29 Oct

Sexual Ornament

Sexual Ornament

We didn’t grow a large brain to help ourselves find better food, fend from predators or to change the very landscape of the planet, like we are doing today.  We evolved a large brain hundreds of thousands of years before we did all that.

In his book Descent of Man, Charles Darwin discusses two types of evolutionary pressures:  Natural Selection and Sexual Selection.  Natural selection arises from the struggle to survive (fangs and hooves).  Sexual selection (antlers and peacock tail feathers) arises from pressure to reproduce.  There are two types of sexual selection.  One is challenge between the same sex to outwit one another (intrasex).  Other is a challenge to charm and attract the opposite sex more successfully (intersex).

A feature that evolved due to intersex sexual pressure is called a sexual ornament.  It is usually un-fakeable.  For example, only a healthy antelope can afford huge antlers.  Similarly, only a healthy peacock can afford a long and lustrous tail feathers.  To start with, an animal needs plenty of nutrition (i.e. physical fitness) to build and maintain a sexual ornament in top condition.  Sexual ornaments also adds more handicap, often in the form of burden over animal’s ability to move around freely.

For the huge cost that an animal suffers, sexual ornaments usually have zero utility value.  They don’t help the animal to fend a predator, catch/gather food, shelter from nature or increase the longevity.  If at all, sexual ornaments increases the animal’s chances of dying an early death!  If you think for a moment, there is a common theme for all sexual ornaments: Only I can afford the wastage!

In his wonderful book The Mating Mind, psychologist Geoffrey Miller puts forward a hypothesis that the brain developed as a sexual ornament.  During the initial days, Miller proposes, women selected men for men’s ability to excite and entertain the women.  Over time, pressurized by choosy women, men ended up developing larger and larger brain.  Of course, women were not left behind either.  They needed to evolve an equally intelligent brain to appreciate what men produced.

These are some of the implications of Miller’s ‘ornament brain’:

  • In a romantic situation, wastage (and luxury) is essential.  Waste is what keeps a fitness indicator honest!  A act or gift of high romance usually carries huge cost on the giver, but zero utility value to the receiver (e.g. diamond, flower, poetry, etc.)
  • Brain evolved as an entertainment system; we eventually hijacked it for doing rocket science
  • All activities that put a high demand on the brain are perceived as sexy.  Examples are singers, sportsmen (excelling in sports is a matter of the brain; not just the brawn), actors, poets, etc.  Of course, if you work in Intel you might find nerdyness sexy too!
  • Men are major producers and women are major consumers
  • While men are usually busy searching for women who would appreciate their sexual ornament, women are busy sifting through all suitors.  It is wrong to think that women don’t actively participate in the mate selection process.
  • Monogamous species do not have to develop sexual ornamentation (in all monogamous species, both the sexes look identical).  Humans developed sexual ornamentation because they were (moderately) polygynous (at best, serially monogamous) by nature.
29 Oct

Honest Signal

Honest Signal

There is a term called “honest signalling” in evolutionary biology.  It is not a new insight, but it is going to form basis for some of the key discussions we are going to have in the future.

Peacock’s tail is a wonderful example of a honest signal.  The luxury of the tail fathers correlates well with the fitness level of the animal which carries it.  A peacock with lower fitness can’t fake a luxurious tail feathers.  So, peahens have come to use the fitness of the tail feathers as a primary mate selection criteria.

Gazelles are known to stot (quadruple jumping) in the presence of a predator.  By stotting, the gazelles  signal their fitness level to the predator (Hey, look, I am very fit.   No use chasing me.  Find someone else easy).  As a weaker animal can’t stot as well as a fitter animal, stotting turns out to be a honest signal.

In humans, wealth indicators are easily understandable honest signals.  A Rolls Royce car is a honest signal of one’s financial resources.  Or, a Nobel prize is a reliable indicator of one’s mental resources.  Great skin, shining nails or lustrous hair is a honest signal of someone’s physical fitness.  But with humans, there is one ‘not so obvious’ fitness indicator: The Brain!

