Archive for the 'Evolution' Category

The Monkey Journey

‘The Hero’s Journey’ is a familiar trope in fiction and goes back to Greek myths. The basic conceit is that man (it’s usually a man) leaves his comfortable home for some reason and comes back changed, usually more of a man. Luke Skywalker’s journey in Star Wars is a perfect example. He starts out a dopy farm boy and ends up a Jedi.

I’ve been reading a book on monkey behavior (among other things) and it notes something I think we’ve all heard. Male monkeys are born into a troop but at a certain point leave their home troop and join a new one. They, of course, have to spend some time alone in the wilderness searching for the new troop.

Their are good Darwinistic reasons for this. Troops are basically a big family and you shouldn’t have children with your brothers and sisters. It’s in everyone’s interests for the males to seek out new genetic material with which to commingle. Of course, the monkey isn’t thinking, “My DNA is too similar to everyone else round here; I should find some new monkeys.” To my knowledge nobody really knows whether this tendency to wander at a certain age is caused by genetics or culture or both.

But you see where I’m going with this. Is the behavior described in the hero’s journey just a dressed up version of monkey wandering?

The war within!

I’ve argued that there’s a certain disconnect wired into the human body. On one hand, our genes want us to engage in certain behaviors that ensure the continuation of our genetic material. These behaviors are basically eating, sex, and the pursuit of status (status essentially being a tool to get people to have sex with us.) But we are in some ways at war with these voices prodding us to feed and get laid. We know that if we eat too much we get fat. We know that simply pursuing hedonistic sex ruins our relationships.

A recent NY Times article captures this.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we are wired to seek fame, wealth and sexual variety. These things make us more likely to pass on our DNA. Had your cave-man ancestors not acquired some version of these things (a fine reputation for being a great rock sharpener; multiple animal skins), they might not have found enough mating partners to create your lineage.

But here’s where the evolutionary cables have crossed: We assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness. My brain says, “Get famous.” It also says, “Unhappiness is lousy.” I conflate the two, getting, “Get famous and you’ll be less unhappy.”

But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem, not nature’s. And matters are hardly helped by nature’s useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.

Art and lies, damned lies

I enjoy reading insightful and provocative commentary. But how do I know a piece of writing deserves such accolades? Often because its ideas mirror my own.

Case in point: I just stumbled across this interesting passage in the book “The Immortalist.”

Martin Buber said that “The lie is the specific evil which man has introduced into nature.” Why evil necessarily? Lying helps us to deal with an unsatisfactory reality. Its purpose is to improve somebody’s chances of surviving.

Lying as a device of survival? I made the same point in my piece “The Devil Paints” in which I argued the skills of deception were rewarded by evolution. I stated:

Some years ago I read about one scientist’s observation that the world of birds was full of deception. The primary example was a breed of birds who would use a high-pitched squeal to warn each other when predators were lurking. Birdwatchers observing this breed began noticing that if an individual bird found a bush rich with berries, he or she would emanate this squeal. The other birds would fly off in fear and this bird could eat all the berries for him/herself. Thus, this bird was more likely to survive and pass his or her genes on through reproduction.

But as time went on, the other birds started to figure out the trick. They realized that they had to be a little more critical every time they heard this squeal. And, as these birds wised up, they increased their chance for survival and thus passing on their genes. So the trickster birds had to get even more clever in their tricks, and the birds being tricked had to get even smarter. As such, trickery was essential to these birds evolving into more intelligent creatures.

It’s not hard to extrapolate this anecdote to human beings — we too have used deception to increase our odds for survival. And in fact, lying, or at least glossing over the truth, is still part of our mating ritual. A guy buys a fancy car to imply that he has a big bank account and can easily provide for a mate. Women use makeup and hair products to maintain the look of youth, youth being ideal for childbearing. Duping someone into sleeping with you is a great way to ensure that your genes last another generation. (I’ve long blamed all my romantic failures on the fact that I am inherently an honest person.)

From there I argued that these skills for deception were used in the creation of art.

So how does this relate to art? Well, art is a kind of deception. Let’s look at the written word, particularly fiction. Fiction is largely the act of describing events that never actually happened. Fiction is lies, albeit well-intentioned lies. As evolution rewarded good liars, it was helping propagate the genes capable of writing good fiction.

And check this out, dawg. “The Immortalist” makes the same point a few paragraphs after the one I quoted above.

Reflecting upon is, the lie is an amazing device. To think that members of our race should actually go to so much trouble as to invent what does not exist. Consider the provocation, the enormous anxiety weighing on our species for thousands of years, that could produce such an extraordinary breakthrough as the decision to reject one reality and substitute another. Of course it was the same dimly realized obsession that created our myths and poetry.

