Archive for January, 2008

Human Evolution

Posted: January 23, 2008 in Science

The BBC News has an article reporting that scientists have found evidence to suggest that human evolution is “speeding up.” Scare quotes are used for speeding up in the title of the article for good reason: it’s a reckless remark that can’t be proffered with a straight face. The study on which the article is based

looked specifically at genetic variations called “single nucleotide polymorphisms,” or SNPs. These are single-point mutations, or changes, in the genetic sequence of DNA on chromosomes.

If the mutation is advantageous then it will spread rapidly in the population, along with DNA on either side of the mutation.

It’s unclear to me whether it’s fair to conclude that evidence of a few changes in genetic sequence is tantamount to evolutionary change on the order of species change, which the article never states. Is there a term that describes minor genetic changes without meaningful change in the species? Put another way, isn’t a wide range of genetic variation within the species pretty normal without being evolutionary?

Researchers found evidence of recent selection in 7% of all human genes, including lighter skin and blue eyes in northern Europe and partial resistance to diseases, such as malaria, among some African populations.

This makes me wonder if the usual four mechanisms influencing evolution — natural selection, mutation, random genetic drift, and gene flow — shouldn’t be amended to include cultural election in the case of culturally preferred attributes such as skin type and eye color. (Nope, no suggestion of cultural bias or racial preference there. Move along.)

Also, if I’m not mistaken, when human evolution is discussed by regular folks without specialized training in genetics, the usual context is science fiction and the mode of evolution is either cultural (evolved minds) or biological (evolved bodies) or both. These are wildly divergent from a more narrowly defined science of genetic evolution, which apparently considers even modest change or variation evolutionary.

Without providing suitable context for the science and disclaiming the obvious associations with science fiction, the article invites credulous readers to infer that we’re pointed toward an a evolutionary breakthrough of some sort. What else could “speed up” suggest? The article muddies the waters further with these poorly framed quotes by Steve Jones, a genetics professor at of University College London:

“The general picture that evolution has speeded up in the last 10,000 years as we change from, to put it bluntly, being animals to being humans is clearly true,” he explained. “To suggest it is happening at this instant, I would suggest, is probably wrong.”

“At the moment we are in an evolutionary interval. We are in between two storms. One storm has more or less blown itself out, the storm of farming.”

I won’t bother to comment on the idiotic suggestion that humans aren’t animals. The more immediate problem is timescale. In evolutionary time, 10,000 years is almost nothing. Whether you believe in gradualism or punctuated equilibrium or some blend of both, it typically takes tens of thousands of years to observe changes to the genotype that aren’t merely chromosomal variations. Evolution is happening now, this instant; it’s always happening. But it isn’t instantaneous. Neither is a sunrise. Disclaiming such a thing is absurd to even a novice.

Perhaps it’s worthwhile to remind gentle readers not to get science news from the popular press. Whereas the study may have uncovered something meaningful to a geneticist, it holds almost no value to the general public the way it is reported and veers dangerously toward suggesting things from the realm of science fiction. Science is very good at discovering how things work. It’s not so good at predicting things or even extrapolating trends more than one step beyond the evidence. Take the “suggestion” of human evolution “speeding up” with a sizeable grain of salt.

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Wrong Referees

Posted: January 13, 2008 in Debate, Environment, Science

A recent report by an activist group asserts that 2007 was a year of record-breaking weather, which is evidence of global warming. Even though the measurements are impossible to rebuke, I’m not a scientist, so I’m not in a position to evaluate the science and make an even remotely informed decision whether anthropocentric global warming or climate change exist. But if asked whether I believe global warming exists, then yes, I do. Global warming is difficult to assess, considering that if it exists, it occurs within a fairly narrow temperature band and takes tens and hundreds of thousands of years to observe. That said, it’s much simpler to assess climate change, which can occur within a century’s time. Also, as websites denying global warming demonstrate (here and here and here), the nomenclature is problematical. The popularization of the concept of global warming has adopted a Science for Dummies approach that regrettably mixes terms and concepts rather liberally, enough that it’s pretty effective to dispel claims of global warming on semantics alone. So whether global warming — as popularly understood — exists is difficult to demonstrate for at least two reasons: window of observation and improper nomenclature.

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Gizmodo has a few entries called “Justify Your Gadget,” which are usually aimed at “which technology is best?” rather than “what’s the point?” But they get it right about LCD screens (often multiple screens) installed in cars in the unlikeliest of locations.

The trunk? The trunk lid!? The wheelwell? The front bumper? The side window facing out!? It boggles the mind to think that some joker will want one of these installations, but the cynic in me knows it’s coming. ‘Cause that’s just the way we roll, ya know. People gotta know what the driver is watching, see.

These custom installations (mods, if you’re hip) for display at industry conventions probably aren’t intended to be on the street but are merely to show what’s possible. But some fool is going to want this pointless bling. The whole trend toward making cars into rolling living rooms, with all the entertainment options crammed into a limited though mobile space, is just wrong. I think the push toward tiny, cheap commuter cars is more reasonable, though it remains to be seen whether they will be as disposable as some fear.

The New Yorker has a rather long but interesting article called “Twilight of the Books” about the decline of reading and literacy in the modern world. The article is far reaching in its attempt to summarize information from a number of sources, notably a book by Maryanne Wolf, a professor at Tufts University and director of its Center for Reading and Language Research, titled Proust and the Squid. The article begins with a litany of statistics demonstrating that reading is in decline.

I have to pause here to chide The New Yorker about its own writing, which is the flip side of reading on the literacy coin. Don’t all articles pass over at least two desks: the writer’s and the editor’s?

In January 1994, forty-nine per cent of respondents told the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that they had read a newspaper the day before. In 2006, only forty-three per cent said so, including those who read online. Book sales, meanwhile, have stagnated. The Book Industry Study Group estimates that sales fell from 8.27 books per person in 2001 to 7.93 in 2006. According to the Department of Labor, American households spent an average of a hundred and sixty-three dollars on reading in 1995 and a hundred and twenty-six dollars in 2005. [emphasis added]

Isn’t per cent better as one word: percent? Similarly, shouldn’t a hundred and sixty-three be one hundred sixty-three? Any experienced copy editor should know that we don’t write numbers (or numerals) the way we speak them. We may say one-oh-six, but we don’t write 1o6 (as opposed to 106 — the typographical difference is difficult to see with some fonts, but it’s there). There are lots of other style errors, contractions, and generalized clumsiness, but I’ll move on.

As I read the article, I was struck by the number of times I said to myself, Duh, that’s so obvious it doesn’t bear stating! But I realized that most of the Duh! moments aren’t in fact so obvious to anyone ignorant of even entry-level media theory, which is really what I have. So I’ll reproduce a few noteworthy items with comments. (more…)