First Post

I figured that this morning was a good time to start my weblog.  It’s my first day at the University of Utah’s Math REU on Lie Groups.  In the interest of time, My first post will be an email I wrote to a professor about a book I’m reading called The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins.  Enjoy:


I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ book, The Greatest Show on Earth,
which is a collection of all the current evidence for evolution. I
just finished the chapter on embryology, which brought up an idea that
strikes me as profound and difficult to comprehend. The theme of the
chapter is that gross, seemingly orchestrated phenomena like the
flight patterns of starlings, the swimming patterns of schools of
fish, the behavior of termites, and the complicated origami of
embryonic development can arise from simple, local units obeying
simple, local rules. I first thought deeply about this idea after
reading about the Game of Life by John Conaway, which operates on the
same principle.

Dawkins’ chapter on embryonic development got me thinking about the
immense complexity of the history of life. It’s hard to describe how
the total effect of natural selection towards the great variety of
life is so mind boggling to me, so I think I better focus on one tiny
aspect. One such example is sexual reproduction. It feels like my mind
is too tiny to comprehend the exact transition(s) from asexual
reproduction to sexual reproduction. The evolutionary argument is
fairly clear; sexual reproduction leads to greater genetic diversity
and thus greater adaptivity and thus survivability and finally
fitness. However, this is argument is completely unsatisfactory in
explaining how it actually happened. The principle is well-understood,
but the particulars that happened over the course of geological time
seem intimidatingly complicated. I find this mind-boggleness
comparable to thinking about the number of stars in the galaxy or some
other such incomprehensible task.

I also wanted to add that I have been thinking about evolution in the
context of modern humans, specifically in the US. I keep thinking
about the illnesses and disasters that tend to cause death, and try to
figure out what the selective pressures are, but I keep coming to the
conclusion that there are no selective pressures in the US with
respect to survivability. It seems that pretty much everyone is
guaranteed to live long enough at least to reproduce.  Increased rates
of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes doesn’t seem to affect fitness
in that people with these illnesses survive long enough to reproduce.
And everyone seems guaranteed to find a mate and actually reproduce
rather than just living long enough. Also in the US is the idea that
the poor have more offspring than others, but this doesn’t seem like a
selective pressure at all, since wealth (or lack thereof) seems to
have more to do with socioeconomics that any hereditary traits that
natural selection could take a hold of. Overall, I find myself getting
lost in these thoughts, wondering what sort of natural selection is
happening today.

I was curious if you’ve thought about these same ideas or have any insights?



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