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kottke.org posts about evolution

On the merits of premature ejaculation

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2010

Evolutionary speaking, premature ejaculation may not be such a bad thing after all.

So given these basic biological facts, and assuming that ejaculation is not so premature that it occurs prior to intromission and sperm cells find themselves awkwardly outside of a woman’s reproductive tract flopping about like fish out of water, what, exactly, is so “premature” about premature ejaculation? In fact, all else being equal, in the ancestral past, wouldn’t there likely have been some reproductive advantages to ejaculating as quickly as possible during intravaginal intercourse-such as, oh, I don’t know, inseminating as many females as possible in as short a time frame as possible? or allowing our ancestors to focus on other adaptive behaviors aside from sex? or perhaps, under surreptitious mating conditions, doing the deed quickly and expeditiously without causing a big scene?

Still, for recreational sex, it blows. (As it were.)

Deforestation changing bird wing shapes

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2010

A recent study indicates that the wing shapes of North American birds are changing in response to deforestation.

He found that over half of the species he examined demonstrated changes over time with boreal birds developing more pointed wings and temperate birds developing rounder wings. These results support the hypothesis that habitat isolation is spurring evolutionary changes in birds.

Boreal forests have suffered severe deforestation over the past century, and so Desrochers had predicted that increased distances between habitat patches would select for more pointed wings in birds. Pointed wings are associated with more energy-efficient sustained flight.

Not your father’s evolution

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 04, 2010

Recent evidence of horizontal gene transfer — in which genes are exchanged from other organisms, not from ancestors — has some scientists thinking that the dominant form of evolution for most of the Earth’s history was between non-related organisms and not among ancestors.

In the past few years, a host of genome studies have demonstrated that DNA flows readily between the chromosomes of microbes and the external world. Typically around 10 per cent of the genes in many bacterial genomes seem to have been acquired from other organisms in this way, though the proportion can be several times that. So an individual microbe may have access to the genes found in the entire microbial population around it, including those of other microbe species. “It’s natural to wonder if the very concept of an organism in isolation is still valid at this level,” says Goldenfeld.

Read on for their hypothesis about how horizontal evolution drove innovation — development of a universal genetic code and genetic innovation-sharing protocols — in life forms early on in the Earth’s history. Fascinating.

How wolves became dogs

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 22, 2010

In an excerpt from his recent book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins writes about how wolves evolved into dogs first through self-domestication and then through domestication by humans.

We can imagine wild wolves scavenging on a rubbish tip on the edge of a village. Most of them, fearful of men throwing stones and spears, have a very long flight distance. They sprint for the safety of the forest as soon as a human appears in the distance. But a few individuals, by genetic chance, happen to have a slightly shorter flight distance than the average. Their readiness to take slight risks — they are brave, shall we say, but not foolhardy — gains them more food than their more risk-averse rivals. As the generations go by, natural selection favours a shorter and shorter flight distance, until just before it reaches the point where the wolves really are endangered by stonethrowing humans. The optimum flight distance has shifted because of the newly available food source.

(via @linklog)

Religion and science sitting in a tree, c-o-o-p-e-r-a-t-i-n-g

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 24, 2009

Writing in the New York Times this weekend, Robert Wright attempts to reconcile religion and science. The middle ground is the “built-in” moral sense of our universe, in that the universe builds and rewards organisms that cooperate with one another.

I bring good news! These two warring groups have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.

If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.

This is essentially the subject of the last chapter or two of Wright’s The Evolution of God, the only part of this excellent book that I didn’t quite buy into, even though I’ve been thinking about his conclusion quite a bit since finishing the book.

A missing link?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 20, 2009

Is the recently revealed 47 million-year-old primate fossil a missing link or an overhyped publicity stunt?

But despite a television teaser campaign with the slogan “This changes everything” and comparisons to the moon landing and the Kennedy assassination, the significance of this discovery may not be known for years. An article to be published on Tuesday in PLoS ONE, a scientific journal, will report more prosaically that the scientists involved said the fossil could be a “stem group” that was a precursor to higher primates, with the caveat, “but we are not advocating this.”

From the scientific paper’s conclusion/significance section:

Darwinius masillae represents the most complete fossil primate ever found, including both skeleton, soft body outline and contents of the digestive tract. Study of all these features allows a fairly complete reconstruction of life history, locomotion, and diet. Any future study of Eocene-Oligocene primates should benefit from information preserved in the Darwinius holotype. Of particular importance to phylogenetic studies, the absence of a toilet claw and a toothcomb demonstrates that Darwinius masillae is not simply a fossil lemur, but part of a larger group of primates, Adapoidea, representative of the early haplorhine diversification.

