Blute Blog

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

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Photos from Lisbon

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Instructors at the International Summer School on Evolution, at the Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab in the Faculty of Science, University of Lisbon. Left to to right, Derek Turner, Michael Ruse, Frédéric Bouchard,    , Fiona Jordan, Nathalie Gontier, Marion Blute, Ilya Tëmkin, Luis Villarreal, Frietson Galis, Emanuele Serrelli.

Thanks to Nathalie and her staff for their hospitality and the pics!


My class.


Written by Marion Blute

August 6, 2013 at 8:56 pm

The new cell biology

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I have not been a very faithful blogger the last few months – whether that will change in the new year remains to be seen. I travelled more in November than usual and then spent December getting caught up on some book reviews, referees reports etc. that I had been asked for and had agreed to do. Among other things, I have been left with a pile of reading to catch up on. One thing that caught my attention as I began to do so was three related front-of-the-magazine pieces in Nature on December 1st, the first of which here was called “the new cell anatomy”.

Apparently a mixture of biophysicists, cell biologists and biochemists in recent years have been discovering all kinds of previously unknown structures inside of cells. The phenomena and terminology are bewilderingly diverse – various “tubes, sacs, clumps, strands and capsules” including filaments, nanotubes, purinosomes, microcompartments, carboxysomes, exosomes, cytoophidia (cell serpents) – some of which concepts undoubtedly will last, others of which undoubtedly will not. A lot of the discussion has been about the development of new methods as well as of applying old methods to single cells accompanied by a fair amount of arm waving about possible medical and industrial applications.

My point is that I hope in all of this, at least some of the researchers will keep their eye on a different question. As the late Lynn Margulis among others showed – there is a lot of knowledge to be gained about evolution working between the cell and the molecule, including by microscopy, newer fancier versions of which play a role in some of the new work. Since nobody thinks that life began de novo with prokaryotic cells fully formed, and since evolution always, always leaves marks of its history, there surely is a lot to be learned about the origin and early evolution of life by peering into, prodding and manipulating existing cells. So I very much look forward to eventually hearing more about the implications of the new work for that subject.

Written by Marion Blute

January 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm

Why is my organic (kitchen) waste so heavy?

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Like many cities in the developed world these days I suppose, mine has a recycling programme. Basically, organic (kitchen) waste is put out in one can once a week for composting; cans, bottles and paper in another every two weeks for recycling; garbage in a third every two weeks as well for disposal; and garden waste seasonally in paper bags. In our household, the first two are accumulated in similar sized plastic bags in containers in the kitchen and put out in the cans every once in a while, while the third is put out bagless in the third can more frequently as it accumulates. Now here is the puzzle. Whenever I happen to put out the first two at the same time, always in similarly sized bags and therefore similar in volume, the organics for composting are always, always heavier than the garbage for disposal, and by quite a lot. Every time I wonder why that is. Some possibilities might be:

– it’s just idiosyncratic to our household. I suppose if we were repairing cars and disposing of scrap metal (not that anybody would be, scrap metal is valuable these days) but if for the sake of argument we were, it would be different. But I doubt if our experience is unique (otherwise I would not be wondering about it here!)

– biological organisms need protection against antagonists, parasites and predators, hence the denser (from our point of view, waste) – thick skins, peels etc. as well as needing to reproduce – seeds etc. I doubt if that is the answer either. After all, a lot of our garbage is in fact protective – various kinds of non-recyclable packaging like the tissue thin plastic bags that bulk foods and produce are put in and some heavier packaging which have properties designed to persuade you to purchase it, i.e. to serve its reproduction.

-culturally-evolved processes have become more efficient than biologically-evolved ones. Now that is an intriguing possibility.

– finally my (originally an engineer) husband’s suggested answer is that the organic material is wet and water is heavy. Hmm – this possibility admits of an experimental answer, if we dried out a bag of organics would the weights be similar? I have never been much of an experimenter but . . .

Written by Marion Blute

January 2, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Entanglements: Ecology & evolution, genes & culture, us & others

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I was invited by Chris Kortright and Jaime Yard to take part in a session at the annual American Anthropological Association here meeting held last week in Montreal, a session which was titled “The Conceptual Work of ‘Ecology’”. The word that stuck out for me in the abstract provided for the session was “entanglements”. So I gave my talk the title above and here is the abstract of what I talked about.

