Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sunday, June 2nd, 2019 | Books

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a non-fiction book by Yuval Noah Harari.

It is the most interesting book I have read in a long time. I was ignorant of a lot of early human history. For example, I thought that homo erectus was an earlier stage of human evolution, rather than a different species of humans that sapiens killed off (or possibly interbred with).

Much of it I kind of had an idea about but it was fascinating to see it all laid out. Humans used to be in the middle of the food chain. But, 100,00 years ago, we began to hunt large game. Around 30,000-70,000 is what Harari calls the cognitive revolution. Language developed in humans alone, despite other species (parrots, whales, elephants) being able to make a large variety of sounds, too.

15,000 years ago we domesticated dogs, which is the only real evidence you need in the dogs vs cats debate. Dogs are our friends.

Whether sapiens went, we caused destruction. Australia and North America had a large variety of large mammals, for example. We killed and ate them all. This wasn’t modern man: this was the first peoples of these continents. In comparison, horses, which are often seen as an integral part of Native American life, were only introduced to America by European settlers.

The next milestone was the agricultural revolution. This wasn’t the first time we saw permanent settlements: fishing villages existed before this. But the change to agriculture meant an end of the hunter-gatherer way of life. It wasn’t a happy one: gathering is easy and produces a rich diet. Agriculture produces a poor monotonous diet and increases our workload from 30 hours per week to 40+. But it also supports more people and so the trap quickly closed shut.

Harari argues that much of culture is arbitrary: why did one religion win out, or one group of people come to dominate another? Luck, mostly. The only thing that seems to recur independently is patriarchy. We don’t know why this, but many of the reasons you may think of are deconstructed and thrown out in the book.

The author also argues that almost everything is a religion. Religions, of course, but also Humanism, and Communism, and Capitalism.

The third milestone was the scientific revolution. Although technology occasionally improved in the ancient and classical worlds, it was mostly by luck. The Romans did not have amazing technology: they were just better organised. It was only in the 16th century that the idea of experimentation and improving things just to see what was possible sprung up in Western Europe. For the first time, we started drawing maps with blank spaces in. Until then, it was assumed we already knew everything.

Until this point, Western Europe was entirely unimportant. The Middle East had been the centre of civilization for thousands of years and the economic powerhouses of the world were China and India. But embracing science and technology gave the West a huge leg up. In just a few hundred years, Western Europe came to dominate the world, and to become much richer than Asia.

Harari then turns his attention to capitalism, describing the way that states and markets have replaced families and communities. Arguably, capitalism has caused more depths than any other ideology: National Socialism and Communism killed people on purpose. But capitalism, with the slave trade, Bengal famine, etc, has killed far, far more people due to cold indifference.

All in all, this is a fascinating read. Drop what you are doing and go read it now.

Morality Explained

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016 | Public Speaking, Video

My Toastmasters speech for Speaking to Inform project #5 “The Abstract Concept”. In this talk I discuss how morality and altruism can work within the context of natural selection.

On the Origin of Species

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015 | Books

As the king of atheism in Leeds (because nobody else wanted the job), On the Origin of Species felt like the kind of book that I should have read. However, I never had, partly because it is basically a biology textbook, even if it is written for a more general audience.

In an exciting twist though I discovered an abridged version by Richard Dawkins which was a manageable length.

It is still pretty dull to be honest. I mean, I am sure if I thought about it, I would have known that there was indeed so much to know about pigeons. However, it is difficult to stay focused on that. Unlike Charles, I have never been a member of one pigeon fancier club in London, let alone two.

I think part of the problem was I just knew it all already. Having been in Humanist circles for so long I had been to enough talks, read enough books and debated the naturalistic side so often that I had a good grounding of evolutionary theory already.

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Galápagos

Saturday, August 8th, 2015 | Books

Galápagos is a Kurt Vonnegut novel and there are some mild spoilers below.

Told from a million years in the future, it is narrated by a ghost who has watched humanity evolve from the big-brained creatures we are today into a species similar to seals that spend all day in the sun, eating and mating.

Elina promised me she could tell me all this because you get it all at the start of the novel. However, you don’t. You only find out he is a ghost halfway through. Maybe I could have worked it out, but it’s hard to say given I already knew that was the case.

I’m coming to the conclusion that I am not a fan of Vonnegut’s work. As with Slaughterhouse Five, nothing is ever particularly clear, he just slowly drip-feeds you information throughout the story. Good concept, and an interesting story, but I found reading it quite hard work.