While a Nobel prize might be a reliable indicator of one’s cognitive resources (but then again, several Nobel prize winners had notoriously troubled family lives), brain itself is thought of as a honest signals of an individual’s genetic fitness.  In a wonderful book Mating Mind (which has cart load of politically incorrect assertions), Geoffrey Miller claims that the large humans brain evolved as a honest signals of genetic fitness.

No other animal has evolved large brain because large brain is a pain.  Consider these:

  • Large brain is simply redundant for eking out a life on this planet.  After all, none of the other animals have bothered to evolve a large brain.
  • Our brain is metabolically very expensive.  We end up spending about one fifth of our energy budget on the upkeep of the brain.
  • Large brain makes child birth a very risky venture for both the mother and the child.
  • Large brain made it difficult and awkward for us to move quickly like most of our primate cousins could.

A large brain has loaded us with plenty of disadvantages.  There must have been some compelling evolutionary advantage that the large brain brought us.  Otherwise, evolution would have weeded it out.

If we think that the intelligence of a large brain gave us any survival advantage, you may  be wrong.  After all, till the advent of agriculture, our life was hardly any different from that of any other animal on the planet.  We were not even the top predators on earth, even though we evolved our large brains some 200,000 years ago!  Why did we go through so much of trouble and evolve such large brain if it didn’t afford us any survival advantage?

Geoffrey Miller argues that a large brain evolved as a honest signal of the genetic fitness of the individual who carries it.  So, we have probably come to regard all ‘products of mind’ highly.

This has several interesting implications.  We will address them tomorrow.

26 Oct

Selfish Gene vs Altruistic Human

Altruistic Animal

There is a human gene called DRD4.  A mutation in the DRD4 gene can give ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyper Activity) to the people who have the mutation.  People who have ADHD have difficulty with controlling their impulse.  Many of them marry young, have early pregnancy, have many kids, etc.  In all, there is every reason to expect the DRD4 mutation (and ADHD) is going to increase in the human population.

ADHD, of course, can pre-dispose a person to several setbacks.  Learning difficulty is the most well known affliction of ADHD.  People with ADHD are more vulnerable to addictive behavior, temper outbursts, poor job performance, etc.  About 65% of the inmates in Western prisons suffer from ADHD spectrum disorders.

DRD4 is clearly behaving in a way that is detrimental to the carrier animals.  But the same behavior is helping the gene to maximize the number of its own copies in the population.

Genes behave in a way that increases the number of its copies.  Over time, any gene that doesn’t doesn’t toe the line gets ‘subsumed’ by other aggressive genes. Because our language lacks adequate words to describe such behavior, we talk as if the genes are people (anthropomorphic thinking) and claim that the gene is behaving selfishly and we call such a gene a selfish gene.  Obviously, the gene is not people and it doesn’t think or act.  More importantly, genes don’t have any objective or motive.  They are mindless.

While the genes always act in a purest self-serving way (or they perish), sometimes their behavior is counter intuitive.  Altruism is one such paradox.  An altruistic animal seem to be an evolutionary dead end.  But among pack/herd animals, taking care of one another had increased the chances of all the animals in the pace/herd.  Over time, only the animals with altruistic genes were alive and the rest perished.  While altruism appears self-less, it is in reality promoted by a gene acting in pure selfish fashion.

But when an animal feels altruistic, the feeling of altruism is very real.  Even though the altruism is a product of a selfish gene, that is a mere technicality.  It is like saying “oxytocin release in your brain makes a mother bond with her child”.  Of course it is true.  But the technicality doesn’t make the mother-child bonding any less real.

We often confuse the selfish motives of our genes with the motives an the animal.  We shouldn’t.  We are not our genes.  We are not more.  We are not less either.  We are different.

25 Oct

IQ and Gender Politics

Man, Woman & IQ

Way back in 1932, Scotland got the IQ of all the 11 year old kids in the country, about 80,000 of them, tested.  The population was made up of equal number of boys and girls.  Called the Scottish Mental Survey (SMS), till this day, SMS is the largest such test carried out anywhere in the world.  The test methodology and the findings of SMS have not been contested seriously till today.  SMS has become the gold standard to understand the gender difference in IQ.  The result of the test is plotted in the chart below.

