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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Neanderthals are people too, it turns out

At least, that's the growing consensus, with the rough draft of the Neanderthal genome. David Tyler notes:
It is impossible to know the mental life of a Neanderthal, but there is reason to think that it was not so different from our own. The Neanderthal genome differed little from ours, encoding fewer than 100 changes that would affect the shape of proteins. True, some of these differences occur in genes linked to brain function, but similar variation is found among humans today. Moreover, Neanderthals share with us a version of a gene linked to the evolution of speech, and recent archaeological evidence suggests that their minds were capable of the symbolic representations that underlie language and art. If that's not human, then what is?"

This brings us to why Neandertals have been so misinterpreted over the years. Why has it taken us so long to reject the picture of a brutish, grunting caveman devoid of aesthetics and reason? The Editorial starts with these words: "WE HUMANS like to see ourselves as special, at the very pinnacle of all life. That makes us keen to keep a safe distance between ourselves and related species that threaten our sense of uniqueness. Unfortunately, the evidence can sometimes make that difficult." Is this interpretation valid? Do we like to keep a safe distance between ourselves and anything that threatens our uniqueness? Perhaps we should reflect on on the history of scientific racialism, that portrayed races as occupying different rungs of the evolutionary ladder - was this also to keep a safe distance from races that threatened our uniqueness? Furthermore, is it true that we, the population at large, like to keep this safe distance? Why is it that any reports of animals showing apparent cognitive and creative skills are deemed newsworthy, whereas other studies showing a big divide between humans and animals languish in obscurity? I leave these questions for further thought and reflection.
As a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite, as Tyler notes. Evolutionary biologists prized the Neanderthal as "different" and "inferior" in order to bolster the "goo to zoo to you, and there is no plan, man" theory of human evolution. At least none of them were alive when that trip was put on them.

For more, go here.

Note: Above are two different visions of Neanderthals.


Evolutionary psychology: Wisdom swings from the trees, it turns out

My Salvo 15 Deprogram column:

Evolutionary Psychology Is Now Taking Your Questions

When Britain's Guardian newspaper first introduced its "evolutionary" agony aunt (advice columnist in America) in 2009—to honor 150 years of the culture birthed with Charles Darwin's 1859 book, On the Origin of Species—I thought, "Aha! a send-up, to be sure." I was wrong, but in fairness, when the evolutionary psychologist speaks, even an expert can't always tell.

No spoof. The Guardian burbled proudly about Carole Jahme, author of Beauty and the Beasts: Woman, Ape and Evolution and winner of the Wellcome Trust Award for Communication of Science to the Public. For the 2009 Darwin bicentennial celebrations, Jahme, who holds an M.A. in evolutionary psychology, put together a comedy show titled Carole Jahme is Sexually Selected, which was described as a combination of Charles Darwin and Charlie Chaplin.

The Guardian touts her column as "shin[ing] the cold light of evolutionary psychology" on readers' problems, thus apparently offering welcome relief from the "Aw, just dump the dweeb!" froth churned out by glossier rags and mags.
For more, go here.

And treat yourself or a friend to a year-long Salvo of light-hearted fun at the expense of publicly venerated nonsense.


Peer review: have we run out of polish for the iron rice bowls?

Wordle: peer review Wordle: peer review

At Slate, Daniel Engber offers another slam at peer review:
When journal editors are asked about these ideas, they often quote Winston Churchill's line, "Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Or rather, they quote other journal editors quoting that line. But it's a poor analogy, since few alternatives to peer review have been tried in modern times. And democracy isn't really a good description of peer review, either. Sure, peer review allows scientists to participate in a system of self-governance. But wouldn't BMJ's policy of open review or Ginsparg's proposal for Web-published preprints be far more democratic?

So far, though, the Churchill quoters are winning.

You know, "The worst system , except for all the others." The trouble is, any system can exhaust the benefits for which it was brought in- in this case, to cope with the flood of post-World War II science efforts. In my own view, it has become the same sort of drag on fresh thinking as reliance on Aristotle was in the early modern period of science.

If the object is to do good science while pleasing all possible reviewers, and the gist of the paper is an idea that disconfirms their theories, one may have to downplay findings, quit the field, or go nuts. Michael Behe is a rare example of someone who stood up to all the garbage, just to make a simple point or two about the shortcomings of Darwin's Rice Bowl.

Other peer review stories:

Peer review: How much more believable than fortunetelling?

"Peer review, mere review, and smear review"

"Peer review: Life, death, and the British Medical Journal"

Science: A year-end wad of fraud, falsified data, and other award-winning tenure strategies ...

Peer review: What if your peers would have to be otherconspiracy theorists? (No, really!)

Peer review: Gold standard or gold in "them thar hills"


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