Sunday, August 30, 2009

The losing battle for rationality in Perth

Tonight I went along to a meeting of a very new group here in my home city, called the Perth sceptics. I was looking forward to having the opportunity to discuss the absurdities of religion, particularly the way over a third of schools here in Australia are private and quite religious - and are still somehow state funded. I also wanted to discuss how we discriminate between the plausible and poppycock, especially in relation to waterside hypotheses of human evolution.

The meeting was arranged at "The Flying Scotsman", a pub in Mount Lawley, a Perth suburb. It all sounded ideal for me. I arrived an hour early and had a quiet pint contemplating the state of the world and the merits of Cooper's Light Ale. Eventually, when the time came I asked the guy at the bar about where the room was that had been advertised to us all and was a little shocked when he told me that the room in question had not been booked and he'd never heard of any group called 'The Perth sceptics" or anything like it.

It was with some relief that, whilst hanging around outside the room I thought the meeting was supposed to be held in I met another chap that looked similarly puzzled. We ended up spending the best part of the next two hours having a fascinating chat about religion and the so-called aquatic ape theory which was, for me, perfect.

Eventually, the guy left and before I set off home I thought I'd try one more time to see if there was any other room upstairs where the meeting might have been moved to. Apparently the pub had a cocktail lounge around the corner so I went round there and met a bouncer on the door. I asked him "is this where the Perth sceptics are meeting?" He knew nothing about them either and told me that there was no-one up there. I almost turned back but thought "what the hell, let's go and have a look."

To my amazement, when I got upstairs I saw a room full of people (well about a dozen or so) and, sure enough, these were the Perth sceptics - about to leave after the meeting had finished!

Now, I don't want to criticise the organisers too much. When I got back home and re-read the email that had been sent out it did say that the meeting was in the room "velvet lounge upstairs." Even though the "velvet lounge" is not upstairs but downstairs, I guess I should have tried to find the room upstairs earlier anyway. I do think the people in the pub, though, could have been a little more "aware" of what was going on.

Anyway, who cares?... at least I made an initial contact with a few key people who were all very interesting and I also found out about another new group - called Perth atheists that meet at the same pub. Hopefully in the same room!?

But the real point of this rant is to describe what happened next, on the way home.

Before going onto that, let's just remind ourselves of a few facts. As far as I'm aware the Perth sceptics and Perth atheists are both very new and nothing like them existed before. Perth is a very new city but I think it's true to say there has not been a forum for people to discuss their disbelief in the 180 years that Perth has existed until very recently. In a city of 1.4m, just 14 people came along and, as we have seen, it wasn't flash - just a meeting in a pub.

Anyway, as I walked towards the city to catch the train home, I passed by a church - one of hundreds in Perth and, I suppose because I'd just spent a lot of the afternoon thinking and talking about religion, I became curious. I hadn't stepped in a church in years and only then for weddings or friends/relies christenings. I hadn't been to a mass in thirty years so i thought I'd see what I'd been missing.

Blimey. This was very different to my Catholic roots. Instead of a cold, formal sermon with a stiff priest talking Latin mumbo jumbo and alter boys all dressed up in their weird robes, this was more like a concert. On the stage was a full band comprised of cool young dudes. Behind them were about 14 screens (OK, 9 together made one big one in the middle, so technically just 5) showing close ups of faces and film clips and the words to the "hymns" like some super-duper karaoke bar. In centre stage was "Pastor Geoff" ranting on about God and Jesus and how important YOU are to THEM.

I listened at the back, shaking my head every now and then at the astonishing claims being made and couldn't help but mutter various "tut tuts" and other comments under my breathe. Eventually I could take no more and had to leave, putting my "goody bag" with it's expensive looking glossy programme and DVD featuring Pastor Geoff on one side. I tried to explain my reasons for walking out to one of the young staff there but it wasn't long before an older chief-pastor came along and very politely showed me the door. I tried to persuade him that it might be good if we organised a meeting where the younger members of his flock could be addressed by me and then by him, so that they got a fair and balanced view of the evidence for and against religion but he said "that's not going to happen" and closed the door on me.

Oh well. I tried.

As I walked away what started to sink in was the enormity of the problem. Just think how much money that church had invested in all that state-of-the-art equipment, the programs, the staff, the comfy seats, the smart sound softening walls, the band's equipment etc. At the start, after a heart string pulling rendition of "Give your heart to Jesus" or some other such sappy rubbish, the collection buckets went round the congregation which, I'd estimate, was at least 150 people. And this was just one church! Imagine how much cash is rolling in to places like this in the USA. Just think of all the tele-evangelists. All the state funded religious "charities" and schools and so on.

Is it just me that finds the disparity between the numbers of people and level of organization of believers and non-believers a little alarming?

Algis Kuliukas
30th August 2009

Friday, August 28, 2009

Professor Plaukimas and "sciguy" - a story based on fact

Once upon a time there was an eminent scientist with a very long and respected career in her field. She was a professor of a science at one of the most reputable universities in the world, a post she held for decades. Let’s call her Professor Plaukimas. She was very well known. She made a massive contribution to her field, has had much work published – all peer reviewed of course. This work was often cited and was always well respected. She and her work were the very essence of scientific orthodoxy.

At some point in the past, many years ago, Plaukimas had a bit of a crazy idea, which applied to a different field of science than her own, but it was her detailed knowledge of her own field that enabled her to “think outside the box” and apply it there. It seemed quite brilliant to her at the time but she immediately recognised that it was very controversial and that no-one specialising in that field had considered it before and that most would probably find the notion a bit weird or grotesque. So she kept it to herself.

Plaukimas kept the idea quiet for years and years, until one day, when she retired she announced it to an informal group of people in involved in her own field. Unbeknown to her, a journalist at the back of the room was listening to what she was saying with astonishment and, like any good journo, scribbled down what he thought the key points of the argument were and sent them to various editors of the national papers. What a scoop! The next day the press are full of headlines about the famous professor and her crazy idea. Being journalists, they got the idea slightly little wrong, and even distorted it a little for maximum publicity. Plaukimas responded by writing a short piece to defend her view, to explain it more accurately and clearly. She posted it to a blogging site... Thousands read it and some post favourable comments about it, but the damage had already been done. The respect people had for in her field was not damaged much but to people in the field related to her idea, Professor Plaukimas became a laughing stock.

Rather than look at the idea objectively and see if it might have some validity somewhere, the authorities in the field either ignored the idea completely or sneered at it. As a result, in the years that have followed, through the process of academic enculturation, a whole generation of students went through universities all over the world, either ignorant about the idea or with a belief that the idea was preposterous and that it had been debunked by the field years ago. Some of these students followed careers in academia in the same field, and became the next generation of researchers, lecturers, authors and gatekeepers of knowledge. Unsurprisingly, today they pass on nescient or sneering memes about the idea to the current generation of students. Within fifty years, a whole field has convinced themselves that the idea is at best irrelevant, as it has been rejected by science, or, at worst, somehow a sordid form of pseudoscience like UFOlogy or creationism. Note, that they arrived at this situation without a single piece of ‘proper’ research ever being done into the idea but merely because of the opinion of the people who happened to be in authority at the time of the unfortunate ‘faux pas’ was made by the professor.

Now enter an enterprising young layman. Let’s call him “sciguy”. He’s was also a bit of a journalist and loves digging around for stuff, finding errors in people’s work and exposing “shock-horror” revelations. He stumbles across the idea one day and somehow gets drawn to it. “What was ever wrong with the idea anyway?” he thinks. “It seems perfectly reasonable to me. Haven’t they just exaggerated it? Where was the science that was used to reject the idea?” Being a journalist he realises how the temptation to exaggerate was probably responsible in getting the idea dismissed so easily and feels somehow responsible for the gross, knee-jerk, misunderstanding. He decides to abandon journalism and dedicate the rest of his life to the ‘scientific truth’. Like most converts, he becomes obsessed with this and sets about trying to redress the balance.

Fully “on board” with the scientific method, he appreciates that for the idea to be taken seriously he needs to have something published about the idea in a peer-reviewed journal. He drops his career in journalism and enrols in a university as a mature masters’ student in the field in question. He studies hard, learns as much as he can about all the relevant areas to improve his knowledge as much as he can and to collect as much evidence as possible. He doesn’t become an expert in any particular area but learns a lot about most of them. He passes his masters (with a distinction) and starts on a PhD. He designs and conducts a whole set of research projects to investigate the idea, probably for the first time. “Sciguy” gets the best advice he can from his university and then, finally, tries to get the paper published in a respected peer-reviewed journal in the field.

But he’s disappointed. It is rejected. It is rejected again and again. Sometimes it doesn’t even go to peer review but even when it does it is clear that the reviewers don’t like the idea. They have no complaint about his methodology, his experimental protocols or his scholarliness, just the interpretation of the results which indicate that the original idea of Professor Plaukimas might have been right after all. The crazy idea was rejected by the field years ago, after all, wasn’t it? No-one thinks Plaukimas was right, not openly anyway, although some have often wondered about it privately.

