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It's an obvious fact of nature that organisms go extinct. This planet has been around for a little over four and a half billion years, and in that amount of time, billions of species have come into existence only to go the way of the dodo. It is the natural progression of things, and evolution as we know it wouldn't be possible without it. Most organisms go extinct for completely natural reasons - competition, climate change, and natural disasters, to name a few. It is extremely rare for a species to go unchanged for long, and even species that do are not invulnerable to the age-old pressures of speciation and extinction.

There is one species, however, that has built up a society that completely invalidates most of these pressures. H. sapiens is no longer vulnerable to the classic methods of competition and environmental pressure to a degree that could result in its extinction. We are virtually unchallenged at resource gathering, and our technology and adaptability minimizes negative environmental effects.

Even so, it is difficult to imagine a species that has only been around for 200,000 years to be immortal in this sense. It stands to reason that humanity, like every other species, will eventually meet its fate. It may be when the sun eventually grows large enough to stop supporting life - approximately 1.5 billion years down the road - or it may be something much sooner. This month's topic therefore is: What do you think is most likely to cause humanity's eventual extinction, and why?

As for me, I've had a hard time determining for certain what I think is most likely, but there are a few popular theories I think are not:

1) Global nuclear fallout:  I have a hard time imagining that humanity could have a nuclear war so bad that it would cause the species' extinction. Even if there was a nuclear disaster that resulted in the collapse of much of the civilized world, there would still be countless pockets of more isolated societies that would not be touched even by fallout.

2) Destruction and over-consumption of resources:  Again, I think it's possible that, worst-case scenario, humans use up enough of their resources to cause a pretty major population crunch, but I do not believe it's likely that such an over-consumption could result in total extinction. There is always going to be photosynthesis, and therefore there is always going to be the potential to create food (synthetically or not).

3) Contact of Earth with a large comet or asteroid:  Unless it is something extremely large (unlikely), a comet or asteroid would, at worst, block out the sun with dust for a period of time. Once again, this is something that could potentially eliminate a good chunk of the species, but probably not cause an extinction. A fairly sizable sample of the species would be able to survive with supplies for many years without sunlight.

As for what I think is more likely, there are a few possibilities:

1) A widespread global pandemic:  Unlikely, but possibly more likely than other options, is a rapidly-spreading and extremely contagious disease of sorts. However, it would have to be pretty specific to result in an extinction. With most types of disease, there would still be those proverbial isolated societies that make it through, but with the right amount of contagiousness and latent dormancy I do think it's possible for a disease to eventually reach all corners of the globe. This would also, of course, only be possible in the event of there being no possible cure or vaccine, which in the current state of rapidly improving biotechnology, seems more and more unlikely. On the other hand, though, the prevalence of antibiotics in food sources nowadays means that bacteria are more rapidly developing immunities. (Fyi, swine flu is probably not a good candidate for a possible extinction-level pandemic.)

2) Alien invasion:  Hey, you never know.

3) 1.5 billion years later:  Everything on the planet will eventually meet its end when the rising luminosity of the Sun will eliminate the biosphere. Unless, of course, humanity manages to make a swift exit from the planet beforehand and settle elsewhere - which I also think is fairly likely (hey, 1.5 is a long time to develop new technologies). Even if humanity does manage to escape the destruction of the Earth via the sun, there's no way we'll escape the eventual heat death of the universe!

So, what do YOU think?

-EWilloughby
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Humans today aren't subjected to natural selection the same way we used to be.  In the early days of humanity, people with poorer vision or slower reflexes were more likely to end up being unable to find enough food to survive, or possibly becoming food for a saber-toothed tiger.  Today, though, the only things which frequently cause people to die before they can reproduce are disease and accidents, to which just about everyone is equally susceptible.  So it isn't initially obvious what, if any, selective pressures there are that still affect humans in the present.

Daniel Seligman, in his book A Question of Intelligence, points out a rather worrisome trend in this area.  According to several studies conducted over the past 30 years, fertility rates are negatively correlated with intelligence—meaning that people with low IQs tend to have more children, and have them sooner, than people with high IQs.  When you think about this, isn't entirely surprising that it's the case.  It's easy to imagine that people who have children as teenagers are less intelligent, on average, than people who wait until their 20s or 30s for it.  And because of the inevitable effects of natural selection, if people with low intelligence have a higher rate of reproduction than people with high intelligence, over multiple generations this will cause humans in general to become dumber.

With this in mind, here is this month's topic:  Should it be considered a problem that natural selection is favoring humans becoming less intelligent?  And if so, what should be done about it?

