20/20 Hindsight (or, The Basis Of Objective Morality)

Cos it’s coming up on that time of the semester. Another one for my students.

The non-religious viewpoint—that a moral sense evolves—
Raises up some thorny questions, while some others it resolves
The thing about selection that can give a fellow blindsight
Is that all success and failure is revealed to us in hindsight.
Predicting evolution is a right and awful mess,
Cos a change in the environment will influence success;
When selection pressures differ, they result in different features
In morphology, of course, and the behaviors seen in creatures
“Successful” might be bigger, might be smaller, might be smart
From a cuttlefish in hiding to a peacock’s walking art
From the flora in intestines to domesticated cow
Each of these has been successful; only hindsight tells us how.
A selectionist analysis applies to culture, too—
There’s variety apparent in the many things we do,
As we teach them to our children, replication of a sort
Differentially effective, when attempts may come up short.
When we ask the loaded questions, “What is moral? What is good?”
“Are there independent standards, what we shan’t and what we should?”
As the most successful culture, it should fill us with delight—
We will always look behind us, saying what we did was right
What we did was good and moral, and the gods looked down and smiled;
Now it’s thoroughly objective, and we teach to every child
All the Thou shall not’s we followed, every moral, every rule,
As the basis of our culture, in the church and in the school
In the battles over culture, had another party won
Then morality, objectively, is what that group has done.

The moral code of conduct that determines saints and sinners
Is the product of selection, in the history of the winners

The rest of the lesson, in prose, after the jump: [Read more…]

The Most Amazing Thing

If you take a look around while you’re out walking
Just to catalog the things you chance to see
From the beetle at your footstep to the pigeon overhead
To the bracket fungus high up in a tree
You will notice the abundances of nature
It’s astonishing, of course, because it’s true

And the most amazing thing about this earthworm

And the most amazing thing about this kitty

And the most amazing thing about this sea cucumber

And the most amazing thing about this virus

And the most amazing thing about this mushroom

And the most amazing thing about this octopus

And the most amazing thing about this fig tree

And the most amazing thing about this wallaby

And the most amazing thing about this daffodil

And the most amazing thing about this slime mold

And the most amazing thing about this yeast cell

And the most amazing thing about this humpback

And the most amazing thing about this baby

And the most amazing thing about this amoeba

And the most amazing thing about this every living thing

Is that all of it’s related… to you.
[Read more…]

If Cole Porter Were An Evolutionary Psychologist…

It’s a reproductive message
And I’m passing it along
I read it in my DNA
And wrote it in this song
It’s just a reproductive message
A reproductive message to you

It’s an imperative of nature
It’s not just my excuse
There is no greater calling
Than “survive and reproduce”
It’s an imperative of nature
A reproductive message to you

I’m enamored of your phenotype
I’d love to share your genotype
I never thought I’d see no type like you
Your lovely physiology
Has triggered my biology
And now, no simple “golly gee” will do

So now my message is embedded
In meter and in verse
With music as the medium
I guess it could be worse
So long as someone gets embedded…
A reproductive message to you

We all are in the bidness
Of reproductive fitness
But now I fear I’m witnessing the end
Biology is boom or bust
And when it comes to love and lust
No future comes from being just a friend

And that’s the purpose of my singing
You’ve probably deduced
The music is irrelevant
Unless you’ve been seduced
And that’s the purpose of my singing
My reproductive message to you

Sciency stuff after the jump:
[Read more…]

38 Percent

Some say God used evolution
As His “how it’s done” solution,
As a way that they can reconcile the two opposing views
But that reconciliation
Lives in pure imagination
It’s a compromise that’s simply not available to choose
Middle ground, which they’re demanding
Shows a lack of understanding
Intervention means the process wasn’t natural at all
Darwin’s process of selection
Doesn’t need a god’s inspection
Saying “both” is just redundant; clearly, one of them must fall.

I saw a link to this story (about Rep. candidates’ creationist views). In it, the Gallup poll I showed my ignorance of yesterday is brought up:

In its most recent polling on the topic, Gallup found that 40 percent of Americans believe God created humans just as they are today. Another 38 percent said they believe God guided the evolution process. And 16 percent believe human evolution involved pure science

I have somehow lost the link I saw, but it implied that the 38% who believe in a god-guided evolution are as scientific as the 16% who believe in an unguided evolution, with the differences between them philosophical and not scientific. I’m not certain if that is possible in theory, but in practice it is dead wrong. In practice (and by “practice” here, I am simply looking at the comments to the Fox News story linked above), the people (in this admittedly biased sample of convenience) who claim that god guided evolution are just plain wrong about natural selection. It is not that they understand natural selection and thing god guides it, rather it is that they think god took a long time rather than a short time to create things supernaturally.

