Monday, November 29, 2010

New blog

Content on this blog will remain unchanged, but please see my new blog, Signal Selection, for updated posts. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Reproduction, altruism, and evolution

Haplodiploid sex determination operates within the hymenopterans, eusocial insect species used as living proof of Hamilton's theory of kin selection as an explanation for the origin of altruism.  But there are other eusocial species where this is not a factor, most notably termites and mole rats.  Why should these animals be apparently altruistic as well?  I can only conclude that haplodiploid sex determination is an incomplete explanation for eusocial kin selection and altruism.  It is hard to explain what a soldier termite gets from suicidal altruism, autothysis - it can only be that this self sacrificing behavior benefits kin selection all the same.  There are less extreme examples of cooperation, such as cooperative breeding - "if we work together, more offspring will survive to reproduce".  The Handicap principle is another explanation for altruism - "I can afford to be impressively wasteful with my resources, therefore I have better genes than most".  The Handicap principle is altruism as a demonstration of fitness, a signal, and not entirely for its own sake as it is with the soldier termite whose altruism is not a signal, or means to an end, but an end in itself!  "I die that the colony may live."  I think that any animal capable of using altruism as a signal can also use altruism for its own sake, but not vice versa, as signals require a certain level of cognitive ability to decode that not all animals possess.

Let's tackle this from another angle and change our perspective - consider the situation from the level of individual cells.  A multicellular organism such as a human is composed of billions of cells that are "born" and die, most of which are non-reproductive.  So we may easily consider eusocial species to operate as a super-organism, as the single organism and the single insect colony are largely similar.  Kin selection operates within my body just as it does clearly in the insect colony.  If an animal cannot physically reproduce, how is it any different from a non-reproductive cell within my body?  Each, colony and human, operates as the basic unit of sexual reproduction.  E.O. Wilson earlier made this same comparison.  Are my body cells therefore altruistic, just like the soldier termite?  I think so.  This analogy allows me to make the following proposition: altruism as an end in itself is something that primarily occurs within the basic unit of sexual reproduction, whereas altruism as a means to another end (as a signal, or handicap) primarily occurs between units of sexual reproduction.  Although some have suggested that humans are eusocial, that society forms a super-organism, we are no where near the borg-like eusocial insects, the hymenopterans and termites.  Our altruism is at least as well explained by the handicap principle as it is by kin selection.  (Besides, if you're helping someone closely related, is it really altruism?)  But more to the point I think kin selection and the handicap principle are capable of operating in parallel due to the different processes they affect.  Kin selection is natural selection, whereas the handicap principle, so far as altruism is concerned, is sexual selection (a special case of natural selection).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sexual Selection

Over this last weekend I read Tor Norretranders' book The Generous Man: how helping others is the sexiest thing you can do. No, it wasn't because I was browsing the sex/self help section of the library. I found a reference to it after searching for more information about Zahavi and altruism online. (Another book about the evolutionary origins of altruism, The Altruism Equation, was not as engaging.) The main point Tor makes is that Darwin developed two ideas concerning the evolution of species: natural selection and sexual selection. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, but later published The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871. The second part of this second work contains 550 pages about sexual selection. (This is something I really should read.) Zahavi's work a hundred years after Darwin's publication of his ideas spurred a re-examination of the field, which has produced an ever-accelerating number of theories.

Tor makes the case that as humans, we owe what makes us truly unique among species to the process of sexual selection, which operates according to Zahavi's Handicap principle; natural selection alone could never account for humanity. The first part of the book seemed to confirm much of what I already knew. Part of the fun was recognizing the names of scientists that I had come across before and seeing them joined together in common cause to elucidate a single idea between the covers of one book. But the last few chapters contained some interesting predictions. Take this one for example: "Computers and robots will have to learn about hau, about generosity, and in the final analysis, about sex." (p293). Definitely thought provoking!

