News from the front (and back) of evolutionary theory. Lots of bitching about Darwin.
Another example of life experience heredity via an unknown process.
Excerpts from Scientific American
A stressed-out and traumatized father can leave scars in his children. New research suggests this happens because sperm “learn” paternal experiences via a mysterious mode of intercellular communication…
The findings are “novel and of very high impact, especially when we consider the impact of military service or other work environments that can confer high stress,” says Robert Rissman, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved with the research. “I think it would be important to better understand the specificity of the effect and how different types of stressors or strength of stressors can modulate this system.”
Every organism has a survival strategy. Survival strategies are species and subspecies templates for living. They describe a specialized role within an ecological niche. Their roles are defined by exploiting a particular angle on making a living and by the adaptations of their bodies toward this goal. The amazing anteater for example makes a living…anyone? Anyone? Correct, eating ants. And has adapted in an amusingly specialized way with powerful claws for ripping into nests and long sticky tongue.
That is a deep, deep commitment to eating ants. But not really any deeper a commitment than most other species: The overall species strategy is a highly specialized job with a body increasingly adapted as a tool to do that job.
But not us. We are constantly looking for new angles to play and new ways to play them. In pursuit of that goal we may vary our focus, lifestyle, and ecological niche. But except for phenotypic variations based on local weather our bodies don’t adapt. We don’t specialize via our bodies, we specialize via technology: A spear is a 7 foot long claw that can fly. Well sewn clothing is a thick warm pelt, opening our way toward the ice caps. Horses turn us into ten foot tall monsters moving at the speed of antelopes. Farming is a “Game of Life” survival cheat code the levels us up. Sufficient change in technology equals a virtual shift of species with an altered template for life.
Our technology transforms us personally and as social animals. The rules for hunter gatherers are not the rules for farming villages. We reorganize ourselves in a bottom up that unpacks itself through the individual daily actions of each human playing the new game. Pyramids and kings pop into being from the right tools and population sizes. Each shift redefines the group size that we consider to be: Us. Ourselves. Are we 50 people, a thousand people, a million people? Ask the tools, they make the rules.
When the human community becomes large enough and complex enough it becomes a virtual ecosystem unto itself. The specialized work of individuals mirrors the variety of organisms in a wild ecosystem. Enough complexity makes a self sustaining virtual ecology. AT least until the robots throw us all out of work.
Cultural Variation as a strategy
Every human group that can define as “US” creates culture. That culture expresses local traits with one unique voice. Varieties of approaches to mating, religious dogma, openness to outsiders, etc. equals a real time experiment in how successful these traits are as a human survival strategy. The values for these different traits emerge from the tension force within the community. Authoritarianism is a strategy, so is liberal democracy, so is theocracy. Winning could mean stability or expansion. I call this expansionist trait “Virality”. One culture may make it’s people happy and healthy but virally dominant cultures can take them over.
(That’s draft one. As usual, if you found this intriguing check back once in awhile. I do update and re-write.)
Scientists taught white mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms. (“So Bob, what do you do for a living?” “I frighten mice.”)1
The offspring of these frightened mice were never subjected to this cherry blossom trauma but mysteriously, they also feared the smell. More amazing still, the grandchild generation of the original trauma mice, also never subjected to the treatment, reacted with fear. This is the classic example of epigenetics or soft inheritance. The experience freight is passed along not by DNA but by methylation changes on the DNA. It’s the DNA equivalent of working memory between generations.
In the old synthetic theory, without imagining soft inheritance:
Two squirrels are living at the same time in the way, way back when. Along comes a saber tooth cat. Both squirrels run but the faster one survives and the slower one doesn’t.
Ergo->Faster squirrel genes move one step forward and thanks for playing, slower squirrel genes!
And with epigenetics:
Same time, way, way back when. Two squirrels again, different scenario. One squirrel has a close encounter with the saber tooth cat and gets away, badly shaken but alive. The other squirrel was obliviously examining his nuts in a tree nearby. He never saw the cat, and he is unaffected. Squirrel number 1 has babies and they are born with a fear of cats or at least an extra sensitivity to “something moved!” Squirrel number 1 has enhanced his reproductive status by communicating a mission critical message to the next generation and the one after. They are literally BORN with more “street smarts” than squirrel number 2’s offspring.