Math and the City (and the elephant)

posted by Jason Kottke   May 20, 2009

This should provide a sufficient amount of “whoa” for the day: mathematically speaking, how are elephants and big cities the same? A: both cities and elephants have developed a similar level of efficiency in the distribution of resources and transportation.

Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute and his colleagues Jim Brown and Brian Enquist have argued that a 3/4-power law is exactly what you’d expect if natural selection has evolved a transport system for conveying energy and nutrients as efficiently and rapidly as possible to all points of a three-dimensional body, using a fractal network built from a series of branching tubes — precisely the architecture seen in the circulatory system and the airways of the lung, and not too different from the roads and cables and pipes that keep a city alive.

(thx, john)

The Evolution of God

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2009

Robert Wright has a new book out soon called The Evolution of God. Andrew Sullivan has a review.

From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.

Last month’s issue of The Atlantic contained an excerpt.

For all the advances and wonders of our global era, Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem ever more locked in mortal combat. But history suggests a happier outcome for the Peoples of the Book. As technological evolution has brought communities, nations, and faiths into closer contact, it is the prophets of tolerance and love that have prospered, along with the religions they represent. Is globalization, in fact, God’s will?

I loved two of Wright’s previous books, The Moral Animal and especially Nonzero. (via marginal revolution)

Evolving walking shapes

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2008

A mesmerizing video that shows computer generated geometric shapes that have evolved to walk in all sorts of crazy ways. The shapes are generated using the Darwin@Home software. Some of them resemble young children just learning to walk or crawl. The final “beast” is particularly elegant.

The Genius of Charles Darwin

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 05, 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin is a three-part series about Darwin presented by his rottweiler, Richard Dawkins. A short video taste of the show is here and the entire first part is on Google Video. (via smashing telly)

Darwin and evolution

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 16, 2008

The idea of evolution did not begin with Darwin…he just (just!) explained how it happened and backed it up with evidence.

“The only novelty in my work is the attempt to explain how species become modified,” Darwin later wrote. He did not mean to belittle his achievement. The how, backed up by an abundance of evidence, was crucial: nature throws up endless biological variations, and they either flourish or fade away in the face of disease, hunger, predation and other factors. Darwin’s term for it was “natural selection”; Wallace called it the “struggle for existence.” But we often act today as if Darwin invented the idea of evolution itself, including the theory that human beings developed from an ape ancestor. And Wallace we forget altogether.

In fact, scientists had been talking about our primate origins at least since 1699, after the London physician Edward Tyson dissected a chimpanzee and documented a disturbing likeness to human anatomy. And the idea of evolution had been around for generations.

We’ve heard from the sex workers about

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2008

We’ve heard from the sex workers about the Spitzer affair. Now the psychologists. This article compiles many ideas about why Spitzer did what he did:

Psychologist Christopher Ryan, author of “Sex in Prehistory,” says the desire for sex with more than one person has always been there — for leaders and followers alike. “The desire is not a function of status or power — it’s a question of availability.”

What’s relatively new to the human race, he said, is the ability to exercise power and the connection between power and sex.

That’s because, for most of human existence, there was only so far a man could coerce others when food was essentially free and hard to hoard. And until relatively recently, sex with multiple partners was the norm. “It would have been very unusual 100,000 years ago for a person to have one sexual partner for 30 years,” said Ryan in an interview from Barcelona.

And here’s the evolutionary psychological point of view:

She points out that, while powerful men throughout western history have married monogamously (they had only one legal wife at a time), they have always mated polygynously (they had lovers, concubines, and female slaves). Many had harems, consisting of hundreds and even thousands of virgins. With their wives, they produced legitimate heirs; with the others, they produced bastards (Betzig’s term). Genes and inclusive fitness make no distinction between the two categories of children. While the legitimate heirs, unlike the bastards, inherited their fathers’ power and status and often went on to have their own harems, powerful men sometimes invested in their bastards as well.

As a result, powerful men of high status throughout human history attained very high reproductive success, leaving a large number of offspring (legitimate or otherwise), while countless poor men in the countryside died mateless and childless.