“Not long ago it was thought that causal relationships between ecology and evolution were unidirectional – ecological environments (including physical environments and other species) structure evolving populations. We now know that the unidirectional view was false. Evolving populations also construct ecological environments (commonly called niche construction).

Similarly it was thought that causal relationships between genes and culture were unidirectional. The sociobiological/human behavioural ecological/evolutionary psychological revolution(s) revealed how the propensities of human nature, including our cultural nature, had been shaped by genetic evolution. But we now know that unidirectional view to have also been false. Anthropologists like William H. Durham played a significant role in showing how much our genetic evolution has been shaped by culture. A count (by Laland et. al. blogged about here on Dec. 8, 2010) includes 8 categories, some including as many as 30 genes, whose evolution can plausibly be linked to culturally-transmitted selection pressures. Thus came the era of not only gene-culture but also of culture-gene coevolution.

However, this theory and research remains anthropocentric. Genes and culture in the human species are viewed as coevolving in interaction with each other – i.e. excluding other species. However, the evidence that has been accumulating for decades now showing the ubiquity of culture and its evolution in other species implies that we are on the cusp of yet another revolution – interspecific gene-culture and culture-gene coevolution. And this revolution will not only be about our culture shaping their genes, but also about their genes shaping our culture.”

Some implications of the reinvention of grand theories of science

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I enjoyed the annual 4S meeting (Society for Social Studies of Science) in Cleveland this week. I gave a talk with the above title which flowed from a paper titled “The Reinvention of Grand Theories of the Scientific/Scholarly Process” published with a graduate student, Paul Armstrong, in the current issue of Perspectives on Science (a paper which MIT press seems to have unusually made available for free here). That paper dealt with the work of ten contemporary sociologists and sociologically-minded philosophers of science who have presented general theories of the scientific/scholarly process on eleven issues. Methodologically it was done by means of an analysis of texts as well as interviews with the majority and was designed to assess the compatibility or lack thereof of their theories with each other and whether a new general theory is emerging. It ultimately concluded that it is a powerful argument in its favour that a Darwinian-style sociocultural evolutionary theory (of the general kind pioneered by Stephen Toulmin and David Hull) “can incorporate both all of the common and all of the useful unique features of contemporary grand theories of the scientific/scholarly process”.

The talk however was about four empirical generalizations not discussed in the paper that an evolutionary theory of science/scholarship can explain – the first from David Hull’s book Science as a Process, the second from my book, the third blogged about here on June 14, 2010, and the last from an article by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker on December 13, 2010 here.

i) Fraud and plagiarism. It is well known that the scientific community treats fraud (such as falsifying data) more harshly than it does plagiarism (although journal editors have begun to crack down more on the latter recently – perhaps because the availability of electronic data bases makes it easier to do so). According to Hull the reason for the traditional attitude is that plagiarism hurts only the ‘ancestor’ upstream i.e. the author or authors of the paper plagiarized while fraud hurts all those ‘descendants’ downstream – those whose time and energy spent building on falsified results has been wasted. You may have noticed that this has been one of the major complaints about the recent scandal involving Andrew Wakefield’s claims about the relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism and bowel disease. It resulted not only in damage to some of the children whose parents avoided having them vaccinated, but also in effort wasted on subsequently testing the theory – effort which could have gone into other better approaches to the causes of and treatments for these diseases.

ii) Citations to long papers. I was once puzzled to learn that longer papers gain more citations than shorter ones because the evolutionary ecology of life histories would predict the reverse. Without getting technical, the reason for that prediction is that under low density (plentiful resources) selection favours ‘productivity’ – eating a lot and producing a lot of (hence necessarily small) offspring. Under high density (scarce resources), it favours ‘efficiency’ – deriving more breakdown products from each unit of resources acquired and deriving more grand-offspring from each offspring produced (hence necessarily few, large offspring). In the light of this expectation that short papers would garner more citations but long ones would garner more citations to the papers that cite them, I was subsequently relieved to find out that studies have shown that many citations are not taken from original papers at all but from the citations of others to them. In short, many of the apparent “offspring” of long papers are likely not offspring at all, but grand-offspring. However, the necessary definitive study, comparing the “copied” citation rates of long and short papers has not to my knowledge been done.

iii) Mentors, students and their students. A study of roughly a century and a half of the lineages of mathematicians published in Nature last year showed a similar life history phenomena with respect to students rather than papers. The students of those who produce few students go on to produce about a third more students themselves than expected – i.e. less prolific teachers produce higher quality students who yield more grand-students.