What does it mean if a creature inherits some of the important EXPERIENCES of at least two generations of its ancestors and very possibly more? This breakthrough is fascinating because it describes a model of parental teaching of important life lessons to the young even by species incapable of archiving data and forming sentences. Instead, they attach a little chemical post-it note to their genes saying “beware of cat”.
If asked “how could the genes could know cat?” I’d answer “The same way mice knew cherry blossoms.” It’s staggering to think of the sophisticated mechanisms involved in what at at least appears to be happening.
We have now reached the “Talking out of my ass” section.
1. The only process that could take a snapshot is perception and working memory.
The thing that gives me shivers (of excitement) is the list of things that must take place for this to work. There’s got to be a threshold of some kind. How intense does the experience need to be to “make the cut”? There must be a mechanism that takes these “Must know”memories out from all the other memories and decides to engrave them on gametes. There must be some crazy ass coding to allow methylation changes on DNA to communicate details like the smell of cherry blossoms. That would be a highly specific molecule banging into the olfactory brain possibly for the first time and setting off the fire bell…through code. Also, the code is obviously not a complete memory falsifying the experience of the one receiving it, but close enough that when the real world and this knowledge construct line up, it causes an autonomic dejavu.
It seems certain to me that many classic human knee-jerk fears like spiders and snakes are among the deeply reinforced examples of this process. And that brings up a some issues. Presumably every little human baby is born with some of these “presets” latent in them. It seems then like the nearly global ones must come to us through standard inheritance then. Is there some process that triggers the elevation of a methylation memory to DNA proper? Is there some tipping point of reinforcement that causes that? Like if PARENT has a trauma experience coded and CHILD does too, (as their own direct experience, not passively) would the two copies being present in CHILD pass on the message to GRANDCHILD with more urgency? Could two doubly reinforced people merging their four copies at the moment of conception cause a crossover to DNA inheritance? That question is kind of rhetorical, I’m just shaking my head at the evident sophistication of this system.
Other random questions:
- Could that kind of double reinforcement play a part in paralyzing phobias?
- How long does it take from trauma to rewritten gametes? If the survivor conceived the next day would the information be ready?
- Men replenish sperm at a rate that shows tremendous optimism, and a woman’s eggs are more or less archived, does this mean these memories are sex linked?
- Since our gametes are so different would there have to be separate mechanisms to do the encoding? Do eggs get these “critical updates”?
1 Yes, I lazily pasted the first line from another post. So sue me.
Drones aren’t irrelevant in bee society they just aren’t really the kind of people you want to be seen with.
Drones develop from unfertilized eggs and are haploid. Queens and workers develop from fertilized eggs and are diploid.
Virtually all organisms are diploid, an original genetic mix based on sexual reproduction with a mix of genes from mom (xx) and dad (xy). The only males in a beehive are the drones and they do not participate in gathering nectar and other bee jobs, they are there purely to inseminate the queen (queen being a strange word for ovary, apparently) and drones are the offspring of unfertilized eggs.
So drones are haploid, containing no recombination of the previous generation, it is basically a flying gamete and all its sperm are identical. All those identical sperm have only source of genetic information, the unfertilized egg it hatched from. A drone is basically a clever workaround for an egg to make sperm that makes more eggs. But to bees it’s critical that there is as little genetic drift as possible. As a result, the sister bees who do all the work are more closely related than ordinary sisters, instead of sharing 50 % of genes they share 75 %. More reinforcement for the idea that a hive is a quasi individual. And get this (pulling from wikipedia below) …
Because the male bee technically has only a mother, and no father, it’s genealogical tree is rather interesting. In the first generation there is one member (the male). One generation back there is also one member (the mother). Two generations back there are two members (the mother and father of the mother). Three generations back there are three members. Four back there are five members. That is, the numbers in each generation going back are 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, … —the Fibonacci Sequence.
