Saturday, March 11, 2006
Evolution, Education, and Einstein
I read somewhere that an author will sometimes use famous quotes in an attempt to bolster a fundamentally weak argument. My purpose in including quotes in today's post is somewhat different and hopefully will become apparent long before the concluding remarks.
The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education. (Albert Einstein)
A soldier returning to civilian life may experience an initial difficulty in not automatically walking in step with whomever they accompany. This conditioned behavior is, of course, a function of what was instilled during basic training and then re-inforced throughout the remaining term of service.
A student can become similarly conditioned in the classroom (whether at school or sunday school) particularly during those periods where they have to revise for 'examinations'. This can lead to the retention of concepts which excede their sell-by dates and psychological resistance to any suggestion that the concepts be abandoned and/or modified.
Generally speaking it doesn't matter how good the grades a student achieves are because delight in success may be accompanied by relief that the externally applied pressure has finally ceased. There's no such thing as a free lunch: the price of passing the exams in this way is indicated by another of Einstein's quotes, "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education".
In "The International Flat Earth Society" and an Internal Evolutionary Mechanism I spoke about looking for specific cultural trends and also included the following quote by Dr. Richard von Sternberg of the Smithsonian Institute:
Finally, even the specter of Lamarck has reappeared. Lamarck's idea was, of course, that acquired traits can be passed on to offspring. None other than "Darwin Day" organizer Massimo Pigliucci is giving second thought to Lamarckism - after all, he notes, Darwin was a Lamarckian!
One of the basic trends I'm looking for is one leading to recognition that (in Gould and Lewontin's words) "organisms should be analyzed as 'integrated wholes'". An example path could be reductionism -> 'epigenetics inheritance systems' -> ? (where "?" is the point the proposal of an internal evolutionary mechanism may come in).
From a cultural perspective, the problem with considering that organisms are integrated wholes is that the center of integration does not lie in the intellect (it's not your mind that keeps you alive while you sleep is it?).
[I'm a bit unhappy with the last couple of paragraphs but I haven't the time to expand on them. They'll have to do for now. The main purpose of this post is the next part (and even that will have to be briefer than I hoped) - maybe I'll come back to the above in another post or edit this one at a later date. I'll certainly come back to the topic!]
With regard to Sternberg's comments about Pigliucci: "Expanding evolution: A broader view of inheritance puts pressure on the neo-darwinian synthesis" was posted to the Main Blog today which is a book review by Pigliucci of: "Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life by Eva Jablonka & Marion J. Lamb" (Amazon UK | US).
It contains lots of interesting stuff but I'll restrict myself to two extracts:
...The authors argue that there is more to heredity than genes; that some hereditary variations are non-random in origin; that some acquired information is inherited; and that evolutionary change can result from 'instruction' as well as selection. This may sound rather revolutionary, even preposterously close to lamarckism. But Jablonka and Lamb build on evidence from standard research in evolutionary and molecular biology, and their case should be examined on its merits, rather than being dismissed by a knee-jerk reaction...
Two brief points:
1) The 'error' with associating Lamarck with new proposals and/or discoveries is described in An Error In Associating Lamarck With 'Adaptive Mutations'?
2) Note the use of (an anticipated) 'knee-jerk reaction' - common when a suggestion is made contrary to what has been taught and irrespective of the natural reality of that suggestion.
...The clamour to revise neo-darwinism is becoming so loud that hopefully most practising evolutionary biologists will begin to pay attention. It has been said that science often makes progress not because people change their minds, but because the old ones die off and the new generation is more open to novel ideas. I therefore recommend this and the other books I mentioned on the future of evolutionary theory to the current crop of graduate students, postdocs and young assistant professors. They'll know what to do.
1) The observation that "science often makes progress not because people change their minds, but because the old ones die off" is again consistent with the effects of cultural conditioning.
2) I feel "and the new generation is more open to novel ideas" would be more accurate if it were to say "and the new generation is more open to novel ideas relative to the older generation"
3) "They'll know what to do": It certainly helps when people as well known as Pugliucci help create a psychologically healthier environment in which progress can be made (which he has contributed towards by writing this review) but I don't think they'll know what to do until they have a better idea of what it is they are looking for - and even why they are looking.
