Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War

Somebody (possibly Henson himself) posted Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War over at Kuro5hin in 2006. I had no idea Kuro5hin still existed, and Henson’s paper could use some consideration of group selection, but anyway it’s a worthwhile and controversial read.

It seems to me that if Henson’s basic thesis is right, our current global political situation is not just eerily similar to that of the mid-1930s, it’s actually the same phenomenon – so we better get it under control.

Slate shilling for GMOs

William Saletan, author of Bearing Right, has a lengthy column up on Slate explaining how purposely withholding information from common folks like me in order to fatten the coffers of giant agribusinesses is really, really totally morally OK, because Golden Rice. It makes some good points and provides lots of information, but ultimately reads like a catalog of formal logic errors papered over with pseudo-moralistic posturing.

The people who push GMO labels and GMO-free shopping aren’t informing you or protecting you. They’re using you. They tell food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants to segregate GMOs, and ultimately not to sell them, because people like you won’t buy them. They tell politicians and regulators to label and restrict GMOs because people like you don’t trust the technology. They use your anxiety to justify GMO labels, and then they use GMO labels to justify your anxiety. Keeping you scared is the key to their political and business strategy.

Oh, my support for product labeling, including GMO labeling, is me using people. Because I’m the one with a profit motive? Seriously? People are supposed to believe that generic salarymen somehow magically make money by wanting labeling, and that food mega-producers are living in such abject poverty that they simply can’t afford to print meaningful labels? Really?

Wait, didn’t big corporate food producers also oppose the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, and the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act? Despite the history of food and drug regulation in the USA, we are to believe that they oppose labeling because of their inherent saintliness, and it has nothing to do with their profits? We’re supposed to take seriously claims that 21st century science is too backward and primitive to define a labeling regime that would be of any use?

GMO shills commonly ignore all the regular everyday people who just want informative labeling, and characterize their opposition as being solely composed of loony Californian anti-vaccine anti-GMO crystal worshippers. Saletan goes on from there to paint the completely amoral American food industry (despite many examples of what typical behavior is when regulation is lax) as merely timid, brownbeaten victims whose great flaw is unwillingness to force GMOs into every market.

On one side is an army of quacks and pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science. On the other side are corporate cowards who would rather stick to profitable weed-killing than invest in products that might offend a suspicious public.

After reading the entire article, I was left with the impression that Saletan is saying labels are bad, it’s just too hard to give poor people carrots, never mind that white rice is a cultural shibboleth, Chewbacca is a wookiee, and therefore you don’t need to know anything, and if we label food products so that people can make an informed choice the terrorists win. It’s exactly like global politics… or CRELM toothpaste!

Group dynamics and prototype theories of cognitive neuroscience

Humans are pack animals. They need to gather according to shared traits and then see an enemy of everyone who does not fit.

— Some geeky guy on Slashdot.

Computer scientists are taught classical categorization, which has little correspondence to how our brains actually categorize. The Aristotelian “necessary and sufficient” check-lists of traits, on which we’ve built giant monoliths of computer code (hello, Active Directory) and theory (hello, cladistic phylogeny) are something like the phlogiston theory; a bluntly workable model, that lets you get things done, but also fundamentally wrong, and thus a limitation on what can be understood and predicted.

Research that’s been ongoing since the 1960s or earlier, by people like Eleanor Rosch and Paul Kay, and later George Lakoff and Ronald Langacker, has provided significant amounts of data showing our brains do not assign people to us/them categories because they have a set of traits that we’ve understood and identified. In neurological reality, we assign people to categories based on how closely we think they resemble one or more prototypes, which might be real people (a group leader, typically) or an idealized belief or perception of how men and women should be. The prototype can be fixed (like, say, Jesus) or constantly changing (like, say, a political candidate).

There will always be someone in the group who least resembles the prototype, so there is always a scapegoat available if there’s not enough food or someone needs to take the blame for some unavoidable accident. There may also be anti-prototypes and whoever most resembles that person is less “in the group” than someone who is otherwise the same but lacks these correspondences with the anti-prototypes.

In a strange way this confirms one of Cipolla’s famous “basic laws of human stupidity“; since we’ve evolved a categorization method that mainly serves to quickly identify who gets thrown off the sled when the wolves are catching up, of course there will always be more than enough people to fill that role. If you need a scapegoat, you’ll always be able to identify someone as the stupid person responsible; our brains are biased to work that way.

Dodder interfaces at the mRNA of the host plant

Dodder, the parasitic strangleweed, was already pretty damn interesting. It can find and choose between host plants by smell for one thing. Now I find out it does bidirectional cross-species mRNA transfers.

Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a short-lived carrier mechanism that copies instructions from an organism’s DNA and takes them to a ribosome where those instructions will be used to create and chain together amino acids. Amino acids are basic building blocks of living organisms, so being able to read and write mRNA means being able to direct what gets built – for instance your body could build muscle cells, or blood cells, and in either case your mRNA would provide the patterns for the chemical factory that we call a ribosome.  Dodder can literally hijack the command and control communications that govern a host plant’s growth.

Image by Phil Gates

The scientists who carried out this study were specifically looking for mRNA. They theorize that other sophisticated chemical communications may be going on as well. But this is pretty impressive by itself!

More evidence for group selection

Kinship selection was always an inadequate explanation for animal behavior observed in the natural world. Relying solely on kin selection to explain the evolution of our consensus reality implicitly depends on making sweeping, ridiculous claims that a lot of really obvious phenomena (like fostering and adoption and homosexuality and cross-species altruism and so forth) are just aberrant behaviors, which do not really need to be accommodated or even comprehensively considered by evolutionary biologists.

The experimental colonies proved more successful if their docile-to-aggressive ratios matched that of the naturally occurring control colonies in the same areas, the researchers report online this week in Nature. The results provide an example of group selection, where individual traits evolve according to the needs of a group.

Paywalled article at Nature here, popular treatment at Science here.

2014 IgNobels awarded

Winners were ceremonially announced last night. I haven’t yet watched the awards video, so I do not know if Miss Sweetie-Poo was called into service.

The Medicine Prize was won by Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, for developing a means of treating uncontrollable nosebleeds that involves packing the patient’s nose with bacon.

E. O. Wilson on group selection

It’s two years old, but Smithsonian has a nice interview with E.O.Wilson in which he speaks briefly about the group selection heresy. (Out-takes from that interview here).

The way I define it, group selection operates on the fitness, or lack thereof, of the social interactions in the group. In other words, it’s not simply group versus group in that sense but what actions individuals take that affect the group. And that would of course be communication, division of labor and the ability to read others’ intentions, which leads to cooperation.

When it’s an advantage to communicate or cooperate, those genes that promote it are going to be favored in that group if the group is competing with other groups. It gives them superiority over other groups and the selection proceeds at the group level, even as it continues to proceed at the individual level.

I usually give a simplified version of group selection – “the largest group of mutual altruists always wins” – but people generally don’t understand my point. Wilson, unsurprisingly, has a cleaner explanation.

Within groups, selfish individuals win and between groups, altruistic groups beat groups of selfish individuals.

Yeti DNA

The Beeb is reporting that “abominable snowman” hairs analyzed by a British professor have DNA “identical to that of an ancient polar bear jawbone found in Svalbard, Norway, that dates back to between 40,000 and 120,000 years ago – a time when the polar bear and closely related brown bear were separating as different species.” Pesco is sure to be delighted!

Previous DNA tests on materials said to be from yetis have been less surprising; some hairs were found to be from a Himalayan goat, and a fingerbone stolen from a Tibetan monastery turned out to be human.

Buggy gears

Professor Malcolm Burrows, of the Cambridge Department of Zoology, has described a pair of naturally evolved gears in nymphs of the leafhopper genus Issus. Unfortunately the actual paper’s been paywalled by Science magazine but there’s a ton of coverage on the intarwebs.

“We usually think of gears as something that we see in human designed machinery, but we’ve found that that is only because we didn’t look hard enough,” added co-author Gregory Sutton, now at the University of Bristol.

“These gears are not designed; they are evolved – representing high speed and precision machinery evolved for synchronisation in the animal world.”

Interestingly, the mechanistic gears are only found in the insect’s juvenile – or ‘nymph’ – stages, and are lost in the final transition to adulthood.

Adult leafhoppers have fully developed nervous systems and elytra that let them control their hopping to an incredibly fine degree. The gear structure found in the nymphs is believed to have evolved so that they can make powerful straight-line jumps before they are fully mature. Burrows and Sutton point out that while a geared system is not particularly fault-tolerant – losing any single gear tooth is crippling – such damage can be repaired by nymphs as they transition to their the next instar.

Cambridge has a Natural History Museum, so it must be a great place for a zoologist to work.

Vindicated again.

Dr Ewan Birney, of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, speaking to Fergus Walsh of the BBC, has stated: “The term junk DNA must now be junked. It’s clear from this research that a far bigger part of the genome is biologically active than was previously thought.”

I wonder if the scientists who refused to believe this 20 years ago even remember our many conversations on the subject… probably not.