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Friday, 20 May 2011

Intelligence and Human Sex Drive

The notion that humans' sex drive is based on the finding of so-called "ideal" mates is deeply flawed. All the articles written by evolutionary psychologists about subconscious desires to select those who fit the stereotype of what may seem like the best mate in the wilderness i.e. features of physical appearance, are based on the assumption that human sexual selection is identical to any other animal's sexual selection. This is false, not because sexual selection is different itself, because it is not.

As explained in previous posts, sexual selection is constant in all living things, and is defined as the drive to preserve qualities predicted to be advantageous in the face of future, unknown selection pressures. Although the obvious method of carrying out the selection is mating, as seen predominantly in species which go through complex courtship behaviour displays, in humans this has ceased to be the case.

Today I saw a guy at college wearing a black t-shirt with bold letters saying I MAKE GOOD BABIES. Is that to say he wants lots of kids and is advertising his availability? Probably not. Then what is the point of wearing that t-shirt? Well, he's advertising his sense of humour, and perhaps cynicism at the idea that humans are all looking for babies.

Two main reasons have led to the difference in sexual selection between humans and other animals. For the purpose of calling humans more intelligent than other species, we will define intelligence as the ability to modify the natural environment, and create an artificial environment. The two reasons are:

  1. the just mentioned increased intelligence
  2. the artificial environment which results from it.
If you're reading this, doubtless you are already in an artificial environment, surrounded by artificial things, all human-made. How do those two things affect sexual selection in humans? Firstly, they enable a more efficient use of energy; reproduction itself is an energy-demanding task, especially as human babies take longer to develop due to their bigger brains and the requirement to learn more things. Therefore, it is slow and risky for the development of humans as a species to only rely on reproduction as a means to advance survival techniques and build artificial environments.

Consider the amount of dedication and work needed to create works of art, build up cities, and find cures for diseases. The energy spent doing those things has been of better use in the long run than if it had been spent solely bringing up children into a less developed world. Compared to other species, humans now reproduce for the purpose of life itself, rather than as a method of applying sexual selection.

Human intelligence has shifted the drive of sexual selection towards the creation of artificial environments and the propagation of the resulting knowledge, by using the same principles as sexual selection in other species: the selection of properties thought to survive future selection pressures.

That is why, to the puzzle of evolutionary psychologists, humans do not exhibit the expected behaviour in sexual selection. If they truly did, then all of us would be indeed very attractive, and perhaps there would be increased sexual dimorphism (i.e. peacocks are a lot more physically different than peahens). The fact this isn't the case is a clue that indeed, sexual selection itself has been made artificial in humans in some instances. For example, the world of the Internet is not just an expression of intelligence, but a battleground for several sexual selection pressures: "like" buttons on facebook, "follow"s on Twitter, comment activity on forums, website competition, photo ratings, etc.

If you've ever wondered why facebook doesn't have a "dislike" button, find out in the next post on Positive, Negative and Neutral Sexual Selection.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

The Relationship between Sexual Selection, Intelligence and Art

Look at the human: a comparatively dull-looking, weak being. No colour, no tusks, no nothing. But look again, and you will see the tanks, works of art, fashion, music, superior communication, and the artificial environments.

Nature might have taken a gamble when physical strength was selected second to a growing brain and intelligence. The gamble certainly paid off, humans don't need strength, we have guns and walls, humans don't need colours, we have dyes and clothes (that inadvertently rhymes!). So we experience, and have experienced, much fewer natural selection pressures and responses, and more artificial responses. For example, although the natural selection pressure of cold weather resulted in a thick fur in polar bears, and therefore turned into a sexual selection pressure due to furry polar bears surviving for longer, the same natural selection pressure resulted in a completely different adaptation for Eskimos - building igloos and shooting bears.