Ex. 20:5 – “I,(…) am a jealous God, punishing the children for the father’s sin, to the third and fourth generations …”
(As usual, I am publishing a rough draft to force myself to keep writing.) The first two links are scientific papers and the third is a popular article from Discover magazine. They are all quite readable though and worth a look. If you search epigenetics in this blog you’ll find a number of related articles.
Scientists taught white mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms. (“So Bob, what do you do for a living?” “I frighten mice.”)
The offspring of these frightened mice were never subjected to this cherry blossom trauma but mysteriously, they also feared the smell. More amazing still, the grandchild generation of the original trauma mice, also never subjected to the treatment, reacted with fear. Now further studies are not only confirming these results but showing that deprivation and stress alters inheritance multi-generationally. It affects both physiology and neurology.
The evidence is in. Pain and suffering flows across time. Cruelty keeps jumping forward like a skipped stone. We don’t know authoritatively how many generations forward these effects can travel but 3 and 4 generations are documented using an animal model. And rather than just imagining separate generations of inherited fear, and the many influences on the phenotype of those people, imagine how many poor choices their inheritance initiated. Imagine the effects flowing into the places they live in and their families and friends. Consider the implications for large communities who have suffered trauma almost collectively. In some places and times that could mean whole generations where virtually everyone is bent and twisted by the suffering of their parents and grandparents. How often will behavior born of trauma result in fresh trauma to another?
There is nothing parents love more than their children, and every parent I think has some fears of passing along something bad to their children. Our new knowledge means that anyone suffering a serious trauma, or having survived desperate, stressful times, can be certain that some effects will be passed to their children from the moment of conception.
It makes an act of profound cruelty almost unimaginably important and scales up the guilt accordingly. In the form of random violent crimes for example the effects are stark enough: One innocent victim becomes how many? 3? 6? Don’t forget the 3rd generation…perhaps 18 people? And the 4th generation as well; let’s say 35 people affected by that injury. They don’t even know, they can’t know who they might have been instead, because that crime made them what they are. They might be more fearful, or angry, or just less hopeful than the hypothetical person without the trauma. We don’t know, but it’s safe to say they are bent AWAY from their strength and happiness.
- Soldiers returning with PTSD
- Black America
- Poor America
- Syrian survivors
When a child grows up shaped by a parent with trauma and then lives in poverty and anxiety, we have lost a citizen 20 years in the future. And we’ve lost their offspring 40 years in the future. Epigenetics makes a simple, compelling case for the auto-perpetuation of misery and poverty and violence. It makes a case that democracy builds failure into its future by doing too little to alleviate it. A starving, fearful child is a crime against the future and her community and in a sense, the whole world but we are awfully good at feeling peaceful about that crime.
20% of American children grow up in poverty. It’s certain that many of them are second and third generation poverty. Poverty is Hydrochloric acid for optimism and aspiration. How is this not a self perpetuating sinkhole of damaged and downgraded people?
“Those people are just like that.” is the kind of statement you might hear people say related to race or culture or class. The poor have been viewed forever as inherently flawed, undeserving and unfit. But scientifically it’s probably not so. It’s probably more accurate to say people can be that way when they and their parents have been ground into emotional hamburger and left to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. There’s a chance that we are living out a dystopian science fiction story where in all cultures, regardless of race, a whole class of people, less happy, strong and confident is being bred through societal neglect. Any limitations to the number of generations the damage is “paid forward” is irrelevant because the suffering of each new generation is likely enough to paint over the hopes of foreseeable future. Big social programs have been deemed failures when they didn’t produce results in “Political time” but perhaps bringing generational trauma to an end is the work of a couple of generations and therefore almost impossible to convince taxpayers to support. And perhaps our famously cheap and nasty social programs wouldn’t soften the blow enough anyway.
Yet the knowledge places responsibility on our shoulders once we know.
By Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb
This is a very well written and succinct paper on various kind of inheritance that challenge the Darwinian “Modern Synthesis” model. If you are a Biology nerd you might enjoy it, otherwise it’s here for me to cite certain parts of without directing people to other websites whose link addresses may change.
The address directly below is the paper via website and the link below that is to a PDF hosted here.
