Natural Selection in the Fossil Record

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For quite some time now, I’ve had a question:

We can see evolution in the present.
And we can see natural selection in the present.
And we can see lots of evolution in the fossil record.
But can we see natural selection in the fossil record?

Continue reading “Natural Selection in the Fossil Record”

Creative Ignorance

The other day, I was in a discussion about whether computers can be creative. Personally, I thought the answer was a big “duh, yes”, if only because programs (often even my own) often do things that surprise me, but at least I managed to shift the conversation toward the question of “what is creativity? How will you recognize it when a computer achieves it?” And along the way, I noticed a couple of things about creativity.

For one thing, the perception of creativity can depend on the audience’s ignorance. Years ago, I wrote a custom email filter for my boss, because none of the commonly-used ones could easily do what he wanted (like filter on the number of people in the “To:” and “Cc:” lines). When I showed it to him, he thought it was the most amazing thing ever, that we should write a paper about it, and send it in to a research journal. I told him that this was too trivial, and that I couldn’t in good conscience call it groundbreaking or innovative, and that I’d be embarrassed to send it to a research journal.

In short, my boss thought my code was innovative because he knew far less than I did about the state of mail filters. And to this day, whenever I see a statue or painting or something and think, “Oh, that’s cleverly cool! I never would’ve thought of that”, I immediately have second thoughts along the lines of “Yes, but that’s because you don’t hang out with artists and go to galleries and such. The person who did this probably just took five or six ideas that were floating around the technisphere and tweaked them.”

A lot of the proposed definitions of “creativity” circled around the general idea of “using a tool in a new or unexpected way”. And it occurred to me that you don’t need intelligence to be creative in this way. If you don’t know what a tool is for, you won’t be burdened with preconceived ideas of how you ought to use it. In fact, that’s how natural selection works: it has no intelligence whatsoever, and doesn’t know that wings are “for” protecting eggs, and doesn’t punish those individuals that manage to use them for gliding or flying.

Of course, if you’re an adult human, then you’re intelligent (at least compared to natural selection or a bacterium), so this type of creativity is harder. But you can use first sight.

In Terry Pratchett’s A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany Aching is said to have “first sight and second thoughts”. First sight is the ability to see what’s actually in front of you, rather than what you think is there.

There’s an old story about a student who was asked on a test to measure the height of a building with a barometer that I’m sure you’re all familiar with. Because the problem specified the use of a barometer, clearly the instructor expected students to use the barometer for the thing that barometers are supposed to be used for, namely measure air pressure.

The student’s smartass answers seem creative (oh, come on, admit it: you thought it was cool, the first time you heard the story) is that he ignores the fact that barometers are for measuring air pressure, and sees its other properties: it has mass, so it can be swung like a pendulum; it has length, so it can be used to count off units of height; it has value, so it can be offered as a bribe.

Outside of the world of contrived puzzles, first sight can also be useful, because it lets you stop asking “what is this for?” and start asking “what can I do with this?”. That last question, in turn, breaks down into sub-questions like “what tools do I have?”, “what properties do they have?”, and “how does this property help me solve my problem?”

For instance, spreadsheets are nominally for tabulating data, aggregating sums and averages of interesting numbers, and like that. But people have noticed that hey, Excel does arithmetic, so why not use it as a calculator? I’ve also worked with people who noticed that hey, it lays things out in neat columns, so why not use it as a to-do list?

When technology advances, old tools sometimes become cheap enough to do simple tasks. Car phones have existed for a long time, but if you grew up in the 1960s, you probably decided that they were just fancy toys that rich people used to flaunt their wealth. But in the 1990s, they became cheap enough that anyone could have one. So if you were running a business in the 90s and were expecting people to use pay phones to stay in touch with the office while they were traveling, you were going to have your lunch eaten by the people who had looked at the field the way it was, not the way you imagined it, and realized that they could just give all their salespeople and field techs cell phones.

On a grander scale, the Internet was originally set up for government researchers to share data, and as a nuclear-war-resistant means of communication for the military. It certainly wan’t built to help you find friends from High School or coordinate popular uprisings in the Middle East. That part came from people looking at the thing for what it was, and ignoring &mdash: or often ignorant of — what it was supposed to be for.

What’s interesting about this, I think, is that you don’t need to be a genius to be creative. In fact, you don’t even need intelligence at all. A lot of creationists look at the complexity of biological systems and can think only in terms of a superior intellect putting the pieces together to achieve a goal.

But if I’m right, then it’s possible to be creative simply by being to stupid to know what’s impossible. Creativity can be what Dennett called a crane, rather than a skyhook.


For all the diversity in human speech, as far as I know, every language has verbs and nouns.

No big surprise there: our world is full of things, like trees and lakes and ostriches and stars, something that nouns are very good at describing. And a lot of these things do things that we care about, like attack or fall or impede, which is where verbs come in.

