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July 2008 Archives

This is an item I originally wrote for the Science on the Farm website. But because I briefly mentioned the A1/A2 milk thing in the last post, I thought I could usefully bring this across to the Bioblog as well.

The 2006 Scholarship Biology paper included a question on the genetics of A1 and A2 milk. It's worth revisiting this here, because it's a good example of patterns of inheritance and the way an allele may spread through a population. (We are not going to discuss the possible public-health implications of the two alleles.)

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This is a re-post of one from late 2007. I was in at a local school last week, talking with their scholarship candidates, & we talked about a lot of this stuff. So I thought it would be worthwhile to post it again (at the top of the queue, so to speak!) so as to catch your attention :-)

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThis post is based on an interesting paper that I've had in my blogging folder for a while now. The researchers (Berger & Gese, 2007) looked at the impact of interference competition between wolves and coyotes on the coyotes. The study was based in the Greater Yellowstone Ecological Area, & was possible because wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, following a long period when they'd been locally extinct due to hunting.

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At Scicon, Bernard Beckett talked about getting people excited about science by telling stories about cool science stuff. One of his examples was how he told one of his classes about what makes voles monogamous or promisuous. Racy stuff! I remember reading about this some years ago in a book by US author Natalie Angier, & today I thought I'd revisit it.

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The Wild Side is by writer & evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson - it's her blog in the New York Times. (She also wrote Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: the definitive guide to the evolutionary biology of sex.- a really good book full of great snippets of information about the weird and wonderful ways of reproduction used by living things.) Speaking for myself, I'm sorry that I didn't discover it ages ago! Easy to read, very well-written; and the 'comments' thread's informative as well. This week's offering is on current examples of evolution (one of which, the wall lizards, I've blogged about earlier myself). See what you think.

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On the Panda's Thumb today I read a review of a very poor experimental set-up indeed. Apparently demonstrating that beneficial mutations (here, antibiotic resistance) lower the fitness of the organism possessing them, it actually does no such thing because of the multiple flaws in its design. But read the review - the reviewer (ERV) studies virology & microbiology & so does a much better job than I could :-) This really is an excellent exercise in critical thinking.

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A week or so back I posted comments by Massimo Pigliucci about future directions for evolution research. He was speaking in the context of an international workshop where these new ideas and directions were up for discussion. Well, that workshop's over, material from it is available on-line (parts 1, 2, & 3), and the participants have published a statement summarising their conclusions:

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I remember reading one of Richard Dawkins' books in which he made the comment that a rainbow does not become any less beautiful just because we understand how it's formed. Now I've come across a similar statement in another book (The Single Helix) by one of my favourite science writers, Steve Jones.

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... & another excellent blog for you to visit. I've just discovered OpenParachute. Its author writes a fair bit about the nature of science & I'd like to share one of these posts with you.

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Completely off-focus - but I found this quote on another blog, from Robert Ingersoll's essay on "Why I Am an Agnostic", & it had a great deal of meaning for me. Too good not to share, in fact.

Let us be true to ourselves -- true to the facts we know, and let us, above all things, preserve the veracity of our souls.

If there be gods we cannot help them, but we can assist our fellow-men. We cannot love the inconceivable, but we can love wife and child and friend.

We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know. We can tell the truth, and we can enjoy the blessed freedom that the brave have won. We can destroy the monsters of superstition, the hissing snakes of ignorance and fear. We can drive from our minds the frightful things that tear and wound with beak and fang. We can civilize our fellow-men. We can fill our lives with generous deeds, with loving words, with art and song, and all the ecstasies of love. We can flood our years with sunshine -- with the divine climate of kindness, and we can drain to the last drop the golden cup of joy.

You can find Ingersoll's work at if you'd like to delve further into his writing. Enjoy!

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchI've been fascinated by the story of early tetrapod evolution (where 'tetrapod' = an animal with 4 legs) for years, since reading Carl Zimmer's wonderful book At the water's edge (1998). Our understanding of when & where tetrapods evolved has been steadily extended by a series of fossil finds, most recently the 'fishapod' Tiktaalik. This was definitely a fish, but one where the fleshy base of its fin contained not only the familiar 1-2-many pattern of bones that we see in our own arms & legs but also a flexible wrist.

And now... there's Ventastega.

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A recent letter-writer in our local paper presented this argument:

Many people believe the evolutionary theory but none practice it. For example, how much is left to chance in the design and assembly of a 747 jet? Nothing is left to chance. Every component is tested to breaking point to find any weakness in design or construction materials. It's all intelligent design to the highest degree.

I have never seen the design team responsible for my car, but I know it isn't the result of a chance explosion in a warehouse.

Science is the truth about observable facts. Who would believe that a 747 jet was the result of a whirlwind going through a scrap yard? No normal person would. Yet proponents of evolution say everything in our universe, which is millions of times more complex than a 747, just came about by chance, no design in it.

My response?

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What follows is the text of a talk I gave to a teachers' conference last weekend, on the 'human side' of science. In other words (lots of them!), it's about the nature of science. Quite a long post (for me), but I hope you get something from it.

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And this one will probably confirm some folks in their belief that I'm a bit on the weird side. Why? Look at the title of my latest bit of bedtime reading - it's Mary Roach's book Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers...

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I've just come across an excellent post by evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci, talking about how evolutionary theory has developed since the 'modern synthesis' was set out. (And of course, the modern synthesis was an advance on Darwin's orginal theory of natural selection as the agent of descent with modification - science changes as it accommodates new data & new explanations.) Because I think it's important for you to realise that evolutionary theory does move with the times, I've pasted part of his post here.

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OK, while I'm between conferences (was at AWIS, attending Scicon from tomorrow), here is the promised blog. It's basically a series of notes I wrote while listening to one of the inspirational speakers at the AWIS conference, Jilly Evans - a New Zealander who now runs a biotech company in the US.

Here's what Jilly had to say about being a successful scientist.

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I'm away at a conference at the moment, & maybe in a day or two I'll find time to write about some of the things I've heard. One of the speakers had some things to say that I think are very relevant to students.

But for now - following on from that article in the Dominion I was asked to do an interview on creationism & evolution in the school curriculum, on RNZ's Nine-to-noon programme. If you're interested you can listen to it here.

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