Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

REPOST: Monkey Music

December 15, 2010

A few years ago, perceptual scientist Josh McDermott of MIT and Harvard evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser published a study (and here’s a laymen’s report on the report – YO DAWG I HERD U LIKE REPORTS) which dealt with the origins of music. From the abstract:

We claim that theories of the origins of music will be usefully constrained if we can determine which aspects of music perception are innate, and, of those, which are uniquely human and specific to music… Our research suggests that many rudimentary acoustic preferences, such as those for consonant over dissonant intervals, may be unique to humans.

And, of course, being scientists, they tested this hypothesis by trapping marmoset monkeys in a maze and blaring music at them. First the two ends of the maze were set up so that speakers were playing a Russian lullaby at one end and “German techno” (I heard it, it was actually jungle/drum n’ bass) at the other. And this time, the monkeys congregated near the Russian lullaby.

The next time, a control group of sorts was set up so that the German techno was replaced with no music at all. And given that choice between the Russian lullaby and nothing, the monkeys gathered near the silent speaker. So the tenative conclusion was that music is more innately a human phenomenon and that we could be uniquely hard-wired towards liking music in a way that other primates are not. This made me sad for some irrational reason. It would be cool if monkeys liked music.

But this study, like most good ones, really raised more new questions than it did answer old ones. So, for example, the monkeys used in the experiment were marmosets, or “New World monkeys,” which are more distantly related to us than, say, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. The common ancestor we share with marmosets lived around 44 million years ago, and the common ancestor we share with both chimpanzees and bonobos lived only around 5-7 million years ago. So it could be that a predisposition to music is something which arose after our branch of the evolutionary tree forked away from the marmosets- somewhere between 44 and 5 million years ago. Or, it could be that (and this is where we finally get to something new) McDermott and Hauser just weren’t using the right kind of music in their studies.

In a study in the new issue of Biology Letters, which just came out yesterday and is not yet online (although you can read reports on the study from Science News, Science Daily, and Scientific American), University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Charles Snowdon teamed up with composer/cellist David Teie of the University of Maryland to run an experiment similar to the 2006 McDermott/Hauser study with an important twist. Instead of playing ordinary music, Teie created a musical composition for cello and vocals based on the tamarin calls, which is the animal on which they were experimenting. For the sake of being pedantic, the common ancestor we share with tamarins lived around the same time as the one we share with marmoset monkeys (38-49 million years ago), so this is pretty close to being a standardized test relative to the earlier one.

And the tamarins liked their custom-made music. They apparently were much calmer and groomed each other more. Snowdon says this kind of music should be used in zoos to give the monkeys a better quality of life in captivity. But that could be bad for business for the zoos, since said music is incredibly annoying to us. Don’t take my word for it though, you can listen to it at the Science News link in the above paragraph.

Velociraptors will eviscerate us all

October 26, 2010

You guys remember Jurassic Park? OK, do you remember how the discovery of bugs encased in amber inevitably led to a horrible disasters? That’s right; it led to Jurassic Park II: The Lost World and *shudder*Jurassic Park III. But the trivia buffs out there might also remember that it also led to hermaphroditic dinosaurs almost killing Jeff Goldblum.

Now the Wired Science blog is reporting that scientists in India have discovered a whole bunch of amber with 50 million year old insects encased in them. And they might be able to find some DNA of other species within the samples, which they might then be able to analyze. The point being, it’s definitely Velociraptors the Mayans were talking about with their 2012 end of the world business.

Sure, that sounds crazy, especially since Velociraptors went extinct about 25,000,000 years before this amber existed, but who’s to say that there weren’t any 25 million year old bugs back then? Were you there? Then shut up and be afraid of Velociraptors already.

Wired is also claiming that they haven’t gotten any information on non-insect species. FOR NOW. And here’s one of the pics of the ancient bugs:

RE-POST: Canadian scientist aims to turn chickens into dinosaurs, destroy and/or enslave all humans

September 8, 2010

So here’s the plan:

  1. Be Canadian.
  2. Be a scientist.
  3. Get a chicken embryo.
  4. Turn it into a dinosaur.
  5. ????????????????????
  6. PROFIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Here is the lede from PhysOrg (8/25):

“After years spent hunting for the buried remains of prehistoric animals, a Canadian paleontologist now plans to manipulate chicken embryos to show he can create a dinosaur.”

Read MOAR and MOAR and MOAR!

