Well, yes, obviously

The blank slate view, which is the idea that who we are is entirely or predominantly the product of culture and socialization, is very common in left-leaning media. And left-leaning media also happens to provide most of today’s science journalism. It’s kind of ironic, because the convergent evidence coming out of evolutionary psychology, biology, behavioural genetics and neuroscience that falsifies this blank slate view is simply incontrovertible at this point, but most of the media, and even the popular science media keep clinging to it. At times it’s just embarrassing.

Evolution doesn’t really work if we’re blank slates.

Err, yes, this is how humanity works

When they agreed to take part in a unique DNA project, residents of a close-knit Cotswolds village thought they might, at best, discover a far flung relative in an exotic location.

In fact, more than half of participants, who included the pub landlord, a local artist and a farmer, learned they were instead related to each other.

Really, this isn’t all that odd at all:

The closest found was that of Graham Harris and Gloria Warren, 74, who turned out to be third cousins, sharing a great great grandparent as their closest ancestor.

Camilla Bowditch, 68, and Andrew Packe, 66, were revealed to be fourth cousins and had no idea of their genetic link, despite living just minutes away from each other.

Can’t remember what the number is but by the time we’re 16th cousins all of Europe is related, no?

People rarely moved all that far, people couldn’t travel all that far and yet they shagged – thus some measure of shagging the more distant cousins along the way.

We couldn’t actually have a common ancestor and also have diverged in obvious appearance quite so much if this were not true.

Still, lucky they didn’t try this in Norfolk, eh?

How wrong can you be?

Darwin’s second big idea was that Nature is always ruthless: that the strong push out the weak, that compassion and compromise are for cissies whom Nature throws to the wall. Darwin borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from the now forgotten and much discredited philosopher Herbert Spencer. He invented a consolation myth for the selfish class to which he belonged, to persuade them that their neglect of the poor, and the colossal gulf between them and the poor, was the way Nature intended things. He thought his class would outbreed the “savages” (ie the brown peoples of the globe) and the feckless, drunken Irish. Stubbornly, the unfittest survived. Brown, Jewish and Irish people had more babies than the Darwin class. The Darwinians then had to devise the hateful pseudo-science of eugenics, which was a scheme to prevent the poor from breeding.

Having more brats is, in Darwinian terms, being the fittest – having more brats that have brats is in fact the definition of it.

AN Wilson is definitely barking up the wrong tree here.

Err, no

Consider, for instance, the eye. We are familiar with its form from biology textbooks. A lens, a retina, a squishy liquid-filled package. From the octopus to the okapi, it doesn’t differ much. Yet that’s actually very strange because while the octopus, okapi and human share a common ancestor, that ancestor could not see. The eye developed independently, and in precisely the same way.

They didn’t develop in the same way.

Convergent evolution is a thing of course. There are simply some solutions to problems that work and some that don’t. Those that don’t aren’t here. The marsupial wolf and the more normal one we know about have very similar skull and teeth settings. Because being that sort of apex predator requires that sort of jaw and teeth. The torpedo shape of a shark and a dolphin are similar – but note that the back flippers are entirely different, vertical in one, horizontal in the other.

Reality imposes (say, the nature of light, or fluid dynamics) certain spaces in which a solution can be engineered. There are different paths to getting to that solution, that’s convergent evolution.

But the larger claim here, that this means that intelligence will arise no matter what, well, jury’s still out on that one.

The moral is that although evolution’s material changes, its outcomes do not, and to some scientists this has become close to a general rule.


Sounds about the right sort of timing

Stories of black mega-swans in New Zealand have long existed in legends from Moriori people.
Up until now, no direct evidence of these mysterious creatures has ever been found.
Some researchers suggested the legends may refer to the Australian black swan, which can fly over the Tasman Sea.
Now, a new study says it has proven, for the first time, that the elusive black mega-swan of New Zealand existed, and was its own, unique species.
Researchers say the semi-flightless black swan died out in New Zealand after humans first arrived from Polynesia in the 13th Century.

Century or two after the Maori turn up. Given that they ate at least some Moriori populations into extinction why not the birds?

It’s also a nice reminder of that Edenic, Rousseauesque, view of hunter gatherer society. They weren’t living in harmony with nature, they were eating it. They, in fact, ate their way through the megafauna pretty much everywhere they turned up.

