Wednesday, November 24, 2010

New digs for this blog

Just like our understanding of evolution has continued to explode over the past few years, and the dialog around evolution has changed in some respects in the Central Valley, this blog too has continued to... well, evolve over the past several years. I am gratified to find that this space has attracted a fair number or visitors over the course of its existence. What began as an experiment in teaching evolution, a sandbox even for students, has evolved and matured into a forum for the Consortium for Evolutionary Studies on our campus, and I continue efforts to involve more of my colleagues involved in communicating via this medium. A part of that process, we have to deal with some of the constraints of Blogger, especially in ease of use for busy scientists who don't have a lot of time to learn the nuances of blogging platforms. Therefore we have moved over to Posterous as a much easier platform - what could be easier than email for most anybody, right? - and it is time to retire this blogspot site. Time to moult, as it were, and take on a new skin! And here it is:

Please update your bookmarks/rss feeds to point to the new blog at our own domain:

Visit us there and leave feedback if you have thoughts about what works or doesn't in the new skin of this blog. I will see you all there!


Sunday, August 29, 2010

What would YOU tell the wealthy nations to do to halt biodiversity loss?

All their talk and rhetoric hasn't really worked, say Guillaume Chapron and George Monbiot (an I agree completely):
It's on course to make the farcical climate talks in Copenhagen look like a roaring success. The big international meeting in October which is meant to protect the world's biodiversity is destined to be an even greater failure than last year's attempt to protect the world's atmosphere. Already the UN has conceded that the targets for safeguarding wild species and wild places in 2010 have been missed: comprehensively and tragically.

In 2002, 188 countries launched a global initiative, usually referred to as the 2010 biodiversity target, to achieve by this year a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss. The plan was widely reported as the beginning of the end of the biodiversity crisis. But in May this year, the Convention on Biological Diversity admitted that it had failed. It appears to have had no appreciable effect on the rate of loss of animals, plants and wild places.

In a few weeks, the same countries will meet in Nagoya, Japan and make a similarly meaningless set of promises. Rather than taking immediate action to address their failures, they will concentrate on producing a revised target for 2020 and a "vision" for 2050, as well as creating further delays by expressing the need for better biodiversity indicators. In many cases there's little need for more research. It's not biodiversity indicators that are in short supply; but any kind of indicator that the member states are willing to act.

A striking example was provided last month by French secretary of state for ecology, Chantal Jouanno. She announced that there would be no further major efforts to restore the population of Pyrenean brown bears, of which fewer than 20 remain. Extensive scientific research shows that this population is not viable. European agreements oblige France to sustain the population. Yet the government knows that the political costs of reintroducing more bears outweigh the costs of inaction. Immediate special interests triumph over the world's natural wonders, even in nations which have the money and the means to protect them.

So, with help from the Guardian, they are collecting suggestions from all of us, to share with the wealthy G20 nations when they meet to discuss biodiversity in October. You still have time, until the end of August, to submit your suggestion. Note, however, that they're not looking for general, vague platitudes about "more education" or "empowerment" or "law enforcement" and the like - the G20 politicians are full of those already! What're being sought, instead, are specific concrete solutions that are backed up by science, are realistically achievable in a reasonable timeframe, and are opposed by political/financial special interests. So what political cost should the governments of wealthy nations be forced to pay (to at least put their money where their mouths are, so to speak) to conserve biodiversity?

I'm working on my own suggestion and will share it here soon.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

A House Wren's unquiet domesticity

We found a nest hole in the side of the cabin we're staying in this weekend at the YMCA Snow Mountain camp in the Rockies of Colorado. The hole turned out to be occupied, unsurprisingly, by House Wrens. I got this series of images in the afternoon - and the birds were not amused! I hope I didn't disturb their domestic life too much in trying to capture these portraits.

Posted via email from a leaf warbler's gleanings


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Evolving Thoughts on Homology

Accompanying the above intriguing illustration, John Wilkins has written a really good essay on the concept of homology, which we are taught (and go on to teach) as a really basic concept in evolution, but has surprising ambiguities and potential circularities (not unlike a few other evolutionary terms I can think of). John very helpfully traces some of the history of the term, and how its application has evolved as we've become better at building and testing phylogenies as hypotheses of evolutionary relationships. I have to agree with him when he says:
The notion of homology is complex, and as we recently saw when I asked about the use in mathematics, it has a slew of other meanings, but the one that seems to me to be consistent across all uses is this: a homology is a mapping or “agreement” of parts of organisms with other parts of organisms. A mapping relation is not a similarity, and it is not the explanation of the relation (such as evolutionary common ancestors, which are proposed to explain the homology). It is an identity relation: this is the same as that. The identity may be an identity of place, of sequence, of developmental process, or just of a shared name, but what it is not is similarity or common ancestry. Similarity may be how we identify homology (and what kinds of similarity depends on what we use), and common ancestry may be how we explain homology, but in both cases homology is the relation itself.
You know you'll be reading the rest of that essay for sure if you are in my class the next time I teach Evolution!


