Saturday, June 20, 2009

Review of Why Evolution is True By Jerry A. Coyne

Review of Why Evolution is True
By Jerry A. Coyne
Review by C. Paula de los Angeles

Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.
–Michael Shermer

Out of all the books on Darwin and evolution I have read this quarter, a University of Chicago biology professor’s, Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution is True has been my favorite. Opening with the above quote, everything about this book was elegant and tight—the writing, the explanations, the questions asked and answered. The student of both leading biologists Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould, Coyne provides a comprehensive and convincing dissertation on why evolution is true, science-that’s explained-in-a-way-that’s-easy-to-understand included. In a way, Why Evolution is True is an updated Origin, with all the recent developments in biology filled in—the new fossils, the population genetics, the evolutionary developmental biology; it’s all there.

My two favorite chapters were 1) Chapter Three, Remnants: Vestiges, Embryos, and Bad Designs and 2) Chapter Eight, What about us?. The former explains how the imperfect designs of humans and animals do not lend credence to an Intelligent Designer, or watchmaker in the words of antecedent theological William Paley. He cites ostriches that can’t fly, the human tial or coccyx, and pseudogenes like GLO, which doesn’t allow humans to make vitamin C, though most primates and guinea pigs can. The latter chapter proposes that evolution may still be in action, humans are evolving, citing the variable ability to digest lactose across human populations and drug resistance as examples. In an explanation of race, Coyne argues, the presence of different races in humans shows that our populations were geographically separated long enough to allow some genetic divergence to occur.

What is most compelling is Coyne’s logic and attitude. Though he seems frustrated that we still have to convince the public of “why evolution is true”, 150 years after natural selection was proposed by Darwin, he is patient with the reader. Coyne is enthusiastic and is able to explain the biology, the science, and its importancein a simple and elegant way. For Darwin, the scientists, and every individuals, evolution matters. To the body of literature, popular science, and research on evolution, Why Evolution is True matters.

Review of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: 1809-1882 by Charles Darwin Edited by Nora Barlow

Review of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: 1809-1882
By Charles Darwin, Edited by Nora Barlow

-Review by C. Paula de los Angeles

In her edited version of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow, granddaughter of the legendary Charles Darwin, revives sections on religious and contemporary thinkers that two important women in his life, his wife and daughter, purposely censored due to the sensitivity and controversial nature of his religious views and thoughts on his still-living-at-the-time contemporaries. What Barlow’s edition adds to the previous incomplete ones is a compelling introduction on context, the evolution of the editions, and the reason for previous exclusion of these sections, restoration of sections that were once thought to be potentially harmful to the family patriarch’s reputation, detailed footnotes on historical and social context, and appendices including importance correspondence letters concerning life events, including the initial disapproval of Darwin’s plea to go on the Beagle by his father as well as the Butler controversy. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin is great for learning more about Darwin’s personality rather than the gravity and details of his body of scientific work.

Originally written in 1876 at the ripe old age of 67, Darwin’s autobiography is a well-thought over self-reflection of the life of a scientist and shy recluse. Filled with tales of awe of nature, boyhood academic troubles, and scientific discovery, this autobiography is intended for the private audience of his family. It is clear that Darwin wants his children and grandchildren to remember him as an exceedingly scientific man, who was loving, but often kept to himself. The reader must be careful of the assumptions that are made when one writes a memoir of himself with a specific intended audience; an autobiography reveals how he views himself and how he wants to be remembered.

As goes his reputation and evidenced by this work, Darwin was first and foremost, a scientist. In his autobiography, we see the beginnings of his empirical explorations of nature from his boyhood appreciation of beetles to his collection of animal and plant species aboard the HMS Beagle to his later extensive document of Cirripedia. From his personal writings surrounding the publication of his scientific ideas, a humble and thankful Darwin emerges. In explaining the reception of On the Origin of Species, his seminal work, Darwin thanks fellow contemporary thinkers and friends, Lyell, Hooker, and Wallace for their contributions. To me, this was somewhat conflicting with the Darwin that wrote the introduction to the On the Origin of Species, who was often reluctant to cite potential competitor scientists or family members as influencing his thoughts.

However, this edition of the autobiography made me more excited about two other aspects of Darwin’s life: 1) the women in it and 2) his views on religion. Young Charles’ first memory involves sitting on the knee of his sister Caroline and being cut accidentally by her. Often recalling memories together, Darwin was clearly close to his sisters. Another possible influential womanly figure in his life seems to be his late mother, who he does not remember much of, except for her black dress in death or his mom’s saying that she would only ask him to do things that would be good for him. The citing the death and absence of his mother numerous times leaves the reader wondering about the effect of this event on Darwin. Moreover, Darwin’s love for his wife, Emma Wedgwood is endearing and brings out the loving husband and wife in Darwin. He speaks lovingly and appreciative of her and takes the time to discuss religion, a topic of genuine concern for Emma. Women who are notably missing detail or mention at all in this autobiography include his beloved daughter Annie, who died at a young age.

Barlow’s edition of the autobiography is most strengthened by its addition of the previously omitted comments on religion. In it, Darwin is depicted as a man who cannot accept a divine design of nature, with his observations and empirical discoveries of nature and natural selection at work. Instead of focusing on critiquing a deity, he seems to bolster the importance of nature and natural selection. From his musings, it appears that Darwin did not just jump to the conclusion that there is not a divine maker in the sense of the Bible immediately, but came to this realization after extensive observations and reflections on the empirical data.

The society the people within it that Darwin describes serve as a way for the reader to learn about the historical and social climate at the time of his work. It is quite shocking that Darwin’s theory continues to be debatable although the environmental climate today is more religiously critical and scientifically based than the one of his day. While this autobiography does a great job developing the persona of Darwin for the reader, its brevity does not do his scientific theory justice, with only brief mention or summary of his ideas. Perhaps this is fitting to a familial audience, but for aspiring and critical scientists, his treatises including On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man may be more useful.

Review of Janet Browne's Darwin's Origins of Species

Review of Darwin’s Origins of Species: Books that Changed the World
By Janet Browne

Review by C. Paula de los Angeles

As the foremost historian on scientist and evolutionary thinker Charles Darwin, Janet Browne successfully writes an accessible and vivid “biography”, or account of the past and continued development of the man’s most influential work On the Origin of Species, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, first published in 1859. Her book adequately fits the niche of a “popular science” type novel, great for an introduction to the topic or overview of general ideas.

In this straight-forward, elegantly written historical biography, Browne documents not only the history of Origin, but of Darwin as well. Structurally, the book is divided into five sections, beginning with Darwin’s childhood, then a discussion of the influential ideas, then the publication, then the controversy surrounding the publication, and most uniquely, a section on the legacy of the scientific treatise. Throughout these sections, Browne does a fine job balancing the narrative of Darwin, such as the anecdote involving chemistry labs and his brother, Erasmus, with an explanation of the scientific ideas, such as the explanation of Lyell, and then Darwin’s gradualism.

What is most noticeable and influential in the environment that Janet Browne paints Darwin growing up is the Victorian society, in which “apes or angels, Darwin or the Bible” and revolution were the questions of the day, and other great thinkers (the work of his contemporaries and predecessors significantly influence his thinking, often making it difficult to understand why Darwin was unique and not just an extension of previous thoughts), such as Lyell and Marx. Origin was received during a time when big questions were being asked, and it seemed to provide an answer that not everyone was ready for yet. In fact, on some questions, Darwin was noticeably silent, in particular he avoided the discussion of human origins and of divine presence in the natural world.

One of the Browne’s greatest strengths is to compare Darwin and Darwin’s work with other contemporary thinkers and their ideas. For example, Browne’s comparison of anonymous author Robert Chambers of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Darwin of Origins in the second section highlighted not only the need for Darwin to acknowledge the influences of other great thinkers of his time, but also his ability to also be highly critical of them in order to make his own work better, “obsessively, he began to build up his own edifice of dependable factual information that would be so much admired when he eventually published Origin of Species, and which life his book far above the ordinary”.

Browne made numerous observations that were especially interesting to me. For one, she discusses the difficulty of vocabulary that Darwin encountered in writing his work, “the language he had to hand was the language of Milton and Shakespeare, steeped in teleology and purpose, not the objective, value-free terminology sought by science”, certainly factors that could influence the reception and perceived validity of his work. I also enjoyed her critical analysis of the structure of the book, offering an explanation for the “Difficulties of the theory” chapter that Darwin includes, one that she believes makes the Origin an honest account. Having read from numerous other biographies that Emma, Darwin’s wife, was a great force in censoring some of his religious ideas, I was pleased to read that Emma helped with editing the book in a value-free way.

Overall, Browne paints an exceedingly positive picture of Darwin. Unlike the boy of childhood academic woes and troubles that we see in even his own autobiography, Browne describes Darwin’s studies at Edinburgh as such, “after a diligent start, sixteen-year-old Darwin found the realities of early nineteenth-century medicine upsetting. Two ‘very bad’ operations, one on a child, convinced him he would never make a doctor and he left in 1827”. In later chapters, she does not depict him as ambitious or competitive with other great thinkers, though other correspondences and works, have shown differently. While we may want to think of and worship Darwin as a heroic, all-good figure, this would be false adoration. More accurately, and perhaps more realistically, we should recognize Darwin as human, with faults and weaknesses just like the rest of us.

Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species: Books That Changed the World is a well-written and well-rounded introductory book to the study of his life and major work, though suffers from an exceedingly positive picture and may leave readers thirsting for more about his scientific theory.

Review of David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin fills an interesting niche within Darwin biographies, falling somewhere in between the brevity of Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species and more comprehensive undertakings like Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin. Clearly drawing upon his skills as a popular science writer, Quammen’s candid and colored portrayal of Darwin is equal parts fascinating and divisive. While the narrative Quammen crafts is delightfully dense with Darwin’s idiosyncrasies and the various contexts surrounding the development of his work, his unapologetic interpretation of events may turn off some readers.

Quammen begins the book right after the Beagle voyage, dropping the reader into Darwin’s rush to situate his life in London. The first third of the book thus focuses on the interaction of the different factors that influenced the ideas eventually supporting the Origin of Species. Yet there are also plenty of details regarding the incubation of the ideas behind Darwin’s Origin of Species. He was consumed by meetings with Lyell and Gould to identify specimens from the voyage and working out concepts in his notebooks that would form the basis for his theories on transmutation and natural selection. His reading of Malthus provided Darwin with the key to evolution via natural selection, while his meetings with Joseph Hooker and Lyell gave him the confidence to tighten his ideas of transmutation. Quammen does a good job of balancing this narrative with glimpses into Darwin’s personal life; we see his rationality at work in his weighing of the pros and cons of marriage, as well as the common thread of genuineness that pervaded both his interactions with his wife Emma and his writing.

The middle third of the book is devoted mostly to the major points of contention regarding Darwin’s Origin of Species. Quammen’s commentary throughout is insightful but often inconsistent; his instincts as a popular science writer can be both a strength and a detraction. For example, his framing of the controversy between Wallace and Darwin works well, crafting a compelling underdog narrative that brings Darwin’s flaws regarding pride into sharp focus and provides the rationale for the kickstarting of the Origin. He also makes good points when trying to justify the twenty year gap between the start of writing and the Origin of Species, noting that it is not about which factors were most responsible but about how the factors interact.

Yet there are several instances where Quammen makes sensationalized assertions regarding Darwin’s life and detracts from the integrity of the narrative. His various discussions on the role of religion in Darwin’s life are certainly guilty of this. Quammen makes sure to emphasize the theme of religion’s incompatibility with Darwin’s work; even in the beginning Darwin is depicted leading a double life of subverting religion, working out his ideas in his “seditious notebooks.” It gets worse later on, when, in his analysis of the argument in the Origin of Species, he says that Darwin’s conception of evolution is not challenging the existence of God but the special status of man. It is a fascinating idea and true to some extent, but it does not warrant the undoing of the effort he spent to establish the incompatibility of Darwin’s ideas with religion. Such instances exemplify how Quammen’s flair for the dramatic can undermine a solid narrative.

The final third of the book finds Quammen rushing through the legacy of the Origin of Species and an overview of evolutionary biology. His survey of the Origin of Species wants to be too much for the space it is allotted; it wants to be critical and reverent but cannot pursue either to the fullest extent. The discussion of Mendel and evolutionary biology also seemed unfinished; while there is a good deal of background on Mendel’s experiments, Quammen skims over how Mendel’s work translated into the modern synthesis that revitalized Darwinism in the 20th century, offering instead a comprehensive but ultimately non-informative equivalent of a reading list.

Despite these shortcomings, Quammen does manage to craft a nuanced and intriguing portrayal of Darwin, acknowledging him as the genuine and benevolent man he was in his life and writings yet refusing to shy away from his flaws. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin provides an ultimately flawed but well-researched and accessible complement to the more neutral biographies available on Darwin. If you do decide to pick up this book, however, I would also recommend reading Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species, as it provides a more unbiased perspective on the events in Darwin’s life and fills in some of the time gaps left in Quammen’s book.

--Andrew Plan

Review of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

Charles Darwin has rarely been bigger. In the midst of the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the Origin, there is little doubt as to the continued relevance of his ideas regarding evolution and natural selection. Yet a lot has changed since the original publication of the Origin; the advances made in the mid-20th century towards a modern synthesis connected Mendelian principles of inheritance to Darwin’s work thus bolstering the field of evolutionary biology. In light of such developments, the question remains: do Darwin’s ideas, in their original form, have any worth today? Can one still derive some sort of value from reading the Origin outside of pure historical value? I would argue yes. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is a beautifully written and curiosity-packed piece of work; despite the aging of some of the ideas, just reading about how Darwin develops his careful argument for the validity of evolution is worth the price of admission.

The argument of the Origin, which is that species are not immutable and are subject to the laws of natural selection, can be thought of as divided into two parts. The first part of the argument, chapters 1 through 5, are the chapters in which Darwin sets up the guiding principles of his theory of evolution. He draws upon Malthusian principles to describe the struggle for existence that characterizes all life and how it necessitates the role of natural selection in favoring those individuals best adapted for the struggle. He also introduces the concept of inheritance of traits, as well as the laws of variation, both of which then play into Darwin’s own description of natural selection.

It is within this first part that Darwin establishes the basic pattern of his argument, which tries to mitigate the leap of faith readers at the time might have felt regarding evolution by arguing from the common towards the less common; Darwin uses common examples in everyday life to illustrate the viability of the largely unknown concepts that he introduces. For example, Darwin begins the Origin by discussing domestic breeding, man’s manipulation of variation by intentionally crossing different individuals within and between species. Darwin’s implicit assumption is that this is an example that has been acknowledged and seen as valid by most readers; from here he feels more comfortable then makes the transition from artificial selection to natural selection. It works; while the Origin in general requires a little bit of imagination to really understand the links Darwin makes, his unique brand of argument from example exemplifies how immediate and relevant the Origin feels when reading it, even today.

The second half of the Origin, in contrast, is an expansion of Darwin’s chapter of addressing difficulties; following chapter 6, the rest of the chapters mostly take one issue of contention that threatens the validity of Darwin’s argument – instinct, hybridization, the geological record, etc. – and systematically goes through and either disproves the relevance of the issue to Darwin’s theory or simply undermines the integrity of the issue. It is in this part of the Origin that Darwin becomes a bit uneven in terms of successfully addressing grievances; while certain issues like instinct are handled well and argued with fantastic examples (the instinct chapter in particular has really cool insights on the construction of honey comb by hive-bees), other issues, like the imperfection of the geological record, are more tenuous and see Darwin making riskier assertions. Darwin is no Lyell when it comes to discussing geology, yet he still manages to criticize the integrity of the field thoroughly in the quest to defend his theory of evolution. Overall, however, the second half of the book has many fascinating insights into how Darwin worked around the limitations of arguing with only the evidence of natural history to go off of, reinforcing the validity of the principles of evolution introduced in the first half of the book.

Despite the imperfections in Darwin’s argument, On the Origin of Species is a remarkable and well-structured account of how the evidence for evolution is all around us. While other scientists and theorists may have had the benefit of advances in evolutionary biology in explaining and justifying evolution to the masses, few of them have the mainstream accessibility and reverence for nature that Darwin brings to his nuanced writing and argumentative skills. So do pick up the Origin sometime and read it – not as some extended scientific dissertation, but as the account of a man genuinely awestruck by nature and understanding of the ways in which it works. Darwin’s ideas as purported in the Origin may not be completely right anymore, but they will always have value in their capturing of what it means to live in a world governed by evolution, and the liberation that comes with it.

--Andrew Plan

Review of Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography

Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species is an unusual Darwin biography in that it is as much about the the Origin of Species and its impact as it is about the author himself. Browne is out to convince the reader that the creation and publication of the Origin is the tale of the modern world coming into existence. A lofty goal, indeed, but Browne pulls it off wonderfully, crafting a thorough and concise account of the history of the ideas behind Darwin’s seminal work while maintaining a neutral yet impassioned voice.

Browne’s book is very much the story of Darwin’s world and the Origin’s role in leading it into modernization. 19th century English society was unabashedly Victorian and increasingly industrialized. This environment of transition was ripe for the introduction of Darwin’s ideas, as both shared the mantras of specialization, diversification, and improvement. Religion, while a crucial pillar of Darwin’s society at the time, was being chipped away by an emerging contingent of philosophers questioning the validity of the Old Testament and creationism. The Origin-centric approach to this particular Darwin biography gives the book a great amount of focus. Details in Darwin’s early life that seem cobbled together in other Darwin biographies come together in fascinating ways when discussed in context of the Origin, effectively showing how Darwin’s life influenced the creation of the Origin. The book begins by retracing Darwin’s upbringing as part of the financially secure intelligentsia of Britain before moving on to Darwin’s formative years at Cambridge. During that time he cultivated his love for geology and encountered the pervasive influence of theology, two influences that repeatedly show up in the Origin. Similarly, Browne elaborates on the voyage on the Beagle’s merits as a character-building experience, allowing Darwin to develop the independence and his observation skills as a naturalist later needed to flesh out the nuances of the Origin.

