Does natural selection and evolution depend on living things?

Reproduction is the key to natural selection in organisms. Although the norm for organisms is sexual reproduction, that is not necessary for evolution to take place. Bdelloid rotifers (metazoans), for example, have no males, no hermaphrodites and no meiosis. As far as we can tell they have been this way for millions of years. In the absence of “standard” reproductive techniques, they divide unfertilized eggs. DNA repair mechanisms exist as in other organisms. According to Flot JF, et al. Genomic evidence for ameiotic evolution in the bdelloid rotifer Adineta vaga. Nature. 2013, the key may be that they can dry up when there is no water and rehydrate when water is available, potentially incorporating fragments of foreign DNA from ingested food.

This harkens back to the idea of endosymbiosis as the originating mechanism responsible for the establishment of mitochondria and chloroplasts in genetic reproduction. These have played a critical role for the evolution of eukaryotes. The idea is that plastids in an ancient asexual cell may have come from an ingested cyanobacterial ancestor, and then some red and green algal ancestors were incorporated into other phagotrophic eukaryotes via secondary endosymbiosis and retained as secondary plastids. Almost all of the plastids in secondary and tertiary algae are thought to ultimately have originated from a secondary endosymbiosis of a red algal ancestor. Two exceptions include the Euglenophyta and Chlorarachniophyta which possess secondary plastids of green algal origin. It is probable this was parallel independent secondary endosymbioses. Our own genetic material is derived from these ancient processes.

Just to add to the complexity, we can add observations about prions. Prions are non-living pieces of infectious protein devoid of DNA or RNA that can cause fatal neurodegenerative disease. They are capable of Darwinian evolution. The study elucidating this was actually a medical study examining the development of drug resistance in prions. (Jiali Li*, Shawn Browning*, Sukhvir P. Mahal, Anja M. Oelschlegel, Charles Weissmann, Science 12 Feb 2010:Vol. 327, Issue 5967, pp. 869-872.)

The study suggests that “Prions can develop large numbers of mutations at the protein level and, through natural selection, these mutations can eventually bring about such evolutionary adaptations as drug resistance, a phenomenon previously known to occur only in bacteria and viruses.” However, these mutations may be more correctly described as “mistakes” in the way the prion protein is folded. This is all reminiscent of the the idea of a “quasi-species.” An example is an RNA-only virus population, which originally had only one sequence, but was constantly creating mutations and eliminating the unfavorable ones. In both semantic and conceptual terminology we might include the idea of a “quasi-population” where it begins with a single particle, but it becomes very heterogeneous as it grows into a larger population.

This has an almost science fiction feel to it, but the concept of two different origins of sexual reproduction is intriguing, especially when a true metazoan appears to have abandoned sexual reproduction but still maintains a successful evolutionary history. And to top it all off, Darwinian evolution may not require living organisms, although it does require reproduction.

As we move to explore distant planets, the nature of “life” and how it develops, may not be much like what we see here on our planet. The results also make it clear that life does not have to begin before Darwinian evolution can take place. All that is required is for organic molecules to link together to become compounds and be able to reproduce.

Divesting from Exxon for Moral Reasons

“The family that founded Standard Oil is disinvesting in what was their company. Let’s hope this is a first step in getting Exxon to change their business plan to preserve some of the assets for the long term while developing alternative energy sources. I regard hydrocarbons as more important for the chemical products that start easily from them than as a compact source of energy.” Michael Garrick March 26, 2016.

Rockefeller Family Fund to Divest From ExxonMobil, Says Oil Giant Is ‘Morally Reprehensible’

This article originally appeared in Alternet. It’s been a really rough few days for ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company. First, on Wednesday, the Rockefeller Family Fund announced it would divest from the oil giant, saying it would “eliminate holdings” of Exxon Mobil Corporation (XOM.N) “effective immediately,” asserting that the company associated… Continue reading

A Year in the Life of CO2 2006

NASA scientists have put together a high resolution timelapse map of the circulation and distribution of CO2 for the year 2006 on a daily basis. The seasonal changes are easily seen and the remarkable concentration of the greenhouse gas effect in the northern hemisphere during the winter months is visually obvious.

