Skepchick Quickies 8.24

  • Space is the final frontier for evolution – “Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution. But new research identifies the availability of “living space,” rather than competition, as being of key importance for evolution.” From Chasmosaur.
  • Uri Geller’s mind bender – From Tim: “Here’s a Wall Street Journal article on Uri Geller’s latest venture. No mention of his years of being a massive hoax.”
  • An archaeologist’s take on Glenn Beck’s rants on Mormon pseudo-archaeology – Anthroslug provides some dissection of some of Beck’s latest craziness.
  • An epidemic of ghosts – From Jes3ica, “Interesting article on how the same event/behavior could be read as DSM-supported dissociative disorder in some cultures and spirit possession in others.”


Amanda works in healthcare, is a loudmouthed feminist, and proud supporter of the Oxford comma.

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  1. I’m not a biologist, but I have read “The Origin of Species”, and I don’t see that the research in the BBC article contradicts Darwin’s formulation of natural selection at all. Competition is not just for food, but for resources in general, including living space—ecological niches can be created by the extinction of a species. Darwin’s view was uniformitarian, of course, but mass-extinction events aren’t generally seen as a refutation of natural selection either.

    Perhaps a biologist can correct me if I’m wrong.

  2. The evolution article is the first time I’ve heard anyone use competition the same way others use “God did it.” Clearly the topic-relevant researcher is talking about intraspecies competition and relative fitness driving evolution within a population. He is saying that species tend to fairly remain static until large areas of land open up, then those populations diversify.

    This is actually a VERY interesting proposal. One of the keys concepts to speciation is geographic isolation. This proposal gives a possible new way for non-isolative (parapatric and synpatric) forms of evolution that is not driven by members of the species. Specifically, it seems to say that increased land leads to low competition leads to increased speciation because it also leads to more behavior options to acquire the needed resources. (I’d be interested in how this phenomena effects invasive species.)

    Further, I like that land distribution may be a major culprit in the causes for evolution. I don’t like some dude coming along and saying “competition did it” when they clearly have little understanding of what exactly the conversation is all about.

  3. @Bacfarc: IANAB, but I agree with you. Ecological niches open up, existing species start exploiting them, and due to competition with members of their own or other species, evolve to dominate / take full advantage of the niches.

    I don’t find it suprising that major leaps happen when the playing field opens up, rather than in a “stable” eco system. Looks to me to be authors overselling a study as something new and revolutionary rather than the less exciting, but equally important proving the obvious.

  4. @Bacfarc: I don’t see that the research in the BBC article contradicts Darwin’s formulation of natural selection at all.

    I read that article and decided to not send it in to Skepchick for exactly this reason. It sounded like the authors chose a deliberately narrow interpretation of evolution and then argued with it. The only thing that might be new, and again we’d need an expert to confirm, is the points in history when the most rapid evolution had taken place. Was this when populations were crowded or had ample space? I’d never heard the argument made either way. I don’t even know how you would determine “rapid evolution”. Large changes in morphology? Large changes in numbers of species? A head-scratcher all the way around.

  5. I honestly wish everybody would stop talking about Darwin every time the word “evolution” comes up. I don’t mean to diminish his historical contribution in the slightest, but we have moved so far past his initial seed of thought that pointing out “LOL DARWIN WAS RONG” is completely banal.

  6. @jtradke: Well, have we moved so far past Darwin’s initial formulation in the broad sense? Darwin was pretty sophisticated in his thinking; modern biology tends to support a lot of his broad formulations. His *details* are often wrong, but we can forgive him that—he didn’t know about genetics, and didn’t have enough data to work with on mass extinctions. Even theories like punctuated equilibrium seem to be broadly consistent with natural selection as Darwin originally thought of it.

    Again, I base this on reading popular biology books and discussion with my colleagues. “Dammit, Jim, I’m a physicist, not a biologist.”