In fact, human intelligence seems to be at the root of almost all alternative adaptations. Why so successful? Because intelligence acts fast. It takes long for natural selection to get rid of ill-adapted life, and it's a fairly rudimentary, basic process. The development of a thick fur over generations in the case of humans is a ridiculous solution, when all it takes is shooting a bear to wear its fur. The same applied in the distant past, when using an arrow to kill prey proved a lot more successful than chasing it endlessly and risking death. Natural selection in this case is closely connected to sexual selection. Of course everyone wanted to promote the quality of intelligence, as it resulted in better prospects for future generations. The intelligent humans came on top, they were picked for mating, so passed on their genes and behaviours. It can be said that the quality of intelligence promotes itself, because those who choose not to promote it are left behind, so in fact, we don't decide that intelligence is worth keeping, but intelligence decides whether we ourselves are worth keeping.

The development of language and communication in humans can be seen as the most crucial result of intelligence, and the beginning of our artificial universe: letters, words, drawings, music. They are codes between humans, that all humans in a population understand; however, that was not always the case, and naturally only those who took part in the communication process were selected for. Nowadays, the same is still true - there are many languages that most people do not understand, music genres that divide populations and households, and forms of art so many that cannot be remembered. They are artificial expressions central to sexual selection. Which one will come on top?

Humans' sexual selection has shifted very much from the natural, self-propagation mode which is limited to reproduction, to the artificial self-propagation mode which is virtually unlimited. What is artificial self-propagation? Laughing at someone's joke. It may make you want to have babies with them, but in all honesty you won't. Buying something. You don't want to mate with the producer, you might not even care whether the product will stop selling. It could be a handbag or a new phone. The basic instinct drives you towards them, because you feel buying them, making them yours, promotes them. Good for the present, good for the future. Makes you better.

Intelligence is such a core property of ours, that we don't even realise it. The intelligence to manipulate someone, to be a good actor, to do maths. The intelligence to tap into someone's instincts, to make them want you. Wanting to have sex with someone you fancy. Why is that instinct so strong, despite the definite self-assurance that you don't want a child, or you cannot have a child?

How has our intelligence influenced our sex drive? Find out in the next post about Intelligence and our Sex Drive.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Principles of Evolution - Sexual Selection

If it weren't for sexual selection, evolution itself would be a passive process. Natural selection isn't sufficient in the evolution of life, because it does not deal with predictions of future selection pressures. For example, if a massive natural disaster were to wipe out every single collared pigeon on Earth, then there would be no process in place to bring the collared pigeon back to life. Since the development of the pigeon from its ancestor must have taken a very long period of time, it is a really inefficient idea to just let the pigeon's fate hang by chance. Admittedly, if all members of that species were to be wiped out, the chances of it being reintroduced would be very close to zero.

So, how does sexual selection work to avoid such fates of death of a species? Firstly, let's establish that sexual selection is not the process of reproduction, or self-propagation, but the process by which certain properties are chosen over others to deal with potential future selection pressures. Of course, the most basic form of choosing those properties is reproduction itself, especially in some birds and mammals where courtship behaviour is an integral part of their life.

Think the peacock, perhaps an animal frequently used to explain evolution. The peacock's tail is brilliantly coloured. Certainly, this cannot be an adaptation which improves survival, because it makes the peacock a lot more likely to be predated, as it makes itself very obvious and noticeable. Hence, a different process must have led to the colourful tail to be selected for. This process, sexual selection, can be quite subtle and indirect. Let's assume that for a long time, there have been no significant natural selection pressures where peacocks lived. So populations of peacocks lived peacefully with no threat from the environment. Instinctively, the peacocks were wired to be prepared for a pressure to come. Of course, there is no way for them to have known what that pressure would be - change in temperature, lack of food, etc. Therefore, sexual selection acts on selecting properties which are generally suited for selection pressures. For example, regardless of selection pressure, intelligence would be a good property. Strength and agility are others.

Now, you may think, what has a brilliantly coloured tail have to do with either of those advantageous properties? Well, surviving despite being more prone to predation due to the coloured tail must exhibit superior qualities. Intelligence for being able to raise and lower the tail depending on situation (mating or standing by), strength for dealing with the unwanted predatory attention from predators as well as other competing peacocks, and ultimately, all the good qualities that the peacock has inherited from his own father who has obviously not only made it alive, but made it to mate as well.

