The MU SASHA Blog

The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

Game Day a success! And now for something completely different…

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Hello everybody!

Our Game Day on Wednesday was a blast. About 20 SASHA members gathered ’round for Ergo, Axis & Allies, Uno, Settlers of Catan, and others. Due to the same room-scheduling snafu as last week, we do not yet know where our meeting will be next Wednesday, but I will post here and on the Facebook group as soon as I find out!

Ergo: An onotological competition using Boolean logic, for 4 players

Gamers be gamin'

More gameplay

As I’m a few days behind on the (cough: daily) blog, I’m going to write a rather in-depth article for today to make up for it: And now for something completely different, I also wanted to round out today’s post with a video explaining, in less than 4-and-a-half minutes, some damning evidence that we (humans aka Homo) share a common ancestor with the other great apes (chimps aka Pan, gorillas aka Gorilla, and orangutans aka Pongo).

First of all, and I hope this isn’t news to anyone reading this, but if you ever hear the argument, “If humans evolved from monkeys, how come monkeys are still around?” the correct response is, “Nobody’s claiming humans evolved from monkeys. Modern humans and modern monkeys are cousins; we both evolved from a common ancestor.”

Data from Jared Diamond's book "The Third Chimpanzee." Red squares indicate branching points.

That’s like asking, “If England colonized America in the early 17th century, why is England still here in the 21st century?” The answer is, because the entirety of England did not pick up & move to the New World… Those that left to colonize the New World became the ancestors of modern US natives (along with other immigrants along the way), and those that stayed behind became the ancestors of modern English natives. They may have even been close blood relatives once upon a time.

A parallel can be drawn with more familiar kinship terms:

The white numbers in the red boxes indicate the coefficient of relatedness r to the orange "self." r is defined as 2 times the Coefficient of Inbreeding, which is defined as the probability that the alleles at a particular locus chosen at random from two individuals are identical by descent. This has direct application to Hamilton's Rule and JBS Haldane's fantastic joke, "I would lay down my life for 2 brothers or 8 cousins."

Picture two brothers, both young men straight men without any biological children (but the desire for them) living in England in the year 1606. One brother goes to the New World to help settle the Jamestown colony, one brother stays behind in England. They each become fathers & start their own families a few years later, and after you fast-forward 400 years to the present day, not only do their respective great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren have completely different accents and dialect vocabularies from each other, but probably different politics, perhaps different religions, different last names, even different hair, eye, and/or skin colors, depending on with whom their ancestors bred along the way. It’s unlikely, if two people from each end of these respective genetic lines passed each other on the street, they would even have any clue they were at all related. And since their last common ancestor is separated from them by 13 generations, that would make them 12th cousins, and you’d frankly be hard up to even call them “related” in any meaningful sense. Consider that the relatedness coefficient of siblings is 50 (explained below). For each generation back you have to go in order to find a common ancestor, you divide by 4 (1st cousins = 12.5, etc). Therefore, the relatedness coefficient of 12th cousins is 0.00000298. I think that after 5 zeroes, you’re safe in calling them random strangers.

My favorite thing to study is altruism. This has huge applications to evolution as well. The science behind this is just more and more fascinating the more you look into it. Why do people (and other animals) self-sacrifice? Why do we sometimes risk harm & cost to ourselves in order to harm others (aka spite)? If we see someone in trouble, why do we have an instinctual urge to be charitable toward people, even people we do not necessarily “know,” even at sometimes great monetary or personal risk to ourselves? Why are we so much more charitable toward people in geographic proximity to us, even when they are in less trouble than others who may be in much greater need of our charity? Why do we just “know” that altruism and socially-promoting behavior is virtuous? Why do we just “know” that selfish and socially-demoting behavior is villainous?

“Kin selection” refers to apparent strategies in evolution that favor the reproductive success of an organism’s relatives, even at a cost to their own survival and/or reproduction. At first blush, charity/altruism seems to be something natural selection would not favor. What possible advantage could it confer to the giver, to give away their (finite) resources? As it turns out, there are many, especially once religion enters the scene, which is the part that fascinates me the most. In economic anthropology (and other fields, namely evolutionary biology), there is a concept called signalling theory. The idea is that you communicate information about yourself (the agent) to someone else (the principal) by doing or displaying certain “expensive” things or behaviors, whether calorically or monetarily or however else. Let’s take a labor example:

When two applicants apply for the same job, the potential employer is at a disadvantage when choosing between them. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that the only thing this employer is interested in is intelligence — say, for sake of example, that the company is a complex systems logistics consulting company . The reason the employer is at a disadvantage is that the applicants know much more about how intelligent (or unintelligent) they really are than the employer could possibly know. As the employer (principal) in this scenario, how could we find out who would be a better fit for the job?

We could ask them how smart they are, but that’s not very precise, and there’s no way to know if they are lying. We could have them take an IQ test, but that would be costly and time-consuming, especially if you had a lot of applicants. A much faster way would be to look at costly signals:

What’s on their résumés? Say that Applicant A has a master’s in mathematics from Oxford and Applicant B has an associate’s degree in Communications from the University of Phoenix. And just like that, we have (very high confidence that we have) our answer. Frankly, it’s expensive to get a master’s degree from Oxford. I don’t just mean financially; I mean that it takes years of your life, a huge investment as far as not only brainpower but determination and tenacity, and assuming this company is based in the USA, that means our applicant moved overseas, presumably as an investment in going to such a great school. Assuming neither candidate is lying on his/her résumé, you can’t fake that kind of dedication and hard work. And that, in a nutshell, is costly signalling.

There are all sorts of examples of costly signalling in nature: The guy driving the Ferrari to feel sexier, the peacock investing huge numbers of calories into growing & maintaining his tail feathers (“I’m so badass/good-looking that I don’t have to worry about evading predators, and I’m so good at hunting/persuading-humans-to-feed-me that I don’t have to worry about preserving my calories for lean times; I grew these tail feathers to impress YOU, baby”), etc.

There are also ways to cheat at signalling, which is where the REAL fun comes in when you start to look at this from a game-theory perspective: Did she really go to Oxford, or did she lie on her résumé? Can that guy really afford the Ferrari, or does he have a 7-year loan at 10% interest (and no equity in his house) in order to fake it? Is that a real Rolex? The best costly signals are signals that are hard to fake. It’s easy to fake a Rolex, which is why not many drunk people at bars are very impressed by them. But it’s much harder to fake owning a Ferrari – even to get a loan for one requires some serious income – and we tend to pay more attention when someone pulls up in one than when we see someone wearing a Rolex, just like we pay more attention to someone with chiseled six-pack abs than we do to someone with a Gold’s Gym swipe card on their keychain, even though they could very well be the same person. It’s easy to fake being interested in physical health in order to impress a date, but pretty expensive (though not impossible) to fake the effort it takes to actually get six-pack abs (witness “abdominal liposculpture”: All you need is about 3 months and $25,000… and look at that; they even offer financing!).

To get back on topic, the point is, evolution is a fascinating topic with applications all over the map. There is so much evidence for evolution – in phylogenetics, anatomy (vestiges are, in my opinion, one of the biggest blows to “intelligent design”) – biogeography, fossil evidence/homologies, virology, not to mention the OBSERVED INSTANCES OF SPECIATION!  – that disbelieving evolution is akin to disbelieving, at some point in the past, you were situated inside someone’s womb. I know this is a fallacy, but frankly, it’s ridiculous to believe that evolution isn’t true. Just in case, though, here’s the video I mentioned above, as promised:

I hope you all have a wonderful Friday, and I’ll catch ya next time!

– Dave

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, he posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

Follow Dave on Google+
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Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3, Thunderf00t, TheAmazingAtheist, The Atheist Experience, Edward Current, NonStampCollector, Mr. Deity, Richard Dawkins, QualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta Christina, PZ Myers, The Friendly Atheist, WWJTD?, Debunking Christianity, SkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too! :)

About MU SASHA Administrator

University of Missouri SASHA (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics) University of Missouri-Columbia http://www.muSASHA.org

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This entry was posted on September 16, 2011 by in Author: Dave Muscato, SASHA Meetings, Web Links & Videos and tagged , , .
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