Category Archives: Development

Allen's Rule, Phenotypic Plasticity, and The Nature of Evolution

ResearchBlogging.orgAllen’s Rule. One of those things you learn in graduate school along with Bergmann’s Rule and Cope’s Rule. It is all about body size. Cope’s Rule … which is a rule of thumb and not an absolute … says that over time the species in a given lineage tend to be larger and larger. Bergmann’s Rule says that mammals get larger in colder environments. Allen’s Rule has mammals getting rounder in colder climates, by decreasing length of appendages such as limbs, tails and ears.

All three rules seem to be exemplified in human evolution. Modern humans tend to be larger and rounder in cooler environments than in tropical environments. Over time, the human lineage has gotten larger … australopiths of the Miocene and Pliocene were smaller than Homo erectus and modern Homo sapiens. In comparing contemporary African modern humans and European Neanderthals, the latter are rounder and have shorter limbs, especially the distal parts of the limbs (forearms and the leg below the knees). In fact, this difference in body proportion is one of the key features that physical anthropologists use to distinguish between regular modern humans and Neanderthals when faced with that task.

[Revised and Reposted. Teachers, here is a PDF version of this post (slightly revised for better use as a handout). ]

Bunnies demonstrating Allen’s rule.

The usual assumption is that these changes in body form are selected for as a result of various environmental pressures, and that these features of body size and shape become adaptive features seen in particular populations. The body shape story is part of the Darwinian story of adaptation as well as, in some cases, the story of racial differentiation among humans or other organisms.

And of course, it is all wrong, as usual.
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Driving The Patriarchy: Demonic Males, Feminism, and Genetic Determinism

Behaviors are not caused by genes. There is not a gene that causes you to be good, or to be bad, or to be smart, or good at accounting, or to like bananas. There are, however, drives. “Drives” is a nicely vague term that we can all understand the meaning of. Thirst and hunger are drives we can all relate to. In fact, these drives are so basic, consistent and powerful that almost everyone has them, we share almost exact experiences in relation to them, and they can drive (as drives are wont to do) us to do extreme things when they are not met for long periods of time. While eating disorders are common enough and these affect a hunger drive, it is very rare to find a person thirst themselves to death.
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What is the most important human adaptation?

Human infants require more care than they should, if we form our expectations based on closely related species (apes, and more generally, Old World simian primates). It has been said that humans are born three months early. This is not accurate. It was thought that our body size predicted a 12 month gestation, and some suggested that Neanderthals would have had such, but this research conclusion has been set aside based on new analysis. But it is still true that developmentally, human children do not reach a stage of development that allows some degree of self care for a very long time compared to apes. The actual sequence of development is not directly comparable: It is not the case that after a certain amount of time humans reach a specific stage reached earlier in the lifecycle by Chimpanzees, as the differences are more complicated than that. For the present purposes, we can characterize the human condition for early development like this: Human babies are more helpless in more ways and for longer than comparable ape babies.
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Why do women shop and men hunt?

Or, when the hunting season is closed, watch teh game (the guys), or when there are no sales, admire each other’s shoes (the gals)?

This is, of course, a parody of the sociobiological, or in modern parlance, the “evolutionary psychology” argument linking behaviors that evolved in our species during the long slog known as The Pleistocene with today’s behavior in the modern predator-free food-rich world. And, it is a very sound argument. If, by “sound” you mean “sounds good unless you listen really hard.”

I list this argument among the falsehoods, but really, this is a category of argument with numerous little sub-arguments, and one about which I could write as many blog posts as I have fingers and toes, which means, at least twenty. (Apparently there was some pentaldactylsim in my ancestry, and I must admit that I’ll never really know what they cut off when I was born, if anything.)

Before going into this discussion I think it is wise, if against my nature, to tell you what the outcome will be: There is not a good argument to be found in the realm of behavioral biology for why American Women shop while their husbands sit on the bench in the mall outside the women’s fashion store fantasizing about a larger TV on which to watch the game. At the same time, there is a good argument to be made that men and women should have different hard wired behavioral proclivities, if there are any hard wired behavioral proclivities in our species. And, I’m afraid, the validity from an individual’s perspective of the various arguments that men and women are genetically programmed to be different (in ways that make biological sense) is normally determined by the background and politics of the observer and not the science. I am trained in behavioral biology, I was taught by the leading sociobiologists, I’ve carried out research in this area, and I was even present, somewhat admiringly, at the very birth of Evolutionary Psychology, in Room 14A in the Peabody Museum at Harvard, in the 1980s. So, if anyone is going to be a supporter of evolutionary psychology, it’s me.

But I’m not. Let me ‘splain….
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Genes are only part of the story: ncRNA does stuff

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchYou know that organisms develop, grow, and function in part because genes code for proteins that form the building blocks of life or that function as working bioactive molecules (like enzymes). You also know that most DNA is junk, only a couple percent actually coding for anything useful. Most importantly, however, you know that everything you know is wrong. Right? Continue reading Genes are only part of the story: ncRNA does stuff