Archive for October, 2013

Science Fiction Round 27: Evolution Does Not Work That Way

There is something that we’ve touched on in several previous posts, but I’d like to talk about in a bit more detail: how biological evolution as a process and evolutionary biology as a model of it are misrepresented in media in general and in science fiction in particular.  Again, almost all of what I’ve written here is not original.  And as you’ll see, the particular misunderstandings I’m discussing here are based on two problems: many people not understanding evolutionary biology, and the human tendency to assume intent and direction even in entirely random processes.

Evolution Works Only On Populations

Evolution.  You keep using that word.  It does not mean what you think it means.

Evolution. You keep using that word. It does not mean what you think it means.

No, individual organisms do not evolve.  Nor are acquired characteristics passed from creatures to their offspring.  And nor does evolution allow violations of the laws of physics.  Got it?

Evolution Has No Goals

It should be obvious, but evolution is not a conscious entity.  Evolution is simply the set of processes that drive changes in the frequency of inherited characteristics in populations over time.  This means that evolution has no goals and no design.  Crucially, humans in particular and intelligence in general are not intended outcomes of a system in which evolution can occur.  I’m thinking of Star Trek and the new Battlestar Galactica in particular here, but the same mistake is made in a lot of science fiction.

Likewise, while symbiotic and cooperative behavior can certainly evolve, nothing like the entire-biosphere-is-one-organism of Avatar or various other misunderstandings of the Gaia hypothesis can actually happen without comprehensive engineering – a system like that only works when imposed top-down on the whole biosphere, and since evolution has no goals all that can occur are bottom-up emergent properties.

Evolution Has No Direction

Since there is no goal to evolutionary processes, it isn’t the orderly progression from pond scum to bilateria to basal amniote to mammalia to simian to ape to human to glowing space being seen in 2001 and Babylon 5 and on far too many t-shirts.  Species aren’t “more evolved” or “less evolved” than one another.  All things currently alive on Earth (and a few things that are alive off of Earth) come from different lineages that have survived for the same amount of time (3.8 billion years, give or take).  Over 99.9% of species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct – or rather the distribution of traits in any living descendants they had has changed to the point that interbreeding and producing fertile offspring with their ancestors would be impossible.  Either way, the current set of living organisms isn’t anything inherently special in evolutionary terms; we’re simply the current state of a constantly-changing and boundly-chaotic system.

Massively simplified phylogenetic tree, from the Interactive Tree of Life website ( ).  We all are buried in the "Animalia" line.  Note how similar we and all other animals are genetically and how different the microbes can be.

Massively simplified phylogenetic tree, from the Interactive Tree of Life website ( ). We all are buried in the “Animalia” line. Note how similar we and all other animals are and how different the microbes can be.  Genetically speaking, you and me and a slime mold have more in common than the slime mold does with blue-green algae.

And even the messiness of the phylogenetic tree above and the full version that it is drawn from only begins to capture the chaotic complexities of evolutionary processes.  For example, it takes no account of populations with incomplete divergence, where the definition of “species” gets fuzzy because creatures can still have offspring with one another – be those critters flowers or gulls forming ring species populations; bears that were thought to be several different species before genetic sequencing came in; or the various different clades of H. sapiens – the main H. sapiens sapiens plus neanderthalensis, Denisova, and possibly others that we all are descended from.

But the data this chart is based on illustrate something very important.  The chart is based on the genomes of the organisms concerned; charting the statistical similarity between the sequences of their component genes.  Those genes have changed in many different ways after the ancestral population of each pair of lineages split.  Sometimes, genetic information is copied.  Sometimes, it is added to.  And sometimes it is deleted.  Fundamentally, many of those alterations are random: a cosmic ray hit scatters a base pair; a DNA polymerase makes an error that is not corrected by a proofreader; and so on.  That makes them impossible to predict.  While you can put limits on the possible traits that could appear and spread in a population, there is no way to predict exactly what a population’s descendants will evolve into in the future (and if we were able to run history twice from the same starting point, we’d get two very different outcomes).  Nor can you say exactly what a population’s ancestors were like.  At best, you could do a statistical best-guess reconstruction.   There is no latent amphibian in your genome.