If god played a role, it was not natural selection. If it was natural selection, god’s role has shrunk to nothingness. Philosophically, it may be true that evolution does not require the absence of a god. It does not eliminate god, it simply renders god superfluous for this particular purpose. Practically, though, I suspect that taking the “god guided it” position may simply identify the people who believe in evolution but do not understand it.

Frankly, it is good that they believe in it. It would be far better, though, if they understood it.

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin (You Were Right)

On the newsstand at the station
There it was, a publication
With a bold prevarication
Where it asked “Was Darwin Wrong?”
Darwin stands among the giants
Of our modern view of science
So, in answer and defiance
I’m replying in this song:

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, take a look around today—
You might recognize the path we took, cos you showed us the way.
We will celebrate your influence with unabashed delight;
Happy Birthday Charles Darwin, you were right!

Variation in the features
Of all sorts of nature’s creatures
Was a sign of God, for preachers,
But you thought you’d take a look
It’s descent and not creation
That explains the population
So we start the celebration
For the guy who wrote the book

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, take a look around today—
You might recognize the path we took, cos you showed us the way.
We will celebrate your influence with unabashed delight;
Happy Birthday Charles Darwin, you were right!

From the South Pacific Islands
To the bonny Scottish Highlands,
In the oceans and the dry lands
We can see the evidence.
From diversity most splendid,
We infer that we descended;
It was you who comprehended
And your impact was immense!

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, take a look around today—
You might recognize the path we took, cos you showed us the way.
We will celebrate your influence with unabashed delight;
Happy Birthday Charles Darwin, you were right!

Well, the theory you created
Has, for decades, been updated,
But it shouldn’t be unstated
That it all began with you
That’s the way with any theory
Though detractors may grow weary
As they try to make folks leery
But they can’t deny it’s true

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, take a look around today—
You might recognize the path we took, cos you showed us the way.
We will celebrate your influence with unabashed delight;
Happy Birthday Charles Darwin, you were right!

Yeah, it’s still a day early here in Cuttletown, but it’s been Darwin Day in Darwin for over 7 hours now!

I think the song is self-explanatory. If anyone finds a tune for it, let me know; I have one, but not one I am happy with.

Ignorance Ain’t Bliss For Me

“I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day”
–Douglas Adams

Think of the things a flagellum would tell ‘em
If only they knew how to open their eyes
The stuff they could see through their glasses surpasses
Their presuppositions, distortions and lies
If all they believe is the bible, they’re liable
To miss a real world that is there to be seen
But gladly the biblical thinkers wear blinkers
And try to decipher the code of the gene

It’s hard to imagine a finer designer
Than blind evolution and millions of years
But this explanation’s (quite oddly) ungodly
And quickly rejected for fanning their fears
They cannot accept evolution’s solutions
And make up a God who’s the cause of it all
Myself, I can’t use that religion, one smidgen
It’s selfish and petty; I can’t think that small

Apology #130 to William Shakespeare

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the spot
Some mussels have to tell the dark from light;
A complex lens, this mollusk it has not—
One could not claim a mussel has true sight.
I have seen pigment cups for eyes in snails
But no such eyes my beauty doth possess—
To see a light’s direction, sans details
Is not the job of her eyes, I confess.
Nor pinhole lens, nor any incomplete
Approximation of her perfect eye;
No trail of clues to offer a concrete
Explanatory theory to apply.
And yet, all data points to one solution—
The eyes I love arose through evolution.

A Lizard Is A Lizard Is A Lizard

A lizard will remain a lizard
Even if it grows a gizzard.

Even if it grows some fur,
A lizard’s what it always were;

A lizard will be of that ilk
Despite evolving glands for milk;

A lizard with an upright stance–
Could that be different? Not a chance!

A lizard standing on two legs,
Who bears live young instead of eggs,

No matter what, you’ll always find
It still belongs to lizardkind.


At last I think I understand
Some crazy things about this land:

The audience for Bill O’Reilly?
Lizards prob’ly rate him highly.

The changing views of John McCain?
The answer’s simple: Lizard Brain.

Paris? Brittney? Cher? Madonna?
Must look hot to some Iguana.

I think I’ll stop here, if you wish–
It’s time to feed my inner fish.

The Evolutionary Biology Valentine’s Day Poem

I suppose it is inevitable, on Valentine’s Day, that we will see scores of stories of “what love is”, citing one branch of science or another, or forgoing the science to bring out the poets. It always bothers me, though, to see some neurotransmitter named as the “cause” of this or that sensation, because it is only a cause in a very narrow proximate fashion. Simply put, neurotransmitter action is not why we feel love, but (at best) how we feel love. We still have to ask “well, why is that particular neurotransmitter released in the presence of my One True Love? What is so special about this person?

In sociobiology,
Why I love you and you love me—
Which anyone can plainly see—
Is mostly in our genes.
No, not the ones you buy in stores,
But what a scientist explores–
I like the way you look in yours,
And you know what that means.