My map of this territory assumes that social Darwinism and the eugenics movement are an expression of the cultural conservatism that I’ve described in my various “Tension force” articles. These same views while not acceptable in “mixed company” (wow, what a phrase) inform the thinking of most powerful members of the right wing. These are also the beliefs that most classic left-wingers assume are shared by people with a sociobiological perspective . They are wrong though, this view is not scientific, it is very much an expression of conservative beliefs. Further explanation will follow explaining why the right wing is already arguing against the implications of epigenetic influences. However, people on the left also need to expand their thinking. If you stick with me through my next article on epigenetics I think you’ll see that a species behavior perspective can be a STRONGER position for reform. Hang in, OK?
This article is by Robert C. Bannister, B.A., M.A., Ph. D. Professor of History, Swarthmore College. I will insert a few pertinent Hugh comments between sections and identify them as mine. Otherwise, these words are his. -HM
Social Darwinism, a term coined in the late 19th century to describe the idea that humans, like animals and plants, compete in a struggle for existence in which natural selection results in “survival of the fittest.” Social Darwinists base their beliefs on theories of evolution developed by British naturalist Charles Darwin. Some social Darwinists argue that governments should not interfere with human competition by attempting to regulate the economy or cure social ills such as poverty. Instead, they advocate a laissez-faire political and economic system that favors competition and self-interest in social and business affairs. Social Darwinists typically deny that they advocate a “law of the jungle.” But most propose arguments that justify imbalances of power between individuals, races, and nations because they consider some people more fit to survive than others.
The term social Darwinist is applied loosely to anyone who interprets human society primarily in terms of biology, struggle, competition, or natural law (a philosophy based on what are considered the permanent characteristics of human nature). Social Darwinism characterizes a variety of past and present social policies and theories, from attempts to reduce the power of government to theories exploring the biological causes of human behavior. Many people believe that the concept of social Darwinism explains the philosophical rationalization behind racism, imperialism, and capitalism. The term has negative implications for most people because they consider it a rejection of compassion and social responsibility.
I. Darwin was very influenced by Thomas Malthus who wrote that the poor would always breed right up to society’s ability to provide for them and then loads of them would die (and live) miserably until the numbers balanced out. Therefore Malthus thought society shouldn’t do even as much as it was already doing to alleviate suffering , which wasn’t much of anything. He saw it as cruel to give the poor any ideas that things would be ok if they kept on as they were. This is where the phrase “Cruel to be kind” arises. Picture some plump, wealthy victorian saying it as he discourages his wife from putting out leftovers for the poor. We have these same forces in politics today. Senator Paul Ryan is described as a budget conservative but he’s really just in favor of zero help for the poor. Ryan’s politics are more informed by his favorite writer, Ayn Rand than by any “Judeo/Christian values”. Ayn Rand’s collected works are basically social Darwinism in the form of dense philosophical potboilers. -HM
Social Darwinism originated in Britain during the second half of the 19th century. Darwin did not address human evolution in his most famous study, On the Origin of Species (1859), which focused on the evolution of plants and animals. He applied his theories of natural selection specifically to people in The Descent of Man (1871), a work that critics interpreted as justifying cruel social policies at home and imperialism abroad. The Englishman most associated with early social Darwinism, however, was sociologist Herbert Spencer. Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the outcome of competition between social groups. In Social Statics (1850) and other works, Spencer argued that through competition social evolution would automatically produce prosperity and personal liberty unparalleled in human history.
In the United States, Spencer gained considerable support among intellectuals and some businessmen, including steel manufacturer Andrew Carnegie, who served as Spencer’s host during his visit to the United States in 1883. The most prominent American social Darwinist of the 1880s was William Graham Sumner, who on several occasions told audiences that there was no alternative to the “survival of the fittest” theory. Critics of social Darwinism seized on these comments to argue that Sumner advocated a “dog-eat-dog” philosophy of human behavior that justified oppressive social policies. Some later historians have argued that Sumner’s critics took his statements out of context and misrepresented his views.
II. At its origin, social Darwinism had the powerful aura of a scientific proof around it. Science was doing wonders and now science says that WE are the fittest. It’s just not right to mess around with the natural order. Social Darwinists and their current equivalents always like to suggest that they are down to earth realists just facing truths that mushier heads can’t face. Of course Darwinian theory “proved” nothing all, much less that charity is a wasted effort.
