Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

Let’s Read The Internet! Week 1

October 12, 2008

Earth From Above

Sensory overload.  Thirty photographs of socially-relevant scenes from around the world, each of which could easily launch me on a few hours of reading and comparing.  Taken together, they present an overwhelming mosaic of a vibrant, living, interconnected, diverse, and changing planet.

But, damn, I just noticed that the story has gone from displaying 30 photographs to just ten, and the impact is nowhere near as great.  It seems hypocritical that the coordinator of the exhibit (not the artist) should ask the website to take photographs down, when the whole point of the exhibit, as expressed by the artist, is that it be completely free and displayed out on the streets in cities across the world to reach as broad and diverse an audience as possible.

Not the end of evolution again!

  John Wilkins at “Evolving Thoughts”

You might have heard about some guy telling the media that human evolution is over because we now care for our sick.  Wilkins presents a brief, irate counterargument.

I’ve done some reading on evolution from time to time.  What I’ve learned is that’s it’s deceptively difficult to understand.  Although the basic idea that heritable variation and selection pressure combined lead to evolution is straightforward, there are an awful lot of intricacies you find when you begin to look more closely.

There are some things you can do – such as study genomes to see how closely-related two species are, or study fossil records to document the evolutionary history of a species.  But there are a lot of things you can’t do, such as say, “Dinosaurs evolved to be really big because they were in an arms race.  Prey got bigger, so predators were forced to get bigger, and then prey got bigger again and off they went.”  That is not a falsifiable hypothesis, because you can’t go back and test it.

You can study evolution mathematically, and you can make falsifiable predictions, and then compare those predictions to observation.  But statements like, “human evolution is over because we care for our sick” are basically pseudoscience.

Extremely simplistic thinking about evolution leads to paradoxes.  For example, now that we first-world men don’t have to worry much about dying in our mothers’ arms during infancy, getting killed in battle at age 16, or starving to death when the buffalo find a new migration route at age 27, shouldn’t the biggest factor left in our reproductive success be how good we are at attracting women?  And therefore, shouldn’t every man spend all his effort spreading his seed far and wide?  Shouldn’t guys just be thinking about sex all the time…  Oh, never mind.

How We Evolve

Benjamin Phelan at Seed Magazine

A lengthy article about the sort of thing I referenced above – collecting data from genomes to study evolution.  Here, the scientists took genomes from humans of varying ethnic background and looked for characteristic differences in their DNA as evidence of evolution.  Bottom line: Yes, people are still evolving.  For example, as a white man, I am a highly-evolved lactase-producing being, unlike the those primitve, dairy-bloated Asians.

In Defense of Difference

Maywa Montenegro and Terry Glavin at Seed Magazine

In a companion article to the one above, the authors discuss why we might want to save the rainforest, anyway (because we like rain?).  Not just because we like toucans or want to display a World Wildlife Fund bumper sticker on our Prius.  Because it has economic, social, medical, and scientific value to humans.

The idea is that biology is a huge information-gathering system.  From a protein to an organism to an ecosystem, evolution allows biology to record information about how to live in the world, and also provides a ready-made task force 10^30 cells strong that will do its best to find out how to live in a changing world.  The more stuff we destroy, the more Earth loses the ability to adapt to hard times.  Clear the rainforest to raise crops, and disease or natural disaster or pollution find it much easier to brutally rape the new, homogenized biosphere.

The argument is then extended to such things as preserving human languages, which record the results of thousands of experiments in creating human culture.  So nature is basically a billion billion whatever tiny lab books full of experiments, and instead of reading them, we’re throwing them out.

Nobel Sur-prize

Peter Coles at “In The Dark”

Particles are everywhere.  While you read this, particles are in your home, in your infant child’s crib.  In her anus.

I don’t understand them.  But here’s a fairly simple explanation of the work that won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics.  Basically, the uproar is that this guy Cabibbo had a big idea about physics that helped explain a mystery about particles.  Later, Kobayashi and Maskawa solved a mathematical problem that expanded on Cabibbo’s idea.  Both were important – the original idea and the difficult mathematical extension to it – but only one was awarded the prize.

Also check out a more basic article from Mark Chu-Carroll at “Good Math, Bad Math”

What positive psychology can help you become

Martin Seligman on TED

A talk interesting enough that I watched it twice.  The second time while smiling. Seligman decided to break happiness, or life satisfaction, into three categories.  (To me this is rather arbitrary.  It’s not like the categories of happiness are just sitting out there, waiting to be discovered.  But it’s a persistent plague among people who study such things to break them down into categories they believe are fundamental. i.e. “four personality types”, “two political ideologies” (left/right), or even “four kingdoms of life” (some people now say up to 13.  others 2))

The categories are: surface pleasures like active social life, good love life, and sensual pleasure; “flow”, or the state of intense focus and concentration associated with, say, rock climbing or physics sets; and “meaning”, or finding something greater than yourself to dedicate your life to.

