Interesting Topics on Evolution


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High Fructose Corn Spirit

Gym climber
-A race of corn eaters
Jan 28, 2013 - 11:04pm PT
lol! :)

Jan 29, 2013 - 09:34am PT
Steven Pinker's the man.
He likes the Red Sox, at least.

He is brilliant man and a fabulous writer, but I would urge those reading him to apply some skepticism concerning his framing and extensions of the science. For public intellectuals, in general, there is a temptation to exaggerate and oversimplify. And, while Pinker is rightly adored for his contributions and his tremendously positive impact on psychological science, he has been accused of this behavior. I think fairly so. He is, no doubt, not the only offender, but I do empathize with those who find frustrating his playing up of controversy and his skipping over some of the nuance of what we don't understand and why we don't understand it. And, I should point out these criticisms are the same type of criticisms being leveled more generally at speculations among evolutionary psychologists and are directly relevant to my (and Ed's) earlier posts in this thread responding to those using evolutionary theory to interpret contemporary observed behaviors (e.g., in mating).

Here, for example, is a review from Science (297.5590, Sept. 27, 2002) of The Blank Slate by Patrick Bateson, Emeritus Professor of Ethology at Cambridge:

The Blank Slate The Modern-Denial of Human Nature

by Steven Pinker

Viking, New York, 2002. 527 pp. $27.95. ISBN 0-670-03151-8.

Is it really the case that, as Steven Pinker claims in The Blank Slate, the biological underpinning of human behavior is denied by most people? Almost daily we are told about genes for maternal behavior, promiscuity, homosexuality, language, and much else. Certainly, the simplistic idea of a straightforward pathway from gene to behavior has had its severe critics (quite properly, in my view): genes code for proteins, not behavior. However, the center of that academic debate is not about whether genes influence behavior but rather how they do so. Pinker is concerned with a very different debate between the natural and the social sciences. He argues that the social sciences are dominated by a belief that all of each individual's characteristics are generated by that person's experience. This looks like a caricature to me, one used to sustain yet another round of the tedious and increasingly irrelevant nature-nurture debate. It is all too easy to pour scorn on stupid arguments or on those people suffering from cultural lag, and Pinker should have resisted this temptation. He undoubtedly writes well and is able to express complex ideas in ways that make them intelligible to lay people. Yet too frequently he overstates his case.

Pinker bases his charge against the naive social scientist on three strands of current scientific inquiry: cognitive psychology, behavior genetics, and evolutionary psychology. The cognitive psychologists have uncovered rules that underlie and generate highly complex behavior. No quarrel with that. But to argue that the rules are, therefore, the basis of "real" human nature is to miss a crucial point. Chess has clear rules, which can be explained to a child. Yet, the interest and the richness of the game lie in what can be generated by those rules.

Behavioral genetics has established beyond all reasonable doubt that many individual differences in behavior can be attributed to genetic differences. However, the notion that the variability in behavior can be partitioned into genetic and environmental components is utterly misleading. Doing so ignores the rich and crucial interplay between the developing individual and his or her social and physical world. The estimates of heritability, with which Pinker seems completely comfortable, depend on the population of individuals and the range of environments sampled. Worse, the effects of a particular set of genes depend critically on the environment in which they are expressed, while the effects of a particular sort of environment depend on the individual's genes. Finally, heritability estimates say nothing about the ways in which genes and environment contribute to the biological and psychological processes of development. Walking on two legs is a fundamental property of being human, and it is one of the more obvious biological differences between humans and other great apes such as chimpanzees or gorillas. Although it depends heavily on genes, it has a heritability of zero because human variability in this respect depends on the vagaries of the environment. Pinker appears to miss the irony that the dependence of high heritibilities on human diversity conflicts with conclusions from the other modern subject he draws on for his attack on the social scientists--the evidence for human universals derived from the work by evolutionary psychologists.

Like many biologists, I regard proposals about the evolution and current utility of behavior as helpful in making sense of behavior. But it does not follow that all examples of present-day behaviors that clearly benefit the individual in the modern world are products of evolution. The combination of oral linguistic ability and manual dexterity, both of which are doubtless derived from past evolutionary pressures, generated written language in several parts of the world in the last 6000 years. IT is not at all likely that the different forms of written language are adaptive in the sense of having been shaped by Darwinian evolution. Moreover, proposals about past evolutionary pressures or current utility must leave open the question of how the behavior develops. Whether or not an individual's development involves some "instruction" from a normally stable feature of the environment, or whether it would be changed by altering the prevailing social and physical environment, cannot be deduced from even the most plausible evolutionary or functional argument.

