Further thoughts on people at the beach

September 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wrote recently about my experience at the beach — the occasion on which I (re?)-discovered how badly we were made.

This only confirmed something I had known already from ornithology:  bird atlases prefer to use artists renditions (drawings/paintings) than photos of the actual birds because the artist rendition can picture the idealized, perfect bird of its species (Plato!) while the actual photo will show an actual bird, which is more likely than not to be somehow different from the mean — i.e. not representing the “correct look”.

Think about what this means:  whenever you take a photo of a specimen in nature you are more likely than not to be photographing a mutant — a reproductive “mistake”.  These mistakes are a necessary part of nature, of course, without which (“mutation”) there can be no “selection” — i.e. no improvement, everything will be static, we will all look the same, and probably will be exterminated by the next common cold virus; but they are mistakes all the same.

Ergo, my observation at the beach was right on.

Now, here comes an article in The Economist:

“The latest study to this effect has just been published in Nature by Kari Stefansson and his colleagues at deCODE Genetics, a genetic-analysis company based in Reykjavik that was founded to take advantage of Iceland’s excellent medical records and its unique genealogical history. Recent immigrants apart, the relationship of almost everybody on the island to everybody else is known back as far as the first census, in 1703. In many cases it is known back to the first human settlement of the island, in 874.

Dr Stefansson’s study does not reach as far back as that. He and his colleagues examined 78 trios of father, mother and child who are all still alive. In some cases they looked at grandchildren as well. Their goal was to examine the number of new mutations—traits not found in the normal body cells of either parent—in children.

The average answer is about 63.

The average answer is about 63. That number, however, varies widely—and the main factor involved in this variation is the age of the father. Mothers transmitted an average of 14 mutations to their children, regardless of age. Fathers showed a much wider range: 20-year-olds passed on an average of 29 mutations; 30-year-olds (the average age of fatherhood in Dr Stefansson’s sample) passed on 49; and 40-year-olds passed 69.”

Think about it:  there are at least 63 mistakes (on average) in the way your genome has attempted to reproduce those of your parents.  Sixty-three!

And here is a further complication:

“According to Alexey Kondrashov of the University of Michigan, an expert on the matter who wrote an article in Nature to accompany Dr Stefansson’s study, about 10% of mutations are damaging.”

On average, each of us carries 6.3 damaging mutations — ways in which our genome has changed in reproduction for the worse; ways in which it differs from that of our parents to our detriment.  I have 6.3 times as many faults as my father!

The ancient sages were right:  each successive generation is worse than the one before!


Severed heads that germinate

April 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

In an entertaining article by this name, Derek Freeman undertakes to explain why Dyaks take heads.

Unsurprisingly it turns out — to assure fertility.

(Everything the primitive man ever does — or thinks about — it would seem — is fertility.  Is this why we call him primitive — or is it just the imagination of the anthropologists that is?)

How does Freeman arrive at his conclusion?  Not by asking the Dyaks themselves, who, he says, were not very helpful in establishing this conclusion (p. 234).  Rather, he argues by way of Greeks and Romans who thought that sperm originates in the brain (not an especially wild assumption, if you consider male behavior carefully) and descends into the genitals through the spinal column.

As a group of English scholars once said:  and therefore a witch.*

Freeman’s refusal to take a no for an answer is important if only because other anthropologists suffer from the same misconception:  homo is sapiens, according to the profession, and therefore all his actions must arise from thought.  To coin a phrase, thought germinates action.  In fact, the business stands the other way up:  man acts and only then thinks up good reasons for doing so.

The actual reason why Dyaks take heads stares Freeman in the face on the pages of his own article, but, a true scientist that he is, he does not notice.  The reason is, in short, that the taking of heads assures that” the forest will abound with wild animals” (p. 237).  Which it sure does:  every head taken means one less competitor for food.  Head-taking is an early form of environmental protection.


Incidentally, the article mentions another anthropological argument:  that of McKinley, that heads are taken as a way of “winning souls for humanity” by “the ritual incorporation of the enemy as a friend”, the enemy’s head being chosen as a “ritual symbol of social personhood”.  I have news for McKinley:  the reason why heads are the preferred trophy world over is that the head is the only proof positive that the victim is really 100% dead.

For all this, it is a brilliant article; the description of the ngelampang ceremony, in which the daughters of the god petulantly ask to be given a head, an infant whose head is about to be taken confides in his mother that he “dreamt of being bitten by a huge and threatening snake, from which his head hurts even more than if it had been struck against an upstanding stump” (to which the mother answers “I fear my child that you are about to be speared and your head about to be carried off in a cane container”), the taken head is rocked gently like a baby and sung lullybies to, and when it is let slip out of its wrappings and dropped on the floor, it causes the women of the long house to jump up in (pretended) revulsion — the ceremony has all the precious worth of all superstructure — which is not, as per Marx, the weed grown upon economics, but weed grown on the evolved, mechanical, unconscious, hard-wired behavior.  (The explanation; perhaps the justification; but not the reason).

One only wishes the description provided more details of lighting, dress, colors, music.  Life and ideology are alright, but theater, well, that’s really interesting.


*Cf. proof that if she floats, she is made of wood (or maybe a duck), Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail

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