Thursday, April 30, 2009

What it would have looked like...

In case you, like me, were wondering—

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Evolution of the Mind

An interesting article recently surfaced in USA Today about Darwin and cultural evolution:

The author argues that one cannot look to Darwin to explain the evolutionary developments of the human mind. From an individual and genetic perspective, homo sapiens have not evolved that much since 50,000 years ago. (In fact, some scientists assert that there isn’t sufficient genetic variation among humans to even justify the existence of separate “races,” as 99% of our genome is the same.) So how does one explain the intellectual leaps and bounds that humans have made?

Lord Colin Renfrew of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research states, “If we want to know why our world is different than 90,000 years ago, we have to consider the intellectual developments that took place by following the engagement between humans and the material world.” This inquiry reminded me of Richard Klein, an anthropologist at Stanford, who argues that some neurological mutation – possibly relating to speech and the FOXP2 gene – occurred around 50,000 years ago, enabling religion, art, and culture. In other words, it wasn’t evolution per se that led to the explosion of human intellectual potential. Whatever the cause of change, it was obviously evolutionarily adaptive as it allowed Homo sapiens to dominate other Homo species and migrate to the far-flung places of the world.

If you’re at all interested in this topic, Steven Pinker writes about the Evolution of the Mind. He does not believe that changes in the brain happened “overnight” or that there was a “magical mutation.” As Pinker notes:

“I don’t think there was a thunderclap or a divine spark that suddenly made one species smart. You can see, in our ancestors, there was a gradual expansion of the brain, there was an expansion of the complexity of tools. Even when our species evolved, it surely was spread out over tens of thousands of years.”

-Alyssa Martin

Cranes vs. Skyhooks: Metaphors for Evolutionary Mechanisms

The Crane Metaphor for Evolutionary Mechanisms and a New Species!

Recently, Richard Dawkins, noted evolutionist and critic of religion, spoke before a gathering of American atheists to discuss various topics related to what he sees as the tension between scientific and religious thought. While unsurprisingly, the vast majority of his presentation dealt with the response to religious apologetics, he did make several interesting comments concerning evolution and the origin of life. Specifically, Dawkins raises the possibility of life’s having been seeded by a superior civilization, however, he argues, such a superior civilization “would have to evolved by some form of gradual process – probably in my opinion, rather similar to Darwinian natural selection – but if not Darwinian natural selection some kind of ‘crane’… rather than skyhook…” This seems to me to be a good metaphor for distinguishing between Darwinian evolutionary theory (and similarly naturalistic evolutionary theories) and the sort of pseudo-evolutionary theory described by C.S. Lewis in my previous post reviewing C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

This characterization of Darwinian natural selection as a crane and not a skyhook, which Dawkins appropriates from Daniel Dennett seems like an instructive metaphor for the following reasons: namely, that (a) evolution and natural selection are distinct, and that the latter is a mechanism for the former; and (b) the “crane” of evolution need not be limited to the single crane of Darwinian natural selection, but can accommodate other evolutionary theories (punctuated equilibrium, etc.). Interestingly, Stephen Jay Gould has taken issue with this latter feature of the metaphor, arguing that Dawkins/Dennett’s use of the metaphor is overly restrictive, since they attempt to use it to eliminate non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms – namely, Gould’s own aforementioned evolutionary mechanism – however, this charge seems spurious in light of Dawkin’s non-exclusive use of the metaphor.

A full recording of Dawkin’s presentation is available here on Dawkins’ website.

In other news, paleontologists have discovered the remains of a new form of primitive marine mammal, which they believe to be the missing link between seals and terrestrial mammals. The species has been named Puijila darwini or "Darwin's young marine mammal", in honor of Darwin.

Ben Picozzi

Monday, April 27, 2009

C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity
C.S. Lewis
Reviewed by Ben Picozzi

Mere Christianity is C.S. Lewis' ironically-titled defense of Christian faith in response to what he regards as a world of evil; resurrecting the medieval understanding of the world as a battlefield. This worldview becomes even more poignant when one considers that the text is adapted from a series of radio broadcasts written by Lewis during the Second World War. Most telling is Lewis’ description of the earth as “occupied territory,” likening the current state of affairs to Nazi rule. He returns to this metaphor again and again, in his allusions to resistance, the coming invasion, and other commonplaces which are scattered throughout the text.

While viewed from a modern perspective, Lewis comes off as a staunch conservative – see his restrictive beliefs on extra-marital sex – he does offer hints of progressivism in, for example, his belief that the governments ought to separate the state definition of marriage from its religious counterpart.