Part of the problem is that Pinker is so vague in his use of the term instinct, on which much of his conception of human nature depends. Apart from its colloquial uses, the term instinct has at least nine scientific meanings: present at birth (or at a particular stage of development), not learned, developed before it can be used, unchanged once developed, shared by all members of the species (or at least of the same sex and age), organized into a distinct behavioral system (such as foraging), served by a distinct neural module, adapted during evolution, and differences among individuals that are due to their possession of different genes. One use does not necessarily imply another even though people often assume, without evidence, that it does. Behavior that has probably been shaped by Darwinian evolution and appears, ready-formed, without opportunities for learning may be changed in form and the circumstances of expression by subsequent experience. The human smile is a good example. This matters because what Pinker happily calls human nature is in reality individual nature and depends critically on the circumstances of that person's life.

Where do these shortcomings in the argument leave Pinker's thesis about human nature? In poor shape in my view. Saloon-bar assertions do not lead to the balanced discussion that should be generated on a topic as important as this one, and they do a disservice to the really powerful biological arguments that can be deployed. Furthermore, the misplaced combative style delays the honest synthesis Pinker professes he wants so much. I fear that The Blank Slate will become a happy hunting ground for the social scientists already predisposed to be skeptical about evolutionary thinking and that the wretched unnecessary debate over human nature is due for yet another silly round.

two edits: I failed to mention the title of the book review, The Corpse of a Wearisome Debate, and I should have correctly identified the author as Sir Patrick Bateson.
High Fructose Corn Spirit

Gym climber
-A race of corn eaters
Jan 29, 2013 - 09:57am PT
Not sure of your point here.

No doubt the fields relating to evolution theory and its implications for humanity have been full of controversy and debate going back decades and decades now.

Indeed, it's Steven Pinker's artful handling of the subjects, the controversies, and the particular PUSH FORWARD he reps for esp through the rolling hills of bullshit (btw, not unlike Dawkins') that explains his popularity and following.

The whole shebang is steeped in history, and the latter in controversy. Curious how long you've been following along. My attention to Dawkins, Stevens, and evolutionary theory and its implications vis a vis culture goes back 30 years now. Even the recent history, something like a soap opera, is full of story, drama.


Speaking of culture and change, here's a kid making a name for himself...


To this day, one of the clearest, most information-rich dialogs I've heard from Steven Pinker is starts here...

The interviewer, Robert Wright, is no slouch either.


EDIT re: Patrick Bateson

Jan 29, 2013 - 10:30am PT
High Fructose Corn Spirit wrote:
Not sure of your point here.

No doubt the fields relating to evolution theory and its implications for humanity have been full of controversy and debate going back decades and decades now.

Indeed, it's Steven Pinker's artful handling of the subjects, the controversies, and the particular PUSH FORWARD he reps for esp through the rolling hills of bullshit (btw, not unlike Dawkins') explains his following.

I agree, you are missing the point of my post and the book review. The title of the book review (although stated more harshly than I would have) nearly says it all. No reasonable person denies that there used to be a debate. The critique of Pinker's public intellectual work centers around the extent to which there still is a debate among scholars, and the extent to which we can (or cannot, to be more precise) make inferences about the evolution of innate behavior from sources such as behavioral genetic studies of heritability (i.e., proportion of variance explained by genes for observed behaviors using, for example, twin and adoption studies) and the extent to which a behavior is functionally adaptive to contemporary environmental constraints and opportunities.

High Fructose Corn Spirit wrote:
The whole shebang is steeped in history, and the latter in controversy. Curious how long you've been following along. My attention to Dawkins, Stevens, and evolutionary theory and its implications vis a vis culture goes back 30 years now. Even the recent history, something like a soap opera, is full of story.

Props for "following along" much longer than I have. 30 years ago, I was worried about: (a) passing 9th grade earth science by the skin of my teeth, (b) pimples, (c) girls, and (d) trying to play guitar just like Pete Townsend...albeit rarely in that order.
Bruce Kay

Gym climber
Jan 29, 2013 - 10:43am PT
Saloon-bar assertions

What? you mean like what goes on here 9 times out of ten?

Say it aint so!

edit: in retrospect and lest I be accused of just another saloon bar assertion, I refer to ST in general not so much this thread, which seems generally pretty well thought out and damn interesting and hardly drunk at all (excepting friday nights). Which perhaps explains why I usually just listen and keep my mouth shut. Anyway, I just loved that saloon -bar thing

Carry on!
High Fructose Corn Spirit

Gym climber
-A race of corn eaters
Jan 29, 2013 - 12:52pm PT
A perfect example of how the public can get evolutionary theory and even memes wrong...

is illustrated in yesterday's interview of Alex Honnold by Joe Rogan when Joe starts talking about fear of spiders, instincts, etc. and expresses his thoughts on it. He's close but off, no cigar. Meanwhile, Alex struck me as being fully in the know on both genes and memes.

