July 21, 2012, 7:52 am
Dawn in Puerto Encantado, Venezuela. Sex, anyone?
A little while ago, I worried that the next time someone asked me about the book, Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, I might vomit. An over-reaction? Perhaps. And one likely composed, in part, of simple envy, since their book seems to have sold a lot of copies. At least as contributory, however, is the profoundly annoying fact that Sex at Dawn has been taken as scientifically valid by large numbers of naïve readers … whereas it is an intellectually myopic, ideologically driven, pseudo-scientific fraud.
Written by people who don’t know diddly-squat about evolutionary biology, and—worse yet—who don’t know how much they don’t know, Sex at Dawn purports to demonstrate that human beings are “naturally” polyamorous, that…
July 7, 2012, 11:11 am
A book worth eyeing
Brethren and cistern, the text for my sermon today comes—sorta—from Psalm 115 (5), specifically: “They have mouths, but they cannot speak; They have eyes, but they cannot see.” I’m thinking of the know-nothing creationists among us, about whom the first part regrettably does not apply: They have mouths (and ostensibly brains), but the two are evidently disconnected, such that they speak a lot. Much too much.
And as it happens, their topic has often been eyes, which they probably have … although they persist in being unable to see the evidence all around them, evidence that is no less than an eye-full.
Ever since the Rev. William Paley, and presumably even before, believers in Special Creation have pointed to the eye as a prime example of something that could not…
April 28, 2012, 10:05 am
One perspective on "the creation" (from Wikipedia)
I must confess that I don’t regularly read the excellent blog “why evolution is true” maintained by fellow evolutionist and atheist Jerry Coyne, mostly because he writes so much, and I read so slowly. Jerry somehow manages to generate a gazillion words per day, every day, and I’m the kind of stubbornly slow-mo reader who must carefully pronounce every polysyllabic name in a 19th century Russian novel. With so much wonderful material out there on the Web (not to mention all those great Russian novels!), we slow-pokes have to pick and choose carefully.
And so, I was grateful when a friend and colleague (who, with astounding assiduity, actually reads my blog as well as Jerry Coyne’s) just told me that some time ago, Dr. Coyne had preceded me in…
January 28, 2012, 6:46 am
One chimpanzee giving it a try (from Wikipedia)
Certain images have astounding Velcro properties; they stick. Regrettably, however, their stickiness seems to bear little relationship to their validity. Case in point: The oft-repeated notion that if you had an infinite number of monkeys banging away randomly on an infinite number of keyboards, eventually they would produce all of Shakespeare’s plays, word for word. This is literally true, if you take the word “infinite,” well, literally, and if you take “eventually” as meaning “given unlimited time.”
It’s an old idea, traceable by some as far back as Aristotle (like just about everything else). By 1939, the saying went that “a half-dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce all the books in the British…
January 24, 2012, 6:09 am
Sailor and Nurse Legendarily Celebrating V-J Day in Times Square, and Doing So in a Manner that Could as Well have been Evoked by the Good News Herein Expressed: That Sex Just Might be OK After All!
“Who can explain it, who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.” Well, I’m gonna try … to tell you why sex exists. And not just on some enchanted evening (or morning, afternoon, or middle of the night).
In my last post, I outlined some of the downsides of sex as a means of reproducing. Having shared that bad news, here is its antidote, the most likely biological upside of carnal unions: When a random sample of one-half the genes of one parent is combined with a comparable sample from another, each resulting offspring is genetically different from either parent, as well…
January 17, 2012, 6:12 am
Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (by Jean Louis Théodore Géricault - Wikipedia)
According to a New York Times editorial on Sunday, “Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, noted in a speech on Thursday that the median income in the United States had actually declined since 1999, shrinking the middle class while the income of the top 1 percent soared. Such inequality is corrosive. And pointing it out has nothing to do with envy and everything to do with pressing for policies to help America’s struggling middle class.”
I agree that income inequality is a serious problem (especially in the U.S., where it is more egregious than in any other developed country), and that corrective measures of some sort are definitely needed. But it might surprise the…
December 26, 2011, 1:00 pm
Howdy, cousin! (Wikipedia)
I owe an apology (sorta) to Francis Collins, even as we all owe a great, big, fat one to our cousins, the chimpanzees. I confess to being one of those bullheaded atheist biologists who raised a ruckus when Dr. Collins, an enthusiastic evangelical Christian, was nominated to head the National Institutes of Health. We weren’t pleased about his ardent contention that 2,000 years ago, some ancient dude walked on water, multiplied loaves and fishes at a single bound, was born of a virgin, and raised folks from the dead, not to mention floating up to heaven a few days after his demise.