Evolution Is More Than Natural Selection

This one is really annoying, because it tends to show up among people who nominally have learned something of evolutionary biology.  Basically, it is the tendency to assume that every observed trait of every population must be the direct product of natural selection.

Certainly natural selection is important, even over relatively short timescales.  The spread of lactase-persistence genes in the human population over the last several thousand years is a classic example.  Even in populations where lactase production does not usually continue into adulthood, a few random people with mutations that keep it active are born.  In cultures where animals that can be used to produce dairy products have been domesticated, being able to eat those products gives a big advantage in terms of calorie and protein intake.  And so the lactase-persistence mutations that happened to be around when and where humans started keeping herds have spread throughout the population (although even now, most people worldwide don’t have lactase-persistence and many people who do continue to produce lactase in adulthood don’t produce it at the same level as in childhood).

But there are many common traits that haven’t become so due to natural selection.  Genetic drift means that an allelle or trait that is neutral or even somewhat negative in terms of whatever metric of fitness is being used can still spread throughout the population, simply by random fluctuations and sampling.  This is particularly relevant during population bottlenecks and when small populations split off from larger ones.  Among many other examples, the latter is why American Sign Language exists: there was a high incidence of hereditary deafness among the population of Martha’s Vineyard, primarily among the descendants of a few deaf immigrants in the late 17th and early 18th century.

Massively simplified model illustrating the phenomenon of genetic drift.

Massively simplified model illustrating the phenomenon of genetic drift.  Colors indicate different alleles, all of which have exactly the same fitness: each model organism has an equal chance of passing its allele to the next generation.  Initially, all organisms in the population have the same allele.  Occasional random mutations occur, one of which eventually dominates the population by random chance.  I ran the model forward 21 generations, at which point the new allele was universally fixed, but there is nothing special about that point.  In another 20 generations or so, it would most likely be replaced by something else.

Genetic hitchhiking means that alleles associated with a gene that is being selected for can increase in frequency even when they themselves provide no benefit.  And “associated” can simply mean “nearby on the same chromosome” – for example, sections of human chromosome 5 may have been selected for, but hitchhiking caused a nearby part of the chromosome carrying an allele that gives a genetic predisposition to Crohn’s disease to spread at the same time.

And exaptation means that an allele originally serving one purpose may be selected for or against for some other reason – some dinosaurs with unusual scales for better thermoregulation and showing off to one another found that they were useful when jumping, and we got flying birds.

This all means that we and most other lifeforms on Earth are carrying around a lot of baggage that no longer serves or never served any useful purpose – be that an unused appendix or endogenous retroviruses – because there is not any sufficient cost to their presence and/or sufficient benefit to their removal.  Bottom line: many things about humans and other life on Earth, and about any alien life that we might encounter, will be the legacy of random events and we should not construct just-so stories just because we are uncomfortable with being the outcomes of a chaotic system.

Evolution Is Not Fate

Related to much of above:

It’s particularly grating and harmful when “evolution made it so” or “it’s natural” is used to in an attempt to justify cultural innovations or in an attempt to defend harmful behavior by individual people and characters.  I could use Star Trek references again here, but there are far too many other examples in fiction – fantasy as well as scifi.

Here’s one: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game setting fails all over the place because he creates characters that are defined almost entirely in terms of psychology by their supposed evolutionary history (although Card personally ambiguously endorses intelligent design).  The Hive-Queens are unable to recognize that individual humans are intelligent even after observing our behavior covertly for an extended period of time before invading – they only get the hint after they’ve gotten into a massive fight with humans.  That makes no sense.  Evolution is not fate, and anyone capable enough to be traveling over interstellar distances and establishing colonies on dozens of planets with their own local biospheres will be able to parse “not all intelligences are exactly like me”.  Card also extends his own personal bigotry to his characters, and this as a device to endorse his own particular and dangerously wrong ideas of sexual ethics, falsely claiming as “biological imperatives” things that are entirely the inventions of certain groups of humans.

