Tag Archives: evolution

Archaeopteryx, Bird, Fish, Snake

The first Archaeopteryx discovered, found in 1861, is the most famous fossil ever (barring maybe some close human relations). It came at the right time, providing dramatic evidence for the theory of evolution.


There may be psychological reasons why Archaeopteryx had the impact it did. Here’s my argument anyway:

According to Jorge Luis Borges, the following is a classification of animals found in a Chinese Encyclopedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

  • Those that belong to the Emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken a flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

Although some scholars have taken this list seriously (Hi, Michel Foucault!), there’s no evidence that this is anything but a Borgesian joke. Anthropologists have actually spent a lot of time investigating the principles underlying native categorizations of living things, and found they are not nearly as off-the-wall as Borges’ list. These categorizations obey some general principles, not quite the same as modern biologists follow, but not irrational either. (Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science is good popular review of ethno-biology, the branch of anthropology that studies different cultures’ theories of biology and systems of classification Did you know there are specialized brain areas that handle animal taxonomy? Or try here for a scholarly treatment.)

At the highest level is usually a distinction between plants and animals. This doesn’t necessarily match the biologists’ distinction between Plantae and Animalia, but rather usually follows a distinction between things that don’t and do move under their own power. Even babies seem to make a big distinction between shapes on a screen that get passively pushed around, and shapes that move on their own. i.e. are animated.

Among larger animals (non-bugs/worms) the first large scale groups to receive a label of their own are almost always birds, fish, and snakes, in no particular order. These categories are telling: each represents a variety of locomotion (flying, swimming, slithering) other than the stereotypical mammalian walking/running. (Many folk classifications lump bats with birds and whales with fish, and they may also separate flightless birds like the cassowary from others.) So whether a creature moves on its own, and how it moves are central to folk categorizations of living kinds, even if not to modern scientific taxonomy. And so finding an animal that seems to be a missing link between two (psychologically) major domains of life — birds and terrestrial animals — is going to be a Big Deal, cognitively, upsetting people’s ideas that it takes God’s miraculous intervention to create animals that fly, or to condemn the Serpent to slither.

Nature red in tooth and claw

You’re trying to live without enemies. That’s all you think about, not having enemies.

Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry

Enemies are the most important agencies of selection.

Geerat Vermeij, Evolution and Escalation

Much of what we’ve been seeing since the onset of the Cambrian, Saturday February 27, is the outcome of evolutionary arms races, leading to steady improvements in teeth, claws, armor, and mobility. It may well be that the onset of predation is what triggered the Cambrian explosion in the first place. The paleontologist Geerat Vermeij argues that arms races and escalation – not adaptation to the physical environment – are the greatest cause of progressive evolution.

We’ll see when we start getting into human evolution, biological and social, that enemies – other people especially – and arms races go on being a major motor of change. But arms races and escalation are going to look different in human evolution than they do in most non-human evolution. People are super-cooperators, and violent competition in humans tends to involve more group-against-group competition, with rival groups monopolizing and competing over territory. And in the human analog of predation – the formation of stratified societies, where elites live off the mass of the population – the human “predators” commonly band together under the aegis of the state to regulate their competition. At their best, human elites are more like sheepdogs and less like wolves.

Yet it’s sometimes among refugees from arms races that the greatest evolutionary advances arise: fish moving onto land may have been doing it partly to get to someplace where enemies were weak or scarce. Human analogs might be the early Ionian Greeks fleeing the Dorian invasions, the settlers of Polynesia getting out from under a social order of ranked lineages, or the New England Pilgrims fleeing an un-Godly England. Or Vermeij himself – he is competitively handicapped, having lost his sight at three years old, but has made a distinguished career studying shelled invertebrates by touch.

The Burgess Shale and “Wonderful Life”

The Burgess Shale (about 510 Mya) is not the oldest Cambrian deposit known. There are deposits from China (Chengjiang) closer to the beginning of the era. But it is particularly rich and well studied. It also featured in debates about some Big Questions: How important are evolutionary laws versus historical accidents? Has the living world become more or less diverse over time?

Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) was one of the most widely known evolutionary biologists of his time. In 1989 he wrote a book about the Burgess Shale, called “Wonderful Life.” The title alluded to Frank Capra’s movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,”* starring Jimmy Stewart. In the movie, the Stewart character, who thinks he’s wasted his life stuck in his home town, has a chance to see how things would have turned out if he had died young in an accident. He learns that his existence made a huge difference to his town.

