Search This Blog

Sunday, August 18, 2013


The greatest story every told is unravelling in your genes...
"Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history."
        - Charles Darwin, "The Origin of Species"
"When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a long history ; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, in the same way as any great mechanical invention is the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen ; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting - I speak from experience - does the study of natural history become!"
        - Charles Darwin, "The Origin of Species"
"We must, however, acknowledge ... that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system- with all these exalted powers- Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."
        - Charles Darwin, "The Descent Of Man"
"The formation of different languages and of distinct species and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel."
        - Charles Darwin, "The Desent Of Man"
Let me lay my cards on the table. If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of even Newton or Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. It is not just a wonderful idea. It is a dangerous idea.
        - Daniel Dennett, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea"
Darwin was one of our finest specimens. He did superbly what human beings are designed to do: manipulate social information to personal advantage. The information in question was the prevailing account of how human beings, and all organisms, came to exist; Darwin reshaped it in a way that radically raised his social status. When he died in 1882, his greatness was acclaimed in newspapers around the world, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey, not far from the body of Isaac Newton. Alpha-male territory.
        - Robert Wright, "The Moral Animal"
Along with William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin is Britain's greatest gift to the world. He was our greatest thinker.
        - Richard Dawkins, Honourary President, Darwin Day.
Charles Darwin was the originator of the most dangerous idea in history. He disenfranchised God as our creator and revealed the animal origins of humanity.
         - Robin McKie, "The Guardian"
Today Charles Darwin is best known for establishing the fact of evolution and for recognizing the major role of natural selection in driving it.
        - Jared Diamond
Darwinism did not strip meaning from the world but intensified it, 'by identifying it in as many aspects of life as possible'.
        - Neal Ascherson reviews "A Reason For Everything" by Marek Kohn for "The Observer"
"To be human: To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape."
        - from Terry Pratchett's "Hogfather"
"The art which adds to Nature is itself Nature."
        - Polixenes, in Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale"
How do I know about Darwin to begin with? And the answer was this: I was taught him as part of history as well as part of biology. After the voyage of the good ship Beagle and the amazing discoveries that attended it, Darwin decided to change his own theistic views and also to challenge the rooted conceptions of Christian Victorian society... Why not make schoolchildren study the history of the argument? It would show them how to weigh and balance evidence, and it would remind them of the scarcely believable idiocy of the ancestors of "intelligent design." The tale is both amusing and instructive, and it is a vital part of the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. How could intelligent scientific secularism lose if this were part of the curriculum?
        - Christopher Hitchens, "MSN Slate"
We do not and we should not teach rubbish and superstition alongside science. "Intelligent design" is not even a theory. It is more like a mentality. It admits of no verification or falsity and does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as a series of hypotheses and experiments that have served us well in analyzing the fossil record, the record of molecular biology, and — through the unraveling of the DNA strings — our kinship with other species. And this is to say nothing of the possibility of medical advances that may astonish us in our own lifetimes. To put astrology on the same blackboard as the Hubble telescope would be an approximate analogy.
        - Christopher Hitchens, "MSN Slate"
For so-called fundamentalists, the difficulties of keeping to the sentence-by-sentence literal truth of the biblical account of the Creation should not be much greater than they already are, even if a delegation of Flores hobbits arrived in Downing Street demanding equal rights and bus passes... Only if the Floresians were brighter and could conceive of universal ideas, conversing excitedly perhaps about what should be on Saturday night television once Saturday night and television had been invented, would they be capable of sustaining an immortal soul.
        - Christopher Howse, "Do Little People Go To Heaven?", "The Spectator"
Perhaps no order of mammals presents us with so extraordinary a series of gradations as this [step by step, from humans to apes to monkeys to lemurs] - leading us insensibly from the crown and summit of the animal creation down to creatures, from which there is but a step, as it seems, to the lowest, smallest, and least intelligent of the placental Mammalia. It is as if nature herself had forseen the arrogance of man, and with Roman severity had provided that his intellect, by its very triumphs, should call into prominence the slaves, admonishing the conqueror that he is but dust.
- TH Huxley, "Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature", (1863)It is as respectable to be a modified monkey as modified dirt.- TH HuxleyThe US now trains and employs more palaeontologists than any other nation and its innovative techniques, explorations and studies are the global engine of the discipline. North America, paradoxically, is also the global centre of Creationism, whose dogmatic followers believe that the Earth was formed just 6000 years ago. Enigmas such as this abound on the continent, and indeed seem typical of it.        - Tim Flannery, "The Eternal Frontier"
"Our creationist detractors charge that evolution is an unproved and unprovable charade-- a secular religion masquerading as science. They claim, above all, that evolution generates no predictions, never exposes itself to test, and therefore stands as dogma rather than disprovable science. This claim is nonsense. We make and test risky predictions all the time; our success is not dogma, but a highly probable indication of evolution's basic truth."