Myths and poetry my friends. That’s what it’s all about.

Our obsession with accomplishment

I continue to read Alan Harrington’s “The Immortalist.” One of the books argument is that man, faced with the modern observation that god is dead, tries to achieve immortality by becoming famous, thus ensuring that he (man, not god) will not be forgotten. We do this not consciously, of course; this drive for celebrity and status is buried somewhere in the nether-regions of the subconscious. This leads to a certain kind of craziness as Harrington notes in one paragraph:

Middle-class people in particular have always competed for the god’s notice, but today, with religious authority on the wane, this competition has become frantic, in some arenas unbearable so. We have a merciless obsession with accomplishment. Millions are caught up in the neurotic new faith that a human being must succeed or die. For such individuals it is not enough to enjoy life, or simply do a good job or be a good person. No, the main project, pushing all other concerns in the background, is to make a name that the gods will recognize.

I have to say this summarizes my internal battles explicitly. On one hand I derive pleasure by obtaining skills—musicianship, writing, drawing, speaking foreign languages, being a skilled lover etc.—but other the other I realize the fruitlessness of it all. These skill have little value in the job marketplace, they are only good for generating a certain kind of respect. But why earn respect? I suppose Harrington would argue because on some level I feel it will lead to some form of immortality. But if that is a false belief, as it almost certainly is, shouldn’t I just chill out and enjoy life?

He has an interesting phrase in there: “succeed or die.” It sounds very Darwinian. I would if this human obsession with skills and accomplishment became stronger after Darwin put forth his “survival of the fittest” theory?

Uncomfortable truths

I’ve been admittedly lax in blogging and will continue to be so for a while. I’ve gotten caught up in learning some cartoon animation software and it has grabed my focus.

That said, I’ve been interested in the discussion that’s risen over NY TImes Science writer Nicholas Wade’s book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.” As many have stated, Wade is arguing two things: There is such a thing as race and humans have been continually evolving up to present day.

When stated as such, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. Most people, egalitarian platitudes aside, buy into the premise of race as a useful dividing line. Few people, for example, are oblivious to the race of an actor or celebrity. But what Wade is noting is that people have variations of genes specific to their race. Race is more than skin deep. (See here, particularly the seventh paragraph, for more on this.) If we accept that our behavior is influenced by our genes (which I think is the prevailing view though there are dissenters) then we open ourselves up to the idea that different races have different behavior tendencies. For example, a tendency towards increased violence. And, if we accept that intelligence has a genetic factor then we open ourselves up to the notions that certain races will be statistically “smarter” than others, and you know what a can of worms that is.

It’s interesting that this book came along when it did. A couple months ago I stumbled across discussion of the HBD movement. These are people who argue in favor of “human biodiversity” – the notion that there’s qualitative variation in our genes and these lead to variation in our behavior and traits. When stated in that fashion it generates at best a yawn from most people. But what’s really being said here is that some people are smarter, more violent, less sociable, more empathic, etc. than others. It drives a sword into the heart of the “everyone is equal” sentiments found (usually) on the left.

I have to say, when you nose around in HDB web sites like this one, you don’t have to look hard to come across commenters who have a disconcerting zeal when they advocate recognizing racial differences. That said, there’s some thought provoking ideas there.

I don’t really have a conclusion here other than I want to follow the debate. I haven’t read any of the criticisms of Wade’s book so far, so I’m relatively unlearned on the topic. But I do think science has a way of revealing uncomfortable truths.

We are all aliens!!!

For years we’ve heard the theory that life on earth may have come from space. Here’s a bit more evidence*. Building Blocks of DNA Found in Meteorites from Space.

* This is admittedly several years old, but is news to me.

The components of DNA have now been confirmed to exist in extraterrestrial meteorites, researchers announced.

A different team of scientists also discovered a number of molecules linked with a vital ancient biological process, adding weight to the idea that the earliest forms of life on Earth may have been made up in part from materials delivered to Earth the planet by from space.

Lab experiments showed that chemical reactions of ammonia and cyanide, compounds that are common in space, could generate nucleobases and nucleobase analogs very similar to those found in the carbonaceous chondrites. However, the relative abundances of these molecules between the experiments and the meteorites differed, which might be due to further chemical and thermal influences from space.

This findings reveal that meteorites may have been molecular tool kits, providing the essential building blocks for life on Earth, Cleaves said. [7 Theories on the Origin of Life]

Did we domesticate ourselves?