This focus extends to the middle chapters of the book, where Browne summarizes the literature regarding the development, publication, and argument of the Origin. She hits all of the main points of contention, exploring the influence of Paley and Malthus while offering commentary on Darwin’s delay and the controversy regarding Alfred Wallace Russell. Her systematic reduction of the argument within the Origin is nicely done as well, breaking it down into its core principles of excessive numbers of very different offspring, the mechanism of natural selection, and the principle of divergence as well as addressing many of the common controversies surrounding the book like the rejection of the church and the lack of man’s special status.

Browne’s book is also notable for its distillation of the legacy of the Origin, offering a nicely condensed version of the key events that led Darwinism out of obscurity in the 20th century. During the late 19th and early 20th century Darwin’s ideas were countered by many scientists who found the paleontological evidence wanting, his ideas of selection incomplete. But there were scientists in the early 20th century that worked hard to draw the connections between Mendelian inheritance and Darwinian thought. In this regard Browne does a much better job than her contemporaries like Quammen in exploring the resurgence of Darwinism, detailing the role of Sewell Wright’s population genetics and G.G. Simpson’s explanation for the gaps in the fossil record in achieving the modern synthesis that arguably reshaped the field of biology into evolutionary biology.

Yet it is Browne’s reverent and accessible writing style that elevates her content above other Darwin biographies. Throughout the book she manages to maintain brevity while sacrificing very little in terms of intellectual integrity or sufficient exploration of key issues. Browne’s description of Darwin’s writing in the Origin as “dazzling, persuasive, friendly” very well applies to the quality of writing at work in her book. I was genuinely surprised by how much her passion for Darwin’s work contributed to her book’s readability, as it is a legitimate page-turner. Admittedly, this affectionate writing style also means that the rough edges of Darwin’s personality are smoothened over more than they should be, drawing attention away from the less savory personality tics like the pride that emerged in controversies like the Wallace publishing fiasco. But the reverence never crosses the line into idolatry; at the end of the day, Browne is just genuinely passionate about discussing Darwin’s contribution to the modernization of society and science, and the biography as a whole benefits greatly from it.

While other biographies may be more comprehensive or controversial, Browne’s considerable abilities as a writer and her undeniable admiration for Darwin makes this work a truly enjoyable read, regardless of prior knowledge of Darwin. As far as introductions go, Darwin’s Origin of Species is definitely the work to beat for anyone new to the life and works of Charles Darwin.

-Andrew Plan

Friday, June 19, 2009

Finch work pays off: the Grants awarded Kyoto Prize

Much congrats to Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have recently been awarded the 2009 Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences. Aren't they cute? They're also the first husband-and-wife team to receive the prize...go marriage!

The Grants, who are both professors at Princeton, were recognized for their work on evolutionary adaptions as a reaction to enviromental change. They have spent 35 (!) years studying the finches that Darwin made famous in his trip to the Galapagos aboard the Beagle; their most significant study, published in 1996, showed how beak size and shape of ground finches changed within the course of a few generations as a result of the differing availability of different size seeds. Together, they have published over 200 papers and have recently published a book about their experience detailing the finches of the Galapagos, entitled How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin's Finches.

Their dedication to evolutionary biology is ridiculous, as the couple still makes yearly visits to the Galapagos to study finch morphology. The work has paid off though, as the general consensus in the scientific community is that evolutionary biology is closer to a stage where obtaining proof is tangible thanks to their long-term commitment to the field.

It's really nice to read a story like this, as it warms both the brain and the heart. I'm sure that the married life of two very prominent and busy scientists must be taxing to maintain and nurture, so I'm glad to hear that the Grants are not only making it work but are also able to accomplish extraordinary things in the field of evolutionary biology, which is an unenviable task in itself. Darwin would be proud.

Article link here:

-Andrew Plan

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tickle me Ape???

Turns out that gorillas, bonobos, and other primates might laugh when tickled! While their laughing might not sound like laughter to us, researchers maintain that the "rapid panting" and slow "noisey breathing" is the way apes laugh.

"This study is the first phylogenetic test of the evolutionary continuity of a human emotional expression," said Marina Davila Ross of the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. "It supports the idea that there is laughter in apes."

The research traces the evolution of laughter over the past 10 to 16 million years of primate history. While some of the details are debatable, I agree with experts who say that this comparison makes it logical to think about laughter as a "cross-species phenomenon, and that it is therefore not anthropomorphic to use this term for tickling-induced vocalizations produced by the great apes."

Check out the video here, on National Geographic. Even though the laughing doesn't sound like my giggles, I feel strangely connected to the laughing apes! I also think this would be so much fun to study!


Humans More Closely Related to Orangutans?

New research, conducted at the University of Pittsburgh and the Buffalo Museum of Science, supports a theory that humans are more likely to share a common ancestor with orangutans. This is particularly controversial, as we share more genetic material with chimpanzees.

The researchers "reject as problematic" this widely perceived theory that DNA analysis make humans more closely related to chimpanzees (which they suggest is not supported by fossil evidence).

You can check out the details of the study in the Science Direct article, here.

There were two particular quotes that struck me. The first was from Paleoanthropologist Peter Andrews, who previously served as the head of Human Origins at the London Natural History Museum. He stated that this study includes strong evidence to support their theory:

"They have good morphological evidence in support of their interpretation, so that it must be taken seriously, and if it reopens the debate between molecular biologists and morphologists, so much the better," Andrews said. "They are going against accepted interpretations of human and ape relationships, and there's no doubt their conclusions will be challenged. But I hope it will be done in a constructive way, for science progresses by asking questions and testing results."

The second quote, which was particularly striking to me, comes from Malte Ebach, a researcher at Arizona State University in the INternational Institute for Species Exploration.

"Palaeoanthropology is based solely on morphology, and there is no scientific justification to favor DNA over morphological data. Yet the human-chimp relationship, generated by molecular data, has been accepted without any scrutiny. Grehan and Schwartz are not just suggesting an orangutan–human relationship—they're reaffirming an established scientific practice of questioning data."

I have generally accepted the "chips have similar DNA to humans and therefore are our closest ancestor," even though I don't actually know that much about it. I like the idea of questioning this belief and looking at another explanation, namely the morphological relationship between apes and humans. I don't know enough about either subject (DNA or morphology) to have a strong opinion about the research on human origins, but I think it's interesting to think about the limitations to widely accepted beliefs (chimps-->humans) and think about alternative explanations (orangutans-->humans).


“New and Hot” Happens More than I Previously Thought

When Dr. Bob asked us to write blog entries on “new and hot” things pertaining to evolution, I anticipated that there would be more writing about “hot” things than “new” things. I mean, how much new stuff could possibly be going on in the world of evolution!?!?

Boy was I wrong!!!

It seems like every week or two, there’s some new skeleton or artifact or discovery…. one “new” thing in the field appears in the papers on a frequent basis. Is this just a particularly active term? Are fossils unusually being uncovered left and right? Are we – Oxford Trinity Term 2009 – an anomaly? Or the norm?

I would venture that this term is not particularly unique, and instead that I had previously simply failed to search for this kind of information. I didn’t pay attention every time a new fossil was uncovered, or other evolutionary discovery made headlines.

I think that’s been the best thing about “new and hots”: they’ve made me look for stories I wouldn’t have normally read, and in turn made me realize that we are constantly improving, adapting, and evolving the knowledge base that Darwin (and his predecessors) created.

It’s a neat thought that – although our fossil record is incomplete, and our technology is imperfect – we are making gradual changes, that… over time, will produce sizable results. Exciting, and poetically Darwinesque!

Woolly Mammoths and the Evolution of Technology

The bones of one male and four juvenile woolly mammoths were discovered in 1986. While we originally thought the bones were around 21,000 years old, we now believe they are are actually 14,000 years old. They were originally carbon dated with technology that was widely considered to be inaccurate, but new research indicates that the mammoths were in Britain for thousands of years after we originally thought they went extinct. Read the complete article at Science Daily, here.

This news brings up something that has been weighing on my mind about what we "know" about evolution (and science in general. Technology and science are so young. We are always discovering that we got things wrong and figuring out how to do them "right." This is the nature of technological evolution, but it also makes me think about whether the bones are really 14,000 years old, or whether we will discover in another 15 or so years that they are even younger, or maybe that we got it right the first time. Etc. As much as I want to trust science and believe in these new discoveries, these situations generally are more likely to remind me about the imperfection of science and how our body of knowledge will be evolving indefinitely.


Evolution of the Modern Bird Wing

The discovery of a 160 million-year-old fossil, Limusaurus inextricabilis, has offered scientists a glimpse of how the three-fingered hand evolved in birds. This particular issue has gained the interest of not only paleontologists, but also evolutionary and developmental biologists.

The fossil, which was discovered in a mine in northwestern China, is a primitive ceratosaur, a part of the theropod group that also included the Tyrannosaurus rex. As Professor Clark described, “It’s a really weird animal – it’s got no teeth, had a beak and a very long neck, and very wimpy forelimbs.” The fossil possessed a truncated first finger (thumb), middle three fingers, and no fifth finger. Whereas scientists previously thought that the first three digits persisted among three-fingered animals, this recent finding indicates that it was the middle digits that persisted. (This coincides with the findings of developmental biologists, who have shown bird embryos display growth in all five digits until the first and fifth are reabsorbed.)