Galapagos

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

Saturday, September 6th, 2014 | Books

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett looks at Darwinian theory and what follows from that.

It is packed with interesting ideas but is also incredibly long. When your book is significantly longer than Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, your book is probably too long. I struggled to take a lot of it in, partly because there were so many ideas, but partly also because it was such a huge text to really look at in perspective.

Dennett explains how evolution is a algorithmic process and yet is simultaneously capable of creating the entire tree of life. This includes the human mind of course, which is perhaps the most controversial part of the theory, even though the only alternative theory that has been proposed so far is “god did it”.

Many of the concepts he uses to explain the theory are well-thought-out too. For example, skyhooks and cranes. SKyhooks are a miracle that just happen (Dennett claims none exist) whereas cranes are structures that build on top of each other in slow steps (how things actually work). Notably, once the structure has been built, the crane may then disappear, though there is often a trace of it left.

It is also important to look at things from an evolutionary perspective. Take sleep for example. One of my friends once said to me “you know, there is no reason for sleep – we can’t find any biological reason why we need to do it! What’s it for?”

I never knew the answer to that question. However, as Dennett points out, the answer could be that we are looking at it from the wrong way round. Sleep is safe. Plants, and many simple lifeforms spend their entire lives in this state. It is the default state. We assume that we are supposed to be awake but from an evolutionary perspective this might not be the case. It could be that being awake is something Mother Nature cooked up to allow us to find food and procreate easier, but once that is done there is no point wasting more energy.

Overall, I am not suggesting that the 3.7 billion years of life fighting for survive can be compared with my struggle to read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and its many big words. They are different things entirely. Despite it being tough going, I am glad I read it as it contains some incredibly insightful ideas packaged into one text about the origin of life from a philosophical perspective.

We should feel special because most genetic lines are now dead. But not us. We have an unbroken chain of ancestors right back to 3.7 billion years ago. That is amazing. But do not feel too special, as every blade of grass you can see has that too…

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A Galileo Day Skeptics

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014 | Foundation, Humanism

When I saw Galileo Day fell on a Saturday I immediately thought that would be an ideal day to have a Skeptics event. Being only three days after Darwin Day, I asked Gabrielė to present a talk on how viruses affect evolution. She very kindly obliged.

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Short people

Friday, February 22nd, 2013 | Science

As you will probably know, human beings are getting taller.

I never really put much thought into it – humans are getting taller over time, big deal, it’s evolutionary useful, so it’s just happening. But the other day, it struck me that if it was happening by evolution, it must be doing so using evolution’s trusted method, natural selection.

This states that desirable characteristics, ie, those that help an organism survive, continue to grow because they are more successful at reproducing. This seems to point to one conclusion – being above average height makes you more likely to reproduce than someone below average height.

Could this be true? Do short people really no reason to live?

Thankfully, the answer, is no. As Scientific American explains, the increase in human height is almost certainly nothing to do with evolution, and everything to do with the improvements to our diet that have been made over the past few hundred years.

Malnourished children don’t grow as much as children who have a healthy diet. Given a healthy diet is a relatively new concept (indeed, in many parts of Africa, it still hasn’t reached there yet), that explains why humans have started getting taller over this time period.

Humans are amazing animals. But animals none the less.

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011 | Science, Thoughts

A long time ago, and by that I mean several years ago now, I started an essay on whether humans had stopped evolving. I never quite finished it and due to its length, every time I sat down to finish it, I needed to re-read what I had written so far and then thought better of it.

Well, that has been dragging on for far too long now, since 2008 in fact, so I’ve patched it up with the few final notes I had left myself and decided to publish as is.

I’m sure if I sat down and wrote something from scratch today, it would be better. But never the less, I have some confidence in what I wrote back then, so here it is in its full glory.

Humans are amazing animals. But animals none the less.

One issue which has come up quite a lot recently is the idea that humans have evolved beyond the idea of being an animal into something higher.

Many people make this claim without meaning to or without really considering its implications. I am not talking about the people that claim that animals are merely automatons while humans alone can think intelligently. These people are wide spread, obviously within the religious community but also within the non-religious community to an extent as well but any such argument, at least from an atheist perspective, is clearly rubbish.