- Stephen Jay Gould, "Dinosaur in a Haystack"Creationism reveals its nonscientific character in two ways: its central tenets cannot be tested and its peripheral claims, which can be tested, have been proven false. At its core, the creationist account rests on "singularities" - that is to say, on miracles. The creationist God is not the noble clock winder of Newton and Boyle, who set the laws of nature properly at the beginning of time and then released direct control in full confidence that his initial decisions would require no revision. He is, instead, a constant presence, who suspends his own laws when necessary to make the new or destroy the old. Since science can treat only natural phenomena occurring in a context of invariant natural law, the constant invocation of miracles places creationism in another realm.        - Stephen Jay Gould
"We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a 'higher' answer - but none exists."
- Stephen Jay Gould"Seen in retrospect, evolution as a whole doubtless had a general direction, from simple to complex, from dependence on to relative independence of the environment, to greater and greater autonomy of individuals, greater and greater development of sense organs and nervous systems conveying and processing information about the state of the organism's surroundings, and finally greater and greater consciousness. You can call this direction progress or by some other name."- Theodosius DobzhanskyAll questions about life have the same answer : natural selection.- Henry Bennet-ClarkThe universe has invented a way to know itself.- Paul DresslerMan is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve.        - Erich Fromm
Natural selection is not the only process that changes organisms over time. But is the only process that seemingly designs organisms over time.
- Stephen Pinker, "How The Mind Works"Never say, and never take seriously anyone who says, 'I cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by gradual selection.' I have dubbed this kind of fallacy 'the Argument from Personal Incredulity.' Time and again, it has proven the prelude to an intellectual banana-skin experience.- Richard Dawkins, "River out of Eden"Evolution is cleverer than you are.- Orgel's Second RuleLife results from the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators.We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realise that we are apes.
When we die, there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G.C Williams remarked, but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.
We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.
- Richard DawkinsOur minds have been built by selfish genes, but they have been built to be social, trustworthy and cooperative.- Matt Ridley, "The Origins of Virtue"There was a revolution in biology in the mid 1960s, pioneered especially by two men, George Williams and William Hamilton. This revolution is best known by Richard Dawkins's phrase 'The Selfish Gene', and at its core lies the idea that individuals do not consistently do things for the good of their group, or their families, or even themselves. They consistently do things that benefit their genes, because they are all inevitably descended from those that did the same. None of your ancestors died celibate.
... always, without exception, living things are designed to do things that enhance the chances of their genes or copies of their genes surviving and replicating.- Matt Ridley, "The Origins of Virtue"As a general rule, a modern biologist seeing an animal doing something to benefit another assumes either that it is being manipulated by the other individual or that it is being subtly selfish.- George WilliamsAdaptations are for the good of the genes that implement them, and one of the best demonstrations of this is the 50-50 ratio of males to females. If organisms were designed to benefit the species, they would not waste half the available food on sons, who can't directly replenish the species with babies. Any necessary genetic variation could easily be supplied by a few studs. Organisms pump out sons because whenever females are more plentiful, the genes of mothers and fathers who bear sons have a reproductive field day, and the mixture settles at 50-50. If the species suffers, that's just too bad.- Stephen PinkerIt is as if we had to do with a parliament of genes : each acts in its own self-interest, but if its acts hurt others, they will combine together to supress it.- Egbert LeighThink of it : zillions and zillions of organisms running around, each under the hypnotic spell of a single truth, all these truths identical, and all logically incompatible with one another : 'My hereditary material is the most important material on earth; its survival justifies your frustration, pain, even death'. And you are one of those organisms, living your life in the thrall of a logical absurdity.- Robert Wright, "The Moral Animal"The interaction of genetic and external influences makes my behaviour unpredictable, but not undetermined. In the gap between those words lies freedom.- Matt Ridley, "Genome"Society works not because we have consciously invented it, but because it is an ancient product of our evolved predispositions. It is literally in our nature.- Matt RidleyThe assertion that 'culture' explains human variation will be taken seriously when there are reports of women war parties raiding villages to capture men as husbands, or of parent cloistering their sons but not their daughters to protect their sons' virtue, or when cultural distributions for preferences concerning physical attractiveness, earning power, relative age and so on show as many cultures with bias in one direction as in the other.