Archive for April, 2007

The late Stephen J. Gould would puke in front of this masterpiece, it’s phylogenetically definitely wrong but it’s not bad at all! Click on the thumbnail to see the whole image (1.2 MB). The location is Prato, Italy, not far from Florence.

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ne·ot·e·ny   [nee-ot-n-ee] –noun Biology.
1. Also called pedogenesis. the production of offspring by an organism in its larval or juvenile form; the elimination of the adult phase of the life cycle. 2. a slowing of the rate of development with the consequent retention in adulthood of a feature or features that appeared in an earlier phase in the life cycle of ancestral individuals: Neoteny in the ostrich has resulted in adult birds sporting the down feathers of nestlings. [Origin: 1900–05], Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/neoteny (accessed: April 27, 2007).

Is Homo Sapiens a neotenic great ape? Did our ancestors (and still we) select for infantile traits in their choice of a mating partner? David Brin, in his essay Neoteny and Two-Way Sexual Selection in Human Evolution tries to explain this:

Our starting point is a perceived dichotomy between adult men and women — and thus potentially hazardous ground. Although evolutionary biology has lately been defended from a feminist perspective by Patricia Adair Gowaty (1992) and others, caution remains essential when stepping into this arena, hence I will at times seem to belabor the obvious. Let me also emphasize that Homo sapiens appears less riven by sexual dimorphism than most species, and exceptions exist to nearly every generalization. Nevertheless, it seems clear that past and present human dimorphisms are legitimate topics for careful discussion. While certain neotenous traits seem to be shared equally among the sexes (e.g., curiosity and plasticity of behavior), human females certainly do appear more paedomorphic in outward physical appearance than males. Although they mature at an earlier age, women do not go on to acquire the toughened skin, coarse body hair, thyroid cartilage, bony eye ridges, or deepened voices which are the common inheritance of most adult hominoids and other primates. Jones and Hill (1993) have shown that this generalization remains valid across racial, ethnic and cultural boundaries. Difference in degree of paedomorphism is one of the few truly decisive human sexual-dichotomies, used by most of us in visually distinguishing women from men.

Brin then covers the shift in courtship apparent in humans:

Why is it that a human female generally has to compete with other women to get a mate? May we stipulate that women do often vie over men? In one contemporary society, the United States, nearly all of the most popular magazines for women trumpet articles advising their readers how to stay competitive in what is portrayed as a desperate struggle to find and keep a mate. […] Now of course men compete over women, too. But among animals this is only normal. Except for some spermatophore-donating insects, and a few fish and birds, competition between males for sexual opportunity seems almost universal.

Read on for his conclusions.

Stephen Jay Gould wrote about human neoteny in his 1977 book Onthogeny and Phylogeny, here’s a quick quote:

To support the argument that we evolved by retaining juvenile features of our ancestors, Bolk provided lists of similarities between adult humans and juvenile apes: “Our essential somatic properties, i.e. those which distinguish the human body form from that of other Primates, have all one feature in common, viz they are fetal conditions that have become permanent. What is a transitional stage in the ontogensis of other Primates has become a terminal stage in man” (1926a, p. 468). In his most extensive work Bolk (1926c, p. 6) provided an abbreviated list in the following order:
1. Our “flat faced” orthognathy (a phenomenon of complex cause related both to facial reduction and to the retention of juvenile flexure, reflected, for example, in the failure of the sphenoethmoidal angle to open out during ontogeny).
2. Reduction of lack of body hair.
3. Loss of pigmentation in skin, eyes, and hair (Bolk argues that black peoples are born with relatively light skin, while ancestral primates are as dark at birth as ever).
4. The form of the external ear.
5. The epicanthic (or Mongolian) eyefold.
6. The central position of the foramen magnum (it migrates backward during the ontogeny of primates).
7. High relative brain weight.
8. Persistence of the cranial sutures to an advanced age.
9. The labia majora of women.
10. The structure of the hand and foot.
11. The form of the pelvis.
12. The ventrally directed position of the sexual canal in women.
13. Certain variations of the tooth row and cranial sutures.
To this basic list, Bolk added many additional features; other compendia are presented by Montagu (1962), de Beer (1948, 1958), and Keith (1949). The following items follow Montagu’s order (pp. 326-327) with some deletions and additions:
14. Absence of brow ridges.
15. Absence of cranial crests.
16. Thinness of skull bones.
17. Position of orbits under cranial cavity.
18. Brachycephaly.
19. Small teeth.
20. Late eruption of teeth.
21. No rotation of the big toe.
22. Prolonged period of infantile dependency.
23. Prolonged period of growth.
24. Long life span.
25. Large body size (related by Bolk, 1926c, p. 39, to retardation of ossification and retention of fetal growth rates).

