Tag Archives: evolution

Strays of Moscow

I higly recommend you read the recent article from FT called ‘Moscow’s stray dogs‘. It not only contains an in-depth study of their habits, behaviours and hierarchy systems, but also explains some of the somewhat baffling sympathy these creatures have managed to evoke in the locals. Below you can find some of the interesting snippets, but for more depth, please read the entire article at FT.

Where did these animals come from? It’s a question Andrei Poyarkov, 56, a biologist specialising in wolves, has dedicated himself to answering. His research focuses on how different environments affect dogs’ behaviour and social organisation. About 30 years ago, he began studying Moscow’s stray dogs. Poyarkov contends that their appearance and behaviour have changed over the decades as they have continuously adapted to the changing face of Russia’s capital. Virtually all the city’s strays were born that way: dumping a pet dog on the streets of Moscow amounts to a near-certain death sentence. Poyarkov reckons fewer than 3 per cent survive.

The metro dog also has uncannily good instincts about people, happily greeting kindly passers by, but slinking down the furthest escalator to avoid the intolerant older women who oversee the metro’s electronic turnstiles.

They also acted differently. Every so often, you would see one waiting on a metro platform. When the train pulled up, the dog would step in, scramble up to lie on a seat or sit on the floor if the carriage was crowded, and then exit a few stops later. There is even a website dedicated to the metro stray (www.metrodog.ru) on which passengers post photos and video clips taken with their mobile phones, documenting the savviest of the pack using the public transport system like any other Muscovite.

The dogs divide into four types, he says, which are determined by their character, how they forage for food, their level of socialisation to people and the ecological niche they inhabit.

Neuronov says there are some 500 strays that live in the metro stations, especially during the colder months, but only about 20 have learned how to ride the trains. This happened gradually, first as a way to broaden their territory. Later, it became a way of life. “Why should they go by foot if they can move around by public transport?” he asks.

The Ultimate Mammalian Tree

mammalst_a4

Ok, yes, this is nerdy, but I can’t help but think this is one of the best infographics I’ve seen on evolution. I think besides those who pursue research and progress in natural sciences, those who make it approachable for laymen deserve just as much if not more applause. The sphere above is a family tree representing the evolution of mammals across 166 mln years. The timeline runs from the centre of the sphere outwards so you can track how and where the various groups split and changed. The family tree was creater by Robin Beck, a Mammalian Systematist as the University of NSW. The intricacy of the tree is quite amazing to the point of it being a little difficult to analyse, but for those interested enough, I’m sure it’ll be a joy anyway. The complete image is available as a free PDF download and to get an even better feel of it, you should watch a video by Dr. Paul Willis from ABC TV in Australia.

Now the thing to find out is whether there are such graphs available for other groups of animals and how long it might be before there is one encompassing all species! I think it would be great if someone could put this graph into a more interactive piece of software so as to make it more fun for those who might actually be able to use it in biology classes for their students.

Beauty and The Beast


The topic for this post arrived into my head when I was people-watching the French on a beach a couple of weeks ago. I could see the perfect bodies, but then also the imperfections of the behaviour. Why has evolution not equalized and unified the physical beauty in human beings with their intellectual capabilities? After all, beauty is a sign of health and fitness and hence of good genetic predispositions while intelligence could be rated as one of the most important survival qualities. If evolution is preoccupied with the enhancement of the human race for the sake of the survival of the fittest, then shouldn’t beauty and IQ not go hand in hand as we breed? In looking for a partner we obviously seek physical attractiveness, but also don’t want to spend too much time around people who will make us fall asleep at dinner, so how has this not worked itself out over the millennia?

Life is usually easier for the beautiful ones, so there is less incentive to succeed through self-development and hard work. For the less beautiful ones, on the other hand, developing intelligence and gaining knowledge is often the only route to score in life both on a professional and a personal level. Hmm, will the world be full of supreme humans in a few centuries provided we don’t destroy the earth beforehand?

Evolution all over again

Just thought I’d link this article to my blog…

http://freedemocracy.blogspot.com/2007/04/david-brooks-age-of-darwin.html

DAVID BROOKS: The Age of Darwin

Jerusalem

Standing on a hill in East Jerusalem, amid the clash of religious and political orthodoxies, stands a musty old museum devoted to human progress. When you walk into the Rockefeller Museum with its old-fashioned display cases crowded with ancient pottery shards and oil lamps, you can begin by looking at the stone tools of early man. Then you proceed room by room through the invention of agriculture and cities, winding up finally with the statues and reliquaries of the medieval era.

What you’re really looking at is a philosophy of history. The museum was set up in 1938, when scholars still spoke confidently of mankind’s upward march from primitive culture to higher civilization. History is portrayed here as a great, unified story, with crucial pivot moments when humanity leapt forward — when people first buried their dead, when they moved from animistic faiths to polytheism, when they learned to cultivate reason and philosophy.

