Friday, October 31, 2008


Evolution - or survival of the fittest (or luckiest) - is a readily provable fact, and one not limited to species: Evolution also applies to ideas (memes) with areas as diverse as religion, music, fairy tales, and urban legends.

The concept of evolution is simple: That which successfully reproduces, survives. If pressures (due to competition or predation) limit the growth of something which has a natural variation (a choice of religions, or music genres, or tales, or an ecosystem, or apes), those variants which most successfully reproduce will succeed versus those less suitable, or less lucky.

Note how few successful religions abound which forbid sex. There have been short term experiments in this direction. More subtly, religions that don't have a strong philosophy of proselytism tend to be dominated by those that do. Remember, survival of the fittest is really just survival of those that successfully reproduce. See The Purpose of Life.

Evolution of species continues today. Mankind is forcing change, which drives evolution. Some of this is merely speeding long term trends (such as reduced success of amphibians in general, or the loss of many marginal species like the spotted owl). Other changes are more worrisome (such as the evolution of anti-biotic resistant bacteria).

Especially with animals (including humans), there are two forces that dominate evolutionary pressures. In addition to reproductive success due to superior survival characteristics, there is reproductive success due to sexual selection (ie, how members of each sex choose mates). More colorful animals are easier to find, and the most showy male is likely to get the most females and successfully reproduce even though he is also the most visible to predators and ends up living a shorter life. Sexual selection may also explain extremely large sauropod dinosaurs; perhaps the males/females liked (or could see) tall females/males better - and sought them as mates - leading to runaway selection for this feature.

Even mankind continues to evolve in several ways, and indeed demonstrates evidence of very recent evolution.

For example, there is strong evidence that people have been evolving for external sexual characteristics. Human females have proportionally larger breasts, narrower waists, and broader hips than other primates. (As a human male, I do love that shape.) Human males have shapes that illustrate upper body strength, and have a penis that is larger in proportion to body size than any other ape. Apparently males have been selecting for large breasts and hips (especially in contrast to waist size). And women have been selecting men with broad shoulders, large muscles, and a big penis. And bad boys, at that.

Watching many reality shows (and especially MTV) suggests that human females are still actively selecting for strength, size, and sexual prowess; intelligence is clearly not a requirement. Likewise for human males, actively selecting voluptuous, athletic females with exotic eyes, long hair, and aggressive sexual attitudes.

Our technology is also having a significant effect on the human specie: we are becoming less diverse, as our ability to travel globally is reducing regional and racial disparities at measurable rates. In a few thousand years, there may be no remaining significant racial differences at all as we continue to interbreed and blend. Personally, I think this is a good thing.

We are also enabling the survival and allowing the reproduction of humans who would never live to adulthood without technology and/or large social organizations to care for them. I think this is a bad thing (when genetically caused), as I prefer that our children be smarter, stronger, and healthier. I know many people find my attitude offensive, but really, people, it is not in humanity's best long term interest to support or encourage the reproduction of serious genetic defects or low intelligence. Again, see my post The Purpose of Life.

A few other rambles:

Humanity is the ocean's most effective predator, and our fishing techniques are rapidly changing (evolving) fish to have less desirable characteristics. Fish are maturing younger and at smaller sizes as we select only the largest (previously most successful) fish. Fish that humans like to eat are being selected out - made extinct - versus undesirable, bony, badly tasting, or hard-to-capture fish. A tight school of fish may have worked to confuse dolphins or sharks, but it is an bright sonar target easily capture by our mile-wide nets today. And small and mid-size fish that avoid schooling behaviors make poor (unprofitable) targets.

Note that the world's most successful plants and animals are those whose evolution has made them desirable food for humans (cows, chickens, pigs, wheat, corn, rice, etc.). Then we help them thrive and reproduce, in numbers far exceeding natural populations.

Some people have argued against the use of windmills as a source of renewable electric power, based upon the fact that the turning windmills kill many birds. Tear down the windmills, drill for oil, save the birds. The reality is that more birds are killed by cars and trucks on the highway. (The activists would probably like to outlaw cars and trucks, too.)

I believe in the value of evolution: the birds that learn to avoid the rotating windmill blades will survive and reproduce. We can already see this effect along our highways: fifty years ago it was much more common to hit a bird on the highway, even though speeds were significantly lower then. Think of it as evolution in action (thank you, Larry Niven).

Last, the implications of evolution to a field near and dear to my heart: science fiction.

