All posts tagged evolution

I’ve written about racism before. I think I’ve made it clear that I don’t think science can justify dividing us into “races.” The similarities among us are too great, and the differences within the “races” are also too great. As I have said, if you see races, you’re racist. Here’s a link to an article that covers the subject more thoroughly, including the admission that racists are not idiots. Not all of them, anyway. They know about the science too, and they know how to bend it to support their bias.

via How Science and Genetics are Reshaping the Race Debate of the 21st Century – The Seattle Star

Over the last decade, there have been hopes that the US has become a post-racial society, free of racial prejudice and discrimination. However, the most recent months indicate the contrary: race remains an incendiary issue. Race and racism are not new issues, but in today’s 21st century Trump-era, discussions about race are distinct from those of the past in that they possess an entirely new dimension: that of genetics and DNA.

Ancestry test kits are the new “it” item—and with their success is the tacit admission of our belief that our DNA can sort us into categories like the “five races:” African, European, Asian, Oceania, and Native American.

If separate racial or ethnic groups actually existed, we would expect to find “trademark” alleles and other genetic features that are characteristic of a single group but not present in any others. However, the 2002 Stanford study found that only 7.4% of over 4000 alleles were specific to one geographical region. Furthermore, even when region-specific alleles did appear, they only occurred in about 1% of the people from that region—hardly enough to be any kind of trademark.

In the biological and social sciences, the consensus is clear: race is a social construct, not a biological attribute.

… the broader public is not convinced of this. After all, if an Asian person looks so different from a European, how could they not be from distinct groups? Even if most scientists reject the concept of “race” as a biological concept, race exists, undeniably, as a social and political concept.

Despite the scientific consensus that humanity is more alike than unlike, the long history of racism is a somber reminder that throughout human history, a mere 0.1% of variation has been sufficient justification for committing all manner of discriminations and atrocities.

Mounting scientific evidence has shown that humans are fundamentally more similar than different from each other. Nonetheless, racism has persisted. Scientific findings are often ignored, or otherwise actively misinterpreted and misused to further racist agendas of extreme political groups.

If you’re interested in a synopsis of the current state of “race” and the science around it, follow the link to the original article.

via How Science and Genetics are Reshaping the Race Debate of the 21st Century – The Seattle Star


Credit Marjaree Mason Center – CC-BY-SA

Here are the ten most viewed posts of 2017, not including permanent site components such as the home page, Downloads, Welcome, etc. Once again it seems I’ve become the Internet gateway for people wondering about spanking their wives.

1. Spanking for Love

What is it with spanking? This post has just over twice as many views as the second one.

2. Bipedal – The Savanna Theory

The interest in this continues. It spikes at the same times each year. School assignments?

3. Ants in the Devil’s Garden

After a big drop-off from #2, people seem to love these orchardist ants.

4. Bipedal – The Aquatic Ape Theory

The curve flattens from here on down. This one is probably spillover from #2.

5. Altocumulus Castellanus

The only Cloud of the Day in the top ten. That surprises me. And I wonder why this one in particular.

6. Collective Nouns

A perennial favorite, and a favorite of mine. Murders and murmurations.

7. Most Unpleasant Sounds

This one also surprises me. A quirky little list.

8. 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just point them at this and not have to deal with them over and over?

9. Milankovitch Cycles – Obliquity

The only top ten post that I actually wrote this year. Part of a demanding series.

10. Microsculpture – The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss

Oh, good. I’m glad the list includes a tribute to beauty and hard work.

So, that was 2017. What are the odds that spanking will be #1 again in 2018?


Get in the comments with your own Blanky McBlankface name. Then download my books. It won’t cost you a thing.

Boaty McBoatface was a mildly interesting cultural phenomenon. When the UK’s National Environment Research Council ran a poll to name their new research vessel in 2016, what began as a joke ended up being the most popular name. (Can you think of any other elections where a joke ended up winning?) With hundreds of thousands of votes for 32,000 suggested names, Boaty McBoatface came out on top by a wide margin, winning 124,109 votes, four times the runner-up. In the end this was too important to go along with the joke and they finally named the ship RSS Sir David Attenborough. That’s a good choice given what Attenborough has done for public awareness of nature and the environment.

This reminds me of a similar situation when a territory in the north of Canada was looking for a name and the internet came up with “Bob.” They also let reason override humor and settled on retaining the title, Northwest Territories. It has other names in local languages including Denendeh and Nunatsiaq in Athabascan and Inuinnaqtun respectively. Both Bob and Boaty show that polls are dandy, but not always the best answer for a serious question.

Now it’s the turn of a soccer club. San Diego, California wants to name its entry into Major League Soccer and opened it up to the public. The most popular name so far is Footy McFootyface with two-thirds of the vote. They got it wrong, by the way. It should be Footy McFootface, no “y,” to keep with the form of Boaty McBoatface. But hey, that’s how the language evolves. Somebody’s not paying attention and a little change sneaks in. Something like “The Olde” becoming “Ye Olde.”

That brings us to Bloggy McBlogface, which I thought would be a good title for this post, given the viral, trendy nature of those other two names. Who knows? Maybe it will generate a little traffic for this quiet little site. If it does, I have two requests for my new visitors: First, do me a favor and download my books. They’re free and unencumbered, and people seem to like them. So download them. Take at least one of every format. Then get all your friends to do the same. And so on. Second, let’s see how many names we can make up in the form of Boaty McBoatface. I started with Bloggy McBlogface, now you come up with something. Get thee to the comments!

