Sunday, November 28, 2010

Natural Selection in Homo sapiens alchemis

(Picture from here.)

This week we watched the new Harry Potter movie. Quite aside from the odd dreams it gave me (think Harry Potter vs. Stargate) the subculture of the wizards and witches, and their intrinsic abilities, suggested a subspecies of humans much like Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and our own Homo sapiens sapiens. I have named this subspecies Homo sapiens alchemis.

Consider the qualities of H. s. alchemis: There is limited reproductive communication with the neighboring subspecies, H. s. sapiens, as evidenced by the ferocious self-policing of the culture from outside contamination. It is not clear if a cross between alchemis and sapiens is fertile. We'll have to wait until part two to find out of there will be Weasley/Granger offspring. Fertility of the cross does not necessarily invalidate alchemis subspecies' status, however. There is evidence of cross-species fertility in other animals. Liger and tiglons, for example, though thought to be sterile have been shown to be fertile.

The dominate salient trait in alchemis is paranormal abilities. The trait is significantly variable in the population (note Harry Potter's aunt who did not inherit) and common in a distinct population. One would presume it is advantageous-- or is it?

Wizards have been documented as long as there has been documentation. Before written descriptions there are shamanistic artifacts from the neo- and mesolithic periods in human development. It would hardly be a stretch to mark the introduction of the genetic variation that led to alchemis according to these indicators. Therefore, we can estimate its appearance sometime in the last thirty thousand or so years. There's some evidence that sapiens and neanderthalensis coexisted for some time before extinction of the latter began. Possibly the introduction of the alchemis variation had something to do with it.

The actual age of the alchemis variation will remain speculation until DNA sequencing of an alchemis specimen.

Regardless, it is certain that the introduction of complex of genes that comprise the alchemis variation had some impact on the natural selection of the root population. A truly advantageous mutation would spread rapidly through the population in a selective sweep-- such as the duplication of salivary amylase genes in sapiens enhancing utilization of starches in the diet. However, the alchemis variation has only resulted in a relatively small population of magicians, powerful though they may be. Clearly, the situation is more complicated than it appears.

The genes responsible must be involved in brain development-- an hitherto unknown organ in other parts of the body being unlikely. Since speech appears to be involved even in very experienced wizards the speech centers may well be involved. We know the actual content of the words has little if anything to do with the effect since these "incantations" are in the form psuedo-latinesque gibberish and based on a language occuring long after the appearance of H. s. alchemis effects. One wonders on the variations of FOXP2, for example, in alchemis family trees.

Genes often have more than one effect and genes involved in brain development are no exception. It is entirely possible the traits under observation (i.e., wizardry) are concommitant with other traits that limit the spread of the alchemis variation in the general human population. While we don't have controlled scientific evidence of such limitations, we do have indirect observation of them as expressed in the way the culture uses the variations:
  • The culture is hiearchically rigid and self-limits innovation. Use of magic is limited to repitition of earlier magical forms. There are few spells involving electricity or internal combustion and those that do use primitive forms.
  • The culture is slow to adapt to innovation from the surrounding culture. Note extensive use of archaic technology in the schools. Candles, for example, instead of electric lights. Extensive use of hand written books in lieu of printed material. No computers or internet.
  • The culture is violently xenophobic secretive and appears to barely be able to apprehend the existence of non-European cultures.
  • The young are inculcated into this culture early and only dimly recognize the possibility of educational institutions past high school.
This latter point bears some investigation. Recent work on neanderthalensis suggest that their maturation process is considerably more rapid than that of sapiens. The extended childhood of sapiens may have an advantage in allowing more brain development. The cognitive impairment of alchemis coupled with their rapid maturation and localization to a European locale could indicate that alchemis was the result of a neanderthalensis/sapiens cross.

