Tag Archives: evolution

The Red Queen in Iraq

The Red Queen has to keep running just to stay in the same place

The Economist has a fascinating article on the arms race going on between American soldiers and bomb makers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A great example is something called “Darwin” patrols. Many early improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were triggered by remote controls for garage doors. The CIA quickly realized this and began driving around pressing their own garage openers. Any bomb makers nearby would be blown up.

Predictably, these easy wins didn’t last. By killing those bomb makers the CIA effectively improved bomb making. Only better IEDs and bomb makers survived – hence the name “Darwin” patrols.

As the coalition forces become better at detecting IEDs the bomb makers get better at making them. There are plenty more examples of innovation being met with innovation in the article.

Both sides must constantly keep improving just to keep up. This is common in evolutionary biology and is known as the Red Queen effect.

In Through the Looking Glass (the sequel to Alice in Wonderland) the Red Queen tells Alice:

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

It’s a great name for this effect.

Wherever there is competition, from biology to the Iraq war to the office, the Red Queen effect arises. We have to keep moving, just to stay where we are.

The Psychology of Power and Corruption

The old anecdote says that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Economist has a fascinating article describing experiments into this effect.

These experiments show that there is in fact a causal link between power and corruption. Even more interestingly, they may point to the reason for this link.

How the experiments work

The researchers used “priming” techniques to make test subjects feel either powerful or powerless.

Once primed, both high-power and low power subjects were asked to rate the morality of various situations. For example the researchers asked subjects to rate the morality of cheating on taxes or of taking an abandoned bicycle.

The results

The experiments showed a significant difference in the judgments of high-power and low power subjects:

  • High-power = Judge others more harshly than yourself
  • Low-power = Judge others more leniently and yourself more harshly

Power does indeed seem to cause people to judge themselves more leniently than others – they are moral hypocrites.

The entitlement hint

It seems that powerful people not only abuse the system, they also feel entitled to abuse it. This proved to be an important hint and the researchers did more experiments to explore this entitlement.

In these experiments the subjects were primed again, but this time entitlement was split from power:

  • High-power subjects who felt they deserved to be powerful
  • High-power subjects who felt they did not deserve the power
  • Low-power who deserved to be powerless
  • Low-power who did not deserve to be powerless

These subjects were also asked to rate moral actions of themselves and others.

Again the powerless judged others leniently and themselves harshly. This was true whether they legitimately powerless or not.

As expected, those who felt entitled to their power judged others very harshly and themselves very leniently.

The interesting result is for those who were powerful but felt the high-power position was undeserved. These subjects were lenient on others but very harsh on themselves.

This was the exact opposite of the normal result for high-power test subjects.

The reasons why

Why would undeserving powerful people be harsher on themselves than others? That is the opposite of the usual reaction to having power.

The answer to that question provides an elegant explanation for the whole set of results.

Humans evolved living in smallish groups with dominance hierarchies. In such hierarchies all of the experimental results make sense.

Powerful (dominant) members of the band can get away with bending the rules (judging themselves more leniently). They should also deal harshly with anyone lower in the hierarchy taking a chance (judging others more harshly).

Powerless group members should be submissive – they should judge others (normally more dominant) leniently and themselves harshly.

When people from low in the hierarchy find themselves temporarily in powerful positions they are in danger of attracting punishment from the true dominants.

So they act extra-submissively by judging themselves extra harshly and being extra lenient on others.

It all makes sense!

Why are humans (mostly) hairless?

Most of us are (mostly) hairless. That is very unusual among mammals and pretty much unique among primates.

Why have humans evolved this trait? This New Scientist article outlines some of theories offered over the years.

We still don’t have a conclusive answer.

Theory 1: Avoiding the heat

Perhaps hairlessness made us better running hunters?As humans became savanna hunters body hair was shed to avoid overheating during long runs.

I have blogged before about theories suggesting that the human combination of hairlessness and profuse sweating allows for persistence hunting.

The problem:

Why has no other mammal adopted this strategy?

Many other mammals would benefit from better cooling systems and they all have fur – what is so different about us? Fur actually insulates against heat and the sun as well as keeping us warm in the cold.