Nor are such actively-harmful misunderstandings of evolution restricted to fiction.  Evolutionary psychology does contain some valid and important insights – such as where some cognitive biases come from – but it is also invoked in misguided attempts to excuse both harmful individual behavior and elements of current culture that are both recent in time and restricted in space.  One particularly absurd example, although it’s very far from the most harmful:  The claim that the current US-centered gendering of the color pink as feminine is due to Paleolithic foraging habits and therefore justified.  In fact, that’s only an invention of the last 60 years or so – and in the US, it was preceded by a few decades where pink (along with red) was seen as masculine.

I hope the problem here is abundantly clear.  “Evolution says so!” is being wrongly used to hold aspects of culture / behaviors above question.  First, evolution doesn’t say anythingno goals and no direction, remember?  And, second, evolution is not fate.  We not irrevocably bound to any particular culture or set of behaviors out of the incredibly wide range that we can choose from.  If we can change things to make the world a better place, we should do so – regardless of how the frequencies of different alleles changed among our ancestors.   It is dishonest and harmful to claim otherwise.

Choose Your Own Adventure Part 92: On With The Show

2013/10/29 6 comments

The previous post in this series is here.

You’ve decided to try to join a group of students doing a performance at the Emperor’s presentation of his daughter.

Part 92

“I know a few things about illusions.”  You introduce yourself with the bland pseudonym Lehhev gave you, and explain that you’re an advanced student studying illusions.

The group of students is quite cheered by this.  The leader of the group performing introduces himself as Jeneth Varnek.  After a couple of demonstrations, they figured you can fill it at least for an easier role.  Your on-the-fly improvisations don’t have quite the artistic flair their would like, though they look real enough.

Varnek drives the new group hard.  You spend most of the next two days studying and practicing.  Lehhev’s illusion is good enough that these students don’t see through it.  Or perhaps they’re politely pretending they can’t — some mages always place an illusion over their appearance to hide perceived flaws.  Either way, you’re in.


The performance goes well enough.  Yours is the introductory demonstration, all flashing lights and glittering images.  Varnek announces the display as a “gift to the Emperor and his new daughter.”

When it is done, you and the rest of the performers take seats near the center stage, for the heart of the event.  The coliseum is packed, and the cheering of the crowd after your performance is redoubled when the Emperor walks forward, carrying his infant daughter, and with the Empress standing at his side.  The cool, early fall breeze tugs at the red and white banners.

The ceremony proceeds as expected.  The High Priestess of the Silver Goddess takes the child, and performs the traditional blessings, sprinkling the water and spices over her eyes.  Afterwards, the Emperor stands forward, taking the child, and proclaiming her name to be Aneshka.  Then he makes a speech about protecting the Empire, ensuring that his daughter has an even greater nation to guide when her time comes to rule.  The patriotic cheering is suitably loud.

During the ceremony, you regularly let your eyes drift down to the compass, partly concealed by your hand, partly hidden by your sleeve.  You carefully track its slow twitching.  The small sweeps back and forth follow the Emperor’s footsteps.

Your suspicions are confirmed.  You only wish you knew exactly what he was planning with the spell of oblivion.  Lehhev hadn’t discovered anything new in the last couple of days.

Now that the presentation is winding down, you look up to find that one of the Emperor’s guards is staring at you.  All in black, the only visible emblem on her uniform is a silver hand.  She motions one of the other guards to join her, and starts walking towards you.

Oh, crap.

The Choices

Option 95:  Pretend annoyance at being mistaken for “that Malarek woman” again.  And that your disguise was meant to help avoid the issue.  And mention that Lehhev is sponsoring you and can confirm your story.

Option 96:  The same as 95, but without dragging in Lehhev.  He’s a known associate of yours, under your real identity, and may not necessarily help your case.

