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Biotech Science

Natural Selection Can Act on Human Culture 239

Hugh Pickens writes "Scientists at Stanford University have shown for the first time that the process of natural selection can act on human cultures as well as on genes. The team studied reports of canoe designs from 11 Oceanic island cultures, evaluating 96 functional features that could contribute to the seaworthiness of the vessels. Statistical test results showed clearly that the functional canoe design elements changed more slowly over time, indicating that natural selection could be weeding out inferior new designs. Authors of the study said their results speak directly to urgent social and environmental problems. 'People have learned how to avoid natural selection in the short term through unsustainable approaches such as inequity and excess consumption. But this is not going to work in the long term,' said Deborah S. Rogers, a research fellow at Stanford."
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Natural Selection Can Act on Human Culture

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  • Hmmm (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dreamchaser ( 49529 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @08:07AM (#22452416) Homepage Journal
    This almost reads more like a political agenda than a scientific study. "We must return to nature or we are doomed," to grossly paraphrase.
  • Re:Hmmm (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 17, 2008 @08:34AM (#22452510)
    Considering that civilization was a product of no longer being able to sustent ourselves the easy way (i.e. fishing/hunting until area deployment, then move onto another area), and that underdeveloped countries are the ones cutting down their forests and killing their endangered species for ridiculously low cash, I can't explain why on Earth a bright naturalist could advocate for returning to our roots.
    ...that's why hence I concluded that there are no bright naturalists on this planet.
  • by airdrummer ( 547536 ) <air_drummer AT verizon DOT net> on Sunday February 17, 2008 @09:18AM (#22452650)
    is religion not a collection of survival lessons, wrapped in mnemonic stories to preserve the knowledge across generations? doesn't the bible have helpful hints like "get your drinking water _upstream_ from the latrine"? in a pre-industrial pre-scientific world the only reliable way to avoid STDs is monogamy.

    and what better way to ensure compliance than to tap into the natural human spirituality circuits, invoking the authority of the deit[y|ies] spinning tales of eternal damnation for transgressors...hey, whatever works;-}

    and handling waste & dead animals isn't really healthy, but a dirty job's gotta get done, so a society could relegate it to a wretched underclass isolated from the larger society...oh, let's just call 'em 'untouchables'...hey, can't argue w/ success;-}

  • Re:Evolution/design (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 17, 2008 @10:34AM (#22453096)

    <Sigh> Read The Selfish Gene [google.com]. Do individual genes have progeny? No. Cells do, whole strands of DNA do. Yet, it is the gene that is the basic unit of natural selection in biology, always competing with other genes, even within the same strand of DNA. Individual genes "make" cells do the replication job for them. Genes that are the most successful are the ones that get themselves replicated the most. Similarly, the canoe designs that are the most successful are the ones that get humans to make the most of them. That is how canoe designs replicate. This is not a metaphor; this is literally natural selection, plain and simple.

    That brings me to the next point: you seem to have difficulty differentiating between Natural Selection [wikipedia.org] and Evolution [wikipedia.org]. What you attempted to describe was the former, and it equally describes all manner of competing replicating objects: genes, memes, inventions, ideas, products, &c. The latter, however, deals with the evolution of life, and does imply that your great grandfather was an ape (you are one too, after all). And your great great...great grandfather was an ape that humans and chimpanzees share as an ancestor. It's not scary. It's pretty damn remarkable. Get over yourself.

  • Re:Long-term (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Attila Dimedici ( 1036002 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @11:28AM (#22453416)

    Unfortunately, people have learned how to avoid natural selection in the short term through unsustainable approaches such as inequity and excess consumption. But this is not going to work in the long term.

    (Emphasis mine). The researcher is saying that European/North-American/etc. culture is currently operating in an unsustainable way, and that this works in the short-term (i.e. we are "developing" and "improving" our lives), but that in the long-haul, any culture that hopes to survive must operate in a sustainable way. If they don't, they will consume all available resources until their way-of-life disintegrates around them.


    That very quote calls into question the researcher in question as a scientist. There is no evidence that Western Civilization is unsustainable. Intuitively, it seems like it must be. However, Julian Simon made a bet with Paul Ehrlich that resources were becoming less expensive. Paul Ehrlich and several colleagues selected five metals in 1980 that they felt would rise in price over the next decoade. Julian Simon bet them that they would fall or stay the same. Julian SImon won the bet, all five metals fell in price. THis bet does not prove the sustainability of Western Civilization, but it does suggest that the intuitive feeling that it is unsustainable is flawed.
  • Re:Long-term (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AikonMGB ( 1013995 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @11:58AM (#22453628) Homepage

    Have you taken a look at Western Civilization's fossil-fuel consumption? These are resources that by their very definition are not replenishable. And, quite frankly, all the metals in the world won't do you squat if you don't have the energy to drive them around or build anything with them. Beyond fossil fuels, there are other important resources, such a food. Notice how the deserts (in North America, sure, but in China in particular) are growing? They are losing arable soil at an alarming rate, and yet their population is increasing all the same. Food doesn't grow on trees, you know ;) In all seriousness, what happens when you go to the market to buy food for your family and find that vegetables have gone up in price 10-fold because China has started importing en masse?

