Varieties of evolution
Years ago I remember Joe Thornton asking me if I wanted to be an evolutionary biologist, and I didn’t have a really good answer. Yes, I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, but it seemed weird to make your living studying evolution. It had long been a hobby of mine, back to the descriptive paleontology days, and in my adulthood more in the domain of theory undergirded by genetics. But it had always been an avocation until I decided to go to graduate school. At this point I’m focused on mammalian genomics professionally, with an obvious interest in domestication. But sometimes you get too narrowly focused, and it’s important to take a step back, and evaluate. Some hot chains to explore different peaks if you will.
On Twitter I got into a discussion with Nathaniel Comfort about his review of Richard Dawkin’s latest book, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science. Broadly Nathaniel takes the perspective that Dawkin’s views on evolutionary biology are somewhat anachronistic, that they’ve become frozen in the 1970s, when he was beginning his career as a science communicator, and still primarily focused on research. Comfort’s contention is that things have changed, but that Dawkins has stood in place. Specifically he seemed to suggest that the rise of genomics has changed how we view evolution. This I am skeptical of. Evolutionary biology pre-dates genetics, and genetics pre-dates our understanding of DNA as its concrete substrate. Genomics changes a great deal (as Graham Coop observed genomics makes a big difference in understanding the molecular dynamics of evolutionary process, but says less about the details of phenotype). But I’m not convinced that it has revolutionized our understanding of evolution. Rather, it has had an evolutionary effect on the broadest scale. There are a diversity of opinions on a variety of topics, and Richard Dawkins’ views are not necessarily “orthodox” on all counts, but, he’s not an out of touch dinosaur. There are serious active researchers who would defend his oeuvre (here’s something I found out, a sequence of advisers and students, Richard Dawkins → Alan Grafen → Laurence Hurst → Gil McVean). In fact, I would contend Dawkins is closer to the “center” of opinion among evolutionary biologists than the “extended synthesis” crowd, who many feel are a touch self-aggrandizing.
But, I do think “dissenting views” are interesting, and illuminating. One think I’m going to endeavor to do in the next few months is get around to reading James Shapiro’s Evolution: A View from the 21st Century. I purchased it when Jerry Coyne mentioned that for a limited time it was free on the Kindle, but it’s sat there ever since.
I continue to have problems with commenters not understanding the ground rules, and becoming enraged when I tell them they aren’t very smart. This has been a bigger issue since I moved to Unz Review. I suspect part of this is that my policy is somewhat of a shock set against Ron’s radical libertarianism in this regard, and the general liberality of most of the other bloggers here. But I need to keep reiterating the framework. It’s something I’ve come to feel works for me, and I’ve evolved organically toward it over 13 years of blogging.
There are two general things to consider. How comments relate to me. And how they relate to you (commenters). First, me. I don’t talk about my non-blog life in detail here because it’s not important, nor is it really any of your business. But I’m a person who is in graduate school (which often involves me being a teaching assistant as well as doing research in the lab), does a fair amount of consulting work in genomics, and, has a family (small children) and a wide circle of friends. An issue of side interest to some of you is that one reason I didn’t want to dwell on what happened with The New York Times is that I’m just very busy, and most of my professional focus isn’t on writing at all. I had other things to do and so didn’t really have the marginal time to be sad about missing out on an opportunity that literally fell into my lap, and was never going to be a major income source. I know it’s unhealthy, and I worry about it, but one way I “get shit done” (as David Mittleman would say) is that I don’t sleep as much as I should. This means I’m cranky, and my time is precious. Every comment I read has an opportunity cost.
So how do I justify reading and allowing comments? It’s important that the commenters add genuine value. That means new ideas and concepts which I find interesting. Unfortunately there are several classes of commenters who don’t fall into these categories. First, there are those of low intelligence. There’s not much to say here, and the whole situation is unfortunate for everyone involved in any intellectual enterprise. Second, there are the class of commenters whose priors are so different that there’s no point in having a discussion. For example, if a commenter is a Creationist, even if they are intelligent, there’s really not going to be a fruitful exchange. So I don’t post Creationist comments (I get one about once a month). Of course Creationism is an extreme case. Consider this comment. The individual is well informed and intelligent, but unfortunately I’m going to ignore the whole comment because I disagree with one of the axioms which you have to hold to make the comment worth reading in its entirety (that scripture/text are in a deep way determinative of a religion). My disagreement here is predicated on my reading of a particular domain of scholarly literature, and I came to this conclusion after holding the position of the commenter before changing my views. I understand many people disagree with me, so I often post these comments, though I generally respond as I did, that I simply don’t accept the premise of the argument and so it’s pointless to continue. Unfortunately, the next stage for many commenters is anger and accusation that I’m stupid or ignorant. Rather than taking disagreement at what it is these commenters begin to hector me after I don’t recognize their self-evident genius, at which point I have to ban them (I’m not saying this has happened with this commenter, just that it often does when I dismiss someone’s axioms and so render their own logical/analytic enterprise moot in relation to me).