The problem is really that there is very little in the literature to back “sciguy’s” interpretations of his findings up. No-one has ever properly studied Plaukimas’ ideas so there is nothing specific to cite, not even in adjacently related areas. So “sciguy” has to draw on what little there is and make inferences and assertions from that to link to his original empirical data. But, to the reviewers this looks a bit of a stretch so they feel justified in rejecting the work. Besides, none of them is exactly keen on being one of those that let Plaukimas’ crazy idea into respectability after all these years. Whatever would the chief editor of the journal think of them? Maybe they wouldn’t be asked to be a reviewer any more. Maybe their reputation might be tarred with the same, Plaukimas, brush.

So it goes on. We find ourselves in a catch 22 situation. The idea is not published... because it hasn’t been published. It’s not taught to current students... because it wasn’t taught in the past. It’s officially ignored by the field... because it’s always been ignored by the field.

“Sciguy” re-writes his paper yet again and re-submits again and again, each time to slightly less well respected or slightly less relevant journals. Meanwhile, frustrated, “sciguy” goes onto the internet, puts up a web site and participates in as many discussion groups on the subject as he can find. So many years have gone by and still no proper science has been done on this idea. The situation seems absurd to him.

To his amazement, rather than getting any credit for his efforts from discussion group posters, the vast majority instinctively side with the authorities that have rejected the idea. Plaukimas’ idea is crazy. They all know this. Surely we’re not going to have to go through all this again.

Every claim “sciguy” makes is met with objections like “that is only an assertion, not peer-reviewed evidence” and demands like “can you support that with something from the peer-reviewed literature”. Whenever peer-reviewed literature is cited another round of objections and demands are spat back. “Aaah... that journal doesn’t count. The chief editor of that one thinks Plaukimas was right” or “that study wasn’t looking specifically at the idea in question. You’re only claiming a correlation because it suits your pre-conceived notion that Plaukimas must be right.”

The peer review process is clearly flawed. It needs modifying slightly to allow plausible ideas into the system for open peer review. That way, we will make faster progress and potentially brilliant ideas will not be excluded from being thoroughly investigated for 50 years.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Algirdo retires from football

Algirdo Retires from Football

(Well, actually this happened more than 1,000 days ago but I did literally write it just afterwards. Now the football season has restarted and having just turned 50, as I'm feeling very old and miserable I thought I'd post it here again now... just for a bit of a laugh.)

Just 45 minutes ago on this very evening, Monday, 16th October 2006, Algirdo announced (although no-one was listening) his retirement from playing football. It was an ignominious exit from the game if ever there was one, although perhaps it was not quite in the same league as Zinidine Zidane’s. His team were literally one kick away from mid-table mediocrity but instead, now face a play-off next week for the wooden spoon. Not that Algirdo will be playing in that match. He’s just retired from the game, remember.

Being born of parents that were East European refugees, grateful to still be alive whilst Stalin trampled all over their home lands and terrorised their families, Algirdo was not really brought up to like football. His father had been to see one match in Barnsley, where he worked as a coal miner, against Newcastle United, but that was it. So, while England were shaking the football universe by winning the World Cup in 1966, inspiring a nation of boys to wannabe Bobby Charlton, Algirdo was playing at being Scott Tracey rescuing his cat, Tiggles, from disasters he’d inflicted on the poor, scraggy moggie himself.

However, despite this inauspicious beginning, Algirdo’s footballing career, if you could call it that, would span some forty years. He consistently played at the very lowest levels of the game for all of that time. It's quite remarkable how bad he was. In 1968, for example, at the age of 9, he made his debut at school team level. Being new to the school, Mr Cooper, the head of PE at Kingsway Primary, and Algirdo’s form teacher, picked him to play left back in a school match against Jeffries, probably only because Algirdo was keen at maths and loved Mr Cooper’s readings of “Stig of the Dump”. Not quite familiar with the rules, or perhaps it was just nerves at playing in such an important match, Algirdo repeatedly ran inside the penalty box to receive a goal kick from the goalkeeper until, on the third occasion, Mr Cooper (who was also refereeing) was so furious with him that he thought it best to leave the ball alone and let to go, instead, to a Jeffries striker who promptly scored. Later, in a truly bizarre incident, the referee substituted him and he spent the rest of the game watching from behind the goal. The egg on his face is still there, 38 years later. That match remains his one and only appearance at school team level.

At his next school, Ashfield Comprehensive, an institution of some 2,000 working class pupils, the chances of being picked for the school team were pretty slim, even if you had any talent which, of course, Algirdo did not yet possess - at that time. Even his class mates from Kingsway, Andrew Shaw and Anthony Cobb, who were both comparatively brilliant, struggled to get into the team, so what chance did Algirdo have? None whatsoever. He did play for his school house, Trent, a couple of times, but his performances were as forgettable as the score lines. Needless to say, he never scored a goal. His experiences of playing football at the comp were never good. Mr Jay, the masochistic, and Welsh, PE teacher used to select only the very coldest days, when the ground, and the footballs, felt like iron, to play the game - days when blue/black bruises, left on the thigh after blocking a shot, would last for days. This cold approach ensured that whatever enthusiasm for sport he might have had was killed, frozen stone dead, in its tracks. But away from school, and in the summers – with Mexico 1970 still fresh in his mind - his passion for football increased and, with his pals, Cobby, Hobbsie and later Hilly and Kelly, they’d spend countless hours on the Acre playing game after game developing skills that, in another life, might have bore a rich and remarkable fruit. Alas, not for Algirdo. Not yet. Fate was to decree that his bad start would get much, much worse, before it could ever get better.

His ‘career’ advancement was further blighted by an unfortunate combination of being pathetically skinny and unathletic, and having a blood testosterone level that was about that of a foetus. Year after year, then month after month, and week after week, as more and more of his school mates boldly stepped into PE changing room showers revealing their masculinity with ever more pride and gusto, Algirdo was left as a member of an ever shrinking band of sad little boys, whose pubes had not yet sprouted, whose willies which had not yet started to expand and whose voices seemed to grow more shrill with every manly grunt they heard. The psycho, Mr Jay, determined that every boy should go in the shower after PE, and this humiliating torture was endured for years, despite occasional notes from mum saying that he couldn’t do PE because he had scarlet fever, and other such unlikely excuses. When Laittey, and then Hitchy joined the ranks of men, it was just too much to bare. Luckily, Algirdo had reached the 5th year at secondary school by that stage and finally, he had an escape clause – he could choose to play table tennis instead, an opportunity he grabbed with both skinny hands.

Who knows what kind of a footballer Algirdo might have developed into, if only his puberty had kicked in at a normal age, or even earlier, instead of the absurdly cruel 17, when his voice finally did deepen and he started to look like a 14 year old, instead of just 12. Probably one that was not quite as awful as he was. So, finally, as a sixth former, Algirdo began to make his first, hesitant, steps into the world of playing football with ‘big lads’. At first, it was just a friendly five-a-side session in Sutton, one evening a week, organised by Raz, but by the time Algirdo went to Nottingham University , he began playing, for the first time since his forgettable displays for Trent , on full-sized pitches in competitive matches. Inspired by being a fanatical follower of Cloughie’s Forest , Algirdo just had to blossom into some kind of footballer, and that he did – ‘some’ kind. For Sherwood Hall (second team) he was actually a regular. Every Wednesday afternoon, he’d get the bus, or a lift in Chesterfield ’s mini, down to the Trentside playing fields to join up with his fellow team mates playing football at a quite respectable level, even scoring a goal once (as a centre half going up for a corner). Certainly, the Sherwood Hall first team included some really talented players. Graham Batey had trials with Southampton and a couple of other players, including "Borstal Boy", were also watched by scouts on occasion. So, you can imagine how exciting it was when Sherwood Hall Second team made it into the semi-final of the Nottingham University Cup with the honour of playing on one of the ‘posh’ pitches just opposite the main university buildings. Sherwood Hall first team had stormed their way into the other semi-final and as the seconds had the easier draw, Lenton Hall third team, it all looked set for the tantalising prospect of an all-Sherwood final. That cold but sunny winter’s afternoon was the nearest Algirdo would get to anything resembling glory in his long playing career. But Lenton wanted it more on the day and earned their right to get thrashed by Sherwood firsts, instead of his team. As University days wound down, he’d spend many evenings kicking a ball around with the likes of Boro and Jakey, as well as the Sherwood stars, like Batesy and others whose name I fail to recall. One of Algirdo’s fondest memories was, after making quite an impressive sliding tackle once, Graham Batey (remember, the guy who has trials with Southampton), who was playing alongside him at the back at the time (it was only a knock about, remember) turned to him and said (words to the effect) “Algi, that was a great tackle.”