The xenophobia of alchemis is well documented to be self-destructive. In fact, I think this is the qualitiy that self-limits propagation of the alchemis variation. Alchemis qualities strongly favor in-breeding within the population. The vicious hiearchical nature of alchemis introduces culling as a means of limiting reproduction to the alpha wizards and their cohorts. Triumphant male lions kill the cubs of the previously dominant male. Wizards selectively kill the opponents of their dominant male. This has the effect of preserving the bloodline of the alpha wizards and destroying the bloodline of the opponent. That this effect is not the wizard's intention is immaterial.

This localizes the population in two directions. The xenophobia prevents outcrossing and the dominance slaughter prevents competition. The net effect is to isolate and reduce the population, limiting both the spread of the alchemis variation through the sapiens population and the size of the alchemis population itself.

In this case cultural isolation is a product of biological isolation rather than the reverse.

The future of Homo sapiens alchemis is in doubt. Though the population is influential it appears to be in decline. Sapiens is clearly outcompeting it on two levels: numerically, a few thousand alchemis versus billions of sapiens, and technologically. The rate of sapiens' technological innovation far surpasses the magical innovation of alchemis. Within a generation any advantage of alchemis magic will be overcome. Since this is the only advantage over sapiens possessed by alchemis, its future is in doubt.

This is a problem.

Alchemis is the only surviving subspeicies of genus Homo sapiens other than H. s. sapiens. Though the subspecies is difficult and unlovable, it is our kin and deserves our protection. It is also in our best interest to preserve the population. We have made great strides in antibiotics and medicines by examining the exotic plants and animals elsewhere in the world. Alchemis has also been studying the world's plants and animals and has made discoveries we would find beneficial. Not to mention that some magical technology can be used to accelerate our own understanding of the natural world.

Finally, like our studies of chimps and gorillas, examining our own neighboring subspecies can only benefit our own understanding of ourselves.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

BVC News

Book View Café Releases Judith Tarr's Writing Horses, The Fine Art of Getting It Right.

WRITING HORSES, The Fine Art of Getting It Right (original non-fiction)
Release Date: November 15, 2010
Price: $4.99
ISBN: 978 1 61138 030 9
Formats: .pdf, .epub, .mobi, .prc

How far can a horse travel in a day? What does a horse eat? When is a brown horse really a sorrel (or a bay, or a dun)? What do 'tack' and 'withers' and 'canter' mean?

Author and horse breeder Judith Tarr answers these questions and many more in this long-awaited guide for writers, with insight into the world of the horse and the humans who both use and serve him.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Moral Evolution

Having dabbled last time in why some have difficulty with human evolution, I thought why not jump into the lake with both feet? Like Janet in Rocky Horror, "I've tasted blood/Now I want more." I'll have to make do without a chorus chanting, "More. More. More."

One of the defining characteristics of human beings is an inherent disposition to morality.

For my purposes I'm going to define morality as a set of principles that are intended to apply to human behavior. I want to differentiate morality from sentiment-- where one might do the right thing just because it makes us feel good. Moral codes are defined not by what feels good but by how we make hard decisions. A moral decision without cost is no moral decision at all.

What's interesting about human beings is how various we are. Even with that broad diversity there are some features that appear to be present in some for in all human societies: gender roles, rules regarding pair bonding, religion, parentage, music, morality and dogs. I think we can be on fairly safe ground that when we find a feature common to all groups of human beings we can define it as a part of our common biological heritage.

Note that I did not specify the nature of the different rules regarding pair bonding, etc. Just their presence.

Franz De Waal, one of my personal heroes, has spent a great deal of time finding common ground between humans and chimps. The first book of his I read, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes, was a brilliant case study of the rise to power of an alpha male, his fall before a rival, the building of his supporting coalition and his return to power. If chimps are that close to us in one arena, why should they be so far from us elsewhere?

