Tag: Evolution

Day 1000: How It Ends

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Inside this cubicle the air is thick as honey, with asphyxiating flecks of the mundane bracing against the irrefutable promise of a golden weekend. Outside these pin-cushion partitions – and indeed inside as well – every tiny molecule in the universe is saying its goodbyes to its neighbors and preparing to splash into the unknown permutations of a distant someday. My fingers hammer at these tiny plastic letters, fully ignorant of what’s to come.

Or are they? The hallowed fingers of esteemed science – no doubt similar in size and shape to my own, only tasked with a far more specific purpose – have combed back the hair of the observable now and picked at the scalp-nits of projection. The fields of astronomy, physics, mathematics, and a cabinet full of –ologies have given us a map of what’s to come. A timeline of time’s last hurrah.

And the best part? If any of these predictions are wrong, every record of them will likely be destroyed before anyone finds out. That’s my kind of science.

Genetics-1

Within 10,000 years, human genetic variation will no longer be regionalized. This won’t mean we’ll all look the same – the blonde gene will still speckle crowds and set up offensive jokes, but it will be distributed equally worldwide. This forecasted panmixia is far more optimistic than astrophysicist Brandon Carter’s Doomsday Argument, which places our present at roughly the halfway point of humankind’s civilized journey, and projects a 95% likelihood that we’ll be wholly extinct in 10,000 years.

If global warming hasn’t already soaked us into a Kevin Costner-esque hellscape by then, we may also be facing the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which will raise the sea levels by 3 or 4 meters above wherever it will be once we lose the rest of the polar ice caps, which should happen long before then.

Long term forecast: buy a big-ass boat. Read more…

Day 993: Sexual Selection In Darwinian Theory, or Why You Can’t Get Laid

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Herbert Spencer was the 19th century philosopher, scientist and all-around smart cookie who coined the phrase “Survival of the Fittest” after having read Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species. While some may argue each and every tenet of evolutionary theory (much to the exhaustion of everyone who actually knows a little something about science), we have come to realize that Spencer was only half-right in determining which genes get promoted into the next generation. It’s also a matter of Survival of the Sexiest.

Sexual selection extends beyond the boast-worthy ability to fend off predators, gather food and shoot zombies with a crossbow. Mate selection based on these factors certainly occurs, but the truth grabs many more hairs between its gnarled knuckles. So much of who we are plays into our subconscious exigency to be sexually selected.

So if you’re finding your Saturday nights have of late been more occupied by binge marathons of Murder, She Wrote than sweaty, carnal bodyslapping, perhaps you should turn to science to understand why. With a few tiny modifications to your being, you might just find yourself crotch-deep in sexual social butterflydom.

English dictionaries

You need to word good. Humans – at least most humans – possess a far greater vocabulary than that which is needed for basic communication. It’s true – most of us know words like ‘dungarees’, ‘mellifluous’ and ‘woebegone’, but how often do we really need to use them? Evolutionary scientists suspect we throw down this excess of verbiage in an effort to show off our intelligence to potential mates. This has been tested; we tend to spew a more flowery and profound lexicon when we’re in a romantic mindset. Then again, some of us do it just to make a living. Read more…

Day 980: The Man In The Zoo

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Within the margins of human behavior, how is it possible for our hunger for self-awareness to coexist with our penchant for abandoning empathy and basic compassion? History’s most exquisite brains have combed the mines of knowledge and speculation in order to pilfer as much truth about ourselves as can be swallowed by mortal minds, yet in doing so they have occasionally stomped upon our collective dignity by treating the subjects of their study as though they belonged to an unrelated sub-species.

Ota Benga was just a dude. Had the trajectory of his existence not been marred by western interference, he might have lived a blasé life of hunting, storytelling and raising a family. Instead he was plucked from the lush, equatorial forests of his youth and made a slave, a sideshow wonder, and a zoological exhibit for slack-jawed tourists.

Most of the injustices thrust upon Ota’s arc were done with the false pretense of anthropological education, cloaked in evolutionary flim-flammery and racist eugenics. But what did we learn, apart from humankind’s tragically vast tolerance for our own assholishness?

OtaBenga-1

A member of the Mbuti tribe in what was then called the Belgian Congo, Ota Benga’s life was first derailed by Belgium’s King Leopold II around the turn of the 20th century. Leopold had dispatched the Force Publique, a heavily-armed militia aimed at reminding the Congolese natives that they’d best remain devoted to producing rubber for Belgium’s financial gain. Ota was out on a hunt when the armed men showed up and murdered his wife and two children. When he returned to his village, he was captured as a slave. Read more…

Day 966: Which Came First And What’s On Second?

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While the central focus of this project has been devoted to the kind of esoteric trivia that will one day allow me to run the category of ‘Obscure Miscellany’ on Jeopardy, sometimes I like to ask the big questions. The paradoxes. The queries that prompt chortles and didactic witticisms in some company and distant frosted-glass stares with maybe a “woah” among stoned people.

