Category Archives: Glee!

Mashup: Cracked Pepper

In honour of the 40th (!) anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, CCC[myspace] has released another mashup album (remember Revolved?). This one is called Cracked Pepper. I’m listening to it now, and it’s pretty fucking good. Check it out:

  1. cracked pepper
  2. with a little glam
  3. lucy at the river
  4. the word is good
  5. kelly watch the hole
  6. she’s slipping
  7. love kite
  8. it’s far too late
  9. hawaii 64
  10. struttin’ rita
  11. good pressure
  12. cracked pepper (reprise)
  13. a sky blue rhapsody

And for your enjoyment:

Hi-res artwork: fullcover

And all of the tracks and artwork in a tarball.

Cafe Scientifique: 2007-03-17

Cafe Scientifique Poster for 2007-03-17So I made it to Cafe Scientifique again this month. I’m two for two since I started going; here’s hoping I make it to more.

The topic this month was “Nature vs Nurture Revisited: New research is changing the age-old debate.” The expert panel was Robert Gerlai, Ph.D (Dept. of psychology, UofT) and Christopher E. Pearson, Ph.D (Dept. of genetics and genome biology, SickKids Research Institute). I expected there to be more talk about specific issues of NvN, like sexual orientation or intelligence. Instead, the talk mostly dealt (as far as I saw) with the biological mechanisms that come into play.

IANAEB, but in a nutshell there are two processes being discussed here: Darwinian evolution and Lamarckian evolution1. Darwinian evolution is of course the process by which a gene or group of genes that produces a phenotype conducive to its own propagation will tend to be better represented in the gene pool, beating out its allele rivals. Lamarckian evolution is the theory that an organism can pass on traits it has acquired during its own lifetime.

Sounds weird, right? Our DNA sequence is fixed — how could we possibly pass on genes we weren’t born with? Well, it turns out that cytosine (the “C” in GATTACA) can be methylated or de-methylated by the introduction of certain substances, and that this new form can have different phenotypic effects. This process is referred to as epigenetics. So what happens is, someone eats a diet2 containing a substance that toggles the methylation state of a certain sequence in some of their cells, including germ cells. It doesn’t affect them, or not much, because they have already developed into a human. However, the new methylation state is persistent. So when one of those germ cells becomes another person, there is a chance that the altered sequence will trigger some aberrant effect.

This has all sorts of implications, some good and some bad. On the one hand, we might find that certain diseases are caused or exacerbated by a certain methylated state on a certain gene, and that simply making sure that the population gets a certain amount of some nutrient will reduce the incidence of that disease. On the other hand, this may increase the amount of medicating that we do. Drug companies and “alternative medicine” manufacturers may jump on the band wagon, marketing products that claim to “de-methylate your cancer genes” or whatever, playing on people’s ignorance and fear to get them to eat more pills. What’s more, there may be even more pressure than there already is on women to treat their bodies like baby machines and to make sure that even before they start thinking about reproducing they maintain a diet that will produce the optimal methylation state in their bodies.

Just as with any new technology or discovery, the recent findings in epigenetics contain potential for a lot of good and a lot of evil. The talk today was very informative, and I’m grateful to the two panelists for taking the time to make it out. Today I learned about a facet of evolution that I would never have imagined existed.

1 Note that these are not competing theories, although they could be seen as competing processes. Like Darwinian evolution, Lamarckian evolution has been observed and measured, though it is more difficult to reproduce and control than Darwinian evolution for various reasons.

2 This could also be the result of other environmental influences, such as atmosphere composition, but diet seems the most effective since we actually have in-built mechanism for distributing food’s components around our bodies.

Thinking Memetically

I’ve almost finished reading The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. I have been wanting to read this for almost ten years, ever since Julien read it and told me about it. This book has now changed the way I look at the world. I mean, yeah, we all know that evolution is the shit, right? But this book makes it clear that evolution is the shit. And this is because it’s a process that is not confined to biological, genetic evolution. Any time there is anything that can self-replicate almost — but not quite — perfectly, it will be swept up in an evolving tide. So a computer program that replicates a bunch of programs in a sandbox to model evolution? That is not just a model of evolution, that is evolution.

Perhaps the most intriguing application of this is the meme: the unit* of information that can be passed along from person to person. “God” is a powerful meme, for instance, that ensures its own survival by having several qualities that cause it to be replicated. Prime among these would be evangelism, the offer of hope and love to those who have neither, intolerance of heathens, commandments to have lots of children, and so on.

And here’s an interesting point Dawkins makes: priestly chastity is itself a meme that has had some pretty good replicative powers. Chastity makes no sense in genetic terms (unless we’re talking about social insects or naked mole rats**) but in memetic terms, it creates a class of people who are able to dedicate much more time to the propagation of the “religion” meme than if they had a family to deal with. A priest who takes a vow of chastity is a more effective meme-spreading tool. This can be partially an algebraic effect of time allocation, and partially the effect of giving an impression of being special, larger-than-life, a beacon of religion for others to flock to. Someone who takes a vow of chastity has put themself on a level higher than the masses and instilled in themself an aura of authority. This all helps the meme propagate, as people look up to and ultimately emulate this priest.

So I’ve been seeing the world an a series of evolutionary interactions. I hear a song and I wonder how it, as a meme, will fare against other musical memes. I think of competing software, and wonder if there is some ESS that will be reached in their interaction. Hell, even feminism has begun to remind me of various evolutionary strategies that genes use to propagate themselves.

So if there is any downside to all this, it is that I fear I may be too completely sold on the idea of gene-level competition. I think that, as influential as Dawkins and other biologists who think along the same lines are, there is still a significant body of work being done to show that individual-level (and perhaps group-level? or is that old news?) competition is still important. Can someone please recommend a good dissenting book to balance the thorough enrapturing I have been subjected to by Dawkins’ book?

Oh, and the first person to recommend The Panda’s Thumb gets slapped.

* Not really a unit, per se. But it is a single clump of information that can be transmitted through our collective “meme pool” in ways sometimes similar to the transmission of genes through a gene pool.
** I don’t feel like explaining this. Just read the book :)