Scotland Mental Survey

The chart shows the number/percentage of girls of various IQ, plotted against the number/percentage of boys.  Let’s see that result test implies.

  1. Boys and girls are equally smart.  Boys had an average IQ of 100.5 and girls had an average IQ of 100.6, the difference being insignificant.
  2. 85% of the girls are smarter than the boys.  Can you guess why the (Second Wave) feminists never used this proof to argue that women or smarter than men?  Well, you must take a look at “4” below
  3. Lower the IQ, you will find more boys than girls.  This may be one of the reasons why there are more boys with learning disability issues.
  4. Now, this is the kicker: Higher the IQ, you will find more boys than girls!  At around IQ 140 (little above the IQ of University Professors and PhD holders), there are 35% more boys than girls.  Given how smooth this curve it, if I dare extrapolating it to 160-165 range (where all the Nobel laureates loiter), we have a 65:35 boys to girls ratio!  It means that at this range, there are 70% more boys than girls.

Interesting.  If you have noticed the distribution, something more interesting shows up.  It appears as if women the are made in an assembly line with better quality control (so, they confirm closer to the mean of 100).  Whereas, men are made on an assembly line that requires some fine tuning (so, their quality is all over the chart).

I wonder why most of us never know anything about this study, even though it was conducted 80 years ago and no one has been able to find any serious flaw in it till today.  My guess is, gender politics!

By the way, you can click on this link to download an academic paper, discussing the results of the Socttish Mental Survey 1932.  Before you go away, please remember that IQ is not the only indicator for success in life.  It doesn’t even test all types of intelligence that there is.

24 Oct

Spirituality for an agnostic


Spirituality is one of the most misused words out there.  The word ‘spirituality’ is like a closet in a teenager’s room: Anything goes in there, but nothing ever comes out.  For example, according to Wikipedia, the term spirituality can be used when dealing with any of the following:

  • Immaterial reality
  • Inner path leading to essence of a person
  • Deepest value and meaning by which people live
  • A person’s inner life
  • Larger reality
  • A more comprehensive self
  • Joining with other human beings
  • Joining with nature, cosmos and/or define
  • Source of inspiration/orientation for life
  • Going beyond the worldly experience

You can stretch spirituality to fit it on everything or nothing.  You and me can be talking about spirituality, but we may be talking two very different things.  I think the confusions is caused by the limitation of the English language.  Sanskrit, on the other hand, has much more specific terms for each of the above.  It is unfortunate that we are letting this knowledge die.  But we are digressing.

Regardless of what anyone means about spirituality, whenever they use this word, I think they are talking about something bigger than themselves of which they are a sub-set.  The super-set may be a group of people, a set of social rules, some guiding principal, nature, cosmos, divine, etc.

This 18 minute long TED video talks eloquently about the evolutionary basis of spirituality.  As the speaker Jonathan Heidt points out, at times we all experience a powerful dissolution of the self and a sense of merging with something much bigger than us.  When we encounter one of these perception warps, it is usually a life changing (or life ending) experience.  We call these transcendental experience a spiritual experience.

Only hitch with spiritual feelings is this: The purpose of these powerful emotions lie deep in our evolutionary past.  In the past, the humans who put their community above the self survived and the ones who put self above community perished.  So, all of us today happily merge into something bigger.  Since the reason for this transcendental and powerful feelings are not obvious, we tend to attribute all kind of reasons to explain them, ranging from merging with a soul mate to merging with the God.

For an agnostic like me, spirituality is the “anything related to my super-set“.  Simple.  It works regardless of whichever context I see that word coming up in.

23 Oct

Sabre Dance of Sexuality

Sabre Dance

Close your eyes.  Imagine a melody in your head.  A new melody, something that you haven’t heard before.  Did you?  If you are like me, you probably came up with something trivial or nothing at all.  Now, click on this link and watch Vanessa Mae play Sabre Dance.

The difference between the simplistic music that we came up with and the glorious Sabre Dance is “human ingenuity”.  You and me are untrained and we probably never thought about creating music.  If you worked that violin for twenty years, under the supervision of an able teacher and pushed yourself to your limits, then Sabre Dance won’t be so unimaginably distant for you.  Now, answer this question with utter honesty:

What would be the Sabre Dance of your sexuality?  Can you even imagine it?

