Category Archives: Evolutionary Biology

How to choose the sex of your baby.

In order to make such a momentous decision, I insist that you learn the very interesting evolutionary biology behind it.

Start with this paragraph:

But for modern medical science, a baby’s sex would remain unknown until birth. But many mothers today know long beforehand whether a baby will be male or female. Routine ultrasound scans reveal fetal genitals a third of the way through pregnancy, and genetic tests identify sex even earlier. Yet basic questions remain. Is a baby’s sex like coin tossing, or can the male:female ratio be skewed? If sex bias occurs, does it happen through sperm sorting before fertilization or mortality differences in the womb after conception?

Then, CLICK HERE to read the rest of the story, by Robert Martin, expert on such things.

The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets

The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets

Several parallel discussions inspire me to write this post partly in the hope that you will chime in.

The chance of life elsewhere in the universe just went to near zero. Or did it?

Continue reading The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets

NPR: For Every Woman Who Dies In Childbirth In The U.S., 70 More Come Close

This latest in a series of reports from NPR is out.

Over the past year, NPR and ProPublica have been investigating why American mothers die in childbirth at a far higher rate than in all other developed countries.

A mother giving birth in the U.S. is about three times as likely to die as a mother in Britain and Canada.

In the course of our reporting, another disturbing statistic emerged: For every American woman who dies from childbirth, 70 nearly die. That adds up to more than 50,000 women who suffer “severe maternal morbidity” from childbirth each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A patient safety group, the Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health, came up with an even higher figure. After conducting an in-depth study of devastating complications in hospitals in four states, it put the nationwide number at around 80,000.

I’m not going into great detail about this, but I do want to make a few related salient points. Continue reading NPR: For Every Woman Who Dies In Childbirth In The U.S., 70 More Come Close

Yet Another South American Alien Turns Out To Be Human

But a very interesting human. A human being six inches tall (if standing), with only 12 sets of ribs, about 7 years old at the time of death. Did I mention six inches tall? New research on the so called “Atacama humanoid” (not an alien, just a human) shows a wide range of interesting genetic differences, according to a just published paper. Continue reading Yet Another South American Alien Turns Out To Be Human

The Early Bird Crushes The Egg

Model I birds, the kind that lived during the Age of the Other Dinosaurs, may not have brooded their eggs. Today, birds sit on their eggs in such a way that the adult bird’s down surrounds the ovoids, and warmth from the adult can keep the eggs at a constant temperature. Depending on the bird, you may find additional intersting adaptaitons. For example, Penguins use their own feet as a nest, placing the egg there. One adult broods the egg for a long period (days, in some species) and then swaps with the other adult, with the swapping being very ritualized in some cases. Like this egg swqap between parent Adelie penguins (Tip: this video does not show the actual swap): Continue reading The Early Bird Crushes The Egg

Strange Survivors: Book Note

Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life by Oné R. Pagán is an excellent book with the evolutionary arms race, competition, and nature red in tooth and claw (and many other parts) as its theme. Well written and humorous, and scientifically accurate.

Mike Haubrich and I interviewed the author, and the Ikonokast Podcast of that interview IS HERE.

From the Publisher: Continue reading Strange Survivors: Book Note

Sexual Selection Up To Date: A Taste for the Beautiful

A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction is a popular science book written by an actual expert on the field, addressing the ways in which the world of animals is shaped by sexual selection.

One of Darwin’s major contributions to the panoply of theoretical and observational work we call “evolution” was to recognize, describe, and model sexual selection. Continue reading Sexual Selection Up To Date: A Taste for the Beautiful

Darwin Quotes, Assembled

From Janet Browne, the author of Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 1 – Voyaging and other works about Charles Dawin, The Quotable Darwin.