It’s the kind of nonsense we expect even the most gullible of children to transcend once they reach their own personal Age of Reason. Not that Dr. Collins isn’t entitled to such beliefs, but…
December 23, 2011, 9:07 am
What if women who knew when they were fertile were less likely to have sex at those times? (image, but not the hypothesis, from Wikipedia)
Ready or not, here comes my final speculative post exploring the evolutionary conundrum of why our species conceals ovulation.
Maybe the ultimate evolutionary benefit from concealing ovulation had nothing to do with males, but was strictly a womanly matter, selected for as a way of concealing information from other females. Thus, even though biologists have mostly been concerned with identifying male-male competition, in which bull elk, dramatically maned lions, or silverback male gorillas tussle with each other for access to females, the reality is that females compete, too.
They just do so with greater subtlety. So perhaps prehistoric women who obscured…
December 19, 2011, 9:51 am
Langur monkey, among the first species found to engage in infanticide, which in turn might have been a spur toward concealed ovulation in Homo sapiens (Wikipedia)
If you missed the last class, we’ve been speculating—with all the seriousness that a playful, hypothesis-exploring orientation calls for—about possible answers to the evolutionary mystery of concealed ovulation: Why women keep their ovulatory status so remarkably private. In the process, we briefly considered the Keep Him Guessing Hypothesis.
Next, what we might call the Satisfied Spouse Hypothesis, which goes as follows: When ovulation is clearly advertised (as in chimpanzees, for example, or horses or dogs), sexual behavior is narrowly restricted to precisely those times. But the alternative also applies: When ovulation is…
December 10, 2011, 8:25 am
In case you haven't noticed, we aren't like this!
I love science, and you should, too, if only because it provides us with the best (perhaps the only) way of genuinely knowing the world. But as a scientist, I also love what we don’t (yet) know. Indeed, I often think that in our enthusiasm for what has been discovered, scientists give insufficient attention—at least in their public utterances—to our unknowns. After all, it’ s what we don’t know that drives research and other forms of inquiry. As Richard Dawkins once put it, mystics love mystery for its own sake; scientists love it because it gives us something to do.
In several earlier posts, I looked at one such mystery: why women, alone in the mammal world, have prominent nonlactating breasts. Continuing now in the spirit of celebrating …
November 12, 2011, 4:15 pm
Devoted readers, who might even number as high as the lower two digits(!), know that in four previous posts (1, 2, 3, and 4), I’ve considered various hypotheses purporting to explain a human evolutionary mystery, seemingly simple but actually quite perplexing: Why do women, alone among all mammals, have pronounced nonlactating breasts? Here is a final hypothesis, an admittedly complex one but also my favorite, for reasons that go beyond scientific plausibility.
For one thing, it is my own. And for another, it makes use of two important ideas in evolutionary biology—ideas that so far have been used to explain certain male traits—and turns them around, applying them to women. Accordingly, it requires more than the usual blog space to develop, for which I apologize. (Don’t worry, however: You’re not “responsible” for the following material. It won’t be on the midterm.)
October 14, 2011, 12:01 pm
There are other examples of symmetry ...
In our ongoing search for the evolutionary basis for conspicuous nonlactating breasts in our own species, we turn now to breast evolution as an example of honest signaling. Happily, for those of us with a predisposition for truth-telling, it may well be that honesty really is the best policy, not just ethically, but also evolutionarily. There are in fact several ways in which human breasts may have evolved in the service of non-deceptive sexual selection.
Hypothesis No. 5: Symmetry? A variety of hypotheses revolve around the concept that breasts evolved because they accurately signal the genetic quality of the woman bearing them (or, baring them). For one, they are prominently displayed, left and right, and thus readily judged as more or less symmetric. A spate…
October 12, 2011, 4:38 pm
Venus of Willendorf
For those of you who joined this class late, I’ve been speculating about possible answers to the evolutionary mystery, “Why do women, alone among all mammals, have prominent non-lactating breasts?” Time for hypothesis number three, another silly one:
3. Water wings? Elaine Morgan has long championed the bizarre idea that people evolved as “aquatic apes,” with breasts serving as flotation devices. After all, during World War II, sailors called their life-vests “Mae Wests.” Floating babies might have clung to their mother’s breasts as to water wings. And presumably men would have done the same (after all, even now, they do so whenever they can). Seriously, however, if breasts evolved as life preservers, then men ought to have evolved them, too. And also manatees….
