Category Archives: Evolution

Humans evolved for marathoning?

Here’s an interesting theory that humans evolved for distance running:

Modern humans and their immediate ancestors such as Homo erectus sport several adaptations that make humans, instead of some ferocious, furry, or fleet creature, the animal world’s best distance runners.

Specifically, we developed long, springy tendons in our legs and feet that function like large elastics, storing energy and releasing it with each running stride, reducing the amount of energy it takes to take another step. There are also several adaptations to help keep our bodies stable as we run, such as the way we counterbalance each step with an arm swing, our large butt muscles that hold our upper bodies upright, and an elastic ligament in our neck to help keep our head steady.

Though those adaptations make humans and our immediate ancestors better runners, it is our ability to run in the heat that Lieberman said may have made the real difference in our ability to procure game.
Humans, he said, have several adaptations that help us dump the enormous amounts of heat generated by running. These adaptations include our hairlessness, our ability to sweat, and the fact that we breathe through our mouths when we run, which not only allows us to take bigger breaths, but also helps dump heat.

This ought to settle the long-standing distance running vs. sprinting debate I recall from high school track. We distance runners can just wait for a hot day and then persistence-hunt the sprinters into submission. However, as much as I like this theory, I have to question this statement from its proponent:

“Humans are terrible athletes in terms of power and speed, but we’re phenomenal at slow and steady. We’re the tortoises of the animal kingdom,” Lieberman said.

Um, surely the tortoises are the tortoises of the animal kingdom?

The brilliant unintentional comedy of Conservapedia

I don’t normally go reading crackpot right-wing sites for my own amusement, but Conservapedia is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. In fact, I’d be certain it’s a parody if not for Andrew Schlafly’s presence as a major editor. As the name suggests, Conservapedia is supposed to be a “fair and balanced” (in the Fox News sense) alternative to Wikipedia, which apparently suffers from liberal bias. The editors of Conservapedia have helpfully (and hilariously) listed their grievances against Wikipedia, which include such major offenses as:

1. Wikipedia allows the use of B.C.E. instead of B.C. and C.E. instead of A.D. The dates are based on the birth of Jesus, so why pretend otherwise? Conservapedia is Christian-friendly and exposes the CE deception.


5. Wikipedia often uses foreign spelling of words, even though most English speaking users are American. Look up “Most Favored Nation” on Wikipedia and it automatically converts the spelling to the British spelling “Most Favoured Nation”, even there there are far more American than British users. Look up “Division of labor” on Wikipedia and it automatically converts to the British spelling “Division of labour,” then insists on the British spelling for “specialization” also.[3]. Enter “Hapsburg” (the European ruling family) and Wikipedia automatically changes the spelling to Habsburg, even though the American spelling has always been “Hapsburg”. Within entries British spellings appear in the silliest of places, even when the topic is American. Conservapedia favors American spellings of words.

Now, this project is still fairly new so one doesn’t expect to find extended entries on many topics. Nonetheless I was disappointed to find that many entries are… well, “half-assed” doesn’t quite describe it. It’s more like 1%-assed. A lot of entries consist of a single sentence lifted from an appropriately slanted textbook (sample title: Exploring Creation With Biology). (I want to mention that I hit the “random page” button once to find that example.) And a lot of the more likely fodder for entertainment (such as the entry for evolution) has already been edited by visiting liberals in an attempt to either correct or parody, either of which makes it less funny. Nevertheless, the best examples of teh crazy occur where you don’t expect: these guys object not just to evolution but to relativity, and there are some other gems as well. (I’m linking to people who have quoted them, since the original entries have probably changed by now.) I recommend just clicking random pages until you find something good.
Although the temptation to troll the site is immense, I have to agree with those who say we liberals should leave it alone and see what develops. The intra-wingnut edit wars alone should be worth it.

Is there hope for Arkansas?

Doesn’t look like it:

“Bob” is a geologist and a teacher at a science education institution that serves several Arkansas public school districts.
Teachers at his facility are forbidden to use the “e-word” (evolution) with the kids. They are permitted to use the word “adaptation” but only to refer to a current characteristic of an organism, not as a product of evolutionary change via natural selection. They cannot even use the term “natural selection.”
In his words, “I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are. I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD … but I am NOT to say that these rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old.”

It’s just insane that in the 21st century, young earth creationists are de facto deciding the curriculum in some parts of this country. In this case we should just refer to the Kung Fu Monkey motto: “Everybody who wants to live in the 21st Century over here. Everybody who wants to live in the 1800’s over there. Good. Thanks. Good luck with that.”

ID Whack-a-mole: Nevada

Shellock sends along this story about a guy trying to get anti-evolution provisions into the Nevada constitution. Fortunately, he seems to be one of the less organized species of crackpot:

Las Vegas masonry contractor Steve Brown filed his initiative petition with the secretary of state’s office, and must collect 83,184 signatures by June 20 to get the plan on the November ballot. To amend the Nevada Constitution, he’d have to win voter approval this year and again in the 2008 elections.
Brown said Tuesday that he hopes that volunteers will help him collect the signatures, but at this point has no name-gathering organization set up. A Democrat and member of a nondenominational church, he said he hoped for broad support from people who share his views.

(Emphasis mine.) Presumably some creationist lobbying group could step in and help gather the signatures, but I don’t think even the Discovery Institute is that dumb. I know it’s a bad idea to bet against the stupidity of the American people, but I expect this particular proposal to fizzle out. Actually, given that the movement here consists of one dude, I wonder why it’s getting any press coverage at all. There are plenty of crazy guys on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley whose theories and legal proposals are equally newsworthy.
(I see Pharyngula also has this story.)