De Wall goes on to discuss the presence of empathy across the animal landscape. (See here.) But empathy and sentiment are not morality. While the underpinnings of morality, the recognition of fairness, the ability to sympathize, altruism, appear to be present in several disparate species (not all of them primates) other animals do not appear to codify these qualities into morality. Moral thinking requires being able to abstract from personal judgment to judgment for the group-- to go from "this is good or bad for me" to "this is good or bad for all of us". It's not at all clear that other animals have been able to make that jump.

Not to mention that humans often follow moral rules when there is no one present to observe. Morality works when nobody is around. As Emilio Lizardo said, "Character is what you are in the dark."

Darwin thought that a moral sense was inevitable given the right circumstances. He thought that any social animal "...would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed... as in a man." While I think this is probably true as far as it goes, I think it doesn't recognize any role morality might have played in the animal developing those intellectual powers.

One of the interesting facets about evolution how it self-modifies over time. Humans developed upright posture long ago. But the act of beginning to develop our upright posture also had effects on our diet, our gait, our ability to run from predators, etc. These changes then also modified our bodies regarding our upright posture. A selection for one trait doesn't just work on that one trait. It works on the rest of the organism-- which has a knock on effect on that one trait. Everything is connected.

Human brains are difficult to figure out. Not only because they are so complex but because they are difficult to take apart. How a femur fits into a hip is fairly straightforward. Teasing apart the musculature that makes it work is somewhat more difficult but not terribly so. But when you open up the skull of a mammal you find some jiggly misshapen structures that appear to be made of a stiff gray good. When you cut it open you get more gray goo. It takes a fairly sophisticated technology just to be able to see all of the cells at all much less how they talk to one another. The technology is barely a hundred years old. (And is the discipline two of my heroes: Ramon y Cajal and Sir Charles Scott Sherrington.)

However, we know it took quite a while to transform monkey to man in terms of upright posture, hands, feet, shoulder and size of brain. It seems unreasonable to me to then suggest that the brain organization, which surely must be the basis for our moral sense, took any less time for an equally significant change. While we must recognize that our ancestors from a million years ago were not us, we must also recognize that they did become us, with all our foibles including our moral sense. It must have evolved, feeding back into the rest of our evolution, just as the growth of our thumbs, the reduction of the shoulder and the lengthening of our femur. And with all of the wrinkles, warts and discolorations that are the hallmark of the ad hoc nature of evolution.

So, given that assumption, we are pushed into the corner of an evolving moral sense that at worst was benign and at best aided our formation.

We are left, then, with wondering why we would have need of a moral sense and how it could possibly be selectively advantageous.

Most of the speculations I've read have to do with the invention of altruism, concern and action for the welfare of others that do not directly benefit the self.

Robert Axelrod wrote a book, The Evolution of Cooperation, suggesting that altruism came about in part as a mechanism to defeat the Prisoner's Dilemma. The game is boiled down to a situation where you and your partner execute a crime and your caught. The police grill you separately. Here's the deal. They don't have enough to convict you both outright but they have enough to send you both up for one year. However, if one of you turns on the other then they can free the defector and put the other one up for ten years. The best outcome for both is neither of you squeal and the two of you do your time. However, there is a significant advantage in defecting for the one to do it first. Remember, the two of you have been separated so it can't be discussed. If you're both "moral" (adhering to a code) and neither sticks it to the other guy, both of you have a better outcome together. But if you cheat you might get a better outcome alone.

To reframe it, you and your partner civil rights worker are caught in marching in Selma. Bull Conner takes you to jail and puts you in two cells so neither of you can communicate. Bull goes to each of you and says he wants a confession. First one who confesses gets out free and he'll beat the other one to death. And he'll keep beating on you until he gets tired. The rational, non-altruistic person gives in immediately, signs the confession and walks out of jail. The altruist takes a deep breath and hopes like hell there's a higher power that recognizes such sacrifice. There's no other possible gain.

How could such behavior possibly evolve?

