Tag Archives: Evolution

The Apple Mac: It’s a religion…

It has been explained by writers better than I how our minds are wired in a way that makes them vulnerable to religion.

Whether it is our desire to feel secure or have simple and complete explanations for natural phenomena or simply because we enjoy the social scene at church, there is no doubting the power of the effect. Even in modern times, entire lives, indeed entire civilizations are devoted to the superstitious concept of supernatural Gods.

Although L. Ron Hubbard may have started a religion while knowing it was all a sham, most religions did not need such deliberate action. Our innate need to have faith in things has allowed religious concepts to emerge and evolve freely in our communities as far back as records go.

So why do I bring that up?

It occurred to me today while pondering why people are so defensive about Apple Mac computers – I realised that their behaviour had much in common with religious ‘zeal’.

Then it occurred to me how much the success of Apple relies on perception and conception. If it was just about getting the fastest computer, you would not buy a Mac. If it was about buying something that has wide compatibility, you would not buy a Mac. If it was about cost, you certainly would not buy a Mac.

Some might argue that Macs are more intuitive and ‘easy to use’. These are people whose idea of computing is buying a shiny box, plugging it in and doing exactly what they are expected to do. They are people who just accept it when they are told they need to buy a new printer. Or worse, they blame the printer – what a crappy printer, not compatible! These are people who do not need to set up a complex network, or run a database server.

Anyone who has a Powerbook G4 that cost several grand and is not actually compatible with the latest OSX release, yet needs that OSX release in order to actually work, and still hugs and caresses the machine as it it were a newborn baby while defending its honour and wanting to spend another several grand on a newer shinier one, is, in my opinion, dabbling in a cult.

OK, before you write me off as some sort of anti-mac fanatic, I will admit they are beautiful.

Moving swiftly on, I think it is worth analysing Apple’s success.

How does a company that controls the details of their products so completely compete with a product (the PC) that is made by hundreds of companies all constantly competing, innovating, coming and going, rising and falling? The modular design of the PC allows almost anyone to buy all the bits and assemble the machine themselves; with so many companies making monitors and keyboards and hard drives, some will make bad (fatal) decisions and die, some will make good decisions and thrive and if there are enough upstarts to keep up the supply, the consumer will only ever see the winners, even if their victory was a flook, it was a victory none the less.

You could say that PC is the computer you get from natural selection (survival of the fittest), the Mac is the the computer you get when you try to control the evolution (unnatural selection).

Now a company that tries to make everything itself can capture the value chain, sure, but as it is only one company, it cannot make even one fatal decision, and thus needs to be a little more cautious. This means it is doomed to always lag slightly on the performance vs value curve – so what does it do?

Easy, get the consumer to accept poor value. Make up for performance by buying in high quality technologies (lcd screens, hard disks, etc), and make the customer pay the premium. Then focus on marketing.

Marketing is the art of making people want something. It is unnecessary for products people need.

So what happened at Apple?

Apple, perhaps by good luck, became perceived as a David vs the Goliaths of IBM and Microsoft. For some reason (was it deliberate?) Apple computers gained traction in music recording and graphic design, and gained a sort of bohemian chic that is rather impressive considering that it is essentially “Big Business” and, like most companies, designed to make money.

Clever partnerships, and particularly the inspired partnership with Adobe (think Acrobat PDF’s, think PhotoShop) strengthened their position with journalists, publishers and illustrators establishing the Mac as the creative profession’s computer of choice.

This turned out to be a good thing, as the naughties have been the most art friendly decade yet, as popular culture has come to resent things like ‘work’ and ‘industry’, and a certain sections of society have come to view activities like sport as trivial and meaningless when compared to the value and depth in culture, poetry, good food, yoga, spiritualism and so on.

In other words, the artists have moved up in the world.

