John Maynard Smith (1 January 1920 – 19 April 2004)

John Maynard Smith (wiki), one of the most influential evolutionary biologists (geneticist) died on this day in 2004. He's regarded by many as one of the greatest and original evolutionary thinkers. And mostly known for his introduction and application of game theory (along with George Price) to the field of evolutionary biology. Also known for his theoretical … Continue reading John Maynard Smith (1 January 1920 – 19 April 2004)

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When ideology trumps biology

Why Evolution Is True

If I was the late Andy Rooney, I’d say “You know what really bothers me? When science shows some facts about nature, and then someone rejects those facts because they’re inconvenient or uncomfortable for their ideology.”

Indeed, when people ignore such inconvenient truths, it not only makes their cause look bad, but can produce palpable harm. Case in point: the damage that the Russian charlatan-agronomist Lysenko did to Soviet agriculture under Stalin. Rejecting both natural selection and modern genetics, Lysenko made all sorts of wild promises about improving Soviet agriculture based on bogus treatment of plants that would supposedly change their genetics. It not only didn’t work, failing to relieve Russia of its chronic famines, but Lyesnko’s Stalin-supported resistance to modern (“Western”) genetics led to the imprisonment and even the execution of really good geneticists and agronomists like Niklolia Vavilov. The ideological embrace of an unevidenced but politically amenable view of science set back Russian…

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A Hero: W. D. Hamilton (1 August 1936 – 7 March 2000)

William Donald Hamilton (wiki) was one of the most influential evolutionary biologists who died on this day (March 7) in 2000.  He revolutionized the field with his 1964 papers The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour (links posted under the Publications section). But that was the beginning, he went on publishing very influential papers on broad range of subjects. W.D. … Continue reading A Hero: W. D. Hamilton (1 August 1936 – 7 March 2000)

What a Sad Loss: Derek Parfit (1942-2017)

On January 1, we lost one of the most influential moral philosophers of 20th century. Derek Parfit was  Emeritus Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford and visiting professor of Philosophy at NYU, Harvard and Rutgers. His book 'Reasons and Persons' claimed to be one of the important works in moral philosophy literature. Parfit on death: … Continue reading What a Sad Loss: Derek Parfit (1942-2017)

Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology — Sean Carroll

  In October I had the honor of visiting the University of Glasgow to give the Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology. These are a series of lectures that date back to 1888, and happen at different Scottish universities: Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and St. Andrews. “Natural theology” is traditionally the discipline that attempts to learn about … Continue reading Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology — Sean Carroll

The evolution of sexual dimorphism in humans: Part 2

Why Evolution Is True

In a post one week ago, “The ideological opposition to biological truth,” I argued that sexual dimorphism for body size (difference between men and women) in humans is most likely explained by sexual selection, and that it also reflects behavioral differences between males and females: males compete for females, and greater size and strength give males an advantage. That competition results from females—in many species, not just ours—being a “scarce” resource for males, since the number of males capable of breeding far exceeds the number of females who cannot breed because they’re tending offspring or in gestation. This disparity can be categorized in two ways:

  • The behavioral operational sex ratio: the ratio of sexually active males to fertilizable females at a given time. This is about 11.7 in humans!
  • The physiological operational sex ratio, the same ratio but for all individuals capable of reproducing (rather than those actually engaged…

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The ideological opposition to biological truth

Why Evolution Is True

One distressing characteristic of the Left, at least as far as science is concerned, is to let our ideology trump scientific data; that is, some of us ignore biological data when it’s inimical to our political preferences. This plays out in several ways: the insistence that race doesn’t exist (and before you accuse me of saying that races do exist, read about what I’ve written here before: the issue is complex), that there are no evolutionarily-based innate (e.g., genetically based) behavioral or psychological differences between ethnic groups, and that there are no such differences, either, between males and females within humans.

These claims are based not on biological data, but on ideological fears of the Left: if we admit of such differences, it could foster racism and sexism.  Thus. any group differences we do observe, whether they reside in psychology, physiology, or morphology, are to be explained on first principle as resulting from culture rather…

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I get pushback on the sexual-selection theory for sexual dimorphism — Why Evolution Is True

Last week I published a post intended to show that the profound sexual dimorphism for human size (and musculature) reflected sexual selection in our ancestors, a form of selection that can be explained only by an evolved difference in behavior: in humans, as in many other species in which females invest more in reproduction than … Continue reading I get pushback on the sexual-selection theory for sexual dimorphism — Why Evolution Is True

The demise of group selection

Why Evolution Is True

The idea that adaptations in organisms result from “group selection” (selection among groups that differentially bud off subgroups, with those having good “group traits” becoming more numerous), rather than from selection among genes themselves, usually within individuals, has undergone a bit of resurgence in popular culture. This is in stark contrast to the views of most evolutionary biologists, who see group selection as a logical possibility, but one that doesn’t easily work in theoretical models and, more important, has explained almost nothing about nature.  In contrast, the gene-centered view of evolution worked out by biologists like W. D. Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and John Maynard Smith, and popularized by Richard Dawkins, has been immensely fruitful.

I’ve posted a lot on the intellectual vacuity of group selection, particularly its failure to explain the evolution of traits like human altruism and cooperation (see, for example, here, here, and here). If…

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Beyond Belief

The series of lectures/debates/talks at Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA. The program is called Beyond Belief and organised by The Science Network (thesciencenetwork.org). Moderated by Roger Bingham. Participating Scientists are from all different fields from physics to chemistry, biology, neuroscience, social sciences and philosophy. Some of the speakers touch on The Templeton Foundation.   Click on … Continue reading Beyond Belief

A visit to the grave of W. D. Hamilton

Why Evolution Is True

If you’re an evolutionary biologist, you’ll know about the work of W. D. Hamilton, and if you’re not I don’t have the space to recount it.  Let me just say that he was one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the twentieth century, who worked out the consequences of “inclusive fitness” (otherwise known as kin selection), its application to biological phenomena like sex ratios, and many other problems of social evolution. Born in 1936, he died way too young—in 2000—from complications of malaria contracted on a trip to Africa while investigating whether AIDS might have come from polio vaccine (he had some bad ideas as well as good ones!).

You can read more about his accomplishments at Wikipedia, or, better yet, order the new biography of Hamilton by Ullica Segerstrale, Nature’s Oracle: A Life of W. D. Hamilton, which comes out in January in the UK and February in…

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