Contrary to nearly every movie alien, any intelligent life we meet in outer space will not be highly effective carnivorous killing machines. Au contraire, they will be (on their home planet) relatively weak and defenseless, needing superior intelligence to survive and reproduce. A dominant carnivore, or a herbivore that does not need to fear predation due to successful defenses (armor, size, quills, poisons) will cease to evolve. Every intelligent alien ever depicted with huge fangs, great strength, speed, armored skin, etc.,  is absurd, as they would never have evolved intelligence.

No, the most intelligent species will be those that are slow, weak, need protection from the elements, need to build and use tools to thrive, and need a civilization to defend against the superior strength, speed, and teeth of their planet's versions of lions, and tigers, and bears.

Of course, there is some evidence that intelligence is not a long term survival characteristic. We haven't yet met a single intelligent alien.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Earth's Fragile Ecology

Most of my readers know that I'm fundamentally an optimist (see I am an optimist), and that I believe that science and technology (along with human ingenuity) can and will solve most (hopefully all) of our problems caused by technology and the resulting global population growth.

But it won't be easy, or cheap.

Most people seem unaware of the major ecological problems we face, focusing instead on a few relatively minor (but well publicized) potential problems such as Global Warming or loss of biodiversity.

Here are a few more for your consideration.

Loss of topsoil: Globally, current farming techniques results in topsoil being lost to erosion at rates far greater than natural replenishment. Topsoil (the only part of the Earth's regolith that can readily support crops) is being lost at a huge rate, resulting in reduced crop yields and even desertification in some areas. Currently, the recommended solution is to globally convert to no-till farming, which has the problem of requiring greatly increased use of herbicides and insecticides with their attendant and largely unknown long term effects.

Ocean anoxia: The huge influx of topsoil and fertilizer into the oceans is producing larger and more frequent dead zones, where nearly everything larger than a bacteria dies due to lack of oxygen. All of the nutrients lead to bacterial blooms which consume all free oxygen, and while some mobile fish can swim to the surface to gulp oxygenated water or swim out of the region, bottom dwellers and the myriad small critters that comprise the bulk of the food chain have no such ability. They die, and so do other life forms that depend upon them. This process happens to thousands of square miles every year, and the area and event duration is increasing.

Overfishing: The oceans are being depleted of desirable foodstocks are rates far greater than can be maintained. Already, many once common seafoods are becoming rare, and many fisheries are now effectively ocean deserts, completely devoid of large fish. At present, there are two approaches to solve the problem. One is to create huge "no fishing" zones to serve as replenishment stocks for the regions around them. This works in the short run (assuming enforcement by fast, armed ships), but eventually the fish will evolve to avoid fishing zones. The second solution is one that our leaders have done completely backwards. They have established minimum take sizes, where the fisherman is allowed to keep only fish above a certain size. Sounds good at first, as the young fish are allowed to live, feed, and grow. Unfortunately, there is something called evolution. Fish which once grew quickly to a large size (to avoid predation) are now evolving to grow more slowly and to reproduce at a much smaller size (avoiding predation by the most effective ocean predator, us). As a consequence, reproductive success is reduced, and the remaining fish are becoming less and less desirable. The solution? Capture (and eat) medium sized fish, encouraging these species to grow quickly to a large (safe) size and to produce large numbers of offspring to ensure that enough of them escape us to maintain their species. But this will take technology, and leadership.

Falling water tables: Everyone has heard of (or experienced) the relative and growing shortage of fresh water. Many people don't realize how serious the problem has become. Many cities (especially in desert areas but including many water-rich areas such as Orlando, Florida, USA) are pumping fresh water out of the ground at rates much greater than natural replenishment. Eventually the wells will run dry. Going deeper is often not a solution because of salt water, no water, or pollutants such as oil, lead, or arsenic. Along the oceans, pumping fresh water out of the ground encourages salt water incursion, a serious problem. One side effect of excessive ground water pumping is that springs dry up, and rivers that once ran to the ocean now shrivel and disappear. Water wars will result when cities / states / nations consume the fresh water that other downstream cities / states / nations need to survive.

Chemical pollution: To me, the most serious pollution issue is from the long term unanticipated side effects of biochemicals we create and dump into the environment. These include insecticides, herbicides, drugs, hormones, and especially antibiotics. We don't understand the long term effects of insecticides and herbicides; we ignore the possible unintended effects of long exposure to low doses of hormones and many other drugs (traces of which can be detected in many or most municipal water supplies), and we are rapidly breeding (thanks to evolution and the overuse of antibiotics) new bacteria (and likely viruses) which are immune to all known antibiotics. This alone could result in a plague which could destroy most human life.

