20 January 2020

Catastrophism as an alternative to Darwinian evolution

This past week I did a final re-read of a book that impressed me back in the 1980s.  The Great Dying is a deep dive into the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction created by the Chicxulub asteroid impact that struck the Yucatan 66 million years ago.

Kenneth Hsu is a highly-qualified and award-winning geologist.  For the book's title he has borrowed a phrase now more commonly applied to the Permian-Triassic extinction, but his interest and his life's work centers on the end-Cretaceous one.  He uses the undeniable evidence of the event to argue that major shifts in evolution are often driven by catastrophic events rather than by the progressive accumulation of incremental advantageous traits. 

He's not the first to address this issue.  Catastrophism was offered as a theory as soon as paleontologists discovered evidence of extinctions, was viewed favorably by Biblical scholars, and was later dialed up to 11 by Velikovsky.  It is one of many alternatives to evolution by natural selection.

Massive extinctions are fascinating events to read about.  I've heard some recent podcasts about new findings related to the Chicxulub event that left traces of iridium around the world in a layer of sterile clay.  My understanding many years ago was that the Yucutan impact disrupted the world's climate by producing either global heating or global cooling from the massive ejection of dust and water vapor and carbon dixoide into the atmosphere, and that the dying would have resulted from starvation or heat or cold intolerance.  Recent evidence of tektites half a globe away suggest that the world may have been flash-heated to cooking-to-death-all-exposed-life levels.

In any case, the argument of Hsu and other catastrophists is that these events do not result in "survival of the fittest" but rather "survival of the lucky."  One can't really argue that dinosaurs were "unfit" - they had covered the habitable terrestrial and aqueous world, were carnivores, herbivores, piscivores, and all the other vores.  They flew, swam, plodded, and ran in every non-arctic environment.  And they had survived (and evolved) for 160 million years.  Apparently there was one dinosaur - Stenonychosaurus inequalis - "whose large braincase, stereovision, and opposable thumb hinted at the potential for becoming a race of intelligent beings."  Then they all died within a time frame too short to measure accurately with geological sediment layers.   About 75% of all existing species at the end of the Mesozoic never appeared again - and they have nothing in common as unfit traits except that they were obliterated.

If one wants to say that the surviving mammals or rotifers or water bears are the result of the best "fitness", then that argument reduces down to just saying is that fitness is defined by survival and that you can't predict which organisms are the fittest now because there's no way to know what catastrophe awaits in the future.  The ones who survive will proliferate, perhaps abundantly, and then begin their own gradual evolution and speciation, not because they are fittest, but because they are the first to enter a recently-emptied ecosystem.

Personally, I don't have any difficulty incorporating both catastrophism and Darwinian gradualism into my thinking.  Natural selection is obviously operative even on very short timescales when pollution changes moth populations from white to brown, and catastrophes from floods to fires radically change ecosystems, resulting in new adaptive changes.

One reason some people ardently embrace the primacy of the principle of Darwinian "survival of the fittest" is that they want to apply it to human endeavor, arguing that their race or their culture is the result of natural social selection and other races/peoples are inferior.  And while that stance may be polticially incorrect and seldom expressed quite that way openly, one hears the same argument applied out loud to the business world - that corporations that prosper do so because they are the fittest and they deserve their prominence because they are better than their competition.  Here is Hsu's closing summary:
"We have been competitive; we have exterminated others, both our own and other species, whom we perceive to be interior, or at least of no account; and we would like to feel justified in such endeavors.  But the history of life can provide a scientific basis neither for capitalism nor for socialism, neither for Marxism nor for racism nor for the Maoism of ceaseless revolution.  The opinion that "favored races" are preserved in a struggle for existence was a speculation that has become a dangerous ideology.  We should cease to lend it a cloak of scientific respectability...
I believe we must live without pretending to know who or what is fit and not fit.  Instead, we should embrace the diversity of forms and ways that nourish life itself.  Looking back over the several billion years of our evolution, that is the closest I can come to the Tao of our existence.

For a Westerner, perhaps the essence of my perception can best be expressed by a quote from the Bible:
"I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. "
I've not added this to my "recommended books" category in the blog because it is a detailed longread probably better viewed as a textbook than as casual reading material.  And there likely have been some better books on the subject since this one was published; readers are invited to suggest others.

19 January 2020

"Country Life" humor from Punch, part II

Over a period of many years I clipped out selections from the "Country Life" section of Punch magazine and stored them in a "humor" scrapbook. When I hosted parties at my apartment I would invite guests to sit down and try to read two pages while controlling their emotions and not smiling or laughing. I don't recall anyone successfully doing so. Now I'll try posting the pages here in the blog, a couple at a time.