If you were like me, you probably can’t imagine what the Sabre Dance of your sexuality would look like.  But can you at least imagine that the expression of your sexuality today is trivial compared to what is possible when you apply your ingenuity?

The ‘zero-risk’ sexual policy that we have for thousands of years has kept our sexuality from progressing the way human ingenuity progressed in every other spheres of life.  In this area of life, we are all still amateur violin players, struggling without guidance, working on our skills in a haphazard manners.  But we wrongly assume that we play at virtuoso levels.

It is as if we think that the best musical performance is done in our bathrooms when we sing.  Whereas, the possibility of Sabre Dances of human sexuality never crosses our mind.

22 Oct

Life-force is an artificial construct


Q: What is a life-force?
A: Something that enables an entity to live

Q: What is living?
A: Hanging around till it self-replicates

Q: Like a computer virus?
A: No, a computer virus is not a physical entity.  Only a physical entity can have life

Q: Then, if I design a robot that can self-replicate, does it have life?
A: No.  Robot is made of tin sheets and metal/plastic parts.  It doesn’t have life.

Q: Then who can have life?
A: Only entities made up of organic compounds can have life

Q: Then if I make a self-replicating robot using plastic, does it have life?
A: No, only an organic entity using DNA as a self-replication mechanism can have life

Q: What if we find an alien that uses SNA, instead of DNA, as a self-replication mechanism?  Will it have life?
A: I guess so.  But we don’t even know that aliens exist

Q: Humor me, will you.  We are just doing a thought experiment.  But my alien friend is made up of inorganic material.  Like Transformers.  Or like the cute little Coke-can aliens that come in the movie Batteries Not Included (a must see).  I guess you won’t treat them like machines.  Will you?
A: They have feelings.  So, I’ll treat them like living things.

Q: Bacteria don’t have feelings.  Don’t they have life?
A: Of course, they are living things.  

Q: Then why is my robot not a living thing?
A: Because they are man-made.  Living things are natural.  They are made by God.

Q: Well, if God is responsible for all my actions, can’t I assume that God used me as a tool to get the robot made?  In other words, God made the robot, but used me as a tool to achieve his end.
A: Well, I am not in a mood to go on cooking up any more silly answers.

You see, there are no water-proof definition for life.  Any which way we try to define life, there is always one condition it which the definition fails.  Still, we know a life form the instant we see it.  How we do that is we simply recognize certain characteristics that are common among DNA based self-replicating entities on earth.  Like the way they are shaped, the way they feel for touch, they way move, the way the morph, the way they replicate and so on.  That’s all.

To make matter worse, because we couldn’t understand the complexity of the construction of the living things, we ended up attributing a fictitious force/agent (we seem to have a compulsion to imagine the presence of an agent even when nothing is there).  We assume that the agent called life-force gets into the life forms and makes it do stuff, be stuff, etc.

Of course, all agents must have a purpose.  And who gives the purpose for life?  A super-agent of course.  The mother, or father, of all agents.  The God!  So, the only definition of life that holds water is this: A meta-physical agent, who derives its power and purpose from the God, that drives an entity.

For me, that is way too convoluted.  I would rather go with “life is a figment of imagination of someone who is creatively challenged”.

20 Oct

Religion, Philosophy and Science

Religion, Philosophy and Science

Religion, philosophy and science all try to tackle the same problem: To give us a model of how things are arranged.

Religion uses faith to explain things.  Faith is a product of feeling.  ‘Feelers’ love to claim that feelings come from the heart.  People of religion primarily depend on how they ‘feel in their heart’ to tell us how things are arranged.  Unfortunately, they don’t have a mechanism in place to resolve internal inconsistencies in what they claim.  Whenever they hit up on a dead end or a conflict, they draw a new path.  As a result, religion has million different ways to describe and explain things.  Everything that religion tells us is right and wrong based on who is looking.

