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A Scientific Perspective of the Arts

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Science and the arts have long been regarded as mutually exclusive domains, where many see artistic expression as something that science can’t explain or reduce in any way, or as something that just shouldn’t be explored by any kind of scientific inquiry.  To put it another way, many people have thought it impossible for there to ever be any kind of a “science of the arts”.  The way I see it, science isn’t something that can be excluded from any domain at all, because we apply science in a very general way every time we learn or conceive of new ideas, experiment with them, and observe the results to determine if we should modify our beliefs based on those experiences.  Whenever we pose a question about anything we experience, in the attempt to learn something new and gain a better understanding about those experiences, a scientific approach (based on reason and the senses) is the only demonstrably reliable way we’ve ever been able to arrive at any kind of meaningful answer.  The arts are no exception to this, and in fact, many questions that have been asked about the arts and aesthetics in general have not only been answered by an application of the aforementioned general scientific reasoning that we use every day, but have in fact also been answered within many specific well-established branches of science.

Technology & The Scientific Method

It seems to me that the sciences and the various rewards we’ve reaped from them have influenced art in a number of ways and even facilitated new variations of artistic expression.  For example, science has been applied to create the very technologies used in producing art.  The various technologies created through the application of science have been used to produce new sounds (and new combinations thereof), new colors (and new color gradients), new shapes, and various other novel visual effects.  We’ve even used them to produce new tastes and smells (in the culinary arts for example).  They’ve also been used to create entirely new media through which art is exemplified.  So in a large number of ways, any kind of art has been dependent on science in some way or another — even by simply applying the scientific method by hypothesizing a way to express art in some way, even through a new medium or with a new technique, where the artist experiments with that medium or technique to see if it is satisfactory, and then modifies their hypothesis if needed until the artist obtains the desired result for what they’re trying to express (whether through simple trial and error or what-have-you).

Evolutionary Factors Influencing Aesthetic Preferences

Then we have the questions that pertain to whether or not aesthetic preferences are solely subjective and individualistic, or if they are also objective in some ways.  Some of these questions have in fact been explored within the fields of evolutionary biology and psychology (and within the field of psychology in general), where it is well known that humans find certain types of perceptions pleasurable, such as environments and objects that are conducive to our survival.  For example, the majority of people enjoy visually perceiving an abundance of food, fresh water and plush vegetation, healthy social relationships (including sex) and various emotions, etc. There are also various sounds, smells, tastes, and even tactile sensations that we’ve evolved to find pleasurable — such as the sound of laughter, flowing water, or rain, the taste of salt, fat, and sugar, the smell of various foods and plants, or the tactile sensation of sexual stimulation (to give but a few examples).  So it’s not surprising that many forms of art can appeal to the majority of people by employing these kinds of objects and environments within them, especially in cases where these sources of pleasurable sensations are artificially amplified into supernormal stimuli, thus producing unprecedented levels of pleasure not previously attainable through the natural environment that our senses evolved within.

Additionally, there are certain emotions that we’ve evolved to express as well as understand simply because they increase our chances of survival within our evolutionary niche, and thus artistic representations of these types of universal human emotions will also likely play a substantial role in our aesthetic preferences.  Even the evolved traits of empathy and sympathy, which are quite advantageous to a social species such as our own (due to them reinforcing cooperation and reciprocal altruism among other benefits), are employed by those that are perceiving and appreciating these artistic expressions.

Another possible evolutionary component related to our appreciation of art has to do with sexual selection.  Often times, particular forms of art are appreciated, not only because of the emotions it evokes in the recipient or person perceiving it, but also when they include clever uses of metaphor, allegory, poetry, and other components that often demonstrate significant levels of intelligence or brilliance in the artist that produced them.  In terms of our evolutionary history, having these kinds of skills and displays of intelligence would be attractive to prospective sexual mates for a number of reasons including the fact that they demonstrate that the artist has a surplus of mental capacity to solve more complex problems that are far beyond those they’d typically encounter day to day.  So this can provide a rather unique way of demonstrating particular aspects of their fitness to survive as well as their abilities to protect any future offspring.

Artistic expression (as well as other displays of intelligence and surplus mental capacity) can be seen as analogous to the male peacock’s large and vibrant tail.  Even though this type of tail increases its chances of being caught by a predator, if it has survived to reproductive age and beyond, it shows the females that the male has a very high fitness despite these odds being stacked against him.  It also shows that the male is fit enough to possess a surplus of resources from its food intake that are continually donated to maintaining that tail.  Beyond this, a higher degree of symmetry in the tail (the visual patterns within each feather, the morphology of each feather, and the uniformity of the feathers as a whole set) demonstrates a lower number of mutations in its genome, thus providing better genes for any future offspring.  Because of all these factors, the female has evolved to find these male attributes attractive.

Similarly, for human beings (both male and female), an intelligent brain that is able to produce brilliant expressions of art (among other feats of intelligence), illustrates that the genome for that individual is likely to have less mutations in it.  This is especially apparent once we realize that the number of genes in our genome that pertain to our brain’s development and function accounts for an entire 50% of our total genome.  So if someone is intelligent, since their highly functional brain was dependent on having a small number of mutations in the portion of their genome pertaining to the brain, this shows that the rest of their genome is also far less likely to have harmful mutations in it (and thus less mutations passed on to future offspring).  Art aside, this kind of sexual selection is actually one prominent theory within evolutionary biology to explain why our brains grew as quickly as they did, and as large as they did.  Quite simply, if larger brains were something that both males and females found sexually attractive (through the feats of intelligence they could produce), they would be sexually selected for, thus leading to higher survival rates for offspring and a runaway effect of unprecedented brain growth.  These aesthetic preferences would then likely carry over to general displays of artistic ability, thus no longer pertaining exclusively to the search for prospective sexual mates, but also to simply enjoy the feats of intelligence themselves regardless of the source.  So there are many interesting facets that pertain to likely influential evolutionary factors relating to the origin of artistic expression (or at least the origin of our mental capacity to do so).

Neuroscience & The Arts

One final aspect I’d like to discuss that pertains to the arts within the context of the sciences, lies in the realm of neuroscience.  As neuroscientists are progressing in terms of mapping the brain’s structure and activity, they are becoming better able to determine what kinds of neurological conditions are correlated with various aspects of our conscious experience, our personality, and our behavior in general.  As for how this relates to the arts, we should also eventually be able to determine why we have have the aesthetic preferences we do, whether they are based on: various neurological predispositions, the emotional tagging of various past experiences via the amygdala (and how the memory of those emotionally tagged experiences change over time), possible differences in individual sensitivities to particular stimuli, etc.

Once we get to this level of understanding of the brain itself, when we combine it with the conjoined efforts of other scientific disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology and psychology, etc., and if we collaborate with experts in the arts and humanities themselves, we should definitely be able to answer a plethora of questions relating to the origin of art, how and why it has evolved over time as it has (and how it will likely continue to evolve given that our brains as well as our culture are continually evolving in parallel), how and why the arts affect us as they do, etc.  With this kind of knowledge developing in these fields, we may even one day see artists producing art by utilizing this knowledge in very specific and articulate ways, in order to produce expressions that are the most aesthetically pleasing, the most intellectually stimulating, and the most emotionally powerful that we’ve ever experienced, by design.  I think that by putting all of this knowledge together, we would effectively have a true science of the arts.

The arts have no doubt been a fundamental facet of the human condition, and I’m excited to see us beginning to learn the answers to these truly remarkable questions.  I’m hoping that the arts and the sciences can better collaborate with one another, rather than remain relatively alienated from one another, so that we can maximize the knowledge we gain in order to answer these big questions more effectively.  We may begin to see some truly remarkable changes in how the arts are performed and produced based on this knowledge, and this should only enhance the pleasure and enjoyment that they already bring to us.