During his university days, he often made the very short journey back home to Kirkby (usually to get his mum to wash his clothes) and joined up with 'the lads' in The Waggon & Horses on a Saturday night. When 'the lads' weren't playing rubgy or cricket they sometimes played football and, as Algirdo loved the game so much, he agreed to join a team called 'Ashfield Old Boys' who played in the local leagues on Sunday mornings. At last, Algirdo had the opportunity to test his growing skills with players who had played for Ashfield's school team - top guys like Jeff Newcombe, Tim Caunt, Roddy Ross, Steven Clarke and, later, Paul Stevenson. The rules of the team were very strict and all the players adhered to them without question. Under no circumstances was there to ever be any training. It was strictly a very informal set up. No 'keen bastards' would be tolerated. Whoever was in the Waggon on the Saturday night and sober enough to make note of the whereabouts of the match the next morning and also not be so badly hung over the next morning to actually turn up, would play - no questions asked. Amazingly, this formula usually worked even though, on one memorable occasion after a particularly heavy night's drinking, an away game that was a little further away and a little earlier than usual, was played with only eight Ashfield Old Boys present - against the usual eleven. Algirdo, of course, was one of the gritty never-say-enough players that turned up, although with hindsight it would have been better if they'd just forfeited the match. They lost, I'm sure, by a score that was in double figures. The rest is a blur except for one unforgettable image when, defending a corner, Algirdo and two team mates took a couple of seconds out the proceeding to simultaneously vomit behind the goal, as the attacking team got ready to launch in another cross.

It was about at this time of his life that football was having the most profound effect on him. For a boy that never experienced a wet dream in his life (unlike 'Barnsley', lucky bugger), he began to experience the most fantastic and vivid football fantasies, but only whilst in the midst of the deepest, usually alcohol induced, slumber. Usually, he'd be the midfield dynamo, spraying millimetre-precision passes to every corner of the pitch to chants from the always massive crowd of "Kul - i - ukas". If only.

Algirdo found his true level in real football when he left university. Never before or since was he to experience such adulation as in those brief two years as a maths teacher at North Border Comprehensive school, in Bircotes – as the name suggests, right on the border with Yorkshire (which made for a very scary time during the miner’s strike.) Why adulation?, you might ask. Surely an exaggeration. Well Algirdo, being ever keen on football, decided to organise a five-a-side tournament that perhaps a third of the school took part in. It was a great success and every Monday, as he walked into the school, he’d get swamped with kids asking for a copy of the latest programme he’d printed off (including ludicrously complex statistics from last week’s games) from the school’s bander machine. Furthermore, as quite a big bloke now that the testosterone had been flowing for all of five years, he found that he had a knack for keeping goal for the staff side and won a reputation as being practically unbeatable, especially when playing against 13 and 14 year olds.

Some players blossom only later in life, perhaps when they start playing for their works team, but Algirdo was not one of them. He was to leave teaching as soon as they sent him on a training courses to teach him how to use computers. The idea was that he might use his new found skills to teach the kids but it only gave him the excuse he was looking for to get out of teaching and join the money-grabbing, selfish, rat race of the Thatcher years. (Yes, even I blame Mrs T for that part.) At British Airways, as a PL/1 programmer who joined on BACT 34 (the 34th British Airways Computer Training regular intake of scores of graduates who were so na├»ve about computers, they could be brainwashed to learn the ‘BA Way’), he was to receive ample opportunities to play in the regular BA five-a-side leagues and he did so with relish. Unfortunately it never went any further than just relish. His performances were as mediocre, as was his team, as was the competition. The only memorable aspect of that era was the way every ninetey seconds or so, play would have to go into a surreal kind of suspended animation as yet another ridiculously huge lump of steel, infeasible floated across towards the nearby runway, just a few metres above their heads, with jet engines screeching so loudly, it wasn't funny. At his next company, Metier Management Systems, he played a couple of games for a bunch of lads at the airforce base near the Polish War Memorial next to the A40. These sketchiness of the details of those games are on a par with the level of playing standard achieved. His next company, Ashton Tate, never had a football team and never organised a football tournament, as far as he knew (or maybe they did, but just never told him), and so, as he was about to go self-employed, another avenue into football playing glory was about to close.

When one door closes, another door opens – or so the adage has it. Not for Algirdo's football 'career'. For the next few years the only opportunity he had to test his football skills was on the back lawn dribbling rings around his three year old son, until he gave up crying (his son, that is, not Algirdo.) No wonder when, a few years later he rebelled against his tyrannical dad by refusing to go, week after tedious week, to watch Wycombe Wanderers by telling his mum “I hate football”.

As the years of bringing up sweet, cute, cuddly, lovely, innocent, darling children gradually, and imperceptibly, metamorphosed into a life of seemingly endless parental servitude, and all thought of actually playing football had long gone, Algirdo was suddenly re-launched into a group of new-age lads that regularly played five-a-side. Of course, he’d love to join in. He always loved to play football. So, at the age of 40, he relaunched his ‘career’ with Steve, Gerry, Rory and a few other lads, who’s name he can’t quite recall today. They played on an astroturf pitch near Penn. It was a glorious feeling to play again, at least it always was at the beginning of every game, but, by now, with the years ticking by, he was prone to minor injuries. Every game he played, it seemed, he’d pull a muscle and have to limp off and watch the rest of the game from the sidelines. Then, after a two week lay-off, he’d try again, when the same thing would happen. It is well known that some of the greatest footballers’ careers are cut short with cruel injuries, but few people realise just how the same is also true of some of the crappiest footballers ever to try to play the game. Algirdo was very much in the later category, no doubt about that.

His final game with the Wycombe ‘boys’ was, ironically, in an indoor five-a-side pitch in Ealing, West London . This time, he’d had a long lay off and was determined not to pull a muscle. To make sure, he decided to ask the lads if he could start the game in goal, remembering his ‘glory’ years at North Border Comprehensive playing against 13 year olds. They agreed and so it was, in front of the sticks, that he faced his first competitive match in years. Seconds into the game, the ball broke loose to a huge guy on the opposition team. He sprinted forward from the right side, bearing down on the goal. Algirdo, brave as he is (or should that just be ‘stupid’?), came to narrow the angle and went down to clutch the ball at his feet, as he had done many times against the boys (and sometimes girls) in Bircotes. This time, however, the striker was not intimidated and came through with all his weight, outrageously into the ‘D’, it seemed, fully against Algirdo’s neck. The save was made but Algirdo lay, head spinning, on the ground thinking “I’m a bloody quadriplegic!” Fortunately, the injury felt worse than it was and he was able to get up and go back onto the subs bench, whilst another guy stepped into the goalie’s shoes. Not to be put off, later Algirdo was to finally reappear to make a final contribution in the middle of the pitch. For the first few seconds he felt masterful, striding around the midfield area purposefully and actually made a couple of nice touches for several (maybe even four) minutes before disaster struck again.

Algirdo received the ball, in space, in the middle of the pitch as his team started to launch a counter-attack. He looked up. He saw Gerry’s mate from Ealing (who’s name I can’t quite remember now) on the right, in some space, looking for the ball. There was a defender right in front of him. In a flash, the obvious move came to him. Like Pele's, his brain clicked into gear. He’d lay off a nice, soft pass to Gerry’s mate and then, just as the ball was about to be received and the defender would have committed himself to close him down, he’d call for the ball to be returned quickly into the vast gap in front of the ‘D’ that he’d just opened up. The first part of the plan was executed to perfection. The ball was weighted just right. Gerry’s mate had nothing to do but to control it with one touch and then lay it off, in front of the approaching defender into space, where Algirdo would surely pounce. This he did, beautifully. Algirdo’s brain now saw glory… a right stride, then a left stride and then, whoosh!, a right-foot controlled power stroke, with the head well over the ball with a slight swing of the foot across the path of the stroke from outside to in so as to impart a bit of a bend on the ball and BANG! It would curl past the goalie into the bottom right corner of the net… 1-0! The brain conceived the plan well enough and sent the messages down the neurons to the muscles at the speed of … well, neurons but… unfortunately the muscles refused to comply. It was as if a myofibril trade union meeting had immediately formed, and sent a complaint back to CNS management: “Fuck off! – we’re not doing that!” and, instead of glory, Algirdo collapsed onto the hard floor in a crumpled, pathetic heap, falling over his own, over-enthusiastic (or should that be ‘under-enthusiastic’?) legs. From that day onwards he would often complain to himself (or to his wife when he was looking for a bit of sympathy) about his dodgy hip that began that fateful day.

Algirdo's international career almost, finally, took off early in the 21st century when he had the chance to play for his father's country, Lithuania. Sorry, that should read "in" his father's country, Lithuania. The newly independent Lithuania had orginaised an 'Olympiad' for Lithuanian exiles from all over the world and the question on everyone's lips (well, on the lips of Vince O'Brien, the guy trying to organise it, during a desperate phone call, at least) was would Algirdo like to play for the English team? Of course he would, he loves football. So, on a mole-hole infested volleyball pitch at the Lithuanian country house, Sodyba, in Hampshire, a match was organised for these would-be Didz-Brits (British Lithuanian) football heroes to play out a game to get their tactics right for the tournament to come. Algirdo played as well as he has ever played that day (don't ask) and the game will always stick out as the one match in his long career where the fan(s) actually began chanting his name from the terraces. His ever-supportive, darling wife, Lesley, was watching and try as she might, nobody else joined in with the chants of "Algi! Algi!" In the end, Algirdo couldn't join the squad of elite athletes that went to Lithuania to play in the Olympiad and so he was unable to help his team mates as they went down 17-0 to a team of veteran Lithuanian ex-army footballers.