New Insights into Sea Level Rise and Superstorms

James Hansen and 18 other authors have stated firmly that the sea level rise and superstorms of the ancient past are very real possibilities for our present-day climate if we do not rapidly remove carbon from our emissions. This is not the first time climate scientists have spoken out about the conservative views of the IPCC reports Report on the structured expert dialogue on the 2013–2015 review and suggested that the real world situation is much more dangerous than the public reports from IPCC seem to indicate. Gedens in a policy statement argues that scientists must be willing to state the facts even in t the face of intense pressure to tone down the apparent dangers. Climate Advisors Must Maintian Integrity. In this most recent report, James Hansen and his co-authors suggest many climate changes that are unexpected can occur and that they can occur quickly. He argues that the evidence for some of the worst ones are already visible in the observations.

Sea Level Changes Revealed

This map depicts the approximate sea level (shown as the new shoreline) for different amounts of sea level rise. To change the amount of sea level rise click on the little arrow beside the number in the upper left hand corner, then choose a new sea level rise. To change the location, you can simply click and hold anywhere in the map. A little hand icon will appear and you can move the map to a new view. To zoom in for a closer look use the little + sign in the upper right hand corner. To zoom out for a more general view, use the little -ve sign. This map is prepared by To see the map full screen, click on the icon with four spreading arrows and that will take you to the Firetree site.

For orientation with the future, many predictions suggest a one meter rise by the end of this century no matter what we do to reduce emissions. In the longer term, predictions depend on what people decide to do, but if the trends are maintained, the world will undoubtedly see CO2 rise to at least 500ppm. This will ensure a 6m to 9m sea level rise within a few centuries. That combined with continuing increases in population growth could be very difficult as people attempt to retreat inland to avoid the rising sea.

Comments on the TransPacific Partnership Agreement

Swimming with Sharks?
Trade agreements are always a mix of benefit and risk. So the calculation of net benefit or risk is very important. The benefit of this proposed agreement is presumed to be a much wider market with a considerable relaxation of trade barriers for those who agree to partner inside the agreement. It does not mean those outside the agreement cannot trade with those inside the agreement, it just means the trade barriers will still exist against those outside the agreement.

In recent trade agreements the most difficult clause to swallow seems to be the mediation of potential loss of profit against the countries that enact laws, regulations, or policy changes that have an impact on the potential profit of corporations. Even if the sovereign power decides the change in law or policy is an environmental necessity, the presumed profit (opportunity) loss to corporations is not deemed to be equally necessary. Instead the corporation presuming to have lost the profit can “sue” under the trade agreement by appealing to an internal tribunal or panel that has what amounts to absolute power to judge the case with no transparency of process and little if any recourse to appeal. This essentially gives the equivalent of sovereign power to corporations. In fact, it severely endangers any climate change activity to limit the extraction or use of fossil fuels. For example TransCanada is suing the USA for presumed profit loss as a result of cancelling the Keystone pipeline – the suit could be as high as $20 billion. That behaviour could be significant disincentive for a small country to enact laws that a large multi-national corporation could challenge through TPP.

In this TPP agreement, there is a great deal of verbiage about the environment, but it is largely statements of support that are undermined by the internal processes. In the case of biodiversity and ecological goods and services, it is clear the writers have no idea what these terms actually mean. For these and pharmaceutical trade ambitions, the idea is to exploit species that have biologically active properties. The only protection offered is appeal to CITES when the population level is low enough to get them listed on the Red List of endangered species. Even then there is no proscription against exploitation of the Party wishes to exploit them to extinction locally – and if the species is unique to the Party’s boundaries, to complete extinction in nature.