An Evolved Consciousness Creating Conscious Evolution

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Two Evolutionary Leaps That Changed It All

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, human biological evolution has led to the emergence of not only consciousness but also a co-existing yet semi-independent cultural evolution (through the unique evolution of the human brain).  This evolutionary leap has allowed us to produce increasingly powerful technologies which in turn have provided a means for circumventing many natural selection pressures that our physical bodies would otherwise be unable to handle.

One of these technologies has been the selective breeding of plants and animals, with this process often referred to as “artificial” selection, as opposed to “natural” selection since human beings have served as an artificial selection pressure (rather than the natural selection pressures of the environment in general).  In the case of our discovery of artificial selection, by choosing which plants and animals to cultivate and raise, we basically just catalyzed the selection process by providing a selection pressure based on the plant or animal traits that we’ve desired most.  By doing so, rather than the selection process taking thousands or even millions of years to produce what we have today (in terms of domesticated plants and animals), it only took a minute fraction of that time since it was mediated through a consciously guided or teleological process, unlike natural selection which operates on randomly differentiating traits leading to differential reproductive success (and thus new genomes and species) over time.

This second evolutionary leap (artificial selection that is) has ultimately paved the way for civilization, as it has increased the landscape of our diet and thus our available options for food, and the resultant agriculture has allowed us to increase our population density such that human collaboration, complex distribution of labor, and ultimately the means for creating new and increasingly complex technologies, have been made possible.  It is largely because of this new evolutionary leap that we’ve been able to reach the current pinnacle of human evolution, the newest and perhaps our last evolutionary leap, or what I’ve previously referred to as “engineered selection”.

With artificial selection, we’ve been able to create new species of plants and animals with very unique and unprecedented traits, however we’ve been limited by the rate of mutations or other genomic differentiating mechanisms that must arise in order to create any new and desirable traits. With engineered selection, we can simply select or engineer the genomic sequences required to produce the desired traits, effectively allowing us to circumvent any genomic differentiation rate limitations and also allowing us instant access to every genomic possibility.

Genetic Engineering Progress & Applications

After a few decades of genetic engineering research, we’ve gained a number of capabilities including but not limited to: producing recombinant DNA, producing transgenic organisms, utilizing in vivo trans-species protein production, and even creating the world’s first synthetic life form (by adding a completely synthetic or human-constructed bacterial genome to a cell containing no DNA).  The plethora of potential applications for genetic engineering (as well as those applications currently in use) has continued to grow as scientists and other creative thinkers are further discovering the power and scope of areas such as mimetics, micro-organism domestication, nano-biomaterials, and many other inter-related niches.

Domestication of Genetically Engineered Micro and Macro-organisms

People have been genetically modifying plants and animals for the same reasons they’ve been artificially selecting them — in order to produce species with more desirable traits. Plants and animals have been genetically engineered to withstand harsher climates, resist harmful herbicides or pesticides (or produce their own pesticides), produce more food or calories per acre (or more nutritious food when all else is equal), etc.  Plants and animals have also been genetically modified for the purposes of “pharming”, where substances that aren’t normally produced by the plant or animal (e.g. pharmacological substances, vaccines, etc.) are expressed, extracted, and then purified.

One of the most compelling applications of genetic engineering within agriculture involves solving the “omnivore’s dilemma”, that is, the prospect of growing unconscious livestock by genetically inhibiting the development of certain parts of the brain so that the animal doesn’t experience any pain or suffering.  There have also been advancements made with in vitro meat, that is, producing cultured meat cells so that no actual animal is needed at all other than some starting cells taken painlessly from live animals (which are then placed into a culture media to grow into larger quantities of meat), however it should be noted that this latter technique doesn’t actually require any genetic modification, although genetic modification may have merit in improving these techniques.  The most important point here is that these methods should decrease the financial and environmental costs of eating meat, and will likely help to solve the ethical issues regarding the inhumane treatment of animals within agriculture.

We’ve now entered a new niche regarding the domestication of species.  As of a few decades ago, we began domesticating micro-organisms. Micro-organisms have been modified and utilized to produce insulin for diabetics as well as other forms of medicine such as vaccines, human growth hormone, etc.  There have also been certain forms of bacteria genetically modified in order to turn cellulose and other plant material directly into hydrocarbon fuels.  This year (2014), E. coli bacteria have been genetically modified in order to turn glucose into pinene (a high energy hydrocarbon used as a rocket fuel).  In 2013, researchers at the University of California, Davis, genetically engineered cyanobacteria (a.k.a. blue-green algae) by adding particular DNA sequences to its genome which coded for specific enzymes such that it can use sunlight and the process of photosynthesis to turn CO2 into 2,3 butanediol (a chemical that can be used as a fuel, or to make paint, solvents, and plastics), thus producing another means of turning our over abundant carbon emissions back into fuel.

On a related note, there are also efforts underway to improve the efficiency of certain hydro-carbon eating bacteria such as A. borkumensis in order to clean up oil spills even more effectively.  Imagine one day having the ability to use genetically engineered bacteria to directly convert carbon emissions back into mass-produced fuel, and if the fuel spills during transport, also having the counterpart capability of cleaning it up most efficiently with another form of genetically engineered bacteria.  These capabilities are being further developed and are only the tip of the iceberg.

In theory, we should also be able to genetically engineer bacteria to decompose many other materials or waste products that ordinarily decompose extremely slowly. If any of these waste products are hazardous, bacteria could be genetically engineered to breakdown or transform the waste products into a safe and stable compound.  With these types of solutions we can make many new materials and have a method in line for their proper disposal (if needed).  Additionally, by utilizing some techniques mentioned in the next section, we can also start making more novel materials that decompose using non-genetically-engineered mechanisms.

It is likely that genetically modified bacteria will continue to provide us with many new types of mass-produced chemicals and products. For those processes that do not work effectively (if at all) in bacterial (i.e. prokaryotic) cells, then eukaryotic cells such as yeast, insect cells, and mammalian cells can often be used as a viable option. All of these genetically engineered domesticated micro-organisms will likely be an invaluable complement to the increasing number of genetically modified plants and animals that are already being produced.

Mimetics

In the case of mimetics, scientists are discovering new ways of creating novel materials using a bottom-up approach at the nano-scale by utilizing some of the self-assembly techniques that natural selection has near-perfected over millions of years.  For example, mollusks form sea shells with incredibly strong structural/mechanical properties by their DNA coding for the synthesis of specific proteins, and those proteins bonding the raw materials of calcium and carbonate into alternating layers until a fully formed shell is produced.  The pearls produced by clams are produced with similar techniques. We could potentially use the same DNA sequence in combination with a scaffold of our choosing such that a similar product is formed with unique geometries, or through genetic engineering techniques, we could modify the DNA sequence so that it performs the same self-assembly with completely different materials (e.g. silicon, platinum, titanium, polymers, etc.).

By combining the capabilities of scaffolding as well as the production of unique genomic sequences, one can further increase the number of possible nanomaterials or nanostructures, although I’m confident that most if not all scaffolding needs could eventually be accomplished by the DNA sequence alone (much like the production of bone, exoskeleton, and other types of structural tissues in animals).  The same principles can be applied by looking at how silk is produced by spiders, how the cochlear hair cells are produced in mammals, etc.  Many of these materials are stronger, lighter, and more defect-free than some of the best human products ever engineered.  By mimicking and modifying these DNA-induced self-assembly techniques, we can produce entirely new materials with unprecedented properties.

