(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘evolution

“When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out”*…




(Roughly) Daily recently considered the newly-unearthed fossil record of the asteroid strike that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.  But what if that asteroid had missed?

An asteroid slammed down and did away with all the dinosaurs, paving the way for such developments as the human race, capitalism, and posting on the internet: it’s the story we all know and love. Yet if things had shaken out differently—if the asteroid had stayed in its place, and the dinosaurs allowed to proceed with their business—what would things have looked like?

Would the earth be a pristine, unsmogged paradise, or would the dinosaurs have somehow evolved into even more rapacious profiteers/industrialists, wrecking the world with their dinosaur refineries and dinosaur dark money? The latter scenario being totally implausible, what’s a likely answer to the question of what our world would look like if that asteroid never hit it?…

Nine scientists– geologists, paleontologists, and evolutionary biologists– provide some fascinating “alternative history”: “What If the Asteroid Never Killed the Dinosaurs?

* Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History


As we explore the road not taken, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that the American Museum of Natural History was incorporated.  Its founding had been urged in a letter, dated December 30, 1868, and sent to Andrew H. Green, Comptroller of Central Park, New York, signed by 19 persons, including Theodore Roosevelt, A.G. Phelps Dodge, and J. Pierpont Morgan.  They wrote: “A number of gentlemen having long desired that a great Museum of Natural History should be established in Central Park, and having now the opportunity of securing a rare and very valuable collection as a nucleus of such Museum, the undersigned wish to enquire if you are disposed to provide for its reception and development.”  Their suggestion was accepted by Park officials; the collections were purchased– and thus the great museum began.  It opened April 27, 1871.



“No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark”*…



Migrants disembark from Royal Navy Ship HMS Enterprise in Catania, Italy, 23 October 2016


As the world’s ranks swell, population shifts have emerged as a major global challenge with potentially catastrophic implications. Endless debates over immigration rights have failed to produce the faintest hint of an acceptable solution. So perhaps an alternative approach would be to factor in an underlying basic law of chemistry. At the risk of gross oversimplification, what if we saw the flow of populations as the human equivalent of osmosis?

In high-school chemistry we learned that, in a container of water divided into two halves by a semipermeable membrane, uneven concentrations of salt resulted in movement of water from the more dilute side to the side of greater concentration. The greater the discrepancy in solute concentration, be it a salt molecule or a complex plasma protein, the greater the force to equalise the concentrations.

Now imagine the world as a giant vat subdivided into a number of smaller containers (nations) separated from each other by semipermeable membranes (borders). Instead of salt, provide each container with differing amounts of food, shelter and essential services. In this scenario, population flow from nation to nation will be a direct function of the degree of difference of goods, opportunities and hope.

This shift of populations isn’t just an ethical or metaphysical dilemma to be resolved at the level of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. It isn’t about the right to own land and enforce borders, or the relative worth of individuals versus groups. Instead, the pressures driving immigration should be seen as natural and unavoidable – like chemical reactions; from that perspective, a reduction in the gradients would be the only possible long-term solution…

Arguments for the rights of nations to control their borders are a huge step in the wrong direction. We need to take a hard look at the disruptive dynamics of inequality. If this simple fact of chemistry (that lesser flows to greater) can’t penetrate the predominantly impermeable minds of policymakers, welcome to a world of escalating chaos.

Robert A. Burton considers climate change, economic inequality, political imbalances and other “reasons to move,” as he suggests a more productive way to think about one of this era’s most pressing challenges, one that can be mitigated and made more humane, if not avoided: “Like the chemical process of osmosis, migration is unstoppable.”

* Warsan Shire


As we focus on reducing the gradients, we might recall that it was on this date in 1925 that the Butler Act, prohibiting the teaching of evolution in Tennessee classrooms, became law… paving the way for the Scopes “Monkey” Trial.