Darwin invented the idea of group selection, where inherited traits are selected for and spread through a population such that the entire group of individuals benefits. There are some significant problems with this since it doesn't seem to account for the time between when the trait first appears and when it has saturated the group. The trait must not only benefit the individuals with the trait so it can spread, it must also benefit the individuals of the group without the trait so the group can be selected for. Some traits might work this way-- immunity to disease, for example. It benefits the individual that doesn't get sick and it also benefits the group in that the disease is deprived of a vector. It's hard, though, to see how altruism would work in this way.

Another idea is reciprocal altruism, the I-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine. This has some credence as evidenced in a variation of the Prisoner's Dilemma when the game is repeated. As the game proceed (or life) proceeds and the behavior and reliability of the other person is discovered, the partners can rely more on a verified prediction of their partner's behavior. One would also presume, as described above, that if you see your partner civil rights worker standing fast it would be more likely you will stand fast, too.

Computer simulations (and actual PD tournaments) have suggested that the best strategy for long term victory to be nice:
  • Cooperate: never be the first to defect
  • Return defection for defection, cooperation for cooperation
  • Be fair with your partner
  • Don't game the system
One wonders about the last point. I expect gaming the system works only so long as cheating detection and punishment are effective. "If we reward Wall Street, they will do it again" sort of thing.

But I think these altruistic approaches solve only half the problem. Yes, we do good things. It's good that the fig wasp doesn't lay so many eggs it kills the fig tree. It's good the cleaner wrasse isn't eaten by the shark it's cleaning. But while not all sharks are human beings, some human beings are sharks. We have to accept that the species that likes puppies and pats the heads of small children is the same species that tortures and eats those children and puts their parents into gas chambers.

Let's go back.

Humans likely lived early on in groups similar to that of chimpanzees. These are called fission-fusion groups. These sorts of groups range around 50 individuals and sleep together even if they range in small groups during the day. One could argue that humans live in elaborate fission-fusion groups today if one changes the word "sleep" to "work". But that's another blog entry. But we have a singular difference that happened very early on. We were essentially omnivorous scavenging prey species for a long time. Somewhere between Homo habilis and Homo erectus we became hunters.

Now, this is interesting. Band size was on the increase. We had meat-- brain food if ever there was one. We went in to being Homo erectus already social and fairly smart-- brain size was similar, though somewhat larger, than modern chimpanzees. By the time we were Homo erectus, brain size was 850 cc and rising. We started smart and we got smarter in about a million years. More interestingly, we went from being prey to being predators. But I suspect our brains, while bigger, weren't organized all that differently. After all, we had more or less the same body as before with some significant improvements. It's likely the brain was also more or less the same as before, with some significant improvements.

Let's think about that for a minute. You're a chimp out there in the veldt. You worry at night about leopards and hyenas. You worry in the daytime about lions and hyenas. You're always looking over your shoulder. Within the group you're always worried about your place in the group-- getting cast out means pretty close to certain death. Worry, worry, worry.

Then, in a blink of an eye, you're out there killing some of these guys. Maybe not leopards, hyenas and lions, but those animals that were pushing you away from the carcass you were eating yesterday? They're the carcass today and you're eating them. Your brain gets bigger. You can see lots more ways to do this killing thing better.

Back in the olden days, you were Long-Nose-McGrunt, not much smarter than a chimp. When Og-Hefty-Balls came down and beat the crap out of you because you were trying to get it on with his favorite female, Big Bumps, there wasn't much you could do.

Nowadays, you have a much bigger brain. You look at Og-Hefty-Balls over there and you think, Hm. You know, if I took this sharp bit of flint and sliced the tendons over his ankles he wouldn't be able to walk. Sure worked that way on the buck we killed last week. Probably work on him just as well. Then, Big Bumps would be available.

Or Big Bumps might be saying you know? Og-Hefty-Balls is okay as a hunter but he doesn't treat me so well. Long-Nose is always nice. I bet if I cozy up to Long-Nose over there he might just solve this problem for me. Or, I could just borrow a knife from Long-Nose and do it myself. What's to stop me?

