Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Evolution: Common Misconceptions, or "What Evolution Is Not"

I've recently been reading a book by Agustín Fuentes, Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature with my girlfriend. We're only through part 1 (and the prelude of part 2), but it's an incredible read thus far, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about their research in anthropology, evolution or human variation. Dr. Fuentes lays out a "toolkit," in his own words, on how to bust myths about human nature by applying the principles of genetics and culture to three common pervasive myths found in our society: (1) human race; (2) inherent human aggression; and, (3) sex.

Chapters 2 and 3 struck me well, but chapter 3 "Evolution Is Important -- but May Not Be What We Think," was especially informative and helpful. Dr. Fuentes starts off with a quote by popular science writer Nicholas Wade, who has recently come under fire for his book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. The quote is from an article in the New York Times, and it says the following:
"Many have assumed that humans ceased to evolve in the distant past, perhaps when people first learned to protect themselves against cold, famine and other harsh agents of natural selection. But in the last few years, biologists peering into the human genome sequences now available from around the world have found increasing evidence of natural selection at work in the last few thousand years, leading many to assume that human evolution is still in progress."
The quote reflects on two popular misconceptions held by the public about evolution, which we will get to in a moment. It's important to note first, though, that this illustrates more than just misconceptions about evolution, but a lack of understanding in even the educated public, and the necessity of a false dichotomy. As Dr. Fuentes points out, "To sell the story, the false representation of a 'debate' as to whether evolution happens in humans has to be a central theme."

Of course, many people in the public hold the beliefs that Wade is referring to; however it simply isn't true that the primary debate amongst informed scholars is over whether or not evolution is happening in humans or, as some people often misinterpret, that evolution "stopped at the neck" in humans.

This objection refers to the debate over the Black/White IQ differential, specifically the position that most, if not all of the variation in IQ results between these two groups is a result of the environment. The problem with the characterization "evolution stopped at the neck," however, is that just because someone doesn't believe the differential is a result of evolutionary or genetic differences, that doesn't mean they don't believe human cognition has evolved. Evolution is complex, and even someone who suggests that the differential is a result of evolution doesn't necessarily mean it was a product of adaptation or natural selection. This is a gross oversimplification of how evolution works, and what the real debate entails, and thus we should now move into the five common misconceptions about evolution that are popularly held by the public.

1: Evolution is "survival of the fittest."

I can't tell you how many times I've heard this implication. To begin, Charles Darwin never used the phrase "survival of the fittest" -- this concept otherwise known as "social Darwinism" is attributable to Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith. The concept is an interpretation of one aspect of evolution: natural selection. Natural selection is Darwin's process of "descent with modification," and states that some gene variants will help an organism reproduce more successfully, and that if these variants are heritable, they will become more common within a population over time. These variants are then seen as adaptations to a specific environmental context.

What this means is that "the fittest" doesn't necessarily mean the biggest, baddest or strongest. It's specific to an environment, where "the fittest" may be the exact opposite. Consider an easy example: the field mouse. It is not the fastest creature in the world, it is not the strongest, it does not have a serious bite, and it poses pretty much no risk to any creature of any size bigger than itself. So why does it continue to succeed and reproduce? Because "bigger" does not mean "better." Speaking of better, this brings us to the second misconception about evolution.

2: Evolution results in perfection.

As Fuentes notes, evolution is not oriented towards progress, nor does it result in organisms fitting perfectly with their environment. To quote, "The corollary to this is that if something works well we perceive it as having 'evolved' for this particular purpose."

Evolution is not perfect -- it's sloppy, and isn't geared towards making something ultimately "better." When an organism has traits which allow it to successfully reproduce in its environment, and these traits are a result of evolution, it does not mean that it evolved that way for a purpose.

3: Evolution happens by chance.

