Archive for the ‘Evolution’ Category

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 30 May 2010 at 4:31 pm by Mia Kukathasan
In Biology, Evolution

Male crickets that grow up surrounded by the songs of many potential competitors, grow up bigger and stronger than counterparts reared in silence. It seems that the sound of masculine chirps ends up masculinising young crickets within hearing range.

Researchers from The University of California, Riverside, measured the testicular tissue mass of young male crickets that had been played cricket song, and found that they grew up to have nearly 10% more testicular mass than the youths without such auditory cues of competition. A big part of the male crickets’ mating strategy involves a long-range call. The song can be ‘parasitized’ by other males, who lurk nearby, taking credit for the masculine calls to impress arriving females. But, the males that grew up surrounded by the songs of other males were less likely to use such underhand tactics. Instead they were generally bigger, noisier and in overall better shape.

It seems mating matters to crickets, in fact so fixated are decorated crickets that they will sacrifice their health to impress the females. As part of the mating process, males offer their mates an adorably named ‘nuptial food gift’, a gummy blobby concoction that they synthesize and transfer to the females along with sperm. Scientists from Illinois State University managed to coerce some decorated crickets into producing larger food packages, which they did, despite it lowering their immune systems.

After all that effort, when the deed has been done, mating mission accomplished, there’s still no guarantee that the sperm that entered the female cricket will be the sperm that fertilises her eggs. Of course some of it will be, but with the promiscuity of female crickets, and the aggressive mating tactics of males, multiple matings with the same female are common. So, who becomes the daddy?

Researchers from Exeter university found that even after mating with up to ten males, promiscuous female field crickets can control the amount of sperm that they store from each mate, regardless of the order they mated in. Although crickets don’t avoid mating with relatives, they do reduce the chances of producing unfit inbred offspring, by using their abdominal muscles to keep hold of more of the sperm from unrelated males. Scientists from Australia and Switerland went further and found that a male’s chances of fathering “increases with its attractiveness and decreases with the size of the female”.

In the harsh world of insect reproduction, once the eggs have been laid, the little ones are on their own. Although the mothers don’t stick around, researchers at the University of South Carolina Upstate, have found that they can leave hidden maternal messages in their unborn babies, to prepare them for the harsh realities of existence. Storm and Lima (researchers, with names like comic superheros), placed pregnant crickets in enclosures with predatory wolf spiders whose fangs were tipped with wax. This meant the spiders could stalk the crickets, make them extremely frightened, but not actually kill them.

The offspring of mothers born to the spider-stalked mothers were faster to react to the danger of predators, than the control offspring from mothers kept more cushy circumstances. These offspring of ‘stalked’ mothers ran for cover more quickly and stayed in hiding for more than twice as long. They would also freeze when coming across signs of their predators, signs such as spider silk or spider faeces. Having this fear, unsurprisingly meant that they ended up with higher survival rates.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 18 March 2010 at 9:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution

Man’s best friend was likely born in the Middle East, according to a paper published this week in Nature. A genetic analysis of 85 dog breeds revealed they have more in common with wolves from countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran then in any other part of the world.

An international team of scientists lead by the University of California, Los Angeles compared genetic data from more than 900 dogs and 200 wolves to create a “family tree” that shows the connections between the various breeds. Previous research suggested that dogs originated in East Asia, but that was based only on genetic changes in mitochondria, tiny structures found in all animal cells. This new work examines a much larger section of the canine genome, comparing 48,000 different locations across species DNA.

Dogs and wolves are all connected.
Dogs and wolves are all connected.
Comments Off Posted on Monday 19 October 2009 at 4:02 pm by Colin Stuart
In Evolution, Space & Astronomy

Scientists in America have located what they believe to be the world’s largest crater and what’s more they are holding it responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.

Researchers have traditionally pointed their finger at the Chicxulub crater in Yucatan, Mexico as the culprit for the extinction of T-Rex and his chums 65 million years ago, but Sankar Chatterjee and his team are turning their attention to India’s Shiva Crater.

This underwater basin measures almost 500km across, easily overshadowing Chicxulub’s measly 180km, and was most likely carved out when approximately 25km of space rock came hurtling to Earth. Dr Chatterjee and his colleagues hope to study the crater further to establish once and for all whether it was indeed caused by an impact 65 million years ago.

The underwater Shiva Crater, off the coast of India, may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
The underwater Shiva Crater, off the coast of India, may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The tell-tale sign of a space-based impactor is abnormally high levels of Iridium, an element abundant in asteroids but a rarity in the Earth’s crust. Iridium levels at impact sites tend to be a hundred times greater than usual.

Whilst impacts of this size are certainly not every day, or even every millennium events, there have been five extinction level events, where over 50% of the animal population have been pole axed, in the last 540 million years. Many are attributed to asteroid and/or comet impacts, although there are other possibilities.

Subsequently the study of the position and trajectories of the asteroid and comet families has become big scientific business including NASA’s dedicated Near Earth Object program. Programs such as these led to a potential impactor being discovered in 2004 that experts rated as a 1-in-60 chance of colliding with the Earth.

Happily, they have since revised their estimations upwards. However, asteroid 99942 Apophis (2004 MN4) will still pass the Earth over 13 times nearer than the Moon, rather eerily on Friday 13th April 2029, culminating in the closest approach of such a sizeable object for a thousand years.

It is not a question of if but when a Shiva Crater causing asteroid has our name on it. Yet if Dr Chatterjee and his team are correct it will be another piece in the puzzle explaining what led to the disappearance of the dinosaurs and the advent of the mammals that would evolve to worry about a similar fate.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 17 September 2009 at 12:17 am by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Creation is a fantastic film about a man coming to terms with the untimely death of his young daughter. It’s also a rather unfortunate account of the life and work of Charles Darwin. I was invited to see the film before its UK release next week at a special screening in the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre. Going in to the cinema, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Coming out again, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d seen.

Paul Bettany and Martha West as Darwin and his daughter Annie are superb, and I was genuinely moved by their on-screen relationship. But, for every touching father-daughter moment there came scene after scene of Darwin manically running after the ghost of his dead child.

The real Darwin struggled to live with Annie’s death, and suffered throughout his life from a mysterious illness that likely caused him great mental trauma. He was not however stark-raving mad, as the film portrays him, and after the first few interactions with the ghost of Annie, my sense of immersion was shattered.

The film is a dramatisation though, and not a documentary, so some bending of the truth is allowed. I imagine what more people will take issues with is the portrayal of religion. Darwin’s wife Emma, played here by Bettany’s actual wife Jennifer Connelly, was deeply religious, and Darwin delayed publication of his theory for many years because he feared her (and the world’s) response.

This is played out in the film, but perhaps in the most ham-fisted way possible. “Science is at war with religion,” declares Thomas Huxley near the start, and Darwin must win the fight for science.

Why must the theory of evolution always be set against religion in this way? It is perfectly possible to both accept the truth of evolution and believe in God – not a philosophy I ascribe to personally, but nor one I feel the need to constantly assault.

If Creation is meant to convince people of the truth of evolution over God, then it will fail. As the lack of a US distribution deal indicates, those who do not wish to have their minds changed will simply refuse to see it. But if the film is meant to appeal to Darwin’s loyal supporters, then the sight of him raving at the ghost of his daughter is unlikely to please.