- John Tooby, "The Adapted Mind"Quite clearly its crass to equate genetics with determinism and environmentalism with freedom. I think human freedom means something about the capacity of the human organism not to be pushed around or dominated by external circumstances. I would argue that evolution has given us our freedom. Freedom is the ability to stand up and transcend the limitations of the environment.- Lyndon Eaves"Every human being is irresistibly impelled to act to act precisely as he does act: in the eternity which preceded his birth, a chain of causes was generated which, operating under the name of motives, makes it impossible that any thought of his mind, or any action of his life, should be otherwise than what it is... The doctrine of Necessity tends to introduce a great change into the established notions of morality... "- Shelly (explaining Laplace)"Each person decides in early childhood how he will live and how he will die... His trivial behavior may be decided by reason, but his important decisions have already been made: what kind of person he will marry, how many children he will have, what kind of bed he will die in... It is incredible to think, at first, that man's fate, all his nobility and all his degradation, is decided by a child no more than six years old, and usually three... (but) it is very easy to believe by looking at what is happening in the world today, and what happened yesterday, and seeing what will happen tomorrow."- Erich Berne"The great paradox of determinism and free will, which has held the attention of the wisest of philosophers and psychologists for generations, can be phrased in more biological terms as follows: If our genes are inherited, and our environment is a train of physical events set in motion before we were born, how can there be a truly independent agent within the brain? The agent itself is created by the interaction of the genes and the environment. It would appear that our freedom is only a self delusion."- EO WilsonGenetically influenced behavior is not necessarily good and not necessarily unchangeable. Explanations of bad behavior that appeal to genes do not absolve a person any more than do explanations that appeal to upbringing.- Stephen PinkerWhere it is in his own interest, every organism may reasonably be expected to aid his fellows. Where he has no alternative, he submits to the yoke of communal servitude. Yet given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain him from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering his brother, his mate, his parent, or his child. Scratch an 'altruist' and watch a 'hypocrite' bleed.- Michael Ghiselin, "The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex"Morals are the rules we agree to that allow us to live in a society of humans.#
"But nature - that is, biological evolution - has not fitted man to any specific environment. On the contrary, ... he has a rather crude survival kit; and yet -this is the paradox of the human condition - one that fits him to all environments. Among the multitude of animals which scamper, fly, burrow and swim around us, man is the only one who is not locked into his environment. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment but to change it."
- Jacob BronowskiWe humans are the dominant species on the planet, a status affirmed by several standards - our ubiquity, our subjugation (politely called domestication) of many animals, our expropriation of much of the primary photosynthetic productivity of the planet, our alteration of the environment at the Earth's surface. Why us?In the ways of Nature," said Marcus Aurelius, "there is no evil to be found." Animals are aggressive not because they are savage, or bestial or evil (those are words with very little explanatory power) but because such behaviour provides food and defence against predation, because it spaces out the population and avoids overcrowding, because it has adaptive value.
The noses of women, we cannot help noting, are often at the same level as the armpits of men.
Because men, compared to male chimps, have such relatively small testicles (large testicles indicate a species where many males mate, one after the other, with the same female), we might guess that promiscuous societies were uncommon in the immediate human past.
- Carl Sagan, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors"Recent discoveries about apes suggest, however, that a gorilla or common chimp stands at least as good a chance being murdered as the average human.- Jared Diamond, "The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee"A city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.        - Desmond Morris, author of 'The Naked Ape' and 'Manwatching'
"Our ancestors were eating meat over 2.5 million years ago. We mainly ate meat, fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts. We have to assume our physiology evolved in association with this diet. The balanced diet for our species was what we could acquire then, not what the government and doctors tell us to eat now."
        - Lionel Tiger, Rutgers Anthropology Professor, "The Case for Eating like Cavemen"
Women do not avoid fighting because they are dainty or scared, but because they have a greater stake than men in staying alive to rear their offspring. Women compete with each other just as tenaciously as men, but with a stealth and subtlety that reduces their chances of being killed or injured.
