The Sunday Stack Up #1

This is my first edition of what I hope to make a weekly thang.  Below I’ve collected and linked to the many things I was reading this week on the net that have some relation to what it is this blog is about (the intersection of evolutionary science and politics).  So, some of it is on the far end of the science realm, some is straight up politics, and some is a hybrid of the two.

Like to hear it?  Here it go …

The Science

Batten down the hatches!  But, with what?  A tool!  Thank goodness we’ve been using those for a while … how long?  Maybe a million years longer than we had originally thought!  Ad Hominin digs deep.

Eric Johnson guest posts over at Carin Bondar’s site about the evolution of menopause in “Sacrifice on the Serengeti”. This one is interesting as it suggests that grandsons survived better in the presence of maternal grandmothers more than they did in the presence of paternal grandmothers.  I personally have always been very close to my own maternal grandmother, so maybe that’s why I turned out so good 🙂

In case you don’t know enough about the Brontosaurus, here’s some learnin’ from the Monte Python crew:

Cromercrox expands on the above “theory” in a piece on how them crazy dinosaurs got so big in the first place, and then I riff on it here.

I then get even more crazy by arguing about dinosaur muscles on my strength training blog.

Zen Faulkes tells the gripping and exciting tale of a Lizard in a Lifeboat.

You need a whale fix?  I know I do!  Over at Why Evolution is True, we’ve got Baleen Whales: A Lovely Transitional Form.  Interesting factoid:  The earliest baleen whales actually had teeth.

Don’t you just HATE snobby hyenas?  Of course, we all do.  Well, The Thoughtful Animal tells us that the reproductive health of male hyenas is related to the social status of the mother.  Yet again, the rich stay healthy and the sick stay poor …

The Teenaged Atheist tells us a bit about atavisms, or evolutionary throwbacks.  What, you don’t have a tail?  You mean, I’m the only one!

Ever wanted to see Robots play Soccer?  Wilfried Elmenreich, over at Self Organizing Network Systems, gives us Evolving a Self-Organized Soccer Team. It even comes with a wicked-fresh video:

James Moss paints a nice None Linear Neural Net.  Very cool:

painting--nonlinear_neural_net_macro_intri-2

The Politics

Farooq Khan discusses the need for Agent Based Modeling in Political Science, Economics, and Policy Making.

The Professor Carson tells us why the Mosque is a good thing, and gives us some lessons about the KKK while he’s at it.

Conor Friedersdorf guest posts on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily dish to eschew labeling with regard to political minds/writers in Labeling is for Soup Cans.

Glenn Loury and Joshua Cohen discuss Obama’s speech on the Iraq “end of operations” on Blogging Heads.

Fareed Zakaria asks that his taxes be raised.  Great quote:

The idea that the average American is overtaxed is a nice piece of populist pandering. In fact, federal taxes as a percentage of the economy are at their lowest level since the presidency of Harry Truman. Chuck Marr and Gillian Brunet of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have calculated that a family of four at the exact middle of the income spectrum will pay only 4.6 percent of its income in taxes. Remember, almost half of the country pays no income taxes at all. The top 3 percent of Americans contribute almost 50 percent of federal income taxes.

He himself is in that top 3%.

Gender Differences, The Brain, and Testosterone

In a new book by Cordelia Fine she claims that there is no innate genetic difference between men and women’s brains.  I haven’t read the book so I’m going to make only a quick statement based upon the reviews I just read:  here, here, and here.

Here are some basical claims, as far as I can tell:

  1. The gender differences sometimes seen in behavioral and neuroscience studies are not innate.
  2. Much of the related science is flawed anyway, so even if it does seem to show innateness we shouldn’t take it seriously.

I worry about the first claim.  The reason comes down to our definitions of “innate”.  If we mean “at birth” when we say “innate”, then I agree with her.  But, if we mean that there is some genetic code that at some point will cause men and women to have (at least slight) differences in behavior, then I disagree with her.

The reason is puberty.  Far too many of the studies that “debunk” innateness of gender differences are done on babies and young children.  I find these to be stupid.  Boys and Girls are far more similar (in a whole lot of ways) than Men and Women. 

Before puberty, a boy has about as much testosterone as his little sister does.  But, during puberty he has more testosterone running through his system than Mark Mcgwire!

Why does this matter?  Because testosterone affects the brain – a lot.  Testosterone has been implicated in a whole host of different behavior and cognitive differences including memory, attention, spatial perception, mood.  Men with abnormally low testosterone are more prone to depression, aggression, and anxiety and may even be at a higher risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.

