
  3. No helpful mutation in an individual would be reinforced naturally in the next generation, each would be diluted.
  4. There is no evidence from long term well constructed studies of the kind of random helpful mutations Darwinism requires even in the groups subjected to more mutagens.
  5. The fallback explanation of an unimaginable time scale as the missing piece that completes the puzzle is insufficient to close the gaps we find.

Both Wallace and Lamarck believed in some principle that guided evolution generally toward more success on average. Almost as if the infinite monkeys at typewriters had automatic spelling and grammar check turned on. And perhaps an app that edited out utter nonsense. This is closer to what life on earth looks and feels like…but to this day we have no means of identifying and studying such a principle. Therefore it is unscientific not in the sense of being wrong, just by being un-measurable and undetectable. In his time, Dmitri Mendeleev (who imagined the periodic table)  predicted as yet undiscovered elements because within the framework he was using there were gaps in significant places. Logically, he thought,  there should be something in that spot. That’s how I feel about the missing mechanisms in evolutionary theory. I suspect they are there because the current theory is a tiny sheet that does not cover this bed.

The one interesting breakthrough that seems to be in this class of guiding principles is epigenetic or soft inheritance. It’s very new but means of positive feedbacks leading to positive variation are becoming visible in this field and its many developing subdisciplines. We find information across generations, and the experiences of parents affecting the phenome of the children. Wallace and Lamarck are being reconsidered. I think they should be granted full equality with Darwin as founders.

We shouldn’t regularly act from fear of being compromised by theology if we budge from an earlier spot. It’s Theology that never budges with it’s hand full of supposed aces. Science moves, not impulsively but empirically. Our position so long after Darwin, is blessed with a million knowings he didn’t have a available, but relative to the future we are just as wrong and insufficient as he is to us. It can’t be helped. Or perhaps the only help is accepting and remembering it. It won’t help us measure what we can’t detect but it may help us think in less black and white terms and to look for meaningful gaps. The undetectable of today is the foundation of the theory tomorrow.

 

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“It darkles, (tinct, tint) all this our funnaminal world.” ― James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

In 1994 three researchers wandered the Ardèche valley in southern France beside the river of the same name. Their work would look odd and delicate to us. They were hoping to discover hidden caves and their method was to feel for small drafts of air rising through piles of rock. Some explorers do this by literally sniffing about, hoping to scent the smell of a cave. That day, these three discovered a near miracle. It was a huge cave full of ancient human art perfectly sealed by a landslide for around 20 thousand years. This is the Chauvet cave, named for the lead explorer.

Abundant charcoal on the site allowed good carbon dating. The primary use of the cave by humans dated from 32 thousand years ago. This placed the art at 10 thousand years older than the oldest art we knew of. I want to write that age as a number.

32,000 years ago. 30,000 BCE. This time is the upper paleolithic or “old stone age”. Something strange happened in the neolithic. About 9000 years ago an emergent rush of lifestyle change transformed humanity from small tribes of wandering hunters to villages of farmers. As a group we abandoned what we had always done for something new.

The long paleolithic period in southern Europe leaves little to tell us who we were, but what we do find is vivid and strange. The paintings in Chauvet cave are amazing. Like most cave paintings they are of animals rendered with smooth confident lines and subtle shading. What isn’t so obvious is what the paintings meant to the artists. When it was in use, Chauvet cave had a large opening that would have allowed sunlight into the first chamber. There are no paintings in the first chamber. Well, only one… just at the point the sunlight could not reach.

Paintings are for darkness.

The painters used all the features of the cave as part of the art. A horse appears to be running out of an alcove. Bumpy cave walls become 3d anatomy; a bison shoulder, a lion’s hip. Looked at from different angles things transform and shift identity. This part of a horse turns into that part of a wolf. Some animals might be a group standing together, or a single animal moving through space, as if we paused an animation with multiple frames visible at once.

The world surrounding this canvas is worth considering. Europe was in an ice age, there were glaciers 9000 feet thick. It was cold, but dry and sunny. The people would have dressed as traditional inuit indians do, with reindeer leather and furs. They carved bone flutes on the pentatonic scale. The sea level was 3oo feet lower and a determined hunter could have walked from Paris to London (or you know, those geographical locations).  The world was crammed with animals familiar and strange: Cave bears, lions, hyenas, mammoths, hairy rhinoceros, horses, bison, leopards, wolves, ibex, reindeer. In the same area lived a distinctly separate species of humanity; Neanderthals. Neanderthals left no paintings. Why did we paint and why didn’t neanderthals paint?

Humans didn’t live in the cave. They went down into the dark with their torches to conduct some kind of passionate business they had with this wild world they lived in.  Continue reading

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The basic difference between Darwin’s theory and Wallace’s was this: Darwin focused on competition between individuals and Wallace focused on environmental pressures on local populations.

Alfred Russel Wallace was a nearly lifelong world traveler and naturalist and was taken with the way that distinct subspecies could be found in adjoining territories with no transitional form in between. Why did they change? How did they change? Later Wallace developed BioGeography from these thoughts. He also became a passionate early ecologist and wrote a book speculating on the possible nature of life on other planets. He also suspected that there was some form of intelligence that played a role in the evolution of species but while this was a spiritual belief, he didn’t attribute that intelligence to any theist god.

There were both unconscious and practical reasons why the Linnean society favoring Darwin’s theory over Wallace’s (besides cronyism). As I mentioned in my first article, Darwin’s bloody struggle scenario with the victory defining the winner as “more fit” supported the very strong belief system among the upper classes that the poor were sort of a failed version of human beings and that it was the kindest thing really, to let them die off in large numbers to “thin the heard”. This is where the chilly phrase “Cruel to be kind” comes from. Wallace thought that understanding the principles of evolution could improve people’s lives and alleviate suffering. This is the essence of how these scientific theories shade into politics. And this exact issue is alive today.

Darwin’s theory was also more accessible than Wallace’s,  It made a good, simple mental cartoon. “Stronger thing beats weaker thing, Win and go to next round!”.  Compare that to Wallace’s vision of environmental stresses on all the members of a local species driving evolution. It’s more sophisticated, but we enjoy protagonist based stories so much more.

The other reason was Wallace’s teleological (meaningful) engine of evolution. If you leave a gap in your theory big enough to drive a god through, the church might rush that spot in an effort to hijack any scientific theory of evolution and claim it for theology instead. There is some justification for this, Wallace’s work HAS been used as source material for some creationists. The very simple (and incorrect) answer that every bit of evolution was driven by nothing but random mutations and extremely slow change was a defense against the church, but it became a prison for all the evolutionary biologists forced since then to salute it like a flag.

And while Lamarck was never in direct competition with Darwin he was a groundbreaking thinker who had shaped the discussion. Although he was not the first thinker to advocate organic evolution, he was the first to develop a truly coherent evolutionary theory. Lamarck suggested that characteristics which were “needed” were acquired (or diminished) during the lifetime of an organism then passed on to the offspring. He incorporated this mechanism into his thoughts on evolution, seeing it as resulting in the adaptation of life to local environments. Lamarck also referred to a tendency for organisms to become more complex, moving “up” a ladder of progress. He referred to this phenomenon as (translated) “The force that perpetually tends to make order”.  Continue reading

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Argentine super hive (scary)

Ant communication via pheromones 

Cell communication

Every living thing uses chemistry for communication.

Cells communicate through their own language of chemical signals. Different compounds, such as hormones and neurotransmitters, act like command instructions, telling a cell about the environment around it and communicating instructions.

Insects and animals communicate with chemicals and pheromones, lightly spiced with templated physical signals, in simpler words, body language.

Ants for example (I like talking about ants!) have a smell language that includes the following common phrases:

  • I found food, follow me
  • Danger (even what KIND of danger in some ants)
  • I am your relative (I belong here, and this is my job)
  • I am the queen (and here is an evaluation of my health and whether we need princesses, drones, etc)
  • I’ve been squashed! Danger!
  • I am dead, haul my body out. (Funny article about spraying a living ant with dead ant smell.)

Ants are territorial and maintain borders. The borders are defined with pheromones. They generally steer clear of other territories, but sometimes ants have to fight other ants over food access, invasion,etc.   Imagine an ant hive invaded, it’s WAR! But how do they know it? Ants are pretty dumb and they can’t hear a general announcement. An alarm pheromone “goes viral” and the hive goes into an aggressive posture. And then…

In their book, The Ants, Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson says (pages 219 & 220):

These colonies conduct ritualized tournaments as a part of the defense of their foraging territories. Opposing colonies summon their worker forces to the tournament area, where hundreds of ants perform highly stereotyped display of fights (italics mine). When one colony is considerably stronger than the other, in other words able to summon a larger worker force, the tournaments end quickly and the weaker colony is sacked. During the final incursions, the queen is killed or driven off and the larvae, pupae, callow and honeypot workers are transported to the raiders nest.

The behavior is mysterious, for ants. Why don’t they simply attack each other? Why is it “highly stereotyped”? The ultimate battle won’t be. They are learning something that affects the outcome. This behavior is symbolic signaling. These are very simple creatures but their scope of communication is roughly parallel to even very complex mammals like wolves. Chemistry is the powerful, swelling music, and body language (stereotyped display) is the lyrics.

Scent is fundamental.  Continue reading

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“Who trusted God was love indeed
And love, Creation’s final law.
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed.

~ Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850.

No human creation grows in isolation from the culture around it or from the deeper rules of our species. Science isn’t exempt from this truth, especially where theories and results cross swords with ideology and vested interest.

Charles Darwin wasn’t a bad guy, he was highly intelligent with a gentle disposition. Nor was he an especially good guy. As restless as his intellect was, he was a creature of his class and his time. He was rich and privileged and utterly convinced of the rightness of this arrangement. In his world, it was a given that the aristocracy earned its good fortune with innate superiority. The poor were a sorry lot who were to be pitied (within reason) for their inadequacy. They lived in squalor and lack due to their flawed nature.

This harsh and rejecting aspect of the human mind toward poverty is becoming well documented. If you haven’t already read it, I suggest you take a quick look at my post Neuromechanical Cruelty. Hating or at least disdaining and disliking the poor appears to be a human norm. Being nice and helpful to the rich, likewise. Those behaviors are the classic homosapien elevation of an “alpha” group deemed superior. These rise to the top of a power pyramid. The large base beneath consists of people smiling at those above and frowning at those below. This is the piece of our nature that automatically creates a rich, protected elite and self sorts the rest into a caste or class system. This is our history everywhere since the late Neolithic. It is an innate part of how human tribes over a certain size, organize themselves. It isn’t imposed from above even though it feels that way.

Anyway, the reason you know about Darwin’s theory of evolution is not because he alone was correct. It is because his version of evolutionary theory supported the pre-existing beliefs of the English aristocracy and because he was one of them. Far from shocking them, he essentially told them they had been right all along.

In terms of public reaction, the publication of Darwin’s theory played several different roles simultaneously.

  1. When many people were beginning to look at life through a non-religious lens and sensing the absurdity of Adam and Eve, it was a practical, possible alternative.
  2. When different ideas about evolution were gaining popularity, it was the one that most supported the status quo, current biases and justified the existence (and power!) of the upper class.
  3. It tacitly deposed Jehova, an invisible omnipresent bloodthirsty god full of hates and jealousies with an observable omnipresent bloodthirsty god for whom it was nothing personal.
  4. It became the insurgent landfall of science in the struggle with religious authority and once established, became ground that must not be surrendered.

The British empire was at the height of its “Imperial Century”, at this time, it included over 14 million square miles of territory and 450 million people. It included more than a quarter of the world’s population and it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire, a phrase attributed to a Scottish writer, John Wilson. It’s not surprising then, that the dominant meme about life among the upper class British at this time was that life was a bloody struggle, that success was evidence of superiority and to the victor go the spoils. Might makes right. You can hardly blame them for thinking so.

With its emphasis on fitness as the key to evolutionary success and competitive pressure as the engine driving it, Darwin’s theory described a bloody struggle, in the end rewarding the best. This is a case of fielding a scientific theory which seems radical on one hand but reassuringly familiar on the other. If you were tasked with deciding between two radical theories, wouldn’t you feel at least an attraction to the one that more confirmed what you already believed? Confirmation bias is a hell of a drug.

Darwin’s competition was Alfred Russel Wallace who was poor, politically progressive, and lower class. Wallace had sent Darwin his own theory in 1858 to see what he thought of it. Darwin was shocked at the similarity to his own work and after YEARS of sitting on it, rushed to publication. When the theory of natural selection was unveiled to the scientific community at the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, the entire program was engineered by Darwin’s colleagues and close friends, Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell, to give their friend priority. When Origin was published a little over a year later, modern evolutionary theory became Darwin’s theory.

It’s worth noting that the champions of “Survival of the fittest” cheated to win. This was not the only time that a scientific theory gained prominence through collusion by powerful friends but possibly the most ironic. Of course, it’s possible that Darwinism would have won in a fair fight… but it didn’t. Cronyism made certain it didn’t have to.

In a follow up I’ll talk about:

  • The fascinating redemption in just the last few years of both Wallace and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck was a still earlier evolutionary theorist who has mostly been mentioned in a hundred years of biology textbooks in order to say he was wrong.
  • How “Social Darwinism” grew like a weed in Darwin’s yard.
  • The reason certain weaknesses of the Darwinian theory have lasted far longer than they should have.
  • The reason that the current right wing is ALREADY getting involved in fighting against certain recent discoveries about inheritance. (Hint: they lead to questions about some of the very same biases I mentioned at the beginning of this article).

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Humans are born according to an algorithm allowing a wide curve of features and preferences such as:


  1.  Self asserting (extreme archetype: Psychopathic self involvement)   |    Self transcending (extreme archetype: Saintly generosity and sacrifice)
  2. Follow the pack (instinctively flows with peer pressure)   |    Follow my own path (instinctively flows their own way)
  3. Past loving (keep the familiar = “conservative”)    |    Future loving  (allow for change = “progressive”)
  4. Preference for small groups (town)    |    Preference for large groups (city)
  5. Submissive (naturally accept leadership) | Dominant (naturally take charge)
  6. Cautious (“Wouldn’t be prudent”)    |    Daring (risk taking adventurers)
  7. Wandering (Viking approach)   |    Homebound (Bushman approach)
  8. Standard Sexuality    |    Alternate Sexuality 
  9.  Xenophobic   |    Xenophophilic
 There is no pattern or hierarchy in what I’ve listed, merely some of the options.
Wherever people form communities these characteristics will lean this way and that in any given generation. Then a  Darwinian survival of the fittest behavior-styles for that time and place plays out. Naturally certain constellations of these data points are more popular and successful in general, but also specific groups of traits are prized (and thus more successful) in different cultures and different environmental areas with different challenges.
People with the surviving personality data points become the stereotypical “person from…”. But we should be able distinguish the difference between there being SOME reality to a geolocated personality style and simple bigotry. Naturally that generation will have children which trend their way but it’s never as simple as that. Human communities require at least a degree of tension between personality extremes. A group needs to have the adaptability to change gears and directions if opportunity or need arises. There needs to be a healthy homeostasis. Human groups are (pre)programmed to organize themselves to have a society which has a dominant style but includes a range of opinions and styles from fundamentalist hardliners for the local hive story to critical thinking rebels or even revolutionaries.

One reason we can conclude “It takes all kinds” is because life MAKES all kinds.

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Elsewhere I’ve discussed my theory that people who live in big cities and people who live in small towns have become operationally different species. There’s nothing biological here except perhaps if there’s some genetic component concerning which lifestyle you prefer. When humans adapt to a new technology or a new living arrangement (in the community sense) they have altered their strategy of life significantly enough that if some other animal could make an equivalent change they would be deemed a subspecies of the wild type. So from nomad tribes to tiny farming villages to cities of millions is a tremendous change …of script. If you could time travel to the neolithic, scoop up one of an infant pair of twins and return to the present, that baby would grow up embracing a level of complexity and social energy that would make his brother or sister go catatonic if they encountered it.

We are a meta adaptor species. We are an evolutionary cyborg embracing technological transformation. While we embrace the techno change our fundamental species script full of animal reactions hasn’t changed a jot. If a baby from modern times was whisked back to replace that other neolithic baby he wouldn’t grow up puzzled at the technology or the social rules. On this level we have a “just go with it” rule letting us imprint culture like baby ducks imprint Momma.

Well there’s another interesting thing about virtual speciation, we might think of it as a second level of adaptation. Within every human community division of labor is key to operation..we might almost call it the reason for community. Metaphorically if we imagine the village as an animal made up of the different functions performed by the people we can start to see what’s going on. This is almost like organ and tissue differentiation. The village is a virtual organism (as was the wandering tribe) if it’s script fails the organism dies, as do it’s human components. By always embracing ANY technology that excites us we are finding pathways out of a dead end script. We are opening up pathways to new versions of what human means.  Continue reading

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Blake-TheAncientOfDays-Trans292I am in LOVE with evidence of truly complex and sophisticated systems in Biology. It makes me really happy when something strange and amazing shows up revealing higher order relationships and systems than anyone thought. I love it because life seems more deep and meaningful in a world of higher orders of mind and connectedness. I have my suspicions that they exist and it doesn’t seem strange to me that we have trouble seeing it.  We are locked into a level of existence and limited perception that make it deeply challenging to learn anything beyond the obvious scope of our senses. Often these exciting results suggest something like intelligence, or intent. Not directly, just a through a kind of “How in the world would that work?” feeling. I have an awestruck joyous response to this. It feel like wonderful news.

But I am not in any way a creationist or intelligent design advocate. “Creation scientists” have named themselves in a way that suggests they are on par with other scientific disciplines but their work begins with tossing out the scientific method. When they teach science they are peddling a substitute. If they want to start a church of intelligent design, by all means do, that sounds like a relatively nice, relatively enlightened  theology. But that is the only appropriate place for their efforts because they are committed in advance to an outcome without testing. Because they conflate experimental results out of proportion to the experiment. Because they start with an agenda and reject counter evidence. Scientists CAN be religious people without tainting the results. They simply practice each in its own domain. “Creation scientists” are lobbyists in lab coat drag.

In this blog I am stating as if with the force of facts, things I only happen to think are true. Things I see and want to share. Occasionally I will report on experimental results that I find interesting or even supportive of my position. The difference is, I don’t call what I am doing Science. I am not a scientist and anyone disagreeing with me would be fair to say I am pretty much just talking out my butt. Maybe even those who agree with me.

My “theories” are true from where I’m looking. I find them compelling enough to want to share but I make no exaggerated claims for their worth. One man’s revelation is another’s “Meh”. Often I challenge myself to figure out something big and the best means I have found to do this is to write about it in public. When my name is on it in in a place where someone might see it, I feel inspired to keep digging and improving.

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A Species is often defined as the largest group of organisms where two individuals are capable of reproducing fertile offspring, typically using sexual reproduction.

Species Complex is a group of closely related species that are very similar in appearance to the point that the boundaries between them are often unclear. Differentiating measures include similarity of DNA, morphology, or ecological niche.

Speciation is the evolutionary process by which reproductively isolated biological populations evolve to become distinct species.

Adaptive radiation is a process in which organisms diversify rapidly into a multitude of new forms, particularly when a change in the environment makes new resources available, creates new challenges, or opens new environmental niches. Continue reading

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