Similarly, Gould argued that accidents of which Cambrian species survived and which went extinct made a huge difference to the later evolution of life. To make his case, he developed a subsidiary argument: that the Cambrian fauna displays a radical diversity of body plans in comparison with later eras. Gould made an analogy with the early development of automobiles, which featured diesel engines, steam engines, and electrical engines, before settling down on mostly just gasoline engines. (He was writing before Priuses and Teslas, of course.)


Hallucigenia (wrong)


Hallucigenia (right)

This subsidiary argument has not fared well. Most of the supposedly radically different forms from the Burgess Shale turn out to be not that radically different from one another, or from modern forms. Most notorious was the case of a specimen called Hallucigenia. Paleontologists thought that this creature was like nothing that ever lived before. But later more complete finds of related forms made it clear they were looking at it upside down; its “legs” are actually defensive spikes, the “tentacles” on top are actually legs. It’s probably related to the ancestor of velvet worms, a group related to vertebrates and still living in Australia. A different perspective comes from Simon Conway Morris one of the experts on the Burgess Shale, in in his book “Crucible of Creation.”

That aside however, the question of accident versus necessity, in evolution and in history, will continue to come up throughout the Logarithmic History year.

*Not to be confused with Jerome Bixby’s short story “It’s a Good Life,” about a very different small town.

When you were a tadpole

1.17-1.10 billion years ago. The atmosphere is one percent oxygen or so thanks to photosynthetic algae. The ocean still largely anoxic and thick with sulfates and sulfate-eating bacteria. Eukaryotes have been around for a while, and are diversified, although still all single celled (as far as we know).

Sexual reproduction begins with eukaryotes, and by now some groups are presumably differentiated into male and female. For those of you who are not bdelloid rotifiers, here’s a poem for Valentine’s Day, by the biologist Langdon Smith. Martin Gardner has a nice account of the poem, in his book “When you were a tadpole and I was a fish,” and here’s a great video of the poem spoken by Jean Shepherd.

By Langdon Smith (1858-1908)

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
Or skittered with many a caudal flip
Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
My heart was rife with the joy of life,
For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
And mindless at last we died;
And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
We slumbered side by side.
The world turned on in the lathe of time,
The hot lands heaved amain,
Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
And crept into life again.

We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
And drab as a dead man’s hand;
We coiled at ease ‘neath the dripping trees
Or trailed through the mud and sand.
Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet
Writing a language dumb,
With never a spark in the empty dark
To hint at a life to come.

Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
And happy we died once more;
Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
Of a Neocomian shore.
The eons came and the eons fled
And the sleep that wrapped us fast
Was riven away in a newer day
And the night of death was passed.

Then light and swift through the jungle trees
We swung in our airy flights,
Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
In the hush of the moonless nights;
And oh! what beautiful years were there
When our hearts clung each to each;
When life was filled and our senses thrilled
In the first faint dawn of speech.

Thus life by life and love by love
We passed through the cycles strange,
And breath by breath and death by death
We followed the chain of change.
Till there came a time in the law of life
When over the nursing sod
The shadows broke and the soul awoke
In a strange, dim dream of God.

I was thewed like an Auroch bull
And tusked like the great cave bear;
And you, my sweet, from head to feet
Were gowned in your glorious hair.
Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
When the night fell o’er the plain
And the moon hung red o’er the river bed
We mumbled the bones of the slain.

I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
And shaped it with brutish craft;
I broke a shank from the woodland lank
And fitted it, head and haft;
Then I hid me close to the reedy tarn,
Where the mammoth came to drink;
Through the brawn and bone I drove the stone
And slew him upon the brink.

Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
Loud answered our kith and kin;
From west to east to the crimson feast
The clan came tramping in.
O’er joint and gristle and padded hoof
We fought and clawed and tore,
And cheek by jowl with many a growl
We talked the marvel o’er.

I carved that fight on a reindeer bone
With rude and hairy hand;
I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
That men might understand.
For we lived by blood and the right of might
Ere human laws were drawn,
And the age of sin did not begin
Til our brutal tush was gone.

And that was a million years ago
In a time that no man knows;
Yet here tonight in the mellow light
We sit at Delmonico’s.
Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
Your hair is dark as jet,
Your years are few, your life is new,
Your soul untried, and yet –

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
And deep in the Coralline crags;
Our love is old, our lives are old,
And death shall come amain;
Should it come today, what man may say
We shall not live again?

God wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
And furnish’d them wings to fly;
He sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,
And I know that it shall not die,
Though cities have sprung above the graves
Where the crook-bone men made war
And the ox-wain creaks o’er the buried caves
Where the mummied mammoths are.