- Anne Campbell, University of Durham."Women are extraordinary in lacking the estrus, or period of heat. The females of most other primate species become sexually active, to the point of aggression, only at the time of ovulation. Why has sexual responsiveness become nearly continuous? Unusually frequent sexual activity between males and females served as the principle device for cementing the pair bond."- Edward O. Wilson, "On Human Nature""The closer the genetic relationship of the family members, as for example father-to-son, as opposed to uncle-to-nephew, the higher the degree of cooperation."- Edward O. Wilson "Consilience""Mating Strategy is influenced by the cardinal fact that women have more at stake in sexual activity than men, because of the limited age span in which they can reproduce and the heavy investment required of them with each child conceived. In courtship women consistently emphasize commitment of resources and material security."- Edward O.Wilson "Consilience""These slender little people (Homo Habilis), the size of modern 12 year olds, were devoid of fangs and claws and almost certainly slower on foot than the four legged animals around them. They could have succeeded in their new way of life only by relying on tools and sophisticated cooperative behavior"- Edward O. Wilson, "On Human Nature""Actually, there is a sense in which polygynous marriage has not been the historical norm - even where polygyny is permitted, multiple wives are generally reserved for a relatively few men who can afford them or qualify via formal rank. For eons and eons, most marriages have been monogamous, even though most societies haven't been."- Robert Wright, "The Moral Animal"History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.- Jared Diamond, "Guns, Germs, Steel"We shouldnt be surprised to find a willingness to entertain false positives. Its better to mistake a lare number of panther possibilities for a panther, than to mistake even one panther actuality for the absence of a panther.- JJ MacIntoshIt is a rule of evolution to which we are far from immune that the more cooperative societies are, the more violent the battles between them. We may be among the most collaborative social creatures on the planet, but we are also the most belligerent.
Trade's invention represents one of the very few moments in evolution when Homo sapiens stumbled on some competitive advantage over other species that was truly unique. There simply is no other animal that exploits the law of comparitive advantage between groups.- Matt Ridley, "The Origins of Virtue"It is astonishing to realise that the human species survived hundreds of thousands of years, more than 99 percent of its time on this planet, with a life expectancy of only eighteen years.- Leonard Hayflick ...remember Shakespeare's Juliet was only 13.Why do we suffer the effects of aging? Because once we stop reproducing, evolution no longer cares about us, and abandons us.- ?'Savage' describes a cultural condition, not a degree of intelligence.- Robert A. Heinlein, "Time Enough For Love"In general, the larger the breeding population, the slower the rate of evolution.- Michio Kaku, "Visions - How science will revolutionize the 21st century"The best way to be beautiful is to choose your parents well.- Candice BergenIf you happen to bump into a creationist when you don't have Richard Dawkins and a carrier bag of BBC documentaries to hand, you could do worse than point them to BecomingHuman.Org        - The Guardian
In my simplicity, I remember wondering why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist.
- Charles Darwin, upon discovering the joys of ornithology...He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.- Charles Darwin, NotebooksThe juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn't need its brain anymore so it eats it! (It's rather like getting tenure.)- Daniel Dennett, "Consciousness Explained"As we delight in the strange and exotic beauty of orchid flowers, it is salutary to reflect that we are, in essence, looking at their genitalia.        - Unknown
Bird taxonomy is a difficult field because of the severe anatomical constraints imposed by flight. There are only so many ways to design a bird capable, say, of catching insects in mid-air, with the result that birds of similar habitats tend to have very similar anatomies, whatever their ancestry. For example, American vultures look and behave much like Old World vultures, but biologists have come to realize that the former are related to storks, the latter to hawks, and that their resemblances result from their common lifestyle.
        - Jared Diamond, "The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee"
Among the beguiling cases we meet are a convent girl who found herself changing sex on puberty; infants who, echoing Cyclops, are born with a single eye in the middle of their foreheads; a child discovered to have the remains of 21 foetuses embedded in his brain; a soldier whose heart was on the right-hand side of his body rather than the left; a village of long-lived Croatian dwarfs... it turns out that on average each of us contains 300 potentially harmful mutations: and one in 10 of us has an extra rib. As he says, we are all mutants, but some of us are more mutant than others.
        - Peter Tallack reviews "Mutants" by Armand Marie for "The Times"
The frontier of genetic medicine is a wonderful place to be... But genetic screening... is not necessarily good for you. Would you have a test for dementia in your 20s when the condition may not affect you for another 60 years? Probably not. But if your family medical history is littered with early heart attacks you might as well have a test for predisposition to coronary heart disease.
        - Dr Maurice Gueret, "The Irish Independent"
Our tests indidcate that you're mortal. I'm afraid we'll be unable to offer you insurance.
        - Dr Maurice Gueret, on the attitude of some risk screening companies
Last year, the journalist Malcolm Gladwell conducted a survey of chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies for his book Blink. He discovered that while in the US population 14.5 per cent of all men are 6ft (1.83m) or taller, among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies the proportion is 58 per cent. And while 3.9 per cent of American adults are 6ft 2in or taller, almost a third of the CEOs were that tall.
        - Daniel Finkelstein, "The Times"
Even at its fastest, genetic change is extremely slow. One of the fasest major genetic changes is the increase in the number of people able to use lactose, the sugar present in milk. The highest peak registered is 90 percent, in Scandinavia. This level may have been reached over a period of around ten thousand years, starting from an initial incidence of 1 to 2 percent, or maybe lower. The same time lapse may apply to lightening of skin color and generally to the Scandinavian's virtual loss of skin, eye, and hair pigmentation, starting from original colorings that were perhaps similar to the Lebanese of today.
        - Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, "The Great Human Diasporas"
Fifteen hundred years is ample time in which to lose mutual comprehension. Iceland was colonized by the Norwegians at the end of the ninth century AD. Today's Icelanders, with considerable effort, can understand people from the Scandinavian peninsula, but the Scandinavians hardly understand the Icelanders. A thousand years is the minimum time span for a language to change so much that it becomes incomprehensible.
- Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, "The Great Human Diasporas""There's been a lot of arguing over the last ten years, but it's now more or less agreed that about 80 percent of Britons' genes come from hunter-gatherers who came in immediately after the Ice Age."
        - David Miles, author of "The Tribes of Britain"New research has estimated that up to one in 12 Irish males could be descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish warlord who ruled as high king of Tara between the years 379 and 405 AD. During his tenure, King Niall sired 12 sons, including Eoghain and Conall, after whom the counties Tyrone and Donegal were named. Niall's Y chromsome popped up in one Irishman in eight, with a much higher concentration of royal genes in the north-west region. Royal chromosomes were found in ten percent of men in western and central Scotland and two percent of European descendants in New York. Given historically high Irish emigration, Niall's descendants could run to 2-3 million men worldwide, research at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics in Trinity College Dublin has said.
        - from Dublin's "Metro" newspaper
Ireland's Celtic indigenous population can be traced back to fishermen from Iberia, and particularly from Spain, who arrived about 6,000 years ago, new DNA evidence has revealed. The study has also revealed that Ireland invaded Scotland even before it was invaded by the British. While the first signs of settlement in Ireland can be traced back almost 9,500 years, this new study from a team at Oxford University reveals that those numbers were so small and this movement from Iberia represents the first significant influx of people. DNA analysis conducted by Prof Bryan Sykes has shown that Celts are almost identical in terms of genetic make-up as inhabitants of Spanish coastal areas, whose ancestors migrated north first to Ireland and then to Britain... The fact that the Celts came from Iberia first and not central Europe is also different to what was previously thought. The new study also suggested that well before British invasions of Ireland, settlers in the north of Ireland invaded Scotland and took advantage of the chaos left by the withdrawal of the Roman Empire in about 500AD.
        - from "The Irish Independent"
Britain and Ireland are so thoroughly divided in their histories that there is no single word to refer to the inhabitants of both islands. Historians teach that they are mostly descended from different peoples: the Irish from the Celts, and the English from the Anglo-Saxons who invaded from northern Europe and drove the Celts to the country’s western and northern fringes. But geneticists who have tested DNA throughout the British Isles are edging toward a different conclusion. Many are struck by the overall genetic similarities, leading some to claim that both Britain and Ireland have been inhabited for thousands of years by a single people that have remained in the majority, with only minor additions from later invaders like Celts, Romans, Angles , Saxons, Vikings and Normans... In all, about three-quarters of the ancestors of today’s British and Irish populations arrived between 15,000 and 7,500 years ago, when rising sea levels finally divided Britain and Ireland from the Continent and from one another. As for subsequent invaders, Ireland received the fewest; the invaders’ DNA makes up about 12 percent of the Irish gene pool, Dr. Oppenheimer estimates, but it accounts for 20 percent of the gene pool in Wales, 30 percent in Scotland, and about one-third in eastern and southern England. Still, no single group of invaders is responsible for more than 5 percent of the current gene pool.
        - Nicholas Wade, on the work of Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer, "The New York Times"
There are two reasons why chicken is bland. One is that all meat gets its flavour from fat, and, apart from the skin, the parts of the chicken we eat are low in fat. Chicken breast also has very low levels of the chemical umami, which is associated with the savory taste. But there is one other factor which has given us that staple exclamation of reality survival shows: "It tastes like chicken!" Relieved celebrities have blurted this out after biting into wriggly grubs, barbecued rat and a smorgasbord of other delights. So many other meats taste like chicken, because the chicken taste evolved in a common ancestor of many of today's animal groups. The US evolutionary biologist Joe Staton says that fish have their own distinctive cooked taste because they evolved earliest. Amphibians, which evolved next, were the first creatures to taste like chicken. But the chicken taste really took over with the rise of the dinosaurs, which tasted like chicken on a monumental scale before giving rise to today's birds. Say what you like about the usefulness of Prof Staton's research, but you can't knock his commitment to best practice in food traceability.