The statements on fisheries being an over-exploited resource are correct, but there is no mechanism to limit fisheries in areas outside a Party’s jurisdiction. Thus the “partnership” is silent on how to manage open ocean fisheries – a modern version of the “tragedy of the commons.”

My letter to the Liberal Party of Canada regarding the TPP follows:
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“M” Theory with 11 dimensional space – Wow!

As I understand it, all this thinking about dimensions comes from the problem of trying to figure out what gravity is. Einstein’s general relativity theory does not distinguish between time and space, so our familiar three spatial and one time dimension are, in his theory, all of the same character and they create what he called a four dimensional “space-time.” In this theory, gravity is a result (consequence or effect) of the geometry or local shape of space-time. A quantum theory of gravity is needed to reconcile general relativity with known principles of quantum mechanics. An easy example is reconciling light “waves” with “photons.” Gravity in quantum terms is a force, but it is an effect in general relativity. String theory is an attempt to reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics by substituting one dimensional objects (strings) for point particles of no dimensions (particle physics). Strings vibrate and move through space. One of the vibrational states creates a “graviton” which is a quantum mechanical particle that has gravitational force (analogous to the photon).There are a number of string and super-string theories. The “M” theory attempts to unify all these string theories into a single quantum mechanics theory that describes gravity as a force, not an effect. Edward Witten suggested that all five super-string theories were in fact just different limiting cases of a single theory in eleven space-time dimensions, which he called “M theory”. Witten said that the M could stand for “magic”, “mystery”, or “membrane” because he hadn’t yet worked out the entire theory. The term brane is derived from membrane.

A point particle can be viewed as a brane of dimension zero, while a string can be viewed as a brane of dimension one. Higher dimensions are labelled “p.” Thus higher dimensional branes are called p-branes. There is something vaguely satisfying when you say p-brane out loud.

The idea of dimensions that can be compacted is a mathematical convenience to avoid the awkward mathematics of a ten or eleven dimensional space-time. If at least some dimensions are slightly curved, extending the limits of space-time results in a number of dimensions that can be assumed to curl up on themselves to a “point” of essentially no dimensions. Think of a making a garden hose. we could start with a piece of rubber that is long and not very wide; a 2-dimensional plane. By curving the width dimension, we can complete the curve of the width dimension to create an inner space bounded by one dimension – the circumference of the hose we just made. Now if we back away far enough, the curved dimension (the circumference) essentially disappears and we are left with a line – of one dimension. So at a distance the hose looks like a one-dimensional object (a line or string). Mathematically at extremes, the two-dimensional hose can be considered as a compacted single dimension composed one linear and one curved dimension. Mind you, an ant crawling on the circumference of the hose would not be confused.

At this stage, my “pea-brain” is about to collapse under the weight of multi-dimensional p-brane concepts which might turn out to be real strings and membranes, and not just magic or mystery. The notion of living in a universe, only some of which may be within our perception or even our conception, is both intriguing and humbling.

Perception in the Fourth Dimension

I am intrigued by the notion that there is a limit to what we as humans can perceive about the universe.

Consider our dimensional space. The first dimension can be thought of as a line with no other features. The second dimension is perpendicular to the first and it also can be described as a single line, but by combining the first and second dimensions we get a plane, any point on which can be described with 2 numbers (x,y). By adding a third dimension at right angles to the first two, and combining all three, we get a cube-shaped space, in which the location of any point can be described with three numbers (x,y,z). We conceive of the universe as having three spatial dimensions and one time dimension. We can feel in three dimensions, but we only see in two dimensions and our brain deduces the third dimension visually by using other clues such as relative size, motion, juxtaposition of three dimensional objects etc. If we could actually see in three dimensions we would be able to see around and through objects, just as we can feel around and through objects.