These lists from Bolk and Montagu display the extreme variation in type and importance of the basic data presented by leading supporters of human neoteny.” (Gould, S.J. (1977) Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Cambridge: Belknap Press. p. 357)
“Humans and chimps are almost identical in structural gens, yet differ markedly in form and behavior. This paradox can be resolved by invoking a small genetic difference with profound effects—alterations in the regulatory system that slow down the general rate of development in humans. Heterochronic changes are regulatory changes; they require only an alteration in the timing of features already present. If the frequency of heterochronic change were known, it would provide a good estimate for the importance of regulation as an evolutionary agent” (Gould, S.J. (1977) Ontegeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge: Belknap Press. p. 9)
“Evolution occurs when ontogeny is altered in one of two ways: when new characters are introduced at any stage of development with varying effects upon subsequent stages, or when characters already present undergo changes in developmental timing. Together, these two processes exhaust the formal content of phyletic change; the second process is heterochrony. If change in developmental timing is important in evolution, then this second process must be very common (if it is predominant in frequency, I will be in even better shape).” (Gould, S.J. (1977) Onthogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge: Belknap Press.pp. 4. Retrieved from this site)

I can quote also The Feminine Beauty website (which has a lexical exception):

Whereas above average femininity is a powerful correlate of beauty in women, neoteny isn’t even though many researchers continue to point this out.  Elsewhere within this site, it has been shown that neoteny, which is the retention in the adult of the features of the juvenile stages of the ancestral species, does not apply to the shape of the human face.  The authors were trying to imply pedomorphy as a correlate of beauty but incorrectly used the term neoteny.  Pedomorphy refers to the retention in the adult of more child-like features.  Whereas it is true that the faces of women are closer to those of children, sexual maturity makes both males and females move away from the face shape of children, and the central tendency of adults is to prefer sexually mature individuals.  Therefore, it is incorrect to describe pedomorphy as a correlate of beauty when more attractive features that appear to be pedomorphic are either somewhat more feminine than average features (e.g., less prominent noses and broader faces, controlling for other factors) and thereby more attractive in women or somewhat more gracile than average features and thereby more attractive in both men and women.

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Octopi are smart guys, they evolved, over millions of years, a sort of brain, a fusion of the small ganglia present in other mollusks into a specialized neural mass. Octopi (and to a certain extent cuttlefish) exhibit spatial learning and, for someone, even observational learning. But some Cephalopods, like the Caribbean Reef Squid (PDF) even communicate visually between each other, through their chromatophores, changing the patterns on their skin in waves (this process is usually used for camouflage, as the impressive video above illustrates). Another interesting fact is that the central nervous system of cephalopods hasn’t got complete control over their numerous and flexible appendices. Specialized ganglia in the tentacles preprocess the information which would otherwise overflow the brain.


The most dramatic evidence for octopus intelligence came in 1992. A pair of researchers in Naples, Italy, Graziano Fiorito and Pietro Scotto, used conventional means–food as a carrot, mild electric shock as the stick–to train a group of captive common octopuses to grab a red ball instead of a white one. The scientists then let untrained animals watch from adjoining tanks as their experienced confreres reached for red balls over and over. Thereafter, Fiorito and Scotto reported, most of the watchers, when offered a choice, pounced on red balls. In fact, they learned to do so more quickly than had the original group. The octopuses, according to the researchers, were doing something invertebrate had never been known to do before: learning by watching. (National Wildlife Magazine, Study published here)

Poor things, even I would have exhibited observational learning in their place…

Update: speaking of tortured Octopi, have a look at this BoingBoing post.

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Big soup post. Zoologist, ethologist and surrealist painter Desmond Morris trained a chimp, Congo, in the 1950s in abstract expressionist painting. His (its?) paintings (one of which is pictured above) recently scored a record price for chimp-art at a london auction. Picasso reportedly owned and loved a Congo painting.