October 9, 2011, 4:28 pm
In my last post, I promised—threatened?—to explore a few human evolutionary mysteries, characteristics of our own species that are clearly the products of evolution by natural selection, but for which we don’t currently know the details. Let’s start by looking at breasts; after all, when given the chance, most men do … as do more than a few women.
[By the way, please don’t fall into the trap of interpreting the highly speculative, wildly uncertain hypotheses herein raised as evidence that evolutionary biology consists of “mere” Just-So stories rather than hard science. First of all, there is much to be said for Just-So stories, as the way problems are identified and a first step in solving them, and second, I’m specifically looking at things we don’t know rather than the immense amount that we already do.]
The mystery: Why do women have prominent breasts, even…
October 5, 2011, 5:07 pm
A propos the awarding of this year’s crop of Nobel Prizes, I’ve been thinking more than usually about science itself, including but not limited to how we teach it. In particular, I’ve been meditating on the extent to which we teach science (pick a science, any science) as a compendium of discoveries and Things Known. No surprise here: After all, nature doesn’t give up her secrets readily, and as a consequence, we are proud—and appropriately so—of what we have learned.
But I worry that as a result, too many students get the false impression that science is just that: An array of known facts. Even if you throw in hard-won principles (the Second Law of Thermodynamics, natural selection, relativity—special and general, etc.) as well as sophisticated techniques (x-ray crystallography, electron microscopy, PCR, the scientific method itself), all too often science comes across …
September 28, 2011, 3:13 pm
I love Michael Ruse (note: in an altogether manly mannish sort of way, of course …). I love his puckish sense of humor, his incessant and creative productivity, his commitment to scholarship, and the fact that he goes out of his way to learn the science of evolutionary biology … unlike certain other “philosophers”—e.g., Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel —whose love of knowledge doesn’t go so far as to induce them to learn anything much about evolution before professing utter nonsense about it. I also love the fact that Michael always makes me think, even on those rare occasions when we disagree.
(I also love the fact that he just referred to my next book, Homo mysterious, as “great.”)
But we do sometimes disagree. Case in point: evolutionary ethics. Thank you, Michael, btw, for being perhaps the first scholar ever to accuse me of granting evolution insufficient…
September 9, 2011, 1:30 am
More often than I would have expected, I encounter this observation from seemingly intelligent, well-informed people: Evolutionary biology applied to human behavior simply lacks empirical validation. All hat, no horse; all theory, no data.
The reality is dramatically different. There are several full-scale refereed journals that regularly publish data-heavy manuscripts (Human Behavior and Evolution, Evolutionary Psychology, Human Nature, plus several others), also a proliferation of textbooks, monographs, and so forth. Here is one example of this hard-headed empiricism, a recent research report that I find especially intriguing because it yields such precise correspondence between theory-based expectation and results.
At issue is the straight-forward evolutionary prediction that parental concern for offspring should track confidence (albeit not conscious awareness, mind you) of…
August 9, 2011, 7:23 pm
In an earlier post, Michael Ruse asked me how evolution might help explain the British riots.
In this regard, I’m sympathetic with one reader’s comment that maybe it isn’t incumbent upon evolution to have anything to say in this regard. On the other hand, it seems to me that any perspective that claims to provide deep and wide insight into human behavior— including but not limited to Freudian, Marxist, feminist, post-modernist, pre- or post-apocalyptic, millenarian and theoprotonucleohermeneutic—should have something to contribute when it comes to events that are themselves widespread, oft-encountered, important, and, in all probability, deeply implanted in the human repertoire. Violent riots and trouble-making would certainly appear to qualify. So thank you, Michael, for asking.
My immediate response is to think of those irascible, violence-prone subordinate elephant…
August 8, 2011, 7:55 pm
I might be the only person in the United States who hasn’t followed the Casey Anthony case/saga/trial/soap opera. Hence, I have no opinion as to her guilt or innocence. I have, however, been asked many times about what seems to be a deep biological anomaly: parents who kill their children.
After all, insofar as children are the primary route whereby adults maximize their fitness, what can be said when parents turn murderers? For one thing, it’s worth noting that such events are exceedingly rare; indeed, one reason they attract attention is precisely because they not only seem to go “against nature,” but actually do.
On the other hand, it happens often enough that it isn’t acceptable simply to dismiss such cases as mere pathologies, idiopathic events that are beyond our ken. A careful look at murder-by-parents, in fact, reveals that it falls well within predictable…