But nouns refer to a lot of things that aren’t, well, things, like symmetry and justice and heaps and understanding. I can imagine an alien species in which every language uses different parts of speech for things and for collections of things that, as a whole, have a certain property. Call this an assemblage. Thus, to them, “rock” would be a noun, but “heap”, as in “a heap of rocks”, would be an assemblage. “Symmetry”, “pair”, and “order” would also be assemblages, rather than nouns.

They might even go further, and have yet another part of speech to describe the motion of things that has certain properties, like “dance” or “following”.

I want to emphasize that this wouldn’t change what the world is like; it would just change the words and sentences they use to describe it. And perhaps say something about the way they think.

To these aliens, a sentence like “time is money” would sound odd, because it would have a grammatical error (assuming that “time” is an assemblage, while “money” is a thing). In fact, we already have something like this in English, which treats nouns about people differently from nouns about things: “Who didn’t finish its dinner?” is bad English (note, too, how this makes the line “It rubs the lotion on its skin” in Silence of the Lambs particularly creepy).

It’s known that our brains are wired to treat people differently from other elements in our environment. See, for instance, the way we’re more prone to see people and faces in random noise like inkblots, clouds, and wood grain, than inanimate objects. So it seems reasonable to consider that our brains have special-purpose modules for nouns and verbs.

The obvious explanation is that our distant ancestors, before there was speech, still needed to deal with things and actions to survive. Once language appeared, the brain already had the infrastructure necessary to model things and actions, and manipulate that model, so evolution built on what was available. This can perhaps also be seen in the way that a lot of expressions treat abstractions as though they were things: “weighing the evidence”, “transferring ownership”, and so forth.

I don’t want to read too much into these sorts of things. I note, for instance, that in French, there’s a smaller distinction between nouns about people and nouns about non-people. And in German, the gender of both “Kind” (child) and “Mädchen” (young woman) is neuter.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be scientific literature on stroke patients who have trouble naming things, but no trouble naming actions, or vice-versa.[citation needed] And this suggests that the brain has separate modules for dealing with nouns and verbs.

In practice, I think this means that we are predisposed to see the world in terms of nouns and verbs, even when we’re not dealing with concrete things, and this can affect our perceptions. I guess it’s a bit like Neil DeGrasse Tyson explaining to people that a hot ball of rock, a huge ball of gas that generates its own heat, and an irregular lump of ice are vastly different things, and so it doesn’t make sense to lump Mercury, Jupiter, and Pluto all under the label of “planet”.

For instance, if we’re thinking about the way languages have migrated through history, it might be tempting to think of one language displacing another, much as putting a finger in a glass displaces water. But of course languages don’t behave the way that solid objects like fingers and water do; multiple languages can coexist, even in the same mind.

I guess what this all boils down to is that there’s a difference between what something is, and what it’s called.

Update, 15:47: Typo.

Kent Hovind, Numerologist. Also, Ravens

It sounds as though Kent Hovind is bored out of his skull in prison. His latest posting, written in the form of a conversation between himself and a self-centered, self-quoting dick of a god, he points out that the Bible can be massaged into yielding various numerical coincidences, as well as the amusing tidbit that 13+53+33 = 153. I suppose that’s a more constructive use of his time than counting ceiling tiles.

He also gives God a line about “one of the greediest birds on earth, the raven”. On the principle that if Hovind says that says that 2+2=4, you should double-check before believing it, I ran a quick Google search and ran across this article at New Scientist. Evidently, if a young raven runs across a carcass in winter, it’ll emit a loud cry that attracts other ravens who join in the feast.

Of course, there’s no such thing as perfect altruism in biology. It turns out that older, mated ravens can defend their territory against ravens who might poach on their food. Younger ravens, on the other hand, don’t have a mate to help them, so they’re at a disadvantage compared to the married ones. So when they call out, what they’re really saying is “help me defend this food against anyone who might try to take it away, and in return, I’ll share with you.”

Criminally Incompetent Teachers

Over at Kent Hovind’s Whinery, I ran across this comment:

I am a high school science teacher. So far I have been able to teach creation science a couple years without being stopped by administration. I spend as much time if not more teaching creation science as I do going thru the textbook they make me use. Of course, I skip all the chapters with evolution. I use Dr. Hovind’s seminar notebook and his book Are You Being Brainwashed. In a couple weeks I will be going at it again. I pray I can continue to do the same as I have been.

Hopefully, this guy is just lying, and has made the whole thing up. Because if not, that means he’s not just failing to teach the kids science, he’s teaching them antiscience, filling their heads with nonsense that has to be unlearned before they can be properly taught. He’s skipping important parts of the curriculum. He’s bringing in “teaching” materials by a wackjob so far out there that even other young-earth creationists have asked him to stop. And if this has really been going on for years, we have to consider the possibility that the school administration knows about his activities, but is turning a blind eye to them.

How would one go about subpoenaing’s httpd logs to see where this clown posted from, to see whether any of it is true?