Quotes by Charles Darwin are not just the stuff of memes. Even the fake quotes. They can be the center of long arguments, or at least, they can significantly augment the arguments. For example, did you know that while Darwin never used the term “missing link” he did talk about missing links quite a bit, missing links are central to his thinking about evolution, and all those writers of today who claim that we must never speak of missing links are misguided? Continue reading Darwin Quotes, Assembled

Gene Therapy Is Starting To Be A Real Thing

Today, the an FDA advisory committee recommended that the FDA approve full clinical trials for a type of gene therapy that addresses a rare genetic condition causing deterioration of the retina. This is found in 8.6×105 of people world wide, so not many. the therapy involves injecting a virus bearing the preferred copy of the gene, the non-broken allele, into the eyeball, where the new gene somehow reduces, stops, and seemingly reverses, the deterioration.

The therapy was previously looked at in a preliminary study with a small sample of people. Here is the abstract from that study: Continue reading Gene Therapy Is Starting To Be A Real Thing

How long is a human generation?

How long is a generation, you ask?

Short Answer: 25 years, but a generation ago it was 20 years.

Long answer: It depends on what you mean by generation.

In US-biased Western culture there is a Biological Generation, the Dynamic Generation, the somewhat different Familial Generation, what is sometimes called a Cultural Generation but that should really be called a Societal Generation, and then there is the Designated Generation and finally, the Historical-Long Generation. You will find some of these terms identified on genealogical web sites, Teh Wiki and elsewhere, and some of them are introduced here. (References provided below.)

More broadly speaking, humans have identifiable meaningful generation-related terminology and cultural concepts in many but not all societies, and when it does occur, it is more common to find the concept in age-graded societies or societies in which marriage arrangements are fairly strictly enforced (or at least strongly hoped for) by the ascending generation.

A Biological Generation


…is simply the unscaled transition from one parent to one offspring. In humans, the Biological generation does not have a standard length but there are limits. So you are in one generation, your mother the previous, your child the next one after you, etc. regardless of when any of you were born. As long as your Uncle Willard does not marry your Sister Betty Jean, this is not complicated; This is what people often mean when they use the term “generation” but not what they mean when they ask the question “how long is a generation.”

A Dynamic Generation


…is a concept used by anthropologists but not usually with this term. This is similar to the biological generation but applied more broadly across a group of people. You (Ego) relate to everyone else of your age as being in your generation (your siblings, your parents siblings children, etc.). The first ascending generation (your parents and those in their generation), the second ascending generation (grandparents and their generation) etc. go one way in generational time. Going the other way, your children and their generation are the first descending generation. Your grandchildren and their cohort members are the second descending generation. Etc.

Those methods of reckoning generations have to do with the relationship between people. Another reason to reckon generations is either to do demographic (or economic) analysis or to test and analyze genealogies. For this you want to know how long a dynamic generation (or a biological one) usually is. For instance, a genealogist wants to know this: From the point of view of some long-dead relative, is the time span between the birth date of a grandparent and the birth date of a great grand child … thus, the span of time of four complete generations … reasonable? If such a span is 200 years, that means that an average of 50 years time passed from birth of a person to that person giving birth to the person in line. Implausible. If the total span is 40 years, that means ten year olds were having babies (on average). Also implausible. Either way, some part of the hypothetical genealogy is messed up and it’s back to the church records, vital statistics, and Mormon database for you. This is a Familial Generation.

In the “old days” (whenever that was) people often used the value 20 to represent Familial Generations. So, a person born on the first day of a century may well have had a great great great grandparent born around the beginning of the previous century. Today, with lager age at first birth for women being the rule, we tend to see 25 years as the recommended estimate for Familial Generations.

A Cultural or Societal Generation


…is a cohort (a bunch of people born during a specified range of time) with a name that has some sort of meaning to those who use it. The following are widely recognized, given here with the midpoint of the generally accepted range of birth dates:

  • Lost 1914
  • Greatest 1923
  • Silent 1935
  • Baby Boom (Boomers) 1955
  • Generation X 1968
  • Generation Y 1975
  • Generation Z or I 1992

(See comments below for people fighting about these names and dates. I accept Teh Wiki as the final word on this, so I take this list as perfectly accurate and complete.)

