What Really Causes Speciation?

I am still impressed with New Scientist. Since I now subscribe to Scientific American also, I can compare the two. Scientific American has more flash, but New Scientist has more substance. The article Accidental origins: Where species come from is a case in point. This is leading edge stuff, and is still not acceptable to many scientists.

This update to evolutionary theory is proposed by Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading, UK.

The unexamined view that most people have of speciation is this gradual accumulation by natural selection of a whole lot of changes, until you get a group of individuals that can no longer mate with their old population.

But is this true? There was no way to really tell, because there had not been enough evolutionary trees to examine. But the recent explosion in DNA research had changed that – and he decided to apply some standard statistical analysis to these trees. The results were surprising: 78% of species originated because of single accidental events.

All kinds of rare events could trigger the accident of speciation. Not just physical isolation and major genetic changes, but environmental, genetic and psychological incidents. The uplift of a mountain range that split a species in two could do it. So too could a mutation that made fish breed in surface waters instead of near the bottom, or a change in preference among female lizards for mates with blue spots rather than red ones.

The key point emerging from the statistical evidence, Pagel stresses, is that the trigger for speciation must be some single, sharp kick of fate that is, in an evolutionary sense, unpredictable.

Most American Scientists aren’t buying it – and after having been around of few of them, I am not surprised. But he seems on solid ground to me.

What is a Tranche?

I have just found a great new source for definitions. I had just subscribed to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary – for $5 a month. It is excellent for describing the derivation of words, and the spelling of them – something I am poor at. But this morning I wanted to look up tranche. Merriam-Webster wasn’t much help, is just says:

SLICESECTIONPORTIONspecifically : a portion or series of a bond issue to be distributed in a foreign country

By contrast, a Google define: tranche yields an abundance of hits, try it yourself. The one in Wikipedia is excellent. It gives an example:

  • A bank transfers risk in its loan portfolio by entering into a default swap with a “ring-fenced” SPV (“Special Purpose Vehicle”)
  • The SPV buys gilts (UK government bonds)
  • The SPV sells 4 tranches of credit linked notes with a waterfall structure whereby:
    • Tranche A absorbs the first 25% of losses on the portfolio
    • Tranche B absorbs the next 25% of losses
    • Tranche C the next 25%
    • Tranche D the final 25%
  • Tranches B, C and D are sold to outside investors
  • Tranche A is bought by the bank itself

Tranche is become a new buzz-word, used in all kinds of new situations because it is so fashionable – when the words in the original definition: slice, section, or portion are perfectly adequate. As the example shows it also covers up of a lot of skulduggery with a fancy new word.

Merriam-Webster does have a good definition for skulduggery. But it cannot describe how complicated finance has become, and how this caused the latest financial crisis – which is still not over. It may sink us yet – because we have not begun to understand it, or get it under control.

A new power complex is in control – something we refuse to look at.

Capitalism Began in Italy

With the Italian Renaissance, to be exact. This was the beginning of the modern world – not in the North, as I had previously assumed.

I am taking a course from the Teaching Company on the Italian Renaissance, something I have long been ignorant of. I had heard a lot about its art, who hasn’t, but knew nothing about the wealth that paid for it. At the time (the early 14th Century) Northern Europe was still ignorant and backward.

But Italy still remembered its classical past, and Humanism, one of the main strands of the Renaissance, was the process of rediscovering that past, and the ethics that had made the Roman Republic so powerful.

Italian bankers became the richest in Europe; they financed long-distance trade and the manufacture of woolen cloth, the best in Europe. Northern Italy had a legal system where contracts (written in Latin) could be written and enforced. It had stable coinage (the florin and ducat); and its coins were used all over Europe.  It had a securities market, where shares in public bonds were traded. And it even had periodic financial crises. All very modern.

The Anti-Social Society

Shouldn’t this be impossible? Not in human society, where it is common. Humans spend much of their time building societies or destroying them – sometimes the societies of others, but often their own. It is all part of the same process of construction and destruction – which for humans is much the same thing.

We are never satisfied with what we have – including some of our proudest social accomplishments – such as America after WWII – which, instead of making it even better, we have destroyed.

Etsuko Hirose

Etsuko is a young Japanese woman and a very good concert pianist. Check her out on emusic.

I think you will be amazed.

High Technology Forces Us to Serve It

Technology has always acted as an ego amplifier, by making us feel more powerful and more impressive. (Who we are impressing is not clear: God, perhaps.) I have added the qualifier feel here, to show this is our subjective impression. We may not be more powerful, only feel that way. The people who erected the stone heads at Easter Island no doubt felt more powerful by doing this. Even the people who erected the pyramids were soon forgotten, and the pyramids themselves were treated as cheap sources of building materials. As was the Coliseum, later.

I wonder what people one thousand years from now, if there are any left, will think of our technologies? They probably won’t even know they existed, or that we existed. I will now explain why I think this way.

HighTech is an energy sink for human energy. We put so much of ourselves into it, there is nothing of ourselves left. At the same time, we feel we have finally become all-powerful – because we have completely identified with our things.

And we let our things rule us, much as we used to let other people rule us. This is not strictly correct, of course, things are only things, and cannot do anything. A human ruling class is acting as the servants of them, just as they used to act as the servants of old-fashioned deities previously.

But this is a process, and takes time. What happens before the process is completed is even more dreadful. Two kinds of people are in existence at the same time: human people and technology-enhanced people. The technology-enhanced people (or tech-people) despise the human people, and consider them inferior because they are not part of their new world order.

This new world, the tech-world, is totalitarian by nature; it is only concerned with power and domination – it will not tolerate humans, who sometimes have more human values.

The end result is total destruction, because only humans can create technology. The end result of any ideal social movement has always been destructive, including the French Revolution and Communism. This ideal: the perfect techno-society is no different.

The Market Economy, where the market rules all, is the same kind of thing, and springs from the same kind of impulse: serving a techno-ideology.

To put this another way, there are new barbarians amongst us: the techno-people. They didn’t have to storm our gates, because we knocked them down ourselves. They were hidden inside the ultimate Trojan Horse.

The vanishing liberal: How the left learned to be helpless

Harper’s Magazine

This is a darn good article, and I used a lot of highlighter ink on it. His thesis is simple, and something that has popped into my own mind rather forcibly:

We have learned to be helpless. And in this state of political depression, it no longer matters how many elections liberals win for the Democrats, or how badly Republican, right-wing policies fail or how much damage they do to the country or the world. There is simply no way to do anything differently.

Such hapless fatalism is, of course, in direct opposition to every tenet of American liberalism, which is rooted in the idea that human agency is still possible in the modern world—that democratic action can make a difference when ranged against vast, impersonal forces and supposedly immutable “laws” of human society.

Here is what it says about my favorite whipping boy, our friend Obama:

Obama—like most Democratic leaders—concedes that the way of the world is wrong but tells us why it must stay that way because, some time in the past, powerful interests decreed it so.

Coming to power when he did, with the political skills and the majorities he possesses, Barack Obama squandered an almost unprecedented opportunity. But it is increasingly clear that he never intended to challenge the power structure he had so skillfully penetrated.