This discovery also provides a glimpse into “identity shift,” or the shifting of gene expression from one limb to another. In this case, expression is shifted from the first to the second finger. Thus, one can see how paleontologists mistakenly believed that the second finger was a vestige of the first finger.

According to Jack Conrad, a paleontologist with the American Museum of Natural History, “This is amazing – it’s the first time we’ve seen this thing actually starting to disappear. There’s been this fundamental rift – there was no way to make peace between the good data we were seeing from the developmental biologists and the palaeontological evidence that showed with every fossil we found we were seeing [fingers] one, two and three.”

It appears that the developmental biologists were right on this one. However, if science is to truly blossom and grow as a field, specialists from all fields must be brought to bear on the major scientific questions of the day. In the nineteenth century, we needed geneticists to inform and restructure evolutionary theory. Now, we will need to look to the burgeoning fields of developmental biology, neurobiology, and epigenetics.

For BBC article, go here.

-Alyssa Martin

Sexual Selection?

A recent peer-reviewed study (Bailey, et al.) calls into question the universality of sexual selection. The University of California research team noted the following: “The variety and ubiquity of same-sex sexual behaviour in animals is impressive — many thousands of instances of same-sex courtship, pair bonding and copulation have been observed in a wide range of species, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, molluscs and nematodes.”

The fact homosexuality has the power to alter the DNA and social structure of certain species – i.e. dolphins, bonobos, penguins, snails, and fruit flies – suggests an alternative selective force at work. For instance, among bottlenose dolphins, about half of male sexual encounters are with other males. In addition, according to the Times Online summary, “Almost a third of chick-raising pairs of Laysan albatrosses were found to be all female in one Hawaiian colony.”

What would be the evolutionary advantage of such a force? In the case of the Laysan albatross, female-female pairings have more advantages than single females, suggesting a hierarchy of selective forces. Another prominent theory suggests that homosexual pairings constitute an alternative, cooperative child-rearing strategy. Dr. Joan Roughgarden, a professor at Stanford University, subscribes to this theory and views mating in terms of “game theory” and the set of trade-offs that will ensure the greatest chance of offspring survival. The authors of the study also propose that homosexuality can result from mistaken identity and group bonding.

In light of these findings, does sexual selection need to be revamped? Should it be replaced by the Rougharden model of social selection? Or can we acknowledge a spectrum of selective forces? I personally think that these studies tend to dramatize Darwin’s faults; we know that sexual selection is at work in nature, whether or not it’s the only or predominant force is up for debate. However, I do not believe these findings constitute a paradigm shift as such.

For the article in Times Online, go here.
For the full study, go here.

-Alyssa Martin

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

First-edition Darwin book sells for £15,625

This article relates to when Dr. Bob asked John van Whye about the value of a Darwin during our lunch at Conduit Head.

Would you rather buy a new, mid-value car or an original Darwin book?
I ask because the cost is about the same.

Society has imparted a high value to Charles Darwin and his 'Origins of Species." This was demonstrated a few days ago when a first edition of his famous book sold for 15,625 pounds at an auction. It follows a similar purchase in April that was valued at 35000 pounds. Clearly, the collection of Darwin memorabilia has become a high-priced, elitist hobby at present.

This article raises a question I have long asked: What exactly gives items value? So far, I have understood that art pieces have their value determined by a combination of small, elite circles of art aficionados, social events, and pure seredipity. Then, for items like potato chips that look like the Virgin Mary or cow hides with America-shaped spots, their value is gained out of sensation and in my opinion, an excess of money. Specifically, what does the high-prices that Darwin memorabilia are going for imply about Darwin and his work?

In my opinion, these ground breakingly high-prices testify that Darwin and his works have taken on a semblance of revolutionary and iconic thought. Like other high-value collectors items, their appeal and price comes largely from their ability to convey something that is inexpressible such as defining an art movement. For the Darwin memorabilia, their intrinsic primacy comes from the role they played in the historic and ongoing passionate conflict about our origins attached to his work. The immense monetary worth of these books demonstrate to me how Darwin's works have taken precedence in the definition of our society.


Moles, not magic, make worm 'grunting' work

The weed patch was perhaps my favorite part of visiting Downe. Not only because the tiny, marked off pasture was cute to say the least, but it was also the site and means of Darwin's worm experiments which testified to me his eccentricity. As learned in class, Darwin would observe his worms' reactions after he played bassoon or blew tobacco at them among many other things. His worm experiments was among my list of reasons of why I think Darwin was, in his later life, a crazy old bat.

Then I read this article and realized Darwin's wish to conjure worms from the earth are not as silly as I originally thought and that they even produced practical purposes in todays' world-- most importantly though, the article talked about the modern verification of ideas brought up by Darwin centuries ago about worms' responses to tremors.

Experiments, inspired by Darwin's and funded by Vanderbilt University, has produced strong evidence suggesting worms arise from the earth to escape predators. Specifically, those predators are moles. Scientists had recorded the sound of mole movements under the earth, replayed them into the ground within a controlled environment, then measured how fast worms' crawled up and away from the sound. The experiments are useful for 'grunters,' those who harvest worms as an occupation.

The article was really fun to read. Some random, interesting information was presented through an interview with an enthusiastic 'grunter' about his 'grunting' techniques. He exhibited the same level of enthusiasm regarding worms as Darwin's observations and was a likeable character in the article. On the scientific side, the researchers were just as excited if not for the experiment's results then for the fact that it flourished so successfully out of Darwin's notion brought up centuries ago. This is echoed in the main researcher's statement, ""This particular study was just wonderful because each little step made so much sense," Catania said. "It just all sort of fit together one piece after another all stemming from that original thought Darwin had."
The biggest impact the article had on me was it's show appreciation for Darwin the weirdo. My earlier post about the new Darwin film coming out portrayed him as some tormented, epic figure whereas most other science articles depict him as an astute, dedicated naturalist. In my opinion and judging from the other New and Hots, Darwin's eccentricities are hardly ever in the spotlight. In this article, they are and I like it!


Book Review: The Darwin Conspiracy by Roy Davis

In the ”The Darwin Conspiracy”, author Roy Davis attempts to convince his audience of the fact that Charles Darwin is history's biggest thief, having stolen his famous theory of natural selection from a significant number of contemporaries and predecessors. Davis builds his argument by extracting pieces from previous works that highlight and push forward this historical conspiracy theory. He also provides numerous comparisons between the letters and other texts of Darwin and other notable prominent evolution-oriented researchers to highlight what he says are irrefutable evidence of Darwin's plagiarism. Within these numerous extractions, as well as records of Darwin's irregular behavior, Davis draws together a wide array of correlations and incidents and weaves them together to form a directed accusation that Charles Darwin's illustrious career is founded upon multiple accounts of intellectual larceny. Davis furthermore goes into reasons as to why Darwin and his theories were able to avoid being uncovered for so long. Ultimately, readers are lead to believe that driven by his own lust for fame and chronic insecurities that lead to desperate behavior as well as the willingness of his two colleagues to be his of accomplices, and finally, a bit of serendipity, Charles Darwin deliberately and knowingly presented the accomplishment of others' as his own.

Davis argues that the primary source from which Darwin stole material from to form his natural selection theory was the work of the young Alfred Russell Wallace. However, in his attempt to paint a vivid portrait of Darwin as a crook, Davis essentially claims that Wallace and Darwin's final produced theories were practically identical. Though I have not directly read Wallace's works, a little research at key secondary sources on his and his work leads me to perceive Davis' attempt to draw profound parallels between Darwin and Wallace as the same as drawing parallels between apples and oranges.

Another weakness I found in Davis' strong allegations resides in what I feel are petty, superficial similarities between Darwin's works and others. One example is how Davis points to Darwin's use of the word 'inosculate' in his “1836 Red Notebook” as telling evidence that he stole from the work of Edward Blyth who preceded him. Another example that bothered me was the apparent striking similarities between Darwin's natural selection and the unpublished works of Patrick Matthew, an amateur researcher who wrote about a “natural process of selection” a quarter of a century before both Darwin and Wallace. From this similarity, Davis immediately concludes plagiarism. More instances of Davis passing off these superficial similarties as irrefutable proof that Darwin actively stole his ideas prevail throughout “The Darwin Conspiracy.” Despite their volume, I feel they lack substance and so I remain unconvinced.

On a lighter note, I felt the book was fun to read despite its innate sensationalism. It introduced a completely new portrayal of Darwin to me, one different from that of a wide-eyed curious, astute naturalist or a frail yet scholarly homebody. In “The Darwin Conspiracy,” readers are presented with a highly-paranoid and manipulative Darwin unaware of how grateful he should be for his inherited fortune and dedicated colleagues. This book ultimately was, for me, a breath of fresh air in the Darwin canon, but not necessarily a refreshing one.


John Dupre's Darwin's Legacy

Darwin’s Legacy: What Evolution Means Today
John Dupre
Reviewed by Ben Picozzi

Darwin’s Legacy is John Dupre’s misleadingly-titled critique of contemporary trends in evolutionary science. Given its title, one might expect a broad explanation of Darwin’s theory of evolution according to natural selection and its persisting scientific and social relevance. Instead, Dupre chooses to focus on the problems which attend the functionalist understanding of evolution. While it is true that Darwin was committed to a particularly rigid functionalism, Dupre focuses on functionalism in its modern – and in his view perverse – forms. A cynic might view Dupre’s use of the Darwin label as an attempt to lend credibility to his unrelated academic crusade against a ‘reductionist’ functionalism.

