Friday, October 19, 2012

Another Evolutionary Paradox?

The IDiots are remarkably good at uncritical thinking. When you couple this tendency to ignorance of evolution, you come up with some remarkable conclusions.

Take, for example, the well-known fact that rich people tend to have fewer children than poor people. What this means is that poor people are better at passing on their genes (alleles) to the next generation than rich people. If there is a genetic component to richness and poorness then poor people are "more fit" than rich people and, eventually, the poorness alleles will become fixed in the population. That's just a fact and it doesn't matter what you might think about the genetic advantage of being rich.

Of course there may not be any significant difference in the genetic compositions of rich people and poor people in which case the argument becomes moot.

Let's see how an anonymous IDiot deals with this information on their main blog site, Evolution News & Views (sic) ... [Survival of the Poorest: Another Evolutionary Paradox].
Here's another evolutionary paradox: the "demographic transition." We've alluded to this before, but why not recall the point? Darwin notwithstanding, it seems to support the view that the meek shall inherit the earth.

By all accounts, the rich should be, in Darwinian terms, the fittest. They have the most resources, and the most opportunities for advancement. Yet they leave fewer offspring. That's the finding of a large study of Swedish families that's just been completed.

Nature recently recognized that this has been a known contradiction to evolutionary theory.
"Fitness" is defined in all evolutionary biology textbooks as ...
The fitness of a genotype is the average lifetime contribution of individuals of that genotype to the population after one or more generations ... A general term for this number is reproductive success, which includes not simply the average number of offspring produced by the reproductive process, but the number that survive, since survival is prerequisite to reproduction.

Futuyma, D.J. (2009) Evolution p. 306
Do the IDiots ever read basic introductory evolution textbooks or do they just pull out "evolutionary paradoxes" from their nether parts? There's no contradiction with evolutionary theory and there's nothing in "Darwinian terms" that defines fitness as anything but reproductive success.

The only "puzzle" might be the naive presumption that rich people should have more reproductive success than poor people but we've known that this isn't true for over one hundred years.


[Photo Credit: Ten children of Ethel and Bobby Kennedy (the 11th child was born after Bobby was killed). This is the exception that proves the rule. Prompted by last night's viewing of the remarkable documentary Ethel which also prompts the question, "Why doesn't America have principled politicians like Bobby Kennedy any more?"]

33 comments :

  1. I am not at all sure rich people have fewer kids - a lot of celebrities and billionaires seem to have three, four, five kids. Obviously, there is no hard data readily available on this but my hypothesis is that at the very top of the income distribution people actually have more children while the demographic transition theory actually applies only to the middle class in industrialized countries.

    Which makes perfect evolutionary sense - the super-rich can afford to have a lot of kids because they can hire nannies, private tutors, send them to good schools without worrying about the cost, etc. While a middle class family has few kids not so much because they don't want to have more but because they can not afford to - because if you want your kids to "succeed in life", i.e. to successfully reproduce and have high social status, you need to provide them with the needed resource and education for this to happen. And middle class people squeezed between working long hours, paying mortgages and other debt, etc., simply can not afford to do that.

    It is telling that the middle class people who have a lot of kids tend to be religious fundamentalists who have their social status already established by being part of a closed religious community and who typically are not too worried about sending their kids to $40,000-a-year colleges.

    Another very relevant piece of data is that back in the middle of the 20th century when communist countries in Eastern Europe were rapidly industrializing birth rates fell dramatically. This wasn't because people were getting rich - people were very poor - but they were forced to work 12-hour work days in order to build socialism as fast as possible, and they simply didn't have time to have kids and raise them.

    Now the demographic transition theory is indeed bogus, but that's not because of evolutionary theory, but because it assumes causation from the anticorrelation between birth rates and income, which is absolutely not the case and is in fact postulated in blatant disregard of the way human behavior is expected to be driven from an evolutionary perspective

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  2. "This is the exception that proves the rule."

    What the eleven children of Ethel and Bobby Kennedy prove is, through luck or good management, Bobby Kennedy married a women physically fit enough to bear eleven children. Yes, the Kennedys were and are rich and could afford to have lots of children, but they were also very Catholic. I did not watch the documentary you mention, but I do remember Ethel Kennedy being lauded as an ideal example of Catholic womanhood.

    It is more difficult to answer your question, "Why doesn't America have principled politicians like Bobby Kennedy any more?" However, the fact that Bobby Kennedy was a principled politician proves that the sins of the father are not always passed on to the sons.

