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February 2009 Archives

Look at this - isn't it weird? (And just where do you think its eyes are???)


Go and read all about it (& see if you're right on where the eyes are) over on Pharyngula. It's wonderful stuff.

(As usual PZ gets the fun stuff first - & besides, I did say I was insanely busy!)

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research The Herald this morning had a breathless front-page story on how evolution explains why men are better than women at map-reading. My immediate reaction was, r-i-i-i-ght. It sounded awfully like a just-so-story from evolutionary psychology, to me.

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It looks as if service might be intermittent this week - it's enrolment-in-person week & in practice what this means is working with students on their study plans 8.30-5.00 (at least) & then doing whatever else didn't get done during the day... So blogging has to take a bit of a back seat :-(

But still had time for an excellent Cafe Scientifique last night. Michael Cree & I went over to Tauranga to talk about Galileo Galilei & Charles Darwin, & their respective contributions to our scientific understanding of the world around us. It was a great evening with a lot of questions & discussion (I love the sort of questions that really make you think!). And I found myself recommending yet another book - this time on Galileo. It's Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter: a drama of science, faith and love (1999, Fourth Estate).

Galileo is hugely significant because of his contributions to science: not only was he a gifted astronomer (who made his own telescopes), but he's often regarded as the father of modern science - he set European scientists down the path of experimentation & quantitative data-gathering. (This is not to downplay the significance of the work of Arab scientists, but this really hadn't trickled down to the scientific community in Europe.)

But he was also a family man. Not something you hear about in science classes, but the tale of this side of Galileo's life is also important, because it shows the 'ordinary' side of the man. The book's about his both his science and the tender, loving relationship he had with his eldest daughter, Virginia (who was placed in a convent while still a child & took the name Sister Marie Celeste). The love shows through in statements like the one Galileo made in a letter to a colleague; he described his daughter as  a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me.

Highly recommended.

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research Over the years palaeontologists like Philip Gingerich have done a great deal to unravel the fossil history of whales. There are now a range of ancient specimens that show us the changes that occurred as whales adapted to an aquatic lifestyle. Now Gingerich & his team (2009) have described a new archaeocete (ancient whale) that, while found in marine sediments, almost certainly gave birth on land.

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... well, at least, the newspaper does. Last week, on the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday, our local paper's Science & Technology page ran a story about Darwin & about evolution. (It was written by David Riddell, one our excellent local free-lance science journalists, & was based on an interview with yours truly (blush). I'd link to it except I can't find it on the paper's website...)

Anyway, I subsequently looked forward with considerable interest to the 'letters' column in the evening paper. Last time the paper ran an evolution story I got called all sorts of things - 'delusional' among them. I'm always a little amused - & bemused - how, when something stirs people up, they often go for the person & not the idea that they dislike.

But back to the paper...

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A few days ago now there was a splash of excitement in the newspapers: a research team had announced that they'd sequenced the Neandertal genome. (They didn't use exclamation marks but you could imagine them there.) I thought at the time that it sounded interesting, but it was a bit unusual that the announcement preceded the publication of a paper in Science or Nature (which is where you might expect to see it.) So I rather thought I might wait to write about it until the actual paper came out & I could read it myself.

But... - it's insanely busy at work, so time's short, & then today I found (via PZ's site) this excellent post by palaeoanthropogy professor John Hawks that gives the Neandertal genome story the 'frequently asked questions' treatment. Well-worth a read.

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At last night's Cafe Scientique, I was asked to recommend books about Charles Darwin. So here goes. (This is my own reading list & probably quite idiosyncratic!) In no particular order:

Charles Darwin: the 'Beagle' letters - edited by Frederick Burkhardt (2008), Cambridge University Press. I presented snippets from this in yesterday's blog; it's a book I dip into rather than reading it from start to finish.

Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, his daughter and human evolution - Randal Keynes (2001), Fourth Estate. Randal Keynesis a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. This is a lovely book: an intimate look at Darwin's family life. It's also a sad book - Annie died at the age of 10, probably of tuberculosis.

Fossils, Finches and Fuegians: Charles Darwin's adventures and discoveries on the 'Beagle', 1832-1836 - Richard Keynes (2002), Harper Collins. Richard Keynes is Darwin's great-grandson. This book looks at the scientific work Charles Darwin carried out during the Beagle voyage - it would be a good book to read after Charles' own account of his time on the Beagle.

Voyage of the Beagle - Charles Darwin, edited by Janet Browne & Michael Neve (1989), Penguin. I really enjoyed this book - it's a great adventure story & Darwin's zest for life & love of what he was doing shines out of every page.