Philosophy try to a better model than the religions.  It tries to resolve inconsistencies between ideas using tools of logic.  Unfortunately, philosophy doesn’t have an ‘outside’ way of verifying its proposals.  So, it often went up the wrong tree.  For example, Aristotle thought that the brain is an organ used to cool the body.  And the idea persisted for centuries.

Science takes off where philosophy leaves and uses mathematical modelling and experimental verification for ironing out the bugs in the ideas.  That way, science can’t have more than one explanation for a given situation.  If it does, then the theory is incomplete.

This is how I see Religion, Philosophy and Science:

  • Religion is a sloppy speculative exercise of how things work.  Taking life lessons from religious teachings is like worshiping the false god.
  • Philosophy is an exercise in disciplined speculation.  But almost everything that has been addressed by philosophy has since been scrutinized by science.
  • Science takes an educated speculation and makes a theory out of it.  Of course, there are still many things that science can’t explain.  May be there are many things that science can never explain.

Unlike a philosopher or a religious teacher, a scientist can’t make a claim without doing substantial ground work in first place.  So, science can be painfully flow.  But it has a few advantages:

  • Science is painfully aware of what it doesn’t know
  • It has a process wherein more and more people can be trained to become competent scientists
  • Science can have only one solution for a given situation
  • So, millions of people around the world can work on various aspects of it simultaneously

For these reasons, I use science as my first too to explain the cosmos around me.  If the answers are not available with science, only then do I look elsewhere.  In other words, I don’t hesitate to look at mysticism to give me the answers.  But I do it with utmost caution.

19 Oct

Faith: Everything starts here


Humor me for a minute.  I promise you, this is not a cheap re-take of the Matrix movie: How do you know that I exist?  How do you know that this blog post you are reading now is not just a figment of your imagination?  How do you know that you are not a schizophrenic, living in your happy imaginary world?

You can’t question where someone puts their faith in.  Faith is beyond logic.  The only time you can successfully question someone’s faith is when their system of faith has an internal conflict.  No internal-conflict, no questions possible.

That’s why an argument about existence of God can never be resolved.  Can you ever resolve an argument if an apple is red or sweet?  Each person has placed their faith in a different reality and the twain will never meet.

There are believers who have placed their faith on existence of God.  And there are non-believers who have placed their faith in non-existence of God.  Few people like me have decided to fence-sit till such time more evidence comes along to sway us one way or another.  Or, who knows, may be we are waiting for some thunderbolt to strike our temporal lobe and show the God in all His shining glory.

We are digressing.  The point of this post is this: You can’t question someone’s faith.  The best you can do is to question the internal inconsistencies in their system of faith.

19 Oct

Cleaning up the mental mess


Edward de Bono once said that 95% of human problems are due to error in perceptions.  Our problems vanish the moment we understand them correctly.  Our present understanding of human nature is so twisted, it creates more trouble for us than it solves.  First step towards a happier life, I think, is to unlearn this mess of ideas we have inside our mind.  For, true happiness lies beyond this Mental Mess.

Lucky for us, our understanding of human nature has been improving rapidly over the last twenty years.  For example, so much advancement has come about in brain science from the early 1990’s that it is as if the field was born only twenty years ago.  The cart load of b.s. served out by the likes of Freuds and the Jungs is just getting cleaned up.

Social biology, which studies the biological basis of human behavior is another field that was almost non-existent twenty years ago.  With the help of social biology, we are now able to understand our own morals and values like never before.

Twenty year ago, internet was barely there.  Today, internet and crowd sourcing are opening up new possibilities in the health care industry.  Several massive studies are being organized with the help of volunteers located and connected through the internet.  The scale and depth of researches and clinical trials being done today can only be dreamt of in the past.  Added to this, we now have the additional advantage of dirt cheap genome profiling which was not there even ten years ago.

Another advantage that internet brings us is the study of the online behavior of people. This gives us sample size that runs into hundreds of thousands of people and data unpolluted by subject bias.  Many of these studies are carried out by the industry outsiders.  But they have provided so many new insights into human nature that the specialists are gasping to catch up.

The time is just right for us to start unlearning several faulty concepts and clear up our mental mess.  A decade ago, we didn’t have enough new information.  A decade from now, we will be overwhelmed with too much of information.