To illustrate the difference between “seeing” in two dimensions and “feeling” in three dimensions, hold up an an empty mug. You cannot see the back of the mug and you cannot see the inside of the mug. You can only see one “plane” of the mug (even though your brain knows it is a three-dimensional object). Now take your free hand and explore the back of the mug (no peeking), the bottom of the mug, and the inside of the mug. With your hand you actually directly sense all three dimensions and you can describe the object’s shape fully. If someone had played a trick on you and given you a mug that was different on each side, your hand would detect the trick but your eyes would not. Next, tilt the mug towards you so the “plane” of observation allows you to see inside the mug. By doing this from many different planar angles, you end up with a very good “conceptual” three-dimensional idea of what the mug is like, but you did it by integrating a series of two dimensional plane views. One more quick example; your eyes are fooled by a good representational painting – seeming to see three dimensions. Running your fingers over the painting will, however, reveal the trick of the eye, and correctly determine that the painting is in fact a flat plane.

Suppose the universe is actually four dimensional but we are only living in, or at least only aware of, three of those dimensions. There is no mathematical reason why there cannot be a fourth spatial dimension and the location of any point within that space would be defined as (x,y,z,a). We at present have no way to see or feel along that fourth dimension. To understand the idea, imagine we lived in a two-dimensional space – a plane. The plane is the limit of our perception, up down and sideways, but not depth. Now imagine a small three-dimensional object astride our plane of existence and perception. We can see one slice of the object. If it moves along the third dimension, we will see new slices of the object until it no longer crosses our plane of existence and disappears from view. It might remain quite close to us but just off our two-dimensional plane and we would never know it was there.

Now let’s suppose we actually live in a three-dimensional space (as opposed to a two-dimensional plane) but that a fourth dimension exists. Now imagine a small four-dimensional object crosses our cube-shaped space of perception and existence. We can perceive only the three-dimensional part of the four-dimensional object. If it moves along the fourth dimension, we will see new three-dimensional parts of the object until it no longer crosses our cube-shaped space of existence and disappears from view. It might remain quite close to us but just off our three-dimensional cube-shaped space and we would never know it was there. Now we can also play tricks if we knew there was a two-dimensional organism. We could choose to wink in and out of the perception of that two-dimensional organism just by shifting position along the third dimension (the depth dimension) perpendicular to the plane until none of our three-dimensional parts cross the plane.

Let’s further suppose that our universe really does have four spatial dimensions. What if two independent origins of life began on our earth – one a three-dimensional chemical process and the other a four-dimensional chemical process? We, as three-dimensional organisms will only interact with the four-dimensional organisms when they are in a position on the fourth dimension that crosses our cube of existence. They might look quite ordinary in three dimensions, or they might be quite different. But whatever their appearance, they would (or could) wink in and out of our perception as they moved along their fourth dimension. What might their evolution have been like? Would it have been a parallel evolution to our own – or perhaps not quite the same, but close, except that they have this extra dimension to their actual shape?

Speculative science (fiction?) might allow us to imagine that there are four-dimensional micro-organisms, equally wild ancient types like 4-D trilobites and huge 4-D trap-jaw fish. Perhaps as 4-D evolution proceeded many of the so-called mythical beasts were not so mythical. The bible for example mentions the Behemoth, the unicorn (nine times), the cockatrice (a rooster-headed dragon), Lilith (a female demon), and satyrs (half-man, half-goat creatures). Abaddon’s locusts resemble war horses, have the stinging tails of scorpions, the faces of men, long hair like a woman’s, and wear crowns of gold and armored breastplates. Their scorpion’s tails are used to sting their victims, an experience that’s apparently so painful that ‘men shall seek death, and shall not find it.’ The 200 million horsemen whose horses have the heads of lions, tails like serpents, and spit smoke, fire, and brimstone out of their mouths, are eventually responsible for the deaths of a third of all mankind. There are lots of references to dragons and angels, and of course, the ultimate Leviathan. Almost all of these beasts and angels are immune to human weapons (slipping in and out of the fourth dimension?). Similar stories abound in almost all legends from around the world. Many such beliefs (real or imagined) are current today: fairies, sprites, pixies, elves, imps, brownies, pucks, and leprechauns. Are they actually 4-D sprites? And what about 4-D aliens who can wink in and out of existence, even taking our three-dimensional bodies with them for experimentation before returning them alive to our three-dimensional world!