Several things are noticed in this list. The first three relate to major historical events (World Wars, the Great Depression) while the later ones are vague, stupid, and obviously little more than lame attempts by people who wish they were part of a generation to name themselves. This leads to the X and Y generations to be floating in broader time ranges (see Teh Wiki) and very arguable. The Z generation is clearly an afterthought. I assume everyone was so focused on the Millennium that they forget to be in a generation for a decade or so, and then had to catch up.

Some of the more primitively sexy and exotic tribal cultures of the world of the world have a strict age grading system. This is where individuals are in a specific age-defined stratum, and there are several strata. Often there are different age-grades for males and females, and often there are more age-grades for males than females. Individuals of a particular age grade always X and never Y (fill in cultural prescriptions for X and cultural proscriptions for Y). The Pokot of East Africa are one example. These age grades can be termed Designated Generations and include not only groups like the Pokot but also Americans who have very strongly age-graded designations.


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Among the Pokot males of a certain age wear a certain hairdo. Males of a certain generation get married. All the important things you can do or not do are defined by one’s age grade. As young men age they want to move to the next age grade, and often take serious risks to do so. In one Pokot group, the boys of one age grade would typically wear the hairdos of the Ascending Generation. Males in the Ascending Generation would then beat the crap out of them. When the beatings became too common and severe (sometimes deadly) the Ascending Generation of the Ascending Generation (the “Elders”) would declare that it is time for everyone to move up one generation, and a ceremony would be held.

In that particular group the ceremony applied to many different villages, and representatives from each village had to bring to the major chief’s village one head of cattle. The cattle were all slaughtered and the fresh meat laid out on racks to be guarded from lions and hyenas overnight by the chief, alone. If any of the meat was taken by predators, the chief was fired and a new chief appointed, everyone was sent home and were required to return with a fresh head of cattle, and the ceremony was re-started with the new chief. But I digress.

The Historical-Long Generation is my own invention. This is the period of time that is just short enough for a person to have a conversation with another person about shared memories where those memories are separated in time by the maximum amount possible for our species. Let me explain further:

Just today, the last surviving US veteran of World War I died. When I was a kid, I went to (or marched in) parades in which there were lots of veterans. Most vets in the parade were of World War II. Korea was not ever represented. The Viet Nam Vets were busy in Viet Nam being Viet Nam soldiers, so they were not in the parades. But World War I was represented by the grandpas and there were a lot of them.

And, leading all of the veterans in the parade was this one guy who looked quite dead, eyes closed, not apparently breathing, wearing a 19th century Slouch Hat and covered with a blanket and slumped in wheel chair pushed by members of the VFW Ladies’ Auxiliary, and he was the only remaining veteran in town of the Spanish-American War. I know he was not in fact dead because he was in the parade several years in a row. That war was in 1898, and the parades I remember must have been from the mid 1960s. I assume he was a drummer boy, perhaps 10 or 11 at the time of the war. The last surviving vets from Civil War were similar: Boys who served in the military as aides or drummers. The point is, one could argue that a historical-long generation is about a century, because that old guy and I share involvement in an event … marching in those parades … that link two memories, the parade and the war, which were about 100 years apart.

I have an even better memory. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Januray 1st, 1863. When that happened, a toddler who’s last name was Alexander and who was born as a slave in the Carolina’s became free. Later, his family moved to Albany, New York. In around 1968 or 1969, my father asked me to accompany our congressman, Representative Samuel A. Stratton (famous for introducing the bill to give us Monday Holidays, I am told) to an old tenement building in “Teh Ghetto” and bring him up to the third floor to meet Mr. Alexander, the now old former infant slave. I did so, and we all chatted for a while. I was about ten, and Mr. Alexander was closer to 110. He had memories of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that were similar to my memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy: Vague, mostly about the aftermath and not the event so much, but seemingly real. We shared memories that were a century apart in time, and in this case, interestingly parallel.