If we realize that even the largest plants and animals use these same nano-scale assembly processes to build themselves, it isn’t hard to imagine using these genetic engineering techniques to effectively grow complete macro-scale consumer products.  This may sound incredibly unrealistic with our current capabilities, but imagine one day being able to grow finished products such as clothing, hardware, tools, or even a house.  There are already people working on these capabilities to some degree (for example using 3D printed scaffolding or other scaffolding means and having plant or animal tissue grow around it to form an environmentally integrated bio-structure).  If this is indeed realizable, then perhaps we could find a genetic sequence to produce almost anything we want, even a functional computer or other device.  If nature can use DNA and natural selection to produce macro-scale organisms with brains capable of pattern recognition, consciousness, and computation (and eventually the learned capability of genetic engineering in the case of the human brain), then it seems entirely reasonable that we could eventually engineer DNA sequences to produce things with at least that much complexity, if not far higher complexity, and using a much larger selection of materials.

Other advantages from using such an approach include the enormous energy savings gained by adopting the naturally selected economically efficient process of self-assembly (including less changes in the forms of energy used, and thus less loss) and a reduction in specific product manufacturing infrastructure. That is, whereas we’ve typically made industrial scale machines individually tailored to produce specific components which are later assembled into a final product, by using DNA (and the proteins it codes for) to do the work for us, we will no longer require nearly as much manufacturing capital, for the genetic engineering capital needed to produce any genetic sequence is far more versatile.

Transcending the Human Species

Perhaps the most important application of genetic engineering will be the modification of our own species.  Many of the world’s problems are caused by sudden environmental changes (many of them anthropogenic), and if we can change ourselves and/or other species biologically in order to adapt to these unexpected and sudden environmental changes (or to help prevent them altogether), then the severity of those problems can be reduced or eliminated.  In a sense, we would be selecting our own as well as other species by providing the proper genes to begin with, rather than relying on extremely slow genomic differentiation mechanisms and the greater rates of suffering and loss of life that natural selection normally follows.

Genetic Enhancement of Existing Features

With power over the genome, we may one day be able to genetically increase our life expectancy, for example, by modifying the DNA polymerase-g enzyme in our mitochondria such that they make less errors (i.e. mutations) during DNA replication, by genetically altering telomeres in our nuclear DNA such that they can maintain their length and handle more mitotic divisions, or by finding ways to preserve nuclear DNA, etc. If we also determine which genes lead to certain diseases (as well as any genes that help to prevent them), genetic engineering may be the key to extending the length of our lives perhaps indefinitely.  It may also be the key to improving the quality of that extended life by replacing the techniques we currently use for health and wellness management (including pharmaceuticals) with perhaps the most efficacious form of preventative medicine imaginable.

If we can optimize our brain’s ability to perform neuronal regeneration, reconnection, rewiring, and/or re-weighting based on the genetic instructions that at least partially mediate these processes, this optimization should drastically improve our ability to learn by improving the synaptic encoding and consolidation processes involved in memory and by improving the combinatorial operations leading to higher conceptual complexity.  Thinking along these lines, by increasing the number of pattern recognition modules that develop in the neo-cortex, or by optimizing their configuration (perhaps by increasing the number of hierarchies), our general intelligence would increase as well and would be an excellent complement to an optimized memory.  It seems reasonable to assume that these types of cognitive changes will likely have dramatic effects on how we think and thus will likely affect our philosophical beliefs as well.  Religious beliefs are also likely to change as the psychological comforts provided by certain beliefs may no longer be as effective (if those comforts continue to exist at all), especially as our species continues to phase out non-naturalistic explanations and beliefs as a result of seeing the world from a more objective perspective.

If we are able to manipulate our genetic code in order to improve the mechanisms that underlie learning, then we should also be able to alter our innate abilities through genetic engineering. For example, what if infants could walk immediately after birth (much like a newborn calf)? What if infants had adequate motor skills to produce (at least some) spoken language much more quickly? Infants normally have language acquisition mechanisms which allow them to eventually learn language comprehension and productivity but this typically takes a lot of practice and requires their motor skills to catch up before they can utter a single word that they do in fact understand. Circumventing the learning requirement and the motor skill developmental lag (at least to some degree) would be a phenomenal evolutionary advancement, and this type of innate enhancement could apply to a large number of different physical skills and abilities.

Since DNA ultimately controls the types of sensory receptors we have, we should eventually be able to optimize these as well.  For example, photoreceptors could be modified such that we would be able to see new frequencies of electro-magnetic radiation (perhaps a more optimized range of frequencies if not a larger range altogether).  Mechano-receptors of all types could be modified, for example, to hear a different if not larger range of sound frequencies or to increase tactile sensitivity (i.e. touch).  Olfactory or gustatory receptors could also be modified in order to allow us to smell and taste previously undetectable chemicals.  Basically, all of our sensations could be genetically modified and, when combined with the aforementioned genetic modifications to the brain itself, this would allow us to have greater and more optimized dimensions of perception in our subjective experiences.

Genetic Enhancement of Novel Features

So far I’ve been discussing how we may be able to use genetic engineering to enhance features we already possess, but there’s no reason we can’t consider using the same techniques to add entirely new features to the human repertoire. For example, we could combine certain genes from other animals such that we can re-grow damaged limbs or organs, have gills to breathe underwater, have wings in order to fly, etc.  For that matter, we may even be able to combine certain genes from plants such that we can produce (at least some of) our own chemical energy from the sun, that is, create at least partially photosynthetic human beings.  It is certainly science fiction at the moment, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility of accomplishing this one day after considering all of the other hybrid and transgenic species we’ve created already, and after considering the possible precedent mentioned in the endosymbiotic theory (where an ancient organism may have “absorbed” another to produce energy for it, e.g. mitochondria and chloroplasts in eukaryotic cells).

Above and beyond these possibilities, we could also potentially create advanced cybernetic organisms.  What if we were able to integrate silicon-based electronic devices (or something more biologically compatible if needed) into our bodies such that the body grows or repairs some of these technologies using biological processes?  Perhaps if the body is given the proper diet (i.e. whatever materials are needed in the new technological “organ”) and has the proper genetic code such that the body can properly assimilate those materials to create entirely new “organs” with advanced technological features (e.g. wireless communication or wireless access to an internet database activated by particular thoughts or another physiological command cue), we may eventually be able to get rid of external interface hardware and peripherals altogether.  It is likely that electronic devices will first become integrated into our bodies through surgical implantation in order to work with our body’s current hardware (including the brain), but having the body actually grow and/or repair these devices using DNA instruction would be the next logical step of innovation if it is eventually feasible.

Malleable Human Nature

When people discuss complex issues such as social engineering, sustainability, crime-reduction, etc., it is often mentioned that there is a fundamental barrier between our current societal state and where we want or need to be, and this barrier is none other than human nature itself.  Many people in power have tried to change human behavior with brute force while operating under the false assumption that human beings are analogous to some kind of blank slate that can simply learn or be conditioned to behave in any way without limits. This denial of human nature (whether implicit or explicit) has led to a lot of needless suffering and has also led to the de-synchronization of biological and cultural evolution.

Humans often think that they can adapt to any cultural change, but we often lose sight of the detrimental power that technology and other cultural inventions and changes can have over our physiological and psychological well-being. In a nutshell, the speed of cultural evolution can often make us feel like a fish out of water, perhaps better suited to live in an environment closer to our early human ancestors.  Whatever the case, we must embrace human nature and realize that our efforts to improve society (or ourselves) will only have long term efficacy if we work with human nature rather than against it.  So what can we do if our biological evolution is out-of-sync with our cultural evolution?  And what can we do if we have no choice but to accept human nature, that is, our (often selfish) biologically-driven motivations, tendencies, etc.?  Once again, genetic engineering may provide a solution to many of these previously insoluble problems.  To put it simply, if we can change our genome as desired, then we may be able to not only synchronize our biological and cultural evolution, but also change human nature itself in the process.  This change could not only make us feel better adjusted to the modern cultural environment we’re living in, but it could also incline us to instinctually behave in ways that are more beneficial to each other and to the world as a whole.

