Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A rant about primate evolution and cladistics.

As a zoology student, I am naturally more easily irritated by the minor mistakes most people make regarding the Animal Kingdom in everyday conversation. I'm happy to let most of these slide: if you don't know the difference between a frog and a toad, I'll find it in my heart to forgive you, and let's not even get started on the myth of the venomous daddy longlegs.

But there is one such common mistake that to me represents pure ignorance, made all the worse by the fact that most culprits of this error do actually know the difference, but deem it to be insignificant. Well, my friends, it is not.

In fact I am not talking about a specific error, but a whole host of generalisations and outright fallacies surrounding the evolutionary relationships of one group of animals: the primates. Ever since the desperate attempts of nineteenth century clerics to discredit Charles Darwin and natural selection, misconceptions and ignorance about our primate ancestry have been rife.

First let me address the most annoying of all these errors: the difference between apes and monkeys. If asked,    most people would be able to tell you the key difference between the two: monkeys have tails and apes don't. Even this, however, is an oversimplification, for while it is true that all apes are tailless, some monkey species also lack tails, such as the Barbary macaque, which is commonly (and erroneously) known as the Barbary ape.
Even just dividing primates into monkeys and apes fails to take into consideration the oft-overlooked prosimians, or 'lower primates' comprising lorises, lemurs and tarsiers, which, whilst not apes or monkeys, are all primates nonetheless. Monkeys and apes are collectively known as higher primates or simians. Below this level of classification, you might assume that the next binary split is between monkeys and apes. But you'd be wrong.

Here comes the part where I can no longer avoid using long names.

Within the simians (or simiiformes as they are more correctly known), there are two subdivisions: platyrrhini and catarrhini. The platyrrhini are the New World monkeys (that is, monkey species native to Central and South America) and include marmosets, tamarins, capuchins, spider monkeys and squirrel monkeys among others). The word platyrrhini means 'flat nosed', and reflects the major distinguising feature of this clade: flat noses with outward-facing nostrils.

Catarrhini means 'downward nosed', and refers to the fact that the catarrhini have more pronounced noses with nostrils that face downwards. The clade consists of Old World monkeys native to Eurasia and Africa (including baboons, macaques, mangabeys, geladas and mandrills among others) and apes (including gibbons, gorillas, orang-utans, chimpanzees and, of course, humans). Apes are further split in two, with gibbons being separate from the much larger great apes.

Within the great apes, our closest extant relatives are, as most people are aware, chimpanzees. We did not, however, evolve from chimpanzees. Rather, both genera evolved from a common ancestor. That ancestor (often referred to as the Missing Link due to the current dearth of fossil evidence) lived some seven million years ago, and it is important to remember that just as seven million years of evolution separate humans from that ancestor, the same is true for chimpanzees. It would seem absurd to say that chimpanzees evolved from humans, and so why should it not seem absurd to say the reverse and put ourselves at the top of the tree? The fact is there is no top of the tree.

It seems to me that this propensity to say that humans have evolved from chimpanzees, or 'monkeys', as so many people wrongly calling them, is a psychological way for people to assert the superiority of the human species over our closest biological relatives. The process of evolution normally involves an increase in complexity, and people like to think of themselves as being more complex than a chimpanzee. But the fact is, humans and chimpanzees evolved from the same ancestor. The differences between our two species are likely to be the result of geographical isolation of two populations of the same primate species, resulting in divergent evolution based on the differences in the habitats of each population. We create this arbitrary hierarchy for ourselves, with humans at the top, based on one aspect: cognitive function, but there is no logical reason to infer that we are the 'master species' based on the size of our brains alone. We could just as well base our hierarchy on renal function, in which case seals would be 'better' than us, or on longevity, in which case giant tortoises would surely rule the Earth.

My point is that we humans like to see ourselves as special based on our unique characteristics. In reality though, all species are unique; if they weren't, they wouldn't be distinct species. It just happens that one part of what makes humans unique is the very ability to conceptualise our uniqueness.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Reflections on the AV referendum.

In a not-so-surprising turn of events, the UK has today rejected the Alternative Vote system in what was only the second UK-wide referendum in the country's political history. Opportunities for the public to effect change in such a direct manner are few and far between, and this one has gone entirely to waste.

Firstly let's look at the main problem with the current system, First Past The Post. At the local level, FPTP seems to be the fairest option: the candidate with the most votes wins. And indeed this was the main focus of the 'No' campaign. At a national level, however, FPTP is probably the most unfair of all the different voting systems in existence. At the last election the Liberal Democrats took 23% of the total vote share compared with Labour's 29%, yet the Liberal Democrats won only 57 seats (9%) compared with Labour's 258 (40%).

So how does AV work and why is it better?