Dupre focuses on two major targets: genetic-selection and evolutionary psychology. He spends the vast majority of his book responding to these two positions rather than adding anything positive to the discussion concerning Darwin’s legacy. Tellingly, the antepenultimate paragraph begins with the sentence: “So much for the negative message of this book.” While the final paragraphs are positive, such a discussion is, as might be expected, underdeveloped. This choice is unfortunate, since rather than learning about Darwin as a scientist and social figure, the reader only learns about Dupre’s hostility to functionalism. However, this focus is also what makes his book interesting, since laudatory accounts of Darwin’s legacy have become trite.

Dupre is a philosopher of science and consequently carries a philosopher’s approach in his discussions. While this perspective is often beneficial – Dupre has an excellent understanding of the philosophical positions which surrounded Darwin’s theory of natural selection – it can also detract from his argument. Dupre expects the same rigorous attention to vocabulary from his scientific adversaries that he does from his philosophical peers. As a result tends to read functionalism into their views to a greater extent than is warranted at the risk of tilting wildly at imaginary windmills. Dupre seems to believe that anything which is excluded from the scope of evolution is considered to be unimportant in determining the phenotypes of later generations. However, it is unlikely that there are any contemporary biologists who believe that genetic characteristics are the only relevant determinants. Even supporters of genetic-selection accept that there are a range of factors, including development factors, which are contributory. (Dawkins, for example, celebrated for his defense of genetic-selection is also celebrated for his exposition of cultural evolution.) In restricting evolution to genetic characteristics, what they mean is that such characteristics establish a particularly interesting sort of relationship between progenitors and their offspring. Dupre ignores this in order to present the proponents of functionalism as more narrow-minded then they actually are.

Similarly, Dupre’s treatment of evolutionary psychology seems primarily motivated by the philosophical problem of other minds. Although he does mention the scientific difficulties which attend any theory which attempts to attribute anything resembling a ‘function’ to mental states, these difficulties are rooted in the philosophical tradition which assigns a special epistemic status to the mind. Remarkably, Darwin saw this very tradition as a threat to his naturalistic theory of evolution and devoted an entire chapter of The Origin to refuting the view that the ‘instincts’, which he understands as a broad range of mental states, are somehow independent of his theory of natural selection. Obviously, Dupre does not believe in anything as superlunary as innate ideas. He does, however believe that mental states cannot be observed – and hence cannot be analyzed – in the same manner as physical states.

While the preceding discussion may seem critical, it should not discourage one from reading Darwin’s Legacy provided that one knows what to expect. If one is seeking to learn more about Darwinian evolutionary theory, then the majority of the book will be irrelevant. If, however, one is looking for an introduction to contemporary evolutionary debates, then Dupre provides excellent commentary.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Darwin's On the Origin of Species

On the Origin of Species (Oxford World’s Classics Edition)
Charles Darwin
Reviewed by Ben Picozzi

On the Origin of Species (fully titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) is Charles Darwin’s seminal work on the evolution of species according to natural selection. Although The Origin was originally intended as a rushed abstract to a larger species book, he never took up the species book and instead The Origin became his definitive engagement with evolutionary theory.

The Origin is remarkably devoid of citations and other academic conventions. Darwin does cite other sources on occasion, but he references authors by name and experiment. On the rare occasions in which he does cite publications, he does not include page numbers. While this may have been a byproduct of the rushed nature of Darwin’s writing, the uncluttered nature of the text makes it easy to read without being bogged down by an endless series of accreditations. Likewise, Darwin retreats from the austere language of science in favor of a more accessible – but no less compelling – style. This approach is consistent with his portrayal of evolution and natural selection. From its’ opening paragraph, which recalls Darwin’s voyages aboard the Beagle, to its conclusion, which Darwin ends with a famous appeal to the ‘grandeur’ of human life, Darwin presents evolution as not just an abstract scientific theory but something which can be appreciated by anyone.

However, all of this does not mean that The Origin is not a serious scientific text. Darwin treats his argument with the attention to rigor and organization expected of a writer attempting to persuade an educated audience. Darwin is remarkably thorough in anticipating and addressing potential objections. On several occasions, I would posit a particular objection to the text, only for Darwin to address that objection in the very next paragraph! Furthermore, Darwin devotes an entire section to responding to ‘difficulties on the theory’ of natural selection in an effort to preempt his rivals. The section on ‘instinct’ is another defensive measure, written with a view to dismissing the possibility of instincts which stand outside of evolutionary processes.

Despite the attention which he pays to his opponents, Darwin also builds his own positive case for his evolutionary theory. Again, the structure of The Origin demonstrates Darwin’s understanding of argument in addition to science. He begins with the easily-grasped example of domestic selection, which he uses to prime his audience for the possibility that there is a similar process of ‘natural selection’ which occurs in non-domestic settings. He then motivates this possibility with a discussion of the conditions – namely, scarcity – which make a theory of natural selection plausible. He concludes with a discussion of independent evidence supporting such a theory.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is not perfect. He does make some mistakes. Notably, his lack of an understanding of heredity, leads him to bizarre conclusions concerning instances of ‘atavism’ or ‘reversion’ in which offspring will exhibit the traits of ancestors several generations removed. Likewise, his focus on the ‘struggle’ of the macroscopic world is myopic with respect to the microscopic world of disease and parasitism now believed to be the primary driver of evolutionary change. Much of what he writes about species migration is written in ignorance of continental drift. These are just the obvious mistakes. The unobvious mistakes are still a matter of controversy. The debate between functionalism and formalism is still ongoing. If you believe Gould, Darwin’s focus on gradualism, which he inherited from geological theory, underdetermines the role that sudden changes in environment – Gould’s punctuated equilibria – play in producing evolutionary change. But for all that Darwin got wrong, he got many things right. The evidence he provides for evolution – morphology, embryology, vestigial organs, etc. – is the same evidence which is still taught in high school classrooms today. The persistence of Darwin’s original examples is a commendation of his capabilities as a scientific thinker. His discussion of taxonomy is similarly revolutionary.

It might be tempting given the increasingly-tedious debate between religion and science to try to read The Origin without attending to any rival religious theories. However, such an attempt would be futile. Much of Darwin’s aforementioned negative project of responding to objections addresses religious theories in some form. Notably, Darwin devotes an entire chapter of the book – the section on ‘difficulties’ – to refuting the objections of his opponents, which included the creationists of his day. Many of these objections, including the absence of transition species in the fossil record and the supposed ‘irreducible complexity’ of certain features, are the same arguments raised in contemporary debates. In fact, in the passage devoted to irreducible complexity, Darwin explicitly attacks the belief that such features require a ‘Creator’. ie. God. Likewise, his discussion of the ‘instincts’ is an attempt to naturalize the mind and deprive his religious opponents of a powerful argument against religion and for divine intervention.

That stated, religion does not have to be the reason why one chooses to read The Origin. Large sections of the text do not directly engage religious theories. Likewise, while the text has obvious scientific value, science alone should not be the justification. Modern biology textbooks, while inspired by Darwinian principles, offer a more accurate and concise theory of evolution. However, what The Origin apart from these pretenders is the historical-cultural context in which it was produced. Darwin’s book provides a unique insight into the Victorian world and the powerful argument which changed it.

David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution
David Quammen
Reviewed by Ben Picozzi

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is David Quammen’s attempt to illuminate an often-neglected period of Darwin’s life spanning the years between his well-documented voyage aboard the Beagle and his publication of On the Origin of Species. Quammen provides a readable, if not necessarily rigorous, biography which – as the title suggests – portrays the scientist as a very human individual beset by fears that his species theory would not be well-received by his contemporaries.

Quammen is not a scientist or a historian by trade, but a journalist, and it shows in his writing. He is often prone to cute turns of phrase at the expense of concision. This sometimes tendency becomes problematic from a historical perspective when such turns of phrase result in speculative commentary where no evidence is provided. Quammen frequently attributes attitudes or emotions to various individuals without presenting any historical reasons for believing that those individuals in fact expressed those attitudes. In fact, Quammen’s central claim that Darwin was ‘reluctant’ is perhaps the least substantiated claim in the book. Rather than reading as a historical treatise, the book moves with a flow you would expect in a magazine article. Quammen’s love of various popular literary devices frequently draws attention to the book’s author rather than its historical content. Still, this may be a welcome relief from standard biographical accounts and does break up what could otherwise have been a mind-numbing procession of historical facts – after all, Darwin was a busy man. Despite this, Quammen is not immune to the historian’s trap. At the beginning of a particularly amusing passage near the end of the book, Quammen claims that it is not his intention to ‘quickstep’ the reader through ‘all the major episodes in the later history of evolutionary biology’, after which he proceeds to do precisely that.

Furthermore, these problems are compounded by Quammen’s general failure to provide in-text citations, which makes it a chore to separate the book’s historical substance from the author’s stylistic choices. While Quammen does provide a series of source notes located at the end of the book, such notes usually only contain the title of the cited work along with its page number, without any discussion of the context which would make such citations meaningful. Despite these shortcomings, the book is nevertheless acknowledged as part of the scholarly literature on Darwin’s life. For example, the book is cited by Darwin historian John Van Wyhe in his article challenging the belief that Darwin’s alleged fear was responsible for his delay in publishing his species theory.