        - from "The Irish Independent"
"Space and force pervade language. Many cognitive scientists (including me) have concluded from their research on language that a handful of concepts about places, paths, motions, agency, and causation underlie the literal or figurative meanings of tens of thousands of words and constructions, not only in English but in every other language that has been studied."
- Stephen Pinker, "How The Mind Works""We invent mind-space inside our own heads as well as the heads of others ... we assume these 'spaces' without question. They are a part of what it is to be conscious. Moreover, things that in the physical-behavioural world that do not have a spatial quality are made to have such in consciousness. Otherwise we cannot be conscious of them."- Julian Jaynes "The Origin of Consciousness"Something about the topic of consciousness makes people, like the White Queen in Through The Looking Glass, believe six impossible things before breakfast.- Stephen Pinker, "How The Mind Works""Although the subject continues to be controversial, most authorities now agree that all dogs, from chihuahuas to dobermans are descended from wolves which were tamed in the Near East ten or twelve thousand years ago. It found it's way into North America as far south as Idaho. Given thousands of years to selectively breed mutants that cropped up in their dog colonies, humans have manipulated an almost incredible diversity in this species. And there exist today more than 800 true breeding types worldwide".- Unknown#Meme, n : A unit of cultural transmission. Examples - tunes, ideas, fashions, catch-phrases.
The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes. The avenues for entry and departure are modified to suit local conditions, and strengthened by various artificial devices that enhance fidelity and prolixity of replication: native Chinese minds differ dramatically from native French minds, and literate minds differ from illiterate minds. What memes provide in return to the organisms in which they reside is an incalculable store of advantages - with some Trojan horses thrown in for good measure...
- Daniel Dennett, "Consciousness Explained"A scholar is just a library's way of making another library.Daniel Dennett, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea"There are many other (besides testosterone) behaviour-eliciting hormones fundamental for humen well-being, including estrogen and progesterone in females. The fact that complex behavioural patterns can be triggered by a tiny concentration of moleculas coursing through the bloodstream, and that different animals of the same species generate different amounts of these hormones, is something worth thinking about when it's time to judge such matters as free will, individual responsibility, and law and order.- Carl Sagan, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors""This is the universal property of the human mind. Abstract rules form the core of everything from computer programs to grammars. Our results show that babies' minds are built to look for such rules - even without being told."- Gary Marcus, NYU Psychologist, "The Seattle Times""The newborn infant is now seen to be wired with awesome precision... This marvelous robot will be launched into the world under the care of its parents... But to what extent does the wiring of the neurons, so undeniably encoded in the genes, preordain the directions that social development will follow?"- EO WilsonIf some gambler offered you 10-1 odds that he could produce someone who before your very eyes would proceed to win 10 consecutive coin-tosses using a fair coin, you might be inclined to think this is a good bet. If so, you had better hope the gambler doesnt have 1,204 accomplices ( they dont have to cheat - they can play fair and square). For that is all it takes to form a 10-round tournament that would guarantee that someone would win 10 in a row- Daniel Dennett, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea", p.54,Why we shouldnt be too proud of being the 'pinnacle' of evolution.The Darwinian insight can be turned upside down and grotesquely misused: Voracious robber barons may explain their cutthroat practices by an appeal to Social Darwinism; Nazis and other racists may call on "survival of the fittest" to justify genocide. But Darwin did not make John D. Rockefeller or Adolf Hitler.Greed, the Industrial Revolution, the free enterprise system, and corruption of government by the monied are adequate to explain nineteenth-century capitalism. Ethnocentrism, xenophobia, social hierarchies, the long history of anti-Semitism in Germany, the Versailles Treaty, German child-rearing practices, inflation, and the Depression seem adequate to explain Hitler's rise to power. Very likely these or similar events would have transpired with or without Darwin. And modern Darwinism makes it abundantly clear that many less ruthless traits, some not always admired by robber barons and Fuhrers - altruism, general intelligence, compassion - may be the key to survival.- Carl Sagan, 1995Part of the reason that children are afraid of the dark may be that, in our entire evolutionary history up until just a moment ago, they never slept alone. Instead, they nestled safely, protected by an adult, usually Mum. In the enlightened West we stick them alone in a dark room, say goodnight, and have difficulty understanding why they're sometimes upset. It makes good evolutionary sense for children to have fantasies of scary monsters. In a world stalked by lions & hyenas, such fantasies help prevent defenceless toddlers from wandering too far from their guardians. How can this safety mechanism be effective for a vigorous, curious young animal unless it delivers industrial strength terror? Those who are not afraid of monsters tend not to leave descendants. Eventually, I imagine, over the course of human evolution, almost all children become afraid of monsters.