The Alternative Vote system requires voters to rank the candidates in order of preference from 1-5 on the ballot paper. Simple enough, yes? (Apparently not for the 'No' campaigners, who claimed that this would confuse voters.)
The votes are then counted in several rounds. Firstly, everybody's first preferences are counted, and if one candidate has over 50% of the vote, no further rounds are necessary and that candidate is elected. If, however, no candidate has an outright majority, then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and his/her votes are redistributed according to the second preferences declared on the ballot papers. Again, if one candidate has more than half of the vote, then he or she wins, but if there is still no clear majority then the third preferences are taken into account, and so on until a winner emerges.

The UK's current three party system has one major downfall: we have two centre-left parties (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) and only one centre-right party (the Conservatives). This inevitably results in the left-wing votes being split. This means that in constituencies with roughly equal numbers of centre-left and centre-right voters, the Conservatives have a big advantage. With the Alternative Vote, the least popular of the two centre-left parties would be eliminated, and the chances are that a large percentage of their votes would go to the left.

[Let me clear one thing up: I'm not trying be deliberately anti-Tory here. They just happen to be the only centre-right party. If the Liberal Democrats were a centre-right party we would still have a problem, only it would be Labour with the unfair advantage.]

For an amusing illustration of how unrepresentative FPTP can be:

Perhaps one of my biggest gripes with some of the 'No' campaigners was the assertion that AV would give more power to the 'floating voters'. I fail to see why this is seen as a bad thing. After all, it is these floating voters who pay most attention to each party's policies in order to make an informed decision, unlike the 'safe' voters who will happily remain loyal to the same party in every election regardless of policy or previous performance. AV would not only empower the floating voters, but it would encourage more people to look more closely at the policies of all the parties; even if people's first preferences remain based on party loyalty, at least their second, third, fourth and fifth choices might be better informed.

Another huge advantage of AV is that it encourages more honest voting. By this I mean that it reduces the impact of tactical voting, and encourages people to vote for the party they genuinely prefer. Under FPTP, for instance, centre-left voters who may lean towards the Green Party may be put off in constituencies where the Green Party doesn't normally receive enough of the vote share to win, and instead vote for Labour because they would rather have Labour than the Tories. With AV, supporters of smaller parties have the freedom to vote for their preferred party, with the guarantee that they are not indirectly increasing the chances of another party winning.

For an interesting take on how complicated AV is compared to FPTP: 

The fact that the 'No' campaign won by such a huge margin (69% to 31%) does, on the face of it, show a clear lack of public support for AV, but put this into the context of everything that has come to pass since the General Election last year, and the real reason for this wholesale rejection of electoral reform.

Right up until the General Election, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats were riding high on the wave of disillusionment with Labour. Not high enough to win an election in a political system which always serves to weaken the third party, but high enough to prevent either of the two main parties from gaining an outright majority in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats were in the unique position of being able to choose which of their opponents would run the country, and, as I'm sure nobody has failed to notice, they chose the Tories, based largely on one promise from David Cameron: a referendum on AV within this Government's term.

Since the Liberal Democrats have long been the most vocal advocates of AV, any vote on the matter is effectively a judgement on the Liberal Democrats. David Cameron may be many things, but he is certainly not a fool, so he knew exactly what he was doing when he offered the Nick Clegg this historical referendum. All he had to do in order to maintain the system of voting which most favours his party was make sure that public opinion of the Liberal Democrats was at its lowest point at the time of the referendum. And over the last year he has done exactly that.

I'm not saying that everything the Prime Minister has done has had the specific intention of bringing down the Liberal Democrats, but rather that he has timed the implementation of his policies carefully to cause as much damage to his Deputy as possible without openly attacking him.

I am of course referring to tuition fees. Along with electoral reform, the abolition of university fees has long been one of the Liberal Democrats' main policies, with Lib Dem candidates going so far as to sign a pledge prior to last year's election promising to vote against any rise in university tuition fees. With the Tories planning to raise the cap on fees, it was always going to be a difficult compromise for the coalition, but the Liberal Democrats certainly weren't expecting the amount of backlash they received when the Tories pushed through a whopping 167% increase in annual tuition fees and those Liberal Democrat MPs who had signed the pledge were forced to break their promise.

So here we are, a year after the election, and millions of voters have lost faith in the Liberal Democrats as a party capable of holding any sway in a coalition, and it becomes clear why the AV was rejected so decisively. Wrongly or rightly, and despite warning from Labour leader Ed Miliband, this referendum was never about AV versus FPTP; it was a judgement on Nick Clegg and his party. AV would make coalition governments more likely because it would inevitably give more seats to the Lib Dems and other smaller parties, but to base such a monumentally important decision on the performance of one Liberal Democrat in a coalition with a Conservative Prime Minister who has deliberately sought to weaken the Liberal Democrats with a view to safeguarding FPTP is incredibly short sighted. The public have fallen into David Cameron's clever little trap and in the process have missed a real opportunity to make our government more democratic. Who knows when the next chance will come around? Based on today's result, probably not for a very, very long time.