Humanity’s cousins

The closest relatives of humans are apes, monkeys, lemurs, but once you go beyond primates and tree-shrew type animals, we are Euarchontoglires, and our next closest cousins are rodents and rabbits. Not lions, horses, dogs, deer or whales, but rats and mice. I find this fascinating and beautiful, linking us in to life on Earth, showing the weird accidents resulting in our presence here; and I am proud to be related to such a successful animal as a rat.

Euarchontoglires are Boreoeutheria, distinguished by the scrotum in males, though some animals have evolved to no longer need a scrotum- hedgehogs, rhinoceroses, and some trans women. The evidence of this is in our DNA, rather than in fossils: the common ancestor lived between 100 and 80 mya (million years ago), and though its fossils may never be found its genome sequence might be predicted from its descendents to 98% accuracy.

Laurasiatheria are also Boreoeutheria: shrews, moles, hoofed animals, animals that chew cud, whales, bats and pangolins, and all the Carnivora in one Order. Most animals constantly renew their teeth, but mammals stopped doing this, with most only having an infant set and one adult set, because mammals lives were so short there was no need. Some Euarchontoglires started growing teeth again, though not humans- yay Euarchontoglires! Sharks grow new teeth constantly. Tyrannosaurus Rex, whose jaw could exert 3000lbs of pressure on one tooth, broke teeth and renewed them constantly. The whole human mouth can bite at 175lbs.

Eutheria, with a common ancestor in the early Cretaceous or late Jurassic about 161mya, were named “True beasts” by Theodore Gill, and are defined by certain aspects of the skeleton such as the joints between the metatarsals and the cuneiform bones. Every football fan knows what a metatarsal is. I thought a “beast” was an animal, which made me wonder what metatheria, not quite beasts, were. They are marsupials; all living eutheria are placental mammals, though some eutheria were not. Theria- beasts and sort-of beasts, includes marsupials.

Mammals all give milk to their young. Nipples evolved from sweat glands, so there were young of ancient nearlybeasts that licked their mothers’ sweat. All mammals alive now are Trechnotheria; a mammal called Kuehneotherium with different teeth evolved in the late Triassic, and that line all died out just like most animals. There were Mammaliaformes, mammal-like animals, which gave rise to mammals and to Morganucodontidae, “Glamorgan-toothed” animals. This says nothing about Welsh people now. One hypothesis of mammal relationships shows Mammaliaformes, mammalia, theriformes, holotheria, trechnotheria, cladotheria, zatheria, tribosphenida, theria then eutheria. So if you want to confuse someone, which of course I often do, you can say you are a theriforme. Therefore you are not a monotreme, an egg-laying mammal, but closely related.

Before Mammaliaformes there were Mammaliamorpha, a wider clade including more extinct animals. That included the Tritylodontidae, three-knob teeth animals, which also died out and left fossilised teeth. The name shows the evidence: dont appears in the name of lots of extinct life. The Morganucodontidae’s teeth survived, showing a difference from all beasts, a branch on the single tree of life. And teeth are close to my heart on my mind in my thoughts at the moment- those first two images are horrible- as I might lose one.

Mammals are not descended from reptiles. We are Therapsids, not Therapods (or, mostly, therapists) and Synapsids, evolving separately from Amniotes, animals laying eggs on land. It’s all to do with how there are holes in the skull for the eyes to peer through, though I am not quite sure how they differ and even I can’t be bothered finding out how, now. So reptiles or Sauropsids, with different eyeholes, and in turn dinosaurs and birds all with reptilian eyeholes, evolved separately from the amniotes laying eggs out of water. The word Amniote comes from Greek, meaning “membrane surrounding the foetus”, and earlier “bowl in which the blood of sacrificed animals was caught”. Amniotes evolved in the Carboniferous period, 323-298mya.

So we are related to all reptiles, because they have a membrane round the foetus, and then to all amphibians, even though they don’t, because the adults breathe as land-dwellers. Then we are part of the clade tetrapoda, four-footed creatures, with the same basic body structure- heart, lungs, liver, spleen, legs and toes. Tetrapods evolved from Sarcopterygii, lobe-finned fishes, around 390mya, crawling onto the land.

Tetrapods evolved from Chordates- animals with a nerve cord, a tail behind the anus, and blood circulation. Chordates include vertebrates, with a backbone, so including fish, as well as Tunicata such as sea-squirts. Even a sea-squirt has a heart. Chordates evolved from bilaterians, which are tubes- at first animals took in food the same way they excreted waste, but then evolved into one-way systems. Humans are deuterostomes: in our foetuses, the anus forms before the mouth does. Insects are Protostomes, where the mouth forms first. We are “Bilaterians” because we have a distinct left and right side, not because we have two ends of a tube to feed through. All bilaterians are symmetrical as embryos, but some are not as adults, including echinoderms, such as starfish.