That scenario wasn't so adaptive. They found the remains of that particular group all over the cliffs at Olduvai.

But the other group across the hill thought, well, I could slit Og-Hefty-Balls crotch to sternum and have my way with Big Bumps. I just don't want to.

They did all right.

Links of Interest:
Science of Morality
Moral Thinking from The Economist
Evolutionary Origin of Religion
Richard Joyce's The Evolution of Morality

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Not much today. Read the links.

I read a lot. So here is today's sampling of sites.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An Event Sociological

Jon and Al Kaplan have made several parodies that are fun to watch. Including, Spartacus: The Music Video, 24 Season Two: The Musical, and Conan the Barbarian: The Musical.

But they've outdone themselves with Silence! The Musical, based on The Silence of the Lambs.

Mel Brooks would be proud.

Wikipedia entry here.

Check out some videos on YouTube by entering Silence! The Musical for the search.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

BVC News

Four new ebooks will debut at Book View Café this month. Two are backlist fiction (GALVESTON by P.G. Nagle and HIDDEN FIRES by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel), one is original fiction (THE HANDS OF GOD by Gerald M. Weinberg), and one is original non-fiction (the long-awaited WRITING HORSES by Judith Tarr). The books range in price from $2.99 to $4.99 for DRM-free ebooks. Full details here.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Tiny Island of Blue Sanity

I could have written this on Wednesday but I wanted to digest the election news.

First the bad news.

Unless you've been living under a rock you know that the Republicans (or as I like to call them Satan's Little Helpers) took the House and made serious inroads into the Senate. Reid won in Nevada. Bennet won in Colorado. The solid blue states remained fairly blue-- California, Washington, Oregon. O'Donnell lost in Deleware-- a victory for the forces of right if there ever was one.

The "Enthusiasm Gap" (See here.) seemed to account for a lot of it. The Tea Party seemed to make the Republicans more enthusiastic about voting. Democrats, not so much. And, as one would expect, the groups that get out more votes tend to win elections.

My own opinions are well known. (See here.) So we gave to keys of the House car to the drunken teenager that ran it into the ditch in the first place. What's worse, given the rhetoric, we've found out the drunken teen's favorite idol is Lindsay Lohan. Here's an interesting blog entry about the election in a microcosm: the eighth Minnesota district.


So: what's the good news?

It was a completely democratic sweep in Massachusetts.

The Scott Brown election earlier this year seemed to act as a wake up call for the state. By and large, the entire state said screw the Tea Party. We'll do what we think is best, thank you very much. If the Massachusetts GOP had fielded better candidates things might have been different. But if the Mass. Dems had fielded better candidates in the special election Scott Brown would never have won.

It was all local politics here (See this analysis.) and the national lunacy didn't quite penetrate.

Sometimes it's good to live in Massachusetts.

(PS: Addendum: One problem with the election are the Rasmussen polls. Check here.)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Minimum Liberal Hope

While there's not much silver lining in today's election prospect for a liberal such as myself, there are a few interesting wrinkles.

The Rally to Restore Sanity was fairly successful-- 200,000 people, regardless what some conservative pundits are saying. Hopefully it will help to, well, restore sanity.

There are some very curious biases built into the anti-democratic polls. 538 talks about them here.

BTW: 538 is Nate Silver's political analysis blog. I heartily recommend it to every one.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Evolution as Fact Addendums

I cross posted my fairly mild (for me) discussion of evolution over at Book View Cafe Blog. You can see it here.

There was one predictably difficult comment about issues people had with evolution as a fact.

I responded and here are my responses.

Paraphrased: What are the foundations of evolution as the origin of speciation?