These qualities are broadly targeted to future selection pressures. They do not necessarily accurately predict the selection pressures, but they are a way to deal with them, like a best bet.

Look around at the human species' best bets: some think the world might heat up, so they vote for the Green party. Some think humans might die out, so they may be homophobic. Some think the Earth might be destroyed by an asteroid, so they invest in space travel research.

But there are certain properties which have become universal over time, the properties that everyone bets on: intelligence, humour, friendship, love. Whatever the next selection pressure, we bet these properties will somehow save us.

Peacocks do their betting by reproduction. Humans reproduce, too, but they have many other ways of doing their betting and selecting the properties they think will come on top. Find out more about sexual selection in humans, and how intelligence has shaped, and is still shaping, our evolution in the next post.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Principles of Evolution - Natural Selection

Let's now talk about the processes by which evolution works. This is fairly obvious stuff, but bear with me as I point out areas for improvement, expansion, and reference to humans. The first and foremost principle of evolution which made Darwin well-known is Natural Selection. Again, this links back to a previous principle, that of "all life that cannot exist does not", so many of the principles flow into one another. An important note to make about natural selection is that it is a retroactive process, which means that it works backwards. It does not predict the future, or selection pressures, but instead it acts as a sweeper of life that is no longer self-supporting when faced with a new reflection of its environment. For example, the reflection of a sudden and prolonged lack of food for say, dinosaurs, is put simply a dinosaur without food, and this is a non-supporting life form. Therefore, it becomes extinct.

The principle of Natural Selection states that all living organisms must be adapted to their environment, be it a natural environment such as a lake that has taken a thousand years to form, or an artificial environment such as an incubator for premature babies. Of course, the incubator is adapted to the baby more than the baby is adapted to the incubator, so adaptation works both ways, especially in the case of humans who are able to manipulate their environment to a greater extent than wolves or lillies. But let's save the topic of human evolution for later, and focus firstly on natural environments, because it is those which result in the evolution of life capable of manipulating its environment to a great degree, such as humans.

Natural environments are defined as environments which cause life forms to exist, rather than be caused by life forms themselves. For example, a classroom cannot be defined as a natural environment because it has been made by humans. However, a desert is a natural environment for snakes. The key characteristics of natural environments which take part in evolution are called selection pressures. Selection pressures are the changing properties of an environment which cause life forms to have to respond. These, too, are natural or artificial. As a human, you will be more aware of the artificial selection pressures than of the natural ones. For example, you might be less worried about a storm than your debt. However, in natural environments the selection pressures are natural too, if they are a cause of the environment itself.

Natural selection pressures such as increasing temperature or floods, can impact on living organisms so that most are unable to survive. This automatically removes those organisms' genes from the gene pool by their death, so that "naturally", only the few that happened to have a mutation which favoured their survival are left over. They multiply, so that their advantageous mutations are passed on, and future generations are resistant to the change that happened in the past, that is the increase in temperature or flooding. This doesn't stop here, because selection pressures change - although at different rates in different environments at diferent times. For example, sharks are thought to be the best adapted species on Earth, and they have been around for millions of years. So even though their environment may have many changing properties, these are not selection pressures, because the sharks are already well-adapted to most environmental changes.

On the other hand, there are species which experience changing adaptations frequently, due to their ever-changing environment. For example, certain species of insect have been discovered to have had wings 10 million years ago, lost them 5 million years ago, and now have their wings back again. They have always had the gene responsible for wing development, but this gene was turned off 5 million years ago as a result of their environment and its selection pressures at that time. If some insects happened to have had no wings, and the selection pressure involved predating birds eating them during flight, then those with no wings would have survived and passed on their turned off wing-gene.

Natural Selection is a retroactive process, as we have seen, which involves the death of ill-adapted life, and the propagation of the leftover life which has survived the selection pressures. What about foreseeing of selection presures, and planning ahead? Is there such principle of evolution?

