March 27, 2005

GENES AS GODS:

The evolutionary revolutionary: In the 1970s, Robert Trivers wrote a series of papers that transformed evolutionary biology. Then he all but disappeared. Now he’s back—and ready to rumble. (Drake Bennett, March 27, 2005, Boston Globe)

In the 1970s, [evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers] published five immensely influential papers that braided genetics into behavioral biology, using a gene's-eye view of evolution to explain behaviors from bird warning calls to cuckoldry to sibling rivalry to revenge. According to David Haig, a Harvard professor of biology and a leading genetic theorist, each paper virtually founded a research field. ''Most of my career has been based on exploring the implications of one of them,'' says Haig. ''I don't know of any comparable set of papers.''

Trivers's ideas have rippled out into anthropology, psychology, sociology, medicine, even economics. His work provided the intellectual basis for the then-emergent field of sociobiology (now better known as evolutionary psychology), which sought to challenge our conceptions of family, sex, friendship, and ethics by arguing (controversially) that everything from rape to religion is bred in the bone through the process of evolution. The linguist and Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker calls Trivers ''one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought.'' [...]

Trivers's work grew out of an insight made by the Oxford biologist William D. Hamilton, who died in 2000. In a 1964 paper, Hamilton proposed an elegant solution to a problem that had rankled evolutionary theorists for some time. In a battle of the fittest, why did organisms occasionally do things that benefited others at a cost to themselves? The answer, Hamilton wrote, emerged when one took evolution down to the level of the gene. Individuals were merely vessels for genes, which survived from generation to generation, and it made no difference to the gene which organism it survived in.

According to this logic, the degree to which an organism was likely to sacrifice for another should vary in direct proportion to the degree of relatedness: Humans, for example, would be more likely to share food with a son than a second cousin, and more likely to share with a second cousin than someone wholly unrelated. Hamilton called the concept ''inclusive fitness.''

In 1976, the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins would popularize Hamilton's ideas in his book ''The Selfish Gene.'' But more than anyone else, it was Trivers, then a graduate student, who grasped the profound implications of Hamilton's work. In a way, Trivers's legendary papers of the early 1970s were simply a series of startling applications of its logic.


There's not much left to add to the ridicule of evolutionary biology after what Andrew Ferguson and David Stove did to the notion that it comports with logic, but an example or two from reality can't hurt, Sept. 11 Hero Buried in Israel (AP, 8/05/02):
A computer programmer hailed as a hero for remaining with his quadriplegic friend rather than flee the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center was laid to rest in Israel on Monday.

In an act of final closure, the family of Abraham Zelmanowitz, 55, buried his remains next to his parents at the cemetery overlooking Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, a revered resting place for many religious Jews. [...]

Zelmanowitz, who worked on the 27th floor of the trade center's north tower, refused to leave behind his co-worker of many years, Ed Beyea, who couldn't descend the stairs in his wheelchair. Both died when the tower collapsed.


No Ordinary Joe: Remembering a heroic act that ended in tragedy. (Rick Reilly, July 02, 2003, Sports Illustrated)
Why in creation did Joe Delaney jump into that pit full of water that day?

Why in the world would the AFC's best young running back try to save three drowning boys when he himself couldn't swim?

Nobody -- not his wife, not his mother -- had ever seen him so much as dog-paddle. A year and a half earlier, when he went to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii as the AFC's starting halfback and Rookie of the Year, he never set even a pinkie toe in the ocean or the pool. "Never had," says his wife, Carolyn, who'd known Joe since they were both seven. "In all my years, I never had seen him swim."

So why? Why did the 24-year-old Kansas City Chief try to save three boys he didn't know with a skill he didn't have?

He'd been sitting in the cool shade of a tree on a tar-bubbling afternoon at Chennault Park, a public recreation area in Monroe, La., when he heard voices calling, "Help! Help!" He popped up like a Bobo doll and sprinted toward the pit.

What made Delaney that kind of person? Why did he mow that lonely woman's lawn when he was back home in Haughton, La., rich as he was? Why did he check in on that old man every day he was in town? Why did he show up on the Haughton streets one day with a bag full of new shoes and clothes for kids whose names he'd never heard?