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882 - Charles Darwin, edited by Nora Barlow (1958), Norton. Another lovely book - I've written a bit about it in another post.

Darwin: discovering the tree of life - Niles Eldredge ( 2005). This book was written to accompany the exhibition about Darwin that was brought to Auckland War Memorial Museum last summer. (I got the t-shirt!)

Janet Browne's magnificent 2-volume biography of Darwin: Charles Darwin: voyaging (1995), and  Charles Darwin: the power of place (2002). Voyaging covers the period up until the publication of The Origin of Species, while The power of place begins with the events leading up to the publication & moves on from there. They're both big books, but so well-written that I found the story flowed off the page.

Browne has also written Darwin's 'Origin of Species' (2006), which you could describe as a 'short' biography - a good intro to Darwin's life & the development of his thinking. Good if you want a thorough overview & find the 2-volume biography a bit daunting in terms of size. (But I predict that this 'taster' will see you move on to the bigger books!)

Darwin: the life of a tormented evolutionist - Adrian Desmond & James Moore (1991), Norton. I'm reading this one at the moment; it's interesting but personally I'm not enjoying it as much as I did the Browne biography.

And finally, The Reluctant Mr Darwin: an intimate portrait of Charles Darwin and the making of his theory of evolution - David Quammen (2006), Atlas Books, Norton. (This was published in the US as The kiwi's egg.) I like Quammen's writing; you might have seen his piece on Darwin in the recent National Geographic magazine, but I first encountered him via The plight of the Dodo - another big but excellent book.

I hope you find something there to interest you. It's a very long way from an exhaustive list of the material that's available, just what I have on my office shelves. Enjoy :-)



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I'm a bit short of time at the moment (enrolment, & preparing for this semester's classes, & so on) so my reading's a bit limited. But I'm enjoying dipping in & out of The 'Beagle' Letters - a collection of the letters written to & by Charles Darwin in the period January 1831 to October 1836.

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research People seem to have a fascination with dolphins - they often interact positively with humans, & they show a wide range of complex & adaptable behaviour patterns. A new paper (Finn et al. 2009) describes complex prey handling in a wild bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) off the South Australian coast. Given that it's fairly hard to observe dolphins feeding in the wild, this observation adds to our understanding of the adaptability of dolphin behaviour.

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Like many young women her age, my daughter recently received information about Gardasil, a vaccine that offers protection against some types of the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a virus that infects the skin & mucous membranes. It comes in more than 100 forms, some of which cause things like warts (including genital warts). Others are implicated in various cancers, including cervical cancer (which is where Gardasil comes in).

Warts on the skin, particular on hands & feet, are fairly common. Most of us aren't bothered by them (although 'plantar warts' - those on the soles of your feet - can make walking painful. I know, having had them!), because our immune systems keep them pretty much under control. But in rare individuals the immune system can't manage to destroy the virus-infected cells, & this can lead to some bizarre & unfortunate outcomes.

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Blog For DarwinOften, when school students learn about evolution, Darwin himself becomes almost a footnote.They might hear about Darwin's postulates, setting out his understanding of how natural selection operates to shape the evolution of populations. They might also hear about 'Darwin's finches' - the little Galapagos birds that supposedly gave him a eureka! moment. I suspect that in many cases, that's it as far as Charles Darwin is concerned (although I'd love to be proved wrong!). And that's such a pity.


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... Darwin Day :-)  HAPPY DARWIN DAY, everybody!

(Thought I should get that out of my system. I hope to get a more substantial post up later today - too many meetings getting in the way of my writing fix!)

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research I was first introduced to the wonders of the Burgess Shale by reading Steven Jay Gould's book, Wonderful Life. And I was hooked - fascinated by the weird beauty of many of those Cambrian organisms. The one that made the greatest impression was Anomalocaris: a predatory animal up to a metre long, with a ring-shaped battery of 'teeth' in its mouth & a couple of great big jointed appendanges ( the 'great appendages') at the front of its head. It really would have been a terrible thing to meet, if you were a smaller, softer creature that looked like lunch.

So when PZ wrote about a relative of Anomalocaris that lived in the Devonian, 100 million years later, of course I had to go off & read the original paper (Kuhl, Briggs & Rust, 2009).

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There's an excellent editorial in the UK newspaper The Guardian (& thanks to PZ, who first posted on this). Speaking of Darwin's Origin of Species, the editor begins:

The Daily Telegraph called him "the greatest naturalist of our time, perhaps all time". For the Morning Post he was "the first biologist of his day". The Times saluted the rapid victory of Charles Darwin's great idea and said that "the astonishing revelations of recent research in palaeontology have done still more to turn what 20 years ago was a brilliant speculation into an established and unquestionable truth". The Manchester Guardian said that "few original thinkers have lived to see more completely the triumph of what is essential in their doctrine". The St James's Gazette predicted that England's children would one day be taught to honour Darwin "as the greatest Englishman since Newton".

