The Catalyst




Complimenting our current cover story “MONEY BRAIN” — the science behind your money addiction — by brainiac-at-large Sharon Begley, we look back at our rich thematic coverage. 

It’s all about brains at Newsweek

The dead horse that is the sanctity of marriage just got up and reached for a bat to beat itself some more while mouthing the word ‘sorry’ to the gays.

Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing i know about physics: you are all stardust. you couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life - weren’t created at the beginning of time. they were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. so, forget Jesus. the stars died so that you could be here today.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss

(via desmonddb)

The Adaptationist Program

What’s your view on the adaptationist program and natural selection? Here is the copy from a paper I wrote for my seminar in Psychobiology.

“Natural selection does not work like an engineer. It works like a tinkerer.” (Jacob, 1977). This statement, repeated twice throughout our readings (both in Coyne and Mayr), best captures the real nature of natural selection. Genetic variance across populations gives each organism different traits; good, bad or indifferent. The important factor to consider is the effect of the environment on those traits, and whether it gives the organism a higher chance to reproduce (adaptation). As Coyne (2009) states “Ultimately, this process produces organisms that are well adapted to their habitats and way of life.” (p. 11). But to call natural selection the only factor in trait ontogeny would be, as some critics may say, the adaptationist way.

Mayr (1983) argues that there is nothing wrong with the adaptationist programme, as long as it’s applied correctly. When arguing G&L’s attack of adaptationism, Mayr states it is “easy to ridicule” when one “[chooses the] atomistic definition of the adaptationist program” (p. 327), meaning when it is applied to “immediate” traits, it will not hold. When the causes of evolutionary change are broken down, the only categories a factor could fall under is “chance” or “selection forces” (p. 325), both which the adaptationist programme covers. Mayr also agrees “selection favors genotypes” (p. 327), much as Coyne stressed. This might suggest that a trait is “designed” (through it’s genotype), for it’s particular environment.

The comparison between the adaptationist programme and the concept of “design” (although not necessarily intelligent) is not uncommon. Coyne (2009) even mentions that natural selection has the ability to “sculpt an animal or plant into something that looks designed.”(p. 12). However Mayr blatantly states “to imply that the adaptationist program is one and the same as the argument from design is highly misleading” (p. 327). At best, the adaptationist programme simply supplies a cause for a trait.

So what?

Natural selection and it’s “tinkering” offers a cause, but what about the effect (in evolutionary terms)? Tinbergen (1963) is the only one to address this problem. “The fact that we tend to distinguish so sharply between the study of causes and the study of effects is due to what one could call an accident of human perception.” (p. 418) He offers the solution of “survival value”; Not only asking why did that trait adapt but what is the mechanism to help that organism survive (specifically referring to behaviors- he is an ethologist, after all)? He questions whether there could have been another trait better adapted to the environment. Survival value is judged “whether or not the animal would be worse off if deprived of this attribute” (p. 419).

Tinbergen’s interpretation of natural selection (even though it’s in respect to Ethology) offers a more “wholesome” explanation than the others. If Ethology is the biological study of behavior, and animals are the result of the evolution of their biology, their behavior, therefore, is a result of evolution. His views are still relevant to the overall nature of evolution.

An example to solidify the lack of explanation offered by the adaptationist programme is in Gould & Lewton’s (1979) critique of the adaptationist programme (albeit, a little biased). They specifically identify the male T-rex as perfect representation why the adaptationist programme fails “to distinguish current utility from reasons for origin” (p. 581). The famous tiny front legs of tyrannosaurs is thought to have been used to grasp onto female partners, yet this explanation offers no reason as to why they became so small in the first place (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). There must have been some other environmental feature that allowed the legs to become almost useless, changing the survival value of them.

The explanation of natural selection offered by Mayr and Coyne, as well as many other adaptationists (such as Richard Dawkins), gives an incomplete view of evolution. The questions asked by Tinbergen, beg not only for proximate cause, but the ultimate causation of each trait. Regardless, Tinbergen (1963) said it best in respect to whether natural selection works: “the ultimate test of survival value is survival itself.” (p. 423)



Authors Cited


Coyne, J. A. (2009). Why evolution is true. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gould, S.J., and R. Lewontin. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian

             paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. Proc. R. Soc. Lond., B Biol.

Sci. 205:581-598.

Jacob, F. (1977). Evolution and tinkering. Science 196:1161-1166

Mayr, E. (1983). How to carry out the adaptationist program? The American Naturalist,

121, 324-334

Tinbergen, N. (1963). On the aims and methods of Ethology. Zeitschrift für

Tierpsychologie, 20, (4), 410-433. 

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

—Abraham Lincoln, read to a mother who lost five sons in the civil war.

Our head waiter was very good and did very well to check up on us for drinks and water, however when it came to some of the dishes he seemed to not know the answer one too many times.

I am not talking about specific ingredients or wine pairings, but simple questions like where the butter came from or how many counts in the espresso.

1-star review of Providence by Kenny K.

(via fuckyouyelper)

Dark Matter May Be Illusion Caused By The Quantum Vacuum

…one of many scientists who have become somewhat skeptical of dark matter, CERN physicist Dragan Slavkov Hajdukovic has proposed that the illusion of dark matter may be caused by the gravitational polarization of the quantum vacuum.”

But uh, that does nothing to explain the Bullet Cluster. Dark matter still seems very probable to me.

Andres Behring Breivik's Brain


Can we ever really understand this neurobiology? The resulting psychology of (his perhaps lack of) nature and nurture? The sheer complexity of the individual brain and the lack of overlap between certain “normal” and “diseased” ways of thinking make understanding Breivik a extreme challenge.

After all, we are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that mold our brain development. Many of us like to believe that all adults make choices in roughly the same way. It’s a charitable idea, but it’s demonstrably wrong. People can be vastly different, reflecting the unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens—equal before the law—possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied approaches to decision-making.

So the first lesson we must confront with Breivik is that we cannot guess what it is like to be inside his head. We will almost certainly remain without a satisfying explanation for his decision-making—not because he is unwilling to offer an explanation, but because his justifications are not within the borders of our shared, societally-average cognition.

(h/t laurahollister)

(Source: jtotheizzoe)