What subtly-coded stimulus
Takes you and me, and makes us “us
And makes us feel ‘twas ever thus?
The list of suspects narrows.
No longer are we all a-shiver
From some Cupid with a quiver
Out of which he might deliver
Fusillades of Eros.

Nor Dopamine, nor Serotonin
Tell us why our hearts are moanin’
Though they serve to help us hone in
On–not why, but how;
The parasympathetic blush,
Adrenaline to bring a rush,
Are how, not why, I’ve got a crush
On you, my darling, now.

But if old Charles Darwin’s right,
The reason that the merest sight
Of you will always give delight
Is…reproductive fitness.
Throughout our species’ family tree,
Producing proper progeny
Is what determined you and me
And Darwin was the witness.

Is thinking that you’re oh so sweet
And how you’ll make my life complete
Some trick to make our gametes meet?
It seems it may be so.
I feel the way I feel today
Because some bit of DNA
Sees your genetics on display
And wants to say “hello.”

But think of this, for what it’s worth:
Millennia before my birth
That DNA had roamed the earth,
In residents thereof;
The neat thing is, it’s really true,
The feeling that I have for you
Although, of course, it feels brand-new
Is truly ageless love.

Of Trees, and Life, and Fun

Clicking in through a post at The Loom, I was led to a wonderfully inspirational site, the Interactive Tree Of Life! For some people, a site like this puts them immediately in mind of Darwin. Others, Linnaeus. Others, Gould. Others, others.

Not me.

Me, I see a site like this and immediately think of Ogden Nash. Naturally.

Nash wrote classic little verses inspired by various animals. Here, for instance, is a site that presents the Nash classics “The Octopus”, “The Panther”, “Centipede”, “The Firefly”, “Ant”, “The Cow”, “The Turtle”, and several others (although, if memory serves, “The Eel” as presented on this site is incomplete). They are wonderful little pieces, unmistakably and marvelously Ogden Nash.

One notes, however, that they are limited to animals. The Tree Of Life site reminds us of just how narrow a focus that really is. So, as I said, I look at that interactive site and wonder what Ogden Nash would have thought of it. I make no pretensions about coming even close to Nash, but I thought I’d take a stab at a few. Each of these is represented on the site by a number and a picture, with links to source articles for information.

My point is not that this is any sort of high art–rather, my point is that the stereotype of the expansive vision of the artist, and the narrow focus of the scientist… are stereotypes, not reality. The tree of life is awe-inspiring, all the more so because it is not a fiction, but well-documented reality.

Oh, yeah, the verses…

Escherichia coli 562; Shigella flexneri 623

Escherichia coli and Shigella flexneri
Are technically different—but really, not very.

Porphyromonas gingivalis 837

Porphyromonas gingivalis,
To tell the honest truth,
Attacks the oral cavity—
The gum, and bone, and tooth;
I did not heed my mother’s word—
She warned me (quote: “Forsooth!”)
But I chose not to brush or floss,
And now my thmile ith looth.

Pyrococcus furiosus 2261

Remember the movie “Some Like It Hot”
With Marilyn, Tony, and Jack?
This archaebacterium’s like that a lot
(But it doesn’t have Marilyn’s rack).
But in sea-water heated to 100 C
It can still make a go at mitosis—
With habits like this, this creature must be
Pyrococcus furiosus.

Oryza sativa 4530

Oryza sativa (the Latin for “rice”)
Is genetically simple, which really is nice;
The genome for corn is some five times as big
And for wheat, roughly forty times larger—you dig?
But rice is a staple for billions, you know,
And the template for much of the grain that we grow.
So we study Oryza, my favorite crop,
To find out the genes behind “snap, crackle, pop!”

Drosophila melanogaster 7227

Geneticists love this little guy—
In my kitchen, he’s a disaster;
We both agree, the dude is fly:
Drosophila melanogaster!

Gallus gallus 9031

Nine-oh-three-one, or Gallus gallus
Comes as quite a shock:
The picture shows (no, not a phallus)
One fantastic cock!

Rattus norvegicus 10116

Rattus norvegicus, Norway Rat,
Is cute as a bug, and that is that.

Cryptosporidium hominis 237895

O Cryptosporidium hominis!
It’s never good to see ya—
For countless anno dominis
You’ve brought us diarrhea!

Wigglesworthia brevipalpis 36870

Wigglesworthia brevipalpis (How I love that name!)
Isn’t as cute as kittens, but it has a claim to fame—
It lives symbiotically, in the gut of the blood-sucking tsetse fly
(You’d think D.I. would eat this up, but they don’t even want to try.)
The tsetse fly carries trypanosomes, which kill both man and cattle;
Without ol’ Wiggly, the flies are sterile, and that is half the battle.
The genome project could help in this, but just you keep in mind,
There is nothing we can do if it’s intelligently designed.