Tor is a Danish author of books about science and its role in society.  The Generous Man was published in 2002 and later translated into English in 2005 after enjoying success in Europe. He writes in an easy to read and engaging style. The book is basically an homage to Zahavi's Handicap principle as it applies to sexual selection and altruism. And that is what makes it GREAT! He applies the concept to ideas that even Zahavi might be reluctant to pair it with, but that is all part of the fun.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Amotz Zahavi

I haven't forgotten the importance of Amotz Zahavi's contribution to our understanding of evolution, which I only mentioned in passing earlier.  Evolutionary concepts are fascinating when one realizes the powerful and wide ranging implications they have.  Take for example Gould's paper "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme" (1979) or Trivers paper "Parent-Offspring Conflict" (1974).  To these add Zahavi's "Mate selection - a selection for a handicap" (1975). 

Amotz Zahavi elaborates this theory even more in his book The Handicap Principle: a missing piece of Darwin's puzzle.  Specifically in chapter 12 "Babblers, competition for prestige, and the evolution of altruism", he demonstrates that when an animal acts altruistically, it handicaps itself - assumes a risk or endures a sacrifice - not primarily to benefit its kin or social group but to increase its own prestige within the group and thus signal its status (and fitness) as a partner or rival.  "Altruistic acts obviously demonstrate - and are perceived as demonstrating - the abilities of those who perform them." (p225) 

What does this say about religion, which may be a handicap itself?  Or Aristotle's virtue of magnanimity, or Guy Laliberté (known for throwing the best parties), or romantic overtures (whose goal is often copulation)?  I think it sheds light on all of them.

It is interesting to note that the two competing theories explaining the origin of altruism are Zahavi's Handicap principle, and W. D. Hamilton's "kin selection" theory.  It appears that Hamilton's theory is more popular among evolutionary biologists, although it is not without problems.  The subject remains unresolved.  Here is a video of Arabian babblers, and a lecture by Zahavi. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The events of 9/11 forced Ayaan Hirsi Ali to examine her beliefs; in May 2002 she realized that she was atheist (Infidel, chap. 14, Leaving God) and that in practice she had left God years ago.  If one assumes, with Hirsi Ali, that the goals of religion are "to be a better and more generous person", then the motivation toward atheism comes from the realization that the methods of religion are not suited to promoting this worthwhile goal. 

There has been some disagreement on the origins of what has come to be called New Atheism, the greater visibility of atheism in popular culture and the media with notable authors such as Dawkins and Hitchens, that began around 2004.  Richard Norman is quoted by Caspar Melville, of the New Humanist, as saying that the impulse began with 9/11.  Melville's article, which seems to have arisen out of Melville's own inability to discern any positive direction from new atheism, has been criticized by several bloggers.  This point in particular was dissected by Aratina.  After reading Hirsi Ali, I'd like to weigh in as well with an entry of my own. 

Did it begin with 9/11?  Undoubtably 9/11 had a very polarizing effect.  For some authors such as Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris, it was a clarion call to defend reason and a confirmation of their own stance on religion (though many other authors needed no such confirmation at all).  The question can put another way: Without 9/11, would new atheism exist?  I think that it would, because 9/11 is not an isolated example of the negative impact religion has had on society.  If one were to cull all references to 9/11 from the books and other works of the new atheists and their supporters, you would only have removed a very small fraction of the material.  Unfortunately, the grievances against religion are far more numerous than a single event in 2001.  (Is it worth mentioning that the destruction of the twin towers of the world trade center in New York was foreshadowed by the destruction of the twin Buddha statues at Bamiyan?)  Additionally, each of the authors built upon the success and awareness raised by the others.  As the books came out in relatively quick succession they were able to ride the same wave, pushed a little higher by the publication of each book. 

I would miss an important aspect of new atheism if I didn't mention that it is defined not just by the popularity of the recent authors, but notably that a significant portion of these authors place emphasis on a scientific perspective, where the question of God is treated as a testable hypothesis (that fails), and demonstrating the importance of evolutionary thought in better at explaining the origin and nature of humans.  In this regard, Norman is right in that it does appear to address Christian fundamentalism, which denies science preferring instead a literal interpretation of the Bible.  The first Age of Enlightenment was built upon the realization that evidence and the methods of science could lead to a surer foundation for knowledge and progress, so it is encouraging to see these tools employed by the new atheists in the service of reason again.  Another point is that new atheism wouldn't even exist as we know it without the online community of nonbelievers that has come together and flourished as organically as the Internet itself (see Aratina's post for a more full description of this aspect).