After this Algirdo decided that, at the age of 43, it was time to hang up his boots. So, thinking about the best way to guarantee that would happen, he emigrated to Australia , where they don’t even play football. Wrong again. Upon arriving in Perth , Algirdo soon discovered the amazingly busy grass roots level of the game for young kids, including girls and Algirdo had three of those. Soon, he found himself, three times a week, going to Lynwood Soccer Club to watch his youngest daughters either train or play. Being so keen on football, he’d invariably help (in almost imperceptibly slight ways) the big scouser Pete, or the big Chelsea fan (whose name I can’t quite recall) with the training sessions. It was here that, finally, he learned something shocking about football that was a revelation to him: Before games, players should do stretching exercises to reduce the risk of pulling muscles. If only someone had told him years earlier, it might have made all the difference. On one occasion, when neither Pete and the Chelsea fan could turn up, Algirdo’s heart pounded with excitement at the scary prospect of actually having to manage a training session on his own, for this group of nine year old girls. Luckily, one of the mums, who was a bit of a netball coach, saved the day and took over. Phew! What a relief. Algirdo did referee a couple of games when the official ref didn’t turn up and the Chelsea fan wasn’t actually around at the moment they were looking for a volunteer to step in. But his most memorable refereeing moment came as linesman for his daughter Zemyna's league debut away at Sutherland. Drawing 3-3 the ball came though to the nippy little blondey-girl and Algirdo made the fateful decision to keep his flag down as she sped through to clinch the winner just minutes before the end of time. The joy of that moment remains the greatest he's ever experienced whilst participating in a live match. Algirdo was always willing to help, as long as people’s expectations were not high.

Eventually both his daughters retired from the game and so, it seemed, should he. Then, one fateful day at UWA he was arguing with Jens, a German-Australian football fan about England v Germany games. Stupidly he got the idea into his thick skull that they’d lost to Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final on the golden goal rule. Jens, with typical German efficiency, knew it was on penalties and Algirdo agreed to bet him: If it was on penalties, he’d have to come to a training session with Jens’ team (who’s very odd name I can’t remember.) It was on penalties, of course, so Algirdo had to go to a training session. He not only survived the ordeal but played well enough, in his mind, to decide that maybe his playing days were not over just yet. One of the other guys was even older that he was and this evidence seemed to confirm his feeling that he should try to play some more.

So, Easter 2004 came and so did the Margaret River Football Festival – an opportunity for local WA soccer teams to indulge in a pre-season friendly competition and down lots of beer. Algirdo could never resist that sort of combination and, after downing lots of beer the night before, he found himself lined up in Jens' team with a name I can’t remember against another team whose name I can’t remember. (They played in blue, I remember that). In one real sense, this match signified the very peak of Algirdo ’s career. Never before, since, or, lets’ face it… ever, has he played on such a good pitch surrounded by a rail to stop spectators getting on the pitch and four, not one, floodlights. It was exhilarating. The match kicked off. Algirdo found himself at the centre of defence, marking a short but very well built number nine in the Alan Shearer mould. Trying to look cool, dropping off the No. 9 slighly, realising he probably would do him for pace, Algirdo kept a close eye on the play, whilst keeping ‘Shearer’ in his field of vision at the same time. He managed to do this for all of three minutes before a through ball was played from midfield straight over him into the space in front of goal. Algirdo glanced to his right, expecting to see ‘Shearer’ close by, but, he’d already gone. He’d turned backwards, sideways and then forwards (I'm guessing here because I didn't actually see him do this) a moment after the ball was passed, expecting (naively) Algirdo to try to play some kind of off-side trap, and then sprinted into the space he knew would open up. In one touch he killed the ball and in the second touch he stroked the ball into the corner, past the goalie (who, it would later transpire, was actually quite brilliant, if similarly middle aged.) The fellow defenders of the oddly named team offered Algirdo sound advice like “try to stick with the striker” and “drop deeper” but the damage to his confidence was already done. Somehow, they managed to survive the rest of the game only conceding another two goals and Algirdo’s second half performance was actually almost not too bad. He did, at least, make a couple of hoof-like clearances. Algirdo dropped himself from the remaining games and, it seemed, that would, at long last, signal the end of his 'career'.

Wrong again. In 2006, at the age of 47 and inspired by the World Cup in Germany . Algirdo persuaded himself, one last time, to squeeze into his much too small football boots and put on his nine-year-old daughter’s shin pads. This time there’s no forgetting the name of the team he played for (he played for them tonight, after all)… a team called ‘Arse’. In the UWA postgrad evening five-a-side league, the Anatomy Research Students Experience lads needed gulible volunteers to come along and add depth to the squad, and Algirdo, never intimidated by the prospect of looking ridiculous, agreed to turn up and play alongside lads, some of which were only marginally older than his son. After a very scary moment when an e-mail went round suggesting that the players should meet up for training once a week, Algirdo managed to persuade the squad that it was probably best if he didn't participate in that part (or indeed any part) of the pre-match build up. In the first game, Algirdo thought he played reasonably well before pulling an adductor muscle so badly it made the inside of his thigh go black n blue like a free kick smacking the thigh would have done in Mr Jay’s era. So, after his traditional two-week lay off, he returned to the Arse line up and played one of the greatest games of his long career. The incident that will stick in the mind of everyone who saw it and was interested (ok, so that's just Algirdo, then) was a delicate short pass to Swedish international, Mats, from the middle of the pitch, taking out two defenders at the same time. Mats controlled it beautifully (how could he not, it was so well placed) and then beat one of the defenders who had recovered ground before stroking it majestically into the net to win the match 2-1. That “assist” would end up being the second best statistic (second only to his goal for Sherwood Hall seconds) in his long and remarkably eventless playing career. The next game, having had a couple of beers before the game, was a disaster and Algirdo didn’t succeed in making a single accurate pass all match. It was, quite simply, the worst performance Algirdo had ever given, been part of or seen. After a self-imposed dropping from the squad for a couple of weeks (one, which they lost 15-0), Algirdo came to the match tonight knowing that Arse were in the play offs. The league of 12 teams had finished and teams now played each other in groups of four in a knock-out basis. Arse had finished an amazing 10th and so were favourites against the team who had finished one place below them. This was especially so as they had a full strength squad with everyone fit for a change, as well as exciting new blood in the shape of ‘Mike’ a young Mancunian who obviously knew his stuff. But someone had not read the script to the other team because they tore into Arse from the beginning. Arse tried to keep it tight but were too slack at the back. Before long they’d stuck it up Arse big time and they were down one nil, having the floor wiped by them. Arse had their backs up against the wall for sure. Screams of “Come on, you Arse!” from the fan (Algirdo) didn’t seem to help much and a glorious end to the season seemed to slipping away from Arse as quickly as … well, you can imagine. Algirdo avoided coming on as a sub until all the other players had had a go, but eventually, his services were called upon once more. He did disappoint - a lot. Forty-five seconds, three kicks of the ball, two fallings over and a some pointless running later, after coming on, he went for a tackle, slipped on the greasy surface and, once again, pulled a muscle – a right calf muscle this time – and hobbled off again just before half time. In the second half, he watched his team go 2-0 down before the brilliant Mike almost led a solo recovery, making one and scoring one to make it 2-2 just before the end. If the score had stayed that way, Arse would have won through to the grand final play off for 9th place (based on their higher league placing), ensuring near mid-table mediocrity but alas, even this small achievement was not to be. With literally the last kick of the game, the other team employed their odd tactic of blasting corners in low and hard into the box for the tenth time. On this ocassion, one of their strikers managed to get a touch on the ball and in it went, past the hapless Mats, who’d made at least a dozen point blank saves before hand. And so, next week, the final week of the season, Arse face some other unknown team for the wooden spoon but will do so without Algirdo - because, you may remember, he's now retired.

Alas, as Algirdo hobbled away into the dark, thoughts of “my body is trying to tell me something - pack in playing, you old tosser!!!” kept bursting into his mind and he decided that it was finally time to end this ridiculous debacle and pack it all in.

So ends the football playing ‘career’ of someone who was always keen, but always, equally, appallingly bad. Never again will he soil the beauty of a game of football. Never again will his clumsy frame be seen trying to hoof the ball away from danger. His loss, we should remember, is football’s gain. As time passes us by, though. let's remember that in 2006, two of the many, many players that retired from the game were notable for opposite reasons: One was at the very top of his game, at the highest possible level – Zinadine Zidane, in the World Cup final, after a brilliant playing career glittered with talent and brilliance and… one was at the very bottom, determinedly so, never to have played to any level worthy of the title 'level' – Algirdo, after years of consistent shite, he finally gave it all up. Relief all round. Now, he only has his dreams.