Why could he never think of anything that he wanted for himself? Why didn't he even make a Christmas list? The man never cashed a paycheck in his life. He would throw his checks on top of the TV for his wife. "Don't you want nothing for yourself?" Carolyn would ask Joe.

"Nah," he'd say. "You just take care of you and the girls."

"Nothing?"

"Well, if you could give me a little pocket change for the week, I'd appreciate it."

Why didn't he ask somebody else to help those three kids that day? After all, there were hundreds of people at the park, and not another soul dived into that pit. Nobody but Delaney, one guy who shouldn't have.

The boys in that pit were struggling to stay afloat. They were two brothers -- Harry and LeMarkits Holland, 11 and 10, respectively -- and a cousin, Lancer Perkins, 11. Of course, LeMarkits was always with Harry. He idolized his big brother. A water park adjacent to Chennault was staging a big promotion with free admission that day, and the boys had wandered over to the pit and waded into the water. Like Delaney, they couldn't swim.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 27, 2005 8:09 AM
Comments

This need that Darwinists feel to rescue Darwinism from the triviality into which genetics has condemned it is perfectly understandable. It explains, among other things, why they insist on fighting with the Creationists. But it is hilarious that, in order to rescue it from triviality, they have elevated it into the only perfect system known to man.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 27, 2005 10:18 AM

Are there any Darwinists still around today? Just curious.

Posted by: creeper at March 27, 2005 10:26 AM

I think you guys call yourselves Modern Synthesists now, right? But it's a rather futile attempt to rebrand a dead theory.

Posted by: oj at March 27, 2005 10:35 AM

"But it's a rather futile attempt to rebrand a dead theory."

It's hardly a dead theory, nor is the rebranding in any way recent. The modern synthesis was first established in the 1930s/40s.

I was just asking because David's preceding comment implied that Darwinism excluded genetics, which is of course represented in the modern synthesis, and so it seemed to me that by Darwinists he meant people who adhered to a scientific understanding from approximately a century ago.

It's a lot more than a name change, and if you haven't understood this, it sure explains some of your more mysterious comments in the other thread. I don't know why you guys are so hung up on Darwin in any case.

Posted by: creeper at March 27, 2005 11:12 AM

Creeper: People who think that evolution must explain every facet of life, from hair color through rape to charity, are Darwinists.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 27, 2005 1:44 PM

But these Darwinists of yours then also take genetics on board, don't they? Mr. Trivers sure seems to.

Posted by: creeper at March 27, 2005 1:52 PM

Genetics doesn't do anything to salvage Evolution, it just shows how traits are transmitted from like to like.

Posted by: oj at March 27, 2005 1:57 PM

Genetics doesn't need to 'salvage' this thing you call 'Evolution' and which you need to redefine every so often to suit your purposes. Last time you defined it as "speciation and/or significant morphological change occurring entirely as a function of processes within Nature, with no interference from outside the biosphere", and that, faulty as it may be, doesn't need genetics to 'salvage' it, just to explain aspects of it.

Posted by: creeper at March 27, 2005 2:07 PM

Though I don't think it can 'salvage' that weird 'outside the biosphere' restriction.

Posted by: creeper at March 27, 2005 2:09 PM

Using genetics to bolster Darwinism is like using gravity to bolster Greek cosmology. Genetics supplants Darwinism, so that after the modern discovery of genes, chromosomes, the double helix, etc., Darwinism has nothing useful to say. Just as with the aether, Darwinism deserves a few minutes in a history of science course as a demonstration of how scientists investigating a real phenomenon made up for the lack of the instruments necessary to understand the phenomenon. Both theories accounted for the observable facts, but were found to be amusingly off-track when better instruments were invented.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 27, 2005 2:17 PM

"Genetics supplants Darwinism, so that after the modern discovery of genes, chromosomes, the double helix, etc., Darwinism has nothing useful to say."

It is mostly anti-evolutionists who use the term Darwinism when discussing the scientific understanding of evolution as it stands today. It sometimes serves to confuse them, when they're occasionally surprised to find out that science has moved on a good bit since Darwin.