That Space X achievement

So, they’ve managed to launch, land and relaunch.

Pretty impressive really.

So, how much does this actually save? The rocket itself is really just an aluminium tube. Not notably expensive.

The engines however, hmm.

But how much is it that they manage to save off a launch cost by being able to reuse?

For I simply have no clue at all. I haven’t a scoobie about the breakdown of costs. Is it 99% for the fuel and the rocket doesn’t matter? Or 70% on he engines so this is a big deal?

Just a thought about race and sub-species

Prompted by that gracile and robust thing in apes in the comments this arvo.

We have two really rather things out there, race in human beings and sub-species in animals. In animals it is right on to insist that we must preserve the sub-species. In humans it is right on to deny that there is even something called race. Yet unless I’ve really missed some important part of science they strike me as being very much the same thing.

So, with animals, tigers and lions can breed but the result, the liger or tigon is rarely – but not never – fertile. So, OK, different species.

The domestic house cat is cross fertile with the European lynx – at least with the Iberian version. This must be so because they ask people with tabbies to not have them near the rare lynx areas. And the Scottish wildcat is closer again. And then we get to what are quite obviously the same species but also different sub-species. Fully and totally cross-fertile but of different colourings perhaps, size, location. And we very definitely find that we’re supposed to be preserving each and every one of these sub-species. It would be an outrage if the Florida panther disappeared despite it being only a swamp dwelling version of the standard panther found all over the Americas.

But when we consider race we get a flat out denial that the concept even exists in humans. And yet a Pygmy and an Eskimo differ by more (while still being cross fertile–not sure anyone has ever tested that pairing but there’s nothing we know which says they aren’t) than many of what we’re told are different sub-species of animal.

Now, it’s not uncommon that different people hold different views on something or other. Nor even different people holding different views on different subjects. But this rough equivalence between race in humans and sub-species in animals looks pretty robust to me. And yet it’s largely the same people who insist that we must preserve the one and then deny that the concept of the other even exists at all.

So, given that you all know more than I do, is there some great gaping hole in my scientific understanding here? Or is it just that people themselves are inconsistent in their beliefs?

Really not got the point about evolution here

So, teach evolution earlier and in more detail. Why not?

But it would be about more than learning why our bodies are the way they are. We would become better, more caring, citizens of Earth if we were reminded each day of our animal heritage. A daily reminder that we must play by the same laws of the universe as any other creature; that we can’t take, take, take from nature and expect infinite reward, because nothing comes from nothing.

For that’s the most significant manner in which we differ from the other products of that shared evolution. We manage that nature, that environment, greatly increasing the productive capacity in a manner that really no other animal does.

Think it though for a moment, we’ve escaped the Malthusian trap. We are all, entirely voluntarily, limiting our reproduction and holding species size well below the available food supply. This is, remarkably, more true the greater the food supply too – a larger food supply is synonymous with higher GDP and fertility is most definitely negatively linked to that.

The whole point about humans is that in this very sense, the abstraction from nature, we don’t play by the same rules as other animals. He’s entirely missed the point.

My reckoning is that there’s definitely life out there

It’s life, but not as we know it. The oldest fossil ever discovered on Earth shows that organisms were thriving 4.2 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought.

The microscopic bacteria, which were smaller than the width of a human hair, were found in rock formations in Quebec, Canada, but would have lived in hot vents in the 140F (60C) oceans which covered the early planet.

The evidence we’re getting is that life turns up just about as soon as it possibly can turn up.

My guess is therefore that the fl in the Drake equation approaches 100%. fi is lower of course as Wolverhampton proves.

Sounds evolutionary sensible

The human brain is predisposed to learn negative stereotypes, according to research that offers clues as to how prejudice emerges and spreads through society.

Finding out that that stripey movement in the grass is actually yummy coloured zebra is interesting, but not a one time finding like finding out that it’s a tiger.

The world’s a sufficiently dangerous place for a shaved ape that a default reaction to anything of “fuck it, I’m outta here” is very sensible indeed in fact.

That it might not work so well in our more complicated and rather safer world is true but evolution is indeed evolution. We ave to start from where we are, not where some might like to pretend we are.

Strip this of the climate change bollocks and it’s quite fascinating

Scientists are attempting to discover if Cornish cod moving north with climate change will be able to understand the accents of their Scouse counterparts.