Simpler than that, we go back to the Ediacaran, 600mya. So we are related to all multicellular animals. With more distant common ancestors, we are Eukaryotes, because our cells have a nucleus enclosed within membranes, and mitocondria. Those mitocondria may have been prokaryotic cells, absorbed into others in a symbiotic relationship, though there is also the autogenous hypothesis, where they evolved within a more primitive cell. So we are related to plants and fungi. And beyond that we are related to archaea and bacteria, and all life on Earth.

Evolutionary spirituality

How could spiritual experience evolve? Blake’s lines

The world in a grain of sand
and Heaven in a wild flower

refer to it. My senses feel more alive, more immediate and intense, and this changes from being a peak experience to an everyday one which I can enter or even sustain through disciplined effort. It seems worth the effort.

I was writing song lyrics seeking to evoke a standard spiritual experience, even hint at it to those who do not have it, and that led me to imagine what it was and think of early experiences of it.

I had the experience without connecting it to Blake the first time I sat in a circle with the instruction “Speak when moved”, not with Quakers. After, I would have said “I could hear a pin drop”.

Then at the Five Rhythms dance camp, the facilitator sought to induce it- we had our right hands on the shoulder of the person in front with the instruction to place your foot in the footprint just left. This is impossible and pointless. Some gave up. He led us in circles in the woods, then abruptly out into a field in bright sunshine- the perfect metaphor for spiritual experience as well as a real experience of it, doing ridiculous things in darkness then emerging into Light. My senses were alive. This delighted me.

After, I had such an experience at the Greenbelt festival: a tree impinged on my consciousness suddenly, and each leaf was separate, I saw it in such detail. Then I decided to evoke such experience, for example by paying full attention to chores like washing up, seeing the gleam of light on wet plates, enjoying the motion of wiping them.

A deer, feeding, will suddenly lift its head to scan its surroundings. So might our primate ancestors. We are suddenly moved to look around. There may be a predator, or prey. There is no predator in civilised society apart from other humans, whose threat civilisation often seeks to blind us to and deny, but basic brain processes may nevertheless take over from the monkey mind, the endless stream of words flowing through consciousness, most of them repeated many times before.

We escape words into conscious attention. Rather than stereotyping classifying and dismissing current experience through words which simplify it, I pay attention.

The words come between us and experience. Sometimes this is a good thing- I can communicate complex information, think abstractly, read a book- and sometimes bad, stopping me really seeing. As I look at the woods more, I see all the different greens. That is not just a “bird”, even a “red kite”, but a miracle of adaptation, a slight movement of one wingtip feather holding it perfectly in the thermal.

New words delight, old words stultify, even becoming the psychiatric symptom of rumination. When I enter into the moment of immediate experience I might act as needed now rather than by habit, from seeing rather than stereotyping.

Wake up!  cried Anthony di Mello. Liberation is another metaphor. I become my potential. It is an animal response, perhaps older than backbones or bilaterians.

Being discombobulated

The doctor makes me feel ill.

Like the battle between trans and terf, the battle between biblical literalists and atheist rationalists continues on the blogs. I blog to get things clear in my mind, and having dismissed creationism to my satisfaction I have moved on. You can’t win against them: they seem happy to continue asserting their rubbish, backed by their tight communities of Evangelicals. They twist and distort. So the truth-teller comments, and they respond in an arrogant way, a beautiful example being the assertion that trilobite fossils offer at least as much proof for the creation/flood scenario as the old age earth cosmology.

I remain proud of this comment: The more I interact with you, Tim, the more I see how pitiable you are. How much more beautiful my world is! I hear words like biostratigraphy or palaeothermometry, and learn what they mean, and think- How wonderful! How beautiful! People are finding these things out! And you think, They must be wrong. It is all rubbish. Here is a dispute and there is an inconsistency, and all scientists are FOOLS!

How much more beautiful my Bible is! My Bible has story, and metaphor, and poetry, and poetic imagery, and allusion. Your Bible has a series of propositions, more or less ridiculous, which you have to Believe. My Bible leads me to God, and your Bible mires you in lies.