So this guy’s name is Hans Larsson. That’s his real name. No word yet on whether or not he wears all black, speaks in an Eastern European accent, and shows no human emotion – although judging from his name and what he is up to, all of these things most definitely must be absolutely true. Just look at what he looks like probably looks like I think he might look like based on a quick google images search:

My understanding of this stuff is really crude, but I’ll give it a shot. Basically what happens is that when an embryo of any species is developing, its genome starts to be regulated mostly by Hox genes. Here is a rap video about Hox genes. You may listen to the music while reading the rest of this post with my permission.

So for example, since we share a common ancestry with other apes, the capacity to grow a tail is in our genes. It’s just that for most of us, outside of places like Kentucky and India, that gene gets regulated so that we don’t actually grow a tail. At least, not usually:

But if you wanted a human to grow a tail, theoretically you could go into the genome of a developing embryo and tinker around with the Hox genes so that they don’t inhibit that particular part of our genome as it normally would. I’m sure it’s a bit more difficult than that sounds since it would need to be done at a specific developmental period and in the right way, but that’s the gist of evo-devo (evolutionary development) as I understand it.

So this Hans Larsson character is doing this with chickens now, trying to deregulate old genetic material shared with the common ancestor of chickens and dinosaurs. This kind of thing has sort of already been done specifically in the form of developing chickens with teeth. Yeah, that’s right: Chickens with fucking teeth.

Unfortunately this doesn’t mean we can create our own army of unholy chickenosauruses to wreak havoc on Ken Ham’s Creationist “Museum” or to perform some other worthy endeavor. It’s probably going to be very inexact and application-free, at least for a while now. But hang in there – with any luck, Hans and his assistant Igor Ivan Ivanovich (that is very likely his name) will soon be facepalming or shouting up to the nighttime sky something like, “Nooooes! What have I done?” as mobs of the townsfolk with torches and pitchforks scramble in a futile effort to stop the madness before THE CHICKENOSAURS SLAUGHTER US ALL AND SKULLFUCK OUR CORPSES OMG OMG WTF WTF EVERYBODY PANIC RUN FOR YOUR LIVES NOW!!!!!!!!!

Baba Brinkman – Rap Guide to Human Nature (2010)

August 3, 2010

Baba Brinkman has a new album out. He is releasing it in a way that you can choose what you pay for it, which seems to be the hip new-ish thing for more independent artists.

This one focuses more on evolutionary psychology, which was explored a little bit on his last album, The Rap Guide to Evolution. It’s a field that gets a lot of criticism, and rightly so. We can find the fossils and even some DNA of our ancestors by digging up samples, but we don’t get much insight on ancient hominid consciousness from them. It’s fun to hypothesize about how our current personality quirks and odd behaviors might have been based on how earlier humans evolved on the Serengeti, but that largely fails when it comes to putting those hypotheses to a good test. And as a result, there’s less quality control and you tend to see people misusing the field in order to further one or another social or political agenda.

I’m not saying that’s what this album does, but it’s a good reason to take this kind of stuff with a grain of salt whether you hear it on a rap album or from someone in a more serious venue.


Russian creationists

June 15, 2010

New Scientist has this article about something an Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church said about how evolution “should be taught to children as one of several theories, but children should know of other theories too.” They’re pointing out that this is a lot like the “Teach the controversy” approach creationists here in America advocate as part of their “wedge strategy” and how that contrasts with the history of the godless commies of the Soviet Union.

But here’s the thing: Russians being wrong about evolution is not a new phenomenon. It’s not even necessarily a religious or post-Cold War one, either.

Way back around the early 19th century, there was this French naturalist called Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His view was that species evolved, but since they didn’t know shit about genes back then he was completely wrong about how that happened. Lamarck thought traits acquired throughout an individual’s lifetime could be passed on to future generations along with traits which were originally inherited when the individual’s parents reproduced. So a crude way of putting it is that if you have a rat born with large eyes whom for some reason had its tail cut off, according to Lamarck the rat’s progeny should have large eyes and short tails. Also giraffes apparently got their long necks by stretching for food in tall trees, and then passing that stretchiness on to their offspring, according to Lamarck. To be fair, Darwin didn’t know shit about genes either and he was wrong about how units of heredity worked too, but in less significant ways.

Anyway, by the early 20th century Mendel‘s theory of genetics merged with Darwin’s theory on the origin of species and that’s kind of the founding of modern biology. But – and this is where we get back to Russia – at the same time a “geneticist” called Trofim Lysenko starting reviving a hyper-politicized version of Lamackism in the Soviet Union. He managed to convince the political leadership that the accepted theory of genetics was wrong. And he did that not with scientific evidence, but by appealing to its consistency with the prevalent political philosophy of the country.