There are times when I think I must set my pen or my glasses down on a spot that moves in and out of the fourth dimension, I’m sure it can’t be that I am forgetful.

How about some other ideas. My assumption (may not be true) is that the time dimension is common to all dimensions. Suppose however that time is also multidimensional and we experience only the first dimension of time. In an exact parallel to a single spatial dimension we only know time as forwards (or theoretically) backwards. Imagine a second time dimension so that “time” would be a plane and time would have two coordinates, not just one as it does now. This would allow experiencing time in one direction while not experiencing time in the other direction (I imagine myself stepping away from the office at ten o’clock, and moving along the perpendicular time-line to enjoy the sunshine. Then after an hour in that dimension, I step back into the office at the same time I left in the other time dimension. And with some fear that my brain will break, we could imagine a three-dimensional time-frame in which any point of time would require three numbers (t1, t2, t3) to determine what time it is.

It is not very useful scientifically to suggest a theoretical reality that cannot be tested. Fortunately there is a test to determine if our a universe has four spatial and one time dimension. The current theory (Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) predicts only three spatial and one time dimension. However, the development of string theory, which has morphed into superstring then into M or membrane theory of the universe (popularly known as braneworld) is helpful. This theory requires at least four spatial dimensions and one time dimension. In a three dimensional universe, black holes would lose enough energy so that only large black holes would remain at this time in our cosmological history. By contrast in the braneworld of four or more dimensions, very small black holes should exist. If mini-black holes are detected this would confirm the existence of a fourth spatial dimension and as a corollary, the existence of multiple universes. Those tests are currently underway using the Large Hadron Collider. None have yet been detected, so at least for now we can’t say for certain if there is a fourth dimension or not.

Charles R. Keeton of Rutgers and Arlie O. Petters of Duke base their work on a recent theory called the type II Randall-Sundrum braneworld gravity model. The theory holds that the visible universe is a membrane (hence “braneworld”) embedded within a larger universe, much like a strand of filmy seaweed floating in the ocean. The “braneworld universe” has five dimensions — four spatial dimensions plus time — compared with the four dimensions — three spatial, plus time — laid out in the General Theory of Relativity.

Just to make things a little more complicated, M theory (braneworld) predicts 10 spatial dimensions and one time dimension. Now that is mind-boggling!

Human Population Increase – How Are We Doing?

Population is a critically important variable in the quest for a sustainable and healthy world. Population dynamics of natural populations is relatively well-understood. Introducing an exotic species into a new habitat where it faces little competition and has rich resources results in a steeply rising curve usually with pronounced exponential rates of increase. Here is the curve for human population increase (I used world bank and UN data) which looks more-or-less identical to a normal natural population of an introduced species with little competition and rich resources.

Over time the resource level and/or competitive factors or disease from overly dense populations begin to tip the curve so that the slope of population increase is decreased. Here is a chart of the recent changes in human population growth and a projection to 2050.
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Ecomodernist Manifesto

The idea of an ecomodern view point makes eminent good sense. Take the best of modern technology combined with modern understanding of global ecology, human societies, human needs and desires and put them all together in a winning package. The purpose of this Ecomodernist Manifesto, authored by some 26 scholars is essentially to propose an economic strategy (although the authors categorize it as a strategy to improve ecological and human well-being):

“We offer this statement in the belief that both human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are not only possible, but also inseparable. By committing to the real processes, already underway, that have begun to decouple human well-being from environmental destruction, we believe that such a future might be achieved. As such, we embrace an optimistic view toward human capacities and the future.”