    These are just two particular examples, but there are many more.. do some research on the renewable water table levels in Asia; you might be surprised how dry some of their mega-aquifers are. There's no point in trying to defend the "sustainability" of a fossil-fuel based society/economy. Even if the space program takes off and we fly to Titan to rape her resources [slashdot.org], we're just prolonging the same situation: a dependence on a resource that is fundamentally limited in quantity.

    ----- Note that the above is the end of my point, and what follows is just additional ranting; do not make reference to it when defending the discussion at hand, as I am well aware that I am now talking about time-scales on the thousands or tens-of-thousands of years. -----

    When you get down to it, nuclear power; there is a finite amount of suitable radioactive material in this world that, assuming our use of nuclear power continues to rise, will one day run out (of course this is much longer-span than fossil-fuels, but the time it takes is the only difference).

    North-America (which I can speak to directly since I live there) lives in a wasteful, consumerist society. We are wasteful of our environment, we are wasteful of our resources, of our energy, of our food... In the "long term", unless we leave this planet, our energy consumption must be limited to a "solar quota", i.e. the amount of sunlight the Earth receives, as that is the only "input" energy this world has. Everything else is simply consuming solar energy that was stored a long time ago.

    ----- And now for some wild hyperbole, simply because its fun. -----

    Actually, if you really get down to it, there's no point in anything since anything we do contributes to the eventual heat death of the Universe, and there is only a finite amount of energy (assuming a finite Universe) that we can consume even if we had ideal means of obtaining it.

  • Re:In other words (Score:3, Interesting)

    by JavaRob ( 28971 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @03:57PM (#22455476) Homepage Journal

    Besides we didn't even get ridden of the old useless ones yet... (e.g. the fifth toe)
    Ah, that's an important fallacy about evolution. Why would we get rid of "useless" features like the 5th toe? It doesn't cost us anything to keep it (unless you account for some women's shoe fashions over the decades...).

    Something that's not selected against or selected for will just get carried along (or not) by the more important mutations.

    If some other mutation that actually helps us has the side-effect of fusing in the 5th toe, then it'll happen -- but if not, it's probably not going anywhere for a long time. Hell, we might even get 6 toes to a foot (even if the new toe were also superfluous!), if that change was a side-effect of an important mutation... and genetics are complicated enough that this particular genetic mutation could be a tweak that conveys certain disease resistance, or a special brain change.. that just happens to *also* affect foot development.
  • Re:More correctly (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Cairnarvon ( 901868 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @08:04PM (#22457250) Homepage
    No, it'd be like postulating that anyone believing in quantum theory in, say, the 1600s would have been nuts to do so, which is true. There was no reason to believe they existed at the time, so belief in their existence would have been unscientific. It's perfectly scientific to posit the non-existence of a designer, as there is no evidence.
    The fact that you can't be absolutely certain that it's true is a reflection of the fact that our scientific knowledge is always an approximation at best.

    The fact that something might be wrong does not make it unscientific; in fact, every single scientific hypothesis might be wrong. That's just the nature of things. It's not possible to know anything for sure.
    This emphatically does not mean that all hypotheses are equally valid or likely, though.
  • Re:War (Score:3, Interesting)

    by oliderid ( 710055 ) on Monday February 18, 2008 @08:08AM (#22461638) Journal
    It was the strategy of the Huns...They occupied almost the whole Eurasian continent? Do you remember anything from them?
    Rome was totally different. Rome used to assimilate other people.

    Rome used to be stronger : culturally, economically and even military for hundreds of years. Empires raise and die that's a natural process in human history. Rome was different from most Empires. Their main tool was diplomacy, especially during the gauls conquest or in Greece. They used their alliances with local kings or cities to attack/invade the others...Then after few decades the ally was so dependant on Rome that it was de facto annexed.

    After the fall of the Empire, most Barbarians litteraly worshipped the Roman culture. Latin was still used (in a vulgar form) as the "lingua franca" in the whole Europe...Christianity the last Roman official religion was practiced by Barbarians rulers because it was Roman, it was politically extremely positive. Even Charlesmagne (XIth) asked the pope to be crowned as the Western Roman Emperor and protector of the holly Church. This title was still used by Austrian Emperor until very recently. The Bizantine emperor, a branch of the original Roman empire was crushed by Otomans in the XVIth. Most continental European rulers like the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Charlemagne, Charlesquint, Napolean secretly dreamed to revive the Roman Empire....And even in today Russia the Byzantine empire is still used as propaganda by nationalists, an Orthodox empire weakenned by the decadent west.

    Rome is a giant in history because it had the ability to choose its policy carefully. Brutal force wasn't the only tool...What is the best result? A totally annhilated country or millions of surviving citizens happily paying taxes to be part of the free trade routes (from the UK to Jordania)? How can you expect the most sincere allegiance? By the fear of your armies? Or by the fear to lose their wealth and trading partners?

"How many teamsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?" "FIFTEEN!! YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?"