My opinion about the answer to this question is something that's changed over time.  Until around five years ago I was a Social Darwinist, meaning that I thought it was important for society to be structured in a way that encouraged natural selection.  As is pointed out by Mainstream Science on Intelligence, an article published in the Wall Street Journal and the psychology journal Intelligence with the signatures of 52 specialists in this area, intelligence is very strongly correlated with economic success—regardless of race or family background, more intelligent people earn more money on average than less intelligent people do.  As a Social Darwinist, I thought that if there weren't any government handouts for low-income people, perhaps they wouldn't have enough money to raise families, and natural selection could be made to favor people with high intelligence rather than the opposite.  While this system seems unkind to the people who would end up losing out under it, the idea is that this cost would be outweighed by the overall benefit of humanity becoming smarter.

I still think that something like this would be worthwhile if it were possible, but what I've realized over the past five years is that it isn't.  The problem is that there simply is no such thing as "not enough money to raise a family".  When one looks at people in third-world countries who earn less than five dollars a day, this doesn't prevent them from having kids—if anything, they end up having more children because their children can help them to try to earn money.  So if anyone is hoping to create a society where intelligence correlates with reproductive success, getting rid of handouts to poor people is not the way to do it.

A second way to try and accomplish this is using eugenics, where the government gets directly involved preventing certain people from reproducing, but that has its own set of problems.  The simplest of them is just that historically, no government has ever been able to exert this kind of power without eventually starting to abuse it.  The most obvious example of a failed attempt at eugenics is Nazi Germany, in which an attempt to make sure only "genetically superior" people could reproduce gradually morphed into a system of persecution based on race, religion, political preference, and other traits which had nothing to do with what eugenicists normally care about.  Eugenics policies of the United States in the early 20th century didn't stray quite this far from their original purpose, but even in the U.S. people were occasionally sterilized against their will for no reason other than their race—as though the people running this system had completely forgotten the distinction between a difference in average intelligence between races, and the idea that every member of a certain race has lower intelligence.

However, even if it were possible to implement a eugenics policy while avoiding this kind of corruption, there's also a much more fundamental problem with the idea.  In the early 20th century, it was widely assumed that it would be easy to identify which genetic traits we should want natural selection to favor in humans:  intelligence, physical endurance, good eyesight, and so on.  But the reality is far more complex than this, because what genes make one individual more "fit" than another is almost always subjective, even when it comes to traits such as intelligence that are seemingly without a downside.  As Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending point out in this paper, the same genes which code for higher IQ also place people at greater risk for a number of hereditary diseases.  And as a result, in at least one population of humans where natural selection has favored intelligence especially strongly, these diseases have also become much more prevalent than they are among the rest of humanity.  Even if a government were able to successfully implement a eugenics policy that favors intelligence, it would inevitably lead to a higher rate of these diseases also.

So if eugenics is a bad idea and Social Darwinism isn't possible, then what can be done about the current selective trend towards lower intelligence?  Fortunately, there's a third possibility which might become a reality soon.  As scientists identify the functions of more and more genes in the human genome, it's becoming possible for parents who use in vitro fertilization to specify which genetic traits they want their offspring to have.  As stated in this article, it's already possible for prospective parents to make sure the embryo they implant doesn't have certain genes which would result in an elevated risk for cancer, so it soon might also be possible for them to make sure it has genes for above-average intelligence.  And since these decisions would be made on an individual embryo-by-embryo basis, parents would be able to avoid the specific combinations of genes which result in hereditary diseases.

This solution isn't without its own set of pitfalls.  At the moment, parents are only able to choose from a selection of embryos produced by their own eggs and sperm, but it's easy to imagine how far this field of "designer babies" could go.  Will parents one day inject non-human genes into their embryos, based on ridiculous fashions for kids with traits like bioluminescent hair?  Still, virtually every scientific advancement has its downside—such is the price of progress.

Agahnim
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The ancient ruling archosaurs of the mesozoic were such a diverse and wildly successful group that if often seems like a shame that their reign met its end at the end of Cretaceous. Filling almost every possible niche, the archosaurs - which is the group of diapsids containing dinosaurs, pterosaurs, crocodiles, birds, and several other extinct groups - radiated into thousands of unique and fascinating morphologies and functions. They inhabited the seas, the skies, and every Mesozoic land environment until the mass extinction event at the end of the era destroyed all but a few groups of them. With a clade of such startling success and diversity, it's hard not to think about what could have been. What would time have done to these awesome creatures had they been given another 65 million years to flourish?