It’s often said that we have selfish genes in some sense, that is, many if not all of our selfish behaviors (as well as instinctual behaviors in general) are a reflection of the strategy that genes implement in their vehicles (i.e. our bodies) in order for the genes to maintain themselves and reproduce.  That genes possess this kind of strategy does not require us to assume that they are conscious in any way or have actual goals per se, but rather that natural selection simply selects genes that code for mechanisms which best maintain and spread those very genes.  Natural selection tends toward effective self-replicators, and that’s why “selfish” genes (in large part) cause many of our behaviors.  Improving reproductive fitness and successful reproduction has been the primary result of this strategy and many of the behaviors and motivations that were most advantageous to accomplish this are no longer compatible with modern culture including the long-term goals and greater good that humans often strive for.

Humans no longer exclusively live under the law of the jungle or “survival of the fittest” because our humanistic drives and their cultural reinforcements have expanded our horizons beyond simple self-preservation or a Machiavellian mentality.  Many humans have tried to propagate principles such as honesty, democracy, egalitarianism, immaterialism, sustainability, and altruism around the world, and they are often high-jacked by our often short-sighted sexual and survival-based instinctual motivations to gain sexual mates, power, property, a higher social status, etc.  Changing particular genes should also allow us to change these (now) disadvantageous aspects of human nature and as a result this would completely change how we look at every problem we face. No longer would we have to say “that solution won’t work because it goes against human nature”, or “the unfortunate events in human history tend to recur in one way or another because humans will always…”, but rather we could ask ourselves how we want or need to be and actually make it so by changing our human nature. Indeed, if genetic engineering is used to accomplish this, history would no longer have to repeat itself in the ways that we abhor. It goes without saying that a lot of our behavior can be changed for the better by an appropriate form of environmental conditioning, but for those behaviors that can’t be changed through conditioning, genetic engineering may be the key to success.

To Be or Not To Be?

It seems that we have been given a unique opportunity to use our ever increasing plethora of experiential data and knowledge and combine it with genetic engineering techniques to engineer a social organism that is by far the best adapted to its environment.  Additionally, we may one day find ourselves living in a true global utopia, if the barriers of human nature and the de-synchronization of biological and cultural evolution are overcome, and genetic engineering may be the only way of achieving such a goal.  One extremely important issue that I haven’t mentioned until now is the ethical concerns regarding the continued use and development of genetic engineering technology.  There are obviously concerns over whether or not we should even be experimenting with this technology.  There are many reasonable arguments both for and against using this technology, but I think that as a species, we have been driven to manipulate our environment in any way that we are capable of and this curiosity is a part of human nature itself.  Without genetic engineering, we can’t change any of the negative aspects of human nature but can only let natural selection run its course to modify our species slowly over time (for better or for worse).

If we do accept this technology, there are other concerns such as the fact that there are corporations and interested parties that want to use genetic engineering primarily if not exclusively for profit gain (often at the expense of actual universal benefits for our species) and which implement questionable practices like patenting plant and animal food sources in a potentially monopolized future agricultural market.  Perhaps an even graver concern is the potential to patent genes that become a part of the human genome, and the (at least short term) inequality that would ensue from the wealthier members of society being the primary recipients of genetic human enhancement. Some people may also use genetic engineering to create new bio-warfare weaponry and find other violent or malicious applications.  Some of these practices could threaten certain democratic or other moral principles and we need to be extremely cautious with how we as a society choose to implement and regulate this technology.  There are also numerous issues regarding how these technologies will affect the environment and various ecosystems, whether caused by people with admirable intentions or not.  So it is definitely prudent that we proceed with caution and get the public heavily involved with this cultural change so that our society can move forward as responsibly as possible.

As for the feasibility of the theoretical applications mentioned earlier, it will likely be computer simulation and computing power that catalyze the knowledge base and capability needed to realize many of these goals (by decoding the incredibly complex interactions between genes and the environment) and thus will likely be the primary limiting factor. If genetic engineering also involves expanding the DNA components we have to work with, for example, by expanding our base-four system (i.e. four nucleotides to choose from) to a higher based system through the use of other naturally occurring nucleotides or even the use of UBPs (i.e. “Unnatural Base Pairs”), while still maintaining low rates of base-pair mismatching and while maintaining adequate genetic information processing rates, we may be able to utilize previously inaccessible capabilities by increasing the genetic information density of DNA.  If we can overcome some of the chemical natural selection barriers that were present during abiogenesis and the evolution of DNA (and RNA), and/or if we can change the very structure of DNA itself (as well as the proteins and enzymes that are required for its implementation), we may be able to produce an entirely new type of genetic information storage and processing system, potentially circumventing many of the limitations of DNA in general, and thus creating a vast array of new species (genetically coded by a different nucleic acid or other substance).  This type of “nucleic acid engineering”, if viable, may complement the genetic engineering we’re currently performing on DNA and help us to further accomplish some of the aforementioned goals and applications.

Lastly, while some of the theoretical applications of genetic engineering that I’ve presented in this post may not sound plausible at all to some, I think it’s extremely important and entirely reasonable (based on historical precedent) to avoid underestimating the capabilities of our species.  We may one day be able to transform ourselves into whatever species we desire, effectively taking us from trans-humanism to some perpetual form of conscious evolution and speciation.  What I find most beautiful here is that the evolution of consciousness has actually led to a form of conscious evolution. Hopefully our species will guide this evolution in ways that are most advantageous to our species, and to the entire diversity of life on this planet.

More Misconceptions about Evolution: “Scientific facts” that prove evolution is false — DE-BUNKED

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Many months ago my sister pointed out a blog post on a particular website (abovetopsecret.com) which was titled “Top Ten Scientific Facts : Evolution is False and Impossible“, written by “edsinger”, and she asked me what my thoughts were.  I decided to take a look to see what anti-evolutionary mis-information was being propagated to the masses.  In the interest of setting the record straight, I decided to de-bunk the aforementioned post as it was based on large misconceptions about evolution and how natural selection operates (not surprisingly).  With the mountain of evidence that supports the theory of evolution, specifically the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, I was extremely skeptical of every “scientific fact” proposed (which not surprisingly were anything but “facts”).  I want to start by pointing out that when I use the expression “the organism evolved”, I am implying that the gene pool is changing for a particular population with a new sub-population created in the process.  I don’t want those reading this to assume I am implying a Lamarckian evolution.  Now that I’ve provided that clarification, let’s begin.

“Scientific Fact” No. 1 – Birds Prove Natural Selection is Naturally Wrong

The idea of natural selection sounds great when considering deer. The deer that can sense danger the quickest and run the fastest are able to escape the predator on a more consistent basis. However, other examples on the evolutionary tree have many laughable flaws. One of the best is the thought that a bird began to evolve a wing. Why this would occur is not answered by evolutionists. The wing stub did not make the bird more adaptable in his environment. The wing was much too small for the bird to fly. Why would a bird evolve a wing that was useless? This is backwards from the evolutionary natural selection concept that birds adapt and change in order to survive better in their environment.