Seligman describes the beginnings of a movement to apply a scientific approach to the study of happiness, as opposed to the traditional psychological model of simply curing mental illness and depression.  He claims that it is possible for people to increase the fulfillment they feel in life by a concentrated effort in the right direction.  It’s a summary of the beginning of a quest to understand people in a new way, and apply that understanding to make life better.


A site you may have seen before.  They use maps of the world to visualize data.  For example, compare a map where each country’s size represents the number of personal computers in that country, to a map showing how many people died of “often preventable deaths”.

There are a lot of technically-interesting things about this project.  How did they get the countries to fit together, when their land area needs to be fixed at some arbitrary size?  What sort of properties of the standard world map’s topology were they trying to preserve?

But more interesting are the social, economic, and political insight you can get.  Compare this project to the Gapminder.

Small samples, and the margin of error

Terry Tao at “What’s New”

Terry Tao tones it down a notch to present something even I can understand.  He discusses how a random sampling of just 1000 people can give an accurate picture of the opinions of a nation of 200,000,000 voters.  He also gives a short proof of the accuracy of the sample, without resorting to the binomial distribution.



October 3, 2008

“Ah, the origin of the universe,” sighs physicist Leonard Susskind from the stage of Beckman Auditorium. “Boy, does that ever take me back.”

An hour later, Paul Davies intoned for the third time, “as Lenny already mentioned…” before explaining again that the universe is in fact quite old, and did or did not, perhaps, depending on your point of view and interpretation of various fine intricacies some small subset of specialists may or may not understand, come from somewhere.

The third physicist to speak, Caltech’s own Sean Carroll, probably couldn’t even tell who to credit before making a point. Was it “as Paul already mentioned,” or “as Lenny alluded,” or “as Paul said that Lenny previously indicated that I might say when it was my turn, about the point Paul made clarifying Lenny’s tangent on my thesis…”

Perhaps you see the difficulty, at something like the Origins conference, in keeping your physicists apart. When it comes to speculating on genesis, they appear to be bosons. (Note to non-physics people: that’s not as mean as you think. “Boson” is the name of a famous circus clown. He invented gravity. To help him juggle.)

Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptic Society, brought a host of eminent scientists to Caltech last Saturday to speak before a lay audience (like me). Ostensibly, their goal was to collectively meditate on whether “science makes belief in God obsolete.”

The scientists involved were as nonplussed by the imponderability of this question as any other reasonable person would be, and proceeded to talk about their research, instead.

Cristof Koch, Caltech’s (literally) colorful neuroscience professor, shocked his audience by explaining that, as a scientist, he thinks consciousness comes from somewhere. He tries to find out where by looking very closely.

For example, in occasional unfortunate instances, it’s medically necessary to stick all sorts of wires in epileptic people’s brains. As long as you’re doing that, you might as well mess around with some science.

It turns out that each concept you can consciously identify, such as “redness”, “pain”, and “Halle Berry-ness”) (a special property shared by her image, text of her name, and a sound recording of her name, but not images of other actresses or anything else researchers can think of), corresponds somewhere in your brain to the binary activity of a neuron. If you are seeing Halle Berry, the neuron fires. If you aren’t it doesn’t.

Sounds simple, right? That’s because it’s from a talk for designed for simple people. Consciousness is complicated, comes in varying degrees, and is notoriously slippy to analyze. But does Koch think the study of consciousness involves theology? No.

Do Susskind, Davies, and Carroll think that God can help explain the origin of the universe? No. If you stretch, it’s a slightly-fuzzy no. But still no.

Does David Prothero, Caltech/Occidental-affiliated expert on the fossil evidence of evolution, think religious considerations aid our understanding of the origin of life, or the Cambrian proliferation of life? Emphatic no.

But frankly, they just don’t seem that worried about it. They were brought in to talk about God. But except for Prothero, whose science is the target of a vigorous attack from certain flavors of Christianity, the speakers at the Origins conference confined their theological ruminations to a couple of bullet points on their final “in conclusion…” slide.

Sean Carroll excitedly delved into Boltzmann’s hypothesis that the universe’s low-entropy past is a statistical blip in an infinite history, then excoriated the idea and presented a new model of baby universes pinching off and “never writing home to their parents.”

Susskind compared the finely-tuned nature of physical constants to the finely-tuned sequence of a human genome to illustrate his idea of how string theory might explain the state of the universe.

Prothero described lab experiments in creating the chemistry of life. Davies speculated on the meta-laws constraining choices among logically-consistent universes. Koch told me I would forget the color of his orange shirt (I think), and that this was based on science.

So imagine that. You work so hard to bring a bunch of great scientists together to have a discussion about some sort of general silliness mankind spends its time fretting over, but they ignore the bait and discuss their scientific passions instead. Well, newly-minted frosh, welcome to Caltech.