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kottke.org posts about evolution

Global warming + evolution = species explosion!!!

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2007

Global warming + evolution = species explosion!!!

Three of the candidates in the recent

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2007

Three of the candidates in the recent Republican presidential debate said they don’t believe in evolution: Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Hard to believe that this is 2007 and not 1807. John McCain said he did believe in evolution but that “I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also”.

Update: An earlier version of this post wrongly stated that Mitt Romney raised his hand when asked about disbelieving evolution…Tom Tancredo was the third person. (thx to several who wrote in about this)

Humans are the animal world’s best distance

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2007

Humans are the animal world’s best distance runners…we can run long distances relatively fast without overheating. “Once humans start running, it only takes a bit more energy for us to run faster, Lieberman said. Other animals, on the other hand, expend a lot more energy as they speed up, particularly when they switch from a trot to a gallop, which most animals cannot maintain over long distances.” (via beebo)

Men look at crotches

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2007

Among the many interesting things in Online Journalism Review’s article about using eyetracking to increase the effectiveness of news article design is this odd result:

Always look crotch

Although both men and women look at the image of George Brett when directed to find out information about his sport and position, men tend to focus on private anatomy as well as the face. For the women, the face is the only place they viewed. Coyne adds that this difference doesn’t just occur with images of people. Men tend to fixate more on areas of private anatomy on animals as well, as evidenced when users were directed to browse the American Kennel Club site.

That is absolutely fascinating. I’d love to hear an evolutionary biologist’s take on why that is.

I’m also heartened by the article’s first featured finding: that tighter writing, more white space, and jettisoning unnecessary imagery helps readers read faster and retain more of what they’ve read.

Why do we believe in God?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2007

The cover story in this week’s NY Times Magazine is called Darwin’s God and covers, from an evolutionary biology standpoint, why people believe in God. Most scientists studying the matter believe that humans have a built-in mechanism for religious belief. For instance, anthropologist Scott Atran sometimes conducts an intriguing experiment with his students:

His research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology, and sometimes he presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. “If you have negative sentiments toward religion,” he tells them, “the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God, but in this demonstration they act as if they believe in something. Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driver’s license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will. If they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?

Or rather, why are they afraid? One possible reason is that humans are conditioned to be on the lookout for “agents” and we tend to find them even when they’re not there:

So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.

What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. “The most central concepts in religions are related to agents,” Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, “people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world.”

Another reason for the instinctive religious impulse may be that people are able to put themselves in other peoples’ minds, to think about how another person might be feeling or thinking:

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads.

The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others’, that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of “Descartes’ Baby,” published in 2004, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God.

There’s lots more in the article…it’s well worth a read.

Nicholas Kristof’s “Modest Proposal for a Truce

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2006

Nicholas Kristof’s “Modest Proposal for a Truce on Religion,” and responses by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. “Mr. Kristof has simply become acclimatized to the convention that you can criticize anything else but you mustn’t criticize religion.”

Interesting hypothesis: young Hollywood starlets are dieting

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2006

Interesting hypothesis: young Hollywood starlets are dieting to retain exaggerated child-like features that, evolutionarily speaking, are more attractive to adults. The technical term for this is neoteny.

Richard Dawkins: Why there almost certainly is

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 24, 2006

Richard Dawkins: Why there almost certainly is no God. “We cannot, of course, disprove God, just as we can’t disprove Thor, fairies, leprechauns and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But, like those other fantasies that we can’t disprove, we can say that God is very very improbable.”

A classic article by Stephen Jay Gould

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2006

A classic article by Stephen Jay Gould on the changing biological features of Mickey Mouse. Over the years, Mickey has become more well-behaved and his appearance more juvenile (larger eyes, short pudgy legs, relatively large head, short snout, etc.). “When we see a living creature with babyish features, we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness.”

Carl Zimmer on the origin of whales,

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2006

Carl Zimmer on the origin of whales, baleen and non. “Baleen whales evolved baleen long after splitting off from other whales. Their baleen-free ancestors apparently thrived as leopard-seal-like hunters for millions of years.”

The AAAS, the organisation which publishes Science

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2006

The AAAS, the organisation which publishes Science magazine, has produced a book called The Evolution Dialogues. “Meant specifically for use in Christian adult education programs, it offers a concise description of the natural world, as explained by evolution, and the Christian response, both in Charles Darwin’s time and in contemporary America.” (thx, mike)

Public acceptance of evolution is relatively low

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 14, 2006

Public acceptance of evolution is relatively low in the US and is getting lower. “American Protestantism is more fundamentalist than anybody except perhaps the Islamic fundamentalist.”

Update: Here’s a graph of the results. Yikes.

Natural deselection

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2006

Tom Coates recently checked out the Royal College of Art Summer Show in London and ran across this project by Tim Simpson:

Natural Deselection

…three plants compete to reach the light that feeds and nourishes them. The first one to succeed survives. The other two are automatically cut down in their prime.

First plant to grow close to the proximity sensors wins. A simple and elegant idea.

DNA evidence suggests that chimps and humans

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2006

DNA evidence suggests that chimps and humans interbreed after splitting into separate species before splitting again for good.

Evolution on the molecular level appears to

posted by Jason Kottke   May 02, 2006

Evolution on the molecular level appears to happen significantly faster for tropical species than for those that live in more temperate climates.

Profile of Daniel Dennett, “Darwinian fundamentalist” and

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2006

Profile of Daniel Dennett, “Darwinian fundamentalist” and author of a new book that argues that “religion, chiefly Christianity, is itself a biologically evolved concept, and one that has outlived its usefulness”.

Update: Review of Dennett’s book in the New Yorker.

To Dr. David Hague, human pregnancy is

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2006

To Dr. David Hague, human pregnancy is a struggle between the fetus and mother. Evolutionarily speaking, the fetus “wants” as many resources as possible for itself while the mother “wants” to do what she can to spread her resources across as many children as possible. In theory, this is a cause of the many serious health problems surrounding pregnancy.

Update: Carl Zimmer has more about this on his blog.

This is fascinating…”sex might have evolved

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 07, 2006

This is fascinating…”sex might have evolved as a way to concentrate lots of harmful mutations into individual organisms so they could be easily weeded out by natural selection”.

Esther Dyson: Google is blind evolution, Yahoo

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2006

Esther Dyson: Google is blind evolution, Yahoo is intelligent design. I’m not sure that’s the right metaphor to use if you want to put Yahoo on the same level as Google.

Short (and a wee bit hostile) inteview

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2006

Short (and a wee bit hostile) inteview with Daniel Dennett. “Nerve cells are very complicated mechanical systems. You take enough of those, and you put them together, and you get a soul.”

Scientists say there may be two different

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2006

Scientists say there may be two different forms of laughter — authentic laughter and that associated with humor — and that the two developed millions of years apart during the course of human evolution.

Gregg Easterbrook on hard-line Darwinist, Richard Dawkins. “

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2005

Gregg Easterbrook on hard-line Darwinist, Richard Dawkins. “If Dawkins’s professional goal is ‘public understanding of science,’ he is a flop, seemingly trying his best to make worse what he is supposed to fix.”

The Dover, PA evolution vs. intelligent design

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2005

The Dover, PA evolution vs. intelligent design ends with the judge ruling against the teaching of ID in the classroom because it violated the “constitutional ban on teaching religion in public schools”. “We find that the secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion.”

Interview with “incompetent design” theorist Don Wise. “

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2005

Interview with “incompetent design” theorist Don Wise. “The only reason you stand erect is because of this incredible sharp bend at the base of your spine, which is either evolution’s way of modifying something or else it’s just a design that would flunk a first-year engineering student.”

There’s a Charles Darwin exhibition at the

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2005

There’s a Charles Darwin exhibition at the Natural History Museum in NYC through May 2006. A tidbit not reported in the US press: the exhibition failed to attract corporate sponsorship because “American companies are anxious not to take sides in the heated debate between scientists and fundamentalist Christians over the theory of evolution”. Pussies.

Update: This letter sent into TMN throws some doubt on the whole lack of corporate sponsorship angle. (thx, chris)

Introduction from Edward O. Wilson’s new book

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2005

Introduction from Edward O. Wilson’s new book on Charles Darwin’s “Four Great Books”.

Not only is Intelligent Design bad science,

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2005

Not only is Intelligent Design bad science, it’s also bad religion. “Self-defeating and incoherent, Intelligent Design is worse than useless, not only as science but also, one imagines, for religious folks who might be attempting to understand God by working backwards from the world as their body of evidence.”

Kansas is in quite a state

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2005

I know I’m not supposed to be paying attention to anything other than my Asia trip, but I read about the Kansas Board of Education approving the teaching of “theory” of intelligent design in public schools in the South China Morning Post this morning and…

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRGGH!!!!!!!!!

What the hell, Kansas? And those poor science teachers in Kansas public schools…what are they supposed to do? Teaching pseudoscience as real science, that’s like asking the math teachers to tell the kids that 2+2=5 because God said so. You can’t quit, because then those kids will really be lost. If you don’t teach that ID is valid science, you’ll probably get reprimanded or fired. So what to do? I have a couple of suggestions:

1) Teach your students about evolution, and then tell them about intelligent design, just as the state curriculum says. Then spend some time going over what science is, what a theory is, and so on. Apply the definition to each. That way, you’ve taught ID by the books and then demonstrated its relationship to science.

2) Or, as long as you’re teaching your students that a higher power designed the world/universe, why not take it a step further and tell them about your personal and scientific belief in The Flying Spaghetti Monster? As long as science can include anything now, why not a supernatural being made from pasta?

Update: There appears to be hope. In Dover, Pennsylvania:

In that small, relatively conservative Pennsylvania town, voters booted all eight Republican pro-intelligent design school board members who were up for re-election and replaced them with Democrats who oppose the curriculum policy. Dover is not some bastion of liberal politics; it’s more like Kansas than parts of Kansas are.

(thx, steve)

Why do people believe in God? Evidence

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 21, 2005

Why do people believe in God? Evidence suggests that it’s partially inherited. “The degree of religiosity was not strongly related to the environment in which the twin was brought up. Even if one identical twin had been brought up in an atheist family and the other in a religious Catholic household, they would still tend to show the same kind of religious feelings, or lack of them.”

“The only debate on intelligent design that

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 21, 2005

The only debate on intelligent design that is worthy of its subject”. Hootingly funny. (And I have no doubt that someone from the other side of the debate could construct something equally as amusing, so…)