Why did the chicken cross the road? To teach us about existential nothingness, of course. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Only the most fleet-footed of Broadway angels know that one, and they’re keeping their collective yap shut. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

It’s a paradox that has been juggled from philosopher to philosopher, flitting through the fingers of the rhetorically-inclined while attracting the occasional wordy summation from the theological or scientific camps (who are divided by a fuzzier line than even they would admit). This is the stuff of mental meandering, the kind of riddle that the mind loves to lock itself in the bathroom with and do wicked, self-abusing things. It’s an A-or-B multiple choice question with a clear and concise C and D hiding in the margins.

My favorite kind of question.

Dinosaur-1

The most obvious (and therefore buzz-killing) answer is “the egg”, using the justification that other animals – reptiles, dinosaurs and their cool-blooded ilk – also came from eggs. Let’s toss this smirking solution into the semantic garburator  right away by clarifying that ‘egg’ for the purposes of this riddle refers only to ‘chicken eggs’. We’re trying to untangle a paradox here; no one is suggesting that the chicken was the first creature to poach its zygotes inside a calcite shell. Read more…

Day 869: Unleashing The Other 90% Of The Brain

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In the 2011 film Limitless, Bradley Cooper uses a tiny pill to unlock the full 100% of his brain’s abilities, granting him superhuman reasoning skills, instantaneous deduction and an unnatural gift of foresight (though not enough foresight to keep him from making that third Hangover movie). This August, because Hollywood loves a good idea so much it’ll recycle it more frequently than an old Snapple bottle, Scarlett Johansson stars in Lucy, a story about a woman who unlocks 100% of her brain, granting her superhuman reasoning skills, etc, etc.

In all fairness, it is a fascinating concept. If we really only use 10% of our brains’ abilities, who knows what sort of untapped wonders we might really be capable of? Telekinesis? Precognition? Jedi mind tricks? Fortunately, there are dozens of books on how to mine the vast natural resources of think-gems inside our skulls. If one were to read each of them and apply their teachings, the possibilities are boundless. Within months you might find yourself switching from watching The Real Housewives of East Buffalo to watching opera broadcasts on PBS! How exciting!

The only little squirrel in the innards of this path to cerebral righteousness is the fact that we actually don’t use a mere 10% of our brains. That concept, which has often been attributed to Albert Einstein in a bold display of complete internet bullshittery, is one of our most widely swallowed urban myths.

WilliamJames-1

Along with fellow Harvard psychologist Boris Sidis, William James was fascinated with the potential of the human brain. The two had worked at kick-starting Boris’s son’s IQ in a somewhat ethically-grey experiment. The kid was already a prodigy, allegedly reading the New York Times at only 18 months, and they felt that their work with the boy helped to bump him up to an adulthood IQ of 250-300. There’s no paperwork to back this up, but William Sidis graduated with a cum laude B.A. from Harvard at age 16, so clearly the kid had something. Read more…

Day 839: The Stars Of Our Show – The Alphabet

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I love playing around with the format of this little experiment and trying to cram as much (seemingly) meaningless trivia into a tiny thousand-word cubicle. To that end I’m going to offer a specific number of trivia slices to spread across your plate of knowledge today, awaiting the fork of your understanding to spear them into your hungry maw of learning so that you can digest them, extracting their knowledge-nutrients and converting the rest into cerebral poo. Also I’ll throw in that over-wrung metaphor for free. Such are the bargains here at Marty’s House o’ Stuff.

Twenty-six snippets for twenty-six letters. It’s fun getting a little meta, writing about writing – or in this case, writing about the microorganisms that band together and excrete the bulk of my daily output for your enjoyment. Every picture tells a story, and every story is made up of letters and every letter is a picture with its own story… it’s the circle of linguistic life.

For your consideration, I present the Latin alphabet in all its glory.

Evolution-A-D

The letter A (under its old-school name, aleph) was the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet. It was derived from the ox-head pictogram from the Bronze Age proto-Sinaitic script, which in turn came from the Egyptian hieroglyph. The horns pivoted around and by the time the Romans adopted their own written language from the Greek alphabet and a mix of other influences in the 7th century BC, the horns were pointed downward.

The glyph that may have spawned the letter B could represent the floor plan of a cottage. Clearly the Egyptians weren’t big on fancy layouts back then. The Greeks gave the B its bulbous curves when they crafted their symbol for ‘beta’. Read more…

Day 818: Brother Can You Spare Infinity Monkeys?

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Every so often I encounter one of those weary, soggy mornings when the lazy sun can’t seem to prop my fingers upon their ASDF-JKL; thrones to do their little thousand-word dance. Artificial stimulation helps – sometimes a throttle-jolt of caffeine, perhaps a bursting platter of bratwurst eggs benedict, even one of those nefarious little energy shots can bump the words past my grimy fingerprints. But what I really need?

Monkeys.

An infinite number of monkeys huffing an infinite amount of jenkem in front of an infinite number of typewriters could eventually produce something close to an acceptable article. Probably not within my one-day deadline, but you never know.