You’ve doubtless heard of the work of Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyaev. Belyaev is best known for his work domesticating Siberian foxes in the 1950s. He would find the friendliest foxes in a litter and breed them together. He quickly bred the aggression out of the animal. This breeding also resulted in specific physical traits – the bred foxes had floppy ears and upturned tails, like cute doggies.

In fact, this sort of process is presumed to have been what led to the domestication of dogs. When men first started living in permanent encampments (what would evolve into cities) they would leave their garbage at the outskirts. This attracted wolves, the bravest and friendliest of which would approach these cities of man and eat. They mated with similar wolves which led to friendlier and friendlier wolves which led to dogs.

But where does this all lead? Today I came across an argument that such similar breeding occurred in man! No, we’re weren’t bred for friendliness by space aliens; the theory goes, as stated in Michael Gazzaniga’s book “Who’s In Charge?”,:

Hare and Tomasello think that humans may have undergone a self-domestication process in which overly aggressive or despotic others were either ostracized or killed by the group. Thus, the gene pool was modified, which resulted in the selection of systems that controlled (that is, inhibited) emotional reactivity such as aggression… The social group constrained the behavior and eventually affected the genome.

Why are we nice? because we killed the meanies eons ago.

Of course, not everyone is nice. Psychopaths and sociopaths often play upon the trusting nature of regular folks. But the thing about psychopathy is that it’s only advantageous if the psychopaths are in the minority. If everyone is out to screw everyone else then no one trusts anyone and it becomes impossible to take advantage of people. It’s only when most people are decent that being indecent has an advantage.

Monkey fixations

Even the most sophisticated and intellectual among us (myself, for example) have picked up a copy of People magazine when stuck at an Airport with nothing to read. For some reason, staring at pictures of the beautiful and famous is a way to pass the time. It turns out monkeys are no different. They will “pay juice” to look at pictures of higher ranking monkeys.

Researches have found that monkeys will “pay” juice rewards to see images of high-ranking monkeys… They say their research technique offers a rigorous laboratory approach to studying the “social machinery” of the brain and how this machinery goes tragically awry in autism — a disease that afflicts more than a million Americans and is the fastest growing developmental disorder.

It seems, sadly, that monkeys are just as guilty as us when it comes to celebrity obsession.

Male monkeys will also pay juice to look at pictures of female monkey butts. But that seems perfectly reasonable.

Live forever!

The website io9 notes that scientists have figured out how to alter genes to extend life spans! Of, um, yeast, but what they learn could be applicable to humans.

Longo’s group put baker’s yeast on a calorie-restricted diet and knocked out two genes – RAS2 and SCH9 – that promote aging in yeast and cancer in humans.

“We got a 10-fold life span extension that is, I think, the longest one that has ever been achieved in any organism,” Longo says. Normal yeast organisms live about a week.

“I would say 10-fold is pretty significant,” says Anna McCormick, chief of the genetics and cell biology branch at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and Longo’s program officer. The NIA funds such research in the hope of extending healthy life span in humans through the development of drugs that mimic the life-prolonging techniques used by Longo and others, McCormick adds.

Most interesting on the page are the comments which quickly point out the downsides of humans living a long time.

How would it affect the economy? Would money decrease in value if they had to make enough for so many people in effort to keep as little poverty as possible? How long would food last? Would we use it on cattle and pigs and chickens and other farm animals? What about fruits and vegetables? Where would everyone live? Would the entire planet turn into one huge city? Where would we grow our food? Would we just build up and up and up for housing developments? How many houses and cars would be made? With that many houses and cars being used, what would happen to our atmosphere?

etc. etc…

It’s clear that if human lifespan extension is possible, only a select few should be granted this gift. Only people of exceptional intellect, taste, ability and good looks.

You know who I’m thinking of.

Modern living

An intriguing thought just occurred to me. We understand that we can make the experience of life more pleasant (at least temporarily) by altering our brain chemistry with various substances – martinis, heroin, coffee etc. So why wouldn’t we be “designed” to be in this state all the time? Why not exist in a state of constant pleasure.

The answer, I think, is that the pleasure state is worthless when one is trying to survive in a world of survival of the fittest. In our normal state, if we see a approaching tiger we say, “Holy Fuckburger! A tiger! Run!” But after a martini we might say, “Awww… look at the nice, widdle puddy cat. C’mere kitty I’llsh give you a tickle.” The martini laden version of ourselves wouldn’t likely live long enough to pass on his/her genes.

So the martini or drug soaked brain does not last long in the savage world. What brain does? The anxious, fear laden brain most of us are stuck with. Nature does not reward sensations of joy, peace, calm, but rewards paranoia, phobias, hatred.

Merry Christmas!