Blute Blog

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

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Where did the summer go?

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I know where mine went. I spent most of it refereeing a very long book with articles by many authors. Interesting but . . . Oh well, fall is here and I a getting back to my own work so stay tuned.

Written by Marion Blute

September 8, 2022 at 4:18 pm

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Life Speed

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A research article by Cagan et. al. on “Somatic Mutation Rates” and a cover story on it titled “Life Speed” were published in Nature on April 21. Some organisms have short, fast life cycles and tend to be small, others have longer, slower life cycles and tend to be large – think mice and men. A previous study of animals in zoos had found that the latter do not suffer from cancer any more than the former. The general phenomenon was once called “Peto’s paradox”. Cagan et. al. found in the particular case studied (gut epithelial cells in 16 species) that those in long-lived animals mutate much more slowly than do those in short-lived species. The only thing surprising to me is that anyone should find such results surprising! That could only come from viewing mutations from the perspective of physical rather than biological science. Rates per unit clock time should be similar from that perspective. But from a biological perspective, why should mutation rates not scale with all other life history traits – morphological, physiological, behavioural etc? They mostly do indeed as this research shows. The biological fact is, that like other pace of life characteristics, they have evolved. Does that mean they are adaptive? Possibly but not necessarily. Even in terms of the conventional synthetic theory of evolution, there are causes of evolution beyond natural selection – mutation, migration, drift etc.

Written by Marion Blute

May 7, 2022 at 10:12 am

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Reticulation in Evolution

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I have known and liked Nathalier Gontier for years and respect her work in general but on the importance of “reticulation” in evolution I am afraid she is just plain wrong. For the sake of argument, imagine that there was a single origin of life. Then if hybridization were as common as speciation, there would currently be a single species and the history of life would resemble one of those stage theories of history! Instead there are millions of species. Obviously, speciation has been more common than hybridization. To be sure both hybridization and reticulation in the form of horizontal gene transfer (dragged by a viral parasite for example) do occur. However, the weight of current evidence and opinion is that they are relatively uncommon. Horizontal gene transfer implies that evolutionary trees have some cobwebs not that they are in any sense outdated.

Written by Marion Blute

April 6, 2022 at 11:11 am

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Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature

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This review of a biography of E. O. Wilson by Richard Rhodes, Doubleday (2021) was written for the newsletter of the Evolution Biology and Society section of the American Sociological Association but for some reason the newsletter has not been published so I am posting it here. A few days after it was written, E. O. Wilson died.

For R & R I like to read books that are not exactly work, but not exactly unrelated to work either. One I read lately which both older and younger members of the section might enjoy is Richard Rhodes’ biography of Edward O. Wilson. Wilson was the author of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) among other books including earlier The Theory of Island Biogeography; The Insect Societies; and later, On Human Nature; Genes, Mind and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process; and Biophilia among others, as well as many articles.

I say both because the oldest of us know that without Wilson, our section might well not exist, and for the youngest, well his importance may be lost in history. Personally, I well remember, while finishing my PhD thesis comparing theories of change in biology, psychology and the social sciences, reading a review of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis on the front page of the New York Times no less. While at a conference in another city I found a copy of the large format, heavy hardback book in the university bookstore, purchased it, and subsequently wrote my own review, the second thing I ever published.

Wilson’s argument was that a new science of “sociobiology”, the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior, will incorporate the sociology of all species into the neo-Darwinian synthetic theory of evolution so that the social sciences will “shrink to specialized branches of biology . . . the sociobiology of a single primate species”. Not surprisingly, reactions went to both extremes – raving or scathing. To give an example of how heated things became, a graduate student dumped a pitcher of water on Wilson’s head while he was on stage at a conference exclaiming “Wilson, you’re all wet”! I tried to be more balanced in my review- praising his treatment of the “preformationist” disciplines but criticizing his neglect of the “epigenetic” ones i.e. of development, as well as of the possibility of a distinct sociocultural evolutionary process. To this day there is a large literature on the elusiveness not of a theory of evolution and genetics which is well established, but of one also incorporating development and ecology. However, in the second case, the study of Darwinian-style cultural evolution is flourishing, among other places, in a large Cultural Evolution Society.

Rhodes biography is not officially authorized, but one with which Wilson cooperated by being interviewed in a series of lengthy interviews while resting comfortably in a retirement community at the age of 92. He had a difficult childhood growing up in Alabama with divorced parents, the loss of an eye in an accident, and due to the exigencies of his father’s job, attending 16 different schools! (I once read a study showing that moving for a child, involving a change of neighbourhoods, schools and friends is as hard on a child as a divorce.) His fascination with insects, particularly ants, and later membership in the Boy Scouts saved him and after his bachelors and masters degrees in Biology at the University of Alabama, he did his PhD at Harvard. For that, with his fiancé waiting at home, he was funded for a long trip throughout many Pacific islands, collecting, classifying and identifying many new species of ants. Shortly thereafter he married and soon became a faculty member at Harvard.

Rhodes includes interesting material on Wilson’s conflicts with Watson who also joined the faculty there (yes, that Watson) who thought that the kind of field naturalists’ research that Wilson engaged in was outdated “stamp collecting” and all that was important for the future was biochemistry and molecular biology. It did not help their relationship that Wilson received tenure before Watson. They clashed over positions for hiring at Harvard and eventually the department was split into two – organismic and evolutionary biology in the one and molecular biology in the other. However, as Wilson’s reputation grew, they eventually reconciled and Watson decamped anyway to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island where he achieved great success for some years.

Wilson had a 40 year career at Harvard, retiring from there in 1996. During that time, among other things he championed the concept of group selection particularly for eusocial species like ants which have reproductively sterile casts and embraced gene-culture coevolution (doubtfully according to some). Once retired, he embraced “consilience” rather than reduction as the best concept for inter-disciplinary relations, became even more of a champion of the conservation of biodiversity, and developed from an agnostic to an atheist. He received many awards and honorary doctorates during his career and after his retirement, and in fact was one of most publicly well known scientists of his time. Whatever one thinks of Wilson’s concepts and his work which Rhodes provides an entertaining overview of, there can be little doubt that he was the origin of modern discussions of the relationship among evolution, biology and society.

Written by Marion Blute

March 26, 2022 at 3:14 pm

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Niklas Luhmann still publishing!

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A few days ago I received one of those notices from research gate that an article of mine had been cited in a journal article in 2021 by the German sociologist, Niklas Luhmann no less. I was aware that he had cited an early article on mine on “Sociocultural Evolution: An Untried Theory” in one of his books and I had reviewed a book of his (“Theories of Distinction: Redescribing the Descriptions of Modernity” translated and introduced by William Rasch) in the Canadian Journal of Sociology in 2002. Still, that was nice given that he was probably the most prominent sociological theorist in Europe in the Parsonian era. Nice, except that he had died in 1998!

John Simpson kindly contacted an ex-colleague of his who reads German. The journal was “Soziale Systeme” 24(1-2):71-105 with the issue actually dated 2019 and the article (title translated) was “The paradox of system differentiation and the evolution of society” .It would appear that the entire issue of the journal is composed of articles by Luhmann. Given that he published some 40 books and hundreds of journal articles while alive and was said to write 3 hours a day, every day, it should not be surprising that he left more writing when he died that someone has resurrected. I doubt that any of us alive today will still be publishing more than 20 years after our death!

Written by Marion Blute

December 8, 2021 at 10:45 am

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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