(thx, anne)

Update: And one more from Natalie Angier:

Yet as biologists have discovered through the application of DNA paternity tests to the offspring of these bonded pairs, social monogamy is very rarely accompanied by sexual, or genetic, monogamy. Assay the kids in a given brood, whether of birds, voles, lesser apes, foxes or any other pair-bonding species, and anywhere from 10 to 70 percent will prove to have been sired by somebody other than the resident male.

Speaking of memes, Susan Blackmore theorizes that

posted by Deron Bauman   Mar 04, 2008

Speaking of memes, Susan Blackmore theorizes that humans are just machines for propagating them.

Memes are using human brains as their copying machinery. So we need to understand the way human beings work.

&

Up until very recently in the world of memes, humans did all the varying and selecting. We had machines that copied — photocopiers, printing presses — but only very recently do we have artificial machines that also produce the variations, for example (software that) mixes up ideas and produces an essay or neural networks that produce new music and do the selecting. There are machines that will choose which music you listen to. It’s all shifting that way because evolution by natural selection is inevitable. There’s a shift to the machines doing all of that.

When asked what the future will look like, she says, “it will look like humans are just a minor thing on this planet with masses (of) silicon-based machinery using us to drag stuff out of the ground to build more machines.”

Good times.

Evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson speculates about the

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2008

Evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson speculates about the Tyrannosaurus rex’s sexual equipment.

We now have a robust understanding of how sexual pressures — the pressures to find, impress, and seduce a mate — influence the evolution of males and females. So much so that if you tell me a fact, such as the average size difference between males and females in a species, or the proportion of a male’s body taken up by his testes, I can tell you what the mating system is likely to be. For example, where males are much bigger than females, fighting between males has been important - which often means that the biggest males maintain a harem. If testes are relatively large, females probably have sex with several males in the course of a single breeding episode.

(thx, bill)

This video is too long and come

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 04, 2008

This video is too long and come frontloaded with too much explanation, but like a jelly doughnut, there’s some goodness in the middle.

Basically, I simulate clocks as living organisms. Selective pressure is focused on their ability to accurately tell time. NO goal is imposed on the design (you can tell this because every simulation ends with a differently constructed clock). And it works. Clocks evolve through a series of transitional forms: Pendulum, Proto-clock, 1-handed Clock, 2-handed Clock, 3-handed Clock, and 4-handed Clock. Gradually the complexity is built up.

The pace of human evolution has accelerated

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2007

The pace of human evolution has accelerated greatly over the last 40,000 years, partially due to our population growth.

The brisk rate of human selection occurred for two reasons, Dr. Moyzis’ team says. One was that the population started to grow, first in Africa and then in the rest of the world after the first modern humans left Africa. The larger size of the population meant that there were more mutations for natural selection to work on. The second reason for the accelerated evolution was that the expanding human populations in Africa and Eurasia were encountering climates and diseases to which they had to adapt genetically. The extra mutations in their growing populations allowed them to do so.

Dr. Moyzis said it was widely assumed that once people developed culture, they protected themselves from the environment and from the forces of natural selection. But people also had to adapt to the environments that their culture created, and the new analysis shows that evolution continued even faster than before.

Looks like this study answers the “Is Evolution Over?” question.

Duelity is a split-screen movie with one

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 12, 2007

Duelity is a split-screen movie with one half of the screen showing the six-day creation of the earth & man in scientific terms and the other half showing the Big Bang/evolution origin of the universe as it might have been written in the Bible. (Click on “watch” then “duelity” to get the full effect.) Nice use of infographics and illustration. (thx, slava)

Biologists Helping Bookstores is a guerilla effort

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 29, 2007

Biologists Helping Bookstores is a guerilla effort to reshelve pseudo-scientific books (books on intelligent design, for instance), taking them from the Science section and moving them to a more appropriate area of the store, like Philosophy, Religion, or Religious Fiction. (via mr)

The results from a recent Gallup poll

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2007

The results from a recent Gallup poll show that more Americans accept creationism than do evolution. Among registered Republicans, almost 7 in 10 don’t believe in evolution. (via cynical-c)

Earlier this month during a debate between

posted by Jason Kottke   May 31, 2007

Earlier this month during a debate between the Republican candidates for the US Presidency in 2008, three candidates raised their hands when asked if they didn’t believe in evolution. One of the three, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, has an op-ed in the NY Times today that more fully expresses his view. “The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.”

Update: A related op-ed from The Onion: I Believe In Evolution, Except For The Whole Triassic Period. (thx, third)

By now, you’ve probably heard of the

posted by Jason Kottke   May 30, 2007

By now, you’ve probably heard of the Creation Museum that just opened in Kentucky with the idea that the Bible is “the history book of the universe”. Pharyngula has an extensive roundup of information and reaction to the museum, including this inside look at the place. “Journalists, you have a problem. Most of the articles written on this ‘museum’ bend over backwards to treat questions like ‘Did Man walk among Dinosaurs?’ as serious, requiring some kind of measured response from multiple points of view, and rarely even recognized the scientific position that the question should not only be answered with a strong negative, but that it is absurd.”

Global warming + evolution = species explosion!!!

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2007

Global warming + evolution = species explosion!!!

Three of the candidates in the recent

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2007

Three of the candidates in the recent Republican presidential debate said they don’t believe in evolution: Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Hard to believe that this is 2007 and not 1807. John McCain said he did believe in evolution but that “I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also”.

Update: An earlier version of this post wrongly stated that Mitt Romney raised his hand when asked about disbelieving evolution…Tom Tancredo was the third person. (thx to several who wrote in about this)

Humans are the animal world’s best distance

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2007

Humans are the animal world’s best distance runners…we can run long distances relatively fast without overheating. “Once humans start running, it only takes a bit more energy for us to run faster, Lieberman said. Other animals, on the other hand, expend a lot more energy as they speed up, particularly when they switch from a trot to a gallop, which most animals cannot maintain over long distances.” (via beebo)

Men look at crotches

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2007

Among the many interesting things in Online Journalism Review’s article about using eyetracking to increase the effectiveness of news article design is this odd result:

Always look crotch

Although both men and women look at the image of George Brett when directed to find out information about his sport and position, men tend to focus on private anatomy as well as the face. For the women, the face is the only place they viewed. Coyne adds that this difference doesn’t just occur with images of people. Men tend to fixate more on areas of private anatomy on animals as well, as evidenced when users were directed to browse the American Kennel Club site.

That is absolutely fascinating. I’d love to hear an evolutionary biologist’s take on why that is.

I’m also heartened by the article’s first featured finding: that tighter writing, more white space, and jettisoning unnecessary imagery helps readers read faster and retain more of what they’ve read.

Why do we believe in God?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2007

The cover story in this week’s NY Times Magazine is called Darwin’s God and covers, from an evolutionary biology standpoint, why people believe in God. Most scientists studying the matter believe that humans have a built-in mechanism for religious belief. For instance, anthropologist Scott Atran sometimes conducts an intriguing experiment with his students:

His research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology, and sometimes he presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. “If you have negative sentiments toward religion,” he tells them, “the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God, but in this demonstration they act as if they believe in something. Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driver’s license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will. If they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?

Or rather, why are they afraid? One possible reason is that humans are conditioned to be on the lookout for “agents” and we tend to find them even when they’re not there:

So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.

What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. “The most central concepts in religions are related to agents,” Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, “people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world.”

Another reason for the instinctive religious impulse may be that people are able to put themselves in other peoples’ minds, to think about how another person might be feeling or thinking:

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads.

The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others’, that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of “Descartes’ Baby,” published in 2004, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God.

There’s lots more in the article…it’s well worth a read.

Nicholas Kristof’s “Modest Proposal for a Truce

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2006

Nicholas Kristof’s “Modest Proposal for a Truce on Religion,” and responses by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. “Mr. Kristof has simply become acclimatized to the convention that you can criticize anything else but you mustn’t criticize religion.”

Interesting hypothesis: young Hollywood starlets are dieting

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2006

Interesting hypothesis: young Hollywood starlets are dieting to retain exaggerated child-like features that, evolutionarily speaking, are more attractive to adults. The technical term for this is neoteny.

Richard Dawkins: Why there almost certainly is

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 24, 2006

Richard Dawkins: Why there almost certainly is no God. “We cannot, of course, disprove God, just as we can’t disprove Thor, fairies, leprechauns and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But, like those other fantasies that we can’t disprove, we can say that God is very very improbable.”

A classic article by Stephen Jay Gould

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2006

A classic article by Stephen Jay Gould on the changing biological features of Mickey Mouse. Over the years, Mickey has become more well-behaved and his appearance more juvenile (larger eyes, short pudgy legs, relatively large head, short snout, etc.). “When we see a living creature with babyish features, we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness.”