Some of the more switched on folk will realise that brands like Gucci/Armani/Christian Dior or Ferrari/Porche/Aston Martin  or Rolex/Michel Herbelin/Patek Philippe are based entirely on massaging the egos of their customers, and in the last case, they probably don’t even keep better time than a black plastic Casio.

But not many of the arty crowd have realised that Apple is using their independent nature against them. The Mac user seems to be infected with the idea that in using a Mac they are somehow being beneficent to the world, will somehow be more creative, they they are part of some loving brotherhood that has exclusive access to the truth and the light.

This is because, by accident or design, the Apple brand has been developed to find that part of our mind that wants to believe and wants to belong, and is easily dazzled; the brand is acting like a religion.


Apple’s alliance with artists continues with U2 and the Black Eyes Peas, both highly credible symbols of free-thinking modernism. But I want you to ask yourself: what is free thinking about this computer company? I’m not sure, but I suspect the only free-thinking thing about Apple is its association with icons of the free-thinking world. It is just an electronics company for Pete’s sake. Like Sony, like Samsung, like Nokia.

If you believe there is any more to it than that, then you are welcome to pay for it.


PS: Besides the defunct G4 in the drawer, there is also an iPod classic in my home. I like it. I like to hold it. Mmm.

The Statistics of Fear

By all rights we should be rather scared of cars. We should regard them in much the same way we would regard a tarantula on the bedsheets or a short stroll on a tightrope. Yet we aren’t. Curious. Cars kill far more people than lava flows, piranhas or anthrax.

Perhaps they are too new for evolution to equip us?

Now if we look into the stats you realise we should be even more terrified of crap food, and the word “sedentary” should be a glare-inducing swear-word. If our bodies knew what was good for them, we would get grouchy after a day without a vigorous walk, and start shaking weakly after two. Sugar, so long sweet, should soon evolve to be utterly disgusting. Not soon enough for some.

Family Tree Nonsense

For many, learning about their family tree can be a real joy and pleasure.

Realising that a long distant grandfather was in the guild of barber-surgeons, or that you have a criminal or judge or, heaven forfend, someone famous in your lineage, can be a real thrill, and provide you with significant ego-boost, or perhaps a nice feeling of belonging.

The reason why it’s so often a positive experience, is due to an interesting mathematical oversight.

What do I mean?

This fractal can teach us something about ancestry: we have more ancestors than we tend to suppose...(image credit: Northwest Liberty School http://nwls.us/)

This fractal can teach us something about ancestry: we have more ancestors than we tend to suppose...(image credit: Northwest Liberty School http://nwls.us/)

I mean that people can read anything they want from a family tree, and this is made easy by the exponential nature of ancestry.

Would you find it remarkable for someone to say they were directly descended from Isaac Newton, Henry VIII or even Jesus? Would you think more of them?

What about people who say they are ‘from’ somewhere? – “my family originally come from Brittany…”, or “my family fought in the  revolutionary war…”


Now anyone who knows about the maths of ancestry, knows that there is actually very little remarkable about relations with famous people, especially from a long time back. If you have two parents and four grandparents, eight great-grand parents and so on, you can guess the numbers get big quite quickly.

The American revolutionary war was around 230 years ago, so perhaps eight or nine generations[1].  Nine generations back we had perhaps 2^9 (or 512) ancestors, and their folks were probably still around you can add them to the mix (another 1024)  giving over 1500 relatives, all swanning about somewhere in the world around the time of the war.

OK, you might want to reduce the number a bit due to some folks appearing  multiple times in your tree; (yes, in-breeding happens to all of us), but the number is probably still well in excess of  a thousand.

So, with over a thousand ancestors around at the time, the chance of having at least one involved in the war is pretty darn good (especially if you are were born to US citizens). I would argue that for anyone who can trace back three generations (to your eight great-grandparents) in the US, it would be far more remarkable if they didn’t have ancestors that fought in the war.

