Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Evolution of thoughts

People have their own thoughts on evolution, but does evolution also apply to their thoughts?  I don't mean the evolution of culture and ideas since the dawn of history (or before that, which is the subject of evolutionary psychology).  I mean within a single person whose subjective awareness forms their reality.  In that one person, when thoughts arise to the fore of the mind, what forces affect them and determine their fate?  Will they be forgotten?  Remembered?  How, why, and what are the possible implications?  Consciousness is only a small fraction of what our brain does, and a very fragile fraction at that. 

Last night I was nodding off to sleep as my daughter was reading me a bedtime story.  I had a thought, and considered writing it down but sleep overtook me.  When I awoke it was gone - another species of thought extinguished through the merciless action of natural selection within the confines of my mind.  Most animal species go extinct without leaving descendants, so too I imagine must thoughts. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Back to Bikes

My first real bike was a “Tourney ATB” ten speed bicycle with 26 inch wheels bought at Costco when I was a kid.  I remember it took a while for me to grow into it (I think I still have the manual for it lying around somewhere).  Yesterday, while I was thinking about Vik's Surly LHT and all the reasons why his bike is an all around winner, I thought about my old Tourney.  In many ways, it was very similar to his LHT.  Vik gives good advice for what makes a good bike, and I'll summarize some of it here.  I think efficiency on a bike is largely attributable to three important areas: 
  • Frame:  Get a “medium duty frame”, in other words, not too heavy or too light.  And “make sure you get fit properly on your new bike so that your body can generate power for you”.  In many places, bikes are treated with a one size fits all mentality.  But a slight change in one dimension has ripple effects that you can notice in other areas of the riding experience.  Kid sized bikes are definitely not adult bikes.  
  • Gearing:  Get a “practical trekking crank with wide range cassette” for efficient power transfer. 
  • Wheels:  Get “reasonably fast touring tires inflated to an optimal pressure.”  Probably the single most important piece of advice.  If you haven't noticed, mountain bike tires are slow!  
That old Tourney fit me well, ten gears were enough to handle anything I came across, and the tires that came stock were thin enough to keep me rolling quickly.  But we parted ways when I caught the recumbent bug.  Since then I've had a long string of human powered vehicles, some better than others.  I think it's now time I reconnect with a bike like the first one I had (but better).  Sure, on a longer ride, going recumbent is so much more relaxed.  But I'm not going on very long rides.  The majority of my trips are less than ten miles.  On the rare occasion I would ride 20 miles in a day I would just have to take more breaks to balance the “comfort equation” back in favor of upright bikes... maybe I'd have to take a lot more breaks.  (Who says I can't?)  I plan to have a bike that meets these criteria by May, when my wife and I plan on biking in Denali again.  Her bike could definitely use some faster tires. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Jerry Coyne

I read several portions of Coyne's "Why Evolution Is True" dealing with sexual selection, human evolution, and the implications of adopting an evolutionary point of view.  While all aspects of evolution are interesting, these are especially fascinating to me.  In the last entry I included an excerpt from the preface I particularly liked, now I will turn to these other sections that also deserve special note. 

Coyne describes on page 167 an interesting study done in 1998 by Burley and Symanski in which they tried to manipulate sexual selection among finches by creating a new and entirely novel trait among males to see if females liked it (this is different than merely exaggerating a preexisting feature).  They glued a white feather pointing vertically on the heads of males.  As it turns out, the females liked it and preferred these artificially modified males!  Human body modifications also sometimes result in greater mate attraction.  Breast implants, tattoos, and hair styles are all well known examples. 

From pages 210 to 220 Coyne provided a very interesting description of the genetic differences between us and our nearest living relatives, and the genetic differences among humans today.  While the differences that separate us from chimps are actually substantial when one understands how to interpret the genetic information, the differences among human populations are comparatively nonexistent.  There is more variation within races than between them. 