  7. I’m honestly surprised that Glenn Beck hasn’t brought up those archaeology conspiracy theories until now.

    But Joseph Smith/Mormon theology wasn’t the first to come up with the idea that Native Americans were originally Hebrews. Although they’re the only ones that still continue to believe it. The idea was/is that modern day Natives are, by their standards, so backwards and savage, they couldn’t have possibly built all those grand structures. Obviously, then, white people must have built them. But the reason they’re not white anymore is because God was angry and cursed them with dark skin. (Until a generation ago, it was also taught that if they joined the Mormon church and repented, they would be blessed with white skin. Whoops.)

    So it sounds like Beck is trying to be the noble anti-racist, when really this whole idea is itself rooted in 18th- and 19th-century racism.

    Whatever. I despise that blowhard piece of shit. I hope he gets struck by lightning on live television, and then writes out a nice long deathbed confessional about how wrong he is.

  8. IMHO, Glenn Beck is the crazy guy who just keeps muttering to himself. He’s never let the facts get in the way reality. I think it’s all part of his massive conspriacy. If he says crazy things, then a certain portion of the populous will believe him, because, well, they believe everything THEY don’t want you to know.

    Then there will be the fence sitters. People who aren’t sure if GB is serious, or just playing around. Finally, there will be the people who know he’s full of it, and they will try to debunk his rantings. This is his target audience. Not only is he getting people to talk about him-free publicity-but also, the fact that people are challenging him must mean that he has come upon something that THEY don’t want you to know, why else would they try fighting it.

    We’ve all played into his sceme. I say, from now on, we just hit the giant IGNORE button. He’s not saying anything that’s worth the elections used in transmitting it, so we should just pretend like he doesn’t exists, because in the world people who know their @$$e$ from a whole in the ground, he doesn’t.


  9. Oh fucking hell, now HuffPo is jumping on the “IS DARWIN WRONG?!” bandwagon.


    Oh I don’t mean to say we’ve given up on natural selection at all. Perhaps I should have said “moved beyond” or “graduated from” or something. Biology is standing on Darwin’s shoulders, to be sure.

    It’s just that it’s not novel or interesting to point out that Darwin got some things wrong. You may as well point out that he forgot to carry the 2 on page 18 of his income tax forms. Who gives a shit? That wasn’t his primary contribution to humanity!

  10. For a long time I have thought that Glenn Beck was playing a role. I didn’t think he actually believed anything he was saying. I thought it was a way to make money. I think I was mistaken. I think he is actually mentally ill.

  11. Evolution story: how is this different from Gould and Eldridge’s punctuated equilibrium?

    News Flash: Glenn Beck is a lying idiot. Film at 11.

    News Flash 2: Uri Geller is a liar as well, but I think he’s much smart than GB. He already admits he seeded the island with phony relics, which is why he can say with a straight face that he is certain they are there.

    The spirit possession story is heart-rending (or should be if they concentrated more on how much these people have suffered), but how is it helpful to base your analysis on the local mythology? Since spirits and spirit possession don’t actually exist, treatments based on, for example, exorcism or the local equivalent, won’t actually work, at least not any better than a placebo. (I don’t know if there are any effective treatments for dissociative disorder, though. Maybe the only one is prevention, i.e. don’t have horrible, genocidal civil wars in the first place.)

  12. @Gabrielbrawley – I doubt that Beck believes at least some of the things that he says – his performance is generally too well choreographed for him to not be aware of discomfirming evidence, but in this case, he is pushing his church’s teachings.

    And, Uri Geller? Again? Really? Egad, some unsinkable rubber ducks just need to be nuked.

  13. Re: Uri Geller: Nuked from orbit with hte highest yield warheads we have.

    @GabrielBrawley: I not only think Beck is an amoral nutbag, but I also think he’s back on alcohol and/or drugs. His breakdowns and paranoia strongly remind me of cocaine addiction. “Coke is God’s way of telling you that you have way too much money.”

  14. On the evolution article… isn’t that a bit of a “duh”? I mean, species that are crowded, but in equilibrium, are going to remain relatively stable because they are in equilibrium. It’s only when you upset equilibrium… radical mutation, climate shift, open up new areas to colonization… that radical adaptation is worth the cost.

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