Experts believe the fish, which make sounds with their swim bladders to attract mates, may have regional accents – and if males cannot “chat up” females who speak a different dialect it could threaten their ability to breed.

There are also concerns that noise pollution from boats and other marine activities could be drowning out the “gossip” cod need to establish territories, raise the alarm and for mating.

Prof Steve Simpson, from the University of Exeter, who is leading the research, said cod had a series of vocalisations, with the ability to change the patterns of their sounds, producing thumps, growls and different frequencies.

They have traditional spawning grounds, making populations quite isolated in reproduction – a process in which males produce a sound to stimulate the females to release their eggs.

He said: “Recordings of American cod are very different to those from their European cousins, so there is a precedent.

“This species is highly vocal with traditional breeding grounds established over hundreds or thousands of years, so the potential for regionalism is there.”

Seriously? Cod not only “talk” to each other, they have regional accents? I knew this was true of whales but cod?

Sounds most unlike ourselves of course. The male has to chat up the female in order to get sex, that bit’s the same, but then he’s expected to bugger off?

We’ve had this discussion before

Scientists have stuck their necks out and decided that the giraffe is not one species, but four.

Until now, only a single species of giraffe made up of several sub-species had been recognised.

But new DNA evidence shows that four distinct species of the animals exist – and they are genetically at least as different as brown and polar bears.

Do they mean brown or grizzlies? For grizzlies and polar bears can (and do) mate and produce fertile offspring. This, by the more archaic standards to which I adhere, means they are one species.

Pygmies and Vikings are distinctly different and yet they’re the one species.

I know that devils aren’t like Taz

They’re vicious little bastards at best. However, I do regard this as good news:

Tasmanian devils are developing an evolutionary response to a deadly transmissible cancer that has wiped out 80% of the species in the past 20 years, a new study has found.

Devil facial tumour disease, one of only three known transmissible cancers, has swept across nearly the entire species’ range of Tasmanian devils. However, populations predicted to be extinct by now continue to persist, albeit in low numbers.

A new genetic study, published in the journal Nature Communications, has now revealed that the mammals are rapidly evolving to defend themselves against it.

Cue the observation from Matt Ridley’s Red Queen. Rather the point of sex is to speed up the mixing of genes so that there’s at least a possibility of out evolving the parasites and diseases. Not that it developed because of that point, but that extant species are descended from those who managed to out evolve those parasites and diseases.

As, say, the Gros Michel banana, a clone, did not……

A brave claim

China on Tuesday launched the world’s first quantum satellite, which will help it establish “hack-proof” communications between space and the ground, state media said, the latest advance in an ambitious space programme.

“In its two-year mission, QUESS is designed to establish ‘hack-proof’ quantum communications by transmitting uncrackable keys from space to the ground,” it said.

“Quantum communication boasts ultra-high security as a quantum photon can neither be separated nor duplicated,” it added. “It is hence impossible to wiretap, intercept or crack the information transmitted through it.”

As it happens one of our readers around here is a professor of quantum. More than a 0.2 professor of it as well. So as to the actual claim we’ll leave it to him to comment.

But my own suspicion is that the opposite will apply. That quantum will be easier to crack. Not, of course, because I know anything about the subject at all but because that’s the way I think the universe works. Yes, this is ludicrous physics but a spy plot would add in quantum entanglement. And Bond sneaks into the Chinese factory where they make quantums to put into satellites (and, obviously, qubits into chips and so on) and makes their supply of quantums ones entangled with ones at home in Bletchely Park. At which point we can read all their communications and calculations. And, as I think this works, they our so we only use this system to mislead them while communicating ourselves by tattooing the shaved heads of chavs. No one would notice anyway, would they?

Either that or we really do develop truly 100% secure comms and find ourselves interrupted by a bloke sitting on a cloud and shouting through his big beard “Get off the line!”.

I think we know what type of movies this will be used for

But a vibrating glove developed by British scientists promises to leave cinemagoers both shaken and stirred.
In tests, researchers found that sending subtle tremors through the hand at the optimum moment of a movie heightens a viewer’s emotions, accentuating the suspense, exuberance or terror that’s being played out on the big screen.

Intensifying, err, suspense, yes, right…..