Now to the more philosophical problems, which Coyne tackles in the final chapter.  While there is research suggesting that "evolution can favor genes that lead to cooperation, altruism, and even morality."  Coyne unequivocally states that it is impossible to derive meaning, purpose or ethics from evolution, "It can't tell us what to do, or how we should behave."  On pages 230-231 he writes:
The world still teems with selfishness, immorality, and injustice.  But look elsewhere and you'll find innumerable acts of kindness and altruism.  There may be elements of both behaviors that come from our evolutionary heritage, but these acts are largely matters of choice, not of genes...  Evolution tells us where we came from, not where we can go.  And although evolution operates in a purposeless, materialistic way, that doesn't mean our lives have no purpose.  Whether through religious or secular thought, we make our own purposes, meaning, and morality.
That about says it.  Evolution gave us the raw materials, and we are active agents in the shaping of our future.  We choose which impulses to act on and which to suppress.  It is a process of continual growth and change.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Discover's science headlines of 2010

Among the opening paragraphs to his book “Why Evolution is True”, Jerry Coyne writes:
Learning about evolution can transform us in a deep way.  It shows us our place in the whole splendid and extraordinary panoply of life.  It unites us with every living thing on the earth today and with myriads of creatures long dead.  ...the process of evolution- natural selection, the mechanism that drove the first naked, replicating molecule into the diversity of millions of fossil and living forms- is a mechanism of staggering simplicity and beauty.  
I can personally attest to this sentiment.  The more one learns about the processes of evolution, the more one recognizes them in everyday life.  The explanatory power of evolutionary biology is better than any religion.  Recently I read through Discover magazine's annual “The Year in Science” issue, and among their top 100 stories of 2010 I found a few especially noteworthy.  The first (though numbered “three” according to the editors at the magazine) to catch my attention was an interview with E.O. Wilson about his recent paper in the journal Nature questioning the usefulness of kin selection.  Kin selection is often used as an explanation for altruism.  Many people, including Jerry Coyne, think he was wrong.  (I haven't found a link to the original paper online.) 

I'll quickly describe a few other bits from the magazine.  Next, though numbered 86, was research by John Endler (whose research was also featured in Dawkins book) about bowerbirds that employ forced perspective to deceive potential mates into thinking they are bigger than they actually are.  Very cool.  I was also happy to see Craig Venter's work with the first artificially synthesized genome mentioned at number two.  New to me was an article published in the September issue of Cell, authored by Raju Tomer, which garnered the number 12 spot.  It described similarities between the human and ragworm brains as a result of descent from a common ancestor.  I became more familiar with our Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, who seems to be taking a refreshingly long view on energy policy, at number 25; learned about loricifera, multicellular organisms capable of surviving without oxygen, at number 65, and lastly contemplated what the implications of “dark flow” may mean for our universe (if correct) at number 76. 

The papers by Wilson, Endler, and Tomer dealt with some of the most intriguing subjects, all of these were directly about evolutionary biology.  And I didn't even mention the articles specifically about human anthropology! 

Sauna possibilities

The amount of work put into something should be commensurate with the actual payoff in the end.  It's evolutionarily sound advice.  But when it comes to our pet projects and interests, it can be hard to follow – it's hard to quantify and measure the value of happiness.  (Perhaps it could be indirectly measured as reduced symptoms of stress.)  I have been giving thought to the design of a sauna I would like to build this summer, and the variety of interesting features that I could build into it.  One of these is mobility.  A sauna can be relatively empty, small, and light - heating a large space is inefficient.  Glenn at Sauna Times has a very nice 8x12 sauna custom built by Tuff Shed that contains a changing room and enough space for a sauna party (see video tour).  It was designed to be moved around using a flat bed trailer; his current project is to build a sauna affixed to its own trailer.  (It would operate like this.  I could get bids at a machine shop for fabricating one locally, perhaps.)  Building a small sauna on a skid foundation, like this calf range shelter, would allow a well braced building to be towed short distances, say to the top of my hill for a great view.  If so desired, it would be easier to move it than build it there in the first place, since all my materials and electricity are down by the house.  Besides, methods for moving much larger buildings using only the strength of a single man are well documented by many intrepid individuals, like Wally Wallington.  I even considered building a rotating sauna, like the post mills of yore, or a sauna on a trailer, like Jay Shafer's tiny house "Epu", or a sauna conversion of a trailer RV.  And I looked through the interesting book "Revolving Architecture: A History of Buildings That Rotate, Swivel, and Pivot" by Chad Randl.  But I would get the greatest benefit per effort expended, and incur the least risk financially, if I built a small sauna on a skid and concrete block foundation.  Added complexities such as those described above, while providing more convenience and possibilities for sauna use, could double the cost and time involved, and would make more sense once I have more experience and resources.  An interesting side idea: in a very windy climate, one could use wind energy alone to create enough heat for a sauna.  This is a very realistic possibility in many coastal areas of Alaska, where other sources of renewable energy are either unavailable or more difficult to harness.  (Hmmm... I wonder when Chena Hot Springs will ever build a sauna at their resort with geothermal energy?)