Archive for Darwin

The X-Men

Posted in Ecological resilience, Evolution, Influenza with tags , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2014 by Rob Wallace

X-Men Darwin 2The organism becomes a Chinese nest of boxes of qualities, and there is now seen to be no necessity for explaining change as change…Biology can then proceed to its real task, that of discovering the determined, material sequence of qualities, in each step of which organism and environment are involved as warp and woof. –Christopher Caudwell (1936/1986)

My views are mutating. I’m beginning to think that when evolutionary biologists characterize the source of variation on which natural selection operates as ‘random’ it is an attempt to impose on biologies the syllogism underlying Darwin’s ingenuous contribution: 1) heritible variation, 2) with effects on reproductive success, 3) produces natural selection.

Mutations, however, are routinely gamma-distributed across a genetic sequence; that is their mutation rates vary across sites and do so in particular directions (e.g., by transitions or transversions) and in domain-specific ways.

Take hemagglutinin, the influenza glycoprotein, characterized by a hypervariable head resistant to antibody memory surrounding a conserved core used to key the virus into target cells. Ostensibly selection operates in favor of surface hypervariability at the level of the phenotype. But we might ask whether it does so in such a way that imprints upon the mutation process itself.

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Pscience Unchained

Posted in Ecological resilience, Evolution, Revolution with tags , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2013 by Rob Wallace

rotundaschool_fmtCalvin Candie: I’m curious, what makes you such a mandingo expert?
Django: I’m curious what makes you so curious.
–Quintin Tarentino (2012)

A friend’s Facebook post inspired this rejoinder. It’s no sectarian dig, mind you, no sucker punch.

I mean only to dial up a call I made here previously for the kind of people’s science that in Owenite England, unchained from the socioeconomic dictates of the aristocratic church it fought, prefigured Victorian naturalists by decades,

The term ‘hall of science’ was first mooted in the Co-operative Magazine of October 1829, which reported a lecture by Frances Wright: ‘Turn your churches into halls of science, and devote your leisure day to the study of your own bodies, the analysis of your own minds, and the examination of the fair material world which extends around you.’

In Alfred Russel Wallace, a scion of the halls of science, like that of the South London Rational School depicted in our graphic, the largely independent lineage matched the reluctant Mr. Darwin to a theory of natural selection. No mean feat for a people’s science or pscience (for which, to riff off a recent flick, the “p” is silent).

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Evolutionary Investigations

Posted in Evolution with tags , , , , , , on March 26, 2011 by Rob Wallace

A few notes on the relationships shared by evolutionary biology, religion, capitalism and the left.

1.1 Establishment evolutionary biology—lost in capitalist devotionals—uses the failures of its mortal enemies—say, creationist science—to defend itself against all other kinds of critiques. A category error.

1.1.1 “But you are giving aid and comfort to the enemy…” is a common refrain about such critiques, one that attempts to refute an argument solely by assigning guilt by syllogism: Creationism attempts to counter evolutionary biology. Therefore all attempts to critique evolutionary biology support creationism.

1.2 In other words, you’re with us, or against us. As in any war, however, evolutionary biology and religion are as much partners as enemies, rationalizing each other’s ethos in opposition, while sharing much in thought and practice.

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Do Pathogens Time Travel?

Posted in Evolution, HIV, Influenza with tags , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2010 by Rob Wallace

Evolution arises out of grave failure. Natural selection requires large and variable populations comprised for the most part of organisms whose designs fail to match their present circumstances. Any design matched right is in the meantime still subject to chance destruction occurring across spatiotemporal scales.

So strict engineering optimization is embodied in no organismal design, contra religiosos and radical adaptationists alike. Nor does it reside in the process of selection: every species eventually dies out–by maladaptation, stochastic extirpation, or an external force (say, a large meteorite in yo’ face).

And yet biological life began early on Earth and continues on four billion years later, and will do so in one form or another after the present climate collapses or we nuke ourselves senseless.

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A Visitation of the Influenza

Posted in Ecological resilience, Evolution, Farming Human Pathogens book, Influenza with tags , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2009 by Rob Wallace

DefoeIn seeping through the world’s every nook and cranny, pandemics have a way of forcing themselves into our lives as a lurking presence. Even the most insular of functionaries, who typically makes his living solving problems by ignoring them, straightens up and takes notice.

As an epidemic wave arrives, each of us faces intimate decisions we may have thought a concern only for someone somewhere else far, far away. Should my family flee, vaccinate, wear masks, scrub regularly, shun crowds, isolate itself, drink brandy-infused elderberry, or, for the jittery among us, just crawl into bed until 2011? Others, on the other hand, may ask whether we should even bother worrying.

The answers are as variable as the people who arrive at them. Over the past two weeks I’ve heard friends and family heatedly talk through their positions online and in the real world. I’ve overheard strangers in cafes, on buses, and on the street wrestle with what were months ago only abstract possibilities better left to the eggheads.

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Heart of Modeling

Posted in Evolution with tags , , , , , , , on September 15, 2009 by Rob Wallace

Joseph-CampbellGreed is often mistaken for humanity’s heart of darkness. Look instead to the rationalization that transforms the most rapacious pillaging into an act of benevolence. A one-ton bomb dropped on a peasant wedding party is dissembled into regret without responsibility or, baser yet, a tough love offered with warning enough its victims, until then on their happiest day, ignored at their own risk.

