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Crotchets & Quiddities

For a number of years I have been writing a column on evolutionary concepts and questions, that appears in most issues of the journal Evolutionary Anthropology.  Ev Anth has a top-rated impact factor among journals in anthropology, and a very good journal to subscribe to if you want to keep up with various aspects of the subject. It has lively and informative articles (not just mine!)  on a variety of subjects.

C&Q are intended to stimulate thought on a subject, not to provide answers, and I hope that's what it does for you. I'd welcome any comments: With my frequent co-author and collaborator (and permanent wife!) I manage a blog on similar topics, associated with our 2009 book The Mermaid's Tale (see Research page), and comments on these C&Q columns may also be made. Hopefully, it is a site for stimulating thoughts. The URL is

NOTE: Below are pdf's of some earlier installments, but you can go to the journal web page (Google Evolutionary Anthropology) to find other installments, and you can see the other interesting things that are in the journal, so subscribe! Wiley once promised to make these C&Q's downloadable, but reneged on that and they are now only for sale unless you subscribe (which would be a good idea).  However, if you write me a specific request I can send you a pdf copy.

We hold these truths to be self-evident (Evolutionary biology rests on more deeply on axioms than we may wish to believe. What are they and how sound is their logical standing?) Vol. 10(6).

Biology's theoretical kudzu: the irrepressible illusion of teleology (Is adaptation a tautology, or even real? Is teleology inevitable and necessary to life? Possibly). Vol. 11(1).

Goings on in Mendel's garden (The honorable monk probably didn't cheat.  But he led us astray in other ways) Vol. 11(2).

Is the message the medium? Biological traits and their regulation. (Much about the nature of biological processes is logically necessary but functionally arbitrary. What does this mean about biology?) Vol. 11(3).

KulturCrisis? Cultural evolution going round in circles. (Culture changes over time and has geographic and other patterns. Evolutionary models have often been proposed to account for this.  What has become of those ideas?) With Frances Hayashida. Vol. 11(4): 136-141.

Good vibrations: the silent symphony of life (A century ago a leading biologist suggested that repetitively structured biological traits resembled interference patterns used in tuning violin plates. Are such ideas in tune with modern biology?). Vol. 11(5): 175-82.

How the eye got its brain (Some interesting Just-So stories about evolution may not be just so). Vol. 11(6): 215-219.

Come to me my melancholic baby! (Some famous textbook cases of evolution aren’t unambiguously true. Does it matter?) Vol. 12(1):3-6.

Ludwik Fleck and the art-of-fact (Truth may be beauty, but more in the eye of the beholder than we generally acknowledge. This can affect the course of science.) Vol. 12 (4): 168-172.

What stamps the wrinkle deeper on the brow? (Science often relies on simplified diagrams to convey information. But these can embed tacit assumptions. A good example is provided by the surface convolutions of the cerebral cortex. It is surprisingly difficult to know what these features mean, and which deserve evolutionary explanation). With Kristina Aldridge. Vol. 12: 205-210.

Dinner at Baby's: werewolves, dinosaur jaws, hen's teeth, and horse toes. (Occasionally traits arise that appear to be atavistic throwbacks to the remote past. How can this make evolutionary sense?) With Sam Sholtis. Vol. 12:247-251.

The frog in taffeta pants (What is the magic that makes dead flesh fly?) 13: 5-10.

Doin' what comes naturll'y (Behavior affects evolution in many ways. Organisms are adapted for what they do, but they also do what they are adapted for.) Vol. 13: 47-52.

Ponce de Leon and the telomere of youth (The explorer went to the ends of the earth in search of immortality. Did he only have to go the ends of his chromosomes?) Vol. 13: 82-88.

The smallest grain in the balance (Darwin viewed evolution as a continuous force perfectly sensitive to variation. The nearly-neutral theory of evolution says something quite different. Both may be right). Vol. 13; 122-126.

Perfume (In search of an olfactory Mozart). Vol. 13: 205-210.

"The" genetic code (The DNA-based code for protein through messenger and transfer RNA is widely regarded as the code of life. But genomes are littered with other kinds of coding elements as well, and all of them probably came aftera spercode for the tRNA system itself). Vol. 14: 6-11.

Seeing through a celing fan (The retrograde rotation of wagon wheels in Western movies is a digital illusion of continuous motion. But vision itself is not continuous and it's not clear that the 'stream' of consciousness that perceives it is continuous either). Vol.14:45-48.

To bde or not to bde: sex and the bdelloid rotifer (Most species eventually end up having sex, but not the bdelloids, and in pondering what lies beyond what we can see in evolution, there's the rub.). Vol. 14: 93-98.

The reluctant calf (You only live once, but some people stay juvenile forever. A discussion of culture-gene coevolution and the persistence of adult lactase enzyme). Vol. 14: 127-131

Racing around, going nowhere (Arguments about race recycle endlessly because the truths we think we're chasing, are always chasing us. Maybe we’re getting nowhere because we’re already there). Vol. 14: 165-169.

A metaphoric rise to stardom (In the 1950’s a process perspective based on the 'modern evolutionary synthesis' replaced a static descriptive one in anthropology. A more comprehensive synthesis is now taking evolution to the inside as well as the outside of organisms). Vol. 14: 213-217.

The clergyman's wife and the parrot (Things from the past are sometimes repeated when you least expect itthem. New and potentially surprising uses of RNA). Vol. 15: 3-7.

Had Rev. Jenyns said 'yes' (A small decision with a big impact on biology. What if Darwin hadn't gone on the Beagle?) Vol. 15: 47-51.

Dark matter, coming to light (When matter meets antimatter, annihilation follows. Recently, we've discovered a world of genetic antimatter. It leads to annihilation, but in a creative way. On new layers of genetic causation.) Vol. 15: 83-87.

Coding Fregoli's Illusion (It's more than entertaining to be able to change your appearance on a moment's notice. It's a life saver. On gene switching, immune resistance, and olfaction). Vol. 15: 127-131.

Sherlock Holmes and the empty cab (It’s easy to provide plausible explanations of the main features in evolution. But the little things, that may be quite important, are elusive. On making genetic causal inferences). Vol. 16: 160-166.

Reading the palimpsests of life (Some relatives bear only the faint trace of their ancestor). On how evolution can make it difficult to find related genes by DNA sequence comparison). Vol.15: 207-210.

Filling the cup of alteration (Uniformitarianism then and now). Vol. 16: 6-11.

What big teeth you have, Grandma! (Big eyes are to see with, but what about the unseen? The principle of parsimony in evolution). Vol. 16: 43-48.

Finding hippocampus minor (What makes us uniquely human?). Vol 16: 88-93.

The Scopes trial ("People, this is no circus. There are no monkeys up here. This is a lawsuit, let us have order." [Court Officer Rice1] ). Vol. 16: 126-131.

"So mortal and so strange a pang" (Is the high life a matter of adaptability or adaptation?). Vol. 16: 164-171.

Going on an antedate (Hardy-Weinberg. What is it? Why teach it?). Vol. 16 204-209.

All roads lead to...everywhere? (Is the genetic basis of interesting traits so complex that it loses much of its traditional evolutionary meaning?). Vol. 17: 88-92..

The good, the bad, and the Ugli (Can seemingly incompatible worldviews be hybridized?). Vol. 17: 129-134..

Clarissa's house (A famous literary heroine did herself in for no good reason, but life is doing that all the time, for all the right reasons). Vol. 17:166-170.

"A formidable shape...that seem'd Woman" (Mitochondrial Eve and her co-Eval stepsisters). Vol. 17.: 208-212.

Joseph Adams in the Judgment of Paris (Evolution's remarkable little book 45 years before Darwin). Vol. 17: 245-249.

Boost, don't baste, "this prodigious number of children!" (A new modest proposal to honor Darwin's bicentennial ). Vol. 18: 3-8, 2009.

“There’s no intraspecific struggle in nature” (The lessons of Lysenko for the modern age.). Vol. 18: 50-54.

How the Persians were saved by lightning (Causation and the collapse of possibilities). Vol. 18: 85-90.

Pieces of eight! (Like centuries of pursuit ofthe Spanish treasure fleet, gene hunters seek elusive treasures in the human genome. But are they there?). Vol. 18: 125-30..

Gray's Anatomy (An effort to simplify shows how complex life really is. How does it get that way?). 18:241-246.

The Fixed Period (Dystopic notions darkened post-Darwinian Britain). 19:4-8.

"Nature red in tooth and claw" So what? (Tennyson wrote his famous line with evolution in mind--but was basically wrong). 19:4145.

Does history matter? . (Do the facts of human variation package our views or do our views package the facts?). 19:92-97.

The song of the Jubjub!. (What you hear many times isn't necessarily true). 19: 125-129.

The immortal scowls of Marx and Spencer . (Even in death, their views on evolutionary change are on opposite sides of the street). 19: 168-173.

Seeing the forest through the gene-trees . (What is the pattern in the human genome and what does it mean?). 19: 210-221.

Dr Pangloss's nose . (In evolution, cause, correlation, and effect are not always identical). 20:3-8 (with Holly Dunsworth).

Mr Darwin's misfortune . (The burdens of knowing too much). 20: 43-47.

The 5% solution . (How do we make decisions in science?). 20:81-84.

The Weald of Kent . (Darwin hesitated to Ussher in a better date). 20: 126-130.

Marry a quean and be merry . (Many paths to the same mood). 20: 164-168.

Bottom, crowned with an ass's head . (Does an inversion in thinking portne the end of Enlightenment science?). 21: 5-9.

The Fleagle factor. (In life and publishing alike, the  editor has the final say).  21: 45-49.

Agnotology.  (How van we handle what we don't know in a knowing way?).  21: 96-100.

To understand the baboon.  (The triumph of evolutionary methods).  21: 131-135.

Dracula!  A paradigm shift in evolutionary genetics.  (Death of a theory at the hands of the undead?).  21: 176-181.

Little Orphan's Nanny.  (Where do genes come from and who takes care of them?). 22: 4-8.

Will you stop bugging me! (Malaria and the evolutionary challenge that won't go away).  22: 46-51.

Plus ca ne change pas ... (Evolution may be a race....but to where?).  22:167-171.

After the dawn beckons. (A soft awakening to an awful day).  22: 275-179.

What works, works. But what works? (Genomes as works in progress). 23: 50-55.

Do we understand the genetic basis of evolution? (Most traits look polygenic, but that may not be how the evolve).  23: 88-92.

Catastrophes in evolution (Is Cuvier's world extinct or extant?)  (with Holly Dunsworth).  23, 130-135.

I smell a rat! (and 999,999,999,999 other things, too).  23: 166-171

Serfing the social web. (The evolution of minority rule).  23:212-217.


After the dawn beckons.  A soft awakening to an awful day.  In press.

*Crotchets are eccentric or idiosyncratic opinions. Quiddities are philosophical essences, trifles, or quirks.