Carnival of Evolution: a better late than never edition cabinet of curiousities

Welcome, at last, to the inexcusably late October 2013 or 64th edition of the Carnival of Evolution. Rather than your host belaboring you with the woes that kept him from opening up this carnival’s tent at the beginning of the month, let’s just get on with the show, shall we?

Bjørn Østman, our most gracious and capable grand master of the CoE, has kept it going despite a decline in submissions and interest, which may be part of a general decline in carnivals in the blogosphere. I don’t know the causes of this decline, or indeed if there is an actual decline rather than just me being too busy to have noticed them. In any case, we do have a number of submissions for this edition, made by a handful of people who continue to contribute to the CoE. To honor them for their efforts, I offer you the stories and links they submitted under their own banners, so to speak, by organizing this carnival into sections bearing the contributor’s name on the banner. It may also be a lazy way for me to get this out way past the last minute, but here you have it: a carnival tent with sections carved out by a handful of curators browsing the internets to find interesting evolutionary stories, a cabinet of curiosities with different shelves sponsored by treasure hunters who keep bringing the stuff in.

If you step over here first, in this corner we have Joachim’s cabinet: 

Infographic History Evolution

The above is an almost unreadable shrunk version of a rather neat Infographic history of evolutionary thought, created by Tania Jenkins, Miriam Quick and Stefanie Posavec for the European Society for Evolutionary Biology, and posted at Theory, Evolution, and Games Group, where Artem Kaznatcheev picks up on an interesting tidbit, a small box quoting a scholarly Islamic text from the 9th century which appears to anticipate (and ante-date) Darwin and Wallace’s discovery of the theory of evolution by natural selection. While the translation is dubious and unsubstantiated, it is nevertheless quite intriguing to think about how the Islamic world of that era, which gave us such a foundation for mathematics and astronomy (among other things) might have viewed the ultimate question about the origin of life. It shows something of a contrast from the present day in that part of the world, and the story reminds me of the excellent historiographical book (and one of my favorite books) “In an Antique Land” by Amitav Ghosh, which is also about a frustrated chase after 800-year-old documents from the Middle East, and compares the free flow of people and ideas in that age to the walled off boundaries and mutual suspicion that have fragmented that region after it had long abandoned that early scholarship.

Over at Rationally Speaking, Massimo Pigliucci defends PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne (imagine that!) from rather contradictory charges by evopsych researcher Robert Kurzban: that Myers (who will host the next edition of this carnival, btw) is somehow a “creationist of the mind” for apparently dismissing the supposed evopsych assumption of a more straightforward causal mapping of gene-to-behavior than is likely in the case of humans. Coyne, OTOH, apparently underwent a conversion to accepting evopsych, even though he remains critical of the more sloppy methodology in the field. Pigliucci’s typically careful dissection of Kurzban’s “rather strawmanly view” is well worth the while for anyone interested in understanding how the study of human psychology from an evolutionary perspective is itself… umm… evolving!

From a misinterpretation of history about the discovery of the theory of evolution by natural selection, through modern debates over the nature of evolutionary psychology, Joachim’s collection bring us around to The Modern Social Life of Genes or a new social science of genetics, in an essay posted at Pacific Standard

Next, we have Charles Goodnight (and Bjørn Østman) beckoning us to peruse a post on Epistasis and the Evolution of Corn at the University of Vermont’s Evolution in Structured Populations, a blog featuring some good technical writing to help us through the quantitative mechanics of evolutionary genetics. This particular post is a fascinating look at how the interaction between multiple genes (or loci) may have played a role in the evolution of corn from its ancestral teosinte. The author concludes that the process of domestication seems to have “released this variation that was locked up in epistatic combinations” in teosinte, with a change in genetic background allowing the appearance of traits that we now associate with corn! (and what’s a carnival without corn, right?)

Which brings us to the largest cabinet in the middle of the carnival tent, where Bjørn Østman has gathered a range of articles, some of them offering multiple perspectives on the same new discovery:

For instance, two of the (male) science writers in National Geogrraphic’s Phenomena blogs were fascinated by a long lost bone(r) and wrote about it with typical flair: A Most Interesting Bone – Phenomena by Carl Zimmer; and, author Brian Switek’s. A Long-Lost Bone.

Bjørn then takes us back to Evolution in Structured Populations, for a post clarifying the meaning of several statistical/mathematical terms used in evolutionary genetics including about Average Effects, Average Excesses and Additive Variance. Understanding the meaning of these is critical to understanding the nature of genetic variation which underlies biological evolution.

Over at her Guardian roost, GrrlScientist writes about a new study based on genomic bird DNA suggesting that the hepatitis B virus originally infected early birds during the age of the dinosaurs! She notes how such discoveries may have implications for human health, as these newer genomic techniques unlock more secrets of paleoviruses from eras past, and how they have evolved, especially those that infect humans.