Who then is Creation intended for? I don’t know. It’s certainly a film worth seeing; I enjoyed it as a well constructed piece of cinema. I’m just not sure that I liked it.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 July 2009 at 7:54 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Whoops. Wrote this yesterday but somehow failed to put it on the site. Warning: incoming link dump. I’ve still got loads of interesting stuff left, so I thought I’d burn it all off at once.

Honours for UK astronauts

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) have created an award for people from the UK who have flown in to to space – all five of them.

The silver pins were give to Helen Sharman and Richard Garriott, who were backed by private funds, and Michael Foale, Nicholas Patrick and Piers Sellers who all became US citizens to fly with NASA.

Despite UK government resistance to human spaceflight, the BIS have made up another five pins that they hope to give to future UK astronauts.

One quarter of Londoners believe in creationism

The figure falls to one in seven nationwide, which is still fairly concerning. Worse though are the one in five Londoners who have never even heard of Darwin – you don’t have to believe the guy, but at least know his name!

US Navy is building electromagnetic plane guns

As in, guns that fire planes. Well not quite, but the Pentagon has spent half a billion dollars on building a new launch system for aircraft carriers.

Currently, they use “steam catapults” to launch planes off the short carrier runways – which is pretty much what it sounds like. The new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System will instead use an electric linear motor to shoot the planes off in to the sky.

Self-help books don’t

A psychological study has found that self-help books can actually have the opposite effect to that intended. The research showed that people with low self-esteem actually feel worse about themselves after repeating typical self-help statements like “I am a lovable person”.

Monkeys barter and trade on a simian stock market

Instead of pounds or dollars, non-human primates use grooming as currency. Scientists from the University of Strasbourg in France examined monkey exchange rates by placing food in a box that only one female was trained to open.

An hour after she did, the other members of the group rewarded her with longer and more frequent grooming, and she reciprocated less.

Her new-found wealth wasn’t to last however. When the scientists introduced another trained monkey, the first female’s grooming “stock value” decreased as the second female’s rose. Eventually the “market” equalised and they were both groomed for the same amount of time.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 July 2009 at 6:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Darwin’s children’s drawings on display

Charles Darwin used sheet after sheet of paper when writing On the Origin of Species, since redrafting before the days of Microsoft Word meant writing the whole thing out again. Only a handful of these draft papers have survived, mostly because Darwin gave his used sheets to his children for use as drawing paper.

Battle of the Vegetables
Battle of the Vegetables

Next week one such sheet will go on display in a new exhibition at Cambridge University Library. Named “Battle of the Vegetables” by Library staff, it depicts a battle between one man riding a carrot and another on what could possibly be a stale potato.

Did Michael Jackson’s death contribute to climate change?

Duncan Graham-Rowe of the Guardian asks whether we should consider the carbon cost of all the increased web activity following the singer’s death. I’ve discussed the carbon cost of Googling before – 0.2g per search, according to the company’s own figures.

As one commenter points out, if you added up the tiny contributions of all the tributary Tweets and YouTubes they probably wouldn’t exceed the Jackson’s personal carbon footprint, considering the lavish life he led.

The Guardian’s James Randerson also chimes in to say the point of the article isn’t really the carbon cost of Jackson’s death, but to highlight the issue of unsustainable internet growth. Whilst this is a problem, I can’t imagine that alternative methods of information distribution are any greener. As with many climate change conundrums, the answer is far from clear.

What’s on alien TV?

Webcomic Abstruse Goose has this rather nice image of what aliens might be watching on TV. When TV signals are broadcast some of them radiate out from the Earth, and could be picked up by any extraterrestrials out there. Like all electromagnetic radiation, the signals travel at the speed of light, so depending on how far from Earth the aliens are it’s going to take them a while to receive our latest programmes.

Whilst inhabitants of the relatively near Sirius system might have been enjoying episodes of Family Guy and The Sopranos for the past few years, everyone out in Aldebaran is still waiting for coverage of World War II to arrive. I just hope any aliens out there will forgive us for polluting space with broadcasts of Big Brother…

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 27 May 2009 at 11:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Getting It Wrong

By now you’ve probably heard about Ida, the newly discovered fossil being heralded by many as “the missing link” in human evolution. Last night saw the broadcast of Uncovering our Earliest Ancestor, a documentary about the fossil narrated by an almost obligatory Sir David Attenborough.

As a student of science communication, I watched dutifully. I was not impressed. It felt like sitting through an episode of CSI or 24, with crash zooms and blinking maps featuring heavily. Scientists breathlessly compared the impact of Ida to “an asteroid hitting the Earth”

In the lead up to last night’s programme, Ida has been riding a hype wave that would be the envy of any Hollywood starlet. Unveiled by a press conference last week, and paraded around the media, Ida is big news. But is she big science? Anyone watching last night would certainly think so, but the scientific paper published in PloS One tells a slightly different story.

Ignore for a moment the fact that most biologists now question the need for a “missing link” in our evolution. The fossil record demonstrates the transition from early primates all the way along the evolutionary tree to humans. Although a somewhat outdated model of evolution – see New Scientist’s Darwin Was Wrong cover – the tree idea is still useful for thinking about how one species evolves in to another.

For us to be descended from Darwinus masillae, you would expect to trace a line down from Ida’s position on the tree to ours. That is what the documentary would have you believe, but as far as I can tell, it isn’t what the scientific paper says. As this diagram from New Scientist suggests, Ida belongs on the lemur track of evolution – although she herself was not a lemur.

Ida doesn't necessarily lie on our evolutionary branch.
Ida doesn't necessarily lie on our evolutionary branch.

I’m concerned by the extent to which Atlantic Productions, who made the documentary, influenced the science behind Ida. It is clear that they were involved from a fairly early stage – one scene in the documentary is a suspicious looking “home video” of the first discovery of Ida by lead scientist Dr Jørn Hurum. Scientists working on the fossil were asked to sign contracts and NDAs and some have even complained of being forced to work to media schedules. “It’s not how I like to do science,” said co-author Dr Philip Gingerich.

What would Atlantic have done, if Ida was shown to be a fairly uninteresting example of a lemur? Can the documentary, and lose their investment? Or would they have pressed for the scientists to reconsider their decision, to find the story? Worryingly, it appears this might be what happened.

At the end of the day, Ida is an amazingly complete example of such an ancient fossil. She is a great find for science, but unfortunately just does not deserve the hype afforded to her. And whilst Darwinus masillae is certainly related to us, as all animals are in some way related to us via the very earliest life forms, Ida cannot possibly be our earliest ancestor. For one thing, she died before ever reaching sexual maturity, and thus never bore any children. But on a broader scale, she zigged when our ancestors zagged. Somewhere out there might be a fossil that directly relates to us both, but even that does not deserve the label “missing link”. Of course that won’t stop another media circus, should it ever be discovered.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 May 2009 at 12:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Were Neanderthals wiped out by our stomachs?

Bit of a strange one this. A study published in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences suggests a possible explanation for the disappearance of the Neanderthals – we ate them.