65 million years is a lot of time for species to go extinct just from more ordinary causes, like competition and more minor climatic changes. But some groups of dinosaurs had been immensely successful for millions of years prior, so it's easily to see how they could have stuck around for another 65. Dromaeosauridae, for instance, evolved in the middle Jurassic, meaning that the "raptor" family existed for over 100 million years. Barring a global extinction event, it's easy to see how they could have continued evolving up to the present day. What would these feathered fiends have turned into, given enough time? Would they have grown small and flighted, as their ancestors eventually did? Or, along with their cousins the Troodontidae - as the most intelligent groups of archosaurs alive at the time - would they have evolved into something... more interesting?

Which brings me to this month's discussion question: What kind of forms and functions do you imagine the dinosaurs and their cousins occupying in the present day if most of them had not been wiped out at the end of the Mesozoic?

Many people have wondered whether dinosaurs would have eventually evolved sentience as primates did. The paleontologist Dale Russell believed that Troodonts would have eventually evolved an upright stance and an enlarged braincase, mirroring the course of evolution that hominids took on their path to sentience. He called this hypothetical animal the "Dinosauroid" and collaborated with the artist Ron Sequin to create a lifelike model of this creature. While such a thing is possible, I'm hesitant to say whether I think it's actually likely - I think of the evolution of true sentience as much more of a happy accident than an evolutionary inevitability, which needs a lot of specific selection pressures in order to arise.

Other paleontologists have speculated on this on a broader scale, like Dougal Dixon in his book The New Dinosaurs. While more of an interesting thought experiment than true science, this book explores the possibilities of many new forms dinosaurs could have evolved into, from the duck-like predatory "Pouch" to the arboreal snakelike "Treewyrm." In this hypothetical future, archosaurs are still by and large the dominant animal group, with mammals still existing in the shadows of giants.

The possibilities are truly endless for what could have been. It's sad to think that such a timeline could not possibly have produced an "us" to observe them!

-EWilloughby
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Some of you might have guessed why I was waiting until today to post this month’s topic, but for anyone who hasn’t figured it out already, today is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday.  This makes 2009 a rather important year for evolution, and it also is for one other reason:  on November 24th of this year, it will have been exactly 150 years since the publication of his book The Origin of Species.

As is probably obvious from the name of this group, no single person is considered more important to the theory of evolution than Charles Darwin.  And historically, it makes sense that he would receive the credit for it, since The Origin of Species was more responsible than anything else for making evolution a widely-known biological process.  In this respect his discovery was similar to that of Christopher Columbus—both of them deserve credit for being the one who introduced their society to what they discovered, but neither were actually its sole discoverer.  Just as the Vikings had been to North American before Columbus, the theory of evolution owes its existence to more people than just Darwin.

Evolution as it exists today has undergone several modifications from Darwin’s incarnation of it, among the most notable being Mendel’s mechanism of heredity, Gould’s punctuated equilibrium, and Dawkins’ selfish gene theory.  Less well-known but equally important were Darwin’s precursors, who proposed earlier theories of evolution that lacked some of the details which Darwin would later add.  The most famous of these was probably Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who like Darwin believed that all animals shared a common ancestor, and that by undergoing small changes over successive generations, the descendents of this ancestor had given rise to the animal kingdom’s current diversity.  Unlike Darwin, however, Lamarck believed that these changes happened within each animal’s lifetime, with animals developing the traits which were most important to their survival, and then passing these traits on to their offspring.  With the exception of processes such as epigenetics, this idea that acquired traits can be passed on to offspring has now been abandoned.

Even before Lamarck, however, the concept of evolution had existed for centuries.  If the theory of evolution itself were traced back to its earliest ancestor, that ancestor would probably be Anaximander of Miletus, a philosopher who lived in Greece during the sixth century B.C.  Anaximander was the founder of uniformitarianism, the now-central idea in natural history that the world operated in the past by the same physical processes which currently govern it.  While most people in his time and place believed that the world and everything in it had been created by the Greek gods such as Zeus and Hera, Anaximander reasoned that if this were the case, the gods’ intervention should still be visible in the present.  And since nobody in Anaximander’s time ever saw Zeus or Hera creating animals, he believed that this hadn’t occurred in the past, either.

So if humans were not created directly by the gods, where could they have come from?  Since Anaximander was aware that in the present, humans cannot come into the world without a parent providing for them both before and after birth, he concluded that the first humans must have been descended from other types of animals.  As for where the first land animals had come from, Anaximander’s conclusion was that they were descended from sea animals.  I’m fairly sure that his theory didn’t attempt to explain what the process was that had caused these ancient animals to evolve into their present forms, but for what he did manage to figure out, Anaximander was still millennia ahead of his time.