- Carl Sagan, "The Demon Haunted World", p.104Natural selection operates over thousands of generations. For ninety-nine percent of human existence, people lived as foragers in small nomadic bands. Our brains are adapted to that long-vanished way of life, not to brand new agricultural and industrial civilizations. They are not wired to cope with anonymous crowds, schooling, written language, government, police, courts, armies, modern medicine, formal social instiutions, high technology, and other newcomers to the human experience. Since the modern mind is adapted to the Stone Age, not the computer age, there is no need to strain for adaptive explanations of everything we do. Our ancestral environment lacked the instiutions that now entice us to nonadaptive choices, such as religoius orders, adoption agencies, and pharmaceutical companies, so until very recently there was never a selection pressure to resist the enticements. Had the Pleistocene savanna contained trees bearing birth-control pills, we might have evolved to find them as terrifying as a venomous spider.Fears in modern-city dwellers protect us from dangers that no longer exist, and fail to protect us from dangers in the world around us. We ought to be afraid of guns, driving fast, driving without a seatbelt, lighter fluid, and hair dryers near bathtubs, not of snakes and spiders. Public safety officials try to strike fear in the hearts of citizens using everything from statistics to shocking photographs, usually to no avail. Parents scream and punish to deter their children from playing with matches or chasing a ball into the street, but when Chicago schoolchildren were asked what they were most afraid of, they cited lions, tigers and snakes, unlikely hazards in the Windy City.
- Stephen Pinker, "How The Mind Works"One neuroeconomist thinks that our moral code is so ingrained that substituting it with formal regulation can lead to worse behaviour. Professor Paul Zak, from Claremont Graduate University in California, cites a fascinating study in which two daycare centres adopted different approaches with late parents. One centre merely reminded parents that turning up late inconvenienced the teacher, who had to stay behind. The other centre imposed a $3 fine. After several weeks, the “ penalty” centre was reporting more latecomers. The theory is that the fine somehow replaced the social undesirability of inconveniencing the teacher. Zak suggests that penalties and regulations “may crowd out the good behaviour that most people, most of the time, follow”. That doesn’t mean that we can dispense with regulations completely — approximately 2 per cent of the population are sociopaths, and are quite happy to predate if conditions allow. So we need a compromise — a skeleton of formal regulation to stop the sociopaths taking advantage, fleshed out with plenty of self-regulation. Thus, we have a neat scientific explanation of why moderately regulated economies are the most creative and thus the wealthiest. “We can’t rely on people to be angels, but too much enforcement risks inhibiting people’s natural mechanisms,” concludes Zak, who spoke last week at a Cambridge University conference on whether moral values are essential in business. “And any regulations have to reflect our underlying, innate sense of values, otherwise they won’t be followed.” His conclusion might have found favour with Adam Smith, whose view that people act in their own self-interest and that they show sympathy with others, are sometimes thought contradictory.        - Anjana Anhuja, "Adam Smith Was Right", "The Times"
The conventional wisdom in the social sciences is that human nature is simply the imprint of an individual's background and experience. But our cultures are not random collections of arbitrary habits. They are canalized expressions of our instincts. That is why the same themes crop up in all cultures - themes such as family, ritual, bargain, love, hierarchy, friendships, jealousy, group loaylty, and superstition. That is why, for all their superficial differences of language and custom, foreign cultures are still immediately comprehensible at the deeper level of motives, emotions and social habits. Instincts, in a species like the human one, are not immutable genetic programs; they are pre-dispositions to learn. And to believe that human beings have instincts is no more determinist than to believe they are the products of their upbringing.
- Matt Ridley, "The Origins of Virtue"The peoples of the Atlantic rim shared the same fundamental human needs for food, sex, security and transcendence, but they participated in cultures that expressed those needs, and societies and economies that organized the pursuit of them, in strikingly different ways.
        - Fred Anderson, "The Dominion of War"It is the assumption of this book that there is a typical human nature. It is the aim of this book to seek it. Just like a surgeon, a psychiatrist can make all sorts of basic assumptions when a patient lies down upon the couch. He can assume that the patient knows what it means to love, to envy, to trust, to think, to speak, to fear, to smile, to bargain, to covet, to dream, to remember, to sing, to quarrel, to lie. The 'smile' of a baboon is a threat; the smile of a man is a sign of pleasure: it is human nature, the world over.