As I mentioned much earlier, I denied my religious belief in May of 2001.  For myself and many former believers, it was a significant decision not made lightly, and I recorded the date and exact reasoning that led to it.  This was obviously four months before September 2001, so I had no knowledge of what would happen later that year.  It is interesting to note for myself, that my infidelity with religion predates Hirsi Ali's, which became famous several years ago after the publication of her book, Infidel.  I do not know anyone whose views became atheist after 9/11 that wouldn't have come to this conclusion of their own accord without any additional impulse from that tragic event.  Incidentally, reading Hirsi Ali has been a pleasure, she is capable of conveying a wide range of emotion- an epilogue to her most recent book Nomad is titled “Letter to my unborn daughter” and it is very moving.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I have a 20 gallon aquarium with low light loving bushy plants, driftwood, and active rosy barbs and Buenos Aires tetras.  I had considered putting other fish into the mix, but these small colorful, active, pugnacious (they say, semi-aggressive), archetypal, little fish are very fun to watch.  I also have a 10 gallon tank with a wakin goldfish and a Shubunkin goldfish, “rescued” from the feeder fish tank at the petshop.  I had a wakin goldfish in the past (as well as rosy barbs).  Both tanks are at a nice equilibrium right now, but if I find another wakin goldfish for less than a dime and a nickel, the temptation to buy may be too great. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christopher Hitchens

After reading Dawkins, I was eager to scan a few more books from popular new atheist literature.  I had borrowed from the library a copy of Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist, and God is Not Great.  My joy at reading these inspiring works is mixed with the sad realization that they aren't being more widely read and discussed.  History may well record these authors as positioned near the beginning of a new enlightenment, emerging as it does from unprecedented levels of ignorance in contemporary society.  I only read Hitchens' introduction to The Portable Atheist and a few of the authors included in this compilation, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (whose face is piercingly beautiful and whose words gave me goose bumps).  In God is Not Great I read just five chapters (I really should read the rest of the book sometime).  Now, whereas Dawkins shines forth in his writing through his intimate knowledge of science, Hitchens is clearly a writer par excellence capable of painting images on the canvas of the mind.  His face as seen in photographs often appears to carry a dour expression, but like Dawkins, his writing reveals a much more charitable personality than you'd otherwise expect. 

Hitchens explains that the term atheist is very useful, if only because we are emerging from a social past in which theism has been used to control all aspects of life.  (The Portable Atheist, xx)  Perhaps no author makes the actual extent to which this control went more clear than Sam Harris in The End of Faith.  His descriptions of the atrocities are worse than anything I can imagine.  The positive view of atheism, to which I wholeheartedly subscribe, is well explained by Hichens:  “...atheists have always argued that this world is all that we have, and that our duty is to one another to make the very most and best of it.”  (PA, xvi)

Delving into the nuances of the atheist stance, Hitchens writes:  “And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers.  Our belief is not a belief.  Our principles are not a faith.  We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason.  We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”  (GNG, p.5)

I think one underlying fear held by religious people (correct me if I am wrong religious people out there!) is that all atheists would be happy to eliminate religion and relegate it to the dustbin of history.  But near the beginning of each of Hitchens' books that I read, he is careful to present his views on this:  “...religion is so much a part of our human or animal nature that it is actually ineradicable.  This, for what it may be worth, is my own view.” (PA, xxiii)  “Religious faith is, precisely because we are still evolving creatures, ineradicable.  It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.  For this reason I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could.” (GNG, 12)  Indeed, why prohibit what comes naturally?  Leaving religion should be an informed personal decision, just as entering it should be.  Hitchens' also addresses a concern much more relevant to me, and probably many religious folk as well, that without belief life loses its “awareness of the numinous or the transcendent”.  But by squarely looking at the facts of existence- that we are merely animals with organs that will fail all too early within our short lifespans- I take comfort.  The facts allow me a rational basis for effective action.  False notions will do nothing for me.  “There can be no serious ethical position based on denial or a refusal to look the facts squarely in the face.”  (PA, xxii)  Two excellent books by Hitchens, highly recommended (if only for the content which I reviewed).