Alright, where to begin?  First off the idea that “a bird began to evolve a wing” needs clarification.  Edsinger implies that it started as a “stub” which would “not make the bird more adaptable in his environment“.  Evolutionary biologists aren’t positive how the wing evolved but some likely possibilities are that it either started as a fin or flipper (before life adapted from the aquatic environment to that of the terrestrial), and either grew feathers on them, or after flippers or fins evolved into fully formed terrestrially-suited arms, some animals grew feathers on those arms.  For some animals, the exact opposite may have occurred, that is, animals with wings may have evolved into certain sub-populations with arms or flippers.  If we look at the Penguin, we can see a similar case where natural selection pressured a previously flying bird into a sub-population of flightless birds with vestigial wings.  If we can imagine animals with wings evolving into animals with flippers over time, it is no more difficult to imagine the opposite case, that is, a sub-population of birds (or bird-like animals) with flippers evolving into a population of birds (or bird-like animals) with wings.

There are some more general misconceptions on Edsinger’s part regarding how natural selection operates as seen in this first excerpt of his, namely his assumption that natural selection only allows favorable traits to evolve or exist in some population within a specific type of environment.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  To illustrate this point, let’s consider the author’s assumption that wings evolved from useless “stubs” (which is less likely, but still possible).  Even in this extreme case, if we had an animal with stubs that were “useless”, we would need to know what other attributes and traits this animal has to see if they outweigh the disadvantages of their useless “stubs”.  What if the animal compensated for this shortcoming by: being covered in some type of armor (like an armadillo or porcupine), by being able to run very fast (like an ostrich does to evade its predators; another example of a flightless bird that found a way to more than compensate for its vestigial wings), or even by having incredibly sharp teeth (like a Tyrannosaurus Rex; a predatory animal at the top of the food chain despite having incredibly small and seemingly “useless” arms)?

What’s important to note here is that animals can evolve with both disadvantageous and beneficial traits as long as the benefits outweigh the disadvantages enough such that the organism lives long enough to reproduce (and such that the rates of reproduction are high enough to avoid extinction).  What’s kind of funny is that Edsinger’s line of reasoning suggests that everything is “designed” for a reason (which is true from a creationist or intelligent design point of view).  Since when have evolutionary biologists suggested that evolution has to fall within this line of reasoning?  If anything, proponents of evolution (myself included) suggest that physical traits (i.e. phenotypes) are random in the sense that they are a result of mutation and changes in gene frequency due to a changing environment.  This is why proponents of evolution have a way of explaining why “useless” phenotypes exist (whether its a human appendix, etc.).  Natural selection which operates on benefits outweighing disadvantages is a perfect explanation.  Proponents of intelligent design or creationism (i.e. not theistic evolution) have no way of explaining these “imperfections” or “design flaws” which further negates the arguments against evolution and natural selection.  In the case of a bird (or “pre-bird”) with a useless stub, as long as it had other traits that compensated for the stub, it would have an evolutionary “breathing space” for genetic mutations and other changes in gene frequency such that a wing could eventually co-evolve with the organism over time.  There is a theory that birds (some if not all) evolved from dinosaurs and the example I gave above of the T-Rex illustrates how animals can have the necessary evolutionary “breathing space” (e.g. being at the top of the food chain) for wings to eventually evolve (even from successive changes to previously useless features).  Let’s move on to number two.

“Scientific Fact” No. 2 – Species Without a Link Proves Evolution is Wrong

The evolutionist will claim that the presence of many individual species proves evolution. This shallow statement is devoid of reason, logic and scientific proof. Evolutionists line up pictures of similar looking species and claim they evolved one to another. Humans are a great example. There are hundreds of species of extinct monkeys and apes. Petrified skulls and bones exist from these creatures. Evolutionists line up the most promising choices to present a gradual progression from monkey to modern man. They simply fill in the big gaps with make-believe creatures to fit the picture. This procedure can be done with humans only because there are many extinct monkey and ape species. They never do this with giraffes and elephants. These pictures are placed in all evolutionists’ text books to teach kids this nonsense. The picture is simply a grouping of individual species that does not prove evolution.

Ugh.  I want to start by saying that Paleontologists have quite a difficult job to do.  One thing that Edsinger may not realize is that we are only able to find an incredibly small fraction of fossilized animals because it takes very special conditions in order to preserve the animal, let alone for so many millions of years.  Paleontologists have to find an area that has not been recycled into liquid hot magma via plate tectonic motion, volcanic activity, etc.  This means that any fossilized remains near converging plate tectonic boundaries are going to contain little if any remains, as much of those remains have been pushed back under the crust of the Earth and recycled into magma.  Any animals that weren’t buried by some material (e.g. preserved in a tar pit, covered in volcanic ash, etc.) will disintegrate due to weathering, decompose due to fungi (or otherwise), or be eaten by other animal scavengers.  Any animals that died near bodies of water are even less likely to have their remains found (due to our limited access of the bottom of the ocean) and less likely to be preserved (due to increased rates of dissolution, decomposition, etc.).  The idea I’m trying to illustrate here is that Paleontologists are only able to find a fraction of the fossil record due to the narrow range of conditions that allow fossil creation to take place.  This is why there are gaps that exist and are filled in with educated guesses.  Gaps aside, the conclusive evidence that we do have demonstrates how organisms have changed over time by looking at what did exist long ago and what we know exists in the animal kingdom today.  “Species without a link” is nothing more than a by-product of fossilization limitations.  What we do know is that the fossils that we do find are somewhat statistically representative of the population that existed long ago.  When we look at the fossil record however, and fail to find the majority of animals that exist today, we can safely infer that there are animals that exist today that didn’t exist long ago and vice versa.  This further implies that evolution has indeed occurred.

Another misconception that many have is that all evolution is equally gradual, that is, that all evolutionary changes proceed at the same or similar rates.  The Modern Evolutionary Synthesis suggests that there could have been several abrupt changes to the gene pool as a result of major climate changes, or other environmental factors, which would cause short and quick bursts of change to the gene pool.  This would make sense as the environment doesn’t always gradually change over time.  There are many extinction events or large environmental changes that can occur due to asteroids hitting the Earth (and the resulting dust clouds or tidal waves that ensue), volcanic eruptions (and the resulting pyroclastic flow, dust, and lava that follow), changes in solar output (resulting in ice ages or global warming), bacterial or viral epidemics, etc.  There are a number of things that can cause large abrupt environmental changes and thus large changes in gene frequency.  In cases like this, it makes sense that transitional fossils wouldn’t always exist with a consistent level of graduation over time.  The fossilization limitations I mentioned earlier would create circumstances where the level of transition would seem even more abrupt simply because we aren’t able to collect enough fossils to accurately represent the entirety of evolutionary changes.

“Scientific Fact” No. 3 – Single Cell Complexity Proves Evolution is Wrong

Scientists a century ago believed the smallest single living cell was a simple life form. The theory developed that perhaps lightning struck a pond of water causing several molecules to combine in a random way which by chance resulted in a living cell. The cell then divided and evolved into higher life forms. This view is now proven to be immature to the degree of being ridiculous. The most modern laboratory is unable to create a living cell. In fact, scientists have been unable to create a single left-hand protein molecule as found in all animals.

Are we really supposed to believe that scientists should be able to recreate the initial conditions that led to the emergence of life (i.e. abiotic synthesis or abiogenesis).  I’d be incredibly amazed if we were able to.  Our failure to know what the conditions were (even if we knew what conditions best support life AFTER life has been established), let alone the fact that our experiments are not able to run on the time scales that we believe were needed to create life (on the order of millions or billions of years), only points out our experimental and epistemological limitations.  Theoretically, the Earth underwent changes over the course of several billion years whereby Brownian motion and energy from the sun, electricity (e.g. lightning, etc.) led to the synthesis of simple compounds, more complex compounds (amino acids), and eventually DNA.  We can think of this as a several billion year experiment where random motion and enough time statistically led to stable compounds including DNA, proteins, etc.  If it was random motion, favorable chemical bonds, and enough time that led to life, how can we possibly expect to recreate this in a laboratory?  Our failure to do so is far from surprising and Edsinger seems to think that science is perfectly capable of doing such a laborious and near-impossible (if not impossible) task.  If Edsinger really has this much faith in the capabilities of science, then he should be a proponent of evolution, rather than arguing against it.  Clearly these arguments from Edsinger are a result of a lack of education in evolutionary biology, and a lack of reasoning in general.