We know that Darwin was an aristocrat and in fact saw life through this lens: IE That the rich and powerful have triumphed over the poor through natural superiority. That this is the right and proper way of life. He was a bit reticent about doing away with all kindness to the unfortunate but he mumbled here and there in his writings about having to give up the sentimental approach one day. Of course this philosophy is a perfect display of the “I Deserve This” rationalization that people do when things start to go well for them. See neuromechanical cruelty specifically “Money on the mind” for more. -HM
Studies of heredity contributed another variety of social Darwinism in the late 19th century. In Hereditary Genius (1869), Sir Francis Galton, a British scientist and Darwin’s cousin, argued that biological inheritance is far more important than environment in determining character and intelligence. This theory, known as hereditarianism, met considerable resistance, especially in the United States. Sociologists and biologists who criticized hereditarianism believed that changes in the environment could produce physical changes in the individual that would be passed on to future generations, a theory proposed by French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in the early 19th century. After 1890, hereditarianism gained increasing support, due in part to the work of German biologist August Weismann. Weismann re emphasized the role of natural selection by arguing that a person’s characteristics are determined genetically at conception.
III. Galton was the one who coined the term “eugenics” and believed in it utterly. -HM
IV. The Struggle School
Toward the end of the 19th century, another strain of social Darwinism was developed by supporters of the struggle school of sociology. English journalist Walter Bagehot expressed the fundamental ideas of the struggle school in Physics and Politics (1872), a book that describes the historical evolution of social groups into nations. Bagehot argued that these nations evolved principally by succeeding in conflicts with other groups. For many political scientists, sociologists, and military strategists, this strain of social Darwinism justified overseas expansion by nations (imperialism) during the 1890s. In the United States, historian John Fiske and naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan drew from the principles of social Darwinism to advocate foreign expansion and the creation of a strong military.
IV. It’s horrible and haunting to see the foreshadowing that hinted at the world wars straight ahead. It’s also clear that the theory here is being used to simply rationalize the beliefs of those who wanted military adventures. Nobody was more of a social Darwinist than Hitler. If he had one ultimate belief it was in universal struggle and winner take all. -HM
V. Reform Darwinism
After 1890, social reformers used Darwinism to advocate a stronger role for government and the introduction of various social policies. This movement became known as reform Darwinism. Reform Darwinists argued that human beings need new ideas and institutions as they adapt to changing conditions. For example, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. reasoned that the Constitution of the United States should be reinterpreted in light of changing circumstances in American society.
Some reformers used the principles of evolution to justify sexist and racist ideas that undercut their professed belief in equality. For example, the most extreme type of reform Darwinism was eugenics, a term coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1883 from the Greek word eügenáv, meaning well-born. Eugenicists claimed that particular racial or social groups–usually wealthy Anglo-Saxons–were “naturally” superior to other groups. They proposed to control human heredity by passing laws that forbid marriage between races or that restrict breeding for various social “misfits” such as criminals or the mentally ill.
1. We can see the broad cross pollination of ideas here as some progressive thinkers also saw a way to frame their point in evolutionary terms.
2. We also notice of course, the terrifying confidence of some people concerning what parts of the human garden needed trimming. -HM
VI. Social Darwinism in the 20th Century
Although social Darwinism was highly influential at the beginning of the 20th century, it rapidly lost popularity and support after World War I (1914-1918). During the 1920s and 1930s many political observers blamed it for contributing to German militarism and the rise of Nazism (see National Socialism). During this same period, advances in anthropology also discredited social Darwinism. German American anthropologist Franz Boas and American anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict showed that human culture sets people apart from animals. By shifting the emphasis away from biology and onto culture, these anthropologists undermined social Darwinism’s biological foundations. Eugenics was discredited by a better understanding of genetics and eventually disgraced by Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s use of eugenic arguments to create a “master race.” During World War II (1939-1945), the Nazis killed several million Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and members of other groups, believing them inferior to an idealized Aryan race.