Massacring the poorest–by the pen or the sword–is abstracted into an industrial deduction no rough facts can peel back. In its desperate flight free, what evidence flutters out from between the secret policeman’s gloves serves in this framework as its own denunciation: the editor who publishes it loses his job, the journalist her access, and the whistleblower his freedom. Barbarism, backed by Ivy League pedigrees and the strategic brick of cash, can excuse itself with the right mix of red tape and inert banality.

The shock for some will be that even evolutionary biology plays its part. Set aside its more blatant frauds writing how the dead were inherently dumber than those who designed the bomb that killed them. As if even true it was alibi enough. In their unrequited loyalties the likes of Phil Rushton and Charles Murray speak as if they are somehow affiliated with the physics that went into the ordnance. No Einsteins these, the hangers-on refute themselves as soon as they open their mouths.

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Darwin’s Simulacrum

Posted in Evolution with tags , , , , , , on August 10, 2009 by Rob Wallace

I see dead people. And you can too. The museums are full of them, reanimated in a shamanistic glow funded by real estate developer Jack Rudin or Target or whichever oligarchical consortium rules your city state.

When we visit the clearing in the gentrified jungle we hope we might at least be blessed with a vision of an ancestral shade nominally more illuminating than what’s projected by the man behind the tree line.

Three years ago I attended the Charles Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In a country where 40% of the population polled think evolution patently false and another 20% are unsure, the show proved a triumph. Despite friends’ complaints about its length, the exhibit, expertly curated by Niles Eldredge of punctuated equilibrium fame, encapsulated Darwin, his ideas, and many of their immediate implications in an easily understandable way.

There I was–cynic turned fetishist–thrilled to see Darwin’s pistol and Bible from his circumnavigation aboard HMS Beagle. Although he spent considerable time ashore, there is great appeal in summoning a young Darwin, before his health broke, astride a deck hauling himself from one intellectual port to another, from amateur enthusiast to professional naturalist. He had much help, of course, but on an autodidact’s schedule, at one and the same time a relaxed and fevered pace. In an irony still relevant today, his successes would render him the last of the artisan naturalists.

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From Holling to Darwin to Gould

Posted in Ecological resilience, Evolution, Farming Human Pathogens book, HIV, Influenza with tags , , , , , , on June 26, 2009 by wallde

CS_HollingThis year marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th of the publication of The Origin of Species. Natural selection has had a fundamental impact on the way we view the evolution of pathogens and their geographies of spread. In Farming Human Pathogens we attempt to better wed Darwin’s contribution to more recent work on the dynamics of ecosystems.

Views of Evolution

Darwin was a gradualist who believed that selection on small variations conferred small improvements in fitness. He largely discounted the influence of climate and believed that the relationships between species of an ecosystem drove natural selection. However, in his time catastrophists were prominent, especially among the geologists, who believed that catastrophic events winnowed out species. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, Darwin’s advances came only by way of ignoring the data catastrophists had until then accumulated.

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Reverend, Save Thyself

Posted in Evolution with tags , , , on March 9, 2009 by Rob Wallace

The following letter to the editor was submitted in response to a previously printed letter.

To the Editor,

The Rev. Arnold Lemke published a letter (March 4, Star-Tribune, West Extra) ridiculing Darwinian science as a faith-based initiative. He argued recent science has disproved Darwin and his present-day adherents are left with little but their faith in the man’s ideas.

But the Reverend violated a core ethos of his calling: Thou shalt not bear false witness. He so mischaracterizes Darwin and the nature of science as to remind us all why churches no longer set school standards.

Contrary to the Reverend’s contention, there is considerable scientific evidence life emerged via abiogenesis. Stanley Miller devised lab experiments that recreated some of the basic abiotic conditions of early Earth, including an atmosphere of methane, hydrogen, ammonia and water. Miller showed that when exposed to an energy source such as ultraviolet radiation, these compounds could react to produce amino acids essential for the formation of living matter. Sidney Fox later demonstrated amino acids could spontaneously form small peptides, which in turn could form closed spherical membranes comparable to replicable cells.  Continue reading

The Origin of Specious

Posted in Evolution with tags , , , on February 22, 2009 by Rob Wallace

marx-eng3In a quickie interview for Mount Holyoke’s house organ on the occasion of Charles Darwin’s two hundredth birthday and the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, biologist Stan Rachootin characterized the roots of the academic left’s hostility to Darwin this way,

Marx realized the close connection between Darwin’s thinking and capitalism. Therefore, Darwin had to be wrong. Engels, who was willing to read and use science, tried to argue that Darwin had a great deal of evidence beyond some ideas shared with Malthus and Adam Smith. But he could not budge his master.

Rachootin botches Marx’s reaction to Darwin. Badly.

Marx and Engels—the former in no way the latter’s “master,” an ad hominem attack on Rachootin’s part—reacted to the publication of the Origin of Species with something approaching glee. While contrary to an oft-repeated myth Marx never dedicated Capital to Darwin, he did write of his great appreciation of what he called Darwin’s “epoch-making work” and “the basis in natural history for our view.”

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