Funnily enough, if you read the Wedge Document, you’ll see that that’s exactly the approach creationists at the Discovery Institute are now using. Instead of basing theories on facts, they want to base theories on ideologies. For the Discovery Institute, their problem with Darwinian evolution is that it’s too materialistic. For Stalin and Lysenko, their problem with Darwinian evolution was that it wasn’t advocating the exact right kind of materialism. Both camps care(d) more about the implications of scientific theories than about whether or not they were true.

Another weird similarity between modern creationists and Stalin-era pseudoscientists is this weird tendency to try very hard to associate complex issues with a single person. So for creationists, evolutionary biology isn’t just that; it’s DARWINISM. And for Lysenko, genetics wasn’t just genetics, it was “Mendelism-Weissmanism-Morganism.” But then again, you get that with lots of issues which attract kooks – health care reform is “Obamacare,” global warming is really all about Al Gore, etc…

Anyway, even though it apparently helps to spread pseudoscience if you wear funny costumes and have religious beliefs, it’s not completely necessary. The right dichotomy here is between following evidence and following ideology. A lot of times religion has something to do with it, but that’s not the beginning and end of the problem with attacks on science.

The anthropic principle

April 25, 2010

There are really two different anthropic principles; the ‘strong’ one and the ‘weak’ one. The latter is pretty much a tautology. If the most basic laws of the Universe would different, then the Universe itself would look differently. There’s not much controversy there, it’s pretty straightforward. So here I’ll be focusing on the ‘strong’ anthropic principle.

As you might’ve guessed, the strong anthropic principle goes a bit further than the weak one. Lurking behind it is this assumption that the balance of natural laws in such a way as to produce life (specifically our own lives) must be maintained by some intelligent entity with a plan for humanity, as if it somehow knew we would exist some 13.7 billion years before our time when the physical constants were established. The physicists/cosmologists John D Barrow and Frank Tipler expressed this in their 1986 book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle:

There exists one possible Universe ‘designed’ with the goal of generating and sustaining ‘observers.’

Now we know that even just with materials found here on Earth and without any intelligent input whatsoever, natural processes can produce things which look very much like they have a purpose or a goal. For example:

That looks like it was designed by humans in order to accommodate travel from one area to another. But the reality is that it formed naturally without any intelligent input. The point here to remember is that we should be careful to avoid being deluded into seeing a goal or a purpose where there isn’t any. The fact that there are living things in Virginia which can use the natural bridge pictured above doesn’t necessarily mean that it was created for that specific goal. Similarly, we can’t assume that our existence was presupposed just because we happen to exist.

The only reason we can even think about an anthropic principle is because we’re already here. If different physical constants could also produce life in different Universes, then they’d be wondering the same thing. It’s only by necessity that we only hear about how great our Universe was to produce us. Other Universes in a multi-verse could also produce life by saying how awesome their own particular physical constants were to produce them.

The late British science fiction author Douglas Adams had come up with one of the best responses along these lines:

“[I]magine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

The point that Adams got to towards the end of that quote is what makes the strong anthropic principle not just nonsense, but dangerous nonsense. If the Universe or a God or whatever had us in mind as the lead in some epic cosmic plan, then we don’t really need to worry about environmental destruction or extinction by meteors or anything like that. It takes that responsibility out of our hands – and we as a species seem to like not having much responsibility in general.

Even against our own interests, we’re predisposed to accept the strong anthropic principle (or anthropo-centric principle, as Carl Sagan put it). We’d like to be special and the pinnacle of existence, and at the same time we’d like for a Big Brother to protect us from dangers, even dangers we might inflict upon ourselves. We’re so compelled by this combination of protection and self-aggrandizement that even unscrupulous leaders in politics, religion, and economics who might not have even heard of the anthropic principle make some crude use of it for their own purposes.

For more on the history and problems on these issues, I’d reccommend Massimo Pigliucci’s recent writings on the subject.


Paley’s Watchmaker

March 27, 2010

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.
–William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

That’s how this teleological argument for the existence of God was most famously articulated. It’s also known as the argument from design. Like Pascal’s Wager, it’s one of those bits of theology that’s often repeated ad nauseum by laypersons, and usually ones who’ve never read the original citation above. And also like Pascal’s Wager, there are so many problems with it that it’s difficult to know where exactly to begin.

Paley wants to equate the natural world with the hypothetical watch left in the forest. He doesn’t draw the connection between the two. He just asserts that the two are similar in that they were both clearly designed. But whether or not they’re similar and therefore designed is exactly the question Paley’s trying to answer. So just claiming that they are is circular reasoning.