There is only one aspect of evolution that represents "chance," and that would be genetic drift. Genetic drift suggests that random events can sometimes alter the allelic frequencies of a population. Fuentes offers an example of this: take hair color. There is a small population living on an island with hair color gene A, and there are three alleles of the gene: A1, A2 and A3. Say the population is made up of 80% A1, 10% A2 and 10% A3. Now, imagine that most of the population lives on the north coast of the island, and that part of the island is hit by a major tsunami. Now, the only people remaining are the smaller numbers of people on the south end of the island, changing the allelic frequency to maybe 33% for all alleles of the hair color gene A. This results in evolutionary change, but not because of anything having to do with the genes or the alleles themselves, but with a random event which drastically changed the makeup of the organisms in the population. Genetic drift, then, is most potent in smaller populations, because random events are less likely to have significant effects on larger populations.

But as said, this is the only aspect of evolution that relies on randomness or chance. There are three other major components of evolution: gene flow, natural selection and mutation. We've already explained natural selection. Mutation is the means by which organisms gain new genetic material, where it creates a new sequence in a gene that produces a protein or regulation that functions better than previously. Gene flow is the movement of alleles within and between populations as a result of migration. The allelic frequencies within and between two populations can change if the populations are close enough together that allows for migrations between them. The allelic frequencies between the two populations can either become more similar if there's enough gene flow or, if gene flow is restricted, they can remain the same. Gene flow, natural selection, and mutation, then, do not occur by chance, but have multiple reasons for occurring.

4: If something has evolved in a certain way, that is how it should be.

This one is a bit complicated, but it's similar to misconception #2. Basically the idea is that if an organism exhibits a certain trait, and that trait is a result of evolutionary change, then the exhibition of that trait is the way things are supposed to be. This is not necessarily true, because there are many things that have occurred via evolutionary means, but were intended for a different purpose than what they're used for today. This is called exaptation.

One beautiful example of this is bird feathers. Originally, bird feathers evolved as a structure of temperature regulation. The feathers on a bird's wings allowed it to trap air underneath, allowing it to either cool off by lifting its wings up, or warm up by bringing its wings in. At some point, the wings on some birds became substantial enough that they were able to glide, and this unintended function resulted in reproductive success. Now, wings are used for flying. This is a perfect example of something that occurred through evolutionary processes, but did not serve the function it does now, thus showing that even if something has evolved does not mean it was intended to be what it is today.

5: Evolution can stop, has an end, or has a goal.

This is our last misconception. Evolution does not stop; it is always ongoing. Evolution is also not goal-oriented -- it doesn't have a goal, and it doesn't seek perfection. Something that has occurred by evolutionary means is not the finish line, and it is not more "natural" than other things. Traits that have evolved are the result of any number of processes that can and will continue to act on us and every other organism over the course of time.

These misconceptions overlap in many ways, but are very applicable to modern times. It's commonly held that if something has evolved, or if something is engrained in our biology, then that is "correct" or "natural." This is the basic premise of human nature which Dr. Fuentes argues against. Just because something is biological or evolutionary does not mean it is any more natural than any other aspect of our lives. The premise of this idea is that, for example, between our biology and our society, biology takes precedence as we cannot avoid its grasp, and our society or social situation can change. This simply isn't the case, though: our biology is constantly changing, and the strength of our genes is not more powerful than the strength of our environment.

Creationists, determinists, indeterminists, racialists, and many other groups of people will commonly fall into the belief in one of these misconceptions as part of their arguments. Be equipped and well-informed of what evolution is and is not so that these misconceptions can be further dispensed, and the core of the arguments can be reached instead of the nuances of what evolution does or does not imply.

And above all, thank you very much for reading.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Chiggers: Why They Suck & How to Get Rid of Them... Kinda

Where I go to college, I'm pretty much surrounded by wilderness. I'm right out in the Pine Barrens where there's, besides the campus, nothing but trees, foliage and dirt. Hell, even some of the campus is pretty much just trees, foliage and dirt. In addition to that, we've got a giant lake which lends a marshland to the otherwise already wild woods. That makes it mosquito country, and that makes it bad for me.

