Saturday, 23 August 2014

Rock and Roll

Because I teach, I sometimes dream about teaching. Last night was no exception. In my dream, I was in the middle of explaining to a young Asian woman the vexatious difference between "good" and "well" when she interrupted to ask what Rock'n'Roll was. I wasn't sure what she had said, but she pointed to a page of a book, and there the word was. I tried defining it by metaphor: "It's K-Pop mixed with good scotch," but she reacted to that with an "Ugh." Evidently, she was no fan of scotch. I decided to define it by playing one example, but what one song would serve as the exemplar and paradigm of Rock'n'Roll? What one would you choose? I know that I briefly considered and rejected songs by Slash and The Who before my subconscious mind made its choice. In the end, I feel quite proud of its good taste and perspicacity: it played "I Saw Her Standing There."

Monday, 4 August 2014

Continuing Evolution of the Human Race

For my first year of university, I decided to fulfil my science requirement by taking a first year biology course taught by David Suzuki. My reasoning was simple: I was interested in biology (of the evolutionary persuasion, not so much the details of cell structure or function), and I had listened to Dr. Suzuki almost weekly for almost all of my conscious life, both on the radio (Quirks and Quarks) and on television (The Nature of Things). To listen to him in person would be interesting and fun, I was sure.

And it was. I learned interesting facts about chromosomal abnormalities, gene penetrance, homology and convergence, and so on. And when the time came to choose the topic of my term paper, I decided to throw myself into finding answers to a topic that had always intrigued me: now that we live in cities, what are the evolutionary pressures and trends that are shaping us. In other words, what are we evolving into?

The resulting 36-page magnum opus was a peculiar item. Its sections had epigraphs by Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, and Robert Heinlein, among others. Its scope was broad, including evidence of the genetic component of behaviour, the miscarriage rate among prisoners, and so on. Its major component was that the stresses of city life cause fatalities, miscarriages, poor parenting, and poor survival ability often enough to have an evolutionary effect. My most important conclusions were, first, that the genetic load (roughly speaking, the proportion of genes that are potentially deleterious) will increase in the foreseeable future, due to medical care, and that those who are genetically predisposed to feel less stress in an urban environment will have an evolutionary advantage. Those people's genes will spread through the population, I said. In my conclusion, I used a quotation from Robert Heinlein's book Beyond This Horizon about a person with a mutation that made him "more civilized" than could reasonably be expected. I saw such genes as the present trend and the future reality of human evolution.

The reason that I am recalling that early work is that a recent study published in Current Anthropology is making me feel justified in my conclusions. It purports to show that many of the physical changes that occurred over time in humans correlate to reductions in testosterone levels and, further, that reductions in testosterone levels correlate to advances in human social organization. Many of those changes, which have been collectively termed "juvenalization" or "neoteny," could therefore be called "feminization" instead. There is much to think about here, and I'll have to do a little reading. The main point, though, is I feel my early paper, the work of a very young dilettante in biology, has received some professional support. It may well be that mankind has displayed a long-term trend to becoming more civilized.