A Neanderthal jawbone appears to show marks similar to those found on deer remains from the early Stone Age. Lead researcher Fernando Rozzi, of the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique in Paris, believes that this idea has been suppressed in the past. “For years, people have tried to hide away from the evidence of cannibalism, but I think we have to accept it took place.”

I’m not sure eating Neanderthals is technically cannibalism, as they are a different species, but they’re human enough to make it pretty creepy. Urgh.

Beware the “super rats”

The governing principle of natural selection is that the fittest survive. In the case of rats, those with a genetic resistance to poison will survive attempts to exterminate them, and pass on this immunity to their descendants. Before you know it, we’ll be over-run by super rats.

Ratcatchers in Swindon are reporting a 500% increase in rodent populations, and Professor Robert Smith of the University of Huddersfield thinks that Darwin is to blame:

“Natural selection means that when you have a rat population in your town, poison will kill the ones that aren’t resistant, the ones that survive may have the gene, they then have babies who can receive the gene themselves,” he said.

“There are mutations and changes in their DNA that alter the ability of rats to deal with these poisons. It appears to be moving west and has now been located in Swindon and Bristol. It is a warning of things to come.”

An appropriate photo for Sunday

You may have already seen this image circulated around the press, but it’s worth another look:

The Space Shuttle and Hubble telescope pass in front of the Sun. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)
The Space Shuttle and Hubble telescope pass in front of the Sun. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)

Earlier this week astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis undertook a mission to repair the Hubble telescope, and photographer Thierry Legault managed to catch them in the act. The spaceships appear as tiny dots in front of the vast Sun, but you can just make out the iconic shape of the Shuttle. More pics available here.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 12 May 2009 at 5:07 pm by Jessica Bland
In Biology, Evolution, Physics

Like Jacob, I wrote for two outlets. It’s quite interesting to see how the story changes almost entirely for each outlet. 

For British Beekeepers Association News…

Bumblebee flight continue to astound scientists

There is an old myth that bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly. The maths just doesn’t work. A new study from scientists at Oxford University shows that bumblebee flight is indeed more about power than finesse.

The researchers trained bees to fly along a wind tunnel erected between their hive and pollen-rich cut flowers. Smoke in the wind tunnel is disturbed by the flight, making visible the way that bees disturb the air around them. A high-speed camera captured the flight, and those images were analysed to develop a model for the motion of bees in flight.

The idea is very similar to the computer modelling used by swimmers to examine how efficient their stroke is through the water. But unlike athletes, bumblebees have not developed to move efficiently. In fact, the new study shows that the movement of air around the bee betrays a very uneconomical flying technique.

‘We found that bumblebee flight is surprisingly inefficient,” said Dr Richard Bomphrey, co-author of the report. He explained how a bee’s left and right wings do not flap in sync. And nor does the air flow around the two sides meet up, which would help make the flight more aerodynamic.

His colleague, Professor Adrian Thomas offered a possible reason for the evolution of such a disastrous technique: “a bumblebee is a tanker-truck, its job is to transport nectar and pollen back to the hive. Efficiency is unlikely to be important for that way of life.”

So the flight path between flower and hive resembles the slow lane on the M1 and not a quiet stretch of the Autobahn. But the brute force bees need to keep themselves going is spectacular in its own way. They are the powerhouses of the insect world, defying the mathematics that says they shouldn’t even get off the ground.

For Physicsworld…

Can bees teach us how to fly?

Scientists have shown that bumblebees use a unique technique to propel themselves through the air. In a study published in May in Experiments in Fluids, a team from the Zoology department in Oxford examined the air flow profile of a flying bee. The pattern of vortices created in the air surrounding the bee in novel.

Unfortunately, this novelty is unlikely to be useful for physicists and engineers interested in biomimetic developments in flight technology. The bee’s flying technique only makes it less efficient.

Like other insects and like aeroplane wings, a bumblebee creates a leading edge vortex during flight. It separates the air flow coming towards it at the front edge of its wings and flies by exploiting the resulting pressure difference above and below the wing.

But most insects also create other vortices, called root and tip vortices. The bee does not. Other insects and birds also co-ordinate right and left wing motion to maximise their propulsion. The bee does not do this either.

“We found that bumblebee flight is surprisingly inefficient,” said Dr Richard Bomphrey, co-author of the study. He added that the technique could have evolved to make bumblebees more manoeuvrable in the air – a facet that might be more valuable for bees than speed through the air.

So, although bees are inefficient flyers, their propulsion technique could be useful for research in other areas. If bees can be shown to have increased control over movement, then they offers a potential model for improving the control we have over airbound vehicles such as helicopters.

More research is needed before we can know if there is any application. But there is a possibility that the bumblebee, the famous example of an animal that flouts the engineering principles of flight, could help us improve our air technology.

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3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 15 April 2009 at 12:16 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Evolution

The BBC are this morning reporting findings published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B that a species of ant has been discovered that exists without sex. The team from the University of Arizona studied the insect, better known as the Amazonian ant (picture below), and found all members of the colony to be genetic clones of the the queen ant. What’s more, upon dissection their “mussel organ” had withered, apparently rendering them incapable of mating.

Mycocepurus smithii, the ant without a sex life © Alex Wild 2007
Mycocepurus smithii, the ant without a sex life © Alex Wild 2007

There are of course drawbacks to completely lacking any genetic diversity, it is certainly putting all your unfertilised eggs in one evolutionary basket. As Laurent Keller of The University of Lausanne eloquently puts it, “in a colony of clones, if one ant is susceptible to a parasite, they will all be susceptible. So if you’re asexual, you normally don’t last very long.”

But there are advantages to such a mechanism too, as Dr Anna Himler explained to the BBC, “it avoids the energetic cost of producing males, and doubles the number of reproductive females produced each generation from 50% to 100% of the offspring,” she said.

And this is where the interesting part lies. In being complete clones of their female leader not only have the ants dispensed with intercourse but they have eradicated any males of the species. It is easy to see why this notion is preferred by evolution. Life in the formicary must be so much easier since the males were cut out of existence. No farting, no belching and definitely no screaming at the TV whilst the football is on. Imagine the joy of the female Amazonian ants as they can get on with life without any arse-scratching, woman-ogling, toilet-seat-leaving-up pesky males around. Surely it’s only a matter of time before you ladies have the same idea…

3 Comments » Posted on Monday 16 March 2009 at 7:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Health & Medicine

Last Sunday I said “Scientists, I know it’s tricky, but please figure out a cure for the common cold at some point in my lifetime.” I’m actually still a bit ill, with the cold hanging on as a nasty wheezing cough.

I’m not the only one of course – it’s called the “common” cold for a reason. It is reported that people taking days off to get over their colds cost the US economy $40 billion a year, so why haven’t we found a cure yet?

Blame Darwin. Or rather, evolution. Viruses, such as the rhinovirus that causes colds, multiply incredibly quickly. With each new generation of the cold viruses, natural selection means that the most resilient (and thus hardest to cure) survive.

Matters are made worse by the diversity of the rhinovirus. There are more than 100 continuously evolving subspecies, each of which can give you a bunged up head and a few days off work. Compare that number to the polio virus, which has just three subspecies, and it’s easy to see why we haven’t eradicated the common cold in the same manner as polio.