Option 98:  Go along quietly.  You may be able to get further information this way, and you may find a good time to escape.

Option 99:  Go along quietly?  Hah.  Best to start the fight now and get it over with.  Maybe you can take out the Emperor while you’re at it, if you get lucky.

Option 100:  Run.  Best to not get caught here.  You can regroup and come back after you have an actual plan, assuming you can dodge the guards and the crowds.

We Give Links 6: Clement’s Game in 140 Characters

Someone has learned how to win rounds of Hal Clement’s game in 140 characters or less:

Fantasy Round 22.2: More Dresden Files

2013/10/25 1 comment

Did I mention that the books just keep getting better?

For your entertainment today, books 4-6 of the series — Summer Knight, Death Masks, and Blood Rites.  As ever, much spoiling follows.


This is book 6 of the series.  And Harry Dresden still doesn't have that hat.

This is book 6 of the series. And Harry Dresden still doesn’t have that hat.

What Happened to the Mouse?

One thing I love about Butcher’s work — he keeps bringing old characters back, and reintegrating them into the storyline.  Even if you haven’t seen them for a while.

For instance, the Alphas, the group of friendly werewolves, who first show up in Fool Moon, come back in a big way in Summer Knight.  The pixies that Dresden befriended earlier (by means of feeding them pizza) are actually critical in taking down the big bad in that novel.  Susan Rodriguez, the girlfriend half-turned vampire in Grave Peril, returns in Death Masks with a new ally and a new agenda.  Michael Carpenter, the Knight of the Cross from Grave Peril, pops back up in Death Masks as well, with his own associated friends and enemies.  We meet the gangster Marcone again, and learn more about his background… and the reasons he tries to run a “clean” criminal business.  This is one of the things that I like most about this series — elements from earlier books recur in a reasonable way, and are then elaborated upon.

On the other hand, I’m still waiting for a couple of minor characters from the earlier books (Chauncey the demon, and the dragon Ferrovax) to show up again in a big way.  There’s plenty of books left for Jim Butcher to explore some of these more “background” characters who hint at greater depth to come.  One of those is the puppy rescued in Blood Rites that stayed with Dresden… named Mouse.  Who is a fun recurring character in the later novels.

As a final example, the White Court vampire, Thomas Raith, a secondary character of some importance in Grave Peril, proceeds to come back again as an ally in Death Masks, and then as a major character and generator of plot in Blood Rites.  Speaking of plot generation…

No, Luke, I Am Your Father Brother

This happens.

As it turns out, Thomas Raith is actually Harry Dresden’s half-brother.  They share their mother, Margaret called LeFay, in common.  Margaret was a wizard of no mean skill and exceptional knowledge of the Nevernever in general and the Faye in particular, and got swept up into the White Court of vampires for a while, having a son with the rather evil King of the White Court, before escaping and later meeting Harry’s father.

This helps explain why Thomas risks his own life in Grave Peril to help his brother — he already knows, and feels obliged to help out his younger sibling.  Once Dresden realizes he has family, he gets protective.  Having spent many years after the death of his father as an orphan, having family is an appropriately big deal for him, and results in some fun character development.

What surprises me is that the secret actually gets kept.  (As a matter of fact, the brotherly relationship is still kept secret through the most recently published book, as of this writing.)  Seriously, I would think that this would come out.  Especially when they have matching pentacles, and a certain similarity in their looks – although perhaps that is effectively masked by Thomas’ White Court inhuman prettiness.

Epic VIllainy

This is often a problem in Fantasy Kitchen Sink type stories.

The epic villains… are, well, kind of boring.  And often kind of stupid.  The Dresden books do a bit better.

In Summer Knight, Aurora is a Summer faerie effectively trying to save the village by destroying it, which is pretty decent.  Duke Ortega gets Harry into a duel, then cheats, and his partially “civilized” approach to conflict is kind of interesting.  Lord Raith seriously underestimates Karrin Murphy, and we get to see him angrily dealing with the consequences.