As for Darwinism not having anything useful to say and being just ancient history that bears no relevance to today's understanding, David, keep in mind that Darwin's theory of natural selection is still contained in the modern synthesis as an accepted mechanism, with its details as to variability of traits, offspring inheriting traits from progenitors etc. filled in by more recent knowledge.

Posted by: creeper at March 27, 2005 3:09 PM

Yes, modern synthesis is genetics, with natural selection grafted on for old time's sake. "Natural selection" is simply an anthropomorphic metaphor for a special case interaction of genetics and the environment.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 27, 2005 3:31 PM

creeper:

"keep in mind that Darwin's theory of natural selection is still contained in the modern synthesis as an accepted mechanism"

Yes, we know:

random mutation + natural selection + genetic
drift = "Stuff happened, take your pick as to why."

Actually, logically, random mutation and natural selection don't sit very well together. It's a little like a 19th medical theorist saying that germ theory explains all disease and then, when he is shown it doesn't, adding something he calls "pathological chaos theory" to the mix and calling it a synthesis.

Posted by: Peter B at March 27, 2005 3:34 PM

What creeper said.

Darwin and Mendel supplied the core framework for comprehending genetics and are rightly recognised for doing so to this day.

If some idiot attempts to inelegantly extend said theories by stretching them to fit the reductive bunkum that is sociobiology, how does that invalidate evolutionary biology as a whole?

Trivers work could simply be questioned by the love and affection foster parents show their adopted children which hardly has a genetic basis.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at March 27, 2005 4:32 PM

"Genetics supplants Darwinism, so that after the modern discovery of genes, chromosomes, the double helix, etc., Darwinism has nothing useful to say."

Columbus still gets credited with discovering America even though the mapping and detailed surveying was undertaken by others.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at March 27, 2005 5:21 PM

America exists.

Posted by: oj at March 27, 2005 5:51 PM

creeper:

Yes, David's wrong. Mere Mendelian genetics never delivers speciation either.

Posted by: oj at March 27, 2005 5:56 PM

Ali: You'd have to look hard and long to find an American school that gives Columbus much credit for discovering America. After all, there were already people here, so how could he have discovered it?

Having said that, I have no problem at all with Darwin being thought of an a level with Mendel. Both had genuine insights based on the information available to them; both gilded the lily a bit; and the work of neither is particularly useful in the day-to-day work of modern science.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 27, 2005 5:59 PM

OJ: Well, you were being perfectly reasonable, but now you're just letting your religious prejudices get in the way of rational thought.

As I've mentioned before, I have my problems with speciation through genetics. In particular, development of two sexes and differences in the number of chromosomes are problematic. The saving grace here is that, although a lot of very unlikely things had to happen, they had a very long time in which to happen. It's equally true that speciation through the introduction (purposeful or not) of mutagenic agents is also very unlikely.

Until something better comes along, I'll stick with genetics.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 27, 2005 6:07 PM

David:

As long as you duly acknowledge it's just a faith--and a dubious one at that--I have no problem with your holding it.

Posted by: oj at March 27, 2005 6:37 PM

All faiths are dubious. That's what makes them faiths.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 27, 2005 9:30 PM

Bingo.

Posted by: oj at March 27, 2005 9:41 PM

I am having a hard time understanding why staying by your friend, in an altruistic way, and getting killed is regarded as a knock against selectionism.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 27, 2005 11:24 PM

Harry:

Obviously you do.

Posted by: oj at March 27, 2005 11:28 PM

"Actually, logically, random mutation and natural selection don't sit very well together."

How so? The random mutation fills in what Darwin was talking about as 'variability of traits'.

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 1:08 AM

Peter B.,

"It's a little like a 19th medical theorist saying that germ theory explains all disease and then, when he is shown it doesn't, adding something he calls "pathological chaos theory" to the mix and calling it a synthesis."

Which part of the modern synthesis would you equate with the "pathological chaos theory" in this scenario?

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 1:21 AM

creeper:

Perhaps I should have said something like "random pathological selection".