And my Christian argument against creationism: God created people in God’s image, loving, creative, powerful, beautiful, and scientists seek understanding, assessing the evidence. From presuppositions of a young Earth and a Flood, geologists in the 18th century established evidence of an old Earth, and how the Flood could not have created the strata visible all over the world. They seek the truth. That academic science, involving millions of people, should have produced such a detailed account of the Earth’s history, continually being refined, is one of the wonders of God’s creation. They do so based on evidence in the Earth’s rocks, as astronomers observe electromagnetic radiation falling on the Earth and its satellites, and geneticists, genomes. A God who created all this evidence to delude God’s people would be a monster, creating a stumbling block that uses our good qualities, curiosity and commitment to truth, against us. Alternatively, a God who allowed Satan to deceive us in that way would not deserve my worship. My God does not send ane to Heaven and ten to Hell.

This towering achievement of humanity is airily dismissed. Here that doctor uses the diversity in the oldest evidence of the Cambrian explosion to argue for creation. Schizochroal eyes are indeed complex. But earlier life has been found, in the Ediacaran biota, too soft to create fossils without exceptional conditions. As life began to move on legs and fins, and detect light and sound, an evolutionary arms race began between predators and prey creating the Cambrian explosion. Richard Dawkins explains the evolution of eyes. Isaiah quoted by Matthew describes the person who would dismiss that explanation.

And yet this Emergency Room physician dismisses all this evidence, all this analysis, as “Arrogant, prideful and foolish”. He turns his back on the truth. Challenge him, and he will answer you. Anyone wanting to find the truth, or deal with argument fairly, has an impossible disadvantage- for I want to show him the wonders of God’s creation. Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself. Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes. He is a blind guide.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

The cascade of wicked falsity makes me feel ill. He is a physician! He writes in grammatical sentences. I dare to hope that Christians can seek truth together, in love, and his torrent of gibberish, told with a straight face, belies that. I get stronger, though. Yes, people are trapped in delusion, and try to delude others, but also some seek truth, and we can approach it if we are committed to it. When starting this blog I wanted to analyse why I find an arrogant series of assertions, stated as if the speaker believed them but clearly untrue, was so disorientating to me. It is like motion sickness. And I can’t. Why do I find it so unpleasant? I just do.

One of my exercises is the Agreement Challenge: what can you value in something you disagree with? Violet introduced me to his blog, this post. So I was glad to be introduced to this article on how the value of scientific evidence is a philosophical question rather than a scientific one. Indeed. I like Violet’s prescriptions for education, and am sad I even considered anything that physician said.

There is a limit to the value of pointing out the foolishness of fools. If you want to reduce the number of abortions, the way is to promote birth control and education on human relationships and consent. US Republicans oppose this. We like to think rationality will prevail, but they’re not listening!

I am less discombobulated than I was by such vileness. Yesterday, at a conference I was discombobulated in a completely different way: I glimpsed that if I could better understand what these speakers were saying, perhaps reading the paper rather than hearing it, my understanding of the World would be enriched. Good advice: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. I will spend less time worried about wicked rubbish!

Testosterone Rex

From the opening joke about testicles as a key-fob, Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine is a lively read. It argues that gender roles arise not from testosterone, or from our evolution on the savannahs of Africa, but from Patriarchy, by close analysis of scientific studies showing that expected gender differences do not manifest in results, and that results found do not justify the large claims made.

There lies the difficulty for me. I am unable to delve into the primary sources. I would not know where to start. Political interests drive the confirmation bias of researchers, on both sides, and patriarchy affects the theorising which makes researchers or funders choose particular projects. Fine quotes Lewis Wolpert, CBE FRS FRSL FMedSci, the author of a number of popular science books: There is no doubt that biology, via evolution and genetics, has made men and women significantly different. Fine disagrees, and has assembled impressive evidence. I am aware of Wolpert, more as an author of popular science books than for his work on intracellular positional information that guides cellular development, but he is an eminent man. Why should I believe Fine over him?

She shows that research has been based on the idea of masculinity and femininity as opposite ends of a spectrum. In 1936, the Attitude Interest Analysis Survey asked 456 questions, each of which had a “masculine” or “feminine” answer. In the 1970s, the Personal Attributes Questionnaire, with two sets of questions to measure stereotypically masculine and feminine traits separately, showed one can have both “masculine” traits of “instrumentality”, like self-confidence, independence and competitiveness, and “feminine” traits of “expressiveness”, being emotional, gentle and caring. Or, neither. But also the masculine and feminine traits don’t necessarily go together. Always the argument that women can have gifts or interests thought masculine is fighting the assumptions of researchers. The concepts of masculinity and femininity get in the way of seeing how men and women actually are.

She shows how children are indoctrinated into gender, by the pink and blue toy aisles, and by peer pressure. I told my great-niece she was strong, as well as beautiful, for standing up and learning to walk. If girls were feminine at her age of ten months, one would expect them to work on talking first, to express themselves, and boys on walking for instrumentality. There is no such clear difference. Yet there is a great backlash against gender neutral toy-marketing, as if that were the indoctrination.