Thank You.


Photo by Michael D. Gumert. – CC-BY – No larger image available

Some years ago I published a series of articles about evolution in my local newspaper. It generated some interest and a spate of letters to the editor, and my publisher liked it. There was even a creationist who challenged me to a debate over it. I decided to reproduce it here. This is part three, which I called Walk This Way. See also Part One and Part Two.

The first primates show up in the fossil record about 50-55 million years ago. They are part of the resulting explosion of new species that evolved to fill environmental niches vacated by the non-avian dinosaurs, after they went extinct sixty-five million years ago. Many of the new species are mammals, and we see a mammal-dominated landscape right now. Of the mammals, it is the primates which interest us the most, as they are our ancestors. Primates spread out and evolved into many different species, including lemurs, monkeys and apes. They can be found in most parts of the world, but it was in Africa where the line led to humans.

Between seven and eight million years ago a primate living in Africa split into two species. Such splits normally result when two populations of one species get separated somehow. Something like that happened to the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans. A fossil from that period shows definite signs of an upright, two-legged gait, but the oldest hominin fossil with extensive bipedal adaptations is Ardipithecus ramidus. That was the beginning of the hominin, or human-like primate. Since then it evolved and radiated out into many different hominin species, most of which have gone extinct.

The first evidence of stone tools shows up at least 2.6 million years ago, with some evidence that pre-homo hominins were using them as early as 3.3 million years ago. Undoubtedly they were using tools made of other materials like wood and grass, but only stone can survive long enough for us to find.

Homo erectus is thought to have tamed fire by about 1.8 million years ago. Others put the use of hearths beginning later, at about 800,000 and even only 300,000 years ago. Much of the discussion revolves around whether we were simply burning grasslands to improve hunting, or actually sitting around a hearth cooking food on a regular basis. Those favoring the earlier date cite the shrinking jaw and growing brain of H. erectus as evidence that they were cooking their food. The pinnacle of upright hominids seemed to have been reached, but their brains were only about half the size of ours. Larger than the brains of similar-sized animals, but still too small by our standards.

Increasing brain size was the next big step. By the time we reach the age of Neanderthals, about four hundred thousand years ago, and modern humans at about half that, our brains were as big as they are now.

Since then it’s been a matter of social and technological evolution. The first jewelry shows up about 75-100 thousand years ago. The first garments appear to have been manufactured about 100 thousand years earlier, based on the evolution of body lice. The tool set became extremely sophisticated.

Neanderthals died out about thirty thousand years ago, leaving only a single hominid species on Earth for the first time in millions of years. Our cultural evolution continued to accelerate, as evidenced by sophisticated cave paintings, bringing us to the present state of high civilization.

Let’s hope we’re not due for another mass extinction.


Credit United States Geological Survey – Public Domain – Tap for large original

Some years ago I published a series of articles about evolution in my local newspaper. It generated some interest and a spate of letters to the editor, and my publisher liked it. There was even a creationist who challenged me to a debate over it. I decided to reproduce it here. This is part two, which I called Tough Life. See also Part One and Part Three.

Life started on Earth just about as soon as it could. When the Solar System condensed out of a vast cloud of dust and gas about four and a half billion years ago, Earth was a molten globule. It was kept molten for a few hundred million years by a continuing bombardment of comets and planetoids among the thick debris. Eventually, as fewer collisions occurred, Earth cooled and its crust formed and hardened. It was still so hot that the huge quantity of water delivered by the comets was kept vaporized. Only after about 500 million years had it cooled enough for standing water to form on the surface. Not long after that we begin to see fossils of tiny organisms.

There is a question whether life formed through the evolution of chemistry on this planet, or arose from space-borne particles. Either way it’s been here for almost four billion years. The fact that it took root as soon as it could and has survived for so long both show how tough and persistent life is. It has had to be. There have been at least five major extinctions that we know of in the interim. There were probably more, but we haven’t unearthed the evidence yet. Some of the extinction events extinguished over ninety percent of the species on Earth. Once in a long while everything changes forever.

The first creatures were tiny, simple, single-celled organisms. They didn’t even have a nucleus, their DNA floating freely within the cell. From them evolved more complex forms of life, with DNA in a nucleus and other structures performing ever more complicated tasks. About two and a half billion years ago evolution produced a radical change. A microbe appeared which could use sunlight to synthesize food from water and carbon dioxide. Unfortunately for the existing life forms, the oxygen produced as a byproduct was a deadly poison. Things were changed forever.

About five hundred forty million years ago the abundance of free oxygen provided the energy for another radical change. Multicellular life arrived and proliferated in an explosion of diversity. It was a matter of time before some of it found a way to live on land, away from the competition and sharp teeth in the sea. It wasn’t long, in geological terms, before the land was covered in a riot of life. Evolution filled every niche with a profusion of species, including the majestic dinosaurs. Then the most famous mass extinction happened sixty-five million years ago. Dinosaurs were out and mammals were in.

Life took hold here early and has persisted by evolving and adapting to a state of permanent change.