The growth of cities: We tend to put cities (especially large, growing ones) at the worst possible places: in river valleys, along flatland floodplains, along the mouths of rivers. The same places that are the best possible farmland. We should build them on mountains, in deserts, rocky, hilly terrain, even floating on the oceans. Leave the good farmland to farming. Leave the river deltas for farming and allow the annual floods that replenish their topsoils and ecologies. Our cities continue to grow at alarming rates, covering the surrounding land with buildings and asphalt. And polluting or burying the former topsoil in the process.

Are there long term solutions? My favorite is to move humanity off of Planet Earth and into space habitats. See Colonizing the Solar System and Population Unlimited. Unfortunately, I expect that humanity will tend to continue to exploit the Earth in ever greater degree until the point is reached where most of the population will abruptly die. And then the survivors just might be smarter and do it right the next time. That, my friend, is evolution in action.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Some fundamental tenants, followed by discussion and ramifications:

  1. There is no such thing as savings.
  2. Money is not real (although it is a valuable accounting tool).
  3. Prices are set by supply and demand.
  4. Any attempt by people or governments to change any of the above is doomed to failure.

There is no such thing as savings, other than to store food or other supplies in a larder. We all live off of the current productivity of workers. For you to retire, you must convince someone else to work on your behalf (to provide you with food, clean water, sanitation,  energy, health services, everything you need). At the beginning of life, your parents did that. At one time, we would depend upon our children to provide for our old age. Investing in children was investing for retirement. But that time has past.

In today's society, we save for our retirement and therefore depend upon society to care for us. The only way that works is if:

  1. We invest a portion of our current work productivity in infrastructure (capital) so that other, future, workers can be more productive. (In exchange, we expect those future workers to support us in the future via a fraction of their increased productivity.)
  2. A large enough fraction of the population is working in primary production to provide for the non-workers.
  3. The population dynamic is such that the future expected number of retirees is proportional to the future number of primary workers. This does not match reality!

Money is not real. Actually, money can be real, if it consists of coins or other valuable items (gold coins are real, as are gems and many other commonly recognized commodities). Paper money, or a coin whose value is based on a promise, is not real. Unfortunately, governments can print more money or stamp more coins. This dilutes the value of the existing currency, making it proportionally less valuable. Note that the total value of the good and services in the economy remains unchanged - only the number (accounting value) associated with the measurement of the economy increases.

The picture is not really so simple, but it will serve our purposes. The great thing about the concept of money is that it creates an accounting tool that allows us to share productivity, to allow a civilization to work together (some farmers, some miners, some builders, some engineers, etc.) where each of us can achieve greater productivity in a narrow field than any of us could if we each had to provide for all of our needs. Can a farmer build a house or a car? Can an engineer raise cattle and chickens for meat, milk, eggs? Yes, but not as well as a professional. And that, my friends, is the true source of wealth.

Prices are set by supply and demand. This is always true in the long run, although short term variation due to greed, fear, stupidity, and the delays needed to change production will happen. Capitalism works, for the most part, but it is slow to respond to changing markets. If oil prices jump, economic theory says that exploration, production, and distribution will increase supply to match (or exceed) demand. However, it takes years to find new sources of oil, drill the wells, build the distribution networks, the refineries, etc..

The government should have a role in pricing, to ensure fair competition, avoid fraud, and to make certain that the consumer fairly pays all costs associated with a commodity. For example, if a bottle of water is sold to the consumer, the price (manufacturing, distribution, and taxes) should reflect the total life cycle cost of that bottle of water, including the renewability of the water source (no dropping water tables stealing water from the future), and the disposition of the bottle (the cost of disposal or recycling - don't dump our current waste on our children).

Any attempt by people or governments to change any of the above is doomed to failure. History is full of failed attempts to control an economy. Price fixing invariably leads to shortages. Government attempts to define production invariably result in reduced choice and quality, with higher prices. Printing more money causes inflation. And since there is no such thing as savings, it is incredibly stupid to "invest" social security funds in government debt. All such debts must be repaid by taxes on future workers, whether you call them social security taxes or anything else. Who could come up with this concept? Unless the worker's funds are invested in things resulting in future productivity gains (which can include factories, research, infrastructure), this scheme is doomed to failure. Yes, I'm in favor of privatizing social security, just as I'm against the concept of government debt (except in the short term as a balancing mechanism). Unfortunately, it may be too late.

However, in our current economic environment I support government investment in real estate or other businesses (as well as research), because only then can we boost real worker productivity and escape the fragile house of cards we live in.