Despite these shortcomings, Quammen’s book does contain some historical value. In particular, its descriptions of Darwin’s ongoing scientific work – notably his work in the fields of taxonomy and species migration – are informative. From these, it is possible to see how Darwin’s biological thought developed over the course of the intervening years. Likewise, if one is able to look past Quammen’s seemingly-endless editorializations, his descriptions of Darwin’s personal life can help to humanize a man whose life’s achievements have come to symbolize a phenomenon far in excess of anything resembling human work.

Nick Spencer's Darwin and God

Darwin and God
Nick Spencer
Reviewed by Ben Picozzi

Darwin and God is Nick Spencer’s attempt at explaining Darwin’s religious beliefs – a subject which is all the more relevant given the current revival of creationism in the ongoing debate between science and religion. Spencer portrays Darwin as a man of his times, who followed the existing religious orthodoxy to its logical conclusion and lost his faith as a result.

Spencer’s account seems superficially simplistic. After all, as Spencer reminds us, the established view of Darwin’s journey from Christianity through theism and deism and to agnosticism is largely accurate. Spencer does not seek to overturn this view. Instead, what he offers is a more nuanced picture. Darwin was a Christian but, Spencer reminds us, he was a ‘particular sort of Christian’ determined by his particular historical-cultural location. Similarly, the doubts which led him to theism and deism and finally agnosticism were informed by that particular location. If Spencer can be said to offer anything approaching a thesis, then it is his claim that Darwin’s Christianity based on observable evidence rather than personal experience predisposed him to doubt given what Spencer sees as the tenuous nature of this foundation. While Spencer’s explanation of the immediate causes of Darwin’s rejection, the problems of suffering and non-salvation of nonbelievers, is uncomplicated, he adds complexity by relating these immediate causes to Darwin’s Christianity. Darwin was deeply concerned with the possibility of theodicy, but these concerns with evidentiary justification were only possible because of the emphasis placed on such justification in the first place. Ironically, it was the Paleyian attempt to rationalize faith in terms of naturalistic argument, so inspiring to the youthful Darwin, which was the mediate cause of Darwin’s rejection of Christianity. This leads Spencer to his more contemporary discussion of science and religion. Floating in the background is the possibility that there are other justifications for religious belief, which do not rely on or compete with scientific standards of evaluation. Spencer is quick to note that Darwin was quick to dismiss personal experience as sufficient grounds for belief, however the modern reader does not need to make such a dismissal. However, Spencer does not devote many pages to this discussion.

Throughout the book, Spencer is careful not to rock the boat on either side. Debates between science and religion are often contentious. Spencer, the research director at a think-tank dedicated to public theology, clearly has a professional and presumably personal stake in the debate. However, he is careful to maintain a neutral – ie. secular – perspective throughout the text. He does, in a few places, perhaps assume unfairly that the reader has prior knowledge of Christian beliefs, however, given his audience, such assumptions may be reasonable. While such a neutral perspective may not make for the most interesting read, it certainly adds to the credibility of Spencer’s account. From a historical standpoint, there are some claims which Spencer leaves undersubstantiated. Spencer often reads connections between Darwin’s scientific beliefs and his personal beliefs. For example, he draws a parallel between his scientific theories of suffering and his personal experiences of suffering; yet, he provides no textual evidence supporting the interaction between these beliefs. However, in general, Spencer’s citations are remarkably thorough. Throughout the text, he draws on a wealth of primary source materials maintained online at the Darwin Project, ranging from Darwin’s scientific publications to his personal correspondences. The insights into Darwin’s life contained within these materials alone justify reading Spencer’s book.

Regardless of which side of the scientific or religious debate you happen to fall, Spencer's account is worth reading. It provides another lens for examining the life of one of the most influential figures in modern history and, perhaps more importantly, a lens which can be turned toward the present to examine our contemporary situation.

New Studies on the Beginning of Life

-C. Paula de los Angeles

Since most people do not believe in a strict literal interpretation of the creation of the world in seven days as detailed in the Bible, the question of how life originated from inorganic material continues to puzzles the scientific community. Recent research discoveries are beginning to dispel some of the mysteries. A New York Times article details four scientific advances that have restored faith in a terrestrial explanation for the beginning of life:

1) protocells: Jack W. Szostak, David P. Bartel and P. Luigi Luisi concluded that genetic material and membranes had to evolve together, and not one after the other, after discovering that it was possible to form cell-like structures naturally from fatty chemicals present at the beginning of Earth. In their 2001 paper in Nature, they concluded that the way to make a cell from a protocell would be to combine a protocell and genetic material encapsculated in a cell membrane. If this set-up were advantageous over others, the outcome would be “a sustainable, autonomously replicating system, capable of Darwinian evolution."

2).self-replicating RNA: Dr. Szostak continued these studies, and from the observation that living cells have exclusive mechanisms to admit only the nutrients they need, decided that protocells needed a way to take-in small molecules. Primitive cells would arise from the influx of nutrients that would combine, making it impossible to get back out. Dr. Szostak is confident of such a chemical replicating system. Last month, Dr. John Sutherland, a chemist, demonstrated that such a self-replicating chemical system could exist under the right conditions, that the base and sugar of DNA could be built up as a single unit, and not separate, so the two do not need to be linked.

3) natural synthesis of nucleotides: Dr. Joyce, has demonstrated the possible replicative properties of RNA, the likely predecessor to DNA, in an experiment that successfully developed two RNA molecules that help the synthesis of four kinds of RNA nucleotides.

4)handedness of molecules: Furthermore, other researchers like Donna Blackmond of Imperial College of London has eliminated the impossibility of "original syn", how all amino acids are left-handed and all sugars and nucleotides are right-handed in living cells, but natural cells exist in roughly equal mixtures. The chemists discovered that that the proportions of left-handed and right-handed molecules can be converted to one form by temperature regulation, cycles of freezing and melting.

These recent advances present interesting questions to the idea that the beginning of life originated in water, as Darwin believed. No one knows for sure where the beginning of life originated, though these studies are beginning to shed some light on our origins.

While these advances in the lab are promising, I struggle with the applicability of these results. While they demonstrate possible pathways, it will be difficult to determine for certain, the actual conditions. For one, I think these studies should be admired for their scientific beauty and elegance alone.

Animated video here:
News link here:

Audio Book Review: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, read and annotated by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and 10 other books abridges and reads Darwin’s master-work, On the Origin of Species. While the original version of the Origin of Species shook the world (and perhaps still does), many say that it’s long, dry and a tedious read. Dawkins adeptly abridges Darwin’s weighty tome and reads it in under six hours. With ease and courage of conviction, Dawkins leads readers feel like they are being read to by Darwin himself! While listening to this audio book is a great way to breeze through Darwin’s master-work, the concepts can get a little complex to properly digest in the auditory format at times. Sometimes I found myself wanting to rewind, highlight particularly stunning statements, or make notes in the non-existent margins. So while the audio-format of this book has its advantages, it also has limitations. I think this recording would’ve been perfect if it came with a print copy of Dawkins annotated transcript. That way I – and other readers – could follow along visually, and have the complete audio-visual experience. All in all this audio book is a great way to get the basic grasp of Darwin’s masterpiece, but probably not the best resource to deeply explore the details and nuances of the Origin.


Book Review: Darwin’s Origin of Species, by Janet Browne

In her newest Darwin Biography, Janet Browne gives readers a brief overview of the man who thought he’d be a clergyman ended up bringing the idea of evolution by means of natural selection to the masses. The book is almost like a pocket-guide to Darwin – ringing in at a mere 153 pages, it’s a swift read. Janet Browne is clearly a master Darwin scholar. In order to trim down her previous lengthy biographies of him, she has to know what’s essential and what details can be cut. The book serves as a great introduction to the man (Darwin) and the theory (evolution by means of natural selection). Anyone who wants more information would likely turn to Browne’s other Darwin biographies, which are much longer and cover in greater detail the Victorian intellectual environment in which the Origin was published. Browne’s book is – quite naturally – fairly Darwin-centric. Along these lines, my main critique of Browne’s biography is the inclusion of Chapter 5, Legacy. I think that Browne should’ve used the 30-plus pages to include more detail in the chapters on Darwin’s life prior to publication and during the “Origin” years. It seems like early chapters were a little too dense and rushed, and these chapters might’ve benefited from more space. All in all, Browne wrote a concise introduction to Darwin and his theory that proves to be a great starting point for readers who don’t know much about the man who changed the way we think.


Leading Evolutionary Biologists Discuss Cooperation in Ants

-C. Paula de los Angeles

Two leading evolutionary biologists, Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson, explore ants (again...after their first exploration in Nobel-prize winning book The Ants in 1991) in their second book, The Superorganisms: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies , published last year. Having taken Professor Deborah Gordon's class on ant evolution, leading ant biologist of Stanford University, I was extremely excited about this book and interview.

Holldobler is a leading German behavioral biologist whose research insect of choice is the ant. Currently, he is a faculty member at the University of Wuerzburg and Arizona State University. Wilson is a leading American biologist, research, theorist, and naturalist, with a speciality in mymecology. He currently holds positions at Harvard University and at the International Academy of Humanism as a Humanist Laureate.

In an interview with Claudia Dreifus, science reporter of The New York Times, Holldolbler defends that we have much to learn from ants.

In writing their new book, Holldobler is the "experimentalist" and Wilson, the "synthesizer". They document the success of the ant society because of their stress on cooperation and a division of labor. Nonreproductive ants do anything to benefit the "queen", allowing for these societies to grow to great numbers. Ant societies that are internally competitive have been less successful. They have been able to gather information through observation as well as through genetic testing of the chemicals involved in ant communication signaling.

Hard to know what new ideas that Holldobler and Wilson bring to the observation of division of labor in ant societies yet, I am excited to read this book. So far, it's gotten the thumbs up from both The New York Times
and many reviewers on, two sources I normally look to for book recommendations.

News link here:

Monday, June 15, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: “Darwin's Dangerous Idea” by Daniel Dennett

In “Darwin's Dangerous Idea,” author Daniel Dennett offers a compelling and comprehensive argument for why Charles Darwin's idea of modification by natural selection is "the single best idea anyone has ever had” and why ultimately, it is not “dangerous” in the least bit. He further attests that the idea pervades through all of our existence and appropriately draws evidence in support of his claims from a diverse multitude of fields. Dennett's approach is bold in that he intrepidly challenges some of society's most esteemed and prominent scientists and philosophers. At the end of the book, the reader is exposed to an interesting and aggressive rationale for how natural selection, countering popular thought that it diminishes significance and meaning in life, actually enhances and fortifies the pillars of our existence.

One of the most interesting aspects about this book are the metaphors that Dennett creates to strengthen his argument. He describes natural selection as a crane because though mechanical, impersonal, and essentially simple, it functions to build bigger and greater things; importantly, this includes other cranes. Directly contrasting the cranes are skyhooks, which hang from the sky and are used to suspend grandiose ideas in ways that astound us and defy our understanding. They metaphorically represent other ideas that reflect humans' desire to be special and profound. The metaphor, delineated within the first few pages, resurfaces frequently throughout the book to support his claim but primarily to debunk the claims of his opponents. For me, the vivid imagery attached with Dennett's use of these metaphors really helped me understand his presentation of both sides of the Darwininsm/Creationism debate and each of their principle objectives. I regard this as perhaps the strongest and most original aspect in the book.

That is not to say that the other metaphor Dennett introduces and uses in “Darwin's Dangerous Idea” are insignificant. I was thoroughly impressed how Dennett argued strongly against such prominent intellectuals like Chomsky, Gould, Searl, and Godel by likening their ideas to everyday items with distinct functions such as vending machines, robots, and black boxes. Associating these complex and abstract ideas with tangible and accessible items was essential to my ability to follow his arguments.

Regarding the readability, I could easily tell that the book clearly was written for an intellectual and well-read audience. On one hand, I was unfortunate to be relatively new to the topic and failed to recognize some of the references to other works and concepts made; on the other, Dennett noticeable took great effort at attempting to make the book more general-audience friendly through his provision of detailed footnotes. Coupled with the relatively easy prose, I was able to invest myself into the book's arguments though it definitely worked me out mentally.

Ultimately, I recommend that “Darwin's Dangerous Idea” is worth a read for the clarity it provides readers on the Darwinism/Creationism debate. The coverage of ideas and topics is so wide that at the very least, readers familiarize themselves with a multitude of modern contentious discussion topics.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Mosquito evolves into threat to Galapagos wildlife

Because I love islands so much...

The Galapagos wildlife faces threat both internally and externally. Externally, the source of the disease would likely be from the rapidly increasing number of tourists to the islands. Once again, scientists worry and warn about the possible affects of human expansion on nature. Internally, scientists recently discovered that one long-established species of black-march mosquitos on the island could act as vessels for external diseases that could cripple the present ecosystem of the island made famous by Darwin. However, at the core of scientists' fear is the pervasiveness and resiliency of the black-marsh mosquitos.

The black-march mosquito is especially lethal. It's diverse diet means it can transmit to mammals, birds, and reptiles a like. Furthermore, its has an acute taste for rare species such as the giant tortoise, marine iguana, and flightless cormorant. Lastly and unlike other mosquitos on the island, it is not confined to one region. The black-marsh mosquito pervades throughout the entire archipelago, from its coasts to the mountain tops, braving the humidity as well as the altitude. Nowhere is safe from them.

These dangerous mosquitos unique to the archipelago are distinct from their relatives on mainland. As mentioned before, it feeds on reptilian blood likely because --scientists hypothesize-- the shortage of birds on the island forces them to acquire new tastes. Genetically, huge differences exist between the two, leading scientists to believe that the black-marsh mosquito is on the verge of divvying off and forming its own species. This comes after 200,000 -as DNA tests suggest-- of living on the island. The black-marsh mosquito is emerging as a new and formidable threat to the island's ecosystem.

Now, my 2-pence. In class we wonder if evolution and specialization is good or bad. In the case of the black-marsh mosquito, it seems to be good, at least for them. They have adapted to the diversity of their environment in a way that grants them an advantageous omnipresence on the island. However, with the introduction of a new environmental factor --human exposure and diseases-- their development has been a means for destruction. Reading about this article has made see a species evolution as a formula. Add or take out some variables, or adjust the ones already there, and what could have been a impressive or benign species turns into the means for nature's destruction. While the formula is extensively elaborate and most of it is out of our control, learning about instances like this makes me realize that we do have a tiny bit of influence but with big implications.


Creation the movie: world exclusive trailer

We need to talk about this now. Charles Darwin has officially become a product of Hollywood. This movie is no small matter; both stars who plays Charles and Emma Darwin are, at least in my opinion, pretty big deals. The plot and trailer evince it as semi-epic filled with love, conflict, and elaborate costumes. I mean, after taking this class, I think it is mandatory that I watch this film. However, I would have to wait until September as well as make a trip back to England in order to do so, making the endeavor a little difficult. For now, I'll look at how the film's promoted package Darwin to appeal to pop culture.

The website where I found it emphasizes, by stating first, that the movie was made with heavy guidance from an actual Darwin descendant, Randal Keynes. With such a source, the website heavily suggest that the movie closely adheres to truth. Being a film, I know that dramatization of real events is expected but to what extent, I was curious.

With just a brief glance through, I noticed several aspects of the film's presentation and promotion that bother me.

At the forefront, I feel that knowing what I know now, the film's title, Creation, rouses ideas and notions that skews the details I learned about the Darwin and his work. It suggests that a bulk of Darwin's work and life was dedicated to studying how we were created or in other words, our origin. It challenges Darwin's historic association with Evolution. As stated in class, his work never answered or addressed the title of his own book 'Origin of Species'; Darwin, we learned, was more interested in natural selection and the means by which species carry on traits to survive. Additionally, the title 'Creation' reels in thought of Creationism. I am bothered by this because if this film is really about Darwin, then it should know that Darwin's work and Darwin the man did not seek to directly deal with or challenge Creationism. Perhaps the movie really intends to focus on Darwin's struggle with religion. Or, maybe --since the debate surrounding Darwin, Evolution and Creation has historically roused strong emotions that still carry forth today-- they aim to rouse the attention and emotions of both Darwin enthusiasts and the religious fundamentalists alike and capture a larger audience. Anyway, I think by titled the film 'Creation,' the films marketers are purposely and successfully invoking some emotions to increase the film's allure.

Furthermore, as a potential audience member, I am getting really strong mixed messages about what the film is about. The title hardly seems to fit with what the blurb details is the movie focus --the relationship between Darwin and his daughter Anne. Then, the bulk of images shown in the trailer focuses in on Darwin and Emma and what potentially could be a torrid and scandalous battle between love and beliefs --though no epic backgammon games were featured. The site leaves me confused as to what to expect from the film as it tries to get at too many topics at once.

Ultimately, regardless of my own criticisms, I definitely want to see the movie, if not to better understand how Darwin is seen in today's pop culture, then to laugh, cry, and be on the edge of my seat in a theater.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Evolution: Just a Game of Chance?

-C. Paula de los Angeles

Question: "If the broad evolutionary diversification of a group of organisms were repeated by a few species in a single genus tens of millions of years after the group's initial diversification, what would that say about the roles of contingency, constraint, and adaptation?" (Science Daily 2009)

According to Darwin, natural selection leads to the gradual adaptations of individuals and populations over time. The article uses the example that we know that most cats look like cats, develop like cats, but have a fossil record that shows less than cat-like ancestors. Each subgroup has a similar story. What does it say about evolution if this historical diversification were repeated again in the future? What is the probability that these same adaptations be to due to chance again?

A study to be published in Proceedings of the Royal Society by Dr. Scott Lidgard details the discovery of a species, cheilostome bryozoans, marine animal colonies, who independently repeat the small step-by-step adaptations that occurred 80 million years ago in the Cretaceous Period.

The adaptations go from soft feeding organs in a flexible membrane, then to calcified spines around the membrane, then fusion of the spines, then reduction of the fused spinal shield and membrane, and then the invention of a water sac to squeeze out of the organ.

