Monday, May 11, 2009

BBC - The Darwin Debate (48mins)

Just wanted to post a link to a televised debate that took place at the Linnean society a few years back.
It was not about evolutionary theory vs id or anything, but rather a debate about how our evolutionary history has shaped us.
It reminded me of a debate Erik, Fabrice and I had a few years back at a mongolian restaurant in Copenhagen. After a few glasses of wine we started debating the role of natural selection in modern society, and asked are we still evolving? The TV debate may appear slightly better structured, but I think we can all agree that 3 drunken men spitting half chewed chicken and beef at each other is a far classier arena than some stuffy room in London. 

Melvyn Bragg and a panel of international experts debate what Darwin’s theory of evolution tells us about ourselves and human society. Filmed at the Linnean Society - the world’s oldest biological society - in Piccadilly, London.

Steven Pinker , professor of psychology Massachusetts Institute of Technology
A prominent Canadian-born American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and popular science writer known for his spirited and wide-ranging advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.

Meredith Small , Cornell professor of anthropology
A primatologist by training and professor of anthropology by vocation, Small has spent untold hours watching monkeys interact in captivity and in the wild. So if you’re looking for a few clues about why people do some of the strange things we do, she’s happy to offer a few million years of evolutionary perspective

Steve Jones , biologist and a professor of genetics and head of the biology department at University College London
He is one of the best known contemporary popular writers on evolution. His popular writing shows a wry, sometimes rather dark, sense of humour. In 1996 his writing won him the Royal Society Michael Faraday prize “for his numerous, wide ranging contributions to the public understanding of science in areas such as human evolution and variation, race, sex, inherited disease and genetic manipulation through his many broadcasts on radio and television, his lectures, popular science books, and his regular science column in The Daily Telegraph and contributions to other newspaper media

Sir Jonathan Miller, CBE is a British theatre and opera director, neurologist, author, television presenter, humorist and sculptor
In 2004, he wrote and presented a series on atheism, Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief (on-screen title; but more commonly referred to as Jonathan Miller’s Brief History of Disbelief) for BBC Four TV, exploring the roots of his own atheism and investigating the history of atheism in the world. Individual conversations, debates and discussions for the series that could not be included, due to time constraints, were individually aired in a six-part series entitled The Atheism Tapes.


  1. Tom:

    What a remarkable memory you have, in spite of the wine consumed at that particular occasion! I had completely forgot that episode. Thanks for the tip, seems interesting.

  2. yes i remember too, and i have changed a lot my somewhhat naive positions since then... nice memory though...

  3. Well, I have actually forgotten my own position in that discussion, but I have probably changed it anyway, just as a matter of principles :)

    At the moment, I am thinking a lot of "gene-culture-coevolution", though, stimulated by the interesting book "Niche Construction" (Princeton University Press). Take a look at this book, at some point, it is some interesting idéas in it.

  4. Well at first i was all in favor of culture, saying that selection almost did not act anymore on human genes because of the plasticity generated by culture, but i am also more leaning for a strong interaction between geens and culture. I will check the book, maybe it will help me... i dont remember what tom though though (at the time), i already know now that he is all in fvor of the "drag-king" conflict related Freudian model...

  5. I would say "Culture" can generate new selection pressures, which in turn might favor different traits (or alleles). The most famous one is lactose-tolerance, where the cultural habit of drinking milk favoured the spread of alleles that made it possible to break down lactose. Thus, culture can of course not affect genes directly, but culture creates new selection pressures that favours alleles that would not have been favoured in the absence of culture.

  6. If I remember correctly, Erik and I said that even though selection may have slowed on Humans (esp in the western world) it is still there. Fab had taken the rather extreme view that we were now above selection, due to high child survival, medical care etc..We briefly discussed how low numbers of children in higher educated families and how this will pan out. I don't remember how it ended.
    One thing that was interesting about the tv debate was the discussion of the potentially strong selection in the developing world, esp when it comes to immune response in children (where there is a 50% survival rate). One of the panel suggests that this could be where we see the biggest change in human evolution.

  7. Tom/Fabrice:

    Yes, probably, that was my/our view. I would be very careful in claiming "no selection", neither for humans nor any other organism. It might simply mean that selection is too weak to be detected as significant, which is NOT the same thing as "no selection". Even weak to moderatselection coefficients (0.05 to 0.10)will have a dramatic effect in the long term, over many generations. Kingsolver's et al.s metaanalysis showed an average S of 0.16, which many would argue is quite strong selection.

    Claiming "no selection" is thus the same thing as claiming that S = 0.0000 (or so), which I do not think one should do unless one has MASSIVE sample sizes. On a per-locus basis, selection coefficients of only a few per cent will outpower genetic drift.

  8. Also, and related to my previous point, it is actually possible that "culture" has given rise to NEW selection pressures (e. g. lactose tolerance, mate choice etc.), rather than just simply weakening old ones (like infant mortality). Selection is, after all, not only acting on infant mortality, but also on other life stages. Is human reproductive success truly random? I doubt it...