As you get further back in time, the numbers get more serious. A thousand years back , or forty generations, the straight maths gives 1 099 511 627 776 ancestors. Of course, this is impossible, as there were not enough people in the gene pool; the real number is clearly much lower and this is due to our old friend, in-breeding – where the family tree morphs into more of a family ‘web’ and involves the majority of the (breeding) population of your “gene pool”, the group that share enough in-breeding to behave somewhat like a super-organism. Where cross flow of genes between parts of the pool becomes retarded, (most usually by geographic barriers) the pool may divide and racial difference may develop.

Of course, we live in a time of great ‘connectivity’, and the US is a great example or a melting pot, with a very ‘open’ gene pool. This means that statistically, the chance that all 1000+ of one’s ancestors were around in the revolutionary war is hopelessly optimistic (unless there were special circumstances, like a closed community with a high degree of in-breeding, as may be the case with some religious groups).

So basically, anyone who says their family is all-American, “since the revolution” is being highly selective in their analysis.

Of course, western society does tend to invest much importance in the male line – which is far more specific – and would only give a couple of  chaps alive in ~1780, and if you can indeed prove this then the claim may be considered more interesting.

However, the argument that the male line is more important in some way (such as in the forming of character, or of any particular heritable trait) is pretty unconvincing. So even if you can trace a direct male line to Isaac Newton, this is no guarantee that you will pass your physics tests! Any advantages he had, will have been diluted by the 16,000 or so other folks who contributed just as many genes.

The male and  female lines can actually be traced (using mitochondrial DNA for the female line and Y-chromosomal DNA for the male line), but though this makes it easier to trace these ancestors,  it is perhaps still unwise to assume this line is more important than the thousands of other ancestors.

In the case of the USA, there is another factor, the large family sizes, and the resulting high population growth rate. The population present during the revolution have, by all accounts, been very fruitful. That means that even if you could trace your male line right back to, say, Thomas Jefferson, the chances are, you are not unique.

The Opinion Bit…

Hard-earned privilege...
Hard-earned privilege…

I am constantly annoyed by selective analysis of ancestry. I hope that the above simple illustrations alert the reader to this trickery, or at least confirm the reader’s suspicions (or convictions) that much of this is wishful thinking. What is most important to our own ‘value’ in the world is surely what we ourselves decide to do, not what our remote ancestors may have done.

However, I cannot deny that family research is still hugely interesting, even if what it really confirms is that we are all brothers and sisters, and none of us is superior due to our ancestry.

Don’t even get me started on so-called “royalty”!

[1] How long is a generation? http://www.ancestry.com/learn/library/article.aspx?article=11152


I inhabit a post-theistic world. God or the idea of God has long-since lost its influence on my thinking – my morals, my emotions or my research. I am thus not so much an atheist as a “post-theist”. To me the debate is over, so the categorisation into the do’s and do-nots is now only an interesting study of human gullibility rather than a deep & heart-rending dilemma. 

Anyway, I thought it would be good to put into words my position on the whole God-vs-Science debate, which is really rather important and most certainly cannot be ignored.

I have frequently been tempted to write about this topic, but have opted to keep my powder dry, because I was not sure which approach would actually increase the net happiness in the world (groan away, but what other approach is better?). Options included:

  • Explaining how I came to be an atheist: my idiot christian school taught me about other religions, and I quickly added two-and-two and realised if they were mutually incompatible they were probably all false
  • I could go on about the scientific implausibility of the whole show. The total lack of evidence, not to mention the blatant disregard for logic.
  • I could explain how there is evidence human brains are designed, by evolution, to believe in concepts like God. 
  • I could go into the details of infectious memes, and how religion is a darn good example of a viral idea that has all the properties you would try to put into a computer virus if you made one (which I did once, for a HP48s, a once popular calculator).
  • Lastly, I could come out like a raging fundamentalist pointing out how religion is the ‘root of all evil’ (to borrow a phrase) – how religion justified the great wars and the subsequent suppression of nations /women / freethinkers / witches / etc.

