Tag Archives: evolution

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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A talk about Aliens in Fresno!

But no… not my kind of aliens, them other kind… y’know, extraterrestrial! But… how would you know?

Department of Biology and
Tri Beta Biology Honors Club present

Would alien life resemble us, and how could we possibly know? Astrobiology, evolution and the amino acids

A public lecture by

Dr. Stephen Freeland
NASA Astrobiology Institute
University of Hawaii

Thursday, April 28, 2011, 6:15 PM
Peters Auditorium, UBC 191

Free and open to the public with free parking in UBC lot

Abstract: A fundamental challenge for astrobiology is to establish the relative contributions of chance versus predictability in the origin and evolution of life on our own planet. Thus, for example, all Earth-life creates metabolism from an interacting network of protein molecules that catalyze various biochemical reactions. Furthermore, early during evolution it had arrived at a standard set of 20 amino acid building-blocks with which to build each of these proteins. We now have good reason to think that many of these amino acids are formed in significant quantities throughout the galaxy – but so are many others – so would alien life be like us, and how could we possibly know?

For more information, please visit www.csufresno.edu/biology or call 559-278-2460.
Download the flyer below the fold:

Much love to all my silly Herpetologist friends, but…

…grow up and get yourself a real discipline, would you?!


As the mouseover subtext puts it: “Birds are Aves, which is part of the clade Theropoda, which is in Saurischia, which is in Dinosauria. Those birds outside our windows are dinosaurs. We can clear out the rest of our brains because we now have the best fact.”

The Rap Guide to Evolution returns to Fresno State! March 4th! Be there!!


Tri-Beta is thrilled to welcome Baba Brinkman and his acclaimed peer-reviewed hip-hop show “The Rap Guide to Evolution” back to the Fresno State campus once again. A regular performer at Fresno’s Rogue Festival, Baba first came to the valley with his Rap Canterbury Tales,  catching the attention of some of my English faculty colleagues who brought him to campus to perform to a limited audience. I first heard about his rap when he came back to the Rogue shortly after the Darwin Bicentennial to give us one of his early public performance of The Rap Guide to Evolution. We managed to bring him to campus where he rocked the house (although I don’t know if rappers rock houses, what with my general ignorance of musical genres). This modern-day bard, this Rapconteur, has since made quite a name for himself with his hip-hop takes on such erudite subjects as evolution, medieval poetry and human nature.  The Rap Guide to Evolution won the prestigious Scotsman Fringe First Award in Edinburgh in 2009, was written up in the New York Times,  and went on to tour the USA, Australia, and the UK, including appearances  at the Hammersmith Apollo in the UK, off-Broadway, and a TV appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show. Baba’s hip-hop tribute to Charles Darwin is set to transfer to New York City this spring. As I blogged here recently, Baba is currently producing a DVD version of the Rap Guide to Evolution, complete with fancy hip-hop videos of every number in the album and additional material.
He is back in the valley next week to perform on our campus and at the 2011 Rogue Festival where he will do his new show as the Rapconteur – you will want to catch that show as well, so check out the schedule in that link. But before he kicks off his Rogue show, we will get to see him on our campus, on Friday, March 4th, at 7:00 PM in the Peters Auditorium within the new Student Rec Center near the Save Mart Center. You can read/download/print the full flyer about this event attached below. Note also that this is a free show for students, faculty, and the general public, sponsored by the Tri-Beta biology student club, who continue to bring fascinating lectures and performances to our campus, like the recent Darwin Week festivities. So if you know any of the club members, or run into them somewhere, do give them a shoutout to thank them for enriching campus life for all of us! (Disclosure: I happen to be faculty advisor to the club and have played my role in instigating them to do all this stuff).
I look forward to a full house next friday joining in to chant I’m a African with Baba…

Download this file

Evolution & Science Education: A Panel Discussion for Darwin Day @ Fresno State

Evolution & Science Education
A Panel Discussion for Darwin Day

Biology Colloquium
Friday, February 11, 2011
3:00-4:00 PM
Science II, Room 109
Fresno State campus

Do American high school Physics teachers still tiptoe around—or avoid discussing altogether—Copernicus’ radical observation that the earth is not the center of the universe? Do they address Newton’s laws, or gravity, as “mere theories” that must be balanced with alternative viewpoints? No? Why then, do 60% of American high school Biology teachers (according to a national survey published in the journal Science last week) feel uncomfortable about teaching Evolution, the facts and the theory of which form the very foundation of modern biology? Why do 13% of them actively teach creationism in the science classroom, despite court rulings that creationism is not a science and does not belong in the classroom?

This Friday, on the eve of Charles Darwin’s 202nd birthday, join us in a discussion with a panel of high school teachers and biology professors to address these important questions about the state of science education in the US, its relevance to the state of science literacy and education here in the central valley, and what we may do about it.

Scott HatfieldScience Teacher, Bullard High School
Bruce WillifordScience Teacher, Fresno High School;
David AndrewsDirector, Science & Mathematics Education Center, CSU-Fresno
Paul CrosbieProfessor of Biology, CSU-Fresno
Madhusudan Katti (moderator), Associate Professor of Biology, CSU-Fresno 

See the flyer attached below for more information, or contact the Biology Department.

