Monday, May 24, 2010

Enough! Call in the Army Corps of Engineers

BP isn't getting it done. Call in the Army & Navy and blast

It's been... what? Thirty-four days now? Thirty-Four days and BP is still ditzing around with this oil spill... Enough. We've left it to the private sector long enough. I don't know much about this stuff, but I'm begining to suspect that BP has been more interested in preserving this exploration well as a viable production well than in stopping the leak. After all, they've a hell of a lot of costs to recoup.

It's time to call in the military with a 'Bunker Buster' and just blow the damned thing shut.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Embrace Your Inner Neanderthal

The Ascent of Man as formerly shown...
Neanderthal Man, Cro-Magnon Man, Modern Man

I remember as a kid when we had some of those Time-Life books in the house, back around the 1970's or so. One of the ones I found particularly fascinating was the one titled Early Man, which was focused on human origins. It featured a double-page chart with a fairly famous picture sequence showing what the prevailing anthropological consensus at the time considered to be the most likely progression of the ascent of man, from a gibbon-like creature all the way up through various hominds such as Australopithecus (Africanus and Robustus), Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, Rhodesian Man, Neanderthal Man, Cro-Magnon Man, and finally, modern Homo Sapiens Sapiens. I'm sure you've all seen it at one time or another. It has been copied and lampooned many times

There was a fairly detailed and lengthy section in the middle of the book dealing with Neanderthal Man, whose fossils were first discovered in Germany's Neander Valley 140 years ago, and who is thought to have arrived in Europe some 300,000 years ago before ultimately disappearing about 30,000 years ago. At the time, this information was presented as if human evolution occurred in a fairly straight line, with each species representing a link in the chain leading directly to the next. In other words, the stout, beetle-browed, short-limbed and supposedly unimaginitive Neanderthals were considered to be our direct ancestors.

That all seemed to change during the last couple of decades. Anthropologists and genetic scientists revised their estimation of Neanderthals and were claiming instead that the Neanderthals were an entirely separate hominid branch, a rival form of humans that co-existed with modern humans for a certain period of time and eventually became extinct. A dead end. Just one of several waves of hominds who came "out of Africa" before eventually being replaced by the last wave of modern humans.

This thinking stayed current until several weeks ago. In this 2007 video, it is hinted at darkly that the Neanderthal may have even been the victim of genocide at the hands of modern humans - that it is "almost certain that they were extinguished by our forebears."

If the physical descriptions of Neanderthals I've read are true, I doubt they were as lissome as the one represented in that British museum (a girl with the head of a monkey). By most accounts, the visible physical differences between Neanderthals and modern humans were quite significant. Jared Diamond asked in his 1992 book The Third Chimpanzee:
"Did some invading Cro-Magon men mate with some Neanderthal women? If Neanderthal behavior was as relatively rudimentary, and Neanderthal anatomy as distinctive as I suspect, few Cro-Magnons may have wanted to mate with Neanderthals.... the differences may still have been a major turnoff. And if Neanderthal women were geared for a twelve-month pregnancy, a hybrid fetus may not have survived. My inclination is to take the negative evidence at face-value, to accept that hybridization occurred rarely if ever, and to doubt that living people of European descent carry any Neanderthal genes.
One thing I like about Jared Diamond is that even if he has strong opinions, he's more than willing to be contradicted by evidence. I wish there were more scientists out there who were humble enough to state their opinions less definitively and with less "certainty" as they often do, because a new study comparing the Neanderthal and human genomes indicates that it does appear after all that modern humans did in fact interbreed with Neanderthals. Apparently people of European and Asian descent carry 1% to 4% of Neanderthal genes.
A new study of the Neandertal genome shows that humans and Neandertals interbred. The discovery comes as a big surprise to researchers who have been searching for genetic evidence of human-Neandertal interbreeding for years and finding none.

About 1 percent to 4 percent of DNA in modern people from Europe and Asia was inherited from Neandertals, researchers report in the May 7 Science. “It’s a small, but very real proportion of our ancestry,” says study coauthor David Reich of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass. Comparisons of the human and Neandertal genomes are also revealing how humans evolved to become the sole living hominid species on the planet.

Neandertals lived in Europe, the Middle East and western Asia until they disappeared about 30,000 years ago. The new data indicate that humans may not have replaced Neandertals, but assimilated them into the human gene pool...

Researchers recreated the Neandertal’s genetic blueprints using DNA extracted from three bone fragments — each from a different Neandertal woman — found in a cave in Croatia.

Comparing the resulting blueprints of the female Neandertals, who lived about 40,000 years ago, with those of five present-day humans from China, France, Papua New Guinea and southern and western Africa, revealed that people outside of Africa carry Neandertal DNA.

Scientists were surprised to find that people from China and Papua New Guinea (places where Neandertals never lived) have just as much Neandertal ancestry as people from France. The group did not find traces of Neandertal heritage in the two African people studied. The result probably means that interbreeding between Neandertals and humans took place about 50,000 to 80,000 years ago in the Middle East as humans began migrating out of Africa to colonize the rest of the world...