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Just how big are your cells? - an interactive infographic

Hat-tip: @younglandis who tweeted yesterday about this fun interactive illustration.

...and note that Posterous' game attempt at capturing the infographic didn't quite catch all of the interactive elements (try the slider under the picture), so you really should click on the image to visit the original page if you want to see and play with this, and read more about it!

Posted via web from a leaf warbler's gleanings


How I ended up here...


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Biology Overload in the latest Scientia Pro Publica

I know I'm not always diligent about noting blog carnivals here, even when my postings are part of a carnival! Can't promise I'll be consistent about that in the future either. But if you are looking for some good science writing to read this summer, you could do worse than reading the weekly roundup in the Scientia Pro Publica carnival, which I have hosted in the past, and try to contribute to when I can. You'll find this week's edition, which came out on June 7, at The Dichotomous Trekkie 2.0, with an overload of biological posts! What fun! And it even includes my recent rant about evolution not being a ladder. So what are you waiting for? Go visit the carnival now!


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Repeat after me: Evolution is NOT A LADDER and does not lead to any pinnacles!!!!

ResearchBlogging.orgI am more than a little irritated.

This is not how I normally feel after listening to one of my favorite podcastlets "Our Ocean World" broadcast on the local public radio station most mornings.

As a landlubber biologist, I love learning about the fascinating and often bizarre creatures in the ocean, and therefore really enjoy this brief dose of news from the biggest biome on earth. Especially because it typically comes on when I'm dropping my daughter off at school in the mornings, giving us something wonderful to share.

But today's segment (which came on just after I dropped the kiddo off - sorry I was unusually early!) on Tuna, titled Big Fish, Big Sea, really pushed some sensitive buttons. It could be that I had just finished grading finals for my Evolution class, and was particularly touchy about evolutionary misinterpretations. But no, this particular gaffe came from a Stanford Professor of Marine Sciences, no less, and is therefore even less acceptable for being broadcast on the radio!! 

Professor Barbara Block, the tuna expert featured in today's podcast, described these no doubt remarkable fish as being at the top of a bleeping "evolutionary ladder"!! She also said Tuna were "more evolved" than other fish! And that they were on a "pinnacle of evolution"!!!#$*!!!  

More than once! (I checked. I hadn't misheard).

And here I thought we had buried that damned metaphor of evolution being a ladder for good! Heck, I try to bury it ritually for my students every semester in all of my classes, starting with Intro Bio. Yet it keeps rising, like a zombie, even from the mouths of accomplished biologists!! What's it going to take to purge this metaphor entirely from our vocabulary, folks?!

And while on the subject, let's also be clear that no species is "more evolved" than any other. How could they be? If you accept the evidence that we all come from one common ancestor, that the tree of life has one common origin, then every living species has been subjected to the vicissitudes of life on this planet for the same overall length of time, no?! We may have taken different, often surprising and bizarre, twisting branching paths on this journey, but we've all (except those branches that went extinct along the way) traveled the same length of time, have we not? How can any one of us, bacterium to tuna, virus to human to dolphins who say thanks for all the fish, then claim to be "more evolved" than any other species?

Granted there are local peaks and valleys in the fitness landscape for any species, and natural selection may be constantly trying to push us onto the nearest one - but there are no lofty "pinnacles" that we can be proud of conquering! If anything, given the dynamic nature of our world and the new curveballs nature keeps throwing at us, being stuck on any tall pinnacle could lead to the worst sort of evolutionary dead-end. We're probably far better off wandering around local peaks and remaining capable of even drifting across the fitness landscape. Definitely don't want to be stuck on any too tall peak, thank you very much! In fact, as my friend Andrew Jones just reminded meall species evolve to extinction!

Although, now that I think about it, perhaps most other species on this planet, our fellow travelers in the evolutionary journey, are hoping that we humans have reached exactly such a pinnacle, and are, even more hopefully, about to fall off our lofty perch for good. Perhaps from these new ecofriendly smokes.

Meanwhile, repeat after me (especially if you are a biologist):

Evolution, in fact, is best described as a TREE:

And remember, the only thing we are all definitely evolving towards is EXTINCTION!

Thank you!!

Andrew R. Jones (2009). The next mass extinction: Human evolution or human eradication? Journal of Cosmology, 2, 316-333


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Baba Brinkman raps up Geek Week on the Rachel Maddow show!

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

It is so cool to see Baba Brinkman hit the mainstream media now, after wowing so many of us in smaller shows around the world. We were lucky to get him on our campus early in the Darwin Bicentennial year, when he was performing at the Fresno Rogue Festival. Great to see Rachel Maddow putting him on to rap up her first Geek Week!

What next? The Colbert Report, dare one hope? I'd love to see that rap duel, wouldn't you?

Posted via web from a leaf warbler's gleanings



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