However, I realise that Hecht, Dawkins, Harris and several others have walked this path (rather well) for me. Perhaps I should focus my efforts on subjects not yet so well covered? Some would argue that atheists need to rally together and ride the current wave of interest and publicity – we need to gain the critical mass.

This is the real question. What would help?  

I don’t know! Please help…

The speed of evolution

The theory of evolution is greater than it looks. It is not just clever. It is not just useful. Its biggest value is as a nail in the coffin of some very destructive ideas. Not just the idea that Europeans are superior to Africans, or the idea that humans are superior to animals, but the idea that we all have some divine purpose – and therewith, the whole idea of good and evil.

The fascinating story of how the the tide of evidence has led to the unravelling of religious explanations for the world is, however, not what I wish to ponder here. No, I would like to ponder an area of evolutionary theory that still holds some uncertainty, some mystery.

Relax, I am not trying to ‘break’ or disprove evolution. I am fairly confident it it largely right, but I still think there are questions about it speed.

The problem…

Anyone who has read on the subject understands the pure cunning of natural selection. Basically put, any replicating ‘creature’, that produces slight mutations in its offspring, will produce some offspring that are better than itself – better at competing for resource, better at surviving. Of course many mutations (indeed perhaps most mutations) may produce ‘worse’ offspring, but if the better offspring survive proportionally more, there will be a generational improvement.

This is the same phenomena that allows us to breed better race-horses, beef-cattle or strawberries.

Now, we can see the effects of selection very quickly in a petri dish of bugs, or perhaps in viruses in the human population, but the evolution of large mammals is a slow affair, not easily observed, and it took the discovery of ‘missing links’ to confirm the theory that we had indeed evolved from primate stock.

I personally have not read widely on evolution, I have simply spent lots of time thinking about it, and also spent some brain cells on pedantic calculations and computer simulations.

What comes up, again and again in the simulations is the question of speed.


Yes, speed. How fast do we evolve, and have we had enough time to do it?


There are two ways to tackle the question of evolutionary speed. One the one hand, you could say: we have only had, say, 5 billion years, to evolve from the basic elements, so we must have evolved fast enough. The calculations must simply be made to fit the data.

Some (not me) have however said, hang on, calculations show that we haven’t had the time to evolve, so the theory must have some massive fault.

The latter argument betrays a misunderstanding of evolution. They assume that as evolutionists claim evolution is ‘true’ and ‘right’, that their models must be right. But if their models suggest we needed 100 billion years to evolve that will prove that evolution is too slow and some other agency is required to square the circle.

However, just because evolution is fairly certain to be right, that doesn’t mean the models are simple, and I hope to give some insight into the challenge that I came across in my own amatuer attempts at the challenge.

Factors that throttle evolutionary change… 

Let’s look at the things that effect the speed of evolution.

  1. the generation gap (time between generations)
  2. the strength of the mutation.
  3. the selection pressures (multiple)
  4. the male/female requirement (and its surprising turbo function)

The first one is obvious – the more generations you get through each year/millennium, the greater potential for evolutionary change.

Mutation strength is more interesting. You could have multiple errors in a DNA sequence, the more errors the stronger the mutation. However, some errors in the DNA may have no particular effect, while other errors could be catastrophic, so that matters too. To keep things simple, lets just focus on the ‘strength’ of the inter-generational change.

If the mutations were very small and subtle, this, I would predict, would slow evolution down. However, if the mutations are too large (remember they are random), they are less likely ‘to be compatible with life’. However, I suspect because they are random, they will come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from untraceably small – to very fatal (resulting in early miscarriage).

However, we have seen in the fossil record evidence that evolution speeds up and slows down. The statistics of mutation ought not to change like that, so there must be more to it.

Selection pressure is the next, and even more interesting, factor.

People have questioned why the world doesn’t have living examples of ‘the missing link’. They must have been ‘viable’ in their own right, so why didn’t they survive?