Natural evolution is a theory which purports to be comprehensive and self-contained as an explanation of (i)all natural history. It implies some kind of order or following of scientific laws and discernible processes. It is composed of a large number abstract concepts, processes and sub-theories with fancy names invented by the believers. (Mayr's glossary lists about 175). But abstracts have a funny way of becoming concrete in unquestionning or careless minds. There is no such thing as random mutation---it is just a code phrase for "things happen without prediction, purpose, usefulness or direction--without apparent rhyme or reason". It seems to me to be a form of intellectual slight-of-hand for biology to call this a process and grace it with its own abtract nomenclature, thus planting the idea in that there is something real or coherent about it. The net result is to take all those things that natural evolution cannot explain and declare them part of the theory.

This is why Darwinism (or the synthesis if you prefer)is running into the same problems that discredited Freudianism. Many of Freud's insights were very important and obviously had some validity, but he and his disciples weren't content with half-measures and insights. The unstated agenda was scientism. They wanted to construct a self-contained science that replaced religious insight as a comprehensive description of human action and motivation, and so they massaged and stretched the theory (inventing plenty of abstract gobbledygook along the way) to try and describe, classify and explain all aspects of human behaviour. Finally, after enough harm was caused and nonsense spewed, most people had enough and concluded it was crap.

Posted by: Peter B at March 28, 2005 6:10 AM

creeper:

As a follow-up, I would note that while biologists love to talk about random mutation in theory, most of them don't really seem comfortable with it when it comes down to brass tacks, or at least public relations. We have a lot of fun here with "just so" stories, but have you ever seen a report that went anything like this:

Using fossil and DNA evidence, scientists from USC have proven that Tabby, the domestic cat, evolved much earlier than supposed from a common feline ancestor with two tails.

"We were astounded when we looked at the evidence", said Dr. Hans Schmuck of the Institute of The Modern Synthesis. "This is very exciting and puts the evolution of the modern domestic cat back four hundred gazillion years earlier than previously thought. It also shows that we will have to completely re-think our assumptions on how life first arose."

When asked why the ancestor had two tails and shed one, Dr Schmuck said: "Beats me. I couldn't even tell you why they have one of the silly things. It was probably just a random mutation. They might just as well have had six."

Posted by: Peter B at March 28, 2005 8:15 AM

"Both theories accounted for the observable facts, but were found to be amusingly off-track when better instruments were invented."

How would you define the dividing line between this and religion?

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 11:57 AM

creeper:

Ah, you've had your epiphany. There is no difference.

Posted by: oj at March 28, 2005 11:59 AM

Peter,

"Perhaps I should have said something like "random pathological selection"."

Fine, but which part of the modern synthesis would you equate with it in this scenario?

Regarding your second post, I'm a little confused as to what you mean by random mutation. I thought originally you meant something like genetic drift. Now it appears you see this as something, well, different. Do you see an equivalent of the two- or six-tailed cat in the fossil record that today's scientists should issue such a press release for?

Don't get me wrong - it was a very amusing post. I was just wondering if there was a point to it, that's all.

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 12:08 PM

Orrin,

"Ah, you've had your epiphany. There is no difference."

So you see religion as 'amusingly off-track' too? Mkay...

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 12:12 PM

When was religion ever on-track?

Posted by: oj at March 28, 2005 12:27 PM

Good question. You seem fond of religion. Perhaps you have an answer.

While you're at it, in which way do you see religion as amusing?

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 12:29 PM

creeper:

Random mutation attempts to explain the random (i.e. non-repeating) mutations that do not occur in response to environmental or natural imperatives, such as survival. My points were: a)that is an effort to turn "we don't know" into a scientific theory; and b) once the full implications of that are understood, it seals David Cohen's point about the triviality of the whole theory.

Posted by: Peter B at March 28, 2005 12:36 PM

Religion is its own track. Watching you guys try and drive a religious train down the scientific track has been endlessly amusing.

Posted by: oj at March 28, 2005 12:37 PM

Orrin, so you do see a difference between them after all. How would you define it?

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 12:41 PM

Peter B,

I'm still not sure what you're referring to by these random mutations. What exactly do you mean by it? And is there an equivalent of the two- or six-tailed cat in the fossil record?