Wading at 50

I'm feeling a bit low today. It was my 50th birthday last week and I had a great time. Lots of friends very kindly came to my football/beer fest shindig and I had some great gifts. I even managed to convince myself that being 50 was great. After all you've reached an age where your responsibilities are beginning to wane and your freedoms (after years of parental servitude) are starting to re-emerge. Also, as an additional birthday bonus, England won the ashes. To anyone not familiar with what that means, never mind. It's just a bunch of blokes in white playing a silly game with a willow bat and a very hard red leather ball. Forest even beat Boro last night in the cup so, "why so sad?"

Maybe it's just that after every high must come a low and that as this was a particularly huge "high" I've now got to suffer a particular deep "low". Maybe it's because I'm a bit "bipolar". Who knows?

Well I think I do know. I've not got much "proper" (i.e. money related) work on at the moment so when you get to my age you're left to wallow in your thoughts and sink into a sulk about all those things you haven't achieved.

I'm still waiting to hear from Homo (The Journal of Comparative Human Biology, that is) about my cursed wading paper. Apparently it went to peer review straight away so it's been about 3 months now. The editor Macej Heneberg told me it usually takes six months. Six months to read a paper? I suppose they must be really busy.

I've now officially packed in my PhD at UWA because it was getting too depressing. The discrepancy between the amount of time and effort you put into a PhD and the reward you get out is just grotesque in the extreme unless, of course, your whole future career in academia depends on it - which is, I guess, true for most post grad students but not for me. Just like the feeling you get when you stop banging your head against a wall, it felt great.

Ironically, I seem to have had more rewards for my efforts since I packed in than whilst I was doing it. I gave, I thought, a pretty good talk at the Australasian Society for Human Biology Meeting in Adelaide in December.

Here's an extended version of it if you're interested...

Then, I got accepted to give a talk at the conference commemorating the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth in Melbourne, sharing a platform with some of the most respected people in the field of evolutionary biology.

My slot was on Monday afternoon at 3:15. It went very well, I thought, and I spoke to several people there who seemed very open to the idea. The conference was great, only marred by the grim stories about the tragic bush fires just a few kilometres away that had gone on the day before it started.

Earlier this year, I attended the American Association of Physical Anthropology meeting in Chicago - the biggest and probably most prestigious anthropological event in the world. I'd always hoped I'd go to one of these to present my ideas once I'd completed my PhD or at least having had something published. But, alas, it wasn't to be. I gave my talk pretty well I thought and the audience, on the whole seemed interested although one guy, amazingly asked me at the end "so, by your logic perhaps we should study the possibility that human ancestors rode the backs of dinosaurs" (!)

Again I have a You Tube video of the talk although it's a very poor quality, sorry...

At the end of the talk I was honoured to have a chat with John Langdon (author of the only published critique of the so-called "aquatic ape theory" in a proper anthropological journal. He was very kind and said that was a "very courageous" thing to do. We had a beer afterwards. (Well I had several... he was driving) and I told him that I thought it was really not on to have claimed that "the Savannah theory" was an invention of Elaine Morgan. He agreed he'd been stretching it a bit. We had a long chat and although I'm sure I didn't change his mind in the slightest he did concede that the idea wasn't in the same league as Von Daniken, ID etc. as implied in his paper which put them under the same umbrella. I don't suppose John will be writing to JHE any time soon to point out the mistake and even if he did that they'd publish an errata 12 years later. Or even if they did that anyone would notice.

Ho hum.

Anyway, after Chicago I gave another talk, this time in London at UCL, the place I first got into the subject for my masters degree. It was nostalgic going back, although the department had now moved to a shiny new building. It was great to bump into Volker Sommer, my supervisor. He's a really nice guy and quite hilarious! Unfortunately, when introducing me to a gorgeous young student he let the cat out of the bag by saying something like "Algis is trying to bring the 'akvatic ape' into respectability after some crazy old woman wrote about it". Oops! As I sipped my sherry I pointed out that "Elaine Morgan wasn't crazy and that she was here to watch the talk!" Volker ended up sitting next to her but I don't think any words were exchanged.

This was by far the worst of the four talks. I had the luxury of 40 minutes to fill but ended up rambling on with a little too much emotion. I think I wound a couple of members of the audience up a little with my "aggressive style" so for that reason, and because a couple objected to us filming it, I haven't put it up onto You-Tube.

The highlight for me was driving Elaine Morgan home. I cannot describe how privileged I felt having given such a talk at UCL, after my previous three, driving Elaine home and being able to listen to her wise words alone for hours. Imagine being an early advocate of Darwinism and giving a talk about it in London and then sitting in a horse and carriage with him back to Downe House. I know some people would scoff at the comparison but I think it's their sad loss if they can't see how wonderful she is.

Having got back to oz, then, all seemed pretty good. I got back into money work pretty quickly which was good as we had accrued a few debts. One of the things I'd spoken to Elaine about was my idea of a book and she encouraged me to get on and do that - and I have. It's taking longer than I thought but I'm now on chapter 5 of about 12. I'll keep you posted on how that goes.

The other thing I've been doing (far too much, actually) is posting on the Richard forum. I just cannot resist arguing with people about this subject and I do end up wasting a lot of time there. I suppose the benefit is, at least, that the arguments are there for anyone to read and that by writing ideas out it helps to make them more solid and clear in your mind.

I've had a running battle with some opponents of the idea there, including Jim Moore himself, author of the very official sounding" You'd think, from such a URL, it would be a fairly objective site and he's always boasting about it. Whenever he sees a 'pro-aquatic' argument anywhere on a newsgroup, he's quick to jump in with fatherly advice not to be "taken in" by it and that people should read his "scientific critique" about it. I thought scientific critiques were supposed to be scholarly, to report all the salient arguments and provide all the key quotes in full without trying to distort them, but he doesn't. He doesn't even mention the key sentence or the key paragraph or the key chapter in the most important book on the subject Roede et al (1991)... that is Reynold's summary of the Valkenberg symposium - the only time and place the idea has been openly and fairly debated. It's no scientific critique at all, more like an attempted character assassination of Elaine Morgan and anyone who dares not to laugh at the idea. I would encourage people to go and look at it for themselves. I have a critique of it written too if you want to read my thoughts on each page... Critique of

I suppose that's partly why I'm feeling a bit low. One of the posters there - another aquasceptic posted a link to a podcast broadcast of a sceptic radio show which included a piece about the aquatic ape. It was an interesting program but the 'experts' made the usual distortions about this idea. One lady said (in her piercing American accent) "so if we were living in the water for millions of years why are we such poor swimmers" (or words very similar). I mean, crikey, if people can't even be bothered to understand this much about the idea! In another slot one of the guys 'debunked' the 'aquatic' argument for greater fat by saying it's just sexual selection and that "we're just as fat as monkeys are", clearly completely ignoring that main point that it is human infants that are relatively fat compared to all primates and all Savannah mammals. It was clear from other parts of the program that he'd got some of his information from Jim Moore's web site.

It's kind of depressing. You try to do things the right way. You go back to university, do a master's degree, pass with a distinction. You get a piece published in the literature. You start a PhD. You give talks at scientific conferences, some of them win prizes. You do the lit review, design the experiments, do the experiments, do the stats, write the findings up, get scores of people to read it and then submit to the journals and you get rejected again and again and again - sometimes without peer review, once without even so much as a word of a reason.

Meanwhile it's Jim Moore the librarian's web site that still seems to be the most respected source of what's wrong with the idea - despite it being a journalistic and unscientific example of the art of discreditology.

Sorry. I shouldn't get all bitter about it. The world was never a fair place, after all. Anyway, I was spending so long at I had to force myself to stop posting (at least for a while) but, of course, like any proper junkie, I can't pack it in so easily, so I thought it was time to add another blog here.

Sad, sad old man!!!