- Matt Ridley, "The Red Queen : Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature""As an evolutionary biologist, I have learned over the years that most people do not want to see themselves as lumbering robots programmed to ensure the survival of their genes. I don't think they will want to see themselves as digital computers either. To be told by someone with impeccable scientific credentials that they are nothing of the kind can only be pleasing."- John Maynard SmithWhen I was in school, Biology was a subject that seemed as exciting as a clump of cotton wool. It was a dreary exercise in the memorization and regurgitation of apparently unconnected facts. Only later did I learn about evolution and how it transforms biology from that mass of cotton wool into a magnificent tapestry, a tapestry we can contemplate and begin to understand. Some people want to think of humans as the product of a special creation, separate from other living things. I am not among them; I am glad it is not so. I am proud to be part of the riot of nature, to know that the same forces that produced me also produced bees, giant ferns and microbes that live at the bottom of the sea. For me, the knowledge that we evolved is a source of solace and hope. I find it a relief that plagues and cancers and wasp larvae that eat caterpillars alive are the result of the impartial - and comprehensible - forces of evolution rather than the caprices of a deity. More than that, I find that in viewing ourselves as one species out of hundreds of millions, we become more remarkable, not less so. No other animal that I have heard of can live so peaceably in such close quarters with so many individuals that are unrelated. No other animal routinely bothers to help the sick and the dying, or tries to save those hurt in an earthquake or flood. Which is not to say that we are all we might wish to be. But in putting ourselves into our place in nature, in comparing ourselves with other species, we have a real hope of reaching a better understanding, and appreciation, of ourselves.
        - Olivia Judson, in the "New York Times""I have shown that those who deplore Artificial Intelligence are also those who deplore the evolutionary accounts of human mentality: if human minds are non-miraculous products of evolution, then they are, in the requisite sense, artifacts, and all their powers must have an ultimately "mechanical" explanation. We are descended from macros and made of macros, and nothing we can do is beyond the power of huge assemblies of macros."
- Daniel DennettThe usual sniggering examples of animal behaviour were brought in to explain cheating. Funny how the behaviour of shrews and gibbons is never used to explain table manners or road safety or gardening, only sex. Anyway, it was bad Darwinism. Taking the example of a monkey and applying it to yourself misses the point that animal behaviour is made for the benefit of the species, not as an excuse for the individual. Being incapable of sustaining a stable pair and supporting children is really not in the interests of our species. Neither is it really in the best interests of the philanderer.
        - AA Gill, reviewing "Infidelity with Rod Liddle", "The Times"Your sweet little book is a bizarre collection of out-of-context quotations, misquotations, misleading quotations, non sequiturs, errors of fact and just about every other dirty intellectual trick known to man.
        - Tim O’Neill, describing an anti-evolution book by the Jehovah's Witnesses
Creationists reject Darwin's theory of evolution on the grounds that it is "just a theory". This is a valid criticism: evolution is indeed merely "a theory", albeit one with ten billion times more credence than the theory of creationism - although, to be fair, the theory of creationism is more than just a theory. It's also a fairy story. And children love fairy stories, which is presumably why so many creationists are keen to have their whimsical gibberish taught in schools.
        - Charlie Brooker, "The Guardian"
You are inhuman brutes determined to rob us of our spiritual consolations and sweep away the moral foundations of our civilization, and on the other: You are obscurantist ignoramuses who’d like to shut down progress and drag us all back to the 16th century, with kings and priests telling us what to think.
        - John Derbyshire, on some of the angrier positions of the evolution-creationism debate
COGDELL, GA : The Cogdell School Board banned the teaching of the controversial "Theory Of Math" in its schools Monday. "We are simply not confident of this mysterious process by which numbers turn, as if by magic, into other numbers," board member Gus Reese said. "Those mathematicians are free to believe 3 times 4 equals 12, but that dun [sic] give them the right to force it on our children." Under the new ruling, all math textbooks will carry a disclaimer noting that math is only one of many valid theories of number-manipulation.
        - Georgia School Board Bans 'Theory Of Math', from satirical website TheOnion.Com
As the debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools continues, a new controversy over the science curriculum arose Monday in this embattled Midwestern state. Scientists from the Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning are now asserting that the long-held "theory of gravity" is flawed, and they have responded to it with a new theory of Intelligent Falling. "Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, 'God' if you will, is pushing them down," said Reverent Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University.
        - Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity with New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory, "The Onion"
As is so often the case with pieces that appear in the Onion, I honestly could not decide whether this was a clever hoax or not — the arguments were almost exactly as stupid as the real thing.
        - Christopher Hitchens, "MSN Slate"
Scientists like Richard Dawkins have been accused of arrogant intolerance towards creationists. Can a professional student of evolution have a serious debate with creationists? It is hard and when he refuses, he is accused of arrogance. But should a gardener who has spent a lifetime finding the best ways of growing vegetables take seriously someone who says praying to God would be more productive?

No comments: