Blute Blog

Blute's blog about evolutionary theory: biological, sociocultural and gene-culture.

Sex and Sexual Selection in Economic Terms

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In 2019 I published a paper in Biological Theory that sex is trade in somewhat different naturally-selected strategies which reduces risk and that sexual selection is conflict over the profits of that trade. Recently, while exchanging some views and papers with Ugo Pagano, I was drawn to the conclusion that that theory, put in economic terms, is that sex is profit-seeking and sexual selection is rent-seeking.

One of Pagano’s papers that was published in the Journal of Bioeconomics led me to browse further in that unfamiliar journal. Low and behold, I came across there a paper published in 2016 by a great evolutionary biologist, Michael Ghiselin, (whom I had met a couple of times at ISHPSSB meetings and who is well known for his work on sequential hermaphroditism among other things), titled “What is sexual selection? A rent-seeking approach”! Great company obviously – I just wished I had seen the paper in time to cite it!

Written by Marion Blute

October 18, 2021 at 2:34 pm

Albert Bandura Deceased

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John Simpson kindly drew my attention to the fact that Albert Bandura, a professor at Stanford University, died this summer. He was the psychologist who established social learning theory with his famous Bobo doll experiment. Children who observed models verbally and physically abusing Bobo dolls were more likely than those not so exposed to abuse them in the future.

The existence of social learning by observation is important because its existence necessarily implies the existence of a second cultural inheritance system, and hence a second evolutionary system in the human species beyond the gene-based biological. I wrote about Bandura’s role in this in my book in 2010.

There are two interesting historical footnotes to all of this. First, earlier in the twentieth century, Edward L. Thorndike formulated his famous “law of effect” in an attempt to deny the existence of social learning. Thorndike’s work was developed by Skinner an others into a large body of verified knowledge about individual learning by reinforcement and punishment. However, as Bandura showed, that did not mean that social learning by observation (and ultimately by linguistic instruction) does not exist. Secondly, earlier among nineteenth-century sociologists, Gabriel Tarde argued that the “inter-metal”, specifically imitation, is the unique subject matter of sociology, distinct from the “intra-mental” which is that of psychology.

Bandura and his work were widely celebrated. In 2002, a survey found that he was the next most cited psychologist after Skinner, Freud and Piaget. He was a Canadian by birth and in 2014 was made an officer of the Order of Canada and in 2016 was awarded the National Medal of Science by Barack Obama.

Written by Marion Blute

September 20, 2021 at 10:30 am

The Potential Role of Centrioles in Active or Passive Female Choice

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In animals and some other groups in which centrioles are inherited through males, good centrioles may be what females/ova are commonly choosing for or being manipulated with sexually to provide offspring or the expectation of offspring with the ability to escape difficult conditions by dispersing in time, space and/or niche, hence yielding grand offspring. These are the 3M’s – maintenance, motility and mutability. Centrioles as cellular organelles provide maintenance (the aster which emerges from them nucleates the cytoskelton), hence the choice for more mature, healthier males. They provide motility (they form the base of flagella), hence the choice for songs, dances and nuptial flights. They also provide mutability (in the sense of differentiation in development because they determine the planes and directions of cell divisions affecting cytoplasmic heredity), hence the choice for complex, symmetrical ornaments – for example those peacocks’ tails. The dramatic colour patterns sometimes observed in complex, symmetrical ornaments may make the latter more likely to be noticed by females in active or passive choice. And since it may be unclear whether flagella actually contribute to motility at the organismic level, it may be that songs, dances and nuptial flights are simply another form of complex, symmetrical ornament, one in space and time outside the body instead of inside it.

Written by Marion Blute

August 15, 2021 at 9:47 am

Feminist Views on a Theory of Sexes, Sex and Sexual Selection

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In an article in Biological Theory in 2019 on mating markets and in two posts here, one in September 2019 on the two-fold cost of sex and in May 2020 on mating markets, together I hope made clear that a single premise, if justified, could solve the three major evolutionary puzzles about sex. The premise is that in a dioecious population for example, i.e. one composed of males and females, the two are ecologically, i.e. naturally selected, to be somewhat different. That would solve:

a) the puzzle of what compensates for the two-fold cost of sex because of the advantages of specialization

b) the puzzle of why they engage in sex at all because such trade is a form of bet hedging which produces diversity reducing the risk of extinction, and

c) the puzzle of why they engage in sexual competition and selection and why it takes the form that it does because sexual competition and selection are conflict over the profits of the sexual trade and the form it takes depends on what the naturally-selected differences are.

However, there is one thing not discussed in any of the three (possible feminist views of such a theory) and one briefly discussed in the article (the potential role of centrioles) but not in the posts. The former is discussed here and the latter will be in a subsequent post.

As noted in the article and in the most recent post, if the naturally-selected sex allocation is with males/male gametes at high frequency but low quality, i.e. low per capita cost, and females/female gametes at low frequency but high quality, i.e. high per capita cost, then sexually males/male gametes would compete intrasexually for female mates/female gametes and females/female gametes would compete intersexually choosing high quality male mates/male gametes. Feminists might find both something to both dislike and to like about this explanation of “conventional” sex roles. On the one hand, one can imagine some people reacting, “I see, on this view the sexes are naturally different, well then that justifies etc.” On the other hand, in this scenario, females/female gametes choose not just as a side effect of high male/male gamete frequency, nor even necessarily because they invest more in each offspring, both of which theories are popular. They can choose because they are of higher quality, i.e. have more invested in them than do males/male gametes, and hence they can afford to choose. Of course, where the naturally-selected strategies are different – sex role reversed, or both sexes high quantity but low quality, or both high quality but low quantity, then sex roles would be different than the conventional ones. And as previously noted, if the naturally-selected population were for some reason completely out of sex allocation equilibrium, then sexual selection could restore it as, or perhaps even more easily than by Fisher’s principle.

Written by Marion Blute

August 15, 2021 at 9:39 am

Is the Chicken and Egg Problem Solvable?

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Evolutionary biologists sometimes say that a chicken is just an egg’s way of making more eggs even though they in fact begin their story of “generation” with chickens making eggs rather than eggs making chickens! Developmental biologists on the other hand actually study how eggs make chickens. Meanwhile, a “chicken and egg problem” has become a synonym in popular usage for an unsolvable problem. So is the apocryphal chicken and egg problem solvable?

I don’t know whether it can or ever will be solved empirically. However, theoretically I think the key question is whether geological and physio-chemical processes originally created many small things or a few large ones. I think the former is far more likely. If so, then individual growth and development came first and demographic growth developed rather than demographic growth coming first and individual growth and development evolving. Eventually of course the circle was closed so that instead of individual growth and development being the end and demographic growth a means to that end, or demographic growth the end and individual growth and development a means to that end, both became ends and both a means to the other’s end.

Written by Marion Blute

June 25, 2021 at 10:25 am

Get Costs In!

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A lesson can be drawn from Charnov who transformed Fisher’s sex ratio theory into sex allocation theory but unfortunately the lesson has generally not spread in evolutionary theory beyond that. The lesson is that costs as well as frequencies have to be included and every time one dives deeper, one finds both again. That is the case whether we are talking about evolutionary ecology (e.g. density-dependence), social evolution (e.g. sexual selection), the origin of life, the extended evolutionary synthesis or whatever. The same point can be put in a variety of ways – costs as well as frequencies, quality (qu) as well as quantity (qa), investing as well as spending, somatic as well as reproductive functions etc. need to be included.

Both are needed and every time we dig deeper we need both again:
e.g. density dependence traditionally is qa (r) vs qu (K) but then need qa & qu of both 1
e.g. sexual selection theories are qa or qu but need both for sexual and for natural selection 2
e.g. the ‘originals’ grew (qu) as well as coming to reproduce (qa) 3
e.g. development as well as evolution must become part of the modern evolutionary synthesis 4

1 Density-Dependent Selection Revisited: Mechanisms Linking Explanantia and Explananda.  Biological Theory 11(2) 2016: 113-121.
2 Mating markets: A naturally selected sex allocation theory of sexual selection. Biological Theory 14(2) 2019: 103-111.
3 Origins and the Eco-Evo-Devo Problem. Biological Theory 1(2) 2006: 116-118.
4 Three Modes of Evolution by Natural Selection and Drift: A New Or an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis? Biological Theory 12(2) 2017: 67-71.

Written by Marion Blute

December 28, 2020 at 4:16 pm

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Florestan Fernandes at the University of Toronto

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In the academic year 1969-70 as a new graduate student in Sociology at the University of Toronto I took a course in “Latin American Societies” taught by Prof. Florestan Fernandes. I had a strong interest in economic and social development in the “third world” as it was called it in those days. I had spent two years after my Bachelors degree in Psychology and English as a Canadian University Service Overseas volunteer (the Canadian version of the American Peace Corps) teaching in eastern Nigeria. I and other volunteers were horrified at the English curriculum in secondary schools and teacher training colleges. It was composed exclusively of English novels and poems. We took great pleasure in introducing the students to Nigerian novels and poetry such as Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart and Wole Soyinka’s poetry which they very much enjoyed. (Soyinka later became the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.) I had also travelled in South America in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil for some months. Another ex-volunteer who had been stationed there told me he thought that the people of the altiplano area there were the poorest in the world but I had told him I thought that those of the Sahelian area of Africa were so I decided to see for myself!

I had also been politically active in protesting the siege of Biafra and along with other ex-volunteers and others, in organizing a teach-in on “The Crisis in Development”. Rather than an afternoon or evening of lectures, we did the teach-in a different way. We organized four weeks of discussion groups in the community, churches, recreation centres and so on. Each of us led one group having produced four handbooks with readings and questions for discussion. A few of the readings were from works by Frantz Fanon and Ivan Illich.

I have fond memories of Prof. Fernandes and his lectures and was particularly impressed, not only by the content, but also by his academic rigour. He walked in each week and sat in a small circle with ten or so of us and read his lectures which he had previously written out in full. The lectures were eventually published in a book “The Latin American in Residence Lectures”, Toronto, University of Toronto, 1969-70 edited by Prof. Kurt Levy, a political science professor. I gather that I and another graduate student from the course assisted the editor with some comments. When Prof. Fernandes gave us pretty much free reign on topics for a paper for the course, I decide to follow up on my interest in Frantz Fanon and Ivan Illich on development and wrote arguing that there was a convergence of their views on autonomous development.

After another year, once my MA degree was completed, my interests took a somewhat different turn. I eventually wrote my PhD thesis on comparing theories of change in biology, psychology and the social sciences in the sociology department but with an interdisciplinary committee. Among other things I wrote a fairly widely cited article on “Sociocultural Evolution: An Untried Theory” on the idea that culture and social organization and not just genes “descend with modification”. For example, the languages within each of some two hundred language families have descended with modification from a common ancestral language. I taught at the University of Toronto, The University of Western Ontario (now Western University) and eventually returned to the University of Toronto as Associate Professor, then full Professor then Emeritus (retired)  Professor even though I am still active. In 2010 I also published a book with Cambridge University Press, “Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution: Solutions to Dilemmas in Cultural and Social Theory”.

Looking back now on the paper I wrote for Prof. Fernandes’ course (which I actually managed to find a copy of when asked by Diogo Valença and which he had published translated into Portugese along with this note in Novos Olhares Socials – UFRB V 3(2) 2020) my most egocentric memory is that he tried to give me a grade of 100 to which the powers that be objected so I ended up with a grade of 90 which was fine with me! But reading through the paper now, I don’t think I would change the substance at all – autonomy in development is as important as ever. And today the pandemic problem (hopefully in the short run), and the climate crisis in the longer run, are the two most important problems facing us all. I have every confidence Prof. Fernandes would agree with that as well were he still with us.

Written by Marion Blute

December 23, 2020 at 4:42 pm

More Transmissible Mutants of COVID-CoV-2 Likely to be Less Rather Than More Damaging

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In a post here on May 3 and in a post on the on-line magazine TVOL here
I suggested that the virus COVID-CoV-2 could well evolve to become more transmissible. Three broad classifications of mechanisms were mentioned – increases in maintenance, motility and mutability. This now seems to have occurred in London and south-east England although the mechanism remains unknown. This is not just an “I told you so” but also to add another prediction. Mutants of the virus that successfully spread are likely to cause the disease COVID-19 to become less rather than more damaging and fatal. This is because it is not in the virus’ interest to keep one down and unable to circulate let alone kill its victims along with itself.

Written by Marion Blute

December 20, 2020 at 5:11 pm

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What is the Objective of Life? Grand Offspring of Course.

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An organism does not have a life cycle, it is a life cycle. What is its objective? Not simply a duplicate set of genes, that’s for sure. Consider a simple semelparous life cycle – i.e. one that grows and develops then produces offspring all at the end. When has that life cycle been repeated or reproduced? When some or all of the offspring have grown and developed then produced offspring of course – i.e. when grand offspring have been born.

Written by Marion Blute

December 14, 2020 at 3:13 pm

The Use of Re in Forecasting COVID-19 is Misleading

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John Simpson kindly drew my attention to the Oxford’s COVID-19 Evidence Service’s method of forecasting the epidemic using their basic reproductive number which in my view is misleading (see and search “when will it be over”).

Their widely cited R parameter is defined as the expected average number of individuals one individual will infect in a susceptible population. If the expected R, Re, is less than 1 they expect the infection to eventually die out; if it is greater than 1, they expect it will continue to spread exponentially in the absence of immunization.

This is somewhat misleading. Instead, the growth of a biological population such as the virus is commonly described with the density-dependent S-shaped logistic function:


which relates the rate of growth of a population such as the virus SARS-CoV-2 which causes the disease COVID-19 at time t (the tangent to the curve relating population size to time) to its existing population size Nt and two parameters – r, the intrinsic rate of increase, and K, the ceiling, i.e. the carrying capacity of the environment. Initially, logistic growth approximates exponential growth because the expression in square brackets approximates 1 and hence dNt/dt approximates rNt , the expression for exponential growth. The maximum growth rate (tangent to the curve) is at K/2 and the growth rate declines thereafter symmetrically with its previous increase until it reaches 0 at N = K where population size itself levels off. The reason is obvious. Once half of the carrying capacity of the environment i.e. the susceptible host population is reached, it becomes harder and harder for the virus to find additional hosts; infected individuals become less and less likely to encounter people to infect – sometimes referred to by epidemiologists as herd immunity.

It should be pointed out that Re would not be misleading if it was being assumed that frequent culture-gene coevolution was taking place as described here about five posts ago. If frequent, adaptive mutations were taking place among the viruses, selected for by our culturally spread methods to avoid it (social distancing, mask wearing etc.), then the viral population could potentially continue to grow exponentially even to the ceiling. That extreme at least is very unlikely. Genetic variants of the virus are known, but there is no knowledge that the ones identified have adaptive and certainly that much adaptive significance, as of yet anyway. In any case, they explicitly assume a homogeneous viral population

However, it should also be pointed out that none of this matters for now and for the near future at least. By the best evidence I have been able to find, no country is close to having half of their population infected except possibly farmed Mink in Denmark!

Written by Marion Blute

November 5, 2020 at 4:58 pm

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