Algis Kuliukas
26th August 2009

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Waterside hypotheses of human evolution - the most satisfying solution

In previous rants, I've tried to argue the case, and I think I succeeded, that the most satisfactory explanations for biological observations, including the major differences between apes and humans, are those that are adaptationist. I dismissed the 'God made us that way' explanations with a deft flick of my little finger and suggested that they were the very least satisfactory of all possible explanations. They just beg a much bigger question: So, how do we explain God? Next up, on my scala naturae of satisfaction, were those explanations that rely only on purely random forces such as drift, mutation and extinction. I admitted, grudgingly, that they are certainly a big part of the story and certainly happening all the time but my point is that they just don't satisfy my curiosity about the way we are. Ok, random effects are happening all the time but other forces of evolution are happening too, sitting on top of that fluid foundation of randomness. It's these forces that have shaped things most effectively to make them work in the real world. Next up were the effects of ontogeny, or "evo devo." They too, again, are clearly very important but are they explanations in themselves? I don't think so. They are proximate (or how?) explanations, not ultimate (or how come? as my tutor at UCL, Volker Sommer, would put it) ones. Sean Carrol's great book on Evo Devo offers brilliant insights into how relatively tiny mutations to toolbox and switch genes can make profound differences to phenotypes. But none of these changes would last five seconds if they weren't actually useful for the organism's survival or, at least, attractive to the opposite sex. This brings me to the next level up on my ladder of satisfaction: Sexual selection. Again, clearly, it happens. It must explain a lot in nature. It explains peacock feathers, huge, "fuck off!" silver back gorillas and, maybe beards and deep voices in men. But again it ultimately begs other questions like "why would one sex find that attractive in the first place?"
So, I have come to the conclusion that pure adaptive explanations are by far the most satisfactory.
In the study of human evolution most of the ape-human differences have, according to paleoanthropological tradition, been explained as adaptations to more open habitats. It's logical enough. After all, we are 100% terrestrial creatures today (to the nearest integer) and we certainly did come down from the trees (even though some, like Carsten Niemitz, have tried to argue otherwise.) According to this orthodoxy, we became bipedal so that we could move more efficiently. Or, maybe we became bipedal so we could free our hands to carry things like food, infants and weapons - also useful on grassy plains. Or maybe we became bipedal so that our upper bodies were lifted above waist high grass into the cool breeze and so that our backs were not perpendicular to the hot equatorial sun - also useful on the grassy plains. Having to scrape out a living on the harsh savannah, competing with all those fierce predators, made us need to be smart and as we cleverly procured more meat this high energy food fuelled yet more brain growth in an elegant positive feedback loop. As we hunted more for meat we needed to keep cool, so we evolved glabrous skin, well adapted to sweat cooling, to compensate for our large brain's vulnerability to over heating. To keep warm at night we evolved increased fat. As we got smarter and our brains grew bigger we learned to use stone tools and weapons and thus relied less on the more natural armoury of teeth.
All of this is orthodoxy and has been for generations. It might also be right. If there were no other competing hypothesis we'd surely conclude that it was right and happily tick off that box as another achievement of modern science. Indeed many anthropologists appear to have ticked it off already for that very reason - they just don't know any better.
Trouble is, there is another hypothesis. Some of us think the savannah hypothesis outlined above, although it kind of works to a degree if you want it to and if you turn off you critical faculties a bit, it just isn't as satisfactory as it could be.
So why did our ancestors adopt bipedalism? If it were for the myriad of reasons given, a few of them listed above, how come no other primate did so too? How come we don't see great apes moving bipedally for those reasons? Isn't there a better scenario where quadrupedalism might actually kill you? a place where an early hominid would still be expected to move bipedally long before any anatomical adaptations evolved to make doing so efficient? Can we imagine a place which provides a smooth continuum between this scenario and the dry, flat earth that we are clearly adapted to walking on today? Well I can. I think it's actually very obvious. Shallow water provides the perfect scenario for this to have happened and it does so in a way that in complimentary, not contradictory, to the other ideas listed.
It's not just wading that offers a better explanation for our bipedalism though. The peculiar phenomenon of encephalisation and simultaneous dental reduction just doesn't make sense in the context of increased carnivory, sorry, even if you can somehow squeeze in stone tools into the mix. It surely makes far more sense on the coasts where high-energy, high brain-nutrient foods can be procured without having to wait for Tarzan to come back with the meat. In some coastal habitats there is a potentially vast supply of sessile, very easy to procure (even for a child) shellfish. All you need is a pebble, nimble hands and a curious brain. Humans, probably for the first time, could have been a species to exploit such habitats. Now doesn't that explain encephalisation, dental reduction and - as a bonus - the adoption of stone tools far, far more satisfactorily? I think so. And, while we're at it, it also explains better another key trend in human evolution - increased altriciality. I've always wondered how it is imagined mothers and babies are supposed to fit into life on the savannah. Where did extended play time come in? Life on the beach is much safer and more cosy for would-be humans. Nakedness is another. Sweat cooling is not a bad explanation but it too is really a waterside one. The quickest and most efficient way of cooling down, as everyone knows, is to go for a dip. Seen in this context, sweat cooling is nothing more than an adjunct to going for a dip. Basically you're borrowing from a 'cooling bank'. There's more. If you think of the typical hairline of the scalp of a sub-adult human and wonder where that shape makes most sense I suppose you might conclude it's on the savannah. The hair on the top of the head is to protect our sensitive brains from the sun's rays and the discrepancy that the forehead is bare might be explained by being a social species where face recognition is a key aspect of life. Perhaps. But isn't it better explained in the water? It seems much more accurate simply to say that the part of the body (of a sub-adult, before other manifestations, such as signalling sexual maturity, come into play) most likely to be covered with hair is simply that part most likely to be above the surface of the water whilst swimming. What about fat? It can' make sense to be fat on the open savannah, whether chasing antelope or fending of big cats. It makes even less sense in trees. But it does make some sense in water. Infants are far less likely to die of hypothermia and for more likely to float and hence survive near drowning scenarios if they're fat. If mum's fat too, she's more likely to be able to rescue her infant from such scenarios. If these traits became established one would expect that it would follow soon that males would find sexually attractive mature women with visible displays of fat in areas which would also, amazingly coincidentally, help infants to survive too. Of course all of this is speculation but I think they're all scientifically testable. All that is needed is a willingness for the science of anthropology to open it's eyes to the fact that waterside hypotheses of human evolution are plausible and in need of some serious study.
In my next rant I'll bang on about why they haven't tested them yet and how this must change if we are to make progress.
Algis Kuliukas

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ape-human differences - a more satisfying solution

In my last rant I tried to convey the idea that, when it comes to explaining the difference between humans and chimpanzees - to me the ultimate question - we can rank various ideas on a ladder (a kind of 'scala natura') in terms of how satisfying they are with, most satisfyingly of all, the "God did it" explanation right at the bottom.

I suggested, rather cheekily I thought, that random forces - although certainly involved to a huge extent - would appear only one up from God on the next rung of the ladder, closely followed by "Evo-Devo" (pro neoteny) arguments and then ones to do with sexual selection. Bravely holding the adaptationist banner up high, I claimed that only adaptation can offer truly satisfying explanations in Biology and therefore adaptationist explanations for the differences between human and chimpanzees are really the most interesting and important ones.

Here though, we get into potentially sticky ground because there is a danger of following in the footsteps of Rudyard Kipling and building "just so" stories. All sorts of nice-sounding 'explanations' have been put forward, for example, to explain the evolution of hominin bipedalism. (Bipedalism that evolved on the evolutionary lineage leading to man.) I've been studying this subject for several years now and I think there are probably at least 33 distinct ideas that have been published to explain this difference. Anything from "it was to reduce our body's profile in the mid-day equatorial sun" to "it was to enhance penile display." I won't list them all out but anyone who knows anything about anthropology will be familiar with at least six or seven of them. I say there are about 30 but, in truth, they can be categorised into several broad groups. Among the more sensible ones are those that suggesting carrying things was the key driver, those that food procurement was the most important reason for upright posture and others that it was simply more energy efficient to move on two legs than four.

Now if you look at these ideas in detail, and I have, what tends to strike you is that they all seem to make sense at some level but, equally clearly, they all seem to have a few problems too. None of them are wholly satisfying but all of them are somewhat satisfying. Frustrating, isn't it? Of course, faced with such a dilemma it is easy to think maybe they were all involved to some degree. It is certainly a common sense position that must be closer to the truth than the unlikely possibility that, actually, one of the proponents of these models got it completely right and everyone else got it completely wrong.

So what is the mainstream view on this today? What do university level students get taught about it? Surely, after 150 years since Darwin we should have something solid and sensible to say on the matter, shouldn't we? Well this is basically what I returned to academia to find out and I have to say I have been rather disappointed with what I discovered, to say the least. At University College London (UCL) and then at the University of Western Australia (UWA) and, I suspect, also at the vast majority of universities in the world where evolution is taught as fact, rather than fiction, what seems to be taught is basically the savannah theory.

The what? ... The savannah theory.
Now before people start objecting that there never was a savannah theory, that it was actually a straw man invented purely for the purpose of knocking it down (yes, this view even reached the respectable pages of the Journal of Human Evolution in 1997), let's be clear - practically every text book written on human evolution in the past 75 years aludes to, or explicitly cites, the idea that climate change in Africa - and by that we mean a change to increased aridity - was the thing that did it. It was the resulting change in habitat from closed forest to open woodland and grassland, sometimes called "parkland" but more often called "savannah", that was responsible for the process of 'homininisation'.

Most of the 30-odd explanations of bipedal origins assume this quite openly although there are some clear exceptions. In fact just this year (2007) a paper was published in the journal Science with front page prominence, by Robin Crompton's very well respected team of researches in Liverpool, espousing one such view. Their model, if it can be caled that, is that orang-utan-like, tree-wobbling, upright posture whilst reaching for food in the thinner branches of trees was a likely precursive form of locomotion not only for hominins but actually for all the great apes.