Furthermore, if the watch and the natural world were so similar then we wouldn’t even notice the watch in the first place. It wouldn’t stick out amongst the backdrop of the rest of the landscape which “might as well have been there forever.” If Paley’s assertion held water, we’d just be walking along and take no more notice of the watch than we do of a blade of grass or a bird because they would both have “every manifestation of design.”

But we do notice the watch. We can look at something which is obviously designed and know that it’s designed because we have at least some prior knowledge of watch design. Frankly, I know next to nothing about that subject, but I can at least look at a watch and recognize it as something we humans have made for a very long time. Even just going by the blog post so far we can know they’ve been manufactured for at least a few hundred years already.

You don’t even need Darwin and evolution to refute the watchmaker argument on these grounds. All that needs to be pointed out is something like this:

“A tree bestows order and organisation on that tree which springs from it, without knowing the order; an animal in the same manner on its offspring; a bird on its nest; and instances of this kind are even more frequent in the world than those of order, which arise from reason and contrivance. To say, that all this order in animals and vegetables proceeds ultimately from design, is begging the question; nor can that great point be ascertained otherwise than by proving, a priori, both that order is, from its nature, inseparably attached to thought; and that it can never of itself, or from original unknown principles, belong to matter.”
-David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1776)

So in crasser terms, there’s really no reason to even accept Paley’s assertion that every manifestation of design we rightfully notice in the watch also exists in the natural world. And even putting aside the self-refuting nature of his argument, the hypothetical watch he’s talking about didn’t really have a single watchmaker.

Sure, maybe a few centuries ago watches were designed and made one by one by a single individual in their workshop. But if the analogy to the Universe as a whole is to hold, that watchmaker would have had to have made their watch de novo. And this clearly could not be what happened.

Let’s take this a little more seriously and really think about this watchmaker who made the watch Paley discovered in the forest. At some point in his life, he decided to make watches for a living. Maybe his father taught him how, or maybe he took on an apprenticeship. But either way he learned from earlier watch designs and from others who had also made watches. A deity like the one Paley describes could not have any counterpoint to this passing on of skills unless it were watching other gods making other Universes and learning tricks of the Universe-making trade from them.

This watch which is made by a watchmaker is just one part of a long history of people who worked on devices meant to keep track of time. In earlier times, there was no second hand on a typical clock. Earlier than that, there was no minute hand. And even earlier still, no mechanics at all were used because all we had were sticks in the mud which then cast a shadow.

Watches, in other words, are the result of a gradual process where efficient parts are selected for and clumsy, inaccurate, and wasteful parts are selected against. And if you go back far enough in time, you get a point of origin which is perfectly explained by natural phenomenon.

So even if you give Paley a pass on the self-refuting part of his argument, it still fails again when it points directly to an unguided evolutionary explanation of the natural world and all its complexities and directly away from supernatural design.

Scientists coming to Buffalo

March 11, 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson is speaking at the Center for the Arts for UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series on Wednesday, March 31.

Jane Goodall is speaking at Canisius College’s Koessler Athletic Center on Wednesday, April 14.

Huge prehistoric crocodiles will eat us all

February 24, 2010

New Scientist is reporting that the newly identified Crocodylus anthropophagus probably ate human ancestors. They lived around 1.8 million years ago in Africa and were 7.5 meters (about 25 feet) long.

By contrast, what is supposed to be the largest living crocodile in Africa is only 6.1 meters (20 feet) long. His name is Gustave. There are apparently some crocodiles in India which are larger than Gustave, but still smaller than C. anthropophagus was. Here is a slideshow of examples:

There are a bunch of anatomical differences between these fossils and current crocodiles, and this kind of flies in the face of this idea that the genetic frequencies of crocodiles haven’t changed much over geological time and they’re basically all the same as their ancestors since Jesus made them along with all the other fish of the sea 6000 years ago.

So they found fossils of human ancestors with cut marks which matched up with the bite of C. anthropophagus. Maybe they were just being territorial, but the team who made the discovery thinks that the fossil remains were the victims of attacks by smaller crocodiles, while the larger adult ones would just totally fuck up and eat a whole humanoid.

Darwin Day petition

January 31, 2010

The people who organize Darwin Day are now doing this petition to encourage Obama to make Darwin’s birthday officially recognized. Here is the link to the petition where you can find the text of the proposed proclamation. And here is the text of the letter to which you’d be signing:

Dear President Obama,

As an American who values scientific inquiry and integrity, I urge you to issue a presidential proclamation recognizing Darwin Day on February 12. Darwin Day is celebrated every year on the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday in 1809, and is a day in which people gather together to commemorate his life and work. Charles Darwin was the first to propose the groundbreaking scientific theory of evolution by natural selection—a theory that has done more to unify and bring understanding to the life sciences than any other—and Darwin Day is a celebration of this discovery and of scientific progress.