iv) The truth wears off. The last example came to my attention from an article by Jonah Lehrer published in the New Yorker titled “The truth wears off.” It has long been known that there is a bias in science in favour of the publication of positive results. In the 1950’s for example, a statistician found that ninety-seven per cent of psychology papers found positive results. Perhaps authors themselves, and certainly referees and editors are loathe to publish results that say, “Nope I didn’t find what I was looking for, sorry”. What seems to happen is that if a novel, interesting result is found, a rash of confirmatory studies follow. What has not been so well known (and certainly not to me) is that such a trend is often followed by a trend in the opposite direction! What seems to happen is that by that time, the opposite result is the novel and interesting one and is therefore published, after which a rash of confirmatory studies of that follow. A cultural fad in science in one direction is followed by one in the opposite direction. Other observers of science have noticed more or less the same phenomena. Both continuity and innovation are valued in science but according to Hull, there is a tension between them. Citations claiming one’s work follows from that of others gains support but detracts from its apparent innovativeness, while originality is admired but detracts from the support that showing continuity provides.

The point I would like to make about this is that evolutionary theory has long been familiar with the phenomenon and has basically explained the reason for it. Evolutionists call it “negative frequency-dependent selection” – it being commonly adaptive to do the opposite of what the majority are doing because that reduces competition. So for example if most members of a population of birds are eating small seeds, an innovation (mutant) that eats large seeds could be favoured and spread until it becomes most common, upon which small seed eaters would again be favoured and so on. Actually, I suspect that avoiding competition may not be precisely the actual proximate explanation. The reason why large seed eaters are favoured when small seed eaters are common is because not only are the two kinds of seed eaters dependent on the exogenous availability of the two kinds of seeds, but because eating small seeds alters the ecological environment (depleting small seeds but permitting the population of large seeds to recover) thus favouring large seed eaters and of course vice-versa. Effects like these have recently come to be called “niche construction” i.e. the ecological environment not only structures populations but populations also construct their ecological environment. In science, both continuity and originality matter but not always simultaneously apparently.

Lehrer briefly discusses a number of other reasons for the truth “wearing off” – plain poor science, regression towards the mean in subsequent studies, data mining of studies with a large number of variables and comes to a more radical conclusion that I think justified – that “when the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe”. It is worth noting however that the sociological phenomena of negative frequency-dependent selection – cultural fads or social movements in one direction being followed by those in the opposite direction – does not readily explain the truth wearing off in a sequence of studies done by the same individual unless negative frequency-dependent selection works psychologically as well as socioculturally – at least one example of which Lehrer highlights. Maybe the story there is that we just get bored!

Written by Marion Blute

November 7, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Thanks for the tips

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Thanks for the tips to Tim Tyler – see his comment on cultural evolution keeps on coming in books as well as articles. I know Maria Kronfeldner and know she is not a fan, but hey, I am not into censorship. The list was ‘about’, not necessarily ‘for’.

In my view Ridley’s The Rational Optimist is only marginally about Darwinian-style sociocultural evolution in the scientific sense. It is an argument that human history is a story of progress brought about by the increasing scale of cooperation, specifically trade. Around the turn of the century, I used to give Robert Wright’s somewhat similar book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny to students to read as a contrast to the pessimists such as Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations or Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy.

I once wrote a long article which I never published on the application of sociocultural evolutionary theory to marketing. If and when I get back to the topic I will read Scaglia although if I understand the publisher, Project Webster, their books are “curated from Wikipedia” which does not inspire great confidence.

And finally, thanks for the tip to your book which looks like it is more up my alley and which I will definitely obtain and read.

Written by Marion Blute

October 12, 2011 at 2:45 pm

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Cultural evolution keeps on coming, in books as well as articles.

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Not only articles, but also increasingly books on Darwinian-style cultural, social and economic evolution are being published. Great! In addition to ones previously mentioned here such as Runciman 2009, Blute 2010 and Hodgson & Knudsen 2010 – on my desk right now are:

Kate Distin. 2011. Cultural Evolution. Cambridge University Press.

Robert H. Frank. 2011. The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good. Princeton University Press.

Maria Kronfeldner. 2011. Darwinian Creativity and Memetics. Acumen Publishing Ltd.

Alex Mesoudi. 2011. Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture & Synthesize the Social Sciences. University of Chicago Press.

I haven’t read all four of these yet, but will be and am looking forward to it!

Written by Marion Blute

October 11, 2011 at 3:43 pm