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Posts Tagged ‘evolution

“I have no trouble with the twelve inches between my elbow and my palm. It’s the seven inches between my ears that’s bent.”*…

Humans are the only species that can throw well enough to kill rivals and prey. Because throwing requires the highly coordinated and extraordinarily rapid movements of multiple body parts, there was likely a long history of selection favoring the evolution of expert throwing in our ancestors.

Most people probably don’t think throwing is important outside of sports because they’ve forgotten its usefulness. Part of that has to do with the fact that people have been using weapons like bows and firearms for centuries.

But before the invention of these weapons, our hunter-gatherer ancestors threw darts, knives, spears, sticks and stones at rivals and prey. Even today, stones remain effective weapons; you’ll see protesters heave stones at police and stoning used as a form of punishment in some places.

Darwin considered the evolution of throwing to be critical to the success of our ancestors. As he wrote in “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex,” it allowed “the progenitors of man” to better “defend themselves with stones or clubs, to attack their prey, or otherwise to obtain food.”

The development of the skill begins with the evolution of bipedal locomotion, or walking on two feet. This happened about 4 million years ago, and it freed the arms and hands to learn new abilities like making tools, carrying goods and throwing…

Why humans are the only species that can throw fast enough to kill: “How humans became the best throwers on the planet.”

Read the underlying research in The Quarterly Review of Biology here and here.

See also: “The Long, Sweaty History of Working Out.”

* Tug McGraw (pictured above; source)


As we wind up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1931 that then-17 year old Jackie Mitchell, of the Chattanooga Lookouts (AA), pitched in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. One of the first female pitchers in professional baseball history, she became legendary when she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in succession.

Jackie Mitchell with Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, and (in the suit) Joe Engel


“Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”*…

This is probably the most exciting and fruitful time ever to become an aspiring economist. Why? Because economics is reaching its Copernican Moment – the moment when it is finally becoming clear that the current ways of thinking about economic behavior are inadequate and a new way of thinking enables us to make much better sense of our world. It is a moment fraught with danger, because those in power still adhere to the traditional conventional wisdom and heresy is suppressed…

We are gradually reaching the same sort of stunning realization that Copernicus must have reached before writing his revolutionary book “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”: What if we can’t get there from here? What if incremental fixes don’t permit a major new leap in our understanding? What if we need to encounter the world afresh?

Fortunately, we now have access to a powerful body of thought that can guide this new encounter. The evolution of our natural world can be understood in terms of variation, replication and selection. The evolution of ideas can be understood in such terms as well: new ideas keep cropping up; they are transmitted from person to person; and the ideas that get selected to survive are often to be ones that enable us to navigate our environment most effectively. Selection can act not only on individuals, but also on groups. “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”(E.O. Wilson and D.S. Wilson (2007), “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundations of Sociobiology,” Quarterly Review of Biology, 82(4), 327-348) The level of functional organization thus depends on the relative strength of within- and between-group selection.

This is a different starting point from the one underlying mainstream economics. The discipline of economics is based on classical physics, i.e. the inanimate world. Evolution, by contrast, is appropriate to the animate world. Not a bad point of departure for economics. After all, humans are living creatures. If we choose this path, economics will be reaching its Darwinian – not Copernican – Moment…

There is change in the air. Dennis Snower (@DJSnower) explains why “Economics Nears a New Paradigm.”

For a cautionary reminder that while this time might be different, we’ve started down this road before, see Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s piece on Thorstein Veblen, “The Prophet of Maximum Productivity.”

And for an oddly resonant, but different challenge to economic orthodoxy, see Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin‘s recent “Endnotes on 2020: Crypto and Beyond.”

* economist and co-founder of General Systems Theory Kenneth Boulding


As we recalibrate, we might recall that it was on this date in 1941, in his State of the Union Address, the president Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined the Four Freedoms— the fundamental values of democracy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. These precepts were furthered by Eleanor Roosevelt, who incorporated them into the Preamble to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Engraving of the Four Freedoms at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.