John Latter / Jorolat
Friday, March 10, 2006
The "The International Flat Earth Society" and an Internal Evolutionary Mechanism
Part of a prominent disclaimer on a TalkOrigins page entitled Documenting the Existence of "The International Flat Earth Society" states:
Please do not send us feedback to tell us that the Earth is a sphere; we are already aware of this fact.If I don't stop chuckling everytime I look at it I'll never get anything done! So, eyes further down the page and back to business:
The natural reality of the earth revolving around the sun was obviously entirely unaffected by any earlier belief in the geocentric theory, or indeed, even that the world was flat.
Similarly, because I believe there is a strong possibility an internal evolutionary mechanism may exist, I tend to look for any cultural trend indicating increased receptivity to such a proposal.
During the earlier period when I had time to spend on evolutionary interests, for example, I used to keep an eye out for anyone whose writing style appeared to reflect a particular type of perception, or whose areas of research might produce "unexpected results" consistent with the proposed mechanism's 'mode of operation'.
One such individual was Massimo Pigliucci and today I came across an article by Dr. Richard von Sternberg (a research associate of the Smithsonian Institute) containing:
From the genome sequencing projects and studies of how genes operate to the discovery of new fossils, evolutionary biology is in a state of transition. Examples are simply too numerous to cover adequately. But here are a few.Very intriguing - it may be worth an hour or two over the weekend to try and find out why Sternberg thinks Pigliucci "is giving second thought to Lamarckism".
You have leaders in the field like W. Ford Doolittle presenting evidence that there is no "Tree of Life" but, instead, a complex web of gene sharing. Likewise, Carl Woese, one of the fathers of molecular phylogenetics, thinks the data support multiple, independent origins of organisms - that the notion of a Universal Common Ancestor is erroneous. Then again, evolutionary developmental biologists like Stuart Newman have performed experiments that suggest that animal body plans originated before genomes to "encode" them. I know it sounds radical, but he and other leaders in the field of "evo-devo" think that genes support development, but they don't provide the blueprint. Embryos self-organize, and genes provide the building materials. Finally, even the specter of Lamarck has reappeared. Lamarck's idea was, of course, that acquired traits can be passed on to offspring. None other than "Darwin Day" organizer Massimo Pigliucci is giving second thought to Lamarckism - after all, he notes, Darwin was a Lamarckian! [My emphasis]
Thursday, March 09, 2006
Occam's Razor and "Populations Evolve, Individuals Do Not"
3) "Populations Evolve, Individuals Do Not"Several years ago I was talking about my interest in a testable internal evolutionary mechanism in some forum or other when someone came back with "Populations evolve - not individuals!". I had the distinct impression the individual concerned believed that this statement alone absolutely precluded the possible existence of any such mechanism.Individuals do not evolve, but if shared circumstances 'triggered' individual internal evolutionary mechanisms in a subset of a population then this could cause similar genetic changes to appear in their progeny. Thereby causing a "change in the frequency of alleles within a gene pool from one generation to the next."
"Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations."
This is a good working scientific definition of evolution; one that can be used to distinguish between evolution and similar changes that are not evolution. Another common short definition of evolution can be found in many textbooks:
"In fact, evolution can be precisely defined as any change in the frequency of alleles within a gene pool from one generation to thenext."
- Helena Curtis and N. Sue Barnes, Biology, 5th ed. 1989 Worth Publishers, p.974
One can quibble about the accuracy of such a definition (and we have often quibbled on these newsgroups) but it also conveys the essence of what evolution really is. When biologists say that they have observed evolution, they mean that they have detected a change in the frequency of genes in a population.
And yet I could find little meaning in the statement. After all, I am not aware of anyone who has ever suggested an individual can evolve - and what exactly constitutes a "population"?
In the same (or a similar) discussion I asked "If a population consists of 'n' male/female pairs and I take one pair way, then would this still be a 'population'?" If so, and I then removed another male/female pair, would this be a population too? (etc.).
I was trying to establish at what point the number of male/female pairs ceased to be a 'population' but the discussion either petered out or didn't proceed along those lines, I can't remember which.
Looking back I wonder if not being able to determine (to any meaningful degree) "any change in the frequency of alleles within a gene pool from one generation to the next" might hold the answer.
If so, then the same could be argued for a kaliedoscope: the patterns produced can be analyzed but if I repeatedly removed the coloured pieces of glass producing those patterns then there would come a point where the 'images' produced would be too disjoint for any meaningful information to be gleaned. And there would still be coloured pieces of glass left.
The point, of course, is that only the male/female pairs have a natural reality external to the intellect: you can remove any subset of male/female pairs from a population and perhaps alter the "frequency of alleles within a gene pool from one generation to the next" but you can't do anything to the "frequency of alleles within a gene pool" and affect the male/female pairs.
On another occasion I tried a different tack: If you were to drive by a golf course soon after it started raining then it would come as no surprise to see a few upraised umbrellas among the spectators. If it continued to rain, and you came back ten minutes later, then there might be more umbrellas in evidence.
The question is "Has the population of umbrella-carriers grown or have a number of individuals employed a similar solution to a common set of circumstances?"
From internet discussions it seems clear that some people who are knowledgeable about evolutionary theory can only see that the population has grown.
To even consider the possibility of an internal evolutionary mechanism, on the other hand, requires recognition that a number of individuals found a similar solution - and might share a mutual awareness because of it.
Definiting evolution does not define, limit, or affect how evolutionary changes may or may not occur: go to the furthest ends of the earth and you will only ever see individual organisms, peer through a microscope into the smallest petri dish and you will only ever see individual bacterium. "Herds", "Flocks", "Shoals", and "Colonies" are only descriptive labels - not natural entities!
And you will never, ever, see a "gene pool". Remember Occam's razor:
one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anythingIf there are only individual organisms in the natural world then wouldn't it be sensible to consider the possibility that evolutionary changes occur because of something inside of them? something testable?
Model of an Internal Evolutionary Mechanism:
If this non-thinking, non-intelligent, and non-directional blog suddenly developed the ability to speak then it would probably echo the words Topsy spoke in "Uncle Tom's Cabin". At least, that is, until I add the new category I'm thinking of!I suppose it's in the nature of writing a blog that many thoughts are transitory even if the the subjects they touch upon are by no means superficial.
Earlier today, for example, I posted Dembski's "Irreducible Complexity Revisited (PCID)", and simply because of trying to second-guess any visitor to this blog, rather reluctantly (even though it's true) included the caveat:
My perception of the concept [irreducible complexity] is similar to that of Pierre-Paul Grasse who believed 'Internal Factors' were involved in how evolutionary changes occurred - see Grasse, Behe, and "Irreducible Complexity".
Later on I came across "Over 500 Scientists Proclaim Their Doubts About Darwin's Theory of Evolution" (title link), and of course it's a personal opinion (which is what blogs are about and how it should be I guess!), but I can't help feeling a certain percentage of proponents of evolutionary theory and intelligent design have necessarily adopted their positions as a result of acquired psychological histories rather than through an instinctive curiosity.
One of the aims of this blog is to:
"Address those cultural factors which are applicable to answering the question 'If an internal evolutionary mechanism exists, then why hasn't it been found before?"Even so, it might still be a good idea to introduce an additional category entitled "Evo Psych" (or something) to cater for my interest in wider psychological issues. Naturally the contents would be different to 'conventional' evolutionary psychology as Monday's comments on "Rape - an evolutionary strategy?" indicate.
An additional advantage from my point of view is that I would then be able to include comments on the social psychology of 'everyday life'- anyway, I'll see how I feel about it in a few days!
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
Are Human Beings 'Irreducibly Complex'? A whimsical thought...
I haven't much time at the moment but I'm thinking of uploading Dembski's "Irreducible Complexity Revisited" tomorrow - along with the caveat that doing so doesn't mean I'm a closet creationist!
My perception of the concept is similar to that of Pierre-Paul Grasse who believed 'Internal Factors' were involved in how evolutionary changes occurred - see Grasse, Behe, and "Irreducible Complexity".
No doubt it's a function of tiredness but reading Dembski's Abstract made me wonder if human beings ought to be considered as 'irreducibly complex':
People survive amputations.
Organ transplants are commonplace.
A person in a coma demonstrates the human intellect is not necessary for biological survival.
