Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Darwin Day lectures: Zachary Moore, "Evolution: A Theory Confirmed"

Center For Inquiry celebrated Charles Darwin's 200th birthday on February 15 (3 days after his actual birthday, but we had to wait for the weekend) with a day full of educational activities for children, lectures for grownups, and a dinner. There were three hour-long lectures of evolution. That's a lot to sit through in one chunk of time, but the talks were lively enough to hold my attention. Here's the summary of the first talk, given by Dr. Zachary Moore, a molecular biologist, and titled "Evolution: A Theory Confirmed". It doesn't say anything you wouldn't find elsewhere on the web in more detail, but it briefly sums up the ways evolution science has progressed since Darwin's times.

There were many things that Charles Darwin didn't know about evolution. They were discovered by scientists in the centuries to come. Three kinds of evidence for evolution that were discovered after Darwin's times are:

  • speciation in action
  • key transitional species
  • molecular biology evidence

An example of speciation in action is so-called ring species.

When territories of two different, but related species of animals partially overlap, they can often interbreed. So you have a chain of several species, and any two neighboring species can interbreed between themselves. In a way it's like a spectrum: on one end there is "red" species, which then morphs into orange, yellow, green, and blue. Any color (or at least, individuals on the ends of any color) can interbreed with neighboring colors. But if the "blue" species migrates into the territory of the "red" species, they often find they can't interbreed anymore. Too many genetic differences have accumulated. Yet since interbreeding is possible all the way from red to blue, we don't know whether to consider them separate species or one big species. All that it takes for this group to separate into different species, is for some intermediate species to go extinct. This has happened in nature. Ring species illustrates how concept of species is arbitrary "in a cosmic context" (to quote Dr. Moore), but is meaningful in human context.

Zachary Moore gives a lecture at the Center for Inquiry Austin Darwin Day 2009 celebration

Transitional species

Many people imagine transitional species to be something akin to a mythical crocoduck kirkcameronii (here Moore showed a picture with a head of a crocodile and body of a duck). This, of course, is not what transitional species are like. A real example would be Achaeopteryx lithographica, a primitive bird with a lizard tail. It has wings and feathers.

How do you get from a fish to a tetrapod? Most people think there must have been something fishy-like that grew legs. But we haven't found a good example of it until discovery of Tiktaalik roseae in 2006. This shows predictive power of evolution. Scientists were able to predict in what type of rock, what type of location they could find something like this -- a fish-like creature with appendages resembling legs. It has a tail with fins, it also has gills. But the front fins were very different: they had primitive wristbones. It could push itself up with them. It also had a very unfish-like head, and a neck.

Another remarkable transitional species is Ambulocetus natans, a walking whale, discovered in 1996. It's a mammal that's perfectly adapted for aquatic life.

Molecular evidence

While the subtle points of the argument might have escaped me, the gist is that similar molecular sequences in ubiquitous genes indicate a genealogical relationship between species.

Pictures from Darwin Day can be found in my photo gallery. I will keep adding new pictures in the days to come.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009


A few weeks ago I went to a meeting of the Ethical Society of Austin. This was part of my search for a secular community. While I've been involved with a few of those, and frequently mention them in my blog, it doesn't mean I have found my "community-home". But that's not what this post is about. The folks at the Ethical Society were warm and welcoming. The presentation of the guest speaker, Kate Lovelady, was titled "A Sustainable Community -- Eco-Village Life and Ethical Culture". She spoke about the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, which she visited not long ago. I've heard about ecovillages, cohousing, and intentional communities before, but not in much detail. There is a range of communities that are variations on cohousing theme. Some of them are in big cities, and truly green living is not any more possible to them than it is to most of us, so they don't even set it as a goal. And then there are communities like Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, located in remote corners of the world, and their members take radical (by our standards) measures to live sustainably.

What do people in ecovillages live on?

When you imagine a community located far from a city, and you learn they share 3 cars among 50 people (a deliberately chosen restriction), you realize those people aren't just living out in the country and commuting to city jobs. That would be the opposite of sustainable. So you've got to ask yourself, what do they live on? The speaker, Kate, addressed that question, and the answer was not very inspiring. Most live on a patchwork of precarious sources of income. Such a lifestyle is easier in an ecovillage than in the mainstream world. The folks here don't need very much, and they get most of what they need from the inside economy. They grow their own food and do jobs for one another (such as building houses). Many do random jobs here and there. Some live off retirement funds. They have been entertaining an idea of opening a bed-and-breakfast. Not everyone agrees, though, because some people feel it would restrict them from gardening in the nude. But an increasing number of members have home-based, or web-based, businesses.

And yes, they have internet access.

Freedom from some of society's regulations is what prompted them to choose this unlikely location in Missouri, instead of someplace in California, as one might expect. This place does not have building codes for private residences, so they could build any kind of houses they wanted. One woman turned an old bus into a house. She insulated it and made it otherwise livable. However, at the time of Kate's visit, she had a big mouse problem.

To be a successful hippie, you have to have a lot of structure

This, however, does not mean everyone is free to live any way they want without any restrictions or regulations. Quite the contrary. Policies and procedures govern their everyday life. Kate quoted one resident saying: "When I joined the Dancing Rabbit, I thought I was going to have to throw my watch away. Instead I got a day planner!" They have lots of meetings to discuss issues that come up. "To be successfully hippy-dippy, you have to have a lot of structure," says Kate. They have co-ops for everything. I guess those are formal structures for exchange of goods and services. There's even an co-op for internet access, and, of course, car co-op. Sharing 3 cars among 50 or so members means lots of carpooling, thus, lots of coordinating.

Some of the biggest sore points among members are dogs and children. Those are two kinds of creatures that don't necessarily obey rules, and it does not help that many ecovillagers are opposed to population growth. So there are constant boundary negotiations going on, some people's freedoms pushing against other people's rights.

What do they do for healthcare?

Since they are outside of the corporate world and don't have health insurance, what do they do for healthcare? Most people, unfortunately, go without. Some visit local rural clinics, staffed by nurses. Some are negotiating with health insurance companies to create special plans for intentional communities, though they don't seem to have made a lot of headway. Some justify their opting out of healthcare with an argument "if something happened to me, I'd rather die at home than be hooked up to life support machines in a hospital for weeks". That's an understandable sentiment, but, as Kate Lovelady pointed out, there are many shades of gray between good health and life support machines, and many times a doctor is invaluable.

Living one's values to the maximum

What specific ways of sustainable living have they adopted? They heat houses using waste woods from local small factories, and solar arrays. This does not mean entire houses are covered with them. Solar arrays, Kate says, don't have to be big to power VCRs, refrigerators and power tools. The bathrooms in the ecovillage -- one of the more "exotic" manifestations of sustainable living -- use "humanure" system. That's pretty much what it sounds like. The villagers use human waste for compost. Instead of flushing the toilet, you cover up waste with sawdust. Kate said she was more than a bit uneasy about using them at first, but in reality there's nothing gross or weird about them. The bathrooms mostly just smell like sawdust.

Similarly, the folks who live in ecovillages are not weird. They are mostly just ordinary people; what's different about them, Kate thinks, is dedication they put into living their values. Kate herself practices environmentalism -- she's a vegan, rides a scooter, and wears second-hand clothes. She's considered an extremist even in the Ethical Society. But in the Dancing Rabbit she was perceived as a bourgeois!

As one may expect, living your values to the maximum comes at a cost. Apart from lack of healthcare, there are more personal costs as well. In private conversations with Kate some people expressed their apprehensions regarding loneliness. Someone being one of only three singles in the community, if they don't hit it off with one of the other two people, they'll probably move on in half a year.