However what I am getting at here is people who make claims such as “humans have now evolved to control their own evolution”, “humans are no longer subject to the laws of evolution” and “humans are no longer subject to the wrath of mother nature.”

These claims may seem apparent [to be true] with some thought on the subject but when examined deeper actually come up along the same line of thinking as believing that humans are the only creatures which can think and are self-aware, it grants us a special place in creation which is a perfectly acceptable view within religious communities but one which does not fit with the atheist world view. This would be accepted by all but I suspect the people that make the sample arguments I have supplied would disagree this is the claim they are making.

However, when examined it does in fact come down to this point of view. So it is important I think that I address the points made on this line of thinking to explain why I do not believe this to be the case. Humans are still animals, we are still subject to the laws of evolution and we still play within the framework that all life does.

I believe one of the problems which lead to this line of reasoning is that we assume the same metrics used to measure what we would consider a successful person within society are equally good metrics for measuring how successful someone is in terms of evolution. In this case it is a far more simple equation – who is likely to survive and breed the most.

Take for example, the chav. In today’s society they are considered the bottom of the pile. They are uneducated, unmannered, annoying and often regarded as a group we would be better off without. It therefore seems perplexing to many people that chavs are breeding faster that well mannered well educated individuals because this suggests they are the next stage of human evolution.

The mistake here is, as stated above, that we use the same metrics to measure value in society as to value from an evolutionary perspective. Considering the problem from an evolutionary perspective, the chav is indeed the next stage of human evolution. Why? Because they are better at surviving and breeding than the smart highly educated yet less sexually promiscuous individuals (probably such as you and me if I am so bold as to make a judgment about my readership). A lot of people would at first laugh when it would be suggested chavs were the next stage of evolution but why should it not be true? How self righteous is it to presume that you must be the next stage in evolution?

As it happens in this case chavs probably aren’t the next stage of evolution. The reason for this is that there are questions raised as to how an entire society of chavs would fair and I shall return to this later but for the moment I would like to move on as this is somewhat of a side track, it does not illustrate my argument in the best way but more stands alone as an important point.

Returning to my original argument, humans are in fact in no special way in control of their evolution or protected from mother nature. Every year millions of people around the world perish in natural disasters. Of course many do not because of the efforts of mankind but this is no different than to the animal race. They too are fighting for survival and they too have a degree of success with this. Our degree of success is generally regarded as higher – but it is all on the same scale.

For example humans build themselves tools and shelter to protect against the wrath of mother nature. We have flood barriers, shelters from hurricanes, etc. But of course animals build themselves shelter too. Take a look at the humble ant, building mightly ant hills to protect themselves. These are not always successful, just as man’s efforts are often unsuccessful when mother nature claims lives in floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Both are “artificial structures” created by animals to live and shelter in.

Secondly I believe the idea that humans are now in control of their own evolutionary path is equally flawed. One of the prevailing arguments for this is that people within our society who would not survive in the animal world now survive in our society such as people born with severe disabilities.

However much like the uneducated chavs, severely disabled people rely on the infrastructure created by society in order to support them. It is a fantastic feat of human advancement and kindness that we are now able to keep alive and care for the severely disabled. But they no more form the next step in human evolution than they ever did. A society consisting purely of severely disabled people would be unable to survive effectively. Similarly a society solely consisting of uneducated chavs would be without the medical, engineering and logistical knowledge required to make modern society function effectively. Therefore the idea that human evolution will not continue along the natural path is simply unsubstantiated. Society is not about to devolve into chavs or people unable to look after themselves – the bulk of the population will remain fit, able and evolutionarily advancing individuals.

Further along this line of thought, it is worth noting that society’s apparent lack of potential to evolve further is also false. Take for example a change in the climate. Let us say it becomes colder, there is a global drop in temperature. Many people would claim this shows that human evolution has stopped because while animals (a term taken to mean non-human animals of course) would evolve thicker fur or a similar evolutionary trait, humans would simply manufacturer themselves thicker coats.

This at first glance seems to make sense but on closer examination does not in fact stand up as an argument. The main reason for this is that evolution covers the adaptation of a species – it does not state how this adaptation has to occur. Therefore, humans manufacturing themselves thicker coats to survive the cold is the human race adapting to better survive in it’s environment. It is not a case of us “breaking” evolution, it is a case of evolution happening right in front of our eyes.

