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The Evolution of Random Dandruff Thoughts

I had a random thought today while showering. I don’t know why, but you don’t hear much about dandruff these days. At least I haven’t. When I was growing up dandruff was a major topic of discussion. It was something that everyone with a modicum of social concern ought to have been worried about. I remember the bathrooms of friends, cousins, and various random people always had a bottle of Head and Shoulders sitting in the shower. It was as common a constituent of a bathroom as striped toothpaste. The TV warned you of the danger and tacky faux pas of appearing in public with such unseemly flakes flecking your clothes (and worst of all, forcing someone to brush the offense from your back). The messages were clear: Dandruff could strike at anytime and you had better take some action to ensure this isn’t something that happens to you. Yes back in the day dandruff was of major cultural concern. And even now the word horrifies me. Dandruff, like bad breath, was shudderingly terrible thing to contemplate having. But now I don’t seem to sense in it the social force that dandruff once carried. Why? (and my apologies to those who are still the victim of this malady and for belittling this important topic). I actually remember spotting the white snow of dandruff dusting people. But it’s been years since I’ve noticed it on anyone. Has my search image just disappeared as dandruff ceases to command the media attention it once had? Have modern conditioners plastered it to our heads so we don’t flake like we used to? Do we just not care anymore?

A Random thought.

Random thought? What did I mean by that? And a little earlier I said, ‘random people.’ What did random in that case mean? Randomness in evolution confuses people more than anything else about it. I hear more outrage over the randomness of evolution that I suspect there must be some vast and dark creationist literature throwing smoke so thick that evolutionary biologists are stuck looking like someone at a party covered with dandruff when they stand there looking confused at the ‘randomness’ line of attack on evolution. “God does not use randomness in his creation!” is a common complaint against evolution. What is this randomness that has everyone so worked up? Is it of the same sort that Einstein complained off when he said, categorically, and wrongly apparently, “God does not play dice with the Universe.” In what ways is evolution random? What does that mean? The next three posts are going to explore this in some detail. We need to sort out where randomness occurs in evolution and how it plays out in evolution through natural selection. Darwinism isn’t just about randomness (although it uses it). (Also, Some one is bound to point out to me how unlikely a strand of DNA is or that mutations are random, yes, yes hold your horse will get to that)

So what did I mean up there, “Random thought?” Did I mean that there was some quantum mental event in the Universe, that like a proton decaying, this thought just appeared full blown de novo into my head? That seems like a pretty strong claim that doesn’t feel quite right. I mean, the random thought does feel conditioned on my past history with dandruff. Also, that this happened while in the shower where once the blue shampoo stood proudly and conspicuously in the corner and was now missing, seems telling. Maybe my old brain just missed the cute little bottle. The thought does seem to call for some sort of appropriate explanatory hand-waving. There would seem to be something that might be said to have caused the thought, although what this is I can’t even begin to imagine and given the state of Neuroscience I doubt anyone really could. But the random thought just appearing out of nowhere like a gamma ray emitted in radioactive decay seems wrong.

Also I could have chosen to think about dandruff. Did I wake in the morning and think ‘Make a note to think about dandruff today in the shower”? No it seems to be a completely unpredictable event (although if you had predicted it and told me about your prediction, it might have caused me to think about it and then it would have been anticipated and not a random thought at all (especially if you count the thought, ‘Don’t think about dandruff’)). But this plays into freewill and I’m not going there, even though I think it’s a major player in the stuff that happens in the universe.

So there seems to be two kinds of randomness that could play a role in evolution. A sort of raw brute randomness that the universe throws around every once in a while like in radioactive decay, and a sort of unpredictability based on our own inability to predict things (follow that?). Largely, because they are just too complicated and involve too many things. In the next blog we’ll focus on the second of these kinds and see if we can sort out a little more clearly how randomness plays out in natural selection. Of course, in the unlikely, (well, very, very, very unlikely but still not infinitely impossible) event that all protons decay everywhere at once, we won’t be able to finish this conversation. But wouldn’t it be nice if all the protons making up dandruff and bad breath decayed at once? It could happen.

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11 comments to The Evolution of Random Dandruff Thoughts

  • brady

    is a random process still random if it’s preconceived and/or intentionally enacted? or if its outcome is known by a single person?

  • steve

    I think this is when it’s important to ask, “Random from what/whose perspective?” That will actually play heavily in what follows.

  • Cap

    “God does not play dice with the Universe.”

    Obviously there are a lot of random things that happen in this universe. Personally, I don’t see a need for God to control everything that happens, ever. I think he is smarter then that, and allows the universe to conduct itself how it will. Just like we have free agency to think about dandruff shampoo commercials at random, Nature can evolve at random. Stars can collapse at random. There isn’t a reason or a set way for everything.

  • Steve, agreed. Perspective is everything in understanding and yet taking the perspective of an other is so impossibly hard to do. When I approached Christianity for the first time in earnest (late adolescence) it was statistics and probability that held so much sway for me.
    I still can’t get away from feeling that probability, likelihood and modeling when properly approached help inform so much of what we feel is random.
    P.S. you’ve inspired me. I’m going to start blogging in earnest now. A post this weekend was a somewhat recent exercise in using basic frequentist statistics to buttress a hunch and observation many would be happy to just take for granted.

  • I think shampoos that most people use just got better as did people’s hygiene and concern about clothing.

  • FWH

    As a dandruff sufferer, I take issue with your lighthearted use of this important social issue to illustrate concepts related to randomness. Head and Shoulders is still a stock item on my shower shelves. You are treading on dangerous ground, sir. On second thought, the pattern of dandruff distribution about one’s shoulders might illustrate the point of randomness nicely–at least from the perspective of a diseased scalp (like mine). Well done, old chap. Perhaps we could look into writing a grant on the likelihood of dandruff patterns approaching a random distribution about one’s ‘head and shoulders’? I could offer myself as a representative sample.

  • steve

    FWH,

    I find myself reproved but will willingly join you in grant writing for this. Please begin to photograph your head and shoulders immediately as we can send it in as preliminary data for our grant application. Please try to keep conditions as similar as possible in each photo. As they say at the cafe Sperl, “this is science.”

  • This is an interesting topic that my husband (ex-science teacher, now computer programmer) has thought about. A while ago, he stumbled upon this Flash program created by a guy who intended to show that evolution couldn’t be random: http://avoision.com/experiments/genesis/ . In response, my husband created this program: http://www.caferock.org/chris/genesis/genesis.php The basic idea is: evolution isn’t random because it keeps what works. (Here’s the blog entry he wrote about it: http://www.caferock.org/blogentry.php?blogid=4&entryid=420 ).

  • chris g

    You may want to have a look a Kauffman’s book “Reinventing the Sacred”. He spends a fair amount of time discussing randomness in natural selection. He suggest you need to also look at self-organization. If I get it right, it is basically the idea that genes aren’t fully random, but critical. In other words, they tend to a few stable states whose number depends on the total number of genes. I’m no biologist, so I’m in over my head, and looking for other things in the book besides biology.

  • steve

    Hi Alyssa, this got sent to spam for some reason. Great post and illustrates nicely what I’m talking about. Thanks.

  • Suggest argue, because only in a dispute born truth.

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