WOW! That is to say, they believe that continuing on the path we currently have embarked on will save the day if we emphasize technological innovation to provide limitless energy and intensive primary production that will not limit the population growth of humans for the foreseeable future (centuries or thousands of years).
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More on Ecomodernist Snakeoil

The Ecomodernist Manifesto is, in my opinion, a cleverly designed marketing tool to allow continued exploitation of extractive energy and mineral resources while encouraging damaging intensive agricultural practices that ignore the limits of soil recovery. There are many messages about how technology will save us all, but on climate change and global ecological challenges, they espouse the following: “Climate change and other global ecological challenges are not the most important immediate concerns for the majority of the world’s people. Nor should they be. A new coal-fired power station in Bangladesh may bring air pollution and rising carbon dioxide emissions but will also save lives

At least some of the authors of the manifesto have serious doubts that the current scientific conclusions from climate studies are accurate enough to warrant spending money on mitigation. They base this uncertainty on a variety of ideas, but primarily that the variability of observations combined with the probability predictions in climate models suggest the sensitivity of the planet is much lower than most climate scientists claim. In addition, they argue that the various scenarios of catastrophic melting or increased temperatures are either unlikely or in the distant future when new innovative technology will come to the rescue – just as it always has in the past.
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The Eco-Modernist Paradox: Snakeoil?


An Ecomodernist Manifestodemands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.” The eco-modernists argue that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while human societies must not harmonize with nature because in their opinion that will not avoid economic or ecological collapse. They claim that as a general rule, natural systems will not be be protected or enhanced by the expansion of humankind’s dependence upon them for sustenance and well-being.

Instead they claim that “intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty.” I am not certain how you can intensify forestry without being extractive unless you turn the forests into wood farms. Nor am I certain how one can extract fuels more intensely without extracting them…
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The Holocene began about 11,700 years ago, after the end of the ice age. The term is a geological term. That happened to be just about the same time that people began to shift from a nomadic hunter-gatherer society to one that investigated and eventually established agriculture. In that brief 12,000 years since then people have made an enormous impact on the planet. Nobel laureate and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen popularized the term Anthropocene in 2000 and it now has appeared in some 200 scientific articles. Geologists tend to object to the term and remark that the taxonomy is geological and there is no obvious geological evidence as to the start of a new era. Because this is a nebulous term and not yet completely established in the scientific literature, the exact beginning is unclear.

Whatever is the actual case, the term has caught on and in a new study by Will Steffen and others, 16 Jan 2015, Science, on planetary boundaries, the scope of the human impact is illustrated in a graphic that depicts the outer limits of a number of potentially limiting factors on human survival.
Planetary boundaries

Increasingly the accelerated growth we are currently undergoing in a wide range of variables adds to the concept that the Anthropocene is an era of human dimensions that hare having a singularly strong impact on the resource base of the human civilization. This slideshow is from the IGBP Secretariat and depicts a series of changes since 1750.

The long-term implications of these changes in an economic and ecological environment are ominous. For more information, this site is intriguing:

Capitalism Without Employees

As John Locke pointed out centuries ago, capitalism is a self-initiating strategic response to the possibility of becoming independently wealthy once the state lost or diminished its ability to arbitrarily assume ownership of individual wealth. The idea is simple enough: combine the assets of several people into a single corporate body so that each contributes capital making it more possible for the single corporation to control production and distribution to dominate the market and thus maximize the amount of wealth that can be shared amongst the owners of capital (so-called capitalists) within the corporation. Because it is an economic system, not a social system, the corporations (thus the capitalists in the system) are nothing more than strategic constructs. They have no inherent mechanism of exhibiting social consciousness or social responsibility for people beyond the ownership of the corporation. Many corporations require employees, but many do not, they can be operated completely with owners and no one else. Employees in a capitalist corporation are really just packages of energy and skills. If the “person” part of the employee can be more inexpensively replaced by a machine, the corporation “feels” no compunction about making that replacement.
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