Anti-Evolution League at the Scopes Trial, 1925



Written by LW

March 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

“To paraphrase several sages: Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time”*…


Beast within

“Stranded on the Island of Circe” by Paul Reid


What was the driving force that made us human, akin to but separate from other apes and our evolutionary cousins such as the Neanderthals? In The Goodness Paradox, the anthropologist Richard Wrangham approvingly quotes Frederick the Great in pointing to “the wild beast” within each man: our nature, he argues, is rooted in an animal violence that morphed over time to become uniquely human. When male human ancestors began to plot together to execute aggressive men in their communities, indeed to carry out such killings through what Wrangham calls “coalitionary proactive aggression”, they were launched towards full humanity…

At some point after the evolutionary split from the non-human ape lineage – probably around 300,000 years ago, Wrangham thinks – our male ancestors began to do what the chimpanzees could not: plot together to execute aggressive males in their own social groups. How do we know this? Because we see evidence of “the domestication syndrome” under way in our ancestors at this time, indicating that they were becoming less in thrall to reactive aggression…

During human evolution, of course, no other more dominant species controlled the process: instead, we domesticated ourselves by eliminating the most aggressive males in our social groups. Our bodies did signal what was happening. Around 315,000 years ago, for example, “the first glimmerings of the smaller face and reduced brow ridge [compared to earlier human ancestors] that signal the evolution of Homo sapiens” began to show up. Sex differences in the skeleton soon began to diminish. Our species was set apart from all other human-like ones, including the Neanderthals, who did not self-domesticate…

How the human species domesticated itself: “Wild beast within.”

* Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others


As we take it easy. we might recall that it was on this date in 1836 that Samuel Colt and a group of financial backers chartered that Patent Arms Manufacturing Company of Paterson, New Jersey, a company formed to produce what became the first commercially-successful revolvers.  The revolver was pioneered by other inventors; Colt’s great contribution was the use of interchangeable parts.  He envisioned that all the parts of every Colt gun would be be interchangeable and made by machine, to be assembled later by hand– that’s to say, his goal, later realized, was an assembly line.

220px-Samuel_Colt_engraving_by_John_Chester_Buttre,_c1855 source


“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”*…




In the near future, we will be in possession of genetic engineering technology which allows us to move genes precisely and massively from one species to another. Careless or commercially driven use of this technology could make the concept of species meaningless, mixing up populations and mating systems so that much of the individuality of species would be lost. Cultural evolution gave us the power to do this. To preserve our wildlife as nature evolved it, the machinery of biological evolution must be protected from the homogenizing effects of cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the first of our two tasks, the nurture of a brotherhood of man, has been made possible only by the dominant role of cultural evolution in recent centuries. The cultural evolution that damages and endangers natural diversity is the same force that drives human brotherhood through the mutual understanding of diverse societies. Wells’s vision of human history as an accumulation of cultures, Dawkins’s vision of memes bringing us together by sharing our arts and sciences, Pääbo’s vision of our cousins in the cave sharing our language and our genes, show us how cultural evolution has made us what we are. Cultural evolution will be the main force driving our future…

An important essay by Freeman Dyson, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton: “Biological and Cultural Evolution– Six Characters in Search of an Author.”

* Leon C. Megginson (often misattributed to Darwin, on whose observations Megginson based his own)


As we agonize over the anthropocene, we might recall that it was on this date in 1968 that James Watson’s The Double Helix was published.  A memoir, it describes– with manifest hubris– “perhaps the most famous event in biology since Darwin’s book,” the 1953 discovery, published by Watson and Francis Crick, of the now-famous double helix structure of the DNA molecule.

Crick, however, viewed Watson’s book as “far too much gossip,” and believed it gave short shrift to Rosalind Franklin’s vital contribution via clues from her X-ray crystallography results.  It was originally slated to be published by Harvard University Press, Watson’s home university,  Harvard dropped the arrangement after protests from Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins (their supervisor, who shared the Nobel Prize);  it was published instead by Atheneum in the United States and Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK.

In any case, the book opens a window into the competitiveness, struggles, doubts, and human foibles that were baked into this landmark in science.

220px-TheDoubleHelix source


“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation”*…



You take a flight from New York to London. Thousands and perhaps millions of people — including ticket agents, baggage handlers, security personnel, air traffic controllers, pilots, and flight attendants, but behind the scenes also airline administrators, meteorologists, engineers, aircraft designers, and many others — cooperated to get you there safely. No one stole your luggage, no one ate your in-flight food, and no one tried to sit in your seat. In fact, the hundreds of people on the airplane, despite being mainly strangers, behaved in an entirely civilized and respectful manner throughout.