Theory 2: Side-effect of big brains

This theory suggests that nakedness is a side effect of growing larger brains. It was noted that:

  • Human brains grow very rapidly just before birth
  • Humans retain characteristics of juvenile apes (flatter faces, bigger heads and eyes and naked skin).

The idea is that the stage just before birth has been protracted to allow the brain to grow even larger.

The problem:

If having hair were an advantage then we would just grow hair later in life. For example, we grow teeth even though we aren’t born with teeth.

Theory 3: No ticks here

Another theory is that we lost our hair in order to avoid ticks and other parasites.

The problem:

Why only us? If this were really an advantage other mammals would have evolved the same thing.

Theory 4: Aquatic ape

Humans are hairless and have a thin layer of fat under their skin. Sounds like whales and dolphins right?

The idea is that our evolutionary ancestors went through a stage evolving in aquatic environments. This could also help to describe why we walk upright.

By otters have thick fur...The problems:

There are many problems with this theory (read about them on Wikipedia). For example, humans can’t hold their breath very well and are not efficient swimmers.

Most importantly, hairlessness is only an advantage in fully aquatic species like dolphins and whales. Even full time swimmers like otters and seals have thick fur and swim superbly. In short, the aquatic ape theory doesn’t work all that well…

Persistence hunting – humans running antelope to death

Kalahari bushman after a successful persistence hunt of a male kuduA while ago I watched a David Attenborough documentary that showed a bushman man running a Kudu to death. It was pretty amazing stuff – by persistently chasing the kudu through the heat of the day he was able to exhaust it to the point of collapse.

(Watch that part of the documentary on YouTube – 7 minutes)

I was very impressed (and sorry for the Kudu) but assumed that this was highly unusual.

It turns out that in ancient history persistence hunting (as it is known) was actually very common. In fact some anthropologists believe humans hunted in this way before they had tools such as spears and bows.

Our bodies are so well adapted to endurance running (especially in hot conditions where prey easily overheat) that these anthropologists believe persistence hunting was an evolutionary force in humans. It seems we are specifically evolved to be able to run a large antelope into heat exhaustion.

Some examples (many more in the other articles):

  • Running on two legs is slower in a sprint, but more efficient over long distances
  • Humans have toes that are far shorter than all other primates. This has been shown to be a big advantage – but only when running over distance
  • Hairless bodies and our all over sweating allows running in the heat. Antelope aren’t nearly as efficient at getting rid of heat – they must stop to pant

Interesting stuff. Here is another short article on the subject.

Change we can believe in

Darwin Change posterI just love these Obama parody posters of Darwin. The original Obama posters were good, but these are just great.

View some more on the original page.

Also, from that page I was found a link to this great video. It compresses 4.6 billions years of life into 60 seconds. It’s a great way to show just what an explosion has happened in the last few hundred million years.

More shocking evolution stats

Numbers like those represented in this graph from The Economist upset me badly. The fact that only about 40% of Americans believe evolution is true is just horrific!

Anyone who knows anything about evolution (it is so fundamental that it should be taught in primary school) should see evolution for what it is – obviously true.

Evolution is so mind-blowingly obvious that I’m often surprised when intelligent friends refute it. I’ve gone to great lengths to understand how intelligent people who are not ignorant of the details can still argue against evolution.


These guys and girls are so desperate to hold onto something that they reject something as fundamental and as obvious as evolution…

Graph showing belief in evolution by country

Another example of evolution in action

Dung Beetles on the road to speciation

Dung beetles – evolving

One of the lies frequently used to refute evolution is that it can’t be seen happening. That argument is, of course, both irrelevant and untrue.

Evolution is routinely observed in action and a recently published paper (reported in The Economist) has illustrated yet another case. What I like about this case is that it illustrates speciation.

Speciation is more than an animal evolving a trait (like a longer tail, or bigger teeth) but rather a single species evolving into two different species. The resulting species are unable to interbreed and will go on to evolve completely separately – just has humans and chimps have evolved separately since their own ancient split.

The object of the study was the humble dung beetle, or rather a specific species of dung beetle which has recently split into four species. The beetles in question were introduced into eastern Australia, western Australia and North Carolina within the last 50 years.