Evolution may be to blame for the rhinovirus resilience, but our understanding of Darwin’s theory could help us conquer it eventually. A study by researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah, examined the rhinovirus genome in search of clues.

Using computer modelling, they were able to identify the sections of the genome that provide the virus with its resistance. In the evolutionary arms race, the rhinovirus has developed to evade detection by our immune systems. Keith Crandall, professor of biology at the university, was co-author of the study:

“The virus is evolving solutions against the immune system and drugs,” Crandall said. “The more we can learn about how the virus evolves solutions, the better we can rid the body of these infections.”

It’s not a cure, but it’s another stepping stone on the way. Without Darwin, work like this would be impossible as we would have no understanding of how viruses can adapt to our immune defences. By studying the rhinovirus genome, we can try to stay one step ahead of evolution and beat the cold for good. Hopefully by then I’ll have stopped coughing.

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 12 February 2009 at 11:40 am by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Musings

Dear Charles,

I do hope hope you don’t mind me calling you Charles, but “Mr Darwin” feels far too formal. I’m writing to you today, on February 12th 2009, to celebrate your birth 200 years ago. I’m sure you will have received many other such letters and accolades today, so I’ll try to keep it short.

I know that you feared the effect your work would have on humanity, but I wonder how you would have felt if you knew the controversy that still surrounds it, 150 years on. The two sides of the argument are often presented as science versus religion – or worse, atheism versus Christianity. It is an argument that I believe need not exist, and the ever-raging battle saddens me.

Like yourself I am not religious, although my atheism/apatheism goes further than your agnosticism. Many atheists other than myself will use this opportunity to commend Charles Darwin, Champion of the God-less. Equally, some religious people will vilify Charles Darwin, Heathen and Sinner.

I would like to celebrate Charles Darwin, Scientist. Your work on natural selection is a marvel; an idea so simple that a child can grasp it, but so powerful that it forms the basis for the existence of every single life-form on this planet. Very few scientists can claim such an achievement.

This blog was named in criticism of those who would dismiss evolution as “just” a theory. It’s not “just” anything, it is a theory, and it’s a bloody good one.

I close with an apology – I’ve never read On the Origin of Species. I think today is the time to rectify this, so I’ve placed an order for the book as a birthday present. I’ll let you know what I think.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 4 February 2009 at 12:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Musings

It’s not quite Jurassic Park, but Spanish scientists have succeed in bringing an extinct species back to life – if only for seven minutes.

A Spanish ibex.
A Spanish ibex.

The Pyrenean ibex is a subspecies of the Spanish ibex (shown above), a type of wild mountain goat. The ibex, also known as a bucardo, was declared extinct in 2000 when the last-known survivor died in northern Spain.

Forward thinking scientists preserved DNA from the animal in the form of skin samples frozen in liquid nitrogen. Now, scientists at he Centre of Food Technology and Research of Aragon, in Zaragoza, northern Spain and the National Research Institute of Agriculture and Food in Madrid have used this DNA to cloned the extinct bucardo – the first time an extinct species has been resurrected.

Unfortunately, the ibex kid died seven minutes after birth due to lung defects – an affliction seen in other cloned animals, such as sheep.

Dr Jose Folch lead the research team, who used a cloning technique known as nuclear transfer, in which DNA is removed from the egg of a host species and replaced with the DNA of the animal to be cloned.

“The delivered kid was genetically identical to the bucardo. In species such as bucardo, cloning is the only possibility to avoid its complete disappearance.” said Dr Folch.

The team created 439 embryos, implanting 57 into domestic goats which served as surrogate mothers. Of these only seven resulted in pregnancy, with just one goat giving birth to the short-lived bucardo.

I’m always torn over attempts to resurrect extinct animals. On the one hand, it’s an undeniable fact that human beings play an active part in reducing biodiversity by wiping entire species off the planet. As I quoted David Attenborough yesterday, Darwin showed us that we do not have dominion over the animal kingdom, and unnecessary destruction of wildlife should not occur. Perhaps resurrection allows us to atone for our sins.

Darwin can also be used to argue for the other side. A common statistic thrown about is that 99.9% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. Despite extensive Googling I have been unable to verify a source for this number, but let’s assume it is correct. After all, the principle of natural selection tells us that the weakest will not survive, and whether it be through predatory, environmental or simply disaster factors, species do not survive.

Some say that human evolution has already begun to stagnate, as our improvements in diet and healthcare even out the evolutionary footing. By restoring extinct species, are we not also at risk of bringing back animals that have, in a sense, failed?

One anthropocentric argument for encouraging biodiversity is that by eliminating species, we could be robbing ourselves of future benefits that they could provide – new types of drugs as a result of some unknown plant, for example. It strikes me that this argument could be turned on its head – that by allowing failed species to return (a sort of evolutionary bail-out package) we could deny future generations the opportunity to make use of emerging species.

It’s a complicated issue, and I’m still not sure on which side I fall. I’m once again reminded of Jurassic Park, with this quote from Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm:

“Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 3 February 2009 at 5:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Right, Just A Review

If there’s anyone who should be talking about Darwin and the theory of natural selection, it’s Sir David Attenborough. For more than 50 years Attenborough has fascinated and enchanted his audience with the wonders of the natural world. His latest programme is a one-off entitled Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, available on iPlayer until Sinday.

Although everyone is probably sick of being reminded, let’s have it once more for those not paying attention at the back: 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Indeed, I must admit I sat down to watch the programme with a slight thought of “oh, not another bloody Darwin doc”, but my mind was soon changed.

Yes, all the usual stuff was there. Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, his discoveries on the Galapagos islands, and his fear of the world’s reaction to his theory that lead to a delay in publishing, until prompted by rival theorist Alfred Russel Wallace.

Attenborough is a master of his craft however, and not content just to lead us through a potted history of evolution. Everything is explained so clearly and concisely that it is a joy to watch.

In demonstrating how one species can transform into another through the process of natural selection, Attenborough turns our attention to the more familiar artificial selection; namely, dog breeding. All dogs are descended from wolves, transformed by humans as they were domesticated.

Whilst the many breeds are technically still one species, it is clear that the massive Great Dane cannot physically mate with a Chihuahua – although artificial insemination is possible. In a sense, the two breeds are actually different species, and this is after only a millennia. Over the millions of years that natural selection occurs, it is easy to see how a species can become another.

As well as view on Darwin we also get a window into the life of Attenborough. Footage from his previous programmes are spliced into the documentary, and the juxtaposition of a young Attenborough being narrated by his present self is pleasing. In addition, we hear some about some of his time at university and as a young boy looking for fossils. Amusingly, he was once told by a Cambridge lecturer that the idea of continental drift was “pure moonshine” – this is well before the theory of plate tectonics was developed.