Actually, the infinite-monkeys cliché usually posits a loftier result, either the complete works of Shakespeare or at least one of his plays. People have crunched this hypothesis into a briny pulp, sorting through the ramifications of infinity and trying to use math to uncover just how much time we’re talking about. One school even attempted a practical re-enactment of the theory. That’s good – that deposits this topic just deep enough into the Realm of Weird to warrant my attention.

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Aristotle contemplated the random combinations of atoms that make up the universe, and pointed out that the only difference between a comedy and a tragedy is the arrangement of its “atoms” (meaning letters). It was French mathematician Emile Borel who first used the infinite-monkeys concept in his 1913 paper “Mécanique Statistique et Irréversibilité”. Emile’s monkeys serve as a metaphor to help us wrap our imaginations around the idea of producing a massive, random string of letters. Read more…

Day 766: My Anti-Kilo Kilograph

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As a young child, awash in homework that involved converting decameters to hectometers and other such metric mathery, I asked my father why the Americans (from whence he came) continue to make use of inches, feet, ounces, pounds, gallons, quarts and Fahrenheit when the system we use, where everything is neatly divisible by 100, makes more sense.

“Not now,” he told me. “I’m sleeping.”

And so I remain historically in the dark and culturally trapped between two opposites. Height I measure in feet and inches, travelling distance in kilometers, fluid containers in millilitres, and for penile length I’m thinking of switching to centimeters because it sounds more impressive.

Canada had tossed away its metric water wings long before I wandered into the school system, and we have been kicking it in the deep end of kilos and centis and such ever since. Imperial measurements I learned on the mean streets: a pint only appears in my mind with ice cream inside it, and a mile is a unit of distance that simply sounds better in a song (“I would walk five-hundred kilometers” just doesn’t fit the rhythm).

So how about the arguments against the metric system? Why won’t the Americans, Burmans and Liberians hop on board?

FootMeasurement

It ain’t natural.

We have been using non-metric measurements for as long as we’ve needed to know how far it was between the angry woolly mammoth and the nearest tall tree. In some parts of Malaysia, the locals referred to the distance between towns in terms of ‘rice cookings’, believing that everyone walked at roughly the same rate and they all knew how long it took to cook a thing of rice. Sure, the context of how big one ‘foot’ was would depend on which member of the populace is doing the measuring, but that’s how it was and we damn well liked the spontaneity of it all. Read more…

Day 633: Cue The Laughs

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It is not the trait of which I am most proud, however it would be dishonest of me to deny the fact that I am a humor snob. Not to say I cull my giggles solely from the droll and waggish cartoons in the New Yorker – I’ll admit it, I re-watched the shit-hits-the-fan gag in Airplane! a few dozen times on my dad’s Betamax copy when I was a kid, and would do so again today. Humor shouldn’t have to be highbrow (a credo that shouldn’t surprise any regular readers of this site), but it should be funny.

So what the hell is ‘funny’? Why do people keep tuning in to shows like Two And A Half Men? Why did According To Jim endure a successful 8-season run? Why did a show like Arrested Development, which I would argue is the funniest show in the history of the medium, only last two and a half seasons?

I’ve gone on record as being one of those people who doesn’t consider himself to be a Monty Python fan, and I’ve taken some heat for that. And humor is subjective, so I’m okay with plucking my laughs from a different steam-tray of the buffet than many of my friends and family. But surely someone has looked into the nitty-gritty of why funny is funny.

Yes they have. And don't call me Sh... oh come on, that's too easy.

Yes they have. And don’t call me Sh… oh come on, that’s too easy.

Explaining the specific biological and psychological motivations behind laughter might be the least funny thing a person can do. Anyone who has had to explain a joke to someone whose hair was mussed by the whoosh of air when the punchline flew over their head knows this. Deconstruction of comedy kills the comedy. Read more…

Day 590: I’d Like To Call Our Lord And Savior To The Stand

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A few words about the great state of Tennessee before I begin. It’s a lovely state, full of history, and it features Nashville, one of the bedrock states of American music. I feel I need to preface with this, as Tennessee has taken a few hits in the media lately. This is the state where, in 2011, legislators passed a bill that would make it illegal for educators to even make reference to the fact that some people in the world are gay. As geographically removed from the deep south as Tennessee may be, their leaders have fought hard to appear as intolerant and backwards as possible.

And this is hardly a new development. One of the first ‘trials of the century’ took place in a Tennessee courtroom, and while it had nothing to do with homosexual rights, it focused the blinding media spotlight onto the state’s educational system, and revealed it to be ludicrously outmoded.

They called it the Scopes Monkey Trial. But in reality, it wasn’t the monkeys who needed defending. It was science.

ScopesMonkeyTrial

It all started when a downhome folksy Tennessee farmer-turned-lawmaker named John W. Butler introduced a bill that would make it illegal for any teacher in any school in the state to teach evolution. Evolution was a bitch-slap in the face to the science of the Bible. Teachers were not – under the threat of a hefty fine – allowed to deny the origins of mankind as taught in holy scripture. Read more…