This gets to the fact that ultimately I am the judge of what’s useful/edifying for a comment thread. Commenters sometimes seem to think that the threads exist to show off their erudition or filibustering capabilities. In other cases people get into juvenile debates where they really seem to believe winning an argument on the internet is something that does anything. The aim of discussion in my opinion is less about convincing your interlocutor, and more about fleshing out and dissecting your own opinions. On a related matter, often commenters want to talk about their own hobby-horses, or move the discussion into a topic of their preference or choosing. This is tolerable, but I have my limits, and I particularly am harsh on monomaniacal individuals (well, except perhaps the guy who kept going back to the lack of female pubic hair today; that guy was just funny). Some commenters think that I’ve been caught or I’m trying to hide something when I don’t want to talk about what they want to talk about. Actually, I just don’t want to talk about what they want to talk about.
Finally, there is the whole issue of commenters who are insulting and/or awesome. Let me start with the awesome ones. They are awesome in their own eyes. These the individuals who are supposedly incredibly smart, despite me judging them to be rather dull. That might simply be due to the fact that I’m dull. But that makes me wonder: why is that they are reading me, and I’m not reading them? These are people who are reading what I have to say, and then proactively leaving a comment on what I have to say, who then throw a fit when I tell them to please not comment in the future. Despite them invariably telling me I’m a loser, and explaining at length how awesome they are (sometimes for paragraph after paragraph!), I suspect that something related to ego is going on here (yes, they accuse me of ego, which is fine, I have a big enough ego that I really don’t give a shit what they think). And last but not least there are the insulting/presumptuous types. These two tendencies go together; the correlation is very high. Being told I’m stupid isn’t really an insult, it’s more a descriptive hypothesis. I could be stupid, in which case I invite you never to read me or comment here. But sometimes people leave weird creepy comments about my race/personal history/background that they have no knowledge of. For example, the commenters who leave statements of the form “you were obviously raised abroad, so you can’t understand Americans….”, or something of that variant. Or, “your mentality is obviously South Asian….” A lot of these are in the what?/not even wrong category. I’m sure they have their own logic, but the statements are often difficult to parse, and usually presuppose facts which are false (e.g., I was raised abroad [my formative years were spent in the inter-Montane West], I want to marry a white woman but never will [box already checked, hope your head doesn’t explode], I’m a Muslim [no], I’m pro-life [no], etc.).
In conclusion, if I ban you or don’t post your comment, perhaps you should be insulted and angered. But rather than leaving a bizarre and self-indulgent comment and wasting your own time (after all, you’re an awesome mind and your time is precious!) you should just move on. A few of the readers here on this blog have become friends, but in general I’m not here to make friends, those I already have are sufficient. I’m here to extract interesting information out of you if you want to engage.
Humanity as a plesiomorphy
So, Homo naledi. About two years ago I randomly happened to be in town when Lee Berger gave a talk in Washington D.C. So I’ve known since then what he’s been sitting on. People are asking me: so what? I’m an aspiring evolutionary geneticist, not a paleontologist, so why should my opinion even count? But here’s what I’d say: the likelihood of conscious deposition of these individuals who morphologically are very different from modern humans makes us reconsider what “human” is. My own opinion on this changed when Luke Jostins crunched the data and showed that the cranial capacities of all hominin lineages seem to have been increasing over the past 2 million years. Relevance? I don’t think that “behavioral modernity” was a contingent fluke. Rather, I think that once our own lineage reached a particular point in evolutionary development ~2 million years ago some sort of adaptive ratchet kicked in, and humanity was inevitable. The Neanderthal Parallax then could be understood as alternative history in a fundamental sense. Being “behaviorally modern” is not a derived character of our particular lineage of Homo sapiens. Its potential at the base of our line, as far back as the australopiths.
In light of the recent discovery, a friend asked me what I should read about to understand human evolution. Unfortunately, that’s like asking what you should read about to understand physics as quantum mechanics was being developed. Things are just changing so fast. I would say that one book I read a few years ago has struck me as very useful when it comes to the paleoanthropology, The Humans Who Went Extinct. In particular the author focuses on the role of the Gravettian culture in developing the toolkit which allowed modern humans to conquer Northern Eurasia and ultimately push beyond Beringia. And, I have to say that Richard Klein’s The Dawn of Human Culture is still very interesting and important. It basically tells you what the dominance of an “Out of Africa” and total replacement framework had led many to conclude: that modern humans were a nearly a saltation that occurred 50,000 years ago. That modern humans were in fact the humans, the only ones with speech, and therefore culture.
It looks like ancient Anatolian genomes will answer a lot of questions. Hopefully. I’m going to ASHG 2015, and there are some posters there. So updates soon. I looked at some data…and it is weird that the LBK “First Farmer” has such strong affinity to Cypriots, as well as groups like Tunisian Jews. I got into a discussion on Twitter with Iosif Lazaridis, and he pointed out that there is less Basal Eurasians in modern Middle Eastern groups than in the past. I had thought before digging into the data myself that North Middle Eastern groups (e.g., Armenians) would have a lot of Basal Eurasian, but they don’t seem to have an inordinate proportion.