I believe that issuing this proclamation will send a powerful message that scientific discovery and integrity in our society are top priorities—priorities that are needed now more than ever as extremists with narrow ideological agendas are attempting to undermine science in our schools.

Please stand with me and countless others who value science and discovery by issuing the following or a similar proclamation on Darwin Day.

I don’t want to say for sure that this won’t happen, and probably signing it won’t change Obama’s mind on his consistent position of giving in to crazy and/or ill-informed people at every opportunity. But in the spirit of honest inquiry we’ll need real data to confirm that hypothesis, and we can’t get real data unless YOU AND EVERYONE YOU KNOW signs this petition.

More evolution rap

December 16, 2009


The naturalistic fallacy

December 7, 2009

Scientists mess with memories again

October 22, 2009

A while back, I wrote about scientists creating false memories in humans via digitally altered video. Just a few days ago a similar report came out dealing with fruit flies, except it was using lasers and genetic engineering. Now scientists are experimenting on the memories of mice.

Unlike the fruit flies experiment, the triggered memories are actually real ones. But it similarly uses genetic engineering in order to fine-tune the details. The main finding here, as far as I can tell with my semi-retarded understanding, is that only a small number of neurons in the brains of the subjects needed to be activated in order to trigger the memory. Here is what I believe the lead author of the paper in question looks like:

Michael Häusser of the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research at University College London (visual approximation)

Michael Häusser of the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research at University College London (visual approximation)

Of course the memories so triggered had to be ones of mouse torture, for well known reasons.

“So far all manipulations of neural activity have targeted local clusters of neurons or certain neural cell types,” adds Michael Brecht at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin, who studies neural circuitry. “If the conclusions turn out to be correct, such highly selective manipulations suggest that the brain might actually compute with small, precisely selected sets of neurons.”


Well, that’s that. It’s only a matter of time before we’re all manipulating each others’ memories with lasers and stimulating select patches of neurons until everything we know is just lies based on more lies and then a speed freak will write a story about it which will then be made into a hit movie starring the future governor of California.

‘Uncanny Valley’ for monkeys

October 14, 2009

So there’s this psychological phenomenon called the uncanny valley. The valley refers to a dip in our approval of simulated human forms when it starts to approach very closely to actual humans while still being distinguishable. We like Homer Simpson as he is – safely confined in two dimensions, his skin a completely uniform yellow, his big goofy eyes, exactly three hairs sticking out of his head in a way that never happens with actual bald people, four fingers, et cetera. But when he looks like this

… we get a queasy reaction.

If it has a purpose, the uncanny valley is probably something we sense so that we can identify the inevitable robot uprising and subsequent enslavement before they go all Blade Runner on us. The danger of the Blade Runner scenario is that the robots have ascended the opposite side of the uncanny valley and have become indistinguishable from the humans they seek to enslave. In that case, we’ll have to administer some sort of Turing Test where we ask suspected AI about their mother while smoking cigarettes. /paranoid rant

So this psychology assistant professor at Princeton named Asif Ghazanfar was wondering if our fellow apes also had this feeling when seeing slightly flawed simulations of their own species. It turns out they do, which supports the hypothesis that the uncanny valley has some evolutionary basis. Probably it originated not in our own species, but that of an ancestor which we share with other apes. From the PhysOrg report:

“In the experiments, the monkeys, which normally coo and smack their lips to engage each other, quickly avert their glances and are frightened when confronted by the close-to-real images. When asked to peer at the less close-to-real faces and real faces, however, they viewed them more often and for longer periods.”

These scientists claim that they “asked” the monkeys to look at images, but that can’t possibly be true. They just shoved the pictures in front of their faces. Hey Professor Ghazanfar, you don’t need to pretend to coddle these monkeys. They can take it. After all, they can apparently listen to extremely bad music, so I think they can handle a few pictures.

There are a few possible explanations for the uncanny valley, none of which hold a strong consensus. And it doesn’t really seem like this research narrows down that particular question at all. For instance, fear of disease could be a selective pressure which fine-tunes our ability to identify persons and faces which are just a little ‘off,’ but that could just as easily apply to monkeys as well. Still, this is a pretty interesting finding and I would encourage you all to bore your co-workers with it.

Monday Music Recommendation

September 21, 2009

Baba Brinkman – The Rap Guide to Evolution (2009)

I just realized that this weekly feature abbreviates to MMR. Weird.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. He raps about evolution. He also has albums about The Canterbury Tales and another one about terrorism laws in a dystopian future. You can also donate moneys to him.