On the other hand, if anything goes wrong with the older (in evolutionary terms) structures of the brain then the effects are likely to be at least 'global' - if not lethal!
technorati tags: irreducible+complexity
Monday, March 06, 2006
The proposed Internal Evolutionary Mechanism and 'Cultural Evolution'
Howard Martin Temin (December 10, 1934 - February 9, 1994) was a U.S. geneticist. He discovered reverse transcriptase in the 1970's at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975 for describing how tumor viruses act on the genetical material of the cell through reverse transcriptase. This upset the widely held belief at the time of the "Central Dogma" of molecular biology posited by Nobel laureate Francis Crick, one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA (along with James Watson and Rosalind Franklin). [Answers.com]In his book "The Great Evolutionary Mystery", Gordon Rattray Taylor also commented on the relevance of Temin's work to the "Central Dogma" and then went on to say:
With the dogma thus modified, the philosophical objection to Lamarckism was removed. What continued to be lacking was a mechanism by which the phenotype change, if any, could generate the information and rtansmit it to the gentic material. It was not simply that no mechanism could be demonstrated, no one could even imagine a way in which it could be done.The proposed internal evolutionary mechanism is certainly testable but An Error In Associating Lamarck With 'Adaptive Mutations'? indicates why it should not be associated with "Lamarckism", or indeed, any other "ism". The argument for this non-association is only representative of those that could be presented were it considered worthwhile to do so.
Similarly, a single example may suffice to explain why no particular attention will be paid to "Cultural Evolution" other than that relevant to the third of the current Aims:
3) Address those cultural factors which are applicable to answering the question "If an internal evolutionary mechanism exists, then why hasn't it been found before?"In June of 2001 an EurekaAlert entitled "Rape - an evolutionary strategy?" began:
A SINGLE act of rape may be more than twice as likely to make a woman pregnant as a single act of consensual sex.Most people (if not all!) who have worked with the victims of sexual violence will say something like "Rape isn't about sex, its about control". Specifically, it is suggested, a need for psychological control stemming from the rapist's own psychology - ie maladjustment to a compounded childhood trauma.
That statistic will reopen the hotly contested debate over whether rape can be a successful reproductive strategy in evolutionary terms. It could help to explain why men raping women has been so common throughout history and across cultures, two American researchers told the conference. Previous studies found that rates of pregnancy resulting from rape could be anything up to 30 per cent, compared to a 2 to 4 per cent chance of getting pregnant from a single act of consensual sex. This led some biologists, notably Randy Thornhill from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, to parade the figures as evidence that rape is a natural way for men to spread their genes (New Scientist, 19 February 2000, p 44).
If you were to see a man cross a street one morning then such behaviour would appear perfectly natural. If the same man were to cross the street a few days later, but in the interim had sustained a broken leg, then the change in behavior would obviously be a function of the injury to life that has occurred.
Psychological wounds have the same reality as physical wounds and if behavior becomes a function of an injury to life then there can be no direct relationship with the nature of life itself.
If no consideration is given to the psychology of rapists then possiby the most common reason why rapes occur is being overlooked.
Equally, if a single act of rape "may be more than twice as likely to make a woman pregnant as a single act of consensual sex" then consideration should also be given to how organisms biologically react when 'in extremis'. From Literature Review of Autoerotic Asphyxia and Fatalities:
"An engraving attributed to Durer (c. 1520) depicts a man ejaculating while being hanged in a torture chamber amidst chained skeletons while another prisoner is flogged. Thus the observation that ejaculation may accompany hanging had become known to laymen at least by the early sixteenth century."Hardly an effective evolutionary strategy!
From a wider perspective the above reflects the belief that "Cultural Evolution" is only worth addressing if the 'noise' generated by psychological trauma is taken into consideration.
Two posts to the Main Blog today. One (linked above) includes an extract from an existing website describing the basic concept of the proposed internal evolutionary mechanism as it appeared in 1998.
Also included is a flowchart generating the fibonacci series which will be useful in illustrating various aspects of the proposed mechanism.
Both of the above are drawn from existing material and are intended to provide a 'working framework' upon which futher commentary can be based (as per the first of the Aims)
The other Main Blog post is:
The first part of the internet day, however, was spent in trying to sort out how this blog was appearing in Internet Explorer and Opera. The problem was solved with a lot less of a headache than usual - but only because of the helpful people at Blogger Forum. Thanks folks!