ID infects CA

I tend to speak very highly of California, while mocking other, less civilized states, especially if they are below the Mason-Dixon line. However, my beloved state has been known to indulge in abject stupidity on occasion. We made Arnold governor, we continue to allow Rob Schneider to make movies, and now… “intelligent design” has come to California. The new strategy is to claim that it’s “philosophy” rather than science. (They’re half-right, insofar as it is indeed not science.)

In this case, the parents say in their suit that school officials in Lebec — a town of about 1,300 just west of Interstate 5 in Kern County and about 63 miles north of Los Angeles — designed their course as a way of getting around that decision.
At a special meeting of the El Tejon Unified School District on Jan. 1, at which the board approved the new course, “Philosophy of Design,” school Supt. John W. Wight said that he had consulted the school district’s attorneys and that they “had told him that as long as the course was called ‘philosophy,’ ” it could pass legal muster, according to the lawsuit.

I can only hope the courts will correct this rapidly… our public schools are bad enough as it is.

ID and Kuhn

The other day I saw a commenter at Brad DeLong’s blog assert that Intelligent Design was a scientific revolution of the kind described by Thomas Kuhn. Once I stopped laughing, I began to wonder whether this was a common belief among ID proponents.
I guess it is, since Matt Yglesias devotes a long post to rebutting this notion. I usually enjoy Yglesias’ more philosophy-oriented posts, and this one is particularly good. Key paragraph:

Similarly, the brute fact that ID has a lot of problems doesn’t refute it. The problem with ID is that, unlike real revolutionary science, it doesn’t lead to any normal science. There are no ID-based research programs. Nothing has never been accomplished by applying the ID paradigm to a question in biology. All ID’s scholarly (and “scholarly”) proponents do is try to offer half-assed refutations of Darwin. You can quote Kuhn all you like, but you’re not doing revolutionary science unless your purported revolution leads to some normal science. Intelligent design does not.

Bad Science of the Week: Ev Psych

Slate has a nice piece up today pointing out flaws in evolutionary psychology. Long-time readers may remember that ev psych annoys me to no end, as it is usually someone making up some just-so story about life on the savanna to justify preconcieved notions about human behavior. All too often this is in service of some sexist claim or double standard. Hence I always love finding pieces that debunk ev psych. Here’s an excerpt from the Slate article:

EP claims that our minds contain hundreds or thousands of “mental organs” or “modules,” which come with innate information on how to solve particular problems—how to interpret nuanced facial expressions, how to tell when someone’s lying or cheating. These problem-solving modules evolved between 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch. And there the selection story ends. There has not been enough time in the intervening millenia, EP-ers say, for natural selection to have further resculpted our psyches. “Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind,” as Cosmides’ and Tooby’s primer on evolutionary psychology puts it. The way forward for research is to generate hypotheses about the urges that would have been helpful to Stone Age baby-making and then try to test whether these tendencies are widespread today.
What’s wrong with this approach? To begin with, we know very little about the specific adaptive problems faced by our distant forebears. As Buller points out, “We don’t even know the number of species in the genus Homo”—our direct ancestors—”let alone details about the lifestyles led by those species.” This makes it hard to generate good hypotheses. Some EP-ers have suggested looking to modern-day hunter-gatherers as proxies, studying them for clues about our ancestors. But this doesn’t get them far. For instance, in some contemporary African groups, men gather the bulk of the food; in other groups, women do. Which groups are representative of our ancestors? Surely there’s a whole lot of guesswork involved when evolutionary psychologists hypothesize about the human brain’s supposedly formative years.

Now I am aware that a small fraction of ev psych research is actually worthwhile. But the stuff that gets media attention is almost always total bullshit.

Bush, ID, and Republican scientists

There’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Bush’s statement that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools. Now, naturally I agree with the many commenters who have remarked that ID is not a scientific theory, and teaching it will only degrade the state of US science education.
On the other hand, my reaction is less outrage than a sigh of resignation. What, Bush rejected science in favor of an ideological and religious position? The same Bush who opposes stem-cell research, promotes abstinence-only sex education, ignores climate change, and suppresses inconvenient scientific findings by government agencies? We knew we were getting this back in November when Bush won the election. Certainly anyone who voted for Bush should have been prepared to accept this kind of dumbassery as a consequence. And didn’t Bush say that “the jury is still out” on evolution back in, like, 2000?
Of course, we should vigorously oppose attempts to insert ID into actual curricula, but the mere fact that Bush supports it doesn’t exactly seem new.
Matt Yglesias points out that Bush’s view is very widespread among the American public. Some of you may recall a poll result that I blogged last November showing 45% support for young Earth creationism.
Meanwhile, Brad DeLong remarks,

I believe I can now safely say without fear of contradiction that any scientist or academic (outside of fundamentalist seminaries, of course) who is a Republican is in serious need of help: professional help.

I think this is overstating things. I know a number of Republican scientists (in Berkeley, even!) and they are sane and intelligent people—they just vote based on factors other than science and education policy. Specifically, many of them are quite vocally anti-tax, anti-union, etc. and seem to vote predominantly on economic issues. I certainly don’t agree with their economic views, but I can’t blame them for prioritizing those issues over scientific ones.
I’m appalled by Republican science policy, but if the Republicans were a lot better on other issues and the Democrats a lot worse, I could concievably be convinced to vote Republican anyway. But science policy isn’t the only problem—in fact it’s a nice synecdoche for the way the GOP sticks to ideology in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence on nearly every issue. This frightening disconnection from reality is a deal-breaker for me. The Republican scientists that I know, whatever they may think about science policy, disagree about whether there’s a larger pattern of ignoring evidence. I think they’re wrong, but I don’t think they need professional help.