“Scientific Fact” No. 4 – Human Egg and Sperm Proves Evolution is Wrong

The evolutionist ignores the problem surrounding the human female egg and the male sperm in the evolutionary theory. The female egg contains the X-chromosome and the male sperm contains either an X-chromosome for the reproduction of a male or a Y-chromosome for the reproduction of a female. The female eggs all develop within the ovaries while she is a baby (fetus) within her mother’s womb. Evolutionists claim environmental factors cause small changes in the offspring in the evolutionary chain. However, the environmental experience of the female cannot change the chromosomes within her eggs and cannot have any effect upon her offspring. Her body cannot go into the eggs contained within her ovaries at her birth to make an intelligent change. Females cannot be a part of the evolutionary theory for these reasons.

First Edsinger points out that it is the male that determines the sex of any future offspring.  Edsinger mentions that the female develops all of her eggs prior to reproduction and implies that this somehow prevents an intelligent change from being made by her such that her future offspring can better adapt to the environment.  What Edsinger has suggested here is that Lamarckism is false, which is perfectly in line with the Modern Evolutionary synthesis.  Evolutionists stay away from Lamarckism because there is little or no evidence to support it.  Edsinger assumed that evolutionists are proponents of Lamarckism but this is most certainly not the case.  Edsinger then goes on to say that females can’t ” be a part of the evolutionary theory for these reasons”.  This is not true at all.  The male and the female each provide one half of the resulting offspring’s DNA which means that she is the source of half of the genes that are perpetuated in the gene pool.  Upon mixing with the father’s DNA in a number of possible combinations, the resultant offspring can vary quite a bit.  Also, there are random genetic changes that can occur during or after the production of her eggs such that they do not perfectly correlate with the female’s original genes.  In other words, DNA is never copied perfectly and undergoes random mutations from time to time (including the DNA within her eggs) providing several mechanisms for changes to the gene pool.  While the imperfections and mutations are not a result of some intelligent attempt to match the changing environment, they indirectly do so (albeit un-intelligently) when natural selection takes place on the future offspring.  That is, the imperfections made while copying DNA for the production of her eggs and the random mutations that may occur to that DNA any moment after the eggs are produced, result in future offspring that are more or less suited for the changing environment.  So yes, females definitely play a role and are thus a part of the evolutionary theory.

“Scientific Fact” No. 5 – DNA Error Checking Proves Evolution is Wrong

The scientific fact that DNA replication includes a built-in error checking method and a DNA repair process proves the evolutionary theory is wrong. The fact is that any attempt by the DNA to change is stopped and reversed.

As I mentioned in my last paragraph, DNA does not copy itself perfectly.  There are certainly mechanisms that allow DNA to check for errors during copying, as this is needed in order to preserve any beneficial traits resulting from particular genes.  It makes sense that natural selection would support the evolution of DNA that performed this function.  While DNA does have this error checking capability, it is not perfect.  Even if it is imperfect by a tiny percentage of the genome, it provides enough “wiggle room” for evolution to occur.  Edsinger assumed that DNA error-checking was 100% full-proof, which is most definitely not the case.  No credible biologist believes this nor has provided evidence to support this assumption of Edsinger.  We do however have evidence that DNA copying results in at least SOME errors (which is all you need in order to demonstrate that evolution is possible).

“Scientific Fact” No. 6 – Chaos From Organization Proves Evolution is Wrong

The second law of thermodynamics proves that organization cannot flow from chaos. Complex live organisms cannot rearrange themselves into an organism of a higher form as claimed by evolutionists. This is scientifically backwards according to the second law of thermodynamics that has never been proven wrong. Scientists cannot have it both ways. The second law of thermodynamics is proven to be correct. Evolution lacks any scientific proof. Evolution is simply an empty theory.

This is perhaps one of my favorite myths to de-bunk.  I’ve heard Creationists try and use this argument time and time again (with no success).  Edsinger clearly does not even know what the Second Law of Thermodynamics is, for if he did, he would know that it states that entropy (chaos) statistically increases over time in a closed or isolated system.  Unforunately for Edsinger, the Earth is not a closed system.  We obtain all energy that both drives evolution and allows life to exist from the Sun!  It turns out that the amount of entropy that the Sun produces during nuclear fusion more than compensates for the decrease in entropy needed for life to exist and evolution to occur, so the Second Law of Thermodynamics is preserved.  I want to add that in general, evolutionists do not claim that organisms are evolving to “higher forms”.  What is claimed is that evolution is occurring in response to a changing environment.  Even if all intelligent life became extinct such that bacteria once again monopolized the gene pool, evolution would be the mechanism.  So to say that evolution requires higher order is inherently flawed.  It is true that a larger organism or one with more complex systems results in a decrease in entropy, but not all organisms evolve this way.  Some organisms may evolve into smaller organisms and some evolve into those with less complicated systems, as long as it is more beneficial for the new environment under consideration.

“Scientific Fact” No. 7 – Chromosome Count Proves Evolution is Wrong

There is no scientific evidence that a species can change the number of chromosomes within the DNA. The chromosome count within each species is fixed. This is the reason a male from one species cannot mate successfully with a female of another species. Man could not evolve from a monkey. Each species is locked into its chromosome count that cannot change. If an animal developed an extra chromosome or lost a chromosome because of some deformity, it could not successfully mate. The defect could not be passed along to the next generation. Evolving a new species is scientifically impossible. Evolutionists prove that getting a college education does not impart wisdom.

It has been shown that species with a particular number of chromosomes within its DNA can mate with another species with a different number of chromosomes.  A few months ago, I read about a sheep that mated with a goat and produced fertile offspring (with the average number of chromosomes between the two parents).  As rare as this is to encounter in our lifetimes, when we are talking about time scales on the order of millions and billions of years, it seems quite likely that this has happened quite a few times in the past.  The case of the goat and the sheep is merely one example to refute this claim of Edsinger.  Random mutations over time can change chromosome count even if they are incredibly rare.  Humans have only known about chromosomes for so many decades, and evolution has been occurring for millions or years.  It’s easy to see why we fail to see so many facets of evolution during our investigations (especially processes that may occur once every several thousand years or less).

“Scientific Fact” No. 8 – Origin of Matter and Stars Proves Evolution is Wrong

Evolutionists just throw up their hands at the question of the origin of matter because they know something cannot evolve from nothing. They stick their heads in the sand and ignore the problem. The fact that matter exists in outrageously large quantities simply proves evolution is wrong. The “Big Bang” theory doesn’t solve the problem either. Matter and energy have to come from somewhere.