So, the Historical-Long generation is a century. If you meet me and shake my hand, you are shaking a hand that has shaken the hand of a man who was an American slave. Meaningless, yet profound.

Fox, Robin.Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Lutz, Catherine. Reading National Geographic

Teh Wiki. Generation.

Teh Wiki List of generations.

Aging in men: An evolutionary perspective

Many years ago, Mel Konner, Marjorie shostak, and Boyd Eaton wrote “The Paleolithic Prescription: A program of diet and exercise and a design for living.” (It is hard to find these days. To find it and related titles on Amazon, look for this book first, and track the PP down via the author name Konner.)

(Added: You can probably get the The Paleolithic Prescription here.)

Richard G. Bribiescas is professor of anthropology and ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, where he also serves as deputy provost for faculty development and diversity. He is the author of Men: Evolutionary and Life History. He lives in Hamden, Connecticut.
Richard G. Bribiescas is professor of anthropology and ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, where he also serves as deputy provost for faculty development and diversity. He is the author of Men: Evolutionary and Life History. He lives in Hamden, Connecticut.
That was the first “stone age” diet book. But, it was different from all the others, and the only one worth anything. Mel and Marjorie were two of several individuals, including my advisor and theses readers, Irv Devore and John Yellen, who engaged in the famous Kalahari Project, in which the biology and lifeways of the Ju/’hoansi foragers (aka Bushmen or San) were studied intensively for several years.

The researchers noticed that there were differences in lifeways between these exemplary foragers and industrialized people’s of the West that seemed related to health and well being. They were able to link, sometimes definitively, sometimes tentatively, diet and activity levels on one hand and health on the other. Their findings, by the way, were first published in the peer reviewed literature, then turned, by the scientist themselves, into a popular book. (One of the findings eventually led to the understanding that there are different kids of cholesterol, which seem to have very different health related implications.)

My own research with the Efe (Pygmies) of the Ituri Forest, in Zaire, was an indirect offshoot of that early work. I got my PhD at the same institution, Harvard’s Anthropology Department that housed much of the Kalahari project, and the Ituri project was started by the same leader, Irv DeVore, via his students. So, the tradition of examining the lifeways of modern day foragers, in part to understand ideal human conditions, and comparing those conditions to western ways continued.

Meanwhile, one of the graduate students at Harvard, Peter Ellison (yes, he is related to that Ellison) had been interested in some work coming out of Harvard Medical school looking at hormones and behavior, especially as related to reproductive biology of human women. Building on that work, Ellison created an entirely new field of study, called “Reproductive Ecology.” He finished his PhD and was added to the faculty at the Anthropology department in one of those in between positions (as was I and many others over the years) but Peter became one of the very few such individuals to be eventually offered a tenured position with the most “always hire from outside” institutions ever. And Ellison created the Reproductive Ecology Lab within the biological anthropology wing of Harvard’s Department of Anthropology.

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-11-01-54-amAnd, they studies the heck out of female reproductive ecology. I had the pleasure of working, almost every semester that I was there from late in my PhD cycle through my post-PhD teaching career there, to work with Mary O’Rourke (and others) who were from that lab running an undergraduate tutorial. The tutorial is three or four faculty members each running two or three groups, with about five or six students in each group. These are students majoring in Biological Anthropology, who have already taken a class or two but are on their way into the research labs. The tutorial instructors’ job is to turn these young and interested minds into the minds of proto-Anthropologists by carefully examining a different topic each week, looking at a combination of peer reviewed literature and secondary but excellent literature (back in those days, the former was easier to find).

So, I spent a lot of time hanging around with the Reproductive Ecology people (and, by the way, collecting some of their data in Zaire). Every social event had a lot of Repro Eco folks at it, so it was pretty normal for someone to pull out a box of specially prepared test tubes to get every one to provide saliva samples for some study or another. It was not long into the process of developing this subfield that the reproductive ecology of men, simpler but still important, was also taken up by this group, so everyone had an opportunity to spit into the tubes. For example:

Hypothesis: Testosterone in men varies over short time scales (of minutes, hours) during a poker game depending on which cards they are dealt, assuming the samples are not contaminated by …

… oh, never mind, you get the picture.

Anyway, it was while I was a couple of years into my own graduate career when a young man from California showed up to study anthropology, with a particular interest in Biological Anthropology. It was Richard Bribiescas. Rick and I did not hang around a lot of time, because we were both busy, but we were good friends and broke bread (a euphemism for guzzling beer but there were also tacos and cheeseburgers) quite often.

When Rick got to Harvard, there was already a strong tradition of working to understand modern human problems in the Western world by examining modern human behavior and physiology in a variety of other societies, including foragers.

Many young men and women went to the field from that department, to work in Poland, Borneo, the Amazon, the Congo. Among those, very few attempted to work in the most difficult of conditions, in a rain forest with foragers. Of those who tried most retreated and picked another topic. A few persisted and continued to study this or that thing about one of the few remaining forager group son the planet. That’s what I did, with the Efe. That’s also what Rick did, with the Ache, of South America.

And, as a result of that, Rick produced a bunch of interesting peer reviewed papers, and eventually, a book that has been out for a while now called Men: Evolutionary and Life History. A number of books had been written about female reproductive ecology, but along the way, rick became the expert on male reproductive ecology, discovering that it is not as simple as one might expect. This book is the result of that achievement.

And now, Rick is an old guy. He must be at least 45. And, as such, he has turned his attention to a new but related topic: How do men age. And, the newly produced book that comes from this research to your book shelf is How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals about Male Health and Mortality

Do not buy or borrow some book on aging written by a web site, a fake MD, or some other charlatan. Read a book on aging (in men) that first appeared many times in the peer reviewed literature, written by Harvard Trained Yale Expert Richard Bribiescas.

Note the subtitle. This is about what evolution reveals about male health and mortality. Having taught along side him many times, and after all those beers, tacos, and cheeseburgers, I can tell you that Rick knows all about evolution, and of course, he is the world’s leading expert on male reproductive ecology.

I put the Table of Contents below to give you and idea.

Rick is a great writer, and this book is fun to read.

Do the well known features of male aging have some sort of evolutonary advantage, as has been proposed for females? How much of male aging in the West is a function of our Western lifestyle, or a function of our seemingly extended lifespan? What about the contradiction between what we mere humans think of as “health” or “healthy” and what the cruel and cold process of Darwinian natural selection things about such silly things? What about sex, relationships, monogamy, polygamy, fatherhood and child rearing, in male humans in general, and across the aging process? And our brains, our obscenely large brains, what the heck are they for?

You will enjoy this book, especially if you are a man of a certain age.

Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments ix
Chapter 1 A Gray Evolutionary Lens 1
Chapter 2 Dead Man’s Curve 17
Chapter 3 Getting a Handle on Love Handles 45
Chapter 4 Older Fathers, Longer Lives 70
Chapter 5 Dear Old Dad 88
Chapter 6 Darwinian Health and Other Contradictions 106
Chapter 7 Older Men and the Future of Human Evolution 133
Notes 145
Index 169


In homage to an inspiration of this post, I provide this link to the secret, generally unseen obituary of Professor Irven Boyd DeVore.


Is Human Behavior Genetic Or Learned?

Imagine that there is a trait observed among people that seems to occur more frequently in some families and not others. One might suspect that the trait is inherited genetically. Imagine researchers looking for the genetic underpinning of this trait and at first, not finding it. What might you conclude? It could be reasonable to conclude that the genetic underpinning of the trait is elusive, perhaps complicated with multiple genes, or that there is a non-genetic component, also not yet identified, that makes finding the genetic component harder. Eventually, you might assume, the gene will be found. Continue reading Is Human Behavior Genetic Or Learned?