Darwin’s main contribution to the already-existing study of evolution was his explanation of natural selection as the process responsible for it, but even that is something for which he doesn’t deserve exclusive credit.  Alfred Russel Wallace came up with this idea at approximately the same time, and exchanged ideas with Darwin at several points leading up to the publication of Darwin’s book.  So while Darwin may be the name that everyone remembers in connection with evolution, it’s worth also remembering the people such as Wallace, Lamarck, Anaximander, and numerous others upon whose ideas Darwin built his own theory, or the more recent people who have subsequently built upon Darwin’s ideas.

Most evolution-related communities are celebrating Darwin’s birthday this month, but this month I’d like to ask something a little different:  Do you think the other people who have contributed to the theory of evolution receive too little credit in comparison to Darwin?  Or is it reasonable for Darwin to receive most of the credit the way he does?

So far, most of the topics that I’ve posted about here have been ones that I had strong opinions about, but in this case I don’t really.  As unfortunate as it might seem that some of evolution’s other contributors have had so little time in the spotlight, I’m also aware that this tends to be the case for most discoveries.  The New Yorker describes this fact here, in reference to the way discoveries tend to be named after someone other than the person who originally made them.  Quoting Stephen Stigler:  “It can be found that Laplace employed Fourier Transforms in print before Fourier published on the topic, that Lagrange presented Laplace Transforms before Laplace began his scientific career, that Poisson published the Cauchy distribution in 1824, twenty-nine years before Cauchy touched on it in an incidental manner, and that Bienaymé stated and proved the Chebychev Inequality a decade before and in greater generality than Chebychev’s first work on the topic.”  Stigler has even formulated what he calls “Stigler’s Law” about this tendency: “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.”  The theory of evolution being known as “Darwinism” might be another example of Stigler’s Law.

It seems that Stigler’s Law is so universal, there would be little point in making a big deal about this in Darwin’s case.  So we may as well continue using the word “Darwininsm” for the theory of evolution, and thinking of Darwin as the main person responsible for it, as long as we don’t forget that in his studies he was far from alone.

Agahnim
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Evolution and dinosaurs have been depicted in various works of fiction for decades, with varying degrees of success and accuracy. Dinosaur-related fiction has run the gamut from early portrayals in novels like Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World to modern video game and cinematic classics like the Turok series and Jurassic Park.

Evolution-related fictional portrayals have run a similar gamut, though with perhaps less installments. The most noteworthy recent example is, of course, Spore. Often overlooked are older portrayals, like the SNES game E.V.O.: Search for Eden and the comic portrayal of evolution in The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick.

So, this month's topic is: What is your favorite fictional portrayal of dinosaurs or evolution, and why? This can apply to novels, comics, video games, television shows, movies, or anything else along those lines. All we ask is that you PLEASE be more creative than Jurassic Park. ;)

I have quite a few favorites, though it took a while to narrow them down. My favorite dinosaur-related fictional portrayals are:
  • The Age of Reptiles comics by Ricardo Delgado. While not anatomically accurate by today's standards, these comics were brilliant at portraying the life and emotion of dinosaurs in a semi-realistic and not overly anthropomorphized way. They also influenced my own art, especially at designing realistic emotional expressions.
  • In the Time of the Dinosaurs, Megamorphs #2 in the Animorphs series. While clearly written for a younger age bracket, this was the first portrayal of dromaeosaurs in fiction that I stumbled across that stressed their relationship to birds. As a youngster I found this very interesting, and also really enjoyed seeing my favorite characters getting to "be" dinosaurs - something I had always dreamt of myself.
  • Raptor Red by Robert Bakker. Most dinosaur nuts are familiar with this tale of a Utahraptor's journey through life and her struggles to survive and find a mate. While fairly realistic, it still manages to capture a great deal of personality and emotion in the animals, and remains to be one of the standards for realistic dinosaur fiction. Despite the realism of the situations and characters, I thought the writing style still left something to be desired; for this reason, I still consider this niche in fiction to be somewhat lucrative.

Owing to the dearth of really good portrayals of evolution in fiction (creationist arguments aside, har har), my list of favorite evolution portrayals consists of only one item: E.V.O.: Search for Eden. This was one of my favorite games as a kid and still remains in my top 20 or so. It was not overly realistic by any means, but the degree of freedom in evolving your own organism was extremely engaging at the time.

So, share your own! And try to be somewhat creative and original.

-EWilloughby

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