One reviewer, whose thoughts are captured on the back cover, suggests that C.S. Lewis is an “ideal persuader for the half-convinced”, that is, those who are already leaning towards Christianity. I disagree. Rather, Lewis is an ideal persuader only for the fully-convinced. Anyone who does not share his belief that only the Christian God is consistent with our moral intuitions – or, even worse, holds contradictory beliefs – will not be converted by his arguments. As a philosophical text, Mere Christianity fails to deliver. Charitably interpreted, Lewis only demonstrates that we possess certain moral intuitions consistent with the existence of objective moral standards, a great distance from his conclusion that there must be something behind those standards in the form of the Christian God. (After all, Christianity does not have a monopoly moral objectivism.) However, this anti-relativist or anti-amoralist premise is the sword which Lewis continually wields against the demons of “pantheism” (defined by Lewis as belief in a god which stands outside of good and evil) and atheism. Of course, uncharitably interpreted, Lewis may not even succeed in getting this far.

Read as a historical text, however, Mere Christianity has value to anyone regardless of his or her beliefs. In particular, it offers insight into the mind of an extraordinary individual whose remarkable intellect is matched by his unshakable faith during what must seem to be his nation’s bleakest moment.

Beyond its Christian apologetics, the final chapter of the book is striking in its divergence away from the siege mentality which colors the text and towards a hopeful vision of the future. Lewis appropriates the scientific language of biology in describing what he sees as the final stage in human evolution – religious transcendence – which he admits, departs from the modern understanding of evolution through natural selection and instead rather reflects a radical spiritual change. While not properly scientific, Lewis’ choice of demonstrates the power which evolutionary theory holds, even among those who are inclined to prefer less naturalistic explanations – Lewis is quick to oppose scientific materialism to religion. His choice to conclude with this metaphor is puzzling, but perhaps understandable in the sense that just as the metaphor of agency provides a useful description of the evolutionary mechanism, selection provides a useful metaphor for divinity.

Speaking of Sexual Selection....

From Friday's "Science News"--"Sex Roles Lose Their Universal Appeal"

Scientists at University of St. Andrews in Scotland are questioning the belief that men have evolved to be promiscuous, while women have evolved to be "choosy". After examining 18 societies (modern and traditional), reproductive success was observed with variation between "evolutionary normal" male and female roles. The distinct roles for male and female sexual tendencies were furthered by a 1948 experiment regarding fruit flies and the belief that it is more biologically "costly" to create an egg than sperm, so females must be more "choosy".

However, "in the last decade, studies of fruit flies and other animals have documented considerable variation in numbers of sexual partners and offspring for both sexes". Scientists from this study have noted this flexibility resulting in reproductive success, and suggest that a more detailed look at sexual roles should be examined.


Book Review- Dawkins' "The Blind Watchmaker"

Book Review- Richard Dawkins’ “The Blind Watchmaker”

Dawkins is well-known as a strong advocate of Darwinism, and “The Blind Watchmaker” is no exception to his arguments in favor of natural selection, evolutionary processes, and Darwinian concepts. The book is filled with various analogies and examples that every reader would be able to relate to: from biological references to computer science programs, political enquiries to geographical diagrams, Dawkins’ makes his arguments accessible to all levels of readers with various academic backgrounds. The book moves through the various facets of evolutionary thinking- natural selection, sexual selection, theories of what caused the first spark of life, the beauty and the inherent complexity of life forms, genetic “arms races” and the role of genes in furthering evolutionary processes. While Dawkins does touch on the most commonly believed theses in regards to the above topics, he also takes on the task of explaining some of the lesser known or recognized theories that have sprung onto the scientific scene in the last few decades. While at points, the reader might want to have more information solely on the most accepted theories, Dawkins does challenge his readers to put on their mental “hiking boots” and follow him on some of the wilder theories. With his easy to grasp analogies and sense of humor, it’s not too mentally painful to forge through his tightly researched and thoroughly informative book that highlights the role of the “blind watchmaker” in creating the complexities of life.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Evolution and engineering: really cool TED talk for anyone interested in biodesign!

UC Berkeley biologist Robert Full uses his 18 TED-minutes to discuss the field of biodesign, and the lessons engineers can take from evolution.

Although nature may inspire incredible designs, Full argues that it should be used only cautiously as a model for human engineering: “Evolution works more like a tinkerer than an engineer” —on the “just good enough” rather than the “perfecting” principle. Similarly, evolutionary “design” is limited in ways human designers shouldn't be (imagine an automobile that must be created with an automobile-making factory inside it).

That said, Full has dedicated himself to using designs evolved in nature as inspiration for some incredible machines.

Full’s lab realized that bugs (particularly cockroaches) are able to maneuver well over all kinds of obstacles. So (naturally) they put them on mini-treadmills (amazing footage of this) and through obstacle courses to study their movements, and designed simple, insect-inspired machines with springy legs that were incredibly successful at negotiating all types of terrain, and have potential to be used for all kinds of stuff, including future NASA missions.

To figure out how geckos walk up walls, they stuck them on vertical, see-through treadmills (more awesome footage). They discovered, after eliminating obvious guesses like friction and suction, that geckos adhere to walls through intermolecular, or Van Der Waals, forces. They built a gecko-inspired robot, and are trying to get closer to manufacturing the tiny, powerful hairs (setae) on gecko-feet that allow them to stick.

