If Ideas Had Shapes

A quoteblog ranging from philosophers in bathrobes to galaxy-rises

Category: Biology

National Geographic (Apr. 2018)

…Similarly, the mutation that’s most responsible for giving Europeans lighter skin is a single tweak in a gene known as SLC24A5, which consists of roughly 20,000 base pairs. In one position, where most sub-Saharan Africans have a G, Europeans have an A. …

Studying DNA extracted from ancient bones, paleogeneticists have found that the G-to-A substitution was introduced into western Europe relatively recently–about 8,000 years ago–by people migrating from the Middle East, who also brought a newfangled technology: farming. That means the people already in Europe–hunter-gatherers who created the spectacular cave paintings at Lascaux, for example–probably were not white but brown. The ancient DNA suggests that many of those dark-skinned Europeans also had blue eyes, a combination rarely seen today.

“Skin Deep,” Elizabeth Kolbert


National Geographic (Apr. 2018)

Genetics frequently works like this: A tiny tweak can have many disparate effects. Only one may be useful–and it may outlive the conditions that made it so, the way families hand down old photos long past the point when anyone remembers who’s in them.

“Skin Deep,” Elizabeth Kolbert

National Geographic (Mar. 2018)

You can call them “failed experiments” in evolution if you want, but they succeeded and flourished, within their preferred but challenging environments, for more than 30 million years. We humans should be so steadfast and lucky.

“When Life Got Complicated,” David Quammen, of Ediacarans

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

…Sooner or later, while this process is going on, the biologist shifting the dish of sugar will find that his bees are out there waiting for him, precisely where the next position had been planned. This is an uncomfortable observation to make, harder still to explain in conventional terms: Why would bees be programmed for such behavior in their evolution? Flowers do not walk away in regular, predictable leaps.

“Things Unflattened by Science”

Richard Dawkins – “Irreducible Complexity” (2006)

The greater the statistical improbability, the less plausible is chance as the solution: that is what improbable means. But the candidate solutions to the riddle of improbability are not, as is falsely implied, design and chance. They are design and natural selection. Chance is not a solution, given the high levels of improbability we see in living organisms, and no sane biologist ever suggested that it was.

(quoted in The Portable Atheist)

Charles Darwin – The Descent of Man (1871)

Thus we have given to man a pedigree of prodigious length, but not, it may be said, of noble quality. The world, it has often been remarked, appears as if it had long been preparing for the advent of man; and this, in one sense, is strictly true, for he owes his birth to a long line of progenitors. If any single link in this chain had never existed, man would not have been exactly what he now is. Unless we wilfully close our eyes, we may, with our present knowledge, approximately recognize our parentage; nor need we feel ashamed of it. The most humble organism is something much higher than the inorganic dust under our feet; and no one with an unbiased mind can study any living creature, however humble, without being struck with enthusiasm at its marvellous structure and properties.

Charles Darwin – The Descent of Man (1871)

Without doubting there can be no progress.

Charles Darwin – The Descent of Man (1871)

Brehm, when accompanying the Duke of Coburg-Gotha, aided in an attack with firearms on a troop of baboons, in the pass of Mensa in Abyssinia. The baboons in return rolled so many stones down the mountain, some as large as a man’s head, that the attackers had to beat a hasty retreat, and the pass was actually closed for a time against the caravan.

Charles Darwin – The Descent of Man (1871)

The judgment of the community will generally be guided by some rude experience of what is best in the long run for all the members; but this judgment will not rarely err from ignorance and weak powers of reasoning. Hence the strangest customs and superstitions, in complete opposition to the true welfare and happiness of mankind, have become all-powerful throughout the world….

How so many absurd rules of conduct, as well as so many absurd religious beliefs, have originated, we do not know; nor how it is that they have become, in all quarters of the world, so deeply impressed on the mind of men; but it is worthy of remark that a belief constantly inculcated during the early years of life, while the brain is impressible, appears to acquire almost the nature of an instinct; and the very essence of an instinct is that it is followed independently of reason.

Charles Darwin – Descent of Man (1871)

It has often and confidently been asserted that man’s origin can never be known; but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge; it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.