Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Friday, July 01, 2005

Permanent posts

I intend to add a page to my website in the near future listing and organising my blog posts of any worth. Please email me with your favourites and suggestions for how to organise them. Ta.

The Counter Creationism Handbook

I just received my complimentary copy of The Counter Creationism Handbook by Mark Isaak. Why did I get a complimentary copy? Because I helped contribute to it, and to the Index to Creationist Claims on which it is based.

No longer need anyone, when faced with a seemingly (to the ill-informed) respectable claim made in defence of creationism or intelligent design, just accept it on face value. Claims made that stretch, misrepresent or simply make up false scientific views in support of creationism can be quickly hunted down, including some of the likely sources from which they came, and be shown to be stretched, misrepresented or false.

Unfortunately there is no paperback copy yet, and the $US65 is a bit steep for the hardback, but once it comes out, it ought to be a best-seller.

Disclaimer: I get no money from this in any way. Buy it because it's good, not because I will add to my meagre academic income.

The turning point in American history

Before I go, I will make a few brief posts.

Historian Robert McElvaine has a nice post here. It pays to have a historian's perspective on things sometimes, and to make predictions about the present.

He says

We find ourselves at a crossroads: Will the United States go the way of large portions the modern (in truth, anti-modern and ante-modern) Islamic World into religious know-nothingism or return to our nation’s Enlightenment roots and progressive thinking?

Well said, sir.

Excuse me while I adjust my location

Well, I'm off the the wilds of North America in a little while, although I will be home in Melbourne for a week first. So I may not have internet access sufficient to blog anything. If I do, and I have something worth saying (in my fevered mind, anyhow), then I shall; if not, then not. I'm sure you'll all cope, dear readers.

The Shall Be Photos, of course, when I get back.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Females are from Venus, males are from... males?

There is a really cool paper just published in Science (links at end).

It transpires there is a fire ant, endemic to French Guiana and New Caledonia (that's a wide distribution - have French colonials carried them from one place to the other? - ah, yes, the paper says so), called Wasmannia auropunctata, which has an odd sexual reproductive system.

Now we are used to ants and other colonial insects having various kinds of haplodiploidy and what have you, but this one is really wacko. Rather than males having a haploid complement of genes or anything, females and males are clones of each other. That's right - the male and female genetic pools are entirely distinct. The females just clone themselves, and the males replace all the female genetic material and essentially parasitise the females as reproductive incubators of their own genes.

This is cool for several reasons - one is that it shows that the haplodiploid system of other ants allows some seriously strange outcomes to evolve - apparently once you have that, this is now evolvable (You Can Get There From Here). The other is that is massively screws the biological species concept. And that is always a good thing.

According to the BSC, a species is a reproductively isolated sexual group. Here is a group. It is reproductively isolated from other ant species. It is also sexual (males need females). But there is no mixing of genetic material (or so the paper says - one wonders if there isn't a little cross contamination). Worker ants, who are sterile, are produced by normal sexual reproduction, though.

Now typically, one explanation of sexual reproduction is that it enables a species to "outrace" parasites and pathogens by making genetic variability too complex for the pathogen/parasite to target. I wonder what happens here?

On the other hand, a longstanding problem with sexual reproduction is that, by definition, it halves the reproductive fitness of both sexes, since only half their genetic complement gets passed on in each progeny. These guys have overcome that.

Gotta love nature - it'll screw with any generalisations you care to make in the end.

Sidenote: I suspect the person for whom the genus Wasmannia is named is Freiderich Wassman, a German entomologist at the turn of the 20thC. Funnily, Wasmann, a strong Catholic, opposed evolution in

Wasmann, E. (1910). Modern Biology and the Theory of Evolution. London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.

Late note: David Quammen has a good explanation and figure of the process here in Nature.

See Report

See Paper

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Liberal principles break out when not in power

I am not, I confess, a left winger. In Australia, this means you are conservative, but I am not a conservative either. The "conservative" parties are led by the Liberal Party of Australia, which was formed after the war by a liberal individualist name of Bob Menzies. Once upon a time, the Liberal Party was, well, liberal.

Now when Menzies retired, the Liberal Party had a crisis of confidence, as old Bob, Ming the Merciless we called him, had ruled with an iron fist for some time - he was the only PM of my childhood. They faffed about for a while until a crucial event in Australian political history occurred. A socialist PM, name of Whitlam, got ousted by what he thought was a compliant Governor General (who stands as viceroy here, because Her Majesty is otherwise occupied most of the time with corgis). In came Malcolm Fraser.

Fraser was absolutely hated by the left. He was all that was bad with the right-wing. He was autocratic (a member of the Squatocracy that formed in the late 19thC), unpopular amongst the young, and just generally the Devil Incarnate.

Fraser lost to a populist socialist (named of Hawke), and retired, to become, suprise surprise, a real liberal. He began to champion democracy in Africa, charitable development NGOs, and freedom of speech and liberty and equality for all. His party of course treated him with embarrassment, as they followed Thatcher and Reagan into our present enlightened state of neo-conservatism (which is neither new, nor conservative).

But I have become more and more impressed by Fraser's principles. He really does have it in him, and I only wish that the art of the possible had allowed him to express it more when he was in a position to do something about it (although he did leave a number of surprisingly liberal legacies that got in under the radar).

Just today, he has attacked the extreme powers open to the Australian intelligence agency, ASIO, in the present anti-terrorism frenzy. And he's right; spot on the money; got it in one. They don't need that freedom to attack terrorism - there are laws sufficient to deal with them when (if?) they come. There is no reason why an unsupervised agency (except by the executive arm of government) should have the right to ignore habeus corpus, rules of evidence, and the presumption of innocence. The Patriot Act in America is bad enough, but what justifies this in Australia, the land of common law and individual freedom?

Oh, I forgot. It means that the present neoconservative government can continue to have control over what is done and said, like they have with the detention of refugees, the deportation of citizens, and the restriction of funding to any academic activity they personally (yes, you, Dr Nelson) don't either like or understand.

It is extremely frustrating to be a liberal democrat in this climate of fear and reactionary politics.

Late note: There are some other complaints and fears being expressed I'm pleased to see. But I bet the reactionary media (i.e., the commercial media) don't see it as a problem...