If you’re fascinated by dinosaurs, and ever went through a “dinosaur phase’ in your childhood (or maybe you never left that stage, which is cool!), you must already know that Brian Switek is your guy for dinosaur tales from the frontiers of paleontology. Writing in Nautilus, Brian wonders how the fame and fortune of dinosaur megastars depends on our understanding of many of their more unsung dino brethren. Studies of its smaller relatives, for example, have left with no alternative but to accept a feathered look, because: T. Rex Might be the Thing with Feathers. Dr. Matt Bonnan, meanwhile, writes on his blog, The Evolving Paleontologist., about how Dinosaur hand and forelimb posture might have been more diverse than previously hypothesized.

Continuing on the theme of limb evolution, you might want to read Jeremy Yoder’s piece (at Nothing in biology makes sense!) about a new paper which employed comparative phylogenetic analysis to show that the sprint speed of gazelles, zebras, giraffes (… and ostriches?) is shaped more by the kinds of predators hunting them, than by other factors which make them move.

If you want a peek into the work of evolutionary researchers, you must regularly stop by the BEACON Researchers at Work blog, where recently MSU postdoc Noah Ribeck posted about his own research on frequency dependent selection in a long term evolution experiment, and  Survival of the Rarest.

Tired of reading? Take a break with a fun video about How Did the Seahorse Get its Shape? guest-posted at PsiVid on the Scientific American blog network, by Stephani Yin. You’ll also find many other fun science videos at PsiVid so enjoy the break from text – but do come back to read some more! The early evolution of vertebrates is always a fascinating subject. How did the jawed vertebrates evolve from jawless fish ancestors, for example? Go read Fishface at The End Of The Pier Show for an overview.

Is everything, every trait of every organism, ultimately adaptive, if you dig deep enough? Many often think / imply this is the best explanation for variation in any trait – with natural selection winnowing that variation down to what we observe.  It is refreshing therefore to read a strong argument for the role of physiological (and developmental) constraints in shaping traits. Moreover such non-adaptive explanations should at least be treated as null hypotheses in Evolutionary Ecology, argues Njal Rollinson.

Our next haul of curios comes from the cabinet of Bradly Alicea:

Before Darwin and Wallace dropped their Natural Selecrion bomb, what did biologists/paleontologsts do to explain the similarities they could observe between related species? It is easy for us to now claim, with clear hindsight, that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. But, people in the 1900s were nevertheless trying to make sense of apparent relationships between organisms using phylogenetic networks during at least1900-1990.

Over at Evolving Economics, Jason Collins provides an interesting overview and critique of evolutionary economics as a hybrid field attempting to understand and explain, first, how humans deviate from the “rational agent” ideal of classical economic models due to our evolutionary baggage, and second, how a Darwinian framework might help us understand the dynamics of real agents from the world of human economics. He ends by proposing a new term “Darwinian Economics” for a broader approach that integrates economics with evolutionary biology. Elsewhere, David Sloan Wilson has taken to the blogosphere at Forbes, to apply his own iconoclastic view of evolution to ask whether Nice People Succeed In Business? on concluding that It depends.

Recently, Sir David Attenborough, the eminent naturalist who has turned many a child onto the wonders of nature and a path towards becoming an evolutionary biologist, made a rather significant public gaffe when he asserted that humans had apparently put a half to natural selection. This widely reported assertion, naturally, brought a number of strong responses, which are all worth reading because of the insight they provide into recent and ongoing human evolution. For example: “We are not the boss of natural selection. It is unpwnable” argues Holly Dunsworth atThe Mermaid’s Tale. At the Guardian, Ian Rickard asserted that Sir David Attenborough is wrong – humans are still evolving. Even I was pulled into the fray, and wrote a response on The Conversaton UK website, again asserting that humans are still evolving. Why wouldn’t we?

Evolution to bike

We also have a book review in this edition, of a new biography: Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science. Agassiz was a polarizing figure because he was opposed to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, even though he was a great naturalist, and played a big role in building up many museum collections and other aspects of American science. Sounds like a fascinating book!

Following the tradition of saving the tastiest treats for the last, allow me to share a fascinating (to me, at any rate) post at Synthetic Daisies on how different animal species differ in Perceptual Time, i.e., perceiving the flow of time within their sensory constraints, and how that has affected the evolution of Informational Investment. Really thought provoking stuff (at least for me), this is a story I expect I shall return to again soon.

And finally, who doesn’t like bashing John Hammond, the iconic eccentric billionaire creator of Jurassic Park (played by Sir David Attenborough’s brother Richard!)? Especially for how much biology he got wrong? Remember how he explained that they obtained the DNA of dinosaurs from the bellies of Jurassic era mosquitos trapped in amber? That was something we all wondered about, and hoped even that it might come true! Well, Sorry John Hammond, they found no dino DNA in the ambered bugs examined in a recent study!

Amber. Contents: ancient arthropod. Contains no DNA.

What a bad month for the Attenbororough brothers, eh? Well, let us hope they both (the real life naturalist, and the fictional character played by his brother) learn some lessons about real-world evolution, and the limits of human hubris!

That concludes this edition. The next round of this carnival will be gathering rather quickly, in just a week (pardon my tardiness!) under one of the biggest and most venerated evolutionary tents in the blogosphere: Pharyngula! Please send your entries, or ones you’ve read are particularly good, for the next edition using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

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