Tag Archives: Richard Dawkins

Your Cuisinart, a prehistory

A famous movie cut, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, transitions from a bone club, hurled aloft by an australopithecine 2.5 million years ago, to a spacecraft in the year 2001.


Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, coming up with the plot for the movie/book, were influenced by the popular author Robert Ardrey. In his book African Genesis, Ardrey casts human evolution as a version of the story of Cain and Abel, except in his version the peaceful vegetarians (robust australopithecines) get clobbered by the club-wielding meat-eaters (gracile australopithecines).

We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments?

Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris, was much in vogue in the 1960s: Sam Peckinpah was another movie director influenced by him. Unfortunately his speculations on evolution and human behavior are probably not of enduring value: he had the misfortune to take up the topic too early to take on board the sociobiological revolution pioneered by William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and George Williams, and popularized by E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins.

Ardrey may not have been off-base in thinking that weaponry and warfare have been an important motive force in human biological and social evolution. But where early stone tools are concerned, a different segue, from Oldowan chopper to Cuisnart may be more appropriate.


Recent research argues that early hominins could have dramatically increased available food energy by pounding vegetables and chopping up meat into more digestible pieces. Tool use may have been an early step in our ancestors’ move to high energy diets. Meat-eating began to be important in human evolution around 2.6 million years ago. Somewhat later we see evidence that some hominins have lighter jaws and aren’t chewing as much. So to celebrate this early dietary revolution, here’s a recipe:

Steak Tartare

Place in a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade:

1 ½ pounds lean beef (tenderloin, top round, or sirloin) cut into ½ inch cubes

Pulse until meat is coarsely ground, 7-10 seconds. Do not over-process. Remove meat to a chilled platter or individual plates and gently form into 6 individual mounds.

[Optional: Make a spoon shaped indentation on top of each mound and crack into each

1 egg yolk.]

Divide and arrange in small piles around each serving:

½ cup minced onions
½ cup minced shallots
½ cup minced fresh parsley
¼ cup minced drained capers
8-12 anchovies (optional)

Serve immediately and pass separately:

Fresh lemon juice
Worcestershire sauce
Dijon mustard
Hot pepper sauce
Freshly ground black pepper

From The Joy of Cooking 1997

Dead baby monkeys

There’s a dark side to being a primate. Last year a review article summarized data on rates of lethal aggression in non-human animals. The figure below shows some of the results. Several clusters of especially violent species stand out in the figure, including primates.

dead monkeys

Much of the lethal aggression in primates involves infanticide. Sarah Hrdy demonstrated back in the 1970s that infanticide occurs regularly in Hanuman langurs, monkeys in India. A male who takes over a group of females will systematically kill offspring sired by the previous male. If you think evolution is about the survival of the species, this is hard to explain. But it makes sense given the logic of the selfish gene. Females who lose an infant return more quickly to breeding again, and the father of the next infant is likely to be the killer of the previous one.

Primates may be particularly vulnerable to this grim logic, because they spend a long time as infants. Commonly L/G>1, that is to say, the time, L, a female spends lactating for an infant (during which she is unlikely to conceive), is usually greater than the time, G, she spends gestating an infant. This puts particular pressure on males to hurry things along by eliminating nursing infants fathered by other males.

As a result, infanticide is relatively common among primates, and females under particularly strong pressure to find ways to avoid it. Hanuman langurs live in one-male units, where a female has little choice about who she mates with. In other species, by contrast (most baboons, chimpanzees), multiple males reside with multiple females. In these species females are often sexually promiscuous, sometimes actively soliciting multiple males for sex. This is probably mostly a matter of confusing paternity sufficiently to suppress the threat of infanticide. There’s a general lesson here: female promiscuity generally has different evolutionary roots than male promiscuity.

Our Good-Enough Universe

Covering the whole history of the universe naturally raises some Big Questions. We’ll consider some of these over the coming year, along with generous portions of memorable milestones, anecdotes, and curious facts.

Before we get to January 1, here’s a Big Question: why is the universe we live in well-suited for intelligent life? The answer may be related to the answer to another question: why are living things so well-adapted? Why do their various parts work together so well? The Ancient Greeks pondered this question. Some of them (Aristotle, for example) thought it was just the nature of living things to be well-adapted. But some of them offered a materialist explanation: animals with all sorts of combinations of different parts had once existed, but only some of them survived for us to see them. Lucretius, who was sort of the Roman version of Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins (if Sagan and Dawkins had written in dactylic hexameter) wrote:

“ten thousand tribes of mortals poured forth,

fitted together in all kinds of forms, a wonder to behold. ….

as many heads without necks sprouted forth,

and arms wandered naked, bereft of shoulders,

and eyes roamed alone, impoverished of foreheads.”

But only a small fraction of these monsters – the accidentally well-adapted ones –survived. This sounds like Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest,” but in Darwin’s theory, the process is cumulative, and organisms get better and better adapted over time. (You can find biologist John Rees reviewing this history, and sticking up for the pre-Darwinian theory – call it “survival of the viable” – here. Also, literary critic Stephen Greenblatt reviews just how explosive the rediscovery of Lucretius was for the European Renaissance.)

Nowadays, a significant number of physicists defend a similar theory. The same process f inflation that generated our universe automatically generated vast numbers of other universes; only a small fraction of these, including ours, are fit to live in. Here’s one physicist, Leonard Susskind, doing the Lucretius thing:

“Every possible environment has its own Laws of physics, its own elementary particles, and its own constants of nature. Some environments are similar to our own but slightly different, For example, they may have electrons, quarks, and all the usual particles, but with gravity a billion times stronger than ours. Others have gravity like ours, but contain electrons that are heavier than atomic nuclei. Still others may resemble our world except for a violent force … that rips apart glaxies, molecules, and even atoms. Not even the three dimensions of space are sacred … [there may be] worlds of four, five, six, or even more dimenions.” [p.20]