Since then (through a fascinating mechanism that has to do with the relationships between horn, penis and vagina sizes – read the article for more detail) the different populations have developed to the point where they are (or very nearly are) completely different species.

Well within a human lifetime. Take that.

Fertile women have more attractive voices

New Scientist has this article about a study showing that a woman’s voice becomes more attractive when she is most fertile. The researchers made recordings of women during four different phases of their menstrual cycles. The recordings were played in random order to both men and women, who consistently rated recordings made during fertile stages as more attractive. It seems that using voice alone both men and women are able to subconsciously detect fertility.

I’ve previously blogged about another experiment showing that fertile lap dancers earn more tips – this is just another example of the fact that we can subconsciously detect fertile women.

I explain the evolutionary reasoning behind these interesting effects in that article. In short, it pays women to conceal when they are fertile – so men will stick around all the time to be sure. It pays men to know when women are fertile so that they can focus energy when it counts.

The truth about morality

This post is loosely based on the superb article by Steven Pinker: The Moral Instinct

Humans are afraid of heights. Around the world humans of all cultures have an in-built fear of heights. Have you ever wondered why people have that fear? It’s to prevent injury and death as a result of falling. Right?

If proximity to heights induces fear then people will feel an urge to get away from the heights. Humans who are afraid of heights are therefore less likely to die by falling (even if they aren’t conscious of why they fear heights). Evolution has made fearing heights part of what it is to be human. It is an instinct wired into our brains.

Pretty simple. But did you ever think that morality – our sense of right and wrong – is also an evolved instinct? It’s a little less obvious but true.

The basic moral principles
By studying people’s moral judgments around the world anthropologists have realized that there are basic moral principles which appear to be universal to almost all people and across all cultures (they are instinctive, not cultural). A list of these basic moral principles has been suggested by Jonathan Haidt:

  • Harm: Don’t harm innocent people
  • Fairness: Reciprocate favors and punish cheaters
  • Community: Loyalty, sharing, and solidarity among group members. Conforming to group norms
  • Authority: Follow authority and respect people with high status
  • Purity: Aim for cleanliness and and avoid defilement and contamination

These moral heuristics (rules-of-thumb) are instincts that have evolved for very good reasons – they helped our ancestors. Violating these principles makes people uncomfortable so in general the principles are obeyed. Pinker gives details on the evolution of the moral heuristics and he points out that the same moral principles have even been observed in monkeys (I have blogged about monkeys having a sense of fairness).

As an illustration I’ll go into more detail on the evolution of fairness and it’s associated emotions.

The evolution of morality – fairness
Humans benefit by working together in groups: we are all better off working together than any of us would be working alone. If I share my extra mammoth meat with you today when I have too much anyway, then you share with me later when I really need it. It pays both of us to work together.

However, as I have noted in the past, if people can cheat they will cheat – that complicates things.

Axelrod (and Dawkins among others) has shown that cooperation can and does evolve. Axelrod showed that evolutionary agents (for our discussion these are people) do naturally evolve toward a basic cooperative strategy (known as tit-for-tat). This strategy basically specifies:

  1. Cooperation by default. This means that you get the benefit of cooperating with other ‘friendly’ people.
  2. Punishment of cheating. Don’t let the ‘bad’ people get away with it.
  3. Forgiveness. Once the cheat has been punished try to cooperate again.

If you think about it, this kind of strategy makes excellent sense – cooperate as much as possible, but don’t tolerate cheats. Robert Trivers suggested that humans unconsciously implement a kind of tit-for-tat strategy through their moral emotions. Steven Pinker has given us the following examples:

  • Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest.
  • Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the cheat or sever the relationship.
  • Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past.
  • Guilt prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and advertising that he will behave better in the future.

So, we can see how several emotions and the moral sense of fairness have evolved in order to help humans implement a strategy for cooperation. Evolution is brilliant!

So what?
All this is fascinating, but it also has some interesting and powerful implications:

1. There is no absolute right and wrong – it’s all in our heads
Our sense of right-and-wrong is actually just an evolved instinct. There is no universal right-and-wrong or good-and-evil. There is just the moral judgment that each person makes using their instincts.

