Monday, January 21, 2008

Some Questions and Answers

"I used to think that human origins were explained by meat-eating. After all, the idea that meat-eating launched humanity has been the textbook evolutionary story for decades, mooted even before Darwin was born.

"But in a rethinking of conventional wisdom I now think that cooking was the major advance that turned ape into human ... Cooked food is the signature feature of human diet. It not only makes our food safe and easy to eat, but it also grants us large amounts of energy compared to a raw diet, obviating the need to ingest big meals. Cooking softens food too, thereby making eating so speedy that as eaters of cooked food, we are granted many extra hours of free time every day."

- Richard Wrangham, British anthropologist who studied under Jane Goodall, in answer to the question "What was the turning point in human evolution?" -

"I used to think that patterns of sex differences resulted mainly from average differences between men and women in innate talents, tastes and temperaments ... Add to this some bias and barriers - a sexist attitude here, a lack of childcare there - and the sex differences are explained. Or so I thought ... But they alone don't fully explain the differences ... Females are much of a muchness, clustering round the mean. But, among males, the variance - the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst - can be vast.

"So males are almost bound to be over-represented both at the bottom and at the top. I think of this as 'more dumbbells but more Nobels'... Unfortunately, however, this is not the prevailing perspective in current debates, particularly where policy is concerned."
- Helena Cronin, philosopher at the London School of Economics and director of Darwin@LSE, a research group devoted to what Darwinism can tell us about human nature, in answer to the question "Why do men dominate society?" -

"Flawed as the old ideas about race are, modern genomic studies reveal a surprising, compelling and different picture of human genetic diversity. We are on average about 99.5% similar to each other genetically. This is a new figure, down from the previous estimate of 99.9%. To put what may seem like minuscule differences in perspective, we are somewhere around 98.5% similar, maybe more, to chimpanzees, our nearest evolutionary relatives.

"The new figure for us, then, is significant. It derives from among other things, many small genetic differences that have emerged from studies that compare human populations ... Like it or not, there may be many genetic differences among human populations - including differences that may even correspond to old categories of 'race' - that are real differences in the sense of making one group better than another at responding to some particular environmental problem.

"This in no way says one group is in general 'superior' to another ... But it warns us that we must be prepared to discuss genetic differences among human populations."

- Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist at Reading University, in answer to the question "Are there genetic differences between races?" -

"I've had to question the overall assumption that human evolution pretty much stopped by the time of the agricultural revolution ... New [laboratory] results have suggested that thousands of genes, perhaps as much as 10% of the human genome, have been under strong recent selection, and the selection may even have accelerated during the past several thousand years ... If these results hold up, and apply to psychologically relevant brain function ... then the field of evolutionary psychology might have to reconsider the simplifying assumption that biological evolution was pretty much over and done with 10-000-50,000 years ago."
- Steven Pinker, leading psychologist and language expert at Harvard University, author of The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate, in answer to the question "Are humans still evolving?" -

"Until I was 20 I was sure there was a being who could see everything I did and who didn't like most of it. He seemed to care about minute aspects of my life, like on what day of the week I ate a piece of meat. And yet, he let earthquakes and mudslides take out whole communities, apparently ignoring the saints among them who ate their meat on the assigned days. Eventually, I realised that I didn't believe there was such a being ... I still don't like the word agnostic. It's too fancy. I'm simply not a believer."
- Alan Alda, Hawkeye in the 70s series MASH, current host of Scientific American Frontiers, in answer to the question "Does God exist?" -

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