She describes the White Male effect. Are men more willing to take risks? In the US, a survey showed that men are; but not ethnic minority men. Privileged men are more likely to take risks. And it depends what risks are named, for people take risks where they are familiar with the matter. A risk of high taxation might provoke privileged male fear. And the “funnel plot”, a way of excluding publication bias: where studies show greater female risk-taking, they are less likely to be published. In Sweden, men and women were equal risk takers, but again immigrants, subject to discrimination, would take less risks. Of course: they are less safe.

Are men more competitive for mates, or less likely to be faithful? She accepts that men invest less in producing a baby, a few sperm rather than forty weeks’ incubation, but not that this means men want to spread it around, which might not produce children anyway. In evolutionary biology, sexual selection is in an exciting state of turmoil.

Does testosterone make men more likely to take risks? Not necessarily. Higher testosterone levels in men who take risks is correlation, not necessarily causation. The way testosterone fluctuation in the blood affects the brain is unclear, and women have testosterone too.

She ends with a call to arms. We can continue with our polite, undemanding panel discussions about gender equality, our good intentions and gentle tinkering, and patiently wait out the fifty to one hundred or so years it’s regularly predicted to take to achieve parity in the workplace. But… maybe it’s time to be less polite and more disruptive, like the first- and second-wave feminists. They weren’t always popular, it’s true. But look at what they achieved by not asking nicely.

And look at what she promises: valuation of your gifts as a human being, separate from preconceptions about how a man or woman ought to be. We could see ourselves more clearly. Women freed to express their gifts would benefit all.

Monkey ethics

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4d/Apes_in_a_persimmon-tree.jpg/328px-Apes_in_a_persimmon-tree.jpgTo survive, I need others in my community to show empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking. So do other primates. The beginnings of our ethics and morality help a group in a social species flourish.

Other primates show reciprocity: If two monkeys perform the same task in an experiment, and are rewarded unequally, the one who is rewarded better is as angry as the one rewarded worse.Chimps are more likely to share food with those who have groomed them, than those who have not.

They show empathy: Given the chance to obtain food by pulling a chain which gives another an electric shock, rhesus monkeys will starve for several days. When two chimpanzees fight, others will console the loser, but among macaques a mother will not even console her injured infant. Consoling another requires a level of self-awareness and empathy only great apes possess. Female chimps will attempt to reconcile competing males, and prevent fights by taking stones from the males’ hands. So explains Frans de Waal in his book Primates and Philosophers, reviewed in the New York TImes.

They show a sense of social rules: where a chimp refused to share bananas he has found, the rest of his group punished him. I got this last from Stand to Reason, a Christian site which seeks to mock the idea of monkey morality: morality comes from God. It points out that in making moral judgment, we assess motive and intent, but asserts that we cannot infer that from the chimps’ apparently punishing behaviour- though it does not posit an alternative explanation for it. Strange to see the God of the Gaps argument trotted out, when it has failed so many times before: especially when it is already failing in this instance.

There are disputes among evolutionary scientists: EO Wilson believes that the better survival of some groups than others can drive evolution, as the survival of the fittest individual can, a view Richard Dawkins derides.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/00/Gibbons_and_Deer.jpegDavid Hume believed that moral views derived from emotional states, but Kant derived them from reason, which other animal experiments demonstrate animals using. Hume appears in “Stand to Reason” too: you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, it asserts. It is my feeling that my support for the woman’s right to choose derives from an empathetic emotional response to the woman’s need, and I then apply reason to justify that in argument. Kant opposed lying in all cases, regardless of anticipated consequences. (I know this because many non-philosophers like me find that view inexplicable, because we can imagine consequences we find revolting. Note the conflation of reason and emotion in that last sentence.)

For de Waal, morality is a sense of right and wrong that is born out of groupwide systems of conflict management based on shared values. All great apes manage conflict in this way.

An address to the Inner Critic

Dear Inner Critic,

You express my fear, and my fear is real, and needs to be heard. And. Love makes me happier. Fear has held me back,showing me barriers where none exist, or making me think they are much greater than they are. Love shows me opportunities. Love shows me Opportunities. Love enriches my soul. Fear blocks out, shuns. Only Love can see beauty. Love builds connection. Fear starves, Love nourishes. I need Love to flourish. I know, dear Inner Critic, that you want me to flourish, that you seek to care for me as well as you can, and: Love really is the more excellent way.

Or, consider evolution. It is all about Survival of the Fittest, Competition, right? Well, no. Ancient single-celled organisms took in Mitochondria, other single celled organisms, as symbiants. There are no multi-cellular organisms without mitochondria. So, before competition, Co-operation.