The control of "dot-org" domains has been bought by a private company

From an article written by Esther Dyson in the Washington Post:
One of the Internet’s most trusted assets — the dot-org domain used by nonprofits from UNICEF to your local food bank — is being hijacked. Dot-org, which was built to support nonprofits globally, is being sold to the highest bidder with almost no public discussion or consideration of alternatives...

Dot-org, though, is special. Under the stewardship of the Public Interest Registry (PIR), the organization to which ICANN delegates control and operation of the dot-org domain, dot-org serves the nonprofit community as a trusted partner. Nonprofits provide websites and use email with confidence and peace of mind. Even while business interests captured most of the Internet’s policymaking, dot-org remained protected from profit-driven rulemaking.

Today, though, that independence is under threat. The Internet Society, a nonprofit to which ICANN delegated the duty to host PIR, announced a deal in November to sell PIR and its license to sell dot-org names for more than $1 billion. The buyer is Ethos Capital, a private-equity firm with investments in digital advertising, data brokering and other Internet services...

Camo - in space?

Image from Military.com, where there is a discussion of the uniform.   At a Reddit discussion thread the suggestion was made that the best "camo" for space would be Vantablack.

18 January 2020

Scrapbook, part IV

BTW - I quite understand that these are difficult to read (probably impossible on a phone screen).  I just don't have time to optimize everything.

Hevisaurus - Finnish metal music for children

Via a Reddit discussion thread on the huge popularity of metal in Finland.

She shielded her baby in a hailstorm

Australia, 2018, some as big as tennis balls - and a visual reminder that hailstones can have sharp(ish) points on them.  Story at The Independent.

17 January 2020

"Country Life" humor from Punch, part I

Over a period of many years I clipped out selections from the "Country Life" section of Punch magazine and stored them in a "humor" scrapbook.  When I hosted parties at my apartment I would invite guests to sit down and try to read two pages while controlling their emotions and not smiling or laughing.  I don't recall anyone successfully doing so.  Now I'll try posting the pages here in the blog, a couple at a time.

16 January 2020

My grandmother Myrtle and her family, 1909

Somewhere in Pennsylvania - probably Blair County near Altoona or Bellwood.  If anyone out there has these people in their photo albums, let me know...

Scrapbook, part III

I'm tired of seeing "presidential pens"

They are in the news today because of the hoopla surrounding Pelosi's signing of the articles of impeachment.
The House speaker sparked the opposing party’s ire on Wednesday when she used a remarkable number of writing implements – more than three trays littered with them – to sign her name on the articles of impeachment against Donald Trump.

The pens, engraved with her signature, were intended as souvenirs for Pelosi’s allies. She carefully signed the documents, apparently stroke by stroke, using different pens for each portion of her signature. Then she distributed them to impeachment managers and committee members.
The process has such a long history that it has become a tradition:
Barack Obama used 22 pens to sign his landmark healthcare law. Lyndon Johnson is said to have used 75 to sign the Civil Rights Act. The tradition goes back to at least Franklin Roosevelt, as Time explained in 2010: “The pen used to sign legislation itself becomes a historical artifact. The more pens a president uses, the more thank-you gifts he can offer to those who helped create that piece of history.”
It also happens in state legislatures:

And they are available for purchase online.
There are actually three main types of pens typically called presidential pens. The first and perhaps the most well-known are bill signing pens. These are the pen or pens used by the President when he signs a bill into law during a signing ceremony. The second type is pens distributed by The White House or government agencies, as souvenirs or gifts. The third type is pens given out during presidential campaigns or during visits to events and locations by the President during his term of office... [the record for most pens] belongs to President Lyndon Johnson, who in 1964 signed the Civil Rights Act using a whopping 75 pens
Ridiculous.  Stop spending my tax money on gifts to your friends.  Maybe I'm just in a bad mood.  Get off my lawn.

The answer has nine letters

"What has four letters, occasionally has twelve letters, always has six letters, but never has five letters"


For Jeopardy! fans

The publicity surrounding the recent GOAT tournament brought a reminder that the J! Archive is still available (now with 384,000 entries).  Note it is possible to do a sorting using the search function.

14 January 2020


Created by bonsai master Masahiko Kimura
His unconventional bonsai creations have stirred controversy at first. Deemed by some traditionalists as a non-conforming artist, Kimura continued to break the traditional rules of bonsai making. Typically, the art involves cultivating a single tree or shrub planted on a container. Instead of planting just one miniaturized tree, Kimura brilliantly created a mini-forest sprouting from a slanted deadwood. He has produced and sold several versions of the Hinoki Forest. But the original version, which he created more than 20 years ago, still sits proudly in his garden. His garden is located in Omiya, Japan and is open to the public upon request.
Image via

Scrapbook, part II

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