This is often disregarded as it is seen as something external to us ourselves as evolving but when some thought is put into such arguments it does not seem to hold much water. Furthermore this is likely to be less true in the future as the “artificial” or “external” advancements we make become far less external as we begin to alter our own genetics and breeding ourselves fitter, healthier and better able to survive.

As we’ve already established, you have to accept humans as just part of nature, and once you do, it’s very difficult so say, “oh, that isn’t part of nature” when we do something. Animals make nests to live in and sometimes use basic tools – how is that any different to the more advanced tools we use?

Evolution seems to be continuing on humans unabated. Take, for example, height. We’re definitely getting taller as a species. If you compare the average height of someone a thousand years ago, they were shorter than we are today – and that is entirely natural if you will.

Mutations also occur at just the same rate as they ever have. Just because we’re moving faster with our own technology and improvements to life, doesn’t mean that the classic methods of evolution have stopped – mutations occur at just the same rate as they ever have. The reason it seems to be happening could perhaps be to do with the fact that it’s a very slow process and as humans we’re used to things advancing increasingly quickly.

Our basic desires also still drive us. Deep down we all still want to find a mate and have babies. It’s wired into us and the majority of people over the age of fifty will be happy to tell you that at a certain point, you just get the urge to procreate. We might be master of many things as a species, but we haven’t wiped out our basic emotions yet (and probably never will, unless people start seeing Vulcan as the ultimate utopia).

Therefore to summarise, my points are as follows. Most of us will agree on the premise that humans are animals and have no divine special place in the universe, we’re just doing pretty well. Once we agree on this there is no reason to believe that we are not subject to the laws of evolution, that we have somehow stopped evolving or that we now control mother nature.

Homosexuality and natural selection

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011 | Religion & Politics, Science

In my post on the taste of meat I briefly mentioned the problem of homosexuality and natural selection. That is to say, why does homosexuality persist, given you think natural selection would weed it out because gay men are not having babies and therefore not propagating their genes.

Many people have taken this to mean that homosexuality is some kind of defect, where something has gone wrong because the ultimate goal in life is making babies and these people aren’t doing it.

Luckily, Rich had written a talk to explain all about it. Having first delivered it at Rationalist Week 2009 he also delivered it to Leeds Skeptics later that year.

I’ll skip the interesting, but never the less skippable introduction and get straight to the answer.

Genes do different things based on their environment. So in one person with one set of genes, a specific gene may do one thing – but take that gene out and put it in someone else with a different set of genes and it may well do something else.

This is what we find with the so-called gay gene. In men, it is more likely to make them homosexuals. But put that same gene in a woman and it actually makes them more fertile. Therefore a woman carrying the gay gene is more likely to have children and even though some of them may turn out to be homosexual men, the women will continue to propagate the gene because of their increased fertility.

There are other factors at work as well of course – homosexuality is a combination of both nature and nurture. Having the gay gene doesn’t mean you will be gay – it just increases your chances. But that is Rich’s argument as far as the genetic side goes.

Why does meat taste so good?

Sunday, November 13th, 2011 | Science, Thoughts

I’m a vegetarian. And I think everyone should try it.

The problem is though, it’s very heard because steak tastes so good. So do ribs. So does chicken. And many, many other meat based foods. Meat tastes amazing!

So here is the question – if vegetables are so good for us, why don’t they taste amazing? Think about it from an evolutionary perspective – if you had a human who preferred eating food that was good for them, then they would prosper, so you would expect natural selection to lead us to humans that love vegetables because they are really good for us.

But we don’t have that, we live in a world where many people eat vegetables because they are good for us but enjoy eating meat far more.

This seems strange, much like the problem of natural selection and homosexuality, and much like that problem, I’m sure there is an answer to it.

My guess would be this – back when humans were evolving, there was a lot of plant life and vegetables to be eaten. Humans didn’t actually have to like them to eat loads of them because they were the most abundant food source and so people ate plenty of vegetables anyway, by default almost.

People do need a bit of meat though, or at least, did in those days, and that was much rarer and indeed, harder to get hold of. So it had to taste good to motivate humans to go out and hunt down animals for meat.

Of course, that could all be nonsense, that’s the best-educated guess I can come up with sitting here as a computer scientist with a casual interest in evolutionary biology and the combined knowledge of the first two chapters of Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable.

Another reason is that it could just be an accident of the way that the human taste sense has evolved and the texture of meat. Maybe someone who studies biology can enlighten us?