Some thought on the subject (as well as my own simulations) show that this is not surprising. The speciation event (when one species splits into two) is usually the result of a population becoming subjected to a varying selection pressure (usually geographical). If the population is well mixed, its keeps together, but a mountain range or body or water can reduce the interaction enough to allow the different ‘random walks’ to optimise the two populations for their environments. Allowed to proceed for any length of time, you land up with two separate species, with nothing between. Once separated, they cannot ‘rejoin’ even if they mix once more, so the divergence will continue. Some have argued that ‘spurts’ in evolution augment this speciation process.

So why do these spurts happen? This is most likely selection pressure, but how does it work? Well, putting it simply, the more the environment changes, the more the creatures will need to change to survive. In a static environment, creatures will evolve to suit, but following the law of diminishing returns, once happy, would have no driving force to change any more.

However, you could well argue, that while a quickly changing environment allows faster evolution, it is simply taking its foot off the brake, something else is really controlling the maximum speed of evolution.

What do I mean by maximum speed? Well ask how fast would an environment need to change, such that evolution could not keep up – then you have reached its maximum speed.

There is an example that some folks think is an example of an environment that promoted fast evolution. Theorists have suggested that early man was often the victim of famine, and often needed to move around, which resulted in accelerated evolution. The stronger penalty on the weak, the higher reward for strength and wisdom, meant that potentially positive mutations, that may be lost in stable ‘easy’ environments, were more effective in this environment, thus accelerating change.

There is much written about selection, by people much smarter than myself, so I will not elaborate any more on it. I would simply summarise, that in the course of billions of years, some environments would allow fast evolution, while others would stagnate, and the average speed, while hard to quantify, would not be consistently high enough to be the key to the sort of evolutionary speed we need to gain so many evolved features is so few generations.

So at this stage, I would like to point out the most marvellous thing about evolution, which I think can multiply the effects of natural selection.

The two-sex system and its accelerating effect…

As I grew up, I sometimes wondered why we needed two sexes. Why not just allow all creatures to have offspring, add in a little mutation, and hey presto, it should work. 

This was the form of my very first simulations (some 17 years ago now!). It showed me fairly rapid evolution and increasing fitness, so all looked good. If you set the bifurcation ratio to 2, give each child a random ‘fitness’ and then set the chance of reproduction be proportional to fitness (a very simple algorithm), the population did get fitter. However, when I compared it with the standard model, where you have two sexes, two differences in macro behaviour showed up.

Firstly, you have to add an extra ‘selection’ criteria. It is not just about surviving to reproductive age, it is now about surviving AND finding a mate. And you can forget about monogamy, so a very fit (for sexual selection) male could fertilise several females, at the expense of less fit males. This effect can (in my model) greatly accelerate change. All you need to do to get fast change, is ensure that partners can identify fitness accurately. 

The second interesting effect from having two sexes (and what I found out from my model), is that good genes can spread through the population, which does not happen in the one-sex model. This spread of good genes means that one part of a population could be learning how to deal with sunburn, while another is learning to deal with sickle-cell anemia, and their solutions can be shared by all.

Now we are talking. This, if I have my thinking right, would be a serious turbo-boost for evolution, allowing it to evolve lots of traits in parallel, whereas the single sex model would have to work on one feature at a time – first build an eye, then build a digestion tract, then build a good sense of humour… This buys evolution a lot of time. This makes it far more likely that 5 billion years is enough time to make all the amazing variety we see today.

So I would therefore argue that this makes it more likely we had time to go from the first two-sex replicator to the world of wasps, earwigs and herpes.

That begs my next question: how did the first two-sex replicator come about? I think the computer modelling may be beyond me, but I hold out hope for my children! 


UPDATE: I have added a follow-up post which addresses the question of ‘epigenetics’, the possibility that the DNA sequence is not the sole databank in our genes.