Since this talk (in 2002), a lot of advances in the field of biodesign have been made, many of them at Stanford—see for info on Stanford’s own gecko-mimicry project, “StickyBot.”











Thursday, April 23, 2009

A thought about individual selection

I recently conversed with a friend about Darwin and amenorrhea, which led to my new experience and appreciation for this thought: In amenorrhea, there is no normal menstrual flow in a female of reproductive age. One interesting finding is that as the female body ceases producing eggs, it then actually channels energy to sustain the body. To me, this suggests that instead of trying to pass on individual genes by reproducing, the metabolic process concentrates on individual rather than species survival. Amenorrhea usually occurs in emaciated, malnourished females experiencing starvation. The condition of amenorrhea could then allow females to survive the starvation period by essentially shutting off reproductive potential and maintaining self-sustenance. One consequence would be that the females' reproductive organs could be permanently damaged. Then, they would not be able to reproduce. Or, another consequence could be that the females segway directly into menopause and lose reproductive capacity altogether. Amenorrhea thus seems to be an exception to Darwin's typically understood theory that evolution favors survival of the species over the individual. Yes, he has proposed that the fittest individuals survive, but usually, the associated biological mechanisms seem to support individual sacrifice for the sake of progeny survival (take for example maternal grandmother lionesses that will fight to the death an intruding male lion that will commit infanticide on the previous male lion's offspring). So is it possible to conceive then, that Darwin's principles apply on an individual level more than previously envisioned? Is "species" just a mental construct?
-Bonnie Chien

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What's in a name? Significant Etymologies of

Note: This discovery was mentioned by Kaitlyn on the smallpox blog.

In the March 2009 issue of Opuscula Philochemum, Kerry Knudsen, a scientist at UC-Riverside and a curator at the university's herbarium, reports his findings of Caloplaca obamae. The C. obamae is a new species of lichen found in the Santa Rosa faults. The lichen population has suffered extreme destruction due to overgrazing by cattle in the past few years so its discovery carries importance regarding 'natural restoration of biological crusts.' The species is garnering a lot of attention but not because of its evolutionary or scientific implications; rather, it's its etymology that's turning heads of scientists and the general population alike. 

 According to Knudsen:

 The species is named in honor of Barack Obama, President of the United States. The final collections of this species were made during the suspenseful final weeks of Obama’s campaign for president and this paper was written during the international jubilation over his election. The final draft was completed on the day of his inauguration. He is honored for his support of science and scientific education.

 When I entered 'new evolutionary discoveries' into the Google search box, the first three pages of returned results all regarded the C. Obamae's discovery. I was amazed. The lichen species carries little health or economical importance yet it stole the scientific headlines and even appeared in media spaces usually designated for news about trite celebrity scandals. Its popularity indicates the media power combining pop culture and science generates. Furthermore, this isn't the first time a president inspired the etymology of a new species. In 2005, a series of slimey, mold-eating beetles were named by Quentin Wheeler, professor of entomology at Arizona State University, after then President George W. Bush and members of his cabinet (Agathidium bushi, A. rumsfeldi and A. cheneyi). I decided to explore the naming methods for new species more closely. 

 In this Deep Sea News article ( HYPERLINK "" ), the three most common ways of naming species are mentioned. The first follows intuition, naming after distinct characteristics and traits. The second naming strategy is similar in that species are named after the location where they were discovered. Finally, the third method, and the one I'm most interested in, relies less on the actual species and more on the discoverer. This last method carry more creativity and cultural weight than Carl Linneus' standard binomial nomenclature protocol ever intended. 

 While many of these creative namings exist, I believe the most notable and entertaining are listed in this NPR article. HYPERLINK ""

 What I discovered through reading these different articles was how new species often bear names that mark the cultural climates and sentiments at the time of their discovery. For instance, in the Bush Administration-inspired line of beetles is one dubbed A. vaderi after the one of cinema's most memorable and sinister villains, a probable reflection of Wheeler's opinions towards the Bush Administration. Another example following this line of logic is Russell H. Flower's choice of Khruschevia Ridicula for a worm he discovered to voice his anti-Communist views and critique of Communist leader Nikolai Kruschev.

 Furthermore, names could also leave a memorable impression of the discoverer in history, evincing names as a personal marker in history. G.W. Kirkaldy left reminder of his flirtatious and womanizing ways by giving the plant insects he discovered monikers that begin with names of special lady friends and ending in 'chisme,' pronounced kiss me. 

 So in the coming weeks of class, when newly discovered species are reported, pay close attention to their names, as they might be more telling and culturally revealing than you first thought. 

Article: Knudsen, Kerry. "Caloplaca obamae, a new species from Santa Rosa Island, California." Opuscula Philolichenum 6 (2009): 37-40.

-Teresa Tarn