Yes, there is. Let's now move on to the proactive selection process, Sexual Selection in the following Post.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Alien Life

Alien life, what an exciting topic! Let's investigate some principles of life which might help illuminate what life forms there are on other planets. One of these principles states that "not all life that can exist does, but all life that cannot exist does not". What this means is that, just because we have discovered certain chemical and physical environments that suggest a life form (for example an earth worm), doesn't mean that an earth worm exists there, or that it will ever exist. However, if the environmental properties are analysed accurately, then it is possible to make an assumption that it is likely for a certain life form to have existed there, or for it to be likely to sometime develop there. The reason why "all life that cannot exist does not" is fairly obvious, either because life will not develop in unfavourable conditions, or because life in unfavourable conditions dies.

Another result of that principle is that evolution never reaches a dead-end (which it would, if  all life that could exist did). Evolution is the driving property of life, analogous to the property of atoms to seek a stable electron configuration. Evolution is divisible in several other principles, the Principles of Evolution, which go more in-depth to explain the behaviour of life forms.

Therefore, the fundamental principle of life, which applies to extraterrestrial life forms as well as terrestrial life froms, states that life is a self-supporting, self-propagating reflection of its past, present and future environment. Future, how come? Did you think that evolution only works backwards? Well, find out more in the next Post, Principles of Evolution.

Principles of Life

Let's now start with the beginning. All those capable of basic reasoning have at some point wondered what life is. What's the purpose of life? How do I know I am alive? These are just a few questions that seem to have swept humans for a long time. For a moment, let's move away from humans, and focus specifically on life as a general entity. Think of a frog, a bacterium, a rose, or even an extraterrestrial life form. We are going to look at the principles which govern universal life.

As chemistry lies on physics, so does biology lie on chemistry. That is, in order to understand the development of life, we must look at the development of those which make up life: chemical compounds and their behaviour. It is conclusively established that atoms seek stable electron configuration, and this is what drives atoms. The pursuit of chemical stability ultimately results in the development of life forms. By definition, all life is self-supporting (survival) and self-propagating (multiplication). The chemical and physical properties that are correct in the known Universe, say Earth, may differ elsewhere. However, regardless of properties, the Fundamental Principle applicable to atoms still remains the same (whether light or heavy, positively or negatively charged, atoms still seek the same property of stability).

The same applies for the principles of life. Whether on Earth or elsewhere, complex or simple, microscopic or giant, all life follows the principles that say life is self-supporting and self-propagating. Bearing this in mind, the following Post is about Alien Life, and how other principles of life may be a guide to predicting life on other planets.

First Blog, Ever.

Before we start to explore evolution, let me outline what this blog is about, and what approaches it will take. Most people are aware of the theory of evolution. However, the predominant context of it has been restricted to the animal kingdom, and the most obvious animal of all has been ommitted: you, the human. Us, Homo sapiens. Articles of so-called "evolutionary psychology" may jump up in your head right now. Something about the colours women wear, or the jobs men want. Something about sex, something about money. Something silly.

This blog aims to explore the fundamental principles of life and evolution, and apply them to the surrounding world, with an emphasis on humans. This blog aims to challenge evolutionary psychology with evolutionary biology. This blog aims to cast light on many dark areas such as:

What is the cause, course and effect of life? Are there principles which apply to all forms of life, on Earth and other places in the Universe? Can we predict life forms? Can we predict selection pressures? Can we, ultimately, pinpoint the effect evolution has on our conditions, from the most basic, to the most superficial? Can we explain generalisations about groups of people, sexual orientations, the manipulation of the environment by people, different drives and personalities of people, and many, many more topics that are covered in mist at best.

Can the science of life, biology, by the theory of evolution, explain behaviour that psychology can only dream of explaining? Is this the only theory we need? Is it time we put a stop to countless opposing theories that have no evidence?

The answer is yes. It starts here, now.