Unnatural Selection

31 years old and full of fire.

It’s been a while since Darwin published his books about living things. I can’t think of anyone who should hold the title of the world first, and most famous, behavioral scientist.

There is a problem, however. And it’s built into both of his most famous books: Origin and Descent.

He must have known he was doing it.  But as I’ve noted before, taking on GOD did not seem like the best method for influencing the course of human history.  He made the right choice.  But it also means he left us a flawed work.

The flaw is the term “Natural Selection.”

This term appears 247 times in Origin and 155 times in Descent.

Why is it a flaw?

Because it means there are forms of selection that are not natural.

What can be “not natural?”

For one, it was a popular notion that anything people did back in those days was somehow different from what the birds and bees could do.  People can talk to each other and use tools.  Birds and bees couldn’t do those things… or did they?

Of course they could.  Only people didn’t know enough to know that.

People could also choose to cross-breed trees or flowers in ways no one had ever seen before.  These ways were also deemed to be “not natural.”

We had a term for that.  We called it “synthetic.”  So you could have natural selection, and then you could have synthetic selection.

There’s another problem.

People were also considered to be extremely special in the universe.  We had a direct wireless connection to the greatest server of all time, GOD.

So not only was our behavior beyond the natural, it was SUPER-natural.

Here’s where the problem surfaces today.

By limiting his ideas to what is considered natural, Darwin left the door open to those who want to believe that everything people do is somehow above and beyond the rest of nature.

And that’s the real problem.  Because being able to use the established tools of conventional science has been good enough to understand life from bugs to butterflies.

The same tools should be good enough to understand Beyonce and Bulgaria as well.

But we don’t allow it, because we feel that somehow, they are beyond our understanding.

We shouldn’t.  Nothing is beyond our ability to imagine.

Anything less?

Well.  That would simply be, unnatural.



Evolution Devolution

155,615 words in something called Origin of Species.

Of those words, “evolve” is mentioned only once.  You heard it right.

As for “evolution” or “evolving” or some other variant, zip.  Nada.  Nothing.

Isn’t that funny?

Now, the word “variation” comes up 188 times.

And the word “selection” comes up 414 times.

Here’s the reason why.

As a methodical man, Charles Robert Darwin was most interested in convincing lots of good, smart people, in this radical idea that the thing we call “species” was changing over time.

CRD also knew that a lot of those same people were big on the Big Guy, the big light in the sky, the ultimate authority, GOD.

CRD had no interest in taking on religion, that wasn’t his aim.  His only goal was to show people that species weren’t sitting still.  Some species had walked the Earth long ago and disappeared.  That implied that new species were being created.  CRD had to figure out how to show people what he’d learned.

Law of Nature Number One: Each one of your children is different.  And attached to this law is another: Each of your children is different from all other children.  It’s another way of saying all of us are unique.  Even identical twins stop being identical the moment they are born.

Any problems with this?  Do you disagree?  Then check out a worm, and another worm.  If you look long enough you will see differences.  That’s a Law of Nature.

Law of Nature Number Two: Some differences help you have more babies.  Do you know any couples who have trouble making kids?  What about race horses?  The owners of famous stallions who win big races make lots of money selling that horses baby-making bits.  As long as horse racing is a big sport, there’s a good chance lots of fast-horse babies are going to be born.

Any problems with number two?  If not, we’re ready for the big finale.

Putting both of these Laws of Nature together creates a process of change.  Every individual is unique.  Every individual has a different number of babies.  And so on.

Biologists thought they were doing everyone a favor long ago when they applied the term “evolution” to the process.  It seems harmless enough.  What they didn’t realize was that they were making it harder for us non-biologists to follow along.  Bad marketing.

As a result, we have arguments with GOD over whether or not evolution exists.  Here’s the funny thing.  Evolution doesn’t exist, just like “falling” doesn’t exist.  Falling is a process of being up, and then suddenly being down.  We don’t have schools teaching “falling” as a subject.  Instead we have physics and gymnastics.

Similarly, we shouldn’t be teaching evolution in school.  We must stick to the laws of nature: we’re all unique, and we’re all going to have different numbers of children.

That’s a horse you shouldn’t bet against.



Messy Messy Mother Nature

My friends,

Consider, if you will, the platypus.

An animal concocted of many parts: bird, turtle, otter, kangaroo, and who knows how many others.

Or take the common ant, available in so many varieties and colors.  Or the banana slug, or jellyfish.

Each in their own right is a thing of beauty, a thing wrought of nature.  A thing that should be the very essence of beauty in the eyes of their queen, or mother, or lover.

For us, they can be an abomination.  How can anyone, or thing, love a spider?

To be a true scientist, especially in biology or behavior, one must accept that all things natural are, in fact, beautiful as well.*

Here’s a fun but seemingly unrelated fact: My company manufactures natural soap.