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  3. Bobby Kennedy only became a principled politician after his brother was assassinated. Before that, he was a follower of Joe McCarthy, serving as the legal council of the latter's committee.

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    1. He was principled in the 1950s as well. Just the wrong principles. :-)

      According to "Ethel" Bobby became disillusioned with McCarthy and that's why he resigned from the commission after six months.

      In any case, I'm referring mostly to his run for President in 1968. He was a far, far, better candidate that any I've seen in the past 44 years.

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    2. Excuse me, as Attorney General under his brother, he approved J. Edgar Himmler's surveillance/smear campaign against Martin Luther King. My only point is that nothing is gained by whitewashing his record in the 1950s and early 1960s. The fact that he changed for the better after the assassination of his brother is to his credit.

      Just for the record, I voted for Kennedy in the 1968 California Democratic primary so I would agree that, by that time, he was better then his opponent, Gene McCarthy and certainly far superior to the mentally unstable Richard Nixon.

      As a personal note, at the time, I was a postdoc at the Un. of Oregon and attended one of his rallies when he was campaigning for the Oregon primary where I got to shake hands with him after his speech.

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  4. Rich people do have more kids. Greg Clark documented this extensively and convincingly (e.g. "Farewell to Alms"). As Larry alludes to, this general trend has changed in the past ~100 years. Super rich people still have a lot of kids: an average of 2.7 children per person for Top 20 Forbes list (I am sure the number is higher when one gets it across thee whole 400 and/or also accounts for extramarital children). Alas, those merely rich and well-to-do increasingly have fewer. But 100 years is only a blimp in evolutionary terms. And it won't last. Because the current economic environment is quite exceptional and it won't last. I'd wager that within the next 100 years the middle class will disappear and rich and super rich will start promoting/enforcing population control aimed primarily at lower income folks.

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  5. The EN&V article is a complete and utter failure.
    The whole point of evolution, according to its theorists, is that it is an unguided process, whereas the number of children one decides to have, especially when one is in a higher income/education tier is almost entirely a result of conscious decisions.
    These conscious choices override the cruder mechanisms of natural selection, unless anyone wishes to argue that every human mental enterprise, up to and including the production of an Italian opera or an Elizabethan play, is solely driven by the so called 'laws of the jungle'.

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    1. rather than 'unguided', I probably should have written 'un-conscious', in order to emphasize, not driven by conscious decisions (as is the case in terms of humans deciding how many children to have)

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  6. These conscious choices override the cruder mechanisms of natural selection, unless anyone wishes to argue that every human mental enterprise, up to and including the production of an Italian opera or an Elizabethan play, is solely driven by the so called 'laws of the jungle'.

    It would be enough if conscious choices were influenced by hereditary factors (genomic differences) to a statistically significant degree. They would not have to be solely determined by anything genetic -- a slight bias would suffice. However, one cannot assume such influence a priori. It would have to be demonstrated first.

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    1. I don't see that. It's still comparing apples to oranges. Human conscious decisions are not the same as natural selection. Even if a statistically influential number of rich people decide to have less children, or a country such as China decides to adopt a one-child policy which results in there being a statistically anomalous amount of boys, that is NOT natural selection.
      That is human decision making, and it is unlike anything else in nature.

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    2. Andy, I nowhere said that human decisions were the same as natural selection, so don't put stupid simplifications in my mouth. All I mean is that it's conceivable that human conscious decisions could be biassed (no matter how slightly) by biological predispositions. And if the bias were strong enough to have consequences in terms of reproductive statistics, it would have a selective effect in the long run. As for human decision-making being different from anything else in nature, it isn't something you can just decree. There are quite a few smart species capable of planning ahead and imagining the consequences of their actions. Not on a par with us humans, admittedly, but why would you like to treat consciousness as a uniquely human attribute?

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    3. Piotr, forgive me for seeming to put words in your mouth. My point was that the article is incorrect in even suggesting that there would be a 'paradox' in evolution should it turn out that poor people out-produce rich people. You argued that 'it would be enough if conscious choices were influenced by hereditary factors". I don't accept that. I don't think it would be 'enough' to legitimately raise any kind of serious charge of paradox or discrepancy.

