(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘evolution

“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly”*…



The first Pelican title


It was a university course for the price of a packet of cigarettes: Pelican Books! Maybe the blend wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying the addictive nature of the range!

Pulp Librarian looks back at the autodidact’s library of choice: “Pelican Books.”

* Sir Francis Bacon


As we double-down on democratization, we might send chronically-correct birthday greetings to Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon; he was born on this date in 1707.  A naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste, Buffon formulated a crude theory of evolution, and was the first to suggest that the earth might be older than suggested by the Bible: in 1778 he proposed that the Earth was hot at its creation and, judging from the rate of its cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.

In 1739 Buffon was appointed keeper of the Jardin du Roi, a post he occupied until his death. There he worked on the comprehensive work on natural history for which he is remembered, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. He began in 1749, and it dominated the rest of his life.  It would eventually run to 44 volumes, covering quadrupeds, birds, reptiles and minerals.  As Ernst Mayr remarked, “truly, Buffon was the father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century.”



Written by LW

September 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I like good strong words that mean something”*…




“One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classic.” But Guy, who has lived in the city for the past 17 years, is passionate about lox for a different reason. “The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was probably ‘lox,’ and that’s exactly how it is pronounced in modern English,” he says. “Then, it meant salmon, and now it specifically means ‘smoked salmon.’ It’s really cool that that word hasn’t changed its pronunciation at all in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular fish.”

How scholars have traced the word’s pronunciation over thousands of years is also really cool. The story goes back to Thomas Young, also known as “The Last Person Who Knew Everything.” The 18th-century British polymath came up with the wave theory of light, first described astigmatism, and played a key role in deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Like some people before him, Young noticed eerie similarities between Indic and European languages. He went further, analyzing 400 languages spread across continents and millennia and proved that the overlap between some of them was too extensive to be an accident. A single coincidence meant nothing, but each additional one increased the chance of an underlying connection. In 1813, Young declared that all those languages belong to one family. He named it “Indo-European.”…

Delight in the detective work recounted at “The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years.”

* Louisa May Alcott, Little Women


As we celebrate continuity, we might spare a thought for James Burnett, Lord Monboddo; he died on this date in 1799.  a Scottish judge and scholar of linguistic evolution, he is best remembered a one of the founders of the modern field of comparative historical linguistics.

Monboddo was one of a number of scholars involved at the time in development of early concepts of biological evolution. Some credit him with anticipating in principle the idea of natural selection in papers that were read by (and acknowledged in the writings of) Erasmus Darwin.  Charles Darwin read the works of his grandfather Erasmus and, of course, later developed the ideas into a scientific theory.

Lord_Monboddo01 source


“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

%d bloggers like this: