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Darwin’s Advice On How To Survive the Zombie Apocolypse

July 1, 2010

As I highlighted in my previous post, evolution works on zombies just like any other organism, the main difference is that they reproduce like cells rather than like animals. Darwin’s discovery that zombies pass on hereditary material in their bites, and that this has resulted in natural selection, helps to explain the diversity of zombies now before us. Below are a few of the main strategies that an evolutionary understanding can bring to counter the marauding hordes of decomposing evil that now threaten to overwhelm us.

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On the Origin of Zombie Species

July 1, 2010

Credit: Revenant Magazine
The origin of zombies (Genus: Zumbi) is well understood today, but this wasn’t the case when they were first discovered in the early 1800s. Charles Darwin was the first to recognize that zombie “reproduction” results in a process of descent with modification in a way analogous to that of non-undead species. Darwin’s insight was that, even though zombie’s don’t reproduce sexually, random mutations in hereditary material can be passed along after a zombie bite. Each “daughter zombie” then inherits the traits of their parent and pass those traits along to their victim in turn.
It is now known that, after an attack that punctures the skin, prions transferred through zombie saliva initiate a physiological process that attacks the central nervous system of their victim. At the same time, an associated virus infects the new hosts’ DNA and generates novel protein production that can alter a new zombie’s phenotype (some researchers speculate that the virus and prion are actually the same, but this remains controversial). What is known is that mutant variants in this hereditary material can result in new zombie species. Those variants that are unsuccessful in feasting on human flesh won’t leave as many “offspring” as those with beneficial mutations.

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Sexy Beasts at Seed Magazine

June 29, 2010

Author’s Note: The following is an excerpt from my review of Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. For additional information see my posts Reexamining Ardipithecus ramidus in Light of Human Origins, Those Cheating Testicles, or Who’s Your Baby? as well as Helen’s Lament and the Origins of Forbidden Love. Christopher Ryan also blogs at Psychology Today.
When we think of the first swinger parties most of us imagine 1970s counter-culture, we don’t picture Top Gun fighter pilots in World War II. Yet, according to researchers Joan and Dwight Dixon, it was on military bases that “partner swapping” first originated in the United States. As the group with the highest casualty rate during the war, these elite pilots and their wives “shared each other as a kind of tribal bonding ritual” and had an unspoken agreement to care for one another if a woman’s husband didn’t make it back home. Like the sexy apes known as bonobos, this kind of open sexuality served a social function that provided a way to relieve stress and form long-lasting bonds.
For the husband and wife team Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá in their new book Sex At Dawn, this example is one of many that suggests the human species did not evolve in monogamous, nuclear families but rather in small, intimate groups where “most mature individuals would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given time.” We are the descendants of these multimale-multifemale mating groups and, even though we’ve constructed a radically different society from our hunter-gatherer forebears, the behavioral and psychological traits our species evolved in the distant past still manifest themselves today. Ryan, a psychologist, and Jethá, a psychiatrist, argue that understanding human sexual evolution this way helps to explain our species’ unique creativity inside (as well as outside) the marriage bed. It may also shed light on why fidelity has been such a persistent problem for both men and women throughout recorded history.

The Primate Diaries’ One Year Blogoversary

June 29, 2010

Thanks to Greg Laden for the anniversary wishes. One year ago today I wrote my first post here at ScienceBlogs (technically, my first post was yesterday, but that was posting the live twitter transcript of my son’s birth). I would like to thank everyone at Sb (bloggers, administrators, and commenters alike) for their support as well as for their arguments. Without the feedback I’m certain I wouldn’t have been challenged to interrogate my own assumptions and produce the best analysis that I could.
I haven’t had the opportunity to write as often as I would like the last few weeks since I’m engaged in an intensive Russian language course that combines a full year of instruction in just two months (я ушиб руку, но я люблю испытание). All of this is so I may be able to translate the work of 19th century Russian naturalists such as Beketov, Korzhinskii, Mechnikov, Glubokovskii, Kessler, and Kropotkin whose work went largely unappreciated in the English speaking world until recently (see here and here for a brief discussion of Kropotkin).
However, as a way to refocus and reboot after a year at ScienceBlogs (prior to that I wrote at Nature Network and my personal Blogspot site) I will repost my original piece from June 29, 2009. Let me know if I’ve maintained the level of content that I’d hoped to achieve in my early days.
Thanks again, and I look forward to many more years of interacting with all of those who have followed these pages.

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The Evolution of Hip Hop (by Natural Selection)

June 16, 2010

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgWhen most people think of evolutionary biology the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t lyrical poetry. However one of the earliest proponents of evolution, none other than Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, presented his vision for the origin of life in the form of an epic poem in 1803. In his critically acclaimed work The Temple of Nature Darwin mused on the natural history of human beings:

Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthly sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!

Now, two hundred years later, the poetic vision of evolution has been updated for the 21st century. In the July issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution (subscription required), nestled in between their review of A Philosophical View of Biology and an editorial on “Linking the Emergence of Fungal Plant Diseases with Ecological Speciation,” biologist Paul Craze reviews what, in all likelihood, is the first review of a hip hop album to ever grace this esteemed journal’s pages.

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Anthropology, Primatology, and the Definition of Culture: Reply to Sperber

June 15, 2010
Chimpanzees have culture (or not) depending on your definition.
Image: Irish Wildcat / Creative Commons

Author’s Note: The following is an expansion on my reply to anthropologist Dan Sperber on the PLoS ONE article “Prestige Affects Cultural Learning in Chimpanzees.”
ResearchBlogging.orgCulture is like art or pornography, it’s hard for people to define but everyone knows it when they see it. Cultural anthropologists have long struggled to develop a consistent definition of the very thing that they study, a problem that has resulted in bitter arguments between scholars that, to an outsider, may seem as esoteric as church doctrinal disputes over how many angels can sit upon the point of a needle.
In his 1959 book The Evolution of Culture anthropologist Leslie White famously defined culture as “the extra-somatic means of adaptation for the human organism.” His goal was to bring some consistency to a field that had 164 separate definitions of “culture” being used interchangeably in the anthropological literature (which, predictably, made cross-cultural comparisons challenging at best). Today, this view has expanded beyond the human animal and a widely accepted definition is from Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd’s celebrated work Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution:

Culture is information capable of affecting individuals’ behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission.
By information, we mean any kind of mental state, conscious or not, that is
acquired or modified by social learning, and affects behavior.

Earlier I reported on a new study in PLoS ONE by Victoria Horner, Darby Proctor, Kristin E. Bonnie, Andrew Whiten, and Frans de Waal that found chimpanzees will adopt novel behaviors after watching them performed by high-ranking members of their group. The authors concluded that these findings demonstrate “prestige-based cultural transmission” for the first time in nonhuman animals. Their results were consistent with Richerson and Boyd’s definition of culture as well as their argument that:

[N]atural selection has shaped the psychology of social learning so that we are predisposed to imitate people with prestige and material well-being. . . [M]any phenomena, ranging from maladaptive fads and fashions to group-functional religious beliefs to symbolically marked boundaries between groups, might result from the properties of prestige bias.

However, French anthropologist Dan Sperber (Research Director at the Jean Nicod Institute, CNRS and 2009 recipient of the Claude Levi-Strauss Prize in Social Science) has recently challenged these findings in chimpanzees and insists that it does not represent cultural transmission at all. In a critique, following from his work in linguistic anthropology, he suggests that humans alone are capable of culture. However, just like in anthropology’s past, his conclusions rest on the definition that he prefers to use.

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Help Richard Dawkins Choose the Year’s Best Science Post

June 6, 2010

(updated below)

The Quark Award is now down to the last few days for general voting. One of the top twenty posts that you vote for will then go to Richard Dawkins to judge as the best science post of the year. My piece Chimpanzees Prefer Fair Play to Reaping an Unjust Reward has been nominated as have posts by my friends Ed Yong, Zinjanthropus, Razib, David Dobbs, Scicurious, Carl Zimmer, Christie Wilcox, PZ, Christina Agapakis, and Jason Goldman among many more.
Please click on this link and cast your vote. Today and Monday are the last days to vote and the top selections will be posted on June 8th.
Update: Thanks to my readers and the judges at Three Quarks Daily my post has been selected as one of the finalists. Richard Dawkins will select the top three winning entries which will be announced June 21st. I wish the best of luck to my fellow co-finalists and my heartfelt gratitude goes out to everyone who voted for me.