The evolutionary trajectory was repeated.

This discovery seems to be strong evidence for the argument of adaptation vs. genetic drift. Is evolution just by chance? I would like to read more of the actual paper to see how the environments differed over time. Also, while this is one isolated case of this happening and a specific example, we should be hesitant to support adaptationism in all cases, as there are lots of examples where this doesn't happen. Interesting.

News link here:


Since reading Dawkins' "The Blind Watchmaker", I've been fascinated by bats. He has an excellent chapter on bat echolocation and flight development. It's pretty awesome.

I ran across this article in ScienceDaily; it's a little old (February 2008), but I still think it's really neat.

A new nicely preserved fossil of a primitive bat species shows that bats flew before developing echolocation. There had long been an argument over whether flight or the sonar system was developed first in bats (or concurrently), and this fossil shows that the echolocation was not possible in these bats- although flight was! This was the missing link between bats and their non-flying ancestors. The fossil's skull lacks the features in and around the ear that would enable echolocation. Awesome evidence!

By the way, did you know that one in five mammals living on earth is a bat?!??!?! BATS ARE SO AWESOME!



Where Domestic Selection and Natural Selection Collide

Discover reports that fishing is eliminating cod from shallow waters. The report draws on a study published earlier this year on the effects of human predation. The study notes that selective human predation ('harvest selection') has an effect on the rate at which phenotypes change and analyzes this effect in comparison with natural systems. The study conclude that human ‘perturbations’ – in particular, human targeting of select age- and size-classes – can cause more rapid phenotypic change than natural systems with strong directional pressure. While whether these phenotypic changes count as evolutionary or merely environmentally-plastic depends on which flavor of evolutionary theory one happens to favor, I suggest that such selective phenotypic changes are illuminating in light of Darwin's development of his theory of natural selection.

In their analysis, the researchers found that morphological traits declined in 94.9% of cases with an average decrease of 18.3%. Shifts in life history traits – reproductive age, etc. – occurred in 97.2% of cases with an average change of 24.4%. Comparing these results to a database on trait changes, they found that the rates of change in human cases far outstripped those in natural cases. The researchers concluded that the magnitude of change resulted from the direct nature of selective harvesting versus the indirect nature of other cases of selection, including other, non-targeted anthropogenic cases (eg. pollution). Although the study confines itself to a discussion of the science, the results obviously have broad economic implications, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on selective harvesting.

The study’s results seem trivial. Of course humans have an effect on biological systems which, in many cases far outstrips any natural cause. One need only look at dwindling fish stocks to come to this somber realization. However, the case of harvest selection raises interesting observations about Darwin’s evolutionary theory as he conceived of it. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is clearly influenced by cases of targeted selection. In fact, as everyone should by now be aware, he uses domestic selection as a means of priming his audience for the possibility of some naturalistic mechanism for evolutionary change (ie. ‘natural selection’). However, in On the Origin of Species, Darwin used domestic selection as an analogy for natural selection and maintained a firm delineation between the two. His ‘laws’ of variation apply only to natural systems. In particular, Darwin sought to deprive natural selection of anything resembling a goal or telos. He remained dismissive of the ‘sports’ produced by selective breeding. Even when Darwin did venture into the realm of anthropogenic changes – for example, the famous case of the peppered moth – he confined himself to untargeted changes. I wonder whether Darwin’s failure to connect domestic selection and natural selection into a common theory was caused by his desire to contribute something profoundly new to science, rather than admitting that his views constituted a recombination of existing theories.

Ben Picozzi

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Evolution Education

A new journal titled “Evolution: Education and Outreach” has emerged to promote comprehensive evolutionary understanding and awareness. The latest issue (2:2) can be accessed here. The journal includes the following articles: “A Question of Individuality: Charles Darwin, George Gaylord Simpson and Transitional Fossils” (Eldredge); “The Fish-Tetrapod Transition: New Fossils and Interpretations” (Clack); “Understanding Natural Selection: Essential Concepts and Common Misconceptions” (Gregory); “From Land to Water: the Origin of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises” (Thewissen, et al.); and “Evolutionary Transitions in the Fossil Record of Terrestrial Hoofed Mammals” (Prothero), among others.

The particular issue focuses on the fossil record, and the ways in which discoveries since Darwin have shed light on evolution. Despite attempts by creationist authors to discredit evolution on the basis of an “absent” fossil record, the paleontologists in this journal have contributed a wealth of data in support of evolution as evidenced by the fossil record. The paleontological data mostly addresses those fossil groups “targeted by creationists and/or crucial to the idea of ‘macroevolution’” – including the origins of mollusks, echinoderms, chordates, arthropods as well as tetrapods, dinosaurs, birds, marine reptiles, mammals, whales, and hoofed animals.

This journal provides readers with the tools and concrete support to advance sophisticated arguments regarding evolution. Apart from its scientific merits, the journal also possesses aesthetic merits, as it features articles on the culture and epistemological meaning of Darwin. In agreement with author George Levine, Adam Goldstein writes in the journal: Darwin’s content and prose style reveals a “distinctly Darwinian attitude toward nature as a source of meaning and value,” exemplifying a Darwinian “enchantment” with the world.

-Alyssa Martin

The End of Anti-Evolution Education in Texas?

-C. Paula de los Angeles

It's 2009. And there are still debates in Texas over the teaching of evolution. However, two anti-evolutionary bills House Bill 2800 and House Bill 4224, died in the lone star state at the beginning of this month.

House Bill 2800 concerned the possibility of the Institute for Creation Research to award masters of science degrees by exempting them from regulations that other degree-granting institutions ahve to follow.

House Bill 4224 concerned restoring the "strengths and weaknesses" of Texas education standards. Earlier this year, the education board included rhetoric that would still allow creationist thinking. However, one of the men in charge holding his belief, Don McLeroy is soon to be ousted.

In some ways, I can't believe that this is the year 2009, celebrating the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, and a debate still exists. Oh well.

Oxford paleontologist identifies world's oldest spider web

I was lucky to meet a postgraduate student of renowned Oxford paleobiology, Martin Brasier. Brasier is known for his 2002 debate at NASA Ames center with UCLA’s Bill Schopf challenging Schopf’s claim to the oldest remains of life on earth. After meeting Dr. Brasier’s student, I decided to look for some related news…

Apparently, Brasier found the world’s oldest spider web encased in amber; the web is 140 million years old. The specimen was found by an amateur fossil hunter along the beaches of England’s south coast, while Brasier identified the fossil and its age. Arachnids seem to have been ensnaring their prey in silk webs since dinosaurs roamed the earth, testifying to the great evolutionary advantage of this tangled thread creation. Brasier even points out that thread strands are patterned the same way they are today.

The microscope picture shows tiny strands, fossilized vegetable matter, and dark spots which are thought to be burnt sap. Brasier comments that it’s not a perfect web, but I wonder if it’s just because it’s an old piece of fossil that might’ve been damaged and imperfectly preserved rather than imperfectly formed. Interesting questions also remain to be answered: why were there spider webs before the advent of flowering plants that would’ve given rise to an explosion of flying insects as prey? Brasier suggests that, "These webs were around in a conifer dominated world before flowering plants, but it is clear it was already gearing up for the huge diversity of flowers brought with them. The spiders appeared to be keeping up with the other evolutionary patterns in the insects." Is this suggesting that by some unknown, automatic mechanism, organisms can “anticipate” changes in its environment and other species?

Currently, Dr. Brasier’s student is conducting research in Newfoundland to identify the earliest animal.

- Bonnie Chien

Museum Unable to Pay Price of Erasmus Darwin Portrait

-C. Paula de los Angeles

In addition to being the bicentennial anniversary of Darwin's birth, it is the bicentennial anniversary of the death of Birmingham entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, close friend of Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin. In order to commemorate this death, a painting of Erasmus Darwin will be auctioned at Sotheby's.

However, the portrait is expected to sell for more than 150,000 pounds, leaving the Erasmus Darwin House, museum and educational facility of the man and the legend, located in Lichfield hopeless with respect to getting this portrait painted by pre-eminent 18th century painter Joseph Wright, (although a copy of this portrait already exists in the house).

Curator of the museum, Alison Wallis, bemoans, "Chances are it will end up leaving the country, which will be very sad for the museum”.

Would be sad for visitors to the museum as well. Just as a thought question, who has the right to these sentimental and important portraits? Museums for education of the general public? Family members? Or someone who has the money to pay for it? This last category is probably who will end up with the painting, but probably the least desirable for society...

New Species Still Being Discovered

-C. Paula de los Angeles
Ever wonder if you would somehow be able to discover a new species just like Darwin had?

Apparently, around 15,000 new species are discovered every year. In a feature article published in New Scientist, 12 such bizarre recent discoveries are detailed, including the only lungless frog and the world's smallest snake to give you a taste.

Personal favorites include the Danionella draculadracula fish, 17-meter long transparent fish, which was discovered in Burma in 2009. Above is its image, which can be found in the local Natural History Museum in London.

Another favorite includes Styloctenium mindorensis, a blonde/ginger fruitbat that looks like a fox, found in the Philippines *shoutout*! See image to the right.


Here's the link so you can check out the other recent discoveries as well: