I spent today postponing but mostly organising my death

I have spent my day doing two important things.

First, and this only took a moment, I swallowed an Osimertinib pill. I take one of these pills every day. How hard is that? Harder than you might suppose, at my advanced age with its accompanying loss of short term memory. Several times during the last month or two, I have taken one of these pills, or not, and then moments later not known whether I had taken it, or not.

Hence this contraption, which my Senior Designated Friend gave me quite a while ago. This was when the pill problem was that there were lots of them, but none of them were that important:

I don’t need that, I said. Turns out I do. Now that the problem is just the one pill, but a vitally important one upon which my continuing ability to function now seems entirely to depend, I need to be sure that I have taken one, and only one, of these miraculous little things.

And the other thing I did today, which took pretty much the whole day and which also consumed most of yesterday, was to do that other thing that people who have received a death sentence from the medical profession do, besides take pills. I refer to the process known as “putting my affairs in order”.

The most impressive result of this process so far has been a load of rubbish:

I have been trying to sort my many accumulated bits of paper into more logical piles than they had been arranged in. Happily, the biggest such pile is that one in the above photo, which is the one I’ll be chucking into the recycling bins out in front of my front door, tomorrow.

So, a day spent (1) postponing my death, and (2) trying to make my death more organised.

By the way, I do recommend following the Osimertinib link above, and then feasting your eyes on the list of “Other drugs in the class protein kinase inhibitors”, on the right. It is quite a list, I think you will agree. If any of these are anywhere near as clever as the Osimertinib that I’m taking, then it’s an even more impressive list than it looks.

Steve Stewart-Williams on the evolution of language

Today, right near the end of The Ape That Understood The Universe (pp. 275-276), I had another What He Said moment:

… Earlier I mentioned that humans have an innate capacity to learn language, but that the specific languages we learn evolve culturally to mesh with our language-hungry brains. There may be a twist in the plot, however. It’s possible that our languages themselves helped to wire a language-learning instinct into the human genome. Here’s what might have happened. It all began with the cultural evolution of a rudimentary proto-language: a system of grunts and gestures not too far removed from what we see today in wild chimps. We didn’t have a dedicated language faculty at that time, so we acquired this proto-language via general learning mechanisms. (This is presumably what captive apes do when they learn to communicate with signs.) The proto-language wasn’t nearly as useful as our modern ones. But as anyone who’s visited a foreign-speaking country knows, even a little language is better than none. As such, any ancient human who acquired the proto-language more easily, mastered it at a younger age, or used it more adroitly, would have had an advantage over her more linguistically ham-fisted contemporaries. And what an advantage! Language is useful in virtually every sphere of human life: communicating needs and wants, organizing hunts and other cooperative ventures, entertaining mates, conveying useful information to offspring, finding out who to trust and who not to. In these areas and others, better language-users would have had a definite edge. Given the evolutionary importance of these activities, such individuals would plausibly have had more offspring, and their linguistic advantage would have spread through the population. As humans became more verbally adept, this would have triggered the cultural evolution of a more complex proto-language. That in turn would have created a selection pressure for even greater linguistic giftedness, which would have spurred the cultural evolution of an even more complex language – the usual story. In short, the cultural evolution of language resulted in the biological evolution of a language-learning instinct, and vice versa.

If so, this has an interesting implication. We saw earlier that genes for lactose tolerance were a consequence of milk drinking, rather than a cause. The same may be true of language. We tend to assume that genes for language came first, thereby making language possible. It’s equally likely, however, that it’s the other way around: that language came first and then created a selection pressure for genes promoting the rapid acquisition of language. In other words, our gift of the gab may have started with a cultural mutation, rather than a genetic one.

I worked out this notion, that culture creates new evolutionary spaces for genetic evolution to move into, several years ago, but it is good to have it confirmed by SS-W. I presume that this means that, what with culture hurtling towards new evolutionary spaces all the time, that means that genetic evolution is hurtling onwards, faster than ever before.

Steve Stewart-Williams on the evolution of the teddy bear

I am now nearing the end of The Ape That Understood The Universe. Steve Stewart-Williams has said what he has to say about the survival of the fittest genes, and is now talking about the survival of the fittest memes. The evolution of culture, in other words.

Here (pp. 227-228) is what SS-W says about the evolution of one bit of our culture, the teddy bear:

Language evolution is at least as old as we are, but other arenas for cultural evolution have a much more recent pedigree. One of the most important is the capitalist marketplace. Just as species compete for limited space in the local environment, so too products – from books to fizzy drinks to exercise equipment – “compete” for limited space on supermarket shelves and bestseller lists. This competition may foster the evolution of products exquisitely designed to suck money out of people’s pockets and bank accounts – designed, in other words, to sell. Importantly, business people don’t necessarily need to know why some products sell better than others. They only need to copy the ones that do. To the extent that that’s what happens, the design we find in our products comes from blind selection rather than intelligent design.

An example concerns the cultural evolution of the teddy bear. The first teddy bears went on sale in the early twentieth century. In those days, they had long snouts and long, thin limbs. They were pretty ugly. As the century wore on, however, teddy bears became progressively cuter. Their snouts receded, leaving them with cute flat faces. Their foreheads grew larger. Their limbs grew shorter and chubbier. In a word, they became more neotenous or baby-like. More and more they came to resemble the innate Kindchenschema we discussed in Chapter 4. Today’s teddy bears are, in effect, the answer to the question: What do you get when you cross a human baby with a bear? And they raise a new question of their own: How do we explain the evolutionary trajectory of this enduringly popular children’s toy?

Here’s one possibility. Successful teddy bear makers were sensitive to market trends, and generally copied the designs that sold best last season. But they didn’t copy them exactly. Some happened to push their designs a little further toward our evolved standards of cuteness; some happened to push them a little further away. The former sold better, and the better-selling bears became the baseline for the next season. Little by little, teddy bears drifted toward neoteny. Did successful bear makers know that increasing neoteny was the secret of their success? I doubt it. After all, if they did know, they could have just jumped straight to the most neotenous models. The trend toward neoteny is something that people only noticed after the fact. While it was happening, bear makers simply made more of whatever sold. In a sense, consumers redesigned the teddy bear with their aggregate preferences and purchasing decisions. If your parents bought you a teddy bear, they were contributing to the evolution of this beloved children’s toy. Generalizing the point, any time you or anyone else buys anything, you’re helping to guide the evolution of culture.

For me, the killer line here – the killer meme, you might say – is the bit about how all that is necessary is to copy. You don’t have to know why your product does the job and will consequently be popular, you merely have to know that it does the job and will be popular.

“Mindless” copying is a much under-rated design method.

I was ruminating upon ideas of this sort back in 1988.

What Steve Stewart-Williams said

When I first discovered Steve Stewart-Williams, I simultaneously started reading his book, The Ape That Understood The Universe: How The Mind and Culture Evolve, and enjoying his Twitter feed. I regularly link to the latter on Fridays, my day of the week for writing about and linking to stories and videos featuring non-human animals. But for some reason, I got interrupted when reading this book, and have only now got around to reading it properly. I am about half way through it, as I write this.

I am enjoying it because it says everything I already believe about how my species evolved into what it now is, but much better than I could say it. I am finding out, you might say, all the things I believe about evolution, and about the evolution of the human species in particular. I can summarise what I think of this book in the modern phrase: What he said. Or, even more briefly: That.

The central and recurring argument Stewart-Williams deploys, to explain why the contents of the human mind are just as much a product of evolution as the attributes of the human body, is the fact that all the other animals clearly have mental habits that must have evolved, so why should we humans, who are also animals, be any different?

Were we humans the entirely separate creations, quite unlike mere animals, that old-school Christians used to say we were, then for our minds to be entirely different from those of animals might make more sense. As it is, given that we are products of the same evolutionary process that made all the other animals, the “blank slate” notion of the human mind makes no sense at all.

One thing I did – not “learn” exactly – but hear for the first time from a scientist of human evolution, concerned the aggressiveness of the human male. Many human masculine characteristics have evolved not so much because human females like them, but more because other human males are intimidated by them. Males who defeat other males in competition achieve high status, and high status and the resources that accompany it are what human females especially like, rather than necessarily liking the particular characteristics that achieve that high status. Male aggressive characteristics are, metaphorically speaking, deer antlers more than they are peacock tails. They are at least as much for making human males into top dogs, so to speak, as they are for directly impressing the ladies. I can’t help noticing that some human females are impressed, directly, by male aggression. They like to watch men fighting, for instance. But others are very put off by such behaviour, and especially, of course, if it is ever directed against them.

Just about every lesson Stewart-Williams is trying to teach his readers is a lesson I had either worked out for myself, or something I had sort-of worked out, or something I understood the point of as soon as he said it. The above lesson, about how human male aggressiveness is more like antlers than like peacock tails falls into category three. I hadn’t worked that one out properly, but yes, as soon as I read this I knew it had to be right.

Sniffer dogs and beavers – both doing well

Friday, so: animals. Obviously, I noticed this story about dogs with the superpower ability to smell prostate cancer in a blood sample a lot sooner than prostate cancer tends to be noticed now.

However, I especially liked this other story – well, a tweet – about beavers, which was accompanied by a map of Europe:

Many who first glance at this beaver map are sad and angry. Look how the beavers have declined. They used to be all over the place, but are now clinging on in just a few redoubts. Woe. Humanity, bow your heads in shame at yet another crime against nature.

But no. Look at the colour/date info on the left, and you see that the small dark brown bits were where the beavers were to be found in 1900, while the light brown expanses show where they were living more than a century later, in other words now.

From this recent Guardian report, we learn that beavers are now doing well here in the UK, despite the paucity of British beaver activity to be seen on the above map.

The popular rodent, whose dams have been shown to boost hundreds of species of insects, amphibians, birds, fish and plants, is returning to Dorset, Derbyshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, Nottinghamshire and Montgomeryshire.

Last year the government allowed free-living beavers unofficially let loose into the River Otter in Devon to remain there, but all licensed releases into the wild in England and Wales are into large enclosed areas. There are, however, other unofficial beaver populations living freely on some river systems.

“Unofficial beaver populations”? I never knew that was a real thing. Makes it sound like the beavers have to apply for planning permission before they can construct a dam.

However, the key words in the above quote are, I think, the ones about this “popular rodent”. Had beavers not be so liked by humans, would they have done so well? I doubt it.

Like the man from the Wildlife Trusts says:

“… people love seeing them and their presence boosts tourism in the countryside.”

The earth is rapidly becoming a great big zoo, and whether there are lots of specimens of this or that creature is going to depend on how “popular” each creature is, with us.

And, as I have been saying here for some while, this trend will greatly accelerate once synthetic food starts to make its presence felt, and the whole raising-animals-to-eat epoch starts to wind down.

Dan Hannan in Australia

Two years ago, which explains the non-up-to-date political references to such things as Brexit, Dan Hannan did a talk in Australia. I found my way to this talk via the Hannan website, and watching this short interview of Hannan by Marc Sidwell (Sidwell is a friend of mine but I’d not clocked this interview until now), and then at the end of that being recommended to attend to this CIS hosted talk in Australia, done, as I say, a couple of years ago, which goes on for a lot longer:

Hannan didn’t talk about the then President Trump in his main speech (which lasts a bit under 40 minutes), but he did during the Q&A. And on the Trump matter, Hannan sat resolutely on the fence. He regarded Trump as “unfit for office”, because a liar about his fornication, his taxes, and just generally, and he welcomed the good liberalising things that Trump has done, but he denounced the public spending spree that Trump presided over and encouraged. He regards the kind of tribalism that is totally pro- or totally anti-Trump as the problem. Transcending tribalism being the whole secret of “western civilisation”.

I take the point about tribalism, but I wonder if Trump could have done his good stuff, both domestically and abroad, without all those character flaws of his. His boorish manner is all mixed up with the fact that he didn’t waste any time trying to suck up to his opponents, the way rival Republicans always tend to do in the vain search for their admiration. Trump was effective because “uncivilised”.

On the broader subject of “western civilisation”, Hannan can’t help attributing the success of what PJ O’Rourke called “that fine trend in human affairs” to his own Anglosphere tribe. The Anglosphere tribe is, he seems to be saying, the anti-tribal tribe.

And I think I agree.

More cruelty-free meat news from Israel

From the Daily Mail:

A juicy ribeye steak is a treat for many, but meat eating is increasingly falling out of fashion due to ethical and environmental concerns.

Now, an Israeli company has revealed the world’s first ever 3D bioprinted ribeye made with real cow cells, and it is completely cruelty and slaughter-free.

Scientists took swabs from two cows, cultivated them in a lab, and pieced them all together to form a replica steak.

What is it about artificial meat and Israel? Maybe it’s just that Israel happens to be a very inventive place just now, and whatever innovation you happen to be a spotter of, you’ll find yourself being directed towards Israel.

I wonder if the pariah status of the state of Israel is some kind of cause of this super-inventiveness, if that’s what it is. If so, it reminds me of how religious non-conformists in Britain, similarly cut off from polite society, were so heavily involved in the Industrial Revolution.

The hope of progress

Having recently received a life sentence of quite advanced lung cancer, I find myself noticing reports like this one entitled Ultra-precise lasers remove cancer cells without damaging nearby tissue. Cancer treatment is progressing fast, in all manner of directions, and I am now seeing stories of this sort every few days. Will it progress fast enough to prolong my life in a significant way? Knowing what I do of how long it takes for an innovation to go from a recent observation or discovery to a routine service, my guess now would be: not. But I can’t help hoping that it might.

In another context, I have described this sort of feeling as the torture of hope.

I came upon this above report at the Twitter feed of Steve Stewart-Williams. There being a lot more to that guy than cute animal videos.

Also from the SS-W TwF

Following on from all these creaturely links, how woodpeckers survive being woodpeckers?

Woodpeckers have incredibly long tongues. I did not know this.

More from the Steve Stewart-Williams Twitter feed

Yes I haven’t recently resorted to the SS-W TwF for a Friday Cats and Other Creatures posting. But in the small hours of last night I did two short postings, neither of which had anything to do with any Creatures and that needs putting right. So, here we go.

We’ll start with what sort of creature we humans are. It turns out we’re a type of fish.

Next up, well played that gazelle

Diver convinces a baby octopus to trade its plastic cup for a seashell.

An insufficiently anxious chicken.

Puppy cuddles duck.

The amazing diversity of big cats.

Some dogs making friends with the biggest cat there is.

Kangaroo fights look a lot like boxing matches except that, unlike human boxers, the kangaroos periodically rear back on their tails and kick their opponents with both feet.

Rat uses pencil to activate trap and get food.

The babe magnet that is also a giant billboard for predators.

Cats negotiating obstacle courses. It’s how the hind legs don’t hit anything either that impresses SS-W.

Finally, with me remembering this earlier posting here, a spider that is definitely confused by a mirror.