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, May 19, 2006

Ian McKellen - bigger than Jesus?

Famously, the Beatles lost a lot of customers when John Lennon said that they (the group) were "bigger than Jesus" (meaning they had more fans than Jesus did at that particular moment). British litotes and irony failed to register with Americans, and so there were the famous LP burnings (and damn, aren't the people who kept their original LPs in good order happier now).

Ian McKellen nearly got himself into similar hot water just recently in this interview. From beginning a sentence with "The Bible ought to have a disclaimer that it is fiction" he got to "it takes an act of faith" - great save! Every so often the rest of the English-speaking world has to realise there are gaps in the rhetorical education of Americans...

[From the commenter cm on Pharyngula]

Sorry for the silence, and chimp hybrids

I apologise for the lack of posts. My hindbrain (Powerbook G4 12") was out being serviced, and I (i) was stuck on a PC (*shudder* How do people work on those things?), and (ii) I got busy with other stuff, which may find its way here anyway.

So while I was incommunicado (is anyone ever communicado?) the "news" that humans and chimps were hybridising for several millions of years appeared in the New York Times, presaging an article in Nature. John Hawks has a nice takedown of this paper, although it has been hysterically dealt with by the media.

But what's the big deal? Hybrids occur between greatly differentiated lineages all the time. They aren't, though, common, and while many are sterile like the mule, many are also fertile and can back-breed into one of the parent species. Hawks mentions the lion-tiger crosses in genus Panthera, the tigon and the liger, which are fertile and not, respectively. Tigers (nine species or subspecies) and lions separated about 2 million years ago. Similarly, horse evolution has allowed a considerable amount of cross breeding between species that separated about 4 to 2 million years ago. When such things occur, the resulting process of genes crossing species boundaries is called introgression, and it is more common than we might think.

So why would the discovery, if it is, that genes occasionally cross from chimp to hominid lineages be any more unusual than the horse or Panthera hybrids? Obviously because we are involved. Our evolution is, after all, just ordinary evolution, no matter how unusual our brain size or other phenotypic traits. All species are unique (which is why we call them "species"). And the rate of introgression looks to be pretty rare anyway. It's not like Greatn Grandfather was out for a bit of chimp tail every Saturday night.

Now, some housekeeping. In the near future I will be travelling a fair bit, so I'll be reviving some old posts from the dusty archives. Moreover, this blog is moving. Stay tuned for an announcement. I'll leave this site up indefinitely, but you'll need to revise your RSS feeds and bookmarks when it does.

Monday, May 15, 2006

A guide to Christianity, for sports fans

Via Uncertain Principles via Jim Henley, at last a guide to terms and types of Christianity for those whose idea of an education is reading the Sports Page. In particular, I find the description of fundamentalism enlightening:
The belief that basic elements of play - like passing, ball handling, and defense - are the essential building blocks of a winning basketball team is generally referred to as "fundamentalism." The fundamentalists formulated their doctrine in the 1980s against the showy, heretical play of Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers. Leading fundamentalist institutions include Bob Jones University and Syracuse. Larry Brown's failure to get the Knicks into the playoffs has been seen as a major setback for the cause of fundamentalism.

A question to my readers

Folks, I've been invited to join the Seed Magazine Science Blog site that Pharyngula, Aetiology, Evolgen, Stranger Fruit and others have joined. If it's good enough for PZ Variablename, it has to be good enough for me. But I wonder how this might affect the fifteen readers who aren't part of my family. So please, let me know what you think. Should I? Or shouldn't I?

Later: Well the ayes have it. Once I get things sorted out with Seed, we'll start there. I'll leave this blog up indefinitely, but I'll probably intersperse new posts with old ones for a while. Thanks guys. I had no idea my mother paid so many people to read this blog...