These responses appeared in print on 21 April 1882, after the news of Darwin's death at his home in Down, Kent. The writers were people who knew the Bible, and they addressed readers who had grown up in an overtly devout society. Many remembered the religious and scientific uproar following publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. It argued, with detailed evidence, that life's extraordinary variety had stemmed, over an enormous period of time, from a common ancestry, and that the mechanism was the operation of natural selection upon tiny variations in heredity.

There's more, &  it's good stuff - go over & read it. As PZ comments, it's great to see an article that so neatly elucidates the nature of science & how it works.

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This one's for readers in & around Hamilton - the topic for this month's Cafe Scientifique will be: Charles Darwin - the man & his science. You're very welcome to join us & talk about the man who did so much for our understanding of biology.

The Cafes are held at B.B.C. (Bar, Bistro, Cafe), which is in the northern part of Victoria Street - the block north of London Street, & on the same side of the road as Dallas Motors. We kick off at 7.30 with a brief presentation (by yours truly, this time) & then it's open for discussion. This is 'science in the pub', so come along for a drink or a meal to go with the science-y stuff. (No powerpoints allowed!)

Oops - & I forgot the date *blush* - 17th February. (Thanks, Ken!)


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When I visited Ben Goldacre's site the other day, it was apparently down. Then I read at Orac's place that Ben was in trouble with a radio station in the UK, for posting much of a program that made some rather startling comments & claims about the MMR vaccine. I did a spot of net-surfing & found the program; I listened - & then I had to go & rinse my brains out...

The MMR vaccine is intended to confer protection against measles, mumps & rubella ('German measles') - three childhood diseases that used to be fairly common, and which can have fairly high levels of illness associated with them.

Take measles, for example: as many as 1 in 5 people infected by the measles virus can develop complications: ear infections (almost 10% of measles cases), pneumonia (1 in 20), and encephalitis (about 1 in 1,000); 1-2 in 1,000 may die. (According to the Centres for Disease Control website, that death rate can be as high as 1 in 4 in developing countries.) Yes, there can be ill-effects associated with vaccination: as many as 15% of those receiving the measles vaccine may experience some fever &/or swelling at the injection site. But the risk of major adverse reactions - things like encephalitis - affect less than 1 per 1,000,000. In other words, you are several orders of magnitude more likely to become seriously ill from measles than from the vaccination itself.

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A couple of days ago, when I wrote about my friend's death, I was also mulling over the idea of how the progression of cancer can be a good example of evolution in action. One of the hallmarks of cancerous cells is that they are capable of continued cell division. Plenty of opportunity, with all that mitosis, for mutations to accumulate and generate a range of genetically diverse cell lines.

Now take that genetically diverse population of cells & apply a strong agent of natural selection - a chemotherapy drug. You may strike it lucky & kill all the cancerous cells. Or you may get most of them - but some may possess a mutation that makes them less likely to succumb to the powerful chemotherapy medicines. So they'll be selected for & over time, & with continued exposure to the drugs, you'll end up with a population where most of the cells are resistant to whatever the oncologist can throw at them. That population of cancer cells has evolved. (Orac says all this much better than I can, but then, he's an expert in this field.)

But knowing how evolution operates can also offer the prospect of improved treatment. For example, if researchers can understand the selection pressures that may be involved in the transition from precancerous to cancerous cells, they can start to look at the mechanisms involved and how best to target them. Or using a combination of drugs that affect several aspects of the cell's functioning may delay the point at which some cells acquire the multiple mutations that confer resistance.

(It may also make you quite unwell. Many anti-cancer treatments target rapidly dividing cells. Unfortunately cancers aren't the only cells affected. Your gut lining can also take a pounding, as can hair follicles. But offered the choice of death, or life with bearable side effects - & the chance to spend more time with those who are important to me, I know which I'd choose.)

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A few posts back I wrote about the importance of seeing Charles Darwin as a person, as well as a great scientist. Here's a link to an article that demonstrates his humanity very well indeed. It's by Ruth Padel, one of Darwin's many great-great-grandchildren - enjoy.

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... & no bread recipes either.

I've just got back from Wellington, where I helped to celebrate the life, & mourn the death, of someone who'd been a good & valued friend for 30 years (& who introduced me to the joys of playing the recorder properly, & the books of Ursula le Guin). For the last 4 years & 10 months of that time, Deb lived with metastatic breast cancer.  She knew that it would kill her in the end, but with the help & support & love of her family, friends, & oncologist she fought against it as long as she could. And because of this she was able to see her daughters grow through that awkward teenage phase into strong, talented, resilient young women.

And through it all shone her zest for life, her love for her husband & children & family, her concern for others, her care for the environment, her social conscience, her love of music & reading & gardening. We heard so much about that today; these were things that defined her as a person. Deb moved through life with love & laughter, integrity, dignity, & a lightness of spirit, & these things were with her & around her when she died.

Farewell, my dear, brave friend.

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Ha! Got your attention! (& no, nothing to do with Mel Gibson.) What I really wanted to do was draw your opportunity to this post by PZ, over on Pharyngula. He's talking about explanations offered by evolutionary psychology for various human behaviours. The article PZ's commenting on was looking at people's sexual responses to a variety of stimuli. What's drawn his attention is the author's use of evolution to explain those responses. And he points out that the explanation is pretty much just a 'Just So story**' - pretty much a fanciful 'explanation' with little or no real explanatory power.

And we do have to be careful about these stories - they often sound good, & so they may get good media coverage & everybody hears about them, but they don't really tell us much about the phenomena in question from a scientific viewpoint.


** Hands up those who remember Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories: fanciful explanations for a variety of observations - & great fun for kids (& the young at heart). My favourite was the tale of how the elephant got his nose - the adventures of the curious Elephant's Child, down by the great green-grey greasy Limpopo River - and its crocodilian inhabitants... I've still got the 1926 editions of a lot of Kipling's children's stories (I'm not that old! - they were given to my mother when she was a child), with a lovely blue cloth cover & gold embossing. They've lasted three generations of children now & still going strong :-)

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I've just come across a post by Phil Plait on Skepticblog, on understanding the nature of science. (Phil also writes the Bad Astronomy blog.) It's clear & concise, & the comments thread is also excellent as it expands on some of Phil's points. Included in his post is an introduction to the new website Understanding Science, which I'd heard about but hadn't take the time to visit before. Now I have - & it looks like an excellent site for both students & teachers (especially in the light of our own new Science curriculum). And one of the commentators links to another very useful site that deals with a whole range of common errors that people commonly make in weighing up the accuracy or otherwise of various statements (anecdotal evidence, confusing correlation with causation, making logical fallacies, & so on.)

Net surfing can be quite productive, really :-)

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research 'Worms' is a very general term that we tend to use for the variety of invertebrates that are soft-bodied & have a tubular body with a mouth at one end & an anus at the other. The familiar earthworm belongs to a group of worms called the annelids - worms with segmented bodies. There are about 10,000 species of annelids, which as well as earthworms include polychaete worms (we used to call them 'sea centipedes' when I was a kid, because the clumps of stiff hairs that bristle from each segment look a bit like legs) & leeches. Most polychaetes live in the oceans, where their lifestyles range from active predator to sedentary filter-feeder. I thought the most unusual polychaete was the Pompeii worm, which lives around hydrothermal vents along mid-ocean rifts. But now I find there's one with an equally odd lifestyle - the bone-eating worm Osedax.

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Now that we're into the year of Darwin200, I'd like to share some thoughts on how this is celebrated/commemorated. Yes, we should recognise the enormous significance of Darwin's work to our current understanding of evolution - but we should also acknowledge, as National Geographic has, that there were things he didn't know. (How could he, lacking knowledge of genetics & molecular biology, for example?) And that, like all scientists, he got things wrong at times.

And I hope we'll hear more about Darwin the man. Because if all we do is talk about the science, then we lose track of the fact that science is done by people. And when that happens, we run the risk of people seeing science as something disconnected from society, something that's too hard for 'ordinary people' to come to grips with, something that may have little to tell them & little relevance to their lives. And that is both extremely sad, & extremely concerning.

So, why not share some of Darwin's humanity, as well as his science? The strong youngster who didn't always enjoy school, & who liked to show off a bit (how fast he could run, for example), & who loved 'doing chemistry' in the garden shed at home with his elder brother. The young man who enjoyed riding, shooting, socialising - but whose imagination was caught by some gifted teachers who encouraged & supported his interest. The inveterate bug-collector. The developing scientist who went aboard the Beagle in 1831 not altogether sure of his future path in life, & who left it in 1836 with the beginnings of a theory that would forever change our understanding of the living world. The devoted and loving husband of Emma, and the adoring father devastated by the early deaths of his children Annie & Charles Waring. The man who throughout his life was alert to & touched by the beauty and wonder of the natural world.

Let's not lose sight of all that.

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