Then as we linger at luncheon here
O’er many a dainty dish,
Let us drink anew to the time when you
Were a tadpole and I was a fish.

Between Darwin and Saint Valentine

Yesterday was Darwin’s birthday (and Lincoln’s). Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Here’s a post appropriate for either day.

Imagine sex worked like this:

You’ve been feeling bad lately, getting sick a lot. You’re not at your best. You find someone who seems to be in better shape. One thing leads to another and you wind up acquiring body fluids from the other party – and picking up some new genes from them. The new genes help a lot in fighting off infection. You’re feeling better now.

Reproduction? That’s another matter, nothing directly to do with sex. When you reproduce, your offspring will carry all the genes you happen to have at the moment.

Also, I forgot to mention that you’re neither male or female – the gene exchange could have gone in the other direction if you’d both been in the mood. And your partner in the adventure above might not even have been the same species as you.

This is more or less how bacteria work out sex. (Joshua Lederberg got the Nobel Prize for figuring this out.) Eukaryotes (you’re one of them) mostly do it differently, combining sex and reproduction. It’s the story you learned in high school about passing on half your genes to a gamete (sex cell), which joins with another gamete to make a new organism.

Most eukaryotes also have two sexes. The best theory we have about why that got started goes like this: Most of the DNA in a eukaryote cell is in the nucleus. But a small fraction is in the mitochondria, little powerhouses outside the nucleus that started out as bacteria, and got domesticated. Imagine that two gametes join together, and combine two sets of mitochondria. There’s a potential conflict here. Suppose your mitochondria have a mutation that lets them clobber your partner’s mitochondria. This is good (evolutionarily speaking) for the winning mitochondria, but very likely to be bad for the cell as a whole. Better for the cell as a whole is if one gamete, acting on instructions from the nucleus, preemptively clobbers all their own mitochondria, so that all the mitochondria come from just the other gamete. This is the beginning of what will eventually lead to a distinction between sperm and eggs, pollen and ovules, male and female. Which means you got all your mitochondrial DNA from your mom, something that will turn out to be important when we look later in the year at geneticists unraveling human prehistory. This is also an example of how selection at one level (within cells) can conflict with selection at another level (between cells). We’ll see such multilevel selection again and again, for example in the evolution of complex human societies.

Sex has to be highly advantageous, although we’re not sure exactly what the advantage is. When eukaryote species give it up, they don’t seem to last long. Dandelions reproduce asexually: based on what we see in other organisms, they probably won’t be around for long, evolutionarily speaking. There’s one mysterious exception, tiny animals called bdelloid rotifers which have been reproducing asexually for tens of millions of years . For readers who are not bdelloid rotifers: Happy Valentine’s Day tomorrow! We’ll have an appropriate evolutionary post up tomorrow.

Evolution and broken symmetries

9.3-8.8 Billion years ago.

No big news in the universe today. Some evolutionary thoughts: Species evolve. Do planets? stars? galaxies?

Charles Darwin didn’t use the word “evolution” often. He mostly wrote about “descent with modification.” But this is pretty much the same as what biologists mean by evolution. For example, the usual definition of genetic evolution is “change in gene frequency,” i.e. descent with (genetic) modification.

However, people sometimes talk about evolution that doesn’t involve descent with modification, in contexts that have nothing much to do with biological evolution – cosmic evolution or stellar evolution in the history of the universe, for example, or mineral evolution in the history of the earth. Another Victorian writer, the sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer, offered a definition of evolution that might cover these cases.

Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity.

It’s easy to make fun of this definition. It’s the sort of abstract word pile that style manuals tell you to avoid, and that gives sociology a bad name. For that matter, it’s easy to make fun of Herbert Spencer. He may be some of the inspiration for the character of Mr. Casaubon, the dried up, impotent pedant in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” (Spencer probably turned down a chance to marry George Eliot = Mary Ann Evans.) But it may be that Spencer was groping toward the important modern concepts of symmetry and symmetry breaking.

A simple example: imagine you’re holding a bicycle exactly upright. The bicycle is pretty much bilaterally (mirror image) symmetrical. (OK, not really, the gears are on the right side, so it’s not a perfect mirror image. But just pretend …) Now let go of the bike. It will fall to one side or the other. The symmetry is broken, and you need one extra “bit” of information to tell you which side the bicycle is on.

Symmetry breaking is a fundamental concept in physics. In the very early history of the universe, the four forces of nature — gravitational, strong, weak, and electromagnetic – were united, but then as the universe cooled, one by one, these forces broke the symmetry and turned into separate forces. More symmetry breaking generated elementary particles, and nuclei, and atoms. When atoms first formed, they were distributed symmetrically through the universe as a diffuse gas. But gravitation pulled atoms and other particles together into clumps, leaving other parts of space emptier, and the spatial symmetry was broken. (A “translational” symmetry in this case.)