Since humans and Neandertals could interbreed, some people question whether the two groups are different hominid species. The question doesn’t hold interest for John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Genealogically, he says, the new study shows that many humans had a Neandertal great-great-great-great … grandfather. “It’s impossible to talk about them as ‘them’ anymore,” he says. “Neandertals are us.”
I find this sort of thing very interesting, but on the other hand, I do worry about what this kind of information will mean to people who tend to misuse science for their own bigoted racial theories. The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote about how science and pseudo-science was often applied to The Mismeasure of Man. If non-Africans carry Neanderthal genes and Africans don't, will certain race-baiters be able to claim that Africans are a somewhat different species from everyone else after all? It's good to remember an important point shown in the video above that is still valid - "We are all Africans in disguise."

Want to check yourself out as a Neanderthal? Download a free Smithsonian app for your iPhone or Android at

In any case, when we look at cavemen, perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to underestimate the adaptability of those Neanderthals.

The Ascent and Descent of Man as more recently shown...

Saturday, May 08, 2010

A Darwinist Against Social Darwinism III

Frans de Waal examines the differences between the USA and Europe, and the relative merits of each... Is competition good for us?

A Darwinist Against Social Darwinism: I

A Darwinist Against Social Darwinism: II

Looking at current events in the USA and in Europe today, we can see evidence within two huge ongoing self-inflicted crises that says something about the culture which each region has chosen to build for itself.

In the USA we see the environmental and economic disaster that has resulted from the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. As of the date of this post the massive leak has still not been contained. Despite the boorish mantra of "Drill baby, drill!" at the 2008 Republican Convention, and Obama's campaign promise not to do so, Obama relented not too long before this disaster struck in an extremely unfortunate case of poor timing and agreed to allow the resumption of some offshore drilling. Our American addiction to cheap gasoline and cheap energy in general has come back to bite us in a big way. Up until this point, our sense of American exceptionalism, our hyper-individualistic ethos and our free-market dogmatism has prevented us from being as clear-eyed about environmental sustainability as the people in other comparable countries in the world have been. There doesn't appear to be much willingness to make personal sacrifices in order to change things...

In Europe, the Greek debt crisis has sent shock waves across the continent as fear of contagion spreads. Riots have broken out in Greece as the government has called for new austerity measures. The fate of the euro, if not the entire European Union, is in doubt according to more pessimistic observers. The causes of the Greek crisis are complex, and there is no doubt that some of it can be laid at the feet of the US subprime fiasco, but part of it also lies within a culture that enjoyed an influx of new (unearned) money and was enjoying having too much of something for nothing. There doesn't appear to be much willingness to make personal sacrifices in order to change things...

I had posted twice before about what the primatologist Frans de Waal has to say about evolution, human empathy, competition, and cooperation. He's from the Netherlands, but has spent the past few decades working in the USA. In light of his ongoing thesis, I'd be interested to know if anyone has any thoughts about his observations on the relative merits and demerits of the USA and Europe.

I have received in a Manchester Newspaper a rather good squib, showing that I have proved “might is right,” & therefore that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right.
—Charles Darwin, 1860

Enlightened Self-Interest
(photo: Herbert Spencer) The idea of competition within the same species over the same resources appealed to Charles Darwin and helped him formulate the concept of natural selection. He had read Thomas Malthus’s influential 1798 essay on population growth, according to which populations that outgrow their food supply will automatically be cut back by hunger, disease, and mortality. Unfortunately, Herbert Spencer read the same essay and drew different conclusions. If strong varieties progress at the expense of inferior ones, this was not only how it was, Spencer felt, but how it ought to be. Competition was good, it was natural, and society as a whole benefited. He applied the naturalistic fallacy to a T.

Why did Spencer’s ideas fall on such receptive ears? It seems to me that he was offering a way out of a moral dilemma that people were only just getting used to. In earlier times, the rich didn’t need any justification to ignore the poor. With their blue blood, the nobility considered itself a different breed. They showed their contempt for manual labor by being wasp-waisted in the West or growing elongated fingernails in the East. Not that they felt absolutely no obligation toward those underneath them — hence the expression noblesse oblige — but they had no qualms living in opulence, feasting on meat, slurping fine wine, and driving around in gilded carriages, while the masses were close to starving.