“In the space between chaos and shape there was another chance”*…

Prince Hamlet spent a lot of time pondering the nature of chance and probability in William Shakespeare’s tragedy. In the famous “To be or not to be” speech, he notes that we helplessly face “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” — though a little earlier in the play he declares that “there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” suggesting that everything happens because God wills it to be so.

We can hardly fault the prince for holding two seemingly contradictory views about the nature of chance; after all, it is a puzzle that has vexed humankind through the ages. Why are we here? Or to give the question a slightly more modern spin, what sequence of events brought us here, and can we imagine a world in which we didn’t arrive on the scene at all?

It is to biologist Sean B. Carroll’s credit that he’s found a way of taking a puzzle that could easily fill volumes (and probably has filled volumes), and presenting it to us in a slim, non-technical, and fun little book, “A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You.”

Carroll (not to be confused with physicist and writer Sean M. Carroll) gets the ball rolling with an introduction to the key concepts in probability and game theory, but quickly moves on to the issue at the heart of the book: the role of chance in evolution. Here we meet a key historical figure, the 20th-century French biochemist Jacques Monod, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on genetics. Monod understood that genetic mutations play a critical role in evolution, and he was struck by the random nature of those mutations…

Carroll quotes Monod: “Pure chance, absolutely free and blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: This central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact.”

“There is no scientific concept, in any of the sciences,” Monod concludes, “more destructive of anthropocentrism than this one.”

From there, it’s a short step to the realization that we humans might never have evolved in the first place…

Preview(opens in a new tab)

The profound impact of randomness in determining destiny: “The Power of Chance in Shaping Life and Evolution.”

See also: “Survival of the Luckiest.”

* Jeanette Winterson, The World and Other Places


As we blow on the dice, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, the French mathematician and physicist who is probably (if unfairly) better known as Voltaire’s mistress; she was born on this date in 1706.  Fascinated by the work of Newton and Leibniz, she dressed as a man to frequent the cafes where the scientific discussions of the time were held.  Her major work was a translation of Newton’s Principia, for which Voltaire wrote the preface; it was published a decade after her death, and was for many years the only translation of the Principia into French.

Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. It may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one.
– Mme du Châtelet, to Frederick the Great of Prussia


“This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy”*…

A hundred years ago a new theory about human nature was put forth by Sigmund Freud. He had discovered he said, primitive and sexual and aggressive forces hidden deep inside the minds of all human beings. Forces which if not controlled led individuals and societies to chaos and destruction.

This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.

But the heart of the series is not just Sigmund Freud but other members of the Freud family.

This episode is about Freud’s American nephew Edward Bernays. [See here.]

Bernays is almost completely unknown today but his influence on the 20th century was nearly as great as his uncles. Because Bernays was the first person to take Freud’s ideas about human beings and use them to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations for the first time how to they could make people want things they didn’t need by linking mass produced goods to their unconscious desires.

Out of this would come a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying people’s inner selfish desires one made them happy and thus docile. It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate our world today…

From the introduction to Adam Curtis‘ remarkable 2002 BBC documentary series, Century of Self, all-too-relevant today– how propaganda, marketing and advertising, political messaging, management techniques all “flowered” from Freud’s seed.

Here is a complete transcript of the series.

Readers can find the (riveting) documentaries themselves at:

Episode One

Episode Two

Episode Three

Episode Four

Hypernormalization, Curtis’ 2016 BBC (sort of) sequel is here.

And keep an eye peeled for What Is It That’s Coming, a (tentatively-titled series, projected at nine parts) on which he’s currently at work.

* Adam Curtis


As we sort signal from noise, we might consider just how far we have– and haven’t– come, as it was on this date in 1859 that Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species.  Actually, on that day he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life; the title was shortened to the one we know with the sixth edition in 1872.

