Saturday, October 3, 2009

Missing Link Still Missing

The popular idea that the close genetic similarity between humans and chimps is evidence of a close evolutionary relationship between them has been taking a beating of late. A new book by Jeremy Taylor titled Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find Genes That Make Us Human adds to the drubbing. Taylor pronounces the inference from genetic similarity to close relationship to be without any merit. The book is reviewed at New Scientist by Ewan Calloway who writes that:

[T]he former BBC producer [Taylor] synthesizes recent genetic, behavioural and neuroscientific research to argue that far more than a handful of genes divides humans from our evolutionary cousins, 6 million years removed.

Take that 98.4 per cent [the percentage of our DNA we share in common with chimps], an oft-repeated figure that has been used to argue that chimps deserve human rights. True, Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes share an extraordinary amount of genetic similarity - yet humans and mice share almost as much.

Complete genomes of both species are enabling researchers to map the chasm between human and chimp, which seems to deepen by the year. A good example is FOXP2, a regulatory gene linked to speech and language disorders in humans. FOXP2 in chimps has barely changed in the 130 million years since primates and mice diverged from their common ancestor. But after humans and chimps split, two key changes accumulated on the human line.

Even greater differences may lurk in the areas of the genome once discounted as "junk" DNA, which don't make proteins but instead determine gene activity. One recently discovered RNA-coding sequence that may be involved in cerebral cortex development was found to vary little between chimps and chickens, yet humans possess 18 unique changes.

Geneticists are right to home in on differences that affect brain development: nowhere is the gulf between humans and chimps wider than in their mental abilities. Psychologists suggest that the ability to infer the mental states of others may underlie language and culture. Children gradually acquire this capacity...but evidence for it in chimps is equivocal.

....Not a Chimp should be mandatory reading for journalists who often reinforce the general public's misconception that chimps are practically human.

It may be that chimps and man have a common ancestor, but the more we learn the harder it is to make that case without resorting to question-begging - e.g. The similarities in DNA between chimp and man result from their evolutionary kinship. This must be the explanation for the similarities because we know they are evolutionarily related.

Another recent development in this regard, bye the bye, is the mounting skepticism in the scientific community surrounding the proper interpretation of the fossilized remains of an early hominid named Ardipithecus ramidus (Ardi, for short) that was initially touted as a missing link between man and chimp. It's now beginning to look, however, like Ardi is not at all close to being a human ancestor.

I wonder how many more times we're going to be told by journalists on the front page of the newspaper that the "missing link" has been discovered only to learn six months later on page twenty that such claims were premature.


Do Your Job, Mr. Senator

Courtesy of Patterico we have a video of Democrat Senator Tom Carper telling us that it's unreasonable to expect legislators to actually read the laws they write. I am not kidding. The language, he says, is incomprehensible so lawmakers simply read the summary of the bill which is written in prose more befitting a congressman's reading comprehension skills. Carper says in the video:

I don't expect to actually read the legislative language, because reading the legislative language is among the more confusing things I've ever read in my life. . . . When you get into the legislative language, Sen. Conrad actually read some of it, several pages of it, the other day, and I don't think anybody had a clue, including people who had served on this committee for decades, what he was talking about.

This is inexcusable. If the language is so turgid that it cannot be understood, even by legislators who went to law school, then do what any sixth grader would realize you should do and change the language. Here's the video:

I have three questions: If the "English" version is an accurate summation of the "legislative" language why not just write the law in plain English? Second, if Senators like Carper, most of whom are lawyers, cannot understand the legislative language how do they know that the summation accurately represents it? Third, how can anyone justify voting for a bill that will revolutionize the American economy, as health care reform will do, if they don't understand the bill and haven't read it?

This strikes me as almost criminal malfeasance. We don't send these people to Washington to advance their social life and attend cocktail parties. We pay them a very handsome salary to read the legislation they foist on us. If this is how they operate these people should not be in office, they should be in jail.


Which Side Are We On?

Strategy Page reports on progress in Columbia:

The eight year offensive against leftist rebels and drug gangs has been a success, and this can be seen in economic performance. In the last ten years, GDP has gone from $90 billion to over $250 billion. Investments by foreigners went from $1.5 billion to over $10 billion. In the 1980s and 90s, foreign investors stayed away, and many Colombian entrepreneurs and investors fled the country.

The economic changes of the last decade have improved the lives of most Colombians, and, along with a sharp reduction in violence and kidnapping, led to many exiles, and their talents, returning home. The growing tyranny in neighboring Venezuela, has brought thousands of Venezuelan professionals and investors to Colombia. After three quarters of GDP contraction (about two percent overall) because of the global recession, GDP growth has resumed.

There's much more at the link. Since Columbia is a democracy and a neighbor of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has tried repeatedly to destabilize it. So far he has failed. Given that Mr. Obama has aligned himself with Chavez against the Hondurans struggling to preserve their own democracy I wonder which side of the Venezuela/Columbia conflict our new administration is on.