In the meanwhile reserchers are trying to put human genes everywhere, with particular regard to growing spare organs for quasi-xenotransplants. One branch of these hybridization attempts centers on implanting the FOX2P gene (one of the genes allegedly responsible of language, although this is a simplification) in a great ape genome. Shivers…

Human/animal crossbreeding is not the only way in which animals might be given the ability to talk. In 2002, researchers in Britain discovered that the FOXP2 gene in humans is required for articulate speech. While it is not the language gene, it is certainly one of the genes necessary for the ability to talk. The proteins produced by human FOXP2 gene differ by only two amino acids from the proteins produced by the FOXP2 gene in chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Would research that creates a transgenic chimpanzee with human FOXP2 genes elicit moral concern? Since FOXP2 orchestrates the actions of a variety of genes early in the development of the brains of human fetuses, and might have similar effects in chimpanzee fetuses, there may be grounds for ethical worries about such an experiment. (Reason Magazine, Nov. 24, 2004)

Other, less invasive, attempts at human-great ape communication include Bonobos that communicate verbally between each other and then visually with humans, a sort of bonobo-wireless-telegraph

In one experiment she described to me, she placed Kanzi and Panbanisha, his sister, in separate rooms where they could hear but not see each other. Through lexigrams, Savage-Rumbaugh explained to Kanzi that he would be given yogurt. He was then asked to communicate this information to Panbanisha.”Kanzi vocalized, then Panbanisha vocalized in return and selected ‘yogurt’ on the keyboard in front of her,”Savage-Rumbaugh tells me. (Smithsonian magazine)

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So this gorilla walks into a bar. The gorilla slaps a $10 bill on the counter and says, “Give me a beer.”

Bartender figures what does a gorilla know? So he gives him the beer, but only gives him $1 in change. It’s a slow night, though, so the bartender figures he should make some conversation. “We don’t get many gorillas in here,” he says.

Gorilla says, “Yeah, well at $9 a beer I’m not surprised.”

Old joke, but maybe there’s more to it

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Or maybe not, as «Nature is red in tooth and claw».
But what have people been doing for the last 200,000 years? And in particular what have they been doing for the 194,000 that precede historical record? Early civilization dates back to 6000 years ago, the invention of agriculture to 10,000. So you want me to believe that for the whole paleo-mesolithic periods people wasn’t able to organize themselves in something more complex than hunter-gatherer bands with a dozen members? With nothing better to do than chip stones? Man, it’s a whole lotta time. (Oh shit, or was that in the Pleistocene?)
And then, what happened? Is language involved? Beliefs? Or is it just this?

Ok, I was just a little frustrated… I’m just that ignorant.

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I was just kidding, but there is indeed a certain familiarity between noodles and strings. String theory is almost incomprehensible for most people, but theists (or pastafarians) and materialists alike can enjoy the extra simple explanations provided by the flashy PBS Nova series The Elegant Universe, hosted by the Columbia physicist Brian Greene and now online for your perusal.

Physicists often use the term elegant to describe a solution to a problem that is as powerful as it is simple. It’s a solution which cuts to the heart of an important problem with such clarity that it almost leaves no doubt that the solution is either right or at least on the right track. And string theory is just that kind of solution. It provides the first way of putting quantum mechanics and general relativity together — that is, merging the laws of the small and the laws of the large — and it does it in such a sleek manner that it is quite breathtaking. And the term elegant really describes that kind of solution. (Greene)

At the beginning it is a bit trivial (Newton, Einstein, Bohring) but then it gets to the point. Or not? Anyway string theory (and Witten’s M-theory in particular) aims to explain it all, so give it a try, it’s important.

Update: i wasn’t so original in proposing this parallelism, from the official FSM website:

One of the most exciting developments in fundamental physics in the last twenty years has been the development of so-called “String Theory.” In String Theory, all fundamental sub-atomic particles are visualized and described mathematically as microscopic vibrating strings. Although as yet unproven, many physicists believe that String Theory has the potential to become the long-sought “Theory of Everything,” through which the fundamental physical nature of all matter and forces will become understood.

Obviously String Theory IS correct, although misnamed (a secular humanist conspiracy perhaps?). As NOODLE Theory clearly unambiguously reveals, He has created the fundamental subatomic particles that form all matter in this universe in His own quivering image! You, me, the Earth, the stars…everything in the universe…are all built of trillions of tiny jiggling noodles, microscopic copies of our Divine Saucy Maker. Truly He is everywhere and in all things!
Boy-oh-Boyardi and Ramen!“
Steve Lawrence, PhD


A delightfully ironic rebuttal of ID by reductio absurdum hurrah!!! To my mind the real strength (and this leads me to believe in the literal truth of Pastafarianism) is its implicit prediction of super-string (or more accurately noodle) theory, where we before us a divine image of the great ones influence on our cosmos manifest in its true glory. I look forward to the time (surely imminent) when great minds like Ed Witten will succeed in unifying noodle theory with the “meatbally/pasta source” aspect of the larger scale universe often referred to as general relativity.
I bow down before his noodly appendages
– N. Hodges PhD

Now, if we only had some theory supporting the Invisible Pink Unicorn

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