Symmetry breaking will keep showing up throughout the history of the universe. Consider sexual reproduction. A simple early form of sex involved two equal sized gametes (sex cells) joining to produce a new organism. Some species still do it this way. But more commonly the symmetry is broken – some organs or organisms produce little gametes that move around easily (sperm or pollen), others produce big gametes that don’t move around so easily (eggs or ovules). We call the first sort of organs or organisms males and the second sort females. Sex in most large organisms is a broken symmetry.

Or consider the rise of political stratification, the move from small-scale societies where “every man is a chief” to large-scale societies of chiefs and commoners, rulers and ruled. Another broken symmetry. It may be more or less an accident (good or bad luck, Game of Thrones style) who ends up being king, but it’s not an accident that somebody is, past a certain social scale.

We don’t attach much moral significance to broken symmetries where the physical world is concerned. You’re being way too emotional if you feel sorry for the poor weak nuclear force that missed its chance to be the strong nuclear force, or for the dwarf galaxies that got cruelly tossed around and cannibalized by the Milky Way. Broken symmetries in social life – males and females, kings and commoners – are another matter …

Uneven development


If much of the history of Eurasia between 1000 BCE and 1600 CE was shaped by the clash between farmers and city folk, and pastoral nomads from the steppes and deserts, then much of the history of the twentieth century was defined by the collision between Western and non-Western societies. This is one way to see the rise of communism. Traditional Russia and China had developed autocratic institutions that allowed them to cope, more or less, with military threats from the steppe. But these institutions proved desperately unequal to coping with a new set of military challenges from the West and Japan.

Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Natures portrays the march of history as a process of diffusion of enlightenment ideals. On a long enough time scale he may be right. But on a medium time scale we see something different – the formation of powerful states on either side of the meta-ethnic frontier dividing industrialized societies from independent but militarily vulnerable peasant societies. Chance and individual personalities played a role in the bloodshed of the twentieth century, but there were also larger forces at work in The World Revolution of Westernization.

Here is a short piece of mine (not from the blog) on History and Group Consciousness relating this topic to arguments about group selection. I argue that taking group selection seriously as an engine of historical dynamics may give us a better understanding of recent history.

Marxism is not very successful as a scientific theory, but in its heyday it was enormously successful as an ideology involved in subordinating masses of individuals in larger collective projects. Here’s a famous speech by Stalin to industrial managers in 1931, in the midst of the first Five Year Plan and the collectivization of agriculture, and on the eve of mass starvation in the Ukraine

It is sometimes asked whether it is not possible to slow down the tempo somewhat, to put a check on the movement. No, comrades, it is not possible! The tempo must not be reduced! On the contrary, we must increase it as much as is within our powers and possibilities. This is dictated to us by our obligations to the workers and peasants of the USSR. This is dictated to us by our obligations to the working class of the whole world.

To slacken the tempo would mean falling behind. And those who fall behind get beaten. But we do not want to be beaten. No, we refuse to be beaten! One feature of the history of old Russia was the continual defeats she suffered because of her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal lords. She was beaten by Polish and Lithuanian gentry. She was beaten by the British and the French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. All beat her – because of her backwardness, because of her military backwardness, cultural backwardness, political backwardness, industrial backwardness, agricultural backwardness. They beat her because to do so was profitable and could be done with impunity. You remember the words of the pre-revolutionary poet : ‘You are poor and abundant, mighty and impotent, Mother Russia.’ Those gentlemen were quite familiar with the verses of the old poet. They beat her, saying : ‘You are abundant’, so one can enrich oneself at your expense. They beat her, saying : ‘ You are poor and impotent,’ so you can be beaten and plundered with impunity. Such is the law of the exploiters – to beat the backward and the weak. It is the jungle law of capitalism. You are backward, you are weak – therefore you are wrong; hence you can be beaten and enslaved. You are mighty – therefore you are right; hence we must be wary of you.

That is why we must no longer lag behind.

In the past we had no fatherland, nor could we have had one. But now that we have overthrown capitalism and power is in our hands, in the hands of the people, we have a fatherland, and we will uphold its independence. Do you want our socialist fatherland to be beaten and to lose its independence ? If you do not want this, you must put an end to its backwardness in the shortest possible time and develop a genuine Bolshevik temperament in building up its socialist economy. There is no other way…

We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.