      As for treating consciousness as a uniquely human attribute, it is now you who are putting words in my mouth. On this very site, I have argued that LM's definition of science is too porous, and have used the example of beaver's dam building activities as an example of 'science; according to his definition.
      Nevertheless, human consciousness, as it pertains to decision making, IS of an entirely different order, and therefore does deserve special consideration in the argument about evolutionary paradox. Consider the example I gave, of China's one-child policy. This roughly forty year old decision is proving to have enormous economic and social impact on that country. Its current leaders are aware of this. They have looked at graphs, undertaken studies, made future predictions based on current data, reviewed plans for measures to address these economic and social impacts, and are working diligently to manage the looming problems as best they can. They are using sophisticated technology and the best in terms of statistical and demographic research methodologies to make their decisions.
      I doubt that you will be able to provide me with an example from anywhere else in biology that equates to that. And you might find even a tad of irony in the fact that you and are capable of having this discussion, although we are living thousands of miles apart. Beavers, as much as I admire their abilities, haven't even developed smoke signals. So it is not a question of me 'liking' to treat human consciousness differently. It is a common sense awareness of the fact that human consciousness IS different.

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    4. My point was that the article is incorrect in even suggesting that there would be a 'paradox' in evolution should it turn out that poor people out-produce rich people.

      I agree, though perhaps not for exactly the same reasons. I originally referred to your sentence, "These conscious choices override the cruder mechanisms of natural selection". Demographic planning aside, I don't find it hard to imagine that there might be heritable biological factors influencing our "conscious choices" (including the choice to have more children), even if cultural and economic factors override them in modern societies. That's not enough for the article to even begin to make sense -- no dispute about that.

      ...And you might find even a tad of irony in the fact that you and are capable of having this discussion, although we are living thousands of miles apart.

      Don't confuse the modern civilisation with the general human condition. It's easy to take sophisticated technlogy and global communication for granted, but even thirty years ago such a discussion would have been impossible.

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    5. Piotr writes, " It's easy to take sophisticated technlogy and global communication for granted, but even thirty years ago such a discussion would have been impossible."

      Nevertheless, communication by letters, (remember 'snail mail'?) would have enabled a form of communication well beyond the capacity of any other species. So I'm taking nothing for granted.

      I find it hard to understand why it should be a matter of dispute that human consciousness, inventiveness, intelligence, etc. are of a different order compared to other species. Can one not make similar arguments about the sonar abilities of bats and whales; i.e., that they are of altogether a different magnitude over regular hearing?

      One may not want to readily concede points if they appear to 'throw a bone' to creationists, who have different reasons for concluding the human mind is extraordinary, but above all common sense should be the default position.

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    6. I find it hard to understand why it should be a matter of dispute that human consciousness, inventiveness, intelligence, etc. are of a different order compared to other species.

      Because it is actually an untested assumption. We assume it because we have cities, etc. We really have no idea about ALL other species of the world, and this has been the default assumption for a very long time.

      Each thing we claim that sets us apart (tool use, tool fashioning, etc) is eventually observed by another species. This shrinking space of human "specialness" should be a warning that we just have incomplete understanding of the diversity out there, so it is premature to make hard claims. It would be safer to preface it with an "as we currently know" due to the anthro-centric views that permeate our culture.

      In contrast, we do know that these other species have perceptions that we do not. There is no argument there.

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    7. Nevertheless, communication by letters, (remember 'snail mail'?) would have enabled a form of communication well beyond the capacity of any other species. So I'm taking nothing for granted.

      Writing, in this case. It's just over 5 kyr old, wile the age of anatomically modern Homo sapiens is at least of the order of 200 kyr. It means no human used writing for 97.5% of our history, and only a tiny proportion of the total population were able to read and/or write for most of the remaining 2.5%.

      Of course we have had articulated language all along, and that is different from all known forms of non-human communication. Here, as a linguist, I'm glad to concede a point. But the ability to communicate using speech, unlike the ability to write, is our biological property, something that requires a number of anatomical and neurophysiological adaptations, so it must have evolved gradually out of earlier forms of communications, surely not overnight.

      I find it hard to understand why it should be a matter of dispute that human consciousness, inventiveness, intelligence, etc. are of a different order compared to other species. Can one not make similar arguments about the sonar abilities of bats and whales; i.e., that they are of altogether a different magnitude over regular hearing?

      I don't dispute the difference of order, as long as one doesn't try to iterpret this difference as an unbridgeable gap.

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    8. Anonymous, we can't really limit ourselves to only the most reductive definitions. If we use the definition of 'tool use' to compare, for example, chimpanzees sharpening sticks - or even the elaborate constructions of bower birds - to the internet, a skyscraper, or a nuclear power plant, we are obfuscating rather than clarifying. Why even bother, when any rational person can see the breadth of difference?

      An 'unbridgeable gap'? Hardly. There is nothing to say that different species may not at some point develop similar abilities. There is nothing to say that we humans may eventually figure out a way to give ourselves the olfactory abilities of a bloodhound, estimated to be as much as ten thousand times our own.

      In the meantime, better to be realistic about the appearances, such as they are, of life on earth. No animal seems either capable or interested in developing a game like chess. No animals have been observed trying to score intellectual points off one another as frequently happens on sites like this, either. ;)

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    9. andyboerger says,

      I have argued that LM's definition of science is too porous, and have used the example of beaver's dam building activities as an example of 'science; according to his definition.

      I define science as a way of knowing that requires evidence, healthy skepticism, and rational thinking. I fail to see how beavers building dams qualifies as science using that definition. However, if your point is simply that other species use the scientific way of knowing then I agree.

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    10. Larry, your definition of science as articulated above is fine. However, the statement, ' other species use the scientific way of knowing' is bound to confuse, or at least calls for clarification (giving rise to my labeling your definition 'porous').

      How are you differentiating between science and the scientific way of knowing?

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    11. @ andyboerger,

      I agree with your comments on paragraph 2, but that's about it. Maybe the first 1:50 of this video will put what I am trying to say in perspective. (As the rest pertains to communicating with aliens, it is amusing but not relevant to what I am saying).

      Your 1st paragraph in the reply was exactly the kind of anthro-centric argument I was alluding to. By defining the things we do as the important signs of Superior Intellect(TM), of course you get us as "of a different order compared to other species". And once someone says "yes, but elephants appear to have a mourning-the-dead ritual as well", you just move the goal posts, and re-define "special" as what make our funerals different. You can see this pattern in the tool use discussions, occurring constantly. At what point do we stop re-defining special and admit that we are only special by our own clever definitions?

      My motives are more than scoring intellectual points. We are taught by our culture that we are better than and superior to other species. This has an effect on our behaviors that lead us to make the decisions that lead to issues like mass extinction of the other primates due to hunting and habitat destruction much easier. If we learned to see ourselves as just another species among beings not-that-different-from-us, do you think we would behave the way we do regarding issues of environmental protection and species conservation? Instead we just keep saying "we are better" and continue killing chimps for bushmeat and killing elephants for their pretty ivory.

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    12. anonymous, you are superimposing a moral and philosophical dimension to your argument that does not serve to strengthen it. Your heart is in the right place, but the logical equivocations you need to make to defend your moral stance is weak, as well as unnecessary.

      You will find many pet owners, and I am one of them, who will not for one second admit to feeling that they are 'superior' to the animal under their care. They don't need to see their animal as an intellectual equal to love, value and treasure it as much. Nor do they wait for their animal to come up to them and say, 'I think it's about time for me to go to the vet for a check up, right?' They are committed to handling the 'intellectual' portion of the relationship, without the feeling of superiority.

      Same with kindergarten teachers, to say nothing of parents. Never once in my life have I felt 'superior' to my daughter, even when she was incapable of anything but sleeping, crying, and the other things ;)
      There was neither pride in my superior reasoning abilities, nor any sense that she was somehow expendable due to the deficiency (temporary, of course) of her intellect. Now that she is smarter than me (hee hee), I hope she feels the same!

      If you have any doubts that I share your concerns about the environment and animals, you might like to look at this page on my blog, and read the articles 'The Dissent of Man' and "The Lonely Ape'. I can assure you that you and I share many concerns and deep feelings.

      http://andysart-andyboerger.blogspot.jp/p/environmental-issues.html

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    13. Anonymous asks,
      ' If we learned to see ourselves as just another species among beings not-that-different-from-us, do you think we would behave the way we do regarding issues of environmental protection and species conservation? '

      Yes, sadly, I think we would, or at least some of us would. Just as there are people who profit from war without any moral compunction nor thought for the people who will suffer immensely as a result of their behavior, who took the lazy and/or immoral (actually, considering the dangers, there is no way to argue that it WASN'T immoral) 'shortcuts' that led to the disasters in Fukushima and Bhopal, who force the Congolese to work their own lands as slaves, etc. etc.

      If there are many among us who are not capable of treating those within our own species as equals, I don't see how they would be convinced to behave more fairly toward other species.

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    14. @andyboerger

      If there are many among us who are not capable of treating those within our own species as equals, I don't see how they would be convinced to behave more fairly toward other species.

      Sadly, this is an excellent point. But I have to be optimistic.

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    15. @andyboerger

      Oops. After hitting preview, I must have forgotten to actually post the reply to your Sunday, October 21, 2012 8:10:00 PM post. Here is a short version.

      This would go easier at a pub with some beer :-)I guess I am not articulating my point well, and having 2 distinct thoughts in one post did not help. From my October 21, 2012 5:20:00 PM post, paragraph 1 and 2 were re-iterating my point about antrho-centric positions. I think it is safe to say neither of us is influencing the other, so that's basically the end of that conversation.

      The 3rd paragraph was an response to your last line, "No animals have been observed trying to score intellectual points off one another as frequently happens on sites like this, either. ;)". They need to be read as separate posts. I couldn't leave a smiley-wearing barb like that unanswered, could I?

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  7. In a social and cooperative society, like our own, the care and survival of the offspring is not left down to the parents alone, but rather to society as a whole. Hence, a human child born to wretchedly poor parents can still survive on charity or state benefits. In societies where selfish individualism matters above all else, disadvantaged offspring would have much less of a chance of surviving.

    Classical natural selection, as envisaged by Chuck Darwin, is about individual competition within interbreeding populations.

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  8. Besides, when has the number of children a person produces ever been a decent measure of reproductive fitness?

    My reproductive fitness is not accurately measured by the number of children I produce myself, but rather by the offspring my CHILDREN produce. If I have 25 children who are all sterile, my reproductive fitness would be pretty poor evolutionarily speaking.

    Mortality (infant and adult) is surely much higher among the offspring of poor parents than rich ones, and if we are talking about evolutionary concepts that matters.

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  9. "All I mean is that it's conceivable that human conscious decisions could be biassed (no matter how slightly) by biological predispositions."

    I's say that it's not only conceivable but pretty much expected unless strong evidence otherwise is presented. Either that or you're implying that human behaviour, by means of some special created event, are different ftrom all other animal life. And as you rightly state, "consciousness" is difficult to acess in other very inteligent species, and it's hardly established we are "special" (much to the detriment of creationists of all flavours"). Quite the contrary, it seems that the more we know the more it seems that consciouness may very weel be present in species such as chimps, dolphins, whales, etc, to varying degrees.

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    1. This was suposed to have been posted as a response to Piotr Gasiorowski above. Sorry!

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  10. ... the well-known fact that rich people tend to have fewer children than poor people.

    I think Larry has the right idea but maybe used the wrong word. The "rich" have always had as many or more children as the "poor" (think Solomon or Queen Victoria). The issue (particularly recently in western nations) is what happens when there are a large number of people between the very rich and the very poor. You might call them the "affluent but not endlessly so" ... or, more simply, the "middle class." They certainly do restrict their reproduction, in no small part so as to maintain their affluence.

    It was this tendency that led Darwin to flirt with eugenics (though only of the positive sort).

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  11. I have to ask the same question that I've asked repeatedly over the years: Why is it that those who reject evolution are often the first to embrace social Darwinism? Other than "they're stupid and/or ignorant and/or totally disingenuous", I've yet to figure out an answer.

    Dave Bailey

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  12. The discussion so far is interesting, but not really relevant to human evolution. Changes in social mores or laws are fleeting. The timescale involved in evolution of primates is not just multiple generations, which does not allow for propagation of genetic traits, but rather a minimum of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. The whole "social Darwinism" idea is a smokescreen used by creationists to deflect attention away from the fact that they are using scientific words, but not discussing science. To use a metaphor, it would be like discussing "How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?" by talking about load, density, and tensile strength of the pin, while completely ignoring the fact that angels are imaginary. The entire span of recorded human history is less than 8,000 years, far less than what is needed to start to see evolutionary change (not that anyone was keeping track 8,000 years ago). Conceding this critical concept to the ID/creationists is letting them define the argument, which by definition means science loses.

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    1. Jerry, in my experience many of them truly do preach social Darwinism, even if they don't call it that or even know the term. They seem quite genuine in their belief.

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