These days, historians hate those kinds of unifying grand narratives, and the idea that history is a march of progress upward to the present. Yet I have to confess, I loved the Rockefeller Museum. Though it’s dense and dry, it rekindled the University of Chicago flame that lingers in every graduate’s soul and got me thinking all sorts of Big Thoughts. I also had the sensation — which I used to get during those sweeping old Western Civ courses — of seeing my own time from the outside, from the vantage point of some ancient spot.

And it occurred to me that while we postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us willy-nilly and is now all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere.

Scarcely a month goes by when Time or Newsweek doesn’t have a cover article on how our genes shape everything from our exercise habits to our moods. Science sections are filled with articles on how brain structure influences things like lust and learning. Neuroscientists debate the existence of God on the best-seller lists, while evolutionary theory reshapes psychology, dieting and literary criticism. Confident and exhilarated, evolutionary theorists believe they have a universal framework to explain human behavior.

Creationists reject the whole business, but they’re like the Greeks who still worshiped Athena while Plato and Aristotle practiced philosophy. The people who set the cultural tone today have coalesced around a shared understanding of humanity and its history that would have astonished people in earlier epochs.

According to this view, human beings, like all other creatures, are machines for passing along genetic code. We are driven primarily by a desire to perpetuate ourselves and our species.

The logic of evolution explains why people vie for status, form groups, fall in love and cherish their young. It holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must also provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don’t enhance the chance of survival.

Human beings, in our current understanding, are jerry-built creatures, in which new, sophisticated faculties are piled on top of primitive earlier ones. Our genes were formed during the vast stretches when people were hunters and gatherers, and we are now only semi-adapted to the age of nuclear weapons and fast food. Furthermore, reason is not separate from emotion and the soul cannot be detached from the electrical and chemical pulses of the body. There isn’t even a single seat of authority in the brain. The mind emerges (somehow) from a complex light show of neural firings without a center or executive. We are tools of mental processes we are not even aware of.

The cosmologies of the societies represented in the Rockefeller Museum looked up toward the transcendent. Their descendants still fight over sacred spots like the Holy of Holies a short walk away. But the evolutionary society is built low to the ground. God may exist and may have set the process in motion, but he’s not active. Evolution doesn’t really lead to anything outside itself. Individuals are predisposed not by innate sinfulness or virtue, but by the epigenetic rules encoded in their cells.

Looking at contemporary America from here in Jerusalem and from the ancient past, it’s clear we’re not a postmodern society anymore. We have a grand narrative that explains behavior and gives shape to history. We have a central cosmology to embrace, argue with or unconsciously submit to.

It’s evolution, baby

‘A New York Times survey last year showed that 55 percent of Americans believed that “God created us in our present form,” while only 13 percent believed that “we evolved from less-advanced life-forms over millions of years, and God did not directly guide this process.” A similar Gallup poll in 1997 placed those numbers at 44-10; in 1991, the numbers were 47-9.’

In the first place, my stance on evolution is that it is not something you should qualify as a belief or a theory, just as the fact that the earth is round shouldn’t.

For those of you who have read the previous post – this is a new one, just with the same title. I decided that the last one was too much about parental choice in education rather than about the evolution vs. intelligent design issue, which is what I wanted to write about in the first place.

So why is it exactly that evolution’s popularity is so low these days? The fact that most scientists worldwide would agree that it is a scientific fact vital to the understanding of the human history, human behaviour, and the natural environment does not seem to matter very much, even today. The right side of the political spectrum has been infected with the theory of intelligent design, or creationism, which is what intelligent design could easily stand for. In the U.S. the creationists have enough leverage in education to have course books emphasize that evolution is just a theory and to always provide the alternative of intelligent design. Well, fair enough, but we’re talking biology courses here.

So why do people find the idea of evolution so unattractive? Are we humans too great to even think about primates as our ancestors – is it our pride that stands in the way? Or, does the fact that evolution contradicts the bible really matter that much today? I mean how many people out there really believe in all the stories and miracles? Another thing that really strikes me is that evolution is such a recent discovery – you would think that with all the great minds that we had in our past, at least one of them would have thought of this solution to our existence.

Also, before Darwin, being atheist must have been a lot less intellectually satisfying. If all everyone knew was that God created us, then well – I guess the only option was to think ‘this can’t be right, but I can’t really do anything but sit and wait until someone comes up with a better explanation’. And then boom, it happened, but things haven’t changed all that much since. I personally find it a little disturbing that people all over the world don’t embrace evolution more. I think if they did, a lot more problematic issues starting with animal treatment to sexuality would be understood and treated in a different manner.