Tag Archives: evolution

the “Scopes Monkey Trial of the 21st Century”

From Bloomberg BNA,

A federal judge said he wanted to avoid having “the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 21st Century,” and ordered an environmental organization to remove claims based on climate change in its lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corp.

Judge Mark Wolf said he did not want the lawsuit to turn into a trial about whether climate change exists, the way the 1925 trial about whether evolution could be taught in Tennessee public schools took up the debate about human origin…

Wolf said he would not dismiss the suit. But he told the environmental organization to amend its 14-count complaint and strip out major references to harm caused by climate change that would take place in 2050 and later.

I hadn’t thought of it before but I think the comparison is perfect! Almost 100 hundred years on from the Scopes trial, a large majority of rational, educated people correctly see that debate as a silly footnote to an ignorant, bygone era. Climate change is similar, except we were never seriously worried about the apes rising up and swamping us (you maniacs!)

But on a more serious note, why is a judge qualified to identify the best planning horizon when considering risk of failure of an industrial facility? That should depend on the expected life of the facility, external threats that might occur (like climate change), likelihood and consequence of failure during that period. If an oil and gas tank farm would tend to be retired or rebuilt every 30 years or so (and I suspect it might), it would make sense to take into account only the risks expected to take place over that time period, so 2050 might actually be a reasonable decision.

the chicken and the egg

This video purports to answer the question of the chicken and the egg once and for all. But really, it’s silly. Of course there were eggs of some sort long before chickens existed. The real question is what came first, the chicken or the chicken egg. And even that might seem obvious – at some point something that was not quite a chicken laid an egg, and the thing that came out was a chicken. But was that egg a chicken egg? You could say that if a chicken came out, it was a chicken egg. But imagine this – if you took an egg laid by a duck, I think we could all agree that would be a duck egg. But now imagine you use some genetic technology to change the duck embryo inside the egg from a duck to a chicken. Now is it a chicken egg or a duck egg. See, it is still ambiguous.

Time Chicken from Nick Black on Vimeo.

disgust and morality

This article claims that our natural disgust at parasites and other gross things is the origin of morality.

A ballooning body of research by Pizarro and others shows that moral judgments are not always the product of careful deliberation. Sometimes we feel an action is wrong even if we can’t point to an injured party. We make snap decisions and then – in the words of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University – ‘construct post-hoc justifications for those feelings’. This intuition, converging lines of research reveal, is informed by disgust, an emotion that most scientists believe evolved to keep us safe from parasites. Marked by cries of ‘Yuck!’ and ‘Ew!’, disgust makes us recoil in horror from faeces, bed bugs, leeches and anything else that might sicken us. Yet sometime deep in our past the same feeling that makes us cringe at touching a dead animal or gag at a rancid odour became embroiled in our most deeply held convictions – from ethics and religious values to political views…

These and related studies raise an obvious question: how have parasites managed to insinuate themselves into our moral code? The wiring scheme of the brain, some scientists believe, holds the key to this mystery. Visceral disgust – that part of you that wants to scream ‘Yuck!’ when you see an overflowing toilet or think about eating cockroaches – typically engages the anterior insula, an ancient part of the brain that governs the vomiting response. Yet the very same part of the brain also fires up in revulsion when subjects are outraged by the cruel or unjust treatment of others. That’s not to say that visceral and moral disgust perfectly overlap in the brain, but they use enough of the same circuitry that the feelings they evoke may sometimes bleed together, warping judgment…

From this point in human social development, it took a bit more rejiggering of the same circuitry to bring our species to a momentous place: we became disgusted by people who behaved immorally. This development, Curtis argues, is central to understanding how we became an extraordinarily social and cooperative species, capable of putting our minds together to solve problems, create new inventions, exploit natural resources with unprecedented efficiency and, ultimately, lay the foundations for civilisation.

This has interesting implications for the idea that there might be a “common morality”, akin to “common sense”, that just naturally applies to all rational people, although rational people might disagree about exactly what is included, just as scientists argue about the nature of reality but agree there is a single reality that can eventually be discovered. This is powerful because we can’t rely on reason alone as a guide to morality – there are sometimes things we could do that would be rational, but almost everyone would agree are wrong. Obvious examples would be if you could benefit yourself by lying, cheating, stealing, or killing, and be sure you could get away with it. In this case your gut tells you this is wrong even though it might be strictly rational, and that will be enough to deter most people. But if that gut sense of common morality is based partly on biological impulses shaped by past conditions that no longer apply, then maybe we should rely more on reason and less on our gut impulses of what is right and wrong.

Unnatural Selection

Amazon description:

Gonorrhea. Bed bugs. Weeds. Salamanders. People. All are evolving, some surprisingly rapidly, in response to our chemical age. In Unnatural Selection, Emily Monosson shows how our drugs, pesticides, and pollution are exerting intense selection pressure on all manner of species. And we humans might not like the result.

Monosson reveals that the very code of life is more fluid than once imagined. When our powerful chemicals put the pressure on to evolve or die, beneficial traits can sweep rapidly through a population. Species with explosive population growth—the bugs, bacteria, and weeds—tend to thrive, while bigger, slower-to-reproduce creatures, like ourselves, are more likely to succumb.

Monosson explores contemporary evolution in all its guises. She examines the species that we are actively trying to beat back, from agricultural pests to life-threatening bacteria, and those that are collateral damage—creatures struggling to adapt to a polluted world. Monosson also presents cutting-edge science on gene expression, showing how environmental stressors are leaving their mark on plants, animals, and possibly humans for generations to come.