Archive for February, 2009

Baboon Metaphysics

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

baboonmetaphysics1.jpegDorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth‘s recent book on baboon social behavior, Baboon Metaphysics, has been nominated for… oddest title of the year!

The title echos Charles Darwin’s own comment about the fascinating behavior of baboons, made over 170 years ago: “He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”

You can vote (as many times as you like) for Cheney and Seyfarth’s book here.

They’ve got some tough competition, though, including Curbsite Consultation of the Colon and—current frontrunner—The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais. Vote early, vote often.

Happy Birthday

Monday, February 9th, 2009

Thursday is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. So, this week I made a tribute birthday cake to celebrate:


The cake is chocolate and strawberry, with vanilla icing and cocoa powder. We ate it at our weekly evolution chalk talk seminar, during a discussion about OspC in Burrelia burgdorferi. Those things on the cake are pigeons, not finches. (Note the variation.)

Filthy ideas

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

gorilladirt.jpgIt’s been a while since I grumbled about inappropriate evolution-speak in science writing in the NY Times. So at the risk of sounding shrill, I’m going to take another stab. Jane E. Brody has written about the immunological benefits of babies eating dirt. The idea that exposure to germs in early childhood can boost immune development and reduce risk of allergies and other auto-immune disorders has been around a while, and Brody’s article doesn’t really cover anything shocking. But this passage was annoying:

Since all instinctive behaviors have an evolutionary advantage or they would not have been retained for millions of years, chances are that [babies putting their grubby little hands in their mouths] has helped us survive as a species.

Do all instincts have an evolutionary advantage? Are all instincts adaptations? That opening line sounds irritatingly like another indiscriminate claim for adaptation. But in biological terms, instincts are hard-wired, not learned, and improve fitness. So I think by definition, instincts are adaptive. But has natural selection really favored babies putting things in their mouths, to increase exposure to germs and boost immunological development? (Is there variation in this? Have babies ever not eaten dirt?) I doubt it.

For most of human history, we didn’t have lysol antibacterial spray, soap, or running water. Babies, like the rest of us, were perpetually grubby and reliably teeming with microbes. So I can’t imagine that they needed an adaptation to increase exposure to germs. Only in our over-sanitized present does an instinct to seek and ingest dirt really make sense. So maybe this “instinct” is an adaptation—a really, really recent one. But… haven’t babies always eaten dirt?