Clearly Edsinger never considered that matter and energy may have ALWAYS existed, rather than were created.  The Big Bang Theory merely illustrates what the scientific evidence suggests as the earliest time with which we can talk about.  In other words, it would be pure speculation to assume what may have happened PRIOR to the Big Bang, but this does not mean that all scientists believe that nothing happened prior to the Big Bang.  Some speculate (myself included) that the universe undergoes a cyclical Big Bang followed by a Big Crunch; a cycle which has been going on for an infinite amount of time.  For those that want to suggest that the cosmological constant implies that the universe is expanding and could not ever lead to a Big Crunch, they haven’t considered that the expansion of space may be analogous to how Pangea spread out on the spherical surface of the Earth, whereby all the continents started to separate, and may eventually (on the other side of the Earth) come back together.  Alternatively, we could speculate that the cosmological constant is changing and will one day reverse itself.  Either way, the fact that we don’t know what happened prior to the Big Bang, is irrelevant to the theory of evolution.  Creationists think they’ve solved the problem by saying that a “God” created the universe, and this “God” always existed beforehand.  We can easily eliminate the “God” from the equation and just say that the universe has always existed.  On top of this, for Edsinger to say that we need to uphold the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy, this means that his alternative explanation (whatever that may be) couldn’t have some “God” create the mass or energy either.  So what is Edsinger’s alternative explanation?

“Scientific Fact” No. 9 – Lack of Life on Mars Proves Evolution is Wrong

Two NASA two land rovers named Spirit and Opportunity explored Mars during 2004. The topography shows obvious signs of past liquid rivers flowing in numerous places. The rovers have proven that water was once abundant on the surface of Mars, but they have not been able to find any signs of life or any signs of past life on the planet. Mars has a proven history of flowing water on the surface and an atmosphere suitable to support life forms. The planet has had all of the conditions necessary to provide the “spark” of life according to the evolutionary theory, yet there is no life on Mars. The river beds and river banks show no signs of vegetation or trees. The ground has no fossils and no organisms. The place is absolutely sterile.

As I mentioned in response to “scientific fact” No. 3, the conditions needed to support life are different from those that are needed for abiogenesis.  We do not know what conditions are necessary for abiogenesis to occur.  Just because Mars has a source of water or other compounds similar to Earth doesn’t mean that Mars has all the ideal conditions necessary for life to emerge.  It has a different elemental composition that that of Earth, and is located at a different distance from the Sun than the Earth is.  There are many differences between Earth and Mars, so trying to argue that a planet which has SOME features similar to that of the Earth, yet doesn’t have ONE particular feature (e.g. life), somehow disproves evolution, is ridiculous.

“Scientific Fact” No. 10 – Radio Silence from Space Proves Evolution is Wrong

Mars is not the only place that shows no signs of life. The entire universe lacks any sign of life. There are no radio signals that can be related to intelligent life forms. None of the billions of galaxies has been found to emit any intelligent radio signals. Scientists have been pointing every type of radio telescope possible into space for several decades in hopes of finding an intelligent signal. No signs of life beyond Earth have been found. We are alone.

This is an example of what many people call the Fermi Paradox.  Let’s examine our particular situation of life on Earth.  If it took billions of years for life to form from a combination of Brownian (random) motion, specific favorable chemical bonds, and energy, it’s easy to see why life isn’t present on every planet in the solar system, let alone every planet in the galaxy.  Abiogenesis could only have occurred in a narrow range of conditions, and it was largely a result of statistical probability.  Likewise, statistically, with all the millions and billions of planets, countless solar systems and galaxies in the universe, it is also statistically probable that life DOES exist in many other parts of the universe (although we would expect the concentration of intelligent life to be small overall).  The fact that the observable universe seems to be somewhat homogenous further suggests this.  Radio silence from space doesn’t prove a darn thing other than that we have yet to be contacted by any radio signals that have been sent (if any have been sent).  If we expected to receive intelligent radio signals from outer space, we would not only have to assume that intelligent life has evolved elsewhere (that knows how to transmit Shannon information via radio signals or some other form of EM radiation), but that their planet was within range for their signal to reach us unaffected.  There are solar systems that are millions of light years away, and thus would prevent any signals from reaching us for millions of years (and that’s IF the signals managed to make it to us without being reflected or absorbed by other objects in the signal’s several million light-year path of travel).  This line of reasoning on Edsinger’s part is based on so many false assumptions, its ridiculous.  As for Edsinger’s “We are alone” comment, what a dark and depressing conclusion based on these assumptions.  I wrote a separate post about this addressing the Fermi Paradox in more detail.

There are many misconceptions about evolution, and these were merely a few I wanted to address.  What’s worse is that this person attempted to propagate these claims as “scientific facts” which all turned out to be completely false (not facts at all).  Needless to say, I was not surprised at all.

Misconceptions about Evolution: A Defense of Terence McKenna’s “Stoned Ape Theory”

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Recently I was reading a “Reality Sandwich” blog post written by a Brian Akers from 2011 titled: “Concerning Terence McKenna’s “Stoned Apes” ” which attempted to de-bunk Terence McKenna’s “Stoned Ape Theory”.  I am a proponent of at least some concepts that lie within this theory, specifically that the ingestion of psilocybin cubensis, i.e., “Magic mushrooms” (as well as other psychedelics) played a role in altering the course of early human and/or pre-human (i.e. homo-erectus) evolution.  Needless to say I was interested in hearing what Akers had to say, as he was critiquing one of TM’s best works titled: “Food of the Gods”, which discusses this theory in detail.  Akers went to some length to explain the flaws in TM’s theory, based on Akers’ idea of how evolution “really works”, and he also questioned the credibility of some of TM’s claims based on a lack of citing enough references to support his position, and also questioned the credibility of some references he did have.  I agreed with some of the points that Akers made but I took issue with some of the reasoning that Akers used in refuting the theory, specifically regarding the mechanisms behind sexual selection and evolution in general.  Here is the first excerpt I disagreed with:

Even if psilocybin did enhance visual acuity however, or make you more “horny,” such effects could not play a role in selective processes along lines TM argued.  Why?  Beyond false facts lies a general problem of fallacious reasoning from misconceptions about evolutionary processes.  Such misunderstanding is not uncommon, TM and his audience hold no monopoly on it.

In this light, suppose this attention-grabbing ‘horny’ claim were true. “Horniness” neither produces children, nor success in competition for mates.  Just ask males of a sexually dimorphic species like lions, who must fight each other tooth fang and claw in a run-off that ends in only one having breeding privileges, the rest left to console each other, out of luck. They can be as “horny” as they want, it makes no difference whatsoever for chances of their genes passing into the next generation.  The predicted winner is the bigger, more powerful male, with thick mane — not “horniest” (that’s irrelevant).  For possible adaptive advantage, ‘visual acuity’ enhancement seems less nonsensical, by comparison.

It appears that Akers has implied at least three things here: 1) the mating and sexual selection characteristics of a sexually dimorphic species such as lions matches (or closely resembles) that of humans, 2) which animal is the “horninest” is irrelevant to sexual selection (changes in the gene pool), and 3) physical competition (i.e. fighting) is the dominant, if not the only, mechanism for sexual selection.

Since when do all sexually dimorphic species share the same mate selection criteria and mechanisms? I can’t remember fighting another male such that I could have sexual intercourse with a potential mate. All of my relationships (especially those that led to sexual intercourse) were built upon a foundation of dialogue, shared experiences, and some level of mental and physical attraction. Has Akers never “won” over a mate by utilizing some degree of either good looks, charm, wit, and/or other intellectual prowess? If he has only physically fought other males in order to have sexual intercourse with a potential mate, then I don’t think he has had an experience like most, if not all others that are taking the time to read my (as well as Akers’) post. Akers also needs to realize that there are different degrees of dimorphism which are correlated with completely different types of sexual behavior.

If Akers really thinks that “horniness” is irrelevant to evolutionary changes in the gene pool, then I’d like him to support this position with sociological data that demonstrates that humans with a high libido (and little or no access to birth control) have no correlation with higher pregnancy rates. I don’t think the data is there to support this, especially given the fact that, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, humans often are not physically fighting over mates. If the relationship is mutual and/or an open relationship with multiple sexual partners, then libido will certainly be a large factor when predicting which genes are most likely to pass on to the next generation. “Horniness” is far from irrelevant.  One could go so far as to argue that in the case of the male lions, having a high libido may actually increase their physical aggressiveness in the fight to come.  However it’s not necessary to limit sexual selection mechanisms to that of physical competition.