Social theories based on biology gained renewed support after 1953, when American biologist James Watson and British biologist Francis Crick successfully described the structure of the DNA molecule, the building block of all life. During the 1960s anthropologists interested in the influence of DNA on human behavior produced studies of the biological basis of aggression, territoriality, mate selection, and other behavior common to people and animals. Books on this theme, such as Desmond Morris’s Naked Ape (1967) and Lionel Tiger’s Men in Groups (1969), became best-sellers. In the early 1970s American psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein revived the social Darwinist argument that intelligence is mostly determined by biology rather than by environmental influences.
During the 1960s, British biologist W. D. Hamilton and American biologist Robert L. Trivers produced separate studies showing that the self-sacrificing behavior of some members of a group serves the genetic well-being of the group as a whole. American biologist Edward O. Wilson drew on these theories in Sociobiology: the New Synthesis (1975), where he argued that genetics exerts a greater influence on human behavior than scientists had previously believed. Wilson claimed that human behavior cannot be understood without taking both biology and culture into account. Wilson’s views became the foundations of a new science–sociobiology–and were later popularized in such studies as Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1976). Wilson’s critics have alleged that sociobiology is simply another version of social Darwinism. They claim that it downplays the role of culture in human societies and justifies poverty and warfare in the name of natural selection. Such criticism has led to a decline in the influence of sociobiology and other forms of social Darwinism.
VI. There are several weird takeaways from this.
First, Darwin’s theory was a blend of a scientific observation and his own personal beliefs. It was shaped by his position of privilege. Second, that it was popularly accepted by the rich and powerful because it supported what they already believed, that success was self-justifying. Third that everyone who EVER used the theory to explain or justify a political philosophy did so on very little justification, simply borrowing the credibility of science and wrapping it for transparently selfish reasons around whatever they were selling.
As a separate point, notice that the author of this article, Robert Bannister, dismisses sociobiology explicitly as a form of social Darwinism. His writing here reminds me of a dog turning around in circles before lying down. “Wilson’s critics” unnamed and unquestioned, carry the day by alleging it, and we’re done and home by 4.
A couple of problems: E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology: the New Synthesis, was a carefully researched work by a renowned Harvard ethologist and it said almost nothing about human beings, let alone excusing war and poverty. The book (and Wilson himself) were found to contain a strain of deadly ideas by expert witch-finders, and suppressed. His opponents called themselves a study group but limited their study to a bit of reflexive kicking. They momentarily observed something 300 yards off, resembling a duck and decided without observation of any walking or talking like a duck, that it must be a duck.
Also, Wilson was and is a scientist, seriously exploring a theory with malice toward none. Not a single other example of social Darwinism can be described that way. The idea that we must have a kind of “faith based” research where nothing offends the political officer is possibly the only MORE demented road for humanity to take.
Noam Chomsky, a linguist and political scientist, surprised many by coming to the defense of sociobiology on the grounds that political radicals need to postulate a relatively fixed idea of human nature in order to be able to struggle for a better society, claiming that leaders should know what human needs were in order to build a better society.
If you are still here, thanks. I will do my best to justify your patience in followup articles.
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
- 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.
- 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?
- No helpful mutation in an individual would be reinforced naturally in the next generation, each would be diluted.
- 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.
- 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.
“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
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.
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 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 a couple of logical reasons for the Linnean society favoring Darwin’s theory over Wallace’s (besides scientific cronyism). For one 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.
The other reason was Wallace’s teleology (meaningful) driven 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 theory of evolution and claim it for theology. 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 very slow change was a defense against the church, but it became a prison for all evolutionary biologists forced to honor it like a flag as we shall see.
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
Argentine super hive (scary)
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
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 stands isolated from the culture around it. Or from the deep rules of the species.
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, the aristocracy earned it’s good fortune with innate superiority. The poor were a sorry lot who were to be pitied for their inadequacy. They lived in squalor and lack due to their flawed nature.
This harsh, excluding and rejecting area of the human mind 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 the poor appears to be a human norm. Being nice to the rich, likewise. Those behaviors are based in classic homosapien elevation of an “alpha” group deemed superior. This is the piece of our nature that supports the rich elite that exists everywhere since the late Neolithic. It is an innate part of how human tribes past a certain size keep themselves organized. It is similar to the reason why you can convince a dog that you are the “master”.