Back at home, all I got were mosquito bites. If I so much as lifted my arm and my sleeve fell too far past the cuff, my wrist turned into a biscuit tray (i.e. really bumpy and perfect for baking). I'm the only one in my family who really has this problem, and none of us are entirely sure why. I've read that mosquitoes like warmer things, and the color black, both of which I tend to fit perfectly with (I wear a lot of black and my body is always warm). I dunno about blood types, but maybe that has something to do with it too. Anyway, that's pretty much the extent of what I'd have to deal with though. Nothing too bad elsewhere, besides occasionally finding a tick searching my body.

Last year, however, I couldn't help but see the vast wildlife around me and think "well shit, this would be great for an adventure!" I'd stock my pockets with my tool knives and head out into the woods just to see what cool crap I could find. These efforts didn't go unrewarded: I've found my fair share of cool fruits from trees I never knew about (mostly ornamentals), and I came across some moss-covered bridges, marshes, and even some weird picnic-like area where someone had carved out turtle shells. Sorry, but I think that's pretty cool, and totally worth contending with mosquitoes and ticks.

Well, little did I know that was the worst of my problems.

I was plagued with the most rotten devils in the world: chiggers. They're these tiny little parasites that you can barely see, and will only find if you actually check for them, usually around your ankles. They like to go into tight spots, so your ankles are definitely at risk, as are your privates. No I'm not kidding.

Usually you get them by walking through brush, and a clump of them smacks onto you, and they start searching your body for a good place to start biting you. They can wander for as long as 3 hours without biting, but when they bite, it's horrible. My record number of bites at any given time is 27. Yes, 27 bites, exclusively on my ankles (and 5 or less on my legs). The first time I got bitten, though, it was only 21 (yeah, only). These bites never typically got to anything bad like an infection, but they itch. They itch bad. You've never really experienced an itch until you've had multiple chigger bites, and are as vulnerable to their little secreted fluids as I am.

But when I first got them, I thought it shouldn't be a problem. Whenever I got a bad mosquito bite, I just got some After Bite and soaked it up. I tried the same thing on my chigger bites, but it didn't work. I'll tell you, the first time I dealt with these fuckers, I tried everything. Ice, heat, Cortizone, After Bite, nail polish, and a few other things including but not limited to scraping the blistered heads off my bites and burning them with alcohol. Yeah, it got that serious for me. I was desperate, and for a while I had convinced myself that worked, but the itching never ceased. The first time this happened, it lasted for two weeks, and I had no idea whether anything I was doing had caused the itching, burning and pain to go away. I was just glad they were gone and I was done with sleepless nights of torturous itching on my feet.

Then I got them again this year.

I was more prepared this year, though. I knew that once I noticed chiggers on my skin, I should take my clothes off and wash them in soap and hot water. That's fine and dandy, but what about the ones on my skin? My girlfriend and I have gotten used to just plucking them off our skin, and whenever I go into the woods I spray myself with bug repellent for good measure, but this time it didn't work. My preventative measures didn't work, and I got my record number of bites only a week and a half ago, or so. The semester just started and I've already been eaten alive. So, what did I do? I refined some of my choices and tried something new, since none of my medications were working (I tried After Bite again, along with Chiggerid). I went into the shower, broke all of the bites open thoroughly, and then scrubbed them down with hot water and soap.

Now, I'm not going to lie to you, this hurts like a bitch, but after 5 minutes of intense burning, it can actually provide you with a few hours of relief if you leave the afflicted areas alone. This is where I started to discover bad things you can do to your bites that make them itch/burn worse:

1: Walking. Sorry, but if you can, you should stay off your feet for a few days.
2: Wearing socks. The fabric of your socks will irritate the bites.
3: Scratching. Do not scratch. The autonomous itching has stopped right now, but if I ever get tempted to scratch the area around the scabs of my ex-bites, the itching sensation comes back instantly, and as bad as before.