Of Pandas and Texas and standing up to the “experts” – again!

Here we go again. The never-ending game of creationist-whack-a-mole continues, with an old head that had been hammered (even in court) popping up once again. Where else, but – in Texas, of course:


Texas SBOE Asked To Consider Materials from Fringe Anti-Science Group

January 20, 2011

In a move that should not surprise anyone, a well-known creationist/“intelligent design” group appeared on a list of publishers that have indicated an intent to submit science curriculum materials for approval by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) later this spring. The formal inclusion of this creationist group means Texas will once again be ground zero for creationist attacks on 21st-century science, TFN President Kathy Miller said.

“In 2009 the State Board of Education approved new science curriculum standards that opened the door to creationist materials in Texas classrooms. Today we saw that one prominent creationist group intends to walk through that door,” Miller said. “Getting their materials in public schools has long been a top priority for creationists, and it’s clear that they intend to make Texas their flagship. Teaching inaccurate information rejected by the scientific community would be a huge disservice to Texas kids and a major setback for science education everywhere.”

Among the dozens of publishers who notified the SBOE of their intent to submit science materials for approval was a Richardson,TX-based group called the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE). Approval of materials published by FTE, a self-described promoter of “intelligent design,” would create several serious problems for the board, including:

  • FTE’s troubled legal history – FTE published the “intelligent design” textbook (Of Pandas and People) that was ruled to be unconstitutional for use in public schools in the landmark decision Kitzmiller v. Dover (PA).
  • FTE’s well-established record of religious proselytizing through its textbooks – As recently as 2002, the group described its mission on IRS tax returns as “promoting and publishing textbooks presenting a Christian perspective of academic studies.”

The actual materials submitted for approval by FTE and other publishers will not be available to the public until March. The State Board of Education, however, has already begun appointing review panels – made up of citizens, educators and scientists – that will evaluate all materials for conformity to the state’s new curriculum standards as well as for factual accuracy.

There will be a public hearing on these materials at the board in April. The board will take a final vote on approval or rejection of these science materials at the conclusion of that April meeting. All materials approved by the board are available for purchase by local school districts for use in science classrooms.

Sounds like a good time for this documentary:


Click on the kickstarter link if you are able to (and want to) contribute towards the completion of this documentary – if you care about the nature of science education, that is! 

Arsenic and Old Lace

ResearchBlogging.orgAs you may very well have heard by now, NASA made a bit of a splash today in the mainstream media and especially the science (and sci-fi too, of course) blogosphere / twitterverse through its press conference about a fascinating biological discovery with potential astrobiological significance. An “alien” life-form that incorporates Arsenic (which normally kills our kind of life-form) instead of Phosphorus in the “backbone” of its very DNA. Actually its a bacterium from the mud at the bottom of Mono Lake, east of the Sierra Nevada in California, not some bug-eyed green monster from your sci-fi imagination, even though the lakescape itself has an otherworldly quality to it:


So, a bacterium that uses Arsenic is found in an old lake… well, the poor joke (and the title of this blog post) practically writes itself doesn’t it? Maybe they should name this bacterium “old lace”, as someone tweeted. Here’s what the wee beastie looks like:


NASA’s press conference was timed to coincide with the publication of a paper about this discovery, but the advance notice from NASA generated a fair amount of hype and breathless anticipation about “alien life” and so forth. The paper itself is now available at Science (perhaps behind a pay firewall, but maybe not), so you can read it and make up your own mind. The paper is very interesting indeed and the central discovery of this strange form of DNA in the bacterium leads to endlessly fascinating questions and speculations about the origin and evolution of life on this planet, and perhaps on others. The media hype surrounding the discovery, though… well, what can one say about media hype about such stories?

Rather than try to translate the paper for you poorly (me not being a microbiologist and all) or engage in more poorly-informed speculation, let me point you instead to several good blog posts that do a much better job than I ever could, and also offer a more balanced perspective to keep the hype in check but also share the excitement of such a fascinating discovery. To start with what’s actually in the paper itself, Bhalomanush does a good job of describing the methodology underlying the discovery, while asking “Dude, where’s my alien life?“. Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, who had been urging caution to cool the hype building up in anticipation of NASA’s announcement, offers a typically readable perspective on the real news. His fellow Discover magazine blogger Ed Yong offers perhaps the best commentary I have read on the whole discovery and pours some well-deserved cold water on some of the breathless hype. Over on ScienceBlogs, Greg Laden takes a more evolutionary perspective and places this study in the context of what it might—and might not—mean for the origin of life on our planet as well as Charlie Darwin’s second theory about a common ancestor shared among all known lifeforms. Even if the paper is too much for you (some of it is for me because my PhD is in the wrong kind of biology for this stuff!), you’ll do much better to read these blog posts rather than the more mainstream media accounts, I think.

Let’s cool the hype a bit shall we, down to just the right level of simmering excitement at which the science can really thrive.

Wolfe-Simon, F., Blum, J.S., Kulp, T.R., Gordon. G.W., Hoeft, S.E., Pett-Ridge, J., Stolz, J.F., Webb, S.M., Weber, P.K., Davies, P.C.W., Anbar, A.D., and, Oremland, R.S. (2010). A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus Science (early release on Dec 2, 2010).