All of this changed with the Industrial Revolution, which created a new upper crust, one that couldn’t overlook the plight of others so easily. Many of them had belonged to the lower class only a few generations before: They evidently were of the same blood. So, shouldn’t they share their wealth? They were reluctant to do so though, and were thrilled to hear that there was nothing wrong with ignoring those who worked for them, that it was perfectly honorable to climb the ladder of success without looking back. This is how nature works, Spencer assured them, thus removing any pangs of conscience the rich might feel…

Long ago American society embraced competition as its chief organizing principle even though everywhere one looks—at work, in the street, in people’s homes—one finds the same appreciation of family, companionship collegiality, and civic responsibility as everywhere else in the world. This tension between economic freedom and community values is fascinating to watch, which I do both as an outsider and an insider, being a European who has lived and worked in the United States for more than twenty-five years. The pendulum swings that occur at regular intervals between the main political parties of this nation show that the tension is alive and well, and that a hands-down winner shouldn’t be expected anytime soon. This bipolar state of American society isn’t hard to understand. It’s not that different from the situation in Europe, except that all political ideologies on this side of the Atlantic seem shifted to the right. What makes American politics baffling is the way it draws upon biology and religion.

Evolutionary theory is remarkably popular among those on the conservative end of the spectrum, but not in the way biologists would like it to be. The theory figures like a secret mistress. Passionately embraced in its obscure persona of “Social Darwinism,” it is rejected as soon as the daylight shines on real Darwinism. In a 2008 Republican presidential debate, no less than three candidates raised their hand in response to the question “Who doesn’t believe in evolution?” No wonder that schools are hesitant to teach evolutionary theory, and that zoos and natural history museums avoid the e-word. Its hate love relation with biology is the first great paradox of the American political landscape.
Social Darwinism is all about what Gordon Gekko called “the evolutionary spirit.” It depicts life as a struggle in which those who make it shouldn’t let themselves be dragged down by those who don’t. This ideology was unleashed by British political philosopher Herbert Spencer, who in the nineteenth century translated the laws of nature into business language, coining the phrase "survival of the fittest” (often incorrectly attributed to Darwin). Spencer decried attempts to equalize society’s playing field. It would be counterproductive, he felt, for the “fit” to feel any obligation toward the "unfit.” In dense tomes that sold hundreds of thousands of copies, he said of the poor that “the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better. "

The United States listened attentively. The business world ate it up. Calling competition a law of biology Andrew Carnegie felt it improved the human race. John D Rockefeller even married it with religion, concluding that the growth of a large business “is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.” This religious angle — still visible in the so-called Christian Right — forms the second great paradox. Whereas the book found in most American homes and every hotel room urges us on almost every page to show compassion, Social Darwinists scoff at such feelings, which only keep nature from running its course. Poverty is dismissed as proof of laziness, and social justice as a weakness. Why not simply let the poor perish? I find it hard to see how Christians can embrace such a harsh ideology without a massive case of cognitive dissonance, but many seem to do so.

The third and final paradox is that the emphasis on economic freedom triggers both the best and worst in people. The worst is the aforementioned deficit in compassion, at least at the governmental level, but there is also a good, even excellent, side to the American character—otherwise I might have packed my bags long ago—which is a merit-based society. Silver spoons, fancy titles, family legacies, all of them are known and respected, but not nearly as much as personal initiative, creativity, and plain hard work. Americans admire success stories, and will never hold honest success against anyone. This is truly liberating for those who are up to the challenge.

Europeans are far more divided by rank and class and tend to prefer security over opportunity. Success is viewed with suspicion. It’s not for nothing that the French language offers only negative labels for people who have made it by themselves, such as nouveau riche and parvenu. The result in some nations, has been economic gridlock. When I see twenty-year-olds march in the streets of Paris to claim job protection or older people to preserve retirement at fifty-five, I feel myself all of a sudden siding with American conservatives who detest entitlement. The state is not a teat from which one can squeeze milk any time of the day, yet that’s how many Europeans seem to look at it.

And so my political philosophy sits somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic—not too comfortable a place. I appreciate the economic and creative vitality on this side but remain perplexed by the widespread hatred of taxes and government. Biology is very much part of this mix as it is for every ideology that seeks justification. Social Darwinism sought to supply a scientific endorsement craved by a nation of immigrants who had quite naturally developed a strong sense of self-reliance and individualism. The problem is that one can’t derive the goals of society from the goals of nature. Trying to do so is known as the
naturalistic fallacy
, which is the impossibility of moving from how things are to how things ought to be. Thus, if animals were to kill one another on a large scale, this wouldn’t mean we have to do so, too, any more than we would have an obligation to live in perfect harmony if animals were to do so. All that nature can offer is information and inspiration, not prescription.

Information is critical, though. If a zoo plans a new enclosure, it takes into account whether the species to be kept is social or solitary, a climber or a digger, nocturnal or diurnal, and so on. Why should we, in designing human society, act as if we’re oblivious to the characteristics of our species? A view of human nature as “red in tooth and claw” obviously sets different boundaries to society than a view that includes cooperation and solidarity as part of our background. Darwin himself felt uncomfortable about the “right of the strongest” lessons that others, such as Spencer, tried to extract from his theory. This is why I’m tired, as a biologist, to hear evolutionary theory being trotted out as a prescription for society by those who aren’t truly interested in the theory itself and all that it has to offer.