The “trigger” that gets pulled in boys as they go through puberty that releases all of that Man-making testosterone IS genetic.  How much of it that gets released is partly related to environment (of course), but that is missing the point.

Men, on average, have something like 10 times the levels of circulating testosterone than women do.  We can’t pretend like this isn’t going to be expressed in some way as behavioral differences.

female-bodybuilder

Anecdotally, I’ve worked as a strength coach for a long time, and I’ve known a lot of women on steroids.  Trust me, they are more like men than most men.  Hormones change behavior.

“Normal” men have bodies that produce a substantially greater amount of this hormone than women’s bodies do.  So, as a group, men will likely exhibit more of the characteristics associated with high levels of testosterone than women will.  The brain can’t be taken as something separate from the hormones that affect it. That’s like talking about how a car works but pretending that it won’t matter if we try to run it without any gas or oil in it. 

This is an under-researched area, no doubt.  But, until I see some studies showing that these hormone levels don’t change behavior, I’m sticking to the view that there are “genetic” behavioral differences between the sexes in the broad and general sense.

Worms Made You Who You Are? Natural Selection is Weird

worm

In a paper over at BMC Biology, the authors give us some evidence that parasitic worms may have been a factor in human evolution.

In fact they go so far as to call it a “major selective factor in humans.”

More than 2 billion individuals worldwide suffer from helminth infections. The highest parasite burdens occur in children and helminth infection during pregnancy is a risk factor for preterm delivery and reduced birth weight. Therefore, helminth infections can be regarded as a strong selective pressure.

They go on to tell us that parasitic worms have shaped our genes:

In summary, our data are consistent with the notion whereby parasitic worms have acted as a powerful selective force on human populations and have contributed to shape nucleotide variability at a number of genes involved in immune responses. We also show that several genes associated with helminth diversity are involved in the pathogenesis of atopic conditions or in airway hyperresponsiveness.

Giants in a Giant World: Why Were Dino’s So Darned Big?

Brontosaurus-Triceratops

Dinosaurs were big, some of them were monstrous.  But, how is that even possible?  Aren’t there natural constraints on size that prevent our own big mammals from getting to the size of buildings?

There are a few key problems that have contributed to what is known as the Dinosaur Paradox.

Cromercrox tries to hash it out:

First, the digestion …

Sauropods swallowed enormous amounts of low-quality food that simply composted in their enormous bodies. The food wasn´t processed in the complex ways seen in ruminants or rabbits – it just went in the thin end, down to the thick middle, and took a long time to digest. As every gardener knows, the best and most efficient compost heaps are also the largest, so large gut volume combined with an active microflora and long retention times means an emphasis on size. Sauropods were gigantic walking compost heaps. (And I bet they farted like anything).

But wait, there´s more.

Indeed there is.  As I mentioned in an early article on whether dinosaurs were warm blooded, the lungs that these beasts had are quite different than ours (and other mammals).  Basically, they have the lungs of birds – air sac lungs.  These would have aided in the expelling of the enormous amount of heat generated by the fermentation process we talked about above.

Unlike mammals, which have a simple set of lungs that pulls air in and expels carbon dioxide, birds have a complex series of air sacs, accessory to the lungs, which penetrate many parts of the body, including the bones. At least some dinosaurs are known to have similar arrangements. The apposition of air sacs to the surfaces of the gut in sauropod dinosaurs would have allowed for the transfer of terrific amounts of excess heat, dumped through to the wet surfaces of air-sac membranes and converted into water vapour. Another constraint on size, lifted.

The last reason sited for their excessive size is reproduction.  Unlike the modern form of large animals like elephants and hippos, dinosaurs laid eggs.  This meant that it was easy to create new ones.

Sauropods were hard to kill not just because they were big, but because replacing them was relatively easy  – just lay a pile more eggs and bury them, the work of a moment, rather than incurring the energetic and temporal costs and life-historical limitations of gestation. Another constraint lifted – sauropods could grow bigger in a given environment, because making more of them was easier; they fed full-time on low-quality browse which they took time to digest (another incentive to grow larger) without having to chew it (ditto) and because of their bird-like structure, they were good at dissipating excess heat (the same) and were relatively lightly constructed (the same again, with a bag of crisps, please).

Bada-bing, bada-boom!  You get big-ole dino’s roaming the earth.