 Title page of the 1859 edition

“The body is our general medium for having a world”*…

Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

The biggest component in any human, filling 61 percent of available space, is oxygen. It may seem a touch counterintuitive that we are almost two-thirds composed of an odorless gas. The reason we are not light and bouncy like a balloon is that the oxygen is mostly bound up with hydrogen (which accounts for another 10 percent of you) to make water — and water, as you will know if you have ever tried to move a wading pool or just walked around in really wet clothes, is surprisingly heavy. It is a little ironic that two of the lightest things in nature, oxygen and hydrogen, when combined form one of the heaviest, but that’s nature for you. Oxygen and hydrogen are also two of the cheaper elements within you. All of your oxygen will set you back just $14 and your hydrogen a little over $26 (assuming you are about the size of Benedict Cumberbatch). Your nitrogen (2.6 percent of you) is a better value still at just forty cents for a body’s worth. But after that it gets pretty expensive.

You need about thirty pounds of carbon, and that will cost you $69,550, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry. (They were using only the most purified forms of everything. The RSC would not make a human with cheap stuff.) Calcium, phosphorus, and potassium, though needed in much smaller amounts, would between them set you back a further $73,800. Most of the rest is even more expensive per unit of volume, but fortunately only needed in microscopic amounts.

Thorium costs over $3,000 per gram but constitutes just 0.0000001 percent of you, so you can buy a body’s worth for thirty-three cents. All the tin you require can be yours for six cents, while zirconium and niobium will cost you just three cents apiece. The 0.000000007 percent of you that is samarium isn’t apparently worth charging for at all. It’s logged in the RSC accounts as costing $0.00.

Of the fifty-nine elements found within us, twenty-four are traditionally known as essential elements, because we really cannot do without them. The rest are something of a mixed bag. Some are clearly beneficial, some may be beneficial but we are not sure in what ways yet, others are neither harmful nor beneficial but are just along for the ride as it were, and a few are just bad news altogether. Cadmium, for instance, is the twenty-third most common element in the body, constituting 0.1 percent of your bulk, but it is seriously toxic. We have it in us not because our body craves it but because it gets into plants from the soil and then into us when we eat the plants. If you are from North America, you probably ingest about eighty micrograms of cadmium a day, and no part of it does you any good at all.

A surprising amount of what goes on at this elemental level is still being worked out. Pluck almost any cell from your body, and it will have a million or more selenium atoms in it, yet until recently nobody had any idea what they were there for. We now know that selenium makes two vital enzymes, deficiency in which has been linked to hypertension, arthritis, anemia, some cancers, and even, possibly, reduced sperm counts. So, clearly it is a good idea to get some selenium inside you (it is found particularly in nuts, whole wheat bread, and fish), but at the same time if you take in too much you can irremediably poison your liver. As with so much in life, getting the balances right is a delicate business.

Altogether, according to the RSC, the full cost of building a new human being, using the obliging Benedict Cumberbatch as a template, would be a very precise $151,578.46. … That said, in 2012 Nova, the long-running science program on PBS, did an exactly equivalent analysis for an episode called ‘Hunting the Elements’ and came up with a figure of $168 for the value of the fundamental components within the human body…

An excerpt from Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants, via the ever-illuminating Delanceyplace.com: “How much, in materials, would it cost to build a human body?

* Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception


As we take our vitamins, we might we might send dynamically-evolved birthday greetings to Stephen Jay Gould; he was born on this date in 1941.  One of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science in his generation (e.g., Ever Since Darwin, The Panda’s Thumb), Gould was a highly-respected academic paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science.  With Niles Eldridge, he developed the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” an explanation of evolution that suggests (in contrast with the gradualism that was prevalent until then) that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which are interrupted– “punctuated”– by rare instances of branching evolution (c.f., the Burgess Shale).

Scientists have power by virtue of the respect commanded by the discipline… We live with poets and politicians, preachers and philosophers. All have their ways of knowing, and all are valid in their proper domain. The world is too complex and interesting for one way to hold all the answers.

Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History


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