After a few days, I was at a loss. I have to walk to classes, and one of my classes this semester warrants me to continuously go to locations where chiggers are likely to screw me over. I continued to ask around for advice on how to handle this horror. I had no luck, but I did find out a few things about chiggers that you should know.

First, the nail polish trick, while it can relieve itching, is stupid. The premise is that chiggers dig into your skin and then leave a hole to breathe, but that they stay there until they decide to leave; so if you cover the bite with nail polish, they suffocate and die. It's not true. They don't burrow, they just bite. If they did burrow, however, why the hell would you want to keep them in your skin? Do you want your skin to look like the inside of a dragon fruit, laden with black dots? Do you want the source of the irritation, something you could be highly allergic to, to just stay in your skin? The whole idea is just ridiculous.

Second, chiggers (and similar mites) have this unique characteristic that they like to bite the same person even if another person is available. In this case, I sleep in the same bed as my girlfriend; yet despite being infested by chiggers myself, my girlfriend never got any from me. The chiggers, after biting someone, just like to stick to them. Why? Because they love you, that's why! Ain't it great?

Anyway, speaking of my girlfriend, that's how I eventually ended up overcoming my bites. My girlfriend brought me Benadryl anti-itch cream, and it worked miracles for me. Really, this is the only thing that's actually confidently worked. After Bite doesn't do anything. Chiggerid just leaves a flaky, sometimes painful (because it sticks to your hair) coating on your skin. The other methods are just generally ineffective. For anyone else who has had chiggers, you're welcome to disagree and explain why, but here's what I recommend for people who suffer from these bites:

1: Immediately take off all your clothes and wash them in hot water and soap.
2: Try to find as many of the chiggers on your body as you can and pluck them off, putting them in a pot of boiling water to make sure they die (or just scrape them to death).
3: Try to endure the pain of breaking your bites open in the shower, then scrub them maybe two or three times with soap and hot water, thoroughly.
4: Dry the areas, then apply Benadryl anti-itch cream.
5: Avoid irritating the afflicted areas further.

If you can medicate the bites before they get bad, you can usually prevent this disaster; however if you're not fast enough like me, this seems to work. Again, it takes a while for you to fully recover, but hopefully this'll speed up the process. If it doesn't, or even makes things worse, I'm sorry. (But I'm not accountable).

As far as preventative measures go, I'd advise the following:

1: Find a good bug repellent and spray yourself before you go around any areas with tall grass/bushes, or is humid, damp or swampy. I use Off!.
2: Wear long pants and sleeves, with preferably tall socks to further protect your ankles.
3: Try to only spend around an hour (maybe two) in the areas where chiggers are more likely to get you, just to make sure they don't bite you before you can check yourself safely.
4: When you get home, make sure you change clothes and check yourself, and wash whatever clothes you were wearing.

But most importantly:

Don't let this deter you from exploring out in the wilderness. Wildlife is incredible, and a few mites shouldn't hinder your ability to enjoy that. Just be aware of some of the risks you're taking, take the proper precautions, and be sure that if you encounter a situation such as this, you're prepared to deal with it.

Thank you all for reading, and I'll see you all next time!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Religion And Morality: Belief Isn't Better

"Godless Atheists," huh?
It's no secret that when it comes to what the public thinks, atheists are usually at the bottom of the "nice" list. Back in 2006, associate professor Penny Edgell of the University of Minnesota conducted a poll that found that of all the listed minority groups (including immigrants, gays and lesbians, conservative Christians, Jews, Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, whites, and atheists), people were least likely to think they could share their visions of society with an atheist -- about 54% of respondents stating they thought they could. Professor Edgell was shocked by the results, stating: "We thought that in the wake of 9/11, people would target Muslims. Frankly, we expected atheists to be a throwaway group."