The character that really annoys me, though?  Nicodemus.  He’s in it for the kicks.  Why does he try to start the apocalypse?  Because he can.  Because it would annoy the Knights of the Cross, and give him a chance to kill one of them.  And, of course, for the evulz.  He’s intriguing in some ways — but he’s still dumb enough to offer Dresden a chance at joining up with the Denarians.  That didn’t go quite as planned.  So much stereotypical villainy.

John Marcone, on the other hand, is fascinating.  He’s a mobster who runs most of the profitable crime in Chicago… and yet, he cracks down when it comes to people hurting children or when the world needs to be saved from fallen angels working on magical bioweapon delivery.  That’s a nicely complex villain.

And speaking of doing the smart thing…

Brave Sir Robin

To quote an early point in Blood Rites:  “Over the course of many encounters and many years, I have successfully developed a standard operating procedure for dealing with big, nasty monsters.  Run away.”

This is a Good Plan.

Frankly?  In real life, if you’re facing a fight, if you can run away, that’s likely to be the best option.  Getting into fights is bad.  People get hurt, and you don’t have control when the situation has gotten that far.  Especially if you are outnumbered, or if the other guy is bigger than you, or has a weapon…

It’s a critical question in a lot of stories — why is the hero in a fight?  Many times, the hero isn’t considering alternatives to powering up and smacking down.  Dresden, on the other hand, is actually practical.  When he’s in a fight, it’s generally because he couldn’t find any other way out of the situation.  Even the duel he gets goaded into gives him an opportunity to make a safe-haven from the vampire war that couldn’t be obtained any other way.  Plus, the unavoidable fight is often as a part of an escape attempt.

That, if it’s a flying demon monkey throwing flaming poo at you, you’ve got that much extra motivation to run fast.

Choose Your Own Adventure Part 91: Flying Rumors

2013/10/21 5 comments

The previous post in this series is here.

Your decision was to follow-up on the rumors you’ve been hearing around the palace, while waiting for some word on the Emperor’s big appearance in a few days.

Part 91

After your minimally effective day watching the palace, your main gains have been from overhearing the conversations flowing through the gardens.  The obvious next step is to follow up on the more interesting ones, in hopes of learning something useful before the Emperor’s formal appearance in a few days.

With a little bit of wandering back from the gardens, you pass by a large tavern that appears to be frequented by students and others affiliated with the mage’s academy.   You’ll blend right in.

With a mild ale and a bowl of hot soup, you quietly listen in on one of the larger groups.  It’s a bit of a challenge with all the chatter flowing through the establishment, but a small spell to alter the acoustics around yourself helps quite a bit.

The biggest group is mostly more senior students, some doing advanced studies, based on the technicality of some of the topics of conversation.  You sip your ale slowly in the smoky room, waiting for something of greater interest.

One of the students complains bitterly for a little while about her absent mentor, Danika Tarresh.  She had gone to another academy to the west on a sabbatical, and then left for a period of independent research.  But her student had not heard a word from her in several months, and was growing frustrated.  The class Tarresh had been expected to teach this fall was cancelled due to her unexplained absence.  The timeline interests you — it sounds like she disappeared around the same time you returned with a certain spellbook.  But it could be a coincidence.

One of the others changes the subject to something cheerier — planning for the Emperor’s event.  Some of the students are planning a significant display of artistic illusions, and, due to an illness, are going to be one hand short.  They discuss altering their routine, and the difficulty of finding a good replacement on short notice.

The Choices

Option 92:  Proffer your services at the presentation of the Emperor’s new daughter.  It’ll be a good way to get close, and you’ve got the magic to pull off the tricks needed.  Probably.

Option 93:  Try to find out more about Danika Tarresh, the missing mage.  This is likely to require travel outside of Alederik — you may miss the big event in a couple of days.

Option 94:  This wasn’t that helpful.  Back to the original plan, of sneaking around the Emperor’s big event when it happens.  No distractions.