The crown jewel of the programme is a marvellous animation of the tree of life, showing how single-cells evolved and evolved to provide us with the diversity of life we see today. The Wellcome Trust have a website devoted to this new vision of the tree, where you can download the video in HD and even get a copy of the 3D models used to create it – all licensed under Creative Commons, meaning they can be reused and reworked by anyone. You can also watch the sequence here:

If you have the time to watch the full programme, you really should. I was left thinking how wonderful it is that science has been able to provide us with the knowledge of where we come from, and looking forward to further Darwin 200 festivities. Attenborough succeeds in every way that Dawkin’s programme last year failed – he doesn’t preach, he doesn’t berate, he merely shares. I’ll leave you with Attenborough’s closing thoughts, and an important message:

“…Darwin has shown us that we are not apart from the natural world — we do not have dominion over it. We are subject to its laws and processes, as are all other animals on earth to which indeed we are related.”

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 18 January 2009 at 2:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Education, Evolution, Weekly Roundup

Hugs on the inside AND the outside

Haven’t you always wished for something a bit more exciting than a teddy bear for your child to cuddle up too at night? Something…anatomical…perhaps? Well look no further: I Heart Guts have everything you need.

Hes a friendly little guy
He's a friendly little guy

They sell cuddly versions of many of your own internal organs. There’s the brain, the heart, and even the pancreas – or why not go the whole hog and purchase the entire set? Beware though: the uterus is being recalled as a potential hazard to children…

Genetic modification – it’s a laugh

GM food is always a hot issue these days, but new research shows that in the past, farmers may have breed their animals to produce new coat colours for their own amusement. The study, published in the online journal Public Library of Science Genetics, looked at how the genetic cod of wild and domestic pigs has altered over the years.

Other suggestions for the farmers’ selective breeding include changing the coat colour to eliminate camouflage, making the animals easier to to keep track of, or perhaps to mark out the animals with the best traits. Dr Greger Larson, one of the researches at the University of Durham, had this to say:

“The Mesopotamians had different-coloured farm animals 5,000 years ago and, in that regard, they were no different to Paris Hilton, who has a pink Chihuahua, or anyone else with animals with unusual coat colours.

“This study demonstrates that the human penchant for novelty stretches back thousands of years.”

Killing jelly babies – it’s for science, honest

The other day I stumbled across this video, which demonstrates the “death of a jelly baby” experiment. Apparently a favourite of school chemistry teachers, it involves dropping the sweet into a heated test tube of potassium chlorate, and then sitting back and watching it “scream” as it burns. It’s supposed to demonstrate the principle of oxidation of sugar, but you confectionery-murderers aren’t fooling anyone.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 11 January 2009 at 1:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

On Friday I said I’d do a big Weekly Roundup, but I quite liked the “fishy” post yesterday, so I’m going to do a couple more of those to clear my backlog of links. Look for them soon.

Science journalists need new clichés

Hank Campbell at Scientific Blogging thinks that a few science journalism phrases got overused last year, and it’s time to invent some new ones for 2009. On the list (complete with many examples) are “baffled”, “stunned”, “alarmed” and “shocked”. I’m pleased to say that according to the site’s search function, none of these words have appeared on Just A Theory! Until now, that is…

Blast off on a broomstick

Unlike the above clichés, I have talked about the concept of a space elevator before. The basic idea is a satellite orbiting above a fixed point on the Earth’s surface, with a super strong cable in between. Passengers and cargo can be lifted into space by a “climber” attached to the cable, much easier and cheaper than rockets.

Now, a new idea on how to power the climber has come from an unlikely source – a broomstick. Age-Raymond Riise of the European Space Agency proposed that by using carefully timed jerks of the cable and a specially constructed climber, getting into space would be a simple, if bumpy, ride. A suspension system would soon smooth that out, however.

Talking at the Second International Conference on Space Elevator and Tether Design in Luxembourg, he used a broomstick and an electric sander to demonstrate the concept. You can watch a video embedded in the above article – it’s a great combination of low- and high-tech!

Free poster!

Just A Theory hasn’t quite grown to the point where I can hand out freebies, but fortunately the Open University is in a slightly better position. They’re offering a free “Tree of Life” poster to celebrate Darwin’s bicentenary. Grab yours now.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 5 January 2009 at 8:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Evolution, Just A Review

Well, we’re less than a week into 2009 and already the Darwinmania has begun. This week Radio 4 present a season of all things Darwin, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth this year. Amongst other programmes on the great man’s life and work is Dear Darwin, a five-part series broadcast every day this week at 3.45pm, which allows five modern-day scientists to write a letter to Darwin to tell him about the impact of his work.

The first episode today featured Dr Craig Venter, who popped up in TIME magazine’s top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008 for his work towards creating artificial life. He is most well known as being one of the researchers to first map the human genome.

Dr. Venter uses his letter to tell Darwin about the discovery of DNA, and how ideas from the Origin of Species can now be confirmed with modern genetic analysis. Looking at the similarities between human and chimpanzee DNA (which I talked about a couple of days ago), it is very clear that we must share a common ancestor as Darwin predicted. Dr. Venter tells him that we differ from the chimps by only 5-6% of our DNA – and some large stretches by only a little over 1%.

Darwin has clearly been a huge inspiration to Dr. Venter. He tells of following in Darwin’s footsteps on a voyage similar to that of the Beagle, but the goal of his expedition was to look for micro-organisms that would have been invisible to Darwin with the tools available at the time. The ocean provides an unimaginable bounty for the interested explorer; 1 million bacteria and 10 million viruses are to be found in every litre of sea water.

The letter also touches on the discovery of oil, and the effect that it has had on our world. Many of the species that were alive in Darwin’s day are now extinct, in part due to industrialisation. Now, Dr. Venter says, we must take control of evolution if we are to solve the problems of climate change, and engineer bacteria to suck up all our waste CO2.

At its heart, the programme has quite a nice idea. I’m sure Darwin would be amazed at the work that has been done today as a result of his natural selection. Unfortunately however, it doesn’t really make great radio! Dr. Venter’s voice is rather monotone, and uninterrupted for the entire course of the programme. As a letter, that’s how it has to work I guess, but I was glad that it only lasted 15 minutes!

If I haven’t put you off, here is the obligatory iPlayer link, and as I said above the other episodes will be every day this week on Radio 4, at 3.45pm.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 3 January 2009 at 7:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Musings

I’ve just read a piece by Richard Dawkins about the possibility of a “hybridisation between a human and a chimpanzee”, and how such a creation could effect our world. It was originally published on as part of their What will change everything? series. I saw it on the Guardian, where you’ll also find some other comments. Here are mine:

Dawkins makes the very true point that, currently at least, the division between humans and animals is an absolute. He uses the example of pro-lifers, who in actuality are pro-human-life – after all, “Abortion clinic bombers are not known for their veganism”. In some way, humans are seen as completely separate from other animals, perhaps simply because we are the ones making the distinction.

This idea, however, runs completely counter to evolutionary theory. Go back far enough in the evolutionary chain, and you will find a female who was mother to two offspring. One would eventually lead to humans like you and me, and the other to modern day chimps.

Dawkins thinks that a “practical demonstration” would change everything, and presents four possible scenarios that would challenge the status quo:

  1. The discovery of a long lost tribe of Homo erectus. Unlikely, given our extensive knowledge of the world.
  2. Successful hybridisation between a human and a chimpanzee, described by “a distinguished biologist” as “the most immoral scientific experiment he could imagine”.
  3. A chimera, creating in a lab and consisting of an equal number of human and chimp cells. Chimeras, named for the mythical creature, are made by physically mixing the cells of two different species. Human/mouse chimeras are already being created as part of normal genetics research, but are destroyed long before they develop beyond a bundle of cells
  4. We know the full human and chimpanzee genomes. It wouldn’t be too difficult to look at the two and create a sort of “average” genome, though using this genome to create a living organism would be much more difficult. Dawkins believes it will be possible during the lifetimes of those alive today.

Dawkins doesn’t make it clear either way if he would support any of these endeavours, merely stating that it “would require further thought”. For myself, although I find the concept of such a hybrid to be inescapably interesting, I hope never to see such a being created.

The reason is simple: the feelings of the poor creature itself, if it were capable of human emotion. A hybrid would either spend its entire life in secret captivity, doomed to a lab-bound existence, or else if exposed to the world it would be subject to an endless media frenzy and calls for its destruction. Either would sheer misery.

Science can give us wonderful solutions to seemingly impossible questions about the world, but there are some questions that should not be answered. I feel that this is one of them.

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3 Comments » Posted on Sunday 16 November 2008 at 12:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Evolution, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

The RSC are at it again

The Royal Society of Chemistry are clearly not reading Just A Theory. Not one week after I pointed out the bizarre competitions they have been running, they announce a recipe for Yorkshire pudding.

The Society was replying to the inquiry of one Ian Lyness, who wanted to know why his Yorkshires had failed to rise in the mountainousness Colorado, despite previous success elsewhere in the US. Though they haven’t answered Ian’s question, the RSC have decreed that the perfect Yorkshire should be at least 10 cm tall.

Chemical scientist Dr John Emsley of Yorkshire claimed that only his fellow Yorkshire men and women could produce “worthy” puds. All extremely unscientific conclusions, you might agree. Emsley also provided the “chemical formula” for a pudding, namely carbohydrate + H2O + protein + NaCl + lipids.

I know they’re just trying to appeal to a wider audience (and it worked, the story was run by many papers), but the RSC really should give up on this kind of thing.

A robot that’s uncanny

The uncanny valley is a commonly held belief that as robots and animations become more humanlike, there is a point before they reach perfection at which they become abhorrent. It’s not been scientifically proven, but I’ve certainly experience the phenomenon for myself.

The latest example is Jules, a creation of the Bristol Robotics Lab. Jules is designed to mimic the facial expressions of other human beings, thanks to the motors embedded beneath its “skin”.

Robotic engineers Chris Melhuish, Neill Campbell and Peter Jaeckel spent three-and-a-half years creating the software that powers Jules’ interactions. You can see their results, and Jules’ slightly creepy monologue, in the following video:

This cannot be said enough: science and religion can live happily ever after

The Guardian have an article by Micheal Poole on that old chestnut, science and religion. He’s a visiting research fellow in science and religion at the department of education and professional studies at King’s College London, so unsurprisingly he has a thing or two to say on the matter.

He makes the point that whilst ideas intelligent design and young Earth creationism are nonsense, they do not discredit the concept of creation, or rather Creation as preformed by a Creator. I’ve said similar in the past, but Poole’s argument is very nicely laid out, and worth a read.

He reminds us that creation is a religious concept, not a scientific one, however, it can also not be disproved by science. Science can answer questions about the processes of the natural world; it cannot determine if these are the results of actions by God. In other word, it’s a matter for religious philosophers to fret over, not scientists. Region and science are not enemies, and they should cease to be portrayed as such.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 10 November 2008 at 2:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Getting It Wrong

A survey by Teachers TV has found that nearly a third of the 1200 teachers who participated belive that creationism should be given the same status as evolution in the classroom. More worryingly, out of the 248 science teachers who were included in the poll, 18% agreed with this notion. Should these people really be allowed to call themselves science teachers?

I do have a few doubts about this poll. It was conducted via email, which means that selection bias could be a factor. Those who are strongly propionate’s either way about this issue are more likely to respond to an email poll than those who aren’t too bothered. This could likely mean that the percentage of science teachers in the UK who believe creationism should be taught in school is lower than 18%. This isn’t really that important to what I have to say, however.

Regardless of how representative the poll is, there are still 44 (or possibly 45, as 18% of 248 doesn’t give you a whole number) science teachers out there who would like to teach creationism in their lessons as an equal alternative to evolution. This is nonsense.

I’m largely reiterating points I laid out in the wake of the Michael Reiss incident, in which the director of education at the Royal Society was widely misreported to have called for creationism to be taught in science lessons, ultimately leading to his dismissal from the post. What he actually said is that science teachers should be able to answer questions on creationism rather than deflect them, and more importantly show why it is not science.

Creationism isn’t science for the same reason that science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God: it’s unobservable, untestable and most importantly cannot be falsified. Evolution can be falsified. For example, if DNA sequencing of two species that appear to be similar (say, chimpanzees and humans) showed wildly different genomes, then it could not be possible that we evolved from a common ancestor. Fortunately for evolution, we share something like 96% of our genes with chimps.

The previous paragraph is an example of how I would like to see creationism taught in schools. Thankfully, almost half of the surveys respondents agree with me, in that they feel the complete exclusion of creationism from the classroom is counter-productive. The question is, how do you change the minds of those teachers who truly believe it is science?

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 9 October 2008 at 9:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution

At the end of my review of episode one of Richard Dawkin’s series on Charles Darwin, I wondered whether the next episode would talk about how the modern world has affected human evolution.

In the end it didn’t (unfortunately), but earlier this week Professor Steve Jones of University College London weighed in with a lecture lecture entitled “Human evolution is over”. I wasn’t at the lecture myself, but The Times spoke to Professor Jones about his talk.

I didn’t know this, but apparantly one of the key factors in introducing mutations into our DNA is an ageing male population. As a man grows older cell division becomes more common, and each time a new cell splits off the likelihood of a mistake increases. It’s a bit like being made to write out lines (do they still do that at schools?) – copying out the same sentence 10 times is fairly trivial, but after 100 or 1,000 you’re much more likely to make a mistake. The sperm of an average 29-year-old male (the average reproductive age in the West) is the result of around 300 divisions from the sperm that created at him, whilst a 50-year-old’s sperm follows over a thousand divisons.

What has this got to do with evolution then? Professor Jones says that a shortage of older fathers means that less genetic diversity is being passed on, and without genetic diversity there can be no evolution. I find this a bit strange – surely if people are living longer they are also having children later? Professor Jones says not, comparing the modern man to Moulay Ismail of Morocco, who supposedly fathered 888 children well in to his old age.

I think it has got more to do with natural selection, which Professor Jones also agrees is a factor. It used to be in ancient times half of all children would not make it past their 20th birthday, but now (in the West at least) 98% survive to 21. Thanks to our modern healthcare and diet the evolutionary playing field has been levelled out, and survival of the fittest no longer applies.

Tim Dowling of the Guardian has a humorous but sadly scientifically-lacking response to the lecture. He makes four points showing an “upside” to the halt of evolution. I want to point out the inaccuracy of the first two.

His first is that “We’re not going backwards”. Immediately, this is a misunderstanding of the concept of natural selection. Evolution does not go “forwards” or “backwards”, which implies some sort of grand scheme that will lead us to the pinnacle of being as long as we continue onwards. Evolution is literally a random genetic walk that goes in any direction it pleases.

Next, “This will give chimps a chance to catch up”. We are not evolved from chimpanzees. This is a key misunderstanding, which often angers anti-evolutionists into uttering “I ain’t no damn monkey!” What happened is this: at some point in the past a species was separated, going one of two ways. One group evolved into Homo sapiens (i.e., us), whilst another became chimpanzees. This means that the chimps aren’t our ancestors, but more like cousins. Some scientists believe this last common ancestor to be the 7 million year old Sahelanthropus tchadensis, but the matter is still open for debate.

So are we evolving or not? In a way, the question is unimportant. If 29 is the average age of male reproduction, even your great-great-great-grandchild is only 200 years or so away. Evolution is a slow process taking millions of years, so any major changes to what we call human are far, far into the future.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 September 2008 at 11:16 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Ants from Mars

No, it’s not evidence of extraterrestrial life, but another example of creatures that will come for you in the night.

Seriously, I can barely write about this thing, I find it so creepy.

The newly discovered species of ant, Martialis heureka – which translates as contestant for silliest name ever: “From Mars! Wow!” – is a bit of an evolutionary throwback. Blind (because it has no eyes) and pale, its DNA has changed the least compared to its other ant cousins, ever since they emerged 100 million years ago. It won’t be popping up in your back garden any time soon however, as they live completely underground, and in Brazil. Thankfully.

Gamers are fit, but depressed

The stereotypical gamer image of an overweight teen with one hand on a mouse and the other in a bag of crisps may not be the case, a study by researchers at the University of Southern California, Palo Alto Research Center, and the University of Delaware has found.

They analysed 7,000 players of the popular massively-multilayer online role-playing game (MMORPG, to those in the know) EverQuest II. In the game, players join together to fight monsters and find treasure. One such treasure is the Greatstaff of the Sun Serpent, offered to those who completed a survey on their physical and mental health.

It turns out that adult gamers are actually fitter than a typical American, with a body mass index of 25.2 compared to the national average of 28 – though both figures are in the “overweight” category of the scale. The survey also found that the average gamer exercises once or twice a week, more than the general American public. The researchers suggest this could be because those with the education and wealth to afford expensive gaming machines are more likely to be health concious.

They also found that players were more likely to be in their thirties than their twenties, and older players spent more time with the game. Additionally, whilst less women play the game than men, those who do typically spent longer in game.

Unfortunately gamers were also more likely to be suffering from depression, and to be substance abusers. Scott Caplan, of the University of Delaware, suggested players “may be drawn to use the game to help deal with emotional distress.” The MMORPGs that I have played tend to take up a lot of time, and can be extremely addictive, so I can understand the correlation with drinking or drugs. Still, I always like to see some positive press on games – they’re probably represented in the media even worse than science is!

John Cleese on genes

Finally, John Cleese (who my brain still can’t accept as looking so old) tells us all about genes:

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 14 September 2008 at 3:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Brain drain?

A poll published by Shell claims that Britain could be “losing” 60,000 scientists a year. A sample of 4,000 children aged nine to 14 found that 10% are inspired by science but don’t intended to pursue their interest past the age of 16. Nationally, this could translate to 60,000 fewer scientists a year.

These figures seem pretty dodgy to me, in much the same way the music industry claims massively inflated figures of “lost revenue” due to piracy. More worrying is the finding that only 6% of children want to be a scientist when they grow up, compared to 20% footballers and 20% actors – no doubt a product of our celebrity obsessed society.

Suspect stripes

Research by Peter Thompson at the University of York has found that, contrary to popular belief, wearing horizontal stripes can make you look thinner, not vertical. He asked people to compare 200 pictures of women wearing dresses striped in both directions and identify which they thought was fatter. He found that to make the women appear the same size, the one wearing horizontal stripes had to be an extra six per cent wider.

Horizontal vs vertical - which makes you thinner?

There is one problem I have with this research – in the sample image, the stripes aren’t the same size, and the dresses are different colours. Without controlling for these factors, how does Thompson know it isn’t size or colours of stripes, rather than direction, that makes you appear fatter? Interestingly enough, none of the media reports I have read have mentioned this…

Aliens among us

Check out these beautiful pictures from Socotra Island. Isolated from the African mainland for the last 6 or 7 million years, some truly unique species have evolved. My favourite is the ominously named Dragon’s Blood Tree:

1 Comment » Posted on Friday 12 September 2008 at 3:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Getting It Wrong

“No” is the answer that immediatly springs to mind, but comments made yesterday by director of education at the Royal Society, Professor Michael Reiss, have kicked up a bit of media storm.

Speaking during the BA Festival of Science at an event entitled “Should creationism be a part of the science curriculum?“, Reiss has been reported by (amongst others) the Times, the Guardian and the BBC as calling for creationism to be taught in science classes. Today, the Royal Society has put out a press release stating Reiss’s views have been misrepresented by the media. He issued the following clarification:

“Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis. I have referred to science teachers discussing creationism as a worldview’; this is not the same as lending it any scientific credibility.”

What Reiss is basically saying is teachers should be able to respond to pupils who bring up creationism in their science lessons and explain to them why it is not a valid scientific theory, unlike evolution. As we saw in The Genius of Charles Darwin, when Richard Dawkins spoke to science teachers about challenging creationism in schools they were almost terrified of the idea.

Ducking the question is not a solution. As I stated in my review of the programme, evolution is not the enemy of religion. It’s a point worth labouring: evolution is not the enemy of religion. If you wish, you can choose to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who supposedly created the universe after “drinking heavily”, but evolution is not inconsistent with a creation myth. It doesn’t even contradict the idea that “man was created in God’s image” – God just took his time about it, starting with single celled organisms and letting it go from there. After all, he’s supposedly omnipotent and would know exactly which random mutations would lead to the human race.

I’m digressing. Creationism should not be taught in science lessons – that’s laughable. It’s right at home in a religious education class (or more properly, a personal and social education class), and science teachers could just deflect pupils’ questions to RE teachers. What’s wrong, however, with using those questions as a launching point for discussions on what we call “science”? Why is evolution a provable science fact, whilst creationism is not? Conversations such as these would go a lot further in improving a child’s scientific education than simply ignoring their questions.

Lord Robert Winston, also speaking at the BA Festival of Science, agrees that simply dismissing religion without discussion is “dangerous“, and criticises Dawkins and others for doing so:

“I would argue that the ‘God Delusion’ approach is actually very divisive because it is the one way surely of not winning over opposing views … Religious people can say, ‘look these guys just don’t understand us’.”

“We need to be much more sophisticated in how we handle these problems in our society and I don’t think the propositions of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and a number of other writers have really furthered useful healthy debate. I think actually they’ve limited it – that worries me”

You’ll never change anyone’s mind with simple “you’re wrong.” Show children the facts of evolution whilst pointing out their absence in creationism will allow them to make up their own mind – the approach taken by teacher David Campbell, who I praised at the start of the month, is definitely the way to go.

As for the media’s reporting on Reiss’s comments, I think journalists are often all too ready to whip up the debate between religion and science, especially when it comes to religion. Just a theory, of course.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 5 September 2008 at 3:54 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Evolution

Today is the European release date of Spore, the latest product of game guru Will Wright’s active imagination. Wright is the creator of incredibly successful titles such as SimCity, which allowed players to build and manage a city, and The Sims, which places you in charge of a virtual household and it’s occupants. The Sims series of games alone has sold over 100 million copies, so you might say they’re pretty popular.

Spore takes players in a new direction. Wright wanted to explore the ideas behind evolution and make gamers think about their effect on the world. In Spore, you begin life as a microscopic organism, fighting for your existences in a style reminiscent of Pac-Man. Succeed, and you can evolve into a land-based creature, that will eventually develop its own society and ultimately explore space and rule the galaxy.

It sounds pretty ambitious, and it is – the game was announced to the public in 2005, but has actually been in development for nearly eight years. Part of the problem in creating Spore was how to reflect the true nature of evolution, without having to wait for millions of years. The solution was to allow players to create their own creatures, using an intuitive “virtual clay” system, and then to modify them as the game goes along. You start off with a basic spine, which you can pull and stretch to any number of forms, and then add a variety of heads, limbs, and other appendages. Player created creatures are then uploaded to a central server and then downloaded into other players games, to create a diverse range of species for everyone to play with. It’s very easy to use – why not try it yourself?

I find Spore to be an extremely interesting form of science communication. On the one hand, creatures evolve up from a single celled organism, eventually becoming much larger creatures that can form a society – not too different from our own evolutionary history. On the other hand, because players are shaping the make up of their creatures at every step, rather than the game making modifications at random, Spore is actually an example of intelligent design. Of course, it would be hard to make the game work any other way – as mentioned above, no one wants to sit around for a few million years waiting for something to happen – but it does send a mixed message to players.

In the space phase of the game, Spore hits on another scientific controversy: climate change. Players can fly around the galaxy in a spaceship, contacting other species and terraforming planets. Adding water to a planet will introduce an atmosphere and clouds, where greenhouse gases can accumulate and cause the planet to heat up. Wright believes that by demonstrating such large changes in a short amount of time, players will find it much easier to grasp the concept of climate change, and how it can occur.

At the end of the day, many people will play Spore without thinking about the science behind the game. It’s not intended to be strictly educational, but Wright wanted to create an experience that would allow players to learn about scientific principles at the same time as having fun and telling their own stories. I’m interested to see if he succeeds.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 September 2008 at 3:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Evolution, Getting It Right, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

As promised, here is the roundup for the past week

Live like a Pharaoh in Dubai

Would you like to share you home with 1 million other people? A Dubai-based firm Timelinks has announced plans to build a gigantic futuristic pyramid, designed to hold an entire city whilst only taking up 2.3 square kilometres. The Ziggurat, as it is known, is the latest in a series of wacky developments in Dubai. What’s more, Timelinks claim the whole thing will be carbon neutral. I’ll believe it when I see it – and not just as a rendered mockup:

Home of the future?

An evolving education

Here’s a great article from the New York Times we learn what it is like to teach evolution to highly religious students in America. Richard Dawkins could stand to learn a few things from high school teacher David Campbell, who starts his classes with the “evolution” of Mickey Mouse, from Steamboat Willy to the present day. A highly recommended read.

I’m not sure if I should say “Aww” or “Urgh!”

Finally, we have a video of Tan Tan, a giant panda giving birth to the first baby born as a result of artificial insemination in Japan in the past 20 years. It’s both cute and disgusting at the same time.

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 5 August 2008 at 5:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Last night Channel 4 showed the first part of a three part series, The Genius of Charles Darwin. Presented by biologist Richard Dawkins, it celebrates the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s great work, On The Origin of Species. If you missed it, you can watch it on the Channel 4 website for the next 7 days.

I found the programme interesting, but not without flaws. I know that Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist, but the manner in which he presented was sure to immediately annoy any religious viewers he was attempting to reach. The statistic is that 40% of the UK population reject Darwin’s theory of evolution, and these would be the people best served by the programme. I imagine he lost quite a few of them after the following opening:

I want to persuade you that evolution offers a far richer and spectacular view of life than any religious story. It’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in God.

He might as well have said “the cultural and spiritual traditions you have been brought up with are wrong, and you should immediatly turn you attention to me, for I am far, far more intelligent than you.” In fact, this is more or less what he said to a group of 16-year-olds as he attempted to teach them about religion. He had a fair point; just because you were brought up with a particular belief system does not make that belief system right, and if presented with reasonable evidence to the contrary any rational person should change their mind. The trouble is he was so confrontational that the students weren’t at all receptive to his message.

I am not religious in the slightest, indeed I am no fan of religion in any form. However, religious beliefs are so ingrained into the people who follow them that anyone disrespecting those beliefs are not likely to hold their interest for very long. If Dawkins’ aim was to communicate science, then why not leave room for God as the creator of natural selection? If you choose to believe that then you can agree with evolution without compromising your beliefs. I fear that at times during the programme science took a back seat to Dawkins’ agenda, and atheistic evangelism is just as distasteful as the religious variety.

Once we get past all this there is some nice content. Dawkins chronicles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, and follows in his footsteps to the famous Galápagos Islands where Darwin made many of his incredible discoveries. When we go back to the students, Dawkins has taken them to a beach to search for fossils. None of them look very impressed or interested – hardly the sign of someone learning.

Dawkins then visits Darwin’s own house, and uses his piano to illustrate the vast length of time over which evolution takes place. At one end of the piano, the origin of life. At the other, modern day. Up until just over half way along the keyboard, life consisted of nothing but bacteria. Dinosaurs are about 10 notes below the highest, with their extinction a mere five notes later. Apes and monkeys arrive on the highest note, and the whole of human history occupies a space less than the width of a piano string. It’s a great explanation, and not a mention of religion in sight.

Later on in the programme, Dawkins is talking to genetics with Craig Ventor, one of the scientists who mapped the human genome. They discuss how similarities in genetic code between species provide one of the greatest proofs that all life on Earth is related. Ventor utters “to me it’s not a theory any more.” How I wish he hadn’t. Evolution isn’t “just” a theory, it is a theory. The theory of evolution is our explanation of the observed phenomenon of natural selection. By saying “it’s not a theory any more” you play right in to the hands of anti-Darwinism and those who love to say “just a theory”. To his credit, Dawkins also seems a bit annoyed by this, stating that evolution is fact – which it is, as well as a theory.

In the end we return to the students. A few already agree with evolution, others may have been convinced, but some still dismiss it in favour of their religious beliefs. If they didn’t before, they now see evolution as a direct challenge to religion – which it is not, even if both Dawkins and fundamentalists wish to portray them as such. Sadly, Dawkins has failed to communicate to them the wondrous ideas behind evolution.

Next week’s episode looks to be about evolution as applied to human society – a subject I found myself wondering about as I watched this weeks episode. Do our advances in medicine and technology mean that “survival of the fittest” no longer applies to the human race? I look forward to finding out – just please, leave the religion bashing at the door.