Now it seems to me that this is an explanation that can be equally accurately labelled as "obvious" and "silly", at the same time. It's obvious in the sense that, of course, the ancestor of all the great apes was almost certainly arboreal and would have, to a large extent, had to feed from thin branches. Whilst doing so a precarious form of upright posture is likely to have been held for a few minutes and this upright orientation of the body, encouraged too by vertical climbing in relatively large mammals, would have orientated the body in the direction of greater bipedalism. I do not think it is silly, by the way, that the authors suggest that this form of 'arboreal proto-bipedalism' was also likely to have been the ancestral condition of the other great apes too. Since the discovery of Orrorin in 2000, I've been persuaded that the fossil evidence suggests that bipedalism was actually so old it may well pre-date the last common ancestor (LCA) of the human and the chimp, and maybe also the gorilla and the orang-utan too. It strikes me as a classic case of anthropocentrism that we are tempted to imagine the LCA as very similar to a chimpanzee. It's us that have done all the evolving. The stupid chimps have basically stayed the same. I doubt it. It seems much more likely that the precursor of bipedalism and knuckle-walking (let's face it, a rather off form of quadrupedalsim) was some kind of semi-arboreal bipedalism.

No, what I think is silly about the Science paper is that it is very thin on the ground when it comes to giving good reasons as to why only one lineage from that ancestral quasi-bipedal great ape became obligate bipeds, whilst all the others reverted to quadrupedalissm. Well no reason, that is, apart from the good old savannah theory. What? Didn't I say that this was an idea that didn't posit bipedal origins in a savannah context? Yes I did. And, to be fair, they didn't. They posited bipedal origins to have begun in a forested environment. It's just that once it had begun, it was the ones that left the trees, they argue, that somehow were left standing on two legs, whereas the ones that stayed in the woodland became quadrupedal. Now that's what I think is silly.

I could ramble on all night about other ideas of bipedal origins and how I think they're silly too but I won't. Actually, I find some of them rather compelling. I actually quite like the energy efficiency model of Rodman & McHenry fame, for example. It does make sense that moving on just two legs, especially when they're long and able to lock into a straight, inverted-pendulum gait, has to be more efficient than moving on four, relativly short, bendy legs. When doing so, you're using half as many limbs but mainly you're using the kinetic energy of falling forward to power most of your propulsion. Muscle power is really only used to fine tune the positioning of the limbs as they swing into position for the next step.

It makes sense although there are problems: It's clear that we move more efficiently than chimpanzees do today, but only because our anatomy is manifestly adapted to efficient walking and only when that locomotion is conducted on certain special substrates.

So here's problem one: All the evidence which shows humans being more efficient at locomotion than chimpanzees have been conducted on that most special substrate - remarkably rare in the natural world - the treadmill. It strikes me that this is a bit of a loaded dice. Humans naturally find walking on very flat, firm, relatively vegetation free substrates not only easy but quite appealing. I have often wondered just how appealing walking on a treadmill is to a chimpanzee. No matter how well the animal is desensitised to doing so, it must be quite unnatural at best and, at worst, quite terrifying. Experiments have shown that humans are much less efficient when moving through less perfect substrates. I have myself done experiments with douglas bags which show that even walking through long grass adds about 20% to the cost of walking as compared to that on concrete. It makes me think that when it comees to moving through bushland or especially dense forest, the supposed energetic advantage of bipedalism quickly disappears.

The second problem is that there was probably an energetic 'rubicon' to cross for an early hominin biped not quite adapted to bipedalissm. How or why was bipedalism practised even before the anatomical adaptatations which make it efficient evolve? A recent paper gave good evidence that perhaps, by chance, some chimps started exhibiting a more upright gait and because they got some slight energetic benefit from that it became selectd for. A chain of events started at the end of which some populations just happenned to move more bipedally than others. Now this is possible of course, perhaps it is even likely, but, as you will have gathered already, I just don't find that sort of explanation very satisfying. Why didn't all chimpmanzillas (my label for the LCA of chimp, man and gorilla) encounter similar scenarios? Maybe it is the explanation we will end up adopting but first, perhaps we should first try to find a better one.

I think there is a more satisfying one and, you will not be surprised to read, it is based on the crazy, outrageous idea that our ancestors actually spent a significant amount of time (but note not all that much time) wading through shallow water. The thing about shallow water and apes is this: they are far, far more likely to move bipedally there than on dry land. And I mean "move". In trees or on the edges of bushes, whilst doing the behaviour "postural feeding", apes do not do much moving at all, they do a lot of standing and reaching and grabbing and eating. When they do move they almost always move with support, by holding onto a handy branch. Only in water are apes compelled to move bipedally and almost always it is without support. Clearly the actual depth of water is an important factor to consider. In very shallow water, say a few centimetres only, there is obviously no such compulsion. In fact, as has been reported in bonobos, if they were foraging food in the water, perhaps on the underside of floating leaves, they are actually compelled to move quadrupedally. But, equally clearly, the deeper the water gets the more likely they are to switch to bipedalism. In waist deep water a chimp simply has no choice and all the evidence shows that they do, indeed, move bipedally there.

Now, that to me is as satisfying an explanation as you can get: An ancestral scenario where if our ancestor moved quadrupedally it would die but if it moved bipedally it would live. Can we think of any other scenario where bipedalism would confer such a clear cut advantage? No. Can we think of any other taxa on the planet that exhibit this peculiar shift in locomotor pattern in this scenario? No. (Do dogs, horses, pigs, cats etc switch from quadrupedalism to bipedalism in shallow water? No.)

It is almost ceratinly not the only reason our lineage adapted bipedalism but I think it must be a big part of the reason. In the next rant, I'll go on about why, if it's such a good idea, it's not already in the mainstream and what must happen before it will get there.

All the best

Algis Kuliukas

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Chimpanzee-Human Differences - Problems

Ok, this is what it's all about. If you take a look at the apes - the gibbons, the orang-utan, the gorilla, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. Oh did I miss one? Yes - and us Homo sapiens, and compare them, it's clear that one species stands out like a sore thumb and that's us.

There is a clear danger here of bias. After all, it's us doing the comparing. I imagine that if you have an identical twin it might get a little irritating to be constantly confused for someone else all the time. To you, it's obvious that you're very, very different from that other person that you keep being mistakenly referred to. But to everyone else, it's clearly not so obvious. There's also a danger of anthropocentrism because we humans have a long history of deluding ourselves that the whole universe was put here just for us.

But, putting this bias aside for a moment, when the DNA of the apes, or any molecule for that matter, is analysed and compared - humans consistantly turn out to have structures closer to chimpanzees than to any other ape and, more importantly, the same is true of the chimpanzee. We are closer to them than the gorilla, the orang-utan and, of course, the gibbons. Exactly the same is true of bonobos by the way. They are exactly as closely related to us as the chimpanzees - in the same way as you are exactly as closely related to your aunt Bethany as your sister.

Anyway, this is the main point: We are the chimps' closest relation in he world and yet, even to a Martian, they have many more features in common with gorillas and orang utans than they do with us and this observation is in need of an explanation.

Now, if you've been unfortunate enough to have been brain-washed as a child into believing in God, or naive enough to have come to this conclusion yourself, the "explanation" is really simple: 'God' made us that way. He (God was male, of course) created the entire universe just for our benefit. He created the world about 6,000 years ago and, just to keep us company or perhaps just to make us feel superior to everything else on the planet, he created lots of other creatures too. Seen through this fog of self-delusion, it makes perfect sense that we are clearly very different from the chimpanzees. After all, we have a soul and are destined to an eternal life in heaven as long as you've followed all the silly rules laid down in the scriptures and never done anything really bad like dare to deny that there is any stupid god - in which case you're destined to an eternal burning hell. (Great justice that!) Chimps don't have souls, they're animals. God clearly doesn't give a shit about them.

Ok, enough sillines. Let's for a moment assume that you're not a creationist, or suffering from any other form of madness that can be classed as religion. Let's assume you're a rational person who needs a rational explanation for the difference between humans and chimpanzees.

Now it seems to me that there is a level of "explanation" that is rational but hardly more satisfying than the "god did it" story. It goes like this: Evolution is pretty random. Things happen just by chance alone, usually. You have random mutations, random genetic drift and random extinction events. That's a lot of random effects for a long period of time. So, according to an extreme form of this argument, humans are different from chimps because they are different from chimps. One lineage of apes just started going off down a peculiar evolutionary pathway that increasingly diverged from their cousins for no better reason than it "just happenned". Maybe a group of apes found themselves isolated in a small group and, by chance, they happenned to be slightly more likely to move on two legs. Their isolation led to inbreeding and gehes that help bipedalissm became fixed and, hey presto, you have a group of hominids. Iterate this process a few more times and, eventually, you'd get the genus Homo.

Now I don't know anyone that actually espouses this view exactly, but some do come close. My intellectual hero, Richard Dawkins, comes pretty close actually, when he suggests that bipedal origins may have just been a kind of cultural meme that "just happenned". I'm disappointed that he thinks that is enough of an explanation for the ape-human divergence. I think we can do better.