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 12:43 PM

Yes, there's a difference between science and religion, but none between Evolution and religion.

Posted by: oj at March 28, 2005 12:44 PM

"Watching you guys try and drive a religious train down the scientific track has been endlessly amusing."

What do you mean "us guys"? Isn't that what this whole Intelligent Design thing amounts to - trying to drive the old religious train down the scientific track?

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 12:45 PM

Yes, I count I.D.ers among you.

Posted by: oj at March 28, 2005 12:48 PM

"Yes, there's a difference between science and religion, but none between Evolution and religion."

Evolution with the capital E being "speciation and/or significant morphological change occurring entirely as a function of processes within Nature, with no interference from outside the biosphere"? Maybe so, but that's your call - you made it up, you own it.

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 12:51 PM

"Yes, I count I.D.ers among you."

Whoever "you" are supposed to be in that case.

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 12:54 PM

creeper:

"And is there an equivalent of the two- or six-tailed cat in the fossil record?"

Oh, drat, you caught me out.

Dynamite sense of humour you've got there. I forgot, evolution is no joking matter.

Posted by: Peter B at March 28, 2005 1:10 PM

No, it was worth a good chuckle, but sometimes people convey meaning in parody. Guess not in this case.

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 1:15 PM

Peter:

You should know by now these guys are humorless--creeper thinks I was serious about the hobbit fossils being frauds that had to be destroyed.

Posted by: oj at March 28, 2005 1:39 PM

Somehow Peter's stuff reads funnier... I guess you have to pass it off as a joke now anyway, Orrin, since there's no way to defend it. Makes me wonder how much of your stuff is parody, and how much unintentional humor.

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 1:53 PM

It's all intentional humor.

Posted by: oj at March 28, 2005 2:04 PM

creeper:

"What do you mean by "us guys"?" "What do you mean by random mutation?" "What do you mean by "it"?" "Whoever "you" are supposed to be in that case." "How would you define the dividing line between this and religion?" Etc, etc, etc.

creeper, did you have sex with that woman?

Posted by: Peter B at March 28, 2005 2:05 PM

Peter,

What do you mean by "that woman"? And please define sex.

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 2:09 PM

"It's all intentional humor."

Very funny.

Posted by: creeper at March 28, 2005 2:37 PM

I know.

Posted by: oj at March 28, 2005 3:46 PM

Peter, mutations do not occur in response to anything that has happened previously. They occur for a variety of reasons, some utterly random, such as collisions with cosmic rays.

Others are contingent, in the sense that a mutation of DNA as a result of a mistake in copying during reproduction requires something to have evolved to reproduce, but otherwise they are random in the sense that these events are unpredictable.

It would really, really help if any of you critics would bother to understand what the theory is.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 29, 2005 1:02 AM

Which ones were caused by cosmic rays?

Posted by: oj at March 29, 2005 1:07 AM

Harry: It is extraordinarily unlikely that cosmic rays, or any other exogenous mutagenic event, could result in an expressed viable mutation. Of course, there has been a long time over which it could happen, so we can't say that it's impossible.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 29, 2005 8:07 AM

Who said viable?

The Tay-Sachs mutation is speculated to have resulted from the collision of a cosmic ray and a sperm in a guy in Poland or thereabouts.

It's a rare event, even by the high standards of rarity that an old Universe allows for, in that it is the result of knocking off a single nucleotide.

The mutations that drive evolution that leads to speciation are more often developmental in character.

Cosmic ray contribution to what might be thought of as positive (what you call viable) evolution would more likely be the accumulation of small differences that are not expressed in a significant way but are left available in genomes to be exploited (by selection) during the normal process of recombination.

The number of recombinations is so large that you can rate the likelihood as low as you know numbers to go, as long as not zero, and you start getting hits.

Unlike Tay-Sachs, which leaves a readily identifiable marker, these kinds don't.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 30, 2005 4:44 PM

Harry:

Ah, speculated....

You guys don't even bother pretending anymore, do you?

Posted by: oj at March 30, 2005 4:52 PM
« THE MAKING OF A PRESIDENT: | Main | ONE OF THE FEW REASONS TO VIOLATE THE TIME ZONE RULE: »