Anyway, the reason you know about Darwin’s theory of evolution is not because he was correct and nobody else was. It is because his version of evolutionary theory supported the pre-existing beliefs of the English aristocracy, and because he was one of them.
In terms of public reaction, the publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution played several different roles simultaneously.
- 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.
- When several different ideas about evolution were gaining popularity, it was the one that most supported the status quo, current biases and justified the existence of the upper class.
- It was the insurgent landfall of science in the struggle with religious authority and therefore 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. 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 is radical on one hand but reassuringly supportive on the other.
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 and after YEARS of sitting on his work, 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 probably not the last time that a scientific theory gained prominence through collusion by powerful friends but possibly the most ironic. Of course it’s possible that it would have won in a fair fight… but it didn’t.
In a follow up I’ll talk about:
- The fascinating redemption in just the last few years of 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 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).
Humans are born according to an algorithm allowing a wide curve of features and preferences such as:
- Self asserting (extreme archetype: Psychopathic self involvement) | Self transcending (extreme archetype: Saintly generosity and sacrifice)
- Follow the pack (instinctively flows with peer pressure) | Follow my own path (instinctively flows their own way)
- Past loving (keep the familiar = “conservative”) | Future loving (allow for change = “progressive”)
- Preference for small groups (town) | Preference for large groups (city)
- Submissive (naturally accept leadership) | Dominant (naturally take charge)
- Cautious (“Wouldn’t be prudent”) | Daring (risk taking adventurers)
- Wandering (Viking approach) | Homebound (Bushman approach)
- Standard Sexuality | Alternate Sexuality
- Xenophobic | Xenophophilic
One reason we can conclude “It takes all kinds” is because life MAKES all kinds.
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
I 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.
- Genotype: The genes present in an organism, potential or expressed.
- Phenotype: The genes the organism is expressing.
- Epigenetics: the turning on or off of gene expression via environmental events…”nurture”.
- Behavioral Epigenetics: The study of how these events in the environment trigger molecular biological changes in our brains. These include: social experience; nutrition; hormones; and toxicological exposures that occur prenatally, postnatally, and in adulthood.
A common example is the way that twins, born with basically identical phenotypes, vary as individuals in behavior, appearance and health. Nurture, experience and behavior drive the expression of different genes, leading to generally larger changes over the course of their lives.
The study of epigenetics is a tiny new branch off the tree of molecular biology and behavioral epigenetics is a bud on that branch. Yet it is already a vast and exciting field. Excitement and ferment in science can be measured partly by how many new questions are bubbling up in that area. Most experiments in this area are yielding more questions than answers but that in a sense describes how deep and rich a mine this is for scientists to explore. The field is seen as holding the potential to explain and perhaps even solve medical troubles, such as mental retardation, autism, schizophrenia, and neurodegenerative disorders, and even social issues, such as aging, addiction, suicide, child abuse, and child neglect.
Food for thought:
- This totally relates to my earlier post “Epigenetics changes everything” The idea that a fear could be passed epigenetically three generations forward with no reinforcement still absolutely boggles my mind. It hints at some of the complexity within this system.
- In relation to Darwinism – It doesn’t exactly invalidate Darwinism because at its root, Darwinism is a small group of simple truisms that explain very little. But it further reveals how much more elegant and sophisticated life is than explained in classical Darwinism. Not that Darwin himself can be faulted for not have more advanced knowledge. Interestingly, two of Darwin’s losing rivals for a theory of inheritance, Alfred Russell Wallace and Jean Baptiste Lamarck continue to be redeemed by our advancing knowledge. Wallace saw a potential for improving the lot of the poor through this knowledge and Lamarck believed the experiences of an organism could cause changes inherited by later generations. Darwin himself favored the idea of harsh competition as the driving force. The importance of Darwinism has always been drawing a hard line between nature and theology. The continued social disputes over Darwinism VS creationism just show how hard it is to make any intellectual advances culturally on hot button issues.
- If the experience of gruelling poverty causes measurable impact on children (and thus, their entire lives and descendents) couldn’t this be considered cultural child abuse or at least neglect?