For most of us in the industrialized world, every aspect of our lives is utterly reliant on thousands of such cooperative interactions with millions of individuals from hundreds of countries, the vast majority of whom we never see, don’t know, and indeed never knew existed. Just how exceptional in nature such intricate coordination is — with many unrelated individuals performing many different roles — remains hard to appreciate. Notwithstanding the familiar examples of ants, bees, and other species known for coordinating their behavior, largely with relatives, nothing remotely as complex as human cooperation is found in any of the other millions of species on the planet. And although modern marvels like air travel are very striking examples of large-scale cooperation, human societies have engaged in impressive feats of organized cooperation for many thousands of years. Carving terraces out of mountains, planting and harvesting crops, building granaries, and managing city-states all involved extraordinary levels of cooperation among community members. Hunter-gatherers also coordinated their actions in cooperative endeavors such as group hunting and foraging, as well as through sharing food, labor, and childcare, and when hostility or disputes with other societies arose. How is it that humans came to be the most cooperative species on earth? And how can understanding our evolutionary history help to explain human cultural, cooperative achievements, whether technological or artistic, linguistic or moral?…

Find out at “On the Origin of Cooperation.”

* Bertrand Russell


As we share and share alike, we might send foresightful birthday greetings to Erasmus Darwin; he was born on this date in 1731.  Erasmus was an accomplished doctor (he declined an offer to be personal physician to Charles III).  He was also a restless inventor, devising both a copying machine and a speaking machine to impress his friends (inventions he shared rather than patenting).  But he is better remembered as a key thinker in the “Midlands Enlightenment”– a founder of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and author of (among other works) The Botanic Garden, a poem that anticipates the Big Bang theory in its description of an explosion, a “mass” which “starts into a million suns,” and Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, which contained one of the first formal theories of evolution… one that foreshadowed the theories of Erasmus’ reader– and grandson– Charles.



Written by LW

December 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

“From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”*…



This Tree of Life diagram is based primarily on the evolutionary relationships so wonderfully related in Dr. Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and timetree.org. The smallest branches are purely illustrative. They are intended to suggest the effect of mass extinctions on diversity, and changes in diversity through time. This diagram is NOT intended to be a scholarly reference tool! It is intended to be an easy-to-understand illustration of the core evolution principle; we are related not only to every living thing, but also to everything that has ever lived on Earth

Climb around in The Interactive Tree of Life Explorer.

* Charles Darwin


As we ponder our progenitors, we might a thought for Kenneth Page Oakley; he died on this ate in 1981.  An anthropologist, paleontologist, and geologist, he  developed a method of dating fossilized bones by measuring their fluoride levels (based on a French mineralogist’s theory that bones would gradually absorb fluoride from surrounding soil).  He was able to use his technique, in 1953, to expose the “Piltdown Man” skull as a forgery.  It had been “unearthed” in 1912, in Piltdown, England, and had for decades been said to represent the “missing link” in human evolution.

Oakley source


Written by LW

November 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“We sometimes think, and even like to think, that the two greatest exertions that have influenced mankind, religion and science, have always been historical enemies”*…



Methodist Camp Meeting, early 19th century. Source: Library of Congress

The contrast between the cold logic of science and the emotionality of religion is a seemingly unshakable binary today. But back in the early nineteenth century, people saw things very differently. Historian Jeffrey A. Mullins examines the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s.

At that time, Mullins writes, Americans did not see science and religion as opposites. Instead, they were “two aspects of the same universal truth.” And that truth was not based in pure logic. Emotions were a key to human behavior, and controlling and channeling emotions was a job for scientifically- and morally-grounded experts.

This perspective led to a wealth of reformist interventions, from Sunday schools to penitentiaries to graham crackers. Preachers who led religious revivals around the country in the 1830s saw the need for a highly engineered emotional experience…

During the Second Great Awakening of 1830, science and religion were seen as “two aspects of the same universal truth”: “When Science and Religion Were Connected.”

* “We sometimes think, and even like to think, that the two greatest exertions that have influenced mankind, religion and science, have always been historical enemies, intriguing us in opposite directions. But this effort at special identity is loudly false. It is not religion but the church and science that were hostile to each other. And it was rivalry, not contravention. Both were religious. They were two giants fuming at each other over the same ground. Both proclaimed to be the only way to divine revelation” — Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind


As we puzzle over perspective, 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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