Keeping in mind this study was conducted only 2 years after 9/11, so her surprise is most likely well founded; however, this wasn't the first, nor the last of a long series of studies which show that the average American is not too fond of the atheist. In 2011, Gervais, et al. published a study, Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust Is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. There were actually several studies within this one published article, but in one study specifically, the researchers asked 105 undergraduates at the University of British Columbia to read the following excerpt:
"Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.

Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can."
The subjects were then asked which would be more likely: (A) that Richard is a teacher; or (B) that Richard is a teacher and something else. That something else was randomly selected as the filler from four possible categories: Christian, Muslim, rapist, or atheist. The test was to see how often the respondents committed something called the "conjunction fallacy." Simply put, the conjunction fallacy occurs when someone assumes that the probability of two events occurring together (or in conjunction) is higher than that of one of the events occurring alone, even though statistically speaking, it is always less likely for the conjunct to be true. In this study, for example, it is always more likely that Richard is a teacher than it is that he is a teacher and an atheist.

The results, however, showed that while only 4% and 15% committed the conjunction fallacy for Christians and Muslims respectively, 46% and 48% committed the fallacy for rapists and atheists respectively. That's right, people thought it was more likely that Richard was an atheist than he was a rapist. Well, actually, the two frequencies were not statistically significant from one another, so it was about the same for rapists and atheists. That makes it better, right?

So there's an obvious problem here. The public has a general distrust for atheists that can match, or possibly exceed, even that of rapists; and even in post 9/11 America (only 2 years after), atheists were still distrusted more than Muslims. It's obvious that the average person believes that the atheist is not as socially compatible as other minority groups, and is probably a lot more immoral.

Wait, what was that?

All the time I hear people claiming that atheists tend to be more immoral than "believers." This is, of course, completely outrageous on two accounts. Good old Hermant Mehta from Patheos emailed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to ask what the religious make up of the prison population was, and you can find the response here. To summarize, though, atheists make up 0.07% of the federal prison population that self-reported their religious affiliation in America. Of course, this data isn't perfect, but of what we have it's pretty impressive.

So that's one account: the statistics (of course, if you assume that breaking federal law is sinful). The other account I mentioned is on definition: What the heck does the statement even mean that atheists tend to be more immoral? By most Christian definitions, atheism itself is immoral, so no duh they're going to be "more immoral" than "believers." How are we defining morality here? This is such a problematic statement, and the framing is so biased, that it can't even be looked at in good health. Of course, by whatever group's morality you're making the judgment from, that group is going to almost always turn out more moral.

But... what if we based it on both groups' morality?

On September 12, 2014, Hofmann et al. published a study in Science entitled Morality in Everyday Life. The study repeatedly assessed moral/immoral actions in a sample of 1,252 people via self-reporting using ecological momentary analysis and found that religious and nonreligious people, as they see it, do not differ in terms of likelihood or quality of immoral/moral acts. Many have criticized these findings due to the use of self-reporting (even though they had a panel of independent judges draw conclusions as well), but that's the point. These experiences were based on the respondents' own definition of morality, and therefore isn't confounded by biased definitions. It means that in accordance with one's own principles, it seems to not be the case that the religious are more moral than the nonreligious.

As I said already, the framing of the question "are atheists more immoral than theists?" is already flawed and biased, but it helps to know that when you go by multiple lines of inquiry, you find this to not be the case, empirically or just pragmatically. Hopefully people can abandon their biases and begin to look at atheists in a more open way, because when it comes down to it (as Ricky Gervais said), if you kicked all the atheists and agnostics in America out, you'd lose 93% of The National Academy of Sciences, and less than 1% of the prison population.

How helpful would that be?

Thank you all very much for reading.

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Gervais WM, Shariff AF, & Norenzayan A (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101 (6), 1189-206 PMID: 22059841  

Hofmann W, Wisneski DC, Brandt MJ, & Skitka LJ (2014). Morality in everyday life. Science (New York, N.Y.), 345 (6202), 1340-3 PMID: 25214626