So what! you say.  What? is this some kind of subliminal advert? you protest.  Your eyes are already getting ready to close this window.  But wait!**

What I’ve learned in making our soap is that the chemical reactions are vastly more complex than we understand.  In fact, what passes for soap in today’s society is a chemical detergent.  Highly engineered chemicals that are extremely efficient at removing oils and water from your skin.

Because they are so efficient, people also buy lotion to try and re-oil and re-moisturize that very skin.

In natural soap, anyone’s natural soap, lotion and lots of other re-moisturizers are already there.  It turns out that Mother Nature makes tens, if not hundreds, of different compounds during the soap making process.

Here’s my point.  When you put together a species, or when you combine natural compounds and make soap, the outcome is not clean and neat.  It’s messy.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Then how does Mother Nature check her own work?  Is there some way that she tests her products for “doneness” in order to make sure her improvements are greater than her mistakes?

Some people don’t think Mother Nature ever tests for improvements, but I think she does.  That’s why life may have started out as one celled plants, but has ultimately peaked with mankind.  If you’re not a fan of man, then maybe you’ll agree the peak was dinosaurs.  No matter. Overall, Mother Nature makes things better.

How she does this, and what it means for you and me, I’ll discuss tomorrow.  For now, I suggest you go and get some natural soap.  It’s good for you.




*We’re going to skip a definition of beauty for now.  If you want an essay on the essence of beauty, and a definition that can cross cultures, clades, and countless centuries, feel free to ask!

**I’m only bringing up the soap bit to make a point.  This is not an advert!  If you want validation of this statement, however, I will provide a hint.  Search for “Uncle Earl’s Soap.”


Behavior Atoms

Long long ago, in a civilization far far away, there were some deep thinkers.  They wondered what the universe was made up of, and they came up with a simple ingredients list: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.  Everything they knew of was made up of some proportion of those four things.  These ancient Greeks called these small things, atoms.

It took about 2,000 years before some more natural philosophers decided to look into these atom things, and figured out that there were really more than the basic 4.  Today we have elements, atomic particles, sub-atomic particles, and maybe even strings.

What about behavior?  Can there be a “unit” of something so intangible?  Is there an atom equivalent for saying “thank you” or watching someone get embarrassed because they farted?  For the sake of our argument, and because it wouldn’t be any fun to assume anything else, let’s go with the assumption that, yes, there is a unit of behavior.  Where’s the best place to go looking for it?

Think small.  Real small.  What about a cell?  After all, it was cells that tamed our early Earth, taking all that nasty carbon dioxide and turning it into nice, volatile oxygen.  It was cells that crawled out of the ooze and became plants, fish, and primates.  Heck, even today our bodies are only a vast collection of cells.  What do cells do when they’re on the job?

They behave.  They do things for some reason or other.  We like to describe them as factories, as machines, as computers running a program of DNA, RNA, and other such instruction sets.  But the fact remains that if we take any single celled organism, or even one of our highly differentiated cells, and try to predict what it will do at any one time, we can’t.  And prediction is the one thing you CAN do with a machine, or a computer.

My deep thought then, for this day, is that there are atoms of behavior, and we can see those atoms within cells.  For what are we, but a bag of cells?  Who can say that we don’t act in ways to help our cells, ourselves?

Now, where should we start looking for a behavioral periodic table?


Why Dinosaurs Matter

I’m reading a great book about dinosaurs, and had no intention of sharing this secret passion of mine with you. For that I must apologize. It’s not that I didn’t think you’d be interested in dinosaurs. After all, they are generally extremely cool. They’re mostly big – okay – huge, and, for most people are the kind of thing that make you stop and stare. They’re probably the source of many deep myths – dragons, giants, that sort of thing. The reason I wasn’t going to bring it up was because I was reading this book for pure pleasure. Then I realized two things.

First, this is a darn good book. Buy it. Read it. Thanks. [1]

Second, the study of dinosaurs is something that should be on the syllabus for every behavioral scientist. That’s right, every person who is serious about studying behavior should learn about the dinosaur. Now, why is that?

Yes, again, they are cool; the source of great myths; they’re big, scary, and touch something primal within us. But these aren’t good reasons to study them. The real reason we need to study them is they were incredibly successful life forms. They lived a very long time on this planet, almost 300 million years, and counting. They survived a wide variety of environments, from cold to hot, from dry to wet. They existed on a wide variety of scales, from very small, to extremely large. Whatever it was they were doing, worked. And if we want to be successful, then we should know their secrets.

Wait just a minute, you say. What do you mean, if we want to be successful? Aren’t we successful already? Don’t I have a good job? Doesn’t my family have a big house? Isn’t my country the best in the world? Doesn’t my species have a lock on using up planetary resources until they’re gone?

One narrow way to define success is making money. But money represents a type of behavior; a behavior that allows us to trade with each other using a proxy. That proxy is a piece of paper that says “I’m worth one dollar.” We all agree to this, and pieces of paper go traveling about while goods and services travel in the opposite direction. If your success is collecting more pieces of paper than everyone else, so be it.

As a scientist, we want definitions that are closer to being constants of nature. Biology requires us to think in terms of survival. You are successful if you live, that’s number one. Number two? You have to reproduce.

So the Great Game of Life begins. This is not weekend American football. It is not spying. In this game your genes get a chance to be passed on yet again. Money means little here, for the billionaire without offspring loses to the penniless mother. She has passed on her genes, the billionaire can only pass on his wealth. This is the greatest game of them all. If you can survive long enough to reproduce, you have won the smallest of battles in the Great Game of Life. If your family lives for several generations, they have won their own small battle. For your species to survive multiple generations is the smallest of battles at that scale. And if a particular life form, like dinosaurs, can exist for a million years, then they have only won a single battle in the Great Game.

What, a million years is only a single battle? How can this be? Here we must invoke some numbers, for this is a matter of scale. Life, in any form, has left tracks of its humble beginnings in Australian rocks roughly 3 billion years old. This becomes our base, our standard. Anything alive today has to compare itself to all life. If you’ve been alive 3 billion years, then you can claim to be the king of all life. Unfortunately for you, there’s a good chance a random rock is going to come along and dethrone you. It’s happened at least 5 times as far as we can tell.

As people – well, H sapiens anyway – we’ve been around about 150 thousand years. In percentage terms, that’s only about one half percent of one percent of all life, 0.00005. If we want to claim our primate heritage as being successful, then we can point to roughly 60 million years of success, as long as success includes hanging about in trees and running about like squirrels. In this case we have a good 2% of the entirety of life to cling to, or 0.02. All said, us primates have a shot at winning the Great Game. Or do we? After all, we’ve really only been the dominant species for about 10 thousand years. That’s such a small percentage of the Great Game I’m not even going bother writing out all the zeros.

The dinosaurs go back about 200 million years, and were easily dominant about 100 million. Let’s see, 100 million into 3 billion, that gets us … 3 percent, or 0.03. And that 3 percent is when they were dominant – not just existing, like us primates.

Which brings us back to why we should study dinosaurs. We want to win the Great Game.

What? You say you’re not interested in winning? You don’t even care about the Great Game? You don’t care if your species lives or dies in the next century? The next millennium? Tomorrow? Then there’s a good chance you’re not interested in behavior in the first place. You probably have your own version of success, most likely collecting those pieces of paper, and will hone your own behaviors so as to maximize that success. If you don’t care, then nothing can change your mind.

If you do care, if you are concerned with the fate of our species, our planet, then we owe it to ourselves and our posterity to learn as much as possible in order to succeed. The best way to succeed is to embrace the study of behavior in all its forms. For behavior is everything that all life does. It’s not only a smile or a handshake, but how we set up our government or blow up our cities. It’s how we adapt as a species over great spans of time, where a century counts as seconds, and millennia are as minutes.

To study behavior, we must look upon its atoms. For instance, a smile is one of the smallest units we have, an instant in time starting with hot neurons touching many facial muscles. We smile, and just as quickly, it’s gone. As scientists, we must be able to take that single smile and use it to understand the Great Game.

This is easier to visualize in the physical world, because we can see how the smallest of objects is connected to great events. Consider the snowflake, a unique combination of water, cold and convection that lasts only as long as the distance between its birthing cloud and the cold hard Earth below. Combine that snowflake with a googol of its brethren and you have a glacier, a glacier that challenges Time. As a glacier, that snowflake carves canyons, moves mountains, and crushes continents. Yes, crushing continents, for if it ever melts away, that continent will spring out of the ocean like a bobbing duck.

To understand that glacier, we must also understand that snowflake. To understand all life, and to have a chance at winning the Great Game, we must understand the smile. We must be able to connect that smile to whatever made the dinosaur so successful. This is why paleontology matters. Paleontologists have barely begun to scratch the surface, and look at what they have learned. We need to find out more if we are to have a chance at winning the Great Game.

One of the things they have already taught us is that dinosaurs are not extinct, they have survived in the form of birds. What does this mean for competing in the Great Game? It means that we should also be listening carefully to those who also study birds, and by extension, those who study all life. The ornithologist, the ecologist, and the biologist are all important players in this competition. They can help us connect the dots between that smile, and what it will take for us to survive a million years.

All life matters, whether it still breaths or not. There is something to learn from every species, and for our species to stand by as many disappear is one of the great tragedies of our time. It’s like being in school and intentionally throwing away the answer pages in the back of your textbook. Each species has something to teach us, each species contains an answer to an unasked question. Competing in the Great Game means that our species is always being put to the test, and when taking an open book test, it’s always helpful to have a handy answer guide. And Mother Nature always gives open book tests – it’s up to us to learn how to use it.

This is why studying the dinosaur matters. They have much to teach us, whether it is through 100 million year old fossils, or by teaching them to do simple math. The Great Game is being played, and I would like to see us succeed.

Do you think we will succeed?


[1] The book is called “My beloved Brontosaurus” by Brian Switek.

Read more about it here: http://books.scientificamerican.com/fsg/books/my-beloved-brontosaurus/

and see his website here: http://brianswitek.com/