What he didn’t mention was that the earth had a far thicker atmosphere during this time.  In fact, during the time of the Mesozoic it is often compared to the thickness of water! Sure, it would feel different because air is not water. But, the thickness would be similar. While this could not account for all of the size issues (as even with the buoyancy of water, the shear size of these guys was still ridiculous), when combined with the above data, it helps to explain how the biggest of the biggest got so darn big.

Is Kin Selection Dead?

Nature-ants

None other that E.O. Wilson, father of Sociobiology, and one of the greatest minds in Biology of the last half-century says that it’s time to dump the idea of kin selection:

"We hope our new theory for the evolution of eusociality will open up sociobiology to new avenues of research by liberating the study of social evolution from mandatory adherence to kin selection theory. After four decades ruling the roost, it is time to recognise this theory’s very limited prowess."

Kin Selection, as defined by John Maynard Smith (the great mathematical biologist, and likely the inventor of the term) is:

By kin selection I mean the evolution of characteristics which favour the survival of close relatives of the affected individual, by processes which do not require any discontinuities in the population breeding structure.

Say what?

This is a better one:

It seeks to explain why individuals take the seemingly paradoxical step of sacrificing their own reproductive potential in order to care for the offspring of relatives.

OK, think of ants. Worker ants will do all kinds of crazy stuff that results in their death in order to increase the likelyhood that the queen ants can continue to breed.  This SEEMS like a bad idea on the part of the worker ant, since from his own perspective … he’s dead.

The idea, then, has been that over time, the genes of the species evolved in such a way as to cause certain members of the same family-line to sacrifice themselves so that others can breed.  Since they are kin, they share a large portion of their genomes, and therefore it is believed that the sacrifice isn’t actually all that crazy, since the sister will be passing on what basically amounts to YOUR genes.

Kin selection has been the dominant method of explaining the eusociality of hierarchical species such as ants, bees, and even wolves and humans.

What’s amazing here is that Wilson has been a long-time backer of kin selection theory.   So, to see him pull back is something interesting. I’m not sure if I agree with him yet. But, he ain’t no dummy.

100th Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival

piltdown-men

What happens when you stuff an Orangutan jaw into a human skull?  You get a great hoax to perpetuate on the scientific community that lasts for 30+ years! 

The Piltdown hoax is only one of the many great articles featured in this 100th “episode” of the Four Stone Hearth anthropology blog carnival

Mosque Madness Continues

Ground Zero Mosque

Aziz Poonawalla makes a compelling argument in favor of the building of the Mosque in NYC:

[I]t really does boil down to an issue not just of religious freedom but also a means of putting into practice the very American values which Al Qaeda seeks to deny. A mosque in NYC, near to the site of 9-11, is not a “monument to the attackers” (a pernicious claim, which puts collective responsibility for the terrorist attacks on all Muslim Americans) but actually a repudiation of the Al Qaeda ideology. What they want is to make Muslim Americans reject American identity and follow their call to jihad – explicitly, as Anwar al Awlaki has repeatedly stated, and even succeeded (ref the cases of Fort Hood and Times Square). An American mosque, built for American Muslims, is literally the antithesis of what the enemy most desires.

The bigotry unleashed by this whole affair plays perfectly into our enemies’ hands.

The above picture just freaks me out.  What scares me is the fact that humans have the capacity to be so illogical.  We love to toot our own horn as a species – we’re so smart compared to other animals, we’re so superior.  The fact is, we’re a race of idiots blessed periodically with a few people who aren’t quite as dumb who do all of the inventing, writing, thinking, and other braniac stuff. 

Here’s the guys “great logic”.  Ground zero is to Auschwitz what Muslims are to _______ ?  If you answered, “Hitler” you’re correct! Muslims are like Hitler. 

Even if we allowed the metaphor of ground zero to Auschwitz (already a bit strange), the next line hardly follows.  For one, Hitler was one dude who had absolute power over a country, an army, etc.  Islam is a religion that has NO power because it isn’t human.  Only humans have power.  Sure, there are dumb-asses who use religion to justify – post-hoc – their political violence, but that doesn’t make them members of that religion. 

I can say I’m a robot, kill a bunch of people in the name of machine-kind, but that doesn’t make me a robot.  It makes me an insane murderer.

Fucking idiots. 

Whatever, I’m sure this guy doesn’t believe in evolution either, or who knows?  Maybe he doesn’t even believe in gravity!  It’s just a theory, after all …

Here’s a happier picture:

ground zero mosque2