- A related but separate issue. Darwin was personally a mild and retiring character but he was wealthy and privileged. In his own mind his theory was also a justification for rich vs poor, upper class vs lower class. EG: We are rich and well because because we are fitter. You are poor and sick because you are less fit. H.G. Wells sketched a nightmare projection of this into the future in his book: The Time Machine with the two branches of the human race, the Eloi (rich) and the Morlock (poor). Although Wells was a socialist, Darwin must have had a somewhat similar picture of the future except for him it would have been acceptable.
- I’d like to reference my earlier post “The Neuromechanics of Cruelty” for a number of examples of how Darwin was simply acting out the familiar human traits of rationalizing his privilege and seeing it as based on personal merit. As were all the harsher “social darwinists” who followed.
Every human blends a wide range of psychological variables. Each variable in this list is a spectrum and everyone is somewhere on each spectrum in this list. I don’t think this is some complete list, just some that I was mulling over. And they don’t follow some meaningful rule concerning their position to the left or right. I mean for example that “daring” and “submissive” are not in any sense related because they are both on the right. There may be some overlap between some of these characteristics that could justify a connection but it’s imperfect and I’m not intending that meaning. I also don’t think that good is on one side and bad on the other.
It seems human groups naturally create a spread of these traits because I can’t think of any culture outside of science fiction where there is a real uniformity of these characteristics.
The old sci-fi tradition often portrayed a trait as a species. Remember Star Trek? Vulcans, Klingons and Romulans, Ferengi? Each of these takes all the variables for a self and mashes them through a single psychological template.
Imagine how profound (and awful) the effect would be on a culture if they exclusively doubled down on the most extreme range of the traits above. In theory, you could have an entire population very unbalanced in a certain direction. But it never seems to work out that way, does it? Perhaps the whole thing is absolutely random but there could be within us a sort of community algorithm to keep a healthy range of steady but flexible groups. Some flexibility in the system would allow different tribes to investigate the effects of leaning more this way or more that way as a group. I don’t mean the tribe would look at it that way, just that cultural differences would naturally emphasize different traits and there could be an impact on survival as a result.
There are also structural, age-based ranges for a number of important psychological factors concerning the community’s ability to preserve it’s form but also change if it needs to.
- The very young imprint the culture, taking it at face value.
- The young adult/teenager range is the most progressive, the most likely to question things being this way. It’s a cultural version of questioning your own parents.
- Families, mated and settled are the meat in the sandwich. They essentially express and live the culture in a moderate conservative way. Naturally, they tend to embrace it but the cracks and stressors show up here too. In worrying about their own children they worry about all children and what world they will live in. Again, this tends toward conservatism but enough worry can turn this.
- The old of course tend to be convinced that everything is going terribly wrong and we ought to back the hell up. They are the paragons of cultural retention.
These behaviors are emergent from the developmental moment of each but across a culture the impact is factorial.
I think this is rather like the age-based division of labor in insect hives. We have a non-random, predictable political range (“tension force” if you read my other stuff on conservative/progressive). I suspect evolution is a little bottom heavy with more people in the conservative mode but always with enough wild-ass adventurous and rebellious types to keep stirring the pot.
I have a half-assed thought that neuro-atypicals such as Autism spectrum and ADHD people may figure in population dynamics as a necessary element. Autistic people famously helping to advance technology with their obsessive interests and keen observations and ADHD people (I like to think) because their restless love of novelty may contribute in its own way.
I also believe that high functioning psychopaths and narcissists have a place. Their utter lack of concern with others and cold desire to get all the goodies CAN act as an organizing mechanism creating political or religious movements or starting big businesses, etc. Someone sufficiently convinced of their right to rule over others can collect followers like a magnet collects iron filings.
- Mice were trained to be afraid of the smell of cherry blossoms (I don’t even want to know HOW).
- These mice later had litters which had never been exposed to cherry blossom and when they were, they were afraid of it.
- These second generation mice later had litters and their children…were afraid of the same smell.
This is obviously not direct alteration of the genetic code, it’s a methylation change called epigenetics. What it amounts to though is a much more powerful means of shaping evolution than sheer randomness, but one that doesn’t rely on some variety of intelligent design.