A “species” has at its heart effective reproductive isolation such that selection can act upon a group without being compromised by outside genetic input. There was a frog I learned about in college (whose species name I do not recall) that lived in two locations, at the canyon rim of the site and in the canyon valley. The two animals appeared to be physically identical. However, upon close examination the they did not appear to interbreed. Even in the laboratory. Investigation revealed that one of the groups (I forget which) was making its call at twice the rate of the other. This effectively reproductively isolated it. Subsequent investigation showed that the “quick” frog group had undergone chromosome doubling– rare in vertebrates but it does happen. Consequently, it was now reproductively isolated from the parent group. The discussion at that time was whether this was a new species or a sub-species, since it appeared to be physically identical. I would argue that the intransigent nature of the reproductive isolation (it’s pretty unheard of to un-double a chromosome) made it a species. Regardless, now the new group could be selected against without the effect being diluted by influence from the parent group.

There’s an interesting faq about speciation here:

The NSF also has a good evolution section and here are some articles about it:

Paraphrased: I'm having trouble with an explanation of how everything go there by accident, especially us. Scientifically speaking, I've see no significant evidence of it.

Just some small additional points: evolution is the model for how organisms changed over time from the point at which natural selection could occur– once life began, for example. No one has a good model of how life began and until that occurs no one can say what role natural selection played. The natural selection model applies extremely well– to the point of “scientific theory”– once life occurred.

Second, no reputable scientist will ever say that a given organism got here “by accident”. Evolution is not an accident. Evolution results from circumstances presenting an opportunity for the natural variability of organisms to make a difference in reproduction. If there is an advantage to being fast in the animal’s circumstances that animal is going to breed more effectively and pass on that trait to its offspring. There is *nothing* accidental about that.

There is chance and circumstance at two ends of the selection process. The variability present in animal populations is one arena where changes that have a random character to them occur. Even this over time can have less randomness than one might first think. Cuttlefish, for example, have a variability within their reproductive strategy. One subgroup has a battle for dominance approach to win over a female. Another sneaks in and makes itself look like a female until it can present itself for mating. *Both* strategies occur in the same population. That sort of variability has been preserved.

The other area that is more truly random is the nature of the surrounding circumstances– the ecology and physical surroundings of the organism. But here, too, animals can adapt to each other as well as to the physical environment, thereby altering odds in their favor.

But the randomness of the physical geography over time also has an influence. One of my professors said that you only really know an organism if you can observe it over a few tens of thousands of years. Because the organism that is presented to you isn’t just the organism that succeeded in the environment you’re observing it in, it’s the organism that survived all of the droughts, rains, ice ages and meteor strikes prior to the environment you’re observing it in.

Finally, I think the crux of the problem isn’t other animals; it’s our own evolution that matters to us. The descent of man is pretty well worked out now in that the basic sequence of species is known. What we don’t know (at least I don’t think we know. Others probably know more) are the selective pressures that caused the changes.

And then *Something Happened* about fifty-to-eighty thousand years ago that put us on the trail to where we are now. We don’t know what that was. Whatever it was it hasn’t seemed fossilize.

But that species fifty thousand years ago did become us. Not through any set of random events but by winnowing out those who *weren’t* us and mating with those who became us. Again, the selective pressures are obscure though there is some interesting work coming out of South Africa suggesting we started eating fish.

For reasons that are difficult for me to understand it is hard for a lot of people to accept “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” We are tremendous beings. And that magnificent heritage is the result of thousands of decisions of people over thousands of years. How could we possibly expect those decisions not to help form who we are? And if those decisions are pushed back far enough how could we not expect those that made them would not be human?

Personally, I find this a wonderful idea. It says, concretely, we came from somewhere through the actions of those much like ourselves. It says we’re going somewhere; that our actions and decisions bear long term consequences not in some hereafter but here, now, and in the future. It gives heft and meaning to what we do right now in the physical world around us. We are responsible for what we do and what we do matters. As did the actions of Ogg, fifty thousand years ago, sitting out in front of a cave in South Africa, watching the fish jump and wondering if they were good to eat.