Sperm Competition

Akers has implied that physical competition is the dominant, if not the only mechanism affecting the fate of the gene pool. Another huge mechanism that Akers failed to consider for natural selection is that of sperm competition.

If we want to hypothesize what our early human or pre-human (i.e. homo-erectus) ancestors may have been like in terms of their sexual selection mechanisms and sexual behavior, it would be reasonable to look at the behavior and anatomical differences of other primates living among us now. Bonobos for instance have a degree of sexual dimorphism that is similar to that of humans (e.g. a level around 15-25 percent), whereas gorillas and orangutans (which tend to fight over mates and have harems dominated by an alpha male) have a much larger degree of this dimorphism (e.g. a level which is around 100 percent). Bonobos are incredibly promiscuous where the females often copulate with a large number of males, sometimes as often as 50 times a day, and the evolutionary trade-off that primatologists propose is that this sexual behavior increases the level of social cohesion between the males as well as the females. Even the females are often seen rubbing their own genitalia against one another to increase this cohesion.  It’s easy enough to see that if the males are not fighting in a pecking order or battling over “who gets the booty”, then they are able to form strong symbiotic relationships and bonds which foster more cooperation thus benefiting the group overall.  In effect, the sperm competition between males is nature’s way of eliminating the external physical battle, and moving it to a scale that no longer risks the elimination of the gene’s vehicle (i.e. the battling males).

The loud vocalization of female bonobos (and human females) during orgasm suggests an audible invitation for other males to join in on the fun. There doesn’t appear to be any other advantage, as making noise in the wild often draws attention to predators and thus the benefits of this “female call” may compensate for this predatory vulnerability.  Also, the fact that it takes women as well as female bonobos a significantly longer time to orgasm when compared to the males of the same species also supports the idea that we are perfect for promiscuous sexual relationships with multiple males copulating with each female. This is not a type of behavior that we see in polygynous or monogamous species that simply fight over mates, and thus this behavior is again seen as another example of sperm competition in action.

The sperm count of humans and bonobos are also much larger than that of orangutans and gorillas, which is not necessary if we evolved to fight and win over a mate with which we could copulate with as often as needed to impregnate. Human males also have a penis with unique physical characteristics that support sperm competition. For example, the glans (or head) of the penis is shaped like a plunger which sexual and evolutionary biologists believe is perfect for creating a vacuum in the vagina in order to pull out previously deposited seminal fluid and sperm such that the male is able to impregnate the female with his own deposit. This theory has actually been validated in a laboratory setting with artificial molds of a penis, vagina, and corn-starch based seminal fluid (some tests showed as much as 90% of seminal fluid was displaced after a single thrust). The relatively large number of thrusts during human sexual intercourse as well as the duration when compared to many other primates amplifies this seminal displacement effect.

The fact that human males have their sperm production sites and testicles located in an external, physically vulnerable location is correlated with an increased number of sperm and is correlated with primates that are promiscuous. There is even a form of rapid-reaction DNA present in humans which mediates testicular tissue development allowing humans to rapidly change their testicle size and sperm production capabilities in evolutionary time scales often thought to be too short (thousands of years). This rapid-reaction DNA is not present in monogamous or polygynous primates for obvious reasons.

Let’s not forget about some characteristics of the human female’s sexual anatomy. The complexity of the human cervix which filters sperm by creating countless hurdles suggests sperm competition and selection is at play. Women have anti-sperm leucocytes located in their reproductive tract who’s sole purpose is to kill sperm, such that only the strongest (or chemically compatible) sperm will survive to the end in order to fertilize the egg. It seems that in this case, whether or not a male is stronger or able to fight over a mate is less relevant than the compatibility between the male’s sperm and the woman’s egg. In this case, the woman is actually choosing the sperm on several levels (physical filtration, chemical filtration, and even the sporadic occurrence of an egg “enveloping” a reluctant sperm).

So clearly, by looking at the facts, sperm competition is much more likely as the dominant mechanism behind evolutionary changes to the human gene pool. It is also likely that this was the case with our closest ancestor (i.e. homo-erectus).  Many similarities can be seen in bonobos which live among us today and share so many other characteristics of human beings.  It’s more appropriate to hypothesize our immediate ancestors as being similar to these primates rather than to those that are similar to the dimorphic lions (e.g. gorillas) which Akers assumed.

The Baldwin Effect

Next, Akers makes some more narrow-minded claims about how natural selection operates in the following excerpt:

But it’s nonsense still, because of how evolution actually occurs. In favoring adaptive traits, it’s the genome selection operates on, across generations in a reproducing population. If an individual carrying whatever gene reproduces, he or she serves as a means for its transmission to the next generation. Biological evolution = change, to any degree, from one generation to the next, in proportions of GENES in a population. To my knowledge TM never proposed a gene for “eat psilocybin” in the hominids who in his fanciful scenario ate mushrooms, vs. those who did not. Genes may render some particular food(s) indigestible, but no gene governs that we eat mushrooms or don’t.  Without a gene that could be selected if adaptive, there’s nothing to inherit from eating fungi; thus no toehold for selection, regardless how many offspring.

Akers has completely failed to consider the Baldwin Effect on evolution. If there are any benefits provided by eating these psilocybin-containing mushrooms including but not limited to: increased visual acuity, increased libido, increased social cohesiveness due to ego-boundary dissolution, or otherwise, then by learning the behavior of eating those mushrooms, and having that behavior imitated by other individuals in the population — one can change the gene pool. If a species gains any advantage at all by eating these mushrooms, and these advantages are spread through the population by those that imitate the behavior, then only those that have the ability to imitate this behavior will gain the advantage. If this is the case, then those that have this ability will be more likely to reproduce if said advantages exist. The same situation applies if a species learns how to evade a new predator which it has not evolved to avoid with instinct alone. If certain other individuals in the population learn that new advantageous behavior, eventually the gene pool will start to show a greater proportion of individuals that imitate this behavior. Thus the ease of learning a particular behavior affects evolution of the species — even if the ability to learn this new behavior is mediated by genes (which mediates brain wiring, its level of plasticity, etc.). Learning is just another dimension of ontogenic evolution that affects the gene pool based on the success of the meme, as long as the behavior learned provides some advantage. So if eating psilocybin cubensis has any positive effects whether it’s stress relief, ego-boundary dissolution promoting social cohesiveness, increased visual acuity (or other visual changes), synesthesia, increased hearing acuity, linguistic thinking (leading to better organization of thoughts as well as more complex levels of thought), beneficial altered perceptions of space and time, increased libido, etc., then those organisms that pick up the behavior of eating that food preferentially over other foods may be more likely to survive longer and/or reproduce.

I do appreciate Akers’ research into the credibility of some of TM’s claims as there were certainly a few instances of either misinformation or poorly formulated claims within the theory, but his theory, at least in part, still stands. There may be flaws in his theory, but that doesn’t mean that we can dismiss the theory in it’s entirety, that is, that mushrooms played a role in human evolution. The fact that humans eat mushrooms and they are/were present in Africa where our early hominid ancestors originated implies that it is certainly possible. The fact that there are some attributes of a psilocybin cubensis trip (under certain dosages) which may be advantageous to a species implies that it is certainly capable of altering the gene pool through the Baldwin effect, and thus it is quite plausible that it may have altered the course of human evolution for these aforementioned reasons.