I should point out here that I am not trying to suggest, in the least, that random forces were not at play during human evolution, or even that they weren't a very big, or even the biggest, part. Clearly they were very important. In this rant, I'm portraying creationism at the bottom of a ladder of explanations and certain types of adaptation at the top but please don't think that the ladder is any kind of ranking of likelihood. To most rational minds, the idea that God created humans is almost certainly false and by saying "almost certainly" we mean it much closer to 'certainly' than we can meaningfully convey in the English language. The only reason we don't just say it is "certainly" false is because we can hardly be certain of anything outside of the world of mathematics. But it's just being pedantic. Really, I'm quite certain that there's no God and I suspect most rational people are too. I think it equally clear that random forces certainly were involved in evolution, particularly when we think of the molecular basis of life. Mutations are the fuel which provides the variation on which selection can work and mutations are, by definition, random. You also have random drift and random extinctions not to mention a host of other random effects that can certainly cause changes to the course of any lineage.

No, my point in placing random forces just one notch above creationism is that it is barely more satisfying. When Stephen J Gould suggested that if we re-wound the tape of life from the beginning it would almost certainly come up with a very differeent situation today, he was making a very valid point. Clearly things would be different. Many aspects of life on the planet we take for granted might not be reproduced. If "that meteor" had not hit earth 65 million years ago (or whatever event caused the extinction of the dinosaurs) then it is very likely that mammals would not have reached their dominant position and apes might not have had the chance to evolve into humans. This much is true and rather obvious. However, just saying that we're here because of some stupendous lottery or, more accurately, a billion stupedous lotteries, doesn't satisfy my curiosity much better than the "God did it" explanation. As I said... I think we can do better but, at the same time, as we are trying to do better we must remember that, underneath the layers of "explanation" that we can come up with is a very massive, fluid, random foundation of pure chance.

Anyway, to get back to the plot, another notch away from unsatisfactory explanations towards a really satisfying ones can be achieved when you add to 'pure randomness' the real impact of embryological development: The "Evo Devo" factor. On top of random forces, now we also need to consider, constraints that arise out of development. It is difficult to see how this kind of effect might have had an impact early in ape-human divergence but it clearly had a big impact later on. Human infants, with their large brains, are clearly much more problematic, compared to chimpanzees, when it comes to giving birth. Signficant alterations to the timing of the phases of pregancy and birthing have resulted from this evolutionary change. In a nutshell, humans are born 'early' in developmental terms, making our infants much more vulnerable and dependent on their mothers for the first few years. This dependence on parents has clearly had a big impact in our evolution and might well help explain many ape-human differences like the extra involvement of fathers in raising children and the increased importance of play. The trend towards altriciality (increased dependence on the parents in early life) is a clear one in the human lineage. Our fish ancestors didn't give a hoot about their offspring. Shed a billion eggs and sperm and the sheer numbers involved will increase the tiny probability of survival sufficiently to make it viable. Land-based reptilians were a little more caring, looking after the eggs before they're hatched and for a while afterwards. Our mammalian ancestors invested much more time and resource in their offspring and primates follwed the trend even more. Of all the primates, the great apes look after their young more than any other and we humans are the mother of all mothers. I do not think it is a coincidence that today, in the early part of the 21st century, those of us privileged to be living in better educated societies are expected to invest the highest ever amounts of time and money into our children and feel guilty when we do not quite live up to expectations.

On the next rung up, in my view, is the additional factor of sexual selection. Any species that reproduces through sexual selection is potentially subject to sexual selection. In birds, it's most often the males that exhibit amazing displays in order to attract the attention of the females. We all know examples of beautiful birds of paradise and the often cited peacock's tail as clear examples of the phenomenon. A particular feature evolves, as if out of control, in almost random directions in order to invoke attention in an opposite sex that is increasingly unimpressed with mediocrity. Mammals don't often exhibit such extreme examples of sexual selection but, generally speaking, as females are the precious ones, the limiting factor in terms of reproduction, it is males that compete for privileged access to them. In many species, especially social species, the situation that seems to evolve is one based on a single male's dominance. The alpha male and his harem is a rather common situation in social primates and gorillas and chimpanzees, two of our closest relatives, have socio-sexual systems that are pretty much based on this.

In such systems, males compete agressively with each other and what results is clear sexual dimorphism. Gorilla and orang-utan males are much bigger than females and this is no coincidence. The same is true of chimpanzees, but to a lesser degree. Chimp society is clearly dominated by males although it is usually a kind of political coalition of brothers in arms, rather than a single alpha male, that controls things. Human males are also bigger than females although, again, to an even lesser extent which seems to indicate that male domination of socio-sexual systems was almost certainly a key aspect at some point in our evolutionary history. Who knows, the need for a good old reliable alpha male somewhere nearby might well help explain the mass delusional tendancy for human societies, wherever they may be, to invent imaginary gods to protect them from evil and offer reassurances in their confused lives.

However there is a spanner in the works: Remember the bonobos? They are equally closely related to us as are the chimpanzees and yet they do not have male dominated
socio-sexual systems. Their societies are dominated by sisterhoods and motherhoods. It's the alpha-female that rules the nest here. Males are basically ranked according to who their mum is. Whereas chimpanzees only have sex for producing children, bonobos have sex all the time apparently to ease tensions between the group.

How can we explain this difference? Chimpanzees and bonobos diverged perhaps as little as 2-3 million years ago - not all that long in evolutionary terms. It seems likely to me that the difference is explained mainly by food availability. Basically the important gender is the female. As long as she has enough food to live and raise her infants in a safe environment the species will prosper. All she needs from males is a tiny blob of sperm every few years and she is happy enough. The males, of course, are more than willing to provide that. Now if you compare the ecology of chimps and bonobos, two major differences come to light: Firstly chimp habitats may overlap with that of gorillas. With all great ape populations diminsihing today it's not easy to see examples of the two species sharing a given habitat but it is likely that in the paast 3 million years or so this was indeed a major phenomenon. Competition with gorillas would have made some food sources harder to come by and required greater foraging distances to procure them. Bonobos live inside the ring of the great Congo river effectively isoltaing them from both chimps and gorillas. This habitat is amongst the richest in the world if you eat fruit and vegetation, like bonobos, so life must be relatively easy for them.

Again we see a similar trend in humans here. In times of hardship, wars often happen and when they do, male dominated societies seem to result. In times of plenty and peace, women seem to dominate more. Perhaps it is a coincience but there has also been a clear trend towards greater sexual permissiveness as economies have boomed and gaps between wars have increased.

So, getting back to sexual selection, what do we see in humans that might help us explain the differences between ourslves and the great apes? Well, this is often the main explanation invoked for body hair loss and increased fat. Women have less body hair than men and they are fatter. Their body fat is generally deposited in a manner that is indicative of sexual maturity and is obviously very appealing to men. Clearly some sexual selection has been responsible for this sexual dimorphism. At the risk of venturing onto the thin ice of political incorrectnesss, most men fancy women with smooth skin and a shapely body, and most women fancy men that do not have breastss but have manly, muscular torsos with some semblance of body hair to indicate that they are really men. All this is satisfying to some degree but it begs the question: how or why did that chain of events start in the first place?

When it comes to the peacock's tail, there's a rather elegant explanation which has been published called the "costly signalling hypothesis." The idea is that the peacock is signalling to the feamles "look at me! I'm so healthy I can afford to grow and maintain this impecable array of ridiculously large feathers". An analogy might be a rich man buying a flash sports car or an expensive watch to impress the chicks. The point iis: it's a signal that is hard to fake, it is costly. The female is bound to be impressed because to have such a visible trait is potentially dangerous to the male (it might attract a predator) and is costly to them (they have to eat extra food to 'pay' for such things.) Perhaps this kind of idea might be adapted to human sexual differences?

It's hard to see how it could be at work in women. After all, they are the resource in demand. Males make billions of sperm every day that can literally be thrown away. Females do not need any costly signalling to advertise their worth. Males know that already. So what about male adornments? Perhaps there is some way that hairy chests and beards and deep voices could be costly signals? We'll see.

But when it comes to those key ape-human differences nakedess and increased fat, although one can imagine that sexual selection was involved in it's maintainence, it's harder to see how it might have begun in the first place. Why would women suddenly become sexy to men, when they had smooth skin and not, instead, fancy "a bit of rough". It's certainly not a trait a chimpanzee or the sex-mad bonobos seem to find attractive. The same with those lovely curves. Perhaps there are better explanations ahead.

Another notch up from sexual selection is the really interesting and ultimately satisfying area of natural selection: adaptation. This is where Darwinism really makes most sense. What kinds of environment would we expect the features that make us different from apes to have some significant adaptive value?

This question has been the main focus of paleoanthropologists for over 150 years and for most of that time most seemed to have assumed that the environment in question was, for want of a better term... savannah.

Now this is where we get to the interesting part. But I'll cover that in my next posting. And, of course, that's where I hope to show that waterside explanations are the only ones that are ultimately most satisfying, four notches up from creationism, three from random drift, two from sexual selection and one about adaptive explanations of open habitat or fudgdey notions of "savannah-woodland-mosaics" (whatever they are).

Algis Kuliukas