If my moral judgment in a situation is different to yours then who is right? There is no universal morality to appeal to for an answer. We are both just letting our moral instinct make a judgment – so we are both right… If there is no universal morality then what can we use to compare moral judgments?

Humans have a pragmatic way of dealing with this: we agree on moral judgments and then expect everyone in our society to abide by those judgments. It’s a real cop-out and, as we will see below, sometimes those judgments don’t make all that much sense.

2. Our moral ‘sense’ is as fallible as other senses – moral illusions
Our moral sense is evolved just like our sense of sight. There are countless examples of optical illusions illustrating that even something as trusted as our sense of sight regularly gets things wrong. Similarly, our sense of morality can get things “wrong” quite easily.

We know that our sense of sight has got something “wrong” when we realize that what we thought we saw doesn’t match reality. As we have learned (implication 1 above) we have no similar way of judging our moral instincts. So when I say that our moral sense gets things wrong, I mean that if you think about some moral judgments rationally they don’t always make sense.

This is because morality is based on heuristics (the 5 moral principles from earlier) which don’t necessarily lead to rational and consistent judgments every time. The trolley problem (worth an entire posting itself) is an excellent example but here I will give a simpler example from Pinker.

A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body, cook it and eat it for dinner.

What is so wrong with that? Seriously? It causes us to feel disgust because it hits the purity principle, but rationally there is actually nothing wrong with it. No one is harmed; the family is happy and had a cheap and delicious meal to remember their dog by. Be rational. We just feel that this is wrong but we don’t have good reasons for it. Perhaps this is a case of the purity instinct firing unnecessarily.

Disclaimer: As you will see if you read about the trolley problem, rationally examining moral judgments can make you feel very uncomfortable. I still don’t know what to think…

3. Sometimes what we perceive as immoral is just a different weighting on the basic moral principles
We now know that there is no universal moral code against which we can measure moral judgments. We also know that sometimes our moral judgments don’t even make rational sense. How can we judge others as wrong or immoral if their judgments differ from our own?

As Pinker points out, the other party is often also acting morally, he/she has just used different priorities on the 5 moral principles:

Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

Where to from here?
In short: I don’t know.

For instance, I have previously attacked those Muslims who thought it just to execute a teacher for naming a teddy bear Muhammad. Now I realise that they were acting by their own moral judgments. I still disagree strongly with them, but I now know that I don’t have any moral high-ground.

I would like to appeal to rationality to show that I am right, but I’m not at all comfortable using rationality against all moral decisions so that would be cheating.

Knowing more about the true nature of morality hasn’t given me the answers – it has made me realise that I wasn’t even aware of the questions!

Richard Dawkins explains reasons to believe things

Richard Dawkins - excellent author and scientistRichard Dawkins is a great author and evolutionary biologist – I have several of his books at home. Dawkins is also well known as a vociferous atheist which means many people blindly reject what he says. I recently read a letter that he apparently wrote to his 10 year old daughter back in 1995 about belief. It makes for excellent reading – very easy to understand which is important.

Basically, he is writing about why she (and people in general) should believe things. The GOOD reason for believing in things is evidence:

  • Direct evidence. For instance astronauts have been out into space and seen that the earth is really round. That is a good reason to believe that it really is round.
  • Indirect evidence. Where direct observation is not possible we can still find evidence that an idea is right. Dawkins gives the example of a detective at a murder scene. He can still work out who did it, even though nobody actually saw the crime.

Dawkins then goes on to describe BAD reasons for believing something:

  • Tradition. Beliefs are often passed down through generations. Just because they are old beliefs doesn’t make them true. As Dawkins says “No matter how long ago a story was made up, it is still exactly as true or untrue as the original story was”. Tradition is a bad reason to believe something.
  • Authority. Just because somebody tells you to believe something doesn’t make it true. Sometimes I do take somebody’s word on something – like the speed of sound. The difference is that there is evidence that I can look at if I wanted. I have taken a shortcut, but I can do that because there is evidence available.
  • Revelation. Dawkins defines revelation as when people have a “feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true”. Unless there is actually evidence (a good reason) which agrees with your gut feeling then it is a bad reason to believe something.

The last bit of the letter is what I am increasingly finding crucial. People need to learn to think a little:

Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “What kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.