Spider fear and memes start about 45 minute mark.

As an aside: worthy interview, lots of good stuff.
scuffy b

heading slowly NNW
Jan 29, 2013 - 01:13pm PT
I recall watching a couple of little kids being taught to fear spiders,
by their slightly older siblings and cousins. Up to that point, the poor
tykes thought spiders were pretty interesting.

Jan 29, 2013 - 02:09pm PT
High Fructose Corn Spirit:
[quote]EDIT re: Patrick Bateson[/quote]

As your link indicates: Patrick Bateson is, like his good friend Richard Dawkins, an atheist. Did you post this because you see it as relevant to his critique of Pinker?

Regardless, it is interesting that via the link you have connected the thread back to Dawkins. Despite having tremendous respect for Dawkins and his work and agreeing with 95% of the propositions that Dawkins has laid out in his work (and despite both men reporting that they are friends), Bateson remains an ardent critic of the remaining 5% related to the role of environment in evolution. And, here, I would agree that there remains thoughtful, on-going disagreement (unlike the antiquated nature-nurture debate that Bateson accuses Pinker of relying on to provoke readers).

While given your expertise and long time studying these matters, HFCS, you must be intimately familiar with the disagreements between Dawkins and Bateson much more than am I, others here may be interested in a summary of the disagreement (from Bateson's point of view) in the book celebrating Dawkins and the 30th anniversary of The Selfish Gene: Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think

The conclusion of Bateson’s chapter provides a summary of his critique (pp. 174-175):

"Darwinian evolution operates on characters that have developed within a particular set of conditions. If those conditions are stable for many generations then the evolutionary changes that matter will arise in the way that Richard has so clearly and carefully described. Apparent design is produced, even when it is at the end of the long and complicated process of development. But the environment does not cease to be important for evolution just because it remains constant. Change the environment and the outcome of an individual’s development may be utterly different. Indeed, if an individual does not inherit its parents’ environment along with their genes and other transmittable factors, it may not be well adapted to the conditions in which it now finds itself. But the altered environmental conditions may throw up variation that was previously hidden and from that may spring new lines of evolution. Active choice and active control by the organism together with its own adaptability may all be important additional drivers of evolutionary change. These possibilities do not conflict with the ideas about the evolution of apparent design, which Richard describes so well, but they can explain why sudden changes in direction can and obviously did occur over the long span of biological evolution."

On the topic of critiquing and questioning important details within the paradigm-shifting arguments and ideas of great minds like Pinker and Dawkins, I say "hear, hear!" to Bateson's conclusion in his chapter celebrating and honoring Dawkins in Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think (p.174)

"It is comforting to be praised, and Richard certainly deserves heaps of praise. Even so, constructive criticism should also be seen as flattery and may be more stimulating...Just because I admire the clarity and brilliance of his writing, I think it is appropriate to identify where Richard might have led others astray by the very gifts that have made him justifiably famous."
High Fructose Corn Spirit

Gym climber
-A race of corn eaters
Jan 30, 2013 - 11:59am PT
Cowpoke, in your quote there, I don't think Dawkins would disagree with any of it. Not regarding hidden variation, for instance, or active control, etc.

I linked to Bateson there because I was led to his edge essay in the process of reviewing who he was.

Nice to see you're poking around in these matters. :)

Speaking of radically altered environmental conditions: Adapt or be marginalized.

How to adapt? It will require more individual initiative. We know that it will be vital to have more of the “right” education than less, that you will need to develop skills that are complementary to technology rather than ones that can be easily replaced by it...
High Fructose Corn Spirit

Gym climber
-A race of corn eaters
Jan 31, 2013 - 02:27pm PT
This is an asteroid hunter appreciation post.

Thanks for your help in keeping our progressive evolution (aka Ascent of Man) on track.

Two earth diameters away is a pretty close shave, I'd say. Recall Meteor Crater in Az.


re: individual selection vs group selection

Ouch! Jerry Coyne comes down hard on my other hero: E.O. Wilson...
31jan2013 entry
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Feb 5, 2013 - 01:30am PT
here are some thought provoking articles that may be interesting to this thread:

The new biology: beyond the Modern Synthesis

Michael R Rose and Todd H Oakley


Massimo Pigliucci

Developmental plasticity and the origin of species differences

Mary Jane West-Eberhard

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Feb 5, 2013 - 05:31am PT
I'm not sure which social scientists Pinker had in mind unless it was sociologists since they are the only social science without a biological component. Anthropology and psychology expend as much as half their field on studying the biological, while economics has done a lot of research into consumers and the impact of advertising, aethetics in store displays, and use of space in relation to sales and in conjunction with neurobiologists on exactly what areas of the brain are reward centers and what activates them in regard to sales. I think this was true in 2002 although even more so today. Coincidentally, sociology which was once the most popular social science is now the one with the fewest students.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Feb 5, 2013 - 10:01am PT
Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology
David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson

Social climber
So Cal
Feb 9, 2013 - 02:14pm PT
Why we are still here and the Neanderthals aren't.!DEDF09ED-71E8-4DAF-8131-C30D86FC9150

Trad climber
Golden, CO
Topic Author's Reply - Feb 9, 2013 - 07:08pm PT
Sheesh, there's been some good posts since I last contributed (been going through a voluntary reduction in time spent on ST). Cowpoke, you blow me away. Loved that critique of Pinker's, The Blank Slate. Of the three books that I have read of his, the chapter on parenting in this book is the one I remember best, and the one that I thought flew in the face of conventional thinking. His thesis was that, based on evidence from twin studies and the like, 50% of what makes you you is genetic but, of the other 50%, only 0 to 10 percent could be correlated with your family. He speculates that who you hang with (peers) might account for a big part of that remaining 50%.

In light of the findings from epigenetics, I could conceive that big portion of that 50% is epigenetic-related. The evidence for the lack of nearly any parental/family influence strikes me as probably wrong, but only in that personal incredulity way that can often steer you wrong.

I'm still reading Ed's links, including the one by the Wilsons. I've read a lot more of Dawkins, who has no respect for group selection. I've only read onebook by E.O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of the Earth. I must admit of having a "fancy" about group selection. I need to study this more.

Glad you could join the conversation, Scuffy!
High Fructose Corn Spirit

Gym climber
-A race of corn eaters
Feb 9, 2013 - 08:55pm PT
Matthew Gregg, twitter follower of Bill Nye
What is the newest discovery in science that you find the most interesting?

Bill Nye,
Our emotions are a result of evolution. Spooky but empowering. Another detail of how we all came to be as we are.

Feb 9, 2013 - 09:02pm PT
Also consider reading what Richard Lewontin has to say. I see he appears in one of cowpoke's references. The only book of his I have read was It Ain't Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions. It seemed a good antidote to the tendency to invest too much explanatory power in DNA.

Social climber
An Oil Field
Feb 9, 2013 - 10:39pm PT
The notion that emotions or any other form of psychology being totally seperate from natural selection is flat out false. It is the old Nature vs. Nurture argument, but as things have moved along in my lifetime, Nature has a far larger impact than was thought. I'm just saying that the role of evolution in psychology, sociology, behaviour, etc. is far stronger than was thought 30 years ago.

Evolution isn't really my bag, but I'm lucky to have this guy as my next door neighbor:

We have had some really good discussions.

My contribution to any topic on evolution is limited to the evidence of it in the rock record. The rock record agrees with Darwinian evolution completely. I'm not aware of anything in the fossil record that conflicts completely with Darwinian evolution except a couple of things that are odd, but not game killers.

The best way to improve a human will probably not be through cloning. Follow the tracks of a company like Monsanto, who is raking in money by selling genetically modified seeds. If I remember my genetics at all, hybrid seeds lose their recessive traits in one or a small few generations, and since Monsanto holds the patents on certain alterations, they bring in the bucks.

Again, if there was not somebody somewhere trying this, I would be surprised.

My guess is that within 100 years, if we survive the many perils we have created for ourselves, human embryos will be big business. You don't have to have much imagination to see the inevitability. There is a strong desire to have high quality children, and if there isn't a local market for this, some military will certainly do it. Remember, the strong survive.

Either that will happen or the opposite will happen. Smart people have fewer children than stupid people!! :) Just go rent the movie Idiocracy

I think Darwinian evolution is winding down for Humans. We will have the technology in our hands to evolve much faster in the future. We can already do crazy things with rodents. I read a really cool PNAS paper on genetically engineered "knockout mice" that had no histamine receptors. It was a drug trial, and evidently this is fairly common.

I can see all sorts of wild possibilities. One thing is sure. Morality will have no real affect on whether this will happen. If it CAN happen, it WILL happen. Technology that provides any sort of real use will be used.

I can imagine a genetic arms race. It is just a matter of when.

Look at a country like North Korea. They are so batshit crazy that they are probably elbows deep in trying to breed super soldiers or whatever.

If we were in the middle of WWII right now, you can bet your ass that we would be doing this just to survive.

High Fructose Corn Spirit

Gym climber
-A race of corn eaters
Feb 9, 2013 - 10:46pm PT
Good interesting stuff there.

Trad climber
lost, far away from Poland
Feb 10, 2013 - 01:02am PT
Those with good eye are inclined to fall into deep well.
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